Opinion: Is DEFRA taking too many risks with disease detection?

Jane-King-headshotIt’s right that in times of austerity government should take a rigorous approach to finding efficiencies, writes Farmers Weekly editor Jane King.

There is always room to revise and streamline, even in highly effective systems that have served the industry and the country well for years.

However, farmers, vets and other stakeholders get noticeably nervous when widespread cost-cutting is dressed up as an improvement or an achievement in the tricky area of disease detection in animal health.

Government policies in disease surveillance should not be based on saving money alone, because the risks if you get it wrong are much too high. We have seen the dangers for public and animal health, for the economy and the environment with BSE and foot-and-mouth, and the devastating memories still linger.

DEFRA’s downsizing of its network of animal disease surveillance centres from 14 to seven is a seismic shift and the reductions may not end there. It will take the scanning budget for the Animal Health and Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) in England and Wales down from £10.4m in 2010-11 to £7.2m for 2014-15.

Only £5m of that is government money; the rest is income from chargeable work.

The principle of placing more focus on detection intelligence from private vets, abattoirs and universities and less on government post-mortems, may be a sensible way of encouraging development of pathology services and make better use of wider resources.

But the scale of the cuts means a lot of expertise will be lost without any guarantee that the alternative arrangements are adequate or indeed meet statutory requirements. Certainly vets and pathologists remain worried about the consequences at a time when the UK livestock industry faces an enormous set of challenges.

Increased globalisation, animal movement and climate change all add to disease risks. There have been constant warnings about new exotic diseases breaching UK shores soon, so any surveillance adjustments must not jeopardise our overall response to outbreaks.

Schmallenberg, for example, reminded us of the desperate need for a first-class detection network. It also highlighted the value of speed in identifying disease outbreaks and communication.

Anxiety about these changes is high. A whistleblower within the AHVLA has leaked a pile of confidential documents to FW to draw attention to concerns within the organisation and externally.

Even the AHVLA’s own chief executive Chris Hadkiss admits in these papers that the cuts will be unwelcome and there are valid questions about the future that he does not have answers to. All very reassuring then.

Building confidence in this set of proposals has a long way to go, as the current system works extremely well. The new approach will force private vets to invest more in their own training and facilities and rely far less on AHVLA advice.

It remains to be seen to what extent they are prepared to pick this up, but the early indications are not all good.

DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson has described safeguarding animal health as one of his four priorities. Surely something that critical should be treated with kid gloves, managed cautiously and tested before full implementation?

The adoption of new practices, technologies and medicines is fundamental to the future of the livestock sector and works hand in hand with a robust surveillance system. But modernisation, if it is just for financial reasons, is a gamble – and an extremely dangerous one at that.

More about Farmers Weekly‘s AHVLA investigation 

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