An open letter sent to Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce from a range of cattle industry stakeholders and groups has called for an inquiry into new national arrangements for managing Johne’s disease in Australia’s cattle industry.
The letter, penned by Victorian stud cattle breeder and long-time opponent of Johne’s disease regulation, Don Lawson, has been signed by 40 individuals with ties to the cattle industry “from Western Australia to Cloncurry”.
Signatories include the Australian Brahman Breeders Association and the Australian Beef Association.
The letter describes the recent attempt to deregulate Johne’s disease “as a failure” and urgently requests the Minister to initiate a judicial inquiry.
It also questions Western Australia’s position that the State has a negligible prevalence of Johne’s in its cattle herd.
The letter says Johne’s Disease (JD) is endemic in the WA sheep flock and says Johne’s is now classified as one disease, regardless of the strain (ovine, bison or bovine). Animal Health Australia has the same view that “JD is JD” and says there is no distinction now between JD in sheep and JD in cattle.
The letter says WA’s former chief veterinarian stated at a BJD forum in Perth that WA has not tested for BJD for 10 or more years, questioning the integrity of the State’s claims of negligible prevalence of JD.
It calls for a formal judicial inquiry to look at how “WA has been allowed to retain its JD-free status, and thus use it as an effective trade barrier within Australia.”
A WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development spokesperson told Beef Central that a detailed structured surveillance study for Johne’s disease in WA cattle was undertaken in 2005.
“Since then there has been ongoing general surveillance activities with all samples from cattle with signs suggestive of JD routinely tested for JD in the laboratory,” the spokesperson said.
“No evidence of JD caused by cattle strain has been detected.
“In 2016, following an extensive four-year testing program for JD in cattle the Department cleared the last of six Kimberley properties that had received bulls from a Qld herd infected with JD.”
On the prevalence of Johne’s in sheep, the spokesperson said: “Ovine Johne’s disease is endemic in the WA sheep flock”.
Asked what WA’s justification was for its position that it has negligible Johne’s presence in cattle, the spokesperson said it was based on “previous active surveillance and ongoing general surveillance which had not detected any JD infection in cattle caused by the cattle strain of the causative organism.”
“All samples from cattle with signs suggestive of JD are routinely tested for JD in the laboratory. No evidence of JD caused by cattle strain has been detected.”
On the question of what future testing will be undertaken to underpin the State’s JBAS 8 status, the spokesperson said “a surveillance plan has been prepared by the Department’s veterinary epidemiologist which will inform on the actual WA prevalence status of JD in cattle with an appropriate level of confidence.”
“Surveillance testing will be commencing shortly using faecal HTJ-PCR with follow up of all non-negative results by faecal culture.
“Properties will not be considered positive unless a positive cattle strain culture is obtained.
“Should infection be detected, the WA Cattle Industry Funding Scheme Management Committee will meet to decide on a course of action.
“This action will be determined on a case by case basis depending on the level of disease found, if any and may include measures such as movement controls and eradication.
“The outcomes of the targeted surveillance program will be made available to the WA industry so that they may make informed decisions on the merit or otherwise of regulating JD in cattle in the State”.
WA Farmers executive officer Kim Haywood said claims that WA has not tested cattle for Johne’s for 10 or more years were “absolutely not accurate”: “Testing is carried out frequently throughout the year and is the reason why the industry agreed to maintain border controls,” she said.
“We know BJD prevalence in WA is extremely low and therefore the industry (beef and dairy producers) believed it was important to maintain border controls given increased risks of disease spread as a result of deregulation.”
She said WA did have Johne’s disease in the sheep flock which it is managing through early vaccination of lambs. “Co-grazing is not as extensive in the west as it is in the east, but if a property in the west is notified it has OJD in its flock, then that property is recognised as having JD and therefore has a J-BAS 0 for its cattle herd.”
On the question of herd testing that will continue in WA now, she said the WA cattle industry had committed to funding a targeted surveillance program which will commence very soon. “The program has identified high risk cattle herds and owners will be asked to test their cattle. Positive results will result in the herd being quarantined but with trading caveats so the business can function.”
Beef Central has also sought a response from Mr Joyce’s office to the open letter, which appears in full below:
The Hon. Barnaby Joyce, MP
Deputy Prime Minister
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources
I write regarding the recent failed attempt to deregulate Johnes, and request you urgently establish a judicial inquiry into this failure.
Questions must be answered about the ridiculous amount of time and cost to both industry and tax payers that have been spent on a disease that has been conclusively proven to have very little financial impact,
Why has Animal Health Australia persisted running a market assurance program (MAP) with a scientifically doubtful test that has such a devastating impact on individuals who receive a false positive test result?
How does the MAP help the cattle industry manage the disease, when only about 320 herds have participated out of 10,000 beef cattle studs, and a much larger number of commercial herds?
These questions must be answered urgently.
To quote you a real life situation – we are aware of a cow from which 2 samples were taken simultaneously, one sample was sent to a laboratory in Victoria, and the other to NSW. One came back positive and the other negative, further reinforcing why those of us in the beef industry have absolutely no confidence in this farcical situation.
The 2015 MLA survey of 17 beef cattle diseases established that Johnes disease had the lowest economic impact of all the diseases studied. It has taken nearly 15 years to establish the estimated loss to the Australian beef industry from Johnes is only $2.8 million per annum.
The report also states “Diagnostic tests have inadequate sensitivity to detect infected individuals”. The real damage is the fact the test regularly produces false positives.
MLA has also drawn attention to “The persistence of the organism in the environment, and especially water can negate animal movement”. This fact has been confirmed in the UK from studies of rivers in Wales where wildlife is suggested as the source.
Regardless of the strain (ovine, bison or bovine) Johnes is now classified as one disease.
This raises an important question regarding the actions of Western Australia, which claims to be Johnes free. In fact they have the endemic sheep strain, and the former chief veterinarian stated at a bjd review in Perth that WA had not tested for BJD for 10 or more years.
The rest of Australia has basically de-regulated, but to sell cattle to WA, they must be tested with a test that is scientifically unreliable and inaccurate, and potentially very damaging to those who supply beef cattle genetics to WA.
The formal judicial inquiry should also look at how WA has been allowed to retain its JD-free status, and thus use it as an effective trade barrier within Australia.
There have been 2 Senate inquiries and one Victorian government inquiry into Johnes, and incredibly, the latest review has failed to deregulate Johnes and hand back its management to farmers.
The policy has failed the basic tests to effectively run a health program: –
- there is no reliable test,
- there is no cure the vaccination is a management tool,
- there have not been any soundly based surveys when this program started,
- there has not been a cost benefit study looking at the economic and social costs of the policy.
The tragic social cost has been enormous – just look at the consequences of the 3 cattle at the Rockley Brahman stud in QLD which caused about 160 herds across northern Australia to be quarantined. One individual who had 100% equity ended up being sold up by his bank, as he had no cash flow for 3 years.
A false positive has a catastrophic impact on studs as bull sales can be put on hold, and its hard won reputation trashed overnight.
It is impossible to identify how many families have been utterly devastated as the authorities hide behind the privacy act, but a former state minister of agriculture lost their father as a direct result of the Johnes debacle. Dozens of suicides can be directly attributed to the catastrophic effect of Johnes.
These issues have been raised countless times in many different forums, and we implore you to act and finally bring this sorry state of affairs to an end, and act on our suggestion of a judicial inquiry.
Don Lawson, Mansfield, Vic