Open letter to Barnaby challenges JBAS rules, WA Johne’s status

James Nason, 13/07/2017

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


Dear Minister


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: –

  1. there is no reliable test,
  2. there is no cure the vaccination is a management tool,
  3. there have not been any soundly based surveys when this program started,
  4. 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.


Yours faithfully

Don Lawson, Mansfield, Vic


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  1. don lawson, 17/07/2017

    For those of us at the coal face and having been involved at a practical level, the new J-BAS 7 and 8 are just the old MAP with a new name and the fact is it is more paper work and more testing with a test that is flawed.

    Sheep producers who have had OJD on their property now have their lives turned upside down as they now move to a very low J-BAS score.

    Producers are not aware of how restrictive J-BAS 8 and 7 are as in a drought it’s impossible to find agistment and for a stud using ET it’s almost impossible to find MN3 or J-BAS 8 recipients.

    Now the real losers in this are the West Australian commercial livestock producers. In the last drought WA sent about 1 million sheep and about 100,000 cattle across the Nullabor and they can’t restock from the East when the east coast has a drought. The current dry spell has TRUCK LOADS OF B-doubles of ewes again crossing the Nullabor. The free trade is a one way street at the expense of WA commercial producers. The best thing those supporting the ban could do is to test all their animals, take two blood samples and send them to two different laboratories and wait for results that could turn their life upside down.

    There is nothing that beats the experience of testing.

    I find it interesting that BOTH Justin Toohey or M.Introvgine seem to avoid the issue of a judicial inquiry which would put the competence of cattle council and AHA and their cases under independent scrutiny. What do they have to hide?????

  2. Sandra Baxendell, 16/07/2017

    Western Australia should hold their nerve and keep levels of JD out of their dairy herds. Tesco now have all their UK suppliers testing for JD. As soon as they have all their suppliers testing all negative then I predict they will start labeling their dairy products as JD free. Australia is out of line with the rest of the world who are working with the whole supply chain to reduce JD.

  3. Digby Corker, 14/07/2017

    Speaking as a West Australian beef producer I am wholeheartedly on Don Lawson’s side of this argument. The push by MLA, Cattle Council and others involved in using an imaginary problem – JD – to enforce a herd/property management accreditation system is disgusting and all Cattle Council members who supported this should resign.

  4. Tom Campbell, 14/07/2017

    It will be interesting to see what Barnaby Joyce makes of this as i was one of the producers who asked for my name to be included
    Total disgrace the way this has been handled right from the start in 2012

  5. Tom Campbell, 14/07/2017

    one way to solve all this is do not pay the 5dollar levy no more money for AHA CCA they will wither and die and any money the producers that have been sold up because of the BJD Quarantine can be returned to them as the levy money did not do them much good
    Put AHA CCA AGFORCE in the dock along with John Mcveigh and get to the bottom of this

  6. Mike Introvigne, 14/07/2017

    Don Lawson is only interested in self interest when it comes to the new BJD. I attended one of the early BJD forums in Perth where Don informed the crowd that we WA producers were un Australian, we should have kicked him out the door but West Aussies are more respectful that the likes of Don. Well I’ve got news for you Don, your persistance in dragging the WA industry through the mud on the BJD issue is un West Australian. We are not using the JBAS system as a trade barrier but as a real bio security concern. What would you call the recent ban of potatoes etc. being sent to the east from WA because a disease was found in one small area but the impact fiancially on all growers was near devastating. It’s about time Don got off his high horse and butted out of our industry and let’s hope the Minister sees fit to through his letter in the bin because that is what it deserves. I don’t mind respectful and honest debate but won’t tolerate such self interest from those that think they are more important than the industry.

  7. John Gunthorpe, 13/07/2017

    Management of endemic diseases have always been the responsibility of the producer on farm. His cattle will suffer deterioration and death if he does not manage disease in his herd. The Queensland Government Protection Zone Policy was promoted to the LNP minister by AgForce and CCA. They were misguided believing that BJD could be eradicated. The stress and financial cost resulting from quarantining properties that had received a bull from an infected herd up to 10 years prior was callous and led to the darkest period in our industry’s history.

    Don Lawson attended public meetings with the moderator managing the BJD review process as did I and many others. However, the review decisions were taken by a select committee including all state CVOs and CCA representatives. Don and I were not members of this committee and we had no input to the decisions on the implementation of the new management system. Certainly we were unaware of the adoption of J-BAS until it was passed down by the committee.

    My understanding from members of that review committee is that dairy representatives needed a system for scoring the health of their herds and one of the CCA representative developed J-BAS to accommodate this need. WA and NT seized on this development to continue their trade barriers and protect their local seedstock producers. It is hard to believe this outcome was not understood at the time of drafting by the review committee or the CCA representative, particularly as the proponents of the policy in WA are members of CCA.

    You are correct MAP was formally dissolved but its impact was worsened for those contracted to sell bulls into WA from the east by the introduction of J-BAS in its place. Testing for JD to move stock into WA is more onerous under J-BAS than it was under MAP. Some eastern stud breeders have large orders from WA clients in place. Any resulting financial loss incurred through the required testing could end up in litigation and test the constitutional validity of this policy.

    Don and those others of us who signed the letter are quite aware of these facts but we are also correct to point out the potential damage caused by WA and NT’s adoption of J-BAS as a trade barrier.

    One final point. If the WA has cattle herds on properties with a J-BAS score of 0, then WA cannot claim to be BJD free and cannot persist in maintaining their trade barrier.

    As we have argued before, WA do themselves a discredit in this approach as they cannot get replacement commercial breeders from the other side of the Nullarbor when seasonal conditions dictate they should. When drought hits their south-west they send truckloads to the east but cannot replace them when feed returns. It is in their best interest to stop this misguided policy for the supposed benefit of a few.

  8. Geoff Haack, 13/07/2017

    Apart from the very poor communication with all re these changes and the lack of correct answers from some organisations who should be up to speed the nagging suspicion is whether this will prove to be the opening of the door for more aggressive animal welfare surveillance by organisations with different agendas to that of promoting livestock industries.

  9. Justin Toohey, 13/07/2017

    In his open letter to the Minister, Don Lawson has questioned why AHA persists in running the JD Market Assurance Program (MAP). I find this puzzling, as Don was part of the review process and should be aware the MAP was formally dissolved last year.

    Don rightly questions WA’s regulated adoption of what is otherwise a workable deregulated system. The WA ‘spokesperson’ quoted in the Beef Central lead-in has given an explanation; we await the results of the planned surveillance program.

    But for Don to describe the “recent attempt to deregulate Johne’s Disease ‘as a failure'” is misdiagnosing the cause of the current difficulties nationally, which is the use by WA of a voluntary industry risk-assessment tool (the J-BAS) as a mandatory trade-access tool for which it was never designed or intended.

    Deregulating JD in most of Australia has been designed to remove the risk of quarantining by government authorities and allow producers to trade with other, like-minded producers, while simultaneously managing the JD risk of their livestock. The extent to which producers engage in the JD management program is now a choice for them and not the regulators, except in WA and, to an extent, NT.

    Above all, JD is now to be treated as any endemic, infectious disease in that its management has become the responsibility of producers as part of their on-farm biosecurity management practices. This will dovetail with the new LPA requirements, which will involve documented on-farm biosecurity planning from 1 October 2017 for all LPA accredited producers.

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