Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence



  1.  We recognise that the risk of TB transmission from meat to humans is negligible, but public health concerns are paramount in our policy decisions. Professor Sir John Krebs concluded that the current risk of human infection with M. bovis in Great Britain is negligible. However, the disease has the potential to cause problems and a rationale underlying policies for control of bovine TB is to ensure that this risk does not increase. He therefore recommends that the incidence of M. bovis TB in humans should be kept under review in the light of the increasing incidence in cattle. To this end we have established a joint MAFF/Department of Health group which meets quarterly to monitor the situation.

  2.  The disease still remains a serious threat to cattle. The incidence of TB in cattle has been rising since 1990, and in 1998 over 6,000 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered. This represents a huge financial burden to the industry and the taxpayer, and has welfare implications for the cattle and other animals which contract the disease. Bovine tuberculosis also causes considerable distress to farmers and their families.


  3.  Following a review of scientific knowledge in this field, published in the Krebs Report, the Government announced a package of measures designed to provide a science based approach to controlling TB in cattle. This package includes vaccine research and development, epidemiological work to improve our understanding of the disease and how it is transmitted to and between cattle, and research in improving testing and diagnosis to detect the disease more quickly.

  4.  The report also concluded that the evidence that badgers were a significant source of infection in cattle was compelling, but that because the relevant data had not been collected and analysed, it was not possible to state how large a contribution badgers make to cattle infection nor how effective badger culling had been in controlling TB. Professor Krebs therefore recommended the culling trial as a controlled scientific study designed to test the conditions in which the removal of badgers is an effective method of controlling TB in cattle.


  5.  As you have pointed out, wildlife species other than badgers can become infected by M. bovis. However, previous investigations suggest that badgers are peculiarly susceptible to TB and the prevalence of infection is higher in badgers than in any other species. The Krebs report concluded that the potential for other species to transmit M. bovis to cattle is extremely small, but that this possibility should be kept under scrutiny. Two research projects are being funded to help our understanding of the contribution other wildlife makes to TB in cattle.


  6.  The TB testing arrangements applied in this country are based on the principles set out in EC legislation. The testing frequencies range from annual, in areas where the average incidence of confirmed TB in cattle over the past two years has been more than 1 per cent, down to four yearly in most of Great Britain, where average incidence over the past eight years has been less than 0.1 per cent. The fact that there has been no increase in the incidence of TB in much of northern, eastern or south-eastern England, north Wales or Scotland demonstrates that these arrangements do not result in uncontrolled cattle to cattle spread.

  7.  We are looking at how existing controls could be improved through the newly established TB Forum. Chaired by MAFF officials and made up of representatives from farming organisations, veterinary associations and conservation bodies, its remit is to consider new measures which may be taken to control TB in cattle.


  8.  A new epidemiological questionnaire is being used to gather information on a full range of factors which might affect the spread of TB. This includes wildlife vectors, but also husbandry practices, nutrition and local terrain and climate. A detailed questionnaire will be completed by MAFF veterinary staff in interviews with farmers, on whose holdings a TB incident has been confirmed since 1 January 1999. The data collected should give us a better knowledge about the factors influencing the way the disease spreads and helps us target future research.


  9.  We recognise that development of a vaccine may offer the best long term solution to the problem of TB in cattle. It is one of the Government's priorities in the fight against TB. However, this type of research is complex and unpredictable and scientists estimate that development may take between 10 and 15 years or longer, with no guarantee of success. MAFF is investing over £1.4 million a year into the programme and it is not being held up by lack of funding. The research is being undertaken in collaboration with international experts, drawing on the latest scientific advances and work already undertaken to find a human vaccine. In the meantime, TB in cattle needs to be controlled by other means.

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