It’s time for a stocktake on Mycoplasma bovis

It is now two years since Mycoplasma bovis was first identified in New Zealand. In those two years there have been 178 farms with confirmed infections.  In the last six months the cumulative number of confirmed infections has doubled.

The big question is whether eradication is still feasible.

It is now clear that the number of infected properties is going to rise beyond the Government’s estimates prepared back in May 2018. At that time, the Government committed to a heavyweight eradication campaign. At that same time, the expected total number of infected properties was estimated at 192, extending out over five to ten years.

By the end of 2018, the public messaging was that MPI was running faster than the disease and that MPI was catching up with the transmission pathways. MPI was expressing high confidence that eradication would be achieved. DairyNZ echoed these sentiments even more strongly.

Now, in July 2019, there has been a big shift of sentiment from within MPI. An internal report, prepared by MPI’s Office of the Chief Science Adviser and now released to the public, acknowledges that MPI’s senior managers were mistaken as to the progress they were making.

MPI now acknowledges that its internal information systems were inadequate. As a consequence, and prior to mid-April, senior management had no appreciation as to the backlog of well over 1000 properties that needed tracing, nor that this backlog was increasing rapidly.

This is a remarkable situation. Some of us working outside the official system and in close contact with events in the field knew that MPI was struggling greatly with the tracing. We knew that it was taking up to six months and more for MPI to follow up on specific traces. We tried to alert senior management in MPI to the implications of what was happening.

Quite simply, the MPI system has not been fit for purpose, and that is what MPI is now acknowledging.  The Director General of MPI has apologised publicly.

It is now time for a stocktake. Is eradication still feasible or has the disease travelled too far? This will be a key question for the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) when they next meet.

In situations like this, there usually has to be a ‘fall guy’. However, in this case the newly appointed Director General of MPI was bequeathed a terrible situation when he took up the job last November. One has to go back and ask who was responsible for the fundamental structure of MPI BioSecurity, largely put in place before Mycoplasma bovis struck.

The immediate question is whether there are enough band aids to allow the eradication program to get back on track, or is eradication a lost cause.

Currently (early July), as well as the infected properties, there are 236 properties on movement control (NOD) and another 627 properties under active surveillance. The MPI expectation is that between 10 and 15 percent of the NOD properties will go positive. This will then set up a new series of traces. And so it goes on.

There can be little doubt that the tracing backlog has allowed Mycoplasms bovis to once again run ahead of MPI. With hindsight, it is now doubtful if MPI was ever catching up.  So, can MPI now make up for lost ground?

DairyNZ is telling its farmers that the new revelations do not threaten the program. That is simply public relations propaganda to keep up confidence in the program in the meantime.  Let’s see what the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) has to say when they next meet.

The last report from the TAG was submitted back in January, following a November 2018 meeting, and released in February 2019. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then.

Going forward, MPI is flagging big differences in testing procedures. In particular, they will no longer be searching for the organism itself in milk using the PCR test. Instead, they will be undertaking bulk-milk screening with an antibody test and then following this up with blood testing of suspect herds, once again searching for antibodies.

Last spring, MPI tested all herds on six occasions using the PCR test. They found only three positive herds, and they highlighted this in their messaging. What they did not say was that another 43 herds (or thereabouts) not already on their radar had shown up with antibody testing of the milk.

MPI had hoped that most or perhaps all of these bulk-milk antibody tests would be false positives. That has now proven to be incorrect.

MPI was also exceptionally slow, despite claiming they were being transparent, to acknowledge that they were determining herds to be positive, and not just at risk, in situations where high proportions of the herd were showing up as antibody positive on blood tests.

In the early months of this year, some of us knew that the published numbers and associated story did not tally up with what we were seeing in the field. It was only in late March and into April that MPI started to acknowledge what was happening.

It took quite some teasing-out before MPI came clean as to the new assessment procedures and criteria that they had been using for many months. Then in mid-April, on the Thursday afternoon just before Easter, came the additional announcement that there was going to be a big surge in farms to be tested.

I will give just one example here, of many that I could give, of a farm that has been caught up by the delays, and the further challenges this has created.

This farm is actually three separate herds, with over 2500 cows in total. It first came to the attention of MPI from a bulk-milk antibody test way back in August 2018. However, it was not until late January 2019 that the farmer was informed that he was to be tested. Then in April the farm was confirmed positive.

There are several key features about what has happened. First, the farm is NAIT-compliant and there is no ‘smoking gun’ as to how it arrived. Second, there will be many traces to be made.

The farmer estimates that there have been about 150 outward movements of animals over the last five years and that the progeny from these farms have been widely used as service bulls on other farms.  Those 150 outward movements are just the first stage movements. Subsequent movements will have fanned out from there.

In this article I have only addressed issues that directly influence program feasibility.  Alongside this, many farmers are struggling greatly from flaws in the compensation system. The notion that affected farmers should be neither better nor worse of as a consequence of compensation is not what is happening.

It was all supposed to be a team effort, but some members of the team have been deserted and have lost their livelihood, and others are currently in great difficulty. I think Federated Farmers could be doing a lot more in Wellington on behalf of these farmers.

MPI also needs to go back and ask itself whether it really understands the compensation problems that are occurring. Once again, it seems their own internal systems are less than adequate.

[Some readers may also wish to look at the comments section on this article and my responses that is building at]

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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1 Response to It’s time for a stocktake on Mycoplasma bovis

  1. Floyd says:

    Hi Keith,
    I read in the stakeholder update today only 3 of the 43 positive Elisa farms tested are deemed positive, 2 remain unresolved and the rest released from active surveillance. Do you have any insight to this as it seems at odds from what you’ve described and what I hear in the field.
    Regards Floyd

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