Cull decision short-sighted, MPs claim

MPs have criticised the decision not to cull badgers in England to control the spread of bovine TB.

A report from The Environment Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee accuses the government of "playing down the seriousness of the nature of cattle TB".

The decision not to embark on a mass cull policy was made two weeks ago by Defra secretary Hilary Benn, who said a cull was impractical and publicly unacceptable. He called for improved surveillance and biosecurity and promised more money for the development of a vaccine.

However, members of the select committee said the proposed response was not good enough. Its report concluded: "There is little in the government's strategy to tackle the disease in the short-term."

The committee had previously recommended the government should adopt a multi-faceted approach to tackling the spread of TB in cattle, and that culling could make a contribution to that.

Chairman Michael Jack said his committee unanimously felt that the response by Mr Benn was "less than satisfactory" and contained "deficiencies". It welcomed the decision on vaccine development, but said that was a long-term solution.

NFU deputy president Meurig Raymond said: "The Efra committee's report reinforces both the fact that the government has made the wrong decision and the need for something to be done now, rather than waiting for vaccines to become available years down the line, which will be too late for many farmers whose businesses are being decimated by this disease."

The NFU recently hosted an industry-wide stakeholder meeting to discuss Benn's decision. Following the meeting, the group put its name to an eight-point statement of agreement, which included calls for an independent body to take on the future decision-making for animal health; a commitment of non-participation in the TB Partnership Group as announced by the Secretary of State; and an industry policy of non-participation in discussions on cost-sharing and responsibility on animal health and welfare issues.

Raymond said: "The industry feels let down and angered by the government's abdication of responsibility around this devastating disease. We have been left with no choice but to walk away from any attempt by government to validate their 'policy' decision and pass responsibility for controlling this disease to the already beleaguered cattle sector."

Added pressure to find a solution will be put on the government following the discovery of TB-positive calves shipped from the UK to the Netherlands.

The Netherlands has been free of bovine TB since 1999 and Dutch farmers have reacted angrily to news of the infection. Some of the country's biggest veal importers have threatened to ban British imports with immediate effect until the UK solves the issue of TB.

Kim Haywood, National Beef Association chief executive, said the situation was a "catastrophe" for the calf export industry. "Export agents have had enough; they have lost millions of pounds already. If this builds momentum in Europe, the consequences could be dire. It would be the end of the trade," she said.

"The government's inability to deal with the disease has resulted in potential export bans similar to BSE, which we spent years trying to resolve."

Although the EU Commission has said it regards the incident as a "one-off", reports in Farmers Weekly suggest that a draft EU decision contains proposals that could make calf exports impractical.

The draft regulation says calf exports may continue from TB-free regions, but none of the UK currently meets this requirement. It also contains a proposal that all animals on the holding of origin must be tested for TB annually, a rule which would make exporting too expensive for many farmers.

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