By Eve Mitchell
You think you’ve heard everything. Then you get a surprise.
Back in June a story broke here in the UK that our Government sells the meat from cattle culled for testing positive for bovine tuberculosis to feed people in schools, hospitals and the military. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) does not tell buyers the meat came from TB infected animals, and it turns a tidy profit from the trade (about £10 million/US$15.5 million a year). In a world full of industrial food “yuck factor”, this is more like a “Wow. Really?” factor.
For readers unfamiliar with the emotional tinderbox this sets alight, the UK is gripped in a row over bovine TB that some argue could bring down the government. Badgers are said to spread the disease to cattle and vice versa. Farmers must test their animals regularly for TB, the law requires that all animals that react to the test must be shot, and positive test results affect a farmer’s ability to sell or move remaining cattle before a period of clear test results expires. Defra policy is to pilot two badger culls to see if this reduces TB in cattle – an extraordinary measure given badgers are a protected species. The culls began during the night of 27 August, but controversy
rages over whether it will work and not just spread frightened infectious badgers further afield, what baseline data are being used to determine success, if it is even necessary or economically efficient, why other options like vaccines are not deployed instead and why we are not also viewing this as farmed cattle infecting wild, protected badgers.
The science is hotly disputed. On the one hand we have the National Farmers Union supporting the badger cull because more than 38,000 cattle were culled in 2012. This led the NFU Director of Corporate Affairs to say, “The primary reason [TB] matters to the food industry is that it threatens the future of our supply of milk and beef in what should be some of the best areas in Europe for their production.” The NFU Chairman said of vaccines, “We have been promised cattle vaccination for 15 years and it’s still five years over the horizon.” (We’ll leave aside for the moment the NFU’s pro-GM position chasing an ever-shifting but tantalising “5-10 year” horizon in which the biotech industry says it will produce something useful.)
On the other hand we have physicist-turned-Queen-guitarist Brian May fronting a major public campaign to prevent the badger cull. Our oft-quoted Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson botched a denial of reports that he said he “can’t stand any more of this” while walking out of a Parliamentary debate to “stop the cull and implement a more sustainable and humane solution” saying, “As I left I might have joked about the ill-informed comments of the other side.” That vote was carried 147 to 28 but is not binding. In a country with considerable town/country frictions, bovine TB control gets a lot of people very, very agitated.
Dozens of local papers picked up the Defra-Sells-TB-Meat story, including reports that supermarkets and burger chains ban TB meat, and quotes Tesco saying it won’t sell it due to “public-health concerns surrounding the issue of bTB and its risk to consumers” (again we’ll leave aside for the moment that supermarkets ignore similar concern about GM animal feed). We appeared to have all the hallmarks of a major scandal rising to join the UK’s colourful history of meat horrors from mad cow disease to clones sold illegally as food to the ongoing pollution of Europe’s beef supply with horsemeat.
Yet the reaction to the story was a bit weird:
30 June: The Government issued a response accusing the Sunday Times of “irresponsible scaremongering” for querying the apparent conflict between Defra selling unlabelled meat from TB infected animals and statements from Defra’s Chief Vet and Chief Scientist saying the badger cull is needed to protect human health. Defra’s statement said all TB meat undergoes “rigorous” checks and the risk of becoming ill from it “is extremely low.” So low, it appears, that nobody even keeps a record of where the TB meat goes.
1 July: The National Health Service issued advice saying, “It is important to note that your risk of catching TB from eating meat from an infected animal is minimal.” The Grocer, an industry Bible of sorts, said the discussion wasn’t really about TB meat but that, “It’s a tool to point out apparent inconsistencies in Defra’s justification for the [badger] cull.” (It’s both, actually.)
3 July: PR Week, another industry Bible, helpfully declared Defra’s reaction to the story a “hit” that “detonated the myth on the first day the story broke”.
4 July: The meat industry, apparently unaware that the myth had been detonated, joined in Defra’s self-defense saying, “If [TB] lesions are found only in a single organ or part of the carcase [carcass], the instructions require the removal of the affected organ or part of the carcase as unfit for human consumption.” This usefully let us know the meat industry also thinks it’s ok to put meat from animals with TB lesions into the food chain provided the visibly affected areas/organs have been excised.
Also on 4 July Mr. Paterson launched Defra’s consultation on its ambitious new plan to eradicate bovine TB from the UK in 25 years. The farming press reported, “Farmers will also be increasingly asked to fund and organise elements of TB control like TB testing and vaccination and maybe given a greater say in the sale of TB reactors into the food chain.” Hang on. The farmers suffering losses from TB culls should have a “greater say” in selling those animals for food while the Government restricts the compensation scheme if the farmer is deemed blameworthy AND they are expected to fund TB controls themselves? Did we learn nothing from horseburgergate about independent controls on meat supplies in tough economic times? The Wildlife Trusts (a group 47 trusts with “over 800,000 members”) said of the new plan, “Three years after a badger vaccine was first available, the Government continues to ignore vaccination’s potential to help tackle this terrible disease.”
Then the whole thing just died down, deftly ushered off the headlines by a Scottish winner at Wimbledon, a royal baby and the anniversary of the London 2012 Olympics.
Then something even weirder happened. Owen Paterson had dismissed badger vaccines in October 2012 saying, “We cannot have a position where you can’t identify between diseased and vaccinated animals.” Interesting point, but surely not insurmountable – sheep are routinely spraypainted with all manner of markings. Then in January 2013 a letter from the European Commission “acknowledges the UK’s leading role in pressing forward on a cattle vaccine and, for the first time, recognises that we are on course to deploy a vaccine”, but Mr. Paterson cautioned, “The legal and scientific process could take up to 10 years.”
So the cull aiming to kill 70% of the unknown badger population is still “necessary”. Yet on 12 August Defra Minister David Heath, Mr. Paterson’s Number Two, announced “tough new rules to stop the spread of bovine TB”, including “targeted use of the funding for badger vaccination in the edge area” backed by a £250,000 fund. As recently as October 2012 Heath had echoed that “we are years away from either [badger or cattle vaccines] making a significant contribution to reducing the prevalence and spread of TB”. Could the acceleration of vaccine usefulness have anything to do with the story the next day exposing that a Freedom of Information request by Care for the Wild revealed only 120 out of the 5,000 badger shootings will be independently observed to ensure the cull is carried out in a “humane” way?
TB isn’t something you want to mess around with, and enforced cattle culls are heartbreaking for farmers no doubt. What is harder to understand is what the Government is doing, or why, or the “scientific” basis for its plans, as all of these seem to shift around. None of the noise has yet answered the basic questions at the heart of it all: If eating the meat from cattle infected with TB is so safe, and if vaccines are an option, why do all those cows and badgers have to be culled? How, precisely, does TB “threaten the future of our supply of milk and beef,” as the NFU claims, if pasteurisation and cooking solve the “problem”? Seems like it has to be one or the other, and it remains to be seen how long the Government can play it both ways.