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Interview: Defra chief vet defends 'proportionate and risk-based' post-movement testing rules

The introduction of post-movement testing in April prompted a backlash as the full implications have become clear. Defra chief vet Nigel Gibbens explains to Alistair Driver why the policy was introduced.
Nigel Gibbens
Nigel Gibbens

Defra’s Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens has defended the introduction of compulsory post-movement testing in England after the move prompted a backlash from the industry.


The rule change was announced in December, following consultation, but the full implications for farmers have only started to sink in since it came into force at the beginning of April.


It requires cattle moving into the Low Risk Area (LRA) from England’s High Risk Area (HRA) and Edge Area and Wales to be tested between 60 and 120 days of arriving on the holding.


Until they test clear the animals cannot be moved onto another holding. There are some exemptions, including movements direct to slaughter (see below).


The change is causing some consternation, not least in the showing world.


Animals moving from LRA shows in the HRA, Edge Area and Wales now need to be post-movement tested on their return if they stay for more than 24 hours and are housed overnight (see below for a fuller explanation of how the rules will affect shows).


On top of the cost of tests, the standstill will prevent animals being shown again for at least two months. Entries to some of the big summer events are already being affected and the Association of Show and Agricultural Organisations has been in discussions with Defra to try and find solutions.


60-day wait


Then there is the question of why farmers have to wait for 60 days to test the animals.


NFU deputy president Minette Batters and Livestock Auctioneers Association executive secretary Chris Dodds both said they had initially been under the impression the test could be taken within 60 days of the pre-movement test.


This would, in many cases, have reduced the standstill period and eased the burden of the policy.


The NFU, driven mainly by farmers in the LRA, initially supported the policy but Mrs Batters said its TB forum was reconsidering its stance.


Mrs Batters said: “In hindsight, I think we need to drill down into the detail and look at the balance between the disease benefits and how it affects trade. This has l lot to be workable on farm for all areas as well as dealing with the disease."


She said waiting 60 days would leave any infected cattle in herds for longer, as well as causing significant disruption to trade and ‘devaluing’ cattle in the higher risk areas.


She called for Defra to reconsider the 60-day requirement, possibly by using the interferon gamma blood test at an earlier stage.


Mr Dodds claimed the change had been poorly communicated and accused Defra of putting administrative concerns before animal welfare and the ability of farms to function normally.


He said he was ‘genuinely concerned’ about the implications of not being able to move cattle for 60 days for markets and farmers.


Proportionate and risk-based


Mr Gibbens acknowledged some ‘people may have caught up with the implications of post-movement testing late’ but insisted it was a ‘proportionate and risk-based policy’.


He said he appreciated the impact the policy would have on shows but said: “We do know there are some cases in the LRA where the only risk factor we can find is regular showing. There is good evidence behind this – it reduces that risk a bit more.


“The policy was moderated. If I had a free rein I would probably say, if you are in the LRA, do not show in any other risk area at all. But you can mitigate it by not keeping animals overnight and not putting them in housing and I think that is the right balance.”


Mr Gibbens sought to clarify why farmers needed to wait 60 days after the animal had been moved rather than 60 days after the pre-movement test.


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He said the post-movement test was addressing the ‘real risk’ the animal could be infected after the pre-movement test at the point they were moved off the holding, particularly, if they moved via a gathering at a market.


“We know the immune response does not cut in early so to guarantee we have a chance of detecting disease we have to wait 60 days.


“It is risk-based and it is proportionate. There are big reasons to do it. Once you have decided that is the step you are going to take, you cannot make it more proportionate by doing it in a way which does not work, for example by testing too early.”


Widespread support


He stressed the policy had received ‘widespread support’ in the consultation, especially in the LRA, and described it as another step towards achieving TB-free status for the LRA, now ‘only two years away’.


But he acknowledged the impact in the HRA of moves to protect herds in the LRA and urged farmers and markets to do more to embrace the concept of risk-based trading – the provision of detailed herd TB history information at the point of sale.


Defra is currently working on a new scheme which will allocate a TB risk score to every herd in the country. The idea is to incorporate this into the Cattle Health Certification Standards scheme to give buyers more knowledge about the cattle they are buying.


“The two-tier market is already happening,” added Mr Gibbens.


“Risk-based trading will just make it better informed. Forty per cent of holdings in the HRA have never gone down with TB. If people engage in risk-based trading it allows those farmers to benefit from their good practice, although some people are just very unlucky because the environmental challenge is so high.


“The broad thrust of the TB strategy is to hit all of the potential places where transmission occurs. That means understanding the areas where we can make most rapid progress in the LRA, huge effort thrown in the Edge Area and maintaining our effort in the High Risk Area while allowing farming to continue.”


How post-movement testing will affect shows

  • Cattle moved from herds in the LRA to non-exempt shows in the HRA, Edge Area and Wales will need to be post-movement tested when they return to the home farm
  • Non-exempt shows outside the LRA will be defined as those lasting for more than 24 hours and that house cattle overnight
  • Cattle are deemed to be housed when they are kept in a structure with a roof and walls which includes a marquee with sides
  • Shows outside the LRA that last for less than 24 hours will be exempt
  • Cattle moving to shows in the LRA from other areas will not have to be post-movement tested before they return home, ’given the impracticalities’ this would involve namely cattle remaining in the LRA for at least 60 days.
  • A Defra spokesman said: “The existing legislation does allow us to require that but the licensing regime will enable us to allow movement back to the home premises straight after the show.”


Post-movement testing exemptions

  • Cattle slaughtered within 120 days of arriving in the LRA
  • Cattle going for veterinary treatment in the LRA and cattle arriving back from veterinary treatment outside the LRA, provided the movement is not via any other holding
  • Cattle moved to a Licensed Finishing Unit
  • Cattle moved to an exempt market in the LRA
  • Cattle moved to a slaughter market (red market) in the LRA
  • Cattle moving from the LRA to shows in the HRA, Edge Area and Wales if shows are less than 24 hours and cattle are not housed
  • Cattle moving to shows in the LRA from other areas
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