I thank the chairman. I am joined by my colleagues, Mr. Colm Forde, head of the division that looks after policy and the administration of the scheme, and his colleague, Ms Rosanne Greene. I am also joined by Mr. Eoin Ryan, the equivalent principal officer in charge of veterinary and technical aspects, and his colleague, Mr. Philip Breslin.
I thank the committee for giving the Department the opportunity to provide an update on developments with the bovine TB eradication scheme. I am sure that everybody who comes in here says thanks to the committee for this opportunity, but in this case we mean it because we have a good story to tell about progress with regard to TB.
I will outline a brief history of where we have come from. It is important to put everything in context. As members may be aware, a TB eradication programme has been in operation since the 1950s. As TB is a zoonosis - a disease of animals that can transmit to humans - the initial focus on dealing with TB in cattle was driven, in large parts, by efforts to reduce TB in the human population. Many of us will be aware from family members that at that time TB was a scourge in the human population. It was commonly known as consumption, or galloping consumption. It was estimated that 12,000 people a year died from TB in Ireland in the 1900s. It remained a serious and significant disease of people right through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
The efforts that started in the 1950s to eradicate TB largely coincided with efforts to deal with TB in the human population. Not only was TB a major issue in the human population from the 1920s to the 1950s, it was a significant disease in the cattle population. When we started the scheme in the 1950s, 17% of all cattle were infected with TB. Many cattle had the clinical signs of TB, and TB mastitis and carcase condemnations were common. The efforts to eradicate TB coincided with efforts to deal with TB in the human population. We must remind ourselves that Ireland is in the lucky position that TB in people is not a significant issue with the number of cases every year relatively low. Globally TB in humans is still a significant disease. An estimated 9 million people develop TB each year and 1.5 million people die from the disease.
With regard to the reasons for having a TB eradication programme, in addition to the human health benefits to controlling TB in cattle, a TB eradication programme is essential to facilitate trade in cattle and animal products. Having a programme in place is a requirement of EU trade law. As a State that exports more than 90% of our agricultural produce, complying with trade law is essential in supporting the incomes of Irish farm families. Outside of EU law, and increasingly with Brexit, our focus turns to third country markets. We are finding that in our dealings with third country markets that TB is an issue they focus on. A recent example is our opening up of the China market to beef. One of the stipulations in the certification of beef to China relates to the TB status of the herd. For all of those reasons, it is important to have a good TB eradication programme in place.
Some graphs are included in our submission. Figure 1 gives an indication of the scale of the progress made in reducing TB levels in cattle since the programme commenced.
In the early stages of the programme, we were dealing with high levels of TB in the population. In the early 1960s, 150,000 reactors were being removed on an annual basis. We made good progress in the early years. In the 1980s and 1990s, progress stalled to a significant extent and we were bumping along at 30,000 to 40,000 reactors a year. There was a great deal of debate as to what was causing the lack of further progress. Over time, it became evident that the significant factor stymying any further progress was the wildlife reservoir. It became apparent that the reservoir, namely, the badger population, was the significant factor of which we had not been aware previously. The scientific evidence became stronger that this was the case. To deal with that, a wildlife programme was put in place in the late 1990s focusing initially on culling badgers. Since that programme was established, we have begun to make further significant progress on TB eradication. It has provided a significant boost to our efforts to eradicate TB. I will return to some figures on that in a while. It is not a simple process; because badgers are a protected species under the Bern convention, there are strict controls in place to ensure the sustainability of the native badger population. When we put a culling programme in place in an area, our veterinary inspectorate has to carry out an epidemiological assessment. A licence is then issued by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, which limits the culling that can take place nationally to 30% of the agricultural land of Ireland. There are limits in place to what we can do in respect of culling badgers. Naturally, we have to comply with those strict conditions. While these measures are important to protect the badger, it has been argued that they pose challenges in eradicating bovine TB.
However, there have been some further developments in that regard in recent years. Following a lot of research, a BCG vaccine - the same TB vaccine as used in people, which we all received as children - has been successfully trialled on badgers in Ireland. Significant research was done on whether the BCG vaccine could be used on badgers and the research has shown that it can be successfully. The research concluded that vaccinating badgers in an area is not inferior to culling them. Vaccination is more or less as good as culling as a means to deal with TB transmission from badgers to cattle. This is a positive development, which represents a fundamental shift in our ability to move towards eradicating TB. While we were previously limited to culling badgers on 30% of the land area, there is no such restriction with vaccination. We will ultimately move to vaccinating the entire country. It is a significant development and, from a badger point of view, it is a positive one. We have done modelling work in conjunction with our colleagues in UCD which suggests that the addition of this tool will allow us, over a longer period, to think about total eradication of TB.
Since we started our badger programme in the late 1990s, the number of reactors has declined from 44,000 a year to our current levels of 16,000 to 18,000 reactors per year. The proportion of herds affected by TB has effectively halved in that time, which represents significant progress. However, if we are to make further progress, we must now add in some new measures to get us to the finishing line of eradication. Our herd incidence levels are considerably lower than levels in Northern Ireland, Wales and England. While our wildlife programme is important, it remains the case that the primary transmission route for TB is from cattle to cattle. Our programme has extensive measures in place to address this transmission path. Members will be familiar with them all. Every herd in the country is required to have an annual skin test. This is performed by private veterinary practitioners, PVPs, who have a crucial role to play in helping to achieve eradication. Thankfully, in excess of 96% of herds in Ireland test clear on this annual test.
Another diagnostic tool that members will probably have heard of in recent years is a blood test called the gamma interferon test. It is another useful tool that can help us in herds where infection has been identified. It enables us to pick up animals that are likely to be harbouring TB at a slightly earlier stage of the development of the disease. It is a useful additional tool, but it is not a silver bullet.
We carry out other risk-based testing under the programme, including, for example, where a herd might have a TB breakdown with a certain number of reactor animals. A contiguous programme is established in those circumstances, meaning that a programme of testing takes place in neighbouring herds. That is another important element of the programme.
We have spent a lot of energy and money on research in recent years. It provides key evidence that informs any policy decisions made on the TB programme. Last Friday, we brought together all of the TB research community in Ireland and the UK. This work helps enhance our understanding of the epidemiology of TB and provides clues as to how we can most effectively eradicate it. Some members will be aware that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has committed to eradicating TB by 2030. When achieved, this will represent a major success for Irish agriculture, and for farmers in particular. However, it will only be possible if the current eradication programme is enhanced and if all stakeholders support the programme.
International experience from Australia and New Zealand has highlighted the benefits that accrue when the public and private sectors collaborate in efforts to eradicate disease. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine alone will not eradicate TB; it needs the support of all stakeholders to ultimately achieve eradication. That has been the experience in countries such as Australia and New Zealand which have achieved eradication. With this in mind, the Minister received Government approval when a memorandum went to Cabinet in May to establish a TB stakeholder forum with an independent chairman. The mandate of the TB forum is to develop evidence-informed policies that can eradicate TB by 2030 while respecting the principles outlined in the national farmed animals health strategy. This strategy was launched last year and has four overarching principles, which are working in partnership, acknowledging roles and responsibilities, reflecting costs and benefits and accepting that prevention is better than a cure. The overarching policy guides everything we do on the animal health front at the moment. TB falls into that category.
The Department published three consultation papers, which are available on our website, to focus on the principles relating to governance, policy options and costs and benefits to inform the TB forum's deliberations. The first meeting of the forum took place in September, and there have been monthly meetings of the main forum since then, as well as side meetings with the various stakeholders in separate sessions. To date, discussions have focused on governance and policy options. Costs and benefits are scheduled to be discussed at the next forum meeting in January. The plan is that the forum will conclude its deliberations in the first half of next year, possibly by March or April. After that, it will make recommendations to the Minister on various policy options.
We in the Department are convinced that eradication by 2030 is achievable, and will continue to engage with all stakeholders to realise this ambition. Bovine TB levels in the past three years are lower than they have been since the programme started in the 1950s, with fewer farmers affected by the financial burden and the emotional stress of having their herd locked up with disease. Figure No. 3 in the paper I have provided highlights that in many areas of the country there are very low levels of TB. It is not a universal picture; TB is not evenly spread around the country. There are significant parts along the west coast, including parts of Donegal, Mayo and Galway, and significant parts of Counties Waterford and Limerick that have very low levels of TB. While the current programme has been effective in driving levels down, the science tells us that the current programme will not be enough to eradicate TB in the short or medium term.
With what we are doing at the moment and with the addition of the vaccination of badgers being spread throughout the country in the coming years the scientific models tell us that over a long period, that will eventually lead to the eradication of TB. If we keep doing what we are doing at the moment, and perhaps do everything a bit better and a bit quicker, and add in the vaccination of badgers, we will get to the finishing line in 30 to 40 years. However, we think we could do better than that with additional measures and we are talking to the stakeholders in the forum about what they might be.
To protect cattle from the disease and to protect farmers and farm families from the burden of a breakdown, we need to continue to do what we are doing but we also need to do more as well. I will continue to make that point. The Department has funded substantial research into TB in Ireland since the 1990s and we will continue to do so. The research provides us with the evidence base that underpins our policies, and enables us to identify areas where our policies do not sufficiently address the disease risks.
We now have a good idea of what needs to be done in broad terms to lower the levels of bovine TB further and to achieve eradication in the shortest time. We need to further reduce cattle-to-cattle transmission of the disease. We also need to maintain effective controls on badger-to-cattle transmission of disease. We must do more to eliminate infection from chronically affected herds. We must also do more to protect the almost 97% of herds which do not have TB.
It is clear that the Department cannot achieve that alone. International experience has shown that without the support of stakeholders, we will not achieve what we would like to achieve, and certainly not by 2030. It is not always a simple matter to achieve agreement and buy-in from various stakeholder groups on such matters, as TB eradication will involve difficult choices. Nevertheless, continuing with our current course, while sufficient to keep TB at current levels, it will not be enough to reduce disease levels further and we will need to do more.
As part of our efforts to engage with stakeholders, apart from the meetings of the forum, the farm bodies, Meat Industry Ireland, Dairy Industry Ireland, and others, my colleagues and I have spoken at seven public meetings in recent months, attended by approximately 1,000 farmers, most of whom were recently affected by TB in their herds. We have also spoken to the various farming organisations at national and local level and at knowledge transfer events and we are happy to continue to do so.
We will shortly launch an improved communications campaign involving leaflets, videos on YouTube, and frequently asked questions, FAQs, on the website, to address some of the common concerns farmers have about the TB eradication scheme, the TB tests, and what farmers can do to reduce the risk of TB to their cattle through their own choices. Regarding communications, what we found is that we even though we have been involved in TB eradication for a long time, and even though farmers have a test every year, it is surprising how little is known about the details of what is involved in blood testing and what happens when the reactors go to the factory. Farmers often did not have proper information about what was involved in the tests and why their reactors did not have lesions in the factory and what that meant. We have put a lot of work into trying to give better information to farmers about what is involved in the programme. Even when it came to PVPs who were involved in TB testing, in some cases we found they did not have as much information about the nitty-gritty of what the blood tests involved so we put focus on that in recent times as well.
It is important to communicate to farmers that there are factors which can increase or decrease the risk of TB, and their actions can affect risk. They are not entirely powerless. We need to do some work to better educate them to empower them when making decisions on their farm about what they can do to decrease their risk. For instance, herds that have had a TB breakdown are at increased risk of a further breakdown for up to ten years. A graph in the presentation I submitted to the committee highlights that. Once one has had TB in a herd then the risk does not disappear once the herd goes clear. That is important when it comes to decision-making about buying and selling cattle. There are actions that farmers in that situation can do to reduce risk and we want to support them by giving them the information and letting them make the choices that protect their cattle and thereby protect themselves and their families from the stress of a TB outbreak. Working together with stakeholders, we are confident we can eradicate TB by 2030. To do so will require decisions that may be difficult for some in the short term but they will yield significant long-term benefits for all.
I thank the members for their attention. I will be happy to try to answer any questions they may wish to pose.