July 8, 2008

Britain Rejects TB Cull

Britain's environmental secretary has confirmed the government will not be issuing licenses to cull cattle tuberculosis (TB).

Hilary Benn made the remarks in a Commons statement, and acknowledged that although a broad-based cull might improve the situation, it could also worsen the problem.

The details about the decision were made public in a BBC News report, which said Britain's National Farmers' Union (NFU) is seeking legal advice about the situation.

The disease affected approximately 4,000 herds last year, mainly in the south-west of England.

But vaccination, instead of culling, will form the foundation of the UK's bovine TB policy. The government will also invest £20m ($39m) into research.

The decision was based on advice from the Independent Scientific Group (ISG), which the government established to analyze research on the issue. The group concluded that culling would provide an economic solution to the problem, a position also held by the Environment and Rural Affairs select committee.

However, a further review led by the government's former chief scientific advisor Sir David King favored culling. The Welsh Assembly Government is planning a pilot badger cull, but has not yet made public where it would take place.

Mr. Benn referenced the UK Randomized Badger Culling Trial (RBCT), which found that while proactive culling, eliminating badgers across large areas of the countryside, reduced disease incidence inside the cull zone, it actually increased it around the edges of the zone. 

"I have decided that while such a cull might work, it might also not work," he told BBC News.

"It could end up making the disease worse if it was not sustained over time or delivered effectively."

The RBCT's results were based on examination of 30 100-square-km areas, 10 of which were proactively culled, 10 reactively, and 10 not culled at all. Badgers were culled through being captured in cages and shot. 

The trial, which cost £7m ($14m), found that proactive culling decreased the incidence of infection by 19 percent inside the zone, but increased it 29% at the zone's edge.  Reactive culling was discontinued in 2003 after a 25% increase in infection rates was observed. 

Some landowners would be hesitant to allow culling on their property, Mr. Benn acknowledged, making effective delivery of the strategy less probable. 

"It may not be what people would assume would be the answer to the question, but it is the answer to the question," he said.

Mr. Benn's decision was met with angry protest from some opposition MPs.

Geoffrey Cox, a Conservative MP for Torridge and Devon West, called the decision a "spineless abdication of responsibility".

But Mr. Benn said his belief that vaccination, either of cattle or badgers or both, should be an effective strategy as soon as the vaccines can be developed.   He also announced the formation of a consortium that would work together to develop a strategy, and encouraged industry representatives to join.

Trevor Lawson, a spokesperson for Badger Trust, suggested that the farmers' groups should work constructively with the consortium.

"This overwhelming body of sound scientific opinion means that the farming industry can move forwards with the government in tackling bovine TB with improved cattle testing and biosecurity," he told BBC News.

"We are confident that with proper investment, the government will be able to rapidly reverse the bovine TB problem, bringing relief to farmers and their families."


On the Net:

National Farmers' Union

Independent Scientific Group on TB in Cattle