In a move that reminded everyone of the SAS motto, 'Who dares wins', Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor and industry leaders met at MilkTest NZ's Hamilton facility to announce a significant milestone in the efforts to eradicate Mycoplasma bovis.
However, there is concern at the disruption and stress caused to those caught up in the process and cynicism at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI's) assurances that it will do better next time.
The independent review found the programme is on track to achieve a world-first eradication. It also recommended improvements to the wider biosecurity system, and MPI says many of those are already in place or underway.
However, Rangitata farmer Duncan Barr remains sceptical that MPI has significantly improved its practises. A self-appointed advocated for M. bovis victims who started a Facebook support group following his farm's infection in 2018, Barr said his biggest complaint was "not what they did, it was how they did it.".
"They say they've learned their leassons. No they haven't," Barr told Rural News. "The biggest thing is that the lessons learned of the collateral damage of the collateral damage along the way must never be relearned. To do the harm to people they've done just shows a level of incompetence."
Ashburton dairy farmer Frank Peters describes the report as "giving themselves a pat on the back".
"Good on them," he says. "But they haven't recognised what they've done to the original farmers."
Peters has had two M. bovis infections. The second bout was handled a lot faster and "a hell of a lot better" than the first. However, he says he still has a few ideas on how to improve the process.
He still has to wait for the end of the season before claiming compensation.
"So, the money that we should be getting for those cows, we've got to wait to October 2022 before we can even out a milk claim in."
He says about 30% of affected farmers had second bouts of M. bovis, which he says suggests the testing wasn't done well in the early days.
Now, he believes the investigators are "digging a lot deeper".
Otago University researcher Fiona Doolan-Noble led a team that canvassed rural communities in Otago and Southland in an academic study into the human impact of Mycoplasma bovis.
While she said it was great that New Zealand looked like becoming the first country to eradicate it, she believes the lessons learned will probably be more into the science of the disease rather than how to handle the human side.
Doolan-Noble's study had shown that traumatised farmers were left feeling isolated, bewildered and powerless - although she says MPI should already have known "what not to do" because of the already documented human effects of the 2001 British Foot and Mouth outbreak and an Australian ovine Johne's disease outbreak.
Meanwhile, a research paper into understanding farmers' "stressors" during their time in the M. bovis programme, commissioned by MPI and conducted by Wellington consulting firm Litmus came to similar conclusions as Doolan-Noble.
Chris Ford, who was until recently the Federated Farmers Mid-Canterbury dairy chair and was heavily involved in the early M. bovis response, said MPI needs to have fulltime people on the ground in the regions, ready to work and "brainstorm" with farmers and farmer groups in any future biosecurity incident.
"The biggest problem with MPI is they aren't farmers. They've got no idea. So, they have to rely on farmers helping them," said Ford.
Feedlot To Be Depopulated
Mid-Canterbury farmers Frank Peters and Duncan Barr have both raised concerns about the Five Star Beef feedlot at Wakanui, near the Ashburton River mouth, which has yet to be depopulated and cleaned despite having a confirmed M. bovis infection since August 2018.
"I'd like to see that Wakanui feedlot thing depopulated like everybody else had to, before they can say that things are honestly clear," said Peters.
Barr called it "a major issue".
"To actually claim eradication when that there is a little bit disingenuous."
In July, a Technical Advisory Group (TAG) report recommended the feedlot be investigated as a possible source of continuing infections in Canterbury, although it noted that unreported animal movements and other insecure practises on other farms were a more likely cause.
Meat processor ANZCO Foods, the owner of the feedlot, acknowledged the speculation, but disputes that it is the source of continuing M. bovis infection. The feedlot takes beef animals from all over the country and finishes them on grain for export as a premium product – which makes it a high risk for reinfection as long as M. bovis remains elsewhere in the country but a low risk for infecting anyone else.
ANZCO Foods Grant Bunting told Rural News that MPI decided to hold off depopulating the feedlot until close to the end of the eradication programme, based on its risk of reinfection. He says all cattle on the feedlot go direct to slaughter – which is what happens to infected cattle from other properties.
Bunting said Five Star Beef disputes the assertion that it was a possible source of M. bovis and has put in place a number of biosecurity steps and measures to protect its operation and the neighbouring farms.
Bunting said Five Star Beef will go through the same on-farm depopulation and cleaning process as other New Zealand farms but there were complexities that do not apply to other farming operations.
Five Star Beef is part of a significant supply chain – annually taking up to 40,000 head of cattle and 50,000 tonnes of grain and 18,000 tonnes of maize from local suppliers, representing 90% of South Island maize and 8% of New Zealand’s grain production.
The timing of the process has not been confirmed.