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Strategies and animal health

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IT IS interesting to compare annual reports from the Chief Veterinary Officer (cvo) from each year to the next. The reports have evolved over the years, reflecting the changing animal health situation in Great Britain and changes in the Government's approach. The latest report, covering the 12 months to the end of December 2006, has just been published and continues this revealing trend.* Like previous reports, it provides an overview of developments and useful statistics relating to Britain's animal health status, but somehow the emphasis has changed. The statistics are still there, but the emphasis now seems to be more on strategy and how this is being taken forward than on the animal health situation itself.

The Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (ahws) forms the subject of the first chapter of the report, with the point being made that the strategy ‘underpins everything that the Government does on animal health and welfare, sometimes explicitly and directly, at other times as underlying principles’. One of the aims of the strategy is to achieve ‘a fairer sharing of the costs of animal disease between industry and the taxpayer, together with a greater sharing of responsibilities’, and work begun in 2006 to develop mechanisms for doing this is cited in the report as ‘a good example’ of the strategy in action.

The report gives other examples of how the principles of the ahws are being put into practice, including the efforts being made to promote farm health plans. Here, it notes that, in Scotland, there was increased uptake of Animal Health and Welfare Management Programmes in 2006, taking membership to around 4500 farm businesses. The Scottish Rural Development Plan includes measures that specifically encourage farmers to retain vets to help create farm health plans, and it remains unfortunate that this particular initiative has not been emulated by the rest of the uk.

Animal welfare gets a higher profile in the report than in previous years, which seems appropriate for a year in which the Animal Welfare Bill was approved by Parliament and received Royal Assent. This is rightly described as a key development; the challenge now is to ensure that the new legislation, which came into force in April this year (VR, April 7, 2007, vol 160, p 453), is properly understood and enforced.

Another key development in 2006 was securing an end to the eu ban on exports of British beef as a result of continued work to reduce the rates of bse in cattle. The report charts the progress of the bse epidemic, from its peak in 1992, when more than 35,000 cases were confirmed, to the end of 2006, when the total number of cases confirmed by scanning and targeted surveillance was 104. Achieving an end to the export ban was a spectacular achievement, although the report may be stretching things a bit in citing ‘Government and industry working closely together to lay the foundations for Europe's lifting of the BSE-driven embargo on uk cattle and beef exports’ as an example of partnership working under the ahws. Cooperation under the strategy may have contributed in the final stages, but, in reality, success in tackling bse was the result of measures put in place long before the ahws was a gleam in the policymakers' eyes.

Progress in tackling bovine tuberculosis (tb) has been less satisfactory and, in discussing the incidence and control measures applied during the year, the report once again describes this disease as ‘one of the most difficult animal health problems that government and the farming industry currently faces in Great Britain’. Noting that defra spent £99 million on its bovine tb programme in 2005/06, it says that the Government is committed to bringing about a sustainable improvement in the control of bovine tb by 2015: the aim will be to slow down and stop the spread of the disease to low incidence areas and to achieve a sustained and steady reduction in hotspot areas. The Government is also committed ‘to finding the best way to combat the disease, backed by the available scientific evidence and taking account of all interested parties, including taxpayers’. On the matter of lay tb testing, the annual report notes that a report on the pilot study conducted by the State Veterinary Service (now Animal Health) has been completed and will be used ‘to help inform future decisions regarding the possible extension of lay testing, in full consultation with stakeholders’. Meanwhile, the report from the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle tb on the outcome of the randomised badger culling trial is expected next month, and it will be interesting to see how this affects future policies.

In her introduction to the annual report, the cvo, Dr Debby Reynolds, describes 2006 as ‘another challenging, yet successful year, set against a backdrop of some poignant memories of key anniversaries, there to remind us of the challenges we face in animal health and welfare: the 20th anniversary of the first case of bse; the 10th anniversary of the first connection made between bse and cjd in humans; and the fifth anniversary of the start of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak’. At a time when defra's priorities and, indeed, the department itself are changing, her reference to the anniversaries seems pertinent. Between crises, governments can forget how important it is to continually invest in safeguarding animal health. However, as bse and fmd demonstrated, animal diseases can have severe consequences, and such reminders are useful in case they forget.

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