Reactor fraud: Illegal TB tag swapping suspected in the North

Some “selfish” owners of TB reactor cattle have been suspected of swapping ear tags in a bid to get rid of less productive animals.

It’s thought that in some cases the infected animal has even been sold – a practice, which if proven, could have serious implications for the cattle trade.

Some vets are understood to be aware of the scam but are “powerless” to stop it.

Reactor fraud

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann wrote to the department’s permanent secretary, asking what steps could be taken to clamp down on emerging evidence of TB reactor fraud, where animal tags are allegedly being swapped.

Swann said: “Over recent weeks I have been made aware of a number of suspected TB reactor fraud cases. This occurs when the tag of a reactor is swapped with one from a less productive or recently purchased animal.

The animal that is then presented for mandatory slaughter is not a reactor, which instead remains within the herd – or more likely is sold to an unsuspecting buyer.

Swann said he had also received reports from several dairy and beef farmers who have said that despite being given clear tests only a matter of weeks before, after selling a cow or fat animal, that animal is supposedly later detected at slaughter as having TB.

‘Totally illegal’

“In reality what has happened is the tags from the animal have been swapped with those from an infected one,” Swann said.

“Not only is this practice totally illegal but it has also major repercussions for the other farmer as well.

I have also been told that some vets across Northern Ireland may be aware that this scam exists, but under the current system are powerless to do anything about it unless there is absolutely concrete evidence.

“I am furious that the selfish actions of a very small minority of individuals are undermining the hard work of the vast majority of farmers and damaging efforts to control TB in cattle.”

Spreading disease

Swann added that he feared the scam may be contributing to the spread of the disease in Northern Ireland – something which had recently reached its worst rate in 15 years.

“I am confident the vast majority of farmers with TB in their herds are doing the right thing, and it’s reprehensible that anyone should be trying to get around the tough measures that are meant to control TB in cattle,” he said.

“Yet it only takes a small number of farmers to completely undermine all of the controls in place and cause lasting hardship to the other farmers that they are unfairly closing.

Swann added that he believed “detection and successful prosecution, with robust punishments” were the best deterrents against anyone considering carrying out illegal tag swapping.

UPDATE: A statement made by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs stated that almost 99% of reactors are DNA tagged at valuation – typically up to 15 days after TB has been confirmed.

It plans to change legislation to require all vets to DNA tag cattle as soon as TB is detected. The move would make ‘reactor fraud’ almost impossible. However, these changes require ministerial approval.