Reactor fraud: TB DNA proposals stalled by ministerial absence

Proposals to take DNA samples as soon as TB reactors are found as standard procedure in Northern Ireland could combat so-called ‘reactor fraud’ – but the plans have been stalled by the lack of a minister.

It has been alleged that, in some cases, the owners of TB reactor cattle have been swapping the animal’s ear tags with other, less productive cattle.

However, with almost 99% of reactors DNA tagged at valuation it’s an extremely difficult and risky thing to do.

It also means that the TB-infected animal remains in the herd, putting even more animals at risk.

The remaining 1-2% are not DNA tagged mainly on safety grounds – for example, where an animal was too wild to work with.

Reactors discovered by Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) testing officers are DNA tagged at the time of disclosure while the vet is carrying out the on-farm testing.

However, those confirmed by private veterinary practitioners are typically DNA tagged several days later when they are valued.

The rule change would eliminate this delay effectively making ‘reactor fraud’ impossible.

Response

The department declined to say to what extent the practice was suspected to be occurring. However, a spokesman added that spot checks were already being carried out in abattoirs.

He added that out of all the instances tested all were found to match.

A DAERA spokesman said: “DAERA has a counter-fraud strategy which investigates all reported cases of suspected TB fraud or atypical disease events.

“Our current DNA sampling regime at slaughter was introduced to deter substitution of TB reactor animals.

“DAERA is committed to the control and eradication of TB. It takes seriously any suspected occurrences of fraud.

“Within the TB Programme there is an organised counter-fraud protocol and in all cases where information is available, investigations are carried out. The actions described by Mr. Swann are part of these considerations.

In order to reduce any potential opportunity for fraud, DAERA veterinary officers routinely DNA tag cattle which have reacted positively at their TB test, and valuation officers DNA tag any other reactors at their subsequent inspection.

“Spot checks are carried out at the abattoir to compare the DNA sample removed on the farm with the carcase.”

Changing legislation

The department recently prepared its TB recommendations in which it said private veterinarians should be given the same powers to take DNA samples as soon as a reactor is found; however, this change will require ministerial sign-off.

A spokesman: “We recently consulted on our response to the TBSPG [TB Strategic Partnership Group] strategy to eradicate TB in Northern Ireland which recommended private veterinary practitioners (PVPs) be given the powers to also apply DNA tags as soon as a reactor is found.

“This is already a requirement of the department public services contract with PVPs. We await final sign-off from a minister and a change in legislation to allow this to also be rolled out across Northern Ireland.

“We believe that this change would assure the continuity of reactor identification and reduce the risk of errors or fraud, so strengthening disease control.”