Union and unionists engage in ‘reactor fraud’ spat

A war of words has erupted between the Ulster Farmers’ Union and Ulster Unionists over allegations the ear tags of some TB reactor cattle have been swapped.

The Ulster Farmer’s Union (UFU) criticised claims made by Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann regarding so-called ‘TB reactor fraud’, describing them as “wrong and unhelpful”.

However, a senior source confirmed to this publication that fraud “was an issue” – albeit not one of the biggest problems currently facing the department.

Meanwhile, Swann has defended his comments saying they reflect the real worries of farmers adding that “all avenues” needed to be covered to tackle TB.

‘Potentially damaging’

UFU president Ivor Ferguson said: “We’ve had a number of calls from members saying these comments were potentially damaging and not reflective of the main priorities of the industry in relation to TB eradication.

“The vast majority of farmers are understandably angry when the selfish actions of a few undermine the collective efforts of the industry to eradicate the disease.

“Occasionally, we have cases raised that suggest a very small minority of unscrupulous people are prepared to commit fraud for selfish reasons.

“This is wholly to the detriment of other farmers. This is why we have called, for some time, for DAERA to strengthen its counter-fraud measures and allow private veterinary practitioners (PVPs) to be able to DNA tag TB reactor animals.”

Department crackdown

Yesterday (May 3), AgriLand reported that departmental plans to change legislation to close the delay between testing and DNA tagging TB reactors has been stalled because of Northern Ireland’s lack of an agriculture minister.

Currently, almost 99% of TB reactors are tagged at valuation – typically around 15 days after TB detection.

The remaining cattle are mainly not tagged because of safety issues – for example, where an animal is too wild to be worked with safely.

However, DAERA has said it plans to bring in new legislation requiring all vets to DNA tag positive reactors at the time of TB testing – a move which would essentially eliminate any delay, making it virtually impossible for any fraud to occur.

‘Glad not to be alone’

But the Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann defended his comments, adding that he was “disappointed” by the union’s remarks.

He said the allegations of tag swapping had been brought to his attention by local farmers, as well as a practising veterinarian.

Swann said: “Over the last week, my constituency office has received a number of calls from farmers from right across the country thanking me for raising the issue of suspected criminal TB tag swapping.

“In fact, so many people rang me that I’m now in the process of trying to facilitate a meeting between a number of them and DAERA.

One man in particular – who is absolutely certain he was a victim of a tag swap and who has been pleading his case to no effect with DAERA ever since – was visibly relieved when I spoke to him during the week.

“He was just so glad, that at last, he realised he wasn’t alone in his suspicions. It is apparent that only a small number of people are involved – just as I said last week – but their actions are having serious consequences.

‘Is the UFU saying it doesn’t believe the farmers?’

“But every avenue must be explored if we are to successfully remove TB from the cattle herd in Northern Ireland and every source must be tackled.

“I’m a politician – I can take criticism. But if the UFU [officials] are saying that they don’t believe me, are they also saying they don’t believe the farmers who told me about it in the first instance, as well as all of those who have contacted me since?

“I really want to maintain a good working relationship with the UFU – as I have done since I was president of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster – but like them I have a duty to represent farmers and I won’t be dismissing genuine concerns that farmers are approaching me with.”