A body-building exercise under way - Veterinary Practice
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A body-building exercise under way

RICHARD GARD reports on proposals for an ‘independent body for animal health’

THERE is uncertainty in the Shires. Mutterings can be heard at rural locations but for most folk there will be a shrug of the shoulders and thoughts directed towards concern about the cold spring and lack of growth. Both the new plans and the weather appear to be beyond the influence of local farmers.

The final consultative workshop takes place on 9th June at Stourport-on-Severn. Thirteen gatherings were promoted on Responsibility and Cost Sharing, running the length and breadth of England. If you didn’t know about the extensive consultations on the “new independent body for animal health”, or have a view but not yet expressed it, the consulting period closes on 30th June.

There is then to be a lull before final proposals are drawn up by 2010, and 2012, for delivery, is a date mentioned somewhere in the copious references to documents on the DEFRA website (http://www.defra.gov.uk/corpor… nsult/new-independent-bodyah/index.htm).

All the great and the good have been involved to date and various submissions have been made. It seems that analysis of the 2001 foot-andmouth outbreak led to recommendations that “the cost of controlling disease should fall more on livestock keepers and those who benefit most from the prevention and eradication of exotic and contagious endemic diseases”. The background document goes on to conclude that “farming practices can often reduce or increase the risk of disease”.

There is an EU element in that costsharing arrangements have to be harmonised and farmers in France and Germany already contribute to the government costs of control. And so there is this adventurous proposal to “establish a governance and funding structure for tackling animal disease that helps to reduce the risks and costs; creates confidence in the policies decided; and ensures those who benefit share costs with taxpayers”. For the many farmers who suffered deeply from the FMD crisis there are obvious questions about who benefits from wide-ranging disease culling.

There are seven “overarching aims” that the Independent Body is targeting and that any proposals will be judged against: reduce the incidence and total cost of animal disease; ensure funding is targeted cost effectively; ensure that animal health policies are supported by those who will benefit; ensure public money is only used to fund public benefits; ensure beneficiaries of intervention share the costs of intervention; improve confidence of the livestock industry and other stakeholders in the way disease risks are managed; ensure that farmers and the whole livestock industry can create incentives to reduce the cost and risk of disease.

You may have a view as to whether the Independent Body should be like the Foods Standards Agency or the Forestry Commission (a government department staffed by civil servants but led and directed by an independent chairman and board rather than ministers).

Alternatively, the structure would not employ civil servants and operate at arms length from ministers. Examples are the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.

If the first, non-ministerial department, option is taken up then there are believed to be 240 civil servants poised to move into a spare building in London supporting a governing board of eight to 10 independent people.

The expenditure by DEFRA on “exotic disease preparedness and surveillance” is identified at £44 million per year. The actual contribution from the livestock industry will depend on “the cost of exotic disease expenditure at the time”. It is suggested that the contribution is half of the cost.

Cost allocation

Costs will be allocated between main farmed species “according to their susceptibility to the relevant disease and in proportion to the gross sector output”. To encourage better husbandry practices, the legislation “will provide for variable payments to reflect the risk factors of each particular livestock operation – for example, a reduction for improved biosecurity measures, such as closed herds”.

Examples of costs to the farmer range from £4.80 for a dairy animal to four pence for a chicken. Companion animals will be part of the scope of the new body but may not be part of the income stream. One of the important details appears to be the impact of a levy on “risk management behaviour”.

If you feel that the details outlined have elements of contention, the proposal indicates that the responsibility for welfare is to be retained by DEFRA, so health and welfare are to be separated. There has been much heated discussion by those involved with the Health and Welfare Strategy about the wisdom of such a separation and as the word “welfare” encompasses “health”, is it genuinely possible to do so?

Before dashing off a missive to Gavin Ross or Mike Weavers at DEFRA via RCSharing@defra.gsi.gov.uk, you may wish to consider the 50 or so proposals that have already been rejected. The reasons for rejection are also given on the website.

Included are:

■ a charge on animal mortality (may increase the frequency of illegal burial);

■ VAT on food (difficult to collect and hypothecate);

■ tax on imports (likely to be illegal);

■ travel tax on humans (does not lead to animal health and welfare improvements);

■ vaccination tax (would act as a disincentive to vaccination);

■ supplement on rural hotel rooms (does not influence livestock farmer behaviour);

■ supermarkets food tax (possible mechanism but has few behaviour change drivers and would not provide details of animal locations);

■ charge on ramblers ( would not affect farmer behaviour and disease risks posed by users of the countryside to be met by other mechanisms);

■ pet food premium (would not affect farmer behaviour);

■ movement tax on animals (costly and complex and may increase disease risk through non reporting of movements);

■ sponsored badger culls (culling not part of the Government’s TB strategy);

■ charge on horses (part of current consultation);

■ modulation on Single Farm Payments (possible future mechanism);

■ tax on watching TV (impossible to enforce and does not lead to animal health and welfare improvements);

■ charge for cattle passports (no incentive for behaviour change and significant cost to include all species);

■ charge large farms only (does not address the risk posed by small farms but the collection from smallholdings may not be economic).

Behaviour change

From these proposals and responses there is a picture developing of the need for the new body to know who has the animals at risk and to change the behaviour of animal keepers to reduce risk of disease. The operation is not simply one of obtaining funding for tackling animal disease.

There are both strong and weak views on the way forward, in practical terms, of achieving disease risk reduction. It is easier to identify where breakdowns in control have occurred than it is to identify that animal disease has been thwarted by on-farm management, rather than good fortune.

Veterinary surgeons are expected to be increasingly valued for their role in disease prevention on a day-to-day basis and also in the face of new threats. If the thrust of the new body is to change the behaviour of livestock keepers then there are advantages in identifying examples of good practice and the best way forward for disease prevention.

It may be true that farmers who regularly buy and sell cattle spread disease, or is the theory stronger than the reality? Are stock on farms where the herd is said to be “closed” free from external disease? Are well-nourished and cared for beasts more disease-free regardless of the farming system and facilities?

The experiences of people at the sharp end, who understand farm animal diseases, need to be put forward.

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