The Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO), Christine Middlemiss, opened the two-day large animal section of the conference and the president of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), James Russell, gave the final presentation. In between, delegates listened, at various locations, to information about product exports, bovine and badger tuberculosis, avian influenza, pet pigs, attendance at court, genome sequencing, farm animal audits, the changing role of Official Veterinarians (OVs), on-farm killing, exotic disease, action with suspected bluetongue and OV capacity post-Brexit.
James Russell prepared a video as BVA president and joined live to answer questions. These included concerns about the status of OVs and the perception that they are not “real vets”. This was combined with issues of overseas qualifications and the recognition that “work has to be done”. Veterinary schools were criticised by delegates for not promoting the role of the OV. Discussions with government about the volume of export certification to come has yielded the view that it will be between none and a lot. There was comment about the readiness of large animal veterinary practices and OVs to manage the next disease crisis. James Russell indicated that the veterinary profession can be proud of how it has responded in the past.
Despite COVID-19, there has been no disruption to the food supply chain, TB testing and disease surveillance have continued and animal welfare issues have been avoided. Discussions with government emphasise that the role of veterinary surgeons now goes beyond the historical veterinary practice model. A thriving public health agenda is developing and there is a bright future for an OV in the UK, with the role of vets within the food chain increasingly recognised.
Exports and certification
The role of vets with certification is increasing and the CVO emphasised that this role is an essential piece in the supply chain. After many years, exports of UK beef are commencing to the USA and China and the quality of certification will need to be seen to reflect accuracy and professionalism.
Issues with product export forms were identified by Andrew Iveson, with 5 percent causing difficulties that include a lack of care and failing to follow guidance. The consequences recognised are destruction or holding of a load, damage to UK reputation and future trade, and a disease risk to a third country. Following errors, the OV role is at risk, with status suspended or revoked and loss of practice income. The advice is that, if in doubt, do not sign a certificate; if a mistake is made, admit it and save all support documents for audit. Certificates cannot be signed once the goods have left the UK. If advice is sought, keep a record of that advice in writing. Any issues at the other end, get the details in writing from the importing authority and do not rely on the exporter or customs agent. The health certificate online system may still need an e-mail follow-up. Finally, “do not sign certificates in black ink” was clearly emphasised.
You could almost feel a national shudder as Anne Tordoff (International Centre for Trade) indicated that new livestock export certificates will be required from January 2021 and that the new certificates are unlikely to be any simpler than the existing ones. It will be highly important to become familiar with and to follow the pre-export procedures guidance. Issues have arisen where detail awareness is lacking and include using the wrong laboratory for scrapie testing, incorrect interpretation of TB results, a disinfectant named instead of an approved bluetongue insecticide for treating transport, pre-export isolation not approved prior to start of isolation and different numbers of animals exported than certified. A series of questions and responses showed that current knowledge about actions to take ranges among the delegates from 44 percent accuracy (what to do if one ear tag is missing at an assembly centre) to 97 percent (not exporting a cow due to calve). There was a clear message, also emphasised by Linda Smith and Clair Wade, that OVs should not be backward in asking for advice or alerting support services about suspicions of a notifiable disease, with bluetongue as an example.
Christine Middlemiss highlighted the current concerns with African swine fever and its movement across Europe. Although the spread appears to be linked to wild boar, there is a potential disease threat to the pig population in the UK and additionally to meat exports. Exports from Germany are already disadvantaged. Veterinary surgeons need to be particularly vigilant and ready to report any suspicious symptoms. Similar attentiveness is required with the threat of bird flu and the links to wild birds.
A detailed report of an outbreak of low pathogenic avian influenza in December 2019 from suspicion through confirmation, tracing, restrictions, culling, cleaning and freedom of disease was presented by Lourdes Leon Fabregas (APHA). Initial indications were a drop in egg production with low mortality and steps were taken to protect eggs in the hatchery as well as egg production. The H5N3 virus was introduced by wild birds attracted to food spillage. In the past the highly pathogenic strain has been found in backyard flocks. There is also concern about the diseases of pet pigs going undetected by amateur owners and Julia James highlighted some of the practical issues with attending and discussing actions with owners. Itchy, overweight, wheezing, unvaccinated and traumatised pigs were all highlighted with the need to warn owners about squealing during examination. Concerns about African swine fever have highlighted the possibility that disease may first be seen in a pet pig.
Alan Wight discussed recent post-mortem findings from exotics, mainly alpacas, llamas and a few farmed deer. Despite extensive lung congestion with TB, alpacas show few respiratory disease signs and veterinary practices should be discouraged from carrying out camelid post-mortems because of the real zoonotic risk.
Delegates were reminded that bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is costing the government £100 million per year and the impact on farmers is added to the total. There is to be a move away from badger culling and the trials to distinguish naturally infected from vaccinated cattle are commencing – a tender for the DIVA test trials is in hand, with the work due to start in 2021. A cattle vaccine is expected to be available in five years’ time and new bTB tests are being developed.
A TB policy update for England, Scotland and Wales was detailed by Silver Apostolidou, Susan Ramos and David Harris. In England, there are 94 breakdowns with 1,000 herds tested, and 27,000 cattle were slaughtered to the end of June 2020. Compensation is to be linked to on-farm biosecurity with earned recognition and less frequent surveillance on farms with risk reduction activity. Badger controls are continuing this autumn. In Scotland, 57 percent of herds are exempt from having a routine herd test at 48 months. A compensation cap applies of £7,500 for pedigree and £5,000 for non-pedigree TB failures. Pre- and post-movement testing is required for cattle being bought in from high risk areas of England. In Wales, there is a 17 percent decrease in incidents and a failure rate of 47 per 1,000 herds tested. Action plans are in place for herds that persistently fail, to reduce the likelihood of infected animals being retained. A sample of 117 caught badgers showed that 30 percent were positive but badgers found dead indicated a 7 to 8 percent rate of infection. In the Gower area, 150 badgers have been vaccinated.
There is no routine monitoring of TB in other species but samples from culled deer have shown that 1.6 percent were positive, with the same genotype as local cattle.
Detailed information about the origin and movement of bTB will be improved from 2021 as whole genome sequencing (WGS) replaces genotype testing. Home range maps, with 30 distinct WGS clusters, will be available and advice and guidance to farmers and vets can be based on increased certainty about the evolution of disease outbreaks. Juan Herreros (APHA) explained that a phylogenetic tree with single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) allows evolutionary relationships to be interrogated with 1 SNP difference indicating a very close relationship. All positive isolates have been sequenced since 2017 with 5,000 results collated each year. One of the aspects raised during questions was whether it will be possible to identify how long TB has been infecting an animal and whether there is cattle-to-cattle transmission or infection from wildlife. It seems likely that greater accuracy of information about an infected herd will be available but clearly new terms and interpretations will need to be learned by all involved.
Other themes at the OV conference
One third of the delegates had appeared in court as witnesses, mostly related to animal welfare prosecutions. Paul Gethings offered some sober advice including that the defence will challenge the process rather than the technical evidence, do not rely on memory, be fair and seen to be fair, disclose all relevant facts, sign and date each page of evidence, be prepared for a grilling, keep calm and if you don’t know don’t guess. If a post-mortem is carried out, the defence may take the view that the animal owner could not be expected to know of illness if it takes such an examination to establish a problem.
Alasdair Macnab called for veterinary surgeons to apply knowledge, understanding, skills and ability (KUSA) and identifies a “huge loss of KUSA” in the past 25 years. The state veterinary services are believed to have “lost local knowledge”. Lessons should be learned from historical successes and failures and the role of the vet should be regained as today there is a “serious lack of experience by administrators”. OVs need to challenge their own knowledge about herd health status and impacts on the farm. A greater awareness about biosecurity is required and poor veterinary standards of cleanliness should be challenged. Alasdair indicated that a future role of OVs should be with antibiotic resistance and correlation of the use of antibiotics with the stock treated. The formation of a UK OV Association was proposed, where specific aspects of the role could be discussed and developed.
Sessions from the OV Conference Online were recorded and are available until 31 December 2020. Recordings can be purchased online.