Mycoplasma bovis (and the lessons we have yet to learn)

In the first in a series on Mycoplasma bovis (M bovis), ag scientist Nicola Dennis traces the history of New Zealand’s outbreak and some of the lessons.

In Livestock24 Minutes

Once upon a time there was (probably) a seedy underbelly in the dairy industry that accidentally imported a cattle disease into NZ. The disease spreads silently through the country’s cattle until it meets a tenacious vet forlornly treating sick beasts on her client’s farm. It’s South Canterbury, 2017.

The usual treatments aren’t working, there has to be something else at play. Wait a minute, this looks like a disease that’s common in the rest of the world, but it can’t be.

Maybe there is some drama here; surely not everyone is instantly onboard in accepting that NZ’s world-renowned biosecurity measures have failed. We confiscate oranges at the airport for goodness sake. But eventually, or possibly immediately, the diagnosis is confirmed. It’s Mycoplasma bovis, the disease we shouldn’t have!

Enter the ambitious but agriculturally tone-deaf Government that has to decide what happens next. The export markets would usually weigh in at this point, swiftly banning NZ products until the disease is under control. But in this case they aren’t bothered.

They’re already drinking milk and eating meat from infected animals because every cattle-producing country except NZ and Norway has fallen to the disease. The Aussies have had the disease since 1970 and their cattle exports remain regrettably competitive.

The Government and its growing panel of advisers have a big decision to make. On one hand, the farmers will be livid, and frightened, if they miss the one chance to get rid of the disease. Many cattle could suffer. On the other hand, they are already years behind the spread of the disease.They are going to have to break a lot of eggs to save this omelette.

That’s all well and good, until you have to drive to the eggs’ home and forcibly slaughter all their cattle. And most of those cattle are not sick. Remember how we said the rest of the world wasn’t bothered about the disease? Yeah, there’s no reliable test for the disease, so it falls to a few plucky NZ scientists to build the plane while flying.

The disease is largely asymptomatic (until it’s not), so all cattle that have contact with an animal that has the disease must be slaughtered.

On one side, we have the strained Government doing its best. This is a rag-tag team of nationalist, populists, unionists and hippies cobbled together by a wizened old troll after the indecisive 2017 election. But they have a whole Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to guide them, and the ministry has been training for this, haven’t they? They also have the government-owned state-owned enterprise AsureQuality – a wall of fire inexplicably bellowing behind these cool dudes – as they walk in slow motion down the driveway in their boiler suits. The team’s only clues are within a shonky animal-tracing software that looks like it laments the demise of the floppy disk.

On the other side we have the tear-stained farmers trying to find meaning in the face of death and bureaucracy. This is a disparate group of hundreds, if not thousands, of family businesses who will suffer some combination of cattle lockdown, cattle destruction, or cattle-related interrogation. They are suspicious of all governments, but are especially wary of one that is coming down on them about a invisible disease, one whose supporters chant loudly about #TooManyCows.

The authorities cast a wide net. Unleashing the boiler suits on anyone who has ever sent an animal to an infected farm – even if it was beef steaks before M bovis was a glint in the director general’s eye.

Things get off to a rocky start and stay on the rocks for five or so years. Farmers are furious, but not wanting to jeopardise their compensation claims, usually limit themselves to ranting to whoever is standing in front of them. A few brave souls weep on national television.

In the background, the stock agents devote large chunks of their working week to making compensation valuations for the 170,000-odd cattle to be destroyed. The meat processors, finding themselves awkwardly placed between their seething suppliers and the authorities, reluctantly turn thousands of half-grown beef cattle and pedigree dairy cows into low-value grinding beef.

On all sides there are shady characters trying to game the crisis to further their own agenda. Greed, ideology and power collide. There are also good honest folk putting thankless hours to help others navigate rough seas. And there are folk, with no idea what they have stepped into, trying to find how many “boy cows” and “girl cows” need blood tests.

There is heartache, there is trauma and there are probably suicides. In the end, the authorities issue apologies and promise to do better for the next disease – because there will surely be a next disease.

It has all the elements of a good story, but ultimately I didn’t understand what I was watching. I feel like the cinema lights have come on at the end of one of the Lord of Rings movies and I will have to ask everyone why the trees were walking.

Why did we get so excited about a disease that the rest of the world lives with? What did we learn for the next disease? Why are the vets getting a Government apology? So, off I go to find out what I don’t know. It’s a long list, but I will start with the vets – the know-it-alls of the farming world.


Helen Beattie, was the chief veterinary officer for the NZ Veterinary Association. Helen is well placed to fill in some plot points in this story.

When the Government came calling for advice, Helen was in favour of pursuing the eradication approach. She believed it was the best outcome, long term, for animal welfare, farmer wellbeing and to minimise the need for antibiotics on farm. Helen belabours that there were great people involved in the M bovis response, slogging their guts out to make it work.

Really, really, good people – though she also noted, they fell within the proverbial bell curve.

Helen minces no words when it comes to the failings of the programme and the stress it caused farmers. In fact, she warns me that across the three disease incursions she’s had to deal with (Foot and Mouth, M bovis and Covid-19), she sees a recurring theme of lessons that are supposed to stay learned.


There is always a time during the early stages of any response when authorities will have to make decisions based on imperfect information. A certain degree of hectic overreaction and chaotic contradictions can’t be excised from the anatomy of the early response. Neither can the anxiety.

The key here is to build a good group of knowledgeable people during peace time so you have good people on hand to make the most educated guesses. If you are dealing with an animal disease, then vets are a very important part of the team.

“And no,” Helen says, seeing me lean forward to sing the praises of my fellow scientists, “ag scientists and veterinarians are not interchangeable.” You will need a long list of expertise on the team to predict and manage the biological, economic and psychological impacts of a biosecurity threat.

By Helen’s assessment, MPI actually got off to a very strong start in this area. The governance group would funnel information and documents down to the industry working group (composed of rural representatives from across the industry, of which Helen was one) for industry feedback.

The working group weighed in on topics such as Notice of Direction documentation, the risk of mud as a source of contamination; how to treat milk, etc, while we were firmly in the educated guesses stage. But at some point, possibly around the time the eradication strategy was announced, the feeling was that the working group had run its course and it was disbanded.

Fair enough, I suppose. The “educated guess stage” doesn’t last forever and these industry leaders can’t do MPI’s homework for the whole 10 years of the programme. But, this seems to be where we pick some issues with veterinary oversight (see Lesson 2) and communication (Lesson 3).

So the initial response was reassuring. I’m reassured, are you?

Helen isn’t. She says the real challenge is maintaining that expertise and trusted relationships during times when you don’t think it’s needed. The M bovis programme has burned bridges throughout the industry.

Even if that weren’t the case, having the right people around is no small task. These people need to be very good with people and know the industry well enough to manage during disruption. Those are two very critical “soft skills” that can’t be acquired with a few days of training. That training/mentorship – either teaching human skills to ag people or ag skills to human people – is doable, but so hard to prioritise between crises.


At the time of the M bovis incursion, the Government did not have a chief veterinary officer (CVO). As far I can glean, and Helen can remember, MPI had been going without a CVO since about 1999. This was a source of irritation for the NZ Veterinary Association because, among other things, a government CVO would act as a liaison between the clinical vets out in the industry and the government vets/officials.

As a kind of work around, and possibly a form of protest, the NZ Veterinary Association established its own CVO (i.e. Helen).

Vets appointing their own (NZVA) CVO worked to a degree. When the Government elected to include them, as it did earlier on in the industry working group days, then the clinical vets had a spokesperson in the room who could report what was going on to the group. But there was no one from the Veterinary Association at the governance level… possibly because the association was between chiefs executives at the time.

The lines of communication between the authorities and the vets on the ground were cut when the working group disbanded. This left MPI tripping over some of the nuances of the private veterinary profession.

A good example was the idea of allowing veterinary practices to undertake M bovis testing.

Farmers and their vets wanted to be able to privately test trade animals during these uncertain times. I remember advocating for this at the time.

It seems that the Government was not opposed to the idea. It couldn’t offer such a service through the already overworked exotic disease lab at Wallaceville and so worked with commercial laboratories to develop and validate a commercial test for M bovis with a mind to rolling it out to a veterinary practice near you.

Having worked in a commercial laboratory in the past, I can attest that this is no simple task. You have to get the recipe right, price up reagents and programme robots, etc. Then you have to impress scary clipboard people to accredit you. Imagine their despair when private testing was rejected by the Veterinary Association at the final hour. The final hour being when the “let’s go” media announcement was being drafted.

The rejection came down to three issues: existing law, legal liability, and ethics. The Biosecurity Act precludes vets from transporting exotic disease samples around the country. Sampling must be done by approved people at approved places (Wallaceville, basically).

The Government gets to make new laws so this problem is not insurmountable. The liability and ethics are a whole different kettle of fish.

Due to the nature of the disease, the tests were never going to be definitive. An infected animal only sheds the disease some of the time – usually under some kind of biological stress.

Many entirely healthy animals could be carrying the disease and test negative.

How do you ensure enough animals were tested to give a significant result?

  • Who interprets the results?
  • What do you do with a weak positive result – release the boiler suit bunnies on your client even if there is no plausible infection route?
  • What happens if a false negative call results in a string of farms getting depopulated?
  • Who is liable? The lab? Or the vet who gave the advice?

Keep the private vets out of it, Helen and the NZVA said.

MPI eventually issued a public apology to the NZVA for kicking them out of the party and has now established its own CVO. Fingers crossed that solves the problem, but I imagine that this lack of oversight was repeated in other areas.


Vets, if they stop and think about it, don’t actually want to be in charge of a steaming pile of bureaucracy. It is better for them to be on the farmer’s side – making sure they have all the information they need, advocating for their clients, feeding the disgruntled concerns back up the chain for the higher-ups to address, and acting as science communicators. After all, farmers usually trust their chosen vets more than MPI.

Communication was the greatest weakness in the M bovis saga. That much is well established. If we revisit Lesson 1, then we can see the rot sets in pretty quickly. There needs to be honest and timely communication about what is known, what needs to be worked out and which bits will just have to be winged… especially in the “educated guess stage”.

It is here that MPI kept its cards close to its chest. The documents vets (and other professionals) were receiving were too basic. There’s nothing wrong with accommodating the layperson who only needs to know what the latest rules are, but outside experts can’t help others if everything is pitched at “Baby’s first biosecurity breach” reading level. Feed the nerds!

Sure, things are tense. Sure, stopping to explain things takes up precious time. Sure, the majority of voters (largely urban dwelling) will never take more than a passing interest in M bovis. But, it is important to allocate time and budget to keep things as transparent as possible. If you rely on drop-kicking press releases, operating guidelines and statistics (in god-awful PDF format) in NZ agriculture’s general direction, then it creates a distrustful void that gossip will fill with horror stories.


Perhaps you have got into bureaucracy because the phrase “herding cats” sounds more like a quest than a cautionary tale. But farmers are a step up from cats on the herding scale. Chase them up the race and slam them in the head bail at your peril.

If you surround them with enough paperwork and threaten their sanity and livelihood, then you will get into their house, on their computer, disassemble their farm equipment and keep them hushed up. But it’s not all about what you need to get done today. We have enough harrowing academic papers to know that farmers felt ensnared rather than engaged during the M Bovis outbreak.

After a bit of time had passed and the community rumour mills were purring, it seems to me farmers were more frightened of the authorities than the disease being eradicated. This isn’t a great situation, particularly when the success of the nation’s biosecurity relies on farmers being forthcoming with information.

There needs to be some advocacy and support baked into the system. Vets would argue they need to be notified when one of their clients is affected. Farm consultants, accountants, bank managers and solicitors probably feel the same.

Helen points out that everybody’s ideal support system looks different: for instance some people would rather have a church leader and their neighbour. For others, that duo would be their worst nightmare.

Perhaps MPI needs to front the costs of assembling each farmer’s support squad for a hui. Back in the thick of M bovis, having all these people visiting the farm was deemed a biosecurity risk. Three cheers for the covid zoom boom – they can meet on the computer now.

I ask Helen how much of the pain was due to the protracted, wishy-washy nature of the M bovis disease. She says it doesn’t help that M bovis was spreading silently and farmers were being asked to surrender healthy looking animals at some undefined time in the future.

In some ways it is much easier for farmers to get on board with culling a herd during a Foot and Mouth outbreak, when obvious symptoms and welfare issues are there for all to see. On the other hand Foot and Mouth spreads with such frightening speed that some UK farmers did not know they were at risk until the slaughter team knocked on the door.


If a disease response goes well, then people won’t see a lot of disease and it will look like the authorities are overreacting. If it drags on, then people will become fatigued and resentful towards regulations and incursion fatigue sets in. When it all goes back to normal, then people will start to let their guard down … sowing the seeds for the next time. “I wish we didn’t have to say next time,” Helen says, reminding me that nationwide eradication programmes are avoidable with decent biosecurity measures and everyone doing the right thing – at the border and within your farm.