Still waiting on MPI for answers

By Nicola Dennis.

In Livestock18 Minutes

A recap of the ongoing Mycoplasma bovis investigation series that started in Country-Wide December 2022.

It’s time to recap what we have already learned during the ongoing M bovis series. That should give the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) a chance to work out if they know the ages and carcase weights of the infected cattle they have slaughtered.

You would think that would be an easy task for the number one proponents of the national animal tracing system, NAIT. There are birth dates and slaughter dates in NAIT, right? That should give an estimate of age. Kill sheets have carcaseweights for each NAIT number, right? Bing, bang, bong, Bob’s your uncle, there’s the data I asked for back in February. Thank you kindly.

But, no. My official information act (OIA) request was refused on the basis that the “information requested does not exist or, despite reasonable efforts to locate it, cannot be found”. Hot damn! Did MPI just admit to not keeping cattle records?

I asked MPI to confirm their statement while visions of journalism trophies danced in my head. On closer inspection, what MPI said was not what they meant. They reopened the request, waited a month, and then extended the 20-working-day deadline. Any month now, we should know what, if anything, MPI knows about the 183,000 cattle it has paid for.


So far we have covered the hiccups taking place between MPI and NZ cattle vets, we’ve perused some damning findings from social scientists, we’ve talked to the meat processors and we’ve ploughed through the 19 publicly available reports on MPI’s M bovis website. Let’s pull out some key lessons from the experience so far.


There is no nice way to destroy someone’s herd. The experience is universally distressing. One thing the social scientist pointed out, which I think passes many townies by, is the paradox of culling. Farmers cull animals all of the time; it’s just part of the job. But routine culling is done at a strategic time of the year and it is done for the greater good of the farm and bank account. This is an entirely different proposition to slaughtering an entire herd of cattle because they might be sick.

Even the meat processors, who purposely place themselves at the cut and thrust of the meat supply chain, expressed dismay at being asked to cull “healthy looking” dairy cows and undersized stock. It violates the natural order of things: it is perceived as wasteful and in many cases the timing of slaughter was in direct contravention of a farmer’s ethics (culling heavily pregnant cows or leaving cattle in muddy conditions).

Those who had been involved in disease outbreaks overseas, said that a certain amount of confusion and chaos is baked into the system. Especially at the start when information is slow and things are being propped up by the best guesses from the experts. It is a real challenge to maintain that expertise and trusted relationships during peacetime so that you have the right people to turn to when the excrement hits the fan.


From what I can gather, the M bovis programme actually started off strong. Experts were plucked from all over to provide rapid guidance on containment, testing and communication. And now, after many years, the programme seems to be operating well. But that is glossing over the gross middle years where it alienated almost everyone in the industry. The bit where MPI was supposed to run its own programme but was ill-equipped to do so.

MPI clung to the “one size fits all” National Control Centre model which is best suited for short-term national crises (i.e. flood) and not a decade-long industry programme. That meant that all decision making was funnelled up to Wellington which had no idea what was going on in the regions.

MPI hadn’t had a chief veterinary officer for decades so there was no one whose job it was to liaise with industry veterinarians. This led to an embarrassing faux pas where MPI commissioned the development of a test that was ultimately rejected by the NZ Veterinary Association.

Things soured between AsureQuality and MPI (both government bodies) when costs exceeded expectations. Some tireless epidemiologist at the Wallaceville laboratory was manually producing reports on the number of farms sitting in queues at different stages of the M bovis response. When the epidemiologists in Wallaceville were no longer part of the programme, the reporting stopped.

Without a piece of paper to say so, those managing the programme were incapable of hearing their staff screaming in agony as they disappeared under a gigantic backlog in cases. Meanwhile, affected farmers were faced with irrational orders around stock movements, culling and farm cleaning.

Basically, if it was good management practice and the calendar read 2018 or 2019, then MPI was probably not doing it. Let’s take a closer look at how they came to overwhelm themselves.


Many farmers believe that the government at the time (or more, the ministers from the Green Party and their #TooManyCows supporters) wanted to reduce the number of cattle anyway and M bovis was a convenient excuse. The official documents tell a different story.

M bovis is the kind of disease that the government could have left alone. It isn’t a threat to human health or overseas trade and it is largely asymptomatic in a well-managed herd. And going through the timeline of the M bovis eradication decision, it is clear that MPI was hedging their bets for a while.

The disease was first discovered on the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group farms in July 2017. It took 87 days for MPI and the outgoing government to announce that it would be culling those properties. It wasn’t until March 2018, that any further cullings of affected farms were announced. And it wasn’t until May 2018, some 315 days after the first diagnosis, that the Government committed to eradicating M bovis. By this time, 4/10 independent experts on the technical advisory group (TAG) team believed that eradication was no longer rational.

Rational or not, it was happening and the eradication programme quickly grew to more than 400 staff. Many of whom were entirely unschooled in the ways of agriculture. There was no central database or information sharing between various arms of the programme, rather people were cobbling their own data together from spreadsheets.

By Christmas it was clear to everyone on the ground that there was an issue with workload. But the central office seemed none the wiser. In fact they allowed employment contracts to lapse and bunked off for a three-week holiday break. By January TAG was highlighting issues with staff fatigue.

By April, DairyNZ was aware of discrepancies between reports from field staff and the people managing the eradication response and demanded an explanation from MPI. The Government then took a look around and was surprised to find it had a 666 farm backlog in testing and tracing. Three days later this was revised to 1100 farms. When the science advisor was asked to review the issue, it was revised again to 1400 farms. By ANZAC weekend, enough was enough, and the programme was restructured and MPI slowly worked its way out of the mess it created.


Biosecurity responses seem to have two distinct stages. Stage 1: full steam ahead; these are unprecedented times and other people’s concerns are only for “precedented” times. And Stage 2: the apologies and promises that they will definitely do better next time. Basically the same playbook as an abusive drunk.

The M bovis eradication programme was staying true to the genre, much to the annoyance of experts who had been involved in overseas outbreaks. There was no need to continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. There are literally textbooks on the topic. The social scientists that I spoke to for part 2 of the series plan on combining their NZ M bovis research into another textbook to add to the pile.

Plus MPI, or its predecessors, have their own history to ponder. The most amusing of which is the West Coast heiferlumps problem. Also known as the time the then Department of Agriculture spent 55 years gaslighting West Coast farmers about a test that wasn’t working.

I really can’t spare the space to do the heiferlumps story justice, you will have to dig up January’s issue to see it in its full glory. The highlights are: There were an unreasonable number of West Coast heifers (read 70%) that tested “positive” for bovine tuberculosis (TB), but when they were slaughtered they were actually healthy. That was agitating West Coast farmers to no end. You wouldn’t like it either.

The Department ran scientific trials that did everything but specifically test if West Coast heifers were being falsely accused of TB. The Department decided they didn’t have a problem; it was the farmers who had a problem, they were simply uneducated and troublesome. They also suspended a prominent veterinarian who spoke up on the issue, and continued to slaughter even more healthy heifers. And then, in the 1970s they chilled out and hired some people with epidemiological training who confirmed that, yes, there was an issue with testing in the West Coast.

By 1977, they had adopted the recommendations presented to them 14 years previously by all the poor souls they had kicked to the curb. Sorry guys, we will do better next time.


Ok so what’s done is done, but I think it is still fair to ask some questions. A great one to start with is “how much did this all cost?”

When the eradication programme was announced, it was declared that doing nothing about M bovis would cost the industry $1.3m in lost production, but for the cost of $886 million (paid in part by farmer levies) the disease could be eradicated. And that was the last anybody heard about the economics of the programme.

I see many TAG reports asking to see the numbers, and I hope those requests were eventually fulfilled behind closed doors. But nothing has been publicly released. It is also difficult to judge how much money has been spent on the programme. The intention was to spend $886m over 10 years.

I can see that there were grumbles about budget blowouts. Every now and then a vague “we have spent this much so far” number comes out, but there are inconsistencies. For example, it was reported that the programme had cost $635.9m in July 2021 and then it was a lower number ($588m) the following year in June 2022. And, I have yet to see any real breakdown in costs.

I can see that $238m has been paid in compensation so far, but how much was spent cleaning farm equipment? Programme administration? Meat processor top-ups? And writing all these reports?


We are still none the wiser about how M bovis made its way into the country. Many people erroneously believe that Alfons Zeestraten’s company Southern Centre Dairies has been prosecuted for importing M bovis. But MPI has yet to prove that this farm is patient zero for the outbreak. In fact, reviews of imported cattle that have perished from pneumonia suggest that M bovis was making undetected breaches through our border as early as 2004, but these historic cases have no plausible link to the current outbreak.

If these cattle deaths had been thoroughly investigated at the time, it may have prompted some vigilance at the border. It would have also been helpful if imported semen was limited to bulls that were guaranteed M bovis free, rather than relying on voluntary testing.

As it stands, we don’t know if the disease got in because someone broke the rules or because the rules were not good enough to keep the disease out.


If we asked this question early last year, then it would have been a slam dunk. M bovis spreads through close cattle-to-cattle contact or from feeding calves infected milk, duh. But recent events have blurred the picture somewhat.

First, there is a new strain of M bovis. And there are a cluster of farms in Canterbury that have picked up the disease without bringing in any infected stock or milk.

It seems that the disease has managed to jump a few kilometres from the affected Five Star Beef feedlot (possibly via seagulls or flies) and then spread across boundaries through brief contact between cattle from neighbouring farms.

  • Nicola Dennis is a scientist, data wrangler and writer.