Defra denies bluetongue test mix-up

A row has broken out over eight imported cattle which tested positive for bluetongue on a farm near Tiverton, Devon.

The virus was detected in the animals - part of a consignment of 20 heifers imported from Germany - as a result of post-import testing by Defra, which is standard for all bluetongue susceptibly animals arriving from Continental Europe.

The Devon farmer said that he did not think his animals were infected, and told farming press he suspected that Defra's PCR tests had given false positive readings. He claimed that the tests had not detected the bluetongue virus itself, but had instead picked up on the antibodies generated as a result of vaccination of the cattle in Germany.

Defra has dismissed these claims, insisting that the PCR test confirmed the presence of the bluetongue virus in the cattle.

Defra's chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens told Farmers Guardian: "We are actually specifically looking for the virus itself and not the antibody so we know we haven't mixed up between vaccine response and the bluetongue virus itself because we found the virus.

"We have got that farm still under restriction because we are looking at the whole group of animals now to see what is going on.

"There's been more than one test and the PCR test is very sensitive so we are confident there has been no mix up."

The National Beef Association said that the detection of bluetongue in imported cattle served as a warning about the risks of importing stock from Europe. The organisation has urged farmers to ensure that the disease-free status of any imported stock is backed by an official veterinary certificate confirming when vaccination took place.

"If importers must bring in stock they should not accept word of mouth affirmation from suppliers that the animals carry no bluetongue risk and protect their reputations, and their own cattle, by insisting on a vaccination certificate that has been signed by a vet," said NBA vice-chairman, Frank Momber.

Momber added that the news that bluetongue is back in the UK should be a "massive wake up call" for British farmers.

"The first of last year's bluetongue cases was not confirmed in Britain until late September and there is a huge danger that many livestock farmers have been lulled into complacency, and delayed vaccination, because new disease has still to be reported here in 2008," he said.

"Farmers who want to protect unvaccinated animals should begin injecting at once. There should be no delay because no one has any idea yet where the virus is and when it will emerge."