Brucellosis Outbreak at the Agricultural Research Institute

27 September 2001

The Assembly's independent auditor, Mr John Dowdall, published a report today on the Brucellosis outbreak, in March 1999, at the Agricultural Research Institute in Hillsborough. The Institute is funded by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The outbreak arose from the purchase of a small group of infected cattle and resulted in the slaughter of the Institute's entire dairy herd, one of the most valuable in the United Kingdom. A total of 794 cattle were slaughtered and the overall net cost to the taxpayer of compensation amounted to £1.3 million. The report examines the causes of the outbreak and assesses the adequacy of the Department's measures to control and eradicate Brucellosis in Northern Ireland.

Background

Brucellosis is a highly contagious bacterial disease which can cause chronic infection both in animals and humans. Mid-1996 marked the start of a steady increase in outbreaks of the disease. One of the characteristics most commonly associated with Brucellosis is abortions in cattle. There is a legal requirement on all herdowners to report any abortions in their herds. When an outbreak occurs, the Department's policy is to remove and slaughter all breeding stock within that herd. Compensation, based on market prices, is paid to herdowners.

Main Findings

On the Brucellosis Outbreak (Part 2 of the Report)

  • the report acknowledges the work of the Institute's Animal Health Working Group in drawing lessons from the outbreak and identifying improved disease testing and cattle management procedures for the Institute (paragraph 2.50)
  • there are a number of factors which contributed to the outbreak of Brucellosis at the Institute. Although the infected cattle were purchased from a 'closed herd' (one relying on its own breeding programme for replacements) the failure to test the vendor's herd for disease, prior to purchase, was a shortcoming, especially in view of the very substantial research and monetary value of the Institute's own herd and the fact that it did not have isolation facilities for purchased animals (paragraph 2.51)
  • the Institute preferred to purchase cattle that were already pregnant, given the research programme to be undertaken. However, in view of the increased risks of Brucellosis infection associated with pregnant cattle, including the risk that any infection during pregnancy may not be detected by the testing procedures, the Institute's decision in this case appears to have been poorly judged (paragraphs 2.52 - 2.53)
  • the failure by the vendor to report the earlier abortions in his herd in 1998 was a very serious breach of the regulations and one which may have played a major part in the loss of the Institute's herd. Given the circumstances in this case, it is surprising that there is no record of the Department's decision not to prosecute and of the basis on which the decision was taken (paragraph 2.56)

On the Financial and Research Impacts of the Outbreak (Part 3 of the Report)

  • the slaughter of the dairy herd was described by the Department as devastating in the short-term for the research programme running at that time. However, the Institute took the opportunity to carry out a number of new research options on the animals, pre- and post-slaughter. This was important in making the best of a most unfortunate situation. At least eight scientific papers are expected to arise from this work (paragraph 3.14 - 3.16 and 3.22)

On the Restocking of the Institute's Dairy Herd (Part 4 of the Report)

  • in May 1999, the Institute's Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to continue dairy research and restock the dairy herd. The Audit Office notes that the decision to restock was taken in the absence of a proper appraisal of costs and benefits and that no papers were presented to the Trustees about the various options available. The Institute's failure to subject the decision to restock to a full economic appraisal, in advance of incurring expenditure, ignored well-established rules (paragraphs 4.5 - 4.9)

On the Wider Issues Raised by the Brucellosis Outbreak (Part 5 of the Report)

  • from only a few sporadic cases since virtual eradication in 1982, Brucellosis outbreaks have increased steadily since mid-1996. The Department has undertaken a range of measures to publicise the Brucellosis problem and the actions required to tackle it, but much of this has only been initiated since June 2000. In the Audit Office's view, the Department was slow to react to the increasing seriousness of the situation (paragraphs 5.6, 5.11 - 5.17)
  • while there may be a number of reasons for the rise in Brucellosis outbreaks in recent years, it is of concern that failure to report abortions is likely to have been a contributory factor. In the Audit Office's opinion, the prosecution of offenders could provide a worthwhile deterrent value (paragraph 5.18 - 5.24)
  • the spread of Brucellosis has led to a marked increase in compensation payments - rising from £200,000 in 1996-97 to £9.3 million in 2000-01, total compensation paid over the five-year period to March 2001 amounted to £22.5 million (paragraph 5.25)
  • the suspicion that, in some cases, Brucellosis may have been deliberately introduced into a herd in order to obtain a buy-out by the Department is of particular concern and suggests that compensation levels may be higher than the market price available. This is an area that must be investigated further by the Department. The distinctive pattern of increases in the levels of compensation on appeal is another area that requires close scrutiny (paragraphs 5.29 - 5.42)
  • the Department took the decision in April 1999 to carry out a formal review of its Brucellosis (and Tuberculosis) eradication and control policies. Completion of the review has been delayed indefinitely as a result of the foot and mouth crisis. While the Audit Office welcomes the policy review, it considers that the Department has been slow to initiate and progress this important matter (paragraphs 5.43 - 5.46)

Notes for editors

  1. The Comptroller and Auditor General is Head of the Northern Ireland Audit Office (the Audit Office). He, and the NIAO, are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of Government Departments and a range of other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to report to the Northern Ireland Assembly on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and public bodies use their resources. His reports are published as Assembly papers.
  2. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the Brucellosis Outbreak at the Agricultural Research Institute is published as NIA No. 02/01 of Session 2001-02 and is available from the Stationery Office throughout the United Kingdom. The report is embargoed until 00.01 hrs on Thursday, 27 September 2001.
  3. Background briefing can be obtained from the Audit Office by contacting Robert Hutcheson (028 9025 1024) or Brian Gardiner (028 9025 1140).