The Government appears to be turning its focus on to the long-term damage that Mycoplasma Bovis may do the economy.

Meanwhile Radio NZ is reporting that ground zero for the disease appears to have been identified as being a Winton, Southland farm, belonging to Dutch immigrant, Alfons Zeestraten.

This is where the earliest known cases of infection have so far been discovered, the Ministry for Primary Industries says.

This overturns an earlier theory that a South Canterbury farm belonging to the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group was the first farm to be infected.

All of the infections detected so far from Southland to Waikato had bought cattle which could be linked back to three farms owned by Zeestraten and his family.

Mr Zeestraten said he and his wife were good people who had been portrayed as criminals.

He said he did not know how the disease got onto his farm, and that he had neither done nothing illegal nor illegally imported any bull semen or drugs that could have carried Mycoplasma bovis into the country.

A measure of how serious the Government is now taking the outbreak came yesterday morning with the Prime Minister meeting farmers at Rotorangi near Te Awamutu.

Jacinda Ardern was not ready to quote any figures when she returned to Wellington but perhaps surprisingly said she believed it was worth trying to eradicate the disease.

“But that will be dependent on how far it has spread,” she said.


“And that is what we are trying to work through now, and we are working alongside industry to make sure the view we form is a collective one because it will take us together to implement  any plan, be it eradication or long-term management.

“The hope absolutely remains that we can eradicate, but we have to make sure we base that decision on the evidence we have in front of us.”

This is a contrast to the statements last week, particularly from Agriculture Minister, Damien O’Connor.

Last week federated Farmers revealed that the Government was considering four options.

“In recent weeks industry and the Ministry for Primary industries (MPI) have been evaluating and costing four options with respect to the ongoing response including two control and eradication options, one long-term management option and a ‘walk away’ option,” an email from the Feds said.

Ardern said that one of the issues currently being studied was what the long-term impact on productivity might be if the disease was not eradicated.

“What we have to keep in mind is that we might be making a decision without knowing the full impact on productivity which is why we have to make sure that we do everything we can so that we have no regrets,” she said.

She said that not only was it difficult to get a clear test result on whether cattle had M Bovis but also there was still no clear idea how far it had spread.

But one dairy expert believes the Government is wasting its time trying to eradicate the disease.

Keith Woodford, honorary Professor of Ag-Systems at Lincoln University, writing on his blog yesterday said: “The role of our Government should be to continue monitoring at the national level using sampling techniques.

“But trying to identify all infected animals so as to eradicate the disease, and even trying to limit stock movements, this will be counter-productive. 

“Government has neither the resources nor the expertise.

“And the mess will just get bigger and bigger.”

Woodford argues that the Ministry of Primary Industries were not fast enough off the mark last year and concentrated on the wrong areas when trying to identify the source of the disease.

MPI thought the disease originated in South Canterbury not realising the infect ed cattle there had actually come from the Zeestraten farm in Southland.

By the time they did, it was too late and the disease had spread to the North Island.

 Like other sources POLITIK has spoken to, oodford, believes the disease may have been here since at least 2014 and that it probably entered the country through vaccines being traded over the internet.

“With hindsight, it seems that the battle between Mycoplasma bovis and MPI was always going to be a victory for Mycoplasma bovis.

“For it to be otherwise, MPI Biosecurity would have either had to stop its first entry to New Zealand, or else have identified the first incursions before they had spread.

“Clearly there have been major deficiencies in NAIT (the national animal tracing system), but this is not the reason that Mycoplasma is currently out of control. 

“Much more fundamental to the issue is that Mycoplasma had a head start, probably of several years.”

A worst-case scenario for the Government could be the experience of the outbreak of the Psa virus on Kiwifruit in 2013 — that led to a 25% drop in kiwifruit exports that year.

The disease affects cattle by infecting them with respiratory disease, and it can cause arthritis and in dairy cattle, mastitis.

All of those conditions are major production inhibitors.

The Government has allocated $85 million in the Budget to control the disease and provide compensation for cattle that are being destroyed.

“The $85 million is a starting point, and we acknowledge that could well grow,” Ardern said.

She said the Government was also working with the industry around cost-sharing; negotiations on who would pay what during a biosecurity outbreak in the livestock industry had begun last year, but she said that at the time of the election they had not been completed.

But she confirmed that the Government was looking at a future funding formula that would allow the Government and farmers to get ahead of bio-security outbreaks.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson, speaking on TVOne’s “Q+A” on Sunday said the government and the industry were always trying to find the money to respond to bio-security crises.

“ What I’d like to see is for us to get ahead of those, and we’ve got examples about how we do that in other parts of government – the Earthquake Commission, ACC – where we actually try to plan ahead,” he said.

“I’ve asked Treasury and the Ministry of Primary Industries to investigate what that sort of fund would look like, how much would the government contribute, how much would industry contribute in the future.

“But we have to be realistic.

“We can’t just sit there and wait for these things to happen.

“We know they’re happening more regularly, and I want us to get ahead of that.”

Other big questions will be asked about this outbreak – about the role of e-commerce being used to import vaccines and most notably about the performance of the Ministry of Primary Industries.

It will end up being one of the most profound political events this year.