Exclusive: 'It's like theft': First NZ farm to report M bovis regrets telling the Govt

The owners of the farm which first reported the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak say they've been threatened with jail after refusing to let the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) conduct further testing at their properties.

The Van Leeuwen Dairy Group says thousands of its animals have been needlessly slaughtered, and estimates it's cost them around $8 million so far.

The Tainui cow barn in south Canterbury is where the disease was first spotted after the owners reported it, a decision they now deeply regret.

"It was probably the biggest mistake we've ever made, because notifying a disease in this country at present can cost you your business quite easily and can cost you your health quite easily too," says Aad van Leeuwen.

Following the notification, more than 4500 animals were killed - about a third of their stock.

"We have 85 people working within our business and we feel very, very responsible for all of the good people that work within our business, and [MPI] are basically destroying it," says Wilma Van Leeuwen.

MPI says killing the animals was necessary, but accepts it used Van Leeuwen's farm as an example to learn from.

"At times, we have not lived up to their expectations - and I think they have some grounds to criticise us for that," says MPI Biosecurity Response Director Geoff Gwyn.

He says there will be an inquiry into how the disease has been managed.

"I think that's the right thing to do. Whenever you are working in a response environment, you are dealing with imperfect information," Mr Gwynn said.

Many paddocks and barns at the farm remain bare. It was only recently that the Van Leeuwens finally got approval for new cows to return.

There are still 10 properties within the Van Leeuwen Group which remain under restrictions, and compensation has been slow to come.

"Six months later and they still haven't paid for a big chunk of our cows," says Mrs van Leeuwen. "It's just like theft."

She says compensation for loss of income will be somewhere between $7 million and $8 million.

MPI says it's paid out most of what they owe the Van Leeuwens, but accepts there have been some delays.

"There are some technical issues around the remaining amount but we are working hard to produce that as fast as possible," says Mr Gwynn.

Some of the Van Leeuwens' business partners have already gone bust, and others, like Kelly and Morgan Campbell, are on the brink.

"Until we get some sort of compensation for our loss of income we can't buy any cows, and it's going to take us years to get back to the position we were in," says Mr Campbell.

"There's nothing wrong with killing the animals that are sick, but when you start sending healthy stock to the works, it's not right," says Mrs Campbell.

More than 13,000 animals from 39 infected farms have been slaughtered nationwide. Another 7340 will meet the same fate in the next two weeks.

"They've been making and setting the rules up as they go even up 'til today," says Mr van Leeuwen. "So it's been something way beyond them."

Extensive cleaning of equipment and tests have been carried out at the Van Leeuwen properties. MPI recently asked to return to do more, but they've said no despite being warned of penalties.

"That's the first thing you hear," says Mr van Leeuwen. "We can fine you up to $100,000 to $200,000 or you can go to jail if you stop us from doing what we have to do."

He says the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group has been severely tested, "much harder than the rest of the country".

MPI says it doesn't want to go down the path of issuing fines.

There's a lot of pride at stake in this operation of 33 years, and the Van Leeuwens are not willing to walk away from it.


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