Farmers selling cows on the black market could be putting the entire industry at risk, as Mycoplasma bovis cattle disease hits farms across the country.
"It's hard to identify how widespread that [the black market] is, but it's something that has been exposed by this unfortunate incident," Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor told Newshub Nation.
The disease is devastating for livestock, causing mastitis, pneumonia, arthritis and late-term abortions in cattle. So far 38 farms across Southland, Otago, Canterbury, Hawke's Bay and Manawatu are affected.
- Hope of rapidly eradicating Mycoplasma bovis 'almost gone' - Damien O'Connor
- 22,000 mycoplasma bovis-infected cattle to be culled
Farmers trading animals below the table is making it even harder to know where infected cows may have ended up.
"It's illegal from an IRD perspective," Mr O'Connor says.
"Unfortunately as much as we try we can't stop some people conducting illegal activities. But we will try and clamp down on that. There's talk of actually registering stock agents to ensure that any movement of stock through their hands adheres to an ethical standard.
"But in terms of farmers, giving an animal for some payment, I guess we've just got to highlight the biosecurity risks of doing that."
Seventy percent of farmers were not tracing cattle movements properly through the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) system.
Mr O'Connor says Mycoplasma bovis could be a wake-up call for farmers who are registered.
"I think that people purchasing stock have to be clear they know exactly where they've come from. And I think I've spoken to a number of farmers who have received stock in the past. They haven't been too clear were they've come from; they've trusted the stock agent or the person selling.
"The signals that have gone to them from the Government when they introduced NAIT and then never enforced it have been pretty soft. And the importance of it hasn't been highlighted to the farmers from their leaders.
"Hopefully we can learn from this and put ourselves in a better position for the future."
Mr O'Connor says the scope of the infection is more widespread than first thought.
"There are up to 70-plus farms that are likely to be infected. We've got hundreds under investigation - up to 300 - and then we've got up to 1700 that are of interest. At the moment, we're halfway through the process of culling 22,000 [cows], and there's up to 60,000 potentially in those affected properties already identified. So the numbers are very, very big."
Mycoplasma bovis does not infect humans and is not a food safety risk.
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