Bodges and Badgers: DEFRA admits to problems with data measuring system meant TB rate was ‘overstated’

The badger cull was supposed to reduce the spread of bovine TB levels in cattle –  Getty

15 January 2014 by TomBawden

Second fault with Sam IT system inflicts further blow to credibility of cull

The Government has admitted that distorted data may have significantly exaggerated the number of cattle infected by tuberculosis in Britain – raising fears that the pilot for its highly controversial badger cull could have been based on erroneous information.

It is the second time that a problem with the Sam IT system, which measures data on cattle, has been exposed as faulty in just over two years – inflicting a further blow to the project’s credibility.

It follows a private internal memo at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency – the unit responsible for the data – which recently described the problems with the Sam system as a “crisis”.

The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson had made his case for the badger cull, which was supposed to reduce the spread of bovine TB levels in cattle, using alarming data showing that thousands of herds were carrying the disease, and rates of new infections, known as the “incidence rate”, were rising.

But Mr Paterson’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said that a problem with data recording meant that the number of herds infected with TB had been “overstated” since September 2011, and that “it can be expected that this data series will be revised significantly downwards for 2012 and 2013”.

Furthermore, it said there is a “possibility” that the Sam IT problems could have distorted the incidence data, regarded as the most telling measure of the scale of the disease.

Dominic Dyer, policy advisor for campaigning group Care in the Wild, said: “This is a bombshell which seriously undermines a key element of the Government’s justification for its disastrous badger cull policy.”

Professor Sir Patrick Bateson, of the Zoological Society of London, said: “Record keeping should be part of good science and this shows that they are not terribly good at keeping records.” I

t emerged this week that the cost of policing the badger culls last year is understood to be at least £2.6m, which equates to £1,300 per badger killed.

Professor Rosie Woodroffe, of the Zoological Society of London and member of a team that conducted an earlier decade-long trial of badger culling, said: “These kind of errors are embarrassing and it makes it difficult to judge the effectiveness of the whole TB control programme.”

A spokesman for the Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency said he was confident that the problems identified with the statistics so far would not undermine the case for the cull and that the revised figures should be published within a month.

He also said he believed the statistics relating to the incidence of bovine TB were robust but that the agency “just wants to make sure”.

A Defra spokesman said the problems unearthed “relate to data entry only… this does not change the need to use every tool we have to reduce the unacceptably high levels of TB.”