Massive farmers’ protest in Spain against regulations on bovine tuberculosis

by Lorraine Williamson
bovine tuberculosis

SALAMANCA – On June 5, Salamanca was overrun by thousands of protesting farmers who rose up against the constantly changing regulations regarding bovine tuberculosis control in Castilla y León. 

The conflict arose after the Supreme Court of Castilla y León temporarily suspended an ordinance from the regional Ministry of Agriculture. This regulation relaxed sanitary controls on bovine tuberculosis. However, that relaxation was stopped by the national government, which was proved right by the Supreme Court. 

Areas with higher incidence rates and more cattle 

Salamanca, one of the provinces in Castilla y León most affected by bovine tuberculosis, is in the firing line due to its proximity to areas with higher incidence rates, such as Extremadura and Andalucia. Furthermore, Salamanca is one of the areas with the most cattle in Spain according to the latest data from the Ministry of Agriculture. 

Disease Eradication Program 

In these still-infected regions, the immediate destination of a cow with tuberculosis is the slaughterhouse. This is as defined in the disease eradication program established by the Ministry. These protocols, based on scientific criteria, have been developed at the behest of the European Union since Spain joined the Economic Community in 1987 as measures to prevent the spread of the disease to the rest of the territory. 

They include the following actions: carry out checks through diagnostic tests, sacrifice the animals that test positive (and the rest of the animals on the farm in case the positive is found in a tuberculosis-free region) and restrict movements of infected herds. 

Unreliable diagnostic tests 

In particular, livestock farmers in Castilla and León are protesting the “poor results of sanitation campaigns” to prevent bovine tuberculosis, which they say is ruining their livelihoods. The problem is in the unreliable diagnostic tests. Those result in false positives, immobilising the entire farm and selling the animals to non-certified feed places for 40% less. 

Farm viability 

According to the president of the Agricultural Association of Young Farmers (Asaja) of Salamanca, this last point is “the point that hurts us the most”. Juan Luis Delgado tells Newtral: “If I can’t sell my livestock or if I can only sell it to certain places for a lower price, I lose the viability of my farms, they are no longer profitable and I end up closing and we all become unemployed,” said the spokesman. 

ASSSA - health insurance in Spain

Farmers demand a new plan 

To prevent the spread of the disease, the central government (Social Democratic, left) imposed restrictions on cattle transport. However, the farmers are demanding a new plan to eradicate tuberculosis, specifically targeting the country’s southern regions. The conflict has led to political clashes between administrations of different political leanings, and the situation remains unresolved. The regional government is run by a coalition of the conservative People’s Party PP and the far-right Vox. 

During Monday’s protests, farmers have called for changes to sanitation. Furthermore, they point out that wild fauna may be a source of the disease. 

What is Bovine Tuberculosis? 

Bovine tuberculosis is a chronic infection affecting domestic and wild mammals caused by the M. tuberculosis complex. The disease can be transmitted to humans, but the incidence in developed countries is low due to the pasteurisation of milk and livestock sanitation programs. 

Spain has been implementing programs to eradicate bovine tuberculosis since the 1980s. However, while some provinces have reached low prevalence or even been declared free of the disease, areas of high prevalence, such as Salamanca, still persist. Consequently, experts recommend that bovine tuberculosis control should take into account all domestic and wild animals that may serve as hosts of the disease and that the Wildlife Tuberculosis Action Plan is a step in the right direction. 

Transmission to humans is minimal 

According to researcher Bernat Pérez de Val, transmission to humans is “minimal, only direct contact with the infected animal poses the greatest risk”. However, this means that farmers do run a direct risk. In addition, the cases of infected people are very small, with 3,754 in 2021 according to the National Network Epidemiological Surveillance. That is 7.61 infections per 100,000 inhabitants. “Although probably not all cases are known”, warns De Val. 

Also see: Spain limits livestock 

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