The Europen Commission has approved the North’s application for Official Brucellosis Free (OBF) status, Agriculture Minister, Michelle O’Neill has confirmed.

Brucellosis is a highly contagious disease of cattle that is characterised by abortions in cattle and can be transferred to humans with serious consequences for human health.

O’Neill said that a controlled reduction of the programme would be introduced as soon as possible after official publication of the Commission decision.

“Attainment of OBF status for cattle is a highly significant milestone in the history of disease eradication here.

“For the first time in decades, not only is the North free of brucellosis, but the whole island of Ireland may now be regarded as being free from this devastating disease,” she said.

O’Neill said that her officials are already preparing for the phased dismantling of certain aspects of the scheme and this will begin as soon as possible after the Commission decision is published in the Official Journal of the EU.

“I have already started to roll back the programme. In June, I decreased the routine testing frequency for beef herds from annual testing to every two years.

“I will continue to work towards reducing the burden on farmers through successive changes to our programme over the next number of months,” she said.

The Minister also paid tribute to those farmers and stakeholders whose cooperation had been vital in ensuring the success of the brucellosis eradication programme.

Official freedom is a remarkable achievement considering the grip that brucellosis had on the farming community just a few years ago.

“I am acutely aware that this disease led to very distressing circumstances for many farmers, whose herds had to be depopulated to stop its spread.

“European Commission approval of our brucellosis-free status signals that the partnership approach that has been adopted in dealing with this devastating disease has worked,” she said.

Relaxing the testing regime for brucellosis will result in substantial financial benefits for industry, the taxpayer and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) through reduced administration, sampling and testing costs.

However, the EU Trade Directive requires that a brucellosis surveillance testing programme must continue for five years after OBF status is granted to ensure continuing disease freedom.

Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer Colin Hart said that while this development regarding OBF status is very welcome, the industry must continue to avoid complacency.

“It is essential that farmers maintain their efforts to achieve excellent biosecurity standards and adopt appropriate stock replacement policies.

“I would encourage all herd keepers to maintain a fortress farming approach to the protection of the health of their animals,” he said.