Health risks from Bovine Tuberculosis (TB)

This page provides useful information in relation to the health risks from Bovine Tuberculosis (TB).

What is the human health risk from bovine tuberculosis (TB)?

Bovine TB can affect humans with a serious and sometimes fatal disease.
However, today in Northern Ireland, the risks are considered to be very low. This is due to the routine testing and slaughter of cattle and the pasteurisation of milk.

Although the risk is small, we do not ignore it as the consequences can be serious. We will send you health advice in writing and your Veterinary Officer will discuss human health risks with you when he/she visits your farm. Milk purchasers are informed of your restriction if you are selling milk and we may also inform the medical authorities. The medical authorities may arrange for you and your family to have a check up, but this is not always routine. If you have any worries about your or your family’s health, you should explain the circumstances to your doctor.

Can I drink raw milk from the bulk tank?

Cattle may be infected with bovine TB in the udder. This is a serious disease risk if milk is unpasteurised. The Department recommends that you don’t drink unpasteurised raw milk. Bovine TB could be present in your herd but you will not know unless signs are found at routine slaughter or at a TB test.

What if I sell unpasteurised milk?

If your herd has a TB breakdown (ie reactors found at a TB test or an animal with lesions at routine slaughter), you will not be allowed to continue to sell your own unpasteurised milk or unpasteurised milk products (such as cream, yoghurt, cheese, etc) for human consumption, until your herd is derestricted.

Can I feed reactor milk to calves?

No, it is illegal, under domestic legislation in Northern Ireland, to feed milk from reactor cows to calves, unless it has first been sterilised. Unsterilised milk may be infected and calves can become diseased by drinking it.

Can I carry on selling milk?

Milk from any positive reactor may not be used at all for human consumption. Milk from such animals should be withheld from the bulk tank and disposed of in the farm slurry system. If you wish to spread this milk directly on your land, you must apply to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency for an exemption to spread waste milk on land. Milk from the rest of your herd, including milk from inconclusive animals, can continue to be sold, provided it goes for pasteurisation.

What happens to meat from reactors and inconclusives?

Meat Inspectors will inspect the carcase at the slaughterhouse. The most common sites for TB to be found are the head and chest glands. It is rare for any problem related to bovine TB to be seen in the meat. If one part of the carcase is affected by TB, the Meat Inspectors will remove that part and the rest of the carcase will normally pass as fit for humans to eat. If two or more parts of the carcase are affected, the whole carcase will be declared unfit for human consumption.

Farmer and veterinarian attitudes towards the risk of zoonotic Mycobacterium bovis infection in Northern Ireland

An article by Dr Philip Robinson that examines the attitudes of farmers and veterinarians in Northern Ireland around the risk of acquiring tuberculosis caused by Mycobacterium bovis from infected cattle and from drinking raw milk.

The article is available from the following two sources:

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