Cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis could be the most challenging biosecurity issue the Government and primary sector will ever deal with, says Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor, as the official language appears to shift from eradication to "containment".
O'Connor told the DairyNZ Farmers' Forum at Mystery Creek, Hamilton, that decisions about "what we do" would have to be made in the next two weeks or so.
There were four options: eradicate immediately; phased eradication; ongoing management; or "just step back and let it move through the country".
The disease, which was first diagnosed in New Zealand last year and does not affect human food byproducts of cattle, is established and managed in some of the herds of New Zealand's trading partners.
"It's not a nice disease," O'Connor told about 300 dairy farmers.
"We are doing our very best to eradicate it but I have to say the slow start and the absence of a robust NAIT [national animal identification tracing scheme] have complicated things immensely. And it will cost us a hell of a lot more money," he said.
"We've been having robust and open discussions with industry leaders. [They've] been productive - there's been the odd barney - but I hope we arrive at a collective decision on the best way forward and that will have to happen reasonably soon."
Asked by the Herald if biosecurity officials were moving away from a stated intention to try eradicating the disease with the mass destruction of infected cattle, O'Connor said "containment might now be a more appropriate word".
It had always been the plan to cull all identified infected animals, he said.
"But since that decision we are still working on identifying other infected properties and the extent of the spread ... [and] the new information we have to take on board when the decision is made in the next week or two.
"I hoped it could be eradicated and containment might now be a more appropriate word ... and then over time eradicated. That is what I am clearly focused on," O'Connor said.
"It will cause increasing costs of management and if we can possibly get rid of it I think we should.
"We are talking with industry leaders because a big contribution from industry is required for what is a very big bill and a big commitment," he said.
"If they have money in the game they'll make sure their members do what they have to, to try to eradicate this."
O'Connor said Mbovis was a "wake up call" about the risk of foot and mouth disease to New Zealand agriculture and unless changes were made to the NAIT scheme "we'll have absolute chaos around foot and mouth".
He said biosecurity was the single biggest challenged to the sector, and like water, "we've taken it for granted".
The new Government had set up Biosecurity NZ, a business arm of the Ministry for Primary Industries, which was focused solely on biosecurity and was establishing an intelligence unit which would work offshore investigating the increasing and changing risks to New Zealand caused by climate change and growing trade and visitor numbers.
The Biosecurity Act would be reviewed along with the country's 1200 import health standards, very few of which had been scrutinised since being set.