Accepted paper:

Testing for Bovine Tuberculosis: Farm Realities or Convenient Untruth?


Jess Phoenix (Lancaster University)

Paper short abstract:

Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) is a disease faced by Britain’s cattle industry that UK Government attempts to trace through the use of skin tests. I expose Government’s convenient untruth that bTB is knowable, in contrast to on-farm realities of the indeterminate disease and the uncertain skin test.

Paper long abstract:

Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) is an unyielding animal health issue faced by Britain's cattle industry. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is using spatially located methods to try to eradicate the disease in England, including the regular skin testing of cattle and the consequent compulsory slaughter of infected beasts. This paper presents my findings from on-farm fieldwork with vets and farmers in the routine practice of skin testing.

DEFRA describe the skin test as an effective tool to provide early warning of the spread of bTB. The skin test evidences the disease by altering it from invisible to visible, from abstract bacillus to definitive number, and from touch of the hand to a quantitative display. However, fieldwork demonstrates that the skin test cannot define the facticity of infection or make the disease known. Despite this, DEFRA is perpetuating the convenient untruth that the skin test makes bTB knowable so that it can be controlled and eliminated.

I contrast DEFRA's convenient untruth with farmers' and vets' experiences of the uncertain and complex process of testing. I demonstrate how their experiences formulate different understandings of bTB to DEFRA. I show how DEFRA is making sense of a disease that does not make sense on-farm by constructing certainty from uncertain practices. I purposively focus on farmers' and vets' biomedical knowledge so as to explore an alternative method of living with the unknown, instead of constructing certainty from the unknown.

panel T047
The field and the farm in the production of biomedical knowledge