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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 29 Mar 2001

Vol. 533 No. 5

Adjournment Debate. - Bovine Diseases.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Naughten.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the opportunity to raise this matter and I thank the Minister for coming to the House to respond to it. A dramatic headline in a Sunday newspaper and reports in other newspapers this week could threaten the reputation of Irish beef. It is important that the Minister takes this opportunity to put on the record the facts as he and the Government view them.

The reports stated that hundreds of cattle with BSE entered the food chain in Ireland last year. The report by the British Food Standards Agency – FSA – claimed that 22,000 cattle were infected between 1985 and 1996. As we are aware, the total recorded number now stands at approximately 638 for that period. Given the current crisis in the agriculture industry and the distress and uncertainty experienced by farm families, it is vital that the Minister deals with this serious and frightening allegation swiftly and firmly.

The Taoiseach said on the Order of Business earlier this week that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development disagreed strongly with the implications of this predictive statistical study. The Department has been quoted as disagreeing fundamentally with the findings, but I ask the Minister to give the House and consumers a full explanation of how such figures could be found by this apparently reputable body and why they are wrong. Any hint or suggestion that the correct figures for BSE were being covered up or deliberately played down in Ireland would do untold damage to our exports and consumer confidence at home. I ask the Minister to declare the facts with full back-up details and empirical evidence. I hope the philosophy that has been proved in the past in relation to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development releasing as little information as possible will not continue in this instance. Full transparency and openness is extremely important in all matters relating to food.

I am also concerned about the revelation in the reports that bovine spinal cord was found in a consignment of meat exported to the North from the South recently. It was reported that investigations are taking place into this matter. Will the Minister outline the investigations taking place into this matter and how such a situation could have arisen? We heard disturbing reports from the UK recently about CJD and bad butchering practices which led to serious incidences in a village there. A full and thorough investigation of this matter should be carried out and people found to be negligent should suffer the consequences.

The claims in The Sunday Times must be fully answered by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. While it was a statistical probability study, it is important that these issues are addressed and clarified.

The point raised by Deputy Fitzgerald relating to specified risk material, that spinal cord was attached to carcases which were exported must be fully investigated and those responsible should bear the brunt of the law. This highlights the shabby butchering which is taking place in some plants. This matter must be fully investigated. These are export plants which are supposed to have a higher standard of regulation than ordinary abattoirs. How specified risk material in the form of spinal cord ended up on a carcase which was exported is disgraceful, one which must be thoroughly investigated to ensure this does not happen again.

A study carried out for the UK Food Standards Agency has claimed that the risk of eating beef contaminated with BSE is considerably higher in Ireland than in the United Kingdom and that the level of BSE infection in the Irish herd was far greater than the incidence reported. I cannot accept either of these conclusions.

My Department has recently received the report and has serious doubts about the findings. They are based on assumptions of the incidence for which there is no basis. In the area of both the levels of infectivity and the low levels of usage of compound feed, no recognition is given to Ireland's favourable position. This is also the view of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland which has expressed misgivings about the assumptions set down in and the conclusions of this report.

The study singularly fails to take into account the incidence of BSE in this country and the range of strict controls in place at farm level, processing level and in feed manufacture. The compilation of the data for the UK report took place without reference to my Department.

The range of measures put in place in Ireland ensures that consumers of Irish beef are not subject to unacceptable levels of risk. This has been confirmed by both the EU and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, based on detailed examinations of the systems in place. The EU Scientific Steering Committee classified Ireland as a low incidence country and has deemed the Irish control regime to be optimally stable.

The numbers of BSE cases in Ireland and the UK are in stark contrast and indicate that the nature of the BSE problems in both countries cannot be compared. The total number of cases in Ireland reported to date is 622 while the number in the UK stands at approximately 180,000. The UK has been categorised as having BSE on an epidemic scale, while Ireland's incidence is accepted as low to sporadic. Ireland is currently operating the EU test or destruct scheme in respect of animals over 30 months. So far, a total of 60,000 over 30 month animals have been rapid-tested for BSE and all have proved negative. The age profile of animals diagnosed with BSE in Ireland in recent years demonstrates that the measures put in place are effective.

A complaint was received from Northern Ireland concerning the discovery of bovine spinal cord in beef exported to Northern Ireland. The position is that two consignments of bovine quarters were shipped from an export approved premises here to a premises in Larne, Northern Ireland, on 16 and 17 March last. Unloading of the two containers took place on 20 March. The following day it was reported that the meat inspector who supervised the unloading thought he saw some spinal cord in one forequarter, out of a total delivery of 450 quarters. Investigation of this incident was hampered by lack of information from the Northern Ireland side. In particular, they were unable to say which load contained the suspect quarter, nor were they able to provide the carcase number or the piece of spinal cord or evidence that the quarter originated from the premises in the Republic. This latter point is relevant since there appears to have been beef deliveries from other premises in the Ireland company's marshalling area at that time.

For its part, the plant management in the premises here is adamant that there was no spinal cord in any bone-in quarter consigned to Northern Ireland and that all bone-in beef was personally checked by a production manager prior to loading.

I view any non-compliance with prescribed SRM protocol in the gravest light. This incident gave cause for concern because the export approved premises was involved in a previous similar incident. Following that incident, the chief veterinary officer of my Department wrote to plant management warning that, in the event of any further problems, supplementary SRM certification would be withdrawn with immediate effect. Consequently, in view of the later incident, veterinary certification was withdrawn pending full investigation of the complaint. This action has the effect of suspending exports of all beef from the plant destined for the UK market. In light of the current situation, where there is strong UK demand for imported beef, this is the most severe penalty which can be imposed on the plant.

I hope the Deputies accept that is a full and comprehensive reply to the question. I thank them for giving me the opportunity to reply.