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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Apr 2001

Vol. 534 No. 4

Private Notice Questions. - Foot and Mouth Disease.

We now have Private Notice Questions to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development on measures to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease. I will call on the Deputies in the order in which they submitted their questions to my office.

asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development if his attention has been drawn to a potential case of foot and mouth disease in Cookestown, County Tyrone; his views on whether there is a need for stronger enforcement of disinfection procedures around the country in view of this case; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development if the Irish authorities have offered to provide disinfectant procedures at British ports to help prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease; if he believes that there is a need for stronger enforcement of disinfection procedures around the country in light of the potential outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Cookestown, County Tyrone; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, in light of the suspect case in Cookestown, County Tyrone, the additional measures that are being considered in his Department to ensure that foot and mouth disease does not spread.

The position in relation to what the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Belfast has termed a "hot suspect" case of foot and mouth disease in the Cookestown area of County Tyrone is that the results of the samples taken from a number of bovine animals on the farm are still awaited from the Pirbright laboratory.

It is perhaps worth quoting from the statement issued this morning by Minister Brid Rodgers which states:

The Veterinary Service last night examined cattle on a dairy farm near Cookestown. A number of these animals were showing symptoms suggestive of foot and mouth disease. Samples have been taken and have been sent to Pirbright. Results are expected by midafternoon today.

Minister Rodgers went on to state:

This suspect case shows that the risk of foot and mouth disease is still with us. I very much hope that this case will not be positive, but at this point in time we must expect the worst. I would reinforce my advice to farmers to continue to be vigilant and to comply with the guidelines for protection against the disease.

That is the statement of Minister Rodgers a few hours ago.

As yet, the results from Pirbright have not been received. I do not wish to speculate on the matter and we must wait until those results are received. Until then, we must keep our fingers crossed and hope that for the sake of the industry in Northern Ireland, here and in other European countries that the results will be negative.

The experience of the past six weeks or so has amply demonstrated the wisdom of not jumping to conclusions before laboratory test results are to hand. Needless to say, we are hoping the worst fears of Minister Rodgers will not be realised. However, we can only wait for the outcome of the tests. The protective measures which have been in place along the Border and at ports and airports in this State since the early days of the current crisis have been rigorously maintained. This has involved a massive effort on the part of all concerned, including the Garda, the Army, the Civil Defence, Customs and Excise, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and a range of individuals and organisations.

I have stressed the need to ensure that in every area of activity we follow the appropriate advice and take all necessary precautions. While recognising the inconvenience and disruption which such measures cause, I have resisted pressures for a general relaxation of controls across the country. The current foot and mouth scare in Cookstown underlines the prudence of continuing this approach for some time to come. I take this opportunity to remind the House and the general public that the threat from foot and mouth disease will overhang this country for a considerable period and certainly for as long as the situation in Britain remains the same. Even if, as we hope, there are no further cases of foot and mouth in this State or on the island as a whole, we cannot relax our guard while the disease is present in other countries in western Europe and further afield. As regards arrangements for the provision of disinfectant facilities at British ports, this matter is being dealt with by my colleague, the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for providing Members with the opportunity to obtain this briefing on the situation in Cookstown. Perhaps the Minister might also outline the position which obtains in Bray at present.

Is the Minister aware that there appears to be a somewhat lax attitude to disinfectant procedures at all checkpoints? I visited the Border in recent days and there does not seem to be the same enthusiasm as there was a number of days ago. Is the Minister aware that vehicles are being waved through the main checkpoints in County Louth, near where the outbreak occurred and is he satisfied that sufficient care is being taken? I accept that the rules have been laid down, but is it not time to reconsider the tightness of the controls. It is extremely frightening that Cookstown is situated only 30 miles or so north of the Border and if it is proven that mammals have contracted the disease, we will have entered a new stage.

Is the Minister considering allowing farmers to move cattle to out-farms, etc., particularly in light of the serious implications for animal welfare and so on? There is a great deal of pressure on farmers and, while I appreciate that the emerging situation does not make it any easier, we must adopt a common-sense approach or we will otherwise face greater difficulties than at present from an animal welfare point of view.

Deputy Crawford is correct to stress the importance of the tightness of the controls and the replenishment of disinfectant facilities. Each morning I hold a meeting with a strategy group among the members of which is the Deputy Commissioner of the Garda Síochána. As late as this morning he confirmed that there has been no relaxation whatever in the controls along the Border and in County Louth. A considerable number of vehicles entering the Republic have been turned back because they were carrying sandwiches, meat or dairy products which should not be coming into this jurisdiction.

I have communicated directly with farming organisations, written to every farmer in the country and communicated with a range of voluntary bodies. I have also contacted ICOS to seek to ensure it communicates with its co-operatives. In addition, I have appealed to people to continue the good work they have been doing, to continue replenishing disinfectant facilities and to report suspicious symptoms of any kind in all of the flocks or herds throughout the country. By and large, this is being done. There is no doubt there is some variation in the degree of adherence to the guidelines in certain instances. However, we are appealing in every possible way for people to keep up the good work.

In relation to achieving a balance between tight restrictions and the need to allow animal movement, particularly for welfare considerations, there will be no relaxation in terms of general animal movement. Where sheep or cattle are on out-farms and there is a need to return them to the main property for fodder, calving or lambing purposes, this can be done under very strict certification procedures.

I agree with the Minister that there is not much point in speculating about the case in Cookstown. However, it would be a matter of serious concern to discover that a new case had occurred at such a remove in time from the case in Meigh. That said, we can only wait until the results become available.

With regard to the Minister's final point, how long will it be necessary for the exclusion zone in County Louth to remain in place? In the absence of any further cases in the Republic, how long will it be scientifically justified to keep in place strict controls on the movement of animals. It seems there is a case for facilitating a public exchange of views between the expert group that advises the Minister and those involved in livestock production in order that the basis for the maintenance of controls can at least be discussed and aired. Will the Minister consider establishing a dialogue of that kind with a view to sharing information and carrying out a clear and public risk assessment. I believe the Minister will agree that the more publicly we share information on these matters, the greater the level of likely support will be garnered for whatever policy emerges from that sharing of information.

With regard to Cookstown, we must await the results and there is no point in entering into speculation. This is a serious matter, however, because all the expert advice available up to now indicated that 28 days was the longest incubation period. The outbreak in Meigh occurred on 1 March and it is now 11 April. The experts to whom I have spoken are completely baffled by events at Cookstown. If the results prove positive, their assessments and the indications to date will be thrown out of kilter. We must await the outcome but the seriousness of the situation cannot be denied.

If there are no further cases in the Republic and all going well, restrictions can be lifted in relation to the ten mile exclusion zone in County Louth on 27 April. For the remainder of the country the restrictions will be lifted on 19 April, Thursday of next week.

In relation to animal movement, the difficulty is that the movement of susceptible animals poses the highest risk of spreading infection. While the farming organisations have met directly with Professor Monaghan and the expert group, there would be merit in encouraging a more public debate on this issue. The farming leaders, through their network of organisations, communicate with the public and are understanding of the fact that there must be a degree of restriction and inconvenience. While measures have been relaxed in relation to assembly points so that people can take animals to abattoirs, direct movement from one farm to another is prohibited. I will see to what extent there can be public debate on the matter, although the farming organisations and ICOS have met directly with the expert group. I will also raise the suggestion made with Professor Monaghan.

I do not wish to participate in the speculation game. I hope the result is negative and I wish the Northern Ireland authorities and Minister Rodgers well in their endeavours in that regard.

This suspect case clearly illustrates that we must remain on red alert. We must emphasise to the farming community and to the public the need to remain vigilant. What contact has the Minister had to date with the Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture on the reported suspect case of foot and mouth disease in the Cookstown area? Has he had discussions with the authorities on whether there is a link between this suspect case and the previous one? What are the origins of this suspect case? Is the Minister considering reviewing the level of restrictions in place to control the spread of foot and mouth disease? In light of what Mrs. Rodgers said in her statement, which the Minister read into the record, is the Minister considering adopting an all-Ireland approach to tackling disease at all levels? Is there evidence available in the Department that bovine animals have been smuggled into this jurisdiction from Northern Ireland and, if so, what steps is the Department taking to deal with that?

I have spoken on a number of occasions to Minister Bríd Rodgers. Our chief veterinary officer, Dr. Colm Gaynor, and Dr. Bob McCracken, his counterpart in Northern Ireland, spoke to each other today. They must also await the outcome. Last Friday Minister Rodgers, Dr. McCracken and a number of their experts came to Dublin and we had an exchange of views. It was agreed in a communiqué that we would continue and sustain our efforts to deal with the problem of foot and mouth disease and other veterinary matters on an island-wide basis. There is not any evidence that animals came into this jurisdiction illegally since controls were put in place on the Border on 21 February. There is evidence of some illegal movements prior to that time and they are being followed up. We had culls on a number of farms and we had a court case in County Carlow in recent days. If there is anything to be learned from this – there are many lessons to be learned – it is that we need to considerably tighten our traceability system, particularly for sheep. As Deputies know, from early next month a traceability regime will be put in place.

I do not want to speculate about this case and I hope the results from Pirbright will be negative. It is not a positive development that there is a suspected case in cattle. It is important for the Minister to reiterate the restrictions in place and the disinfection procedures which must be maintained. Measures have become lax in recent weeks. It is important for the Department to make that point at every possible opportunity.

What measures is the Minister putting in place to ensure animal welfare? As the Minister is aware, fodder is scarce in many parts of the country as there is little grass or growth. While farmers can move animals from outer to inner farms, they cannot move them off the farms. The Minister may be aware of the concern in the Shannon basin where the callows were flooded in recent days. It will be seven weeks before stock will be allowed on those lands. There is a crisis in that area because of a shortage of fodder. Will the Minister put in place measures to deal with that specific problem?

What procedures are in place for the importation of dairy products from the UK? Are permits in place? Can we be assured that those products undergo the proper heat treatment prior to being imported into the country?

I agree we should try to get people to replenish disinfectant and to ensure they maintain their vigilance and surveillance. Farmers, who are a high risk group, are doing that. Apart from a small group of individuals who are becoming increasingly known to the gardaí and the special unit which is following various leads, the rest of the community is behaving well. There is not another country in Europe whose controls are as tight as ours. Nonetheless, one finds dry mats in various places and people must put additional disinfectant on them. I have continued to repeat that message.

As regards fodder, there are instances of fodder shortage. The Department and the expert group relaxed some of the controls on the movement of fodder. It is more difficult with the movement of cattle or any susceptible species because of the difficulty of animal to animal contact in the spread of the disease. We are allowing movement within the one herd on animal welfare grounds where there is an outside farm and certification within a herd ownership. At a meeting last week, the expert group felt it was too early to relax any further the movement of cattle with outside herds.

As regards the importation of products, dairy products can be imported on certification. There is double heat treatment and other PH requirements. That must be done with certification. I do not have the figures with me, but I get a report on the truck loads or consignments of products returned if the certification does not measure up with the product being supplied.

Dr. Upton

In light of the suspect case in Tyrone, does the Minister consider it prudent to introduce additional measures by way of an increased inspectorate at meat factories? Unfortunately, there continues to be newspaper reports of movement of animals to and from meat factories under suspicious circumstances. Have any samples been taken from bovine animals and sent to Pirbright for analysis?

There is increasing inspection and surveillance at the factories around the country. That is one of the reasons we have had a number of suspect cases at ICM in Navan and at Bray yesterday evening. We got good news about an hour ago on the suspect sheep in Bray. The initial tissue sample was negative. We also got the final blood results from Navan about an hour ago and they were also negative. That is good news from our point of view.

As regards the suspected case in Tyrone, it is a considerable distance from the Border. It is well outside the ten kilometres surveillance zone. It does not mean we have to take precautionary measures in relation to a zone, which is different from Meigh and Augher which was the last scare we had. On that occasion at Augher, we had arrangements for a precautionary zone in County Monaghan. We must await the outcome of the test results.

I am glad the two results are clear on this part of the island. We must hope and pray that the other one is similar. In light of the Minister saying that there is no chance of any movement of cattle from yard to out-farm etc., does he accept that there is great urgency now to ensure that all grants and REPS payments that can be paid are paid? Payments could be at the highest level and any refunding required could be deducted from later payments. It is important to get money to the farmers to allow them to feed the stock because in many cases they have much more stock than they normally would have.

The payment of building grants is another issue. If a qualified builder can certify that a job has been done, that should be sufficient to allow a building grant, or some portion thereof, to be paid. We should try to get money out where possible.

Can the extensification grants be paid immediately? They are more important now in early April than they will be in May or whenever they would normally be paid. I urge the Minister to get all these into operation as quickly as possible to ease the pressure at every level. It will avoid people doing things they should not do but might do.

I gave instructions some weeks to ensure that all grants, subsidies and premia that could be paid should be paid. If they could be paid without inspection and without the requirement of a derogation from the EU, then that should be done. My information is that payment of subsidies and headage and premia is well ahead of any other year and that where they can be paid, they are being paid.

There is some difficulty on capital grants for farm buildings because our staff is prohibited from visiting farms for inspection purposes. When we reach next Thursday, 19 April and some of the trade restrictions are lifted, I hope we will be able to get a formula or code of practice to allow inspections to continue. A code of practice has been agreed to allow AI to go ahead from next week and I hope similar arrangements can be made for on farm inspections. I also gave instructions that where people are eligible for compensation, as most are, then they will be paid without delay. I understand that those payments have commenced and continue to be paid at an accelerated rate.

I go back to my original question about the disinfection facilities being offered at British ports. I do not like to introduce a contentious note here, but I am very disappointed that the Minister in the House should have simply said that this is a matter for the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources. The Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources would not be doing this if it were not for the urging of the Minister who is here in the House. I ask the Minister to go a little bit outside the terms of his brief and to tell the House as much as he knows about what is being done there. It is important in the context of preventing the spread of foot and mouth disease.

It was a good idea and it is a pity that we had to question the Taoiseach yesterday to find out exactly what was going on. The Minister will remember that many of us were surprised to hear the Taoiseach saying that this offer had been made and then that Downing Street and the MAFF in London did not know anything about it. It was useful to be told yesterday that, since the ports in Britain, in the main, are in private hands, the matter was being dealt with directly by the ports. I invite the Minister to step just a little bit outside his brief and tell the House as much as he knows about what is being done so that we can encourage people to comply with that.

I did not want to get into trouble with the Ceann Comhairle.

We will always defend him against the Ceann Comhairle.

We will not put him in the sin bin.

There is a long-standing convention that Ministers answer for themselves and their own Departments. However since Deputy Dukes has been so persistent and asked his supplementary in a very courteous way, I will give him as much information as I know.

The Department of the Marine and Natural Resources has had communication with the port authorities in Britain and has a very good understanding with them. Automatic disinfectant spraying equipment is being installed in six UK roll-on roll-off ports. Those six ports are positively disposed to the installation of the spraying equipment and that will be done over the next few days. I and, I am sure, the House would have liked if that had been done six weeks ago rather than in the next six days. They did have some mats and mobile equipment, but this will be permanent. I understand the cost involved is around £75,000 for the six ports. The ports are Holyhead, Liverpool – Mersey port and docks, Heysham, Fishguard, Pembroke and Swansea.

That did not hurt at all.

Is there any agreement with Northern Ireland regarding the Larne to Stranraer route. It serves all of the northern part of the country and I hope the Minister will be able to do something with the Minister there, Bríd Rodgers.

Have any samples from bovine samples been taken from this jurisdiction and sent to Pirbright? Is it a cause of greater concern to the Minister that there is now a suspect bovine animal? There is a greater potency from a carrier viewpoint. It is much more likely to spread from bovine animals than from sheep because of the larger capacity when exhaling and the aerosol effect. What measures has the Minister put in place to counteract that?

Are the lairages at factories for the reception of animals strictly operating during normal work hours and not outside those hours?

At the meeting last Friday, I discussed the Larne to Stranraer route with the Minister Bríd Rodgers and I was assured that the disinfectant facilities were up to standard there and this will continue. In our communiqué we agreed to liaise closely on the prevention of the importation of susceptible animals from Great Britain because this was the cause of our problem in the first instance.

Samples from bovines have been taken and they have proved negative so far. We are fortunate so far that no bovines or porcines have shown symptoms of the disease because as the Deputy rightly said they exhale far greater amounts. The experts advise that they also get infection more quickly. However, this strain of the virus seems to be harboured in the ovine species more than in the other two. In Britain some bovines and porcines have got infection.

It was worrying that some of the new British cases occurred in a geographic spread well outside the immediate areas of infection. The authorities now tell us that that was caused by some illegal animal movement within Britain involving trucks that were not properly disinfected.

I am not certain of the hours during which there is surveillance and inspection of animals but I know that all animals are inspected for health reasons and to ensure that they are suitable for human consumption as they go through the various lairages. With sheep tagging and additional traceability that will be intensified considerably.

Deputy Belton should resume his seat, he has not been called.

On a point of order—

Deputy Belton is out of order and cannot therefore make a point of order. Time is running out, five Deputies have offered. I will take supplementary questions from the Deputies in the order in which they arrived in the House.

It is important to emphasise that Deputies are making supplementaries on a question; they must not use this opportunity to make statements or to give their own opinions. The purpose of this exercise is to seek information. I expect Deputies to make their remarks brief.

Will the Minister comment on the impact of the ongoing industrial dispute at the five beef processing factories? Will he intervene with his long standing friend, Mr. Larry Goodman, to resolve the difficulties which exist in that area and which are impacting very unfairly on the workers? I am particularly conscious of the situation in Rathkeale.

Is the Minister totally happy – given the court situation vis-à-vis Carlow and the fact that sheep were imported from Cumbria; given that animals have been roaming around the Glen of Aherlow and that 15 animals were found in a forest in Mullinahone – that there is no smuggling of animals here? Has the situation whereby ESB crews are unable to enter farms to connect the electricity supply for new houses been relaxed? Is the Minister aware of the hardship being imposed on such people?

Does the Minister agree that the extra movement of stock created by the strike at the AIBP plants increases the risk of foot and mouth disease? Is it his view that there should be as little movement of animals as possible and has he made contact with AIBP and the trade union with a view to having this matter examined by the Labour Court?

Has the Department any plans to issue permits to allow people – in whatever circumstances the Department might decide – to import farm machinery from Northern Ireland?

Will the Minister and the Department pay special attention to the situation as outlined by Deputy Crawford regarding the payment of grants? I met many farmers recently who have not received any income for some time. It is important that we recognise that fact.

Has the Minister or the Minister for Finance had discussions with the banks regarding the problems being experienced by farmers and their inability to meet their payments? A number of agricultural shows are held here annually. The Tullamore show is one of the most outstanding in the country and is nationally and internationally famous. Will the Minister consult with the committees involved in this area on whether these shows can proceed? A question mark hangs over a number of them. We may lose our priority for these events if we do not address the problem now.

We have always operated a quarantine on the importation of cattle. As we enjoy excellent relations with the Minister for Agriculture in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Bríd Rodgers, will the Minister seek a derogation of five to eight years on the movement of cattle into Ireland? I am sure such a decision would be welcomed by all, North and South.

The Deputy must be brief.

It is important that we endeavour to put in place an isolation system to prevent cattle entering Ireland unless they are quarantined. We are much more dependent on agriculture than most of our European partners.

Has the Minister met the Associated Livestock Marts and the Co-op Marts with a view to ensuring some movement on the sale of store cattle? The Minister is as aware as I that tens of thousands of farmers have store cattle to sell and an equal number want to buy them. Would the Minister agree that the marts, under strict supervision of the permit system – I understand they have indicated their willingness to do so – could be asked to act as honest brokers putting the buyer and seller in contact with each other? It could be operated on the same system whereby farmers move from one part of the farm to another. This would put money into farmers' pockets.

Will the Minister consider the introduction of an incentive to encourage farmers to put out extra fertiliser given that more cattle will have to be carried on Irish farms this year?

I do not intend to reply to the argumentative element of Deputy Finucane's question. The individual concerned in County Carlow illegally imported animals from Britain and will be brought before the courts. I have asked officials of my Department to pursue that matter with the DPP and ensure the case is brought to prosecution at the earliest possible date. The full rigors of the law will be applied in all cases of illegal activity. We unanimously passed legislation in this regard in both Houses recently.

I will follow up the matter in regard to the ESB for the Deputy though, in consultation with the expert group, An Bord Gáis, the ESB and others were given the go ahead, with certain codes of practice, to install utilities so that people could go about their business.

The issue relating to the AIBP plants is not directly related to foot and mouth. I will take up the matter with officials in my Department to see what positive contribution we might make. Deputy Belton raised the issue of buying farm machinery. Difficulties have been identified regarding the purchase of second hand farm machinery. This matter has been raised with Professor Monaghan and guidelines are being drawn up in that regard. I would hope, if we remain free of any problems for another week, that we can allow some relaxation in that area. Farm machinery which is not properly disinfected and fumigated would be very high risk as this fungus is known to survive for very long periods in dung and waste material.

Deputy Enright raised the subject of quarantine, shows and the banks. I have communicated directly with the banks who have indicated they are prepared to be helpful in this situation. Departmental officials met with marts, the ICOS and the IFA regarding animal movement. There are many difficulties regarding animal movement because of susceptible animals moving from farm to farm. The expert group were not then in a position to allow any relaxation, other than on animal welfare grounds and directly to abattoirs. Nonetheless, they asked the marts and the IFA to draw up codes of practice, and they will review the matter in one week. So there is an intensive review of that matter.

In relation to quarantine, the foot and mouth disease outbreak in Britain, the north of Ireland, Ireland, and the worrying situation in the Netherlands where there are more than 20 cases, show how transport is a problem. Similarly, the two cases in France show how resting points for animals can be lethal sources of infection. The transport problem will be negative for Ireland due to the long distance travel required for our live exports. We will address that issue at the Council of Ministers. In relation to addressing of this problem on an all island basis—

Precisely. It should be on a 32-county basis.

Yes. The Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture, Ms Rodgers MLA, and her officials have said that North and South would liaise closely in the prevention of the importation of susceptible animals from Great Britain. We are doing that. That was said on Friday and yesterday Northern Ireland officials visited Agriculture House to pursue that goal. It would make life a great deal easier for everybody if we could keep susceptible animals out of the island of Ireland. We are pursuing that very actively.

Deputy Connaughton asked about the marts and store cattle in particular. That is being reviewed intensively but it is the single most difficult problem and the highest risk activity. I can understand the frustration of farmers but I also understand that it will be well worth waiting. The next week will be critical, and 19 April is an important date. Grass growth is slow this spring and it is a difficult time for farmers. I would not go as far as saying that a subsidy will be introduced but I encourage the farming community to do what they can in that regard.

On the restocking of farms, some farms have been depopulated due to diseases other than foot and mouth disease, such as brucellosis and BSE among others. We are looking at protocols on restocking those farms. In relation to restocking County Louth and the Cooley Peninsula, there will be very strict controls and we are giving that matter some thought.

That concludes Private Notice Questions. We now resume on No. 6, the Twenty-third Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 2001 – Second Stage (Resumed).

Will the Minister consider underwriting the losses of agricultural shows? Otherwise, they are in danger of suffering huge losses. I am speaking of shows like Tullamore, Rathdowney and Clonaslee, and other similar shows around the country who are just now making the final decisions of proceeding with the show or not.

Deputy Jim O'Keeffe is in possession. We have moved on, Deputy Enright.

The Minister should answer. It is an important matter.

We have finished with Private Notice Questions. Deputy Enright has had his opportunity.