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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Dec 2002

Vol. 559 No. 2

Ceisteanna – Questions (Resumed). Priority Questions. - Bovine Diseases.

Mary Upton


34 Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food if the departmental investigation into the discovery of BSE in a young bull on a County Limerick farm recently has been completed; if the cause of the infection has been established; if he has satisfied himself with the controls in place to prevent BSE from entering the human food chain; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25961/02]

My Department is continuing its investigations following confirmation of BSE in an animal born in 1999. This animal was discovered when the herd cohorts of a 1993-born infected animal were slaughtered and tested for the disease. In this, as in all other BSE cases, my Department is conducting an in-depth analysis of all possible sources of infectivity. It has not, to date, drawn any final conclusions on the source of the infection of this animal. In so far as the controls are concerned, they are the most stringent being applied anywhere. They consist of the removal of SRM from the human food and animal feed chains; ante and post mortem inspections at all meat plants; whole herd depopulation; tracing and culling of birth cohorts and progeny of BSE-infected animals; a ban on feeding meat and bonemeal to all farmed animals intended for human consumption and compulsory notification of the disease.

Up to a few years ago, as those familiar with farming practices will be aware, casualty or fallen animals were sometimes buried on farms or even, in some situations, left unburied but in most cases they were disposed of to local knackeries or other outlets such as foxhound packs. All of that practice has now ceased and there is a comprehensive collection system in operation. Even though such fallen animals are clearly not destined for the human food chain, they are all tested as part of a comprehensive, active surveillance programme among all cattle over 30 months of age, all casualty cattle over 24 months of age in meat plants and all fallen cattle over 24 months of age in knackeries. Since 1 January, 2001, more than 1.3 million cattle have been tested, of which more than 600,000 were aged between 30 and 48 months. With all of those tests, only one animal, a 45 months old bull in County Limerick, was found to be positive.

Against that background, the fact that the age profile of animals in which the disease is confirmed is increasing is a reflection of the success of the additional controls introduced as technology evolves. As a result, the incidence of BSE will decline further as older animals leave the system.

Is the Minister confident about the controls which are in place? Clearly, in this case, something went wrong and there was some slippage through the net. It may well be attributable to a residue of meat and bonemeal on the farm concerned. If that is the case, it is important that it is traced and identified. If that is not the case, it raises many other questions on the possible options as to how this situation may have occurred. The Minister will be aware of various research programmes in relation to BSE and that there are some outcomes, admittedly at a preliminary stage, that might give rise to further concerns. Accordingly, we need an absolute outcome urgently, in terms of establishing the precise cause in this case.

I fully agree that people need assurance that the controls in relation to BSE are comprehensive, that the measures in place prevent contaminated food from getting into the human food chain and that there is no food safety risk with regard to beef for human consumption. Epidemiological testing is continuing in the County Limerick case. It requires in-depth examination and a special surveillance unit of my Department has spent the past few weeks in the Limerick area, examining all relevant documentation, farm management practices and the feeding regime etc. I expect an outcome to those investigations very shortly. That is essential, having regard to the importance of our food industry for consumers in Ireland and worldwide.

No food product other than beef has such a comprehensive set of controls ensuring its safety, including the testing which picked up the animal involved in this case, the removal of specified risk material and the other measures to which I have referred. The beef which consumers buy at their local butcher or supermarket outlet is, typically, from animals in the age range of 24 to 30 months, as distinct from animals of 45-months-old and upwards as in the Limerick case. I guarantee that the beef which people consume is safe to eat. I doubt if any other food is monitored to the same extent as beef or is subject to such a wide range of controls to guard against even the most minute risk of contaminated material getting through the system.

I refer to the reply to the previous question, which referred to four other animals born after 1996 which were also found to have BSE. Was there a thorough investigation of those cases also and was the cause of infection established?

Yes. There is no possibility of meat from animals born in 1997 going into the consumer market, which is typically supplied by animals in the range of 24 to 30 months at slaughter. Up to the year 2000, it was permitted to feed meat and bonemeal to non-ruminants and there was at least a risk, both in feed mills and on farms, that cross-contamination could occur. In those cases, the most likely source of infectivity was such cross-contamination. That the animals referred to were picked up by the testing system is a positive sign. On that basis, we can assure the public that, out of 1.3 million tests, only one animal was found to be positive.