Other Questions

The Deputy who tabled Question No. 6 is not present. I call Deputy Broughan on Question No. 7.

Question No. 6 replied to with Written Answers.

Bovine Disease Controls

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

7. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will provide an update on the recent bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, case; the investigative measures his Department is taking to ensure this was an isolated case; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25843/15]

The BSE case in County Louth is a very significant event in Irish agriculture. I have been looking quickly at the epidemiological investigation report on the Department's website and it appears to conclude that this is a classical BSE case and, it is hoped, a one-off event. However, the report seems very vague overall. Obviously, the feed from the era in question, 2009 to 2010, has been investigated thoroughly and does not seem to be the root of the problem. Given the impact on our food reputation internationally and what the Minister has been trying to do over recent years, is it concerning that we have not identified the precise cause of this outbreak?

Before I reply to the question, I thank colleagues for taking a very responsible approach to a very sensitive issue last week. We were anxious to get very detailed results, which we did. This has provided a great deal of reassurance to the beef industry and farming and, most important, to people who buy Irish beef. They can be sure this is an industry that is properly regulated, safe and which has dealt with an outlier or single and individual case of BSE in a very transparent and competent manner.

Final test results have confirmed the recent suspect case of BSE to be an isolated case of classical BSE in a single animal. In line with normal protocols, my Department identified all animals potentially exposed to the BSE agent that caused this incident, those born and reared on the birth farm one year either side of the birth date of the positive animal and, indeed, her progeny. These have been slaughtered, excluded from the food and feed chains and tested. The epidemiological investigation has confirmed the following. All 63 cohort animals and four progeny slaughtered and disposed of have tested negative for BSE. The confirmed case is an isolated case in a single animal. Both the dam and grand dam of the infected animal tested negative for BSE at slaughter and, therefore, vertical transmission is not considered to be a factor in this case. While the grand dam of the positive animal was imported, this is not of any significance in epidemiological terms. No concerns arise regarding the integrity of the commercial feed supply chain or the effectiveness of the feed control systems.

We looked at thousands of test results from the years when this animal was growing up and not a single one tested positive for meat and bonemeal, which was connected in the past to BSE. We have had a meat and bonemeal ban in animal feed since 2001. All of the indications, surveys and test results show the ban has been rigorously enforced and adhered to by the feed industry in Ireland. Last year there were ten isolated one-off single animal cases of BSE throughout the European Union. Unfortunately we have had one this year, but we have dealt with it in a very comprehensive way. We have shown the systems in Ireland deal with these isolated incidences if and when they happen. The industry itself continues to deal in a very comprehensive way with the historic problem of BSE.

The Minister made the point very strongly about feedstuffs but could there have been cross-contamination in 2009 or 2010? Was this ruled out? The farm in question is reported to be an exemplary producer. The report makes clear this is the second time this farm was depopulated as it also occurred approximately a decade ago. Is this of concern to the Minister? He mentioned the grand dam was imported in this case. Is this a matter of concern? The European Union and the OIE must be informed. Will this lead to a downgrading of our status from negligible risk to controlled risk? Is this a significant event with regard to the efforts made on beef exports to the United States and China? What further controls is the Minister considering to ensure this does not reoccur?

The Deputy asked many questions so I will try to move through them as quickly as I can. The markets are very calm with regard to this incident. People, governments and veterinary departments which understand BSE and its history understand these isolated one-off cases can happen. The important thing is how they are dealt with, and a number of people outside of Ireland have complimented me and the Department. Catching this animal and dealing with it in a transparent and open way is proof the Irish system is working.

We have not received negative feedback from the countries with which we trade. Of course we have provided information and reassurance to all of them and it seems to be working very well. Beef prices have increased since the incident happened. They are not increasing because it happened but they certainly have not decreased and the demand for Irish beef has not reduced. This is an indication people trust our systems. I believe Irish beef is the safest in the world, and this is the case now as it was a month ago.

On the OIE question, of course we have shared all of our results with European Commission and the OIE. Unfortunately we may well get reclassified. Three weeks ago we were upgraded to negligible risk status, which means no issue at all with BSE, from controlled risk status, which means our controls make us safe. However, controls are necessary. We may well now have to revert back to controlled risk, but this is a matter for the OIE and we will have to wait to see what happens.

I also asked the Minister about the fact that farm was depopulated in the past and about cross-contamination.

The farm had a previous incident of BSE in 2002 and unfortunately we have had this one-off incident on the farm again. The honest answer is we cannot pinpoint exactly what caused this, because in all likelihood it was something the animal ingested six or perhaps five years ago. We are sharing our results with other countries in Europe which have had one-off cases in recent years to try to gain a better scientific understanding about how these one-off cases happen. There are different theories on it. With regard to all we could have practically done in testing, we tested current feed on the farm and our inspectors looked at the farm in great detail with regard to feed storage facilities looking for any clues or hints as to how this might have happened. With regard to how it is run, the farm's cleanliness and organisation is exemplary. It is a really well run farm so it is unfortunate this incident has happened. We will do what we can with other countries to draw further conclusions but the conclusions we have drawn on the basis of the testing we have done are very reassuring to date.

Harbours and Piers

Terence Flanagan

Question:

8. Deputy Terence Flanagan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will provide details of future tendering processes for properties at Howth fishery harbour in County Dublin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26075/15]

This question is about the tendering process at Howth fishery harbour and the other five fishery harbours. Will the Minister also comment on the report produced recently by the Committee of Public Accounts on the underutilisation of assets at the fishery harbours?

The property portfolio in Howth, one of six fishery harbour centres managed and operated by the Department, encompasses a range of diverse properties reflecting its remit as a working fishery harbour and its unique features which facilitate a broad range of other diverse activities which are important from both an economic and social perspective. The Department’s aim, working within the Government framework for the management of State property and relevant legal frameworks, is to ensure the sites within this diverse portfolio generate a competitive economic return while fostering a diverse range of maritime activities. In this context the Department reviews the portfolio of properties on an ongoing basis to maximise these returns to the Exchequer.

Some properties in Howth Fishery Harbour Centre may appear vacant. However they can be, and in many cases are, subject to tenancy arrangements. At present eight vacant properties in Howth are not subject to existing tenancy arrangements. Of these, two were made available by competitive public tender on 15 of June and details of the competitions can be viewed on the Department’s website. A further two properties are subject to legal, operational or planning considerations and cannot be made available for tenancy until these issues are resolved. These issues are being progressed and, when appropriate, further tender competitions will be publicly advertised. The remaining four properties are not considered suitable for tender at present.

I thank the Minister for his response. No doubt he is very familiar with Howth as he has visited it on many occasions. It is a source of frustration for Deputy Broughan and I as local Deputies that business owners come to us on a constant basis expressing interest in some of the vacant properties. In some of the properties materials are being stored by the Department so they are not being run on a commercial basis. If the Department is not able or capable of utilising and ensuring the taxpayers gets bang for their buck it needs to hand over the properties to a commercial auctioneer who will look after them and ensure they are properly put out to tender. There are major concerns. The Committee on Public Accounts has visited Howth. The Chairman, Deputy John McGuinness, in particular was hugely critical of the underutilisation of resources. Much more needs to be done to ensure they are used to full capacity. There is huge potential for job creation. Howth is at the end of the DART line and is one of the most scenic areas in the city. More needs to be done.

More is being done.

More than the Chairman of the Committee on Public Accounts has commented on this. The committee chose to visit Howth, which it is entitled to do, and was shown around by people who have an interest in these properties and are looking to get access to them. The Department had an opportunity on 20 May to respond the committee's draft report on the financial management of the fishery harbour centres. The approach of the committee changed after that response. The Deputy knows some of the people advocating for properties to be made available to them in Howth have a history with the Department in terms of complex tenancy arrangements.

In some cases, rent has not been paid.

We have a responsibility to do a number of things. We have a responsibility to Howth to ensure a proper fisheries harbour is run there and the management of it is professional, well-run and in the interest of the local community. We also have an obligation to ensure we run our fisheries harbours in a commercial manner in order that we can pay for their upkeep and I can invest in places like Howth. We are being asked to invest there all the time and we have made considerable investment in recent years. This matter is not a simple one. There are reasons certain properties have not been made available. The ones that are ready for tenancy are being put out to competitive tender. We will look to get those tenancy arrangements in place in a fair, transparent and competitive way as soon as we can.

There has been criticism of the Department for not keeping proper accounts and an up-to-date financial management system. There has been criticism as well that proper dispute resolution mechanisms are not in place. The people on the ground and business owners are saying they are not happy with the decision-making and the fact that much of it is being done in Clonakilty. There is a lack of face-to-face accountability in decision-making. There are also long delays in getting letters answered. The harbour users forum is considered a box-ticking exercise. Perhaps some of the criticism is invalid but that is what Deputy Broughan and I, as local Deputies, are hearing on the ground. We are here to articulate those criticisms to the Minister and to ask him to ensure any bureaucracy and red tape is put to bed and more jobs are created in Howth. That is the bottom line and that is what we are looking for.

We are looking for that too but we have to ensure the tenants will be people who will pay their rent and will have accessed the tenancy arrangements under a fair and transparent competitive process. We need to ensure we have businesses that are in the interests of the broader community, in terms of development and employment in Howth, which, of course, we need to do. That takes time. We are managing six fisheries harbours at the same time. There are problems in terms of tenancies in properties in some of those harbours - some more than others. We have spoken about this matter before and I am conscious there are valuable vacant properties in Howth. They should be busy places of commercial activity and we need to get to that point. We need to be careful about how we do that and we need to ensure the people who are the successful tenants in those facilities are people who will pay their rent. That is not an unreasonable ask.

Bovine Disease Controls

Martin Ferris

Question:

9. Deputy Martin Ferris asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will provide an update on the suspected case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE, in County Louth and its probable consequences for the negligible risk status afforded to Ireland by the World Organisation for Animal Health. [26065/15]

The Minister answered most of this question when replying to Deputy Broughan's question but what are the consequences of a negligible risk status following the outbreak of BSE in County Louth? How will it affect our international exports, particularly with the opening of the markets in China?

I was relieved when we got the final results of our tests last week because it was confirmation of what we had suspected to be the case. This was a once-off, isolated case. Obviously we would rather it did not happen. Last year we had no cases. The year before we had one. The year before that there were three cases. These one-off cases seem to happen. They happen in other countries as well. When BSE is a historical problem that is being dealt with, there seem to be isolated cases every now and again which need to be caught by the system and dealt with in a transparent and comprehensive way. I hope and I think that is the way we dealt with this case. In doing that, markets and the industry have been pretty calm in their response. There has been no indication any damage will be done to Ireland's reputation or our capacity to trade. We are a big exporter and trader of beef. When something unexpected and unwelcome happens, my job is to ensure we are very open about it and deal with it in a full and comprehensive way by testing and proving there is no other problem apart from the one outlier. We did this with the testing systems we had in place.

It is unfortunate that this happened the week after the World Organisation for Animal Health, the OIE, essentially recognised that Ireland has done a really good job dealing with BSE as a historical problem by classifying the country as being in the negligible risk category. We were delighted with that classification. It may now need to reassess the classification as a result of this case because its rules require it to do so and we will, potentially, go back to where we were a month ago. Let us not forget, however, that we opened up all these new markets, and we have been more successful than any other European country in doing so, with a controlled risk status. On the basis of that controlled risk status, which I think everyone recognises is very comprehensive, we can continue to expand and grow our beef trade into new markets such as China and the United States in a very exciting way. I am very confident we can do that.

It is very seldom any compliments are thrown around this House but let me say at the outset that the Minister and his Department have done a very good job in this instance and it is worth noting. Regarding the contamination and where it came from and so forth, my understanding is that the animal in question was the daughter of an import or an import itself from Germany.

Its grandmother was imported but tested negative for BSE.

Retrospective testing was done there as well. What about the calves from this cow? She was a six year old cow. I assume she had four calves. Were the calves male or female and did any of those calves find their way into the food chain?

I am glad to clear up this matter. The animal had four calves. All four progeny were alive. They have all been slaughtered and they have all tested negative. There is a very tenuous link, if a link at all, between a mother and a calf as regards the passing on of BSE. Some scientists suggest it is possible; others say it is very unlikely. We know, however, that it is a non-issue here. We know the mother of this animal did not have BSE because she was tested. The grandmother that had been imported was also tested when slaughtered and tested negative. The four progeny all tested negative as well. The 63 other animals born the year before, the year after, and the same year as this animal and all of which grew up on the same farm were all slaughtered and tested and they all tested negative. All the animals that could have been connected in any way, through progeny or through other cohorts which would have been feeding on the same feed as this animal, tested negative. It is important and reassuring to note that fact. Something happened here which was not systemic. It certainly was not a broad problem in terms of the import of feed because it was isolated to one animal.

TB Eradication Scheme

Noel Coonan

Question:

10. Deputy Noel Coonan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if he will report on the eradication of bovine tuberculosis, with particular emphasis on the number of animals testing positive in recent years; the number of blackspots in the country; the annual cost of the programme to the Exchequer; if he is satisfied with the manner in which the veterinary profession is carrying out the programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26095/15]

The programme for the eradication of TB is hugely important in many senses of the word and from both animal health and human health points of view. It is also a very expensive and ongoing programme. What progress has been made on the expense associated with it? I am especially concerned, however, about how difficult it is to get information from the Minister, his Department and veterinary inspectors when something goes wrong. I am extremely concerned about investigations which take place with officials investigating themselves. I spoke to the Minister about a particular problem. He did not want to get involved in it and he silenced his colleague, the Minister of State sitting beside him, on it. The veterinary officers hide behind legal arguments. The public is hugely concerned that natural justice would not only be done but also be seen to be done.

I will answer both of the Deputy's questions but the first one relates to TB generally. The bovine TB eradication programme has delivered considerable success, particularly in recent years.

The number of reactors has fallen from under 30,000 in 2008 to 16,000 in 2014. The decline in the number of reactors has continued in 2015 with the result that reactor numbers are likely to fall below 15,000 this year for the first time since the programme was introduced in the mid-1950s. Herd incidence of tuberculosis fell from 5.9% to 3.6% between 2008 and 2014 and has continued to decline further this year, with the possible exception of Wicklow, which has a specific issue.

The reduction in the incidence of the disease has already brought significant benefits to farmers. First, 2,700 fewer herds were restricted in 2014 compared to 2008. Second, the annual cost of the TB eradication programme has fallen from €55 million in 2008 to €35 million in 2014. Apart from the number of counties, the herd incidence of TB in most regional clusters is close to the average of 3.6% now. The countries where the incidence of TB is significantly above the national average include Wicklow, Westmeath and Wexford. My Department has undertaken a survey in recent months with regard to the situation in Wicklow to determine the incidence of TB in deer with a view to investigating the impact of TB in deer on the situation in the county. The results of the exercise are still under examination by my Department. The findings of the study will be considered by the non-statutory Irish deer management forum, which will make appropriate recommendations in respect of all aspects of deer management in Wicklow and nationally.

Deputy Coonan referred to a specific case. It is true that I did not want to get involved in it personally. I did not think it was appropriate for a Minister to get involved in individual cases. We have an appeals system when someone believes they have not been treated fairly by my Department or its inspectorate. We encourage people to use that appeals system. In respect of the case the Deputy is concerned about I encourage him to encourage that the appeals system, which is an independent system, should be used and I hope it will get a satisfactory result.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but it does not really deal with the issue. There have been cases like the Fleury case in Offaly, the Cavan case and other cases throughout the country where people, farmers in particular, have been dragged through the courts and where the Department and its inspectors make life difficult for them. People have been put out of business over this.

Under natural justice in this country a person is innocent until proven guilty, but my experience when dealing with the Department is that it is the other way around: a person is guilty until he can prove his innocence.

No farmer that I am aware of or any farmer in the country wants TB. All farmers want it out of their herd immediately and they will do everything to co-operate to get it out. I offer a case in point. The veterinary inspector who is now suspended identified 15 animals as TB reactors. The Department decided this was not the case and that there were only nine. Those responsible left the other six in the herd. Then, two months later when they tested the herd there were over 100 reactors in the herd. These cases are not being answered by the Minister or the Department. We have to drag them screaming to get information from them. Will all ongoing investigations be published and made known at least to the people involved or preferably to the general public?

Deputy Coonan is aware of how the system works. We have a responsibility to ensure that the rules are kept. We have spent time on two or three questions talking about the BSE issue that we have had to deal with in recent weeks. We have programmes dealing with bovine viral diarrhoea, TB and Johne's disease. Obviously, we must ensure farmers farm in a way that is consistent with the cross-compliance rules and so on. Part of my Department's job is the unpopular and unpleasant work of ensuring that people keep the rules and that we have systems in place we can stand over and which guarantee integrity in the food chain. That is all my Department tries to do. If there is a problem with that and if people do not like how the Department is undertaking the job, then we have an independent appeal system to which people can apply. We also have a farmers' charter which has just been agreed in recent weeks with farming organisations. Essentially this covers the codes of conduct under which my Department interacts with farmers. We have agreed that for the coming years.

I am keen to be helpful of course, but I do not believe it is appropriate for the Minister to get involved in the detail of individual cases; otherwise I would spend all my time doing that. That would encourage a kind of political lobbying that would not be healthy in agriculture. Instead, my job is to ensure that we have systems in the Department which can deal with cases that need to be appealed - often there is good reason for appeal - and that provide for a fair appeals process that deals with appeals in a fair, open and transparent manner. That is what I try to do.

The people to investigate wrongdoing in this country are the members of the Garda Síochána. The Minister should call in the Garda Síochána to investigate this particular instance. The Department is believing deliberate untruths told by someone else in order to back up the case. Those responsible are investigating themselves and that is not good practice.

Every farmer wants to eradicate TB. I want to see natural justice carried out. My experience of this case is that it is not happening. If the Minister wants to be open then what is he afraid of? He should call in the proper authorities to investigate the situation and deal with it, rather than putting genuine farmers out of business and, in the case of genuine veterinary practitioners, destroying their livelihood and careers.

We are not putting any farmers out of business. We have to make decisions on the basis of the information that is available as a result of the inspections that take place. As I said, I have no wish to discuss the detail of any individual case. We work with An Garda Síochána in many instances and we send a file to An Garda Síochána when appropriate. We have done that in respect of the implementation of the agri-environment options scheme recently in a certain part of the country where we believe that An Garda Síochána should be involved in an investigation there. We have done that repeatedly in respect of horse welfare incidents. We are not afraid to work with An Garda Síochána when appropriate to do so, but we also have to make decisions as a Department on the basis of the evidence that is gathered as a result of individual cases that we have been involved in inspecting. As I said, there is an independent appeals process linked to my Department which should be used if people believe they are not being treated fairly, and they will get fair outcomes from that process.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.