Adjournment Matters. - Russian Ban on Irish Meat.

I thank the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry in his absence for making one emphatic statement during the week at a press conference. He said there is no scientific basis or justification for the selective ban requested by Russia on our beef exports to which he agreed. He stands condemned out of his own mouth. I agree with him that there is no scientific basis. I will produce figures going back to 1989 to underline how unscientific and outrageous the Minister's decision is and how damaging it is and will be for the economy. If the Minister decided to introduce a ban in, for instance, Brittany, he should remember that Brittany, in the northwest of France, is in a different position from Tipperary which is in the heartland of Ireland and surrounded by seven counties. Monaghan and Cork also have contact with other counties; Cork with Limerick, Waterford and Kerry.

In its disease-free status France is not comparable to Ireland. I was Minister for Agriculture for five years, perhaps the longest serving Minister with one exception since the foundation of the State. When BSE broke out in Britain in 1989 I took the most stringent steps of any member state in Europe and any country in the world in relation to the control of BSE to reassure consumers at home and abroad.

I demanded that the International Veterinary Agency in Paris and the Veterinary Committee of the EU meet. I called the meetings and they unanimously endorsed Ireland's actions as being the most positive and effective. We introduced the slaughter policy immediately, which has cost over £14 million since. The then Taoiseach asked me what it would cost. I told him I did not know but that it would cost us much more if we did not do it. The slaughter policy and the ban on the use and importation of meat and bone meal gave us a high standing in the eyes of the world. We set the standard for other countries. Now this Minister has made a craven decision in response to some veterinary officials, not even in response to his political counterpart in Russia, and with this craven surrender he had conceded the basis of disease-free status in Ireland which has been the envy of the world. He has done worse by conceding it on a basis that has no scientific justification.

If one were worried about the number of incidents in Ireland, as external consumers will be, it is worth remembering the outbreak occurred in Britain. We have had 153 cases. Britain, in the same period, has had 165,000 cases. There is no comparison. I pleaded with this Minister to spend time in the last 12 months protecting the image of Irish beef and agriculture. I did so and brought Pavarotti with me to promote Irish beef in Italy. I visited Iran. The Minister is so busy solving the British problem that he forgot he was creating a disaster for us.

There is no analogy between the Irish and British situation but the Minister has now allowed our competitors to point out that the three banned counties have a total cattle population of 2 million, almost one-third of the total cattle population in Ireland. If any competitor wants a stick to beat us with he can use the Minister's decision and say: "Almost one third of our herd is affected. Your Minister declared it. That is far too risky for us to consider allowing importation of Irish beef or livestock". The Minister's words have condemned us.

Is it not extraordinary that of the total cattle population in Ireland, one-third are in those three counties and that marginally over one-third of the incidence of BSE this year and since the 1989 outbreak in Britain occurred in the three counties concerned? The level of outbreak in the three counties is marginally above the level of outbreak throughout the nation. Does the Minister not realise there are people who can attack us with those figures if he is not prepared to vindicate the national position?

If people really want figures to vindicate a case against us they could notice that there seems to be a much higher level of BSE in Wexford, the Minister's native county than in Tipperary, the county of his predecessor. Wexford has had five cases in total, four of them this year. Tipperary has had eight cases in total, four of them this year. One might say Tipperary has had twice as many cases this year though a little less than three quarters as many over the whole period but Tipperary's cattle population is almost three times that of Wexford. The incidence of this disease is much higher in Wexford than Tipperary. I am not making a political appeal to a Wexford Minister, asking him not to be so harsh on us. He stands condemned by his own decision on this nonsense ban. Our competitors will have ample ammunition, as they did in my time, by virtue of the Minister's outrageous actions. If he is making these decisions he should include his own county, which has a higher level of incidence than Tipperary. I am not being parochial as the facts speak for themselves.

My predecessors and I spent a long time with our veterinary services building up the "white country status" for Ireland. We invested much time and effort and Ireland's status was the best in the world. This Minister has thrown it away with one stupid decision. The Minister tells us that the gun was put to his head by some veterinary officials. I have met veterinary officials from Iran, Libya, Egypt and many other places but they would not be allowed to put a gun to my head. I met my counterpart in Iran and he met me here and we sent our officials and vets to talk to theirs andvice versa. However, we are being asked to believe that within five minutes of a veterinary official going back he tells our Minister that he must either agree to this now or else. Even if he had that authority — and I doubt if he did — in the interests of maintaining what we have built up over the years the Minister should have refused to do business on those terms. He should have made it clear that we could not make a concession that is not in accordance with the facts and that would undermine our status elsewhere, be it in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

I do not want to claim special credit but I was recognised as the Minister who did this not just for Ireland but for Europe. My approach is made not for Tipperary or for farmers but for the economy in general. I have never been as concerned as I am on this occasion that a craven, mistaken and unjustifiable decision has done so much damage to the whole country.

I thank Senator O'Kennedy for raising this matter. I am glad to have this opportunity to deal with Irish exports of beef to Russia in the relative calm of this House.

Perhaps I could begin with some background. There is a history of the import of Irish beef into the former USSR and, more recently, Russia. The level of trade has varied substantially through the years depending mainly on production patterns in the USSR and Russia which, in turn, determined supply, demand and prices. For quite a period, sales to the USSR and Russia were sourced mainly from intervention stocks. Commercial sales took off in 1994 when the level of export refunds to Russia was increased thus making this trade economic.

It also coincided with the transformation of the Russian food market following the break-up of the USSR. This fact, together with a decline in Russian production following difficulties associated with privatising the agriculture sector, has resulted in a substantial steady increase in the export of Irish beef to Russia. In 1995 some 100,000 tonnes of beef was exported to Russia valued at around £325 million, making it the largest market for Irish beef outside the EU. It continues to be the most important third country market for Irish beef in 1996.

The confirmation of the first BSE cases in Ireland in 1989 caused difficulties for Irish beef sales to a number of third countries, including Russia. In the autumn of 1990 the USSR authorities raised concerns about accepting Irish intervention beef. The sale from intervention was only cleared following the visit of their chief veterinary officer to Ireland to inspect our health controls at first hand.

In July 1993 the Russian authorities suspended imports of Irish beef because of BSE related concerns. Again the ban was lifted following the visit of a high level veterinary delegation to Ireland and the negotiation of a veterinary certificate which included certain specific animal health assurances required by the Russian authorities. The point I would like to stress is that BSE related concerns in Russia are not new and it is only since 1994 that a consistent commercial trade developed in that market.

The most recent and most serious BSE crisis commenced following the House of Commons statement on 20 March, and we are all aware of the subsequent wave of consumer concern and market closures which followed. However, the Russian market remained open during this period because of ongoing contacts with the Russian authorities and their satisfaction with the comprehensive series of controls in place here which ensured the safety and quality of beef exports. In addition, a permanent Russian veterinary official was assigned to Ireland to monitor the filling of contracts and the loading of ships to Russia. The presence of this official has facilitated the continuing trade to Russia at a time when difficulties were being experienced in a number of other markets. Therefore, the Russian authorities have been updated on the BSE situation on an ongoing basis and are relatively familiar with the control system here.

During recent months, the Russian authorities began to express concerns regarding the increasing level of BSE in Ireland. There have been 38 cases of BSE in Ireland in 1996 to date, which is more than double the number of cases in 1995 and is higher than the level of cases in any year to date. During the visit of a trade delegation which I led to Moscow in mid-September the Russian veterinary authorities raised the increasing level of cases in Ireland and a ban was threatened though not implemented at that time. Despite reassurances provided, the issue was raised again on the margins of a veterinary conference in Malta two weeks ago.

The Taoiseach contacted the Russian Prime Minister, Mr. Chernomyrdin at that time, and the Tánaiste spoke to the Russian Foreign Minister. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Deputy Yates, contacted his Russian counterpart. Russia's chief veterinary officer was invited here and following a review of the situation in Moscow it was decided that he would come here with a delegation of experts to study the situation at first hand.

There was no complacency on the part of the Government to a developing situation. The Minister, Deputy Yates, personally kept in constant contact with the situation. No useful purpose would have been served in advertising to the world that we had BSE related difficulties with Russia or in talking about trade restrictions where none actually existed.

I would like to describe in some detail the events of last week. The chief veterinary officer of the Russian Federation and a delegation of veterinary experts visited Ireland from 7 to 12 October to review the controls in place and to study the epidemiology of the disease in Ireland. The Russian team completed a comprehensive programme of visits covering beef plants, rendering plants, ports and laboratories. I met with the delegation during their stay, as did the Minister, Deputy Yates, and the Taoiseach.

At the end of the week the Russian delegation put forward a Protocol which set out the basis for the continuation of the importation of beef from Ireland by Russia. Apart from age and labelling requirements which do not present major problems, the Protocol included categorisation by counties and the exclusion of up to seven counties from the Russian market. They selected the counties. The basis for the selection, while not altogether clear, was based on their study of the figures.

It certainly is not clear.

It was linked, however, to the level of the disease in the various counties in 1996. The Russian side made it very clear that if the Protocol was not agreed an immediate ban would be recommended and implemented on all Irish beef with effect from 1 November. Notwithstanding the threat of a ban, the proposed categorisation was opposed vigorously and it was argued in strong terms that there was no scientific justification for the measure. The Friday, 11 October, meeting ended without any resolution of the problem.

Following consultations at a high level, the negotiations resumed later that evening. The Russian side continued to insist upon categorisation but they did agree to drop the number of counties to be excluded to three — Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan — and that beef for Russia could be sourced from any approved plant in any county. I should add that it was not a case of swapping counties, adding one county would not get another removed. It was also agreed that the restrictions would be temporary and would be reviewed every three months and that if the incidence of the disease improved in the counties concerned then the restrictions would be relaxed. These were important considerations. We continued to oppose the measure and it was only following further consultations at high level that a decision was taken reluctantly to sign the Protocol. The Protocol was signed in the departure lounge of Dublin Airport on Saturday, 12 October. A member of the delegation, an epidemiologist, is staying in Ireland to study the BSE disease further.

I would like to state very clearly that the decision was taken on practical grounds and with the greatest reluctance. However, the stark choice we were facing was the complete closure of the Russian market to all Irish beef or the exclusion of three counties on a temporary basis with an agreed mechanism to relax this restriction in due course.

In the circumstances we made the only possible choice. The closure of a market of the size of Russia would have been disastrous for the Irish beef industry at a difficult time. Not enough thought has been given to the reality of a ban and what it means. It would mean that our trade would be excluded from a market with an import requirement of almost 500,000 tonnes of beef. Contacts would be lost and competitors would be established. We all know that trade creates more trade and the worst scenario would be for our trade to be cut off from the contacts and buyers with whom they have built a relationship over the past two years. The loss of the Russian market would put us into safety net intervention and would mean a drop in producer prices of 4p per pound. The consequence of a build up of intervention stock could undermine Russia as a commercial market.

It has been argued that categorisation or regionalisation would have an impact on other third country markets. I do not accept this. However, a ban in a market the size of Russia would definitely have an impact. Therefore, I completely reject the argument that it would have been better to accept a ban rather than a limited form of regionalisation. The Russian market remains open and Irish traders can continue to exploit the real opportunities which exist in this market. While the Minister, Deputy Yates, was prepared to reluctantly accept limited regionalisation in respect of Russia, as it is our most important third country market, it is not proposed to accept it in any other third countries. It is also the Minister's intention to travel to Russia at an early date to seek a relaxation of the restrictions on these counties.

I appreciate the concerns of the farmers in the counties concerned and I accept that the measures are not justified on scientific or other grounds. The meat from these counties is as safe to eat as that from any other county. However, the Minister was faced with the stark choice of protecting the Irish beef industry and, in the circumstances, I am satisfied the right decision was taken.

I cannot accept that the negotiations could have been prolonged. First, as I indicated earlier, a ban would have been promulgated from last Monday and, second, our beef trade needed to know now where it stood as regards entering into future contracts. The filling of a contract, particularly of the high volume type supplied to Russia, takes weeks to organise. It is naive to think that this could be let run up to the end of October and that trade would flow from then. Stalling the negotiations was not an option.

My impression is that while the meat trade may not like the conditions or restrictions, it is anxious to continue slaughtering and to do business in Russia. Contrary to earlier expectations commercial sales of beef from Ireland have performed quite well. This can be demonstrated by the fact that our usage of intervention has been less than expected. We have put 40,000 tonnes of beef into emergency intervention which is a good deal less than original predictions when figures of 100,000 tonnes were mentioned. Arising from this we should do everything possible to maintain the momentum of commercial sales and there is no basis for the fatalistic comments with regard to animals and products from Counties Cork, Tipperary and Monaghan.

We have a market in Europe for over 200,000 tonnes of beef without any restrictions. The EU has set down the guidelines for trade and we comply with these. Other third country markets have the potential to take 100,000 tonnes and we have individual veterinary certificates and Protocols with these countries. The cliché of "talking ourselves into a crisis" holds particularly true in this case.

The real culprit in this is BSE. Much of the comment that has been made seems to be based on the assumption that we do not have BSE and that it only exists in Britain. We have BSE and the present predicament arises from the upsurge of cases during the summer. I accept that the number of cases is small and it is not reasonable to draw conclusions from changes in low incidence figures. However, the discussions with third countries are held in the context that we are a country with BSE, albeit at a low level. It highlights the need to ensure that we have effective controls. Everything is being done to ensure that the controls are effective and properly enforced and nothing less than full cooperation from farmers and from the industry generally in their enforcement is expected and accepted.

At this stage, we need less recrimination and inaccurate and intemperate reaction on how we have arrived at the current situation. The Protocol is a reality; accepting a full ban is not. Therefore, we need to move on and support the trade in seeking new contracts and implementing smoothly the Russian requirements.

No case is seen for regionalising cattle prices. The ultimate aim is to ensure our BSE controls are fully effective and that we get rid of the disease. BSE has given rise to many unpleasant decisions. It was not easy to depopulate herds of what appear to be healthy and valuable animals with just one case of BSE but experience has shown this to be the right decision. I compliment the Minister for putting the policy in place at the time. Banning the feeding of meat and bonemeal caused disruption but it was the right decision. Further regulations the Minister has put in place recently will help enforce that decision because not everybody complied with that ban.

It has not been easy to accept regionalisation for the Russian market if only on a temporary basis. However, I believe it was the right decision and that experience will show this to be the case. In all the circumstances, I consider that the Minister, Deputy Yates, acted in the best interest of the agriculture sector, of the beef industry including farmers, beef processors and workers.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Having listened to it I am more concerned. It is clear that the Russians came to their conclusion based on the figures per county. That must be false. If they had done that——

Acting Chairman

There will be ample opportunity to debate this matter next Tuesday.

About 10 per cent of the incidence this year came from Wexford which has only 4 per cent of the national herd.

It was the Russians who decided on this.

About the highest proportion——

Acting Chairman

We cannot debate the matter now.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.10 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 October 1996.