Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 16 Dec 1998

Vol. 157 No. 16

Animal Health Crisis: Motion.

I move:

That Seanad Éireann condemns the Minister for Agriculture and Food for the increase in incidence of bovine diseases among the nation's cattle herd; and calls on the Minister to investigate the reasons for this huge increase and to outline the proposals he has to deal with this animal health crisis.

I welcome the Minister and thank him for coming here to debate this very important measure. It gives me great pleasure to propose the motion before the House tonight.

I have no doubt that everybody has been frightened by the increase in the figures published in the past few weeks. At a time when the beef industry is going through one of the worst periods in living memory, the banner headlines in last week's newspapers — particularly in the Farmer's Journal— stated there was a big explosion in TB. It saddened everybody in the industry. It was a particularly harsh blow to an industry already on its knees.

During 1998 the number of reactors per thousand tests increased in almost every one of the Twenty-six Counties. Over 8,000 herds have suffered breakdowns this year compared to 6,600 in the same period in 1997. This is a frightening figure for an industry already on its knees. As Members know, 13 counties have a higher incidence than the national average. Monaghan heads this with 8.4 reactors per thousand tests, followed by Cavan, Wicklow, Laois, Sligo, Clare and Leitrim all of which have an average higher than the national average. The figure of 40,000 reactors this year compared with 28,600 in 1997 is staggering.

When examining the bovine TB eradication scheme we must go back to 1958. At that time 25 per cent of all herds were diseased. Major steps were taken in the past 40 years and it has now been brought down to approximately 0.5 per cent today. By any comparison, that is a very good effort. However, it cost the Irish taxpayer a huge amount of money, a staggering £1.5 billion, to bring it to that level.

There were many hiccups between farming organisations and vets in those years. The biggest contentious issue was when Deputy Yates, as Minister for Agriculture, proposed an alternative. Instead of the State overseeing the eradication of disease, he put in place a scheme whereby individual farmers would shoulder responsibility. Under his proposals, farmers have the responsibility for arranging their first herd test each year and for taking the appropriate measures to safeguard their existing herds. Critically, the individual farmer rather than the Department must pay the private vets for carrying out the work.

He was probably one of the first Ministers for Agriculture who tried to reform the scheme, and was successful. His proposals for reform included a scheme that was the most radical ever to be undertaken. That is how he described it then. It is probably fair to say they were the best prospect for success.

At that time, Deputy Yates showed his political mettle by devising proposals which divided farmers and vets. A proposed reduction in the levies farmers had to pay to the Department from £28 million pounds to £10 million concentrated the minds in the farming community. The farming community at that time were enticed by the proposed abolition of the compulsory 60 day pre-movement test, which farmers at that time had to arrange and pay for to allow them to sell their cattle.

Farming organisations, such as the IFA and ICMSA, also signalled their support. At the same time the Irish Veterinary Union continued to oppose it. It was a long and acrimonious dispute. Despite the division between the Irish Veterinary Union and Deputy Yates at that time, the changeover to private payment by farmers has since been acknowledged and a year later many vets expressed their satisfaction. At one of their annual conferences this was acknowledged as a better system than the previous one.

I am outlining the history of TB eradication to help Members understand why I am proposing this motion. Huge changes have taken place in relation to the funding of this scheme and they have proved very costly from time to time. Great sacrifices and changes have taken place.

In late 1997, when an assessment of this scheme took place, the number of animals per thousand failing the TB test was further on the decline. The herd incidence had dropped from 6.5 per cent to 5.7 per cent. The Department, in its report, stated the national round of testing under the new arrangement had proceeded in a satisfactory way with the number of tests being carried out on a par with previous years. Perhaps the most interesting piece of information the Department issued at that time was that in the national round of tests, the number of reactors — animals showing signs of infection — was 3 per thousand tests compared to 3.3 per thousand in 1995. From any figure or comparison we may consider, in both 1996 and 1997 the number of incidents seems to have fallen.

However this was until the latest report. The latest report shows one of the most frightening features. After some years of improvement, TB levels in cattle are again showing an upward trend. The latest Department figures show the numbers of reactors per 1,000 animals across the country increased from 2.5 to 3.4 per cent in the past 12 months. Figures have increased in 23 of the Twenty-six Counties, and increases are significant in Waterford and Wicklow, areas with a high level of wildlife. I referred earlier to the TB forum and the package that was agreed in 1996. The Department is now carrying out an investigation of outbreaks of disease among wildlife. These cattle are being removed but wildlife that is reportedly carrying the disease is being left in place. This is a poor way to tackle a very dangerous problem.

It is unfair and totally unjust to everybody involved in the eradication of TB. I have a lot of respect for wildlife and would hate to see any of those animals removed from their natural habitats, particularly as we are doing so much under the successful rural environmental protection scheme. That scheme has done much to preserve the environment for wildlife. It is a shame that badgers are causing a problem, but we must face reality. We have to be prepared to take stronger action in this area. What action does the Minister of State propose to take? The bottom line is that there is no point taking diseased cattle away and leaving diseased badgers.

This situation has gone on for too long, and too many people have been hurt by what is happening in the disease eradication area, either with tuberculosis or brucellosis. It is having a huge effect on our economy at a time when the beef industry and agriculture as a whole are going through a difficult period. We all know that the food industry is suffering badly, and I call on the Minister of State to give that industry an answer. If we do not have disease free status we will be going nowhere as a food exporting country.

I second the motion. I have always found the Cathaoirleach to be a generous man. I always appreciate his latitude and the stretch he got into those nylons for me.

Thank you, Senator.

That is a reference to the vacant Pretty Polly factory, which has still not been occupied despite assurances given.

It is of no relevance to this debate.

I appreciate that, but I wanted to explain the latitude I mentioned to the Minister of State. I have time for him as a neighbouring countyman. I welcome him to the debate. He has an unenviable task; he is on a sticky wicket and in a no-win situation.

The increase in the incidence of bovine tuberculosis in the nation's cattle herd is a very serious matter. I am interested in the Minister of State's reasons for the huge increases and the proposals he and his Department have to resolve the problem. Given the beef industry crisis and the falling prices for all livestock, farmers are in a difficult position, given that everything, including the weather, has hit them this year. The boats that the Minister of State and his colleague talked about never sailed and never arrived.

That is not true.

There is a lot of fog in these Houses too at times. I will be very interested in Senator O'Brien's contribution. There has been an explosive increase in the number of cases of tuberculosis. The national figures outlined by Senator Hayes are catastrophic. There are 13 counties riddled with huge increases in reactor numbers that are out of all proportion. I would be interested to learn if I am wrong, but I do not think I am. I acknowledge that one quarter of the national herd was diseased in 1958, and a tremendous effort was made to eradicate that disease but we must look at the enormous cost to the taxpayer, and we are still not rid of it. Numbers are increasing again and that upward trend is very worrying.

I am as concerned as anyone about the safety of wildlife, but if it is conclusively known that badgers are responsible, as I think it is, definite and appropriate measures will have to be put in place. The Department must stop pussyfooting around on this issue.

The Cathaoirleach is very good to people who are disadvantaged. I come from Kerry, where we are severely handicapped as well as being disadvantaged, particularly my area in south Kerry. It is similar to west Cork, which the Minister of State will appreciate. The brucellosis figures for 1997 meant 47 herds in Kerry were depopulated, 39 in 1996 and 65 this year. That is deplorable. Why is it happening? As regards TB, the national average is 3.9 per 1,000 tests, but the Kerry figure is 4.9 per 1,000 tests. I agree with Senator Hayes. We are sending the wrong signals about the food industry of which we are so proud. I look forward to the Minister of State's proposals. I hope better and more appropriate measures are to be taken and that the Department will act quickly in implementing them.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

"Seanad Éireann commends the measures taken by the Minister for Agriculture and Food to control the incidence of bovine diseases in the national herd.".

As previous speakers have said, this is a matter of grave concern. Bovine diseases have existed for many years and the recent figures are frightening. There will be 40,000 TB reactors this year compared to 26,600 last year and 30,400 the previous year. Additional reactors have been identified throughout the country rather than in just some counties or regions. This has resulted in a breakdown of 8,000 herds this year compared to 6,600 for the same period last year.

I disagree with the Fine Gael motion condemning the Minister for Agriculture and Food. The Minister is doing everything possible to address the problem. I blame the former Minister, Deputy Yates, for these serious breakdowns. Senator Tom Hayes praised the former Minister for introducing radical changes. I opposed those changes vehemently at the time and I believe it is they which are responsible for the breakdowns which have occurred.

The abolition of the compulsory 60 day pre-movement test is responsible for the increased incidence of breakdowns being experienced at present. Farmers or others in the industry were buying cattle which might not have been tested for up to 16 months previously. In the absence of a pre-movement test, no proof was available to the buyer that the animals were disease free. The post-movement test was expensive and was not compulsory. There is not much point having a compulsory post-movement test unless a pre-movement test is also compulsory.

We all welcomed the reduction in levies but neither I nor any other farmer would be averse to paying levies if that kept bovine disease outside the farm gate. I had the painful experience of my herd being depopulated, as had my colleague, Senator O'Brien. A young neighbour of mine starting out on his career in farming has already had his herd depopulated twice, once with TB and once with brucellosis. Another outbreak occurred recently and he is facing herd depopulation once more. It is a source of heartbreak for any farmer to face herd depopulation.

Wildlife has been identified as a contributory factor to the increased incidence of TB and the effect of badger removal is currently being studied in detail. A survey carried out in County Offaly indicated the level of bovine TB fell significantly following badger removal. While we do not like to see wildlife being removed, it is necessary in some cases. I urge the Minister to ensure his Department monitors badger movement in various areas. The Department has asked farmers to pay for the first test; I do not believe that, coupled with the reduction of levies on farmers, would result in savings for them.

I am concerned about the bad price being paid for reactors in the factories. It might be argued that as these animals are diseased, one could not expect a better price for them. I am aware of a recent case where a TB reactor was identified on a farm and subsequently taken by the Department to a meat factory. When the animal was examined in the factory after it was slaughtered, it was revealed it was not infected with TB. The tests are often inaccurate, although it is a necessary precaution to remove TB reactors from farms. However, it is possible to establish whether the animal is disease free when it has been slaughtered.

Farmers who are herd depopulated receive only 18p per pound for the animals. That is a disgrace. What happens to the meat from these animals? Is it identified as disease free or sold on to the consumer? We must ensure consumers are protected. We are proud of our green image and the quality of our food and can stand over our record in that regard. However, if it is proven that animals are disease free following slaughter, a better price should be paid to farmers. A sum of 18p per pound is meagre and does not encourage farmers to continue farming.

I compliment the Minister for the necessary reintroduction of the 30 day pre-movement test to ensure the disease is controlled. It was a grievous mistake on the part of the former Minister to abolish the 60 day pre-movement test. Had it remained, we would not be experiencing the current incidence of TB.

Previous Senators have dealt mainly with the statistics on bovine disease. Statistics can often reveal interesting information but can also conceal vital information. We must consider the alarming increase in the incidence of bovine TB against the background of CAP reform and Agenda 2000 and do all in our power to make our beef more competitive on the global market.

In the past five years, the level of beef consumption has fallen by approximately 10 per cent. If that drop continues, our beef market will be in serious trouble. CAP reform will result in lower guaranteed prices being the order of the day. It is imperative the Minister grasps this problem. Much of the drop in the level of beef consumption relates to public anxiety about diseases such as BSE. The dramatic drop in consumption levels following the BSE crisis is only now climbing back again. Public reaction to the increase in the incidence of bovine TB will set alarm bells ringing and influence the level of beef consumption. That is regrettable. It behoves us all to get to the root of the problem.

The bovine TB eradication scheme has been in operation since 1957 and has cost in the region of £1.5 billion. Yet, in 1998, 5 per cent of the national herd is infected, while in 1957-8 about 25 per cent of the national herd was infected. The level of infection has been reduced by 20 per cent but at an enormous cost of £1.5 billion and we have still not eradicated the disease. The nature of infectious diseases means that we will probably never reach total eradication but we should nonetheless strive towards that end.

Numerous causes have been identified for the increase in the incidence of TB. Badgers and other wildlife have been mentioned, although I do not know what scientific evidence is available to support these claims. However, they must contribute to some degree to the increasing incidence of TB. If not, incompetence on the veterinary side would be the only explanation and I would not consider that to be the case because the vets are professionals who have been dealing with the disease for many years. I am sure their competence cannot be questioned.

The Department should get to the root of the problem and intensify its efforts to eradicate the disease. Against the background of CAP reform we must be able to compete with the best beef in the world. If we have such a reputation we will be able to sell on the global market. That is where we will have to compete shortly.

Another factor to be considered is the enlargement of the EU. Next year six or seven countries will be engaged in membership discussions. These countries are beef producers and they will be competing with us in a few years time on the global market. We should be striving to be ahead of them with our quality products. The enlargement of the Community, especially with regard to CAP reform, will pose many serious problems for the beef industry in the future. The implications of Agenda 2000 have not been thought out fully.

It is regrettable that we should be discussing a matter that will bring a focus to bear which we do not want on the beef industry. We need to promote our products on the basis that we have the best on offer. If we can offer the best product Irish farmers will have nothing to fear.

I hope the Minister of State will take on board the serious issues raised by Senators about the increased incidence of bovine TB. If the problem is tackled constructively with a renewed and determined effort we will be able to reduce the level of the disease.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, to the House for the debate on this important matter which affects so many farming families around the country. The increase in the number of outbreaks of bovine TB and brucellosis is of great concern to the farming sector. County Monaghan is one of the blackest spots in the country for TB. In these difficult times bovine diseases cause great hardship for many farmers, especially dairy farmers who may have a good dairy herd wiped out. They get very low prices at the factories for their cows and their returns from milk are lost.

Diseases such as TB, brucellosis and BSE can have incredible effects on herds. The level of prices which the factories pay for such cattle is seriously low. Prices are bad in general but the prices paid for diseased cattle are not acceptable.

In the past when herds were wiped out at least the farmer got a reasonable price for the cattle.

The various TB eradication schemes introduced since 1950 have had little success and have not had a major impact in the fight against TB. Although there are fewer cases of TB now than in the past, they have a far greater effect on farming families. Cattle change hands many times in their lifetime and in County Monaghan, for example, farms may be divided and the cattle must be moved from one farm to another where they may come in contact with neighbouring herds. This can lead to diseases being spread easily.

I am sure the Minister of State will pass on the points made in this debate to the Minister, Deputy Walsh. A new tagging system has been introduced which will make it more difficult to interfere with tags. All previous Ministers have introduced eradication schemes but they did not clear up the problem. The farmers and their families suffer most from the failure of these schemes. It can be greatly depressing for a farmer to see his herd wiped out by disease.

There are others who can help the Minister and the Department in the fight against these diseases. The Department produces leaflets to give the farming community advice to improve matters. Farmers have a role to play in making the country disease free. We have been working at the problem long enough to expect success. I hope we have more success in the future because we need it. Far too many farmers are still affected and I hope the position improves.

I call Senator Taylor-Quinn.

I was anxious to hear the Minister.

The Minister wishes to hear Senators' contributions before he replies.

That is shrewd of him.

He is particularly interested in Senator Taylor-Quinn's contribution.

I am also interested in his and would like to hear it first, but I will bow to the Minister's wish.

I compliment Senator Hayes for tabling this motion. Not many people realised there had been a dramatic increase in TB among the national herd but he has brought this into national focus. An increase of 30 per cent between 1997 and 1998 is alarming by any standards; the numbers of reactors and restricted herds have risen substantially. I hope the Minister will be able to provide a good explanation for this.

I explained it already — it is due to the previous Minister's decision to abolish the 60 day pre-movement test.

Senator Taylor-Quinn without interruption.

Senator Kiely has his own interpretation but I would prefer a full-blown analysis from the Department of Agriculture and Food. On the point he raised, there was a difficulty because of a lack of staff for pre-movement testing, but that is an argument for another day.

As previous speakers said, eradication schemes stretch back to the fifties. As a farmer's daughter in west Clare I remember many herds being restricted, which was a dramatic development. There was a degree of success over the years, with the percentage of the herd becoming infected reducing from 25 per cent to 5 per cent, but it cost a lot of money — well over £1 billion has been spent to date on eradicating TB from the national herd. It is therefore a serious matter that there has been such a substantial increase in infection.

TB is also on the increase among people, as reported by the health boards. One wonders whether the Department of Agriculture and Food and the Department of Health and Children have compared the figures. They should be examined closely to see, for instance, if there is an increase in TB incidence among people in a county where it has increased among cattle, or whether beef or milk from reactor herds has caused human TB. I hope the Ministers can work in tandem to establish if there is a link, because it is extraordinary that incidence of the two diseases should increase simultaneously. It is for the good of the population that the matter should be examined.

It is a serious matter for a farmer to have a herd restricted because it cannot be moved and the financial compensation in no way meets the overall loss and suffering which a farm family experiences. Whether it happens to a small, medium or large farmer, everyone in the family is greatly affected. Some farmers have had their herds restricted for up to four consecutive years, resulting in phenomenal hardship which no one would wish to endure.

This has been an extremely bad year for agriculture in climatic terms. Many farmers could not harvest enough fodder for the winter season and milk yields were down because of poor weather and the poor quality of grass. When these factors are coupled with the restriction of a herd, it leads to crucifixion for a farm family.

It is, therefore, important that the Minister seriously examines the matter. I ask him to consider compensation for reactors in light of the crisis already existing in the agricultural sector. To have the herd restricted on top of that makes life impossible for the farm family concerned. I regret that the senior Minister has not responded sufficiently strongly to the current farming crisis — he has made token gestures but no serious response. The Minister for State currently in the House is an active and successful farmer; he comes from an area which is unique in Irish agriculture because it has the best land in the country. Therefore, he is probably not aware of the hardship which small and medium farmers are experiencing. Nevertheless, he is a sensible man and I ask him to impress upon his senior colleague the suffering, hardship and depression among the farming community.

The other long-term problem, if this trend continues, will be the possible presence of TB in food. It is vital that our herd be as clean as possible. As Senator Caffrey said, we have to compete within a larger Europe — we should remember that Poland, which has its foot on the threshold of the EU, waiting to enter, has seven million farmers, more than the current member states put together. As a small member state, we must be in a position to compete and we cannot afford to have any labels attached to us. These agricultural issues must be urgently addressed.

The Minister of State should ask his senior colleague to wake up to the disastrous state of Irish agriculture. He seems to be oblivious, in a dream world somewhere between Brussels and Skibbereen, unaware of the realities. I wish he would come to this House for a proper debate on agriculture to see whether he is anywhere near coming to grips with the fundamental problems affecting our farmers. It is difficult for them to face Christmas, they have little money in their pockets and the Minister has done nothing to relieve their position.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy O'Keeffe, and support Senator Kiely's amendment. In the BSE crisis some rogue individuals made a big killing at the expense of farmers but the Department took swift and decisive action against them. We must move in the same way in regard to rogue farmers who spread TB and brucellosis.

Senators Hayes and Taylor-Quinn referred to Deputy Yates' proposals whereby farmers were to organise testing of their herds. There is no doubt that the majority of honorable, decent farmers would agree to that but, unfortunately, the problems emanate from a number of rogue and crooked farmers who have caused the spread of these diseases. The huge increase in livestock numbers should also be examined. Last week's farming newspapers pointed out the alarming numbers involved nationwide. However, they are not a great deal worse than in the past.

I wish to refer to the problems associated with badgers and wild deer, which travel miles across farm land. They are not restricted from leaving various estates and, because there is no restriction on culling them to reduce numbers, they spread disease. Recently, a number of them almost caused fatalities when crossing a road near where I live in County Offaly. A pilot project relating to badgers was set up there and the figures proved it was successful. When it was first mooted a number of years ago, many people were seriously opposed to doing anything about the number of badgers. I agree with their preservation, but they cannot be preserved at the cost of farmers losing their livelihoods. The herds of some farmers have been cleaned out. It is a sad reflection of the problem relating to badgers and deer.

Certain farmers bought land in different counties and this created a problem. One farmer bought land in a neighbouring county to mine and moved in excess of 150 animals onto that land. After the herd was first tested for brucellosis he lost 100 cattle. Why did that happen in an area where people did not even know what brucellosis was? Farmers are losing livestock test after test. The Minister of State can check this with his officials in County Offaly.

Farmers must move into new holdings with clean herds. They must not be allowed to bring in livestock which will infect all the other animals in that area. A considerable amount of land has been sold or set aside for long-term lease which results in cattle being moved a considerable distance. This must be looked at and tightened up quickly if the problem is to be tackled. I hope the Minister of State's officials will back him and the Minister in ensuring that moneys are provided to avoid what happened in my county as I do not wish to see it happening in any other county.

Compensation has been mentioned. It is common knowledge that people have moved large numbers of animals onto farms and, for some strange reason, the entire herd has gone down. I compliment the Minister of State on the recent removal of certain reactor cattle and the continued testing of the herds involved in an effort to punish the farmers who own them and prevent them from cleaning out the State.

Senator Kiely referred to bad prices. He said that certain meat factories are not paying much more than the market price for clean cattle and that if they had their way they would pay as little as the market price. I hope the Department will make every effort to ensure rogues and crooks are dealt with and that decent, honourable farmers, who are anxious to make a living off the land, will be helped. We do not want to drive them off the land.

I support the motion tabled by my colleagues which states:

That Seanad Éireann condemns the Minister for Agriculture and Food for the increase in incidence of bovine diseases among the nations cattle herd; and calls on the Minister to investigate the reasons for this huge increase and to outline the proposals he has to deal with this animal health crisis.

While I agree with Senator Moylan's final remarks, they do not reflect the Government amendment which states:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

"Seanad Éireann commends the measures taken by the Minister for Agriculture and Food to control the incidence of bovine diseases in the national herd.".

The reality is that the Minister has done absolutely nothing about this since he assumed office. The cleaning out of a herd is a huge cost to be borne by any family. In many cases families have been put out of business and forced to sell their farms. The previous Minister, Deputy Yates, had the courage to put initiatives in place. However, in the past 12 months the incidence of disease has increased because the Minister has done little or nothing about it.

I agree with the motion that the Minister should, as a matter of urgency, investigate the possibility of new measures to tackle this issue, as Senator Moylan said, once and for all. This very serious problem is costing the taxpayer and the farmers a fortune. It is now costing farmers on the double because, not alone is it costing them on their tax, they are also paying directly for tests. I agree with Senator Moylan. It is a pity the amendment was not framed in a way which said the Minister and all concerned should tackle this very serious issue once and for all.

I am delighted the Minister has decided to wait to hear every Senator speak before he speaks. I will stray a little from the motion in my contribution because it has been very well covered by previous speakers on this side of the House. I wish to draw to the Minister's attention my concerns in regard to the fodder aid package. The Government is proposing a payment of £300 per farm in need of this measure.

That does not concern bovine TB.

The Senator has concerns in County Mayo.

Acting Chairman

I appreciate that but——

The motion has been very well covered. The Minister has decided to hear every Senator before he contributes and I wish to bring this matter to his attention. The IFA is looking for £1,000 per farm. This is decided on the basis of DEDs, which is very unfair. I come from a county in which the majority of the land is very poor. Some farmers are qualifying for the fodder aid package but others are not.

Acting Chairman

This is a matter for another debate.

It is a very urgent and relevant matter.

Acting Chairman

I understand that but it is an issue for another debate.

It is a very urgent and relevant matter where I come from. I ask the Minister to consider including all of County Mayo in the fodder aid package. I hope the payment will be increased from £300 per farm to £1,000. In some cases, there are farms side by side, with one qualifying——

Acting Chairman

The Senator has been given sufficient latitude in this regard and he has made his point.

I thank you, Sir, for allowing me the latitude to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister. I note the Minister is writing down what I am saying. I know he will comment on it and that something will be done about it.

I support the motion. I hope something positive will come out of this debate and that the Minister will take urgent action.

I thank all who contributed to the debate, Senator Tom Hayes for moving the motion and Senator Rory Kiely for moving the amendment. It was a very interesting debate. I am pleased to have this opportunity to recommend support for the counter motion before the House, to address aspects of the Irish cattle and livestock sector and to update the House on the actions we have taken to safeguard the health status of the national herd in support of the sector.

Notwithstanding the tremendous growth rates achieved by other sectors and the current difficulties in agriculture, the agriculture sector continues to be the largest and most important single sector in our economy. Its contribution extends well beyond the farming and food processing sectors and, indeed, many others areas of economic activity have substantial reliance on its well being. The gross value of the agriculture sector is likely to be in excess of £3.3 billion in 1998 and the value of livestock and livestock product exports will be in the region of £2 billion for the year. Of course, these figures do not fully reflect the contribution which the sector makes to consequential and ancillary employment, nor do they fully highlight the almost negligible import content of agricultural and food exports.

Our agriculture sector has, of course, a huge reliance on export markets for its output. In particular, we export the equivalent of 70 per cent of our milk output and an even higher percentage of our cattle production. Nine out of every ten steers produced here are destined for export markets. Our capacity to find outlets for these products is determined by a number of factors, in particular the perception and quality of the products and their perceived safety from the consumer and animal health points of view. Down through the years, we have consistently operated measures which seek to maintain a very high animal health status to underpin these aspects and, by and large, we have been able to meet the demanding requirements of all the major importing countries.

For many years, we operated a restrictive import regime for cattle and complemented this by comprehensive control and eradication measures for diseases which existed here. In this way, we have avoided many of the more serious diseases encountered elsewhere, such as foot and mouth disease in cattle and classical swine fever in pigs. Although the import regime was relaxed following the completion of the Single Market, the import rules that have been put in place continue, nevertheless, to afford a reasonable degree of protection against the more serious diseases. Of course, as an island we are surrounded by sea and we should always be well protected. However, many changes have taken place since we joined the Single Market and some new diseases have been imported into the country. The importation of foodstuffs from outside the Community is also a cause for concern, on which I voiced my personal views recently. A number of meetings have taken place in this regard. I am glad the Irish Farmers' Association is now addressing that problem.

Unfortunately, and notwithstanding the control and eradication measures we have applied, we continue to have other bovine diseases in particular brucellosis, TB and BSE. As regards brucellosis, the position is that we have operated control and eradication measures since the mid-1960s. Substantial progress was made in reducing the level of brucellosis in cattle by the mid-1980s and in 1986 the country was declared "brucellosis free". Notwithstanding this, brucellosis continued to be present in the national herd at that time and in the following years. For example, in the years 1989-95, there were about 400 new breakdowns each year and, on average, some 120 herds were depopulated annually.

The position began to deteriorate in 1996 and 1997 and a series of measures were introduced to address this in 1997 and 1998. Among the main measures introduced were the following. From February 1998, all eligible animals being moved into or out of holdings, other than direct to a slaughter premises, must have passed a blood test within 30 days preceding the date of movement. In addition to the foregoing, and from the same time, bulls over 12 months and female cattle over 18 months of age could not be sold more than once, on foot of a brucellosis test; also such cattle must be moved from the holding where tests are undertaken direct to either the purchaser's holding or direct to a mart and from there direct to the purchaser's holding. A full round of blood testing for all eligible cattle was introduced to augment and complement existing arrangements, including monthly milk ring testing. Revamped administrative procedures were adopted in the Department's local offices to deal more effectively with herds with brucellosis reactors and those contiguous to such herds. There was also the early removal of reactors and steps to improve detection of irregularities and increased epidemiology work by veterinary staff. An awareness campaign was arranged to update farmers and others on appropriate farm husbandry and management practices.

Under the new arrangements, some 5.3 million blood samples have been taken and tested so far this year, compared with about 3.5 million in 1997. We recruited additional staff for the Cork laboratory and introduced other arrangements — for example, Swiftpost — to ensure an efficient testing service for farmers.

While the number of new outbreaks of brucellosis will be higher again in 1998, it is too early to draw conclusions as to the full effectiveness of the new measures. Given the nature of the disease, it will not be possible to draw definitive conclusions on their impact until after next year's calving. However, the expectation is that the intensive testing regime will have identified reactors at an early stage, thereby facilitating the early removal of infection and contributing to an improved situation in the medium term. The education and awareness arrangements undertaken complement this and should bring about improved farm management practices to further enhance the measures.

I compliment the Senators, especially Senator Moylan, who spoke about taking swift and decisive action to clear out the rogues and crooks. He spoke about wild deer, which are not being tested at present. Deputy Fox recently tabled an Adjournment motion in the Dáil on the issue of TB in Wicklow, where there are problems with deer, and I met her later in my office. There are many alternative enterprises nowadays which are involved in deer farming. Many Senators spoke about deer. It has also been proved that badgers have an effect in this regard. There are also many two legged badgers who create more problems in that area.

I have visited most of the new offices in the country. The staff and vets working there are very dedicated. They are genuinely concerned about brucellosis and what is happening. Nobody has better identified the problem than Senator Moylan. I am aware of the Banagher area. My colleague from north County Cork, Deputy Michael Moynihan, asked a relevant question on the matter in the Dáil yesterday. County Offaly had seven cases of brucellosis in 1996 and seven in 1997 and that has grown to 12. I visited the county during the middle of the summer and was made aware of what was happening in the Banagher area, including the wipe out of many fine dairy herds. It is not a great dairying county.

The annual net cost of animal disease to the economy is £50 million. That cannot continue. Senator Tom Hayes makes weekly demands on the Minister, the Government and me to produce more schemes. However, while this cost continues it is very difficult for me to make a case to the Government for additional funding. The problem has dragged on for far too long and it must be addressed.

The country was declared free of TB in 1954. A big presentation was made by the then Minister, the late Neil Blayney. I was appalled and shocked at the figures produced yesterday to which I have referred. They are a cause of worry.

It is good that Senator Moylan has spoken out here and has identified the cause of the problem.

There are problems with wildlife, badgers and mischief. I am not happy that enough has been done to reduce the cost of the disease. I have visited the veterinary offices and am concerned for the decent, honest farmers throughout the country who work so genuinely to protect their herds. As Minister of State I receive numerous telephone calls at weekends asking if I have heard about an outbreak nearby, yet the caller does not want to be identified. Farmers must identify more with the problem and address the issue up front.

Compensation was mentioned. If the compensation level is higher than the value of the animal it will lead to greater mischief and more problems. Compensation must always be lesser than the value of the animal, otherwise it will become a growth industry and will lead to the kind of troubles we have at present. I know I will be castigated by the farming organisations for what I have said. However, I understand the farming business. A level must be set where it is not profitable to seek compensation. If it is correctly set control will follow. Many people urge that we should increase compensation levels in respect of brucellosis because the milk quota system encouraged farmers to buy additional heifers and calves as their herds were not at the maximum suckling levels. I do not know if that is the answer. There is a problem here.

The farming bodies and the veterinary interests attended the Animal Health Forum last week. The Minister also attended. It was indicated that the measures introduced in 1997 and 1998 will be maintained for a further period. In addition the co-operation of all concerned was sought to continue to fully operate these measures and to follow and promote good farming practices. We will continue to keep the position under close review and with the full co-operation of all, we can bring about an early reduction in the level of brucellosis and work towards the early eradication of the disease from the national cattle herd. The disease can be eradicated with existing technology and through the application of good controls and sensible herd management practices. It is important that all interests work towards the goal of eradication.

The House will be aware that considerable effort and resources have been devoted to seeking to control and eradicate TB since the 1950s when eradication measures were first introduced. Considerable progress was achieved in the early stages but further sustained progress towards eradication has not been achieved over the past 30 years or so. A major effort was made under ERAD in the latter part of the 1980s and early 1990s to bring about an improvement in the situation. Under ERAD, a comprehensive testing programme using severe interpretation was implemented with 44 million tests being completed. Some 151,000 reactors were removed over the four year period. The main conclusion drawn from the programme was that eradication of TB was more difficult than had been envisaged and that emphasis needed to be placed on the development of technological tools to achieve eradication.

Since 1992, the emphasis has been on efficient management of the eradication programme with complete and orderly rounds of testing designed to make progressive reductions in the residual disease incidence level. The TB incidence level has tended to be cyclical with a reactor disclosure rate of on average three per thousand cattle tests. However, the incidence of TB has increased significantly and it is anticipated that there will be more than 40,000 reactors disclosed in 1998. That is a terrible state of affairs. The cost to the taxpayer and the farming community cannot continue. It is all about discipline. The vast majority of farmers are good, respectable people who do their business well. The situation must be addressed intensively.

This increase and especially the scale of the increase over 1997, which had the lowest number of reactor disclosures in recent years, is a matter of concern. The position was reviewed at a meeting of the Animal Health Forum last week. Arising from these discussions, the Minister has arranged for a meeting of the animal science subgroups of the forum to be convened early in the new year to undertake a full examination of the situation based on an analysis of the likely contributory factors involved in the rate of incidence increase. Arising from these deliberations, the question as to whether adjustments are required to the current programme will be considered.

It is also relevant, whether by coincidence or otherwise, that there have been significant increases in the incidence of bovine TB in both Northern Ireland and parts of Great Britain. Accordingly, we will be maintaining ongoing liaison with both DANI and MAFF to seek to identify whether there are common factors involved in bringing about these increases. Anybody who has read last week's edition of Farmers' Weekly will be aware of what is happening in the UK. Developments are new there.

In the course of the year, we introduced special programmes involving intensive testing in the worst affected areas of the country. We have also continued with the wildlife programme. As regards wildlife, there is increasing evidence to support the view that badgers play a role in the transmission of bovine TB. We have had an ongoing project in east County Offaly for many years and this has now been supplemented by further research work being undertaken in four specific areas in Counties Donegal, Monaghan, north Cork and Kilkenny. Apart from this, we also undertake badger removals under licences in areas where herd breakdowns occur and where these can be attributed to the presence of infected badgers.

In addition, a project team on vaccine development for possible use in wildlife has been formed comprising specialists in the fields of immunology, bacteriology, zoology and pathology. The project involves collaboration between CVRL, Abbotstown, the universities, CVL Weybridge and other research organisations. It is one of the largest and most ambitious projects of its kind ever undertaken by my Department. The first element of the programme has now commenced and subsequent work will involve more detailed analysis of the immunology of the badger and the pathology of tuberculosis in this species.

With regard to BSE, despite the impression given by recent publicity, the overall incidence has remained at a relatively low level and has been constant over the past three years. As at 30 November 1998, a total of 69 clinical cases of this disease had been confirmed in Ireland during 1998. This compares with a total of 70 cases during the same period in 1997 and 64 for the corresponding period in 1996. From 1989 to the end of November this year, 334 cases of clinical BSE have been recorded and a total of 42,489 animals have been slaughtered to date. This latter figure includes animals from BSE depopulated herds, birth cohort and/or progeny animals, UK imported animals and BSE suspect and affected animals.

Very strict controls are in operation in this area aimed at removing the possibility of exposure of cattle to the BSE agent through the ingestion of contaminated feed and simultaneously providing safety assurance to consumers of Irish beef. These controls and arrangements include the following. First, a surveillance system and ante-mortem examination of all cattle slaughtered at licensed plants by an authorised veterinarian. Second, the slaughter of herds in which BSE is diagnosed in a dedicated licensed plant; the carcases of these animals are rendered in a dedicated rendering plant and meat, bone meal and tallow produced are incinerated. Third, also slaughtered at the same plant and disposed of in the same way are all animals which have been previously imported from the UK, the progeny of BSE-positive animals and birth cohorts of BSE-positive animals. Fourth, knackeries which handle animals dying on-farm are licensed and are operated under the supervision of Department staff. Fifth, specified risk materials are removed from carcases of cattle and sheep at all slaughter plants and knackeries and are rendered at a dedicated rendering plant. Sixth, the remaining offals are rendered at 133º centigrade at a pressure of bar 3 for 20 minutes in accordance with EU rules. Seventh, the sale, purchase and use of the meat and bone meal produced by this process is controlled by licence. Only feedmills which solely produce pig or poultry rations and farmers dedicated to pig or poultry production are granted licences to purchase and use mammalian meat and bone meal. Given that the overall incidence of BSE in the Irish herd is extremely low and in view of the strict and extensive control systems in place to ensure the safety of Irish beef, I am confident that exports from the Irish beef sector will continue to develop.

In view of the foregoing, it is clear that we have concerns in relation to the higher levels of some diseases in the national herd, but we must keep the position in perspective. The real progress made is sometimes overlooked. For example, more than 99.5 per cent of our eight million cattle are free from TB disease, 99.8 per cent of our herds are clear of brucellosis at any given time while BSE affects just one in every 100,000 cattle in the national herd. We also have extensive surveillance, testing and control regimes in place and these can be and, as I have outlined, are amended and extended as required. At the same time all parties concerned must be fully involved and committed to operational control and allocation measures. I am satisfied that such commitment does exist at present and that we can achieve progress in curtailing the various bovine diseases with the measures we have and will put in place in consultation with the relevant parties.

Senator Burke referred to the fodder crisis. We have been quite generous in the way we have addressed this issue but I note the points he raised and I understand the difficulties encountered in a county like Mayo. I am surprised by his comments because I have not heard much criticism of our programme.

With regard to badgers and the possibility that they contract tuberculosis and spread it, we are looking at the possibility of a vaccine for them to help alleviate the disease. They are a protected species and I have a soft spot for them. We are also living in an age where people are very conscious of our wildlife and environment because we have REP schemes and various other schemes available. People do not like interfering with wild animals. We are investigating the possibility of a vaccine. Perhaps it will be one that can be spread on the ground for the badger to eat.

With regard to the six day pre-movement test, it is not certain if it will be reintroduced. This test is an added cost to farmers but all aspects are being examined by the animal science group and the animal health forum.

There has been reference to reactors and the price paid for them. Members will be aware that all meat in plants is passed by veterinary examination. There are very strict procedures in place and our vets are very vigilant.

Opposition Senators made much of the food industry. We are very conscious of our food industry and its value to the economy. Senators are probably concerned that we are in danger of losing our IBF status. We have saved the day and we are on the right side of things. I do not want to be too ambitious in case things might not go the way we have planned but people with responsibility for food will be really worried.

Since the price for culled cows is very low, comparatively reactor prices are not that bad. I am referring to the reactor price again because it comes up every so often. It is hard to dispose of culled cows and there is no outlay by the meat factories for them at present but trade may pick up in February and March. Members should advise their farming constituents to continue to feed their cattle.

We are meeting the EU export requirements. There are no problems once cattle have passed the 30 day brucellosis test and a general veterinary examination. The real future breakthrough in tuberculosis eradication will come from research. My Department has a special research unit looking into a number of projects. It is important to note that research is doing better and better. This is a vital area if we are to learn what can be done and what is the cause of the problem. More things cause the problem than meet the eye.

Our eight million cattle have a very good health status because they are grass fed. There is little or no concentrate feeding because we are a grass based nation. We have a herd of about 145,000 in the Republic. More than 90 per cent of the herd is free of disease. That is a high percentage when we look at the structure.

I thank Members for participating in this debate. I thank Opposition Senators for tabling this timely motion; even though they have been unfair to us and condemned the Government. The cost of disease eradication to the economy and the farming community has to change. I have held this view for a long time, even when I was back on the other side of the House. We cannot put a price on the trouble caused to farmers. We are all familiar with the rural scene and know we have the double problem of brucellosis and tuberculosis.

We are working under the 1996 Act but I hope we will make some improvements under the beef assurance scheme. We will have to legislate for that and put in a section to cover it; if not, we will have to amend the existing Act and tighten it up. We will get results.

My reply to a question asked in the Dáil is now public property. The figures for Kerry, Cork north-east and even Offaly and Louth, which are referred to as non-dairy counties, showed the number of reactors removed or got rid of in November this year has also increased on last year and the number of herd restrictions for brucellosis all beg the question that more has to be done.

If we are going to save £60 million, £50 million net to our economy, we must have discipline. I know that this is about discipline and order because I get complaints about the system. Unfortunately, I do not have enough power at my disposal to sort out this problem.

Finally, I wish everyone a happy Christmas and a very prosperous New Year. I have no doubt that I will be on this side of the House for three more years. Again, I congratulate the Opposition. They have been very kind as regards the motions they have tabled since I came here. On the many occasions I have visited here as Minister I have always received the greatest courtesy and respect. The Opposition has tabled good and relevant motions. I encourage them to continue to do so because we have to debate issues and identify problems. I also wish to compliment my officials who are dedicated to my Department. I also wish them and their staff a happy Christmas.

With those comments it is very hard for me to react. I thank the Minister of State for coming here. His knowledge and experience of agriculture always comes to the fore and I compliment him on the way he deals with this subject in such a very forthright and straight forward manner, which is what he has done this evening.

In summing up the motion, one of the things that regularly comes through is the seriousness of this problem with the increase in the figures. Every Member would concede that that is something about which everyone is worried and of which we must take cognisance in the months ahead, particularly when the meeting the Minister of State has set up with the animal science subgroup takes place and a decision has been taken on the necessary action.

I want to refer to the point raised about wildlife. No one wants badgers to be put down, but if they are causing a problem such a course of action must be considered. The problem was dealt with in Denmark where the badger is a protected species. If it is proved on further examination that badgers are carriers of TB, action must be taken to deal with the problem.

I agree with Senator Moylan that the problem of rogue operators must be dealt with. Consumers are very concerned about what is happening in the agricultural and food industry. This industry must be protected given that so many people are dependent on it. Consumers are very vigilant and can now buy food off the shelf from around the world — they do not have to buy Irish products. This is happening in relation to bacon. The same applies to European consumers. We must be vigilant in this regard which is why I tabled the motion.

I thank the Minister of State and all the Senators who contributed to the debate. I wish the Minister, his officials and Senators a very happy Christmas.

Amendment put and declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.

Acting Chairman

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 17 December 1998.