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.