Adjournment Debate. - Poultry Disease.

I thank you for allowing me to speak on the outbreak of Newcastle disease in Northern Ireland. If great care is not taken here and in Northern Ireland, this could have disastrous consequences for my constituency. The code of practice recommended in a recent report on the poultry industry should be strictly adhered to. This is the worst outbreak of disease in poultry in Northern Ireland for the past 20 years. There have been many outbreaks of disease in the past ten years but, at great cost to the Department and producers, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry contained them by imposing strict exclusion zones.

Poultry production is confined mainly to the Cavan-Monaghan region, particularly north Monaghan. Eleven of the 15 farmers who live near me are involved in intensive production of mushrooms, turkeys, broilers, pigs and eggs. Approximately 60 per cent of broiler chicken production, 60 per cent of egg production, 80 per cent of turkey production and practically all duck and quail production takes places in my constituency. This indicates the serious consequences this outbreak of Newcastle disease could have for that area.

Even though grant aid has not been provided for primary producers in the poultry industry, producers have continued to expand and compete. As an island we should be in a strong position to fight disease infection but, unfortunately, the majority of hens whose egg laying days are over are exported to Britain for slaughter. The trucks in which they are transported should be strictly monitored.

In March 1996 there was a report on the poultry industry and the Minister launched a £35 million programme for the industry. The report recommended that there should be an all-Ireland approach to the poultry industry, that all hens at the end of their laying life should be processed on this island to maintain the existing avian health status, that a discussion group should be established involving various interests to examine issues relevant to the development of the poultry industry and, if necessary, the Government should act as a convenor. It also recommended that regular independent audit checks should be carried out on every hatchery, breeding farm, processing plant and feed mill. Have those recommendations been implemented?

The increasing health conscious consumer regards poultry as a good purchase choice in terms of safety and nutritional value. Consumer confidence is based on vigilant protection of our avian health status. An operation, similar to Operation Matador launched in the case of BSE, should be put in place to ensure that poultry from Northern Ireland does not cross the Border.

There are 561 supply farms, hatcheries and commercial growing sites in the State, with approximately two-thirds of them located in my constituency. The consumption of poultry has doubled in recent times. We have the highest consumption of poultry meatper capita in the European Union. It is important that slaughtering plants are set up here so that it is not necessary to transport poultry in trucks to Britain for slaughtering purposes. As a result of the recent closure of pig slaughtering plants in Cavan and Monaghan, we transport live pigs to Belfast and Newry with a similar danger of disease being carried by lorries.

The Deputy raised a matter appertaining to the poultry industry.

Strict controls should be imposed on the Border during the next few of weeks.

I thank Deputy Leonard for raising this important matter on the Adjournment. I am pleased to have an opportunity to outline the issues involved in the current outbreak of Newcastle disease in the poultry industry in Northern Ireland.

There are currently eight confirmed cases of Newcastle disease in poultry in Northern Ireland. This is a highly infectious viral disease, which affects poultry, defined here as domestic fowls, turkeys, geese and ducks, pigeons and other birds. The clinical signs of the disease include diarrhoea, drop in egg production, severe respiratory signs, nervous signs, depression and death. It can spread quickly to cause widespread mortalities in birds and economic losses among poultry producers, but it poses absolutely no human health risks from the consumption of poultry and or poultry produce. I emphasise that point to the House.

In accordance with standard procedures provided for in European legislation, areas up to 10 kilometres around these eight infected holdings have been declared infected areas and the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland has imposed movement restrictions — including prohibitions on export — on poultry, hatching eggs and poultry products originating within these areas. The confirmed infectious flocks are slaughtered immediately, due entirely to animal health measures and not as a public health measure. So far more than half a million birds have been killed. I also understand the virus circulating is a particularly virulent one, with a mortality rate of up to 40 per cent instead of the usual 5 per cent. Possible sources of infection include contact with pigeons and other wild fowl, migrating flocks and contaminated water and feed.

Humans can also enter the equation and unwittingly spread the infection by car or lorry wheels, crates, or visiting sites without wearing protective clothing suitable for disinfection. Advice to all in charge of poultry is to ensure that all movement of people, vehicles, equipment, etc. is kept to the absolute minimum. It is also strongly advised that where poultry are on free range they should be kept housed if at all possible. I emphasise that no case of this disease has been reported to date this side of the Border. A particular worry is that the majority of the valuable poultry and egg industry is located in the Cavan-Monaghan area. With this in mind I have introduced additional measures with regard to trade with Northern Ireland. All imports of poultry from Northern Ireland are now subject to an import licence issued by my Department. A supplementary scheme of health certification for poultry other than hatching eggs and day-old chicks has been introduced. This requires that birds must be inspected within 24 hours of travel by an official veterinarian in the North, who certifies that they are free from any signs or clinical symptoms of Newcastle disease.

Additional controls have been put in place at the Border to ensure that no illegal movement of poultry, hatching eggs and poultry products takes place. The Minister has been in touch with the Customs and the Garda to heighten their awareness of the position. An advice notice outlining the precautions to be taken and an information sheet on the clinical signs of the disease have been issued by my Department to all flock owners and producers to aid them to protect their flocks.

As the House is probably aware, Ireland has had an official policy of not vaccinating against Newcastle disease, as has Northern Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand. EC recognition of our non-vaccinating status has entitled us to additional health guarantees in relation to imported poultry and poultrymeat. Problems associated with vaccination include the cost, loss in performance, the fact that the presence of the actual disease can be masked and that there are various types of virus.

Up to now non-vaccination was favoured by the industry. Recently, however, the poultry industry in both parts of the island indicated that they favoured adoption of a vaccination policy and initiated a widespread debate with all interested parties, including the Departments in both jurisdictions. It was perceived that vaccinated birds were much less at risk from the disease and vaccination reduced the spread of the disease should the birds be challenged by an outbreak. Due to the close North-South trade links any decision taken had to be the same and taken simultaneously. Officials of my Department had various meetings with the relevant officials of the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland. Following these discussions, a system of voluntary vaccination has been introduced for the island as a whole.

I stress that it is illegal to use a vaccine which has not been authorised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, and to date five vaccines have been authorised. These include both live vaccines and inactivated combination vaccines. Vaccination is voluntary and flock owners should seek advice on their situation from their veterinary adviser. One of the conditions of authorisation is that the vaccine is supplied on prescription only on a request basis by a registered veterinary practitioner to animals under his or her care. The decision to vaccinate will depend on various factors including geographical location, species of poultry, age of birds, genetic level of birds and stage of production. While strategic vaccination of breeding and laying flocks in certain locations may be worthwhile, it must be remembered that vaccination is not a cure-all solution, and it should be emphasised that there are no circumstances in which vaccination can be regarded as an alternative to good management practice, good bio-security and good hygiene practice in poultry farming.

I re-emphasise that to date there have been no outbreaks of Newcastle disease south of the Border. I extend my thanks to our colleagues in the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland for their close co-operation and consistent liaison on this and many more subjects. I am pleased we have arrived at an all-Ireland health policy on this matter.