Adjournment Debate. - Importation of Chicks.

I welcome the opportunity to raise the serious problem of the outbreak of Newcastle disease in my constituency which could devastate the local economy and adversely affect 1,000 workers and producers.

Serious questions must be answered. How many hatcheries supplied the 2,000 infected birds? Were the birds inspected by Department officials on arrival at the farm? Were any checks made on the health of those birds? What was the time span between the delivery of the chicks and the visit by Department officials?

The importation of those broiler chicks was an act of gross irresponsibility which demands a clear explanation from the Minister of State. If an individual imported diseased poultry, the Special Branch would be called in. The poultry industry is one of the greatest examples of self-help. Producers have invested millions of pounds of mostly borrowed money in the industry. No grant aid is available and there is little recognition from the Department or at EU level for primary producers.

When Newcastle disease first broke out in Northern Ireland I raised the matter with the Minister and highlighted the inherent danger to the industry. I suggested at that time that an operation similar to Operation Matador, launched in the BSE case, should be put in place to ensure poultry from Northern Ireland was not brought across the Border.

I tabled a question on 26 March to ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the proposals, if any, he had to ensure County Monaghan is self-sufficient in the production of chicks for the broiler industry in view of the danger of importing disease. I was told that of the three plants, one processed broilers and production from that firm's hatchery was more than sufficient to meet existing requirements.

Inquiries made by me revealed that there was no need to import those broilers. Some weeks ago the Department issued a licence to import 20,000 broiler chicks. Those chicks were so badly infected 80 per cent died within days. The infection was not related to Newcastle disease or any other disease but to the feed. That is the reason I want to know the time span between the arrival of the chicks and their examination by Department officials.

The increasingly health conscious customer regards poultry as good value for money. The confidence of the customer is based on the vigilant protection of our avian health status and the stringent measures in place at the premises of all primary producers, in hatcheries and processing plants.

Poultry production is very important to the economy of my constituency. Satellite growers operate in most parts of the constituency with a heavy concentration in my area of north Monaghan where we have approximately 60 per cent of broiler production, 60 per cent of egg production, 80 per cent of turkey production and all of the duck production. The industry employs 1,000 workers in processing plants. Hundreds of people are employed by growers, in the feed mills and by hauliers who offer steady employment.

Inquiries made in the Department since this episode reveal that the Department has no control over the importation of chicks from Northern Ireland. We are entirely dependent on the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture in that regard. There was no excuse for the importation of those 20,000 broilers because plants in counties Monaghan and Cavan process 300,000 broilers every week in their hatcheries. The importation was criminal because it was so unnecessary. I ask the Minister of State to answer the questions I put to him.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. He raised a number of questions to which I am unable to reply. I suggest that he raise them with me afterwards and I will seek the answers for him as soon as possible.

I am aware of the difficulties caused by the recently introduced temporary ban on imports from Northern Ireland of live poultry and hatching eggs other than live poultry for direct slaughter. As the Deputy will be aware, Newcastle disease is highly infectious and can cause large-scale losses in any poultry enterprise, although it does not pose any public health risk to the consumer. At least 22 cases of a very virulent form of the disease have now been confirmed in Northern Ireland resulting in a massive number of compulsory slaughterings in that region.

Since the outbreak of the disease in Northern Ireland, extra precautions have been introduced here, including requirements for additional health certification and the introduction of voluntary vaccination against the disease. However, despite these additional precautions, a case of Newcastle disease was confirmed in County Cavan on 4 April on a holding where two consignments of poultry had been recently imported from Northern Ireland. This involved the death or slaughter of some 20,000 birds on the premises and the introduction of a control zone of at least 10 kilometres around the holding. These restrictions have already caused hardship for those poultry producers within that area.

The confirmation of the disease outbreak in County Cavan has also raised serious issues as to the possibility of further threats to our health status. For this reason it was decided to temporarily ban the importation of further consignments of live poultry and hatching eggs until Thursday, 10 April to give the Standing Veterinary Committee in Brussels the possibility of discussing the matter at its meeting on 8 and 9 April. The ban will be reviewed following the outcome of these discussions.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 April 1997.