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.