I am delighted to see the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dan Wallace, in the House. I think the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development is trying to keep away from me. I hope this issue will also be regarded as an environmental issue, but I would be grateful if the Minister of State brings my views to the attention of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
I have raised this issue before in the House and do so again because there is a lack of urgency in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development regarding the introduction of an all-island animal tracing scheme. I have also been in contact with Minister Bríd Rodgers and get a sense of greater action in her Department than in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
We have had the dreadful spectacle of BSE over the past decade and last year we also experienced foot and mouth disease. A serious problem in both instances was the poor control over animal tracing. We were barely able to trace animals which came from the Scottish, English and Welsh hills to Northern Ireland and then to the Republic of Ireland. This situation will give rise to serious trouble.
The lack of action is cavalier given that this country depends greatly on the production of meat. Consumers, domestic and foreign, want to know from where their meat came. We say we have a farm to fork method of identification, but it would be better to call it a farms to fork method because there are great gaps in our knowledge.
I was urged to raise this issue because in the United States experimental work suggests the possibility that prions, the infective source in BSE, may have transferred into mouse muscle. The research has not been peer reviewed, and I do not know how good it is, but it should make us prick up our ears and realise this area should concern us. In the United Kingdom it has been suggested that BSE can be found in sheep and there have been suggestions that lambs should be slaughtered younger and younger. New problems are constantly arising, but we seem to be making very little progress in introducing an all-Ireland animal tracing scheme.
Flushed with success from having an amendment accepted to the Diseases of Animals (Amendment) Bill in order that electronic and other methods of identification brought forward by the European Union could be used here, it is disappointing to see that the sheep tagging scheme has moved no further from where it was in the autumn. I cannot understand the reason there is no sense of urgency.
While we have done fairly well, particularly Senator Quinn, in identifying the meat processing factories from which meat comes to supermarkets and thence the consumer, we have done little or nothing regarding the identification of meat from when it leaves the farm until it arrives at the meat processing factory and is slaughtered. I will describe one method of identification because I know those involved in it – geneticists in Trinity College who have introduced a method of identification called IdentiGEN. Senator Quinn uses it in his supermarkets. It relies on the identification of meat using the DNA of the animal as the trace element as it progresses from the meat processing factory to the supermarket shelf. It is always possible to identify the heifer or bullock from which meat came by the DNA code.
There has also been progress in bringing forward better methods of identification from the farm to the meat processing factory. Last year at the height of the foot and mouth disease outbreak, there were considerable numbers of cattle running around County Tipperary, in particular with no ear tags. When tags are removed we do not know what happens to the cow in question. One method of identification relies on DNA evi dence. When the animal is tagged, a biological sample is put into a tamper proof container connected to the tag and is identified with the same bar code and ID as the tag. The sample consists of cartilage preserved by a desiccant in the container. Consequently it may be stored for long periods at ambient temperatures. Should a concern arise over the identification of a particular animal, a sample can be collected from the animal and compared to the ear tag sample through DNA analysis. Not only does this make the monitoring of live animals much easier, it serves as a deterrent against fraudulently transferring tags from animal to animal.
The introduction of such an identification system would give a powerful signal to foreign buyers that we are serious about Irish meat being exactly as it is labelled. If it comes from a certain farm, the customer in Egypt or Paris can be certain that it is the animal he or she is buying and there is continuity in the supply chain. What are the views of the Department and what progress is it making on this important issue?