Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 21 Mar 2002

Vol. 169 No. 13

Adjournment Matters. - Animal Tracing Scheme.

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 The research has not been peer reviewed, and I do not know how good it is, but it should make us prick up our ears and realise this area should concern us.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?

The events of the past year, in particular the foot and mouth emergency, highlighted the absolute importance of co-operation, consultation and harmonisation between the North and South of Ireland on issues affecting animal and public health. It is more apparent than ever that animal diseases have the potential to cause this country serious social and economic damage, with effects which cut through every section of our society. While advances in veterinary medicine have provided us with better tools than ever before with which to treat such diseases, certain features of modern life and trade increase the potential for the spread of animal diseases between and within countries.

Increased mobility and the facility for international travel, the trade relationships which exist in the context of the single market for the European Union, and greater liberalisation of trade under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation, while positive, are nonetheless factors which contribute to a greater potential for the spread of animal diseases than might have been the case in the past. Add to this the fact that irrespective of the potential for damage to their neighbours and their country, there will always be those who are tempted to engage for naked, personal, financial gain in abuses involving the illegal movement of animals and it will be apparent that we cannot afford to relax in relation to this area of concern.

The FMD crisis underscored the importance of the closest co-operation between the authorities in Dublin and Belfast in relation to animal health issues. It is clear that there are those who will readily exploit any weaknesses in such co-operation, and it is equally apparent that there will be considerable benefit to agriculture in Ireland as a whole, and all who depend on it, if we act together to protect animal health status from any threats, internal or external.

Throughout the FMD crisis, Ministers and officials from both jurisdictions worked closely. This work is continuing and has intensified under the offices of the North South Ministerial Council. A steering group and nine working groups, comprising officials from both Administrations, have been established and are working under various headings on the development of animal health strategies for Ireland. It is my belief, one shared throughout Ireland, that the interests of farmers and their families are best served by the greatest degree of harmonisation and by treating Ireland as one entity for the purposes of animal health. That would afford us an unprecedented degree of protection against animal disease threats from beyond our shores and is a goal to which Minister Rodgers and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, are committed.

A key element of an all-Ireland animal health strategy is the adoption of a common approach to animal identification and tracing. Although our current systems may have been developed independently, I agree with the concept of compatibility and data exchange between systems. One of the tasks of the NSMC working groups on animal identification, particularly the group working to eliminate cross-Border fraud, is to continue co-operating in IT with a view to improving the exchange of key information and developing compatible systems with common interfaces.

There is already an exchange of information in respect of cattle exported through Northern Ireland, both for traceability purposes and as a means of verification of entitlement to EU livestock payments. In addition, a project is commencing to streamline and improve the systems for exchange of data incorporating electronic transmission and receipt of information.

As regards systems for sheep and pigs, there have been numerous discussions with our counterparts in Northern Ireland with a view to introducing arrangements that recognise our common interests in the matter. I fully support the concept of transparent and effective animal traceability systems throughout the island of Ireland.

I ask the Minister of State to tell the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development that this response is hopeless. I am getting more information from the Department in Northern Ireland. Until food is removed from the ambit of the Minister, I do not see how any progress will be made in this area because the consumer is not being considered an important party.

The Seanad adjourned at 4.35 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 22 March 2002.