Dáil Éireann - Volume 395 - 14 February, 1990

Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Mad Cow Disease.

5. Mr. Stagg asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the number of incidents of mad cow disease; the location of such outbreaks; the causes or presumed causes of the disease; the steps he is taking to eradicate the causes of the disease and monitor importation of cattle so affected; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

[1785] 59. Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the scientific evidence on which he bases the belief that BSE, otherwise known as mad cow disease, poses no threat to the health of humans; the reason he supported the British Government in their opposition to the EC ban on the export of cattle; the monitoring which is carried out by his Department to detect the disease in the Irish herd; when cases of the disease were reported in the Irish herd; the steps he intends to take to stop the spread of the disease to this State; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Mr. Walsh: I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 59 together.

BSE was first confirmed here on 25 January 1989. To date, there have been 18 cases — four in County Cavan, four in County Donegal, one in County Monaghan, one in County Meath, one in County Longford, three in County Cork and one in each of counties Carlow, Clare, Limerick and Waterford.

This disease has a long incubation period and studies are continuing as to its possible origin. The feeding of Scrapieinfected meat and bonemeal has been suggested as the most likely cause of the disease but this has yet to be conclusively proven. The evidence in regard to the small number of cases found here is that the cause of the disease was import-related — either the infected animals were imported or were exposed to imported feed.

Following confirmation of our first BSE case, I took steps to make it notifiable and to provide for slaughter of affected animals with disposal of the carcases by burial or incineration. I have also arranged for a special examination of the brains of animals presented for slaughter with suspicious symptoms and for the purchase and retention for research purposes at the Department's veterinary laboratory of the progeny of confirmed cases. The importation of ruminant rations from the UK is prohibited and the import of cattle from that country is currently limited to those born after 18 July 1988 — the date on which [1786] a UK national ban on the feeding of ruminant-derived rations to ruminants became applicable.

In line with a recent EC decision, our restrictions on the importation of cattle from the UK will be extended shortly. Ireland opposed the EC proposal referred to on the basis that it was not justified on either animal or public health grounds. There is no evidence that BSE poses a threat to human health. The Scientific Veterinary Committee of the EC unanimously reported to that effect on 8 January 1990. This view is shared by the Food Advisory Committee.

Mr. Stagg: Given the opposition of the Government, and the Minister in particular, to the ban imposed by the Commission on the importation of cattle from countries where this disease is endemic, I should like to know why the Minister did not adopt the same attitude as the German Government and impose a ban on the products? Is the Minister aware that various scientific journals have outlined the dangers involved for humans and particularly the time bomb that may exist after a 30-year incubation period for a virus that has not been isolated as yet. Similar viruses have a 30-year incubation period. The Minister must bear in mind that contaminated products may appear in the food chains. The Minister has stated that there is no known risk arising from this disease——

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy should have regard to the need for brevity. There is another priority Question on the Order Paper but I am afraid I will not be able to dispose of it within the prescribed time.

Mr. Stagg: Is the Minister aware that this disease has crossed from one species to another and that this has shown up under laboratory conditions? Arising from that, will the Minister accept that there is a real danger to humans?

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy [1787] should desist. I have given him every latitude but he seems to go on and on.

Mr. Walsh: I should like to repeat the conclusion of the Scientific Veterinary Committee of the EC to the effect that there was no evidence to suggest that BSE is transmissible to humans. With regard to the decision of the EC to prohibit the export of live cattle from the UK I should like to tell the Deputy that Ireland opposed that measure on the grounds that the decision was not based on conclusive scientific evidence. There was no logic to that decision and it was contrary to the unanimous view of the Scientific Veterinary Committee of the EC which was that the risk of BSE spreading to humans was extremely remote. BSE is a notifiable disease and virtually all the cases in Ireland are in Border areas. They relate to imported cattle or imported feed. There is no comparison between the problems being faced by the UK and those we face. In the UK 9,600 cases were reported and 25 per cent of the sheep population is infected with the disease. We do not have that problem here.

Mr. Stagg: Given that there is no evidence that the disease is transmissible to humans, will the Minister accept that, equally, there is no evidence that it cannot be transmitted to humans. Will he accept that that is what gives cause for concern? Will the Minister agree that his decision not to support the ban on imports which would not affect trade greatly amounted to concern for profits before the interests of consumers?

Mr. Walsh: I do not accept the import of that suggestion. We asked the most eminent scientific people in the country, from universities and research laboratories, to investigate this problem. They produced a comprehensive report on the disease and I have no reason to doubt their integrity or their findings.

Mr. Stagg: They have not eliminated risk in their reports.

[1788] Mr. Walsh: I will forward the Deputy a copy of the report to allay any doubts he may have about the matter.

Mr. Foxe rose.

An Ceann Comhairle: I am sorry, Deputy, I cannot call you. We are dealing with Priority Questions and under Standing Orders it is laid down that supplementary questions at this stage are confined to the Deputy who tabled the questions. In any event I regret to say that the time for dealing with Priority Questions is now well exhausted. I am proceeding to deal with other questions.

Mr. Connaughton: This is most unsatisfactory. The Chair should permit the Minister to answer my question.

An Ceann Comhairle: Indeed it is unsatisfactory, but the Chair does his best.