Dáil Éireann - Volume 526 - 28 November, 2000
Private Members' Business. - BSE: Motion.
Dr. Upton Dr. Upton
Dr. Upton: I move:
That Dáil Éireann–
–the importance of the beef industry to the Irish economy both in terms of sustaining farm families and in contributing very significantly to the Irish export market;
–the need to continue the expansion and development of this key sector;
–the health benefits associated with grass fed Irish beef if included in a balanced diet;
–that BSE in animals has been conclusively linked to vCJD in humans;
–that the number of cases of BSE in Ireland continues to rise;
–that the safety of food for human consumption is a priority;
–that there is a lack of adequate facilities for disposal of BSE-infected animals;
calls on the Government to protect the integrity of Irish beef production and to ensure that instances of BSE and vCJD are minimised by implementing the following:
–compensate families of victims of vCJD;
–establish a trust for any future victims;
–introduce legislation to prevent the feeding of animal ruminant protein to any animals, including non-ruminants;
–undertake testing of all cattle intended for slaughter, for BSE;
–provide adequate and appropriate disposal facilities of BSE-infected animals;
–ensure that research into vCJD is adequately funded;
–carry out research to establish if sheep with scrapie-like symptoms are harbouring BSE;
–provide adequate education and training programmes for farmers, veterinarians, slaughter-house workers and butchers;
–undertake the communication of risk to the public and to assist in the interpretation of any information given.
 I wish to share my time with Deputy Gilmore.
The importance of the beef industry to the economy cannot be understated. Beef accounts for well over 50% of our agricultural output and makes up 90% of total agricultural exports. Nowhere else in Europe does beef production form such a vital element of agricultural activity. The fact that Irish beef is accepted throughout the world is a testament to the quality of our produce. No other beef producing nation in the world has the optimum conditions which exist for rearing quality, grass fed beef. The naturally suitable environment which exists here for beef production gives Irish producers a special place in the beef market. The low fat and high nutritional content of Irish beef, which was recently vindicated by Teagasc following its research work at Grange, is something of which the farming community can be proud.
However, in the past two weeks since BSE re-entered the headlines throughout Europe, Irish beef has been served a blow. In less than 14 days, cattle prices have fallen by over 10p a lb. The IFA estimates that already £500 million has been wiped off the Irish cattle herd. In the interest of cattle farmers, Ireland must lead the way in terms of minimising the risk of BSE contamination in our beef.
The decision by the Government to table an amendment to the motion tabled by the Labour Party is disappointing. The Government's amendment fails to address all the issues around BSE and vCJD. The amendment is vague. It does little to ensure consumer confidence in our beef and it excludes some crucial matters, such as the disposal of infected cattle. It is my view that the House should not have to vote on a proposal to support “the policy of keeping the matter under review in light of the scientific developments”. Developments in BSE should be kept under review as a matter of course in the Department. It should not take a motion to ensure this happens.
A culture of secrecy and paternalism has dominated much of Irish politics. This culture is manifested again in the manner of the release of the figures on BSE cases in cattle in Ireland. Initially, figures were released on a daily basis as cases of BSE came to the fore. Subsequently, as the number of cases increased, it became standard practice for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to release these figures on the last Friday of every month. However, suddenly and without any explanation, the new release date has been changed.
I expected to have the latest figures on BSE for this debate, but I have just learned that the figures will not be put into the public domain until next Friday. Whatever the reason, in a week that BSE has been in the headlines in almost every country in Europe, it is a bad call to alter the publication date of the number of BSE cases. This culture of secrecy and paternalism has bred the fear and suspicion that we now suffer from as far as BSE is concerned. Whatever the figures for  the month of November, we know for sure that the numbers so far this year are the highest recorded to date.
Lord Phillips, who chaired the BSE inquiry in the UK, said:
Ministers, officials and scientific advisory committees alike were all apprehensive that the public would react irrationally to BSE. As each additional piece of data became available, the fear was that it would cause disproportionate alarm, would be seized upon by the media and by dissident scientists as demonstrating that BSE was a danger to humans, and would lead to a food scare.
With hindsight, a monster had been created by the culture of secrecy and paternalism. People do not need facile reassurances; they need information and the chance to make up their own minds based on facts. This requires that governments and the public alike become comfortable with the concept of risk and uncertainty. It also presupposes that the delivery of the information is not couched in unintelligible scientific jargon. What is needed is the confidence to debate and to agree or disagree. Politicians must be confident enough to say we do not know; these are the facts that we have at present.
The stakeholders, that is, the consumer and the industry, require openness and transparency. The public must be able to see and, if necessary, participate in the decision making process. This can be done by, for example, inviting consumers to join advisory committees. It should no longer be acceptable to have the token consumer representative. After all, the consumer is by far the most important, as well as numerically the most significant, stakeholder in the food safety business. Advisory committees can no longer be stuffed with the believer – scientific or political. The layman, the doubting layman and the sceptical scientist must be allowed to participate in a meaningful way.
Experts from outside the country, free of any local baggage or interests, must be appointed to relevant committees. Authorities charged with responsibility for ensuring food safety should make their committee meetings open to the public. If the public can attend a county council meeting or sit in the Visitors Gallery in Dáil Éireann, why can they not attend a meeting where decisions are made in relation to food safety? People should be allowed to see how we do our business and the process through which decisions are reached.
The implications of the BSE scare are enormous for food safety and agriculture not only in Ireland but in every country where BSE is known to occur. In the UK to date, it has taken 16 volumes, two and a half years and £27 million to assess the BSE scandal. This figure does not include the cost to the economy of approximately £4 billion in cattle loss or the ongoing cost of cases of vCJD. The whole drama of BSE in the UK had a cast of hundreds of civil servants, poli ticians and scientists. It wove its turgid way through many twists and turns of a decade of the most extraordinary policy making. The report is vast but there is one simple message from it – that the culture of secrecy and paternalism makes bad government, bad science and destroys confidence and credibility. Restoring that credibility is the task ahead for governments and scientists everywhere.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, in cattle manifests itself as a disease in humans known as vCJD. In cattle, BSE is a progressive and invariably fatal degeneration of the central nervous system. In vCJD, the typical symptoms are early onset. Behavioural disturbances are common and they are followed by difficulty with balance and walking within weeks or months. Finally, dementia sets in, leading to profound confusion, disorientation and memory loss. The average survival time is approximately 18 months. The disease in humans is horrific and the loss to the beef industry is huge. As far as we know, all this results from the feeding of ruminant meat and bone meal to cattle.
Central to the argument on BSE is the importance of meat and bone meal in the spread of the disease. Scientists have warned that BSE transmission through feed is a complex, poorly understood subject. Some animals can eat large amounts of suspect feed and not catch the disease. Others might succumb to exposure to tiny amounts of infected feed. If the meat and bone theory is correct, as is believed by most scientists, there should be a decline in the number of cases of BSE over the next few years. If, however, BSE begins to appear in animals under three years old, there is a major problem.
It is the most widely accepted theory that meat and bone meal was the vehicle for the transmission of the infective prion that caused BSE in cattle. The ease with which BSE infects other species has varied greatly but it is known beyond doubt that BSE can cross the species barrier. It is astounding, therefore, that meat and bone meal is still permitted in this country as feed for pigs. While there is no official ban on its use in poultry meal, that industry has introduced and agreed a voluntary ban. However, it is still permitted for pig feed and 18 people have obtained licences for its use.
The compelling evidence that meat and bone meal was the vehicle for BSE in the first place, combined with the fact that avoidance of cross-contamination of ration intended for ruminants is difficult to avoid, is more than enough to insist on an immediate ban on the use of any animal material as animal feed. Permitting the use of meat and bone meal in pig feed is an invitation to fraudulent or accidental cross-over use by farmers. Public health must take precedence over economic considerations in this case. There is no margin for error in dealing with BSE or new variant CJD.
The Phillips report in the UK noted there were delays in taking decisions and, more importantly,  a lack of rigour in implementing them, specifically that the monitoring and regulation of slaughterhouses and rendering firms was considered to be lax. Based on this kind of acknowledgement, it is extremely important that the continuing use of meat and bonemeal in any animal feed is recognised for the potential risk it poses. It would be extremely arrogant and cavalier to ignore the lessons of the UK, as far as BSE is concerned.
The pigmeat quality assurance scheme of Bord Bia requires that, among other conditions, the pig producer must, “purchase feed free of meat and bonemeal and with full traceability and declaration of ingredients, as per the Marketing of Foodstuffs (Amendment) Regulations, SI No. 261 of 1993”.
For quality to have any meaning in this context, we should be certain that all pig products with this quality mark are derived from animals guaranteed to have been fed on a diet free of meat and bonemeal. At present 18 pig farmers are licensed to hold meat and bonemeal on their premises. Our major export market in the UK requires that pigmeat for sale there is derived from animals fed on a diet free of meat and bonemeal.
The pigmeat quality assurance scheme operated by Bord Bia should not apply to any pig farms that have a licence to feed meat and bonemeal. Furthermore, any Irish meat factories that wish to use the quality assurance label on their produce must be able to prove they do not source pigs from farms that have a licence for meat and bonemeal.
In France, there is mounting evidence that the reason for the increase in the number of cases of BSE lies with the government's refusal to impose a ban on the use of cattle remains in all kinds of animal feed. The French have now banned meat and bonemeal in pig feed, but they have pointed out that the ban is pointless if meat and bonemeal pig meat from other countries is allowed into the country from other sources. In the UK, the pig industry is equally concerned that only pigmeat from animals that can be shown to be free of meat and bonemeal diets will be acceptable.
Banning meat and bonemeal in one European country is pointless unless the ban extends across all countries because of the way in which pigs may be traded across national boundaries. To assure the consumer and the industry, a Europe-wide ban on meat and bonemeal in any animal feed should be introduced.
Experimental results available in 1990 showed that just half a gram of infected meat and bonemeal could cause BSE in a cow. Cross contamination should have been recognised as a problem at that stage. The Phillips report in the UK states that a cow can become infected with BSE as a result of eating an amount of infectious tissue as small as a peppercorn. Cross contamination in feed mills resulted in the continued infection of thousands of cattle.
Despite detailed licensing recommendations here, it is difficult to take on board that the type  of controls that are outlined could be effectively enforced. Apart from any other consideration, the policing of the process is next to impossible.
However, a quote from the advisory committee established in 1996 might help to give a perspective on it. In the understated way of committees, it was noted that, “In view of the emergence of BSE, it would be wise to assess the risk to both animals and humans of recycling of mammalian derived protein between species”. That was the view of the advisory committee, reporting to the Minister, in 1999. I await the implementation of that understated recommendation for the protection of the consumer, to prevent cross-over contamination to cattle feed and to protect the pig industry.
Power struggles and turf wars between different Departments and their officials must not be allowed to influence the process of ensuring safety. It is neither reasonable nor sensible that the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development should have any responsibility for food safety. Responsibility for food safety should become the preserve of the Department of Health and Children. Where trade interests and safety are controlled, however tenuously, within the same Department, it puts an impossible burden on that Department to be impartial. Whatever changes are necessary should be introduced to ensure there are no loopholes whereby the health of the population can be put at risk because of interdepartmental power struggles.
The human form of BSE, that is, new variant CJD, is complex and poorly understood. The average incubation periods for both BSE and CJD are unknown, but most scientific findings point to an average of ten years. It has been suggested that people may develop new variant CJD up to 40 years after eating infected meat. Further research on a similar disease indicates that the mean incubation period in people is 30 years or more. If the numbers of new variant CJD double for just a few years in the UK, then the numbers could be in the thousands.
Against this background, any compensation packages in place must be considered very carefully. So far, this country has recorded one case of new variant CJD. However, the reality is that it is almost inevitable that more cases will emerge with time. We know that BSE is present in the animal population. We are also told that one animal could potentially contaminate 400,000 people. In that case, it is almost sure that more cases of new variant CJD will be diagnosed.
It was originally assumed that new variant CJD affected young persons only. The recent incident in the UK, where a 74 year old man died of new variant CJD, has introduced a new dimension to the risks associated with BSE.
I have asked that compensation for victims of CJD be made available. It is impossible to predict the numbers of CJD cases that might emerge over time but, whatever those numbers, there should be compensation arrangements for the families of  victims. Furthermore, there should be a trust set up to guard against large numbers of CJD cases emerging over a number of years, so that the families of those people who are unfortunate enough to become victims have the reassurance, at least, of some financial support.
In recent days, a number of proposals and restrictions have been introduced to monitor cattle for the development of BSE. Up to now, it was only those cattle that displayed the obvious symptoms that were tested. It is now proposed at EU level that random testing of all cattle over 30 months should take place.
This does not go far enough. Assuring the safety of our food is the first consideration. From a trading point of view, it should also be included as a protection for purposes of our export market. A full testing programme would help to restore confidence in the cattle industry and reassure importing countries that best practice was being enforced for Irish beef.
While no test is 100% reliable, the ENFER test that is available is validated by the EU. It would introduce a level of confidence for both the consumer and the producer. The ENFER test is now widely used in many countries. It will detect BSE in cattle where the typical spongiform symptoms have not yet appeared. It provides the best current assurances in relation to the safety of beef, as far as BSE is concerned. I welcome the support by the IFA for a full testing programme. I was pleased to see that yesterday the Minister recommended full testing, which I proposed last week during an adjournment debate.
It is amazing there should be any resistance to the concept of full testing for BSE. It is standard practice to carry out thousands of tests daily on meat samples for the presence of a large number of bacteria, for example. Many of these tests are very expensive and time consuming to carry out, but they are now routine and provide a level of assurance about the safety of the product. The ENFER test provides a result within 24 hours, thus giving the best available assurances to the consumer in relation to BSE.
It is important, however, to be conscious that increased testing will almost inevitably lead to the detection of more positive cases of BSE. It is better that we should know the real situation and not continue to live in cloud cuckoo land, pretending that we have BSE free cattle when we are not doing the test to find out their status.
Testing of all animals is very welcome. I endorse the Minister's support of that yesterday. Commissioner Byrne, however, was quite correct when he stated that no country can guarantee their meat is free of BSE. The natural limitations of any test preclude such conclusions.
The lessons of the UK should act as a reminder to us that making such assertions is highly dangerous. The British minister for agriculture stated in 1990 that British beef was perfectly safe. Certain actions were taken in the UK, following from which the minister stated that “These actions fully protect the public from what is a remote and  theoretical risk”. In this case, the overt message of certainty went beyond the scientific evidence.
Against that background, this country should endeavour to put in place the most rigorous tests and controls available, but should acknowledge that absolute safety can never be guaranteed and that one can never prove a negative. To date there is no satisfactory disposal method for carcasses that are infected with BSE. The report of the advisory committee on BSE, which was established under the last Administration to consider the then BSE crisis, advised against burying carcasses. Nevertheless, this became common practice and would most likely have continued but for the recent incident where a carcass was discovered and removed from the burial site. The alternative arrangements now in place are unsatisfactory as the carcasses remain in cold storage. This cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely. It does not get rid of the material but stores it to be dealt with later. While there is resistance to incineration in this country, the Minister must look to the best available technology for the safe and satisfactory disposal of the carcasses.
There is a theoretical possibility that BSE is present in sheep, although it has not been found occurring naturally. Current research to look for BSE in sheep is costly and slow. There is, therefore, a need to develop a rapid test so that large numbers of sheep can be tested to reduce the uncertainty of whether or not BSE occurs
It is feared that scrapie might mask the symptoms of BSE in sheep. Unlike in cattle, BSE in sheep is not confined to specific organs and tissue, such as the brain and spinal cord. Sheep with BSE would have to be destroyed and no part of their carcasses allowed into the food chain. At present, the potentially most infective tissues are removed and not used.
Perhaps more than any other area of food safety, BSE is characterised by scientific uncertainty. This uncertainty means that current risk management options for protecting the health of the public are precautionary in nature and are aimed at risk reduction in the light of current knowledge, recognising that risks may not be totally eliminated. For this reason alone, this country must not be stingy in the funding of research into BSE. There are many areas in need of research, including the development of a method to detect people incubating the new variant CJD; the risk, if any, from blood transfusions; further studies on sub-clinical forms of BSE to determine if apparently healthy animals may be harbouring the infection; development of a diagnostic kit for screening of live animals; rapid differentiation of BSE and scrapie strains and tests to determine the risk, if any, from milk.
The cattle trade in Ireland must be protected and our export market must, as far as possible, be supported. So many people depend on agriculture for a living that it is crucial that all efforts are made to retain the confidence of the importing countries. Equal care and consider ation must be given to the home market and to our imports.
For reasons of protecting the health of the Irish consumer, the most rigid controls must be in place to ensure the safety and integrity of any foods imported into Ireland. Has it been clarified, for example, that all beef imports from the UK over the past ten years have originated there? What controls are in place and what auditing procedures exist to guarantee the safety of imports? Recent figures from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development show that Ireland imported 34,500 tonnes of beef from the UK in 1995. Do all of these products show the country of origin, so that we know that the product came from a country where BSE had not been reported as required?
Will the Minister outline the tests are carried out, the audits available and the documented evidence to ensure that all imports have met the required standard? In the absence of a declaration of the country of origin on the packaging, it is asking consumers to make a great act of faith if they are to trust imported products for the future. In light of what we now know about developments in Germany, for example, it is important that we pay more attention to our imports. Up to very recently, Germany did not have a ban on SRM, or specified risk material, in foods for human consumption.
In the light of an EU report on Border inspection posts in Ireland, published in February of this year, it is clear there are many gaps and loopholes in the way business is conducted in this country as far as food safety is concerned. The report highlighted an alarming number of deficiencies in the regulation of imports at Border inspection posts. More recently, the detection in Northern Ireland of spinal cord in beef carcasses originating in Ireland, provided evidence of serious breaches of the legal controls.
A number of key questions remain unanswered in relation to BSE and CJD. It is not clear why CJD attacks predominantly young people. One explanation is that they eat disproportionately more beefburgers, some of which may have contained high risk material. It is possible that because young people suffer more frequently from illness such as tonsillitis, they are more prone to transmission through broken skin or mucous membranes. Estimates of the size of the epidemic in the UK, for example, have shown that it is impossible to gauge the extent of the problem. Not enough is known about dose, route of exposure, incubation period, genetic susceptibility, and scale of species barrier between cattle and humans.
The origins of BSE remain a mystery. We may never know how it first developed. The best guess is that a sporadic form of the disease probably occurred in the 1970s through some kind of freak genetic dysfunction. These and many other questions remain to be answered about BSE and the human new variant CJD form.
It must be recognised that a number of the  decisions taken in relation to the management of BSE in Ireland were good. Slaughtering an entire herd where one infected animal was detected was a very positive move and it may have helped to contain the development of the disease. Introducing the 30 month rule was also a positive move.
However, among the recommendations made by the advisory committee that reported in 1999 were that burial of BSE animals on farms should cease; effective incineration facilities for carcasses of BSE suspects should be provided as a matter of priority; the efficient removal of tissues designated as SRMs from the animal food chain is essential; effective controls should be in place and proof of implementation should be available and constantly reviewed and a full-time epidemiologist with appropriate support staff should be appointed to evaluate all aspects of the epidemiology of BSE in Ireland. Some at least of these recommendations are not in place. I call on the Minister to ensure the full implementation of these and other recommendations made by the committee.
With the advent of and the escalation of BSE many of the old certainties about food safety have been demolished. Survival of an infective agent under extreme conditions, infectivity by an agent devoid of any genetic material and crossing of the species barrier by the infective agent are just some of the new facts that we have had to come to terms with. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that the concept of risk and uncertainty are part and parcel of food safety and that this must be communicated to the farmer, meat processor and consumer alike. Most significant of all is the fact that public health is more important than any short-term economic considerations.
In 1988 a middle ranking civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture in the UK noted:
We do not know where this disease came from, we do not know how it is spread, and we do not know whether it can be passed to humans. The last point seems to me to be the most worrying. There is no evidence that people can be infected but we cannot say that there is no risk.
However, for the next eight years expert committees, UK Ministers and civil servants, including two chief medical officers, reassured the public that there was no risk in eating beef. There was an enormous sense of betrayal once it became obvious that they had all got it wrong.
There are many costly lessons to be learned from the disaster in the UK. Ireland has been remarkably lucky in many ways but our luck will run out unless we are significantly more proactive and open in addressing the BSE problem. Whatever actions are needed to protect public health must be taken, regardless of the economic cost.
Mr. Gilmore Mr. Gilmore
Mr. Gilmore: I support the motion proposed by Deputy Upton and congratulate her on the comprehensive case she has made for it. The Govern ment's amendment to the Labour Party motion is an abdication of responsibility to the farming community, beef exporters and consumers. The motion is an attempt to instil as much confidence as possible in the Irish beef industry in the wake of the re-emergence of Europe-wide fears about the dangers of BSE and the risk it poses to humans. The Government's amendment is a fudge. It is a poor attempt to walk away from the responsibilities of tackling the fundamental issues associated with BSE.
In the short time available to me tonight I wish to deal in particular with the disposal of BSE infected animals. It is clear from the Government's decision not to mention the word “disposal” in the amendment that it does not have the will to ensure that BSE animals are disposed of in a way that will reduce any possible risk to other animals or to humans. It was only last month when it emerged that a BSE infected carcass was buried near the source of four group water schemes and 15 wells in Galway that we saw action by the Government on the recommendation in the advisory committee report, which had been sitting on the Minister's desk for some time, that the burial of BSE animals on farms should cease.
It was particularly disturbing that this burial in Galway was close to the source of group water schemes. We know we have serious problems of pollution with rural group water schemes. The EPA report shows that approximately 42% of all rural group water schemes have some degree of pollution. It is particularly unacceptable that the degree of pollution which already exists in group water schemes should be added to by the potential of contamination of water supplies by the burial of BSE infected animals. Following the disclosure of the burial in Galway, it appears there are many other locations throughout the country where infected animals were buried. I expect that as local authorities begin seeking information on these burial sites a worrying picture will emerge.
At the time the information on the Galway burial broke, officials at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development said they did not have any option other than to bury the cow in question. Newspaper reports which appeared in subsequent days suggested the Department would continue to bury infected animals because it did not have any alternative, particularly in light of the fact the State does not have an incinerator. Eventually, after some pressure, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development climbed down and at the beginning of this month announced an end to the burial of BSE infected cattle.
While burial may have ended, we still do not have any disposal facilities for BSE infected animals. Even if we proceed with another rendering plant, we will not deal adequately with the issue of disposal. At present, the rendering plant which operates in Cavan only serves to transform BSE infected animals into a compound of meat and bone. The problem of infected matter still exists  and we are forced to export it somewhere else. This is a costly and unsatisfactory exercise and does not provide the guarantees needed that BSE infected matter is not left lying around posing risks to humans and animals. We do not have the facilities to ensure the safe disposal of infected animals. If we are to have any confidence in the system which deals with the disposal of BSE infected carcasses, the incineration of those carcasses in Ireland must be considered yet again.
Mr. Davern Mr. Davern
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (Mr. Davern): The Deputy will object to incineration at all costs.
Mr. Gilmore Mr. Gilmore
Mr. Gilmore: The Minister of State has been almost four years in that Department. A period of repentant silence for his output and record, particularly in this area, would be justified.
Mr. Davern Mr. Davern
Mr. Davern: The Deputy has come from four political parties so he has had to bury a few bodies.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Rory O'Hanlon
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I ask the Minister of State to allow Deputy Gilmore to continue without interruption.
Mr. Davern Mr. Davern
Mr. Davern: The Deputy has buried more bodies than I have.
Mr. Broughan Mr. Broughan
Mr. Broughan: That is disgraceful.
Mr. Gilmore Mr. Gilmore
Mr. Gilmore: Your bluster and bluff are not the answer we need.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Rory O'Hanlon
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I ask the Minister of State to allow Deputy Gilmore to continue and I ask Deputy Gilmore to address his remarks through the Chair and try to avoid inviting interruptions.
Mr. Gilmore Mr. Gilmore
Mr. Gilmore: We have this problem because of that type of bluster and bluff from the Minister of State. A report, which clearly states that BSE infected animals should not be buried, is sitting in the Department and has not been acted upon. We still have the problem that some of these animals were buried in various locations around the country. The information on that has not been made public. I understand some effort has been made to provide it to local authorities, but the public is entitled to have that information.
Mr. Davern Mr. Davern
Mr. Davern: The Deputy should check the record of the period his party was in Government.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Rory O'Hanlon
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I ask the Minister of State to allow Deputy Gilmore to continue without interruption.
Mr. Davern Mr. Davern
Mr. Davern: I will but I cannot resist temptation.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle Rory O'Hanlon
 An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: There is a time limit on this debate.
Mr. Gilmore Mr. Gilmore
Mr. Gilmore: Incineration is a contentious issue which must be seriously examined given the priority which must be afforded to food and water safety. I was impressed recently by a statement by Professor Emer Colleran, a former chairperson of An Taisce, who acknowledged that incineration was the best available technology for the disposal of BSE infected animals.
We should reflect on the lessons we could learn from other scandals and problems associated with health risks. The Lindsay tribunal is currently dealing with the degree to which blood was infected. As each day passes at that tribunal, it is interesting to note that the response of responsible State agencies in the early stages when people became aware that blood was contaminated was to play it down and not to scare the public. They said the scientists knew best and that unless there was an absolute assurance about the scientific evidence the precautionary principle did not apply. It is interesting that the same type of approach is now being taken in relation to BSE.
Deputy Upton rightly referred to the inappropriateness of having the issue of food safety and quality lodged in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. I understand the difficulties the Department, the Minister and the Minister of State have in balancing the requirement to protect the interests of the producer and the industry from a run on beef if there is concern about BSE with their responsibility to ensure that food safety and quality is protected for the public. However, it appears that in balancing those respective responsibilities the Department has consistently erred on the side of the producer. The consumer and the issue of food safety take second place in relation to BSE. That cannot be allowed to continue.
I agree with Deputy Upton's suggestion that responsibility for food safety and food quality must be transferred from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to the Department of Health and Children. From the point of view of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and of ensuring that the industry is protected and developed, a more open approach on the part of the Department and the Minister is necessary in respect of this issue. We should not underestimate the degree to which members of the public have a much better understanding of the balances which must be achieved. We should not adopt the rather paternalistic approach frequently taken by the Department and the Minister, an approach which is underscored, in his usual buffoon-like way, by the Minister of State.
Mr. Davern Mr. Davern
Mr. Davern: The consumer is a major priority. However, Johnny come lately to the Labour Party would not appreciate that.
Mr. Gilmore Mr. Gilmore
 Mr. Gilmore: The Minister of State is himself a bit of a Johnny come lately.
Mr. Davern Mr. Davern
Mr. Davern: The Deputy has been through more parties than I have Christian names.
Mr. Gilmore Mr. Gilmore
Mr. Gilmore: The Minister of State is a Johnny come lately to his current position.
Mr. Davern Mr. Davern
Mr. Davern: The Deputy's declimatisation of socialism is amazing.
Mr. Walsh Mr. Walsh
Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (Mr. Walsh): I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words from and including “calls on the Government” to the end of the motion and substitute the following:
“supports the Government's measures to protect the integrity of Irish beef production to ensure that instances of BSE are minimised by implementing the present stringent controls in Ireland to safeguard consumer health and to eradicate BSE from the cattle population;
supports additional measures being introduced as appropriate to further re-enforce consumer confidence;
–supports the policy of keeping the matter under review in the light of scientific developments.”
I am confident that when the House becomes fully aware of the background to this issue it will support the range of measures that are in place and in the process of being introduced to protect public health and to eradicate BSE from the cattle population.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this issue in this House today and I am confident that all Deputies will contribute in a constructive way to the debate on this matter, which is too important to be divisive. I acknowledge the expertise of Deputy Upton in respect of this matter. Her contribution was constructive, erudite and professional. She obviously drew on her wealth of professional experience in framing that contribution.
This debate allows me to describe, in the clearest way possible, the approach the Government has taken to controlling and eradicating BSE, to ensuring that the health of consumers is protected and assuring the quality and safety of our beef. It also provides me with the opportunity to allay public concerns in relation to BSE arising from recent events in Europe where a number of issues, including the higher number of cases of the disease in France and the recent confirmation of cases in Spain and Germany, have seriously affected consumer confidence in these and other countries. My colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, will deal with the public health aspects and the food safety  aspects that fall within his remit when he addresses the House tomorrow.
At this stage, it is worthwhile recalling the background to BSE. This new disease in cattle was first reported in the UK in November 1986. The first case of BSE here was confirmed in January 1989. In that year, a total of 15 cases were confirmed and for the next six years, the number of cases remained low at between 14 to 19 per year. In 1996, the number of cases increased to 74 while in the following years, there were 80, 83 and 95 cases, respectively. For this year, the total number of cases stands at 120 with four further cases detected under the programmes of testing of animals from depopulated herds and of active surveillance. To date this month, 19 cases have been detected under the normal surveillance regime and one further case which was identified under the active surveillance regime was subsequently confirmed at my Department's laboratory.
The practice in the Department has been to issue figures detailing the incidence of cases at the end of each month. It will be no different this month. When the final results are received on Thursday we will publish them as usual. If we had published the results on Friday last, for example, people would have inquired if we were hiding something in respect of the cases discovered during the last week of the month. That is not the case. We report faithfully and transparently the cases for each month at the end of each month. It is peculiar that the first day of the month will be a Friday, but we must wait until the end of the month to release the figures. There is no other way to deal with a disease such as BSE other than by adopting a totally transparent approach.
Although the numbers for this year and for this month are the highest recorded here, it is essential that they be seen in their proper context, both statistically and against the background of the stringent controls that we have in place to deal with BSE and to protect consumers. Notwithstanding the higher numbers this year, I remain satisfied that the comprehensive range of measures we have in place is proving effective. In the first instance, the overall incidence of BSE continues to be extremely low with a total of 556 cases since 1989 in a cattle population in excess of 7.5 million. This compares with a total of more than 177,000 in the UK and a peak of more than 37,000 confirmed cases in 1992 alone in a cattle population of 12 million. To put our position into perspective, the disease incidence here represents 0.0012% of our total cattle population.
The higher number of cases here this year was foreseen in the recent report of the European Union's scientific steering committee which predicted a temporary increase in numbers for the next two years from animals infected prior to the measures introduced in 1996 and 1997 taking full effect. That committee also concluded that the Irish system was “optimally stable” from 1998, meaning that the measures in place since then prevent the agent of BSE from reinfecting cattle.
 The predictions of the scientific steering committee in relation to a temporary increase in the numbers of infected animals have been borne out by the increased number of cases for this year. Of more significance, however, is the increasing age profile of BSE positive animals detected. To date, no animals born after 1996 have been detected with BSE and an ever increasing proportion of infected animals are six years of age or older. That means that prime Irish beef is completely free of BSE because it comes from Irish steers and is not sold to consumers at that age. This supports the scientific steering committee's conclusion that the Irish control system is optimally stable, meaning that the control measures in place in Ireland prevent the recycling of the BSE agent through ruminant feed. In addition, we have various control measures, in place to protect consumers.
From the early stages, we have had an extensive range of surveillance and control measures to deal with BSE and these were significantly revamped in 1996 and 1997 in the aftermath of the announcement of the possible link between BSE and new variant CJD. In my opinion the Irish control and eradication system is now among the most comprehensive the world. As Deputy Upton stated, however, we have a great deal to learn about this disease and she suggested that we carry out more research in our quest for knowledge.
The Irish controls, which operate at a number of levels, include a legal obligation on veterinary surgeons, farmers and all persons in charge of bovine animals to notify the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development of any animal infected or suspected of being infected with BSE; the depopulation of the entire herd where BSE had occurred and the destruction of the carcasses; the tracing and culling of all birth cohorts of infected animals; the removal and destruction of specified risk materials from all cattle and sheep, thus ensuring that these materials are excluded from the human food chain and the animal feed chain; the rendering of the remaining animal waste which excludes specified risk materials in accordance with EU rules, namely, 20 minutes at 133º centigrade at three atmospheres of pressure; and the effective application of stringent rules in relation to the manufacture, possession, sale and storage of meat and bone meal. The feeding of meat and bonemeal to ruminants is forbidden and feed mills manufacturing ruminant feed are not permitted to have meat and bonemeal on the premises.
In addition to these measures, all cattle presented for slaughter at meat factories are subjected to an ante mortem inspection by veterinary officials of my Department. Animals showing signs of ill health which give rise to a suspicion that they may be affected by BSE are returned to the farm, put down and tested for BSE. All casualty and emergency cattle presented for slaughter are, in any event, rapid tested for the disease and the carcass is retained until a test result is received showing that BSE is not present. The  recent events in Europe have given rise to unilateral actions by France, Spain, Austria, Italy and Germany which is symptomatic of the tremendous political pressure being brought to bear in these member states, to introduce measures which they see as necessary and to reassure their consumers. It must be remembered that these concerns were not based on any new information or scientific developments as regards BSE or CJD but rather on a desire to demonstrate that actions were being taken.
It was critical, in light of these events, that the Council of Ministers should move quickly to re-establish a community approach to dealing with BSE by adopting a series of supplementary measures which will help to restore consumer confidence in beef in Europe and in third countries. After 17 hours of discussions last week, the Council issued a statement which emphasised the wide range of measures already in place to control BSE and noted the importance of effective implementation of these measures. The Council also welcomed the Commission's proposal to extend rapid screening tests for cattle at risk from the beginning of next year and in the light of the results of that programme to extend it to categories of cattle aged over 30 months. The exclusion of fallen animals from meat and bonemeal was also agreed in principle. The additional testing and the exclusion of fallen animals from feed were finalised at a meeting of the Standing Veterinary Committee last week and these are now binding decisions on all member states.
The Council also considered the national measures adopted by a number of member states. It was agreed that these would be evaluated by the EU Scientific Steering Committee and a decision would be taken by 30 November 2000 either on their admissibility or a further strengthening of Community measures. The Council is scheduled to reconvene on 4 December to discuss relevant issues again.
I emphasise that the protection of consumers has always been our primary concern in dealing with BSE. We are all only too well aware of the horrific nature of variant CJD and its devastating effects on those concerned and the families and friends of those affected. The medical and scientific professions have not yet established the full facts regarding routes of transmission and consequently we must continue to act on the precautionary principle.
I already referred to the range of control measures we have in place to deal with consumer protection. We keep these controls under ongoing review in consultation with the Food Safety Authority and adopt new measures as they become necessary and available. In reply to the previous speaker, the Food Safety Authority is under the aegis and responsibility of the Minister for Health and Children and his Department. It is a public health matter. I cannot understand how any experienced Member of this House could come here and talk about food safety matters being matters for the Department of Agri culture, Food and Rural Development other than put it down to mischievousness.
Mr. Davern Mr. Davern
Mr. Davern: Hear, hear.
Mr. Walsh Mr. Walsh
Mr. Walsh: The Food Safety Authority of Ireland was established by this Government in 1998 for the protection of the consumer. It was a deliberate Government decision to put the authority under the Minister for Health and Children. The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children will be in the House tomorrow to ensure the health and public health aspects of this animal disease are presented to the Members of this House.
There has been a very close working relationship with the FSAI on this issue. In this regard, we have already commenced an active surveillance programme using one of the EU validated rapid tests. These tests can provide an additional layer of protection over and above protections already in place. Consequently, I strongly supported the Council's decision on additional testing and I have already confirmed my intention to proceed with an enhanced BSE testing regime in Ireland in advance of the Community requirement to do so. The House will be aware that since July this year, we have been random testing a proportion of animals for BSE. I now intend to expand this programme considerably to cover older animals as soon as the practical arrangements are in place. It might be of interest to Deputies to know that there are about 750,000 involved in any one year in relation to that testing.
I am pleased by the reaction of Irish farming and meat industry groups to this proposal. It is fair to say that both have reacted in an extremely responsible fashion in supporting these measures. My officials have been seeking to iron out a number of the logistical and operational issues inherent in the expanded testing programme. I assure the House these officials will continue in the coming days to put the necessary arrangements in place at the earliest possible date. The ENFER test or any of the pre-validated tests are post-mortem tests, in other words, they are carried out on carcases. That presents its own difficulty in that the tests will have to be carried out in the processing plant. It would be very helpful to the process of eradicating BSE if a test were developed for live cattle ante mortem and one could take a blood test and have a result in four hours. One can imagine the difficulty if one takes a sample from a carcase and four hours later, the different parts of the animals are gone and all must be traced. It is a logistical matter which we are ironing out and seeking to get a handle on and ensure we can have extended testing in place at the earliest possible opportunity. I am talking about far sooner than is required by the European Union.
On meat and bonemeal, I have already mentioned the comprehensive range of controls in place to ensure that ruminant animals in Ireland do not have access to feeds containing meat and bonemeal. One of the facts to emerge from recent  events in Europe is the difficulty which some member states had in the implementation of their meat and bonemeal controls. This related largely to their apparent failure to eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination of ruminant feeds in feed mills which were incorporating meat and bonemeal into feed for pigs while at the same time manufacturing ruminant feeds. The critical matter concerning meat and bonemeal is to avoid cross-contamination.
Mr. Sheehan Mr. Sheehan
Mr. Sheehan: What about feed for poultry?
Mr. Walsh Mr. Walsh
Mr. Walsh: That is a relevant matter as well. In Ireland, meat and bonemeal is subject to stringent controls both in terms of its production and its use. These controls have been inspected by a range of external bodies including the FVO and veterinary services of countries to whom we export beef products, all of whom have deemed them to be satisfactory. The Irish beef industry is very vulnerable to external matters like the French problems which arose a couple of weeks ago and which immediately had an effect on us. On the other hand, it is helpful to us in maintaining the most stringent controls in that our customers worldwide send their inspectorates here, including their veterinary inspectorates. In fact, some countries have resident veterinary inspectors in Ireland to ensure that our controls are comprehensive and watertight.
As regards meat and bonemeal production, the controls require that the material used to make the meal meets certain standards and excludes all risk organs known as specified risk materials or SRM – these are removed and destroyed separately – and that the product is manufactured to approved scientific standards based on time temperature parameters with heating to 133ºC, at 3 bar pressure for 20 minutes.
Full-time Department staff are based in rendering plants and a series of mission visits by the EU Food and Veterinary Office have indicated satisfaction with Irish BSE controls, including those on meat and bonemeal. The new fallen animal policy here will further improve the safety of meat and bonemeal by excluding the use in feed of the offal of cattle which have not had ante mortem veterinary examination.
I stress that neither the EU Scientific Committee or the FSAI's BSE sub-committee has recommended a ban on the use of meat and bonemeal for non-ruminant feed. However, in view of the difficulties being experienced in many other member states which do not have comparable controls to ours and the central role played by the product in the wider BSE issue, the future of meat and bonemeal as a feed is kept under constant review. As of now however, there is no scientific evidence or control reasons to justify  the introduction of a meat and bonemeal ban in Ireland. The EU Commissioner, as late as this week, indicated that he sees no necessity for such a move for those member states where effective controls are in place and applied. The debate and the scientific analysis will continue over the coming days and the EU Scientific Steering Committee will further evaluate the product and its use as a feed. Ireland will obviously keep the situation under continuous review and will be guided by scientific and technical advice and decisions taken at EU level. In summary, we have invested a great deal of time and effort in getting our controls on meat and bonemeal right but if an alternative approach is identified at EU level and by a scientific committee and if it says that we must discontinue feeding meat and bonemeal to non-ruminant animals, we will implement it, based on professional scientific advice given to us. That has not been the advice up to now.
The House will be aware that the policy of burial on farms of suspect carcasses and under strict veterinary supervision has been discontinued. Although this method of disposal is one of those allowed under European Commission rules and while it was never a preferred solution here, there remains no readily available alternative owing to the absence of incineration facilities in the State. If any local authority tells me that it has given planning permission for an incinerator and that it is going ahead and will be available in a week's or a month's time, I will be very pleased about that, because we need a waste disposal system—
Mr. Ring Mr. Ring
Mr. Ring: What about Cork?
Mr. Walsh Mr. Walsh
Mr. Walsh: We need an incinerator. I will depend on my colleague on the local authority in Cork to use his genius to get a site for it, because the lack of one is a major weakness in the system.
Mr. Sheehan Mr. Sheehan
Mr. Sheehan: There is a very suitable site in the Minister's constituency.
Mr. Walsh Mr. Walsh
Mr. Walsh: Carcasses which are BSE positive are currently being removed from farms and kept in cold storage. That is not a preferred option and is, obviously, not a long-term option. It does not get rid of the problem which still exists. However, I am actively seeking alternative arrangements for the ultimate disposal of these carcasses. In this regard my Department is pursuing a number of specific possibilities. I can assure the House that there will be no delay in utilising appropriate disposal measures as soon as they become available. The difficulty in putting in place a long-term solution should, however, not be underestimated and identifies the critical need for us to get our national waste disposal arrangements in order.
There is a great deal of confusion in relation to the connection between scrapie and BSE. Scrapie has existed for more than 200 years and there is a small endemic level of the disease present in most countries in the world in which sheep are reared. In Ireland the incidence of the disease is extremely low, with some nine new cases found in additional flocks each year.
 To date no naturally occurring link has been established between scrapie and BSE. Recent research by my Department's Central Veterinary Laboratory in conjunction with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the Conway Institute in UCD involved a comparison of a number of isolates from scrapie samples found in Ireland with BSE. The conclusion of this research was that the scrapie isolates were quite different from those of BSE. In relation to the specific possibility of scrapie “masking” the symptoms of BSE, a considerable amount of research is being conducted by my Department's Central Veterinary Research Laboratory, in conjunction with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in UCD and experts in other member states, into this and other issues in relation to the propagation and control of scrapie. This research is continuing both here and elsewhere.
Education and training of all those who may be involved with BSE is vitally important, and my Department has been actively involved in this. We advertised some time ago for two epidemiologists, but there was no response to the advertisements. We have now trained one and another one is ready for graduation very shortly.
In relation to the dissemination of information on BSE to farmers, veterinarians, slaughterhouse workers and butchers, my Department has done its utmost to ensure that all those involved in the industry are well informed. Information leaflets have been distributed to farmers at marts. In addition, the Department has produced a video on BSE which is available to veterinary surgeons. The video has also been distributed to all veterinary officials and meat factories and to factory management who have been advised to show it to all staff involved in the selection of animals for slaughter. Copies of the video have also been distributed to local authority vets who have responsibility for controls on local authority abattoirs. My Department has made strenuous efforts to keep all those involved in the industry fully informed, and I will continue to treat the provision of appropriate information to those who need it as a priority. If some of the media outlets were helpful in relation to the dissemination of positive information, it would be more helpful than the sickly-looking cow we have been looking at for the past ten years.
As regards training, the industrial training programme for meat industry operatives is being developed by FÁS in conjunction with my Department, the meat industry and other meat regulatory bodies. The programme is progressing well with the beef abattoir pilot programme nearing completion. Training of operatives at these slaughter plants is under way. The programme is ongoing and will be subject to external audit to guarantee its integrity.
In this regard, it is clear to all of those who have taken even a passing interest in this topic that my Department has always dealt with the issue of BSE in an open and transparent manner and that information has been made available through replies in this House, the Department's web-site and through the media on a regular basis. I have already acknowledged the absolute  necessity of maintaining public confidence in the beef industry and I have no doubt that the best way to do this is to provide the public with the most up to date and comprehensive information available in relation to the controls we implement and in relation to the incidence of the disease in Ireland. I am happy, therefore, to continue to keep the public and the media fully informed in relation to this disease, as I have up to now.
Let me refer now to market issues. Our beef and cattle industry is the cornerstone of the agricultural economy. We are the largest exporter of cattle and beef in Europe. It is vitally important to us that there should be confidence in the industry both at home and abroad. We export cattle and beef to about 60 countries world-wide. Despite the difficulties in the past ten years, which were extreme, especially in 1996 following the House of Commons statement, while there were dips in our markets internationally, we recovered them and maintained the confidence of consumers in countries abroad in our systems in Ireland. I am glad that this debate tonight is being conducted in a very responsible way and that comments about BSE in Ireland are well-informed and measured in their tone and accurate at all costs.
The main focus of the debate in the House tonight relates to food safety and the assurances we can provide to the consumers of Irish beef, both at home and abroad. I have outlined the comprehensive range of measures in place in Ireland to ensure the product of Ireland's cattle and beef sector reaches the final consumer with the maximum guarantee as to its safety. It is only by ensuring that the correct measures are in place and are properly implemented that we can give the necessary assurances about the safety of the product. It is only when the consumer recognises that this is the case and feels confident in the final product that the market can be restored to normality.
Let me emphasise one point – food safety is an absolute prerequisite for any food producing industry. If it is not set down and maintained as a fundamental element, the industry cannot survive. The Irish beef sector recognises this and has fully embraced and supported the measures put in place in the past years to deal with BSE. There is a lot at stake. Beef exports last year were worth about £1 billion, excluding EU export refunds. Direct payments to the sector amounted to almost £0.5 billion. There are about 100,000 farmers whose livelihoods depend on the cattle and beef industry at primary production level with a further 5,000 employed in the processing sector.
Following the BSE developments in 1996, Ireland has succeeded in regaining all its major markets throughout the world. Today, we export to over 60 countries worldwide and our systems on the ground are found to be acceptable. That is not just from a distance. Inspectors visit Ireland and reside here and we keep in very close touch with the markets on an ongoing basis, working with An Bord Bia, our embassies abroad and our network throughout the world to make sure they are fully informed of our systems here. That is  happening on a daily basis. On top of that, if I or any of the senior officials or inspectors of veterinarians in the Department need to go to any one of those countries, we are on standby to do that.
Recent developments have put pressure on the sector from a commercial point of view. There has been a slow down in purchases within the EU and this is evident in terms of the effects on cattle prices here, because cattle prices have dropped by about 10p a pound for steers and by very much more in the case of cow beef. The main issue is a fall-off in consumer confidence. Action is needed to support the market. In this respect I have put great pressure on Commissioner Fischler and I am glad he has introduced two measures – aids to private storage and a fairly substantial increase in export refunds, 15% on steers and 130% in the case of female beef. That should be helpful. Contrary to earlier indications, the beef processing sector is likely to take advantage of APS to remove surplus cow beef from the market. I thank Commissioner Fischler for these measures which should help to relieve the market. However, additional measures, including intervention purchasing, may be necessary if the current difficult situation continues. I was glad, over the past 24 hours or so, to put a £28.5 million package in place to help the beleaguered industry, and, last week, an £11 million package for the disposal of fallen animals.
The current difficulties facing the beef sector pose a strong challenge to the Irish beef industry in terms of maintaining market outlets and in reassuring consumers about the image and quality of Irish beef. We are fortunate in that, ahead of most other countries, we have the cattle movement monitoring system, CMMS, which is a computerised control system. Farmers deserve credit for implementing the system. All cattle are registered in Bandon and passports are available for every animal in the country. The national beef assurance scheme is also proving extremely helpful in restoring confidence worldwide and proper traceability is now possible.
The Irish control and eradication system is among the most comprehensive in the world. It has been examined and endorsed on a number of occasions by the food and veterinary office of the European Commission and I referred earlier to the view of the EU scientific steering committee. In addition, Ireland is recognised by the World Animal Health Organisation as having a low incidence of BSE and our cattle are in high demand in markets throughout the EU. Given our high level of exports, our systems and controls have been subjected to in-depth examination by a number of countries to which we export products and we operate our controls in close association with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland with which we are in constant contact.
Notwithstanding this, we cannot and will not become complacent in regard to BSE and will continue to be open and transparent about the matter. The relevant experts and I take some comfort from the fact that the lower number of BSE cases this year aged five years or less tends to confirm the views of the scientific steering committee that we can expect to see a reduction  in the number of cases from 2002 onwards. A very clear pattern has emerged and it remains the Government's clear objective to eradicate BSE at the earliest possible date.
We are fully aware that consumer protection and the well-being and importance of the beef industry are at issue. I emphasise that there is no resistance in the industry to new controls which will improve the situation. People in the industry recognise that the sector would not have any future in the absence of consumer confidence. The various controls which are in place will be strictly enforced and enhanced, as appropriate, by measures such as the BSE active surveillance programme to provide appropriate protection to consumers at home and abroad.
I commend the motion, as amended, to the House.
Mr. Stanton Mr. Stanton
Mr. Stanton: I wish to share time with Deputies Ring and Crawford.
An Ceann Comhairle Séamus Pattison
An Ceann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. Stanton Mr. Stanton
Mr. Stanton: I commend the Labour Party for tabling this motion. We must approach this issue in a very responsible way in the interests of the industry, a fact which has been borne out by the responsible contributions of Members. I see very little in the motion with which the Government could disagree. The Minister did not refer to the need to compensate the families of new variant CJD victims or to establish a trust fund for future victims. Perhaps Government speakers would refer to that tomorrow evening. We must demonstrate our concern for victims, although their numbers may be small.
We must take every possible action to boost consumer confidence in what is a very safe product and no stone should be left unturned in this regard. I was perturbed recently to discover that cattle were being buried. In the eyes of the consumer, that carries a potential risk to water supply, however small. I welcome the fact that the Government has recognised this and has banned the burial of such animals. The problem remains as to how the remaining material will be disposed. Incineration is probably the only option in this regard. In exporting this material, we are merely shipping our problems overseas. The Government must address this issue eventually and should have the courage to provide an incinerator for this purpose. What will happen if other countries refuse to accept this material in the future?
The feeding of animal ruminant protein to animals, including non-ruminants, is a controversial issue. The Minister stated that there is no scientific evidence to the effect that this poses risks. We should not wait until such evidence is available because that might be too late. Instead, we should be proactive and put measures in place at this stage which will eradicate any possibility of risks in this area. I accept the Minister's statement that no risks have been proven but this is a tricky issue and we cannot afford to wait.
I commend the Minister on his achievements to date with the EU Commission. On the Adjournment last week, the Minister assured me  that no problems were being experienced in regard to the shipping of live exports. I urge the Minister to re-examine this matter because I have contrary information to the effect that ships have not left Cork in the past two weeks. The Minister is due to come before the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine tomorrow and I would be grateful if he would ascertain the exact position on this matter prior to that meeting. I want to offer the Minister an opportunity to correct the record if the information he received last week was incorrect.
Other countries have not dealt with this issue as proactively or as honestly as Ireland. The challenge currently facing us is that we must continue to boost national and international confidence in our product. I understand that beef in other counties is totally BSE-free and in this regard I would urge the Minister to introduce testing for all animals as soon as possible. The Minister stated last week that he hopes to put such testing in place. I am aware that the logistics involved are huge but all animals entering the food chain must be tested at the earliest possible date in order to boost confidence in the product.
Dr. Paddy Wall of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is on record as stating that we must not only say food is safe, we must also be able to prove, without question, that it is so. We know our beef is safe but we must be able to prove it. I will support any efforts the Minister takes to test all animals entering the food chain. The Minister stated that this would prove very costly but he should put the matter out to tender at the earliest opportunity. Some 100,000 farmers depend on this industry and we cannot allow this cornerstone of the agriculture industry to be further damaged.
The current and former Governments have done a great deal to address this issue. I urge the Minister to consider supporting the Labour Party motion. That would send out a positive signal. I do not believe the Government could be opposed to compensating victims or to establishing a trust for future victims. In regard to introducing legislation to prevent the feeding of animal ruminant protein to animals, including non-ruminants, further research may be required in this area. The motion also seeks the testing of all cattle intended for slaughter for BSE and it is the Minister's intention to do this eventually, although I believe it should be done as soon as possible. The House should not divide on the proposal to provide adequate and appropriate disposal facilities for BSE-infected animals or to ensure that research into new variant CJD is adequately funded.
The Labour Party motion also seeks the conduct of research to establish if sheep are harbouring BSE and it is important that this is done. We have been informed that adequate education and training programmes for farmers, veterinarians, slaughterhouse workers and butchers are being provided. The Government could not disagree with the necessity to undertake the communication of risk to the public and to assist in the interpretation of information given. I fail to see why the Minister is insisting on dividing the House on this issue. Perhaps he will reconsider  this matter so that we can show a united front for once.
I will support any positive action the Government takes in this area. I again ask the Minister to look at the motion and to say tomorrow night that we should go forward together.
Mr. Ring Mr. Ring
Mr. Ring: This is probably the most important issue this Dáil will discuss for the next number of years in terms of the interests of farmers and given that we export so many of our cattle.
We missed the opportunity to introduce compulsory testing when BSE first presented itself a few years ago. Had we introduced compulsory testing for every animal we could say to the world that we were leaders in this area, that our cattle are guaranteed BSE free. While testing for TB cost the taxpayer a significant amount of money, the Government should examine the introduction of compulsory testing for BSE.
This is too serious an issue with which to play politics. The Department has announced that in future all BSE infected animals will be frozen and not buried. What are the plans for carcasses already buried? Does the Department intend exhuming these animals, and is doing so safe? We saw in Galway that BSE infected carcases were buried near streams. Have local authorities been notified where carcasses have been buried? I ask the Minister to change the law in relation to notification. Currently if one animal is tested positive for BSE the Department is not obliged to notify the local authority or the health board. I ask the Minister to make compulsory the immediate reporting of infection to the local authority and health board, even when it is only one animal, and to inform them what happens that animal.
Are the Minister and the Department quite satisfied that carcasses which are buried do not pose a danger to the general public, or will it be necessary to exhume those animals and bring them to Abbotstown? Is there enough room at Abbotstown for the animals? We must reassure the general public and I ask the Minister to do that tomorrow night.
We have learned that the cost of not disclosing information is tribunals which cost millions of pounds, the one on the beef trade resulting in no prosecutions. The information which the Minister and Department have should be made known to the general public. There is no reason to hide anything in the Department. The minute a Minister or Minister of State begins waffling in the House and does not give correct information, the general public, the country and the world will say there is something wrong. The consumer must be reassured. We must take no risk with the industry or people's health and we must not be afraid to tell the people of the country and the world about the information held by the Department. We do not want people to lose trust in the industry or in the Departments of Health and Children and Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. That  would be a setback for the country. We have always been proud of our beef and we want to be able to go to Europe and the world saying we have the best tested and best beef in the world. We must reassure the consumer who is the boss. We saw how depressed the beef trade became in the past when the consumer lost confidence and we do not want that to happen again. We must reassure people abroad that our beef is safe and make all information available to the general public.
The Minister should accept the Labour Party motion and the Dáil should not divide on the issue. There is not much difference between the motion and the amendment, and I compliment Deputy Upton for bringing her motion before the House. It is an important debate and we want a reasoned discussion. We do not want people making silly statements; rather we want to reassure people that our industry, the Department and the Government are doing everything possible to ensure we have the best product. We must let everyone know what is happening. If we do that then the beef industry and Ireland will be the real winners.
Tomorrow morning the Minister and his officials should contact Deputy Upton and arrange to have an agreed motion, even if some amendment is necessary. This is not an issue which should divide the House.
Mr. Crawford Mr. Crawford
Mr. Crawford: I welcome the opportunity to comment on this very important issue. The proposals of the Minister, set forward in recent days, will be very important if implemented in terms of the industry. However, I warn the Minister that one of his predecessors, Deputy O'Kennedy, when he was Minister brought a very good Bill before the House in 1989 which restricted the use of meat and bonemeal etc. Unfortunately, the staffing necessary to give effect to the Bill was never provided. That is no fault of the current Minister. It was only with the outbreak of BSE that it was realised nothing had been done in terms of implementing the provisions of the legislation. We want to ensure such a thing does not happen again.
I welcome the comment by the Minister that “It remains the Government's clear objective to eradicate BSE at the earliest possible date”. I hope that will be so, but it has been our clear objective to eradicate TB and other things in the past but because of lack of personnel and effort things were not done as well as they should have been. Therefore, it is important this is dealt with in a positive and proactive manner.
I was amused by the headlines in today's newspapers which spoke about relief of £28.6 million which was going to farmers. It sounds great, but in reality it amounts to £4.72 per suckler cow and £3 for special beef. The reality is that I have had farmers and some of their family members contacting me in desperation saying that in most cases they cannot get anybody to quote them for culled cows, a very important element of our  product. In those areas where they are quoted for, the figure is 50p per kg over a certain weight but if it is under that weight the figure is 30p per kg.
When we had the first cases of BSE the Minister was on this side of the House and I well remember him being very aggressive and having all the right ideas on how to cope with the problem. In terms of steers, £3 is being made available. Tom Parlon, quoted in today's newspapers, talks of a drop of £75 per head. Deputy Yates, when he was Minister, provided £50 per head of cattle, which was joked about by the current Minister and the Fianna Fáil Party. The Minister must realise that farmers are experiencing a severe crisis and do not know where to turn. It is impossible to sell cattle at present. Young men who tried to build up an industry find they cannot get customers.
The Minister clearly remembers that when the BSE crisis first hit it was supposed to be the fault of Deputy Spring, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, for not going to Iran and other such places to open markets. Much has been done to prove Irish beef is perfect and beyond question. If that is so, the Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs should be trying to ensure every market is open so that livestock farmers and the economy are not further damaged. The efforts being made by Bord Bia and others to re-establish Irish beef in the European market was significant but the reality is that given the problems in France and Germany we need to look at other alternatives.
I ask that herds closed due to BSE be treated in a more positive and friendly manner.
Dáil Éireann 526 Private Members' Business. BSE: Motion.