Seanad Éireann - Volume 149 - 06 February, 1997
Adjournment Matters. - BSE Outbreaks.
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
Mr. Quinn: I am glad to see the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Mr. Deenihan, is present because I know he will have no difficulty in accepting the simple point I want to make.
Let me assure the House that, in raising this question, I have no wish to embarrass the Minister, score political points or make things more difficult for the beef industry. On the contrary, I am acting in what I believe is the best interests of the beef industry, which is of central importance to the economy and at the heart of Minister of State's deliberations.
Unfortunately, the mistake to which I want to draw attention is absolutely disastrous from the point of view of that industry. I say that in the full knowledge that the mistake was made at the express wish of the beef industry. Up to the end of last year, new cases of BSE were announced by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry each week as they were discovered. As a result, everybody was kept fully up to date with the situation as it evolved. However, the beef industry did not like this bad news in the newspapers week after week, so they made a submission to the Department asking that it announce new cases only once a month. On the face of it that sounds quite reasonable — get all the bad news out of the way at once and then have peace and quiet for the rest of the month until the next announcement.
Unfortunately, that is not the way things work in the marketplace. To the buyers of Irish beef outside Ireland who are scrutinising everything that happens in the beef trade with a closer and closer eye, this change means only one thing, it is a clumsy attempt to cover up bad news. They see this as a crude manoeuvre to stifle information. Not surprisingly, many of them see it as a clear demonstration that the Department acts solely in the perceived interests of the Irish beef industry. The key point is not whether the Department reports once a day, once a week or once a month but that one cannot change the rules to suit oneself and still maintain credibility. That, in essence, is the message from the marketplace. My hope is that it is not too late to listen and act on that message.
 I know that many of my company's customers have been disgusted by this change but, with all due respect to them, the people I am really concerned about are the international buyers of Irish beef. They are the people for whom credibility is all important and they are the ones who have no reason to give Ireland the benefit of the doubt. I know from first hand experience how these people view Irish beef.
My company is part of a European buying group which keeps us in daily contact with our counterparts in almost every EU country. It represents 23,000 supermarkets around Europe and I know how closely the buyers in those supermarkets watch what is going on. These are not people whom we can fool. I had good news for them before Christmas when I told them about the new Food Safety Board which we are to set up. I was able to convince them that this new board would be totally independent and would act in the interests of the consumer, not the producer. They were sceptical but, in the end, they were prepared to believe me. Now we have been given a slap in the face by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. If anything was ever guaranteed to stoke up the fires of scepticism among potential buyers, last week's action is certainly it. Changing the rules was the cardinal sin.
No doubt the Minister of State's brief will contain a mountain of guff about the imagined benefits of making monthly announcements dreamed up by some poor civil servants locked in an ivory tower far away from the marketplace. No doubt his brief contains comparisons with other countries in which announcements are made even less frequently. However, that is totally irrelevant to the key issue which is that one cannot maintain credibility if one changes the rules in one's favour.
With one stroke we have said we have something to hide. We were letting it all hang out for everybody to see and we spoke about openness and transparency. We have told the marketplace that we are not on its side. We have even said we are not neutral — we are on the side of the producer against the marketplace. That is the message this action sends.
This was a disastrous decision which will wreck untold damage on our beef industry not only this year, but well into the future. Our only hope is to reverse this decision immediately. Let us be totally honest and admit that this was something we did not think through and on which we did not consult widely enough. Let us be brave enough to admit we were wrong and that we are going to put things right. If we do not, the beef industry and the economy will pay a terrible price in lost credibility and will make the job of the new Food Safety Board incomparably more difficult.
I do not expect a definite answer from the Minister of State tonight. However, if his speech contains an attempt to defend this terrible  decision, I suggest he tears it up even at this late stage and goes away to think about this. It is one thing to make a mistake but it is far worse to dig a deeper hole when one knows one has made a mistake.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (Mr. Deenihan) Jimmy Deenihan
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (Mr. Deenihan): I was disappointed with the tone of the Senator's contribution. I would have expected something different and more balanced. The reason the Minister decided to publish the results of tests for BSE on a monthly rather than weekly basis is to try to restore some semblance of proportion to the public coverage of this matter. I do not accept that this will cause any damage to the international credibility of the Irish beef industry: in fact the opposite is the case and that is precisely why the Minister took the decision.
Let me fill the Senator in on the background to the system in place. All suspect cases of BSE must, by law, be notified to the Department. Notified cases are immediately investigated by veterinary inspectors of my Department accompanied, where feasible, by research officers from the Department's veterinary research laboratories. If BSE cannot be ruled out by veterinary clinical investigation, the animal is killed by euthanasia and the head is removed to the veterinary research laboratory to be tested by histopathology for BSE. This process involves keeping the brain in a solution of formalin for a period of some days. The laboratory practice is to examine the brains which are ready for testing once per week and a procedure developed where the results were made public after the herd owner, the EU Commission, Bord Bia and other parties involved in the trade requiring veterinary certification were notified.
This weekly notification led to a situation where say a single positive case of BSE in a herd population of seven million commanded weekly headlines in press, radio and television. That is totally disproportionate to the news value of the incident and was causing the very damage of which the Senator speaks. BSE is not a major problem in Ireland — it is a mere pin prick but the continuous publicity was building it into a problem. For that reason the Minister decided to issue the results monthly and, if I give the sequence of events that occurred in January, the Senator will appreciate the value of that decision. There were five weeks in January on which tests were read. The first week yielded one positive as did the second and third. The fourth week yielded three and the fifth week yielded five, giving a total of 11 for the month. I see no reason the public should be bombarded on a weekly basis with results at this low level, if by doing so we would create unnecessary problems for everybody in the beef industry. There is no question of suppressing information. I stand by what the  Minister has done and feel it is the right decision in the circumstances.
We have the most transparent reporting system which has been acknowledged by the technical experts who have come here from third markets and European countries. They have absolute faith in our reporting system. The Minister took correct action. One BSE case was reported over and over giving the semblance that there was a major  problem in this country when in fact it is very small, comparatively speaking. We are announcing cases every month, which could not be more transparent. People will know the exact number of cases and will not be bombarded weekly. I defend the action taken by the Minister.
The Seanad adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 12 February 1997.
Seanad Éireann 149 Adjournment Matters. BSE Outbreaks.