Adjournment Debate. - Bovine Diseases.

Tuesday, 30 January 2001

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 529 No. 1

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Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  A Cheann Comhairle, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leat as an cheist thábhachtach seo a ardú anseo. I am particularly grateful to you as I now have facts at my disposal which I did not, regrettably, on 29 November 2000 when I last spoke in the House on the BSE crisis. At that time I said that the veterinary and hospital body parts incineration was essential to kill disease and that incineration is needed in the case of BSE. I have since discovered research which indicates that is wrong and that incineration is not an effective way to kill BSE and such [132] diseases, nor is it the only way to kill the infective agent.

Regarding the effectiveness of incineration, the UK Government and environment agency have since learned from trials by Powergen and National Power in two power stations that BSE strands survive at temperatures of 1,500º centigrade. Professor Richard Lacey, professor of medical microbiology in Leeds University, also has evidence that the BSE infective agent is incredibly resistant to high temperatures. Professor Gareth Jones of Cambridge University cites evidence that with the high moisture content of tonnes of carcases being incinerated, the agent that leads to BSE and variant CJD could enter the atmosphere.

The BSE inquiry report in the UK, volume 6, chapter 10, section 10.105, gave rise to Dr. Hunter, former deputy director of the UK Agriculture and Food Research Council, saying that the scrapie agent is exceptionally heat resistant also and a large proportion would simply depart with the smoke and gases generated by the incineration. He conceives of few better techniques for distributing the agent far and wide over the countryside. Dr. Conchur Ó Bradaigh, an engineering lecturer at NUI, Galway, cited a study by the National Academy of Science in the US in March 2000 which stated that scrapie could survive 600º centigrade in an article in The Irish Times on 9 January.

I also know now that other less expensive and more effective technologies exist to kill the BSE infective agent and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development has also met scientists and developers in the interim to discuss such technologies independently. One such technology, alkaline hydrolysis, has been in operation in the USA successfully treating hospital and university animal and human pathogens and other such infective waste for the past eight years, with no problems as yet. This technology would involve digesting BSE infected carcases in an alkaline solution to break down the BSE protein at a temperature of 150º centigrade for three hours. The mechanism involves weighing the carcases in a basket prior to immersion to calculate the conditions and correct quantity of solution needed and once the animal waste is processed and deemed BSE free it can be discharged to be anaerobically digested, as happens with pig slurry or other such BOD rich matter even on more progressive farms in Ireland.

The advantages of alkaline hydrolysis are it is cheaper than incineration, an important consideration according to the Minister, it is more effective in that it is easier to guarantee than the incomplete combustion sometimes experienced by incineration and it is also more controllable taking account of power cuts or other eventualities whereby the process can be started again with[133] out the problems that would be caused to the incineration process.

I appeal to the Minister and the Minister of State, who is representing him, to be open to the research and to impress on the European Commission that there are alternatives to incineration in regard to dealing with BSE. According to today's edition of The Guardian, the goalposts are shifting in our understanding of BSE and that must be acknowledged. We must keep up to date in this regard. I had hoped in November 2000 that the Minister, Deputy Walsh, would not adopt the role of a trojan horse, town crier for the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, in pushing a case for general municipal incineration, but sadly in the interim that is what Deputy Walsh has been doing.

As Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, his first responsibility is to act in the interests of farmers, their land and animals and the future of sustainable farming and its dependent communities. I ask the Minister of State to state that he is open to the research which is coming to hand. It will lead to a more sustainable way of dealing with BSE and will also ensure incinerators will not be foisted on Ireland, which are clearly not essential and which other countries such as New Zealand that are competing with us in international food markets are able to avoid. If we go down the incinerating route we will lose our competitive advantage as well as damaging our future.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (Mr. N. O'Keeffe): Information on Ned O'Keeffe  Zoom on Ned O'Keeffe  I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Regard for the best available scientific advice has been the cornerstone of the management by successive Governments of the BSE problem over the past decade. The range of measures put in place, in many instances ahead of other EU member states and in advance of EU legal requirements for such measures, has been directed at containing and eliminating the disease, and this remains the case.

In addition to these measures, all cattle presented for slaughter at meat factories are subjected to ante-mortem inspection by Department veterinary inspectors. Animals showing signs of ill health not attributable to BSE are in any event rapid tested for the disease and the carcase retained until a test result is received. All these controls have been subject to scrutiny and endorsement by a variety of bodies, most notably the food and veterinary office of the EU and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

Deputies will be aware that on foot of decisions taken by the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers in December 2000, a programme of rapid testing of cattle over 30 months intended for human consumption was initiated in Ireland on 2 January. I am pleased that to date almost 32,500 cattle over [134] 30 months have been tested and all have tested negative.

On this basis consumers at home and in export markets have every reason for confidence in Irish beef. It is heartening that meat retailers, based on their sales, have confirmed that consumers continue to regard home produced beef as an integral part of their diet and their weekly shopping. I believe it will not be long before our valued and discerning export customers regain their confidence in Irish beef which was victim to the effects of a wave of concern about European beef in general.

Ireland has a large and significant livestock and meat processing industry which brings employment and generates earnings for many people within and outside farming. Any such industry will generate waste, and waste management is an absolute necessity if, as a country, we are to enjoy the economic and social benefits of this element of our agri-food sector. We cannot expect to have a vibrant, international-scale livestock and meat processing industry and avoid dealing with the waste which it generates. Inevitable by-products of the livestock and meat processing industry are large quantities of MBM and SRM which must be removed and, ultimately, destroyed. I ask the House to note that advice of the EU scientific steering committee has recommended incineration as a safe method of disposal of the material.

With the advent of the total ban on the feeding of MBM to farm animals since the beginning of the year, Ireland is facing the challenge of disposal of significant additional quantities of MBM. We will also need to destroy increasing volumes of SRM material and the carcases of BSE suspect animals. In the absence of a domestic means of dealing with waste products from the livestock sector, the only option available at the moment is to store the product pending export for destruction elsewhere. This can be regarded as nothing more than a holding operation and it would be sheer delusion for anyone to take comfort from it or to believe it absolves us from the necessity of putting in place a means of ultimately destroying this waste in Ireland.

All options for the safe disposal of MBM are currently being considered by my Department in conjunction with the Department of the Environment and Local Government and the Environmental Protection Agency. These include the process of alkaline hydrolysis which has not yet been validated. I should, however, say to those who are putting this forward as some form of panacea that we understand that even if this particular process is found to be acceptable, it would only be suitable for handling small volumes of material.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Is incineration a panacea?

Mr. N. O'Keeffe: Information on Ned O'Keeffe  Zoom on Ned O'Keeffe  As matters now stand, the only suitable and available means of ultimately [135] destroying the growing volume of waste which I have mentioned, and which will itself become a potentially major environmental problem, is thermal treatment. There is no getting away from this reality and to avoid facing it is the worst form of environmental hypocrisy. It is entirely wrong to seek to lead the public to believe that there are any easy options for dealing with this problem or that there are painless, magic solutions which are somehow known to a few people but not to Governments and others managing the BSE problem in Ireland and elsewhere. It is equally wrong to paint a picture of modern thermal treatment plants as some form of malign smokestack industries.

As I have already indicated, thermal treatment plants which dispose of animal waste, operate safely and to the highest standards elsewhere in Europe, in countries which attach a very high importance to environmental protection. As regards suggestions that incineration spreads the BSE prion, I would ask the House to note that this has been emphatically dismissed in recent days by environmental experts. I would suggest that it is being put forward more as a smokescreen to enable certain people to alter their position and again seek the comfort of avoiding the issue rather than as a serious proposition.

In the course of a debate in this House on BSE on 29 November last, a few short weeks ago, there was a very welcome degree of political consensus on all sides of the House on the need for incineration in the context of dealing with the waste thrown up by the BSE issue. This consensus included the Green Party. On that occasion Deputy Sargent said

In common with all parties in the House, the Green Party accepts that for veterinary and hospital body parts, incineration is necessary to kill disease. The quickest way to increase veterinary incineration capacity in Ireland is to make it clear – this is the Minister's responsibility – that it is not municipal, industrial or hazardous waste incineration.

Deputy Sargent went on to say “BSE needs incineration and it must be clearly stated that this is the purpose of the incineration.”

This was a welcome, if rare, venture by the Green Party into the realm of dealing with the realities of the situation and facing up to the hard issues. It was welcomed at the time by my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Walsh. It is particularly regrettable that Deputy Sargent is now furiously back pedalling from this position and is resorting to various devices to legitimise his sudden U-turn. Once again, he and his colleagues are resorting to creating the illusion of easy answers to this issue and to avoiding reality.

[136]Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Fianna Fáil wanted to build a nuclear plant.

Mr. N. O'Keeffe: Information on Ned O'Keeffe  Zoom on Ned O'Keeffe  For the benefit of our people and their well being, hard issues must be faced. I believe there is sufficient political maturity across all sides of this House on this issue. The Government will not be found wanting in taking the decisions which need to be taken and I believe that the degree of consensus displayed in the House in November last will serve the country well in this regard.

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