Adjournment Debate - Animal Health Investigations.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 681 No. 2

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Deputy Mary Alexandra White: Information on Mary Alexandra White  Zoom on Mary Alexandra White  In 1990, Mr. Dan Brennan from a Castlecomer farm in north Kilkenny noticed problems with animals and the environment of his farm in what veterinary experts refer to as lack of thrive, stunted growth and low milk yields. Even the trees and hedgerows were dying on part of the farm. In 1991, Mr. Brennan was unable to sell his animals on account of their lack of growth and despite the absence of sickness among them and the feeding of supplements such as cobalt, zinc and copper, the situation did not improve during the mid-1990s. By 1995, Mr. Brennan had noticed that heifers bought in at 360 kg, which should have weighed 500 kg six months later had gained a mere 30 kg or 40 kg.

[440]The water supply was thought to have been the source of the ill thrift but a change in the farm’s water sources yielded no change. In 2000, the animals were put on 50 acres of rented ground on a nearby farm. Mr. Brennan’s vet observed that the animals looked completely different. When they were brought back to his own farm they began to lose weight again. Laboratory tests confirmed this.

In the winter of 2003-04, feeding trials were conducted. Two sources of silage, one from Mr. Brennan’s farm and one from an external source, were used for the trials on both Mr. Brennan’s herd and an external herd. Yet, intermittent weight loss was recorded among the animals using either silage feed. Department officials told Mr. Brennan that he had conducted the tests incorrectly.

In 2006, departmental vets completed a report stating that the source of his animals’ problem was disease management. The report was never published because of Mr. Brennan’s unhappiness with the findings. A petition, which I wrote and which was accepted by the European Parliament petitions committee, was scathing of the progress being made in this deeply disturbing case. The petition was followed by a visit from Brussels of the committee, who saw the stunted cattle on the farm. In October 2006, the departmental vets ceased conducting tests on Mr. Brennan’s farm.

A team of vets from UCD then commenced further tests. When feeding trials in 2006 and 2007 were conducted it was noticed that the animals were gaining weight. The local factory, however, which is in the maximum fall-out area of Mr. Brennan’s farm, was closed during the course of these trials. Two letters from Teagasc in the past four years have stated that they do not believe it is the practices on Mr. Brennan’s farm which have caused the ill thrift. In July and October 2006, the then Minister for Agriculture and Food promised Mr. Brennan that when a downturn in cattle occurred again, post-mortems, liver biopsies and digestibility studies would be carried out.

My understanding from reports in last week’s Kilkenny People is that the investigation undertaken by the centre for veterinary epidemiology and risk analysis based at UCD has finished its work and the report of its findings allegedly shows that cadmium, a dangerous, highly toxic and cancer causing substance has been identified as one of the main causes of health problems on the farm. The levels of the dangerous chemical element found were, apparently, the highest ever recorded in the country.

Cadmium is often found in industrial work places, particularly where ore is being processed or smelted. Cadmium compounds can lead to cancers in animals and organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the American EPA and the US national toxicology programme have all deemed cadmium a problem and a human carcinogen.

I urge the Minister to expedite the publication of this report to give Mr. Dan Brennan and his family answers and justice after 19 years of waiting and to address or alleviate the concerns of the people of Castlecomer about public health issues which might arise if such reports are true. In a recent letter dated 14 April the Minister promised me that the publication of the report would take place at the end of this month or early May. Last week, on the day of media reports on the matter, an official from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food told local radio that it would be several months before the report would be completed. I understand the report, which I have not seen, is being peer reviewed, but one does not peer review a report if it is not completed. I call on the Minister of State to clarify these issues.

[441]Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Trevor Sargent): Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  The animal health problems on the farm referred to by Deputy White have been ongoing for several years and relate mainly to ill-thrift and stunted growth of cattle on the farm in addition to reduced milk yield. I thank Deputy White for her tenacious determination to pursue this investigation in recent years on behalf of Mr. Dan Brennan, his family and the wider community of Castlecomer. The farm in question, which I have visited, has been the subject of extensive investigations in recent years. Since late 2006 it has been the subject of further thorough and comprehensive investigations by the Department’s centre for veterinary epidemiology and risk analysis, CVERA, based at University College Dublin. A high degree of inter-agency involvement and co-operation has been a feature of the investigations. The agencies involved have included the EPA, Kilkenny County Council, Teagasc, the HSE — previously, the South Eastern Health Board was involved — and my Department.

In 2004, my Department’s veterinary laboratory service arranged for a wide-ranging study to be undertaken into the problems on the farm, following which a report was produced in June 2006. The report documented the range of the investigations, the methodology involved and the results of different aspects. The farmer involved had certain difficulties with some aspects of the report and, at his request, the report was not published.

As part of the inter-agency investigation, several reports, in addition to my Department’s 2006 report, were produced. These included the UCC report of 2006 commissioned by the EPA entitled, An Impact Assessment on Epiphytic Lichens; the Ambient Air Quality Survey report of 5 May 2006; the John J Gardiner report, entitled Condition of Trees on the Farm of December 2005; and the EPA summary report of the work completed by the EPA as part of the multi-agency investigation of animal health in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny of September 2006.

Apart from these reports my Department and others have also been involved in several initiatives on this farm. For example, a herd health programme was developed by the farmer’s private veterinary practitioner and supported by my Department, to deal with respiratory disease in calves and mastitis in cows. The Department also funded treatment for mastitis, a vaccination programme, the provision of calf hutches to segregate the calves from each other and feeding trials. Other initiatives included a grassland management plan, monitoring growth of calves at grass and checking sources of water to the farm.

Following finalisation of the Department’s veterinary laboratory service report in 2006, the then Minister met a delegation of interests, including the farmer, in July 2006 and confirmed that the authorities were more than willing to pursue the investigation further and to seek to get to the root of the problems on the farm. The Minister also met with the director of the EPA to discuss a report it had produced on the environmental impact of emissions. Arising from this process, in 2006 the then Minister asked the centre for veterinary epidemiology and risk analysis to conduct a further thorough and comprehensive study.

The centre for veterinary epidemiology and risk analysis study is designed to complement the work to date and used some different approaches to investigate the production problems on the farm. The study entails a major sampling and testing programme, including investigation of various metabolic pathways, as well as epidemiological studies. In addition, a comprehensive and detailed soil survey is included in the remit of the study. A draft report arising from this work has now been sent for peer review and when this is completed the report will be finalised and published.

[442]The article in the Kilkenny People refers to a report. However, I am not aware to which document the newspaper refers and I trust the Deputy would agree, therefore, that it is inappropriate for me to comment in detail upon it. I emphasise that my Department and I, along with the other agencies involved, are determined to establish the underlying cause of the problems on this farm. It is inappropriate at this stage to make any further comment on the centre for veterinary epidemiology and risk analysis investigation until the report is finalised and published, which will take place shortly.

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