Wednesday, 10 December 1997
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. T. Hayes: I apologise for being late. I was dealing with problems in my constituency that Members will be aware of tomorrow. People are worried because of the Minister for Health and Children's comments over the weekend. Health and food safety must be a priority for everyone. I compliment everyone from the Minister to the statutory bodies who are dealing with this matter. It is important that top quality food be available to people. However, there is a contrast between the Minister's statement and An Bord Bia's reaction to that announcement. People react to politicians' statements, but this is a statutory agency devoted to scientific food safety which looks after food standards. These matters should be left to that body rather than the Minister, because there are media reactions that cause wide concern both in the beef industry and among consumers.
The IFA is speaking of the deep crisis the beef industry is in. We are more dependent on that industry than any of our European counterparts. During the debate on An Bord Bia last week, all Members agreed that we have been very stringent in implementation of rules. We produce some of the best beef in the world because it is grassbased. I want the Minister of State to alleviate the fears of the consumer, because the consumer is number one and health is very important.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Dr. Moffatt): I thank Senator Hayes for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The primary duty of the Minister for Health and Children is the protection of public health. In order to fulfil this duty it is incumbent on him to take immediate action in relation to any risk posed to the health of the people of this county.
The background to the statement which the Minister issued on Friday last is as follows: on  Wednesday last, 3 December, the UK Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food — MAFF — received new advice from the spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee — SEAC — based on the findings of ongoing research into BSE. An experiment designed to recheck which parts of cattle may contain BSE infectivity has detected such infectivity in nervous tissue called the dorsal root ganglia which lie within the bones of the spinal column and which would be left with the bone when meat is cut off the spine. A significant aspect of this research is the detection of infectivity before clinical symptoms develop. The dorsal root ganglia are not currently covered by the specified bovine restrictions which ensure that all tissue in which infectivity is detected is removed from the human food chain.
Further new findings, which are still being evaluated, indicate that infectivity may also be found in bone marrow in cattle which are at a very late stage of the disease and are already showing clinical symptoms.
Although in its advice the SEAC emphasised that the risk to the consumer is very small, the UK Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food decided to opt for the deboning of all beef, whether from home suppliers or imported, before sale to the consumer. He also decided the bones should not be sold, given to consumers or used in the preparation of food.
The primary concern and first priority of the Minister for Health and Children in relation to food is to ensure that all food on sale to the consumer is of the highest standard of safety and is fit in all respects for human consumption.
Following the announcement of the UK measures in this area the Minister immediately sought advice to see what implications, if any, this new information might have for Irish consumers. The scientific advice available to the Minister includes that of the CJD advisory group, the Food Safety Advisory Board and the interim Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The CJD advisory group was established in 1996 to advise the Minister for Health on CJD related matters including its surveillance, research strategies and international developments generally in this area. The group is comprised of experts in disciplines relevant to this subject, that is, neurology, neuropathology, public health, veterinary medicine and microbiology.
Having examined the information available in relation to the latest UK research, the CJD group made a number of recommendations to the Minister which included agreement with the SEAC advice in relation to dorsal root ganglia and a recommendation that immediate arrangements be put in place to ensure that no meat with the backbone be sold to the consumer; that the most practical way of ensuring this is to require it to be carried out at the retail level, that is, by butchers; that bones removed in this way should be disposed of as not fit for human consumption; that the issue be raised at Community level as a matter of urgency; and that there is a need for further  information, notably in relation to the findings on bone marrow, to allow for consideration of this issue in greater detail.
The microbiology subcommittee of the Food Safety Advisory Board will meet on Thursday next to examine the issue and both I and my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Cowen, look forward to receiving its advice. The Food Safety Authority will also consider the matter.
The EU scientific steering committee, which met in Brussels earlier this week, has referred the new British evidence to a specialist subcommittee for consideration and the deliberations of this  group will be closely monitored. The group has already met and issued a recommendation in line with that issued by the Minister, Deputy Cowen.
Over the coming days and weeks all the scientific advice available to the Minister will be considered and the situation will be reviewed in the light of that advice. In conclusion, I again stress that the primary duty of the Minister for Health and Children is the protection of public health. In that regard, his main concern in dealing with this issue is to ensure the consumer is kept informed of any risk to food safety, however small.
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