Wednesday, 21 February 2001
Seanad Eireann Debate
In view of the serious lack of confidence in consumers of beef internationally, Seanad Éireann calls on the Minister for Health and Children to come into the House and discuss the BSE crisis from a public health point of view.
I welcome the Minister for State. I was very careful about the wording I used in this motion. I used the words ‘internationally' and ‘discuss'. I am disappointed at the Government's amendment. I believe that my motion is not contentious, yet the Government proposes to delete everything after the words “In view of” and then substitute something else. Having listened to what is said and having looked at my motion, I hope the Government side will not push the amendment. I would  have some difficulty withdrawing what I have put down.
Unfortunately, we are now well used to discussing the BSE crisis in this House; we have done it so often. However, we usually do so from the producer's viewpoint rather than from the perspective of the customer. For once, I would like to approach this question from a different angle. To ask us to look at the BSE crisis from the viewpoint of the customer is not in any way to denigrate the size of the problem from an agricultural perspective. I am on the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine and I find that often I am the one that thinks of the customer first because of the business I am in rather than those who think of the farmer's interests. Both are important.
As I said in this House before Christmas, the recent turns in the BSE story have made it not just an agricultural problem but a problem of national significance. I can fully understand and empathise with the feelings of the farmers. At the Joint Oireachtas Committee we recently had a delegation from the workers in the processing plants who feel hard done by in this matter. Nevertheless it would be of benefit to look at the problem from the customer's point of view. That benefit will go to the agriculture sector as well. My motion was purposely worded to look at it from the customer's point of view as opposed to the producer's point of view.
The one lesson which emerges above all from this sorry saga is that we have moved to an age where the market for food in general, and meat and beef in particular, is firmly driven by customers rather than producer concerns. We have got to get that message across to everybody. The sooner we all face up to that change, the better we will be able to cope with the situation that results from that very change. The traditional position which held until quite recently was that the market followed the producer. The producer produced the goods and then looked for somebody to buy them. The customer featured in this scenario only incidentally as the person who actually consumed the meat at the end of the chain. That applies not just to meat but to the whole production of food in general. The tradition was so producer driven that at times it sought to do away with the customer altogether. If customers would not buy, goods would be produced and put into storage rather than into the market. We did that for so long. Those days are gone forever. We have to get that message across, particularly to the farming community and to those in charge of that area.
The change to a market focused industry might have happened gradually over many years if it were not for one thing. The BSE problem identified on 26 March 1996 changed everything. It was a wake up call for customers throughout Europe and further afield. Suddenly overnight they were thrust from a situation where they never questioned the safety of the beef they ate to one where there were major question marks  over it on an international basis. Within the space of a few months in 1996 customers showed that they were calling the shots. In the face of the BSE threat they responded with the only power available to them – they stopped buying beef altogether or stopped buying it from places where they thought it might be infected with BSE.
One can say their reaction was unjustified and was created by scare stories in the media. However, that is beside the point. Within a matter of months the balance of power in the European food market had changed decisively and customers were calling the shots. Governments were slow to respond to this change while producers were even slower. Once the change had been made there was no going back. The days when the public took the safety of food for granted were over and they were no longer prepared to take the say so of the producer.
At that stage they wanted an independent scientifically based voice to tell them what was and was not safe. They no longer believed what producers or the Department of Agriculture told them. They felt, rightly or wrongly, that the Department was a spokesperson for the producers. Out of all this emerged the realisation that food safety was not an agricultural issue to be decided on agricultural terms but that it was a customer issue and, more precisely, a public health issue.
What does this mean now? It means that our approach to food safety issues like BSE should be driven from the perspective of the customer, not from the perspective of the producer. It should be driven from the perspective of public health, not from the perspective of farmers. If it is driven from the customer angle all the focus should be on getting it right from the customer's point of view. I strongly believe that if we succeed in getting it right from the customer's point of view the producer's side will look after itself. In other words, what is in the customer's interests is also in the interests of the food industry, certainly in the long term and maybe also in the short term.
The biggest task in Ireland and across Europe and, to some extent, across the rest of the world is to rebuild confidence in the safety of meat. In 1993 I was a member of the expert committee on food which established An Bord Bia. When we put forward the proposal to establish An Bord Bia my proposal was a minority one and I did it with reluctance as I was not able to convince the rest of the committee that An Bord Bia should be placed under the aegis of any Department other than the Department of Agriculture. I knew then that this was right and that if we wanted to have a food industry we had to be careful to ensure it was driven by customers, the market and those who buy rather than by those who produce. We are again making the same argument in strong terms. Rebuilding confidence depends crucially on what producers do and how they behave. They cannot expect to be judges in their own case. Customers want an impartial  intermediary to tell them what is right. This is why the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is responsible to the Minister for Health and Children, not the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. I was delighted the Government made that decision when that case came up. This is why David Byrne is the EU Commissioner responsible for food safety, not the Commissioner for Agriculture. That is the system we have to work with and the system we have to work to.
One of the questions which arises is whether we are working well enough to it. A fortnight ago – this is what really galls and worries me – the EU decided to ban the sale of T-bone steak in several countries, including Ireland, but not including Britain or Portugal. The customers I met on the shop floor had full confidence in Irish beef before they read that a scientific veterinary committee based in Europe with no bias had said that Britain and Portugal are okay but Ireland and a number of other countries had not convinced it. This is what has worried and frightened customers. Unless the Minister tells us something else, we have nobody to blame but ourselves. In 1996 we, like the rest of Europe, recognised the crisis. However, what we did was not enough to convince the veterinary people in 2001 that we took the right steps.
This ban two weeks ago created a furore among the agricultural community. I want to focus on its effect on customers who were devastated by the decision. They were devastated because from the beginning of the BSE crisis they had been encouraged to see Britain as the main source of BSE. During the early days most people were prepared to buy beef as long as they were sure it was Irish beef, that is, beef from the Twenty-six Counties, the Republic. It was a firm part of the public's picture of events that while we had a limited BSE problem it was nothing compared with that in Britain. However, suddenly a few weeks ago we heard the reverse, that British beef was safer than Irish beef. This single piece of bad news had a more devastating effect on the public than anything else over the past several years. It totally conflicted with what they had firmly believed up to then and it seemed to come from an authoritative source. Of course it is not true that Irish beef is less safe than British beef. I certainly do not believe that, but given the enormous damage such a statement can make there is something wrong somewhere along the line that mistakes of this kind can be allowed to happen.
This goes back to what I said earlier – the new situation demands that everything is driven from the perspective of the customer which crucially includes how the customer perceives the situation. An added difficulty is that once the customer's perception on an issue shifts, it is difficult to shift it back, regardless of the truth.
I look forward to an interesting debate on this important issue. I look forward to a debate from the customer's point of view and from the point of view of trying to find out what went wrong. How is it that such damage has been done in the  public's mind and how can we correct this? In 1996 we had the ball at our feet and Britain was in trouble. However, four and a half years later we are the ones who are told by an independent committee of veterinary scientists, “You have a problem, you have not convinced us that you have solved it but Britain and Portugal have convinced us”. We have a case to answer in this instance.
Dr. Henry: Like Senator Quinn, I cannot understand why Fianna Fáil tabled an amendment to the motion. Instead of showing it as an international problem, we are grappling it to our chests once again as another Irish problem, which it is not. It is an international problem and we are trying to manage it as well as we can, and are probably doing so better than most. This amendment once again makes it a national problem.
This is a health problem. If it were not for the fact that there is transmission to humans of this disease from infected animals we would not be sitting here with the beef markets having gone down the way they have and with the markets in Egypt and other places closed. We should stop addressing this solely as a beef trade problem, which it is, and address it as a health problem. If we eradicate BSE we will not have the problem. Why can we not concentrate on this aspect?
There are many problems for people regarding BSE in cattle but it is the development of new variant CJD in humans which is the real problem. It is accepted universally that a link exists and that the main route of infection is oral. We know that Kuru, a form of CJD, existed some years ago in a tribe in Papua New Guinea where the funeral rites involved the eating of the dead person. The men ate the muscle, the meat, while the women and children were relegated to eating the brain and other organs. It was the women and children who frequently developed a form of CJD. When the tribe was persuaded to stop the practice of eating human meat the disease died out. They eradicated the disease.
The ingestion of infected beef, not healthy beef, appears to cause new variant CJD. The disease has not been around long enough for us to know all about it internationally, not just in Ireland. We have no test for it and we do not know the incubation period but it seems to be quite long. The extreme precautions now being taken in the production of beef here, if they are adhered to by all farmers and meat processing factories, must mean we are on the way to the eradication of BSE and the transmission of prions with or without viruses to other animals, including humans who eat beef. The risk of getting infection with verocytotoxic e.coli is probably greater than getting an infection from BSE. That has already had lethal effects on at least one and maybe two children in Ireland. There has been one case of new variant CJD here from a person who had lived most of their life in England.
There is another problem I want to address for the medical profession and I am pleased the Mini ster of State, Deputy Moffatt, is present. Can BSE be transmitted through blood transfusions or the use of blood products or corneal grafts? We know that a form of CJD was transmitted to children of small stature who were treated with growth hormones obtained from human pituitaries from cadavers. One definite case and two possible cases of the transmission of old style CJD have occurred through corneal grafts. We get our corneas either from people in Ireland or from people in the United States where there is no problem with BSE. We are refraining from bringing in corneas from the UK where the problem with CJD is much greater.
Trying to communicate properly when one is uncertain is very difficult but the Department of Health and Children needs to make more of an effort to try to reassure people. The precautionary process is there and something has to be done about risk analysis. I think the risk is much less than most people think.
The knock on effect in terms of blood transfusions is serious and it needs to be addressed here as well as internationally. The advent of safe blood transfusions and blood products has been extraordinarily important in saving lives in the last century and we want it to continue into this one. Recent serious problems with infected blood products in this country and others have naturally made people nervous that the same could happen with BSE.
Experimental work on mice showed that blood extracted from mice which had been infected with BSE and which were symptomatic, when injected intra-cerebrally into healthy mice caused BSE. If the infected blood was given intravenously the infection rate was much lower. Where sheep were fed BSE prions and their blood was transfused into healthy sheep, some developed BSE. Therefore, even though there is no evidence of new variant CJD being acquired by blood transfusions in any of the known cases in the UK, where most cases have occurred, we have to take precautions with blood. The careful selection of donors has become even more rigorous and given that only 3% of the Irish public who are suitable give blood, maintaining the blood supply is difficult. The most infective part of blood is considered to be the buffy coat, where the while cells and proteins are, and this has been removed from all blood here for some years.
A number of countries, including Belgium, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have banned donations from any person who has spent more than six months in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1996. If we in Ireland did that immediately we would suffer a 13% loss of donors. Such would be the decrease in our supply of blood, some people would almost certainly die, most elective surgery would be cancelled and there might even be the postponement of surgery for non-trauma cases. Even if we did that there would not be much benefit because people here have eaten imported beef products from England  during that period so that we could set up a smookscreen for ourselves.
Now everywhere in the world is in trouble with blood supplies. We can buy in a certain amount of blood products such as solvent-detergent treated plasma from the US and use fibrinogen instead of cyoprecipitate. Surgical techniques are constantly monitored to reduce loss of blood and the need for blood but in some cases it is the only remedy for haemorrhage, not least in maternity cases. Blood loss is a major cause of maternal mortality, the death of women in childbirth, in countries which do not have a good blood transfusion service.
I appeal to the Minister of State to initiate and sustain a campaign to increase the number of blood donors here and to encourage lapsed donors to give blood again. I ask him to give full support to the education of hospital personnel in the optimal use of blood and to help them ensure efficiencies at all stages of the blood transfusion chain. Not one good drop of blood can be lost.
Alternatives to blood can sometimes be used and a small amount of blood products can be sourced from countries which are BSE free. Only a national effort in the promotion of blood donation initiated and sustained by the Minister for Health and Children will address the serious shortage.
Dr. Fitzpatrick: In view of Senator Quinn's statement earlier that this was an international problem and given that he did not engage in a Government bashing programme, we will not move the amendment.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Dr. Moffatt): As Minister of State with responsibility for food safety, my primary concern is public health and the safety of food consumed by the public. I welcome this opportunity to discuss the public health aspects of BSE in the Seanad and thank the House for affording me the opportunity to do so.
With regard to BSE, I am concerned with the public health implications of this disease and any risk it poses to humans. BSE was first identified in the UK in 1986. From the outset of the epidemic in the UK, Ireland acknowledged that it might have a BSE problem in the national herd and has been introducing a series of risk reduction measures since the first case of BSE was identified here in 1989.
Ireland's BSE controls are among the strictest in the world and include: a legal obligation to notify the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development of any animal affected with BSE or suspected of being affected; the culling and destruction of all herds and birth cohorts of BSE animals; the removal and destruction of specified risk materials, highly infectious material such as brain and spinal cord – this measure was  introduced in Ireland in February 1997 and was not introduced on a horizontal basis across Europe until October 2000; the introduction of comprehensive and effective licensing and control measures to prevent feed mills which manufacture rations for ruminants from using meat and bonemeal in the manufacture of feed for other species – this measure, taken here in October 1996, effectively prevented the type of cross-contamination which a number of other member states have freely admitted was still occurring in their feed mills up to last year; in September 2000, Ireland began using one of the then recently validated rapid diagnostic tests to test all casualty animals at factories and in October began testing a random sample of fallen animals – the EU requirement was that member states should commence this targeted active surveillance from 1 January 2001.
In response to consumer concerns about food safety, including the emergence of BSE, the Government decided to establish an independent, science-based consumer-oriented food safety agency, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which is accountable to the Minister for Health and Children. The FSAI was formally established in January 1999 and it is developing a seamless inspection service from farm gate to the point of sale to consumers via a series of service contracts with all the official regulatory agencies. It audits the control measures in place. It has set up a sub-committee of its scientific committee which specifically addresses BSE issues and it is currently performing a risk assessment of beef on the bone. In view of the European Commission decision last week on T-bone steaks, we eagerly await the advice from the Food Safety Authority on the matter.
To reassure Senators in relation to this matter, particularly Senator Quinn, the UK and Portugal received a derogation from the recent Commission decision to ban the sale of meat containing vertebral column, that is, T-bone steaks, because they had put in place traceability measures. Under the terms of the decision, Ireland can apply for such a derogation. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is currently performing a risk assessment of beef on the bone. The results of this risk assessment exercise are expected in March. This data will be used in Ireland's application for a derogation. When the initial vote on the issue was taken by the EU Standing Veterinary Committee, Ireland abstained in protest at its very strict controls not being considered in regard to the Commission's proposed decision. The fact that Commissioner Byrne is an Irishman played a part in this because he did not like to show favouritism towards Ireland. However, when our assessment takes place we believe we will get that derogation because we have been ahead of the posse in all matters relating to BSE in Europe.
Most recently, a number of additional measures have been adopted at EU level to address the consumer concerns across Europe in  relation to the safety of beef. These included the banning from 1 January 2001 of the feeding of meat and bonemeal to all farm animals until 30 June 2001 and a requirement that all animals over 30 months entering the food chain be tested for BSE using one of the rapid diagnostic tests. In this regard, there has been some discussions in recent times about the usefulness of these tests. What is clear is that each of the tests validated by the Commission proved extremely accurate in identifying the infective agent in samples from diseased animals in the course of the Commission's validation exercise. All three validated tests have also detected BSE in some clinical animals. However, none can be taken as providing an absolute guarantee that BSE is not in the very early stages of incubation in tested animals, although to date none of the BSE cases detected in Ireland has been in animals born since the enhanced controls adopted in 1996 and 1997 began to take effect. The rapid tests, therefore, should be seen as a very valuable addition to the existing range of BSE measures which remain in place – no more and no less. In this context, it is undoubtedly reassuring that more than 46,000 animals over 30 months of age intended for human consumption have been tested since 2 January 2001, all with negative results.
The list of specified risk materials has been extended. It is now acknowledged that feeding of contaminated meat and bonemeal is the most likely mode of transmission of BSE in cattle. The feeding of meat and bonemeal to ruminants was banned here in 1990, four years before the EU-wide ban. Unfortunately, this ban was not fully complied with until 1996. Opportunities for cross-contamination in mills and on farms existed until dedicated mills for ruminant feed were introduced, specified risk material was excluded from the manufacture of meat and bonemeal, rendering at high temperatures and pressures was installed in Irish rendering plants and meat and bonemeal use was confined to 17 pig farms under licence from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. The incubation period for BSE is said to be between two and ten years. The incidence of BSE in Ireland indicates that all new cases were born in or before 1996 with the age profile continuing to rise. This gives confidence in compliance with the meat and bonemeal ban since that date.
Moreover, Ireland's BSE controls have been judged by the EU scientific assessors as “optimally stable” from 1 January 1998. This means that all three main stability factors, feeding, rendering and SRM removal, are in place, well controlled, implemented and audited. Animals born after this date would not have had access to contaminated meat and bonemeal, therefore, beef from these animals should be as safe as beef has ever been. Since 1996 we have been aware of the link between BSE in cows and new variant CJD, commonly known as vCJD, in humans. In relation to the source of vCJD infection, the most  likely explanation is the ingestion by humans of BSE-contaminated food.
CJD is a rare transmissible encephalopathy in humans and is the collective name for a group of diseases which can cause progressive dementia and a loss of control of movement and balance. There is a number of categories of this condition, including sporadic or classic and new variant CJD or vCJD as it is known. Until recently, the overall global incidence of CJD was approximately one case per million per year. However, this has increased in recent years, with the increase most likely due to greater awareness and active surveillance, as well as improvements in diagnosis.
New variant CJD was first described in Britain in 1996. Clinically, these cases present at an earlier age and are different from classic CJD. The presenting features include behavioural disturbances followed by difficulties with balance and walking. The average survival time from diagnosis is approximately 13.5 months, which is longer than in the case of classic or sporadic CJD. Confirmation of vCJD is by post-mortem neuropathological examination. There has been one confirmed case of vCJD in Ireland. This individual had resided in Britain at the height of the BSE epidemic there.
Humans may have been exposed to the BSE agent through different routes, including consumption of contaminated food, contaminated pharmaceutical products, medical instruments, transplants, blood donations and cosmetics.
The consumption of beef is not a risk factor for vCJD, rather it is the consumption of contaminated beef products. Current information indicates that BSE infectivity resides in brain, spinal cord and other specified risk material. The consumption of this material is high risk and possibly exposure to BSE may only have occurred in those who may have eaten such material.
Some meat remains on carcase skeletons following deboning by conventional techniques. In the past, additional meat was removed from the skeleton mechanically. This practice involved putting the skeletons into machines, which using high pressure removed residual meat and tissues. This mechanically removed meat, known as MRM, would have contained spinal cord and other SRM and was used for economy burgers, pies and other low grade meat products. This may have been the most infective material entering the human food chain in the UK. The practice, rarely used in Ireland, was banned in May 1996.
The belief that consumption of BSE-infected material has led to the onset of vCJD in humans has led to theoretical concerns that vCJD could be transmitted to humans by other routes such as blood, as stated by Senator Henry. While there is no proven instance of classical CJD having been transmitted through blood or blood products, the theoretical possibility associated with variant CJD cannot be excluded at this time. There is currently no screening test to detect the presence of vCJD. My colleague, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, has stated that he  will ensure the Irish Blood Transfusion Service has adequate resources to introduce proven new technologies in this area.
Strategies are in place and further strategies are planned which address this possible risk. For example, plasma-based factor 8 and 9, which is used by the vast majority of haemophiliacs, has been replaced with recombinant products which are genetically produced and are not manufactured using human plasma. In addition, the Irish Blood Transfusion Service has introduced leucodepletion for all blood donations, a filtering process that removes white cells which are suspected of containing infected material.
On 12 December 2000, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, met the chairperson, chief executive officer and the national medical director of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service and was briefed concerning a number of strategies which the board is considering to further reduce or minimise the possible risk of transmission of new variant CJD by blood transfusion. One of the measures under consideration concerns the deferral of donors who resided in the United Kingdom for a cumulative period of six months or more between 1980 and 1996. The IBTS is also considering the deferral of donors who have had a blood transfusion. Such donors are deferred at present for a period of 12 months after a transfusion. Deferrals of donors in such combined circumstances would reduce the current donor pool by approximately 20% to 25% which would have serious implications for the hospital services and consequently for patient care. Other measures are also under consideration, such as the replacement of products currently manufactured by the IBTS, including red cells, by products sourced in BSE free countries, and optimal use of blood components.
In considering additional measures to reduce or minimise a possible risk of new variant CJD there is a balance of risks involved. Implementation of measures outlined above could result in a sustained shortage of blood which would have significant implications for patient safety. On 5 February 2001, the Minister announced the issue of the paper, A Guideline for the Transfusion of Red Blood Cells in Surgical Patients, produced by the National Blood Users Group, a multi-disciplinary group of experts from hospitals nationally. The guideline states that the use of proven strategies that reduce exposure to donated blood should be made widely available and applied where appropriate. Such strategies include autologous transfusion techniques and surgical, anaesthetic and pharmacological approaches that reduce blood loss. My Department is currently making this guideline available to all hospitals, general practitioners and medical schools.
Given the need to take full account of the balance of risks involved, the IBTS arranged a special conference on 15 February which involved national and international experts on new variant  CJD and blood transfusion. The conference considered existing and planned strategies relevant to new variant CJD and a special board meeting has been arranged for 28 February to consider the outcome of the conference and decide on the most appropriate strategies in the light of the expert opinion. The IBTS will also liaise with the CJD advisory group in relation to any proposals relevant to new variant CJD which it proposes to implement.
Senators will be aware that concerns have recently been expressed regarding vaccine safety and the theoretical transmission of new variant CJD. The Irish Medicines Board is responsible for the monitoring and safety of all pharmaceutical products in Ireland. The monitoring of vaccine safety is ensured through clinical trials prior to licence and post-licence surveillance by the IMB. My Department has requested the IMB to identify from its licensed products those which are derived from bovine and human sources.
In September 1996, to be in a position to respond rapidly and in an appropriate manner to the issue of CJD, the Minister for Health and Children established a CJD advisory group under the chairmanship of Professor William Hall of the virus reference laboratory in UCD. The other members of the group are drawn from experts in the fields of veterinary science, food safety, neuropathology, haematology, infectious diseases, medicines, and public health. The group's function is to advise the Minister on all issues relating to CJD and to provide advice to him on specific issues referred to it from time to time. The group meets approximately six times per annum and has to date provided advice on risk management strategies in relation to food safety, transplants, blood products, vaccines and medical instrumentation and has overseen the establishment of an active surveillance system for CJD based at Beaumont Hospital.
The Department of Health and Children and other medical experts are also represented on the separate BSE advisory group which has been set up by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. The best way to ensure that the health and safety of our citizens is protected in relation to BSE and new variant CJD is to base the measures we adopt on the best scientific information available and to enforce controls effectively. I have outlined the control measures on BSE taken by this country since the first emergence of the disease here. I have also described the measures taken by my Department in relation to new variant CJD on human health.
I commend the motion and am pleased we were in a position to accede to Senators Quinn and Henry on the issue. We all have one concern. We know we have the safest and best quality meat. That is the message we want to go out loud and clear. I have outlined the reason we did not get the derogation but I have no doubt we will do so when the full facts are drawn to the attention of the Commission's veterinary surgeons.
Mrs. Jackman: I am pleased to support the motion. I compliment Senator Fitzpatrick on his common sense in withdrawing the amendment. As a medical doctor he probably did not want it to be tabled. At least he had the initiative to withdraw it.
My party's spokesperson on agriculture, Deputy Dukes, has been very proactive in addressing the issue of BSE and CJD. He organised a consultative forum on BSE in the Green Isle Hotel last month which I attended and found very informative. Deputy Dukes brought together the main players from the veterinary world, the medical world, the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, the Consumers' Association of Ireland Limited and many others. It was a most enlightening day in terms of the exchange of ideas, questions raised, fears expressed and in addressing the concerns of the two farming organisations who, like us all, are very concerned about the effects on farming, public health and consumers.
Dr. Michael Farrell, consultant neurologist from Beaumont Hospital, explained in a simple way what is CJD and the conditions from which it can emerge. He said there is a personal genetic susceptibility to CJD in people occurring by sporadic mutation, with no outside agent involved, at a rate of approximately one person per million, although the incidence might increase. He also pointed out that it may arise from accidents in medicine as through the use of growth hormones.
Dr. Farrell went on to explain that new variant CJD, or vCJD, as discovered relatively recently in Edinburgh, is different from previous forms of CJD and affects people under the age of 30, which is alarming. Previously CJD was a disease of older people. I believe a friend of mine was diagnosed as having CJD. It was shocking and frightening to see a strong, intelligent individual deteriorate so quickly to his death over a period of 18 months.
Dr. Farrell referred to the fact that all victims of CJD have a specific genetic make-up, but there is no test to discover this susceptibility. In his opinion it would be pointless to try to develop one due to ongoing mutation of the agent. His last point was that given that the agents in BSE and vCJD are the same, they can mutate sporadically and it is likely that we will continually see new versions of this type of disease. That is quite frightening and it has come from a medical expert like Dr. Michael Farrell.
I refer to a presentation by Dr. John Griffin from the epidemiological unit in UCD who is vet. He referred to the fact that most animals get the disease when young due to the nature of the digestive tract at that age and the ongoing development of the brain and that cows in Ireland aged five and six years show by far the highest incidence of BSE. Even when allowance is made for normal culling of older animals, the older animals show less incidence than the five and six year olds. He also referred to the fact that the  increases in Ireland could, at least in part, be due to increased awareness and surveillance, that the number of 1,000 cattle was very low and that incidence of BSE in younger cattle is declining showing that the underlying level of infection is declining in Ireland. That is all fairly positive. However, he then referred to the fact that there is a greater incidence of BSE in Counties Cavan, Monaghan and Meath, as we know from reading reports. The hypothesis is that it is caused by cross-contamination from pig and poultry feed to ruminant feed since these areas have very big pig and poultry industries.
The main question or query from the various people participating in this very interesting forum was, is our definition of specified risk material – SRM – wide enough? The question of expanding it to intestines and spleen, even though there is no evidence that these are infected, was raised. Another question raised was, is it confined to the nervous system? As we know from the debate on the Agriculture Appeals Bill, 2001, the T-bone steak issue is problematic due to the connection with the spine. I am very anxious that we get feedback on the examination being done by the Food Safety Authority. I do not think we should have to table motions in Private Members' time, as the Independent Senators did. There should be ongoing debate in the House with the various Ministers involved. Fine Gael would prefer to see agriculture and food as a separate ministry. So much has arisen in the food area that it needs to be dealt with by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development as well as the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, who we would like to have seen here tonight.
The question as to whether humans are susceptible to BSE in its incubation stage was raised. That is a very important question since animals get it at a very young age. Dr. Farrell replied that there is little to no risk and that BSE has very little infectivity in the non-clinical form.
The question as to how we rid ourselves of carcasses, etc., was raised. It was suggested that incineration was possibly the best method of destroying the prion but that one needed a temperature of 1,000 degrees centigrade. It was suggested that perhaps we should look at gasification, which is done in Scotland, where there would be no dioxins and that this would be a better option for incinerating biological material.
To put this issue in perspective, what we really need is education for farmers and consumers. We must identify and learn from errors in the past. Future action must be based on best scientific knowledge and more money must be devoted to research. We must reduce fear by providing authoritative, credible and scientific based information for consumers and move away from headline gripping media. Top class scientific resources have to be put in place because this will go on and on. I agree fully with Senators that we cannot keep people in the dark. We must educate farmers and consumers and put money into research which must be credible and science based.
Dr. Fitzpatrick: I am delighted to make a contribution to the motion tabled by Senator Quinn who has long been involved in the food trade. He knows what he is talking about more than most of us here. He has been talking about the farm to the fork for years. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, who gave an excellent speech – an overview of the state of safety in relation to CJD. We can be assured that he and his Department are taking all steps to ensure the food chain is as safe as is humanly possible. However, I was glad I had something to eat before I came to the House given a few of the points he raised. I did not know about this mechanically recovered meat. I will never look at a burger in the same light as I have heretofore. In fact, I do not think I will ever be able to face a burger again.
Dr. Fitzpatrick: This debate has been going on for a few years. When putting a few words together for this debate, I asked myself how did we get it so wrong. We joined the EU and, as Senator Quinn kept insisting tonight, this is an international problem. It is not an Irish problem per se, although it does have Irish ramifications. How did we get it so wrong in the early years? If one puts it in the context of the time, there were good reasons for supporting farmers, the producers and the processors. There were political, industrial and economic reasons to so do. Maybe at some stage we took our eye off the food safety ball or perhaps we did not know enough to keep our eye on it at the time.
Senator Quinn made another point he did not labour, although he could have done so, about how the climate has changed. The political power has moved from the producer and the processor to the consumer. This is a huge shift in my lifetime and in that of everybody here. I remember when the producer was the only one who was listened to but now it is the consumer. That is the way it is and it is a very good thing. It has made us all look at how our food is produced. People are taking a deeper interest in food and I am not talking about the food magazines or the long learned articles in The Irish Times on a Saturday about wine, where best to eat or who is the most fashionable chef at the moment. The relationship between the consumer and the producer has changed with a vengeance.
There are a few things that have drip fed into the people's mind over the years such as the overuse of fertilisers, the abuse of growth hormones – although I believe they are quite acceptable in the United States but not in Europe – forced raising of beef, pigs and chickens, fish farming and finally the arrival of BSE/vCJD. These things have made consumers sit up and pay attention and have changed our attitude towards the food industry. The food industry has to pay attention and realise these new realities.
 There are ironies in this as well. The Minister of State and Senator Henry spoke about blood transfusion and blood products. Last year one of the main items of discussion was genetically modified food. This raised quite a furore at the time and I am not sure the issue has gone away. In medicine, however, we use genetically modified drugs, mainly for diabetes. The Minister of State mentioned genetically produced recombinant products. We cannot ignore genetically modified drugs and foods. We have to have an open mind on them, but at the same time we have to exercise care in their development and use.
Approximately 80 people have died from new variant CJD in the UK. One is too many. One has died in Ireland and that person appears to have picked it up in England. However, that is an Irish statistic.
I am glad this is not a confrontational debate because it is ongoing. It is about one of the most important areas in our lives, that of food, and the care we take in growing it, processing it and putting it on the table. I am glad Senators Quinn and Henry put down the motion. The Senators raised the matter of legal problems they felt were facing us. I am also glad the Minister came here to discuss the matters raised in an open way and to reassure the House that the problems would not be put on the back burner. There will be continuing vigilance by his Department in the pursuit of the aim of a safe food chain.
Mr. Glynn: I am pleased to speak to this motion and to support Senator Fitzpatrick in the withdrawal of the amendment. It is incumbent on us as public representatives at all times to ensure that matters of this nature are considered on an ongoing basis. The Minister of State with responsibility for food safety, Deputy Moffatt, is here to assure us and the people we represent that the measures that needed to be taken have been taken.
It would be remiss of me not to express my deep appreciation to the farming community for providing excellent beef. To a certain extent the farming community has been treated rather unfairly. There are of course rogues in every walk of life and farmers would be the first to say that theirs is no exception. When the news of BSE broke farmers were treated unfairly by RTÉ. We saw ad nauseam the famous image of the cow, which I am pleased to say has been withdrawn.
The measures taken by the Government, the Minister for Health and Children, the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, have been proactive and appropriate. I underline a phrase uttered by Senator Quinn who said that this whole debate is public health driven. It should be public health driven.
Mr. Glynn: —which is recognised as one of the major beef producing areas. Whether it be heifers or bullocks, we can produce them and are proud of them. Cattle were never meant to be cannibals. From a layman's point of view, the feeding of meat and bonemeal to cattle was certainly not right. A point made by Senator Fitzpatrick was that we have got into the business of force-feeding and force-producing, not only in the area of beef production but in other agricultural areas.
CJD is a collective name for a group of diseases which cause progressive dementia and a loss of control of movement and balance. Until recently the number of cases of CJD worldwide was approximately one in a million per year. This has increased recently, most likely due to greater awareness, vigilance and a better diagnostic process. That has to be recognised. Experimental evidence shows that vCJD and BSE are caused by the same agent.
The brain tissue from vCJD patients and BSE infected animals show similar features. That is an established scientific fact. The most likely source of vCJD in patients is the ingestion of BSE-contaminated food prior to the ban on specified bovine offals. In September 1996 the Minister for Health and Children established a CJD advisory group. Its terms of reference included surveillance of CJD in Ireland, assessment of the scientific developments nationally and internationally, the provision of advice on research strategies for BSE-CJD and the provision of advice to the Minister for Health and Children and of information to the media and the public.
The protection of Irish food is paramount. As the old saying goes, we are what we eat. Control of the disease in cattle and the protection of the food chain from contaminated material is imperative. In Ireland the reporting of CJD has been mandatory since 1989. This places a statutory obligation on farmers, veterinarians and all others handling animals to notify the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development of all animals showing signs of BSE. Prior to slaughter animals are examined for signs of disease, including BSE.
Upon confirmation of BSE all animals at risk of having been exposed to the BSE agent are traced and slaughtered. That includes the herd of the animal where all under the age of six months were on the same farm at the same time and the off-spring of that animal. The collection, transport, slaughter and destruction of the animals takes place under the direct control of the veterinary office. Production, movement and storage of meat and bonemeal are carried out under the supervision of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
A BSE surveillance programme has been in operation since July 2000. Since 2 January 2001 all animals over 30 months of age intended for human consumption have been tested for BSE. BSE was declared a class A disease under the Diseases of Animals Act, 1966, to benefit from  the powers of compulsion in relation to restriction controls and slaughter provided for by it. BSE is compulsorily notifiable under the same Act.
The feeding of meat and bonemeal to ruminant animals directly or through feeding stuffs has been banned since 1990. Since 1 January 2001 the feeding of meat and bonemeal has been banned from all farm animals intended for human consumption. Importation of cattle and bovine products from the UK is prohibited in accordance with EU legislation. Animals imported prior to this are being traced. Veterinary surgeons and farmers have been alerted to the symptoms of the disease.
A special information campaign was organised. A comprehensive series of controls is in place in relation to BSE which go beyond what is recommended by scientific evidence or international organisations. All beef comes from animals that are slaughtered in approved premises subject to official veterinary supervision.
This is a debate that will go on. I compliment Senator Quinn for putting down the motion and affording me the opportunity of saying a few words on it. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, the Minister, Deputy Martin, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, and all others who have been proactive in ensuring that the food chain in this country is beyond question. In relation to the BSE crisis, they have stepped into the breach and taken a hands-on approach to ensuring that the food we eat is safe.
Mr. Gibbons: I, too, thank Senator Quinn for tabling this motion which provides each of us with an opportunity to contribute to the very important ongoing debate on BSE, a debate which I feel is at times over-emphasised in the media. There are food safety issues other than BSE which are probably far more serious from a health point of view but these are not receiving the attention they deserve. Nevertheless, I welcome the Minister's contribution.
The consumer chain – I will not call it the food chain – extends from the primary producer, namely, the farmer, to the processor, distributor, retailer and consumer. I am aware of Senator Quinn's deep commitment to quality as represented by his crowning of the customer but he did not use the word “consumer” at any point in his contribution. Instead, he used the word “customer” throughout. I do not wish to nit-pick but we must focus on consumers' needs and provide them with the best quality product we can produce, be it at home or internationally. If we do that, we will build up a very important international food business. Ireland must become a centre of excellence in food production and that will require action in a number of areas.
We must adopt a less adversarial approach to food production. Unfortunately, when a problem arises in this area, fingers are pointed and blame is apportioned. Food safety is everybody's problem and we must approach it in that manner. Dis tributors and consumers can help primary producers to overcome problems and vice versa. Beef production in Ireland is primarily grass based. We are not forcing beef production in the manner it is being forced in other countries. We do not have big feeding lots in which animals are chained down and held indoors all their lives. Our animals graze for nine months of the year and are fed silage during the winter months. In a small number of cases, supplementary feed is provided. Irish beef production is quality all the way.
Primary producers must, however, change their attitude in many areas. Senator Quinn was correct when he said that the structures of the CAP, the intervention system being a classic example, resulted in a focus on production for which farmers received support. A greater focus is required on the production of quality beef. We must insist on better quality animals being bred. Unfortunately, our beef herd is, to a great extent, a derivative of the dairy industry. We do not have the right breeds for beef and we are not focusing sufficiently on that in terms of what the consumer wants.
We have moved forward considerably over the past decade from the point of view of processing. However, there is still a need for further improvement in this area. It is alarming to think that meat was mechanically recovered in the past and used for consumption. The process even continued for a certain period following the discovery of BSE in the national herd. This cannot happen in the future.
We must base our practices on the best scientific information available at any given time. Scientific information changes on an ongoing basis and we are learning all the time. It is imperative that we move away from the practices highlighted in the beef tribunal some years ago.
There is room for improvement in the area of distribution in terms of strengthening the consumer chain. It is vitally important that when a product with a sell-by date is ready to go to market, it is placed on the shelves as soon as possible rather than delaying the process by a week if the sell-by date is not imminent. We must ensure the food consumers buy is as fresh as possible.
I acknowledge that BSE, CJD and new vCJD pose great dangers and can have appalling consequences, as pointed out by Senators Henry and Jackman. However, there are other problems and diseases associated with the food industry which we should not overlook.
I feel strongly that the food industry should be taken out of the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and that the activities of all sectors in the consumer chain should be licensed. If primary producers, distributors or retailers breach their licence, they should be barred from engaging in the activity ever again. That may appear to be a overly strong reaction but we are all aware of cases in which farmers injected animals with slurry to produce BSE symptoms. Anybody involved in such prac tices should not be allowed to own an animal ever again.
As Senator Jackman stated, we need far greater independent State investment in research and development and staff training. In order to inculcate a culture of food safety, traceability is vitally important. This should not be used as a stick with which to beat people, rather as a tool to build consumer confidence. If properly used, it would protect all of the interested parties in the industry.
Mr. Callanan: I may be the only beef producer to contribute to this debate. I listened with interest to the Minister's address – I will not call it a speech – which was the most informative one I have ever heard in regard to the action the Department of Health and Children, as represented by the Minister, Deputy Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, is taking in this area. I am curious to know whether the newspapers will carry this story on their front pages tomorrow or whether they will give preference to some nonsense about somebody being seen somewhere he or she should not have been saying or doing something he or she should not have said or done. Will RTÉ news programmes carry the detail of information that was given here this evening, which is readily available to both the print and electronic media, on what the State and the Department of Health and Children are doing relative to ensuring the health and safety of people?
I thought Senator Henry put down the motion because she has been raising this issue for some time, but it is immaterial whether it was Senator Henry or Senator Quinn. The motion was tabled and I have no problem with the amendment being withdrawn because the original motion was of significant importance. It gave an opportunity to everybody to have their say here, including the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt. That is important. I emphasise that the media, both print and electronic, has a responsibility in this regard but, unfortunately, it has not been responsible. It is with some regret that I say that in Seanad Éireann.
The issue of BSE is important to the consumer, the producer, the processors and Irish trade. A total of 90% of our beef is exported so we have an in-built discipline, even if it is self-imposed, to produce and deliver to the consumer, both nationally and internationally, a product for which they would come knocking on our door.
In 1987, the current Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Walsh, was appointed the country's first Minister for food. I congratulate him on that and ask people to think back to that time in terms of production and processing levels and our general attitude to presentation to the customer and the consumer – I agree with Senator Gibbons on the word “consumer” because we are talking about all consumers. He geared the industry towards higher standards and better quality. I ask people to think  back to pre-1987, to the early 1980s and even earlier and the conditions of production and processing that existed then. Thankfully, we have moved on from that and regardless of whether we have BSE, we need high standards of production. We need to ensure that the consumer is getting a product that he or she requires.
I referred already to the reaction in the media to the serious BSE issue and what I see as an over-reaction. If we examine the official records of what has happened in this country we see that one person has died from the human form of BSE, CJD. That person lived in England during the height of the problem in that country. I am not saying that is where the blame lies but do we have a responsible media? I pose the question because what is said in the electronic and print media is transmitted to all the countries with which we trade, and it must be remembered that we trade with approximately 68 countries throughout the world. We sell a quality product and for the second time in the past two weeks I can say that I have no problem eating a T-bone steak tonight.
Senator Quinn asked why Ireland lost out on that issue in Europe recently. Have I faith in the scientific body in Europe? I have no faith in it because information has been available to the effect that there have been incidences of BSE in European countries for a considerable period of time but what did that body do about it? The Irish Commissioner, Commissioner Byrne, put emphasis on high quality food and I hope he will bring into being a Europe-wide food safety authority. We need such an authority. We have a food safety authority in this country under Dr. Patrick Wall and it is doing a good job but we do not have a Europe-wide food safety authority. We are allowing food to be imported into this country from countries that are not in the European Union. Can anybody here, even the Minister of State, tell us that meat from South America, for example, or from the southern hemisphere has a safety factor 20% or 50% lower than ours? I can say without fear of contradiction that the meat from South American countries is not 10% of the standards here, it does not reach our quality standards.
As a primary producer, we support fully a programme being put in place to regulate quality but there are a number of areas between production and the fork. Senator Quinn represents an organisation. Can we trust all of them? Can we trust the restaurants or people who have engaged in importing cheap, poor quality meat? I challenge anybody to contradict me on that.
I welcome the opportunity to speak. I am appreciative of the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, came to the House to make his contribution. I was pleased to listen to all the contributions. I support them, but there is something we have to do. A research package has to be put in place and there has to be some form of licensing. Senator Gibbons mentioned that and I totally support it. Everybody has to be licensed to ensure  people take responsibility. We have no problem with being licensed. If there are rogue farmers they have to be stopped in their tracks. If there are rogue processors, they must be stopped, and if there are rogue retailers or otherwise, they must be stopped also.
There is much to be said about the reaction to the BSE problem but I wonder would the media pay the same attention to those of us who smoke tobacco, for example? Would it pay the same attention to the under age drinking problem, which is causing carnage every day of the week? I ask the media to wake up.
Mr. O'Toole: I welcome the opportunity to make a brief input to the debate. I do not put myself forward as an expert on any aspect of the food industry but I want to raise one issue, which I always raise in this debate. The Abattoir Act is the root cause of many of the difficulties we are currently experiencing. The Abattoir Act was passed in 1990 or 1991 and when it was going through this House the issue of the traceability of meat was raised. That Act, the result of a demand from Europe under the guise of health and safety, created a huge ignorance of the origin of meat. Today many better quality shops and outlets, including those of Senator Quinn, go to much trouble to indicate the farm which is the source of their meat. The impact of that Act was to raise the bar so high in terms of requirements for slaughterhouses that most small operators went out of business and had to buy meat from a central point in the county with no idea as to its origin. Previously, many butchers who had land either produced their own meat or bought beasts from farmers they knew and whom they could trust, resulting in a far cleaner operation. I felt at the time that the Act as a serious mistake. We are spending billions of pounds in Europe each year to trace meat and to convince consumers it is therefore safe.
I appeal to the Government to again examine the Abattoir Act. The Act is necessary, but the qualifications necessary to slaughter one's own beasts in it should be changed. There should not be a huge cost for small communities, be it Belmullet or Dingle, to have a place where the local butcher can slaughter animals and do what was always done prior to that Act when people had total confidence because they knew the farmer who raised the animal, the grass on which it was grazed and the butcher who slaughtered, prepared and sold it. That previous system cannot be beaten. It is a matter of building simple bridges so people can have trust and confidence.
The statistical argument just does not work and there is no point saying it is the fault of the media, though it may be. I have not stopped eating red meat – getting to this House from Kildare House for a vote is more risky than having a T-bone steak. The best way to bring back trust and confidence is to ensure the route from grass to table is short and recognised by people. Supermarkets in the city writing down the name of the farm and  farmer where the animals or vegetables originate gives a sense of confidence. It does not matter who the farmer is or where the farm is located, but one believes that supermarkets have checked the farm thereby giving confidence in the product.
I know I have strayed somewhat from the core of the motion, but the issues I have raised relate to the problems which have arisen. We should have a continuous check on what is happening and how things are being dealt with. I ask the Minister to put pressure on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to consider looking at the Abattoir Act so people can again have the right to determine the source of their own food.
Mr. Quinn: I have found the debate very educational. I thank Senator Fitzpatrick and those on the Government side for withdrawing the amendment. I recognise that it is not easy to do so and it is much appreciated. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, not just for his speech but for its openness and honesty. As Senator Callanan said, it contained a great amount of information and reality, and I was impressed by it.
I would like the Minister of State to relay a point made by Senator Henry to the Minister for Health and Children, namely, the need for an immediate and sustained campaign for blood donations, particularly in the context of the recent problems of the BTSB.
Senator Jackman gave a very clear account of the Fine Gael conference organised by Deputy Alan Dukes and her references, particularly to the expertise of Dr. Michael Farrell, were most useful. I admire Senator Glynn's knowledge of the history of BSE and CJD and what he said about the need for trust and confidence. Senator Gibbons talked about quality and the benefits of having a grass based production area. Senator Callanan mentioned the onus and responsibility of the media.
I was not aware the abattoir legislation had the implications outlined by Senator O'Toole and I agree it is very valuable to take into account how trust and confidence can be lost and generated. On a number of occasions recently I had the experience of customers saying to me in the shop “I trust you” followed by “Don't let me down”. We heard these concerns in 1989 and put in place a traceability scheme which has since been extended, rather similar to that described by Senator O'Toole. We should picture what Ireland could achieve if the citizens of the world could say to us “I trust you; I trust the products you produce”. We have an opportunity to do that but have not sufficiently focused our attention on it. A report I received last week spoke of the panic sweeping through many European consumers leading to a drop of between 30% and 40% in consumption in France, a 40% reduction in Greece and 50% in Germany. This gives some idea of the concerns which exist and the oppor tunity we have if we could convince people of the quality of Ireland's product.
Senator Callanan spoke of the southern hemisphere, and the same report said that, as could be expected, the wave of panic has crossed the Atlantic Ocean and Canada, Mexico and the US have suspended imports from Brazil due to a fear of BSE, although no cases of BSE have been identified in Brazil. Picture what could happen if we could create confidence among our own people about our own products. The issue is in our hands, and not only in the hands of the Government. We cannot ask why the Government does not do something about it and then sit back.
Senators Gibbons and Callanan talked about the rogues in society. For over 50 years we have tried unsuccessfully to get rid of bovine TB. In World War II people spoke of the enemy within, the spies for whom people were to keep their eyes open. The enemies within our society are those who continue to breach the standards we have set.
The Minister said the best way to ensure the health and safety of our citizens is protected in relation to BSE and CJD is to base the measures we adopt on the best scientific information available and to enforce controls effectively. It is in our own hands, as is the answer to the problem. The Government can only do so much while the rest is in the hands of the nation, and we must ensure we grasp that opportunity and create the necessary confidence among our own people so that they know when we say something we have scientific backing for it.
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