Dáil Éireann - Volume 638 - 03 October, 2007

Other Questions. - Animal Diseases.

Deputy Joanna Tuffyasked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the latest information available to her Department on the outbreak of bluetongue in Britain; the steps she is taking to ensure that the disease does not spread to Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [21787/07]

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: The first case of bluetongue ever to be recorded in Britain was confirmed on Saturday, 22 September on a farm near Ipswich in Suffolk. Since then several further cases have been detected on a number of other premises in England. The strain has been confirmed as serotype 8, the same strain as has been circulating in northern Europe since August 2006.

On 28 September, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Britain confirmed an outbreak of bluetongue and immediately put in place the control measures required by Council Directive 2000/75/EC. As a result of the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain, there is already a ban on the importation from Britain of live animals.

There are no imports of susceptible livestock from restricted areas in Europe and all susceptible species imported from bluetongue-free areas, apart from the UK, are tested post-import and all have been negative for the disease. In view of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, FMD, exports of livestock from Britain are currently banned. If and when the FMD-related export restrictions on British animals are lifted, consideration will be given to introducing post-import tests on susceptible animals coming from Britain.

Following the outbreaks of bluetongue in northern Europe, which began in August 2006, my Department embarked on a proactive surveillance programme that involved post-import blood testing of susceptible animals from affected countries and the random sampling of herds in counties in the south and south east in which wind-blown midges might have made landfall, if blown here. In addition to the ongoing testing of animals from bluetongue-free areas in Europe, my Department has engaged the Department of Zoology at NUI Galway to assist in carrying out a comprehensive surveillance survey of the midges that potentially spread the virus. In addition, my Department’s laboratory service has been testing thousands of blood samples for evidence of bluetongue since earlier this year. My Department has also updated its contingency plans and legislative basis, and has increased awareness by providing advice leaflets for farmers and veterinary pro[1453] fessionals as well as having organised an industry seminar on the disease in July.

The day-to-day management of the disease threat and the contingency arrangements is undertaken by the management committee of my Department’s national disease control centre, which has available to it a range of expert veterinary and scientific advice. This committee, whose meetings I have regularly chaired, has been meeting frequently in response to the heightened disease threats posed by both FMD and bluetongue.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The use of an outside advisory group with a range of disciplines is also part of my Department’s contingency plan. This approach was used in relation to FMD and avian flu in the past. Responsibility for taking decisions on the appropriate contingency arrangements to be applied would continue to be mine and that of my Department.

There is also a commitment in the programme for Government to establish Biosecurity Ireland, as a separate division within my Department, whose remit will be to “ensure the exclusion, eradication or effective management of risks posed by diseases and pests to the economy, the environment and to human and animal health”. This will enable my Department to co-ordinate even more effectively the existing breadth of expertise already available. As with all commitments in the programme, work on its implementation is continuing and I expect that it will be significantly progressed in the coming months.

I emphasise, however, that I am absolutely satisfied the measures introduced to date have been taken on proper veterinary and scientific advice and that they are proportionate to the current risk. As that risk is reassessed, I will not hesitate to introduce such additional measures as are considered appropriate to any increased risk.

  Deputy Mary Upton: I thank the Minister for her reply and I acknowledge that diseases such as bluetongue are, to a large extent, beyond the control of any individual or committee. In fairness, it must also be acknowledged that Ireland has been successful in so far containing this outbreak of foot and mouth disease. I wish to broaden the question, however, because there are a number of other animal-born diseases involving intermediate factors, like midges, that undoubtedly will become more relevant as time goes on. There is an inevitability about that. While we have been lucky with regard to bluetongue disease and effective on foot and mouth disease, I wish to ask about the future management of risks associated with other types of animal disease. On a number of occasions I have raised the need for a structured bio-security unit to be headed by an individual who will take overall responsibility for co-ordinating it. My point is based on the New Zealand experience. That island nation is depen[1454] dent on agriculture and is very like Ireland in many ways. New Zealand has stringent controls on bio-security so a similar situation should be applied here.

Given what we know about recent events concerning foot and mouth disease at the Pirbright laboratory, should we be examining the possibility of putting in place our own testing facilities? I realise the cost and consequences arising from such a step but it might be worthwhile given the concerns that have not been alleviated by the second outbreak in Pirbright.

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: Under the programme for Government we will introduce a separate division to establish Bio-Security Ireland and we will proceed on that basis. The Deputy is right in saying that over the next few years there will be considerably more new diseases, but expertise is being provided to deal with them. Accordingly, in due course, we will have to equip ourselves on a scientific basis, in consultation with farming bodies. The Deputy’s concern about Pirbright, given that it is an EU reference laboratory, is challenging and we must learn lessons from the situation. On that basis, the State Laboratory has evaluated its own bio-security measures. We are lucky to have a brand new, state-of-the-art laboratory available. The Deputy is correct in saying that the outcomes of the Pirbright investigation may pose challenges for us all. It is not for me to say whether Pirbright will continue to be the EU reference laboratory, but I am sure the EU and the UK will undertake a major evaluation of that issue.

  Deputy Michael Creed: Has the Minister’s Department considered using a vaccine for bluetongue? I understand it has been successfully developed in other countries, including South Africa. Has the Minister had consultations with live cattle exporters, particularly to valuable markets in Spain and Italy? Exporters may have problems in accessing those markets via France where extensive areas are now closed off to animal movements. We need to examine that matter quickly. Will the establishment of Bio-Security Ireland require legislation?

  Deputy Seymour Crawford: Will the Minister provide an update on what progress has been made, if any, towards an all-Ireland approach on this matter? I appreciate the great work that was done on foot and mouth disease between both Departments. As regards animal diseases, there is nothing to be lost by having a single approach, which should be up and running as quickly as possible.

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: The Deputy is correct that the synergies North and South have been beneficial and an all-island approach is the most appropriate way to go. I will meet my Northern Executive colleague in the next two or three [1455] weeks. Meanwhile, senior officials have been meeting on this matter in preparation for an all-island animal health approach, which is the best way forward.

There is a vaccine for type 1, but this is type 8. We are currently arranging the production of that vaccine, which has been raised at the European Council with Commissioner Kyprianou. It is hoped to provide a vaccine by spring of next year. We would then have to consider the issue of vaccination from a trade perspective but that is in the future.

As regards the export of live animals, there has been much consultation between the industry and the Department. At the moment, our competitors have exactly the same problem the Deputy mentioned in that they cannot come from eastern Europe to those markets. There has been no disturbance of trade so far, but we will keep in touch with the industry and vice versa to ensure that our exports continue.

  Deputy Michael Creed: What about legislation for Bio-Security Ireland?

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: I do not anticipate legislation.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.