18 June 1999

First nvCJD case in Eire sets beef industry alarms ringing

By Anthony Garvey

THE first case in the Irish Republic of new variant CJD, the fatal human brain disease that sparked Britains BSE crisis, has sent shivers of apprehension through the countrys £1.65bn-a-year beef industry.

It has provoked a flurry of statements from the Department of Agriculture, the Food Safety Authority and the Irish food board, Bord Bia, aimed at reassuring consumers at home and abroad that Irish beef poses no health risk.

The nvCJD victim, identified only as a young mother, is in hospital in Dublin. According to doctors, she lived in Britain between 1989 and 1995. A Department of Agriculture spokesman said this was the time when the UK BSE crisis was at its peak, and it was likely she had contracted the disease there. He pointed out that there were no Irish cases of BSE before 1989, and fewer than 20 cases a year until 1996. "Given the incubation period, the victim had to be exposed to infection before 1996."

The department claims to operate the most stringent BSE controls in Europe, with the slaughter of all animals in infected herds. Rules were introduced in 1996 to exclude all specified risk materials from the food chain and from animal feed.

But the worry for the industry is that the number of BSE cases continues to rise, with 79 last year.

The chairman of the Irish Consumers Association, Peter Dargon, said the figures suggested that the controls were not being adequately enforced. "We have a rising number of BSE cases in the national herd, even though controls were placed on feed and specified risk materials some years ago. Why is that happening?" he asked.

Mr Dargan, who is a vet, added: "It is unlikely that this unfortunate victim was infected by Irish beef, but we are in danger here of becoming too casual about the issue of food safety."

According to the Irish Food Safety Authority, there have been 45 cases of new variant CJD to date: 44 in the UK, including one in Northern Ireland, and the other in France.

The worry for the Irish beef industry is that the latest case could affect lucrative export markets and alarm UK and European customers.

A spokesperson for Bord Bia said staff in its offices worldwide would be on standby to deal with any questions that might arise. &#42

Temporary ban ends on NI exports

BEEF exports from Northern Ireland are underway again, after the temporary ban imposed last month by the EU Commission after the discovery of problems with the provinces computerised traceability system.

Meanwhile, farm minister, Nick Brown, told producers at last weeks Beef 99 event in Cumbria that a resumption of beef exports from Britain could be just weeks away.

The government has sent its comments to Brussels in response to the recent EU Commission inspectors report on how the date-based export scheme might operate.

It is expected that the scheme will be presented to the EU standing veterinary committees July meeting. If no hurdles are met there, the commission will then propose a date for exports to resume.

Under the DBES, only bone-out beef will be eligible. But Mr Brown also said he believed it would be possible to lift the beef-on-the-bone ban by the summer. "I want to get the beef industry back to normal trading in the world market – and that includes whole carcass exports – as soon as I can," he said. &#42

Battery cages phase-out may cost UK £690m

BATTERY cages for laying hens are to be banned in a move which British egg producers claim will cost them almost £690m.

All battery cages will be outlawed from 2012 in under an agreement reached on Tuesday by EU farm ministers meeting in Luxembourg. Phasing out the cages will start as soon as Jan 1, 2003, when egg producers across Europe will be banned from introducing any more traditional-style coops.

At the same time, producers will have to increase the amount of floor space per bird in existing cages by almost a quarter, from 450sq cm to 550sq cm.

That effectively means farmers must reduce the number of birds in a normal cage from five to four – incurring either extra housing costs or reduced egg output.

In addition, any new cages introduced after Jan 1, 2003, must give each bird 750sq cm of floor space and be "enriched" with perches and nest areas.

But those cages, too, will be outlawed by Jan 1, 2012, the date that the complete ban on all types of battery cages comes into force.

The cost of the ban to egg producers has previously been estimated at £687m, according to figures prepared for the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC). &#42

Ideas sought in SW

TEN thousand farmers in the south-west are to be asked for their ideas on what is needed to enable their industry to recover and prosper.

Survey forms will be sent to many of the producers in Dorset, Glos, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. Forms will also be published in magazines and local papers.

Spearheaded by the county councils, the initiative also involves other groups, including Dartington Hall Trust, PROSPER, Triodos Bank Ltd, University of Exeter, and the Western Morning News.

As well as seeking views on the state of the industry, and whether farmers believe there is a future, the survey covers topics such as business opportunities, diversification, and retirement plans.

The responses will be analysed and presented to a conference in October. There, leading members of the south-west farming community will discuss the best way to tackle the issues raised. &#42