BSE:Ulster special case
By Philip Clarke
OFFICIALS from the department of agriculture for Northern Ireland (DANI) were in Brussels this week, seeking special BSE status for the province that would allow it to relax many of its disease-related controls.
The delegation met agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler on Wednesday (Nov 3), to tell him that BSE is far less prevalent in Northern Ireland compared with the GB mainland, and even lower than in some other member states.
In terms of the number of casualties per million head of adult cattle – the standard used by the Paris-based Office of International Animal Health (OIE) – Northern Ireland has had just 14 cases in 12 months, compared with 22 in the Republic of Ireland and 513 in GB. This is well below the 100 cases set by the OIE to separate "high risk" from "low risk" regions.
"Since we now have an even lower incidence of BSE than the south of Ireland, we should receive the same treatment," says Ulster Farmers Union commodities director, Wesley Aston.
The advantage of winning "low risk" status would be that Northern Ireland would then be able to drop the over-30-month scheme, (OTMS), ease some of its SRM controls and, most important of all, resume exports on a normal commercial basis, including live animals.
The savings to government would also be considerable, says Mr Weston. In the past two financial years, some £100m has been spent on the OTMS in Northern Ireland alone.
Although a formal request for special status would have to come from London rather than from Belfast, there have been encouraging soundings. The UFU met new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, two weeks ago, who was supportive.
Whether Westminster will share his enthusiasm for allowing separate treatment for Northern Ireland remains to be seen. But the fact the province was allowed to start exporting under the certified herd scheme ahead of the rest of the UK is being taken as a positive sign.
Currently the priority in Westminster is getting UK beef into France and Germany. But once that is out of the way, observers believe the next step could be winning further relaxation of controls for Northern Ireland.
"Labour might well take the view that it is better to get a foot in the door, rather than have the door slammed in their face," said one DANI insider.