Investigation fails to detect BSE agent involved in Louth case

Case raises questions over how contaminated feed remains in system

The investigation into the State’s first case of BSE in two years appears to have drawn a blank on how the animal contracted the disease. Apart from confirming it to be an “isolated case” of classic BSE in a single animal, the Department of Agriculture’s two-week probe could not detect the BSE agent involved.

Classic or typical Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, arises in animals which consume contaminated feed or in the progeny of infected animals.

As the cow’s mother and grandmother tested negative for BSE, the “vertical transmission” or genetic route has been ruled out.

This points to feed as the likely cause, which begs the question: how did a cow – born in 2010 – consume meat and bone meal, a feedstuff that has been banned in Ireland for more than two decades?

Since the crisis of the 1990s, BSE cases have popped up from time to time; there was one in 2013 and three in 2012. Typically, they occur when discarded feed, lodged in the corner of some shed, finds its way back into the foodchain.

However, by all accounts, the McArdle farm near Louth village, where the current case arose, is a well-run operation with a big herd and high turnover of feed, making this explanation seem unlikely.

Because the farm had an instance of BSE in the early 2000s, controls were said to have been tight.

Inspections

This is backed up by the department’s own findings which indicated that, between 2009 and 2010, more than 3,800 feed inspections took place, and almost 2,500 feed samples – including 52 from suppliers to the McArdle farm – were tested for the presence of processed animal proteins. All tested negative for meat and bone meal. Test results from feed currently on the farm were also negative.

The department insists therefore that there is no risk to the integrity of the State’s commercial feed supply chain or its feed control systems.

All of which leaves us none the wiser as to what happened.

“The identification of classical BSE cases after the implementation of the ban on the feeding of meat and bone meal is not unprecedented. A diminishing number of such cases have been identified in Ireland and in other countries over the years,” it said.

Behind the scenes, however, the authorities are said to be fuming. The cull of some 63 cohort animals shows how seriously they’re taking it.

The finding will impact Ireland’s risk status for the disease, which was only recently upgraded to “negligible risk status” by the World Organisation for Animal Health, a status only afforded to countries which are completely free of BSE. The new case means Ireland will likely have to revert to a “controlled risk” region for at least another six years.

Reputation

The industry is adamant that a single, isolated case will not taint the State’s reputation as a high-end beef producer, nor will it affect Ireland’s recent deals with the US,

Japan

and

China

.

Officials point to the fact that these deals were forged when we had a “controlled risk” designation anyway.

That said, they were secured on the prospect that Ireland was about to gain a “negligible risk” status, which is now in danger.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times