Suspected BSE case threatens industry’s restored reputation

Analysis: If confirmed, case will almost certainly see Ireland lose negligible risk status

News of another suspected case of BSE could not have come at a worse time for the beef industry here.

Just last week, Ireland was granted "negligible risk status" for the disease from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

This is only afforded to countries which are completely free of BSE and will presumably have to be rescinded if the new case is confirmed.

It also comes as producers here try to cement a foothold in the US following a near 16-year ban on European beef imports, and with the re-opening of the Chinese market all but complete.


However, it should be noted that one isolated case, if confirmed, does not constitute an outbreak.

Department of Agriculture figures show 2014 was the first year in which the State has been totally free of BSE since the infamous outbreak in the 1990s.

In 2013, there was one confirmed case; in 2012, there were three cases; in 2011, there were also three cases.

Beef is the single biggest component of Ireland’s €10 billion food and drink export business. The State exports about half a million tonnes of beef each year, 90 per cent of our total output, worth about €2.2 billion, with most of it going to the UK.

Last year, beef exports increased by a modest 1 per cent, albeit this was against a backdrop of falling prices and sluggish consumer demand.

The opening up of US and Chinese markets undoubtedly enhances Ireland’s reputation as a high-end producer, even if the impact on exports will be minimal in the short-term.

Irish producers are targeting a niche US market for grass-fed, hormone-free beef, for their prime cuts, which is growing on the back of concerns around the widespread use of hormones in the US. News headlines about BSE being detected here won’t help.

Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney was keen to point out this was an isolated case, involving a rare breed of cow and was promptly picked up by the department's control systems.

When asked if he feared the news might see the cancellation of orders, he told RTE news: “I’d be hopeful that people will see this as proof of a very robust testing system in Ireland.”

He promised the department’s investigation would be open and transparent about what caused the case, noting that all animals feeding on the same feed in recent years would be tested.

Nonetheless, in an earlier statement, the department acknowledged the latest development will have ramifications.

“If, as expected, the tests confirm this to be a classical case of BSE, this may impact on Ireland’s recently awarded ‘negligible risk status’ from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE),” it said.

“In this case Ireland will revert to ‘controlled risk status’ which applied up to last week and which facilitated trade to a wide range of international markets. It will also result in the continuation of the existing range of controls for a further number of years.”

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times