Figures show BSE cases at record levels

 

The special committee to implement the strategy on the BSE crisis met late into last night as it emerged that December disease figures, due out today, will push incidence of the disease to record levels. .

While this has been the worst year for BSE since the disease was identified in 1989, there has not been a case in any animals born here since 1997.

That was when the Department of Agriculture imposed strict regulations banning the compounding of meat and bonemeal for poultry in plants where cattle feedstuffs were also being prepared.

This was because the British authorities had discovered cross-contamination of food at the mills, despite a ban on the feeding of meat and bonemeal to cattle from 1989.

The main item at last night's meeting was the implementation of the slaughter-for-destruction scheme for all animals over 30 months which have not been tested for BSE.

This test-or-destroy scheme will be the mainstay of the market-balancing operation agreed by the EU a fortnight ago to restore consumer confidence. Negotiations are continuing between the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and the Department of Finance on the funding of the slaughter scheme, which could cost up to £200 million this year, depending on the number of animals slaughtered.

It now appears that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Mr Walsh, will convince the Department of Finance that farmers should receive 90p per lb for a male animal delivered into the test-or-slaughter scheme.

This will set a floor price for beef sales as well, which have been slowly recovering on the Continent, especially in Italy and Germany, where the message that Irish beef is safe seems to be getting through to consumers.

However, there are still outstanding problems with the slaughter scheme to which most of the beef-processing industry is opposed, believing it could damage the image of Irish beef abroad.

The scheme will also create a major logistical problem for the industry, already hit by the EU ban on the use and export of meat and bonemeal, and may require the building of a large incinerator.

The committee has also been examining the proposals made by Dr Patrick Wall, head of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, that the scheme should be used to support the market and rid the country's herd of BSE by slaughtering elderly cows.

His so-called "scrappage scheme", destroying older cows where the cases of BSE are most likely to occur, has been gaining support from processing and farm organisations. However, for it to gain full support, better compensation will have to be paid to farmers.