Q&A: What does latest BSE case mean for Ireland?

More than 1,650 cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy detected since 1989

Mad Cow Disease? I thought we got rid of that years ago. How did it get back into the country?

BSE, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, never went away you know. Commonly known as Mad Cow Disease, the fatal brain disease was first diagnosed in an Irish animal in 1989. There have been more than 1,650 cases since then but they have been reducing in number every year until last year when no case was recorded.

What causes it?

Most experts agree BSE was caused by animals eating feed that contained contaminated meat-and-bonemeal. This mix was made from otherwise unused animal products taken from the carcass and cooked. Feeding meat-and-bonemeal was banned in Ireland in 1990 and, after BSE outbreaks across Europe, a ban on feeding it to all farm animals was introduced in 2001.


If this animal is confirmed as being BSE-positive, how did she get the disease?

The investigation is ongoing but in previous cases BSE was contracted from feed containing meat and bonemeal. It can take four to six years for cattle to show signs of BSE. The disease is characterised by disorientation and clumsiness. Television viewers might recall footage of the unfortunate animal staggering and stumbling which was repeatedly used in RTÉ clips to illustrate the BSE crisis in the late 1990s.

Can people get BSE?

No. However, in 1996 scientists discovered a new strain of CJD brain disease, now known as variant CJD, which has been connected with eating BSE-infected meat products. Like BSE, variant CJD is fatal. When scientists made the link, control measures were stepped up. Animal tissue shown to be capable of transmitting the BSE agent is now removed and destroyed during the slaughtering of all animals over two-years-old. This specified risk material includes some of the more unappetising parts of an animal, such as the brain, eyes and spinal cord.

In addition, all animals presented for slaughter are first subjected to examination by veterinary inspectors to ensure they do not have the disease. Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said the current case posed "zero human health risk" and is an animal health issue.

Is this bad for our beef exporters?

It's a disappointment but not a catastrophe, according to Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association president John Comer. Up until a week ago, Ireland had "controlled risk status" for BSE. The US, China and Japan opened their markets to Irish beef with that status. Just last week the World Organisation for Animal Health upgraded our status to "negligible risk" because there had not been a case here since 2013. Optimists are hoping that if we revert to "controlled risk" status it will not affect trade.

Anything else we should know about Mad Cow Disease?

BSE also stands for Bombay Stock Exchange so some Indian stockbrokers may have been scratching their heads today when they saw #BSE trending on Twitter in Ireland.

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times