A team of veterinary inspectors, scientists and other Department of Agriculture officials are exploring three possible causes of the suspected BSE case on a Louth dairy farm although the link with feed is still seen as the most likely one.
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said his department was making good progress on the investigation and was helped by the cattle movement monitoring system which tracks the location of every animal in the national herd. He said he was getting good feedback from the investigators.
“When we have a complete picture we will be open and transparent about that,” he said.
The farm at the centre of the scare is in a quiet rural area close to Louth village. LMFM Radio reporter Ciara Courtney visited the farm on Thursday morning and she said that while the farmer involved did not wish to be interviewed, he did stress that the case had not been confirmed as BSE yet. He also said he was happy for IFA president Eddie Downey to speak on behalf of the family.
The farmers’ leader highlighted the trauma for the farmer and said the extended family must be going through a very tough time. “The big impact here is on the family. There’s no risk to human health or the spread to any other herds because it’s not contagious,” he said.
LMFM Radio reported there was “huge sympathy” from people in Louth village for the family involved, particularly as they had been affected by BSE before.
The farm had a BSE outbreak in 2002 and the entire herd was destroyed but protocols have changed since then and the culling of entire herd is now seen as unnecessary. Instead, the cow’s progeny are being destroyed as are the animals that were born around the same time, as they may have eaten the same feed. However, it is understood that no other animals on the farm have been showing symptoms of the fatal brain disease which is characterised by disorientation and clumsiness.
The suspected case is a five-year-old Rotbunt cow that had given birth to three calves. Mr Coveney said those calves had been immediately traced but he declined to say whether they were on the affected farm or had been sold elsewhere. If they were sold on to other farms, those farms will also have become part of the investigation but the Department of Agriculture did not respond to queries on whether other farms were now involved.
It also declined to answer a series of queries about the investigation, saying the examination was ongoing and it would be not be making any further comment at this time.
While the possibility that the animal may have eaten contaminated feed is the most likely explanation, there is also a slim chance that the cow inherited it from her mother, who was bought in from the continent. The red-and-white Rotbunt breed is relatively rare here but more common in Germany and in the Netherlands where it is known as MRI (Meuse Rhine Issel.
It is also possible that this could be atypical BSE, where the disease occurs sporadically among cattle, but this is a very rare occurrence.
Cork veterinary surgeon Bill Cashman said it was possible that the cause of the disease might never be known. "We may never find where the source is because the problem with prion disease is that the incubation period is just so long [four to six years]," he said on RTÉ Radio yesterday.
Movements of animals into and out of the farm are now restricted but milk from the herd may still be collected for processing as BSE is a brain disease and does not affect milk.
The Department of Agriculture expects test results from the animal to be completed before the end of next week but there seems to be general consensus is that the results will be positive for BSE.