CRISIS IN THE BEEF INDUSTRY

 

Statistically, the chances of an animal infected with BSE being exported from this State are less than those of taking a tumble crossing O'Connell Street on a wet January afternoon. Since the disease was first detected in 1989, there have been fewer than two hundred cases in a herd that never fails below 7.5 million. Irish beef is still a healthy product, but there is a heavy responsibility on everyone in the industry to ensure that nothing is done to prevent containment and eradication of BSE in the next few years.

That is no comfort for the farmers who are already suffering from the resistance of foreign consumers, or for the taxpayer faced with the horrendous costs of compensation. Cases are currently on an upward trend more than a third of the total were recorded in 1996. Infected cattle have been incubating the disease over the last few years, and the rise is likely to continue for the short term at least. The present experience in Britain, where the incidence of BSE is infinitely greater than here, is that the disease can be controlled and eventually eliminated, though only with the concentrated energy of all concerned.

More might have been done to prevent the cycle from developing in this State - if, for example, the regulations introduced for the manufacture of bone meal last March had been brought into effect when the first suspicions of danger for humans were voiced some years earlier, and if they had been policed more effectively after their introduction. The decision by the Minister for Agriculture this week to issue the figures once a month from now on rather than as they occur, in the circumstances looks alarmingly like an administrator's attempt to cover up the facts when what is needed to allay concern in the market, is complete openness.

It is easy to accuse the Government of being dilatory or complacent about one of the most damaging situations to hit Irish agriculture in the history of the State. The furore caused by the Russian partial ban on beef imports last autumn was an interesting study of the political dynamics of the farming sector when something goes wrong, blame the Minister. Mr Yates might have handled his PR better, but the real fault was in an industry that has not fully learned the dictum that it is the consumer who decides. In the case of beef, where the BSE/CJD connection has introduced a note of hysteria into that decision, the dictum is still true. And all the more so when, as in the case of the Russians, they are by far our largest single customer, taking almost two thirds by value of our entire non European beef exports last year, according to the latest estimates. Mr Yates made it clear yesterday that retaining this market remains a top priority.

Politicising the issues, as the Opposition and farming organisations have attempted to do, is not likely to serve any useful purpose. Apart from the taxpayer, no one involved is entirely free from blame in how the situation has evolved, and it is wrongheaded to suggest that markets can be changed other than by patient diplomacy and salesmanship. The Government has taken the right course in treating the matter as one requiring the combined efforts of Agriculture, Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach's Department: if not yet a national crisis, the loss to the economy already suffered is substantial, and the latest developments in Russia and Egypt may foreshadow trends in other markets. For the immediate future, steps to prevent a collapse of domestic prices are urgently needed, through EU action on intervention rules. The Minister's warning to the meat industry not to take advantage is timely too. But will it be heeded?