The system works
The detection of BSE on a farm in Co. Louth last month led to wild speculation in the media, assurances from the government and calls for calm from the associations. Now that it’s all blown over, was it all that much to worry about? Yes and no, writes Doug Whelan
14 July 2015
BSE. The mere mention of those three letters in the media last month evoked a daunting feeling among farmers, retailers, government departments and the public. Most of us will remember the BSE crisis that took place in the UK back in the 1990s after all, and the effects of that outbreak were felt for decades to come, even right up to today. That is why when it emerged last month that a suspected case of BSE was discovered on a farm in Co. Louth, there was a collective intake of breath and a brief period of worry. But was it all for nothing? Well, yes and no.
The threat that BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) poses is very real, most importantly to human health in the fact that it is transferable from cattle to humans, whereby it mutates into CJD (Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease) with devastating neurological effects. Equally worrisome, however, is the economic threat the disease poses. Were a full outbreak to occur, a ban on exporting cattle would be immediately placed into effect; the beef sector would grind to a halt, retail sales would plummet and the industry would be plunged into chaos from which it would take years, potentially decades to emerge. In the case of a confirmed epidemic, such as the one that occurred in the UK in the mid-90s, the EU and any other major beef importers would impose a ban. In Ireland’s case that would be devastating to the beef sector; according to a Department of Agriculture report, in excess of 100,000 Irish farms have a beef enterprise, with 90% of beef output sold for export. Any such EU ban would be nothing short of a catastrophe for the industry.
Everybody stay cool
Thankfully, following the crisis that took place in the 1990s, lessons were learned and farmers, wholesalers and especially politicians today are fully aware of the risks involved with BSE, and also of the potential causes of the disease in cattle. A ban on using meat and bone meal in cattle feed – one of the main causes of BSE – has been in place and rigorously enforced since 2001. Another potential cause is it can be passed down from the animal’s mother, and also it is known to simply occur spontaneously, though that is very rare. Discussing the recent case in Co. Louth on Morning Ireland on 12 June, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said that his department and the farmer in question were working closely to discover the cause of the case. The minister was also adamant that there was no threat to the public whatsoever. “We have tested seven million animals since 2002,” the minister said, “and if any animal has the disease it will be found. We have a very robust testing system.
“There is zero risk to humans here,” he added, “and the animal in question would never have found its way into the food chain”.
Coveney’s carefully chosen words, were reflected later by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and also by the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA). Their respective presidents echoed the minister’s calls for calm and patience ahead of official test results.
“This is undoubtedly a serious matter,” Paddy Comer of the ICMSA said, “but we have confronted and dealt with BSE very efficiently in the past. I have no doubt that this instance will be dealt with in a similarly effective manner.”
However Deirdre Webb of the Irish Grain and Feed Association (IGFA) expressed surprise at the manner in which the information was released. “There has been no communication with the feed industry,” she told ShelfLife on the same day as the Department of Agriculture released the news, “with little regard for how this might affect people’s businesses”. Webb said she believed the IGFA should have been brought into the loop before the news was made public, adding that the IGFA would – as always – cooperate with any investigation that would follow.
Looking back, we can understand Webb’s frustration at the manner of the announcement, given that cattle feed is one of the potential causes of BSE. There would be a good reason for the department to consult with an organisation like the IGFA, but at the end of the day a wide and immediate response was arguably the only real option the minister had. The notion of a potentially devastating disease being discussed in hushed tones in Leinster House, blocked from the media and the public in the hope that it might all blow over would have been troublesome later, when the inevitable “who knew what, when?” questions began to be asked.
The worst-case scenario response taken by some sections of the media had the potential to do more damage than the suspected BSE case itself. Members of the public seeing the news splashed all over the newspapers, suggesting Ireland’s beef industry could be doomed and so on, could have been put off buying beef for the time being, which is why the calm response and follow-up by all those involved was even more imperative.
At ShelfLife, we were determined to cover the story on ShelfLife.ie but not to add fuel to this fire. We weren’t surprised, therefore, that when we contacted large retailers for comment on the issue, they had little to say. Their viewpoint was generally along the lines of, until there’s something to worry about, we don’t want to add to the concerns. After all, why would a major retailer want their name mentioned in the same breath as BSE for any reason? No news is good news, after all.
But it was all a moot point. Everyone did brace for the worst (it’s hard not to sometimes), but the Department of Agriculture’s announcement on 25 June of lab results did indeed prove that the BSE case in Louth was an isolated incident. As the IFA and the ICMSA said when the story first broke, this discovery was proof that the system works, rather than it being inadequate in any way. Every animal presented for slaughter in the republic of Ireland is tested for BSE, and as a precautionary measure any part of the animal that could potentially contain the disease – the brain, central nervous system etc. – is systematically removed.
Furthermore the department’s system for testing farms is equally rigorous. In 2009-2010, more than 3,800 inspections took place on farms across Ireland, including several inspections on the farm in Co. Louth where the disease was discovered. It seems this truly was an isolated incident.
With the news, the government, associations, farmers and public all breathed a sigh of relief. But the mystery now is still how this isolated case happened to begin with. According to a report in The Irish Times on Saturday 26 June, the State is drawing a blank. The animal’s mother and grandmother both tested negative, ruling out hereditary infection. Thorough inspection of the farm in question – said to be a very well-run operation – also ruled out the possibility that old or discarded bone meal was somehow fed to the animal. So what happened? The investigation is ongoing at the time of writing, but the authorities are none the wiser.
A FEFAC vision paper on feed safety in the EU suggests that contamination can occur at the earliest stages of the feed chain. The risk profile of feed ingredients is continuously changing, it says; climate change, for example, has an impact on the occurrence of mycotoxins in cereals. This fungus can have a severe impact on animals’ health at the feed stage.
FEFAC’s report suggested that action is required at all levels of production and supply to combat feed contamination. “Delegating responsibility to the next level of the chain can only result in lower efficiency,” it says, urging the optimisation of monitoring resources, interception of non-compliant feeds, good hygiene practice, databases etc. All of these elements can surely help in the fight against diseases like BSE.
As well as the health risks, the major effect of BSE is disruption of Ireland’s beef exports. The results of the Department’s tests were passed on to the EU, where it was expected Ireland’s status with the OIE (world organisation for animal heath) would be reverted to “controlled risk” status. This status means that the country’s methods for bringing BSE under control are reliable and effective, and also provides a basis for safe trade in animals and products. The irony was lost on nobody that just the week before all this happened, Ireland had been awarded a “negligible risk” status by the OIE. Easy come, easy go. Perhaps we shouldn’t make jokes, but it is a bizarre bit of timing.
The system, by all accounts, works. Cases are becoming more rare – there were three detected in 2012 and one in 2013, but will we ever live in a world where the disease is eliminated completely? That’s hard to say. There will always be “cowboys” out there somewhere and there’s always the chance of a freak occurrence but the beef industry is of such importance to Ireland’s economy, we believe that the government and farmers are in step in doing their utmost to control the disease. If and when BSE rears its ugly head again, we will hopefully remember the “scare” of 2015 and act accordingly.