Dáil debates

Thursday, 22 November 2007

3:00 pm

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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Question 3: To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the opinion of the NDCC regarding biosecurity threats to Ireland in the future and its view regarding the probability of an outbreak of avian flu, foot and mouth disease or bluetongue disease; the contingency measures in place to deal with such eventualities; and the necessary administrative, legislative, financial and communication initiatives to deal with these matters. [30262/07]

Photo of Mary CoughlanMary Coughlan (Minister, Department of Agriculture and Food; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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I will not have time to read the entire reply but I presume it will be included in the Official Report.

The national disease control centre, NDCC, of my Department brings together a range of veterinary, scientific, administrative and legal expertise available throughout the Department. Meetings of the NDCC's management committee are frequently chaired by me or, in my absence, by the Secretary General. The management committee has been particularly effective in planning and managing my Department's response to various disease threats, whether in respect of to avian influenza, foot and mouth disease or bluetongue. The committee's essential role is to assess the threat posed by developments on any disease front and to make recommendations to me regarding the adequacy of my Department's contingency arrangements.

In addition to the range of expertise available within Department, the NDCC also has ready access to expert advice from the national parks and wildlife service of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and BirdWatch Ireland, as well as expert meteorological advice from Met Éireann and epidemiological expertise from the centre for veterinary epidemiology and risk analysis at UCD. With regard to avian influenza and foot and mouth, I can also draw, as required, on the advice provided by an expert advisory group chaired by Professor Michael Monaghan of UCD.

The implementation of effective biosecurity measures, both nationally and at farm level, is a critical component of our contingency plans. My Department has frequently provided biosecurity advice and has continually encouraged farmers to apply the highest standards of biosecurity at farm level.

Based on the advice available, from various sources, the immediate risk of an outbreak of avian flu, foot and mouth disease or bluetongue is regarded as relatively low at present. In respect of avian flu, we are close to the end of the current migration season and there is very little migration between Ireland and Germany, France and the Czech Republic, with which the strain of the virus found in England has been associated. While the most recent case of foot and mouth disease in England was confirmed on 30 September, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs issued a statement this morning in which he said that, following an incident involving live foot and mouth virus at the Merial laboratory plant at Pirbright, an inspection team, of which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, was part, had concluded that "while it was possible that live virus had entered the contained drainage system — they are assured that the live virus had not been released to the environment".

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

A full report is to be provided to the chief veterinary officer in the UK, after which DEFRA will consider what further action needs to be taken. Given the link between the original outbreak and the Pirbright site, we are obviously maintaining close contact with DEFRA and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland in respect of this situation and we await the outcome of the inspection report and any further actions considered appropriate by DEFRA.

With regard to bluetongue, the risk is principally associated with the introduction of an infected animal or through infected midges. While animals may now be imported from bluetongue-affected areas, the conditions under which this may happen are very restrictive and are intended to significantly reduce the risk of an infected animal being imported. Meanwhile the Department's vector surveillance programme shows that the level of vector activity has declined very significantly in recent few weeks. Notwithstanding the foregoing, the respective disease situations will continue to be monitored closely and I will apply any revisions to our contingency arrangements made, where appropriate.

Central also to our contingency arrangements has been the excellent level of co-operation between my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland. Both Departments have a shared commitment to the maintenance of an all-island approach to the disease threats posed and have collaborated very closely in the adoption of identical control measures. I am satisfied my Department has in place the necessary contingency arrangements, including sufficient legislative powers, based on our expert assessment of the current level of risk of a disease outbreak.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister's assurances in respect of avian flu, foot and mouth disease and bluetongue. We have just concluded a debate on climate change. I am sure the Minister is aware that the World Organisation for Animal Health has concluded that many of the threats we face in the context of animal disease have arisen as a result of climate change. The equine industry in this country is currently under threat from swamp fever. The latter was largely unheard of here before 28 cases arose in 2006. West Nile fever has been found in Italy and France, rabies has been discovered in Finland, anthrax has appeared in Azerbaijan and there have been cases of glanders disease — by which humans can be affected — in Iran.

There is a need for increased vigilance. While I appreciate the expertise that is available within the Department, it is our contention on this side of the House that there is a need not merely to react to threats but also to maintain constant vigilance in respect of this issue. The latter would be best facilitated by establishing, on a statutory basis, a biosecurity unit to monitor all threats. Will the Minister consider establishing such a unit? It could, similar to the way in which the Food Safety Authority of Ireland works in tandem with the European Food Safety Authority, act in conjunction with international experts. This is a growing threat.

Photo of Mary CoughlanMary Coughlan (Minister, Department of Agriculture and Food; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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Although I agree it is a growing threat, my view is that we are adequately resourced within the Department. We use the expert advice that is available and we can meet within 30 minutes. The latter is the most important aspect of our reaction to issues such as those under discussion. Expert advice and opinion has always been available in respect of any matters that might arise. We also have tremendous contingency plans to deal with many of the diseases to which the Deputy refers, as well as those which are currently a threat to the European Union.

In addition, we have at our disposal diagnostic capabilities and we have invested over €200 million in a new laboratory at Backweston. At present, we have the necessary resources and requirements. I am not persuaded that we need a new stand-alone facility with statutory powers. Immediate expertise is available to me within the Department.

Photo of Michael CreedMichael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael)
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It is a false sense of security to state we are in a position to meet within half an hour as this is a reaction to an event. Does the Minister agree that rather than constantly reacting to events such as bluetongue, foot and mouth disease and avian flu, we need a standing committee, preferably on a statutory basis, of people who constantly evaluate threats with which those of us in this House are entirely unfamiliar? People with expertise would monitor trends, take steps and advise the Minister on what must be done.

Photo of Mary CoughlanMary Coughlan (Minister, Department of Agriculture and Food; Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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This is carried out and we have risk analysis and forward planning for new diseases which may arise. This is not a reactionary policy. We have a contingency plan in the event of many diseases coming through. Regrettably, we have had experience with some of these.

We cannot be complacent. This is an evolving policy area and risk analysis will advise me accordingly. The level of preparedness of the Department is more than adequate to deal with the outbreak of a disease. This is not to state we are not preparing for new diseases. Surveillance work is carried out at academic, laboratory and veterinary level.