Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

2:30 pm

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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Question 2: To ask the Minister for Agriculture; Food and the Marine the steps he has taken to prevent the Schmallenberg virus spreading to farms here; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14691/12]

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy raises the important issue of the Schmallenberg virus, SBV, which was confirmed in December 2011 following the birth of deformed lambs in the Netherlands. Its manifestation in adult cattle had been under investigation in Germany and the Netherlands since the summer-autumn of 2011. It has now been recorded in eight member states - Germany, Belgium, France, Luxemburg, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain and Italy - on about 2,000 farms in total. It is not what is called a notifiable disease as it does not meet the OIE - World Organisation for Animal Health - criteria for notification. There are currently no trade implications for the movement of animals or products within the European Union and animals may move subject to normal health inspection and certification systems.

The Schmallenberg virus is newly emerged and we are still trying to understand it fully. The information available on it suggests it is part of the Simbu sero-group of viruses which are mostly found in ruminants in Asia, Australia, Africa and the Middle East and primarily transmitted by insect vectors, most commonly midges, with no direct transmission from animal to animal. Vertical transmission is suspected, given the infections of foetuses. The virus can be identified through PCR testing. There is currently no blood test available for large-scale testing, but work is in place to develop one. No vaccines are available.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The European Commission, in collaboration with member states through the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, has published a guidance document on its website in which it sets out full details of the knowledge to date on the virus and procedures for providing surveillance data for the European Food Safety Authority which has been tasked with providing a full report on the virus by the end of May. An interim report is due by 31 March. The Commission is also working to dissuade third countries from placing restrictions on trade, as, in line with OIE recommendations, there is no justification for a ban on milk or meat as these commodities do not pose a risk for Schmallenberg virus transmission. The Commissioner briefed yesterday's Agriculture Council on this point.

There is no evidence to suggest the disease is transmissible to humans. To date, people who have been in close contact with infected animals, for example, animal workers, farmers and veterinarians, have not reported any unusual illness. The European Food Safety Authority, the European Centre for Disease Control and the animal and human health authorities at national level are collaborating to ensure rapid detection of any change in the epidemiology of animals and humans.

There is no evidence the virus is present in this country. Equally, there is no proof in the absence of tools for sero-surveillance that it is not present here. My Department has notified relevant persons such as veterinary staff and PVPs to report and submit samples of any animals showing unexplained clinical symptoms of SBV or suspect birth defects. Samples from 63 animals tested to date in the Department's laboratory from animals presenting with clinical signs that may be associated with infection have tested negative.

Applying additional controls at entry points would not add anything by way of increased bio-security. Such a move would also be contrary to European animal health law. Single Market rules preclude member states from interfering with intra-Union trade in animals, except on legitimate animal health grounds. Accordingly, animals are free to move in trade in the Union provided they are certified as being compliant with animal health rules. My Department always urges importers to ensure imports are fully compliant with EU rules and that they operate to the highest standards of bio-security to ensure no diseases are introduced to Ireland via such imports or the vehicles transporting them.

We will continue to monitor the developing situation, maintain close contact with the Commission and our EU colleagues, including in Northern Ireland, and review and modify our response, as appropriate, in the light of new information that becomes available or with the development of new testing capabilities.

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I find it extraordinary that a disease which can damage international confidence in a nation's agricultural output is not notifiable. I, therefore, encourage the Minister to press hard to ensure it is made notifiable.

What emergency plans will be put in place? Are there discussions taking place with our counterparts in the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure the virus will be kept off Irish farms? I am sure the Minister agrees that the international perception of the quality of Irish agricultural produce is all-important. The USA is thinking of opening up markets and the Minister is travelling to China to discuss increasing our market share there. Therefore, the international perception of the purity and quality of Irish agricultural produce must be protected. This is one of the risks to it. I suggest other risks are presented by the proposed trials on the genetic modification of potatoes and fracking in agricultural areas in north Leitrim and County Cavan.

Will the Minister press to make sure the virus is made a notifiable disease? Will we have plans in place should it be identified on a farm in either the Six Counties or the Twenty-six Counties?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I have discussed this issue with my counterpart in Northern Ireland. It is a good example of where we can take a fortress Ireland approach. Diseases do not respect borders, but our geographical location is sometimes fortunate in that we are isolated from the British mainland and Europe and thus receive protection in terms of the spread of certain contagions. My understanding is that the Schmallenberg virus spreads via flies and midges on the skin of animals. There are risks in this regard in that efforts by many farmers to increase herd size have led to an increase in the importation of calves. As such, I am very conscious that we must review the controls in place at ports. However, I am also realistic about what is possible in terms of identifying the disease given that there is currently no blood test for it, thus making it difficult to test cattle and sheep for infection.

I have asked my officials to put together a clear guideline document which will inform persons who import livestock from other parts of Europe or the United Kingdom of the areas in which the Schmallenberg virus has been identified. This will help us to be more targeted in importing livestock. While the numbers of detected infections seem to be decreasing across the European Union, this may simply be a consequence of the approaching end of the lambing season.