Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for
Agriculture and Rural Development

Friday 22 March 2002


(I) DARD Review of 2001
Foot-and-Mouth Disease Outbreak
(II) TB/Brucellosis Testing Update

Ordered by the Committee of Agriculture and Rural Development to be printed 22 March 2002
Minutes of Evidence: 08/01/E

Membership and Powers

The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and under Assembly Standing Order No 46. The Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and has a role in the initiation of legislation. The Committee has 11 members including a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson and a quorum of 5.

The Committee has power:

The membership of the Committee since its establishment on 29 November 1999 has been as follows:

Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr George Savage (Deputy Chairperson)

Mr Billy Armstrong Mr PJ Bradley
Mr John Dallat* Mr Boyd Douglas
Mr David Ford Mr Gardiner Kane
Mr Gerry McHugh Mr Mick Murphy**
Mr Ian Paisley Jnr.  

* Mr Dallat replaced Mr Denis Haughey on the latter's appointment as a Junior Minister.
** Mr Murphy replaced Mr Francie Molloy with effect from 4 Februrary 2002


Friday 22 March 2002

Members present:
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Dallat
Mr Douglas
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr McHugh
Mr Paisley Jnr

Mr Graham Cash)
Mr Philip McDonagh) PricewaterhouseCoopers
Dr Jorgen Westergaard)
Dr Eric Stougaard)


The Deputy Chairperson: The Committee welcomes Mr Graham Cash, Mr Philip McDonagh, Dr Jorgen Westergaard and Dr Eric Stougaard from PricewaterhouseCoopers. I hope that the meeting will be constructive.


The Committee has announced its own inquiry into the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of last year. One objective is to scrutinise the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's commissioned review of the outbreak. The Committee appreciates meeting representatives from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which is conducting the review, at this early stage.


The Committee's policy is to hold as much of its business as possible in public, as that is particularly important in inquiries. The meeting is being recorded, and a draft transcript will be forwarded to you for correction.


Today's objective, as agreed by the Committee, is to give you the opportunity to set out the proposed methodology for the review and to gauge members' views on whether it is sound. Thank you for providing the terms of reference of the review and the 12 issues to be addressed; members have considered them. They will have plenty of comments to make.


Before you make your opening statement, the Committee has resolved that, in conducting its inquiry, it will make every effort not to duplicate the work of your review. It would be helpful to the Committee and its researchers to receive a copy of the project initiation.


Mr Cash: Thank you. PricewaterhouseCoopers has prepared a short presentation for the Committee, which outlines its approach. I am Graham Cash. Dr Westergaard has a background in Danish veterinary practice, and Dr Eric Stougaard is the former Chief Veterinary Officer of Denmark. My colleague, Philip McDonagh, and I are from PricewaterhouseCoopers.


The team will talk the Committee through its approach to the terms of reference and will discuss our Danish colleagues' experience of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Europe and the lessons to be learnt from the situation in Northern Ireland. The team will also discuss the terms of reference and would like to hear the Committee's views.


The names of the review team have been included in the presentation. I find it useful to have a list of those names, which my colleagues and I have got used to saying. A detailed team structure is outlined on the following page. Dr Westergaard and I are co-chairpersons of the review team. Dr Stougaard and Mr McDonagh are also members. Professor Joe McMahon from Queen's University has agreed to examine legal issues with the team. The team also has access to the expertise of Chris Gibson and Stephen Kingon. Dr Patricia Clarke carried out a review of cross-border issues, and the team has asked her to examine cross-border issues with us. Many others are also helping the team to fulfil its terms of reference.


The terms of reference are outlined on the following page. They reflect on the fact that Northern Ireland is dealing with foot-and-mouth disease. There is particular emphasis on that in the terms of reference and on the team's approach to the contingency plans, preparedness, cause, spread, handling, logistics, compensation, cross- border issues and trade implications. In the light of lessons learned, recommendations will be made to the Minister on how, God forbid, a further outbreak of epizootic disease in Northern Ireland should be addressed.


The review is, therefore, looking back. However, it is also looking at how things could be done differently in future. My Danish colleagues have had much experience of contingency planning and of the responses to the outbreak in Denmark during the early 1980s. The review team's approach is summarised in the presentation. In order to address the terms of reference, various methods of accessing information must be deployed. The Department has information, so file reviews must be carried out and much paperwork examined. It is also important to listen to the views of those who are directly involved. The team is beginning to initiate an array of approaches.


Some of that will take the form of advertising - seeking written comments and views on the terms of reference. We have advertised how people can now write to us, and we have prepared a short form to assist people to do that.


The Department has also agreed that we can hold public meetings. We have initiated that process in the outbreak areas. We have started to hold meetings in Ardboe, south Armagh and Cushendall. We also meet in the west of the Province; in Omagh, for example. We will also be in the east - in Belfast. That is one method of encouraging people to talk to us. We have arranged those meetings for the evenings. We are conscious that it is lambing time and that farmers are busy people, and therefore we have tried to arrange the meetings so that farmers can meet us.


There is also a need to meet groups and farmers' focus groups. There are individual in-depth interviews with farmers' representatives, farming organisations and community groups. We will also survey farmers because we have found that if we approach them, they will share their experiences with us.


We have tried to show that there is an array of approaches to the review. We should be able to address the terms of reference if that all comes together.


Dr Stougaard: I was Chief Veterinary Officer of Denmark from 1976 until 1999. Since I retired in 1999, I have been a consultant for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in assisting candidate countries, especially the Baltic countries - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I have also assisted the Technical Assistance Information Exchange Office of the European Commission in helping candidate countries to control and review contingency plans. At present, Dr Westergaard and I are preparing contingency exercises in all the candidate countries.


Before entering the veterinary service, I gave lectures in veterinary science at university for several years, and I have been a practising veterinarian in Denmark. I had my own large animal practice for five years.


When I retired I was the oldest serving Chief Veterinary Officer in the world. They normally have a shorter lifetime. Through that work, one gains much experience in combating diseases, although we had not expected the return of foot-and-mouth disease. We had totally stopped vaccinations against that disease in Denmark in 1977. Suddenly, in 1982 there was an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. It was reported on 18 March at 1:50 pm: one can never forget such a date. There was no foot-and-mouth disease around us.


Considering the information that we had, I called the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome and the Office International des Epizooties in Paris, and they had no knowledge of foot-and-mouth disease closer than faraway Ukraine. That was during the communist era, and they had good measures for keeping things closed. There was a report of an outbreak in the German Democratic Republic the next day. It was later revealed that foot-and-mouth disease was widespread in the Baltic area and in the German Democratic Republic during the winter months of February and March 1982.


There was an outbreak on the island of Funen through airborne transmission, which is possible in our cold climate with its drifting winds. The first herd to be affected was a cattle herd of 20 animals. It took veterinaries some days before they revealed that it was foot-and-mouth disease. We had the material sent to our institute.


That was a great surprise. We knew when we had the first outbreak that there would be more. If the disease has spread it will have already done so by the time the first herd has been slaughtered - in our outbreak of 1982, the disease had spread to several other herds. The practice veterinarian had spread the disease to only two herds, although he had been in contact with about 50 herds; the milk tanker had spread the disease to several other herds.


Denmark had its first outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease on 18 March 1982, and we knew that other outbreaks would be reported in a few days if the disease had spread. New outbreaks were reported on 22 March, and during the next three days we had eight outbreaks. We were then waiting and wondering what would happen next. All the restrictions that are put in force for the first outbreak will show whether one has done the right thing. If one does not have a grasp of the disease, one will get the upward curve that happened in other countries. However, if one has taken the right measures, the disease may simply fade away with only a few other contact outbreaks. We were lucky, and our last outbreak was on 4 May that year. Denmark had 22 cases in all.


During that outbreak of epizootic disease we gained a great deal of practical experience about how to control it. We were fortunate to have Dr Westergaard in our animal health division, and we worked closely together.


Dr Westergaard: Like Dr Stougaard I am a veterinary. I graduated in Copenhagen and went into private practice. After a couple of years, I joined the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; I also went to Kenya and Uganda, and I worked in the dairy sector. I was a milkman. I was involved in milk production, collection of milk and the production of cheese. After taking an interest in tropical diseases, I studied at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh for a diploma. I then returned to the Food and Agriculture Organization and dealt with training in centres in the Middle East, the Far East and Latin America. After three years in Rome I went to the United States for my PhD in microbiology and studied infectious diseases, including brucellosis and rabies. After that, I came back to work with Dr Stougaard; about that time we had our outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.


In 1987 I went to the animal health unit of the European Commission where I worked with infectious diseases. In my first year I worked on swine diseases including classical swine fever and African swine fever. I did a great deal of work in Portugal and Spain. I worked on poultry diseases including Newcastle disease and influenza; sheep diseases such as sheep pox virus and bluetongue virus; and cattle diseases, including infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and work on foot-and-mouth disease.


The foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 1982 in Denmark was airborne. The disease broke out in Italy in 1987 when that country still vaccinated against foot-and-mouth disease. However, the vaccine is a kill vaccine; if the entire virus is not inactivated it can create more trouble, and the disease spread through the vaccine in Italy. Since then better ways of inactivating the vaccine have been developed, but that caused trouble in 1987. We carried out a study in the European Union, and the experience with the disease in Italy was one of the reasons for deciding that vaccinations should stop throughout Europe. That was supported by the United Kingdom, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland, and all the other eight member states adopted that policy. The first challenge to the non-vaccination policy in Europe came in Italy in 1993, where the disease was controlled without the use of a vaccine.


In 1993, the disease was caused by illegal imports from eastern Europe. We had a combination of airborne spread, bad vaccines and illegal imports.


In 1996 there were outbreaks in the Balkans - Albania, Macedonia and Yugoslavia, where the disease was introduced in buffalo meat from India. There were outbreaks in Greece in 1996 and 2000, and in those cases the disease came from Turkey, where it is endemic. Greece is a high-risk area for exotic diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, bluetongue and sheep pox.


Those are some of our experiences of how the virus is spread. We want to concentrate on how to avoid bringing it in.


There were 57 outbreaks in Italy. There were only a few in the densely populated northern areas, but in the south of Italy there are many socio-economic problems that make disease control difficult. The outbreaks in Albania, Macedonia and Yugoslavia all happened in the space of three months, between June and September. The European Union provided vaccines to those three countries. Vaccination was used in Macedonia and Albania, where we got quite a good result. There were greater problems in Yugoslavia. Most of the 101 outbreaks were in Kosovo, where political problems did little to promote the eradication of the disease.


Bulgaria in 1996 is the ideal situation: there was only one outbreak. The Bulgarians did a good job. The communist system had an advantage that we do not have in western Europe: it could put police on every corner to ensure that nobody went in or out of the village. In eastern Europe, one can see some of these old ideas of good disease control still in place. In the cellars of the district veterinary offices one can see the suitcases, the boots, the disinfectant and so on. They are ready to move out.


The greatest problem in Greece has been the infection of sheep in areas close to Turkey. However, comparing the outbreaks in 1996 and 2000 we see that there has been an improvement based on the experience that we gained in 1996. We coped better in 2000.


You already know all about the major epidemic in the European Union in 2001. Of the 2,059 outbreaks, two were in France, 26 in the Netherlands, one in the Republic of Ireland and the rest in the United Kingdom. Of most interest to Dr Stougaard and me are the four outbreaks in Northern Ireland.


We are studying ways of preventing future outbreaks of the disease. We are also looking at how the infection can be contained. That is the key question.


Mr Cash: The foot-and-mouth review will consider issues derived from the terms of reference. We are particularly interested in the pre-foot-and-mouth arrangements: the adequacy of the legislation, contingency plans and preparedness. The contingency plans will be developed to accommodate sections that address the requirements that must be put in place in the event of a future outbreak. There will be much work on contingency planning, as my Danish colleagues have suggested.


As for how the disease entered and spread, we can look at what happened elsewhere and examine the parallels with our situation. We will look at the methods of eradication used in order to find out what works and what may work better in future. That will be reflected in the contingency planning.


We will also consider the handling of valuation, compensation and slaughter and the trade implications. These should be in place before an emergency develops.


There are cross-border implications. There is a North/South dimension, but there is also an east-west dimension in how the animals are moved and the processes whereby they are distributed. There is an economic impact on agriculture in particular.


We also wish to learn from and reflect on the lessons learnt from other reviews.


Reaction, co-operation and input from farmers, hauliers, dealers and shippers are essential for preparedness.


People must be made aware through the media that a contingency plan is available. For example, have those who will be affected by it had a part in developing and maintaining it? That lesson has been learnt from elsewhere and it will form part of the recommendations.


The Deputy Chairperson: You say that this disease is often airborne. How did those countries that suffered outbreaks dispose of the animals? Did they burn or bury them?


Dr Stougaard: In Denmark we buried all the animals. Airborne spread is typical in the Baltic area and has also occurred between France and England. It can spread for up to 200 kilometres, given slowly drifting winds, high humidity and the right temperature. We have seen it so often in our part of the world.


During the campaign in 1982 there was no criticism from the public or from environmentalists. Nobody dared to take responsibility until it was all over. Dr Westergaard and I took the responsibility. However, in future it may not be possible to bury all the animals. I do not consider it to be a great risk; after all, we bury humans. If the animals are buried in clay, the dispersion is very slow, both horizontally and downwards to the groundwater. In 1982 we slaughtered 2,500 animals, and we have had no problems with the groundwater.


Dr Westergaard: There are three methods of disposal. The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany use rendering. One must be very careful not to spread the disease when moving the animals; one must take precautions on the farm, during transport and at the rendering plants. There may be capacity problems, but with a well-prepared contingency plan one can take care of the disposal through rendering.


Burial can run into environmental problems in many areas. A good contingency plan will tell you which regions have problems with water levels and which are more feasible. Some countries' contingency plans include burial sites should the disease strike. That may be included in a contingency plan, but veterinaries work with people in the Department of the Environment and in other Departments.


Burning is not used outside the United Kingdom. We used that method once in Belgium on the classical swine fever outbreak, and we asked someone from Ireland to build the pyre. It worked perfectly, but the people who lived in the surrounding area did not appreciate it. Rendering is the number one method, and then burial, if possible, but burning is not used much outside the United Kingdom.


Mr Ford: Can you speak to staff in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, such as port inspectors, as opposed to the Chief Veterinary Officer, to discuss practical rather than theoretical procedures?


Mr Cash: That is an important point. I went to Larne port yesterday with two our vets to meet those directly involved. We also visited the Belfast facility because it is important to understand movements precisely as well as the procedures and policies. My colleagues and I identified that and, as far as we can, we want to build that in by going top down as well as bottom up in the process.


Mr Ford: Can your inquiry recommend restrictions on free trade?


Mr Cash: Dr Westergaard may wish to comment on that. We must be mindful of the law in our recommendations and observations. I have spoken to Dr Westergaard about some of these matters, and there is an opportunity to apprise the Commission of the legal issues. We can flag up opportunities for changes and orders to be made and also for the Commission to learn from the epidemic. If the restrictions and constraints could be overcome, certain things could be done.


Dr Westergaard: That is correct. We have only a small problem here, but a purely scientific solution to prevent some things may encounter legal difficulties. In some cases bilateral agreement is possible. The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg have a bilateral agreement, and that usually makes it easier to move animals. However, that does not rule out other means - it depends on what one wants to do.


We can highlight certain points in the report, but the legal aspect of trade must be taken into account. We have also taken into account the fact that the legal text is prepared by human beings, and, if necessary, it can be changed.


Mr Dallat: You said that communication through public meetings will be important. Have any public meetings taken place?


Mr Cash: There have been two. There was a meeting in Ardboe on Wednesday night, and we were in Crossmaglen last night.


Mr Dallat: What response did you get from the public at the meeting in Ardboe?


Mr Cash: It was disappointing. To address that, we are going to Cushendall tonight. In addition, we will be talking to groups to augment what we learn from the public meetings. We have been disappointed in the attendance so far. We must promote our availability in those areas to get more people to participate.


Mr Dallat: I agree totally with you. I am sure that the review is costing quite a bit. Ardboe was one of the areas that was affected by foot-and-mouth disease. I am told that one person turned up for the public meeting there. That is bad. I am not qualified to pass judgement, but I knew nothing about the review until I heard you on the radio yesterday morning doing a thoroughly good promotional job. However, that was the day after Ardboe. I assume that someone is handling public relations for that - I do not know who is responsible, but they are not doing a very good job.


Mr Cash: We were disappointed as well. I can only confirm that we are endeavouring to ensure that we speak to the groups and organisations that want to talk to us. We will be able to apply several techniques, which, when brought together, will show that we have made every effort to speak to people and to listen to them.


Mr McHugh: It is always difficult to organise meetings, and at this time of year it is difficult for farmers to attend them. Fermanagh was not affected by foot-and-mouth disease, but it is a designated tourism area, and foot-and-mouth disease had a huge effect on activities such as rambling. There are many lessons to be learnt. I am sure that many people in those areas would like to make a contribution.


Veterinaries, for example, had a great deal to say about how they were treated and how the process was carried out in Britain. They were not allowed to be part of the inquiry. Perhaps they could give you written and oral evidence. They are from here, but they went to Britain to help.


I have a concern about the movement of epizootic animals. At present, there seems to be a great deal of movement between countries of small animals such as monkeys. Surely that poses a risk? According to Patricia Clarke's research, there seemed to be a problem with co-operation and flow of information between the authorities in the North and in the South. It was as if each was concerned only with protecting its own patch. Dr Stougaard spoke about luck. People talk about how well we coped with our situation, but luck played a major part. Had we been affected to the same extent as Britain, we would have suffered just as much.


Perhaps you could study our vision document, which is largely a post-foot-and-mouth disease document. Because of that, it has not been possible to establish a benchmark or to draw a line in the sand. Perhaps it may affect the free market in future and whether we should look at more localised markets so that there is no longer such a run of food from one end of the world to the other and less movement of live sheep. Perhaps that is a failure of the document.


Dr Westergaard: We know that animals such as elephants, deer and guinea pigs are susceptible to foot-and-mouth disease. The main risk is airborne, and it affects live domestic animals.


We must be careful about luggage that arrives from Africa and Asia. People travelling to Europe are treated differently from those travelling to America or Australia, where the authorities are much more careful. European Union legislation states that people are entitled to bring 1kg of meat into Europe. The European Commission is examining that legislation because we should be sure that people are not bringing diseases into Europe.


In some places studies have been carried out where every person arriving in the country has been checked. For example, when animals in the Dominican Republic had classical swine fever, the United States checked every person arriving in the country and found that between 1·8% and 2·1% of passengers had an agricultural product in his or her suitcase that was not allowed into the United States. Something must be done to improve the checks carried out in airports.


Mr Paisley Jnr: Thank you for your presentation. It has been helpful to look at this disease in a European context. However, when a country contracts such a disease, it does not take the attitude that at least its situation is not as bad as that in Denmark in 1986, for example. People view the situation in a relative rather than in a comparative way. You asked about prevention and what we should do if our animals contract the disease. Have you received any informative answers?


I should also like to explore the matter of vaccination, which has failed on previous occasions. Have there been significant improvements in vaccination technology so that it could be used to combat the disease in future? What is your view on how foot-and-mouth disease was handled in Northern Ireland? We did very well, as there were only four outbreaks. What were the weaknesses in our strategy and where were the Government and the Department successful in their approaches?


Mr Cash: Our work is still in the early stages, and we have not been able to meet everyone yet. We are still talking to veterinaries; we are also meeting veterinaries from the Republic of Ireland. Everything that we say must be considered in that context.


Dr Westergaard: I am sorry, but it is too early to provide answers; I should like to have solid information before I discuss the matter. However, I am happy to speak about vaccination technology. There are seven major strains of foot-and-mouth disease, among them O, A and C, SAT1 and SAT3. That means that more than one vaccine is needed. One needs a good stock to deal with all the strains. At present, the European Union has 36 million doses for 13 different strains, so there are some vaccines available in Europe.


Unfortunately, no major developments have been made in the past 10 to 15 years. That does not mean that the vaccine is not good enough. It is quite good, but a vaccination programme would require vaccinating animals under two years of age twice a year, and once a year after that. Protecting cattle would require a comprehensive vaccination programme. There is also the matter of vaccinating all susceptible animals - cattle, sheep and pigs. Pigs have a very short lifetime, so it would have to be quite a programme.


We should look for a vaccine that could cover all seven strains. That has yet to be developed and the timescale for that would be 10 years. There is nothing very new in vaccine technology.


Mr Douglas: It seems that there is a wealth of information and a good panel to deal with it.


Some people would have told the Committee that Northern Ireland is disease -free. However, that is not the case, and disease is at an unacceptable level. Foot-and-mouth disease is unacceptable at any level. The farming community, the Department and the wider community worked well together to defeat foot-and-mouth disease and to keep it out. The problem seems to be keeping the disease out, especially as it is airborne. I have always been concerned about illegal meat imports and illegal movement of cattle. It is well known that stock was moved into the country and that it was not going where it was supposed to go. I will say no more than that.


During the foot-and-mouth crisis, we, as elected representatives, encouraged people and the Department to stop the import of stock. However, that has come back to haunt us, because many people buy bulls in Perth and in other places and cannot now bring them into the country. Proper controls to deal with the illegal movement of stock are essential. That has caused the problems of brucellosis, tuberculosis and foot-and-mouth disease. We got off lightly in comparison with England and the devastation that its farmers and their families suffered. Some of them will never recover. We must never forget those who suffered - we do not want similar outbreaks here. The movement of stock and meat imports must be controlled. There is no point in the Department's coming down hard on people and forcing them to comply with regulations while illegal imports continue.


Mr Armstrong: The maxim "prevention is better than cure" applies to all spheres of life. One must take drastic action to stop a problem in its tracks immediately. That is what happened in Bulgaria. We do not want a dictatorial Government, but prompt action works well in all aspects of life.


I was interested to hear that only one person turned up for the meeting in Ardboe. I am from that general area, and I did not know that there was a meeting. How widely was it publicised?


Mr McDonagh: We thought that the publicity was good, but we are discovering that it was not good enough. I can give the Committee exact details of how we tried to publicise it. We put adverts in the 'Farming News', 'The Irish News' and the Saturday morning farming supplement in the 'News Letter'. We also went to each of the three outbreak areas with flyers, and posters were put in shop windows and post offices. We contacted the local group in Ardboe, led by Canon Moore. He told us that his hall would not be big enough to accommodate the numbers expected, so we moved to another hall. We thought that we had done a great deal to publicise the meeting and we were as surprised as anyone when only a small number of people turned up.


Mr Cash: We were disappointed.


Mr Armstrong: I was at Canon Moore's church on Sunday morning, and he did not mention the meeting. I was not aware of it at all, and I live within 10 km of Ardboe.


Mr McDonagh: The reason for holding public meetings was to get to those areas as quickly as possible to hear about the experiences of local people from the "horse's mouth", if that is not an inappropriate metaphor. As Mr Cash said, we will have to use other methods to get information. We plan to visit groups in those areas and hold meetings with them, and we have made several contacts in order to do that.


Mr Armstrong: May I be critical. If there had been a case of foot-and-mouth disease, your strategy would not have been successful.


Mr Cash: Because of communications?


Mr Armstrong: Yes.


Mr Kane: I am glad that the gentlemen attended this Committee meeting, as they have a task to perform. The Committee would be better placed to question the gentlemen after they have completed their investigations.


The Deputy Chairperson: You mentioned imports from Turkey; are they a possible source of foot-and-mouth disease?


Dr Westergaard: Yes. The disease is endemic in Turkey. We have identified two strains. It is clear that every time it appears in Greece, it has come from Turkey. There are many family relationships between the two countries and there is a large military presence on the border. The river near the border runs dry in the summer, enabling livestock to move back and forth. It is particularly prevalent in Evros in the north-east of the country. That is where it always starts.


One must be fair to the Turks, however. Those who travel to Europe are not interested in farming. They carry food in their suitcases, but they eat it in the towns where they stay. I would not, therefore, blame the man coming from Turkey to Germany with some foodstuff in his suitcase. Many have been picked up at Frankfurt Airport, but they have not brought the disease to Germany.


Deputy Chairperson: Gentlemen, thank you for your interesting and informative evidence. We wish you well in your research. Perhaps when you have finished, you will provide us with a copy of it.


Friday 22 March 2002

Members present:
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Dallat
Mr Douglas
Mr Ford
Mr Kane
Mr McHugh
Mr Paisley Jnr

Mr Stewart Johnston) Department of Agriculture
Dr George McIlroy) and Rural Development


The Deputy Chairperson: Gentlemen, you are welcome. At our last meeting with you on 30 November 2001, the Committee asked for an update on tuberculosis and brucellosis in February and March; that update is now available. It makes for worrying reading, as more than 260 herds are restricted because of brucellosis and 7,220 herds are restricted because of tuberculosis. The Committee was advised at the time that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's policy evaluations would be published in March 2002. The update says that the policy evaluations continue and that the target date for completion is the end of March.


I am sure that you are aware of the problems that face us, and I should advise you that at its meeting on 8 March the Committee agreed that the inquiry into foot-and-mouth disease should be extended to include other elements of animal disease prevention and control, including, brucellosis, tuberculosis and botulism. The extended terms of reference have yet to be finalised, but it has been agreed that this meeting should form part of the inquiry, and therefore it is being recorded. You will receive a transcript so that you can make corrections.


Mr Johnston: The Minister has provided the Committee with a report that sets out the position on tuberculosis and brucellosis. If I may I should like to reiterate the contents of the letter.


At the beginning of 2002, 189 herds were restricted because of brucellosis, but that figure has risen to 260; 99 are in the Newry divisional veterinary area, 66 in Armagh, 45 in Enniskillen, 19 in Dungannon, 10 in Coleraine, and there are single-figure numbers in the remaining divisional veterinary areas.


There were 50 reactors in October 2001, 82 in November, four in December and 44 in January 2002, which makes a total of 180. That compares to 26, eight, 107 and 22, or a total of 163 in the same four months of 2001.


Compensation and haulage costs for 2001-02 are expected to be approximately £7·5 million. That compares to £9·2 million in 2000-01, £6·7 million in 1999-2000, £3·7 million in 1998-99, £2·4 million in 1997-98 and £0·2 million in 1996-97. The trend is rising, and as the Department endeavours to clear the backlog of testing created by the foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks last year, it is expected that the figures will continue to rise.


The number of herds restricted because of tuberculosis is 7,220. Some did not contract the disease but were restricted because tests were not carried out in time. However, the Committee will wish to note that true levels will emerge only after the backlog of testing that resulted from foot-and-mouth disease has been reduced.


The tuberculosis-restricted herds, unlike those affected by brucellosis, are spread fairly evenly round the country; Dungannon and Newry areas have over 1,000 herds. The smallest numbers are 233 in Londonderry and 314 in Ballymena. The reactors for October, November and December 2001and January 2002 total 3,408, compared to 2,903 for the same period in the previous year.


Compensation, haulage and tuberculin costs for the current year are expected to reach approximately £8·6 million. That compares to £5·3 million, £4·9 million, £4·7 million, £4 million and £3·9 million in the previous five years.


Although both diseases are a source of concern to the Department, tuberculosis represents a longer-term problem and is being addressed in the policy evaluation, to which I shall return shortly. The more immediate problem is brucellosis, which spreads very quickly. It too is being addressed in the policy evaluation, but the Minister has taken steps to deal with the problem as best we can in the short term. Details were sent out in a press release of 13 March 2002, which was copied to the Committee with the Department's letter. The main point was that, among various animal diseases, the Minister attached the highest priority to the control of brucellosis and allocated additional Veterinary Service manpower accordingly. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has extended the brucellosis testing of bulk milk tanks to include all dairy herds every month and is extending its testing of over thirty month scheme cattle at slaughter. That will allow earlier identification of potential outbreaks. Both measures are a good means of allowing the Department to target its blood testing resources more effectively and to deploy them in the areas of greatest need.


Recently, there have been complaints about the backlog on farms of animals affected by brucellosis or tuberculosis. The backlog was caused by a combination of the effects of foot-and-mouth disease and the fact that only one abattoir was available to slaughter the animals. That problem has been resolved by the recent provision of a second abattoir, and we hope that the backlog has been cleared and will not recur.


As was stated at the Committee's November meeting, policy evaluations continue and the target completion date is 31 March 2002. The Minister will consider their findings and will consult the industry, the Agriculture Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, which also has an interest in these matters, on the way ahead.


The Deputy Chairperson: Paragraph nine of your report details the action taken by the Minister on brucellosis. Should further action be taken immediately on brucellosis and tuberculosis without awaiting the results of consultations?


Mr Johnston: Scope for us to do more is probably limited in the short term, given that the policy evaluation report is imminent. We hope that that will set out a package of very effective longer-term measures. We are doing everything possible in the short term.


Dr McIlroy: I agree. The key point is that we have been able to ease up people from other activities to give priority to brucellosis. It has always had priority, but past restrictions and shackles have been removed. That has been the most important change. Changes in the policy over the medium to long term will bring benefits, but the immediate action was to carry out as much testing as possible. Just before the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease we were probably on the point of controlling brucellosis. Unfortunately, because of foot-and-mouth disease and the measures taken to control it, brucellosis has - as we all feared - spread further.


The Deputy Chairperson: Do you have any evidence that imports of cattle into Northern Ireland increased the disease?


Dr McIlroy: No.


Mr Ford: The next time you send us statistics will you tell us the number of herds registered in each divisional veterinary office area so that we can study percentages rather than absolute figures. The difference between 99 in Newry and two in Ballymena is obvious; but it would help if we could study the tuberculosis statistics.


Mr Johnston: Would you like that information to be sent to you?


Mr Ford: That would be helpful. However, extensive testing must be done as quickly as possible. There is a limit to what the Committee can do to follow up on that. How quickly can you come back to us on the evaluations and on the Minister's consideration of them? How much more testing will have to be done so that we can have a more in-depth impression?


Mr Johnston: I shall deal with the question of handling policy evaluations. We are working flat out to complete that process by the end of this month. 31 March is a Sunday, and that poses logistical problems. After that, it will be considered by the departmental management board, and recommendations will be put to the Minister. That is unlikely to take much time, as the hard work will have been done by then. Tough decisions will have to be taken, however, about which options we recommend. Having said that, it will take a month or so for the Department to formulate a position.


Mr Ford: How much testing will have been done in those six to eight weeks?


Dr McIlroy: Are you looking for an absolute figure?


Mr Ford: No; I am looking for your best "guesstimate" as to how fast your staff and the private vets are getting on with the testing.


Dr McIlroy: We must separate tuberculosis from brucellosis, because our own staff do brucellosis testing. We are easing up as many staff as we can from other duties, and our staff have given brucellosis duties priority. It would be unwise of me to give you figures, but our intent is to get rid of all the at-risk herds as quickly as possible. We have been strategically targeting at-risk herds, because once brucellosis, as opposed to tuberculosis, has been introduced into an area it can be difficult to eradicate, especially in Northern Ireland.


Many areas where problems are greatest have out-farms. Husbandry conditions in Northern Ireland mean that the degree of exposure from a single case of brucellosis in Northern Ireland is much greater than it would be in England, Scotland or many other parts of the European Union. It is one of our greatest problems, and it means that we must test herds repeatedly, because the first test may not reveal infection. The second may give cause for concern and the third may confirm infection in contiguous herds.


The key to recovery will, therefore, be prioritisation, the unshackling of our staff and targeting of testing as opposed to the number of tests carried out. We will do as many as we can, but we will carry out the exercise as a risk assessment.


The Deputy Chairperson: Is the testing of bulk milk tanks steady or is it peaking? Is that an early indicator?


Dr McIlroy: It is. It is important, because we have expanded it to get as much strategic bleeding done as possible. Its usefulness is not restricted to areas of concern. We can get a monthly sample from any dairy herd in Northern Ireland to test every month.


Those tests may be less sensitive than the blood test, which is the most sensitive test, but anything that is triggered on the milk will be backed up by an immediate herd test. However, that enables us to screen all dairy herds monthly and therefore more frequently. Therefore if a dairy herd outside a high-risk disease area is infected with brucellosis, we can reach it much more quickly, which is important in brucellosis. It is a valuable tool. It also lets us study dairy herds that are not in high-risk areas and decide whether we should do the normal blood tests or continue targeting the high-risk herds around current breakdowns.


We have seen positive results from milk testing. I did a quick analysis and found that the numbers are small, but if we had stuck to our previous testing regime we would not have found the infection in those herds for some time. Rather than the overall numbers, which will become apparent, we now have a tool that will enable us to monitor all dairy herds in Northern Ireland quickly. Unfortunately, we cannot do that for suckler herds. Sometimes the blood tests give us a false positive, but at least we will have moved strategically and quickly. Our resources are limited, and I hope that more will be available to us, but we must be strategic and targeted to overcome our problems.


Mr Kane: Have the sensitivity and specificity of the tuberculosis test improved in the past 50 years? What is your graph from 1950 to 2002?


Dr McIlroy: The tuberculin that we use now is of the same potency as that which we used in the early days. One definition of the sensitivity and specificity of the test is that it remains at the same level. A veterinary officer or private veterinary practitioner carries out the test; therefore we look for differences in the recorded reaction between the bovine tuberculin and the avian tuberculin. Over the years we have moved to a more severe interpretation, which has been reflected in the proportion of lesioned animals. To ensure that we do not leave any infection behind we have moved the sensitivity and specificity of the test readings more towards picking up non-lesioned reactors. We must also ensure that we do not leave after a herd test for a particular type of animal with which we should have been concerned but were not because it fell outside the current reading. If anything, we are tightening the sensitivity of the test.


Mr Kane: How has your graph reacted since 1950? Is your graph high or low?


Dr McIlroy: The graph of the number of reactors is high.


Mr Kane: Is it higher than in the past?


Dr McIlroy: No; it has been higher, but I must look at the figures. Our testing programme will, as a result of the foot-and-mouth outbreak, show high figures, but we hope to reduce these. The recommendations and the results of the policy evaluations will have an impact because they are more medium to long-term on tuberculosis. We must take a more medium- to long-term road in Northern Ireland to make progress. I will await the policy evaluation recommendations for a longer-term impact and in the short-term on doing the testing that we did not do during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak.


Mr Kane: May Committee members have an up-to-date-graph of the situation.


Dr McIlroy: Yes.

(The Deputy Chairperson leaves and Mr Gardiner Kane is elected Acting Chairperson)


Mr Dallat: Does the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development believe that the huge sums that are paid in compensation year after year must come to an end? We must hear something more positive than "tightening up" or "easing up people from other responsibilites". I confess to being ignorant in the matter as I am not a farmer, but after payouts of more than £20 million in a few years there is a danger that the public will become less tolerant of the farming community - and that would be a disaster, as the farming community has its back to the wall.


Mr Johnston: The short answer is "Yes". Redirecting staff is only a short-term solution; it enables us to do what we can before we hear the outcome of the policy evaluation. The terms of reference of the relevant policy evaluation show that we are charged with considering alternatives to the present policy of slaughter and compensation for farmers whose herds are affected by tuberculosis or brucellosis. We are also charged with looking at scope for greater efficiency. All these things show that there is a desire to get to grips with the financial impact.


Clearly, the money that we spend - and it is increasing - is a matter of considerable concern. These measures are what we can do in the short term.


Mr Dallat: Has the Department finished its investigation into how brucellosis got into the research institute? How was that herd introduced without being tested? It wiped out the entire pedigree herd.


Mr Johnston: The Audit Office investigated that, and I must say that I have not been briefed on this other than as a bystander to events. The Audit Office carried out a scrutiny, and I believe that the Public Accounts Committee took an interest.


Mr Dallat: I understand that. However, the Audit Office can often only scratch the surface, and since that report was published information has become available to suggest that it would be well worth examing more closely how it happened and who was involved.


Mr Johnston: If we received such information we would take the matter further. It would be useful for us to have such information.


The Acting Chairperson: Perhaps the Member could supply the information.


Mr Dallat: Gladly.


Mr McHugh: Last week I mentioned to the Minister the target of 15 days to lift positive reactors. She assured us that these targets were being met and that they would not fail to be met in future. I realise that there are problems with getting enough people to clear the backlog.


More money seems to be paid out every year, and there must be change very soon. Of course, the matter of fraud has been widely discussed. If people have been deliberately introducing brucellosis into their farms, then it has been going on for a long time and not just in south Armagh, but all over. Does the Fermanagh figure include a recent bed-and-breakfast herd that contained several Fermanagh cattle?


Were those figures included in the Fermanagh figure or were they included in a figure for another area? Certain people in Fermanagh who had a bad history with the Department of Agriculture could move animals from Fermanagh to another area. Neither section of the Department seemed to know what the other was doing.


That happened without permits, and when I made investigations I found that there was some defensiveness in the Department. I also had difficulty getting in touch with people like you. If that can be done it does not matter what the reasons are or whether a farmer must move the herd because he has to protect his less-favoured area status - people must get fodder. However, if this £9·2 million is to be brought down people cannot move animals from Fermanagh across the Six Counties to bed-and-breakfast them. There may be good reasons, but I would be very suspicious.


I should like to see the matter thoroughly investigated. Is it more widespread than that? The Department does not know whether people are moving them without permits. However, those people know what they are doing. That is much more of a threat than people bringing animals in from England.


Many farmers from Armagh have phoned me to say that they could not get their points across to the Department. Is the Department working with people in that area to resolve their problems and to assure them that we are working on their behalf? We do not want to feel that we have no say at all; after all, this new dispensation is supposed to bring about change.


Mr Johnston: May I comment on Mr McHugh's point about bed-and-breakfasting and moving animals about. We try to steer a middle course between having decent controls and binding people hand and foot. Inevitably, it is a balancing act. Occasionally, we discover that we have perhaps erred on the wrong side. Having learnt that, the Department has adjusted its procedures accordingly.


Dr McIlroy: You mentioned fraud; if anyone is aware of fraud he should inform us of it, as all such allegations are thoroughly investigated. With regard to moving animals from Fermanagh, if the herd was not restricted and the movement was legal there is a limit to what we can do. Part of the policy evaluation will consider whether we should have more draconian legislation, but our people walk a fine line between disease control and people's legal right to move animals if we have no reason to prevent them from doing so.


The figures of the divisional veterinary offices will show infected animals in their areas. They might have originated somewhere else, but the figures will reflect the circumstances in the divisional veterinary office. That will not be in the Fermanagh figures but somewhere else such as Ballymena. I will try to find out what happened at the Armagh meeting and whether communication locally and centrally is sufficient to meet farmers' requirements. As a Department and as a Veterinary Service, our desire is to communicate with people and to get everyone on board.


Mr McHugh: Sometimes people think that I am making a political point when I talk about foot patrols walking through slurry fields. However, walking through fields - although one wonders why anyone would want to walk through a field full of slurry, given the bother afterwards - could spread brucellosis in a heavily infected area.


Mr Paisley Jnr: I understand why people would not want to walk through slurry-covered fields, even if there was no threat. The Minister answered questions about brucellosis on Tuesday 19 March. I presume that she got some of her information from Dr McIlroy, as he is an expert on the matter. She said that there is no sure evidence that those diseases can be deliberately introduced. However, for the past few weeks we have been bombarded with allegations that farmers have deliberately introduced disease. That is suspicion rather than fact. Can you clarify that? Some irresponsible comments have been made outside the Committee about the deliberate spread of disease when there is no evidence to prove it.


Dr McIlroy: That is a valid question. Historically, we have had several breakdowns where, for various reasons, we suspected that fraudulent activity and deliberate infection had taken place. That assumption was based on the examination of records, which showed that there was an increase in the number of animals imported just before an outbreak, for example. One may harbour suspicions, but finding the evidence to back them up is difficult. Taking someone to court without firm evidence is extremely difficult. Several investigations are ongoing, and we are using the most up-to-date techniques, including deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) fingerprinting to identify suspicious activity. However, it is extremely difficult, because we are dealing with an historical event. Deliberate infection is not so easy with brucellosis, but infected placenta mixed into silage will infect a herd - of that there is no doubt. However, proving that someone did that in the middle of the night is extremely difficult, unless he admits to it or unless a witness claims to have seen something suspicious.


The Committee should rest assured that we will pursue investigations and withhold compensation for as long as we legally can. The Minister is resolute that we will do all in our power to investigate suspicious cases. I would love to be able to prove one case because that would send out a message. Mr Paisley Jnr is right to say that we must be careful of what we say in public, because there is an impression that almost every brucellosis outbreak is caused by a farmer doing something wrong. That is not the case, and we have no evidence of that.


Mr Paisley Jnr: That is very helpful. One could easily deduce from Mr McAvoy's letter to the Committee, although it would be unfair to do so, that there is a geographic pattern to the spread of the disease. That could create an unfavourable impression of the people in those areas, especially as the allegations cannot be proved.


Dr McIlroy: I agree.


Mr Dallat: Are you satisfied that no statement or report prepared by the Public Accounts Committee distorted the truth in any way? There has been public criticism. It is important to clarify here and now that no distortion came from the Public Accounts Committee or from the Audit Office.


Dr McIlroy: I will have to investigate that statement.


Mr Johnston: The bottom line is that we have not read in detail what the Public Accounts Committee said, and we would have to examine the details. We have not been briefed, and we cannot answer that question directly.


The Acting Chairperson: Are you content, Mr Dallat, for the gentlemen to get back to you on that question?


Mr Dallat: It is very important that the matter be cleared up.


The Acting Chairperson: Will the witnesses send the Committee the information?


Dr McIlroy: I accept what Mr Johnston said, but we may not be the people to make such a statement.


Mr Johnston: The Department will make a statement.


Mr Douglas: I do not have any questions, as there is a review going on. However, I experienced the loss of a herd through brucellosis in the early 1970s. No one can gain anything by introducing brucellosis into his farm.


The Department dealt with everything fully because farmers felt under huge pressure to wash and clean for months. I hope that the Department keeps the matter to the fore in its review with the intention of resolving it.


Mr Armstrong: This may not be as relevant to you as I feel that it is to me. Does the term "restricted herds" refer only to herds with brucellosis? The chart states that there are 66 cases in Armagh and two in Ballymena, for example, and that the total number of affected herds is 260. Are those herds restricted or are they infected with brucellosis?


Dr McIlroy: Those herds are restricted because of brucellosis. Infection will be confirmed in most of them, but blood tests will clear other herds because they will fail to isolate the organism. However, the herds will have been restricted - [Interruption].


Mr Armstrong: Will the herds have been restricted because of brucellosis controls on them or because of controls on neighbouring herds?


Dr McIlroy: They will have been restricted because of brucellosis controls on them and certainly not because of controls on neighbouring herds.


Mr Armstrong: There are cases of brucellosis in almost 230 herds in four areas. Is that because administrative staff are not precise enough in applying hygiene standards or is it because vets in those areas do not ensure that they maintain a high enough standard of hygiene when they move between herds? Farmers must adhere to farm quality assurance criteria; are vets required to adhere to similar criteria? Do they do what is expected of them? Perhaps vets do not maintain high enough standards between cleansing a cow on one farm and calving a cow on another. Perhaps we should determine whether the hygiene standards of veterinary surgeons are above reproach. As the problem exists in particular areas, it may mean that the vets in those areas are not operating to the correct standard. However, I do not know; I am not pointing the finger.


The Acting Chairperson: You are trying to point the finger.


Dr McIlroy: It was not a finger - it was a fist. Mr Armstrong made a valid point. I am not here to defend my colleagues in private practice, but if a farmer is discontented - [Interruption].


Mr Armstrong: A farmer will not speak out. I assume that there is a code of practice for veterinary surgeons.


Dr McIlroy: There is a professional code, and I expect all my colleagues to adhere to it. I stress that if a farmer is not content with the standard being offered he or she should make that known. However, the spread of brucellosis from field to field and animal to animal has been a problem in Northern Ireland and in other countries because the foetuses and placentas, which cows often abort on fields, contain extremely high levels of the brucellosis organism.


I am not ducking the question. There is an obligation on all of us to ensure that our actions do not spread disease from farm to farm. However, the evidence suggests that the multiple interfaces between out-farms, which lead to an increased risk of multiple breakdowns through the type of husbandry practices that are used, are responsible for local spread. The Department's epidemiologists estimate that about 85% of the present breakdowns result from spread from initially infected herds. That is the problem. If there are malpractices I certainly condemn them.


Mr Armstrong: I know that the Department's inspectors monitor veterinary surgeons to ensure that, for example, tuberculosis tests are properly administered.


I do not know how you determine whether a vet is as careful as he is supposed to be while performing his duties on farms, because I believe that there can be some slackness.


Dr McIlroy: We will meet representatives to discuss many issues, and if Mr Armstrong wants me to add this to the agenda I am happy to do so.


Mr McHugh: People will focus on the amount of money being paid out. Has a high preponderance of pedigree herds been infected, as they cost more than the average herd? Some valuations of bulls by private valuers has been absurd.


Mr Johnston: We agree with that. The problem is that we are victims of our own systems. Until now, the systems have laid down a particular procedure that is binding on both parties. However, we are reconsidering valuations in the brucellosis and tuberculosis policy evaluation, which, to be frank, will remove the daft valuations that arrived in the past.


It is hard to estimate the number of pedigree herds, but it does not take many to raise the figures substantially.


The Acting Chairperson: I am led to believe that some reactors could be on a farm for 15 or 16 days before being picked up, which is bad. A reactor, after being priced, should be picked up as soon as possible. What is your response to that?


Dr McIlroy: We have set ourselves a target of 15 working days. If the reactors are isolated, and they should be as one of our requirements, I am content if they are removed within that period. This does not necessarily cause a problem, and the Department does not like to see reactors left on a farm any longer than that - especially if they have brucellosis. It is then that the opportunity for brucellosis to spread becomes greater, because these animals require husbandry while on the farm. The priority given to removing reactors has cleared the backlog that was due to foot-and-mouth disease and the resumption of testing. The anticipated large number of reactors trying to be squeezed through the bottleneck of a single abattoir, which was sufficient before, has been alleviated.


Fifteen days may seem a long time, but it is a realistic target. I should like to tell you that we are meeting the target, disputes about valuation aside. Indeed, we often exceed it, especially in brucellosis cases where we see multiple reactors. Ideally, they would disappear the next day, but a chain of events must occur. If we can maintain our targets on reactors, that component will not affect our control of the disease. We will have removed that from our concerns.


The Acting Chairman: We have gone into everything in depth, and I thank you for your attendance and for your information and answers. It is likely that the Committee will seek further information as it awaits the results of the policy review. The Committee will expect those results by the end of March.


Mr Johnston: Some choreography must be executed before then. More important than the reviews is the Minister's decision, and that will probably be more of a headline than the contents of the review. We will have something in the public domain within a month, depending on how long it takes people to study it and take decisions.


The Acting Chairperson: The Committee is content with that. We hope that you will update us every quarter.


Mr Armstrong: Armagh, Enniskillen, Newry and Dungannon have a high incidence of brucellosis; the same areas, including Omagh, also have a high incidence of tuberculosis. In those six areas there are 5,000 cases of tuberculosis and 230 cases of brucellosis. There must, therefore, be something in that area.


Dr McIlroy: They have traditionally been problem areas. There are certain husbandry practices in those areas that could contribute to the spread of disease, especially from cattle to cattle, from herd to herd, from out-farm to out-farm and from conacre to conacre. It is right that we examine any shadow, but someone might look at the figures and think that they reflect something that we do not consider important but would never condone. There are epidemiological reasons for the spread of these diseases. We will continue to challenge other areas.


Mr Johnston: As Mr Ford said, we must put the matter into perspective and consider the number of herds.


Mr Armstrong: Another factor is how many cattle are in a herd - there may be only 10.


The Acting Chairperson: Thank you, Gentlemen, for your informative and helpful evidence.

22 February 2002 / Menu / 3 May 2002 (part i)