Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for
Agriculture and Rural Development

Friday 3 May 2002


Animal Diseases

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

Ms Brid Rodgers ) Minister of Agriculture
and Rural Development

Dr George McIlroy ) Departmental Official

The Deputy Chairperson: I welcome Dr George McIlroy, an official from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, to the meeting. If any Member wants to declare an interest in this matter, please do so.

Mr Kane: I declare an interest.

The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers): The Committee wrote to me on 22 April hinting at how it proposed to pursue the various strands of its inquiry into animal health, and asking for certain memoranda and updates. I have replied to that letter supplying the memoranda and information sought.

However, in essence the policy evaluations of tuberculosis (TB) and brucellosis have been delayed due to the complexities of certain issues involved. Officials felt that it was preferable to have a delay and research those issues properly, rather than to complete the reviews on time without full information. That said, the brucellosis review team produced a draft report on 19 April, which is currently being considered by senior officials of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and officials elsewhere. I will consider the final report before presenting it to the Assembly. I hope to have that completed by the summer, although some parts of the process are beyond my control.

I recently announced interim measures as it became clear that the disease had been increasing and spreading. These measures included allocating additional manpower and treating brucellosis as the highest priority, thereby maximising the use of our resources, as well as putting greater effort into brucellosis hot spots. In addition, steps to increase reactor removal times have been taken. More valuation officers have been recruited and an additional slaughter plant has been brought online.

Turning to our action on the conclusions of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), the Department has drawn up a programme of publicity to be delivered over the coming year. The programme includes an advertisement in the spring issue of 'Northern Ireland Veterinary Today', monthly advertisements in the farming and local press, a web site bulletin board, which is to be launched in May, advertisements in agricultural show and breed society catalogues, individual letters to herd owners, and posters and leaflets.

My statement of 12 March outlined the importance of the disease and called on the farming community to play its part. The Department is currently investigating one failure to report an abortion, with a view to prosecution. However, obtaining sufficient evidence in such cases is extremely difficult. My Department endeavours to ensure that all valuers on the approved list are independent, and this includes the appointment of valuers from Great Britain. At present, the Department is challenging the independence of a valuer in court. The North/South working group on brucellosis is enhancing co-operation and communication to establish, where appropriate, equivalent actions to deal with brucellosis and to ensure appropriate measures to help control the disease, particularly in border areas. The group's most recent meeting was on 24 April 2002.

I recognise that botulism in cattle has increased over the past four years. Veterinary Science Division has been working actively to determine the causes of the disease, and has been advising farmers affected. Meetings have also been held with the poultry industry, since circumstantial evidence suggests that outbreaks may be linked to poultry waste. Advice has been given to farmers affected, and there has been publicity on the issue through articles in veterinary publications and the Department's beef bulletin, which is circulated to 1,500 beef farmers. There have also been radio interviews by the Chief Veterinary Officer and Dr Séamus Kennedy of the Veterinary Science Division. The Veterinary Science Division has been working closely with the Food Standards Agency when cases have been identified, and steps have been taken to ensure that no beef or milk from affected herds have reached the food chain. This is a purely precautionary measure, as the strains of botulism identified in cattle do not affect humans and there is no perceived human health risk. The Department has taken steps to make vaccine readily available to farmers who require it. I assure the Committee that the Department is working with farmers and others to ensure that outbreaks are kept to a minimum and that all necessary steps are taken when outbreaks occur.

The Deputy Chairperson: I thank the Minister for her report. I would like to turn to the fourth term of reference in the Committee's inquiry. The Committee wishes to follow up on the Department's response to the recent PAC report on the brucellosis outbreak at the institute. Your letter of 3 May states that the Chairman's letter was unclear about what the Committee wants to do. You also referred to the Department of Finance and Personnel memorandum, which records the present situation and was presented to the Assembly on 29 March.

It is unfortunate that you think the Chairman's letter to be unclear, and I will clarify this for the record. The Committee considered the Department of Finance and Personnel memorandum, which gives your Department's responses to the PAC report. When we were formulating our terms of reference, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development made several commitments in the memorandum. The Committee chose several of these on which to check the Department's actions against those commitments. The letter says that the Committee's request for a progress report on the months from January to March is impossible given that the Department of Finance and Personnel memorandum was only presented at the end of March.

At first glance that may seem true. However, the report from the PAC was launched on 29 January, and referred to a much earlier Audit Office report. Members want to know whether the Department started any of the promised actions as soon as they were considered to be necessary. The reply suggests that it did not. The Committee must know where it stands. In one of its commitments, the Department outlined its proposed publicity campaign for disease prevention. One action was due to take place in March 2002, which was to be an advertisement in 'Northern Ireland Veterinary Today'. Was that done, and has the Department received any feedback?

Ms Rodgers: All the actions have been started, and advertisements were placed in the spring edition of 'Northern Ireland Veterinary Today'.

The Deputy Chairperson: The Department also said that it was committed to taking a test case against a farmer or vet for non-reporting of abortions. That may have got under way in the period from January to March. Has the Department made any progress on that report?

Ms Rodgers: That is the case I referred to in my initial remarks. The Department has made progress.

The Deputy Chairperson: In another commitment to the PAC, the Department said that it would monitor the outcomes of cases in which farmers appeal against a compensation valuation, and that it would investigate any significant differences between the original and the revised valuation. That procedure would have been put in place early, and the Committee has considered the records for the period from January to March. Are there any statistics on the monitoring of the investigation?

Ms Rodgers: The Department is monitoring the cases, and is investigating some discrepancies. I cannot provide statistics now, but I will write to the Committee.

Mr Paisley Jnr: A scam is suspected with regard to brucellosis claims, but there is no evidence. As Dr McIlroy said at the Committee's last meeting, it is difficult to get such evidence. Has the Department successfully litigated any cases?

Ms Rodgers: There is a certain amount of suspicion, and it is difficult to find evidence. One case is being followed up, but it has not been finalised in the courts. There has not been any successful litigation yet. However, as part of the Department's attempts to cut out any possibility of fraud and to save the public purse - something that the Committee is anxious that it does - it is following up any suspicious cases. It is not always easy to find evidence, and the Department must ensure that it gives regard to people's rights.

Mr Paisley Jnr: I do not want to prejudice the Department's actions in the case that you mentioned. However, in your statement you said that one case the Department is pursuing concerns a dispute over valuation, which is very different to a dispute over whether there has been deliberate introduction of a disease.

Ms Rodgers: A dispute over valuation is part of that case. It is a complex case, and as it is a matter for the courts, I cannot go into it now.

Mr Paisley Jnr: What is the Department's assessment of the status of botulism in Northern Ireland? Is it increasing? Has it stopped spreading, or is it infecting other areas? What problems would arise if botulism vaccinations were introduced? Would it be prudish for a farmer to export vaccinated cattle, or would he be unable to export vaccinated cattle? If there is a botulism scare in the US, a taskforce examines ways of minimising the spread of the disease. Have you looked at the US system?

Ms Rodgers: There is no problem with exports - it is not like foot-and-mouth disease. We have worked hard to ensure that farmers can access vaccines. There was a problem obtaining the vaccine from Australia, but we have successfully made it available. Northern Ireland is the only region in GB where farmers can immediately access the vaccine.

Botulism is more prevalent during the grazing season. Veterinary Services Division has been, and is dealing with, botulism as a matter of urgency since it became more prevalent, and has looked at 42 or 43 cases. Botulism is not contagious or infectious, but is contracted through ingestion. There is a strong indication that it is caused by poultry litter. In all but two cases that we have looked at, there is a clear association with poultry litter, although it has not been proven. The vaccine has been made available, and we will continue to monitor the situation.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Is the disease slowing down?

Dr McIlroy: That is very difficult to assess at this time of the year because most outbreaks traditionally occur during the grazing season. We await the end of the grazing season to see if it is less prevalent than last year. As the Minister said, it is hoped that the vaccine will lead to a decrease, but it is early days.

Mr Bradley: Mr Paisley Jnr mentioned the US system. I attended a conference in America in March, and learned about the early response team headed up by Prof Roger Breeze. He told the conference that the early response team could immediately dispatch scientists - and even less qualified personnel - to a farm where botulism is suspected. A test is taken and sent online to the lab, and results are available within 90 minutes. I have been in touch with Dr McCracken's Department about that. Would a similar scheme be beneficial to farmers here?

Ms Rodgers: Is that in relation to all diseases, not just botulism?

Mr Bradley: Yes. It could apply to botulism and foot-and-mouth disease.

Ms Rodgers: It would certainly be very useful to have a fast response and result. We are looking at the American system. We received a letter from the Committee about it.

The Deputy Chairperson: I thank you, Minister, and your Department for the progress made on this disease. You are at the forefront in tackling many issues on botulism. Several months ago there was a long waiting list for the vaccine, but you have taken steps to make it available

Mr Douglas: Evidence suggests that the spreading of poultry litter on the land causes botulism. Has the Department advised poultry producers about good farm practice, as other producers are being asked to do? Several individuals complained to me that, although they have no poultry, their neighbours' poultry has spread the disease. Some form of good farm practice might be a step in the right direction to prevent the disease spreading further.

Ms Rodgers: Meetings have taken place with the poultry producers and the poultry industry to alert them to the need to take precautions, and the dangers of spreading poultry litter. That is part of our campaign to deal with the botulism outbreak.

Mr Dallat: Reference has been made to the PAC report, and your Department's response to that has been very open and forthright. Your Department has totally accepted the recommendations in an unprecedented way, and I commend your Department for that. Are you satisfied that there is nothing in the report that is unfair to your Department or the farming community? When the PAC report on brucellosis was publicised there was criticism that it was unfair to the farming community.

Ms Rodgers: Are you are talking about the Hillsborough outbreak?

Mr Dallat: I am not referring specifically to the Hillsborough outbreak, but the allegations that animals were deliberately affected, and so on.

Ms Rodgers: The Department has responded to all the aspects of the report. I am reluctant to comment on whether it was fair or not. We can only respond to any report on the basis of our responsibilities. It is a technical report, and we have responded and taken action.

Mr Dallat: There was criticism that the report was unfair to the farming community, which was a serious allegation.

Ms Rodgers: Who made those criticisms?

Mr Dallat: Mr Ian Paisley Jnr made them. Are you satisfied that the report was in no way unfair to the farming community?

Ms Rodgers: I do not believe that it was unfair to the farming community. A report is about looking at the issues and facts and reporting in order to have improvements or issues dealt with. To imply that the report was unfair might, unfortunately, be begging the question. We could have said that it was unfair to us, but we accepted the criticisms and dealt with them.

Mr Dallat: The Department has accepted all the recommendations in an unprecedented way, and is to be commended for that. However, there is still the issue of whether the report was unfair to the farming community.

Ms Rodgers: I do not believe that it was.

Mr Dallat: That is the answer I needed.

Mr Paisley Jnr: Farmers would be the best people to judge whether it was unfair to them or not.

Mr Dallat: I have just one more question, if Mr Paisley Jnr would allow me to finish? [Interruption].

Mr Paisley Jnr: Keep digging John.

Mr Dallat: Mr Deputy Chairperson, I ask you to have that remark withdrawn?

The Deputy Chairperson: Go ahead with your question.

Mr Dallat: Thank you. The Minister's support for an all-island animal health programme is now borne out. The North/South Ministerial Council is meeting in October. Will there be specific recommendations about how to approach brucellosis on an all-island basis?

Ms Rodgers.One of the working groups on the North/South Ministerial Council is looking at brucellosis and TB. I expect that there would be specific recommendations as to how we can jointly work in border areas. I hope to have the all-island animal health strategy completed by the end of this year, and the approach to brucellosis would be part of that.

Mr Kane: Do researchers in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development have data available to demonstrate how long poultry manure should be composted prior to other farm animals coming into contact with it? Has the Department information that would lead it to believe that certain poultry houses have become contaminated by spoors of clostridium botolinum, resulting in recurrence of infection in successive crops of birds passing through the house or unit? Has the Department a policy to investigate the possibility that poultry feed may be the source of clostridium botolinum? Can you provide the Committee with figures to compare the incidence of brucellosis in the Republic of Ireland with that in Northern Ireland?

Ms Rodgers: I have already stated that some association between poultry litter and botulism has been indicated. I do not have exact figures for brucellosis, but it has been on the decrease in the Republic and on the increase in Northern Ireland. I have asked my Chief Veterinary Officer to deal with this as a priority, and some measures have been taken ahead of the policy review.

Mr Kane: Could those figures be supplied?

Ms Rodgers: Yes. I can let you have those figures

Dr McIlroy: With regard to the ensilage of poultry litter, I am undecided as to the time at which there would be no danger from botuline toxin, but I will search for references. The toxin itself is reasonably stable. Therefore, advice that there should be no possible contact with such material is safer than any quantitative assessment of a dramatic reduction in risk over time. Furthermore, in scientific terms, cattle are exquisitely sensitive to botuline toxin; therefore, even small amounts of residual toxin could cause a problem.

With regard to the possibility of clostridium botulinum being brought in by feed, the organism is potentially ubiquitous. It is normally resident in the intestines of poultry, and the toxin is produced only under certain conditions in a dead animal.

The Deputy Chairperson: The Minister attended a conference at Loughry Agricultural College last year, which I also attended. My sole purpose for attending was to discover what happens to poultry waste. I asked the speaker at the conference what happened in America, and the answer shocked me. He had been there for fifteen years and in that time the poultry houses had never been cleaned out. There is a different method of agitating the waste.

Ms Rodgers: According to Dr McIlroy there are different problems in America.

Mr McHugh: Year on year, the litter is allowed to compact or compress. The method of controlling the spread and use of it is different. Spreading by air might have something to do with it; and perhaps people do not want to deal with that. What effect or impact had the earlier use of antibiotics in controlling botulism at source? In many instances, birds kept in large numbers are fed antibiotics to keep disease down. Perhaps the increase in botulism is related to the decrease in the use of antibiotics.

Also, I previously raised questions on brucellosis and the new term "bed and breakfasting" - for example, where animals from Fermanagh are moved to Bessbrook. Evidence and suspicion have been discussed here, and the Department is perhaps defensive, but if all the sums add up there is perhaps a reason for that defence. Farmers may have to move animals for fodder, but some animals should be kept in their own area for other reasons. If brucellosis and tuberculosis are to be eradicated or defeated, we cannot afford to allow farmers to move animals without the Department knowing what is happening. We need to know the history of the farms, and that each farm is clear. There should be no movement without permits, as happened previously.

Ms Rodgers: I will answer the last part of your question and Dr McIlroy will deal with the issue of antibiotics and poultry. Are you talking about out-farms?

Mr McHugh: No. I am referring to a farm that is taken on for winter keep.

Ms Rodgers: Are you talking about a farm that uses land on both sides of the border?

Mr McHugh: No, it is within the North.

Ms Rodgers: Restrictions on animal movement would not apply in that instance, because the movements occur on an out-farm of the same farm.

Mr McHugh: I am not talking about an out-farm. I am talking about animals that have been moved to a farm belonging to another farmer who is leasing his land for winter keep.

Ms Rodgers: The animals are moving in to mix with his animals.

Mr McHugh: That is correct. Other animals may be there as well.

Ms Rodgers: We will be looking at that as part of the policy review.

Mr McHugh: Can you see the danger?

Ms Rodgers: Yes. You have raised this before, and we will look at that as part of the policy review. Moving animals from an infected herd could cause problems.

Dr McIlroy: Epidemiologists have suggested that one of the reasons for the increase in the number of cases of botulism may be the decreasing use of antibiotics in the poultry industry. That is part of the current investigation by the Department's Veterinary Science Division.

Mr Bradley: I am aware of a large closed suckler herd, whose owner was able to take land in conacre 12 miles from the closed herd. He was able to move his cattle into that area, with the result that surrounding farms have been closed because of the spread of TB.

Ms Rodgers: All of that will be taken into account in the policy review. Those are the type of issues we must look at.

Mr Armstrong: We have heard much about TB in the south of England. Has the Department had any contact with veterinary sources there to determine why that disease has become so rife? With the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic being so long, can we learn anything from their experience?

Ms Rodgers: We are talking to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) about that issue.

Mr Armstrong: They did not have that problem in the past, and it has become rife now. We are all in favour of disease prevention. That is the best way forward, along with promoting good farming practice. Can we link all those elements together?

Ms Rodgers: Departmental officials are talking to DEFRA about their experiences as part of the policy review, as well as the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in the South. That will enable us to learn from their bad experiences and use their best practice.

Mr Armstrong: We will be able to share our experiences.

Ms Rodgers: Indeed. However, we must share our best experiences, not our bad ones.

The Deputy Chairperson: My main concern is that the farming community will be blamed for something that is not their responsibility. During last week's Question Time in the Assembly, a reference was made to the spreading of slurry into waterways. I wanted to interject, but I did not get the opportunity. I read in the newspapers this week that the cheapest way to dispose of sludge is on grassland. I would like the Department to take a firm line on that because this is how botulism and disease can be spread. I also read in a paper from Europe that it is the cheapest way of disposing of sludge. Sludge is becoming a major problem in Northern Ireland. Another Department is involved, and if we are talking about joined-up government I hope your Department will take a firm line on it.

Ms Rodgers: The review groups are looking at disease prevention, and they would also have a view on that.

The Deputy Chairperson: If you do not have a copy of the paper, I will send you one.

Ms Rodgers: That would be useful.

The Deputy Chairperson: When the Department's officials met the Committee on 22 March they expected the Department to take about a month to formulate its position after the results of the review were available. At that time there was no mention of the Department of Finance and Personnel's involvement. Why is that Department involved, and is it aware of the urgency surrounding these important policy issues?

Ms Rodgers: Again, it was probably a case of a breakdown in communications. The same thing happened in fisheries, when people presumed that others would be aware of what is happening. However, anything with resource implications must automatically go to DFP. That Department is aware of the urgency, and I will remind the Minister of Finance and Personnel that it is an urgent matter.

The Deputy Chairperson: When reactors to brucellosis and TB are found on farms, can the process of removing the animals be speeded up because it is causing a lot of concern?

Ms Rodgers: We have taken measures to speed it up. I was aware of the problem, and we have dealt with the backlog. One of the problems was that we did not have enough assessors, but we now have additional assessors, which has speeded up the process. We also have an additional rendering plant to take the animals, and that has helped considerably. We have dealt with the serious backlog. I am not sure that we can speed it up any more, as the animals have to be assessed.

The Deputy Chairperson: The Department is acting on one breakdown in a large area, which had other farmers concerned. Perhaps it was a lack of communication, but the Department has assured me that the animals will be removed today. That will be welcome news to neighbouring farmers because they do not want to find themselves in a similar situation.

Mr Dallat: Is the Department aware of the problem of smell on poultry farms following the reduction in the use of antibiotics? Following the EU Directive to reduce antibiotics, the other end of the production line is causing a pong. Secondly, is the Department aware that there may be a problem with the disposal of feathers from factories?

Ms Rodgers: There is an EU Directive that states that feathers cannot be used in feed, so there may be a disposal problem, as the feathers have to be dumped in landfill sites.

Mr Dallat: There is a further problem with landfill sites. Farmers were being refused access to dump feathers because they raise the level of leachates.

Ms Rodgers: The Department has not been approached about that, so you are ahead of the game, Mr Dallat. The EU Directive prevents farmers from putting feathers in feed.

Mr Dallat: There have been some worrying reports about feathers being buried, which may start to boil up. I do not want to cause any unnecessary scares, but there are problems.

Ms Rodgers: That would be a matter for the Department of the Environment.

Mr Armstrong: Dairy farmers are facing decreasing profits, and many are establishing boiler houses. Given the problems associated with chicken houses, are those farmers aware of the problems that they may bring to their farms? Many farms in my area are going in that direction.

Ms Rodgers: The Department's vets have informed the farming community, poultry producers and poultry organisations of the possible dangers.

Mr Armstrong: These farmers may be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. They want more profit but they get more disease on their farms.

Mr Deputy Chairperson: Farmers will learn the hard way. If I kept cattle near a poultry house, I would ensure that they were vaccinated.

Ms Rodgers: That is the Department's advice.

3 May 2002 (part i) / Menu / 3 May 2002 (part iii)