Agriculture and Rural Development
Friday 3 May 2002
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Northern Ireland Scrapie Plan
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Paisley Jnr
Ms B Rodgers
Ms C McMaster ) Department of Agriculture & Rural Development
Dr G McIlroy )
The Minister of Agriculture & Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
I welcome the opportunity to give an update on the Northern Ireland scrapie plan. Scrapie is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) disease. It is a fatal brain disease that affects sheep and goats, which has been present in the United Kingdom and many other countries for well over 200 years. Scrapie mainly affects sheep between the ages of two and five, and it is not transmissible to humans. Although scrapie exists at relatively low levels in Northern Ireland - an average of three cases a year - it has the potential to affect a significant proportion of animals in a flock if they are genetically susceptible to it.
Through the North/South Ministerial Council, Joe Walsh and I have agreed that we will jointly tackle the eradication of scrapie from the island of Ireland. The proposed Northern Ireland scrapie plan is part of the joint approach with the Republic of Ireland. The Republic will also implement a recommendation from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC), the independent experts that advised the United Kingdom Government on TSE diseases such as scrapie and BSE. However, there should be a long-term control and eradication programme for scrapie.
A separate national scrapie plan has been introduced in Great Britain. The proposed Northern Ireland scrapie plan will pursue three main aims: to reduce the incidence of scrapie in sheep; to increase the genetic resistance of sheep to scrapie; and to eliminate scrapie from the Northern Ireland sheep flock.
The proposals are designed to take advantage of the low incidence of scrapie here. The Northern Ireland scrapie plan will consist of two main elements. First, a genotyping scheme targeted at pure-bred rams that will be similar to the ram genotyping scheme that has been introduced under the national scrapie plan in Great Britain. Secondly, an eradication scheme targeted at the 28 scrapie-affected flocks reported in Northern Ireland since scrapie became a notifiable disease in 1992 and at any newly reported flocks.
Initially, it is proposed that both schemes will be voluntary. The schemes will be based on the genotyping approach that involves testing a blood sample to look for certain genetic information, which determines whether a sheep may develop scrapie if exposed to the disease. Sheep with an undesirable genotype will be culled or castrated. Participating flock owners will be required to breed from and use scrapie-resistant sheep that will confer resistance to their offspring. Over time, that will have a significant impact on the incidence of disease in the flock.
In addition to the animal's current identification, an electronic identification device will identify sheep that have been tested under the Northern Ireland scrapie plan.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, like all Government Departments, is required to undertake an economic appraisal for all proposals involving expenditure or resources. Economic appraisal of the Northern Ireland scrapie plan proposals is nearing completion and will shortly be submitted to the Department of Finance and Personnel for approval. State aid approval is required for both schemes and state aid notifications have been made for each of the schemes separately and are being considered by the Commission.
Subject to Department of Finance and Personnel approval of the economic appraisal and the European Commission state aid approval, my Department proposes to fund all costs associated with registering and identifying animals, all costs associated with the genotype test, including blood sampling and laboratory analysis of the blood samples, and certification of animal tests. Under the genotyping scheme, flock owners will be responsible for the cost of slaughtering or castrating sheep of an undesirable genotype and for restocking the flock with resistant sheep. The exact number of sheep to be tested in a flock has not yet been decided, but a sample size of 40, similar to Great Britain, is proposed since it is known to provide a cost-effective visit.
My Department will fund all costs associated with registering, sampling and identifying animals, laboratory analysis of blood samples and the certification process, all costs associated with the slaughter and disposal of susceptible animals and lambs, and compensation for all animals slaughtered under the recommendations of the eradication scheme. There will be a maximum of two genotyping tests for each sheep purchased to replace those slaughtered. Under the eradication scheme, the flock owner will be responsible for the cost of restocking the flock with the resistant sheep.
Public consultation on the proposals ended in mid-January; 12 responses were received, and most of them were positive. We aim to launch the Northern Ireland scrapie plan this summer. However, the timing of the economic appraisal, the state aid applications and implementation practicalities may delay progress. We must wait for state aid approval from the European Commission before we can launch the programme, so the timetable is beyond our control. In the meantime, my officials and I are considering the most suitable steps to minimise delay, and I am to announce the decisions about the plan and the timescale for its launch as soon as they have been cleared.
The Deputy Chairperson:
How do you respond to allegations that the Department has lagged behind in the scrapie plan?
We have been accused of lagging behind, and Great Britain has gone ahead with its scheme before us. Our plans were derailed for some time because we had to divert our very scant resources to deal with the foot-and-mouth disease crisis, but we are doing what we can to make rapid progress. I know that the Great Britain plan was launched last July, but the genotyping testing did not get under way until October. Therefore the difference in our respective positions is not so great.
The Deputy Chairperson:
When do you hope to be up to speed with Great Britain?
By the summer, subject to state aid approval and the evaluation, which must go to the Department of Finance and Personnel.
Could the scrapie plan not be implemented regionally to include Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland? That would benefit everyone connected with the sheep industry.
There is more scrapie in Great Britain than there is on the island of Ireland. The island of Ireland has had very little evidence of scrapie; for Northern Ireland the figure is three cases a year, and roughly the same for the South. We are working on an all-island scrapie eradication plan; a working group is also active. We hope to have it in place by the end of the year. Great Britain seems to have a higher incidence of scrapie than we do.
Our scheme will be geared towards dealing with our problem. The problem in GB is much greater and is different to ours. There will be similar elements - for example, both schemes will be based on genotyping. In the South there will be some differences in the detail of the approach, but we are attempting to eradicate scrapie on the island of Ireland as part of the all-Ireland animal health policy. There are differences between the two islands.
This will not be acceptable to producers, given the fact that animals are imported into and exported from this country. Departmental officials would need to be on the ball at all times, both here and on the other side of the water.
First, if scrapie can be eradicated on the island of Ireland, the value of our animals will be enhanced. We are working on the problem of imports from GB in the context of an all-Ireland animal health policy. Those imports will be subject to similar rules as those going to other member states, including tests on scrapie. We will protect our flock from being infected. Animals exported from GB will have to be certified in the same way as if they were being imported to another member state.