Committee for Agriculture
and Rural Development
Friday 11 October 2002
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Inquiry into 2001 Outbreak
of Foot-and-Mouth Disease
(Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association)
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Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr P Doherty
Mr C Duffy )
Mr C Mathers ) Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association
Mr C Tweedie )
I welcome Mr Colin Duffy, Mr Cecil Mathers and Mr Campbell Tweedie from the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association. I apologise for the delay - as you know, there is a sword hanging over our heads, and we are trying to clear up as much business as possible. Do you wish to make an opening statement?
We have submitted two documents to the Committee, and we really have nothing new to add. We are happy to answer questions.
In our review and investigation of the outbreak, we have centred our attention on a possible contingency plan. Do you know of, or have you been consulted on, the preparation of such a plan that could immediately swing into action should another outbreak occur?
We are seriously alarmed, because we have received that reply from everyone. The United States of America is a vast country, yet it regularly updates its contingency plans and, every few years, puts them into gear and tries them out to ensure that the machine is well oiled. We have survived an outbreak. It could have been disastrous for us, but fortunately was not. We are separated from the rest of GB by a water boundary, and were largely able to seal the ports. We feel that the disease could have come from a few sheep that were brought into the country, but that matter is still under discussion. Have you not been approached by the Government or anybody else about a contingency plan that would list what you would be expected to do in an emergency?
We gave evidence to a committee, chaired by Michael McAree, of the steering group tasked by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to investigate the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. We made various recommendations, but we do not know whether they have been incorporated into an action plan because we are not aware of any action plan.
Since the outbreak, we have agreed on a protocol for bringing sheep from GB into the country for slaughter. The Department will put it in place and we will abide by it. However, we are not aware of a contingency plan.
Has that protocol been established?
Nothing has happened yet as regards the movement of animals, but it is there.
Do you think that there should be a contingency plan?
Most definitely. As you rightly pointed out, we are insulated by a water boundary. However, one or two of our companies were gravely affected by the outbreak, and we asked the Department to consider various protocols to ensure that our business could continue. Were a contingency plan to be prepared, we would like to be involved.
We in the meat industry are making our own contingency plans. Some of our members' businesses were more affected than others. A few years ago, the company that I used to represent, Dungannon Meats, decided to make Northern Ireland its headquarters for meat packing and built a state-of-the-art meat plant here. The plant became the centre of meat packing - people wanted to put it in England, but we decided to stay in Northern Ireland.
We were drawing a lot of raw material from plants in Northern Ireland, England and Wales, and we found that the source of our raw material dried up overnight as a result of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The decisions taken as a result of the outbreak were taken for good reasons, and we would never condemn the decision to stop meat being brought into the country.
During the outbreak, the company proposed many protocols that would have ensured that properly processed meat arrived here sealed for processing. We felt that the risk of so doing was small compared with the risk of introducing the disease by bringing animals in on lorries and buses. We put that case and found that, after a few months, there was no reaction to it. In fact, the Committee helped us to put that case to the Department.
Because we only stopped trading in lamb for a month, our market in Europe opened again, which was great for the farming community. In mainland UK, trading was stopped completely, and lambs were double the price in Northern Ireland that they were in England. That is good for the Northern Ireland farmer. However, we were supplying UK supermarkets, and they said that they could not pay double the price. PricewaterhouseCoopers was involved; it approved our figures.
As a company, we were losing £40,000 a week maintaining our lamb business. We had to decide whether to walk away or have the product packed in the UK. We carried out a lot of research in the UK, and within two months we bought a lamb packing plant in Wales, which stopped the drain. However, at that stage we had lost around £600,000 to £700,000.
Getting involved in Wales allowed us to see the reaction of the Welsh Agriculture and Rural Affairs Department towards its food industry, and we are now investing in Wales. We are building a new retail packing plant, and we have spent money on a lamb plant. Foot-and-mouth disease took away the possibility of us doing that in Northern Ireland, and we have to be based on the mainland in order to plan for the future.
We have made contingency plans, but they have not helped the economy of Northern Ireland. They were necessary to protect our business. If the disease happened again, and the supply stopped, we could not do it. We are processing 25,000 lambs a week in the UK, and most of them are brought here for packing and so on. It has had a negative economic spin-off for Northern Ireland; however, it was necessary for the survival of the company.
I understand that. However, we want to work hard on contingency plans.
Commissioner Byrne said that the European Commission's view is that emergency vaccinations should be moved to the forefront of the response mechanism in the event of a future outbreak, as we are now able to distinguish between vaccinated animals and those infected with the disease.
Additionally, the Office International des Epizooties (OIE) has adapted its code on foot-and-mouth disease to reflect that progress. The OIE has reduced the minimum waiting period for the restoration of infection-free status from 12 months to six months for countries that have vaccinated animals without subsequent slaughter. Do you advocate vaccination as a priority tool to control any future outbreaks, or should slaughter and disposal remain for now?
We have not seen the potential costs of vaccination. Mainland GB took the route of building pyres instead of vaccination. However, vaccinating animals will bring our white licence status as an exporter into question.
With regard to the initial question about having a proper contingency plan in place, bearing in mind what is happening South of the border, we should be able to control the movement of animals. We have a traceability system here, and it is second to none. If the ports are properly controlled and an animal's traceability is continuous, which will improve further under the animal and public health information system (APHIS), there is no need for a vaccination programme.
I commend the Department on its previous swift actions, and we have controls. Vaccination would be a bad move, and it would involve a lot of cost. It would damage our status as an exporting nation, and the public perception with regard to having infected cattle in a herd.
Slaughtering and burning in the open air, as we have seen, is no longer publicly acceptable. It creates a poor image of the entire industry.
The core of my question is that that is people's perception, and we must find another way of doing it.
Exactly. There are many pros and cons in relation to vaccination. I would come down on the side of not vaccinating; I would prefer that we put the contingency plan in place and control the system so that we do not get the disease. There is not only the cost of doing the job; there is a cost attached to our export status and the acceptability of the product.
We must find a way of removing the perception creating by the burning of animals. Under the new integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) legislation that will be introduced in 2004, the burning of animals will not be permissible. We have got to find another way, be it rendering or incineration in a properly built plant. The public face of dealing with the disease is no longer acceptable to anyone in the industry or outside it.
In relation to vaccination, prevention is always better than the cure. Cost is not the only factor, but probably more than half of the cattle that were burned were clear of the disease. That is, however, a risk that we cannot afford to take.
The point about vaccination is that you do not then know whether the disease was present or not.
I fear that if we go for vaccination the people who saw those great pyres will ask why the Government is now saying that it should have vaccinated. when it was so set against it previously. Why, then, did they allow such destruction of animals? I do not think that anyone would buy meat that was stamped as having been vaccinated. The stigma of the disease has been so accentuated by the sight of those pyres that people will not buy that meat.
There would be a problem with exporting that meat. The French vaccinate some of their own meat, but all it would take would be for the French, and those who enjoy eating frogs, to highlight the fact that the meat is vaccinated, and to say that it is not right.
Vaccination would have to be accepted Europe-wide before we could even think about it, because it would take away our export status completely.
That is correct. The stigma is then attached to various herds, and it is difficult to separate those herds out. It would be tremendously complicated. The sight of the fires had an impact, but everything got out of control. There was no humane means of disposing of those animals. The situation would be different here. It all about putting a contingency plan in place and controlling matters.
If there were another outbreak, how would we handle it? I hope that we would have learned from our mistakes the last time round, and that we would have a plan that would allow us to dispose of those animals, should that happen. It got out of control on the GB mainland, and perfectly healthy animals were slaughtered.
The crux of the matter is in the first question. It got out of control because the previous outbreak was so long ago that we got complacent. The protocol that was set in place was not repeated year by year. Now we seem to think that it will not happen again for another 30 years. We cannot afford to think that way. We must spend money on a major nationwide contingency plan. The lack of such a plan was the reason why things got out of control. The contingency plan of 30 years ago was not revisited annually, as happens in the United States.
They hoped that it would never have to be put to use.
It is like an insurance policy. You hope that you never live to draw it.
(The Deputy Chairperson in the Chair)
What is your opinion about farmers who lost their incomes as a result of the movement restrictions imposed during the foot-and-mouth crisis? Do you think that those farmers should receive compensation? They avoided violation of foot-and-mouth disease restrictions by not moving their stock; for example, cattle that were over 30 months old, and lambs that were overweight. I believe that farmers have lost out substantially. What are your views?
When a serious disease strikes suddenly, and decisions must be taken immediately to attempt to control its spread, no one escapes unhurt. I accept Mr Kane's point that farmers lost out through no fault of their own, or anybody else's, but by the decisions that were taken to deal with the outbreak. If, God forbid, Northern Ireland's livestock industry were hit by another disease, controls would have to be applied immediately in order to curb its spread. That would inevitably hurt somebody. However, I agree that farmers have lost out. Perhaps, with hindsight, they lost out unnecessarily. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
The Deputy Chairperson:
I want to welcome Mr Doherty to the Committee. I understand that this is his first meeting.
Mr P Doherty:
It is my second meeting.
I believe that you were on holiday the last time, Mr Deputy Chairperson.
The vaccinated products can be used. The consumer is not aware that vaccinated products can be used. It is important that the consumer be made aware that the disposal of animals affected other animals, not people. That was not made clear. There was nothing wrong with the product. Measures were taken to protect other animals. There was no threat to the public, whether animals were vaccinated or not.
Part of the contingency plan must be to make the consumer aware that measures are taken to protect animals. There is no danger to humans. We are all aware of the fears that people had - especially the Americans. Any contingency plan must ensure that the consumer has confidence in the product.
It was suggested that the disease had come from sheep in Scotland. That situation could be reversed. If the financial situation were different, the diseased sheep could come from the Irish Republic or another EU state. Finances dictate where animals are moved. That is an important point.
The plan must also ensure that less hurt is caused to farmers. Something must be done about the 30-month scheme. Many farmers had stock that was over 30 months of age that they could not move. They received only £300 or less for each animal. The implications of the scheme were never considered.
So that all forms part of a contingency plan, as you say.
That should all be considered in the contingency plan.
Undoubtedly, hindsight is a wonderful thing. However, lessons can be learnt. There are lessons to be learned about how animals were moved and how we could have coped better with marketing that. We have learned and have tried to pass that information on to the Department.
The Deputy Chairperson:
We have talked about looking back with the benefit of hindsight. Co-operation brings all the various stages, from farm to fork, together. Much confidence-building needs to be done. We can learn from each other's experiences. Consumers are the main focus; their confidence must be built so that they know that foods are safe to eat.
Communication was a critical element during the outbreak, and there has been criticism of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. For any future strategy to be effective, should it be on an all-island and east/west basis?
Yes, without doubt. In fairness to the Minister, she got involved with her Southern counterparts. If, God forbid, there were another outbreak, it would be an all-Ireland problem. There is not a big enough stretch of water between the North and the South to protect us. Whether we like it or not, animal movement will become an increasing feature.
A clear, open and quick line of communication should definitely be part of the contingency plan, whatever ruling parties exist North and South. If communication breaks down, time is critical. We have seen that before. In fairness to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, it was readily available to answer our sector's questions. It is sometimes hard for producers to get the information that they want immediately. That should definitely be considered as part of the contingency plan.
The Department called meetings on Saturday mornings.
The Department had various industry meetings on Saturdays and Wednesdays and emergency meetings when required. I must compliment the Department on that.
I was not suggesting that I agreed with the criticism, merely highlighting that it had been made.
I take every opportunity to remind people of the American system of online testing, where suspect animals are tested on the farm and the results come back via satellite within 90 minutes. I have mentioned that system many times. The testing system here means a three-day wait for results. People working in the food and health industries should consider that testing system, which should be slotted in to any future contingency plan. Imagine what knowing the result of a test in 90 minutes would mean. Had that system been in operation here, there would not have been the pyres that we saw during the outbreak.
Mr Dallat mentioned the all-island issue. The desired contingency plan should be an all-Department project within the Assembly. Should all stakeholders be involved?
I was told many years ago that a post-mortem does not bring back the dead; it helps the living live longer. We cannot do anything about the past. However, if we do not use the past to get the future right, the money that was spent on foot-and-mouth will have been wasted. Some people might think that spending millions on getting a good contingency plan is a waste of money, but it is like insurance - we must have it.
Every section of the industry must have a strong contingency plan. People are devising such plans in their own businesses. As a sector, we must spend a major amount of money on a very strong contingency plan, both here and the UK. All facts must be considered. There should a worldwide assessment, including what is happening in the United States and Argentina. Argentina has had foot-and-mouth disease for 30 years, but still exports beef all round the world. I do not know how that is possible. I am not saying that it is right or wrong. Time and money must be spent on a contingency plan, and we should not let lack of finance stop us.
I want to pick up on the point about the lab and tests by satellite, et cetera. There is only one lab in the whole of the British Isles, and it deals with diseases that can spread overnight and cause absolute mayhem. The fewer labs there are, the more you can contain the possible risk of diseases spreading. It may be that that is part of the contingency plan. Should there be a lab on the island of Ireland that can deal with that? I agree that there should only be one lab. The fewer labs there are, the better chance of containing things. However, a lab for the island of Ireland should be looked into.
The Deputy Chairperson:
That is food for thought.
The emergency services play a key role in controlling movement and roads, and that should be an important part of any contingency plan. It got a little confusing informing people of what was involved during the last outbreak.
We only got a taste of foot-and mouth disease in Northern Ireland, and it could have been much worse. The whole emotional aspect must be considered. My son is a vet and was involved in cases in the north of England, where he witnessed the emotions and traumas on the farms. We saw a little bit of that in Northern Ireland, but it did not really hit the community in the same way. When there are many cases of the disease, the entire society is involved in the emotion and trauma.
The Deputy Chairperson:
People's livelihoods that have been built up over the years are taken away in a few hours.
It is like a bereavement in the family.
The Deputy Chairperson:
The Committee has talked to various groups today, and the message that has come through is that we do not want foot-and-mouth disease to happen again. However, there are lessons to be learnt. Mr Tweedie said that it was like an insurance policy: we hope that it does not happen, but we must face up to reality.
I thank you all very much for coming. There may be some questions that have not been answered, and we will send them to you.