‘No human risk’ from suspected BSE case

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney TD, promoting Irish beef in the USA.
Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney TD, promoting Irish beef in the USA.

A suspected case of BSE has been found on a Republic of Ireland farm for the first time since 2013, potentially hitting big international beef deals secured in the south last year.

Southern Department of Agriculture chiefs said a five-year-old dairy cow died on a farm in Co Louth but it did not enter the food chain and was not sent to a slaughter house.

Tests on the carcass to determine whether there is any trace of the disease will take one week.

Officials warned that if, as expected, BSE is confirmed it may impact on the south’s beef and dairy industry recently being awarded the status of “negligible risk” and being downgraded to “controlled risk” by the World Organisation for Animal Health.

No cases of BSE have been reported in the south since 2013 when only one was confirmed. There have not been more than 10 cases in one year since 2008.

In the last year, the Republic was the first EU country to regain access to the US beef market and to have the beef ban lifted in China. It is not clear how this case will hit the international trade deals.

The southern Department of Agriculture said officials were notifying national and international reference organisations and the European Commission.

Republic of Ireland Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney said he was hopeful the big international beef trade deals would not be at risk.

“There is absolutely no human risk here. This is an animal health issue,” he told RTE.

“Of course it’s important because of the reputational issue of the historic BSE problem that Ireland has dealt with in the past and the view among most people that BSE was a problem that was over for Irish agriculture.”

The minister said it was an isolated case in a rare breed. He said tests would be done on other cows which may have shared the same feed as the dead cow and tracing will be done to establish if the animal had calves and they will be tested and possibly destroyed.

Agriculture officials in the south have been contacting counterparts in countries where the big trade deals have been signed in the last 18 months, including the US, China and Japan.

Mr Coveney revealed the Republic of Ireland only secured the “negligible risk” status on its beef and dairy herds last week but that the big trade deals were agreed when the Republic of Ireland still had “controlled risk” status.

“I’d be hopeful that actually people would see this as proof of a very robust testing system in Ireland,” he said.

Reports on BSE cases in the south show in 2013 there was one case, three in 2011 and 2012, two in 2010, nine in 2009 and 23 in 2008.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland said: “This case demonstrates that the BSE control measures in place are effective. This animal did not enter the food chain and therefore does not pose a public health risk,” it said in a statement.

Eddie Downey, president of the Irish Farmers’ Association, reiterated the official position that the discovery highlighted effective monitoring and controls in Ireland.

A random case is not unusual in the context of the robust control systems we have in place for all diseases, he said.

The disease was first diagnosed in cows in the Republic in 1989. BSE is more commonly referred to as mad cow disease and a link between it and the degenerative variant CJD was accepted in 2001 by the World Organisation for Animal Health.

It is believed to have spread into cattle herds via animal feed containing infected material, possibly offal that included brain or nervous system tissue from animals that died with the disease.

It is a fatal progressive neurodegenerative disease which can be transferred from animals to humans.

The south took many precautions to protect its multibillion beef export trade in the 1990s including banning all meat and bonemeal products from the animal feed chain.