Concern expressed at high level of BSE found by testing older cattle

January 6, 2002 The Irish Times by Sean MacConnell
Concern over the high level of BSE-infected animals detected in meat plants by the routine testing of animals over 30 months old was expressed yesterday as the largest annual number of cases recorded since 1989 was announced by the Department of Agriculture.

The total for the year rose to 258 compared to 149 the year before but it also emerged that 34 of these were detected in factories in animals over 30 months, destined for human consumption. The Irish-developed ENFER test was introduced in meat plants here on January 2nd, 2001 to allay consumer fears following the BSE scare on the continent.

Yesterday a Department of Agriculture spokesman pointed out that even if these animals had slipped through the net and had been processed for human consumption, all the specified risk material, i.e., the tissue in which the disease resides, would have been removed. However, Fine Gael's spokesman on Agriculture, Mr Alan Dukes, described the number of animals turning up at meat plants as "very worrying" and said he was not happy with the Government's handling of the issue.

"I know that increased testing will bring forward more cases but I am not satisfied at all that we know enough about this disease or its vector," he said.

Mr Dukes called on the Government to ask the Expert Veterinary Committee to look at the systems and checks which were currently in place to try and discover why the numbers appeared to continue to rise.

The Labour Party spokesperson on food safety, Dr Mary Upton, said she was concerned at the high level of cases which had been found at the meat factories and said it raised the question about what had been happening before the test was introduced last January. "We cannot continue to live our lives in cheerful ignorance. However, I do not want to be alarmist either but I do repeat what I said early last year that we should be putting facilities in place to support people who may have contracted CJD here in the period from 1989 to 1996," she said. "I am reasonably happy with the controls in place now but I have a concern about what has happened historically," she said.

She said that if there were any cases of vCJD (the human form of the disease here), they would not be diagnosed until the middle of this decade.

"It would be ironic if we resolved the BSE problem in the national herd at the same time as we discover we have a problem with CJD in our human population," she said.

The rise in the number of cases of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) this year was directly related to the increased levels of testing for the disease, the Department of Agriculture said. According to the Department's spokesman, the additional testing being carried out, mainly in knackeries, where diseased and ill animals are slaughtered and rendered into meat and bone meal, has mainly been responsible for the rise. The spokesman said that had the additional testing not been introduced, the number of cases found by so called passive surveillance, i.e., reported by farmers and vets, the annual total for 2001 would have been lower. "What is happening now is that since January last year we have been actively seeking out cases in the 43 knackeries which deal with casualty and sick animals and routinely testing all animals over 30 months old going into the food chain at the meat factories," he said.

He estimated that had these systems not been put in place, there would have been 138 recorded cases, a lower figure than reported last year. "The experience here has been the same as in other countries like Switzerland which began active surveillance some years ago and instantly increased its annual BSE rate by over one-third," he said. He revealed that in the meat plants 639,000 tests had been carried out in the past 12 months on animals aged over 30 months and this had uncovered 34 positive results.

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