Sunday 23 October 2016

BSE threat to Irish exports could cause havoc

Published 13/06/2015 | 02:30

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney

Franz Fischler was not prone to exaggeration. So his stark assessment of the beef industry in autumn 1997 was taken on board - and still stands as a revealing vignette of what BSE can do to what is arguably Ireland's only real indigenous industry.

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The then-EU Agriculture Commissioner , speaking in Brussels on September 25, 1997, warned that huge amounts of intervention beef would soon be stockpiled across Europe. Because of BSE, there were already 600,000 tonnes of unwanted beef in EU cold stores - the equivalent of two million animals, he said. The Austrian academic warned of a return to the dreaded food mountains of the 1970s and 1980s, which did so much to disrupt trade and discredit Europe and the food industry.

Spool on through the intervening 18 years to the reports of a suspected BSE case in Co Louth.

We can clearly state that anything less than 100pc perfect handling of this reported BSE case by the Government and the agriculture department could be ruinous.

The politics of it all are no less threatening. If the Government is not skilful in its management in the coming weeks, as an election draws ever closer, the fallout could put all other controversies to date in the halfpenny place.

The last BSE crisis was an Europe-wide affair. It was also a slow-burner which was little understood in the early stages in the mid-1980s, with sporadic crises and stand-offs during the term of Ireland's EU Farm Commissioner, Ray MacSharry, back in the early 1990s. In the mid-1990s all hell broke loose, and it fell to Ireland as holder of the rotating six-month EU presidency in the second half of 1996 to lead efforts to find a solution.

The agriculture minister was none other than Ivan Yates, now of this Irish Independent parish, who could rely on some of the best advisers in the agri-food business.

It has to be recalled that the government got very good cooperation from the Irish farm unions, notably John Donnelly, then newly elected as president of the Irish Farmers' Association. He defended his members' interests without ever resorting to cant.

But while the Irish authorities responded with ruthless efficiency, the big problem at the time was with Britain. A subsequent European Parliament inquiry showed that diminished health standards in Britain facilitated the spread of this little-understood problem.

The problems enmeshed with the British Conservative Party's huge divisions over the EU.

The result was that John Major's government had difficulty accepting guidance from Brussels or linking up with an EU-wide response.

Ireland's de facto land border with the British jurisdiction posed particular problems.

There were at the time some remarkable spin-offs, such as the relative ease with which Ulster unionist farmers made common cause with their counterparts south of the border.

There was also a cushion of EU-funded compensation to help the industry through its dark days. There have also been many scientific advances since then which have added to our knowledge of the problem.

But we begin and end with the risk to recent progress in selling Irish beef to a global market.

Irish Independent

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