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BSE crisis in 1990s caused havoc in industry


A scientist dissects brain parts, extracted from cowheads prior to BSE tests in in this 2000 photo.

A scientist dissects brain parts, extracted from cowheads prior to BSE tests in in this 2000 photo.

A scientist dissects brain parts, extracted from cowheads prior to BSE tests in in this 2000 photo.

It has taken the farming industry 16 long and costly years to get beef back on the menus in the US.

It is hard to quantify the exact cost of the BSE crisis in the 1990s, with economists reckoning in the early days that it could cost the Irish economy over a billion in then Irish punts. That figure now seems conservative, as at that point they could hardly have forecast that almost two decades later the ripples would still be felt.

At the time it caused havoc through the farming industry, with prices for cows taking a severe knock, some slaughtering plants closing and people turning off beef.

The first confirmed case in cattle in the UK was recorded in 1986. But Britain's BSE crisis went on to become Ireland's beef crisis. Three years later, it was first discovered in Ireland.

Ireland began culling herds, with 152 herds including over 22,400 animals killed at a cost to the State of €23.8m by 1996.

Experts agreed that it was most likely spread by cattle eating feed that contained contaminated meat and bone meal, and a ban on meat and bone meal was introduced.

Then a further blow was dealt with beef consumption sliding further with the suggestion in 1996 that a link between BSE and vCJD, which was impacting people, could not be ruled out.

Ireland again moved to significantly strengthen its rules in 1996.

In the 1990s many export markets imposed restrictions, with some closing off access altogether for beef originating in the EU, when BSE was also discovered in Germany and Spain in 2000.

Between 1989 and 2004 there were 1,483 BSE cases confirmed in Ireland. Around 579 were identified in 2001 and 2002, as the State began a large-scale active surveillance testing of cattle that died on farms.

Industry has pointed to how well the protocols to eradicate BSE have been working with cases continuing to fall steeply from the 333 in 2002.

Figures show that 2014 was the first year in which the State has been totally free of BSE since the in outbreak began. There was one confirmed case in 2013, while there were three cases in both 2012 and 2011.


However, the industry has been working painstakingly hard to recoup those losses. And the latest case comes as Irish exporters finally cement a foothold in the US market, and with the resumption of trade to China due to begin.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney was yesterday swift to point out it was an "isolated" case, rather than an outbreak. "It has been the view of most people that the problem of BSE was over for Irish agriculture," he said.

It may impact on the announcement of Ireland moving towards a risk-free status but the calls have been made to reassure our new US and Chinese markets.

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