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Friday, 9 February, 2001, 15:04 GMT
BSE 'more widespread' in NI

New test enabled vets to get a wider picture of the problem
A new mass cattle screening programme for BSE has uncovered a much higher level than had been thought to exist in Northern Ireland.

Department of Agriculture vets have detected 54 cases out of 2,500 animals tested on farms for the brain-wasting disease.

Last year there were 22 reported cases in Northern Ireland.

The previous year, when experts had thought the epidemic was coming to an end in the province, there were just six cases.

The vets were using a new type of test which allowed them to test large numbers of animals.

Cattle, which were identified as being high risk, because they were showing signs of becoming sick, were tested on farms.


Brid Rodgers announced the findings on Friday
A animal which was developing BSE, might typically have had a fall and broken a leg, for example.

The tests found that the infected animals were older. They could have been fed mammalian meat and bonemeal in their younger life, before the ban on this kind of feed.

Younger cattle were found to be clear.

However, officials from Northern Ireland's agriculture department have had to inform the EU in Brussels that the province has many more cases of BSE than was previously thought.

Northern Ireland agriculture minister Brid Rodgers has said that the discovery should not give rise to new consumer concerns, as the animals were not destined for the food chain.

However, she said farmers and the local meat industry would be disappointed.

Findings

Meanwhile, Douglas Rowe of the Ulster Farmers' Union said: "It is a bit of a setback but it's not a serious setback.

"We expected figures with these new tests that more BSE cases would appear.

"Let's not forget, these are all older animals, older animals that would never have been going to the food chain."

In the UK, more than 170,000 cattle have been diagnosed with BSE, compared to around 1,400 in other European countries such as France, Ireland, Portugal and Germany.

But the Northern Ireland agriculture department had been pushing for the relaxation of beef export restrictions for the province, because it was believed to have "low incidence" status within the UK.

The findings are likely to undermine farmers' hopes of a relaxation of beef export restrictions.

Concern about imports of European beef into Northern Ireland has been growing as more information is known about the scale of BSE incidence, particularly in Germany.

This increased following the discovery of consignments of German beef imported into the province which appeared to breach safety standards because it still had spinal cord attached.

Government response

The discovery of more BSE cases in Northern Ireland has been made public on the day the UK government has admitted that there was a lack of openness in its dealing with the public over the possible risks of BSE.

In its first formal response to Lord Phillips' report into the crisis, it says that public confidence in food safety has plummeted in the wake of the BSE scandal and only drastic steps can restore it.

The 102-page response sets out plans to change the "culture of secrecy in Whitehall" and to rebuild faith in food safety.

Lord Phillips
Lord Phillips: Ministers failed to gauge the BSE threat
It also confirms that no serving officials are to face disciplinary action over their handling of the BSE crisis.

Lord Phillips' 17-volume report, published last October, criticised ministers and civil servants for failing to be open about the possibility of BSE spreading to humans.

The government says major moves are being made to ensure lessons are learnt from the scandal, but accepts that further training is needed and that changes in behaviour among civil servants are still required.

More than 94 families in the UK have been affected by variant CJD, the human form of mad cow disease, and the government has agreed interim compensation for them.

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See also:

30 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
More checks after beef seizure
08 Feb 01 | Northern Ireland
Concern over imported German cattle
05 Jan 01 | Europe
Europe's growing concern
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