Ireland jails farmers using illegal growth promoters 42hy hy

Irish farmers who go for a quick buck by feeding illegal growth promoters to cattle are being jailed under a drive by the government to protect lucrative beef exports, which have been hit by BSE scares.

Four farmers and a vet are facing jail and more than 100 other cases are due before the courts. One judge told a farmer he was "worse than a terrorist'' while another likened a vet who admitted keeping illegal growth promoters to a drug dealer.

More cases are under investigation by teams of Department of Agriculture inspectors as Ireland seeks to defend its image as a producer of quality, grass-fed beef.

The prosecutions, delayed temporarily by a legal challenge brought by a meat company executive, are coming before courts across the country. Besides those jailed, others have received heavy fines.

Clenbuterol has been used for years by farmers in feedstuffs, often diluted in milk powder, to achieve higher earnings by raising the proportion of lean meat to fat in beef cattle.

First developed as a remedy for respiratory problems in horses, the drug can induce fatal heart attacks in humans if inhaled in concentrated form.

The harsh penalties appear to be working as a deterrent. Investigators say detected abuse on Ireland's 170,000 farms has fallen amid the publicity about recent court verdicts. Farmers caught using illegal drugs are also having EU bovine headage payments blocked.

The tough measures are being applied as Ireland seeks to recover from the damage to its huge meat trade inflicted by consumer alarm over BSE.

Ireland exports 87 per cent of its IRpounds 1.7bn beef output and is more dependent on the sector than any other European Union state. Dublin already faces a big bill for the border policing operation to prevent BSE-infected animals crossing the border from Northern Ireland. Under "Operation Matador" hundreds of extra gardai are operating border check-points to block illegal cattle movements.

Although infection levels are tiny by British standards, the 66 BSE cases detected in the Irish Republic in 1996 represent a big increase on the 16 in 1995.

Several farmers in the southern Munster region are being investigated amid suspicion that they deliberately introduced BSE-infected animals in order to claim market-value compensation for their entire herds.

To restore consumer confidence, Dublin has introduced a computerised cattle-tracing system which registers the movement of every beef animal in the 7-million-strong national herd.

This and re-introduction of EU intervention purchasing to assist farmers while demand for beef declines will cost Dublin an extra pounds 80m next year, according to official estimates.

A Food Safety Board with legal powers was recently created by the Department of Health, while the agriculture minister Ivan Yates has allocated IRpounds 5m for BSE research.

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