Irish investigate deliberate BSE infection cases

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Irish police are investigating the possibility that animals infected with BSE ("mad-cow" disease) have deliberately been introduced into herds so that lucrative compensation claims can be made.

It has emerged that two such inquiries are under way in the Munster region in the Irish Republic's southern region. In the first case, in Tipperary, agricultural inspectors noticed a discrepancy between the visible age of an infected animal and that indicated by its ear tag.

In the second, the source of three infected animals is to be investigated by police amid suspicions, following an inspector's inquiry, that they were also introduced deliberately.

BSE compensation in Ireland is paid according to the market value of the animals. Irish eradication policy requires that the entire herd be slaughtered if a single cow is found infected.

The latest report came as three new cases of BSE were confirmed this week on Irish farms, bringing the total recorded since 1989 to 156, of which 41 have been this year. With several payments pending, IRpounds 17m (pounds 17.7m) has been paid in compensation in the past seven years. Ireland has 7 million cattle, of which 3 million are dairy animals.

The incidence of the disease, though of concern to Dublin on health and economic grounds, given the country's dependence on beef export revenues, remains minute compared to that in Britain. Ireland is among the EU's largest beef exporters, with 87 per cent of its IRpounds 1.7bn output going abroad.

The Irish ban on importation of British cattle has been rigorously enforced in the wake of evidence indicating links between BSE and the CJD human brain disease. Police have been transferred to the border from other divisions and extra army patrols called in to search trucks.

The latest reported cases were in herds in Carlow, Donegal and Wexford, in animals aged between seven and 12 years.

The Irish Agriculture Minister, Ivan Yates, this week faced severe criticism from farming bodies and opposition parties for agreeing to the exclusion of the counties of Monaghan, Tipperary and Cork from a big beef supply contract with Russia.

This was at the insistence of Russian veterinary experts who visited Ireland before the contract was signed.

Mr Yates defended himself by saying that the alternative was to lose the entire contract, and warned that the Russians had initially pressed for more counties where BSE cases had appeared to be excluded. Mayo is the only county with no cases yet reported.

Opposition MPs argued that for the Irish government to agree to such limitations was a dangerous precedent and might be copied by other large- scale purchasers of Irish beef such as Iran and Egypt. Moscow newspapers questioned the Russian authorities' wisdom in buying beef from a country with even a small incidence of BSE, amid such headlines as "Mad beef for a mad country".

Wexford, with four reported cases, was the third-worst affected county but escaped the ban. Wexford is the Agriculture Minister's Dail constituency.

The Department of Agriculture in Dublin yesterday rejected opposition claims by Des O'Malley, a senior opposition politician, that slaughter of some infected herds had not been carried out. It said the herds being cited were those involved in special investigations into possible deliberate infection.