By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The increasing panic about BSE in Europe has sent cattle prices plummeting in Ireland, endangering the livelihoods of 100,000 farmers. The situation has worsened by the temporary closure of the Egyptian market to all European Union beef.
Egypt is Ireland’s largest market for beef exports, taking about 150,000 tons a year, or 300,000 cattle, worth almost £250 million.
The seriousness of the situation was underlined by a personal phone call from Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to President Hosni Mubarak to reassure him about the quality of Irish beef.
Concerned the temporary suspension might become an outright ban that could take up to a year to have lifted, a Department of Agriculture delegation immediately left for Cairo last week and Minister Joe Walsh is himself going there this week.
Cattle prices have dropped by about £150 and the Irish Farmers’ Association president, Tom Parlon, said the closure of Egypt would cause a major difficulty for his members in getting rid of stock.
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He is seeking the opening of a short-term system of intervention by Brussels to buy cattle until the situation improves and confidence is restored in Irish beef.
Parlon said that within three weeks the beef trade had been turned upside down and some cattle farmers faced being "wiped out."
He said "all hell" was breaking loose in EU countries that had previously insisted they hadn’t got the disease, but were now discovering indigenous cases.
The EU mad cow crisis comes as Irish figures for bovine spongiform encephalopathy reached record levels.
There were 25 cases detected in Ireland during November, the highest monthly tally ever. The previous highest monthly total had been 18 cases in November 1996, at the height of the scare in the UK.
This brings the total number of cases for the year to date to 129 out of a total cattle population of 7.5 million. It is also the first time the yearly tally has gone over 100.
The November cases were discovered on farms spread throughout 11 of the 26 counties. The infected animals were aged between 4 and 12 and the department described the underlying trend as "favorable."
"To date no animals born after 1996 have been detected with BSE and an ever increasing proportion of infected animals are 6 or older.
"The higher number of cases here this year was foreseen in the recent report of the EU’s Scientific Steering Committee.
"The report predicted a temporary increase in numbers for the next couple of years from animals infected before the additional measures introduced in 1996 and 1997 taking full effect," the department said.
The minister stressed the Egyptian ban was temporary and wasn’t a unilateral decision against Ireland.
"There is a problem in Europe and we are caught up in it. Nothing has changed in Ireland or with Irish beef," he said.
He said only prime beef was exported and none of the infected material got into the food chain.
"I would go so far as to say that there are no circumstances that infected BSE beef can get into the human food chain. It is so microscopically analyzed and the controls are so stringent, that it is the safest food you can possibly eat," the minister said.