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Call for action over poultry litter as cases of botulism in livestock on rise

By Noel McAdam

Published 01/11/2016

Ulster Unionist Harold McKee
Ulster Unionist Harold McKee

The public has nothing to fear despite an increase in the number of cases of botulism in cattle to almost 200 over the last five years, an MLA has said.

But Ulster Unionist Harold McKee added that the figures underline the continuing failure of Stormont ministers to find a permanent solution to the problem of poultry litter.

Botulism is contracted when livestock comes into contact with bacteria commonly found in decaying organic matter, including animal and bird carcasses. Investigations have shown strong circumstantial evidence that broiler litter is a risk factor in many outbreaks.

Mr McKee said the figures given by DUP Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen would surprise many "but more alarming is the rate at which detections are increasing".

He said: "In 2011 there were 10 confirmed cases; 16 in 2012; 40 in 2013; 39 in 2014, and then a disturbing jump to 81 in 2015."

The UUP agriculture spokesman added: "I suspect the failure of the Executive and consecutive Agriculture Ministers to find a lasting solution to the problem of poultry litter may unfortunately be a key contributor to the increase in the number of confirmed cases.

"The Northern Ireland poultry industry is crucially important to the local agri-food sector and the wider local economy. Over recent years it has experienced major growth, now employing many thousands of people and acting as a key source of additional farm income for many hundreds of local farmers.

"It has been well-known that Northern Ireland faces a challenge of what to do with the significant quantity of poultry litter it is generating, as spreading most of it on farmland land is no longer viable.

"A previous proposal, which would have seen a plant at Glenavy convert 220,000 tonnes of poultry litter to electricity, ultimately was rejected and the Executive has been frustratingly slow to come up with any major alternatives.

"It is essential that Minister McIllveen now recognises the importance of finding a permanent solution.

"Until she does, the local poultry industry here will never be able to achieve its full growth potential and we may continue to see an increase in the cases of botulism."

An Ulster Farmers Union report said that the risk from poultry litter was extremely low and that the vast majority of growers were acting responsibly.

It cited three main reasons for the increase - a change in the tests which has doubled the number of cases confirmed as positive, a greater awareness among farmers, and, possibly, the increased use of poultry litter for fertiliser.

South Down MLA Mr McKee added: "I would reassure the public that they have nothing to fear, as the UK Food Standards Agency's advisory committee on the microbiological safety of food has concluded that the risks posed to the human food chain by outbreaks of botulism in cattle associated with broiler litter are very low.

"Botulism is, however, usually fatal in livestock and as a result causes major economic hardship to farmers, as they lose valuable animals."

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