Just when it was thought to be safe to open the doors of Fortress Ireland again, the latest outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England means the farming industry is thrown into turmoil again. The only consolation is that the precautionary measures such as banning the movement of livestock; banning the import of certain animal products and putting disinfectant mats back at airports and ports throughout the island will be easy to implement again.
More worrying, and much harder to police, is the tracking of livestock which may have come into both parts of Ireland from the UK after the lifting of the previously imposed restrictions four days ago. Just how many animals were brought in and where they are now is a logistical nightmare for agricultural authorities on both sides of the border. But any imports must be traced to ensure that Irish beef maintains its disease free reputation.
Another question which is puzzling the authorities is how the new outbreak of the disease occurred. It is, apparently, the same strain as last month's outbreak but was only detected well after the normal incubation period of two to 14 days. There has been some criticism of the Westminster Environment Secretary Hilary Benn for being too quick to declare Britain free of the disease, but, given the time since the last outbreak, it was a logical and understandable statement.
While the general public will see the latest crisis as an issue only for the farming community, that is far from the case. Of course, farmers will be worst hit immediately. The ban on the movement of animals means a serious cash flow problem for farmers as they will find their markets for the animals restricted. Although the EC is more willing than in the past to accept that Irish beef is distinct from British beef, will overseas consumers take the same attitude or will they, once again, ban Irish exports from the dinner table?
As we know from the bitter experience of the last widespread outbreak of foot and mouth several years ago, once markets are lost it takes a long time to rebuild consumer confidence. The irony is that countries abroad, like Brazil, whose animal health record is nowhere near as good as that in the UK, will step in to fill any voids and consumers will pay little heed.
This time restrictions on the movement of livestock and animal products are likely to be kept in place for longer to ensure that the disease does not spread and that any new outbreaks are detected. That, inevitably, will mean a shortage of home produced products on the supermarket shelves and a problem for consumers who value the quality of British and Irish beef. There is also the question of inoculation of herds, a hugely expensive option but one which must now be considered.