Address by Tim O´Malley T.D., Minister of State with Responsibility for Food Safety to Mid-Western Regional Zoonosis Committee Conference on Foodborne Zoonosis

Ladies and Gentlemen

While the term is not widely used the concept of zoonotic diseases is firmly established in the public mind. BSE is the example that springs most readily to mind but salmonellosis and E. coli 0157 have also contributed to a public awareness of these diseases and to a concern for the safety of food. The recent outbreak of avian ´flu and the resulting press coverage illustrate just how concerned people are about the transmission of diseases from animals to humans through the food chain. While the World Health Organisation, the European Food Safety Authority and national food safety authorities were very quick to make clear that there was little risk of transmission through food. There was an extraordinary amount of media interest in the story. This centred on the possibility, no matter how remote or theoretical, of transmission to humans and it ensured that the avian ´flu story remained newsworthy.

The lesson is clear: given the high profile and potential costs of zoonotic diseases it is absolutely critical that outbreaks be responded to rapidly and effectively.

The publication last week of The Report on Zoonosis in Ireland 2000 and 2001 is an important development in the management and control of zoonotic diseases. The report, a collaboration between the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the National Disease Surveillance Centre, and the Department of Agriculture and Food, is the first of its kind in this country. I am sure that this and future reports will prove a great help to you and the other Regional Zoonosis Committees.

I am pleased to note in the Report that there was a decrease in the occurrences of some zoonotic diseases between 2000 and 2001. A particular success was the marked decline in the occurrence of Salmonella. However, the increase in cases of E. coli 0157 in 2001 is a disappointment. Moreover the preliminary figures for 2002 indicate that this worrying trend is continuing.

The successful control of some zoonotic diseases reflected in the Report cannot be attributed to any single factor. Instead a combination of factors can be credited with producing this successful outcome. These include the launch of the FSAI/Board Bia Egg Quality Assurance Scheme, enhanced surveillance by the National Disease Surveillance Centre, the food control activities of official agencies, and awareness and acceptance by industry that food safety is a vital ingredient for a successful business. To this list I would also add the establishment of Regional Zoonosis Committees.

The causes of foodborne zoonotic diseases are dynamic and complex. Multi-disciplinary approaches are the fast way to tackle the issue locally and regionally. The Regional Committees bring together groups of professionals who have a role in the prevention and control of zoonotic diseases. The Committees act as a platform for sharing experiences, circulating scientific advice and building partnership.

The range of specialisations and competencies gathered here is truly impressive. Today, in this room, we have representatives from the various professions, from other regional zoonosis committees, the National Disease Surveillance Centre and SafeFood. The composition of the Zoonosis Committee reflects the complexity of the problem and shows the commitment of the agencies to respond in a co-ordinated and co-operative manner. Since the Committees were established in 2001 awareness of zoonosis among the various professions has increased. We have also seen the benefits of enhanced co-operation when outbreaks occur.

Another welcome development is the coming into force of the Infectious Diseases Regulations last January. The Regulations update the list of infectious diseases for immediate preliminary notification. The list now includes most zoonotic diseases. Unusual clusters or a changing pattern of illness that may be of public health concern must also be reported. These changes will enhance the surveillance capability of the National Disease Surveillance Centre and will have a positive impact on efforts to control zoonotic diseases.

This is not just a national issue. Foodborne zoonosis also has an important international dimension. Outbreaks can be difficult to control because infected food from a single source can cause illness in many people over a wide geographical area. For example, an outbreak of E. coli 0157 in Dublin last year caused illness in travellers who had returned home to the United Kingdom and the United States. I therefore welcome plans to establish a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control which will come into operation in 2005. The centre will initially focus on the surveillance and control of communicable diseases and outbreaks of diseases of unknown origin.

While we are making progress and have had some success, the nature of zoonotic diseases means we cannot become complacent. New threats emerge and existing organisms evolve. The Regional Committees have proved themselves to be a very effective way in helping practitioners keep abreast of developments and maintaining contact with colleagues in other disciplines. Events such as today´s conference are an important part of this process. The informal contact and exchange of information that occurs at these events is every bit as important as the formal programme.

I would like to thank the Mid-Western Regional Zoonosis Committee for the invitation to address today’s conference. As Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Food Safety I am always pleased to be associated with occasions such as this. I would like to welcome the three guest speakers to today´s conference. I hope you all have a very productive and successful conference.