John Deasy: strong perception locally that he was poorly treated by Department
Speaking at last Thursday’s meeting of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, which discussed the Department’s handling of the 2002 mass destruction of pigs at the Ballinamuck farm of Tom Galvin, Secretary General Aidan O’Driscoll said they would not allow a similar situation to unfold again.
“There’s no doubt that that. There are many aspects of this that we wouldn’t handle the same way. If we did allow on-farm slaughter we would supervise the whole thing.”
Outlining the case history, he told how traces of Carbadox — banned in the EU in 1999 because of its carcinogenic properties but still legal in the United States — were found in a pig carcass traced to Mr Galvin’s farm, where officials later found several bags of the product.
Mr Galvin was convicted under animal remedy regulations but successfully appealed the verdict. The Department did not defend the appeal on the basis that the Supreme Court had decided that the Minister did not have the right to amend regulations.
Deputy Deasy, vice-chairman of the PAC, told the Secretary General: “When it comes to Tom Galvin, I have to say he’s someone who’s very well regarded and the feeling locally would be that the Department treated him poorly, and that’s my own subjective view having looked at the evidence.”
Deasy said he’d formed this opinion “regardless of the constraints Department officials might have been under when it comes to the rules and regulations in dealing with animals suspected of being diseased, or fed things allegedly that would affect the food chain adversely.”
Mr O’Driscoll, stressing “he’d no axe to grind” with Mr Galvin and “he could well be a fine person, as you’ve said”, explained why officials entered the farm and that the farmer admitted spreading the product on the floor of his pig pens.
“Once that admission was made, effectively the pigs had to be slaughtered,” he said. No further testing took place. Mr Deasy wondered why not, if only for clarity’s sake. Mr O’Driscoll acknowledged “there must have been a test we could have done, yes.”
The Fine Gael TD disagreed with his contention that “there would have been nothing served” by testing the pigs on the farm. If it had produced “incontrovertible evidence as to what might have gone into the food chain, I think it would have solved an awful lot of problems subsequently.”
Though accepting the Department has to act in cases involving threats to the food chain, “I think you made a mistake — and left a real grey area about the state of those pigs — by not going down that road [testing],” he said. Mr O’Driscoll agreed that this was a reasonable assessment.
The Department had told Mr Galvin to have the pigs destroyed in an approved plant as they must not enter the food chain. Instead, he asked to carrying out the slaughter on his property using a humane killer.
The Secretary General said the disposal of the carcasses was supervised by a Department official at all times. Around 25 percent of the slaughter was overseen by a veterinary official and it was done “meticulously”.
Mr O’Driscoll — who refuted an allegation that a Department official overseeing the slaughter had handed Mr Galvin a lump hammer and told him to finish the job — said he understood that about 10 animals were killed in this way before the vet intervened and took away the hammer.
Mr Deasy said that for the Department to admit it wouldn’t allow such a scenario to unfold again “is significant”. The fact that the Veterinary Council had exonerated the vets involved was “fair enough” but “that doesn’t mean that things that happened were done properly” or that this “should have occurred the way that it did.”
Mr O’Driscoll said: “You’re quite right — if we did this again I’m quite sure we wouldn’t do it in the same way and in the same circumstances. In particular, if we did allow on-farm slaughter by the farmer I think we would supervise the entire thing. Would we allow [it] at all? I don’t know, I’d be unwilling to say definitely not.”
Deputy Deasy said, “It amazes me that when it comes to the obvious, potentially devastating financial result that did occur that only 25% of the slaughter was actually supervised” — compounded by the fact that procedures didn’t change even after the alleged use of a lump hammer; which Mr O’Driscoll regarded as “a fair point”.
Having been “constructively made [to] slaughter those pigs himself,” he deemed it “understandable” why Mr Galvin asked permission to do so on his own farm, given that he’s gone to a couple of abattoirs who refused, presumably because they didn’t want any potentially contaminated pigs going into the foods chain. Plus, “it was probably the cheaper option at the time.”
Mr O’Driscoll had “no problem with that interpretation”. The only other option would have been to bring a professional slaughterman onto the farm, “and I think if we were doing it again that option would be quite a prominent one.”
In his opinion, “The key error we made was not having 100% supervision.” However, Mr Deasy maintained this was “not the only mistake really”. First off, when that singular pig was believed to have tested positive, the Department left Mr Galvin “remain in a state of limbo for three months.”
He couldn’t understand how, “if it was so crucial that those pigs were slaughtered, why did you wait three months? It seems to me it really was a haphazard approach by the Department.”
During that time, the pigs got sick, disease spread, medicines were taken away from the farmer, and he moved animals in that interim period; “probably because he needed cash to keep going.”
The Secretary General said because Mr Galvin contested the slaughter order in the High Court, which found against him, a lot of delay before the slaughter took place “related to those legal issues.”
Deputy Deasy also said Mr Galvin “would contend that the manner in which those pigs were slaughtered was not correct”. Mr O’Driscoll said the method the farmer had used was very widely applied in the UK during the swine fever outbreak two years previously.
Another option was the Department could have taken over the pigs and got them slaughtered — but the legal advice was that it would have ended up having to pay significant compensation. “Would that have been a better outcome?” the Secretary General asked. “Not for the taxpayer.”
But, Mr Deasy said, “You could certainly make the argument, for fairness sake, it might have been the best option.” He added that, notwithstanding the disease risks associated with the movement of animals and so on, “there’s also the question of treating somebody fairly, and when I look at this I think, actually, he was treated poorly”.
On account of a product that’s still not banned in the U.S. to this day, he’d been left out of pocket to the amount of €0.75m.
With a 2005 review of the case conducted without Mr Galvin’s input, and its findings still unpublished, Mr Deasy said: “I think your new steering group within the Department should take another look at this, for the sake of fairness to the individual in question who was put out of business... and at least offer him the opportunity, outside of an adversarial setting, to make his case.”
The Secretary General had “no difficulty with that” and said the best thing he could do was to refer the 2005 internal report to the steering group for its consideration, and also hand it over to the PAC. Mr Galvin could make a submission to the steering group, “if he wants to contest anything that’s in the report, or just present his own narrative.”