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According to a leading international food safety expert, the reputation of Ireland’s valuable agri-food sector could be jeopardized because the rules on the sale of veterinary medicines are not enforced.
Prof. Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queens University in Belfast, issued the warning after nearly a dozen veterinary practices in the north stated that a number of outlets were selling potent and controlled drugs over the counter without clinical monitoring of animals for which they are delivered.
In one case, the footage, which was secured by Prime Time and was filmed secretly, shows two men buying veterinary drugs over the counter, although their farms or animals were not known to the practice that sold the drugs.
One of the products sold was a “critically important, high priority antibiotic” which veterinarians have called a “last resort”.
Such a transaction violates the regulations of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).
The RCVS says that a veterinarian “must first conduct a clinical assessment of the animal under their care” and should “periodically conduct appropriate site visits”.
Prof. Elliott told Prime Time that the footage was “totally shocking” and “totally inappropriate”.
He warned that if the drugs were given by farmers who do not understand the effects of using these antibiotics, the likelihood of residues entering the food chain would be much higher.
“When antibiotics are given to farm animals, there needs to be a period of time for them to get into their system, do the job, and then be removed from the system,” he told Prime Time.
“We call it the cooling off period. Veterinarians will be very, very clear about this cooling off period.”
Authorities have worked hard to reduce the use of antibiotics in animals as antibiotic resistance has become one of the most difficult human and animal health challenges in recent years.
There is concern that if animal antibiotics are used improperly, residues could enter the food chain.
While food manufacturers are actively monitoring animal products for traces, concerns are growing that pharmaceuticals from outside the jurisdiction are being used on Irish farms.
The head of Veterinary Ireland said certain cohorts of farmers here bypass veterinarians to purchase veterinary medicines.
“There is obviously a supply, especially for larger industries, and some of our colleagues have complained to us about it over the years,” said Conor Geraghty, a Galway-based veterinarian.
Around 90% of the food produced in Ireland is exported
“Our role as vets means we can only introduce them to regulators and try to manage them that way,” he said.
He says money matters: “When you can buy veterinary medicines in bulk and get them cheaper in another jurisdiction, the temptation to do so is.”
“And if you have practices that do not obey the rules and are willing to do so, then it creates an economic advantage for them to get their inputs at a cheaper price.”
Mr Geraghty said the real extent of the problem was not known.
While he said the Department of Agriculture wants to expose the problem, the practice is a concern for Ireland’s reputation as an exporter.
“We export 90% of our food. We are very proud of the agro-food industry and as veterinarians anything that has the potential to cause reputational damage is not good,” he said.
The Irish agri-food sector is worth more than EUR 14 billion. The company employs over 164,000 people, often in locations outside major urban centers, making it an important industry.
Around 90% of the food produced here is exported. As an industry, safe food standards are critical to industry confidence.
Prof. Chris Elliott warns that failure by authorities in the North and South to address the issue could seriously damage the agri-food sector.
“We sell the food made on our island for its quality and safety. That’s our reputation,” he said.
“Reputations are very, very hard to win and very easy to lose. And that is exactly what we are in danger now, because these reports will hit the markets around the world where we are trying to sell our projects.”
The problem is a big problem for veterinarians in the north and south, the vast majority of whom are running their businesses properly and complying with strict antibiotic regulations.
Andy Mayne, who runs a veterinary practice in Newtownards, said poor enforcement was a big problem.
“The reason is because the regulators who are supposed to be overseeing us are not enforcing the rules,” he said.
“I mean, the rules are very clear, you know, that should just be prescribing medication to animals under your care. It’s the regulators who should regulate it.”
Anyone who expresses concern about what has been revealed says the same thing: the bulk of farmers and veterinarians are overboard and take their responsibilities seriously.
However, Prof. Elliott is aware of the concerns that both consumers and international buyers of Irish food may have.
“The concern is that this is just the tip of the iceberg? Or are there other people who are doing this? And it will cast doubt on many people, so we need a full and thorough investigation.” he said.
Prime Time has confirmed that the Department of Health in Northern Ireland has opened an investigation. In a statement, the department said it did not comment on the investigation.