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Gozitan sheep reprieved, but minister defends cull

The Veterinary Department has been stopped from culling 300 unregistered sheep.

The Veterinary Department has been stopped from culling 300 unregistered sheep.

A Gozitan court has upheld an injunction it had issued preventing the Veterinary Department from culling 300 unregistered sheep belonging to two farmers, The Times has learnt.

However Resources Minister George Pullicino yesterday defended the cull, saying in reply to a parliamentary question that it was justified to safeguard public health.

Magistrate Josette Demicoli threw out the department’s request for her original decision to be revoked, saying nothing had changed since she had issued an injunction to prevent further culling.

The department filed an urgent request a fortnight ago asking for the injunction to be revoked. It requested the court’s permission to go ahead and cull the remainder of a 500-strong flock belonging to farmers Gianni Attard and Emmanuel Vella.

It argued that any animal not registered with the department was automatically presumed to be sick because its origins could not be traced. This constituted a public health hazard.

The farmers, through their lawyer Kevin Mompalao, did not contest that the sheep were unregistered but asked the court to stop the department from culling any more sheep.

In granting the original injunction last month, Magistrate Demicoli noted that the court case hinged on the interpretation of the regulations and whether unregistered animals were automatically presumed to be sick and therefore had to be put down.

Veterinary Department head Anthony Gruppetta said his action at the Għarb farm was legal and the court order was detrimental to public health because of possible contamination. A large quantity of cheeselets had been found on the farm, he said.

Dr Mompalao said Dr Gruppetta’s latest application contained nothing new and was a repetition of the legal arguments made when the court upheld his client’s request for an injunction.

The farmers will now file a proper court case to thrash out the legal arguments in court.

The farmers also intend suing the Veterinary Department for compensation over the sheep that have already been culled.

Mass culling of sheep ‘in people’s best interests’

Mr Pullicino in his explanation in parliament to a question by Anthony Agius Decelis, explained that animal registration was extremely important so the people’s health must be guaranteed at all times. 

Any animal that was not registered according to law and whose origin could not be ascertained left a question mark as to whether it had been fed such residues as dioxins, hormones, chloramphenico or beta agonists, all of which were forbidden substances.

Besides, since it could not be ascertained what herd the animals had come from, there could be no information as to any risks they might carry of non-evident disease. This could give rise to disease that posed a hazard to human beings, such as scrapies which could not be diagnosed while the animal was still alive.

This was why both Maltese and European legislation defined the need of serious traceability, failing which such animals had no place in the food chain. 

As a result, there was no mechanism in Maltese and European legislation that could allow unregistered animals into the food chain. The only solution was one that, to the uninitiated, could erroneously be seen as drastic culling.

Mr Pullicino said he assumed that Mr Agius Decelis agreed that the consumer’s health was of primary importance, that the traceability regulations were mandatory and that the action taken had been timely.

He said the method of depopulation of animals on a farm was also prescribed in European regulations within the parameters of animal welfare considerations. The method used was a penetrating captive bolt, which ensured that the animals were killed in the most rapid way possible and without causing excessive excitement or fear.

Mr Pullicino assured Mr Agius Decelis that there had therefore been no lack of ethics or breach of animal welfare regulations. Such decisions were not taken directly by the politician, who heeded the advice of experts and technical people on the basis of European regulations and directives.

Answering three other PQs by Mr Agius Decelis on the same topic, Mr Pullicino said the veterinary service regularly visited every registered farm and tested the animals, as well as carrying out inspections to follow up on every report received.

If the animals were regulated and had eartags but had been transferred without permission, both the erstwhile owner and the buyer were fined €3,884.

If the farm did not have the necessary permits but the animals were regulated, complete with eartags, and registered on the farm since 1987, the owner was given the chance to regularise his position with Mepa.

When animals had no eartags in an unregistered place and therefore were not part of the veterinary regulated programmes, they were considered dangerous to the rest of the sector, and were therefore culled and incinerated.

The minister said the law went beyond the registration and traceability of animals in order to guarantee the food chain. With an eye to the risk of disease that could not be diagnosed while an animal was alive, the Department of Veterinary Regulation and Plant Health was obliged to test the carcass of any sheep or goat that died aged more than one year to ascertain that there was no presence of disease.

The expense for the culling exercise amounted to €1,455 for the transport of part of the carcasses to the incinerator at Marsa.

No commercial value could be put on the 215 sheep that had already been culled, or on those still to be culled, because the law precluded their transfer. They could not be certified and could therefore not enter the commercial chain in any way.

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