Senior vet Dr Tamara Bronckaers has received an unreserved apology from Department of Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs (Daera) after a tribunal last year found she was constructively dismissed from her job.
Her lawyers have described the payment as the largest of its kind ever awarded in Northern Ireland.
Dr Bronckaers, who worked for the department’s Veterinary Service Animal Health Group, had raised concerns about serious breaches of animal welfare legislation and traceability within the meat supply chain related to the deletion of records on the movement of sold cattle between farms.
She resigned after claiming management ignored her concerns and subjected her to unfair treatment for flagging the issues.
Dr Bronckaers said: “The past few years have been extremely harrowing for me and my family.
“This outcome has been a long time coming and I can move on in the knowledge that I did what was right, and I now have a long-waited and justified apology from the department.
“I witnessed first-hand animals suffering unnecessarily and believe that over a five-year period in excess of 20,000 animals were involved in deleted moves which would have had significant implications for traceability within the supply chain.
“I strongly believed that the department was failing in its duty to protect animal welfare and therefore I couldn’t continue doing a job that I wasn’t being allowed to carry out ethically.
“I couldn’t sit back and watch these breaches persist.”
The vet’s solicitor John McShane, from firm McCartan Turkington Breen, added: “This is the largest settlement of its type in Northern Ireland and the outcome for Dr Bronckaers is wholly justified bearing in mind the detriments she has suffered that have not only affected her career, but her family and her financial situation.
“I am quite simply astounded by Dr Bronckaers bravery.
“She was willing to do what was ethically right to the detriment of herself, her family, and her standard of living in retirement.
“It is a choice that very few people would make as the easier path would have been to keep quiet.
“Hopefully, the outcome of this landmark case provides reassurance that at the very least, those individuals who choose to whistle blow do have protection under the law.”
A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs said: “The Department unreservedly apologises to Dr Tamara Bronckaers for the hurt and distress caused.
“Following the outcome of the case in October 2021, the Department established an Internal Audit Review of Cattle Traceability System within Veterinary Animal Health Group. This review was focused on the robustness of current controls for animal traceability in livestock markets and abattoirs and also considered all of the issues raised by Dr Bronckaers. The review made a number of recommendations which the Department is implementing.
“With respect to traceability, Northern Ireland has a unique and world leading traceability system (APHIS) that enables the real time recording of bovine animal movements between farms, markets and abattoirs. The system does, and should, facilitate corrective amendments to be made to ensure accuracy of the notified and recorded movements held on APHIS.
“For the 12-month period, from November 2020 – October 2021, only around 2% of Market movements had a corrective amendment to the movement made by a Market Operator within 1 working day after the original sale. This corrective amendment is necessary to ensure the information held on the APHIS database accurately reflects the location of all animals and the movements that took place.
“Additionally, should any animal be physically moved onto any holding within this timeframe, prior to its final destination, there is a legal obligation to notify the Department. Where the Department has information or evidence of a false notification, the Department will investigate and take appropriate enforcement action.
“The Department takes extremely seriously all the matters which contributed to the outcome of the recent tribunal and will be progressing an internal review into them. This review is being undertaken with urgency and will be completed at pace.”