Wednesday, 17 April 1996
Dáil Éireann Debate
9. Miss Harney asked the Minister for Enterprise and Employment if he will report on the deliberations of the Expert Advisory Group on Beef Products; if he will make a statement on the dramatic decline in sales of Irish beef; and the proposals, if any, there are to transfer responsibility for food safety and hygiene to a new agency independent of the Department of Agriculture. [7784/96]
11. Mrs. O'Rourke asked the Minister for Enterprise and Employment the reports, if any, he has received from the BSE Task Force; if he will publish the reports of the Task Force; and the plans, if any, he has to introduce any changes in consumer law in view of the concerns expressed in respect of produce labelling. [7686/96]
37. Kathleen Lynch asked the Minister for Enterprise and Employment the recommendations, if any, to consumers made by the expert advisory group in view of the recent BSE scare; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7648/96]
Because of the growing consumer concern about the potential health risks associated with beef consumption, I assembled on 29 March an expert group to advise consumers, Government and the trade on the implications of the European Union export ban, which  remains in place, on products derived from cattle slaughtered in the United Kingdom. The group, which was chaired by the Director of Consumer Affairs, comprised consumer, Government, industry, scientific and trade representatives. It met on 30 March and on 2 April 1996.
In addressing the group at its inaugural meeting, I emphasised that it was being given a completely free hand in conducting its affairs and that there would be no attempt to influence its work in any way. Even more importantly, I assured the group that, if during the course of its work evidence was uncovered which would point to real or potential health risks associated with the consumption of beef or products containing beef, that information would be put into the public domain without delay.
Arising from its meeting on 30 March, the group issued a statement that, based on the medical, scientific and veterinary advice currently available, there was no need for consumer concern relating to foodstuffs on the shelves containing minimal beef derivatives or products such as Irish beef, gelatine or dairy products, and consumer help lines had been installed in the office of the Director of Consumer Affairs.
At its meeting on 2 April the group finalised “Guidelines on Beef and Beef Products”, a copy of which is being circulated in the Official Report. The guidelines are in the form of a series of questions and answers relating to products and issues which had been most commonly voiced by consumers.
In particular the guidelines address such questions as: What is the effect of the EU export ban? Are Irish beef, Irish beef products, products which have an Irish beef content or Irish dairy products safe to eat? What parts of the animal are affected by BSE and is there a risk of the spinal cord or the brain of an affected animal entering the food chain? What is the position of animals in herds where there is a case of BSE and can products from these animals enter the  human food chain? What is the safety of products such as meat pies or stock cubes made from UK beef or with a UK beef content? What is the safety of beef fat, lard, gelatine, UK dairy products, cosmetics and pet foods?
I am pleased to inform the House that, in the view of the export group, all the products referred to are safe to consume. This view is based on the best scientific, medical and veterinary advice available to the expert group.
The guidelines, which have the endorsement of the group, are intended to allay any remaining consumer concerns and were made available in shops and supermarkets throughout the country from 3 April and from the offices of the Director of Consumer Affairs and Consumers' Association of Ireland.
According to information provided by An Bord Bia, sales of beef on the Irish market declined by as much as 70 per cent during the weekend following the announcement regarding BSE in the UK House of Commons. Sales have now returned to within 10 per cent of normal levels, a development which has been helped by the consumer reassurance programme organised by An Bord Bia and by the work of the expert advisory group.
Responsibility for food safety and hygiene does not rest solely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. The question of any overlapping responsibilities which may exist between Departments is being kept under review. Any suggestion that the decline in sales of Irish beef is attributable to the inadequacy or failure of health controls is quite incorrect. I refer the Deputy to the statement issued by the Government on 4 April. That statement, which followed a comprehensive review of recent developments on BSE, made clear that the controls being implemented by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry go far beyond those recommended by scientific evidence or by international organisations and that Irish beef and products derived from it are safe. A similar conclusion was reached by the Food Safety  Advisory Board which reported to the Minister for Health last week.
Existing food labelling regulations, which are based on EU Directives, stipulate that pre-packaged foods must be labelled with name of the food; list of ingredients; net quantity; date of minimum durability or “use-by” date; any special storage instructions; name and address of packer, manufacturer etc.; country of origin, only if its absence is likely to mislead consumers; instructions for use, where necessary; alcoholic strength over 1.2 per cent; and, indication of irradiation or treatment with ionising radiation.
The effect of the EU ban as implemented in Ireland is to ban the importation from the UK into Ireland of all cattle, beef and beef products for human consumption and for animal feed which come from animals slaughtered in the UK. Materials from such animals for use in medicinal and pharmaceutical products and in cosmetics cannot be imported. In addition to action taken by the UK authorities, licensing arrangements operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry will ensure that the ban is fully implemented.
No. The sites of BSE infection in an animal are the spinal cord and the brain. This means that unless these parts of an infected animal enter the human or animal food chain there is no risk to humans or animals.
The practice in Ireland has been not to use these parts of animals in food for human consumption. Since 1989, Irish beef herds in which BSE has been detected have been subject to a total slaughter-out policy.
As of now, no. However, in the past they could. Despite the lack of scientific evidence of potential risk, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, in response to consumers' concerns. since March 1996 has decided to exclude the meat from such animals from the food chain.
There is now a ban on the importation of these products. However, many of these products will already have been available here before the ban was put into effect. The medical.  scientific and veterinary advice available to the group is that consumers who have eaten these products have no cause for concern.
It is important to read the labels of all foodstuffs to check their contents and to ensure that the “use by” or the “sell by” dates are strictly adhered to. Food Labelling Regulations do not require that the country of origin be shown on the labels of pre-packaged foodstuffs unless its absence would mislead. The ingredients of every foodstuff have to be listed in descending order of weight and there  is no requirement to show the origin of any of these ingredients.
Finally, the group would emphasise that the above information is based on the best current available scientific, medical and veterinary advice. The group would also emphasise that it continues to be the responsibility of each and every consumer to make up his/her own mind in regard to the purchase and consumption of products.
Miss Harney: Given the chequered past of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, does the Minister of State accept that this Department is not the appropriate one to restore consumer confidence in beef? Does he agree that sometimes there is a conflict between the interests of consumers and producers and, if so, does he not consider it necessary to establish a separate food agency under the auspices of his Department to ensure consumers are reassured and confidence is restored in beef and in other products as the need arises?
Mr. Rabbitte: Responsibility for food safety does not rest with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry alone, a point about which there is a good deal of misapprehension. The situation is a great deal more diffused than that. I referred to the expert Food Safety Advisory Board located in the Department of Health which reports to the Minister for Health. Health environment officers who are employees of the Eastern Health Board——
Mr. Rabbitte: ——Yes. They carry out health inspections and so on. I cannot answer for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. I have responsibility for consumer affairs in  this area. I draw Deputy Harney's attention to the make-up of the expert group which, justified or not, was deliberately not located in the Department of Agriculture. It comprised representatives of the Consumers' Association of Ireland and experts from the veterinary, scientific and medical areas and was chaired by the Director of Consumer Affairs who is an independent officer with a watchdog role under legislation. Most Members are aware of the track record of the present Director of Consumer Affairs. He would not put his name to anything unless he was satisfied, on the best advice available to him, that he could say with confidence that it was the optimum in the circumstances.
Miss Harney: Does the Minister of State accept that it would be more appropriate for An Bord Bia for which I have huge regard — I know many members of the board and its chairman well — as well as for the expert group to report to his Department given that the consumer's interest is extremely important if we are to have confidence in beef? Is he satisfied that the meat of pigs and poultry fed on animal bone-meal is perfectly safe for human consumption?
Mr. Rabbitte: The first point raised by the Deputy has also been voiced by the Consumers' Association of Ireland. I accept that there is a distinction to be drawn between the interests of the producer and the consumer. We are dealing with a consumer population that is very alert and a great deal more informed than it might have been in the past. I agree also that the maintenance of consumer confidence is imperative, as we have seen since this extraordinary hysteria broke out following the statement in the House of Commons on 20 March. If consumers vote with their feet, as they tend to do, the scientific evidence is almost irrelevant. The precautions taken by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry and his predecessors go far beyond the scientific advice.
Responsibility for the food industry  might well be located in the Department of Enterprise and Employment. That is a view I have always held not just in terms of public safety and consumer confidence, but of industrial policy and strategy. I do not regard the food industry as different from any other industry, it is important because it is based on indigenous resources. That may be a lesson we should study, but it is not at issue here. There is a mistaken view that responsibility for health, safety and hygiene is reposed alone or solely in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, but that is not the case. For example, the report published by the Minister for Health last week provides a separate independent assessment of the situation.
Mrs. O'Rourke: It should be trumpeted by everybody that the consumer buys products. It is right that the worries of producers should be met in an agricultural country, yet it seems they find it difficult to realise that they will not be able to sell their product if the consumer is not satisfied. That is a very simple message. I never ceased to be amazed at the response I received when Minister of State with responsibility for labour affairs when I raised industry-related matters and put the consumer first. Surely a satisfied consumer means that a particular product has a better purchaser. It seems to be difficult to get that message across.
Let me give some advice to the team sitting opposite. In my three years in the Department — trade and marketing encompassed consumer affairs — I always felt that there should have been a Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs. For instance, the travel trade regulations are dealt with by another Minister. Yet, in Europe there is a Commissioner for Consumer Affairs who deals with Departments and Minister in different countries.
The lesson is that consumers are clearly more alert — I would not call it hysteria, but proper alertness. I ask the Minister of State to keep the expert group in place, perhaps on an ad hoc basis initially. In that way he might secure for himself an even fatter portfolio when he would have far more leverage than he has now.
Mr. Rabbitte: Alas, I do not know that I want a fatter portfolio. I do not disagree with the Deputy, the position of the consumer is central. I did not refer to the concerns voiced by consumers and the Consumers' Association of Ireland on behalf of consumers as hysteria, I referred specifically to what happened and the manner in which this issue was handled in the House of Commons.
I agree with the Deputy, there may be lessons to be learned. I do not know what happened at the time the particular structural decisions were made in respect of An Bord Bia and the allocation of the food industry, it may be a case of power and lobby politics, but the lobby responsible may have cause to reflect on where it would be without the consumer——
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