National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill, 1999 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).

Tuesday, 1 February 2000

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 513 No. 3

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  To return to the point I was making last week, even if there is a prime quality product for export, there is a serious problem regarding the promotion and marketing of that product within the community. The Bill and any other plans of the Government to develop the beef industry will be futile unless a commitment is given to the marketing and promotion of Irish beef abroad. I am happy that last Friday the Minister, Deputy Walsh, went to Italy to promote Irish beef because until last November he, as Minister, made only six trips abroad to promote Irish beef – that trip brings the number of trips to seven. If the Government is talking about promoting and marketing beef throughout the European Union and the rest of the world, it is a pity the Minister, who claimed he would travel to the four corners of the earth when he was in Opposition, has not done so.

There are serious question marks over the future of the small and medium-sized beef producers and this has been highlighted by the recent blockade of meat factories. The Minister must look at alternative enterprises for those farmers. What will be the outcome of Leader III and how many communities will benefit from it? Will there be a reduction in the number of Leader groups? Will there be a reduction in their catchment areas? The Minister must ensure that there is off-farm employment for small farmers so that they have the opportunity to remain in their local community, produce a quality beef product and yet keep an income coming into their households. One can see the disillusionment among young farmers. A number of agricultural colleges have closed down and the installation aid and farm retirement schemes have been delayed until June or July next.

I am disappointed the Bill focuses on the primary producer only rather than on processing, the supermarkets and the further steps in the chain. It regulates for the primary producer only and not, as Deputy Upton stated last Thursday, from farm to fork. If we are realistic about quality and, as I said last Thursday, the need for added-value products, not just simple cuts of meat, it is crucially important to have a control system which applies throughout the system and not only to one element of it. That is the area in which the [742] Bill is lacking and that is where it will ultimately fail.

I hope the Minister will answer these questions when replying. What controls will be in place for third country beef coming into the EU? What controls will be in place for second country beef, that is, beef which comes from other parts of the EU, into Ireland? I am particularly concerned about third country beef because we have no control over it. Depending on how the WTO negotiations in Seattle develop over the coming months, US and Argentinean beef could come into supermarkets in the same way as lamb is imported. There will not be the same regulation on that meat coming into the supermarkets and onto a family's table, yet we will hamper farmers with these regulations and guidelines.

The same is the case within the EU. Has the Minister discussed the possibility of broadening this on a European scale because it will hamper the competitiveness of farmers producing a product for the European market. One must remember that we cannot eat all the beef produced here so we must look at the broader view, that it will go into the European market and impose additional costs on the primary producer. There is no question about that and the Minister is unlikely to argue to the contrary.

Liability for quality and traceability in the beef sector is an issue which must be considered. When everything is up and running, one will be able to trace a cut of meat from the supermarket shelf back to the farmer who produced it. The goal is to be able to trace it. The Government is putting in place legislation on quality in relation to the primary producer.

That means that the meat can be traced back to the primary producer and, as far as this legislation is concerned, there are not any restrictions on the processor. If a person contracts food poisoning through e.coli 0157, for example, he could take a case against an individual farmer because things may not have been up to standard. While that is a hypothetical case, a situation could arise from something simpler, such as a broken needle being found in an animal carcase. The needle could have found its way there either through a farmer, a vet or others along the line. We have seen cases where these type of needles have been found in the pork curing process. A similar type of needle could be found in a carcase of beef which is being cured. What type of liability or onus is on the farmer in such a case? Has any consideration been given to the type and cost of insurance that farmers will require, given this traceability system which arises from the need for quality? There is a huge risk facing farmers, because while consumers will be able to pinpoint farmers, they may not be able to identify primary, secondary or tertiary processors. They will nail the farmer so the liability will fall to him and, in turn, he may have to place the onus on the processor.

The legislation will also require farmers to have a licence to farm. They must have their names on [743] a register to be entitled to sell cattle, and their livelihoods will rely on such licences. Without them they will not be able to keep their businesses going. Section 17 deals with appeals against a refusal of the certificate of approval. If his licence to sell is removed, a farmer will have to make a case for reinstatement before the Circuit Court. That is unbelievably bureaucratic and the only people who stand to gain are the solicitors who take such cases.

While I agree with the Minister of State that such a system may be required at a later stage, a properly structured appeals system is needed, not like the bureaucratic one that currently operates in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. An independent appeals structure is required, similar to the office of the Ombudsman. Appeals made within the Department have failed, yet when a farmer takes his case to the Ombudsman, all of a sudden the decision changes within the Department. There must be an independent body outside the control of the Department. If a farmer fails in an appeal to that body then, well and good, he can take his case a step further to the Circuit Court. Bringing the Circuit Court in at an earlier stage, however, will only lead to solicitors making a fortune. In yesterday's newspapers we saw how well solicitors are doing from claims against the Department of Defence. A proper structure needs to be put in place to avoid a similar situation in the agriculture sector.

In the debate last Thursday, Deputy Upton mentioned that e.coli 0157 is not a notifiable disease. We have been slow to set up a database of notifiable diseases, especially bacterial ones, such as exists in other countries, including the United Kingdom. Consequently, it is difficult to determine where these outbreaks originate and whether there is a pattern involved, so that we can control and regulate them. It is crucially important that diseases like e.coli 0157 and other food-borne bacteria should be designated as notifiable diseases so they can be traced. In that way we can see if there is a repeat cause and if it is coming from a particular location. The legislation must deal with that matter along with the need to include processors and others involved in producing beef for the consumer's table.

Luckily enough, antibiotics have not come to the fore in our beef industry, although they have figured in many other countries. Intensive farming practices put animals under stress, making them more susceptible to disease and, therefore, they are being fed antibiotics. We have seen this happening within the Minister of State's own sector of the bacon industry where antibiotics have been commonly used for many years. It happens in the poultry sector also. Our sheep and cattle are mainly reared on grass, which means that production is less intensive, thus reducing the need for antibiotics. The opposite is the case, however, for agricultural products imported from other EU and non-EU countries which employ more inten[744] sive farming practices. Over the years we have neglected that issue and are only now beginning to realise the importance of regulating antibiotics for farm animals. Recently, the issue has caused much controversy within the bacon sector.

We must be serious about combating bacterial resistance to antibiotics, as well as being mindful of the correlation to what people eat, because such resistance may be transferred from one microbe to another. The Minister of State should examine the Swan report which was published in the United Kingdom many years ago, as well as a recent report on this matter by the Food Safety Authority. I hope the Minister of State will get an opportunity to reply to some of the queries I have raised.

Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  I wish to share my time with Deputy Johnny Brady.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Cecilia Keaveney: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  Much has happened since I originally requested an opportunity to speak on this Bill. We have had the unfortunate incidents of the recent past, due in part to the veterinary levy but more so to the relatively poor price farmers have been taking from processors. Such a low price, coming at a time when markets are reopening and domestic consumers are, it seems, paying a relatively high price for their meat, naturally raises questions. These are questions that farmers have been raising repeatedly, but which came to a head at the beginning of January. While sympathetic to the ongoing plight of farmers, I regret the fact that 200 workers in the Carrigans meat plant, in my own constituency, bore the brunt of being laid off as the protest wore on. I am heartened that a resolution has been found and I hope it will be accepted for what it is – a real improvement in farmers' incomes.

There are long-term issues, however, that all sides should acknowledge and, therefore, last week's solution to the immediate problem should not be taken as a final point by all concerned. The outstanding issues should be dealt with in a cordial manner and not allowed to fester. I welcome the Tánaiste's initiative in putting this group together and having a three month timescale for the investigation into allegations of price-fixing. I look forward to a speedy conclusion of that inquiry. It makes sense that everyone involved in the industry should work for the common good and I trust the long hours of talks that have already taken place will provide the basis for a continuation of progress in building a positive relationship that has, in so many cases, been missing between core members of the industry.

I am happy to see that workers are to be compensated for the time they were out of work. I applaud, also, the efforts being made by the Minister to visit markets that have been threatened by the dispute. Everyone appreciates that without such markets, many farmers, factory workers and processors alike, would be made redundant, and [745] an even more serious future would be facing the farming industry.

The industry must move on in the common interest. The purpose of the Bill is to increase the level of respect our beef gains nationally and internationally. While we undersell our animals in many ways, we have a grass based quality product that we can stand over and is well respected. This Bill will further emphasise that status.

The Bill covers aspects such as the establishment of standards under which animals, carcases and meat intended for human consumption shall be produced, processed, traded or otherwise handled and under which feedstuffs shall be manufactured or traded. It continues and further develops the animal tracing system operated by the Minister through the collection of data on animal movement under the computerised cattle movement monitoring system, CCMS, and by such other means as the Minister considers appropriate. It also continues and develops measures provided under the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Act, 1998. This is an all-embracing Bill that extends into all areas of the beef industry.

Under the Bill it will be an offence for a person to produce, trade or otherwise handle animals, carcases or meat for human consumption or to manufacture or trade in feedstuffs unless he or she is in possession of a certificate of approval. It will be an offence to sell or supply animals, carcases or meat for human consumption or to sell or supply feedstuffs without a certificate. Similarly, it will be an offence to buy or receive, or to own or operate a food business to buy or receive, or to be in the possession of animals, carcases or meat for consumption from a person who does not have a certificate. This seems all-encompassing and I trust it will cover every aspect of the meat industry.

It is important when there are penalties that there are also avenues of appeal and opportunities for people to put their cases. I note there is a procedure whereby the applicant can appeal to the Circuit Court. Almost every rural Member of this House will have come across cases of farmers having to endure very severe penalties as a result of rather petty, genuine mistakes. This can relate to a tag coming out of an animal – which can be the fault of the tag or the animal as much as that of the person who inserted it – or to a box on a form not being ticked or some other perceived misdemeanour. Given the complexity of these forms and the proven difficulties in relation to adult illiteracy, many of these errors are genuine mistakes and not attempts to “buck the system”. While acknowledging the need for European moneys to be scrutinised, we constantly see a lack of common sense applied to such cases. I hope there will be simple appeal mechanisms to give all involved a chance to air their case in relation to this legislation, rather than having to resort to legal channels. An appeal to the Circuit Court seems to be the only channel of appeal at present.

[746] While the expenses incurred by the Minister in the administration of this Bill are to be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas, I wonder if these are the only moneys needed. I presume there will be a cost involved for applicants who want to meet the criteria for the certificate of approval and adhere to the new regulations. For example, will there be financial supports for family abattoirs to enable them to raise the standard of their premises? Standards are already increasing significantly with the continuing stringency of the environmental health operators. However, this results in a financial burden on people who are already under pressure. I presume other sectors will also be affected by this legislation. While the highest of standards must always be aspired to and commended, it is also important that the necessary supports are given to turn aspirations into reality.

There is also the issue of inspection. The Minister may make regulations establishing the procedures for the periodic reinspection of premises and holdings to ensure continued compliance with this Bill and the regulations made under it. I presume this is standard. There is a need, however, to outline who will police this legislation. Will manpower resources be provided to ensure there is a balanced level of inspection from region to region, thus ensuring standards?

This issue of manpower resources applies to the entire Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. A large number of schemes is being administered, some of which are beginning, others are being reviewed and others are long-standing. The cumulative strain on the system is huge. I call on the Minister to look at the state of the regional offices, the workload and the backlog. The officials are doing their best but they are overstretched. This has large repercussions for particular schemes and the farmers with whom we come into contact. I trust the Minister will look sympathetically at cases where people did not get grants because their application did not get through the system in time, which seems unfair.

At a time when all elements within agriculture – pigs, sheep and beef – are under pressure, every effort must be made to stabilise the industry and promote a product that can command a high price for its producer. While being proud of the generally high quality of the grass based animal we produce in Ireland, anything that helps to further the confidence of consumers at home and abroad in relation to our beef sector is important and welcome. I commend the work in my area of the Inishowen co-operative, which is working towards producing a quality assured animal, and I wish them continued progress in their endeavours.

I accompanied the Minister when he visited Carrigan's meat plant a number of months ago. At that time, the computerised cattle monitoring system was just moving beyond a concept. I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to ensure the development of the system and to [747] guarantee it operates at an optimum level. The “stable to table” guarantee is essential now and is a buzz phrase in many European countries. It is important that Ireland is seen to be leading the way.

Very few countries have the good reputation for animals that we rightly have. However, we have had difficulties recently with BSE. With the recent announcement that the Russians are lifting their ban on animals from Donegal, among other counties, the future of our exports has become even brighter. I congratulate the Minister on the improvements that continue to be made to provide dedicated livestock vessels for live exports. There are now 17 approved vessels, compared to nine in 1996. However, when will there be a facility closer to the north-west, given our geographical location and distance from the current operational ports?

On a personal level, I ask the Minister to continue to ensure that any difficulties arising in relation to our hard fought for existing markets, as a result of the factories being out of action, are monitored and the necessary supports put in place to secure them. This is an agriculture Bill and, as a Border Deputy from an area with many pig producers who have been disadvantaged by circumstances beyond their control, I thank the Minister, his team in the Department and the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, for helping to alleviate the desperate situation caused by the burning of the Lovell and Christmas plant. A Border facility should be put in place very soon to offer competition to producers.

The importation of all types of meat adds to the crisis we are experiencing in Ireland in terms of demand and price. The amount of pigmeat, sheepmeat and beef being imported is constantly increasing. I recently spent some time in France examining its sheep sector system. Given that it is not a mass exporter but an importer of meat, it is in a slightly different category from Ireland. However, I found there was a very strong interest in the promotion of the French home product. Each region is proud of its animal. In the region I visited, the Adret lamb was the speciality and was only one of a variety of French lamb available to the consumer. In the abattoir I visited there were “labelled” animals, regular animals, a more organic type of animal and imported animals. An effort is made there to promote the national product to consumers. I spoke to French people who were happier to buy a good quality French product than a cheaper import because they had an awareness of the “labelled” animal.

While acknowledging that we are all Europeans, we need to develop a sense of positive nationalism in protecting one of our most basic commodities and sources of income when faced with stiff and growing competition from many non-European countries. We must develop a new type of “buy Irish” mode. I ask the Minister to evaluate the success of current marketing by An Bord Bia and the other agencies and, if necessary, [748] to follow up such an evaluation with appropriate action. The bottom line is that we have a product of which we can be proud. It is only when we, as consumers, advocate this message that our nation will gain confidence. That message will then ultimately permeate to the wider markets. This must lead to a higher return for the quality animal.

Mr. J. Brady: Information on Johnny Brady  Zoom on Johnny Brady  I compliment the Minister on this comprehensive Bill. I am a farmer and the BSE scare in 1996 greatly affected farmers' incomes. Recently, dioxin in food in Belgium had serious repercussions for the beef and food industry there.

The purpose of this Bill is to enhance the confidence of the consumer in Irish cattle and beef. The high standards of public health protection it proposes will apply to livestock marts, abattoirs, slaughter houses, businesses engaged in food protection and those which manufacture or deal in animal feedstuffs. Its implementation can only enhance and strengthen the animal identification and traceability measures already in place for cattle. The provision to make regulations regarding the notification of animal movements is a key component of the Bill.

The market for beef has seen radical change in recent years. If consumers cannot have absolute confidence in the food they buy, farmers will not have a market. Food safety has to be a priority. It is vital that consumers in Ireland and abroad know Irish producers are serious about food safety.

Irish food is marketed in more than 50 countries. The industry is an important contributor to the economy and to the income of more than 250,000 people. The National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill will protect producers and consumers. It will display our willingness to be proactive and committed to the production of a safe and quality food product. Setting high standards and leading the way in this regard will undoubtedly have a positive effect on Ireland's image internationally.

Following the BSE crisis, we lost valuable markets such as France and Germany. A number of third countries also refused our product. Consumption at home also fell dramatically. A number of initiatives have since been introduced at EU and departmental level to promote food safety and hygiene. These initiatives have been introduced at all stages of production, distribution and sale. The overall market for Irish beef has improved but further measures are needed to allay consumers' concerns.

The beef produced here has its own unique taste and flavour and is capable of commanding a premium price. Beef production accounts for more than 40% of our agricultural output. Nine out of ten animals produced by more than 140,000 herd owners are exported. An over-dependency on Third World markets can produce its own share of problems for the trade. The collapse of the Russian market last year is just one example. This collapse saw the resumption of [749] sales into intervention in autumn 1998 and in spring 1999. Recent years have been very difficult for our beef sector.

This National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill is an important landmark in the area of food production and safety. It will ensure common standards throughout the industry. This, in turn, will protect the Irish industry from uninformed criticism in the event of any further food scares. The consumer dictates the market and in the area of food, the market has been decided.

Consumers also need to be sure the meat they buy is safe. Meat imports should also be subject to strict quality assurance procedures. Other countries have not been slow to delay the entry of meat from Ireland into their markets. I call on the Minister and the Minister of State to make sure all regulations on meat imports are adhered to. This Bill offers the best long-term prospects for our beef industry. In the future, it will provide better returns for producers through guaranteed markets.

The Bill provides for a monetary application, inspection, approval and registration process for all participants, the propose of which is to provide independently backed assurance of the safety of Irish beef. It will take some time to complete the inspection process. It provides for transitional arrangements under which all participants will be deemed to be provisionally approved until they have been granted or refused approval under the scheme.

Mr. Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I want to make a few brief points on this issue. Everybody wants safe food. I predict that in the coming years general elections will be fought on two issues. They will not be fought on taxation, what is happening in Europe, local issues or farmers leaving the land but on food safety and water safety.

I talked to a number of farmers about this Bill. Farmers, like others in society, do not like change. Nobody likes to see legislation introduced. The owner of a shop recently asked me what we are doing in this mad house and said nobody will be able to stay in business in the next few years. He said he got six letters in the post that morning, one from Revenue telling him he owed so much in tax, one in relation to VAT, one from the county council looking for rates, one stating an egg inspector was coming to his shop and another from the litter warden stating that he should not have signs or dirt outside his premises. This country has gone mad with legislation, rules and regulations which will put people out of business. If we continue in this way, there will not be enough offices to deal with all the paperwork.

The Minister's Department has responsibility for the quality of beef. I have listened to farmers at public meetings state that we have the best product in the world, but we do not. If we think that, we are losing it. In 1998, the McKinsey report and An Bord Bia said that of the national kill in 1998, 17% was fit for the European market. Early in the 1990s, 40% of the kill was fit to be [750] sent to Europe. Not every country wants our beef or believes we have the best beef in the world. I was sad to note yesterday that the incidence of BSE increased again in January.

The last three priority questions I tabled related to the quality of our beef and the Department's intentions in regard to getting farmers to do what is necessary to increase the percentage of the national kill fit for the European market from 17% to 60% or 70%.

The other question I tabled related to brucellosis. I was delighted to see that the Irish Farmers Journal and the Irish Independent ran exclusives about this matter. This is another major problem for the beef sector and it is one with which we must deal. We must remember that we live in a small world. People can use the Internet to see what is happening in Ireland or in any other country and they will want to be guaranteed that the beef, steak or lamb they purchase is safe.

The Minister of State will recall recent events in Belgium where problems arose in respect of chocolate. There was a major outcry here regarding the importation of such chocolate. As a public representative I have been asked whether we have the relevant staff in place to monitor what is being imported to this country. Do we know what is being brought into Dublin port? What foodstuffs are we importing, where do they originate and is their safety guaranteed by anyone?

I partly welcome the introduction of the national beef assurance scheme. However, I am concerned that it will lead to an explosion of red tape. My town and many others throughout the country have small, family run abattoirs which do a good job. The abattoirs to which I refer were operating well until veterinary inspectors were appointed by every county council throughout the country. These inspectors tend to announce the time at which they will visit an abattoir, at 3 p.m. on a certain day to watch the kill. Following the kill, the inspectors say that they might return in one or two days to inspect the carcases which means that they cannot be moved until the inspection has taken place. That is wrong. Veterinary inspectors do not behave in this way when dealing with Larry Goodman or any of the other three major beef processors. Vets are present in beef factories on a full-time basis from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Some of them are present for only 30 minutes and they are paid for a full day's work. However, that is another issue and it is one with which I do not propose to deal at this stage.

Why is the Department intent on attacking small operators? I am concerned that the national beef assurance scheme will involve huge amounts of red tape with which small farmers will not be able to deal. Having made a mistake, these people will be summonsed to appear in court because they have not complied with the law. After that they will leave the land – 8,000 people in County Mayo have already done so – and end their connections with agriculture simply because [751] the Minister of State and the Department feel the need to comply with all the rules imposed by the European Union.

I liken this situation to that which obtained when we joined the EU, when we were informed that we would be able to travel to Scotland, Northern Ireland, England or Belgium, purchase and drive away in a Mercedes Benz car and not be obliged to pay tax on it. However, the Government acted quickly by introducing legislation to prevent people doing that.

With regard to agricultural and other regulations, the situation is somewhat similar to that which obtains in Italy. The Italians take everything that is good out of the EU but they are not very good at implementing EU laws. In Ireland we are great at implementing those laws, regardless of the cost involved.

I welcome the National Beef Assurance Scheme Bill and I have no difficulty with it. However, problems may arise if farmers discover that the scheme is too restrictive or that they cannot deal with the red tape involved. My party will be tabling amendments on Committee Stage and I hope they will be taken on board by the Minister and the Department. There is no point introducing legislation and asking farmers to comply with it if people are going to be put out of business or if there will be a major cost factor involved.

In recent weeks everyone saw how hard farmers fought for their industry. They were not fighting because of the behaviour of the factories or because they were not being paid a particular price, they were fighting for survival. If matters had remained as they were, many of those people would have been obliged to leave agriculture in the coming months.

My party is giving the Bill a cautious welcome but we do not want to see the various rules and regulations weighing down on one side and not on the other. We are seeking fair play, something which the Department is not good at encouraging. For example, the penalties it imposes in respect of simple or silly mistakes are outrageous. I have put together a dossier in respect of a number of cases in this area and I must inform the Minister of State that I am looking forward to taking his Department to court.

I wish to provide an example of one of the cases to which I refer involving a matter which I brought to the attention of the Minister of State. The wife of a man living in my constituency died at a time when the family was experiencing major problems. The individual in question sent a completed form to the Department which was either late in arriving or contained incorrect information. He had experienced no problems during the past 20 years in dealing with the Department but – this would not happen on Hitler's worst day – he lost his entire payment. I understand the man may have filled out the figure “31” instead of “13” and he was penalised.

[752] I tabled a priority question inquiring whether the Minister intended to appoint an ombudsman to oversee matters in this area. He acknowledged that the Department is considering the establishment of a new appeals structure. I hope that such appeals will be held at county level because faceless officials in the Department can send out a form saying that they do not wish to pay a farmer his entitlement. That is what is happening at present. During the past three years the penalties have become increasingly severe and there is no attempt at understanding on the part of the Department. That is wrong because people living in rural areas were never trained to complete these forms. They have received no training to help them comply with the provisions of the Bill before us.

The Minister of State should not be afraid to take on the civil servants in his Department because some of them would not know a pig from a cow or a cow from a lamb. However, we allow them to adjudicate on matters relating to agriculture. That is wrong. If the Minister of State is not strong enough to take action, the Minister, Deputy Walsh, should do so. The Minister has occupied Agriculture House for 11 of the past 13 years. There is a cosy cartel operating between the Minister and his officials because he knows how they think and they know how he thinks. The Minister is not strong enough to take action and there is a need for an injection of new blood. The Minister must say to his officials “Joe Soap made a simple mistake, pay the man because he is entitled to his money.” We must move away from the attitude of not overruling departmental officials.

If I am ever appointed to serve in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development tribunals will be held every week, the officials will follow my orders and they will not do as they please. The Minister of State, the Minister and other members of the Government should adopt that attitude because we must stop the ongoing attacks on rural life. Poor farmers in Mayo, Roscommon and Galway were not trained in the completion of the forms supplied by the Department.

I listened to a farming programme on radio the other evening during which reference was made to the closing date for a certain scheme. The host issued warnings to farmers to be careful about the information they supplied. Farmers would want to be retrained or sent to university but even then they would not be able to complete the relevant forms. When I entered public life, I warned my secretary never to complete a form because if a mistake was made she would be blamed. People are not trained to complete these forms, which is wrong. As stated earlier, the officials of the Department are acting like Hitler. The Department's deciding officers are not understanding or sympathetic to people involved in agriculture.

It is time the Minister of State and the other two incumbents in the Department took on their officials. There is a difference between an act of [753] fraud and a simple mistake. The people in the Department who deal with area aid forms and other application forms know the difference between an act of fraud and a mistake. However, they are no longer interested in what is happening.

They do not want to know anymore. The position is similar in the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs which has gone berserk. Three people visited my constituency office yesterday concerning social welfare benefits. These people are genuinely looking for work and had letters to prove so. However, the Department is still not satisfied, it wants more letters and is stopping payments to these people. The area aid office and the appeals unit are similar in that there is no give for farmers. The message coming from these units is that they have no interest in farmers. They are telling farmers to get out of rural Ireland and get out of the country entirely in preference to people coming in.

I attended a recent public meeting in rural Ireland at which it was evident that an undercurrent is building up against politicians, the Government and the Civil Service. People are getting ready to stand up and be counted. People died in 1921 for a bit of fair play but events in the Departments of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and Social, Community and Family Affairs do not constitute fair play and that is wrong. Officials working for county councils, urban councils or Departments would have to murder someone before being sacked. It does not matter whether they can do the job they will be left there. It is time for accountability and I see this on a daily basis as a public representative.

There is a difference between fraud and a mistake. I referred to the man whose wife died and there was a second tragedy in the family. This man filled out a form incorrectly and all his payments were stopped. That is not democracy, it is dictatorship, and there is enough of that in the world.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (Mr. N. O'Keeffe): Information on Ned O'Keeffe  Zoom on Ned O'Keeffe  I will investigate that case for the Deputy.

Mr. Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I wish to share my time with Deputy Michael Kitt.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Moloney: Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill but it will be difficult to address all the issues raised by Deputy Ring. We must recognise that food safety and water quality are also considerations and that is why I welcome this important legislation and thank the Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, for remaining in the House to listen to our contributions.

This legislation is timely when further outbreaks of BSE are being notified. We have a responsibility to ensure food safety. Reference [754] has been made to the strictures laid down by the Department by way of grant payments and so on, but there are also strictures laid down by health boards by way of food safety regulations. Members who saw the effects of CJD realise that while we may complain about guidelines laid down by the Department we must be far more concerned about the effects of insufficient controls in the food sector. Consumer groups have highlighted the fact that we need to strengthen existing controls and that is why I welcome this legislation.

In the past few weeks Members, particularly those who are not close to the agricultural scene, have had an opportunity to meet farmers on the picket lines. It is important for the Government to reassure consumers that food safety is a priority. The only way we can increase the purchasing power and the cost factors involved in beef production is to reassure domestic and international consumers that the Government is committed to food safety. Improving food standards provides the ideal method for beef producers to increase profit margins. We can achieve this objective by showing consumers that their health is of foremost consideration for the Department, the Minister and the Government.

The recent protests by farmers gave us time to think of how we can increase the commercial trading performance of our beef sector. One way to achieve this is to introduce further controls to communicate the message that food safety is a priority, as it has been in the past. The Bill provides for the establishment of a national beef assurance scheme which I welcome. This scheme involves a number of practical proposals, including the development of common standards for the production, processing and tracing of Irish cattle and beef for human consumption, and the manufacture and trade of feeding stuffs. We must all approve of the application of these standards through a system of registration, inspection and approval. The enhancement of an animal identification and traceability system for Irish cattle has been highlighted to Members over the years by consumer groups, retail chains and the farming community. This proposal is part of a strategy to protect the health of consumers and, importantly, to protect our multi-billion pound beef industry.

Given the substantial contribution of the beef sector to the economy, it is vital that everything possible is done to protect and promote the industry. The beef trade represents 2% of GNP, employs 10,000 people in processing and realised £1.1 billion in primary beef production in the past year. These statistics indicate the importance of ensuring that the beef trade is promoted and safeguarded. The best way to achieve this is to assure consumers that Irish beef is safe and that the Government is intent on ensuring that that continues to be the case.

Farmers will have to achieve improved returns if they are to stay in the beef trade. A rate of 90p per pound has been secured but that is not a just return for beef produced at a cost of 82p per [755] pound. The way to increase prices is to increase competition and that will only be achieved by increasing our trading markets. We must show our proactive interest and commitment to the production of safe, high quality food through the promotion of higher standards. I welcome the fact that the Bill provides for mandatory application, inspection, approval and registration processes for all applicants. This will provide independently backed assurances concerning the safety of Irish beef which is the cornerstone of this legislation.

A comprehensive system of animal identification already exists for Irish cattle, including bovine tagging and cattle identity cards. The Bill will reinforce the requirement for relevant participants to notify the movement of all cattle onto or off their holdings or premises. It has consistently been pointed out that the cornerstone of policy should be to ensure regulation in the movement of cattle.

The Bill also provides for regulations setting out the form and time of notifications and the procedure for the use of the CMMS database to identify and trace animals slaughtered for human consumption. The inclusion of CMMS provisions in the Bill is necessary to provide the requisite legal powers to ensure that participants comply with the requirements regarding the notification of animal movements and that animals whose origin and life history cannot be verified can be barred from entering the human food chain. This important provision will go a long way to reassuring consumers that food safety is a priority.

When Commissioner David Byrne received his appointment there was a feeling that his portfolio was lower down the pecking order of responsibility. However, in the past few months it has become obvious throughout Europe that food safety is the foremost consideration for consumers. This ties in with the Government's commitment to follow the lead set by Commissioner Byrne and to ensure that all possible proposals are implemented. This legislation goes a long way towards achieving that objective.

The important issue for consumers is that the origin and history of all cattle and beef entering the food chain can be verified and the fact that the entire national herd can now be traced and recorded must impact on consumers. Another important aspect of the Bill is that it imposes obligations on the retail sector to provide guidelines on the safety of beef across the food chain.

While controls have been in place for some time, further controls will confirm that the Government is intent on ensuring food safety. By that standard, it is going a long way toward increasing the market share of Irish beef.

Mr. M. Kitt: Information on Michael P. Kitt  Zoom on Michael P. Kitt  I thank Deputy Maloney for sharing his time. I agree wholeheartedly with what Deputy Ring said about butchers and small abattoirs. It is a phenomenon particular to the west that many of those people have had to leave the [756] business because of strict regulations. In County Galway the small family butchers are forming an organisation to take their case to the Department. I welcome the fact that they are pooling their resources and hope they will be able to meet the standards laid down in the guidelines. It is regrettable, however, that so many of them had to close because they did not have the resources to compete with the bigger operators.

This Bill is relevant when we read in the newspapers that there have been further outbreaks of BSE – already this year there have been 14 cases. These took place in cattle between five and eight years of age and that shows that the tightening up of the 1996 regulations is bearing fruit. It is worrying, however, that there has been a reduction in beef consumption across the European Union. The Minister said that the possible link between BSE and new variant CJD in young people is worrying. I hope that the efforts of the Minister and the Ministers of State will be supported by the House. We must fight for consumer confidence in the industry, that is the number one priority.

There are markets to which Ireland supplied cattle and beef in the past where trade restrictions have been imposed and this has been of major concern to the Department. It is good that we have managed to re-enter some of those markets. Further measures are required in the beef industry to provide confidence at home and abroad. We must tighten up the conditions in the production and processing of beef in Ireland. This is provided for in the Bill. We must also assure consumers about the safety of Irish cattle and beef.

The IFA sought assurances from the Department when the Bill was first published on how it would operate. Through its animal health committee the IFA made it known that it was happy that there would be transitional arrangements, that farmers would be provisionally approved for the scheme and subsequently inspected. The IFA did not want a new industry to be created as a result of legislation. The legislation was introduced at a bad time for the farming community, while the agriculture sector was going through a difficult time. The IFA asked valid questions about the inspection process, who will carry it out and the frequency of inspections. These are issues the Minister will address but it is obvious from the sheer frustration of farmers on the picket lines outside meat factories that they need help from the Government and the Minister.

Macra na Feirme proposed partnerships in farming. That was a positive proposal. A partnership arrangement would provide an incentive for new entrants. Legislation should be introduced to enable such partnerships to operate. Teagasc, to its credit, has also been talking about a way forward for some time through partnership in agriculture. Mr. McCarthy, one of the chief advisers in Teagasc, said that partnership farming means a five day week, weekends off, cover for sickness and annual holidays combined with an improved [757] capacity to expand the business through economies of scale and better labour efficiency. It almost sounds too good to be true. Mr. McCarthy is talking about farming as a business. That is what is happening in countries such as Denmark and France. If we are realistic we recognise that there are labour problems on all farms, irrespective of size or location. We must look at these areas where there could be help for the farming community.

The role of the wholesaler and retailer in the chain of protection of the consumer is not addressed in this legislation, which deals with the role of the producer. We are all aware of situations in which an imported product could be purchased from a retail outlet and it would not be subject to regulation. The point was made by many in the farming organisations that a restaurant or retail outlet would not be subject to such policing. It is important that the whole chain, from the producer to the consumer, is covered by legislation. If only one part of the chain is dealt with there will be difficulties.

When the meat factories were picketed, the issue of the live export trade was raised. In an ideal world we would be able to finish and process all our cattle in Ireland. If we did not have live shipping, however, there would be a further reduction in the price of cattle. The Irish Cattle Traders and Stock Owners Association has made the point that we should continue with live shipping. The association's slogan is “no live shipping, no competition”. We need to strike a balance between live exports and meat factories. There cannot be a monopoly.

Breeding for the market is also important. The Irish Cattle Breeding Federation has made the point that the Irish beef herd has too many animals that are not wanted by the market and too few that are. We must be conscious that we are breeding for the market and must make available information for farmers which will enable them to pick animals for any type of market, including the European retail market, third country markets and live export markets. The question of breeding is important.

There is conflict between the US and Europe with regard to biotechnology in the agri-food sector. This was an issue at the World Trade Organisation talks. We must be ready for this struggle and we must have consumer confidence in whatever new technology becomes available. We must examine the issue of cleaner cattle. The farming organisations know that it takes only a small amount of e.coli, for example, to cause infection. We must stress the importance of this issue. The question of artificial hormones in cattle was also discussed at the WTO talks. We should ensure that our beef can be sold as hormone-free. Commissioner David Byrne is very concerned with the question of food safety and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development should support and promote the work of the Commissioner and avoid the food production policies of the United States.

[758] The Bill is welcome and I hope the Minister will address some of the points I have raised. At all times we must remember what the consumer wants and bear that in mind when we discuss the other issues which will arise in the course of this debate.

Mr. Creed: Information on Michael Creed  Zoom on Michael Creed  I welcome the opportunity to speak on the national beef assurance scheme. The announcement of the outbreak of BSE in March 1996 was a watershed in the Irish beef industry and it has taken us a considerable time to put the necessary responses to that crisis in place. I welcome the Bill and the opportunities which this debate offers to reflect on the beef industry, its shortcomings and the opportunities it presents, in a calm atmosphere. In the heat of the recent crisis in the beef industry we did not have an opportunity for in-depth analysis or to put in place the responses necessary to ensure that the industry has a future and that many thousands of farmers can continue to make a living in beef production.

Deputy Kitt referred to the 14 BSE cases in January 2000 and these figures are particularly disappointing. In the calm light of day many farmers would accept that BSE was in our cattle before 1996 but was not treated with the same degree of concern as it now is. We are in an era of heightened consumer awareness and we must respond to this with appropriate policies. The use of meat and bonemeal in beef production is referred to in the Bill and the Department must look keenly at this issue which is particularly important in terms of licensing. I know the Minister is aware of its importance.

This debate offers us the opportunity to look at the industry as a whole and at the absolute need to ensure a viable income for farmers in beef production. We must look at the inefficiencies in the industry at farm gate level and in the processing sector. We would do a disservice to Irish agriculture and to beef production in particular if we were to conclude, as one might from listening to last week's debate, that the only problem in the industry is the alleged cartel. I await with interest the conclusions of the three wise men who have been appointed. I have considerable confidence in their abilities to analyse promptly the allegations regarding a cartel. The cartel is neither the major problem nor the only problem in the beef industry. The issue we must face is not that there are only three main players but that those three players control too many meat plants. To borrow a phrase from another political arena, we must decommission a number of those plants. There is some concern regarding Glanbia's future in meat processing. We have an opportunity to rationalise the meat processing industry. If all the sugar beet in the country can be processed in two plants, one in Mallow and one in Carlow, we do not need 46 meat plants to process our beef.

There has been a great increase in cattle numbers. We do not have a huge market on our doorstep and the renationalisation of beef consump[759] tion means we must make our beef marketing much more efficient. We have a successful marketing strategy in our dairy industry. We need a similar strategy for our meat industry which will involve all producers and processors and which will create a brand image for Irish beef that will transcend consumer loyalties in the countries which import our beef. The purpose of the Bill is to enable our produce to acquire a production standard that we can fully support. The Bill will not add a penny to farmers' pockets. We will be lucky if it can maintain farmers' incomes.

As well as the questions of cartels and beef marketing we must address the fact that there are too many accidental beef producers who believe that because they have the by-product of a dairy industry which is largely Holstein based they have the raw material of a beef industry. We must encourage more purpose-bred and purpose-fed beef production rather than accidental beef production based on the by-product of the dairy industry. There will be a disadvantage for the dairy industry in that transition but if we wish to ensure a future for the large number of farmers in beef production who do not have milk quotas we must make that transition.

Initially I welcomed the establishment of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation and was impressed with Dr. Wickham's production but there is scant evidence that it is making the progress that is necessary. I hope the Minister can reassure us that progress is being made.

The Bill is concerned with a licence to farm. In principle, I do not object to that. Ownership of a herd number is, in effect, a licence to farm. This took no account of a herd owner's understanding of agricultural production, his ability to carry out that process to a proper standard or to look after the welfare and health of his animals. Anyone who had a cattle crush and testing facilities on his farm was entitled to a herd number. This was a very loose arrangement. While some have expressed concern at the concept of a licence to farm, I welcome it. We have seen district justices prosecuting people for keeping animals in inhumane conditions and the principle of the licence to farm is acceptable. It is also acceptable in detail. There are ample checks and balances in terms of rights of appeal etc. It is welcome and I have no difficulty with it.

I have reservations about section 4 which is the blanket exemption for the food industry. If customers are being assured of the absolute quality of the production being engaged in, notwithstanding that the food processing industry is covered by a myriad of other regulations, it should be remembered that much of the difficulty with the contamination of food products arises in their processing, handling and storage. With traceability and the ability to identify from what farm a specific cut of meat comes, if there is a problem with the cut of meat, the finger will be pointed at the producer. That will create questions about his [760] licence to farm. It does not acknowledge the path which food follows from producer to consumer. Others will have handled the produce and there are significant dangers of contamination. I will take some convincing that the blanket exemption for the food industry is merited. That is notwithstanding the food hygiene regulations governing abattoirs to which other speakers have referred. I am aware that the industry is also subject to regulations from the Department of Health and Children. That exemption requires further examination. The farming community would be concerned about it. While they are prepared to stand four-square behind the produce which leaves their holding, there is a fear that, with traceability, the finger will be pointed exclusively at farmers. That would be unfair and is a severe weakness in the Bill.

Section 19 empowers the Minister to make regulations governing the registration and identification of bovine animals, especially the possession of ear tags, identity cards and the tampering with them with a view to falsifying animal identification. No one in their right mind would object to this. However, it is a part of the industry which is being built on the backs of farmers. There is not a brown penny in it for them. It is running flat out to stand still to try to arrest a decline in incomes. No farmer will stand over fraudulent activity such as tampering with cattle identity tags. However, there is a feeling that the law moves extremely slowly against those identified as being involved. While the hit squad in the Department has something of a reputation, the system of justice must move more quickly in dealing with these people. There are numerous cases throughout the country where prosecution is pending and where a number of farmers assume these people will ride roughshod over the system with no successful prosecutions. Justice delayed is justice denied and it damages the confidence of the agricultural community in the system. These are the people who pay through increased bureaucracy and they would like to see those jeopardising their incomes and livelihoods prosecuted, jailed and met with the full rigours of the law. While the section is welcome, it must be seen to work quickly against those who break the law.

Section 21 obliges keepers of animals to notify cattle movements and empowers the Minister to establish procedures for access to the register of certificates of approval and to the CMMS, the animal traceability system database, having regard to the rights of individuals and undertakings, and to make regulations regarding notification and recording of cattle movements and the use of the CMMS database to identify and trace cattle slaughtered for human consumption. This identifies one of the major structural problems in the beef industry: the multiple movements of cattle from cradle to grave. While it is probably utopian to expect that we could have incubated cradle to grave units on all farms, the estimate at present is that each animal moves six times before [761] slaughter. Each dealer and haulier takes the profit out of farmers' pockets. No cattle movement costs less than £20 and farmers' profits should be that multiplied by the six times cattle move. While acknowledging that the movement system must be regulated and monitored, we need to incentivise more cradle to grave operations and minimise cattle movements. It should not be beyond the capacity of officials in the Department in conjunction with the Minister of State to devise a system which would incentivise that type of beef production. It is in the area of cattle movements that the profit of farmers goes down the drain.

This scheme is part of the bureaucracy which drives farmers demented. Deputy Ring dealt at length with it and it was amusing in some ways because he used colourful language. However, it is a reality and there is not one Deputy in rural Ireland who is not familiar with at least 20 cases in one 12 month period where they can stand over what are bona fide mistakes rather than fraudulent intent. We are not such fools that we are taken in by every client who appears at constituency clinics. We know those who ran the risk and were caught and we have little sympathy for them. However, there is not one rural Deputy who would not be familiar with at least 20 cases in any 12 month period. The appeals unit in Hume House in Dublin 4 is a joke and is as removed from the reality of the predicament of farmers as it is possible to be. There is a need for a regionalised approach to appeals. That is an urgent necessity if farmers are being asked to take this scheme on board. They must be convinced they are getting a fair deal from the Department. It is one of the major outstanding issues.

In terms of farmers seeing something in return for their efforts, if the industry is rationalised and the number of processors is reduced, the other side is that there must be a strong marketing strategy. What happens at present between the main processors is inexcusable. One processor may secure a contract with a multiple in the UK or on the Continent. Next week one of its competitors, which also sells Irish beef, undercuts the other processor, either within or outside the EU, on the basis that the reduction can be passed back to the primary producer. That, more than the veterinary inspection levy, was what brought farmers out in protest. There was a feeling that they would always be the patsy to take the hit. If there is a lesson to be learned from the debacle last week, it is that farmers are beginning to fight back and there are a number of issues to be tackled in that regard.

The Bill is welcome in so far as it goes. It will not put money in farmers' pockets but it might arrest the slide in their incomes. A number of other issues remain to be tackled, such as rationalising the industry, marketing and purpose-bred and purpose-fed animals for previously identified markets. There has been a lack of urgency in the Department in dealing with these issues but, in [762] the wake of BSE, we cannot afford to continue with a haphazard approach to beef production. The margins are too small. Accidental producers piggybacking in on the dairy industry are probably the first casualty. All these issues must be tackled to put in place an industry which can face into the new millennium. The Minister of State would do well to take those issues on board as much as consumer assurances on beef production.

Mr. M. Moynihan: Information on Michael Moynihan  Zoom on Michael Moynihan  One of the main purposes of the Bill is to establish a regulatory body and to introduce regulations to ensure that the Minister, the Minister of State, An Bord Bia and other marketing agencies can market Irish beef abroad. Most of us understand that and are led to believe that when prime Irish beef is produced to the highest standards it is probably among the best in the world. We have experienced major difficulties and disadvantages over the years concerning the selling of beef. Four years ago the BSE crisis erupted. That was one of the worst disasters to hit the Irish beef industry and beef industries throughout the Continent. There has been a collapse in Third World markets. We have seen and continue to see skulduggery within the industry. There is no incentive for the primary producer or, to a certain extent, in terms of breeding.

I come from a dairy farming background. From what I have heard from various people within the industry over the years, particularly the past 15 to 20 years, in the 1960s and maybe earlier an effort was made to ensure that quality milk was delivered to the creameries or the stands. There were numerous tests such as the methylene blue test, the litmus paper test and, in the 1980s, the ACC and TBC tests were introduced. These tests have ensured that if anything goes wrong with a batch of cheese or other dairy product – I mention cheese because it is the product of my local co-op in Newmarket – which leaves Ireland through An Bord Bia or the offices of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, which has marketed it, it can be traced. There is traceability within the sector. It can be traced back to the farm, organisation or co-op which produced it. Unless this kind of system is applied within the beef industry, we will not progress. Most farmers would, from time to time, have experience of the slaughterhouses or the meat processing factories.

Two weekends ago I discussed this legislation with a group of people, one of whom was a graduate from the food science department of UCC. I asked him about the situation where one is in a meat factory and the grading of the cattle is taken, which is not an expert qualification. There is a computer test for milk and the raw materials of the dairy industry or dairy products. Surely some test could be applied for traceability of beef, and a carcase or some part of the carcase could be taken out and sampled to give greater accountability. From my understanding of the information I am given, it is possible, but unless we take every step necessary at departmental [763] level and in terms of the primary producer, we will not make progress.

I agree with previous speakers, particularly the Minister, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, who believes that there has to be rationalisation within the system and that having in excess of 40 meat processors processing our beef creates multiplicity and excess bureaucracy. The end result is undercutting on the markets, either in European or Third World markets, but the greater fear is rationalisation. Ten or 15 years ago – ten years ago certainly – the dairy industry and the major players in that industry were always saying that there was only room for three major dairy co-ops. Some of the smaller co-ops are as independent and as good as any of the major players. A certain amount of rationalisation is, however, needed within the industry, but how to go about it is another day's work.

We see skulduggery within the industry from the primary producer up to the processor. Over the years hormones have been found in beef, which is akin to national sabotage. It is putting one of our major industries at risk, and those who are involved in it or who take part in hormone production have no place within Irish farming or agriculture.

I spoke earlier about breeding. I have gone, over the years, to many farm meetings throughout north Cork. At least two to three times a year the dairy societies – Dairygold or some of the other independent AI societies – have had meetings or discussion groups on breeding within the dairy industry. If one goes to any of these agricultural meetings, one finds that farmers are attending them and questioning the various expert groups or the people involved to get more information on how to raise animals that produce top quality milk with high protein, high butterfat etc. Our side of the country might not be traditionally a beef producing area but I have very seldom, if ever, seen a farmers' meeting billed as the future of the beef industry or the future of the suckler herd in terms of giving information on the type of animal that should be produced to get the best results. A strong emphasis should be put on the fact that all the parties have to meet and agree that the price per pound that one gets for quality beef is most important. It has to start at the basics, with the breeding, and work up. There is an incentive in the agriculture industry at farm level to believe that quality is the way forward. That has been done in the dairy industry and it can be done in the beef industry.

People say that if one has in excess of seven acres of land – the actual criteria is a lease or ownership – one qualifies as a farmer, that one can just get a few cattle and let them run around, but farming is a very technically oriented, expert business. It has to be constantly researched and developed if its players at all levels are to progress. Since cattle forms were introduced in 1992, there has been much form filling to be done, which started with the headage grants introduced [764] in EU laws in the 1970s. Farmers, especially beef producing farmers, have a number of forms to fill in each year. Before the end of this week they must complete the new extensification form. With new regulations, they have to be constantly updated. It can be seen at the various meetings countrywide that farmers are gathering to get more information.

Today's farming section in the Irish Independent carried a heading implying that if the form was not filled in correctly or was not issued before Friday – this is the first type of this form – a 100% penalty would be imposed. The regulations have been introduced but there must be greater flexibility within the system. I know we must have rules and some farmers were not the best at adhering to them in the past which is why penalties are strict. However, farmers should be treated fairly. They are becoming more accustomed to filling in forms. They are as entitled to make mistakes as anybody else. As a public representative, I deal with other Departments which accept forms throughout the year. There should be greater flexibility for farmers in this regard.

The introduction of intervention for EU beef reduced the incentive to market our beef. The Minister of State, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe, who has responsibility for food, has made great strides in marketing our products since he took office two and a half years ago. At meetings in my constituency he has always said our beef is as good as that of other countries, if we make the effort and deliver on it. Intervention has provided a safety net but it has also meant that we did not have to vigorously market our beef.

We cannot discuss this Bill without mentioning the farmers' dispute with the meat factories which was triggered by the imposition of the veterinary levy. Farmers have been frustrated by events of the past few years. When prices were okay they did not take action. However, there was always a suspicion, raised at farmers' meetings, that meat factories were operating a cartel in some shape or form. They were watching prices and ensuring nobody was 1p or 2p above them. The frustration at the pickets on meat factories was heartfelt. The IFA members were frustrated with the lack of action. I welcome the resolution of the dispute. For the first time in a number of years, it gave farmers a sense of achievement. They had an idea that agriculture was not being best served by what was happening between meat factories and, to give them their dues, they brought about a resolution.

I spoke about penalties and the bureaucracy of the appeals system. Some of the appeals mechanisms are failing. Farmers can lodge an appeal and go through six months of filling out forms, with the same outcome as when they started. This builds up their hopes. Like any other industry, farmers should have a representative at an appeal hearing who can fight their case.

There is an ongoing debate about the difference between the price received by the primary beef, lamb or pigmeat producer and that paid by [765] the consumer over the counter. This matter must be looked at as it is causing serious concern. This is more evident in the sheep sector where lambs are being sold at mart for £25 or £30 while a leg of lamb can cost £15 or £20. This is a huge difference. I know the Departments involved are examining what can be done about this. This has been a problem for a long time. I remember at the height of the depression in beef prices in autumn 1998 when family butchers cut the price of beef by 25%. After a short time, the furore died down and there was no incentive to continue cutting prices.

I welcome the Bill and the initiative to impose some law and order in our beef industry. The Bill should be welcomed by farmers and consumers if it raises the standards of our beef and agriculture. I commend the Bill to the House.

Mr. Finucane: Information on Michael Finucane  Zoom on Michael Finucane  The 1990s will be remembered as an important time for beef. We started the 1990s with the beef tribunal and in 1994 the former Chief Justice, Mr. Hamilton, reported that there were many defects in meat processing plants. As the 1990s concluded, we began the millennium with the meat factory blockades, which was a defining moment for the beef industry. Until then, there was always tension between the urban population and farmers because of a lack of appreciation of the low prices received by farmers. The dispute exposed to urban dwellers the prices farmers were receiving from factories. They began to look at what they were paying in the butchers and found there was a huge difference. They appreciated farmers were not getting a fair deal.

In today's farming section of the Irish Independent I saw for the first time a list of some of the meat processing units – not all of them – and the different grades and prices. Most people would like to see an extension of this, as was promised recently. We must encourage accountability and transparency in the industry. There should be a league table similar to that for milk producers which appears in the Irish Farmers Journal.

Sometimes when the Tánaiste returns from a foreign trip, as was the case on this occasion, she is not up to speed with what is happening. This could be seen on “Questions and Answers” when she incorrectly gauged the public mood as regards the budget. Her choice of words regarding the beef dispute was unfortunate. She more or less defined farmers as anarchists when she said a state of anarchy prevailed. This did not go down well with farmers. Farmers cannot be described as anarchists. Their actions should be contrasted with those of European farmers, particularly those in France who often use what we would regard as anarchic methods to fight for their rights. The dispute here was a peaceful blockade in the interests of the farming community.

This Bill is important for the beef industry as it includes many positive measures, including traceability. One must admire Feargal Quinn of [766] Superquinn on his approach regarding identification, traceability and ensuring that the consumer is aware of the origin of meat. Consumers have become more discerning. This is important in relation to the Food Safety Authority and the recent appointment of David Byrne. Some people were sceptical when he was first appointed that he might not be as serious a player as some other commissioners. However, given the way in which things are evolving in Europe, including this country, and the awareness of consumers in relation to food safety, this is becoming an extremely important brief. There will be many developments in the area of food safety in the next few years. We all appreciate this because at the end of the day one must recognise that the consumer is king. That is the importance of a Bill such as this. The onus for this will rest with the farmers but everyone will be accepted until such time as the inspection process is completed. I would like to hear from Department officials how long the inspection process will take. Is a timeframe envisaged? Will it take one, two or three years or just six months to inspect all farms involved in beef production?

I endorse many of the concerns raised by my colleagues regarding aspects of the appeals procedure. Sometimes there is a lack of consciousness within the Department regarding the fact that many elderly farmers may have left primary school with a very basic education. Many farmers find the amount of paperwork and the level of bureaucracy intimidating. Some elderly farmers may not present their application forms for area aid to the Department on the basis that the area has not changed. It is interesting that when a farmer makes an error he is penalised. However, I saw a letter recently from a member of the area aid unit in response to a query from Teagasc on behalf of a farmer. When I contacted him, he apologised for mislaying the original letter he received. It is interesting that officials of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development can just apologise for their mistakes while a 70 year old man who did not send in his area aid form is penalised, even though he made a mistake. There is a lack of give and take in this situation. It is understandable that Department officials must be cautious not to put their job on the line because nowadays European Union auditors can come in and inspect files at random. However, there is a difference between attempted fraud and a genuine mistake. Those involved in the appeals process tend to have a very detached view. I am critical of the appeals process, which is very impersonal in that someone in Dublin tries to adjudicate in the case of a person living in Limerick.

In relation to food safety and traceability, I read recently that Irish beef was to be labelled as European Union beef. What is the logic in this, given that we are supposed to have the best beef in the world? We like our beef to be sold as Irish beef in Germany, France and throughout the Continent. The Minister was in Italy recently pro[767] moting Irish beef. What is the reason for classifying our beef as European Union beef? How is the debate progressing and when will this take place? The Minister of State has a great interest in all aspects of farming. There is mention of extending food safety controls in relation to pig and poultry processing and so on. If one is dealing with Tesco, the broiler unit will be inspected by Tesco officials in order to determine that it is satisfactory. Various veterinary people are along the slaughter line in the factory unit. This means the consumer can be assured of the quality of the Irish poultry product, yet there are massive imports from other European countries. As Europeans, we must accept this but there is also a massive amount of imports from non-European countries.

Thailand is the fifth largest poultry producing country in the world. I am concerned about the procedures that are in place regarding products from non-EU countries which may not have the same health and safety controls in place as we have. I read with interest a report published last year by a group of veterinarians who travelled to Thailand from the UK to inspect the different units in that country and to get a feel for the product and the conditions under which it is produced. That report listed a number of criticisms. Do our veterinary surgeons ever travel outside of Ireland to determine the quality of the products coming into this country? A lot of produce is imported into Europe and transferred to this country. Fortunately, much of the produce is going into an industry where it is cooked well and the consumer is happy.

I am concerned about labelling our meat as European Union beef. If a person goes into a supermarket, be it Dunnes or Roches Stores, and picks up a portion of poultry, he or she is entitled to know whether it has come from Thailand, the Ivory Coast, France, Belgium or Ireland. Consumers can then make up their mind. However, at present in many cases consumers are not aware of the origin of the product.

If the issue of food safety is to be taken further, we must take positive steps to ensure the safety of products being imported into the country. Very often there is just a routine inspection carried out. This beef document is important. However, one wonders if the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development will police and monitor this process or will this end at a certain point? Will responsibility for the produce be held by the Food Safety Authority or the Department of Health and Children? Perhaps there would be a lot more emphasis if the Department of Health and Children monitored the process from the farmyard gate to the consumer? Would this lead to a better policing system? I am aware that the inspection of farms would have to be carried out by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, but this could be carried out under the guidance of the Department of Health [768] and Children. It would be better if one Department dealt with the whole issue of food safety in terms of beef and so on. However, we must accept the proposals from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.

I welcome the fact that the IFA and the ICMSA have indicated their acceptance of this proposal. I wish the Bill well in its passage through this House. It is very important that we cater for the consumer as king. It is important to ensure improvement in food quality and safety.

Debate adjourned.


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