Thursday, 23 November 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Stanton: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this important matter and I thank the Minister for being present, however belatedly. The price of beef has fallen dramatically and farmers are under severe pressure. The price of heavy beef has fallen by between £60 and £70 a head and in some cases by £100 a head. The Minister will agree this is not sustainable and farmers will not survive.
Live exports are under pressure and have been stopped in many locations for the past two weeks and in some cases for the past month. What is the position in regard to live exports? What action has the Minister taken? What action does he intend to take? We do not want a blockade of factories similar to that which occurred last January. Has the Minister met the factory owners and farmers? Has he investigated the scenario overseas? What has he done to address this issue in Europe? A similar situation occurred in 1996 and last year and we have been around this course previously. The resolution of the problem should be in the Minister's hands.
What early warning system is in place in the Department? How long has it been since the fall in prices was noticed? What happened at that stage? How long does the Minister envisage this crisis continuing? What compensation, support and help will his Department provide to farmers? Are jobs at risk in the meat factories? Is it true that factories are on the verge of closing because of the crisis?
I did not come into the House to lambast the Minister but there should be action on this issue. What has the Minister done or what does he intend to do both nationally and at European level to resolve this problem speedily? We do not want the issue drawn out until after Christmas. Farmers and their families will not survive because they cannot sustain such enormous losses. Farmers must take heavy beef off the land. Beef prices were guaranteed in the 1990s but they have fallen. I hope the Minister has positive news for farmers and people working in the industry.
Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (Mr. Walsh): I apologise to you, Acting Chairman, the House and Deputy Stanton for being late. There was a complete misunderstanding and I profoundly apologise for this discourtesy to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to address the recent developments on BSE and its effect on the beef market. The market is suffering from a serious reduction in consumer confidence in some of our major markets as a result of certain events in France. This in turn has led to a sharp fall in consumption and, accordingly, a contraction of market outlets for Irish beef.
My approach is to tackle the problem on two fronts. Consumer confidence in beef needs to be restored and the decisions taken at the Council of Ministers meeting last Monday were important  in this regard. The standing veterinary committee also took decisions in regard to increasing testing of cattle for BSE. This should make a considerable contribution to the achievement of that objective.
Thankfully, Ireland has a rapid, reliable system for testing cattle. The decision by the Council of Ministers was to introduce this system for animals at risk from 1 January next but I believe it should be extended to more than cattle at risk. The cost is approximately £50 per head but under a tendering system that could be reduced substantially. If the test cost, for example, between £12 and £15 per head for an animal worth between £700 and £1,000 it would be reasonable. We succeeded in getting the Council of Ministers to agree the co-financing of the test by the EU and national governments. We can speed up the introduction of a more extensive testing system than that envisaged by the EU.
For example, it was suggested that the extension of the testing should be re-examined on 1 July 2001 but that is not way to treat consumers. Measures should be implemented to ensure absolute security and safety. Ireland is more vulnerable than any other European country because it is dependent on export markets for 90% of what it produces.
Given the dependence of the beef industry on export markets it is not surprising that the beef market has been affected by the current difficulties in the French market which, unfortunately, have spilled over into the Italian and Spanish markets. Outside the EU there was a problem in the markets of Oman and Russia. France is an important market for beef, particularly cow beef, and the considerable fall in beef consumption there has led to a major reduction in Irish beef exports to that market.
The impact of all this is evidenced in the fall in cattle prices in recent weeks, particularly cow prices. I emphasise that the high volume markets remain open. Our biggest market is Egypt, which imports 150,000 tonnes of beef, and the last thing we want to hear is that it has closed its market as that would leave us in a dreadful position. Thankfully, there has been no indication from Egypt in this regard. We have sorted out a number of technical matters in the Russian market and there is no commercial difficulty there.
I have made strong representations to Commissioner Fischler for an effective measure to support the markets and to address the current urgent problems. I am pleased the Commission has already introduced an aids to private storage scheme. It is a scheme for cow beef which takes effect from Monday next. It will provide for an EU contribution to storage of cow beef for a minimum of three months from 27 November to 2 February at a rate of 17 pence per pound and thereafter for another three months at 73 pence per pound. Hopefully, after that period the market balance will have been restored because we  are trying to calm the market and restore normality.
I have urged the beef processing sector to make maximum use of the scheme so that the full benefits can be passed on to farmers. I believe, however, that more needs to be done. At the Council of Ministers meeting last Monday I urged the Commissioner to increase substantially the export refunds to third country markets because it is extremely important. I am keeping in touch with our embassies in the countries concerned and Bord Bia on a daily basis in regard to the markets.
Mr. Walsh: There is no problem with live exports. Some trucks were prevented from entering Italy but we resolved that matter through our Italian Embassy. I have received no indication of a difficulty in any of our other markets. I recognise the difficulties facing the sector arising from the fall in consumer confidence in certain member states but I am hopeful that the discussions at the Council and the standing veterinary committee and the decision to be taken later this evening with the farming organisations and factory representatives will help to resolve the problem.
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