Other Questions - Food Safety.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 619 No. 77

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  6.  Ms Lynch  Information on Kathleen Lynch  Zoom on Kathleen Lynch   asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food  Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan   the steps her Department has taken in 2006 to raise awareness of animal health conditions regarding personal imports of meat and milk; the methods she is considering to overcome the problem of targeting non-EU originating passengers who arrive here via hub airports from high risk countries such as Nigeria, China, Malaysia, Thailand and Russia; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18878/06]

Ms M. Wallace: Information on Mary Wallace  Zoom on Mary Wallace  Harmonized EU regulations have been introduced to control the import and trade in meat and milk products. Imports of these products, including the imports for personal use, are banned, other than where products are presented at approved border inspection posts.

My Department has a number of measures in place to raise awareness of these regulations. Transport operators who bring passengers from third countries into the EU are required to bring the regulations, including the ban, to the attention of passengers. Announcements are made on airlines and posters are on display at arrivals halls in airports and at disembarkation points for sea passengers. Amnesty bins have been provided in the main airports for surrender of any animal product that has been inadvertently carried. My Department has posted information on its website and transport operators, foreign embassies accredited to this country and Irish embassies abroad have been requested to inform travellers to this country of the position regarding personal imports of these products and invited to include a link to my Department’s web page.

My Department also liaises with Customs and Excise in respect of personal and commercial import controls of animal and food products. Officials from my Department are deployed at [1702]border inspection posts and other disembarkation points to carry out passenger interviews and bag searches on a random basis. This approach is particularly useful in the identification of passengers coming here from third countries, most of whom arrive here through hub airports in other EU member states. Customs and Excise and departmental officials co-operate locally at these points. Customs and Excise also operates controls in respect of the worldwide ban on import of animal and animal products of endangered species. The countries listed by the Deputy are those where my Department’s officers intercepted the highest level of personal import of these products during 2005. I assure the Deputy that our controls continue to operate in 2006 and that satisfactory measures are in place to prevent illegal personal imports. My Department will continue to review its controls in this area.

The Commission also monitors operation of personal import controls by the member states through its food and veterinary office. It is considering proposals including the introduction of a requirement for a written declaration to be made by each third country originating passenger concerning meat and milk products in their personal possession.

Dr. Upton: Information on Mary Upton  Zoom on Mary Upton  I have been looking at some information given recently to my colleague, Deputy O’Shea, and I notice that quite a substantial amount of meat and milk products has been detected, but there is no specific targeting. My understanding is that it is only where searches are carried out by Customs and Excise for excisable goods that any food or food products have been detected. If that is so, I would have some concerns, given our concerns about foot and mouth disease, for example, which we debated earlier. Other exotic diseases may now be imported into the country.

I would not expect the Minister for Agriculture and Food to provide exact figures, but has anyone ever voluntarily presented at the border posts to admit possession in luggage of exotic meat, for example, which the person would like to hand over? I am curious if any volunteers have ever come forward. In all the times I have passed through Dublin Airport, I have yet to see anyone but myself declaring for example that he or she has been on a farm while abroad. I wonder if anyone has ever presented carrying a food product.

Ms M. Wallace: Information on Mary Wallace  Zoom on Mary Wallace  Our understanding is that there is very active vigilance and great co-operation between our Department and the Customs and Excise personnel searching for excisable goods. Searches are carried out in conjunction with both. One of the key ways we have of identifying people coming from third countries is to interview them. We find the interviews are a suc[1703]cess in that respect, and they are followed by the searching of bags.

With regard to voluntary disclosures in the airports, bins are provided and the hope is that with extensive advertising, announcements on aircraft and the substantial number of posters provided by our Department in several languages, somebody who inadvertently carries a product might realise they should dispose of the product in the bin provided.

We also encourage the embassies to be actively involved, as well as the transport operators, whom we ask to suggest that passengers check our website. Between all of that, and the postering, we feel the message should get across.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  To clarify my earlier comments with regard to the food and veterinary office, I was trying to say the officials might as well be on holidays in Brazil in terms of the impact the reports are having when they return.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  That is not our office. It is the European office to which the Deputy refers.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  Yes, the European office, sorry. The Minister of State noted the posters. We all have experience of going through Dublin Airport and the reality is that it is a fair achievement to see the monitors in baggage control, never mind look at posters, when people are coming through the airport.

Has the Minister looked at reviewing the fines in place, or providing multi-language information on flights, on the website and on the monitors in Dublin Airport in particular, as well as in the other airports? Has the Minister considered enhancing the presence of the Department of Agriculture and Food there? I have never seen an official from the Department at Dublin Airport.

Mary Coughlan: Information on Mary Coughlan  Zoom on Mary Coughlan  The next time the Deputy travels, we will have him arrested.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  It is critically important simply to have a physical presence and highly visible staff in the airport.

Mr. Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  Is the bin full?

Dr. Upton: Information on Mary Upton  Zoom on Mary Upton  This is quite a serious issue. Looking at the figures, there are almost 1,000 kg of identified meat products alone carried. There seems to be nothing proactive in targeting any of that, and finding it is coincidental when people are stopped for other reasons. There seems to be no process in place for identifying food products being brought in. It happens only coincidentally through the activities of the Customs and Excise staff. Against the background of our concerns about importing other animal diseases, there is a [1704]need for a more proactive role for the Department in this area.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  When I hear the Garda talk for example of estimating that only some 10% of cocaine brought in is intercepted, I wonder if there is a similar estimate in this area. Can the Minister give a percentage? What training is provided by the Department of Agriculture and Food for Customs and Excise officers and gardaí who are also at points of entry? I am sure the officials in the Department are not the only ones asked to carry out this duty.

What comparison is made with other countries which have the white status as a clean food country, in terms of their mechanisms? Are we comparing notes with other countries which have a lot to lose, as we do, if we were to lose that status?

Ms M. Wallace: Information on Mary Wallace  Zoom on Mary Wallace  With regard to a multi-language campaign, I was in the Department today to see the number of posters available in 52 different languages, so that shows the effort in that area.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  Yet it does not do much good.

Ms M. Wallace: Information on Mary Wallace  Zoom on Mary Wallace  With regard to departmental staff at Dublin Airport, the Minister of State, Deputy Smith, is whispering in my ear to complain that a person from his office was recently transferred to the airport. The airport staff has been enhanced recently.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  Is it the case that people do not get transferred to the islands now, but to Dublin Airport?

Ms M. Wallace: Information on Mary Wallace  Zoom on Mary Wallace  The Minister of State is complaining he has lost a good member of staff, so the best of staff are being transferred to Dublin Airport.

Deputy Upton asked about identifying food. One area currently under consideration is the deployment of sniffer dogs specially trained to detect food. Anything else that can be done with regard to this issue will be done, but our current experience indicates that interviewing and bag searching produces the high quantities, so to speak, and the success we have in finding illegal consignments.

With regard to Deputy Sargent’s question on statistics, in 2005 there were approximately 565 illegal consignments in personal luggage and of those almost 3,000 kg of meat products and 237 kg of milk products were involved.

With regard to staff, there has to be Department staff on duty at the three main airports at all times. As for Deputy Sargent’s question about other countries, we are obliged to send annual reports to the European Commission, which monitors the situation very closely in Ireland and the other EU countries. The Commission is continually reviewing the situation and is considering [1705]a written declaration for passengers originating from third countries. We already fill in such declarations when we travel to the United States.

The situation is constantly under review both in the Department and in the EU. We have provided the necessary staff at the ports.

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