Wednesday, 17 December 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
The Irish pig industry has faced many challenges in recent years but none more so than last week when its very survival was threatened. On Saturday, 6 December last, test results confirmed the presence of dioxins in Irish pork fat samples and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, initiated an immediate recall of Irish pork and bacon products produced since 1 September 2008.
Not alone was the recall decision the right decision; it was the only responsible decision that could have been taken. It has been widely commended, particularly overseas and by a number of the country’s most important international customers. The decision was taken to reassure consumers that Irish pork and bacon products available on the market following the recall would be perfectly safe to consume. I am entirely satisfied that it has provided the necessary reassurance to consumers, as evidenced by the response of consumers to the reappearance of Irish pork products on the shop shelves last week.
That decision received the full backing of the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, having been asked by the European Commission for urgent scientific and technical assistance and to provide scientific assistance on the risks for human health. The EFSA findings give considerable support for the decisions we took both in recalling products and in the actions taken to resume production.
The Financial Times, in an editorial on Tuesday of last week, stated of the Irish authorities’ actions that “the main lesson so far is a positive one: as soon as you can discover unacceptable contamination in food, act without delay to withdraw everything that might be affected — and tell the public exactly what you are doing”.
The importance of the Irish pig production and processing industry is clear when one considers that it is worth €1.1 billion per annum and employs approximately 6,500 people, with approximately 500 farm families involved in pig production. Since the positive tests results were confirmed and the product recall initiated, the FSAI and the Department have worked through the various phases — protection of public health, restoration of consumer confidence, securing the future of the industry, and maintenance of markets and national reputation.
The recall was in respect of Irish pork products from pigs slaughtered since 1 September last. That date was chosen on the basis of the evidence available to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on a precautionary basis.
Contrary to suggestions, both in the media and elsewhere, the Dutch authorities only contacted my Department and the FSAI after my Department issued a press release on Thursday, 4 December last, confirming an investigation into the source of a contaminant in animal feed and the restriction of a number of farms.
Having recalled the product and taken the necessary steps to both protect public health and restore consumer confidence, the Government’s focus moved quickly to get processing resumed and get product back on the shelves.
The Government was particularly anxious that processing would recommence as soon as possible after the recall decision was made. We were conscious of the threat to the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of factory workers as well as hundreds of producers throughout the country. It was also important that our domestic and international customers saw Ireland as being back in business in pork production in the shortest possible time span and with the least possible disruption to trade, and I was acutely aware that many producers were ready to move animals for slaughter.
On Monday of last week, the Taoiseach and I, together with my officials, commenced detailed consultations with representatives of the Association of Pigmeat Processors with the recommencement of processing being the principal objective of the discussions. We all agreed at the outset that it was in everybody’s interest that slaughtering recommenced quickly and that we get back into the market, restore consumer confidence and protect what is a vital element in the wider Irish agrifood sector.
These discussions, while lengthy and complex, were extremely constructive and led early on Thursday morning last to an agreement on the terms of a funding facility that provided sufficient reassurance to processors to enable them to commence processing later that day.
The agreement provided that processors would commence slaughtering immediately following the Department’s agreement to emergency funding for a product recall scheme in respect of eligible pigmeat products. The scheme will apply to all primary and secondary processed pigmeat produced from animals slaughtered in Ireland from 1 September to 6 December 2008. Detailed terms and conditions of the scheme are being prepared and I expect to be in a position to make interim payments to those directly affected who can demonstrate verifiably the extent of their need during this early period in the process. The total facility I am making available for this scheme amounts to €180 million and my request to the House is for an advance of €50 million for this purpose, which represents the amount that I can reasonably expect to discharge before the year’s end.
Having secured agreement with the processors to recommence processing, I met representatives of the producers last Thursday morning and my officials have been engaged with them since Friday on agreeing an appropriate solution which would allow restrictions to be lifted so that normal production can resume as quickly as possible. These discussions are ongoing because, while some progress has been made, a number of issues are still outstanding. However, I remain optimistic that a satisfactory outcome can be achieved quickly. My aim is to get these suppliers up and running again in terms of supplying pigs for slaughter and processing.
I am acutely conscious of the particular difficulties that have arisen for pig producers, many of whom have thousands of pigs ready for slaughter. My Department is also exploring the potential for finding suitable slaughtering facilities so that the animals may be directly removed from the food chain in a manner that is separate and distinct from the normal processing of animals.
Over the past ten days, Ireland’s EU partners and the Commission have been unstinting in their support for our efforts and actions. Last week’s meeting of the European Council unanimously expressed its support for Ireland’s efforts to deal with the situation relating to pigmeat and our prompt precautionary actions. The Council asked the Commission to support farmers and slaughter houses in Ireland by way of co-financed measures to remove animals and products from the market. We are in the process of following up on these initiatives and an application for funding is being finalised. Last Thursday the Commission presented a proposal to member states on a private storage scheme for pigmeat exclusive to Ireland. This proposal received the unanimous support of member states and will allow the storage of some 30,000 tonnes of pigmeat products, with a potential value of €15 million, for a period of six months. This important support measure will give the industry an appropriate breathing space in view of the difficulties that may arise in the coming months. These measures demonstrate the solidarity and support that the European Union offers when one of its members, which on this occasion was Ireland, finds itself in difficulty.
In the course of my statement to the House last week, I outlined the inspection regime operated by my Department. The national residue monitoring programme together with the national feed inspection programme comprise the national food and feed control plan for Ireland. The national residue programme implements a risk-based sampling regime in which upwards of 30,000 samples are taken from across the food chain and tested for over 200 possible contaminants. The feed inspection programme involves approximately 2,400 inspections per annum throughout the feed chain. The annual inspection programme covers a range of areas, including feed importers, feed manufacturing mills, mineral mixture plants, recycling plants that manufacture feed using unused food of non-animal origin, feed retailers, wholesalers, hauliers and farms. The level of inspections carried out complies with and in many cases exceeds the requirements of EU legislation.
The premises from which the contaminated feed originated is registered with my Department as a feed business operator under the feed hygiene regulations which came into effect on 1 January 2006. The premises were inspected in September 2006 and November 2007 but on neither occasion was any problem detected. It was also scheduled for an unannounced inspection in December 2008. The EU regulation laying down the requirements for feed hygiene clearly states that the primary responsibility for feed safety rests with the feed business operator. That responsibility includes an obligation on the operator to identify as required under the legislation any hazard and critical control points and to ensure that all appropriate actions are taken to eliminate potential risks to the feed chain.
In regard to the specific investigation into the source of the contamination, my Department is being assisted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Garda. I also understand that Carlow County Council has visited the premises in the context of its responsibilities under the Waste Management Act 1996. The investigations focus on the type of fuel used in a burner which dried surplus food material for animal feed and the appropriateness of this type of oil. While the use of oil in the generation of feed drying facilities has not heretofore caused problems for the feed industry, this aspect is now being pursued with the industry and the relevant regulatory State agencies. In view of the apparent link to the type of fuel used in the drying process, I am asking the European Commission to consider whether the type of oil to be used by feed business operators can be more strictly regulated under EU Regulation 183.2005, which lays down the requirements for feed hygiene. I will also take the opportunity of tomorrow’s meeting of the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council to brief my colleagues on the events that led to the recall and the decisive response by the Irish authorities. I will also brief the Commissioners for Agriculture and Rural Development and Health.
When we have completed our investigations, we will review all activities associated with this incident. That review will inevitably include my Department’s annual feed control programme. As the Taoiseach noted last week, lessons are sure to be learned from this review. My Department has always been prepared to consider and constantly review the adequacy of control measures in the area of animal health, whether in the context of foot and mouth disease, BSE, avian flu or blue tongue. The same is true on this occasion. It is imperative that we continually assess our control measures. We are proud of our country’s reputation for food production and animal health and we work hard to maintain it. The House can be assured of my determination to ensure that the requisite measures will be introduced to maintain that reputation. While we are justifiably proud of Ireland’s reputation as the food island, we have a responsibility to protect that reputation. I am conscious that events such as this have the potential to tarnish our reputation and damage important markets. Bord Bia and our embassies abroad are assessing the impact of recent events on those markets. Last Thursday I travelled to Paris, where I had the opportunity to reassure a number of Ireland’s most valuable customers of the safety and quality of Irish meat. I am ready to assist Bord Bia in any way I can to bolster our important international markets.
The actions we took after the discovery of dioxins in pork and beef samples were well judged and measured. We acted swiftly to protect public health, provide consumer confidence and safeguard a vital industry. It is the experience worldwide of food producing and exporting counties that the crucial factor is not the actual occurrence of an event but how it is addressed. Our response was balanced, proportionate and fully supported by our EU colleagues. Having made these vital decisions we have since acted in a decisive manner to get processing back on track and to keep Irish pork and bacon products on retail shelves throughout the world. Our actions will reassure consumers and, with the assistance of a new Bord Bia labelling system, Irish pork and bacon products will again be as popular as they were before this problem emerged.
The provision of a facility of up to €180 million secures an important element of Ireland’s agrifood sector, which is worth €1.1 billion per annum and which employs 6,500 people if related sectors are included. Approximately 500 farm families are involved in pig production. The industry comprises 11 major processors and up to 800 related enterprises. Approximately 50,000 pigs are slaughtered per week, or 2.6 million pigs annually, and 65% of the 200,000 tonnes produced per annum is exported. Pigmeat exports were worth €367 million in 2007 or over €1 million per day. It is estimated that the cost to the Exchequer from the loss of these 6,500 jobs in the industry in terms of social welfare payments and tax foregone would be €140 million in one year. That is to say nothing of the potential costs of statutory redundancy and the profound impact on both urban and rural communities throughout the country.
This assessment relates only to the impact of the loss of the processing jobs which would essentially mean the end of the pig production sector and the enormous impact on the 500 producers, many of whose enterprises would be lost, and the very severe impact that would have in rural communities up and down the country. The funding I am seeking today —€50 million — is part and parcel of this recovery. It is essential for my Department in meeting the commitments we have entered into with the industry and I commend it to the House.
I thank the Members with us, including party spokespersons Deputies Creed and Doyle from Fine Gael, Deputy Sherlock from Labour and Deputy Johnny Brady as chairman of the Oireachtas committee. I thank other colleagues from all sides of the House for their constructive contributions since difficulties arose last Saturday week.
Deputy Michael Creed: The Acting Chairman might tell me when five minutes remain in the slot. Being here today is like waking up from a bad dream. It has also been a very expensive lesson for the State. We have previously had agricultural debates in this Chamber and in committee where we haggled over sums far less than the €180 million relevant here. Some €9.3 million would restore the installation aid and early retirement scheme on a national level when money is not as plentiful as it was. We cannot find €10 million for a cervical cancer vaccination programme.
That puts into context the extent of the crisis we faced, and €180 million may well be an under estimation of the damage done to the food island reputation. That can only be quantified as we move forward and look at the implications in the marketplace. There is plenty of evidence emerging at the moment of markets being closed and difficulties, even within the EU market, of markets being cancelled. It is incumbent on us to learn from these mistakes.
I am pleased to report to the House that the agriculture committee, under the chairmanship of Deputy Johnny Brady, met today and approved a very early detailed analysis of this incident. We will call as witnesses all the main players, including political figures and the administrative senior civil servants in the Departments involved. It is incumbent on us to learn from this. We must find €180 million in these financially stricter times, which I agree with, but it is important we do not repeat the mistakes.
In essence, the three factors standing out for me are the failure in traceability; the inspection regime in plants and the tests carried out; and the proportionality of the response. I listened to the Minister’s defence of the response and I must take that in the context of all the scientific evidence subsequently available. I accept there are issues between people on the marketing and medical or scientific side. Sooner rather than later we must critically analyse all these issues and decisions and report back to the House. I am pleased to say this work is under way in the Oireachtas agriculture committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Johnny Brady.
I am appalled that we are coming here today looking for a Supplementary Estimate of €50 million on a single sheet of paper. There is no detail available to the House or outlined in the Minister’s speech on the draw-down. As a guardian of the taxpayers’ money, that is the only document I received, with a brief statement from the Whip’s office, which stated, “The proposed expenditure relates to payments to processors, producers and renderers for the destruction of certain product and slaughter and destruction of animals, the rendering of product and animal carcasses and associated costs.”
I have been around long enough to know that people have undoubtedly had losses. There is potential in this compensation fund for persons not to be adequately dealt with while others benefit disproportionately. I will approve the Supplementary Estimate but it is extraordinarily lax of the Minister and his Department to come in with a request that the House approve €50 million for 2008 with no detail of who the beneficiaries will be or the criteria under which this fund can be drawn down. It is slipshod work in the extreme. I am sorry to have burst the harmonious approach we have had on the issue but the material is extraordinarily bereft of any detail at a time when taxpayers deserve us to place the utmost scrutiny on how we spend their money. There is no detail in this single page, which requests €50 million.
I accept the time frame has been remarkably short and that officials in the Department and the Minister have been under considerable duress. I appreciate the urgency of getting funding to people affected. Notwithstanding any of that, it is extraordinary to ask this House to approve part of the overall sum required. I would like to hear the Minister in his response tell us more about the remaining balance. Is the total sum €180 million or €178 million? When will we see details on that?
We have done the budget for 2009 and there is no provision in the Department’s Estimate for the balance of the fund. Where will it come from and who will fund it? Is there some other mechanism that the Department is not telling us about on funding? Were it not for the urgency and critical time scale involved for all, I would be inclined not to approve this Supplementary Estimate.
It is important to voice our concern that all who have innocently been injured by this debacle receive proportionate compensation. I am anxious, in particular, that the deal concluded in the Minister’s Department between the main processors does not exclude secondary processors in the industry. The main players were in that room for many days but those locked outside are now most anxious that they receive their fair share of the compensation. I appreciate the reference in the Minister’s speech to the issue that all primary and secondary processors would be compensated.
Will the Minister tell us more on the rendering process as we have not seen any lists of what is being charged to the State and where the product is to be rendered? What arrangements are being put in place? All that detail is necessary and if it becomes available before Thursday the Minister should lay the detail before the House before it rises for the Christmas recess. I appreciate that officials in the Department are working in a very difficult timeframe.
From my perspective, the most innocent victims are the individual pig producers who took feed in good faith. I will not stand in judgment on this issue until the Garda inquiries are concluded. The individual pig producers must be compensated and as I understand negotiations are ongoing I will not be prescriptive with regard to the outcome. If these people are to be out of business, it is reasonable to expect that those who put them out of business pay towards getting them back into business. It is reasonable that the losses should be compensated until the businesses are up and running, as they were put out of business by the State.
One of the biggest issues that must be addressed is the failure in traceability. This has been sold to farmers in all sectors on the basis that one could reach out and forensically recall contaminated product. We did not test it in beef and I am not sure we have the real answers as to why we did not. If we have the forensic capacity to recall contaminated animals or herds, why did we not do so and take the contaminated product off the market?
It does not work in the pig sector at all once pigs go inside the factory gate. We should either abandon all the investment we have made in traceability, or we should bring to heel the processors who up to now have not operated a clearly defined traceability system. If there is resistance to that it must be dealt with and it is incumbent on us to deal with it. My preferred solution is to continue with traceability while ensuring we have a system that works. We cannot tolerate a system whereby the industry dictates that it will not have traceability beyond the factory gate.
I appreciate the Minister is involved in a new marketing initiative with Bord Bia but that cannot be done on fresh air. It will require funding, so will that entail a further Supplementary Estimate in 2009? From press reports, I see that markets worth €30 million in China and Russia are closed to pork. In addition, the weanling cattle trade to Italy is in jeopardy, so I hope every effort is being made to secure it. We are also having difficulty in Poland, South Africa and other markets. This has been a nightmare scenario for the Irish food industry and particularly for the pork and bacon sector. We must learn from it and it is imperative that we remedy the defects that have so expensively exposed the taxpayer. I look forward to hearing more details from the Minister on this matter.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: There is no doubt but that this Supplementary Estimate is needed. It will cost the State €180 million because of flaws within the food chain. We must rectify the matter to avoid being exposed to such a situation again. To that end, I compliment Deputy Johnny Brady and the other members of the Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for agreeing to hold an intensive series of sessions in January to prepare a report with recommendations that I hope will be put to the Dáil before the end of January.
The primary cause of this problem was that the regime of scrutiny, including testing, at the feed supplier end of the cycle was not up to scratch. Even if the premises were being tested only once a year, it should be mandatory to send samples of the product for analysis. It happens with feed compounders and also when milk is collected at the farmyard gate. It should be standard procedure to send samples from batch numbers for analysis, including the testing of dioxin levels.
In addition the sooner our dioxin testing capacity is up and running the better. There has been a cost factor in sending samples to York for tests. I acknowledge that the results came back very quickly in this instance, but such testing facilities should be available here. Samples from companies such as the one that caused this problem should be sent for testing as a matter of course every week.
We heard earlier from Deputy Ned O’Keeffe that in Denmark pork and bacon products are 100% traceable. In reply to parliamentary questions, I have been told by the Minister for Health and Children that such provisions can only be justified here on the grounds of protecting public health, prevention of fraud or unfair competition. All three grounds are applicable in the pig and poultry sectors. We must get serious about this. There has been resistance within the food processing industry to clear traceability, including country of origin and production. It has been convenient for certain elements to ignore traceability and present foreign products as being Irish. We saw that by virtue of the products that remained on shelves recently. In recent weeks, it became a virtue to do so because the products were not Irish. However, the same products were being marketed beforehand as if they were Irish.
We have 51 abattoirs that operate under a scheme whose closing date was 29 February 2008. Various Fine Gael Members tabled questions about this scheme in July, October and this month, but they received the same answer. In the last reply, dated 1 December, we were told that results were expected from the 51 abattoirs shortly. If we had a network of abattoirs that were subject to full scrutiny we would have been able to contain the problem.
Deputy Seán Sherlock: I appreciate that we all had to act in unison last week and take the Minister’s statements in good faith as the crisis unfolded. Across the political divide we acted in the public interest. A total product recall was the only way to go to restore consumer confidence and export markets in the long run. This week, however, we are at a different juncture. The Minister is now asking us to stand over a payment of €50 million by way of a Supplementary Estimate. I have serious reservations about it because the Minister has not provided sufficient detail on how that sum will be spent down to the last euro. I agree that the compensation package must be negotiated but the lack of detail shows a certain disregard for Opposition Members who represent all sides, including consumers, farm workers and processors. We should be provided with far more detail of this Supplementary Estimate, given that it is taxpayers’ money.
My understanding is that this €50 million payout will cover interim payments to processors, although that is not stated in the Minister’s speech. Perhaps we can get some clarification on that. I did not hear anything in the speech to indicate that workers who were left out of pocket through last week’s closure of plants will be compensated. If plants such as Rossderragh are not in a position to compensate workers for loss of pay, which occurred through no fault of their own, there is a strong case for the Government to compensate them. That is not an unreasonable request in this instance. I am disappointed, however, that there is no detail of such a scheme in the speech.
I did not write a speech in advance of this debate because I wanted to listen to the Minister before responding. I wanted my remarks to be based on his speech. Over the past 72 hours, I have read a great deal about Millstream Recycling company in Bunclody. The Minister stated: “In regard to the specific investigation into the source of the contamination, my Department is being assisted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Garda”. Why is the Garda involved? Is it the Department’s opinion that an illegal or nefarious process was involved? If people are being asked to stand over a payout to the industry of between €50 million and €180 million, it is fair that they ask pertinent questions as to why the Garda has become involved.
The Minister also stated: “The investigations focus on the type of fuel used in a burner which dried surplus food material for animal feed and the appropriateness of this type of oil”. He went on to state: “In view of the apparent link to the type of fuel used in the drying process, I am asking the European Commission to consider whether the type of oil to be used by feed business operators can be more strictly regulated”. It appears that the use of this type of fuel is not governed by the Department’s rules, the hazard analysis and critical control point, HACCP, legislation or EU regulations. Will the Minister clarify this issue and inform the House as to why the Garda is involved? If the Garda is involved, a nefarious scheme is the presumption. If there was an illegal process, will there be a source of redress? Was the Millstream process illegal? It is the reason for this debate. The process will cost the State up to €180 million.
Ironically, anything that I have read about the factory in question suggested that the process was a forward looking venture well ahead of the posse in terms of new industry initiatives. This does not sit well and I hope that we are not hanging a particular individual out to dry. The issue must be addressed transparently. While we agree that compensatory measures must be put in place, we need to know who negotiated the package on behalf of the pig industry. We also need to know when the funding will be divvied up and, in light of the public interest, whether the details of who gets what will become available. If the taxpayers are to cover the cost, it is only fair that they know what is at stake and in play.
There has been a failure of regulation, but I do not attribute it to the Government necessarily. By way of constructive criticism, I suggest that we have a single figurehead — a supremo, if the House wills — to be in charge of food regulation. I am not discussing the creation of a new agency or quango. However, the statements issued by the Department, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, and the European Food Safety Authority could give rise to a certain degree of confusion as to where competencies lie in food safety. It took some 24 hours to realise that competence lay with the FSAI. Rather than a merger of competencies, I propose there be one voice within the regulatory framework so that when the members of the Fourth Estate and the Legislature need questions answered, we will know to whom we should go.
I endorse the Minister’s decision on behalf of the people last week, as it was a matter of national interest. We are well on our way back to market recovery. It will take some time because some organs of the media carried adverse publicity and used inflammatory and unwarranted terms.
It is important that we have a properly integrated system of identification and traceability in terms of all foodstuffs sold. As Deputy Brady is aware, it is easy to have traceability from the farm to the factory. The cattle movement monitoring system, CMMS, brings the process to a certain point, but what occurs after an animal goes into layerage? I once visited France as a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to try to identify sheep so that we could measure the impact of how the French advocate their own products to consumers. I remember well how a little French flag was placed in lamb on display. As Europeans, we are too good. We are reticent to show people the green, white and gold on our fine product and to tell them that it is traceable the entire way. It is the best product in the world.
There also appears to be a European reticence to country of origin labelling. The Minister should take Europe on and tell it to get lost, as the labelling must be done. There are idiotic ideas about substantial transformation, where something is supposedly manufactured or processed in Ireland if one throws a package of breadcrumbs on a basic product that comes from an external country. It is a nonsense. Deputy Edward O’Keeffe asked a necessary question forcefully. How is it that, within three or four hours of the announced withdrawal, some of our shelves were packed with hams and processed goods? They were already in stock and ready to hit the market.
We are not doing enough. We must call on everyone to put their shoulders to the wheel. We have a fine product and one little hiccup should not be used by people who want to say that there is an issue. Deputy Brady’s committee and mine, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, respectively, will tell the Commissioner in plain Meath and Westmeath language what we want. It is time to stop kowtowing to eurocrats. Instead, we should tell them that we want country of origin labelling. The same situation obtained in terms of Brazil. We have strict regulations due to foot and mouth disease and BSE. Everything is in its place. It is about time.
I am generally not critical. However, I am critical of the waste management scheme. The Government met at Farmleigh House, but the Labour Party has been advocating the building of schools. Some 400 need to be built, a labour intensive project that would give construction workers a chance. The farm waste management scheme could be another project. Only half of the total number of people in question have submitted applications to the Department. There will either be a flood of applications between now and 31 December or many eligible applicants will be prevented from carrying out necessary work aimed at protecting the environment. What will be the position in respect of these people? The Minister had the ideal opportunity to extend the scheme. I accept that he probably fought hard in respect of it but I am sure, due to the fact that there was money involved, it was the Department of Finance which put the kibosh on it.
The closing date for the scheme is 31 December 2008 and there is a stipulation that there can be no additional entrants. The scheme provided people with the opportunity to carry out vital work. However, it also provided much needed employment in rural areas where construction workers are being laid off. In recent months, farmers obtained good value because people began to submit competitive tenders to carry out the building work they required. All these farmers would have required was an extension of three to four months in order that the work might be carried out after the winter. There were three or four months during the summer when the weather was so bad one would not have put a snipe out on one’s land because it would not have survived. It is for these reasons I cannot understand why the scheme has not been extended.
I have heard that a new invigilation or inspection regime is going to be put in place and that local authorities will be given responsibility for it. I hope this will not lead to duplication or even triplication. The officials from the Department carry out examinations in respect of the matters under discussion and these are extremely satisfactory in nature. Like me, I am sure the Minister does not wish to see duplication arise in respect of such examinations.
Deputy Martin Ferris: In respect of the compensation package for the pigmeat sector, I am sure everyone is pleased that production was resumed relatively soon after the all-clear had been given. The compensation package agreed also seems to have addressed the concerns of the processors. However, another issue that must be addressed is the entitlement of workers in processing factories to receive compensation for wages lost while they were temporarily laid off. Several thousand workers in different factories, all of whom suffered loss of earnings, were affected.
The fact that €180 million has been made available for compensation means that there are adequate funds available to ensure that the losses of earnings to which I refer will be made up. I calculate that the actual sum involved would constitute a small proportion, perhaps only 1%, of the €180 million. One of the companies involved seems to be implying that the terms of the compensation deal agreed with the Government prevent it passing any of it on to its workforce. This appears to be a weak excuse for the company to fail to look after its employees, who were, after all, affected more than the owners of the factories. Not too many working families can afford any major loss of income for even a week and particularly at this time of the year. Even if the terms indicate that it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that workers obtain their fair share, as I have already stated the amount involved represents only a small proportion of the overall fund.
Now that the immediate issues relating to the crisis in the pigmeat industry have been or are in the process of being dealt with, a number of important questions remain to be answered in the context of how the dioxins in question came to be passed to the infected animals and with regard to the regulatory procedures that apply. One aspect that has struck many people, particularly farmers, is the apparent lack of rigour applied in monitoring certain sectors of the agricultural industry in comparison to the huge resources dedicated to farm inspections and subsequent investigations, often, it seems, in respect of trivial matters or on quite dubious grounds.
My office is dealing with one farmer who has been threatened with deductions to his single farm payment on the basis of an inspection supported by, of all things, evidence in the form of satellite photographs. He claims, and would appear to have proof, that the parcel of land in respect of which he was found negligent does not even belong to him and that the inspector involved changed the reasons for his negative report.
The contrast between the level of inspections for individual farms in respect of animal feed hygiene and companies such as that at the heart of the crisis is stark. On average, approximately 850 farms are identified, on a risk-assessment basis, for inspection each year. This illustrates that the level of attention paid to individual farmers is in contrast, it seems, to the monitoring of the plant, Millstream Recycling, which is at the centre of the pigmeat crisis. Said plant was not inspected at all in 2008 and only once in 2006. The only other plant involved was also inspected on one occasion in both 2006 and 2008. However, it was not inspected last year. As already stated, this contrasts with the level of on-farm inspection, particularly in light of the relative place in the scheme of things of an individual farm and a plant such as that to which I refer.
Even if an inspection had been carried out this year, it would not have examined the oil responsible for the contamination. This raises a number of serious issues in respect of regulatory procedures. Even though the contamination in this case was not sufficient to present a serious threat to public health, it is crucial that in the future this aspect of processing should be monitored in order to prevent any recurrence of problems such as those to which I refer or a more serious contamination of the food chain.
As already stated, a number of questions remain to be answered. A number of these questions have been tabled by Deputies Ó Caoláin, Creed and I with regard to the use of the oils concerned. We inquired, in particular, as to the origin of these oils, how they were supplied to processors and the position with regard to their destruction. In reply to a parliamentary question tabled yesterday, the Minister stated that up to now the oils used have not presented any problem and that, therefore, a specific regulatory procedure is not yet in place in respect of them. The latter is something which must be addressed immediately.
We need to know where the oils to which I refer originate, where they were manufactured and bought, the procedures governing their use and how they are disposed of after use. We must also ensure that mineral oils, including those that have been used in electricity transformers or which have been contaminated with such oils, are not used in the drying processes for animal or human foodstuffs in any processing plant. We must be presented with a full report on any circumstances where the use of those oils has been detected.
I asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources if he has engaged in discussions with the ESB regarding the traceability, sale, use and disposal of oils that have been used in its electricity transformers, particularly in light of concerns that such oils may have been responsible for the contamination of the Millstream Recycling plant. We also need to know the extent to which the ESB ensures that when oils are removed from its installations, they are kept under proper control and properly disposed of as per its agreement with the companies charged with responsibility in this regard. There are only three such companies licensed to carry out this work and only two are actually involved.
In reply to questions tabled yesterday, the Minister stated that he is satisfied with the annual inspection programme relating to other aspects of the sector. What he must do now is ensure that procedures which will lead to a similar level of confidence in respect of the use of these oils are implemented. That can only be accomplished if this is made part of the overall monitoring and inspection regime.
The Minister also said that the tests carried out by the Department enabled the source of the foodstuff that was responsible for the contamination to be identified. As a result the Department was able to identify and take appropriate measures in respect of the farms that received that feed. The animal foodstuff was confiscated and restrictions were placed on the movement of animals from the farms that were affected. Any other farms which received the same foodstuff were similarly identified and feed was removed from them.
In light of this information and in the context of the entire issue of traceability, which was an issue of central concern when this matter was debated last week, a number of questions must be asked. If the Department was able to identify the source of the contamination and the farms affected — and was able to do so quickly — was it appropriate to impose an overall ban? Does confidence in the existing traceability system not extend to situations where if the source of contamination and the destination of affected products are identified, the farms and products involved could be quarantined? Where confidence exists, as it seemingly should have in this case, that an outbreak has been limited and contained, should the remainder of the sector not be allowed to continue as normal? I raise these matters to highlight an aspect of the situation that should also be subject to departmental review.
There is also the question of whether meat from pigs reared organically should have been subject to the restrictions imposed. A further issue arises in that some of the wrapping that was supposed to be removed at the Millstream plant may have found its way into the production process. In a written reply yesterday, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food avoided answering in respect of this specific point but stated “there is no evidence to suggest that any residual wrapping material that may be present in the product presents any health or environmental hazards to human or animal health”. While that is all well and good, I do not think people will be satisfied that animals may have been fed foodstuffs that include plastic bags and wrapping paper. Surely ensuring that does not happen, and that the wrapping material is properly and fully removed, ought not be a huge task?
The article by Sean McConnell in today’s The Irish Times addresses some of the issues relating to the contaminated oil thought to have contained the dioxin found in pork. For example, he quotes some of those involved in the investigation to the effect that the oil, believed to have come from electricity transformers, may only be exported by companies issued with a special licence. Also, waste oil from the electricity transformers, and containing high levels of PCBs, is passed to these companies for export and destruction under special conditions, a process that involves incineration at temperatures greater than 1,200 degrees and which is not carried out in this country. I am told also that the same companies are involved in collecting similar oil from transformers in the Six Counties which they are supposed to take to England for destruction.
An even more disturbing aspect of this situation is that it has been claimed by some people involved in the general sector that one of those licensed to export the oil in question has been supplying the plant, where the contamination originated, with oil collected from the electricity transformers. Instead of the oil in question being exported and destroyed as detailed above, it was being used in the processing plant.
This, if true, is a serious claim and one that needs to be thoroughly investigated. I presume it is one of the aspects of the case currently being examined by the Garda. If it is the case that the oil was being sold in this manner, this raises several questions regarding the integrity of the company involved. Is it the case that these companies are being paid twice, once in respect of collection of the oil from ESB transformers for supposed export and destruction and again when they sell it on to the processing plants?
While the actual danger to human health in this instance may have been minimal, a huge question hangs over the supplier in question and his entitlement to hold a licence for the purpose of dealing with this oil. This, if found to be true, should be thoroughly investigated and dealt with. It is particularly important, in terms of the recovery of the pigmeat sector and for the overall image and health of the food production industry, that companies involved in any aspect of food processing is operating in full compliance with the relevant regulations and is in general worthy of trust.
Sean McConnell also highlighted the fact that as yet no satisfactory response, or indeed any response, has been issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in regard to the licensing requirements to export the oils in question. Also, he referred to the fact that the Health and Safety Authority has not yet been requested to conduct an inquiry into any possible negative health issues concerning the workers at Millstream Recycling. It is hoped the level of risk involved is similar to that related to the eating of any contaminated pigmeat. Nonetheless this issue needs to be addressed, if only to put at ease the workers’ minds.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Trevor Sargent): I have taken note of the order and will endeavour to respond to Members’ questions as best I can. I thank Members for their contributions.
There is no doubt that the pig sector has been adversely affected by recent events. The primary responsibility of Government was to protect public health and to safeguard the excellent reputation of Irish food. The evidence shows that the Government acted responsibly and correctly to the dioxin incident. This is not alone our view but the view of others who commented on the matter independently of Government.
When the positive analysis result was received, we acted immediately and effectively. The decision to recall pork products was not a decision taken lightly but it was, as acknowledged, a necessary one. It is worth referring again to the international and expert commentary cited by the Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, that shows we are viewed as having taken decisive action and as having informed the public as to exactly what we were doing. In addition, the BBC was complimentary as to the manner in which we handled the incident and pointed to the “meltdown” the industry would have faced had we not acted as we did. The Minister referred earlier to the costly alternative, a bill of €140 million per annum, with which we would have been faced had workers been let go en masse, a danger while evident at the time has now been rectified.
As Deputy Creed stated the timeframe involved is critical. The Minister will tomorrow attend a Council of Ministers meeting in Brussels. We needed to bring before the Dáil this Supplementary Estimate prior to the Houses going into recess. In response to those Deputies who requested a further breakdown of the details in regard to this Supplementary Estimate, it was not possible, unfortunately, to do so as this would have caused unnecessary delay. We are caught between a rock and a hard place in this regard.
Deputy Trevor Sargent: I do not accept that. On the public health issue, I need only refer to the independent scientific assessment from the European Food Safety Authority. I take this opportunity to once again emphasise that Irish pork and bacon is safe to eat. It is important also to reiterate that we continue to take seriously our food safety responsibilities.
The Minister, Deputy Smith, referred to the national residue monitoring programme, which together with the national feed inspection programme, makes up the national food and feed control plan for Ireland. The sampling regime under this overall plan is an internationally recognised risk-based assessment and is comprehensive in nature. I accept urgent lessons need to be learned. This review is part of the overall response to the crisis.
I visited the laboratories at Backweston and noted there a huge level of commitment and urgency in respect of testing. It is well established but not widely known that Irish laboratories can turnaround tests in respect of PCBs. While this is not yet the case in respect of dioxins, it is hoped it will be possible for them to do so by late February or March.
Apart from the determination to safeguard public health, our economic interests dictate that our agri-food sector is safe and of the highest reputation. For example, the meat sector accounts for €2.4 billion worth of exports and is a major contributor to employment and investment, in particular in rural areas. I agree with Deputy Creed that we should not exclude secondary processors who, along with renderers, were represented at the negotiations. They continue to work with the Department to identify, quantify and value the product in-store and for recall. I assure Deputy Creed that they are being included.
The agreement between my Department and the pig processors provides the necessary framework and allows for stocks and other product covered by the product recall to be removed for destruction. This will free possible bottlenecks in the processing sector. As I stated earlier, we are caught between a rock and a hard place in this regard. Obviously, protection of workers was a huge priority and we need approval of this Supplementary Estimate to ensure this. It is not, unfortunately, possible to provide Members with all the details they seek although we would do so if we had the luxury of more time.
I am heartened by the support and understanding shown by our EU colleagues and the Commission. The financial assistance being provided for private storage is tangible evidence of their good will. I am grateful to Bord Bia, the Minister and his officials who worked hard while visiting other countries to ensure we return our market, following temporary suspension of our exports in some countries, to full capacity. I am also grateful to the House for the general interest and support in the national interest in the past ten days. The investigation is ongoing involving all agencies. In reply to Deputy Ferris, the investigations have to involve the Garda Síochána, given the reasons he outlined. The Supplementary Estimate is a necessary part of that process and I commend it to the House.
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