Recall of Irish Pork and Bacon Products: Statements.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 192 No. 15

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Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Trevor Sargent): Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Tááthas orm deis a fháil labhairt sa Seanad ar an t-ábhar tábhachtach tráthúil seo. I am pleased to have the opportunity to make a comprehensive statement on the circumstances that led to the weekend’s recall of all Irish pork and bacon products and to help clarify issues that have arisen since.

I will start by giving a brief chronology of the lead-up to the recall of the pork and bacon products. This issue came to the notice of the Department on Friday, 28 November when an indicative test on a sample of pork fat, routinely taken under the Department’s national residue monitoring programme, was positive for the presence of a contaminant, non-dioxin like marker PCBs. These are preliminary indicators of potential contamination, but do not confirm the presence of dioxins. The sample was tested in the Department’s laboratory complex in Backweston which I visited yesterday.

On the Saturday the farm from which the sample had been taken was visited by officers of the Department. They arranged for the slaughter and sampling of an additional three pigs from the farm and also took samples of feed. On Monday, 1 September, the first sample was confirmed positive for contamination with non-dioxin like PCBs. When the three further fat samples and one feed sample proved positive for non-dioxin like PCBs, the samples were taken by a departmental official to the Central Science Laboratory in York for analysis for the presence of dioxins.

Some commentators have suggested the fact that there is no facility in the country led to a delay in getting the results of the test. That is not the case. Owing to the fact the samples were taken by hand to York, there was no appreciable delay in the results becoming available. The State Laboratory in the Backweston complex is in the process of being accredited to carry out dioxin tests and it is hoped the accreditation process will be completed in the first quarter of next year.

Following the non-dioxin like PCBs positive results, the premises of the producer of the positive feed sample was officially restricted and a list of customers was acquired. The premises of the customers of the feed producer — ten pig farms and 38 beef farms — were then restricted. Farm-to-farm movements from these farms have since been traced and a number of additional farms placed under restriction.

The Department issued a press release on Thursday, 4 December confirming an investigation into the source of a contaminant in animal feed and the restriction of a number of farms. The following day the Dutch authorities contacted the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, about the discovery of PCBs in pork fat samples in Holland. It is important to stress that the Department had not previously been made aware of the Dutch investigation and that we were made aware of it only after we had placed information in the public domain.

[977]At 3.40 p.m. on Saturday, 6 December, the Central Science Laboratory, York confirmed the presence of dioxins in pork samples. A decision was immediately taken by the FSAI, requiring the trade to recall all Irish pork products from pigs slaughtered since 1 September. This date was chosen on the basis of the evidence available to the FSAI. The analysis of the feed samples taken from the feed manufacturer for the presence of PCBs supported this position. The FSAI also advised consumers not to consume any Irish pork or bacon products, but stressed that people should not be alarmed or concerned about the potential risks from dioxins found in pork products, as a short-term peak exposure to dioxins does not result in adverse health effects.

The decision to have a full recall of pork and bacon products 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 was the appropriate response to the confirmed presence of dioxins and believe it will provide the necessary reassurance for consumers as soon as Irish pork products reappear on shop shelves, I hope in the coming days.

The Department’s ongoing investigation into the source of the contamination has centred on a single food business operator and is being assisted by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the Garda Síochána. The particular focus of the investigation relates to the type of fuel used in a burner used to heat surplus food material for use as animal feed. This process is regarded as a relatively simple one. Preliminary test results on samples of the oil taken by the Department for analysis suggest the operator may have been using an inappropriate oil for this process. Further investigations are being undertaken by the EPA into the oil used. In the meantime, the farms placed under restriction remain under restriction and no animals have been allowed to move off them. I am acutely conscious of the particular difficulties that the absence of any processing is causing for pig producers, many of whom have thousands of pigs ready for slaughter this week.

The Government is anxious that processing recommence as soon as possible and particularly conscious of the impact on the thousands of workers employed at pig producing plants, as well as the many producers who are anxious to move animals for slaughter. It is in everybody’s interests that slaughtering recommence quickly and that we get back into the market, restore consumer confidence and protect what is a vital element of the wider agri-food sector. To this end, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, with officials from the Department, have been engaged in intensive discussions with representatives of the processing sector, with a view to putting in place a financial aid package that would facilitate the early resumption of processing. These discussions are continuing and progress is being made. I remain optimistic that we can reach an agreement that will ensure slaughtering resumes this week.

There has been an amount of criticism relating to the recall of organic pork products, as organic producers should not and would not use the feed ingredient in question. I know a number of organic farmers personally and I am fully confident they would not use the material in the feed. However, not all consumers would be aware of the conditions under which organic farmers operate and in order to give all consumers full confidence in the recall process and reassure them that no contaminated product was on the shelves, it was important to recall all Irish pork and bacon products from the market. I have, however, put in place arrangements to allow organic pig farmers to return their products to the marketplace and will make an announcement in this regard later this afternoon.

I would like to address the results of the testing of beef herds. The results show that eight out of the 11 samples were clear, while three were just above the proposed legislative limits for non-dioxin like PCBs in beef. The PCBs in the three beef samples were found to be significantly lower than those found in the Irish pork samples. The FSAI has also stated PCB beef [978]limits are completely different from those of pork. It has concluded that as these PCB levels pose an extremely low risk to public health, there is no requirement for a consumer level recall of Irish beef from the market. This conclusion is influenced by the facts that there is a substantially low level of PCBs in the samples and that there is superior traceability for beef. Also, the farms in question are restricted and animals from them will not be released to the market. We have a statement from the European Food Safety Authority to support that view.

It has been suggested that because there was no requirement for a recall of beef, the recall of pork was unwarranted or was a disproportionate action. From what the FSAI has said, there is a clear difference between beef and pork, and to suggest otherwise is to display a misunderstanding of the situation. There has been some criticism of the Department’s food safety controls, especially in respect of feed controls. I wish to clarify, in particular, the feed control and residue control systems operated by the Department. These control systems are major elements of the national control plan for Ireland. This multi-annual integrated control plan is approved by the European Commission and covers all the controls on animal health and welfare, food safety and feedstuffs controls for Ireland.

The feed inspection programme involves approximately 2,200 on-the-spot inspections per annum, covering all aspects of the feedstuffs chain. It includes taking 1,800 samples from the complete range of feed materials. These samples undergo a total of 72,000 laboratory analyses, which include tests for PCBs. The inspections cover a range of areas, including imports, mills, mineral mixture plants, retailers of animal feed and farms, and are carried out without prior notice to the owner of the premises being inspected. The level of inspections carried out complies with, and in many cases exceeds, the requirements of the EU legislation. Premises are inspected on a risk assessment basis.

The premises from which the contaminated feed originated is regarded as low risk because it receives its raw materials from companies registered with the Department to supply food to be used in the animal feed sector. As the raw materials were fit for human consumption, a feed premises using such raw material is regarded as low risk and is subject to one or two inspections annually. The premises in question was inspected in 2006 and 2007 and had been scheduled for an inspection in late November or December 2008, which had not taken place when the suspected contaminated material was found.

On foot of the discovery of the contaminated feed, it has been suggested this premises should have had a higher risk rating because of the apparent misuse of fuel. However, part of the risk assessment process is based on the results of previous inspections, in which no problems were discovered. The possible use of the wrong type of oil in a premises could not have been foreseen on the basis of previous inspections of that premises and, therefore, could not have been taken into account in the risk assessment process.

The national residue programme involves a risk-based sampling regime, in which more than 30,000 samples are taken from animal tissues at farm and primary processing levels. These samples are tested for a broad range of residues, including, for example, banned hormones, authorised medicines and a large number of contaminants. I am satisfied that the Department has in place a strong food and feed control system. These are complementary systems and, in this case, the contamination was picked up by the food residue controls. As with all controls operated by the Department, these will be kept under continual review to ensure that the food produced in Ireland continues to reach the highest standards of food safety.

The position that has arisen in pigmeat and, to a much lesser extent, beef requires a balanced and proportionate response. I am satisfied that the Government has acted swiftly, decisively and responsibly. I believe the actions taken will reassure consumers and, with the assistance of [979]a new Bord Bia labelling system, Irish pork and bacon products will be back on the shelves very quickly. Significant progress has been made in the discussions with the processing and producer interests and I am confident that Irish product will be back on the shelves very shortly.

Senator Paul Bradford: Information on Paul Bradford  Zoom on Paul Bradford  I wish to share two minutes of my time with Senator Coffey, while retaining five minutes for myself.

Acting Chairman (Senator Cecilia Keaveney): Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator Paul Bradford: Information on Paul Bradford  Zoom on Paul Bradford  I welcome the Minister of State. I am aware that he and his Government colleagues have been working hard on this issue in recent days, which is only to be expected. I am sure he shares my analysis of the scale of this problem and the crisis it poses for the Irish pork and bacon industry in particular and the Irish food industry as a whole. Ireland still depends greatly on agriculture for exports and the flag one flies for Irish food is that its quality always is deemed to be supreme. One still can state without equivocation that Irish food is the best not merely in Europe but, from a quality perspective, in the world, and this point must be proclaimed loudly.

However, Ireland faces a crisis that must be resolved. I was pleased the Minister of State’s concluding remarks expressed the hope that Irish pork would be back on the shelves within the next few days, which obviously is vital. I come from an area of north County Cork in which the pig industry is a significant farming enterprise and employer. For many years, it has been a beacon of the agrifood industry and last weekend certainly was an extremely depressing time in parts of north County Cork. I spoke to a number of constituents who are directly involved in this industry and, to put it mildly, they were both disappointed and distressed by what transpired. They wish to work with the Minister of State and his officials to resolve this problem.

When the Government took the decision last Saturday to take all Irish pork products off the shelves, the initial guarded political view was that the correct, and perhaps the only possible, decision had been made. Since then, there has been some debate on whether the initial Government response might have been excessive. I do not wish to enter into such a historical debate at present because what is done is done, but we must reflect on the scale of our response in respect of any such issues in the future. Obviously, I am pleased that, notwithstanding the difficulties that arose within the beef sector in the past day, the Department was able to respond in what could be deemed to be a slightly more measured manner. I hope this is the full extent of the required response.

The response now being sought from our pig producers, processors and those who work in the industry is a package of aid, which will allow the industry, first, to survive the current crisis and thereafter to flourish and grow. We also must ensure that consumers in Ireland, Europe and worldwide again are comfortable and confident to have Irish food on the dinner table. Some highly disappointing scare stories have been doing the rounds about this scare on British and European television and on worldwide media sources. It certainly is being exaggerated beyond the realms of reality. The Minister of State, the Department and Bord Bia must work hard to redress this issue in the crucial weeks and months ahead.

Were it possible to get Irish pork back on the supermarket shelves this week, it would be highly satisfactory. However, in the medium to long term, one must ensure that domestic and international consumers will wish to purchase this product. Consequently, the Department must lead the way in respect of a huge job of marketing or rebranding, if the Minister of State will excuse the pun. I earnestly hope that whatever investment is required in this regard will be made.

[980]I appreciate my time almost has concluded. I appeal to the Minister of State to recognise the scale of the problem this crisis has caused for families and producers, as well as processors and workers nationwide. While this is a valuable component of Irish agri-industry, the entire Irish food industry depends on consumer satisfaction with the safety of Irish food, and this is where the political argument now must go. Ireland should work closely with its EU colleagues and if assistance is required, it should argue strongly that it should be forthcoming because the European Union has a strong role to play in rebuilding confidence across Europe in the Irish food sector.

Senator Paudie Coffey: Information on Paudie Coffey  Zoom on Paudie Coffey  I add my voice of concern on behalf of the constituents I represent in County Waterford, where many intensive pig farmers and processing factories are located, all of which are going through a difficult time at present. I do not doubt that the Minister and his departmental officials are working as hard as possible to try to alleviate the effects of the bombshell that has hit the entire agrifood sector since last Saturday. Everyone acknowledges that Irish agrifood has been a major player on international markets. It is the threat to that which is the issue as well as the implications it has for production lines from farmers rearing pigs to processing plants to retailers and consumers. A vast and wide-ranging sector of society has been seriously affected by this crisis.

On the response to the crisis once it became known, it is worrying that we must send samples for testing to a science laboratory in York in England because we do not have a science laboratory in Ireland, even though we pride ourselves on being a leading technological country. The same occurred last year during the water crisis in Galway when tests for cryptosporidium had to be conducted in foreign lands and we waited weeks for a response. The same may be said of the cervical smear tests, which the Minister of State might think is not related but which I certainly think is. We do not have the capacity in this country to test for toxins or otherwise in the food chain. That is a disgrace and needs to be addressed urgently.

Time is of the essence in this crisis. The Minister of State has given it his full attention, as has the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith. We need to see pork back on shop shelves, as the Minister of State said in his closing remarks. We need to see confidence returning across the sectors, from retailers to consumers to processors to farmers. I urge the Minister of State to give them all the assistance possible, for example, through grant aid for farmers, who are innocent in this crisis, need all the help they can get, and depend on the Government, the Department or its agencies, such as Bord Bia, which has always done a good job for Ireland in promoting food exports. Bord Bia needs to be resourced well to tackle this serious crisis. We have one shot at it and we need to get it right. I urge the Minister of State to give it all the resources he can.

Senator John Carty: Information on John Carty  Zoom on John Carty  I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, to the House. I compliment him, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, and the Taoiseach on the quick and decisive action they took over the weekend in dealing with the recall of Irish pork and bacon products in which dioxins were discovered. There have been comments in the media that the action taken was over the top. The same sources would have had banner headlines had action not been taken, accusing the Minister, the Department and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland of sweeping a serious issue under the carpet.

We must remember that 85% of all agricultural produce is exported and it is imperative we have a perfect product free of any contaminants so that consumers in the countries to which we export need have no worries that the product is safe and of a very high quality. As an exporting country we have built up a reputation over a number of years, often through annoy[981]ing producers with regulations which they think are unnecessary but which have proven very necessary for us to maintain a high quality product for sale and export.

There are 2,200 inspections carried out each year throughout the food chain under the feed inspection programme and 30,000 samples are taken from across the food chain and tested under the national residue programme for more than 200 possible contaminants. This testing complies with, and even in many cases exceeds, the requirements of the EU legislation.

I know this is true because in another life, before I became a Member of the Oireachtas, I worked for the Department and spent some time in meat factories, and there was stringent sampling of the liver, urine and kidney parts from one pig in every batch. By batch, I mean that if a producer sent in 100 pigs to be killed, at least five or six samples would be taken. Those were sent to the laboratory to be tested and the products would not be released until the results came back that everything was clear. If the results were not clear, the batch was condemned and the producer notified that he or she would have to change his or her ways.

The pig farms placed under restriction will have that restriction lifted, I believe, as soon as the pigs are slaughtered. To this end, I appeal to the Minister of State, the Minister and the Department to act as quickly as possible and treat as highly urgent the need to have the pigs killed so that producers can get back in business. They have gone through a torrid time over the past week and deserve every help they can get because this was not their fault.

Retailers and processors also have been under great pressure in recent days, and the way in which they co-operated and helped in every way possible should be recognised. I was delighted to hear the Minister of State say he will make an announcement later in the afternoon that the organic pig producers will be allowed get back into business.

I have one criticism. While I did not hear the programme about it on national radio yesterday, I received telephone calls about it last night from constituents. Galtee makes up hampers which people in Ireland request to be sent to their friends and relatives in England, the USA and other destinations. These constituents received a telephone call from that company to say the pork products in the hampers were fine because they were not Irish sourced. This is dishonest because the people who purchased them believed them to be Irish or would not have bothered to send them at all. I hope after this the company rectifies the situation or at least is honest with its customers.

The Minister of State alluded in his speech to the issuing of a statement by the European Food Safety Authority, and I welcome that statement dealing with dioxins in Irish pork. Its two key conclusions are that in the most likely scenario, if someone ate an average amount of Irish pork each day throughout the 90-day period of the incident, 10% of which was contaminated at the highest recorded concentration of dioxins, the body burden would increase by approximately 10%. The EFSA considers this increase to be of no concern for this single event. Second, in a very extreme case, if someone ate a large amount of Irish pork each day throughout the period of the incident, 100% of which was contaminated at the highest recorded concentration of dioxins, the EFSA concludes that the safety margin embedded in the tolerable weekly intake, TWI, would be considerably undermined. Given that the TWI has a ten-fold built in safety margin, the EFSA considers that this unlikely scenario would reduce protection but would not necessarily lead to adverse health effects.

That speaks for itself. It gives confidence that we have acted correctly and that we have a very high quality product, as has been alluded to by other speakers. That is as it should be. We should be proud of our producers and of the Department in getting this right, especially in light of the fact we must export 85% of our product.

[982]Senator Feargal Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, to the House, especially on this topic. I hope I do not repeat myself. I spoke on the radio this morning about my understanding of this. The example I gave was of an event that occurred approximately ten or 15 years ago in America where poison was placed in Tylenol, a highly successful product belonging to Johnson & Johnson. A threat was made that if the company did not pay a very large sum of money, poison would be placed in more Tylenol. Johnson & Johnson was faced with a considerable challenge. What did the company do? It took Tylenol off shelves right around the world. It was done at significant cost to the company, but it is one of the more interesting marketing studies of crisis management. The company took the produce off the shelves until it managed to replace it with product in caps which were tamper proof, and it took some months to do so. When the company reintroduced Tylenol, it was known to be safe and ensured that what occurred could not happen again. I mentioned this because the company moved immediately at considerable cost to the extent that I am sure its shares were damaged and confidence in the company’s viability was questioned.

The action that the Government took last Saturday was correct. We had no choice. I congratulate the Government on the alacrity with which it responded to the problem. The Government did the same as the company to which I referred. It stated it was taking all pork products off the shelves, thus putting people’s minds at rest that they would not be in any danger of consuming Irish pork which might result in a health problem.

That was last week but we have to decide how to address the serious challenges we now face. I was delighted to hear that the Minister of State intends to announce that organic pigs are safe to eat. However, I hope he also moves quickly to support pig farmers and processors who are able to demonstrate the safety of their products. I am aware his heart is in this but that will not be enough to solve the problem.

  4 o’clock

The pork recall arose during a meeting I attended in Brussels yesterday of business people from various countries. I was asked how Ireland intends to solve the problem it faces. We need to blitz all our customers because our competitors are moving into the gap in the market that has opened as a result of consumers’ unhappiness with Irish products. I am aware the chief Government veterinarian is in Brussels to assuage the concerns of the EU authorities but we also need to assure our customers in Europe, whether these are hotels, restaurants, processors or supermarkets, that we have addressed the crisis. Bord Bia will have to use its considerable marketing skills and its global contacts to ensure our competitors do not take advantage of the situation.

We must re-establish our customers’ trust in our products. Yesterday in Brussels, the issue was raised with me by ordinary business people who heard about it on the radio. They asked me how we planned to address the crisis. It was only towards the end of my meeting that people began to ask whether beef products were compromised. I was horrified on my return to Ireland to learn that questions had indeed arisen about beef.

Significant damage will be done by this scare. When BSE was discovered in the mid-1990s, it took the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, ten years to lift the bans imposed on its beef exports. The Belgian crisis over contaminated animal products, which was also the result of dioxin contamination, resulted in the withdrawal from French shops of Belgian eggs, chickens and chocolate. In taking a precautionary approach, we have learned the lessons from these crises. Earlier this year, Italy was very slow to react to a scandal involving dioxins in mozzarella cheese, with the result that the EU imposed a ban. By acting quickly on our problems, we avoided this situation. The European Commission has recognised that we have acted more promptly than the Italians. I am also reminded of the scandal that broke some years ago [983]involving de-icer in Austrian wines. The Minister of State gave a clear explanation for the withdrawal from sale of all pork products.

Anecdotal evidence from my visit to Brussels suggests that Ireland has lost a lot of goodwill from EU institutions and member states. I wonder whether our rejection of the Lisbon treaty will affect the Government’s efforts to persuade Brussels to provide an aid package for farmers. The business people I met yesterday asked me the Government’s plans to recompense those who suffered losses because they assumed our checking system was inadequate. The Minister of State has done a good job of explaining that situation. Several people asked me why, after 20 years of success with our economy, exports and taxation system, we voted to reject Europe. I almost found myself defending the “No” voters even though I supported the treaty. I had to explain that Ireland is in favour of Europe and that we voted against the treaty for various reasons. People asked me how we managed to get so many things wrong over the past six months. We have to work out an aid package for those who suffered losses, although I am not sure how we will go about this task.

The lesson Belgium learned from its scandal was that the way in which animal food is prepared is often a disaster waiting to happen. In the Belgian case, approximately 20 companies were involved in the collection of animal fat from slaughterhouses for use in animal feed, and it was common practice to include household waste. As a result of the scandal, the country’s agriculture minister, Karel Pinxten, and health minister, Marcel Kolla, had to resign. I am not suggesting a similar response in Ireland’s case.

The real challenge we face lies not in studying the past but in restoring our customers’ trust in Irish pork products in the future. Our customers comprise ordinary citizens as well as processors and supermarkets. Let us ensure this does not destroy their trust.

Senator Dan Boyle: Information on Dan Boyle  Zoom on Dan Boyle  The crisis that followed the recall of Irish pork and bacon products relates as much to the economy as to food safety. We need to consider the impact on the turnover of pork producers during the worst possible time of the year. Already we are seeing a short-term impact in terms of staff being laid off. Further down the production chain, the impact will be even more strongly felt on individual farms. As well as dealing with the short-term revenue losses, we will have to restore sales of Irish pork nationally and internationally to their previous levels. We will also have to consider compensatory measures, either from our much depleted national purse or, it is hoped, with the appropriate assistance of the EU. Although as yet difficult to measure, the economic impact will be significant.

As Senator Quinn noted, the Government’s response to the crisis was immediate and appropriate in terms of inspiring public confidence. Lessons were learned from the experience of other countries, such as the toxins in Belgian meat, the recent mozzarella scare in Italy and the powdered milk scandal in China. If any question arises in regard to contaminants in food, the only responsible reaction is a prompt and comprehensive response. The Government and the State agencies have acted appropriately in this regard. The presence in the House of my party colleague, the Minister of State, gives me the opportunity to commend him on his reassuring statements which have helped to restore public confidence in Irish pork.

The impact of a total recall of these products is diminished by the fact that people need to be exposed to them for 40 years before they develop symptoms. If the quantities of dioxin build up in a person’s system they may not feel the impact, either immediately or in the long term, on their own personal health. That is not the issue. A product was found that is a known contaminant and it should not have been in the food. It affects the quality of our branded products and our reputation in the world. We must immediately put in place systems that eliminate this risk and ensure the risk cannot happen in future. Government actions and the actions of State agencies are dedicated to that and the crisis has been handled well to date.

[984]There is a job to be done. There are banner headlines on the 24-hour news stations and foreign newspapers that are now stating toxins have been found in Irish pork products. There will not be similar headlines in a week or ten days that will state Irish pork products are clear of toxins. Senator Quinn is correct in stating there is a big selling job to be done by Bord Bia to restore that international reputation.

The fact we have acted in the way we have and with speed is the best card we can play in restoring that confidence. As a country committed to agricultural exports of the highest quality, we can say that we acted appropriately in trying to ensure any contamination which existed is eliminated from our food chain. We can point to the example of other competing countries in the food market which have not acted similarly. It may take some time but I am sure the way in which Irish food products have been viewed in the past can be restored.

Not only is it the worst possible time for pork producers because of the Christmas market but it is not the best possible time at all for the Irish economy, as we are seeking to restore our competitive advantage, increase our exports and get more added value from our economy. The fact we have acted in the way we have should be taken as a mark of confidence. There is a danger that given the cycle of news events we have received in the past nine months in particular, we could retreat into a shell, look at the dark side and be despondent and pessimistic. We should take pride in the fact that we are capable of producing goods of the highest quality. That is what we are good at, and we must get back into the international market. If and when occurrences of this type happen, we should take appropriate measures.

We have to isolate this issue but there are lessons that can be learned in bringing a level of traceability to pork products that currently exists in regard to beef. We must ensure the risk of dioxins is minimised to the largest possible extent, and that will have ramifications for other areas of local, national or international policy. For example, should we be encouraging the creation of incinerators that produce dioxins that may end up in the food chain? These questions must be asked and I am sure they will be considered in the wider context of a review of Government policy.

The common view of all within the Chamber is that what can be done is being done. Our common hope is that Irish pork products can be restored to shop shelves in the quickest possible time. The Minister of State will get a great deal of support for the actions he has taken in this regard.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: Information on Joe O'Reilly  Zoom on Joe O'Reilly  I ask permission to share a minute of my time with my colleague, Senator McFadden.

Acting Chairman: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator Joe O’Reilly: Information on Joe O'Reilly  Zoom on Joe O'Reilly  I join others in welcoming the Minister of State. There are a number of steps that must be taken as a matter of urgency. They merit repeating, although a number of them have been in the media over the past few days. As a result of the grave losses that processors and producers have had to accept, a compensation package must be put in place. That matter is under negotiation but there is a clear need for it.

It would be welcome to get as much funding as possible from the EU in this respect. I note that the result of the Lisbon treaty referendum is not helping in this regard. There must be a compensation package — irrespective of whether it comes from the EU — and the economy must take this hit if necessary. The people involved could not continue otherwise. A point has emerged today of banks facilitating both processors and producers over the next week or so, and this should come about.

[985]It is crucial to get processing up and running immediately. I and others welcome the Minister of State’s announcement on organic pig production and the processing thereof. I hope that within hours we can have a similar announcement for the entire sector. We must get back to normal very quickly.

The incident is an indictment of our licensing and inspection of food processing facilities. We must examine this inspection system of food facilities. It is horrendous this processing system was allowed to operate under the radar and was described in memoranda as a low-level risk. There had been no scrutiny of the facility in 2008. Immediate action is required.

This was a systems failure and there is no point in saying otherwise. We did not have a better system of inspection or detection and more consistent monitoring. We have discussed this matter in the House before as it is in stark contrast with the kind of red tape and almost daily inspections that ordinary producers go through. It was an horrendous failure in this respect. Ordinary farmers experience red tape to a prohibitive degree and they must feel so frustrated, angry and that they are the innocent victims of something over which they had no control.

The question of traceability arises and it is great that there is such a high level of traceability in the beef sector. I am interested in the response of the Minister of State on this matter, as we will need a specific and almost renewed charter of traceability criteria, rules and regulations. There must be a re-evaluation of what we are doing about traceability. We will need aggressive marketing of Irish products. We know our Irish food is the best but we got horrendous publicity yesterday on Sky News, whose reporting was very bleak. I hope that can change but we will need an aggressive marketing programme.

I know the country is in bad shape but we must compensate farmers and processors to help them cope with the horrendous losses they have experienced. Similarly, we must spend some money on an initial tranche of advertising to cope with the current difficulty. That would be money well spent. We spoke about spending money in foreign countries on a different matter in previous weeks. I am not talking about that but we need effective marketing of our produce abroad over the next couple of months to get over this difficulty. The problem will be surmounted at that level.

These are the only suggestions I can make in the confines of my time. I will promptly hand over to my colleague, Senator McFadden.

Senator Nicky McFadden: Information on Nicky McFadden  Zoom on Nicky McFadden  I thank Senator O’Reilly. Why was the source factory not inspected and tested for the unlicensed oil and why was the oil unlicensed? The EPA and Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have both indicated it was not within their remit to have checked and inspected the oil. To restore confidence we must have answers to those questions. I read the Minister of State’s speech and cannot see the answers in it. I ask that the answers be given to the broader public, as it would inspire confidence.

Senator Ned O’Sullivan: Information on Ned O'Sullivan  Zoom on Ned O'Sullivan  Without repeating what everybody else has said, this is a very important and worrying issue for the country in terms of the overall economy and particularly for pig producers, processors, factory workers and consumers. I commend Senator O’Reilly on a very measured contribution and the Opposition, in the main, has been responsible in this debate, which is very welcome. The matter is too important to play politics with it. I am not sure I would agree with the Senator that there has been a systems failure. No system is perfect anywhere in the world and the human condition is fraught with problems and failures. The matter was handled well and I would not call it a failure but a field test of a system. The backup and safeguards were present. I commend the Government and the Minister, in particular, as well as the State agencies concerned, on the prompt manner in which they dealt with the crisis. They had a tough call to make but made it, for which they must be respected. Initially, my [986]view was that the image of Ireland as a producer of clean, high quality foods would be damaged. However, given the manner in which the matter was handled by the Government and its agencies, our reputation has been enhanced because one can see how serious we are about protecting the image of our food. One also sees that we are prepared to announce a total recall of a product. One must compare this with what happened in Belgium in 1999 when the Belgian Government and its agencies fiddled around with the problem encountered in that country. Information was doled out sparingly and the action taken was not as clear-cut or decisive as that taken here. That puts the matter into proper perspective. It is interesting to note that the French Minister for agriculture has commended the Government on its handling of the matter. In addition, the European Commission is clearly satisfied because it issued a welcome statement within the past hour.

I thank the chief veterinary officer for his good media presentations, with the director of the Food Safety Authority, which reassured the public. I agree with previous speakers that we must now go on a PR offensive to rectify the damage caused. I call on the media, in particular our national broadcaster, RTE, to help us out in dealing with the crisis and to rectify the damage done by the less than balanced coverage on other television channels. There is an opportunity for us to do so. In the past I commended the work of Bord Bia but it has much to do before Christmas. I have no doubt that it will be able for the job.

I was disappointed to learn that organic pigmeat was also being included in the ban. It is a big disappointment for the Minister of State who has done such tremendous work in promoting organic food. I can understand the reason — to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that all possible dangerous products had been recalled. However, it still presents the organic food sector with an opportunity to step up to the mark and enjoy an even greater profile. The sector has grown under the Minister of State’s supervision in recent times and there is still a major opportunity with the approach of the Christmas market. People will now be looking far more closely at all of their food products; therefore, the message should be that organic food is of high quality. Although there was no problem with it, it was recalled to be safer than safe.

One worrying aspect concerns the labelling of so-called Irish food products. Products are marketed here as being Irish when, in fact, they are not but sourced abroad. If my information is correct, one of our business people is having it both ways in this respect. They have been happily importing pork before slicing and vacuum packing it here to market it as an Irish product. I am told that they are busy telling people that it is not an Irish product and is quite safe to eat because it is sourced abroad. Talk about having an each-way bet.

Obviously, we have to get processing back on stream again and it should happen before the end of this week. I welcome the Minister of State’s intended announcement this evening on the organic sector. I support his efforts to introduce our own testing process shortly.

Senator John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan  Zoom on John Paul Phelan  I welcome the Minister of State. What I have to say will not be greatly different from what previous speakers have said. I happened to be in London over the weekend and received a few messages about what happened on Saturday. British television coverage of the story was the most appalling advertisement for Irish food that one could imagine. Every hour on the hour, the first item on Sky News was about Irish pork products being withdrawn from shelves across the world. It was presented in a sensationalist way as an immediate threat to health because it claimed that all Irish pork products were affected. It will be difficult to convince shoppers that it is safe to buy Irish pork products in the future. It will require a lot of investment and effort by those charged with that task. I sincerely wish them the best of luck in that regard.

[987]The incident raises a few puzzling questions. I emphatically disagree with those on the other side of the House who have spoken about the Government’s fast reaction. I have read in a number of publications that questions were raised about dioxin contamination of Irish pork last September by a Dutch gelatin producer. That information was passed at the time to the relevant Irish authorities. The Dutch producer was able to narrow down the inputs and test them. He found that there was a problem with his Irish inputs and this information was passed to some of the relevant authorities here. It seems, however, that no action was taken. I may be wrong and it may be one of those stories one hears——

Deputy Trevor Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  That is not true. It was not passed to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland or the Department.

Senator John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan  Zoom on John Paul Phelan  Perhaps but it is one of the stories I have come across in the past few days. If it were true, it would put paid to the notion that there was a swift reaction by the State agencies in this case.

Deputy Trevor Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  It is like Hans Christian Andersen.

Senator John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan  Zoom on John Paul Phelan  Other speakers have mentioned the rigorous testing and inspection procedure to which farmers are subject. It is appalling that the plant in question in Carlow was not inspected this year. It is strange that pig producers are required to keep feed samples for six months, yet the testing of these samples by the relevant Government authorities must have been inadequate. Nonetheless, it is their responsibility to ensure feed inputs meet certain standards. Why are pig producers keeping such samples if they are not being tested by the relevant authorities? It must not have happened in this case, given the problems that have emerged.

The pig sector is the Cinderella of Irish agriculture. The approximately 400 to 500 producers remaining are on their knees. I join colleagues who have urged that some compensation package be put in place for them, as well as for pig processors. A number of such businesses are in serious difficulty, including three in my area in south Kilkenny, in which a number of employees have been placed on protective notice. Some 300 have been temporarily laid off.

Acting Chairman: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  The Senator’s time has expired.

Senator John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan  Zoom on John Paul Phelan  The Minister of State and the Department must reach an arrangement with the processors and producers as soon as possible. The sector is in danger of entering a terminal decline if it is not helped in its greatest hour of need.

Since my time is concluding, I have a final point to make. I do not disagree with Senators who have referred to the Government’s response in removing all pork products from shelves, but a question remains, as 90% of that product was unaffected. The PR impact of the complete removal has been negative globally, if not so much in Ireland. I hope the Minister of State will respond.

Senator John Ellis: Information on John Ellis  Zoom on John Ellis  I wish to share time with Senator O’Donovan. Will the Acting Chairman let me know when I have spoken for three minutes?

Acting Chairman: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator John Ellis: Information on John Ellis  Zoom on John Ellis  I welcome the Minister of State to the House to discuss what may have been one of the most frightening agricultural crises since the BSE scare. I hope that, by discussing the matter, the House will not do the food industry unnecessary damage.

[988]Senator John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan  Zoom on John Paul Phelan  Hear, hear.

Senator John Ellis: Information on John Ellis  Zoom on John Ellis  That industry is up to scratch in practically every sense of the term. The problem was not caused by the food. Rather, it was caused by the process through which products were dried for use as animal feed.

Two or three questions must be pursued vigorously. Why is a recycled oil that is banned in other countries allowed for use in Irish industry? Derogation was sought, but I hope the Minister of State and the Department will discover who was the culprit behind the supply of substandard oil. The oil’s usage is a knock-on effect of everyday events in food production. Multinationals have taken control of the entire food industry and are forcing people to produce food at uneconomical rates. This is the problem. If people are unprepared to pay producers realistic prices, the latter will not be able to produce. The knock-on effects cross the board. We have been told that the oil was at a reduced price because it was not up to scratch. According to my information, some of it should have been destroyed by incineration, not used. This situation must be examined.

Farmers purchased feed in good faith because it was cheaper than anything else available. Their margins are being so squeezed by the multinationals, the largest food sellers across Europe, that they are unable to produce at a realistic price. Until we decide that farmers should be paid properly, we will continue to encounter such problems. Costs and corners are being cut, the net result of which equates to people being forced into the actions taken. Multinationals are taking frightening margins and farmers must realise that, unless everyone involved takes a stand, nothing will be done. Consumers must stand with farmers and make it clear that multinationals will not be allowed to take criminal margins. Considering the prices paid to primary producers vis-à-vis what housewives pay in shops, the margins are phenomenal.

Acting Chairman: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  The Senator has used three minutes.

Senator John Ellis: Information on John Ellis  Zoom on John Ellis  I hope that immediate action will be taken. To satisfy multinationals, farmers are being asked to accept prices that are lower than their production costs.

Senator Denis O’Donovan: Information on Dennis O'Donovan  Zoom on Dennis O'Donovan  I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I compliment him and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, on taking effective and stern action on this major crisis.

The Minister of State’s hope that organic food producers are recognised for their work and that restrictions on them are lifted as soon as possible is welcome. Organic farming is close to his heart and is something in which I have developed great faith. Given the increase in the number of old style country markets in every town in west County Cork, it is evident that organic farming is on its way back. Unfortunately, its economic viability is not strong and those farmers have a tough task, but the artisan and slow food industries must be promoted. Were there ever a catalyst for the promulgation of their types of food product, the current crisis has pointed us in the right direction. I welcome the fact that they will be set to one side. Sometimes, they are sneered at by large producers and multinationals, but the general public is rowing back towards such foodstuffs. This is evident from the crowds that attend markets in Schull, Skibbereen, Bandon and Kinsale each weekend.

The crisis surprised me. The Department took a hands on approach and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, and other State agencies became involved. However, it is time for a single food safety authority with ultimate power and responsibility. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, could be doing something while the FSAI could be doing something else. There should be a single food safety authority in respect of all foodstuffs, from the land to the sea. In line with the old Latin maxim, delegatus non potest delegare, there [989]should be no delegation or dereliction of duty. I support the FSAI, but it should be the final arbiter in terms of food. There should be no shilly-shallying or side-stepping by State agencies.

Acting Chairman: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  The Senator’s time has concluded.

Senator Denis O’Donovan: Information on Dennis O'Donovan  Zoom on Dennis O'Donovan  I compliment the Minister of State and the Department on their work. We are on the road back from an awful crisis. We will learn from it and the food industry will become stronger.

Senator Liam Twomey: Information on Liam Twomey  Zoom on Liam Twomey  I wish to share time with Senator Regan. Will the Acting Chairman stop me after two minutes?

Acting Chairman: Information on Cecilia Keaveney  Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Senator Liam Twomey: Information on Liam Twomey  Zoom on Liam Twomey  I grew up on a pig farm and, during my student days, I worked in the Henry Denny and Sons bacon factory in Tralee. At the time, standards were so good that one could eat dinner off the factory floor. In this light, it is surprising that someone was so sloppy in the manufacture of foodstuffs as to have left us in this crisis.

When the dust settles, we must determine why the system went wrong. We must also ask hard questions about whether we overcorrected when we pulled all of the products. Instead, a partial withdrawal and a full release of the results could have been considered, as the pigmeat industry has been done untold damage. It cannot take such hits. More information on the crisis and how such crises are dealt with is necessary. The situation is not similar to the BSE scare or a salmonella infection. The contamination is not as serious as it has been made out to be. The negative response when the general public reads about it and after certain media outlets have hammed it up is out of proportion with the reality.

The source of the final product must be examined if we are to determine how the regulations were broken and how this disaster for the pigmeat industry came about. When the dust settles and after further inquiries have been made, I would appreciate additional information. I would like to say more, but time is against me. I hope the House will hear more about this matter.

Senator Eugene Regan: Information on Eugene Regan  Zoom on Eugene Regan  A number of issues arise in respect of this matter, one of which relates to Members on this side of the House not being obliged to second-guess the Government in respect of the action it took with regard to the pigmeat sector. There is also the issue of compensation. The Taoiseach referred to the EU providing assistance in this regard, but then it looked bad when the European Commission was obliged to clarify the rules for him. There are market support measures that can be provided in the form of aids to private storage, APS. However, the Taoiseach got it wrong in calling on Brussels to provide aid or to subsidise such aid. The responsibility in this regard is national in nature. The position was the same in Belgium when a similar food scare occurred some years ago.

The Government must face up to the fact that it will be obliged to compensate those affected by what has clearly been a failure in the regulation of the sector, particularly in the context of feed input. There are many controls in place in respect of manufacturers and farmers. However, it appears that there is a gap in the system of control.

The Minister of State referred to superior traceability for beef. His comments in this regard were absolutely correct. He also stated that farms where suspect feed was used have been restricted and that animals from those farms will not be released to the market. The Minister of State further indicated that there is no requirement for beef to be recalled. Different responses were required in respect of the two sectors affected by this problem. The traceability system relating to beef is extremely comprehensive. For example, it has been established that [990]since September 3,000 cattle were produced on the 45 farms affected. Much of that beef has already been consumed. There was a case for the recall of such beef in circumstances where it could be traced and had not been consumed. If that was done, it would highlight the validity of our traceability system and a line could be drawn under this matter.

The Minister of State indicated that cattle from these farms are being restricted while further tests are carried out. A logical extension of that would seem to be that there should be a call-back in respect of beef which emanated from such farms during the specified period. The names of the farms involved have not been provided or made public. If the traceability system is to work, manufacturers and processors should be informed as to the identity of these farms. Manufacturers and processors have the ability to trace beef back to source and if they can do so, it will assist them in their dealings with their customers in European markets.

I was informed this morning that Irish beef exporters who supplied products to German supermarkets were asked to recall and collect the beef on foot of concerns that have arisen. There is no problem in the beef sector. However, statements were made about tests showing PCB levels of two to three times above the legal limit. While the benchmark is given as the extraordinary excess in the case of pork, the figures being provided still look wrong. It is difficult to explain to supermarkets throughout Europe that there is no difficulty with Irish beef.

The Government must be more precise and clear in how it approaches this issue. The recall of beef that is still in storage or transit would be a positive development.

Senator Kieran Phelan: Information on Kieran Phelan  Zoom on Kieran Phelan  I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent. I also welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this serious issue that came to light at the weekend and the information that emerged yesterday regarding PCB found in certain herds of cattle. I express my distress in respect of this matter and my concern for all parties involved. It is extremely upsetting that so many families are affected by this crisis with only two weeks to go until Christmas.

I congratulate the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Minister, Deputy Smith, the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, and their officials on moving so speedily to deal with this matter in conjunction with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. I have no doubt that the Ministers and the relevant bodies will work speedily to get the market back on its feet and to assure the public, at home and abroad, that Irish pork is fit for human consumption and continues to reach the first-class standard for which it is well known.

The measures we have put in place are an indication of our commitment to the health of our citizens and the reputation of the agrifood sector. We have acted responsibly at all times and I am optimistic that the negotiations with the processors and the producers will deliver an outcome that will facilitate the resumption of slaughtering as a matter of urgency. Such resumption is vital for thousands of employees, producers and processors and is in the national interest.

I greet the up-to-date press release from the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, with some relief. The EFSA carried out scientific tests under several different scenarios and discovered that the dioxin contained in Irish pork would not give rise to adverse health effects.

As with all matters relating to the agricultural sector, this issue is close to my heart. I have been involved in the beef and pig sectors for many years in County Laois and the surrounding counties, which have a tremendous history of rearing prime stock for breeding and slaughter. Agriculture is a substantial contributor to GDP. In these tough fiscal times, Ireland, as a small producing nation, cannot afford to have its pork industry adversely affected for an extended period. We must get the sector back up and running at the levels of productivity that obtained prior to the weekend. It must be made clear to consumers that checks will be put in place so [991]that there will be no recurrence of the mistake that was made in this instance. The Department and bodies such as Bord Bia will work tirelessly to regain confidence in the beef and pork sectors in Ireland.

I welcome the Minister of State’s announcement to the effect that organic pig farmers will be allowed to return their products to the marketplace. I compliment him, the Minister, Deputy Smith, and all the team in the Department on the tremendous work they have done in recent days.

Senator Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty  Zoom on Pearse Doherty  Cuirim fáilte roimh an tAire Stáit. As my party colleague, Deputy Ferris, stated in respect of the current crisis, the priority now must be to limit the extent of the damage done to the sector and to protect the many livelihoods and jobs that have been affected. I spent the past couple of hours in my office trying to deal with pig farmers from County Donegal whose animals could not be slaughtered today and other individuals who have either lost their jobs or been laid off on a temporary basis as a result of this crisis. The scale of the losses incurred by individual pig farmers and suppliers is massive and this issue must be addressed. Large-scale temporary lay-offs have taken place and it is likely that matters will get worse if corrective measures are not put in place. That is why it is vital that the processing and supply of product to shops begin again immediately.

The crisis relating to contaminated produce could not have come at a worse time, particularly as farmers have already been obliged to cope with steep falls in the prices paid to them by factories in recent months. Unfortunately, this can be attributed to some degree to the lack of domestic consumer demand for Irish pork. The position in this regard will not be helped by current events and it is all the more important, therefore, that the correct measures are taken quickly to ensure that the sector gets back on track. This also highlights the need to address various issues relating to the marketing and labelling of Irish pork.

We must consider whether the ban on the slaughter of pigs and the withdrawal of produce from retailers was an over-reaction to the discovery of the contamination. Professor James Heffron of University College Cork, a leading expert in this field, stated that if the data collated by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland prove that the levels of dioxins were within the acceptable limit, there was no reason the order to withdraw pork products from sale was made. Professor Heffron stated:

The question must be posed as to whether the withdrawal of all pigmeat products was necessary or, perhaps, a public health warning might have been more appropriate. People could have been told the facts as known on Sunday morning and the level of risk entailed and advised it was up to them whether to consume the products affected. While, undoubtedly, this would still have had a major impact on the sector with presumably a significant number of consumers opting not to consume pigmeat, it would have lasted only until current stocks had expired and been replaced. We could then have avoided the massive shock to the sector which we are [992]currently experiencing and, in the process, prevented the laying off of so many workers in the run-up to Christmas and the loss to the farmers, butcher shops and suppliers affected.

An issue arises in respect of traceability. Was there a failure in the system that prevented the determination of which farms and animals had been contaminated and in tracing the supply line to the processors involved thus affecting the entire sector? Ought it not to be possible once it was known which farms had used the feed to then determine exactly where the processing of contaminated animals took place, what products were affected and to which retailers or exporters such products had been sent? In that way the remainder of the sector, which is free from contamination, could have been ring-fenced. Were officials able to establish this and, if not, why not? If they were able to trace where the feed went and where the contaminated animals had been slaughtered, why then was it not possible for them to impose more limited restrictions in this regard?

Another issue that needs to be considered——

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Pat Moylan  Zoom on Pat Moylan  Senator Doherty’s time has expired. There are only three minutes remaining and there is one speaker remaining.

Senator Pearse Doherty: Information on Pearse Doherty  Zoom on Pearse Doherty  The reason some Irish retailers continued to sell Irish pork products after the recall on Sunday is that the products were produced in other countries but labelled as Irish products. If we are to deal effectively with this crisis we need to deal with the issue of labelling of Irish meats so that consumers are not duped into thinking they are buying Irish pork when it is imported pork labelled in Ireland.

Senator Terry Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden  Zoom on Terry Leyden  I compliment the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, and the Ministers of State, Deputy Mary Wallace and Deputy Trevor Sargent, on their work so far. While the decision made on Saturday was dramatic, any attempt to cover up this situation would have been disastrous. The Government showed great leadership in taking this tough decision.

It is clear from the statement read into the record of the House today by Senator Carty that we have, from a European viewpoint, a clean bill of health, which is vitally important. That is positive news. The Government must now engage in a public relations exercise internationally. Money will have to be spent on advertisements on Sky television and CNN and in the red tops and other newspapers that have published negative articles in regard to our products. This will cost us but there is a great deal at stake, including the approximately 6,000 jobs in jeopardy as a result of this situation.

We must ensure that this does not happen again. It is happening too often. I thought we had finally dealt with this problem during the BSE crisis some years ago. I was trade Minister at that time and we had to go abroad and convince other countries that our product was 100% safe. The Minister of State will make a statement in the next hour or so in respect of organic pig products, which must be returned to the shelves tomorrow. I appealed in this House this morning for leadership in terms of our restaurant and self-service catering facility which must make available to people tomorrow morning sausages, rashers and white and black pudding, thus proving such products can be consumed and are safe.

I regret what happened at the plant involved, which is a recycling plant and not a food production plant. I cannot understand why such a plant would be used by beef producers. I am involved in an organic farm which produces quality products. We are regularly subjected to on-the-spot inspection by the organic organisation to which we are affiliated. The products we [993]use are regularly inspected. While we cannot turn back the clock, we must ensure this is not allowed to happen again.

Senator John Ellis made a good point in respect of the cost of foodstuffs from abroad, including soya beans, and the big push in this regard. Years ago, swill was collected from the hospitals. As far as I recall, this was done on a tender system by big producers. Pigs always seem to get the worst possible foodstuff and that sector has never been treated respectfully. What one puts in has a bearing on what one gets out, namely, one must feed quality food to get quality production. We must all work together to ensure our pig products are returned to the shelves and marketed internationally. Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland, the Minister, the Taoiseach, the President, Senators and Deputies must work together to push our products and show we have the best food in the world, of which there is no doubt. Nobody has valued food more than we have. I thank the Leader for arranging this debate.

Senator Paddy Burke: Information on Paddy Burke  Zoom on Paddy Burke  Will additional time be provided to allow other speakers to contribute to the debate?

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Pat Moylan  Zoom on Pat Moylan  My hands are tied. It is open to the Minister of State to allow the Senator one minute of his time to make a point. However, he has only five minutes to respond.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Trevor Sargent): Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  I will be doing well to deal in five minutes with the considerable number of contributions from Senators, all of which I appreciate. I will do my best to address the questions raised. I, too, would like more time to debate this matter but, like the Cathaoirleach, I am bound by the orders of the House.

Senator Bradford asked if the response to this crisis might have been a bit over the top. The lessons internationally are that it was not. We know what happens when one tries to offer caveats in response to situations like this. The Belgians thought they would be able to quietly deal with their crisis. People are punished if there is a perception that they are in any way trying to avoid taking hard decisions and that punishment is often worse than the pain of the initial response. The decision made on Saturday was a painful one. It was one of the most traumatic days of my political career. The Taoiseach, the Minister and I, with our officials, were forced to face up to the reality of what had to be done to save this sector and to ensure Ireland, the food island, restored its reputation.

We are dealing with more than 30 countries. One cannot, when speaking to people in Japan or Singapore, make anything other than black and white, simple statements. As mentioned earlier, Sky News was dishonest in its broadcast last night which stated there was a dioxin problem with beef, given that there had been no confirmation to that effect. We must take on board the challenge we have been set to rebrand and relaunch Irish food. Bord Bia is already doing this and the Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, is ready to travel to those markets on which we depend and have served well for many years, and will continue to serve into the future, God willing. Investment will be needed. We have engaged in this regard in discussions with the Department of Finance and the Taoiseach. The investment called for by Senator Bradford will be made.

I believe EU money is well justified in this instance. I have for many years insisted that country of origin labelling be established not alone for beef but for all food products. Given that we do not have in place a requirement in respect of country of origin labelling, the pork about which we are speaking is EU pork, and the EU must, therefore, recognise that. The Commission insisted it regarded Irish pork as EU pork and it must, therefore, respond to this crisis. I will be arguing strongly in this regard and I hope and expect a good outcome on the matter.

[994]Senator Coffey spoke about dioxin testing. Dioxin testing is more complex than PCB testing. Regardless of where in the world it is done, it takes longer than PCB testing. When in Backweston I was impressed by the sophistication of the laboratories there. Techniques have been developed in our laboratories to speed up PCB testing. We have moved from a two and a half day turn-around to a one day turn-around, which is the norm internationally. When dioxin testing is up and running, I hope in February, we will have state-of-the-art facilities. Such testing is expensive, but we have to pay for it. The cost per test for dioxins is between €1,000 and €1,200. As is the case in many areas, prevention is better than cure. We do not want to have to deal with this type of situation again and, therefore, we need to take whatever steps are necessary to avoid dioxins getting into the food chain at the start of the process.

Senator Paddy Burke: Information on Paddy Burke  Zoom on Paddy Burke  Was the cost involved the reason testing was not carried out?

Deputy Trevor Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  No, absolutely not. We have been testing, and paying for it, and we have been happy to do so because we need those tests. I am simply giving Members this information because I am being absolutely honest with them to ensure they are not under any illusion as to what is involved. It is well worth the money involved. Our laboratories are sophisticated in dealing with everything other than dioxins, but because dioxins require particular conditions for testing, a state-of-the-art facility is required for such testing, which we are currently accrediting. It is unfortunate it is not accredited at this point.

I agree with Senator Carty that the Taoiseach played a decisive role in dealing with this matter. I compliment him on that, given that his hands-on role was essential in bringing together the Departments of Health and Children, Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Finance, Foreign Affairs and Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which needed to be brought together to work closely with each other and they must continue to do so.

Senators Carty, O’Sullivan, Doherty and others mentioned that a producer who had argued that the products were Irish suddenly turned around and said they were not Irish to try to maintain an element of the market. I hope that kind of cynicism can be seen for what it is. It highlights the campaign for country of origin labelling which we need to succeed.

Senator Quinn cited important examples from his international experience. I agree with him that this is not just about the organic producer by a long shot. As was stated by Senators O’Donovan and others, the organic producer has had to jump over many more hurdles than the conventional producer. They are not allowed to use GM feed, regardless of the price, or many other products, and they have to pay to ensure the quality of their product. Because of the certification that applies to their products, they are able to get them back on the market because they have got guarantees that other producers cannot give. The majority of producers should follow hot on their heels in getting back into the market because they have nothing to fear and there is no question of contamination. That applies to artisan producers and the wider sector. The Minister, Deputy Smith, is not here because he is fully engaged in discussions to get that process under way.

Senators mentioned the need for a blitz in marketing, which I take on board. I heard Joe Duffy on his “Lifeline” programme say that he is prepared to eat bacon and to urge everybody to eat it. Perhaps he and a few others can get around the table and give a high profile example by highlighting what is safe, enjoyable and the best of Irish food.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Pat Moylan  Zoom on Pat Moylan  I must ask the Minister of State to conclude.

Deputy Trevor Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  I will have to wrap up even though I have much more to say. Many Senators raised points and I would like to respond to each of them.

[995]I agree with Senator Boyle’s comment that there is an issue in terms of our waste facilities and we need to ensure we do not add to dioxin burden. However, we should understand and spread the message that we have the lowest dioxin burden in this country because of our traditional location and because we have not had dioxin creating technologies here. It is ironic that we have a dioxin problem because, traditionally, we are one of the lowest dioxin level countries in the world. I hope that will continue to be the case.


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