Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

EID Tagging: Irish Co-operative Organisation Society

2:15 pm

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I welcome from the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society, ICOS Mr. Michael Spellman, vice president, and Mr. Ray Doyle, livestock and environmental services executive. I thank them for coming before the joint committee to brief us on electronic identification, EID, tagging and it impact on many farmers around the country.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Mr. Spellman to make his opening statement.

Mr. Michael Spellman:

I thank the Chairman and committee members for giving us the opportunity to make a presentation to them on bovine EID. We hope that at the end of the presentation, when members have had a chance to ask questions, they will have a good understanding of why we believe it is vitally important that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine give serious consideration to the introduction of a mandatory electronic identification programme for bovines. Mr. Doyle will take us through some slides that will give an overview of the issues that would impact on the implementation of such a system. We hope to answer as best we can the questions that will arise following the slide presentation. We will elaborate on the points raised as we proceed with the presentation.

Mr. Ray Doyle:

I thank the Chairman and committee members for listening to our presentation on bovine EID. One could ask why this country, in particular, needs a bovine EID programme to account for cattle movements. One could also ask why the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society, ICOS, which represents the marts is making this presentation on the reasons it would be in the national interest to have a bovine EID programme. We have a national herd of 6.14 million. Our nearest trading partner, the United Kingdom, has a similar herd profile. We have a large number of animals. As a result, Ireland is the fourth largest beef exporter in the world. Members have heard us make presentations previously and will be aware that we export almost 90% of the beef we produce. It is vitally important for us, therefore, from the point of view of beef exports, to have a traceability system to ensure all of our meat can be traced back to where the animals were born. That is what we have with the Department's animal identification and movement, AIM, system.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has one of the best in class traceability systems in Europe, if not the world. To get the full benefit from that we believe bovine EID is the best add-on to enhance it. Every year, 1.7 million animals are traded through livestock marts, 1.6 million are slaughtered in meat plants and almost 1 million are traded privately. There are a significant number of animals moving around in Ireland on any given day, week or year. Cattle movements in Ireland are much higher than anywhere else in Europe. In Europe, cattle tend not to move. If they do, they tend to move once, perhaps to a feed lot. In Ireland, we have a history going back hundreds of years of animals being produced, for example, in the south and east, migrating to the west and ending up in the midlands for finishing before slaughter. That level of movement is much higher than that of our continental neighbours.

The AIM system developed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the best in Europe for tracking these movements. Bovine EID could not work without the AIM system. If one was to try to introduce bovine EID in some of our neighbours, for example in the UK, it could not be done in the way that we are proposing today because it needs the type of database and level of checks contained in the Department's AIM system. To put it in context, there are approximately 4 million animal movements in Ireland annually. In Europe, 5 million cattle cross borders every year for exporting - that is 5 million just moving across borders. There are also internal movements so that figure could be multiplied by two to get the total movement of animals. This is vital for us because live exports are something that Ireland needs to enhance and have every year to keep beef processors honest in that regard. That illustrates that cattle movement is not unique to Ireland and is very important for Europe.

Bovine EID is a radio frequency identification technology. It is not new technology. It is used extensively in the identification of dogs and sheep and is required in all breeding sheep born since 1 January 2010. That is now the case in Ireland. Sheep EID is in place but for a very limited number because only breeding sheep have EIDs. The rest of the sheep flock does not. Perhaps it is a missed opportunity that sheep EID has not been implemented in full. That is for another day. That has been in place since 1 January 2010.

EID is required in all dogs born since 1 June 2015. From 31 March 2016, all dogs must have an EID system in place. It is not a new technology or a new idea. It is in place for sheep and dogs and we believe that it has a place for bovines. It is currently used in Ireland on a voluntary basis. Some larger dairy units have adopted EID on a voluntary basis because it is used in the management of feeders, yield monitors and robotic milkers.

All types of bovine EID, and EID in general, have a unique code embedded into transponders. These transponders can be bolus type, subcutaneous vials, as in dog identification, or a tag or button-based, standard, readable tags, which is what we propose for the bovine EID. These transponders can be low frequency or ultra high frequency. Low frequency is a tried and tested old technology and is preferred by the commission because it is an old technology. It was there when the original legislation, which gave rise to EID, was written back in the early 2000s. This low frequency is ideal for close range single readings but for a livestock mart or even a busy processing plant, because of the speed at which one needs to read these tags, we contend that UHF is better because it offers increased range and larger data storage possibilities. Not only is it able to identify the code more quickly and easily, there is also much bigger data storage available for people to record antiemetics or prescription medicines, for example. These can all be stored on the tags.

There is an obvious health and safety risk to farmers, mart and meat factory staff. Currently, we have to physically read tags on animals. These tags can often be covered by muck and filth and have to be cleaned and read. Farmers or mart and meat factory staff have to lean in over the animal to try to read them. There is an obvious health and safety risk there. If bovine EID is in place, one can simply have a race reader over the animals and all animals will be read instantly from several meters away with no health and safety risk to anybody.

Cattle-related deaths in Ireland account for almost 12% of all farm fatalities so I do not lightly say that it is a health and safety concern for all. Increased speed of cattle movement data would be a positive advantage from bovine EID because with EID we can have real-time movement data. If a farmer decided to sell an animal through a mart it could be instantly read on intake into the mart and the AIM database would be instantly updated, rather than at the end of the sale day as is currently the case.

There would also be increased accuracy. Currently we rely on a visual inspection of tags but the primary cause of amendments to be made by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for mistakes is the misreading of tags. People have to read a tag and correlate it with a blue passport in the database. Human error exists, people can make mistakes and it is only the last four digits that are highly visible to the operative, whether that is the mart operative, a factory operative or the farmer him- or herself. If bovine EID was in place mistakes could not happen because the EID tags are either read or they are not. There is a 1% failure rate but a failure in this context means it cannot be read. The physical number of the tag is then inputted into the AIM system, giving as close as one can get to 100% readability. A tag will not read incorrectly and this will represent greatly enhanced accuracy.

The number of inputs required by human errors is greatly reduced. Cattle theft possibility is also greatly reduced. Given that each individual EID is a unique code one cannot tamper with them or create a different code. A bolus or a subcutaneous vial would almost eliminate cattle rustling in its current form. This would make paperless traceability available to the entire food chain. If we had bovine EID in place we would have the possibility that we would no longer require passports, which are a cumbersome and old-school traceability system. Passports cause their own problems because while mart managers are content, farmers sell passports, not animals. They could arrive with an incorrect passport, or the correct passport but with an incorrectly input tag number so the possibility of errors is doubled by having passports and animals in separate transactions. With bovine EID we do not require a passport and EU legislation allows for this because an animal's passport is its EID tag. The physical issuing of passports costs the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine several million euro per year so it would give rise to an instant saving.

Feeding systems, fertility, health and welfare monitoring are all possible with EID and EID on cattle would make them more attractive to some potential buyers, both at home and abroad. The major purchasers of our live exports are big feed lots, whether they be in Spain, the Netherlands or Italy, and they have embraced EID technology. If it was a mandatory system Irish cattle would be even more attractive as a result.

Food chain information can be integrated on EID tags. Currently, farmers must sign a food chain information declaration when they present animals for slaughter to make sure they do not have any residues of anthelmintics or antibiotics. With the EID tag, and especially the UHF technology, one can update the tag and the food chain information as one administers these drugs to the animals and this remains for everybody at the end of the food chain to see.

Scotland has field-tested dual EID tags which are tested encompassing LF, the technology currently approved of by the Commission, and UHF, the new technology. Both technologies can easily be put into the same tag. The farmer out west with a handful of cattle will have a tag which looks exactly the same as the tags today but embedded in it will be the LF and EUF chips. The Scots have estimated the cost at approximately €1 per tag. They also predict that costs can only come down further because if Ireland embraced this and issued 2.2 million tags every year, the cost of implementing both technologies into the chip would be less than €1 per tag.

If we take it that the average animal being presented for slaughter, or a high quality weanling for live export, is well in excess of €1,000, €1 per animal is not a significant cost for the advantages to us that I have outlined.

In 2013, the Scots spent a significant amount of money on the EID project. In 2013, Dingwall mart show-cased the advantages of EID in terms of farmers marts and processors. In 2013, ICOS brought over the Scottish team and demonstrated the obvious benefits to bovine EID in Enniscorthy, Roscommon and Fermoy.

No European country has yet adopted EID as a compulsory measure; it is voluntary for any member state to do so. Australia and New Zealand, however, have adopted it in a full mandatory manner and their method of implementation is very user-friendly. Every animal is EID tagged once it leaves the holding. In principle, we could have the same situation here if we EID tagged every calf born on X date and then implemented a process whereby once the animal moves, it has to be upgraded to EID. One would have full implementation with lower costs because the initial cost would be held just over the approximately 2 million tags issued every year. Australia and New Zealand have adopted the EID model in full and they have increased animal welfare, animal health and safety and traceability as a result.

Scotland is planning a three year trial for the complete supply chain to demonstrate the benefits of EID. It is hoped that will start early in 2016.

The European Commission approved the bovine EID regulation in 2014 which allowed it to be voluntarily adopted at member state level but that legislation stated that EID capturing and an agreed tagging system must be in place by 2019. It is for the member states to take care of that in terms of legislation but it is available to any member state to adopt EID voluntarily. The reason we are here today is that we believe member states should voluntarily adopt it for their national herd and we contend that it would be to our benefit to do so.

Mr. Michael Spellman:

I would like to elaborate on some of the points Mr. Doyle made in his presentation because they are important. Speaking to the members as legislators, I would say that with the introduction of a full compulsory EID programme we could have the immediate phasing out of passports. We had a meeting with the Department officials some time ago and between €7 million and €8.5 million per year would be saved if we got rid of the passports. That may seem to be an insignificant amount of money but when we consider the scarce resources available for other programmes within agriculture and so on, it could be better spent in some of the areas we need to have improved as we go from one year to the next.

Another important point as far as farmers and stockholders are concerned is that there would be no issue with cross-compliance checks that cause so much anguish for farmers. Many problems arise with cross-compliance checks because there are difficulties with the tagging of stock but all that would be eliminated. There would be no need to maintain an accurate, up to date register because all the information would be available.

As Mr. Doyle stated, with regard to the selling of stock, going through the marts and so on, all the information contained in the electronic tag would be transferred real time to the national animal identification and movement, AIM, system. That is a huge advantage. We should consider the benefits that would accrue to the State. Our members, our Minister, processors and exporters are constantly trying to find new markets. The production of beef is an important industry for this country and we pride ourselves in producing some of the best beef in the world. When customers who want to buy our beef come to this country, they find we are operating a system that is foolproof as far as the traceability of the beef is concerned from the birth of the calf to the time of slaughter. As Mr. Doyle outlined, as a result of the chip in the tag, the customer will have a foolproof record of all the medicines that were administered throughout the life of the beast.

For somebody who puts a good deal of emphasis on public health issues and the importance of the food chain, that must enhance our capacity to sell beef in a wider market because the people who will come to buy it will be impressed by the measures we are taking to ensure that what we sell is the best in the world. That is what we should strive to do.

It was stated that where the programme is already in place - for example, Australia and New Zealand - tags are only applied as the stock leaves the farms. If there is concern on the part of anyone, be it farm organisations or individual stockholders, that this measure will incur extra cost on their enterprise, with the greatest respect, that is nonsense.

In terms of this being implemented, we should decide on a start date - for example, 1 January 2017 or whatever date the Minister chooses - and say that from then on, all newborn calves will have their electronic tag applied and that only the stock being readied to leave the farm will have the additional tags applied. Even allowing for the length of time breeding stock may remain on the farm, within five or six years we would have a full herd of stock that is electronically tagged. Everybody would be used to the system then and there would be no issues around it.

In terms of people having concerns that there would be additional expense on the part of the stockholder in that they would have to buy readers or whatever, we represent the livestock marts and because of the benefits that would accrue to the marts - the same benefits will accrue to the abattoirs, the factories and the export assembly points - we will be prepared to install the readers. There will be readers around the sales ring, at the point of entry for the stock, in the chutes they go through where they are scanned and as they leave the mart. That will bring a greater degree of security around the stock while they are in the sales yard or wherever else. From the point of view of the people working in the mart, there is a far greater degree of safety. As Mr. Doyle outlined, they will not have to catch the beast by the head and try to clean a tag that has been soiled or damaged and cannot be read effectively. All that will be a thing of the past. Similarly, if a farmer has a not-too-expensive hand-held reader, he can walk out into his yard - particularly in the winter when he would have animals in for feeding or whatever - and scan the cattle to determine the status of their testing or their withdrawal periods, which is critical. People selling stock have to maintain their animals and be aware of the withdrawal period in regard to any medicines they may have administered in the previous month or two. All that will be available and it will be foolproof.

I rarely use the term "no-brainer" but this is exactly that. Based on what the Scottish people have outlined - this comes from the manufacturers of the tags - it would only cost approximately €1 more per set than the conventional tag. When we get into scale, and if we were to enter into some sort of purchasing arrangement with out nearest neighbour, that price will decrease. That is as much as I have to say. We will be happy to answer any questions members may wish to ask.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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We will take questions now.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the witnesses for attending. As presented, this is the greatest no-brainer ever. When somebody presents me with a no-brainer, however, I always ask if there is something I do not understand. I take it the witnesses are not here to present on something that was going to happen in any event and about which there was no need to come before us to discuss. I also take it that contrary arguments have been put forward by someone somewhere because otherwise I would have expected the Minister to introduce this and we would not be here. Are those issues relating to price, difficulty applying the tags or something else?

I was hoping the last page would include disadvantages or arguments against. Unfortunately, we do not have the arguments against. I presume the witnesses are not here because it is such a no-brainer that it will happen anyway.

Is applying these tags a similar operation to putting on conventional tags? If all the data are on the tag and not written down and one loses the tag, does one lose the data? I presume the number of lost tags would be proportionate to the number of lost tags we get at the moment and that the physical shape of the tag is fairly similar. I am not in any way taking away from all the good arguments the witnesses put forward about easy reading, fatalities and safety but I wish to ask about the statement that there would be no need for passports. My understanding is that a printout from the AIM system gives the herd number of the animal and when it moves to another herd, it immediately makes this clear. Presumably, the new tag will only give the tag number of the animal, so one would still have to get the herd number of the seller and the purchaser and key it in. Is that correct? I can understand that this system records that an animal is whatever it is but how exactly does one record, on the central computer system, that it has a changed from the herd number relating to farmer No. 1 to that of the purchaser, whether that be a farmer, a dealer or whoever? Is this information inputted manually?

If the Minister said this would be compulsory for all new calves on 1 January 2017 and for all farm movements after that, would it be possible to introduce the tags on a voluntary basis immediately? I ask that for two reasons. Most people resist change, no matter what it is or how beneficial it might be. Many people still do things in the old-fashioned way when there are more convenient ways of doing them. When we got rid of the manual telephones, many people thought they would never get used to the push-button varieties but two days after getting them, they decided they would never go back. Change requires advocates and the best advocate is the person on the ground showing the neighbour how to do it.

What would the witnesses think of a voluntary period of, say, a year, to be followed by a mandatory period? We know from the suckler herd statistics that 48% of suckler herds have ten cows or less - virtually half the herds in the country, so handreaders are no big advantage. There is no differentiation between the east or the west coast in this regard, so I am not just making a west coast point. Not all the small herds are between Donegal and Kerry; there are a lot of small farms all around the country. For example, some 45% of herds in Kilkenny are of ten cows or fewer. For smaller farmers, the present system is not quite as cumbersome because of the number of cattle they sell but the big guys will obviously move fast. I am a great believer in the dual system as it is like pushing the sheep into the pen.

The hill farmer gathers the sheep on the mountain and brings them down to the pen. If he does it in a hurry and tells the dogs to bark, the sheep will run off and it will take another week to gather them. If something is done nice and gently and people are eased into a new situation then, given time, and if there are advocates among their neighbours who will show them how to do something, it is much more likely that there will be buy-in. I presume that issues have been raised about this, either by farming organisations or individuals but I think in the longer term it is a no-brainer. I am a great believer in technology but I also see how resistant people are to using even very basic technology because they feel uncomfortable with it.

I have one more question as there are representatives from the marts here. I understand the intention is that the star rating of animals will be recorded on the mart boards. I have seen some publicity about this and it seems to me to be a good idea. How quickly will this happen and what will the cost be for the marts? Has the Minister given any assistance to upgrade the boards, in particular to the smaller marts? All of the old boards will have to be thrown out and new boards and new systems will be needed to do this. Will the witnesses give us some indication of the cost of upgrading? Presumably with this system, everything from the tag can be read on the board.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the witnesses for their presentations. There is no doubt that, on the face of it, it is very attractive. I know one person who would be delighted with it and that is my brother. He is albino and it breaks my heart as he cannot read because of his poor sight. He would be very happy with it.

The first thing that we will hear about is the overall cost and how it will affect the producer. Mr. Spellman mentioned that between €7 million and €8 million would be saved by this method. Could he elaborate on how that can be saved? I think €1 per tag was mentioned in the presentation. Is that the cost to the farmer himself?

How does a tag work? Is it an insert inside the skin or is it a tag in the ear? The reason I ask that is that it was mentioned that it would help to prevent cattle rustling and stealing. If it is only on the ear, it is only a matter of clipping it off and moving away with the cattle to wherever they want to take it. Has there been any discussion with Michelle O'Neill and her department about introducing tagging on an all-island basis? That would be helpful.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. It seems like a no-brainer, as Deputy Ó Cuív has said. Anything that would make things easier in terms of health and safety and efficiency is to be welcomed.

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal South West, Independent)
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I thank the gentlemen for their presentations. The system seems very good and feasible. This has been in place for sheep since 2010, therefore any of the problems that are likely to arise have probably arisen with sheep anyway. There is concern about increased infections because of the tags but I imagine that there is the same likelihood of infection with an ordinary tag. Is there something particularly different about the EID tags that would result in a greater likelihood of infection? There is also concern about tags coming off during normal farm activity. That would be the same for ordinary tagging too.

Do the witnesses have any details on how it has worked in sheep farming? What has the response of sheep farmers been to its operation? Some of the advocates that have been mentioned could be the people who already tag sheep using this system. What response has there been from the Department? Is it actively looking at it or is it resistant to it? Is it something that it wants to look at, given that it has been in place for sheep since 2010?

It seems logical so it could be rolled out if there is no practical problem with using it for the sheep as well.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Longford-Westmeath, Labour)
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I thank the witnesses for their presentation. There appears to be a significant number of advantages to supporting the introduction of EID technology to monitor stock movements and to eliminate human error and the strain and stress of work in terms of the level of input. There are a significant number of positives. The witnesses said ICOS carried out trials a couple of years ago in Enniscorthy, Roscommon and Fermoy. They might elaborate on those and give us an idea of how they were accepted. Since we have EID technology for breeding sheep for the past few years, will the witnesses elaborate on how that is working, whether it can be improved and what suggestions they might have in that regard?

ICOS represents the livestock marts. One of the issues raised is how the introduction of bovine EID helps the operation of its marts, given this is ICOS' end of the industry. It was said that the European Commission already allows for a voluntary system to be put in place, if that is what the member state wishes to do. What is the ICOS view of that proposal? Has the introduction of this been explored with the Department, even on a trial basis for 12 months, in order to see how it would operate and become effective? The ICOS presentation, which is very succinct and for which I thank the witnesses, also indicates there would no longer be any need for animal passports if an EID system was in place.

The witnesses indicated that €7 million to €8 million would be saved. Apart from that saving, what are the other advantages of operating without passports? How advanced is this technology? Is it continuing to advance and is the system continually subject to research throughout Europe?

What will the likely additional cost be to the herdowner? As the witnesses know, farmers want to get down to the nitty-gritty. They kicked up holy hell over the beef data and genomics scheme and various other issues, although I thought what was coming from some quarters was a bit irrational. If this was to be introduced on a compulsory basis and farmers did not have any choice, what would be the additional cost to a farmer of having the system in place?

The €52 million allocated to the beef data and genomics scheme is very important in terms of upgrading the beef herd going forward. I listened to what Deputy Ó Cuív said. In the course of its sales business, I would exhort ICOS to take steps, given the more than 1 million transactions that take place across the country, to display the star ratings of the animals presented for sale on illuminated boards or in whatever way that could be done. Knowledge is power for all stakeholders in this regard. The witnesses might indicate if that would be a costly exercise for ICOS and whether ICOS will be requesting that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine provide some assistance in enabling it to do that. This could be the key to the operation and applicability of the beef data and genomics scheme and contribute significantly to improvement at the sales end as well as the purchase end. I believe that would be a very integrated way of doing it.

To be honest, I think the Department should make the appropriate contribution to the marts. It would then be playing a big role in helping the farmer, the marts and the industry in general.

Photo of Michael ComiskeyMichael Comiskey (Fine Gael)
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I thank the witnesses for their presentation, which is very interesting. There has not been too much talk until now about the electronic tagging of cattle. It seems a very good idea but it is important we thrash out all of the nitty-gritty and get as much information from the witnesses as we can. This is a time when we can all get a lot of information, even on our phones, and we can go onto the Internet at home on a computer or laptop to get the details of a herd. We all remember going to the mart, and I often hauled cattle for people who would go around with blue cards stuck in their pockets.

After a wet morning or wet day, it was very difficult to read them. When an animal had passed through the mart a number of times the card had been folded in many ways and after a time, it was nearly impossible to read it. There was the added problem that if there was an inspection, the farmer might lose the card. It will take time for the older farmers, in particular, to get used to this but I believe it is a good idea. We have the best traceability system in Europe for livestock. That is very important given that we export 90% of our livestock. We must be certain that we can trace the cattle back to where they came from. Regardless of where the animal is sent in Europe, it can be traced back to the farm on which it was born.

Regarding the other point, one can check online whether drugs have been administered. One does not have to refer to a book where, again, the information might have been entered on a damp or wet day and it cannot be read after a month or two. There is no difficulty in that regard. We see it working with sheep and it does not present a problem in the breeding ewe population. Certainly, an odd one might lose a tag but it is easy enough to replace that. There does not appear to be a problem with it.

The cost is a big thing. That must be clarified. A euro does not appear to be out of the question. People could live with that. Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned introducing it on a voluntary basis for a year or two. We did that with the bovine viral diarrhoea, BVD, scheme. A number of farmers got involved in that scheme a year earlier than others and it worked quite well. In addition, it would be a big asset in the case of stolen animals. We could possibly move to a situation where a traceable device could be included so animals could be traced. We would be able to track them. However, that is down the road.

All in all, it looks quite positive. I look forward to hearing the response from the witnesses later.

Photo of Pat DeeringPat Deering (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I will be brief because most of the points have been covered at this stage. That is the disadvantage of being last. It appears to be a no-brainer, as was said already. The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Have the witnesses had any engagement with the farm organisations? Generally, there is a process to be gone through and that could be very helpful. What type of reaction has been received from the three marts that were mentioned, including Enniscorthy and Roscommon? What was the reaction and feedback from both the farmers and the marts?

It was mentioned that this would do away with not only the passports but also the paper chase. A number of years ago, as Deputy Ó Cuív will remember, the e-voting system that was to be introduced was going to do away with the paper chase as well. We all know what happened to that. Personally, I believe there must be some element of a paper chase along the way. Doing away with it completely might not be the most appropriate way to go. Everybody needs to be able to see a printout or the like. That might be required.

The witness referred in the presentation to the type of tag, and I noted he nodded positively on this to some of the questions. It will be similar to the type of tag we have already. Tags can be lost from time to time. What happens in the event that a tag is lost? Is it easily replaced? What happens after that?

My final question is about access to the system. A little over a year and a half ago, representatives of a number of farm organisations and beef processors appeared before the committee to discuss the beef crisis. There were allegations at the time about who had access to the system. It was asserted that if some processors had access to a system, they would be able to determine and adjust the market to suit themselves. The allegation was that they would know exactly how many cattle were potentially coming into the system in the following spring, summer or whenever. Would it have an effect in that regard?

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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My question will be last, actually. It relates to security and follows on from what Deputy Deering said.

If I have animals at home and if my registered vet or I input data on drug treatment, dosing or whatever and somebody else walks into the yard with a reader, how can I be sure that I can protect the data from being manipulated? Likewise, when I go to the mart, could anyone interfere with the integrity of the information on the system? Each device has to be registered to the owner and the vet in order that until the change of ownership takes place, nobody can corrupt the information on it. There were many questions.

Mr. Michael Spellman:

Many of the questions were repeated as we went around the various members but I will address a number of them and Mr. Doyle will address the others. On the cost issue, we outlined what we have been told by the manufacturers. In Scotland, in particular, ScotEID carried out the best research available. That is being passed on to the Commission, which has brought in a voluntary system. The people who manufacture are saying that as of now it looks as if the additional cost will relate to the EID implant in the tag itself. The tags will look no different from the existing tags. They will not cause ears to fester and so on, as is the case with young baby lambs. That was a criticism of the introduction of the EID tagging for sheep. If the heavy tags were put into young lambs, they had a tendency to cause difficulties from a welfare point of view. It is likely that ear tags will be used for the electronic implant and the tags will be the same, except that the implant will be inside the tag. One would not know looking at the tag from the outside that it is any different from a conventional tag. The additional cost results from putting the EID in the tag.

We would have no objection to introducing a voluntary programme for one year - perhaps two years at most - but there is no point in introducing a half-baked programme because it will offer no advantages in respect of the export of stock, traceability and so on. If, for example, cattle which had the benefit of full traceability because they were electronically tagged from birth were slaughtered in a plant today and if the carcasses of animals with a weaker system of traceability attaching were included in the same batch, then it would be of no advantage to us. I am well aware that no change comes without pain. Some people will see this as an enormous change from what they have been used to and they will find it difficult to take it on board. The option is there for people to adopt the voluntary system today if they want and many are doing so but if a voluntary system was brought in with a definitive timeframe for when it will become mandatory, then there is no question that would be the best route to go.

There was a question about the programme introduced for sheep a number of years ago. When farm organisations considered the electronic tagging of bovines, many of them made a totally understandable comment.

If the bovine programme had been introduced before the sheep programme, there would have been far fewer difficulties with it. There have been more than teething problems with the sheep programme since it has been introduced. Now that breeding sheep must be compulsorily tagged, we are gradually getting over these difficulties. We believe it will be fully in place as a full mandatory programme shortly.

This programme is important in dealing with sheep theft. The only way the theft issue can be dealt with fully is if the tag used was a type of bolus or an under-the-skin implant. As has been said, the ordinary tag can be cut out, as rustlers do now. A bolus tag in the stomach of the beast or an implant under the skin, like one has with dogs, would cut out the issue of theft. With advances in technology, a full tracking device could be incorporated into this, allowing one to know where the animals are at any given time. That is one significant advantage that would come from this.

We have been in talks with the Department over the past while on this issue and it clearly identifies significant advantages from the scheme, particularly with traceability. As mart operators, this will eliminate much of the danger associated with staff manually reading tags. A farmer putting stock into a crush will often get a finger or arm broken as stock do not want their ears interfered with too much. All of this hazard would be eliminated by this proposal. It will not cost too much for an individual farmer to have a hand-held device for tagging purposes. If it were very expensive, it could be shared between neighbours. As for the insertion of the tag in question, the same applicator will be used.

Mr. Ray Doyle:

The issue of cross-compliance and how the bovine EID sits into this was raised. Mistakes are made on the animal identification and movement system, AIMS, database because animals are recorded incorrectly and amendments have to take place through the database. This has triggered cross-compliance inspection for some farmers when animals are not in herd because of these mistakes with the current manual reading system. From a farmer’s point of view, if bovine EID was introduced and there was a cross-compliance inspection which found a mistake, who is at fault?

The marts and factories, under EU legislation, can become critical control points for recording bovine EID. This leads into the cross-compliance and paper trail issue. The point was made that we need a bit of paper. It will always be there. A small average suckler farmer with ten animals can get a printout, the paper, from a mart or a factory with the full herd history of his animals. The mart can give him a physical printout, irrespective of whether it is bovine EID. The visual look of the animals under bovine EID will be no different than it is today. The paper trail can still be there for those who want it.

Like all Internet-based applications, this technology takes off at a pace out-thinking us all. There is a little plug-in device for one’s iPhone that will allow one scan a bovine EID without buying any hand-held expensive equipment. From the marts’ point of view, roughly €1,000 per intake shoot would gear up a mart to read EID correctly.

With this plug-in for the app for the iPhone, which I believe retails on eBay for about €300 and which will only come down, an individual small or large farmer could read them himself and get the full benefit of this now without investing significant amounts of money.

The issue of cross-compliance will always be there but it is greatly minimised as a result of bovine EID because tags either read or they do not. If a tag does not read and somebody does not put that tag into the database and an animal is missing from it, then there is still a cross-compliance issue. It will still ultimately be bounced down to the herd owner. The herd owner is supposed to ensure the records are correct but they will be correct if they are done through a critical control recording point such as the mar,t etc., because they will be updating the AIM system for us. They can still get a printout from the mart if they wish to have a paper trail.

On lost tags, if it is an extra euro for a tag, as the Chairman suggests - in other words there is no visual difference - and we do not use the bolus or the phial and they lose a tag, that is completely doable within the technology. For example, on these electronic tags their full title is, "What you see is what you get". There is an individual code embedded in the tag. If that tag is lost, a new tag can be issued which will have a different code but will be correlated to that animal through the AIM database. So it is possible to completely reorder a tag.

On the issue of the records, if someone wanted to use the available space on the tag to hold medicine records as well, there would be also a double saving in that because to encode the chip - this leads into the Chairman's question - with the medicine data requires not only a reader but also a writer. There will be a backup in the reader of what was written in the tag and there would, therefore, be an automatic backup of what is in the tag.

The issue of a security breach has been handled by the Scots through their research. The legislative data are completely encrypted and can only be read by the competent authority or a reader. It cannot be changed. On the issue of medicine records and antiemetic drugs, of course there could potentially be a bogus update of tagging information but that could happen in any event through the food chain information declarations that are merely signed where a farmer might decide not to declare it has got IVOMEC only last week and it should not have. That again is merely replacing the paper with an electronic version. That portion of the tag will be updatable by the farmer or by whoever buys it, but the legislative piece will not as it will be completely encrypted.

The smaller herds are taken care of. I may leave the star ratings of the boards until last. On the traceability and tracking of animals, the Scots did research on the use of UHF chip. A farmer can in real time via satellite pick out his cattle sitting on the side of a mountain in Connemara. In real time they can be tracked through GPs. That is again an extra cost. It is there to prevent rustling. The increased security value of this would be through a subcutaneous phial or a rumen bolus. Those are the only ones that could really prevent theft.

We have had a couple of examples of unintentional cross-Border co-operation on theft. A number of pedigree animals had the bolus ID but they had a tag number from the North. They were rustled down south and were unintentionally picked up by the vet through his hand-held device. Unintentionally he picked up a GB number as he was testing them even though they had Irish tags in. If we had cross-Border co-operation on EID, that would be greatly minimised because again we would have that throughout the island of Ireland with animals having IDs. That would be a bolus situation to really get tightness in that. There is an extra cost to that. What we have proposed here is the simple tags and putting the IDs in that.

I have touched on no paper with critical control points. Under EU legislation we are empowered to do that. Access to the AIM system was mentioned and we touched upon it in the beef crisis as well. At present, anybody can request a breakdown of the births and age profiles of animals across the island of Ireland. It could be looked at from a national point of view, a beef processor point of view or even a mart point of view. It would show that we had X number of animals in this age category and they may be coming on finished or be finished or whatever. We can take a guess at it.

Perhaps what the Chairman is hinting at, or what was insinuated, was that they could look into my individual herd profile and see whether Ray Doyle has ten cattle coming here to finish. From our perspective and that of the marts, and we are an animal identification and movement, AIM, interface user as well, we cannot do it. The meat factories are well able to defend themselves but I contend that they cannot see that level of detail but that is for them to defend. From an AIM interface user point of view, we cannot see that detail. Only the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has access to the number of animals I have and their full tag numbers.

In respect of the beef data and genomics scheme, this is an add-on. We have touched on using bovine EID as an enhancement to technology to make our lives easier and the national herd more traceable and user-friendly. The beef data and genomics scheme is another example of using technology and increases in genomics to increase the national herd and its growth potential. The original concept of the beef data and genomics programme was to reduce our carbon input by increasing the productivity of the national herd. We in the marts fully support the idea of the beef data and genomics programme. We are seeking grant aid from the Minister in this regard because if we do not get uniform and reasonably immediate implementation, whereby mart boards can take the data and display all the relevant extra data farmers need to fully adhere to the beef data and genomics scheme, we will dilute it and perhaps slow down the progress of the programme. We will meet the Minister next week in respect of a grant aid programme to speed up introduction because unless we have the same presentation of data on mart boards in Cahirciveen or Raphoe in Donegal in a fairly speedy manner, it will dilute and lessen the implementation of it. We would greatly value the assistance of the committee in lobbying the Minister to put a grant aid programme in place.

One of questions concerned cost. It will cost anywhere from €8,000 to €10,000 per ring to put up the screens to display this data. At the moment, the data are reasonably simple but this will only increase. That is the way life is anyway. When people buy animals now, the decision to buy is based almost as much on what is on the screen as on the look of the animal. This will only increase because more and more farmers will buy from a genetic profile, particularly in respect of dairy stock, rather than the look of the animal. Some dairy farmers are more concerned with whether the animal has an economic breeding index, EBI, in excess of €200 or €300 rather than whether the animal is throwing out a leg or all-white socks. This will only increase as the years go by. It is very important that the visual aspect is still there for the suckler herd. With the beef data and genomics programme, we have introduced an extra genetic or technological addition to purchasing criteria. Again, we need the marts to be upgraded very speedily to enhance that.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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What about the trial with the three marts?

Mr. Michael Spellman:

I was going to make reference to that because the question was raised earlier. I attended all three demonstrations when they took place in 2014 and the people who attended were extremely impressed with what was shown. It was a practical, physical demonstration of how electronic identification would work in the mart context. There were people there from other farming organisations who were as impressed as we were with what this had to offer. We have been discussing it for more than two years. We attend meetings in Brussels and it has been on the agenda in Europe for some time. I have not yet heard anyone put forward a good argument as to why we should not go that route. That is the purpose of us coming in today.

Will the committee use whatever opportunity it gets to encourage the Minister to implement a full mandatory programme of bovine EID even if the programme must be voluntary for a short while? There is no point in going for a half measure on this issue because we will be more respected if we have a full programme and we will be the first country in Europe to come up with it, and why not? The AIM system is the envy of many other European countries.

They have nothing like it. Currently they are trying to develop a system of their own in Scotland but they are envious of what we have here. If that has been the way our system has been looked at, why not be out there in the front with a good, fully mandatory programme of bovine EID?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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There has been a lot of consensus here. I would like to stress one point. It would be possible to decide on a date of 1 January 2017, and have it so that from 1 January 2016 it would be the preferred and encouraged choice, but would not yet be absolutely mandatory. The 2% who might not go for it fast could seriously disrupt it in the short term. By the time the initial year is up and everyone else is in the system, the rest are going to tell that 2% that it is working and there is no hassle, because they will have done it. By doing it with an initial, voluntary year and then making it compulsory on 2 January 2017 it can be done without a row. I do not think that in three, four, or five years' time anyone would regret the one year of having it as a preferred solution rather than making it absolutely mandatory for every last animal. It would be a big price to pay for getting it there and getting it accepted. Once the vast majority are doing it the rest will fall in line, we all know that in politics. I have found one thing all the time - rushing it is the slowest way to proceed. Give me a clever and sensible plan to get people there over a fixed time. That normally gets it to endgame faster and with less difficulty. I suspect we would find after a few months that we already had virtually full compliance.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Is everybody happy? I thank Mr. Spellman and Mr. Doyle. I just wrote down a couple of things - Origin Green, animal identification and movement, AIM, genomics and possible EID - that give us the edge in securing our reputation as part of our marketing tactics and food promotion. As Deputy Ó Cuív has just said, make haste slowly but make haste at the same time.

We will put this on the agenda for next week's meeting with a view to drafting a letter to the Minister agreeing to the general principles along the lines picked up on. We should bear in mind that the cost is €1 for the standard tag. More secure measures are optional for people. Insurance companies and others may be interested in getting involved; there is a whole dimension to this that spreads out from there. Treatment of animals for various different issues, whether it is a disease or an incident, can be done this way so that many cross-compliance issues can be dealt with. There is huge potential here if it is done right. I gather from the members here that they are keen to be of assistance in setting this up properly.

I thank the witnesses. We will suspend the meeting for a few minutes to allow them to withdraw. We have a second session with the Irish Harness Racing Association.

Mr. Michael Spellman:

May I again thank the Chairman for allowing us to come in and make this presentation. We appreciate his giving us the time.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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You are welcome. It was the members.

Sitting suspended at 3.40 p.m. and resumed at 3.45 p.m.