Tuesday, 23 October 2007
Private Members' Business
Agrifood Industry: Motion
That Dáil Éireann,
the inadequate consumer information offered by the current Irish labelling regime and the Government failure to legislate appropriately;
the need to end the labelling abuse which is allowed by the 'substantial transformation' loophole;
the legitimate consumer and industry concerns about the continued importation of meat from countries where production systems do not meet EU standards;
the threat to the viability of meat producers posed by the rising cost of animal feed and incoherent Government policy in this area; and
in light of:
the economic importance of the agrifood industry, which accounts for 10% of employment, 8% of GDP and 25% of net foreign earnings;
calls on the Government to:
protect consumers and farmers by introducing comprehensive labelling legislation and banning substandard imports;
protect consumers and farmers by closing the legal loophole which allows foreign produce to be passed off as Irish; and
ensure that the regulatory regime as it applies to the importation of animal feed is reformed so as to provide easy access to feed importers and farmers to animal feed at affordable prices.
I wish to share time with Deputies McHugh, Charles Flanagan, Connaughton, Crawford, Doyle and Clune.
What we are talking about here is the combined and shared objective of primary food producers and consumers to have food they produce and purchase properly labelled with reliable information regarding safety, origin and nutritional value and other critical information that should rightly be attached to it. In economic terms, we are talking about a beef industry worth in excess of €1.5 billion per annum, a pig industry worth €450 million per annum — which employs in the region of 7,000 people — and a poultry sector worth approximately €250 million per annum. We are also talking about the 100,000 plus farm families and the many more individuals employed in processing, distribution, marketing and other related sectors. We are further talking about an indigenous Irish industry that has proved itself capable of competing with the best at a global level. More important, however, we are talking about consumer rights and, specifically, the exposure of Irish consumers, through flawed, piecemeal and dangerous labelling legislation, to substandard food masquerading as Irish produce in our supermarkets, shops and restaurants. As a result, people are also being exposed to very real health risks.
At the core of this debate is the fact that the Government — like its predecessor — is reckless in light of the facts regarding the dangers associated with the continued importation of Brazilian beef into Ireland and the EU. In mid-July, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Coughlan, in an article in the Irish Farmers' Journal, said, "There are issues with traceability and tagging, but Brazilian beef is a threat to trade, not a threat to health". This statement, quite apart from being far removed from the facts and representing a betrayal of more than 100,000 Irish beef producers who comply with the highest standards of production relating to traceability, animal welfare, etc., begs a number of questions I want the Minister to answer this evening. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, but I regret that the Minister is not in the Chamber.
Why, within hours of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease involving a single animal on one farm in the UK, did the Minister and her EU colleagues move immediately to ban UK exports of beef to other member states when no such action is deemed necessary in respect of Brazil, where the disease is epidemic? If the UK decided in the immediate future to vaccinate its national herd against foot and mouth disease, why, under the current European Commission regime to protect consumers, should its beef exports be banned for six months when all Brazilian beef is so vaccinated and is allowed free entry to the EU? The Minister and her colleagues at the Council of Ministers and the Commission are dangerously undermining public confidence in the European Union and its institutions. This is happening at a critical time in the context of an impending referendum on the new European Union treaty in Ireland in 2008.
Brazilian beef is used by the large multiples to benchmark the price to primary producers. It is putting Irish farmers out of business. Brazilian beef threatens our biosecurity and those who produce it use angel dust, also known as clenbuterol, and other growth promoters. In terms of beef production, Brazil has been found wanting by the European Union Food and Veterinary Office in the areas of the testing of chemicals used in parasite control; the authorisation, distribution and control of veterinary medicines; the lack of international accreditation of its laboratories; and the use of angel dust, which has significant effects on consumers.
Brazilian beef is dangerous for Irish consumers. Why is the Minister aiding and abetting the European Union Commission in a cover-up of the unacceptable standards and dangerous practices — these would not be tolerated in the EU — associated with the production of Brazilian beef? In so doing, why is she undermining the commitment of Irish beef farmers to produce a high-quality, traceable and safe product? Her actions are nothing short of national sabotage.
Many independent and highly regarded commentators recognise the predicament faced by Irish food producers. Recently, Dr. Patrick Wall, of the European Food Safety Authority — formerly of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI — commented on the lack of a level playing pitch. His successor at the FSAI, Dr. John O'Brien, stated in today's newspapers, "It is unacceptable that consumers may be purchasing foodstuffs where the labelling is incorrect, lacking clarity or is simply portraying the product as something it is not". Need I say more about the shambolic labelling regime that is currently in place? Add into the mix substantial transformation and one has the proverbial coach and four being driven through the regime. When one asks where consumers come into play in all of this, one realises that they do not do so. Brazilian beef, chickens from China, pork from Phuket can all, through the waving of the magic wand that is substantial transformation, be legally passed off as Irish. This practice must end and clear country-of-origin labelling of Irish meat is essential.
The "Green Ireland" label has been Fine Gael policy for a long period and if the Minister wishes to run with it, we will back her all the way. Consumers need clarity on this issue. At present, many Irish brand names are passing off cheap imports as Irish produce and abusing their position of trust with their loyal customers. This is nothing new. As long ago as 2002, the then Department of Agriculture and Food's food labelling group called for an end to this behaviour, as well as extending country of origin labelling to sheep, pig and poultry meats. Needless to say, nothing has happened in respect of these matters in the interim. The only thing that did happen is that farmers went out of business as a result of the Department's inaction and consumers were exposed to unnecessary risks.
The beef labelling regime, which applies to 43,000 retail premises, is, as currently constructed, a joke, with only five auditors attached to the scheme and a 2004 report indicating widespread evasion of responsibility by the sector. I understand that 42% of the 90 samples taken during the compilation of the report to which I refer were shown to be in breach of the regulations.
I acknowledge the role of the Department of Health and Children in introducing new legislative changes in this area. However, five years is too long to wait for relatively straightforward changes. Lessons need to be learned from the current shambles and they also need to be learned in the area of enforcement. Is it too much to ask, in the interest of consumers and a multi-billion euro industry, that a single authority be vested with enforcement powers, rather than, as is the case under the current regime, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, local authorities, the National Consumer Agency and the Department of Transport all having a role? The latter is a recipe for disaster. We could take lessons from the introduction of the smoking ban, when 80 additional environmental enforcement officers were recruited. Surely the agrifood industry is of such significance and magnitude that it deserves a similar response in the context of enforcement.
As the Minister is no doubt aware, the price of compound feed, which is a critical input in the beef, pig and poultry sectors, has increased dramatically in the second half of 2007. There are many reasons for this including a global drop in production as a result of drought in Australia and a switch from food to fuel in the United States and South America in particular. These developments have driven prices upwards.
Irish farmers need access to 3.1 million tonnes of imported cereals. A major obstacle to sourcing this feed is the absence of a streamlined approvals regime among the Food and Drugs Administration regime in the United States of America, the European Food Safety Authority and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in respect of new varieties of genetically modified, GM, grains. We invest countless millions in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the European Food Safety Authority and it is remiss of us to not accept their scientific findings.
As I told the Minister of State during Question Time, we adopt a flat earth approach if we do not accept the scientific findings of these authorities. This problem reached farcical proportions this year with the attempts to import the Herculex maize strain. With conflicting signals coming from different corners of Agriculture House, the Department finally abdicated its responsibility on two critical votes at EU level and, in so doing, damaged our credibility for the future, delayed access to Herculex for feed importers and farmers and contributed to the increased costs farmers have had to pay for food.
In all of this, the Department has given hostages to fortune in respect of the legitimacy of GM feeds here and must clarify its position on this issue as a matter of urgency. Clean and green and GM feed are not, to my mind, mutually exclusive terms. GM feed has been, and continues to be, a critical component of the food chain here for over a decade. To pretend anything else is dishonest.
I heard the Minister of State's comments at the Anuga fair in Germany where he said that the answer to the Brazilian threat lay in organic production. We favour organic production but if the Minister of State thinks a multi-billion euro industry can turn itself around overnight and not have a GM component in its feed regime, he will put hundreds of thousands of Irish farming families and people in the food processing sector out of business.
We favour GM feed being made available to farmers and also favour the organic sector. We are in favour of consumers having choice. The Minister of State's approach in his Department is to eliminate choice, ban GM feed and put everybody into the organic sector. That is a recipe for closing down the Irish food industry overnight and is something this side of the House will not stand for.
To follow on from and concur with my colleague, Deputy Creed, we are facing a serious issue here. The first thing we must do is be honest in the debate. At the moment, our consumers are misled and misinformed. We have only to look at a few examples. Recently, I came across an example of cheese made in the UK but which is packaged as Irish. The reason for this is that such cheese contains one small ingredient of Irish origin. There are examples of wholesale meat coming in from Argentina and Brazil and being packaged as Irish and examples where Irish companies abroad package their goods as Irish.
We are not looking to ban competition but to promote Irish goods. As my colleague said, we have a policy in respect of the green Ireland brand. The Minister takes ownership and has an opportunity or open goal in terms of protecting the consumer. The consumer is always right but is being misled and misinformed. Sometimes there is a country brand on the packaging but it could be in small print or made in New Zealand or Denmark so there is a vast array of anomalies within the packaging and labelling sector which we must address.
I am very keen to speak on the record of the House about the effort and diligence of Irish farmers. From my work in my constituency of Donegal North-East, I know about the effort they put into cross-compliance and sometimes unworkable departmental regulations. Irish farmers bought into it on the basis that there would be a quality Irish product that would help increase the price but prices are not rising. I know there is talk that Irish beef has increased in price in the past two years but in terms of 1980s prices, prices are not increasing when one takes index-linking and inflation into consideration.
We are looking at a situation where the operations of small farmers throughout the length and breadth of this country will close down. I refer specifically to pig farmers. Pig farmers, who represent the third most important agricultural output sector in this country, are being crippled in terms of the 35 cent per kilogram increase in maize from this time last year.
The Minister of State says that we are being disingenuous and dishonest but in respect of the Herculex maize strain and GM food we need to bring in, the reality is that people tonight will be eating beef from outside this country from cattle fed on GM food. It is contradictory and hypocritical to say we should ban that import.
It is also important to state on record in this House that GM food can be sold as a bad thing in terms of looking for best practice but one should look at the potato crop over the past 30 years. How many times did the potato crop change through genetic modification? We are still eating potatoes and the same should go for the Herculex maize strain. This is where we need to be sincere and honest in terms of not misleading the consumer about the product they are eating.
We should learn from the example of the UK whose pig industry went to the wall because it operated under double standards. Strict welfare legislation was introduced in respect of the pig sector but the protections were not introduced in respect of imports. That is the issue here tonight. We are not introducing protections against imports of foreign beef that do not go through the rigid mechanisms of cross-compliance. From various IFA deputations to Brazil, we know for a fact that food from animals affected by foot and mouth disease is coming into this country and we must follow up on this evidence.
In respect of pig farmers, we have a labelling system that was introduced so that the consumer could feel safe but it is not being adhered to. I hoped the Minister would be here tonight because, as the Minister of State is, no doubt, aware, she engaged in scaremongering throughout the general election campaign, particularly in my own patch, to the effect that people should not vote for Fine Gael because it would go in with the Green Party. I know the Minister of State has visited Donegal on various occasions and on different missions. I have visited farmyards there and if the Minister of State had visited some of these farms before the general election, he would have been chased out and hunted by people telling him that his party was planning to go in with Fine Gael in the next election and would drive farmers out of business.
Deputy Brady knows that this is the case. He knows this because the Minister visited the farmyard in County Meath as part of a very infamous trip to that county. He knows about the scaremongering that went on. To use an agricultural term, the Minister of State does not have an open door but he has an open gate, as Deputy Creed noted. He should take ownership of this issue because there is a direct correlation between what we have on our tables and our welfare and health. I ask the Minister of State to take what we are calling for into consideration and put some effort and sincerity into the debate. We on this side of the House will back him because it is a policy that we have had on our table for a very long time. I seek the Minister of State's indulgence in respect of this debate and the matter of labelling enforcement.
Fine Gael has been campaigning for the introduction of comprehensive food labelling and the banning of substandard food imports at national and EU level for many years now. However, successive Fianna Fáil-led Governments have steadfastly looked the other way and made plain their disinterest in food consumers and the future of Irish farming. I have a number of questions for the Minister of State. Are environmental health officers sufficiently resourced to enforce the Health (Country of Origin of Beef) Regulations? Has his Department taken sufficient action to ensure that businesses selling beef are aware of their statutory obligations in respect of labelling? Does he accept that it is his responsibility to ensure that these regulations are being adhered to?
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, recently revealed that food labelling in this country is an utter shambles. A recent FSAI survey found, for example, that 25% of honey labelled as Irish is of foreign origin. What action will the Government take in response to this research report? As the Government's own literature states, "most of the legislation on food comes from the EU". This Government and the Oireachtas committee chaired by Deputy Johnny Brady have become lazy and apathetic about generating rights-enhancing legislation for consumers and neglected to take a proactive approach to protect the Irish agrifood sector, which accounts for 10% of employment, 8% of gross domestic product and 25% of net foreign earnings.
We are now patiently waiting to see if Commissioner Markos Kyprianou chooses to ban EU imports of substandard beef. What is certain is that if the EU belatedly takes this action, it will be no thanks to the efforts of Government, the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, or Fianna Fáil. The consistent intransigence in regard to the crippling difficulties that the continued importation of South American beef has caused for farmers speaks volumes about the true views of Fianna Fáil on this matter.
Time and again the Minister has been briefed on the inequity and inconsistency of subjecting EU farmers to stringently high standards while allowing the market to be swamped by cheaper South American beef which does not meet, nor is it required to do so, the same lofty standards as EU-produced beef. Last July, the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, famously defended Brazilian beef and undermined the IFA after it presented a report on production standards in Brazil to the European Commission.
The reality is that Brazilian beef falls down considerably in the areas of traceability and effective foot and mouth disease controls. Governments in the United States of America, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia have been willing to ban substandard beef but our Government is willing to stand idly by while our indigenous beef market buckles under the inequity and unfairness of the status quo. Farmers throughout the length and breadth of my constituency in Laois-Offaly are angry and frustrated by the Government's attitude and Fianna Fáil's inaction on this matter. Fine Gael has a different approach and I compliment my colleague Deputy Creed on tabling this motion which we will debate tonight and tomorrow night.
The value of Fine Gael's approach to food labelling was recently highlighted by a survey conducted by the IFA at this year's National Ploughing Championships in Tullamore in my constituency. The IFA survey, conducted at the request of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, found that a majority of consumers here associate Irishness with brand names, even though these brands may not contain Irish products. The fact that the majority of the 2,110 people surveyed came from the farming community which has a high awareness of labelling and the importance of sourcing Irish produce highlights starkly the need for this Government to take on board Fine Gael's proposals on food labelling, as outlined by Deputy Creed.
The Government's approach to this matter is a no-brainer. It is time the Government took action to give food labelling the priority it deserves and took decisive action to protect the interests of the agri-food industry and the consumer.
I want to introduce some realism into this debate given that the Minister of State responsible for this area is present. I was surprised by some of the interjections he made but I will listen to what he has to say on this matter.
Thank you, Deputy.
What will happen to our beef industry over the next two years will determine whether it will be worth my while and that of 100,000 other Irish farmers to get up at 6 a.m. and spend two hours dealing with a difficult calving. A million or more other calves will be born on Irish farms this year. Multiples of that number of calves will be born on Brazilian and Agentinian farms. While Ireland is a member state of the European Union, Brazil and Argentina are not member states of it, but with their scale of production, better weather conditions, lower feed and wage bills and with the way the system has been set up worldwide, they will be able to undercut the price of our beef exports on the European market.
We must export eight out of every ten animals reared on Irish farms. My calf and the other million calves that will be born this year must undergo the most stringent compliance measures, which are much more stringent than those applying to Brazilian and Argentinian calves. Irish farmers must comply with these measures to ensure that consumers can trace beef products for sale back to my animal and other animals which is possible because of the records documenting their lives from farm to fork.
I had to tag both ears of that new born calf this morning. His details were forwarded to the CMMS computer system in Cork today and I will receive a full passport for that animal in a few days' time. Every animal has a full passport, which is not something every member of the population has. I must enter that animal's birth in a herd book, of which I am sure the Ministers of State are aware. I must also enter every injection that animal will get during his life. I must have separate special storage space for all medicines and needles. I must have proper wintering facilities and I must care for this animal as if he was a family pet. I must test the animal for TB every year and if I have a TB reactor, I will not be able to buy or sell animals until two consecutive tests have been successfully completed. I must record the animal foodstuffs I buy. If an animal contracts foot and mouth disease or BSE, my herd will be slaughtered. This process is overseen by several on-farm inspectors.
A farmer was fined 1% of his total grant aid the other day because he was not able to advise the Department the breed of the bull that impregnated his teenage heifer. In other words, he could not say from where the bull came and he lost 1% of his total grant aid. That illustrates the process of cross-compliance. It is a long way from what is happening in Brazil. The system in place there is light years behind us.
That is the way the Minister passes over this issue.
I have illustrated the hard fact. Like every other farmer, I am delighted to go through that system. In terms of organic farming, I put it to the Minister of State, that this is as near as we can get commercially to organic farming. When my calf is slaughtered in two years' time I do not want to discover——
—— that he will die in debt and that an animal reared under much worse conditions thousands of miles away is allowed free rein on the Irish market, and because of a lack of proper labelling, people do not know what they are eating.
I put responsibility for agriculture at the Minister's door. She has been talking for long enough on this matter and understands the situation. When a person dines in a restaurant or in a hotel, I cannot understand why it is not clearly indicated on the menu the country of origin of the meat on offer; such indication is only happening on a patchy basis.
The Minister and Ministers of State opposite have the power. They may say that, in referring to the calf that was born on my farm this morning and the thousands of other calves that will be born this year, I am bringing the debate down to a low level, but that is where this process starts. I hope the Minister will not be on the opposite side of the House in a few years' time.
The Minister is making a terrible mistake in her approach to this matter. As was rightly said by my colleagues, the minute there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in England the Minister rightly said on television that she would pull down the shutters and ban the import of beef to this country. Why did she not take that approach and ban a product of lesser quality, of unknown quality or quality over which nobody could stand? Why are we not making a racket about this at the Council of Ministers and requesting the banning of the importation of such substandard products into Europe? It is one thing to talk about this issue in Ireland but we export eight out of every ten animals to the European market, which is where we face the real competition. What are the Minister and Ministers of State doing about it? They are behaving like lambs; there is not a word out of them. It appears that when the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, goes to Europe——
——she has no influence where it counts most. It is one thing to have influence in County Donegal but it is another matter to have it where she is paid to have it, namely, in the heart of European politics. She does not have it there and that is what is wrong.
I am in favour of organic farming, but if the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, believes, as Deputy Creed said, that we can organise a huge commercial enterprise like Irish agriculture to be totally organic——
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. Unlike some of my colleagues I have been present for previous debates on this area and I have been talking about this matter for the past 14 years. While they may be depressed at the reaction tonight, I am not surprised. There is a total lack of commitment to deal with this situation.
I live in the heartland of chicken and pigmeat production. Farmers tell me that chicken can be imported from anywhere, packaged and sold as Irish. How do we know the way the product was produced or its background? We have the same situation in the beef industry. It is imported from Brazil, with all the limitations on traceability that implies.
Deputy Brady, the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, and I visited Chicago several years ago. On American farms we saw the use of steroids in milk, hormones in beef and God knows what in chickens and everything else. Irish farmers must compete with those products on world markets. Talk about us being whiter than white while allowing unlabelled products is unacceptable.
In a few minutes we will be told that the Department of Health and Children deals with labels. We are dealing with the Government and surely it meets at least once a week when the Dáil sits. It is up to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure the Minister for Health and Children is dealing with it. A scheme was agreed in respect of beef but personnel to man the scheme were not provided and so nothing is happening.
The cost of feed and the cost of buying it in the future is causing major problems for pig and poultry farmers at present. They do not know what the future holds. The Minister promised she will do all she can but she also promised that in respect of the nitrates directive. The small pig farmers who hoped she would do something for them are now gone, she no longer has to worry about them. I urge the Minister to introduce a labelling system so that people can buy the raw materials to feed their products and allow the industry to live.
Both calves are alive but I have not yet sent away my forms. I am not as committed to that part of the process as is Deputy Connaughton.
In 1973 28% to 30% of weekly disposable income was spent on the household basket. This figure is currently at 12%. People can afford to make a choice. Food labelling allows them to make an informed choice. The one thing worse than no labelling is misleading labelling. It is opportune that Dr. O'Brien from the Food Safety Authority launched a campaign to allow people to make informed purchasing decisions based on accurate, clear food labelling information. The onus was on the industry to provide honesty and truth in labelling. Deputy Creed has outlined the effects of substantial transformation. It is time we changed it.
Regarding affordability of choice, the Irish housewife or house husband can go the shop, supermarket or restaurant and can choose to be a patriot by supporting an industry that accounts for 25% of our foreign income, 10% of our employment and 8% of our GDP. They also have a choice regarding health. Other Members have outlined the implications of importing food from countries where we are unsure of the way the animals are raised.
World market price was once described to me as the lowest common denominator in animal welfare and animal health. Every possible corner is cut. This motion seeks protection for the consumer and the producer, which is not unreasonable. It is opportune that this initiative has come from the Food Safety Authority.
I do not have all the answers to GM crops. I would prefer if we could honestly say we can produce enough food but there are not enough GM free soya beans produced in the world to feed the planet. The world population is increasing. Countries that heretofore could not afford to buy food and be customers in the market can now afford it and can buy food from Australia, South America or other main areas of food production. I refer to countries like India, China and so on. If we cannot afford to produce enough food, it will be produced elsewhere. In this country we know the quality of food and the way it is produced. I ask Members to support the motion.
The debate is about providing information to the consumer and giving confidence to consumers that the products they buy in our shops are not labelled in a misleading way. The food industry is important to Ireland, with 200,000 people working in it. It accounts for 25% of our exports and is worth €7 billion to our economy. Ireland has a long tradition of food production and a reputation for high quality food. Our clear, green image is used to promote our food nationally and internationally. This is something of which we are proud. I commend Deputy Connaughton for pointing out to consumers the regime he must comply with in respect of one newborn calf. This is not the case in countries thousands of miles away, outside the European Union. We must inform those who go to supermarkets what they are buying.
An IFA survey was carried out at the ploughing championships recently and underlines the consumer confusion that exists. More than 2,000 people were interviewed, most of whom I assume were from the farming community. Some two thirds believed that branded products were of Irish origin. This shows that labelling is misleading. The thrust of this motion is to establish a method of closing the loophole whereby substantial transformation can be disregarded. At present, if one imports bacon from outside the EU and cuts it up as rashers it can be packaged as Irish. By sprinkling some spices or breadcrumbs on chicken from Asia we can classify it as Irish and cutting up and repackaging beef allows it to be reclassified as Irish. That is misleading and wrong. It does not give Irish producers a fair chance and downgrades the high quality food that we produce on this island.
Many issues have been raised. We need to identify labelling whereby we can promote Irish products within the EU and abroad. I urge the Minster to consider the green label system, which is Fine Gael policy. We all know the fuchsia product from west Cork, what it means and that it is a quality product. Similarly, the green label could identify Irish products and sell them within Europe. Most importantly, I ask the Minister to close off this outrageous loophole that allows produce from countries that do not have the same standards as us to be passed off as Irish.
Go raibh maith agat a Cheann Comhairle. I dtús báire, ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt le mo chomhghleacaithe, na Teachtaí Johnny Brady agus Séamus Kirk. I propose the motion be amended as follows:
To delete all words after "Dail Eireann" and substitute the following:
"noting the economic, social and environmental importance of the agri-food industry, acknowledges the Government's continuing commitment and proactive approach to the development of a consumer focused, innovative and sustainable sector in line with the AgriVision 2015 Action Plan and as enunciated in the national development plan; commends the specific actions taken by the Government for this purpose including:
the introduction of an €8.7 billion agri-food package in the national development plan;
the efficient delivery of €1.3 billion annually in single farm payments;
the capital investment programme for the meat and dairy industries as well as investment in research and development;
the protection of consumer and animal health including the strict application of EU regulations controlling the importation of products of animal origin; and
the active pursuance at EU level of improvements in the EU labelling regulations while, at the same time, improving national meat labelling regulations."
I am delighted to have the opportunity to outline to the House this Government's strategy in leading the development of a consumer focused, competitive, innovative and sustainable agri-food sector and the proactive manner in which we are driving this strategy. This Government and previous Fianna Fáil-led governments have not wavered in their commitment to agriculture and the agri-food sector. This commitment is based on a firm belief that the sector is the most important indigenous industry in Ireland, not only in economic terms but also for the social and environmental benefits which it brings to the country.
I have a copy here if the Deputy wishes to see it.
We have successfully led the sector through many changes and challenges. Our vision for success, as articulated in the AgriVision 2015 Action Plan, is focused on ensuring that our agri-food sector compares to the best of our competitors especially on the EU market. This same vision is clearly reflected in the partnership agreement Towards 2016 and the national development plan, underlining the commitment of all sections of the industry to this forward-looking agenda.
Our agenda for the future of the sector responds in particular to the altered EU policy environment. The need for market responsiveness is now paramount. Therefore, our plan sets out the specific actions needed to move further away from the simple production-led system of the past to one which has an increasingly competitive, market-driven approach and which respects the need for sustainability.
The drive for greater competitiveness will require real commitment, effort and investment by the sector. The Government recognises that this will not be easy and is determined to assist this process in real and practical ways involving the investment of taxpayers' funds and changes to long-standing policies where required.
The Government's commitment to the industry is demonstrated in a very tangible way by the provision of an €8.7 billion package for the sector in the national development plan. This investment in the industry is based on the Government's strategy for the development of a competitive, consumer focused, innovative and sustainable agri-food sector. Our target is to ensure that the agri-food sector attains optimal levels of efficiency, competitiveness and responsiveness to the demands of the market while respecting and enhancing the social and physical environment.
Following the last CAP reform, after extensive consultation, we chose to fully decouple EU payments from production.
Farmers embraced this change because it would allow them to produce for the market rather than having to concentrate on the requirements of a plethora of premia schemes. Perhaps the Deputy does not wish to hear about what the Government is doing in this area.
A vital first step in implementing the new CAP was to provide farmers with confidence in the new system.
Farmers needed to be assured that their single payment would be delivered in good time. Perhaps I could outline what Fine Gael did when it was in Government. Let us talk about the debacle of reducing our national herd to less than half a million when——
This placed a huge onus on my Department and my Department delivered the goods. Not only has payment to more than 90% of applicants been made in December of each year but both last year and this year, I managed to get agreement at EU level for an early 50% part payment under the scheme from 16 October. Again, my Department was able to deliver on the earlier targets and last year more than €1.9 billion was paid in direct aid to farmers.
——where income support is decoupled from production. This only represents the start. Many more building blocks are being put in place to ensure we achieve our ambitious objectives for the sector.
The €8.7 billion agri-food package the Government is making available to the industry under the national development plan represents another significant part of the Government's response to the changed circumstances. This package will not only improve competitiveness through, among other things, support for on-farm investment but will enhance our rural environment and secure farmers' income in the long-term. For consumers and the food industry, because it strengthens our scientific base, it will underpin quality, nutrition and safety of our food supply chain.
The biggest single element of the agri-food package under the national development plan is the rural environment protection scheme, known as REPS. REPS, as befits its name, recognises the multi-functional model of agriculture that lies at the heart of the Common Agricultural Policy, under which farmers are seen not only as food producers but as custodians of the environment and providers of public goods. Through REPS, farmers can deliver benefits to society as a whole in terms of the protection of the rural landscape, increased biodiversity and improved water quality. A measure of the success of REPS is that since the scheme started in 1994, farmers have drawn more than €2 billion in benefits. Last year my Department paid out €330 million and by the end of the year there were 59,200 participants in the scheme.
In August I launched REPS 4, which will run until 2013. It offers payment rates which are 17% higher than the previous version. The average farmer in REPS 4 will qualify for a payment of €7,200 a year over five years. REPS 4 is co-funded by the EU and the Irish taxpayer——
——to the tune of €3 billion over the period to 2013 and for the first time the National Exchequer funding, at €1.6 billion, is more than the EU contribution. That demonstrates our commitment to agriculture. Also, for the first time, I made REPS available to the more intensive farmers, particularly those in the dairy sector. I know that many of these farmers will welcome the chance to farm in a more environmentally friendly way while remaining commercially successful.
Another issue that arose out of environmental considerations was the need to help farmers who need to make investments to comply with the nitrates directive. I introduced the revised farm waste management scheme in March 2006 for this purpose. A total of 48,580 applications were received from farmers under this scheme by the closing date and more than 33,000 approvals have issued to farmers to commence work.
I wish to deal with the issue which is at the core of this debate, namely, the protection of consumer and animal health. It is important that the debate on this issue in conducted in an objective and factual basis. An emotive approach using scare tactics misrepresents the position.
When we talk of consumer health, we refer to food safety. There is clear evidence that our food safety controls are working. These controls include the production of animal feed, processing of raw material, control on imports and controls at transport and retail stages.
The regulatory controls on food safety operate on an EU-wide basis and member states cannot take a unilateral approach to these controls.
In Ireland, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, has overall responsibility for food safety although my Department operates many of the necessary controls under service contract to that body. At EU level, the European Commission and more particularly the Food and Veterinary Office of the Commission are responsible for both food safety and animal health controls.
With regard to animal health, my Department has an unparalleled record in dealing with animal diseases. BSE has been brought under control, the last outbreak of foot and mouth disease here was dealt with in an exemplary manner and it is clear that the public has confidence in the proactive approach of my Department to the current foot and mouth disease outbreak in England. Our controls of imports of animals, animal products and animal feed are fully compliant with EU regulations. The regulatory controls on animal diseases apply on an EU-wide basis.
On the issue of beef imports from Brazil, the approval of countries to trade with the EU is a matter for the European Commission. Notwithstanding this, I have been in frequent contact with the EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Mr. Markos Kyprianou, on the application of EU policy requiring that imports of animal products from outside the EU meet standards at least equivalent to those required for production in, and trade between, EU member states.
I spoke to the Commissioner again yesterday on this matter. He assured me the Commission will not hesitate to take the appropriate protection measures if a product, imported from a third country represents a risk for the health of EC consumers, livestock or plants. In September 2006, a senior Commission official visiting the Houses of Oireachtas gave a similar assurance to Members. I have consistently expressed the view that Irish farmers deserve fair play in the market place. I am aware Irish farmers are required to ensure their production systems and farm practices comply fully with a range of EU directives. In this context, I brought to the Commissioner's attention the IFA's published report on beef production in Brazil.
Subsequently, a detailed response and assessment of the position was issued by the Commission. The Commission confirmed its intention that a further Food and Veterinary Office, FVO, mission will take place in Brazil next month.
A Cheann Comhairle, if Opposition Members continue to interrupt, I will have to ask them for more time.
I have asked that the Commission reassess the authorisation of exports from Brazil in the light of the outcome of these missions. Any deficiencies already highlighted must be properly and promptly addressed.
The other important issue with imports of meat from third counties is that such meat should be clearly identified as such so that consumers have full knowledge of its origin before purchasing it.
Significant progress has been achieved with meat labelling over the past several years. I collaborated with the Minister for Health and Children to ensure legislation was enacted last year requiring that all beef sold or served in the retail or catering sector carries an indication of country of origin. This goes much further than most, if not all, EU member states. This legislation also allows for the extension of country of origin labelling to other meats. The extension of this requirement to other meats is not as straightforward as it is for beef, however.
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been involved in consultations with the Department of Health and Children on draft new regulations to require operators in the retail and catering sectors to provide country of origin information on poultry meat, pigmeat and sheepmeat. A public consultation on the proposed legislation conducted by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland concluded on 19 October 2007. Following consideration of any views received, it will be necessary to submit the draft regulations to the European Commission for approval. This will impose a minimum of a three month delay before the Commission can consider approval of the legislation.
Last year the European Commission undertook a consultative process on a range of issues, under a document entitled, Labelling: Competitiveness, Consumer Information and Better Regulation for the EU. As part of Ireland's submission to the Commission, we raised the definition of "substantial transformation". The concept of substantial transformation is the basis used in the EU, and elsewhere, to define the origin of goods as being from the country where the last substantial economic change was made to them.
In the submission to the Commission, we recommended the term "substantial transformation" be strictly interpreted. It is essential this process not be used to hide the true origin of products and that labelling systems be adapted to ensure consumers are not misled as regards the true provenance of a food. We would, therefore, advocate specific rules on country of origin labelling similar to the way in which this is done in the EU rules on beef origin.
I will continue to press for a satisfactory resolution to this issue in the current EU review of the general labelling directive. The Commission is expected to present a proposal on this matter in late 2007 or early 2008. I have raised this issue bilaterally with several of my EU ministerial colleagues and will continue to do so.
Reform of the regulatory regime on the imports of animal feed will provide easy access to animal feed at affordable prices. Current feed prices are exceptionally high due mainly to reduced cereal harvests in major producing countries because of drought and the diversion of cereal crops to the production of bio-fuel, particularly in the US. The EU Council of Agriculture Ministers has, in response to the pressures on the international cereal and feed markets, agreed to suspend the obligation to set aside 10% of arable land. This will increase cereal output by ensuring more arable land is available for cereal cultivation in 2008. I am also pleased the European Commission has introduced a scheme of aids to private storage for pigmeat which should provide some assistance to that sector over the coming months. This initiative was in response to my request, and that of other member states, for support for the pigmeat industry. At yesterday's Council of Ministers meeting, I called on the Commission to introduce export refunds for pigmeat and the Commission undertook to keep the market situation under review. There was a strong support for this position from many member states.
I accept there is a potential problem arising from the EU authorisation process for GM products which could affect availability of protein feeds for animals. Maize and soya which are the main sources of protein in farmed animal diets, account for over 80% of the GM crops grown worldwide. It is inevitable GM crops will form a significant part of Irish feed material imports. Approximately, 90% of the maize by-products and soya imported into Ireland in 2006 was declared as coming from GM crops.
Under EU rules only GM products which have been approved under the EU authorisation process can be marketed within the EU. EU legislation was introduced in response to the concerns expressed by EU consumers about the safety of GM produce. The new legislation, which is considered to be among the most stringent, governs the assessment and approval procedures for GM crops, food and feed, ensuring the highest possible standards are in place to protect the citizens of the EU from a food safety and environmental safety aspect.
It was only in the past 12 months that delays in the GM authorisation process began to impact on feed supplies. There is no doubt the lack of synchronisation in the GM authorisation processes used in the US and the EU has presented problems for feed importers in Ireland. The speed with which the EU authorises GM products will be an issue because US agriculture has new GM crops cultivated each year.
A tighter timeframe between the two authorisation processes would significantly reduce the possibility of unauthorised GM events admixing in consignments, particularly maize by-products, being exported to Europe. It would also allow European pig producers to source whole GM maize as a substitute for costly wheat. Part of the time lag arises from delays in assessing GM events submitted to the European Food Safety Authority for approval. I welcome recent statements from EFSA indicating it recognises a problem has arisen. It is engaging with the US authorities to identify ways of minimising the time lag between the two processes.
The Government is actively implementing a clear strategy for the development of the agrifood sector and has demonstrated its ability to react to the unpredictable challenges that confront the sector from time to time. The Government will not be found wanting in taking the necessary and appropriate actions in defending and promoting the best interests of all stakeholders in our most important indigenous industry.
I commend the amendment to the House.
I commend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Coughlan, on the wonderful job she has done since her appointment in 2003 in leading the drive to develop a sustainable, competitive and consumer-focused agrifood sector. She has a wide brief that covers many issues such as competitiveness of agricultural production, development of the food production sector, maintaining food safety and quality and improving animal health and welfare. As outgoing chairman of the agriculture committee, I congratulate her on her reappointment as Minister. Each of the different farmers' organisations was glad she was reappointed because they have great faith and confidence in her.
I congratulate my former constituency colleague, Deputy Wallace, who may be my constituency colleague again after today's announcement, on her appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I also welcome Deputy Sargent's appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with responsibility for food and horticulture.
As a former chairman of the agriculture committee, I recall Deputy Sargent, although not a member of the committee, making numerous contributions. I acknowledge the tremendous work done by his predecessor, Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith.
The Government, and the Minister in particular, have taken action to protect consumer and animal health. In a globalised market it is important that high standards of production, which consumers have come to expect, are applied to all our food at EU level. The Minister has constantly pointed out that produce imported from third countries must meet standards equivalent to those required of Community producers. Irish farmers who respect and produce to the highest standards, deserve fair play in the marketplace.
I share the Minister's belief that it is the right of consumers to know the origin of their food. As she mentioned, the primary legislation enacted by the Oireachtas last year, under which the beef labelling requirements on country of origin were extended to the catering sector, also allowed its extension to other meats. I am pleased to see the introduction of labelling controls for those meats is being pursued vigorously and I look forward to the controls being in place at an early stage. I firmly reject the notion that the regulatory regime governing the importation of animal feeds is in need of reform. I am satisfied that Ireland operates one of the most comprehensive and safe regulatory food regimes within the EU.
So much so, indeed, that I am told the industry from time to time refers to the regime as gold plated. Over the past two decades the main focus of regulation in the area of animal feedstuff was the part the industry could play in overall efforts to eliminate BSE from the national herd. Feed ingredients, particularly those imported from third countries, were seen as a possible source of prohibitive meat and bonemeal protein material. Stringent EU veterinary legislation implemented vigorously by the Minister and her predecessor can be considered as a vital contribution to the significant drop in BSE cases today. However, as issues surrounding the threat of BSE recede, a new concern arises, namely, the presence or otherwise of unauthorised GM material in animal feed. As I understand it, animal feed containing unauthorised GM, forms an increasingly important part of the diet of farm animals here. There is a danger that these supplies might be interrupted because of cross-contamination of feed containing authorised GM with feed that contains GM authorised in the US and elsewhere, but not yet in the EU. This could trigger a whole consignment ban on feedstuff imported here and could have implications for the supply of feed for our animals.
I welcome the fact that the European Food Safety Authority is aware of the problem of delays in approving GM events in the EU and is trying to do something about it. I am satisfied that the current regulatory regime being operated by the Minister and her officials in the area of animal feedstuff is fully effective as regards its primary purpose to ensure the full protection of consumer and animal health.
Again, I compliment the Minister and the Ministers of State and I fully support the amendment to the motion.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute. I congratulate Deputy Mary Coughlan on her reappointment as Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. She has brought an innovative and refreshing approach to the challenges the industry has to face up to in Ireland and indeed in the wider dimension of the European Union. I take the opportunity to wish the Ministers of State, Deputies Trevor Sargent, Mary Wallace and John Browne, who have different and individual responsibilities in that Department, well in the years ahead. I am aware, as they are, that agriculture is still a vitally important industry in Ireland. I know they will contribute enormously to its evolution and development in the years to come.
I consistently support fully the case for clear and unambiguous labelling of food. It is a consumer's absolute and fundamental right that that is done. There is also the right of the producer that his or her product is clearly identified as to its genuine origin and the associated high standard of animal and public health regulation under which it has been produced. I am glad that last year the Minister was able to successfully extend country of origin labelling to beef sold in all hotels, restaurants and catering establishments. As the Minister has pointed out, the extension of country of origin labelling to other meats is not as straightforward as it was for beef, especially as the European Commission has opposed the introduction by member states of legislation in this area that may be in excess of Common Market requirements. Nonetheless, the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, is pursuing with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, the introduction of country of origin labelling for other meats. I strongly believe this is the correct course of action and that consumers have a right to know the origin of their food.
I understand that country of origin will be defined as the country where the animal or bird was reared for most of its life. If the country of slaughter is different it will be necessary to indicate both countries. The proposed regulations will apply to meat and meat products containing at least 70% by weight of these meats, for example, ham, luncheon meat, pork sausage, lamb burger, chicken nugget and chicken kiev. I see this as a great way to get around the thorny problem of substantive transformation. A company may not add a pinch of salt to ham, for instance, and claim that the product originated in Ireland. The regulations are to apply in the retail, restaurant and catering sectors in the same way as they do for beef. This will mean that in the retail sector, information on origin will be shown on the label in the case of pre-packed foods and on the notice as regards food being sold loose.
In the case of the restaurant or catering sectors, the origin will be indicated on the menu and other suitable presentations. The regulations, when they are introduced, will be a major step forward in allowing Irish consumers to know where their food is coming from. I hope the Minister will ensure the new labelling regulations are introduced as soon as possible, although it is clear from her speech that there appears to be an unavoidable delay in getting the regulations through the European Commission. I am satisfied that the Government, particularly the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, will continue to fully demonstrate it is committed to the development of a sustainable and competitive agriculture sector and I therefore support the motion, as amended.
Some Opposition Members complained that the Minister, understandably, appeared to broaden her contribution on the whole issue of agriculture. It is not possible to focus exclusively on the issue of labelling, in the context of what is a very important debate for an industry that has stood the economy in very good stead for generations. If anybody endeavours to comprehend what has happened in agriculture over the past six months and sees the unpredicted changes that have occurred in such enterprises as milk production and particularly cereals because of issues on world markets that have affected supply and demand equilibrium, it is obvious that the need for a steady hand on the tiller of this Department is vitally important. It needs someone who is prepared to be innovative and to show considerable enterprise for the industry. Irish primary producers need to ensure they are in a position to avail of the potential markets that are opening up. I commend the Minister on her efforts and look forward to her continued success in that office in the years ahead.
I wish to share time with Deputies Martin Ferris and Mary Upton.
If Deputies Doyle and Connaughton are selling those calves, they might give me a shout because I am thinking of increasing my herd by 200%.
I speak in support of the Fine Gael motion. Between 2005 and 2006, the agrifood sector accounted for 163,400 jobs, or 8.1% of the working population. Irish agrifood exports accounted for more than €8 billion. As a country we discount the importance of this sector of the economy at our peril. At a time when increased consolidation of the agrifood sector is driving the market, we must not forget the importance of ensuring that consumer interests are maintained. We must also continue to ensure that the protection of consumer health lies at the core of agriculture and food policy.
In recent times, the standards set for Irish farmers in the production of beef and pig meat are not being subscribed to by producers from third countries who have access to Irish and European markets. In essence, Irish farmers are being asked to ensure that their produce is of the highest standard before going to market while their counterparts in countries outside the European Union can compete on an uneven playing field. The regulatory framework is clearly not working in this instance. The EU legislative framework, as it stands, works against the Irish farm family and the competitiveness of Irish agriculture is compromised as a result. More important, the health of the Irish consumer is compromised if there is so much as the slightest doubt about the standard of produce being imported into Irish markets from third countries. Brazilian beef is a case in point. Brazilian producers in many instances produce to the highest standard but there are legitimate concerns about the traceability and production methods of some Brazilian beef which finds its way on to Irish tables.
This motion rightly calls for a regulatory framework to ensure that all operators produce to the highest standard. As a country, we must ensure our competitive advantage in the production of beef. If third country producers are not operating to the same standard as ours and if there is a risk to the Irish and European consumer, the EU Food and Veterinary Office must be given the legislative teeth to expedite a ban or other such mechanism within a reasonable timeframe to address the concerns of Irish farm families and consumers. Government policy on the protection of consumers in so far as it pertains to guarding against health risks in food importation is too weak at present.
On substantial transformation, I realise that responsibility for the enforcement of labelling legislation rests with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The issue of substantial transformation, whereby a primary product can enter Ireland, be processed in some way and subsequently be branded as Irish, is governed by EU legislation. However, it is not good enough that the Government would hide behind EU legislation in tackling this problem, nor is it good enough for the Minister to say it can only be amended at EU level. In response to a parliamentary question I tabled on 3 October last, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Sargent, expressed the following concern:
... this arrangement could, in certain circumstances, be used to mislead the consumers as to the origin of the raw materials used in certain products. I am not satisfied with the current legal position and the Minister has raised our concerns at EU Council level.
If the Minister of State shares my concerns, we need to know how he will address them and what proactive measures he will take to ensure the viability of producers and confidence of consumers, who should be the primary concern. It is not sufficient for him to say: "The concept of substantial transformation needs to be more clearly defined and I will continue to urge the Commission to address this problem."
A weak legislative base on labelling allows consumers to be duped into believing products of the kind in question are of Irish origin. The Government's primary concern must be to protect the health of consumers and ensure the competitiveness of Irish farming. In seeking to be proactive on this matter, we must work with the farming organisations and processors to ensure that the quality assurance mark takes pride of place on every packet leaving the factory floor. A clear marketing strategy, with a strengthening of legislation, is the key to solving this problem.
On 3 October last I asked the Minister if she would amend legislation to ensure that foodstuffs of foreign origin would not be labelled as "produced in Ireland", "processed in Ireland" or "sourced and produced in Ireland". I asked the question to remedy the circumstances whereby consumer and producer interests are not being protected and to ensure that our comparative advantage as a nation would be maintained. I realise the Minister for Health and Children has overall responsibility for the general food labelling legislation and that food labelling is governed by Directive 2000/13/EC.
The Government stated in response to the Commission paper Labelling, Competitiveness, Consumer Information and Better Regulation for the EU, published in 2002, that there is an unsatisfactory practice at play regarding substantive transformation. The Government made certain recommendations in this regard but they have not come to fruition. Why has the Commission not acted on the Irish recommendations to date and why has the Minister not been more proactive on the matter? The Commission is now preparing to forward proposals but I understand this involves a co-decision procedure. We could be back in this House in 12 months still with no resolution to the issue of substantial transformation. I urge the Minister to fast-track the process, where possible.
On 29 September last, the Irish Farmers Journal reported that Reox Holdings, a subsidiary of Dairygold, was in the process of selling Breeo Foods. Breeo Foods carries top brands such as Dairygold, Shaws, Galtee Meats, Roscrea, Mitchelstown, Calvita and Sno. These brands are long-established in the minds of consumers and are perceived to be Irish in origin and content. The truth is otherwise and some of these brands are marketed in a way that suggests they are Irish. In the minds of pig producers and workers in Mitchelstown and beyond, the closure of Galtee Foods was as a direct result of substantial transformation.
If there is to be no provision in Irish law to amend legislation in the short term, the Government should ensure that labelling, through a proper marketing strategy by Bord Bia, will be implemented clearly. The Government must also allow open access to those plants that are being marketed by Bord Bia to ensure that the content of all produce is as it says on the packet or tin. I am not ashamed to say we must protect our national interest. We have a comparative advantage over other countries and we must maintain this competitive edge. The future of Irish agriculture depends upon it.
It is not my job to criticise the Government for the sake of criticism but it is necessary to critically assess its response to agricultural issues as they arise. The Labour Party is not against the science of genetic modification and does not adopt a fundamentalist view thereon. We believe biotechnology can coexist with natural biodiversity without compromising the latter. It is in this context that we seek to ensure that the competitiveness of Irish agriculture is maintained. With that in mind, it is beyond our comprehension that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food chose to abstain from a crucial vote on genetically modified animal feeds at a meeting of the European Council of Ministers in Brussels last month. The Minister's logic for this abstention, that is, that it did not affect the eventual outcome, is beyond belief.
We welcome the fact that the European Commission will move to approve genetically modified feed imports. The internal party machinations of the Green Party are of no concern to us. What is of concern to us is the need to ensure that the EU scientific committee moves at a pace that is in keeping with the market and provides for a level playing pitch for Irish agriculture. The Government's intransigence on this issue, by way of abdicating its responsibility, is grossly negligent and undermines our ability to negotiate on further matters of this nature.
We support the Fine Gael motion. It marks a pragmatic approach to the best means of maintaining the competitiveness of Irish agriculture while protecting the right of consumers to perfect knowledge of their purchases and ensures that Irish farming families can compete on a level playing pitch.
I thank the Labour Party for sharing some of its time with me. While I express my support for this motion, I have one reservation about it, to which I will come in due course.
Like my colleagues in this House, I have raised the issue of food labelling on numerous occasions. This extremely important issue unites food producers, retailers and consumers. Last week, an IFA delegation of pig farmers lobbied Deputies about the need to have clear country of origin labelling. Deputies from all parties went to the Mansion House last Wednesday to hear the concerns of the pig farmers and the IFA in general. The IFA pointed out the damage that is being done to the Irish agriculture industry by the failure to provide for adequate labelling. All the farming organisations — the IFA, the ICMSA and the ICSA — have pointed out that food is being sold in this country without any indication that it is not domestically produced. Processors can do this because they are able to import meat and process it in Ireland without having to state where it originated.
Consumers are buying meat products in the belief that it originated here. Customers in hotels and restaurants across this island who order what they think is Irish beef are being sold Argentinian or Brazilian beef. There is no way for them to tell where the beef originated. Sinn Féin recently introduced a motion at a meeting of Kerry County Council calling for legislation to be introduced to make it a statutory requirement that hotels and restaurants should clearly state the country of origin of all beef they sell. Processors benefit from the status quo because they pay lower prices for imported produce, especially when it comes from outside the European Union. It also helps them to constrict further the prices paid to Irish producers. A system needs to be introduced whereby all produce can be identified by the country from which it came rather than the country in which it was processed. That is the only way to ensure that consumers have the information they need when they want to make a purchase based on whether a product is Irish.
There are wider issues than the economic threat posed by imports to domestic producers. Recent IFA research on the Brazilian beef industry proved that beef production in that country is not subject to the safeguards and regulations which govern beef production in the EU. Those of us who watched the video that was produced by the IFA and given to the Irish media are aware of what the IFA researchers uncovered when they went to Brazil. There are health and safety concerns about the possible detrimental effect of Brazilian beef on those who consume it. Steroids and other growth enhancers which are banned in Ireland are used in Brazil. Animal welfare and consumer safety measures are flouted in Brazil. Strict mechanisms of detecting and controlling diseases like foot and mouth disease are in place in most EU states, but that is not the case in Brazil. There are no guarantees about the quality of beef that is imported from that country. In 2005, there were confirmed outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in the Mato Grosso do Sul region of Brazil, but imports continued. There is no individual traceability in Brazil. When outbreaks of foot and mouth disease take place, the Brazilian authorities do not cull animals as we do. The inoculation system that is used in Brazil helps to spread the disease in effect — it certainly does nothing to contain it.
I am also concerned about the manner in which cattle ranchers in Brazil have waged what amounts to a small-scale war on local people on whose lands they wish to encroach. An American nun, Sr. Dorothy Mae Stang, who was killed in Brazil in February 2005, is one of more than 1,200 people to have been murdered during the ongoing land-grabbing in that country. The big ranchers who force indigenous people from their lands have assumed thousands of acres for their own ends. It has been reported that thousands of people have been forced to work as virtual slaves on ranches, which is an unacceptable price to pay for cheap meat. By allowing such things to happen without any restrictions — we have not put any demands on those who import meat from Brazil to Ireland — we are guilty of facilitating these crimes.
As a Welsh farm leader pointed out recently, if an EU farmer destroys a hedge to make room for cattle he will be heavily fined and could even be jailed. He would certainly lose his entitlements, without having engaged in any of the activities associated with the Brazilian beef industry. The conditions under which Brazilian beef is produced not only pose dangers to consumers but also give Brazilian producers an unfair advantage over EU farmers who have to comply with the rightly stringent regulations which apply across the Union. In every EU member state, there is individual traceability from the time of birth to the time of slaughter. These standards do not apply in Brazil, Argentina and other countries which do not impose such stringent regulations. Steroids and other hormones are used to increase the size and bulk of cattle in such countries. The Government and the European Commission are providing for an uneven playing pitch. Irish producers are at a disadvantage because they are being discriminated against.
It is hard to understand why the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Coughlan, supports the importation of Brazilian beef in light of the evidence that has been presented to her and given that the Brazilian industry represents a significant threat to Irish beef producers. It is puzzling that the Minister is almost unique among her EU counterparts in supporting the European Commission on this issue. She is clearly out of step with many members of her party. I do not know how many IFA, ICMSA and ICSA meetings I have attended at which this issue has been raised. Although backbench Deputies from the Government parties agree with the farming organisations, they are happy to come to this House to support what is happening.
The Minister should come to the meetings I have mentioned to listen to her backbenchers. It is obvious that they are speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They agree with farmers that the importation of Brazilian beef is undermining this country's cattle sector, but when they come to this Chamber they back the position that has been adopted by the Minister at EU level.
I trust that this debate and the continued representations being made by farmers will persuade the Minister to change her mind and try to convince the Commission to reverse its current position, in the interests of domestic and EU producers. While I hope that will happen, I doubt that it will. The motion before the House refers to the importation of animal feed, presumably with regard to the use of genetic modification in its production. Although pig producers claim that restrictions on genetically modified animal feedstuffs are among the factors responsible for increasing costs, Sinn Féin remains opposed to genetic modification and does not believe that its use in animal feedstuffs or in the growing of crops is in the best interests of producers or consumers. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent, agrees with me in that regard.
The Deputies who took the time to speak to the pig producers last week will have heard them say they believe they are prohibited from feeding genetically modified feedstuffs to their pigs. They are quite right, in one sense, but I disagree with their position because I am looking at it from a different perspective. When people buy food in shops, in some instances they are buying food that is contaminated because it has been genetically modified. A certain amount of hypocrisy is evident in this instance.
Recent increases in the price of grain and other feedstuffs are affecting pig producers, who are finding it difficult to compete. The greed of the companies which produce the feedstuffs on which pig producers rely is putting pressure on the producers, which is totally and absolutely wrong. They should be given some support, but they should not be allowed to import genetically modified feedstuffs. There is a great deal of evidence to support the contention that European consumers are not in favour of genetic modification. As a result, food produce contaminated by genetically modified ingredients is at a disadvantage and will continue to be when mandatory labelling of produce from animals raised on genetically modified feedstuffs is introduced, as it should be. Surely the optimum policy for Irish food producers should be to emphasise the high quality of Irish food, which cannot be maintained if it is contaminated by the use of genetic modification. While there are concerns about the price of feedstuffs, it can be argued that many factors other than the absence of genetically modified animal feedstuffs have contributed to the recent price increases. It is too simplistic to assume that the availability of cheaper genetically modified feedstuffs would solve all the problems faced by farmers. The disadvantages they would face in terms of market access if they were to use such feedstuffs could well outweigh the benefits that might accrue.
I support the general thrust of this motion. I urge the Government to act now to address the issue of food labelling. Country of origin labelling is essential to protect both Irish farmers and Irish consumers. I reiterate my call to the Minister to reverse her position on the importation of Brazilian beef.