Thursday, 26 November 2009
Question 9: To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the discussions he has had with the Irish owners of meat plants operating in the UK regarding the issues facing those involved in the live export trade having animals slaughtered in the UK; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43570/09]
The live export trade is an important element of Ireland's meat and livestock industry providing a complement to the beef trade. The UK remains the largest single destination with more than 81,500 animals exported in 2009, an increase of more than 150% on the same period in 2008. Of these exports, 86% consists of weanlings, stores and finished cattle with calves accounting for the remainder. Northern Ireland alone accounts for almost 90% of total live trade to the UK with the balance going to factories throughout Britain.
I am fully aware of the issues facing those involved in the live export trade. These include labelling, inclusion in quality assurance schemes and veterinary issues. As regards labelling, the Deputy will be aware that this matter is governed by comprehensive EU regulations introduced in 2000, which are underpinned by a full animal identification and traceability system. The primary compulsory element of these regulations is a requirement that the country of origin of the animal be shown on any label. Given the accepted preference of UK consumers for domestically sourced beef, this poses difficulties for Irish producers and processors in this marketplace.
Participation in the British quality assurance scheme is restricted to animals born and finished in the UK. This scheme, known as "Red Tractor", is similar to the Bord Bia equivalent, and excludes foreign born animals. Given that quality assurance is seen as a key requirement to supply the retail sector, Irish animals would be seen as less valuable to processors compared to assured domestic cattle.
With a view to addressing these challenges, Bord Bia has been working for some months with the industry on extending its beef quality assurance scheme to include cattle for export. The scheme would draw on data from the existing beef quality assurance and beef suckler welfare schemes, and would incorporate auditing of participants to verify compliance. Such a scheme could enable Irish-born animals to access higher-value market channels in Britain and other countries. Discussions on this matter are ongoing and I have asked Bord Bia to progress it as soon as possible.
Veterinary issues associated with the export of Irish cattle for finishing to Britain are the subject of ongoing discussion at bilateral and EU level and take place against the backdrop of our continued commitment to public health and food safety. While the purchasing policy of British meat plants, whether Irish or British owned, is, of course, a commercial decision for these plants I will continue to work with the industry to ensure continued access to the British market for live exports.
The issue of live exports is far more important than the number of finished animals exported live for slaughter in the UK or that are fattened; it serves as a price-setting mechanism in the differential between the Irish and UK markets, which at present is approximately €150 a head. It is critical that every impediment and roadblock to it is challenged head on. As I stated during previous debates on this, we have leverage through work permits and the beef investment fund through which we will provide €50 million to meat plants in Ireland to modernise.
Where there is a will there is a way. The Minister has a stick and I implore him not to be afraid to use it. We have a carrot to the tune of €50 million and that carrot could be withdrawn and the stick used instead if they do not play ball. In view of the price-setting mechanism, the price differential and the sterling issue, it is imperative that this matter is addressed as a matter of urgency.
As Deputy Creed stated, of course the price is a critical issue for farming families. Unfortunately, those prices have declined and the economic conditions have added to their difficulties. The volume of beef sold on all our major markets has declined while demand has shifted towards cheaper cuts. Additionally, sales in food service outlets, such as restaurants, have fallen as fewer people are eating out. Particular pressures exist with regard to the export of beef and from speaking to Members on all sides of the House I am fully conscious of the pressures on people with regard to beef prices.
The Department has conveyed to Meat Industry Ireland the concerns expressed to the Oireachtas by individual farmers and farm organisations and associations. We supplied answers to the British authorities with all queries they posed to us on veterinary matters. From our point of view nothing is outstanding on any query from the British veterinary service.
As everyone in the House agrees, live exports are absolutely essential. If we did not have them the competitive element of the industry would be rather weak. I am anxious that we have as strong a live export trade as possible. Naturally we want a strong beef processing industry also. That balance must be achieved because the beef industry is important for jobs in processing facilities. The increase in live exports so far this year is impressive.
One of the issues is that there seems to be a delay in getting live cattle to the marts. I urge the Minister to ensure his personnel are available at the earliest possible time to ensure that cattle going North for slaughter are able to be slaughtered on the same day. This is part of the problem. Some people in the job are afraid to open their mouths in case they would suffer as a result. I received a telephone call from a dairy farmer who sold his herd recently. When he was at the mart in Ballybay he was livid at how it operated, or did not operate. It was very slow with unnecessary delays.
I want to see delays minimised. I had a meeting with the marts division of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society on a number of issues. Delays were not an issue discussed at that meeting which was on minimising costs with regard to the number of personnel attending. In our area, I provided additional resources for marts and assembly centres for the export of animals. Particular requirements are laid down by the European Union with regard to requirements we have to meet, and we have to do so in a speedy and efficient manner. I will double-check to ensure that every impediment to slowing up the movement of cattle is eliminated.
I am heartened by the Minister's comments. Several people have brought to my attention the delays in slaughtering cattle exported to Great Britain. Deputy Doyle and I raised this issue during a visit to our officials in the EU and they agreed to investigate it.
Deputy Brady has raised the issue with me on previous occasions. I will ensure that our exports meet statutory requirements and that no undue delays arise. I will also facilitate farmers and mart operators in transporting stock as rapidly as possible.