Dáil debates

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Other Questions.

Animal Carcase Classification

3:00 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Question 15: To ask the Minister for Agriculture; Fisheries and Food the measures he has taken to improve farmer confidence in the beef carcase classification system; his views on whether these machines are being operated correctly at all times; the deficiencies that have been found by his inspectors in the past; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [45186/10]

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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In the European Union, carcases of adult bovines are classified or graded in accordance with Commission Regulation EC 1249/2008 using the EUROP scale for conformation and a scale of 1 to 5 to indicate fat cover. Classification is used in many cases as the basis for payment to producers and it underpins the EU price reporting system for beef. Some member states further divide each main class into sub-classes in order to further refine the classification assessment of the beef carcase.

Traditionally, classification was based on a visual assessment of the beef carcase by a human classifier. Critics would regard such human assessment as subjective, prone to error and lacking consistency. A review of the beef industry in Ireland in the late 1990s recommended that mechanical classification of beef carcases be investigated with a view to the introduction of an objective method of beef classification. It was considered that objective classification would enhance farmer confidence in beef carcase classification, promote the pricing of carcases based on classification results rather than flat-rate pricing and provide an incentive for farmers to produce carcases of the quality required by the market.

Following a successful authorisation trial carried out in accordance with EU regulations, mechanical classification was introduced over five years ago in Ireland and is now well established as an independent, objective and consistent system for classifying beef carcases. There are now 23 machines operating in beef plants, accounting for over 90% of the national kill. In most cases the classification results form the basis for payment to farmers; therefore, it is important that the machines are working correctly at all times. To this end, the meat plants have a responsibility to ensure that the machines are maintained and serviced on a regular basis to achieve optimum performance.

Since the introduction in 2004-05 of mechanical classification of beef carcases, the performance of the classification machine in each beef processing plant has been monitored by regular unannounced inspections by officials of my Department. The classification results previously allocated to beef carcases are downloaded from the mechanical classification system onto a hand-held computer and the official assesses the results of at least 80 carcases previously classified by the machine. This assessment of the classification for both conformation and fat is carried out using sub-classes for each main class. The performance of the machine is determined using the same scoring criteria as that laid down in the EU regulation for authorisation purposes.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

If a machine is found to be operating outside the limits provided for in the EU regulations, the plant is not permitted to use the machine for classification purposes until it has been examined and repaired by an engineer. It must also be rechecked by Department officials before it can be used to classify carcases following any work carried out by the engineer.

Over the past number of months, officials of my Department have held discussions with the various stakeholders involved in beef carcase classification. The aim of these discussions was to improve confidence in the operation of the mechanical grading system. Following on from these discussions, a number of measures have been introduced to enhance controls and procedures with the aim of ensuring the effective operation of the mechanical classification system. These measures include increased frequency of control visits by officials of my Department; enhanced monitoring of control and classification results; formal self-checks of machines in each meat plant; ongoing training of factory operatives on the operation of machines; and enhanced communications between stakeholders.

I am confident that with the co-operation of the stakeholders, these additional measures will further enhance the operation of the mechanical classification system.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I do not know whether the Minister was about to get to it, but one part of the question was about deficiencies found by his inspectors in the past.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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There has been constant discussion with the various stakeholders, and we want to ensure there is maximum confidence in the system. A number of measures have been introduced to enhance controls and procedures, including increased frequency of control visits by officials of my Department; enhanced monitoring of control and classification results; formal self-checks of machines in each meat plant; ongoing training of factory operatives on the operation of machines; and enhanced communications between stakeholders. I emphasise that the meat factories have a serious responsibility to ensure that all machinery is operating to the highest standards.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Does the Croke Park agreement allow for a work practice whereby in-house Department officers will be able to carry out routine independent checks on a daily basis? How many people are assigned to routine random inspections?

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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They are very specific questions.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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Yes. Is it the case, or is there a protocol in specific factories, that owners of livestock are no longer allowed down on the killing floor to view the grading as it takes place?

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I do not know the exact numbers, but I can check if necessary. I presume some of the departmental officers involved in the work also have other duties.

There is also an EU inspection process. After the last inspection that took place, the conclusion of the EU audit team was that the standard of classification was very good for both conformation and fat cover.

We conduct regular unannounced visits to plants. In 2009, for example, a total of 45,266 carcases were checked in the course of 472 control visits. As a Department we also publish an annual report detailing carcase classification statistics; this information is available on the Department's website. From the Department's point of view, at official level, we are very active.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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The annual reporting is all very well, but there should be more real-time reporting. There has been a major issue of confidence, as the Minister knows, and matters were not helped by one specific case. I ask that there be updates either bimonthly or quarterly at the very least.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Minister, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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In recent months, discussions have been held with all stakeholders with the aim of improving confidence in the operation of the mechanical classification system, which, as Deputies Doyle and Sherlock said, is important. A number of measures, which I have mentioned, have been introduced to ensure we have the best possible results for everybody involved.