Wednesday, 17 September 2014
Topical Issue Debate
I join Deputy Calleary in expressing disappointment that the Minister is not present. I received notification of the selection of this matter at 11.02 a.m. There was ample time to ensure the Minister was present when important matters were being addressed to him.
I support the case being made by beef producers that the current return per kilo is below the break-even position and that there is a compelling case for the Minister to exert appropriate pressure on processors and on large supermarket chains to have this unsustainable situation satisfactorily addressed. Protecting the domestic and international reputation of our high-quality beef is an absolute requirement and it is the duty not only of the Minister but of all elected voices and those who can influence public opinion at home and overseas. Irish beef is high-quality beef raised on the richest grasslands in the world. We must effectively market this key Irish product globally.
It is because I care passionately for the reputation of this important sector of our economy that I ask the Minister of State to explain his and his Department's failure to discipline those departmental employees - veterinary inspectors - who have failed to carry out their duties responsibly, who have put innocent farmers under severe personal stress and strain and who have admitted under oath that they allowed an animal to enter the food chain that they believed had been injected with an unknown substance, which they acknowledged could have been toxic. They also stated that they did not believe it relevant that the animal had entered the food chain. Are these people serious? Relevant to what? Is their primary role not to help ensure the best practices of husbandry are employed by beef farmers at all times, that consumers at home and abroad have the assurances of our Government that the Irish beef we purchase and consume is of the highest quality and that our systems are above reproach?
The Minister will know that I am referring specifically to the case of the Cavan farmer Mr. Douglas Fannin, whose good name and good reputation were affirmed in the Cavan Circuit Court last year following years of unjustified and disgraceful pursuit by his Department's special investigations unit. It is long past time that the Minister of State and his senior colleague put the interest of the beef sector above that of their Department's employees of whatever rank. Will he ensure the Minister is fully briefed on this exchange? Will he ensure there can be no recurrence of these actions by departmental inspectors? Will he assure the House and all whom we collectively represent that there can be no recurrence of what I view to be irresponsible behaviour that puts at risk the reputation of this key sector and that could put at risk the health of innocent consumers at home or abroad?
I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. The beef sector is hugely important to the economy. We have acknowledged that, and most of our time over the past number of months has been spent trying to solve problems and deal with the issues in the sector.
Last year, beef exports accounted for just under €2.1 billion, reflecting a 5% increase in output and a 4% increase in average prices. This growth resulted from concerted action by the Government, industry and producers to develop our product offering. Primary producers are under significant pressure this year as a result of reductions in price, but a significant infrastructure has been put in place to help improve on-farm profitability. The medium-term prospects for the beef market are reasonably positive, with increasing global population and demand for animal proteins.
In collaboration with Bord Bia and Irish embassy personnel, my Department engages with a wide range of countries on market access issues. In this context, the Minister has led trade missions to Japan, China, the US, Algeria and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, in the Middle East to promote Irish food, including beef. This work has led to a number of notable successes in securing market access in Japan, Singapore, Egypt and Iran. This year we have agreed access terms with the Lebanon, the Philippines and Namibia. Furthermore, my Department is working with the meat industry to finalise the various technical requirements for trade in Irish beef with the US. We are optimistic about the opportunities this market will bring. China is another market where there is considerable potential for Irish beef. The Minister intends to lead a trade mission to China towards the end of the year and beef will be firmly on the agenda.
Irish beef is listed with more than 75 high-end retail chains across EU markets. This wide portfolio of customers reflects the success of Bord Bia's differentiation and premiumisation strategy. This strategy focuses on the key attributes of Irish beef: environmentally sustainable, grass-based production systems; full traceability; quality assurance at all stages; and superior eating quality. Among Bord Bia's key initiatives this year is the continued development, promotion and marketing of its Origin Green initiative. This is designed to establish Ireland as a world leader in sustainably produced food and drink.
The Government is also investing heavily in the future at production level. Earlier this year, we announced details of an investment package worth up to €40 million aimed at sustaining a critical mass in the suckler cow herd, which is at the heart of our beef industry.
The package includes the beef genomic scheme, the beef data programme, the beef technology adoption programme and the suckler cow welfare scheme. The suckler cow herd is also a key component of our longer term strategic plans as set out in the €4 billion draft rural development programme. This is in addition to the €1.2 billion in annual single farm payments to Irish farmers which was negotiated as part of the revised Common Agricultural Policy. The integrity of the beef industry is of the utmost importance to the economy and Ireland's worldwide reputation as a food producing country. Every step is taken to promote the industry which is achieved by ensuring the highest standards are applied and maintained in the production of Irish food.
Because the Deputy has made a very strong case it is essential that I give him a response. When animals are presented for slaughter at meat plants, an ante-mortem examination is carried out prior to slaughter and a post-mortem examination after slaughter to determine the suitability of the meat for entry into the food chain. This level of examination fulfils the obligation of the hygiene package as laid down by the European Union. While I do not wish to discuss the specifics of the individual case to which the Deputy referred, I categorically assure the House that the required checks were carried out before the release of any carcass into the food chain. The question of disciplinary action in this matter does not arise.
It is incredible that the Minister of State refuses to address the specific case to which I referred. I remind him of some of what was said on 8 November 2013 in Cavan Circuit Court. A question was posed by a barrister representing the defendant, addressing one of the Department veterinary inspectors, as follows, "Were you aware that there was a possibility that what was introduced into this animal actually could have been toxic?" The reply was:
Yes, certainly. Anything introduced into an animal that is not sterile could be toxic.Continuing, the same respondent stated:
Our focus would have been to find out if there had been interference. I think it is very difficult to identify from first basics a completely unknown substance. It could have been any one of a thousand substances. The samples were taken to see if there had been interference, to see if something had been introduced ... I don't accept whether the animal was entered into the food chain as being relevant. I refuse to accept the identification of the irritant as being relevant.There is much more; that is only one section. As a consumer and speaking on behalf of consumers and those involved in the sector, I find it highly relevant. What is the role of Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine inspectors if it is not, as I said in my opening remarks, to assure us as domestic consumers and the global market that our beef produce is of the highest standard and fit, without question, for public consumption and that our processing is beyond reproach? There are questions which the Minister of State may not be able to answer and I want the Minister to address them subsequent to this exchange. Where was the meat from this animal destined? Has the Minister sought to establish whether it was for domestic consumption or export? Apart from the Department's internal review which addressed what it saw as deficiencies in the conduct of the prosecution case rather than accept and address the judgment in the Circuit Court of Judge Reynolds and establish how its special investigation unit, SIU, personnel had conducted themselves when acting in the name of the Minister and the Government, has the Minister taken any other step to address the very worrying facts that the case exposes?
Again, I categorically assure the House that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine continuously monitors all meat and animals that enter the food chain, on a post-mortem and ante-mortem basis. In meat factories animals are examined, checked and watched, as happened in this case. The Deputy received a very detailed briefing on the issue from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and it is very disingenuous of him to try to blacken-----
I thank the Deputy. It is very important. We do not need hysteria about the beef industry. People's livelihoods depend on it. Families up and down the country are at their wits' end to survive in this business. The last thing we want is somebody blackening the name of the industry, as the Deputy tried to do.
How dare the Minister of State make such an accusation? I ask the Acting Chairman to ask the Minister of State to withdraw the scurrilous accusation he has levelled at me. I have indicated very clearly and acted at all times to ensure the Department would act at all times to assure the provenance of all of the components of the beef industry. In this instance, it has failed to do so. The review to which the Minister referred did not address the issues at the core of the problem but sought only to excuse its own behaviour.
I assure everybody that at all times the Department carries out inspections to ensure only the best, properly checked beef enters the food chain. The Department inspects it continuously, on an hourly, daily and weekly basis. The Deputy knows this and we should all acknowledge it. We demand the best quality beef and that is what we sell. We have made a name for ourselves all over the world with the top quality beef we produce. As Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, I will not resile from saying this.