Thursday, 23 October 2014
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important item with regard to what has been happening on the issue of cattle rustling over the past number of years. Cattle rustling has been around for a while but there has been a serious intensification of activity in this most nefarious area in recent times. Cattle farmers in Border counties, including Louth, Monaghan and Armagh, have been severely affected.
Many beef farmers are in dire financial circumstances because of the prices available for their produce over the past six months and longer. Now we have an added dimension whereby farmers who buy cattle at the mart find they are gone from the field the next day. It is costing tens of thousands of euro. In many instances the livestock were bought with bank loans.
The obvious question is where are the livestock going. I must reiterate the point livestock are being stolen north of the Border also. At least one and perhaps two illegal abattoirs have been located, but clearly there must be more. We are speaking about thousands of top quality animals, not exclusively but in the main continental-style beef cattle, which have caught the eye of nefarious people.
This begs the question of what we do about it. Is it possible to establish a task force? Is it possible for the Garda Síochána and the PSNI to work more closely together and in greater harmony on the issue? What is the position of the veterinary sections of the respective Departments with responsibility for agriculture in Dublin and Stormont?
These livestock are disappearing off the face of the earth. Quite clearly they are going into illegal abattoirs because the traceability system established over a period of time is quite robust. Given the fact there are Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine inspectors in legal slaughtering premises it is very hard to imagine they allow unvouched and unvalidated livestock into the food chain.
When these animals are slaughtered, they are going into the food chain. What is the outlet for them? People suggest that perhaps it is the catering sector, which is a significant segment of the food sector. Surely there must be a system whereby individuals trading in the area must vouch for, or can be compelled to vouch for, the source of their meat.
Is legislation adequate to cater for this phenomenon, which is not exclusive to the Border counties? Animals have been stolen elsewhere throughout the country, although it seems to be focused on the Border area. It appears cross-Border traffic in stolen livestock is quite active.
I have raised a number of questions and I await the response of the Minister of State on them. I am positive and supportive of any initiative to tackle it. I have had too many broken-hearted farmers stand in my constituency clinic complaining about this issue. We seem to be able to do nothing about it.
I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I understand these are very valuable animals and in some cases the money to buy them was borrowed, so the investment is gone.
The integrity of our beef industry is of the utmost importance to the economy and to Ireland's worldwide reputation as a food-producing country. I assure the Deputy that every step is taken to safeguard this industry, and this is achieved by ensuring the highest standards are applied and maintained in the production of Irish food.
I am aware of the incidence of stolen livestock in the country. Theft is primarily a matter for An Garda Síochána and any incidents involving theft of livestock should be reported to the Garda Síochána in the first place. The number of cattle reported stolen since 1 January 2012 is 555, out of a total population of 6.9 million animals. The Garda frequently requests the assistance of staff from the Department who have expertise in the areas of animal tagging and registration, animal movement, animal health and animal welfare, and who have access to the animal identification and movement database. There is ongoing contact between departmental staff and An Garda Síochána in this regard.
There is also close liaison with the relevant authorities in Northern Ireland aimed at addressing the issue of stolen livestock. A cross-Border liaison group comprising the Garda, the Department's investigations division, the PSNI and the Northern Irish Department of Agriculture and Rural Development investigate the theft of livestock on a Border-county basis. I draw the Deputy's attention to the fact that a recent operation involving the Department's investigation division and the Garda resulted in the discovery of an illegal abattoir near the Border and the subsequent questioning of two persons. This matter is under investigation at present.
Under EU law, primary responsibility for the traceability and safety of food placed on the market lies with food business operators, FBOs. The role of the Department is to verify the compliance of FBOs with this requirement. Significant resources are devoted to this task. This is done by a combination of comprehensive animal identification systems, inspection of establishments and auditing the food safety management systems which operators are required to have in place. These controls are applied at various stages in the food supply chain.
When animals are presented for slaughter at meat plants, an ante mortem examination is carried out prior to slaughter, and following the slaughter, a post mortem examination is carried out to determine the suitability of the meat for entry into the food chain. This level of examination meets the hygiene package standard as laid down by the EU and ensures the integrity of the food chain.
The Department has a permanent veterinary presence at all its approved slaughter plants. Controls at stand-alone secondary processing plants are carried out at a frequency based on risk assessment for each plant. Smaller abattoirs are supervised by local authorities.
Checks are also conducted at retail level by the HSE, working under the aegis of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland which has an overarching supervisory role in this area.
The presence of extensive checks by the Department and other competent authorities, of course, does not absolve the FBO of prime responsibility for compliance with the rules. Responsibility for compliance with traceability requirements rests in the first instance with FBOs. FBOs in Ireland are responsible for carrying out checks to ensure that their ingredients come from EU approved plants. They must also have a system in place to identify the source of inputs and destination of outputs - referred to as one step forward and one step back.
When members of the public provide information to the authorities about any suspicious or illegal activity concerning the movement of cattle, it is treated in confidence and it greatly assists in the investigations that follow. I therefore ask members of the public to continue their support in that regard. Farmers who have heavily invested in rearing animals and bringing them to the point of slaughter are the real victims of this crime. I am aware of the devastating impact that the theft of animals has on the individual farmers.
Tackling the crime of cattle rustling can only be done with the combined efforts of gardaí, staff from my Department and the general public. I assure the Deputy and the House that my Department will provide whatever assistance is required towards combating these crimes.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. I am pleased to hear that a task force has been established. There may be a need to broaden the task force and incorporate into its membership representatives from the farming organisations because at the end of the day members of the farming organisations are nearer to the issue we are discussing. As they are familiar with the problems they could bring considerable focus to bear on tackling the problem. We have a range of farming organisations with which we are all familiar. I ask the Department to consider the possibility of the different groupings establishing a liaison arrangement to ensure the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine and An Garda Síochána are up to speed and familiar with the difficulties on the ground.
I thank the Deputy for his positive contribution. What is required now is vigilance. As the Deputy will know, even when an animal strays off the farm and dies of natural causes, that animal's identification tag is pursued to ensure it was disposed of in a correct way and for traceability purposes is removed from the national database. When one is doing one's farming records, all that has to be followed up.
I accept what the Deputy is saying. It is difficult to understand how such animals can in some cases disappear. However, we know they are disappearing into something. I appeal to farmers in the area, gardaí and members of the public to be very vigilant. This is the way forward. The same happened with fuel laundering. It is possible to reduce the impact by keeping vigilant and ensuring that everybody is informed and doing their job. I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue.