Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and her office for kindly picking me and allowing me the opportunity to raise this matter. I thank the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, for being present to deal with this important issue.
I am glad to say that I speak on behalf of snail farmers throughout the country and I wish to highlight their concerns. Not many people may realise that a snail is classified in Ireland as an individual animal. We can imagine the complications, the paperwork and the unnecessary bureaucracy that this creates, and I ask the Government to deal with this issue. Ireland has approximately 30 professional snail farmers. I am proud and glad that we have one such farm in Toormore, Cahersiveen, County Kerry. The first problem Irish snail farmers have is that a snail is classified here as an animal but, obviously, it does not qualify for any farm payments. In France snails are classified as shellfish, therefore allowing for an easy processing system, but because a snail is deemed an animal in Ireland, it is necessary to have the same documentation to process each snail as for a cow. We must bear in mind that a tonne of snails contains approximately 115,000 snails. This is an absolutely insane situation. How can two member countries of the EU have totally different rules for this agricultural sector?
The Minister of State is well aware of the current scenario concerning peat. I am sure she is ashamed that this Government has shut down Bord na Móna and our own peat processing, meaning that we are now importing peat from Latvia and briquettes from Germany. Similarly, in snail farming, there is a requirement that all live, farmed Irish snails must be shipped to Greece to be processed and then be shipped back to the Irish snail farms, where they can be jarred and sold as a processed product. This is laughable. The Minister of State, as a member of this Government, must surely be ashamed of this situation. The Government talks about going green, but it is also telling us to ship the snails out for processing and then to ship them back again. It is as bad as the situation with peat and the importation of bales of briquettes.
I congratulate Escargot, which is an umbrella group that flies the flag for the snail farmers of Ireland. We are talking about diversifying farming, and I am pushing all the time for the generation of off-farm income. I refer to people who can diversify into other methods of farming and make an income in that way, such as those who go into producing cheese or sowing a little bit of forestry. It is so important now, when families are struggling, trying to live on their land and to make what they can from their farms. I congratulate the snail farmers of Ireland for being imaginative and for thinking outside the box, but I ask the Minister of State and the Government to please support Escargot. What does the group need? It and its members need assistance from the Government. Snail farming must be recognised as a viable farming enterprise and snail farmers need to be included in possible grants and funding for farm diversification aid. The classification of snails must also be brought on par with the rest of Europe and changed to consider snails as shellfish.
I thank the Deputy for raising this Topical Issue matter, and I convey the apologies of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, who cannot be here to respond.
Snail farming, also known as heliciculture, is a niche market in Ireland, but one that has been growing in recent years, as the Deputy said. Climatic conditions in Ireland are suitable for year-round snail breeding, and Bord Bia conducted research in 2018 which showed the strong export market potential for snails, particularly in Europe. Snails intended for human consumption are defined in EU food regulations as terrestrial gastropods.
Farmers interested in snail farming may wish to refer to the helpful guidance document on snail farming produced by Teagasc, which is available on its website. Further advisory support for those looking to diversify their enterprises is available through the Options for Farm Families programme, and interested farmers should contact their local Teagasc office, details of which are also available on the website. In addition, Teagasc recommends that potential snail farmers visit a commercial snail farm, of which there are approximately 30 in the country, as the Deputy indicated, to get a feel for what the endeavour entails prior to investing any resources. To register as a snail farmer producing snails for live sale only, or if there is already a herd number for the holding in respect of other farming activities, and the addition of snail farming activities at the holding is required, a completed ER1 application form should be submitted to the regional veterinary office, RVO.
Snail farmers who intend to process snails for human consumption must be registered as a snail farmer with their local Department RVO and they must also be approved to operate as a food business operator with the Department's meat hygiene division. Any person producing food is regarded as a food business operator. In Ireland, all food intended for human consumption must meet the requirements of EU food law.
The main purpose of food law is to ensure a safe food supply and protect consumers' interests in regard to food. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is responsible for enforcing food law in Ireland and carries out this enforcement through service contracts with official agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. To date there are no Department-approved food business operators processing snails for human consumption in Ireland. I understand there were a couple of applications in previous years but that both were withdrawn. Therefore, some farmers did try to obtain food business operator status. Any snail farmer interested in seeking approval to become a food business operator for the processing of snails for human consumption should complete a notification-of-intent application form, which is available on the Department's website, and submit it to the meat hygiene division in Portlaoise.
There are currently no schemes under the rural development programme to support snail farming. However, snail farming may benefit from wider supports, such as Enterprise Ireland's innovation voucher scheme, for which the Teagasc food research centres are knowledge providers. This scheme awards vouchers of €5,000 to small companies with a business opportunity or problem. The voucher can be exchanged for advice and expertise. Further details can be found on the website.
The topical issue was quite open-ended so the detail on what I have to speak about is limited. The Deputy has identified that snails are identified under Annex 1 of Regulation (EC) No. 853/2004 as terrestrial gastropods. Classification is at the discretion of the member states. The justification of the classification of snails as fish in France, for example, may relate to the fact that snails, being terrestrial gastropods, are closely related to their marine cousins. Each member state has discretion to identify a snail as either a fish or an animal.
I thank the Minister of State very much. Could I ask her, her Department and the Government to use their discretion in the same way as it has been used in France? I would call it a matter of using common sense. Having looked at a snail and a cow, could the Minister of State please tell me what the comparison is? To me, there is a fair difference.
The Minister of State's four-minute reply totally avoided the two main elephants in the room regarding snails. First, a snail, in the Irish Government’s eye, is the equivalent of a cow. Second, when we want to process snails, we have to send them to Greece, bring them back and then send them out again. Whoever put a lot of time into writing the Minister of State’s response chose to ignore those two facts. Those are the two biggest obstacles facing snail farmers in Ireland. If anybody were to listen to the reply, they would have to say to themselves, “My goodness, isn’t it so hard to do business in Ireland, and isn’t it so hard for a farmer who wants to try to do something different with the land he or she owns." Among the words that came jumping out at me – besides "terrestrial gastropods", which the Minister of State used instead of just saying "snails" – were "enforcement", "control" and "regulation". It is not that the people concerned do not want regulation; we should remember that there are none better than farmers and enterprising people to do their business. The 30 people involved are highly responsible people. Would you not love to see 300 or 3,000 people involved? How in the name of goodness could any other group of people – be it a couple or individuals – say they are going to diversify and have a go at snail farming? If they think the Government is going to be silly enough to classify the snail as a cow, where would they be going? The Minister of State should please engage with Escargot. The chairperson is Deirdre O’Connor. I ask the Minister of State and her officials to liaise with those concerned and tell them that the Government is prepared to help and work for them.
I thank the Deputy. As I indicated in my original response, the topical issue submitted did not give the detail that would have allowed me to respond to the Deputy’s questions. Had he given it, perhaps I could have had a more wholesome reply for him. I take his point, however, on snails being classified as animals. Certainly, a gastropod is not the same as a mammal or a vertebrate such a cow. To compare the two so bluntly is unfair. Cows have individual herd identifiers and identity cards; individual snails do not, as far as I am aware. The comparison is a bit flippant when, in fact, snail farming is viable and diverse practice for anyone to consider getting into. Anyone who is interested would find it worthwhile to visit certain commercial snail farmers.
There is scope for existing snail farmers to register as food business operators. Maybe there is something the Department could do to encourage the farmers to look into this. If we are exporting snails to Greece only to bring them back again, it seems ludicrous. Maybe there is work we could do in that regard.
On the definition of snails, I do not know offhand why we choose to identify them as animals as opposed to fish. Maybe we can look into that also. I cannot make any promises here in the Chamber, but it is all for discussion. I accept the bones of the Deputy’s arguments on this.