Seanad debates

Thursday, 20 October 2005

11:00 am

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to address the House about the issue of avian influenza, or "bird 'flu", to which it is often referred. The issue has generated a tremendous amount of publicity in recent months, particularly since the confirmation of the presence of the high pathogenic H5N1 virus in Russia and Kazakhstan during the summer and, in the past week or so, in Turkey and Romania. The House will also be aware of the reported outbreak on the Greek island of Chios. If this latter suspect case is confirmed, it will represent the first outbreak of high pathogenic avian influenza in the European Union since an outbreak in the Netherlands in 2003.

We have had previous experience of high pathogenic avian influenza, most recently in 1983 and several outbreaks of the low pathogenic virus since. In all cases, the outbreaks were eradicated quickly. The apparent western drift of the disease is, of course, a matter for concern and we share the opinion expressed by the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs that the most recent developments are "worrying". Our consistent approach has been to be measured in our response to the risk and to initiate such precautionary measures as we consider proportionate, based on an assessment of that risk. My Department has been constantly reviewing its contingency arrangements in the light of any emerging information and on the basis of the most up-to-date veterinary, scientific and ornithological information available.

Before advising the House of the measures taken in response to the risk of the disease being introduced into Ireland, I will make a few points about avian influenza. It is a highly infectious disease of birds that rarely infects humans and, only then, through very close contact with infected birds. The World Health Organisation has reported that, since December 2003 in south-east Asia, 117 people have contracted the disease of whom 60 have died. Notwithstanding these 60 unfortunate deaths, the WHO takes the view that the experience in that region "indicates that human cases of infection are rare". It is also worth saying that there are no confirmed cases of human-to-human transmissions of the disease.

On Friday last, the EU Standing Committee on Animal Health and the Food Chain expressed the opinion that "the public is far less likely to be exposed in Europe than in Central Asia and the Far East because of the generally greater separation of humans and commercially kept birds in Europe." These points are worth making to illustrate that, at a time when over 150 million birds have died or been destroyed in the region, a relatively small number of human cases — 117 in all — have been recorded in four countries with a combined population of more than 400 million people. Furthermore, those cases occurred in quite different circumstances from those which apply, not alone in Ireland, but throughout Europe.

The principal threat to public health is of a possible mutation or a genetic change in the avian virus that could lead to the virus transforming into a new strain of influenza capable of human-to-human transmission. Responsibility for preparing for and dealing with any human pandemic that might follow such an eventuality rests with the Department of Health and Children and its agencies.

The Department of Agriculture and Food is focused on implementing measures aimed at minimising the risk of introduction of avian influenza into Ireland and, in the event of any outbreak, ensuring that it is detected early and eradicated quickly. Early detection is a central part of our contingency arrangements and I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to the national parks and wildlife service, the National Association of Regional Game Councils andBirdWatch Ireland, all of which have been enthusiastic partners of the Department of Agriculture and Food in ensuring the effectiveness of our early warning system. Through this arrangement, unusual or increased patterns of wild bird mortality are notified and will, where appropriate, be fully investigated. This important measure is complemented by Ireland's annual avian influenza surveillance plan, as part of which 20,000 samples are serologically screened annually from clinically sick birds as well as commercial layer flocks prior to export.

The Department of Agriculture and Food is working very closely with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland. Representatives of the two Departments have met twice in the past month to consider their respective approaches to the risk of disease introduction and have undertaken to exchange the results of their respective wild bird surveillance programmes. Steps have also been taken to increase awareness of the disease and the measures which poultry flockowners and travellers can take to minimise the risk of introducing disease into the country. The Department has updated its advice on the bio-security measures which should be taken by flock owners as well as publishing the clinical symptoms to watch out for. In addition, advice to those travelling to and from affected areas has been updated and published in the national newspapers. The Department intends to step up its awareness campaign over the coming weeks and months using a variety of media, including its website and the national newspapers as well as posters at points of entry and exit to and from the country.

Apart from the domestic measures which my Department has introduced, the EU has also been responding swiftly to the increased risk of the disease being introduced into the Union. In January 2004, by way of response to the December 2003 outbreaks in south-east Asia, the EU introduced a series of safeguard measures that effectively banned the importation into the EU of live poultry, poultry products other than heat-treated poultry meat, and treated feathers. These measures have now been extended until September 2006 and have since been applied to the more recently affected countries of Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Romania. The ban is being implemented at Irish border inspection posts and my Department's inspectors are being supported in this regard by the customs and excise service which has assured the Department of its full co-operation and assistance.

Last Friday, the EU Standing Committee on Animal Health and the Food Chain, unanimously agreed a Commission decision requiring member states to assess the risk of H5N1 being introduced into poultry holdings. The various measures to be taken by individual member states are to be taken on the basis of a risk assessment, taking account of the criteria and risk factors set out in the decision. Senators can be assured that Ireland will fully meet its obligations under the decision and will implement such measures as are appropriate in an Irish context.

I assure the House that my Department has been very proactive in stepping up its level of preparedness over the past number of months and has consistently adopted a measured approach to the threat based on an assessment of the risk of an outbreak. The Department is an active participant at EU level and is constantly reviewing the adequacy of its contingency arrangements. It has introduced a series of measures which it considers appropriate to the current level of risk and will not hesitate to introduce any such further measures as considered proportionate.

On the subject of imports of meat from third countries, as a member of the European Union and the World Trade Organisation, Ireland is in a position to avail of trade opportunities and is obliged to respect the obligations membership of such organisations may bring. To minimise any risks that might be associated with trade with third countries there are harmonised rules governing the importation of animal products such as meat. It is a general requirement that animal products imported into the EU from third countries meet standards at least equivalent to those required for production in, and trade between, EU member states. All meat imports must therefore come from third countries or areas of third countries approved for export to the EU.

The EU Food and Veterinary Office, FVO, carries out audits of the controls in place in third countries. In order to become an approved third country a country must appear on a list drawn up and updated on the basis of EU audits and guarantees given by the competent authority of the exporting country; have veterinary controls equivalent to those applicable in the EU, particularly in terms of legislation, hygiene conditions, animal health status, zoonosis controls and other food law; and submit a residues monitoring plan that demonstrates that controls regarding prohibited substances and veterinary medicines generally are equivalent to those in the member states of the EU. In some countries, so called split production systems exist whereby animals reared for export and for slaughter for export to the EU come from herds that have not been given substances that have been banned in the EU.

The FVO carries out inspections to ensure that only establishments that meet hygiene and health standards equivalent to those operating within the EU are approved. Exporting establishments must have standards equivalent to the requirements for EU export establishments; effective control systems and supervision by the competent authorities; and traceability labelling in accordance with systems approved by the FVO.

Following the confirmation of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in cattle and pigs on a farm in the Eldorado district of Mato Grosso do Sui in the southern part of Brazil on 8 October 2005, the EU Commission presented a proposal on Wednesday 12 October to suspend imports of deboned and matured beef from the regions of Mato Grosso do Sui, Parana, and also São Paulo. The Commission extended the scope of this proposed measure to include the region of São Paulo on the basis of concerns in relation to the possible movement of animals from the area where the outbreak has been reported. The proposal was adopted that day at the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, SCoFCAH, at which my Department is represented. Accordingly, beef produced in the affected regions from cattle slaughtered since 29 September 2005 may not now be traded. The measures have immediate effect throughout the EU and are being applied to direct imports of beef by my Department's approved border inspection posts. The implementation of this decision will have a very significant impact on exports of beef from Brazil to the EU.

It should be noted that in respect of trade in agricultural products, the EU generally applies the so-called regionalisation principle, which allows trade to continue from non-affected regions in an approved country. In practice, this means that where there is a disease outbreak, restrictions on trade are applied to products from the affected region or regions while trade can continue from other unaffected parts of the country or regions. It will be recalled that this principle was applied to trade in animal products in this country during the foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001.

Consignments from third countries must first be landed at a border inspection post that has been approved by the Food and Veterinary Office of the EU and must undergo documentary, identity and physical checks. These checks are carried out at frequencies laid down in EU law. In Ireland, border inspection posts approved for the processing of imports of animal products are located at Dublin Port and Shannon Airport. Imported meat must be accompanied by the appropriate commercial documentation showing country and approval number of the establishment of production and a health certificate conforming to the models set down in EU legislation. The meat must also be clearly labelled that it is of non-EU origin.

I am satisfied the action taken by the EU is the appropriate response to the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Brazil. I will be keeping the position under close review in conjunction with the EU Commission and other member states.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Tá fáilte romhat go dtí an Teach. These two issues are likely to have a serious impact on Irish citizens, both producers and consumers. Recent newspaper headlines have stated that 10,000 are to die in a flu epidemic and 50,000 will perish in a pandemic. It is known that bird flu, avian flu, can have catastrophic consequences but those figures are startling. I will return to the subject of avian flu later.

I ask the Minister of State to consider that 100,000 predicted to die by slow strangulation would be a very frightening statistic to see in a newspaper headline but this is the threat facing Irish farmers and particularly beef-producing farmers posed by imports from third world countries, particularly from Brazil. The Irish farmer produces a top quality green product from a clean environment which is traceable from fork to farm and is accepted throughout the world. This has been endangered by exports from South America. Neither I nor my party are against free trade and nor are Irish farmers but we want fair trading conditions.

The standards of the Irish production system are very different to those in Brazil. The Minister of State has assured the House that the beef from these regions of Brazil is traceable but this is not the case. There is no tagging of cattle in Brazil. Of a population of approximately 200 million head of steer in Brazil, the 2004 FVO report on health controls and traceability in Brazil estimates that only 16 million are tagged and they are only tagged 45 days before slaughter. This is not a level playing pitch by an stretch of the imagination.

Brazil has huge ranches probably owned by very wealthy people from Europe or wealthy corporations who are farming and producing this beef on the backs of slave labour. This is another inequality in trade that should not be allowed in Europe and should not be accepted in Brazil either. I join with the farming organisations and my colleagues, who have called for a total ban on Brazilian beef. This is a very serious issue for the consumer, from a health and safety perspective. The beef that comes in from Brazil is riddled with hormones. The use of clenbuterol is permitted and extensive in Brazil. There are no sanctions against its use. In this country, on the other hand, farmers have been imprisoned for using hormones. Again, the playing pitch is not level.

When there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease here, every section of the community rallied, under the leadership of the then Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh. A tremendous effort was made to hold the disease at bay. People were concerned about the possible impact on the economy and the country and put their shoulders to the wheel in an effort to prevent the disease spreading. In Brazil there are now over 150 confirmed cases of foot and mouth disease but we are allowing the importation of Brazilian beef to continue. This is very serious. We need urgent action and answers to these questions.

The FBO, on the issue of farm registration in Brazil, concluded that there is no link between the data recorded at local level and that recorded in central databases. Brazilian cattle are not tagged, can roam freely, can be transported from one part of the country to another with no restrictions and can mix with other herds. Despite this, we allow Brazilian meat to come into this country. The only answer is a total ban. Why do countries like China, Korea and Japan take the issue so seriously? They have imposed a total ban on imports while we have only banned them from certain regions of Brazil. I have already described our ban as a Mickey Mouse one — it is neither one thing nor the other.

The Minister of State referred to the issue of labelling, which is another disaster and fiasco. Brazilian beef can come into this country, be processed with a mere sprinkling of breadcrumbs, for example, and then become an Irish product. It can then be distributed throughout this country and Europe as Irish beef. This is not good enough for today's consumer is concerned. These beef products present a high risk to human health and consumer well being. We should not allow this to happen. We have beef in this country, masquerading as Irish, that has come from Brazil. We have chicken, masquerading as Irish, that has come from Thailand and we have pork from the United States that is masquerading as Irish pork. We have vegetables from South Africa masquerading as Irish. The same conditions, regulations and intensive scrutiny that Irish producers are subject to, do not apply in Brazil. I call on the Minister of State to impose an outright ban on these products.

If people do not believe my assertion that beef from Brazil is masquerading as Irish beef, they only have to speak to the Irish Farmers Association. The IFA did a survey on beef. It had DNA tests done on beef samples which proved conclusively that Brazilian beef was being served in restaurants and hotels in Dublin but was labelled as Irish beef. This is not good enough nor is it acceptable.

Irish farmers are very concerned about the environment and health. The same concern does not exist in Brazil. There are no restrictions on the diet of cattle, which can be fed anything. Nitrates directives do not apply in Brazil and there are no proposals to introduce prescription-only medicines for cattle. If an Irish calf has ring worm, a farmer cannot go into a chemist to buy an antibiotic to treat the animal. If I have ringworm myself, I can walk into a pharmacy, pay €5 and use the treatment purchased. However, we take our beef production so seriously that over-the-counter purchase of antibiotics is not allowed and I do not have a problem with that. I have a problem, however, when it is allowed in Brazil and other countries in South America. We need to improve upon that situation.

We also need to improve upon our bio-security arrangements. We need security of supply. If we continue to strangle Irish beef production, as we are doing, we will not have a quality product in this country. We will end up depending on cheap, high-risk imports from Brazil. What happens to our supply if Irish agriculture is killed off or if dockers go on strike in France or Britain? Where would we get our food from then? We must ensure that there is a safe supply of food here.

We must take immediate action on imports of beef from Brazil. We must stand by our farmers, who were misled by the EU Commissioner, Mr. Franz Fischler, who reformed the Common Agricultural Policy. One of the main selling points for the single farm payment was that it would lead to a cut in production, which, in turn, would lead to an increase in prices. In fact, the direct opposite has happened. There has been a cut in production, but the vacuum has been filled with imports from Brazil, resulting in a drop in prices. Imports of beef from Brazil in 2002 amounted to approximately 350,000 tonnes. This year, so far, 550,000 tonnes of Brazilian beef have flooded the Irish market, with a resulting drop in prices of over €100 per head in the critical months of August and September, when most Irish farmers dispose of their cattle. This situation is very serious. I am calling for an outright ban on beef imports from Brazil and look forward to the Minister of State's response.

On the issue of the avian or bird flu — I have a touch of the flu myself and I hope it is not of the feathered kind——

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I hope it is not contagious.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I think the Chair is safe. Avian flu can have catastrophic consequences, especially when combined with human flu. We must be careful in our approach to this problem. I welcome some of the announcements made by the Minister of State in that regard.

The Minister of State must address the public fear surrounding the availability of the antibiotic needed to treat an epidemic, or indeed, a pandemic. It was reported in newspapers recently that 600,000 units of Tamilflu will be available to treat the public by the end of this year. A further 400,000 units will be available in the new year. Clearly we are not stockpiling sufficient antibiotics to deal with an epidemic if, or when, it hits our shores. The slow spread of the avian flu has been reported. It started in south-east Asia and now we believe that it is in Ireland. Perhaps the Minister of State can confirm that. It has been reported that birds on one of the Greek or Cypriot islands have proven to be affected by the harmful virus.

In view of the fact that over 6,000 people work in our poultry industry, avian flu could have devastating consequences if Irish poultry has to be slaughtered. I hope that this does not happen but whatever needs to be done should be contemplated immediately. Some precautionary measures include housing poultry stocks indoors or placing netting around them so that wild birds cannot get in among them.

I ask the Minister of State to address the allegations that there has been major bureaucratic bungling, particularly by the British and European authorities, with regard to taking samples for analysis. Such analysis is designed to identify the deadly strain of the virus and, if identified, allow us to take all necessary precautions. The Irish people deserve to know what is going on. If this type of bungling is taking place, it should be eliminated immediately and people should be held responsible for their actions.

While we must all exercise a degree of responsibility and not panic, we must take action. The Minister of State should reassure the public that the necessary stockpiles of drugs are being ordered to deal with the pandemic. Professor Luke Clancy, consultant respiratory physician in St. James's Hospital, said he hopes anti-viral drugs will not be needed. He warned that if they were, there would not be sufficient numbers of them to halt the spread of the flu. The Minister of State will have the public on his side as he fights this problem, and we wish him well.

On imports from Brazil, will the Minister of State confirm whether he believes the independence of the food and veterinary office has been damaged because it is alleged that the Brazilian authorities delayed until now the inspection and report on the traceability of Brazilian imports which should have taken place in October 2003? In the meantime, it has allowed a huge volume of beef to come into this country unchecked. I urge the Minister of State to take action on both fronts on which he will have the support of all parties present here and the public in general.

Photo of Peter CallananPeter Callanan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

In welcoming the Minister of State to the House, I want to express my pleasure at seeing Senator Feeney in the Chair. It is my first time seeing her there and I wish her well.

I congratulate the Minister, Ministers of State and the Department of Agriculture and Food on a very successful 12 months management of agricultural and related matters. I congratulate the Minister of State on the role he played. I did not think we would be back here debating foot and mouth disease so soon after dealing with the serious case that arose in this country and the Six Counties and which ravaged Great Britain and parts of Europe. However, we are back here debating a disease which spreads quickly. I listened with great care to Senator Coonan, who is a man of great intellect and common sense, but I must disagree with some aspects of his contribution.

We enjoy the privilege of regionalisation in this country. When a few parishes in the Cooley peninsula were prohibited from trading, we had great appreciation of this throughout the country and for our farmers generally. If we did not have regionalisation, the whole economy would have closed down because tourism and agriculture would have been wiped out. We must have sympathy for the country and people who bear the brunt of the dreaded foot and mouth disease. There are issues relating to that country and beef production——

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

We must have proper traceability and animal health measures in place.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Senator Callanan, without interruption.

Photo of Peter CallananPeter Callanan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I appreciate the support of the Acting Chairman. I will need it because the interruptions are coming very soon, which I did not expect. Approximately 75% of the region in Brazil which produces beef is now prohibited from exporting to Europe. While I will not labour that point, I want to deal with controls in Brazil published by the food and veterinary office. I cannot be sure, for example, that the inspection and monitoring which takes place is as tight as it ought to be. I am not satisfied because of the distance involved and the monitoring that takes place. We must depend largely on the word of the people in the region. I can go back to the mid-1970s and the kosher contract, for example, a Jewish contract, which involved a plant in Midleton. They came over with their own veterinary surgeons and did their own killing. The same applies today to any meat we export to countries outside of the EU, including Egypt and Russia. There is close monitoring of the process. I am sure Europe does not conduct this close monitoring, hence my concern. There is a difficulty about openness and transparency.

Given our beef industry, and recognising the importance of it not just to the agricultural sector, but to the whole economy, including workers and so on, we must examine the way in which Senator Coonan and others who have been talking down agriculture, which is wrong. Agriculture will prosper in this country, but making negative comments could hinder people from going into the industry.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Give us an instance of negativity.

Photo of Peter CallananPeter Callanan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I want to continue without interruption.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

On a point of order, I was not negative, nor did I talk down Irish agriculture. I ask the Senator to prove his point and not waffle, which is endemic in his party.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is not a point of order.

Photo of Peter CallananPeter Callanan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Senator Coonan is wasting my time.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Senator Callanan should not waste any more time. He should keep to his script.

Photo of Peter CallananPeter Callanan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not have a script.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Senator should stop teasing.

12:00 pm

Photo of Peter CallananPeter Callanan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Last week, when the Taoiseach came into the Chamber, we all welcomed him. During his contribution on European matters, he dealt extensively with globalisation, CAP, the protection of farming interests, both here and in Europe, which we should welcome. He stated:

Over the past weeks I have set out a clear and cogent argument in defence of the CAP. Simplistic and negative statements about the CAP, many of which are driven by self-interest, are continually being made.

This is happening out there, and I cannot understand why there is this pessimism and an attempt to talk down agriculture and agricultural production in this country, because it is a great way forward.

We still have time to streamline the beef industry. We should get the industry, including producers, processors, consumers and the Department together to develop the beef industry. We did not have a beef industry with a production base in this country, we had a cattle production base. Four legs, a tail and a head does not give one a beef animal. There must be proper breeding and management and, the sooner this happens, the sooner we will be able to ensure that we can contain our markets.

The role of Commissioner Mandelson and the plans he has outlined at the world trade talks are even more scaryr. He is a twice failed British politician who may be out to rebuild his reputation by adopting the old British motto, "Cheap food at any cost", and the exportation of commercial goods such as cars made by BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Trade with Europe is important but the EU is also involved in the production and export of munitions, the outcome of which can be witnessed on our televisions screens on many nights. It is sad to witness the misery of people killing each other and children dying. As a food producer, it is heart-rending to see the plight of children and adults who are starving but the EU continues to export munitions for the killings and to sustain policies that restrict food production, the lifeblood of our existence. People in developing countries are given weapons but not food. However, we are capable of producing the necessary food.

The Taoiseach's statement last week was extraordinary. He stated: "The EU is by far the largest importer of agricultural products from developing countries and absorbs approximately 85% ofAfrica's agricultural exports and 45% of those from Latin America." Is it right that African countries should export food given the horror of starvation experienced by their peoples? Should we not be helping them to do the opposite to overcome famines, which run rife in their lands?

However, the recent proposal by Peter Mandelson will undermine absolutely and totally food production in Europe and the Minister for Agriculture and Food objected to it at the Agriculture Council. It is time for Mr. Mandelson to throw in the towel and withdraw from the scene. He should be replaced by somebody who will represent Europe seriously and who will reflect what world affairs are about and what is good for globalisation and all the peoples of the world, not the few cartels to which Senator Coonan referred. Let us have equality for all people and help the poor to improve their lot. We should not be farmed down to their level; they should be brought up to our level. They should be helped to achieve proper standards by which they can live.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister for Foreign Affairs welcomed Mr. Mandelson's remarks and the emphasis on——

Photo of Peter CallananPeter Callanan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

No, he did not. Mr. Mandelson is spinning. If the Senator wishes to spin this issue, he can go ahead.

Photo of Noel CoonanNoel Coonan (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister for Foreign Affairs congratulated Mr. Mandelson on his efforts at the WTO. That is on the record.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Senator Callanan, without interruption.

Photo of Peter CallananPeter Callanan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I outlined what can be done to streamline and develop the beef industry. We ought to do that, otherwise we will not have a marketplace or a market share. We can talk as much as we like but we have approximately ten years to streamline the industry. I appeal for that to be done.

An all-Ireland approach to control of diseases on the island is needed. The Administrations, North and South, were proactive in working together to control the outbreak of foot and mouth disease a few years ago. A similar challenge, about which we do not know much, could be on the way. We must be conscious of how FMD made it onto the island in recent years. I urge the Minister of State to strengthen this all-Ireland approach. We are an island off the coast of another island and we take action together that cannot be taken separately.

The same approach should apply to the outbreak of avian flu. I am aware of what the Departments of Agriculture and Food and Health and Children and the EU are doing in this regard but I did not have an understanding of the medical implications of the disease. We do not know how bad the outbreak could be but I am glad the Department of Agriculture and Food has put in place an early warning system in co-operation with the national parks and wildlife service, the National Association of Regional Game Councils and Birdwatch Ireland.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I also welcome the Acting Chairman, whom I have not seen in the Chair previously. I asked for the debate last week because I had read an article about the avian flu and I was jolted by the statistics reported in it. I visited Thailand in February 2004 to speak at a food business conference. The issue of avian flu was high on the agenda but we were talking about its effect on business and not about a pandemic. If the virus mutates from birds to humans, its effect could be huge, but it has mutated ineffectively in a number of cases thus far. The Minister of State said the Department "has introduced a series of measures which it considers appropriate to the current level of risk and will not hesitate to introduce any such further measures as considered proportionate". I am concerned that perhaps I am crying wolf and shouting too loud, but the Minister of State should be careful that the Department is not underplaying the potentially significant effect of this virus on humans as opposed to birds.

The article I read stated:

How many could lose their lives if this happens? The World Health Organisation estimates that in a best case scenario between 2 million and 7.4 million people could die worldwide but the death toll could be considerably higher if the next pandemic virus turns out to be more virulent. In the great 'flu pandemic at the end of World War 1, up to 100 million people lost their lives and there is unnerving evidence that H5N1 has the potential to be just as deadly. Two landmark studies published last week by US scientists show that unlike most other new 'flus, the 1918 virus jumped directly from birds to humans just as H5N1 has. Should the avian virus develop the ability to spread easily among people, a worldwide influenza pandemic could ensue potentially rivalling the impact of the 1918 epidemic.

Having read this, I then looked up a number of studies to learn more about the current outbreak. On 4 May 2005 a ranger on the Qinghai nature reserve in China, noticed geese staggering, something he had not seen previously. He took an immediate interest in this. It was brought to the attention of Guan Yi of the University of Hong Kong, who has also taken an interest in this. He identified H5N1 and published an article on 5 July on the danger of what was happening. At this point, birds previously thought to be immune were succumbing to this influenza virus.

When the World Health Organisation identified and drew attention to this problem it had difficulty in getting information from China. It stated that Beijing is traditionally reluctant to share information. Hong Kong sought information as it wanted to trace the virus to know more about the vaccines required. China was very reluctant to divulge information and even local officials treat epidemic data as state secrets unless Beijing orders it to do otherwise. In using this vocabulary, I fear I am scaremongering but one must consider the transfer of the virus from birds to humans and the effect that could have. We do not have the required vaccine.

This week is the anniversary of the arrival of the Brent geese from Canada. It is a fascinating time. They usually arrive on 23 October and leave on 23 April but sometimes arrive a few days earlier. These birds are coming from north to south so the danger of them carrying this virus is less than that presented by birds travelling from south to north. That this disease is in Romania and Cyprus poses a danger to us.

Last Monday was the anniversary of the first detection of potato blight in Ireland in 1845. We can identify with the danger posed by avian influenza. Around the world we have not recognised the importance and the major pandemic influence of this influenza. I am pleased the Minister of State has come to the House today. I am also pleased by what he has said and the action he appears to be taking. I worry that I am acting as a scaremonger in this case but when one considers the potential impact of this, in the context of the Famine, we have a major responsibility.

Last week the World Health Organisation criticised the steps taken, stating that global responsibility was not being met and the matter was not being prioritised. The Minister of State's participation in this debate on avian influenza, and the report on it, is placing the virus on the agenda but a considerable amount remains to be done to ensure we do not take things easy. There is a danger that ostrich-like we might bury our heads in the sand and hope avian influenza goes away. The Minister of State's words reassure me but unless we draw attention to the issue others may adopt the position of the ostrich.

Senator Callanan referred to assisting Africa and I fundamentally disagree with his thinking. He stated that African people were hungry and should use the food they produce rather than exporting it, as well as receiving aid from first world countries. I disagree and refer to the old adage used by Oxfam, "Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life". This will be difficult for the agriculture community in Europe but we must open our doors to the developing world. If we send aid to the developing world we are giving it a fish rather than teaching it to fish.

As Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Browne will recognise this as something for which we in Europe must take responsibility. I recognise that this will be bad news for the agricultural community in Europe as developing Africa and Asia means opening European barriers. Europe must not become a fortress, otherwise we are open to the same criticism we made of the British in the 1840s, namely, that they did nothing to assist us at the time. The assistance we can provide to the developing world is to remove barriers, thus enabling it to compete in the market place, particularly in respect of food. This also refers to Central America and unless we battle against the mentality in favour of a fortress Europe, we will have the responsibility for this in the future.

Photo of Francis O'BrienFrancis O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I congratulate Senator Feeney on her role as Acting Chairman. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and support the measures taken by the EU Commission and member states to address the threat posed by avian influenza. I agree with the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, who underlined the importance Ireland attaches to effectively addressing avian influenza from the public health and veterinary standpoints. The EU is correct to prioritise this issue but while continuing a vigilant approach we must ensure steps taken are appropriate to the level of risk.

Avian influenza is a disease of birds and while people can become infected, they rarely do. There is no evidence the virus can be transmitted from poultry to humans other than direct contact with infected birds. Resources must be focused on early detection and speedy eradication to minimise any risk to public health. The measures put in place are designed to ensure any suspect outbreaks are investigated quickly and evidence of the virus confirmed or denied. I am pleased the Department has ensured appropriate technical and veterinary staff are properly equipped to deal with confirmed or suspected outbreaks. We have examined all aspects of destruction of infected flocks and subsequent disposal of carcasses.

I congratulate the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, on the steps taken to ban the importation of beef from those areas of Brazil where cases of foot and mouth disease have recently been confirmed. That action was necessary to ensure that the national herd and the livelihood of farmers involved in livestock farming were not exposed to the risk presented by imports from affected areas of Brazil for as long as the foot and mouth disease problem exists. This country has experienced foot and mouth disease and we do not want to experience it again, nor do we want to experience the effects of avian influenza. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, the Ministers of State, Deputies John Browne and Brendan Smith, and the Department on the measures they have taken to date to ensure this country is free of both foot and mouth disease and avian influenza.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I call Senator Ryan who has 15 minutes.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I rarely say that I will not use the full time available to me. Even when I do so, I rarely keep my promise but on this occasion I may not need the full 15 minutes.

One wonders on occasion if anybody is listening. In his contribution the Minister of State dealt well with the incidence of the H5N1 virus as far as it represented a threat to the health of the bird population and, presumably, commercially. At the end of that part of his contribution, however, he said that the responsibility for preparing for and dealing with any human pandemic that might follow an eventuality rests with the Department of Health and Children and its agencies. Technically, that might be correct but the responsibility lies with the Government.

What many of us in this House wanted to hear was not just the recitation of the altogether correct and justifiable precautions to deal with minimising the risk of the introduction of avian influenza into Ireland, and we would all support the Government in that. It is not the risk of the introduction of avian influenza that is worrying a large section of the public. It is the frightening headlines quoting people who may or may not be experts. We are entitled to expect an assurance or a reassurance from our Government of the validity of some of the forecasts and the competence of the people making them.

Is it true, as some people say, that a possible mutation of this virus could produce a form of influenza that would spread from human to human, which the current virus has not been demonstrated to do? I am not an expert on epidemiology; it is an achievement to be able to pronounce the word but this appears to be the case. I had hoped to hear from the Minister of State, that in the nature of the way viruses develop and mutate it is far more likely than not that at some stage in the immediate future this current virus will mutate into a virus that will be virulent and capable of being transmitted from human to human.

I have learned to have a certain scepticism of experts. Like much of the population, I spent a large part of 1999 being inundated by expert opinions telling me that the world would grind to a halt at midnight in 2000. It turned out to be a wonderful scam by some people in the computer industry to persuade the entire world to renew their computer systems. It made an enormous amount of money for the computer industry, unnecessarily, it now emerges.

What the public needs to know about avian influenza are the real risks. People are extraordinarily able to deal with real threats. Anybody who has observed a community during war, for instance, will talk about the way ordinary people learn to live with a problem once they have come to realise there is one and their capacity to act in a patriotic fashion.

An extraordinary aspect of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease here was the level of patriotism shown by members of the public. My colleague in the Labour Party, Deputy Joe Costello, often talks about a group of old age pensioners in his constituency who traditionally spent a week in the country. It was the highlight of their social life every year. The year of the foot and mouth disease outbreak, however, they decided it would not be right to travel because of the slight risk that they would contribute to spreading the disease. That happened on that scale throughout the country without any external sanction.

What is disappointing about the way this issue is being approached in this House at least is that while what the Minister described is reasonable and commendable, he did not address — I am not aware if anybody has — whether it is possible, probable, likely or certain that this virus will mutate into something that will be more virulent in terms of the way it impacts on humans and will be transmissible among humans in the way common influenza viruses are transmissible. If that is the more likely outcome, and from my causal reading that appears to be the case, what are we doing about that likely outcome in terms of vaccine distribution?

I read in a British newspaper that a strain of influenza has now evolved which is resistant to the vaccine people are relying on. This is layman's stuff. I am scientifically numerate but I am not an epidemiologist or a microbiologist, nor am I a doctor. I have to rely on a reasonable degree of scientific literacy but if the members of the public are to handle this in the way they can handle crises, the one way to create real panic in a country is to give people the impression that they are not being given all the information. It is vital that the best information available to Government is made available to the public now, not in six months time when it is discovered that the Government was aware of certain possibilities but were not disclosed for reasons to do with wanting to avoid panic.

It is not good enough for the Minister — I do not blame him because it is a Government response — to say that the question of preparing for and dealing with any human pandemic that might follow any such possible mutation or genetic change rests with the Department of Health and Children. I do not dispute that but the Department of Health and Children should have given the Minister of State something to say about that. Expecting coherence from the Department of Health and Children is probably being excessively optimistic. That is not the way that Department does its business, regardless of the Minister or senior civil servant in charge. We need coherence but do not have it, which is disappointing.

What is the evaluation of the Government and Department of Health and Children of the likelihood of this disease spreading? What is their evaluation of what can be done, either to prevent it or in response? It must be said truthfully that in comparison with that risk, the unfortunate possible consequences for our bird population, commercial or wild, are trivial. In saying that I do not minimise the importance of wildlife, ecologically or in any other context.

With regard to foot and mouth disease, I am no great enthusiast for the Common Agricultural Policy. Its aspiration is to provide a stable food supply, but we have ended up with gluts and enormous waste. It is supposed to stabilise the living standards of people working in farming, but it is still failing to do that. It did not sustain large numbers of people in rural Ireland. I am very interested in this, since one can never get precise numbers. How many full-time farmers are there in the country in comparison with ten years ago? I speak not of those who have some income from farming, even if it is substantial. What is the number of full-time farmers with no other income from agri-tourism or any of a host of other things, such as a part-time teaching job? How many people make a decent living out of agriculture alone? On that index, the CAP has been of dubious benefit in doing what it is supposed to do. The resources could be used in a variety of other ways to achieve the same objectives without subjecting Irish consumers to excessively high food prices. However, that is only a marginal observation.

The outbreak of foot and mouth disease in a country thousands of miles away and the question of the EU's capacity to respond is a wonderfully apposite example of globalisation, both good and bad. The idea of global free trade was to generate economic growth in countries that had been impoverished and that remained so. There is no doubt that in some ways it has worked like that. However, whether the sort of slash-and-burn agriculture widespread in Brazil is what we want to encourage in the name of global free trade is a serious question.

I have previously raised the issue of the sugar industry and asked whether the sacrifice that would have to be made in this country in opening up our sugar markets would be made simply to make ostentatious Brazilian millionaires even richer or whether it should be linked to some attempt to ensure not only fairness in world trade but fairness in the countries participating in it. There is a long-standing argument regarding a global minimum wage and minimum labour standards, and the same is true of agriculture. There should be minimum standards in all countries from which agricultural products are exported.

I am very sceptical regarding our capacity to monitor matters. I have read the Minister of State's script, in which he states that the EU Food and Veterinary Office can do it. I have not been impressed by the EU's efficiency. It is perhaps the only supranational organisation that has found itself unable to spend its own overseas development aid budget. For several years, the ODA part of the EU's expenditure was unused because officials could not figure out an efficient way to use their own budget. There were reports in successive years of waste and inefficiency.

What has happened in Brazil is not a huge scare story. However, I note from the Minister of State's script that all non-EU beef is supposed to be labelled as such. There seems to be a considerable amount of prima facie evidence assembled by the IFA and other farming organisations that many retail and hospitality outlets are advertising what is termed "Irish beef" and telling people lies, since they are using imported stocks. That is fraud and a breach of EU law. I would like to hear just how vigilantly and through what mechanism our authorities and those of the EU are ensuring that the law is adhered to. If we cannot tell people that we guarantee that we are enforcing the law at home, how can we reassure them that we are doing so thousands of miles away in Brazil? How can we ensure that neither additives nor diseased meat are imported into this country if we cannot convince people that what they are buying is genuinely Irish?

Photo of Eamon ScanlonEamon Scanlon (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I am glad of the opportunity to address this important issue. With regard to avian influenza, the Minister of State has stated that 150 million chickens and turkeys have been destroyed. If it came into this country it would have a devastating impact. We must be exceptionally vigilant. The Minister is very much aware and has set up an early warning system supported by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the North, as well as the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the regional game councils, and Birdwatch Ireland. It is very important that we remain this vigilant in case a problem arises. If that happens, we must be aware of it from an early stage. If the virus entered the country it would devastate the poultry industry for a generation to come. The industry employs 6,000 people and it is important that we stay aware.

With regard to foot and mouth disease, I concur with some of Senator Coonan's remarks. There are 200 million animals in Brazil, yet only 16.5 million of those are traceable. There are three regions in Brazil where foot and mouth disease has been diagnosed. The EU has stated that no beef from any of those regions should be imported into the Union. São Paulo is one of the regions that affects the Brazilian economy most, since approximately 75% of the meat processed in the country is slaughtered in that area, which is also among the restricted regions. However, when one does not have traceability, what is to stop animals from any Brazilian region from being taken there, slaughtered and exported? We must be very vigilant in that regard.

Ireland supports regionalisation; when there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the Cooley peninsula it was important that we did not take the entire country as a single region. Had that happened, all our exports would have had to cease. That would have had serious consequences, including for the tourism industry. Regionalisation is fine when there is traceability but that is not the case in Brazil.

The IFA is not against the importation of Brazilian beef but is opposed to the sale of such beef, within the State, as Irish beef. This is a serious problem that must be addressed. I am aware the Minister intends to introduce compulsory labelling for beef early in the new year. It is important that anybody caught trying to sell Brazilian beef or other product should face severe penalties. We have the highest quality of beef, lamb and poultry products. However, we must compete against other countries in which producers may employ slave labour. Irish farmers are compliant in every way, whether in respect of hygiene or other regulations. It is unfair that they must compete in a marketplace where others do not adhere to the same standards.

The EU regulation on substantial transformation sets out the conditions under which Irish companies can label imported products as of Irish origin. However, it seems merely putting breadcrumbs on chicken fillets can make a product Irish. Severe penalties should pertain where this regulation is abused, as seems frequently to be the case.

The number of small abattoirs has declined significantly in the last 20 years. The 18 originally in operation in my own county have been reduced to only two, struggling to survive because of over-regulation. Many such operators, supplying the domestic market, were refused grants to upgrade their premises, while multinational companies were given grants in the region of 60% to build new plants which would produce beef for export. The small abattoirs who supply to the home market must compete against these major, heavily subsidised plants.

This is not a level playing field. Support should be given to small abattoirs, which have been badly treated by the State in recent years. Many such operators have suffered hardship. I am aware of a person in Monaghan who spent €430,000 on a plant to slaughter pigs, cattle and sheep but had difficulty securing a licence for it. This was a modern plant built with full planning permission, the purpose of which was to supply the domestic market.

I wish the Minister of State well. The Minister, Deputy Coughlan, will do everything to ensure we protect the beef and poultry industries for the future.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his speech. It is always important, particularly when many scares as well as justified fears abound, that the full facts be set out carefully to allow people judge the current and potential difficulties with a proper sense of proportion. I have great confidence in the Department of Agriculture and Food which has dealt successfully with similar threats in the past. I will always remember the chaos across the water during the last outbreak of foot and mouth disease compared with the way it was kept under tight control here.

There is both a human and animal dimension to this latest issue. Our poultry industry is important and we should avoid a situation, if possible, where large numbers of flocks must be destroyed. Pan-European co-operation is essential to keep the situation under tight control. We must take the appropriate emergency measures if any problem emerges in our immediate vicinity.

In terms of the implications for humans, we have been treated to many headlines about pandemics and references to the millions who died in the flu outbreak of 1918. The Minister of State noted in his speech that the number of deaths to date in the highly populous south-east Asia regions is 60. However, a headline proclaiming that millions may die is more interesting that one avowing that there is no cause for alarm. The price of freedom, including the freedom from disease, is eternal vigilance. Both the Government and the EU are to be commended on the measures they are taking. It is far better to nip this problem in the bud rather than wait until it expands to critical proportions.

The correct action has been taking in preventing beef exports from the affected regions in Brazil. It is a vast country. Earlier speakers alluded to the serious difficulty of policing health regulations. The report of the beef tribunal showed we have some difficulty in doing so. How much more difficult it is when one is dealing with a country thousands of miles away. It is important that people know the origin of what they eat.

We have been treated once more to Senator Quinn's hostility to the Common Agricultural Policy, the CAP. It should be noted that the countries pressing most strongly for reform are not poor countries in Africa but competitor countries, including Brazil, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. None of these, with the exception to some degree of Brazil, is part of the developing world. The example of the sugar industry is indicative. When stringent cuts were proposed, the first up in arms against the proposals were the African, Caribbean and Pacific, ACP, countries. We are subjected to much propaganda, principally from our nearest neighbour, which has always hated the CAP, and some of the agencies based there, among which I must number Oxfam. We are made to feel guilty for looking after our interests while they use the Third World to look after their own. I take those arguments with a pinch of salt.

I am sure the Minister for Agriculture and Food is alert to ongoing developments in the negotiations. From my experience of negotiations on Northern Ireland, I have some familiarity with the negotiating style of the Commissioner for Trade, Mr. Peter Mandelson, whose former close colleague, Mr. Tony Blair, has called for the radical reform or dismantling of the Common Agricultural Policy. Mr. Mandelson largely gutted the Patten report recommendations on police reform, even while maintaining that legislation would conform to them. When he claims that he is negotiating within the mandate given by the Council of Ministers, people should verify that this is so.

His arts of spin and media manipulation were partly or mainly responsible for the ascent of the British Labour Party. I remember an unfortunate incident in which a leaked report appeared in The Irish Times purporting to present a scurrilous version by the British Embassy of the remarks from the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen. Vigilance on the media front is required. While I do not want my comments to be regarded as a judgment on the conduct of the negotiations, we have important interests to protect and need to be vigilant and to recognise that the Commissioner is one of the grand masters of the political arts.

Some of the other matters under discussion also fall partly within the area of WTO negotiations, the outcome of which will be important. We cannot adopt an entirely one-sided approach but must protect a range of interests. It is a question of finding the right balance, which will not be done by sacrificing agricultural interests. I challenge the notion that by making such sacrifices we would do service to the Third World rather than to our main developed country competitors.

1:00 pm

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, for coming to the House today to discuss the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Brazil and the discovery of avian influenza in Romania and Turkey. The former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Joe Walsh, displayed exemplary leadership when he protected our country from the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK. His actions provide a model for university students on the essential nature of leadership. He was able to get the support of the people of Ireland.

I commend the Minister, Deputy Coughlan, and the Minister of State on their prompt action in banning the importation of beef from the Brazilian regions of São Paulo, Mato Grosso do Sol and Parana, all of which have experienced foot and mouth disease. This ban is necessary and completely justified for human and animal health reasons. No chances should be taken. The outbreak of the disease in Brazil is significant. Not only is Brazil the largest exporter of beef but the outbreak of foot and mouth disease has occurred in one of the main regions from which exports to the EU are approved, accounting for two thirds of last year's import volumes from Brazil. The EU has also banned imports from the three Brazilian regions and I commend the Minister and her European counterparts for the manner in which they have worked in unison to protect the health of European citizens and animals.

The president of the Irish Farmers Association, Mr. John Dillon, has called for a total ban on the import of Brazilian beef and he raised practical concerns about the risks associated with Brazilian beef in terms of unknown origin and lack of traceability. During my tenure as a board member of Bord Bia, the traceability of ready made meals was the subject of regular discussions.

The Brazilian authorities are examining the possibility that its current outbreak of foot and mouth disease originated in Paraguay. Russia has implemented a temporary ban on Paraguayan beef imports. It is interesting to note that the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea have imposed a complete ban on beef imports from Brazil.

With regard to avian influenza, people feel a sense of danger, given that it is a highly contagious viral infection and can affect all species of birds, which by their nature do not respect national borders. Since 2003, this particularly virulent strain has caused more than 125 million birds to die or be destroyed in south east Asia. Eradication is proving extremely difficult. Outbreaks have also occurred in 2004 in the USA, Canada and South Africa and in this year in Russia and Kazakhstan. Recent cases have been confirmed in Romania, Turkey, Russia, China and, within EU borders, in Greece. Since 1999, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany have all experienced incidents of the disease.

The avian influenza does not affect humans and is only spread through contact with infected birds. However, during the recent outbreak in Asia, 60 people died from such contacts. Scientists are concerned that the virus may mutate and spread to other animals and humans. This is a situation that we must do everything possible to avoid. The EU has worked promptly to ban the import of live birds, fresh poultry meat and untreated feathers from several countries in south east Asia and I commend the Minister and the Minister of State on their commitment to implement such measures as are appropriate to an Irish context. Similarly, the introduction of the early warning system is a reassurance. No risk should be taken with human or animal health.

As someone who has been involved in the food industry, I have empathy for suppliers and shop owners who have stocks of poultry and fish on their shelves. They must be terrified that something will go wrong.

Fergal Browne (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Senators for their contributions and recognise their concern and the seriousness with which they are treating the risk of an outbreak of avian influenza. We are all conscious of the impact such an outbreak would have, particularly on our poultry industry. As the Acting Chairman and other Senators are aware, the poultry industry here employs 6,000 people and there are 2,000 flock owners. The value of the industry is estimated at €360 million, of which a little over half is exported. It is important that we would keep our minds focused on that. The Department of Agriculture and Food is continually focused on the importance of the poultry industry here and those involved in it expect the Department to seriously examine and deal effectively with any issues that might arise that would affect it.

I thank Senator Coonan for his support for what we are doing and for some of the issues he raised. I appreciate the support from the Senators opposite for the Government and the Department of Agriculture and Food, in particular, in dealing with some of the issues that have arisen. It is incumbent on all of us to work together to minimise the risk of an introduction of the disease and, in the event of an outbreak, to ensure its early detection and speedy eradication.

Many Senators spoke about how we dealt with the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. That is an example of when co-operation and partnership were engaged in by those on all sides of the political divide and by communities. Senator Ryan and other Senators referred to a great level of local patriotism, support and partnership at that time to ensure we dealt effectively with the outbreak of foot and mouth disease; extraordinary efforts were made. I compliment all Senators on the support they have shown for what we are trying to achieve.

Senator Coonan raised the matter of imports and the total banning of Brazilian beef. I point out that we are bound by the European rules governing imports. The rules for imports into the EU are set down at EU level. Controls are monitored by the EU Food and Veterinary Office to ensure an equivalence of measures and controls apply. Following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Brazil, we must operate in line with policy applying to trade matters. We benefited from regionalisation when there was an outbreak of foot and mouth disease here in 2001 and when a ban on exports applied only to the areas affected. We cannot unilaterally ban imports. We are part of the EU and must be governed by its rules. The Minister has taken a strong line in dealing with the regions in Brazil affected. Nonetheless, I note the concerns expressed by Senator Coonan and other Senators and will report them to the Minister. Brazilian beef imports into Ireland in 2004 amounted to 6,588 tonnes and such imports into the EU amounted to 170,000 tonnes. Irish beef exports amounted to 500,000 tonnes. There is no legal basis for imposing an Irish ban on such imports. We must operate within the ambit of EU rules.

Senators referred to adopting an all-Ireland approach to disease eradication in dealing with issues such as this one. I am pleased to inform the House that my Department is working closely with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland and officials from two Departments have met on a number of occasions in the past month to consider the respective approaches of each to the risk of disease introduction and have undertaken to exchange results of respective wild bird surveillance programmes. Such co-operation between the North and South will continue. The Minister is anxious that such co-operation continues and that we would have an all-Ireland approach to dealing with this serious situation.

Reference was made to food labelling, which has been a cause of major concern to farm organisations and those on all sides of the political divide. When the Minister took up office in the Department of Agriculture and Food, food labelling was one of the first issues she decided to address. Concern has been expressed that products, particularly meat products, imported from another country can be re-labelled as Irish products simply as a result of the scattering of a few crumbs of bread on top of such products. This practice is of major concern to the Department and to the farm organisations. The Minister, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children, has managed to introduce a Bill that will deal with that issue. We expect the new regulation to be in place by the end of the year and it should deal effectively with the concerns raised by a number of Senators.

The Minister recently negotiated with restaurant owners, vintners and other organisations involved in the food area a voluntary code of conduct in terms of advising consumers of the origin and type of meat served in restaurants and pubs. Many of these establishments have signed up to this code. We will see a move in that direction in the future, but we need to enact legislation in this area. The Minister will introduce such legislation by the end of the year.

On the issue of Brazilian beef imports, Brazilian veterinary documentation must state clearly the region from which the beef comes and the meat factory where the animals were slaughtered. Therefore, there are strict regulations in place but I appreciate the concern expressed.

Senator Ryan referred to Government policy in this area. Anyone who has been following this story would realise that for the past number of weeks the Departments of Agriculture and Food and Health and Children have been very involved in dealing with the threat posed by an outbreak of avian influenza. The Government has had meetings and discussions on it and it has been on the Cabinet agenda on a regular basis. The Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, attended a meeting in Luxembourg this week at which the issue was debated and a number of initiatives were taken. While we read reports to the effect that 50,000 or 100,000 people could die from an outbreak of this disease in Ireland — to a certain extent, some people would say that is scaremongering — it is important that the Government, particularly the Departments of Agriculture and Food and Health and Children, continues to monitor and seriously deal with what is presented to it and takes cognisance of the importance of safeguarding both human and animal health. That is what is happening. Dialogue is taking place between those two Departments and it will continue until such time as closure is brought to this threat. No one knows when that might happen. There is much discussion and scaremongering, but we can only deal with what is before us and the two Ministers are effectively doing that.

I thank the Senators for their support. It is good to have a debate on an issue such as this one. This discussion allows Senators to put forward the views and concerns of members of the public on this issue. It is important also that our Department, the Department of Health and Children and the Government continues to monitor the situation and deal with the issues in a calm and reflective way. I thank the officials present. They have probably borne the brunt of work emanating from the meetings and discussions in recent weeks. It proves once again that when it comes to dealing with issues such as this one Department of Agriculture and Food officials are very much on top of their brief, aware of the significance of the threat posed by avian influenza and dealing with it accordingly. I thank all Senators for their contributions.

Brendan Daly (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy John Browne, and his officials.

Sitting suspended at 1.10 p.m. and resumed at 1.30 p.m.