Seanad debates

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Food Provenance Bill 2013: Second Stage


2:35 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Before we commence the debate, as his former colleague in the Seanad where he started his national political career, I am delighted to welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Tom Hayes, on his first official attendance to deal with legislation. The Minister of State has already been present to take some Adjournment matters, but this is his first time to take legislation in the House. I am sure Senators will join me in wishing him well not only in this instance but also with his ministerial brief. It is a great pleasure to have him with us.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am delighted to see the Minister of State back in the House. I hardly got to talk to him to congratulate him on his new position, which I do now. It seems like almost 200 years since we served together in the House, although a little less time has probably passed. I am delighted to see see him wearing the hat of responsibility for food and agriculture. He will be able to achieve a great deal during his period in office.

I am particularly pleased that the Minister of State is here to take the Food Provenance Bill, on which I am delighted to have received a great deal of help during the years. That assistance has helped me to realise what we need to do and what it is important to achieve. I remember well going to a customer panel in Superquinn perhaps in 1989. Some women had arrived before me. They told me that just before I had arrived, they had been talking about the radio ads which said of a particular product, "It has a quare name but it is great stuff". They said that having heard such ads, they were prompted to discuss their concern and worry about the food they ate and asked me if I could put their minds at rest. That certainly put me on this path. I am delighted that the Minister of State is here for what will be a very useful Seanad debate. The debate should be constructive and stimulating, given that this is an issue of importance, not just for consumers but also for producers, processors and retailers.

I spent most of my career as a retailer in the food sector and the issues addressed in the Bill are close to my heart. I am proud of the strong reputation and relationships Ireland enjoys internationally on the basis of the quality and consistency of the foods we produce. Our farmers produce the finest beef which is in demand around the world. That is recognised. We have been earning a strong reputation for producing high-quality dairy products, with the result that Dairygold and Glanbia are highly regarded international brands. We have been making quite a name for ourselves in the alcohol sector also, with brands such as Guinness, Baileys and Jameson. However, if we are to maintain our standing, we must not rest on our laurels. We must ensure we work hard and collectively to enhance Ireland's reputation as a producer of high-quality food. We must look for opportunities to differentiate ourselves from our competitors in an increasingly crowded international marketplace. We can do this by sticking steadfastly to our drive for high quality and consistency and by being innovative in the presentation of our products through openness and transparency on all aspects of food provenance and the stages of production. That is what the Bill aims to achieve. There are many other provisions which might have been included in the Bill, but I have decided to concentrate on the issue of food provenance at this stage.

The provenance of beef has been an important issue for many years. After the event referred to involving the customer panel, I wondered how we could do something. I later discovered ours was the first supermarket to guarantee traceability of beef from the pasture to the plate. We later introduced the traceback system in 2001. We had introduced a paper-based traceability programme as far back as 1991 when the need for consumers to be informed about the traceability of meat was unheard of. We could not guarantee any more than the fact that there was good husbandry on the farm, but we had a sign with the farm and a photograph of the farmer. The information was also listed on the checkout receipt. Traceability has since become increasingly important for consumers of many other foods. As policymakers and legislators, we must seek to act in the consumers' basic interests and give them the transparency they need and to which they are entitled.

The passing-off of horsemeat in beef products has brought the issue of food provenance to the fore. I compliment the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on exposing what was ultimately identified as a Europe-wide problem, possibly wider. While the scandal has, undoubtedly, shaken the confidence and trust of consumers, it has caused them to be more aware of the importance of food provenance, from where food originates. They have a right to know where the ingredients of a product have been sourced, where the item was manufactured and where it was packed. They should no longer be kept in the dark on the real origins of the food they eat.

The food labelling legislation currently applied in Ireland derives mainly from the European Union in the form of regulations and directives from Brussels. While the European Union is moving in the right direction towards increasing the level of information presented to consumers, the Union has been slow to introduce the rules that would require producers and retailers to be fully transparent about food provenance. We have strong labelling requirements in certain areas such as for beef and fish, but the time for taking incremental steps has passed. The horsemeat crisis was a watershed and, as law makers and as a nation with a strong reputation in food production, we must now move to equip consumers with all available information on the source of the food they consume. I refer not only to the original source but also everything that goes into it.

In order to make an informed decision in any aspect of life, we need to establish the facts, weigh up the options and consider the risks. When purchasing most items of food, consumers are unable to make informed decisions because we, as law makers, and the producers have failed to ensure they are presented with all available information. That is what the Bill seeks to change. It does not seek to oust any existing law on food or meat labelling. The requirements contained in the Bill are intended to be additional to existing statutory requirements.

Food labelling laws applied in Ireland derive mainly from the European Union, but that does not mean that Senators, or the Minister, are precluded from introducing additional food labelling requirements. The main EU law in this area, EU Directive 2000/13, explicitly permits a member state to introduce additional requirements in the labelling and presentation of foods in circumstances where these requirements can be justified on certain grounds such as the protection of public health, the prevention of fraud, the protection of industrial and commercial property rights, indications of provenance, registered designations of origin and the prevention of unfair competition. I have been guided in the development of the Bill by a leading expert in European food law who is in the Visitors Gallery. Mr. Raymond O'Rourke has been hugely helpful to me and I also had the help of Mr. Brian Hunt. I am satisfied that the proposals contained in the Bill fall squarely within the terms of Article 18 of EU Directive 2000/13 and can be justified as being required on three specific grounds, namely, requiring indications of provenance, the protection of public health and the prevention of fraud.

The Bill is about informing and empowering the consumer. I want to equip the consumer with all key information on the product on the shelf, be it on the origins of ingredients, the place of manufacture, the date of manufacture and the place of packing, and also with other new requirements regarding meat and fish. One of the key innovations in the Bill is the requirement for food provenance infographics. The infographics will set out the information in a straightforward way and I have tried to avoid using cryptic codes and numbers. The idea is to present the information to consumers in a way they can easily understand it.

I have had a look at food products in the past few days. The current food labelling requirements are not so easy to understand. When I look at a litre of milk at home, I see a little oval diagram with the codes IE, 1419 and EC. On butter I see the same diagram with the codes IE, 1087 and EC. I have no clue what these codes mean. There is no way a shopper can easily know what they mean. A consumer should not need a degree in food science to understand food labelling, which is almost the case. We need to make it easy for consumers to know exactly what they are getting. The day of pulling the wool over the eyes of the consumer is long gone and we, as legislators in Ireland and at EU level, need to ensure our laws reflect a demand for greater transparency for consumers. There is such a demand and consumers will respond to it.

I will outline some of the key aspects of the Bill.

2:40 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I am very reluctant to intervene as the Senator is speaking on his own Bill, but he is over time.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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The Bill seeks to introduce food labelling for all kinds of foods, including fruit and vegetables, as well as meat and fish. Drinks also come within the scope of the Bill. The European Consumers Organisation recommends that the origin label become mandatory for all meats, milk, unprocessed foods, single ingredient foods such as flour and sugar, and ingredients that make up more than 50% of a food item.

There is more I could say and perhaps I might say more later. There is great interest in the Bill, for which there is a need. I look for support for it.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I echo the warm words of welcome to the Minister of State. I served with him when he was Chairman of one of the committees of the Houses. I am sure he will do very well in his new role. His predecessor, the late Shane McEntee, was hugely popular everywhere, including in this House.

The Bill which I commend to the House is also welcome. It goes without saying Senator Feargal Quinn knows his stuff. He has been an innovator in this field for ages and introduced many innovations, including the provenance measures and the shamrock symbol on receipts to tell consumers how many of their purchases are Irish. At a time when there is criticism of the Seanad for not having expertise, we have leading individuals such as Senator Feargal Quinn who is proposing this Bill and Senator Susan O'Keeffe who has major experience in this area.

I think of Senator Quinn as Edmund Burke did of the New Englanders when he said not mountains of Arctic ice nor the torrid equators knew the bounds of their labours. He was speaking in favour of the New Englanders at the time.

Provenance is important. The horsemeat scandal did a great deal of damage. The Minister of State will agree that it was not good enough that people went on television to say there just happened to be a load of horsemeat in their fridge or some guy was driving by last week and asked them to mind it, like Father Ted saying the money was resting in his account. We want to emerge from this in a much better position than we have from the banking scandal, which we discussed last night, in order that nobody can say the Seanad did nothing when the horsemeat issue endangered our agriculture industry.

As Senator Quinn said, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland was in first to show burgers comprised 39% horsemeat in other jurisdictions. We led the way on that and it is important that we continue to do so. We have the best produce and we need to ensure provenance to prevent fraud and to address health and safety issues. At a time the health sector is tackling obesity issues, it is important that people know what is in the their food and can judge the correct quantities. If we allow this to become a medical problem, it will be hugely expensive. Recent research is warning, for instance, about low fat products in that if one consumes a double helping, one will be worse off than if one had eaten the full fat product. We need this information to be sensible to consumers. We do not want to end up with a fraudulent food industry and obese population.

The explanatory memorandum contains an infographic. I thank the Senator for introducing a new word. It is eminently desirable and worthwhile to get information on own brand products. This is all to do good. It is important to develop our best natural resources through our fine farmers who have the best production methods and to put our best foot forward. It is important not to wait for the EU. That was critical in the banking sector which has done so much to damage our international reputation. There was a doubt about jurisdiction and whether responsibility for what happened on 29 September 2008 lay in Dublin or should have transferred to Frankfurt. Let us not wait to address food provenance. It has been a problem sometimes when Ministers come to the House that rather than taking the national initiative, they say they want to see what the EU does. We are all conscious of that given the country has stepped down from the EU Presidency. Let us take the lead on this ourselves. Senator Quinn has given us the mechanism to do so.

I doubt it will cost much but the Senator can provide information later in this regard. None of these innovations costs much in comparison to the price of food. They will increase the standing of Ireland internationally, protect the health of consumers and protect us against fraud. Unlike what happened in the banking sector, we have to develop ethics in the sector. We will do well in and this will enable the Minister of State while wearing his other hat to promote Ireland as a centre of world excellence in food. I am sure such a Bill is welcome news. We have had adverse publicity in other sectors. Let us make food a more firm sector than finance on which the economy can be based and welcome the success of Glanbia, Kerry Group, Dairygold and the other products mentioned by Senator Quinn.

I am sure the Bill will receive a warm welcome. It goes right back to the early days of the House when people such as Horace Plunkett were founding the co-operatives and developing agricultural education. This is a great step forward and I am sure we will rebound to the benefit and credit of the nation. I am delighted and honoured to second Senator Quinn's Bill.

2:50 pm

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to be present for this important discussion. I thank the Acting Chairman and Members for the welcome they have given me. I sat in the House for four years many years ago but I learned a great deal. We had some good discussions. The abolition of the House is discussed from time to time but my memories of it are positive. It helped me a great deal on the political ladder.

This is the first Bill I have taken as Minister of State and I would like the debate to be constructive. We can all learn from it. It is important and timely that we discuss this issue. I recognise that the purpose of the Bill is to create transparency regarding the origin of processed foods, beverages, fruit and vegetables as well as meat and fish. This Bill is focused on origin, covering both ingredients and manufacture. It is based on the whole of the product and the production process and is, therefore, comprehensive regarding the origin of the main ingredients, the place of manufacture and packing. The Senator is concerned that the mislabelling of beef due to equine contamination has exposed a number of shortcomings when it comes to the provenance of the food we eat. However, amended labelling legislation alone would not have stopped certain individuals intent on fraud from misleading the consumer by incorporating into finished products ingredients not properly declared in the ingredients list for the products concerned.

Under current EU regulations, the issue of origin as an essential part of consumer information has traditionally only been a focus for products under the EU scheme of protected geographical indications where quality is considered to be intrinsically linked to certain regions. In other cases, it is considered that origin has to be declared where its absence might mislead consumers to a material degree. However, a great deal of good work and positive developments on labelling legislation are ongoing at EU level on this issue. In 2011 the Union passed a new Council regulation on food information for the consumers, FIC, Regulation 1169/2011, which has updated the requirements for consumer information and labelling in a number of areas, including country of origin or place of provenance, including the origin labelling for meats other than beef, voluntary labelling of all foods and the mandatory labelling of meat as an ingredient. These requirements will have to be implemented by way of EU Commission implementing regulations and it is expected that they will come into force between December 2013 and the end of 2014. A Commission working group is dealing with this legislation and it is discussing the mandatory origin labelling of fresh meat from species other than beef, voluntary origin labelling of foods and the mandatory origin labelling of meat as an ingredient.

We need to bear in mind that the EU operates a Single Market for food and it is in Ireland's interest, as a food exporting nation, to adhere to this concept. Harmonised rules on traceability, animal health and welfare and food labelling are of great advantage to Ireland, which has to export the vast majority of its agricultural output in either a raw or processed form. This is important as we continue to develop access to other markets. Ireland has an excellent reputation with a robust food safety system underpinned by the European institutes such as the food and veterinary office and the European Food Safety Authority.

If Ireland, as one of 28 member states of the European Union, sets out new mandatory rules for food labelling in advance of agreed EU rules, it will impose additional costs on our food processing sector compared to competitor countries. Such unilateral action could also set a precedent for the introduction of similar rules in other member states, which may reduce the opportunities for Irish produce to be sold on EU markets.

Some 90% of all Irish beef is sold within the European Union, with some 50% of these exports going to the United Kingdom alone. With an increasing and bigger market in Germany and given the possibilities for the export of beef to that country, if it, or France, had different rules and regulations, both countries could stop our meat going to these countries. While consumers are often assumed to place great importance on origin labelling, the fact is that the available market intelligence suggests that when it comes to purchasing practice, price is the dominant factor in determining final purchasing decisions. It is very important that we do not force the industry to incur unnecessary costs, particularly at a time when we are pushing expansion of the agrifood sector. Irish food and drinks firms export to 170 markets worldwide and exports are growing faster than in many other sectors in recent years. The value of these exports reached €9 billion in 2012. In fact, the value of Irish agrifood exports outside Europe overall grew strongly, for example, agrifood exports to Africa are now worth over €500 million.

This morning I attended the open day in Moorepark and saw the enthusiasm and commitment of the food producers, that is, the farmers and the milk and beef producers. Thousands of people flocked there. They want to build on the Food Harvest 2020 strategy and produce more food. The milk they produce goes to companies such as Glanbia which Senator Feargal Quinn mentioned. The consumer and the producer must work hand in hand. What I saw today, the green grass and the excellent product we have, will give us a huge advantage when competing in markets. However, markets can be cyclical. The milk market, in particular, can be very cyclical and there will be difficulties in the future. The same applies to the beef and sheep sectors. They will all face difficulties; therefore, we must take advantage of the wonderful grass growing conditions in this country and the efforts of Teagasc to make us more efficient across the board.

Members will appreciate that legislation on food labelling is still evolving. This Bill is a useful contribution to the debate on food labelling and Senator Feargal Quinn is to be congratulated on his work on it. Consumers want to know more about the origins of their food, but the timing of this Bill is not right, bearing in mind the ongoing EU discussions that I mentioned. To proceed unilaterally with the Bill would increase costs for the industry and place greater demands and costs on the sector than are being considered at EU level.

Information on food provenance should address the legitimate concerns of consumers in an appropriate way and without excessive complexity, while avoiding any unnecessary imposition of additional costs on consumers. Any such approach should take into consideration the potential impact on the food industry and the farm sector as it could negatively impact on the sector and its dependence on exports. The potential of the Bill to increase costs for industry and, therefore, for consumers and place greater demands and costs than those being considered at EU level would have to be fully analysed against the benefits it might confer on consumers. We need to be mindful of this, particularly with our focus on further developing the agrifood industry as outlined in Food Harvest 2020.

It is proposed not to accept the Bill but to engage with the Senator on its contents at a later stage when the EU process has moved forward. I will ask the officials in the Department to take on board the many good aspects of the Bill, with many of which I agree. I will give a commitment that what the Senator has said and what is contained in the Bill will be part of the overall legislative issues dealt with by the Department which will be brought back before the House. While I cannot accept the Bill at this stage, I hope the Senator will agree not to put it to a vote. All of us have the aim of protecting our food and giving the consumer what they want in a product.

What the European Union does is also of interest to this country. Ireland is a net exporter of food and depends on many other EU countries. Only last week there was an example of how difficult this was. One can say we should leave the European Union out of this, but the reality is that we are part of it and gaining from it. There are 28 member states and I saw last week at first hand that it was a huge job of work to get them to come together on issues. Every effort will be made by the Department to deal with this issue as soon as possible and take on board what the Senator has included in the Bill and what the many other contributors will say in this debate.

3:00 pm

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill has six minutes.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Seanad and ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh-----

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I am sorry to interrupt the Senator, but I was incorrect in my time assessment. It has been indicated to me that the Senator has ten minutes.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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You are in a very powerful position, Acting Chairman.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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Very powerful. I could do anything.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the new Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, and wish him well in his very important role. While I did not have any influence in ensuring he was appointed Minister of State, on several occasions in the House I called for the position to be filled0. I am glad that it has been filled. It is an important role as its remit covers food safety, forestry and horticulture. We had many good debates with the Minister's predecessor, the late Shane McEntee, with whom I had an excellent working relationship. He was a friend and it is sad and tragic that he is no longer with us. One misses him around the Houses. I wish the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, well.

We are debating a practical legislative measure brought forward by a man with expertise and wisdom on the food industry, particularly the retail end. Everybody recognises that there is a real and substantive need for such legislation to be brought forward, for more regulations to be implemented and for better governance in the food industry in respect of food safety and labelling, particularly in the light of the horsemeat scandal that rocked the beef industry late last year and earlier this year. I am a member of the agriculture committee, as are a number of other Senators, and that matter is one we examined and reflected on at the time. It was hugely damaging to the beef industry.

I agree with the Minister of State that there were rogues operating in the industry and they must be dealt with stringently and clinically. I am not sure if there has been an update on what is happening in that regard. They were engaged in criminal activity.

They were availing of certain loopholes in European and Irish legislation.

Senator Quinn's contribution and the amount of work he has done must be commended. A lot of detailed research and work went in to the Bill, which has to be acknowledged. It is a massive step in the right direction and clearly indicates the need for a proper labelling system to be introduced. Oddly enough, I met fishermen in Donegal and west Cork recently. One of the issues they raised with me was the issue of labelling. Their concerns would be eased by the recommendations contained within Senator Quinn's Bill. Sections 9 and 10 address the queries the fishermen had.

It may be an unrelated issue, but the Bill would close loopholes that are affecting the Irish fishing sector. That is within the remit of the Minister. The vast majority of fish consumed in the Republic of Ireland are imported into the State. It is unbelievable. We are an island community but most of our fish are imported. They are caught by Spanish vessels. For example, 88% of whitefish caught in Irish waters are caught by French or Spanish vessels. The fish are then imported into this country. They are cheaper and it is pushing down the prices Irish fishermen obtain for their catch. There is a real need for the Bill. It is an additional benefit, which has been addressed by Senator Quinn. It is something I wholeheartedly support. However, that is only one element of the Bill.

The food industry has been rocked by the horsemeat scandal but it has opened everyone's eyes to what can happen if there is a lack of adequate provision or supervision in the sector. Serious questions need to be asked of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and about the work being done in factories. I applaud the Food Safety Authority of Ireland for the work it did, the identification procedures it had in place and so on. In addition to the Bill, there is a need to introduce compulsory DNA sampling in the beef sector. It is our primary export product and we cannot allow anything to happen to it, given the importance of the Food Harvest 2020 targets to our economic recovery and the need to ensure that Irish farmers get a premium price for their products. Products such as the Silver Crest burgers which comprised 29% horsemeat should not be sold to Irish consumers. That is what Senator Quinn is trying to eliminate. A food safety issue is involved if the horsemeat has been treated with phenylbutazone, or bute. The FSAI was quick to point out it believed there was no bute in the horsemeat. However, it did not know where the horsemeat had come from. I must acknowledge that I did not fully subscribe to the assurances given at the time by the FSAI, and I said so at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

In saying that, we cannot go back; we have to deal with the current situation. I agree with the Minister of State that there is a need for very clear guidelines and for the European Union to play a central role, but that does not mean we should sit back and wait for Europe to get its house in order. We have to take the initiative. Why can we not implement Irish legislation and let Europe follow? We can do that, and there is a need for us to do so given the importance of the food industry in this country. We need to protect that industry in every way possible, eliminate rogue traders who are importing products and ensure that never again are falsely labelled Irish products sold in Irish supermarkets. That is breaking the law. There is an issue of misleading the consumer and I am not sure whether that has been followed up on by the Consumers' Association of Ireland. I contacted it at the time of the scandal. It stepped back and said there was an inquiry by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I am not sure what discussions have taken place with it on that.

We on this side of the House fully support Senator Quinn's Bill. I am not sure of the views of the Senator on whether restaurants should be included. Should meat in restaurants contain labels of origin? That would help the agricultural sector. There is a need for that because if one is buying a Brazilian steak in a restaurant and there is also an Irish one on the menu, one should know which one is authentically Irish. It is something that could be incorporated into the Bill.

I hope Senator Quinn's Bill will be accepted by the Government. I encourage the Minister of State not to wait for what Europe will decide to do, even though we depend greatly on it. This is an issue that does not affect only Ireland, but we should take the lead, given the importance of the agrifood sector to the future economic development of the economy.

The Acting Chairman has given me some latitude, for which I thank him. I wish the Minister of State well in his work.

3:10 pm

Photo of Michael ComiskeyMichael Comiskey (Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Minister of State on his recent appointment and welcome him to the House on his inaugural visit.

I commend Senator Quinn on publishing the Bill. Many of the issues addressed in it reflect the values which I, as spokesperson on agriculture and as a farmer, have a keen interest in promoting. It reflects the fact that for many years consumers have been developing a greater awareness in regard to the quality of their food and there is an association between the origin and particular characteristics of some foods.

Ireland has, for many years, been identified on the export market as a high-quality producer of food. The agri-food sector contributes massively to the total value of our exports. Ireland has enormous potential, owing to the county's grassland-based output, and exports to similar markets where consumers demand high quality and standards but where there is a deficit in food self-sufficiency.

Unlike many other sectors of the economy, agri-food sources the majority of its inputs, goods and services from the domestic market. It is estimated that the sector retains 76% of its expenditure in the Irish economy. Retention is approximately 30% across the rest of the manufacturing sector. These figures demonstrate the continued importance of the agri-sector and its potential to drive the economy as new markets and consumers recognise the quality and competitiveness of Irish goods.

There are, perhaps, advantages in promoting the providence of foods, in particular in contrast to organic food, most of which is imported. There are benefits for the local economy in encouraging direct market connection between farmers and consumers and encouraging consumers to become more aware of the origin of their foods and to buy local produce in local shops. However, this growth may be constrained by the size of the locality.

Evidence is emerging that larger retailers are responding to consumer sentiment by developing regional sourcing offices. It is important, however, that labelling of providence - although it is an indication of origin, giving rise to an indication of quality - does not result in higher prices for consumers. Anecdotal evidence suggests providence-labelled foods are being sold by some retailers at a premium of 10% to 20%. Providence must not be used as a means of simply adding value. All consumers make choices when purchasing foods, but some are constrained by price.

If the intention is to source local produce for local consumers, by inference transport and storage costs should be significantly lower and should offset any savings made through buying in larger quantities.

While Ireland is a substantial producer of food, national demand is limited and therefore the importance of the European and international markets cannot be ignored. Following membership of the Common Market and subsequently the Single Market, the Irish agricultural sector has been transformed. The Single Market created access to a market of 500 million people for Irish goods by removing administrative burdens for food exporters. The European food market has dramatically changed over the past 40 years and new challenges are emerging. There is, for example, increased demand for traceability from farm to fork. An excellent example of accountability in this regard is the scheme run by An Bord Bia. While I recognise the merits of the Bill, I am also mindful that Irish producers operate as part of that European market. As such, a universal system of labelling would perhaps offer consumers the greatest protection and best position from which to make a choice.

The Bill's requirement that origin must be specified for the first three ingredients could mean that producers are constrained in changing suppliers, as that would necessitate a change in labelling. Any such change will carry an associated cost. I note that the Bill refers to the use-by date of products. I am concerned that in the absence of best-before dates, food wastage may inadvertently be encouraged. In addition, the Bill proposes the inclusion of place of packaging and processing among other details on food packaging. The inclusion of these details may cause confusion among consumers. There is also a concern that these labels might have an impact on the cost of liability insurance, particularly for small producers and processors in an industry where margins are already narrow.

Reputation is paramount for any business, particularly in the food sector. Where a product is bought in small quantities and on a regular basis, reputation and consumer confidence can be particularly fragile. The intense desire to protect their reputation often helps to ensure good practice by manufacturers. It is important that new producers are not discouraged from entering the market.

I acknowledge that there are deficiencies in the current labelling system, which became headline news in respect of beef products some months ago. That incident highlighted how complex the food chain can be and how susceptible it is to fraud. While labelling might enhance consumer confidence, it is not of itself sufficient to ensure against fraud, which is the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food or a food ingredient. Reform of the labelling system across Europe is expected before the end of the year, with the principal legislation governing food labelling to be repealed and superseded by EU Regulation No. 1169/2011. This wide-ranging regulation is likely to create a positive impact for both consumers and producers. The definition of "ingredient" contained therein includes any substance, additive or enzyme which is used in the manufacture or preparation of foodstuff and still present in the finished product, even if in altered form. The regulation will ensure that accurate and clear information is given to consumers and will help to protect Irish producers from reputational damage. This provision will work in tandem with traceability and DNA testing protocols to ensure confidence in European foodstuffs.

The detection of horsemeat in beef products highlighted serious issues in the food chain, but it is important to remember the role played by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in highlighting the matter. I have little doubt that the FSAI and other European food safety agencies will take an increasingly aggressive approach to identifying food fraud. Once the new regulation is in place, food processors and producers must endeavour to carry out strict due diligence to ensure both they and their suppliers are up to date and compliant with all existing labelling rules and consumer protection codes.

I once again acknowledge the merit of this Bill Senator Quinn has brought forward today. However, as a member state of the European Union whose agrifood sector in particular has benefited enormously from accession, time should be taken to allow the updated regulation to come into effect. Considerable debate took place with a wide variety of interested parties in advance of formulating that regulation. The measures set out therein will apply across Europe and thus create a level playing field for producers. That is the best position in which our exports can operate.

3:20 pm

Photo of Mary Ann O'BrienMary Ann O'Brien (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to the House on his inaugural visit. I thank Senator Feargal Quinn for his hard work in putting together the legislation he has presented to the House today. I disagree with Senator Martin Comiskey's argument that as member states operating in the Single Market we should follow Europe's lead in this matter. I am delighted Senator Quinn has taken the initiative and hope he can continue a journey which would see Ireland showing the way for others to follow. We are in a unique position as a small country on the edge of Europe, the only country in the world which shows up almost entirely green on satellite pictures. Our abundance of rain produces the lush grass which helps us to produce the best milk and beef in the world. In a context where the horsemeat scandal was discovered by the authorities in this country, why should we not seek to be leaders in formulating law in this area? I warn Senator Quinn at the outset, however, that while warmly welcoming his Bill, as a food manufacturer, I have many questions to ask and several amendments to propose.

Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill pointed out that the export of beef is our greatest success story and represents our largest manufacturing sector. Another major success of ours is the export of milk powder, mainly to China. Back in 2008, melamine was discovered in infant formula in that country, a nasty chemical which is added to watered down milk to bring up the protein level. Having been detected in dog food four years earlier in the United States, and having caused a number of canine deaths there due to kidney failure, the Chinese got a battering from which they have yet to recover. As a manufacturer, some of the great success I have enjoyed in countries like Australia, New Zealand and the United States is because, in the wake of that scare, people there do not trust Chinese chocolate manufacturers. Thankfully, the Irish beef sector seems largely to have recovered from the horsemeat controversy. Consumers are doing fine and are mostly back in the butcher's shop. When one considers what happened in China, however, the timeliness of Senator Quinn's Bill is clear.

Will the Senator define what is encompassed in the references in the Bill to "place of manufacture"? This is an issue I grapple with all the time. Colleagues will probably know what I am talking about when I refer to a major company which used to manufacture many of our favourite brands, the delicious items one would have with a cup of tea. After the company was sold off, production moved to Poland, Portugal and elsewhere, yet its products still come under the Guaranteed Irish label. Some people might be buying them under false assumptions. There are manufacturers masking the reality of their so-called Irish status. Foe instance, I could buy blueberries in France and have a factory there coat them in chocolate and package them. Once I bring them home, however, I could decide to repackage them in O'Brien's Berries boxes and put them on the market. Can such a product be said to have been manufactured in Ireland simply because it is repackaged here? We must have a precise definition in this regard.

I have some concern about people being put out of business. Many of the food manufacturers I know would operate on the basis of 50% branded products and 50% private label. A friend of mine who works in Marks and Spencer advised me last year to purchase its own brand make-up because, she told me, it is made by the same companies that manufacture the very expensive make-up one would find in Brown Thomas or Harrods. The only difference is that it is half the price in Marks and Spencer.

The situation is the same for various biscuits and crisps and many other famous brands. People put significant money into their private brands, but they must do private label work with the likes of Sainsbury's and Asda, or Woolworths, which is the Tesco of Australia. However, they never want to compromise their brand. Therefore, requiring the place or factory of manufacture to be on the label could cause some challenges for the commerciality of a business.

I love the idea of including the top three ingredients. However, taking my brand as an example, in an assorted box of chocolates I have milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white chocolate. Under new EU legislation it is not good enough for me to put on the label that the box contains milk, dark and white chocolate. I need to break down the dark chocolate into cocoa mass, sugar, cocoa butter, emulsifier, soy lecithin, natural vanilla flavouring and so on. The sugar in the dark chocolate is possibly from a different country than the sugar in the milk chocolate, but is of a similar level. The requirements for labelling are quite onerous and complicated, and when I brought them to my technicians they said, "Oh my gosh, what a lot more work for our suppliers and ourselves." They would welcome that because they love being audited and ensuring our product is safe. However, the requirements are quite complex.

I believe the Senator's Bill is very timely in its application to chicken, fish, meat and perishable foods such as dairy food. However, I am not quite so sure it is right for prepacked food such as my product. I do not mean to focus on mine, but it would be simpler to attack the problem for products such as fish and chicken. I feel strongly about these two items. I and most consumers want to know where they is from. Even if it comes down to a question of cost, I still want to know that what I am buying is not from Thailand and I want to know whether it has been frozen and where it came from. There is a huge need for that information. On the issue of the top three ingredients, I am also very interested in knowing - for example, with Tesco burgers - what fillers are put into a product to make it so cheap. I have concerns in that regard. Sometimes it is the additives the consumer wants to know more about.

I was very glad to see the Senator mentioned beverages and alcoholic drinks. I love a glass of wine or a vodka now and again, but I often wonder what is in those drinks. I would love to be in the drinks business because one does not have to put detailed labelling on anything. Does the Minister of State ever think about the fact that one is not required to say what is a drink? I do not want to bore the other Senators as I often do, but I want to refer to a speech I made long ago in the Seanad. I pointed out to the Minister of State in the House then that EU regulations allow for 50 or more flavourings, additives and preservatives to be added to wine, but none of them needs to be listed. One of those additives, isinglass, comes from the bladder of a fish. That goes into both white and red wine. Perhaps when the Minister of State is having a glass of wine at the weekend, he will remember he may be imbibing some part of the bladder of a fish. Other ingredients in wine include copper sulfate, diammonium phosphate and thiamine hydrochloride. We need to know what additives are in our alcoholic beverages. We know we have obesity problems, so we also need to know how many calories are in a glass or bottle of wine. Is the Minister of State a coeliac? If one is a coeliac, one needs to know which drinks contain gluten. I know I may be contradicting myself in regard to requiring more detailed labelling for alcohol, as I said I would prefer to concentrate on labelling for chicken, meat and fish. However, let us be the first country in Europe to talk to the Union and to Brussels about proper labelling for alcoholic drinks.

We want to restore confidence and trust among consumers in Ireland Inc. Nobody loves the goal of Harvest 2020 more than I do. I urge the Minister of State not to return this issue to the shelf in the Department. This brilliant man, Senator Quinn, has gone to a lot of trouble and has done extraordinary work to get this Bill together. Let us go and present it to Europe and say we are ready for this. I would love this Bill to be taken to another stage because I have so much more to say and would love us to drill down on the issues and get the Bill absolutely right so that we can take it to Europe. Let us be the best in the class. We produce the best beef, the best milk powder and the best chocolates.

3:30 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State to the House and to congratulate him on his well-deserved appointment. It was not before time.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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The Minister of State is very welcome. It is good to have him in the House for his first outing and I hope he is enjoying the robust and informative exchanges we always have here. I hope the glass of wine he may have at the weekend will be even more enjoyable now that Senator O'Brien has alerted him to its contents.

Like others, I welcome the great hard work done by Senator Quinn in producing this Bill. It demonstrates again that the Seanad has a role, because in their own time Members here take up issues that are of importance to them. I remember when Senator Quinn introduced umbrellas to Superquinn for the protection of shoppers and I remember thinking at the time that it was a very clever idea. While it was a simple idea, it was clever because it said he cared about his customers. This Bill demonstrates that the Senator still cares about his customers. It was not today nor yesterday he introduced umbrellas, but he is still in the business of caring for the customers of Ireland. I applaud him for that.

Like Senator O'Brien, I take issue with some elements of the Bill, but the purpose of the Bill is to provoke the debate and to encourage all of us to think more about the importance of labelling, not least because of the enormous increase in diabetes type 2, the growth in obesity and the fact that we have enormous issues with regard to how food is produced. Many of us here of a certain age never needed labels, because our food came from our own gardens and farms or those of neighbours, sometimes via the shop, to our tables. However, once we went into food production or into industrial or factory food, we bowed to the need for labelling. This is what has us in the mess we are in today, because labelling is an extraordinarily difficult area. Labelling is difficult to get right, because once we start on the issue it becomes even more complicated.

Members are aware that one could have a label saying "Smoked Irish Salmon" or one saying "Irish Smoked Salmon". Which is Irish? How many people remember when they go to the shelf which one they should buy? They do not know because of the confusion created by the very people who are paid to brand things properly but who do not. The labelling describing something as 90% fat-free means the product is 10% fat, which is quite high. If a product says it is flavoured with something, or says it has a strawberry flavour, it means the product tastes like strawberry, but does not mean it contains strawberry. On the other hand, if the product is strawberry-flavoured, it tastes like strawberries because there are strawberries in it. How many people know that when they go to the shelf to decide on a product? Even when we try to improve labelling and care about providing correct information, we still manage to create enormous confusion. However, that is not to say we should not have this conversation.

One of the elements of the Bill with which I have an issue is the proposal regarding the first three ingredients. As Senator O'Brien has said, this leads to a difficulty with regard to the other ingredients. If we look at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland website today, we will see that Green Isle has recalled its Harvest stir-fry mix due to possible contamination with datura seeds. I do not know what a datura seed is and have never heard of it. However, I imagine the Harvest Stir Fry is not full of them, but that they are a minor ingredient. Obviously, the company is concerned about a possible contaminant. Much contamination is of smaller ingredients whose provenance is not known. Much of the time these ingredients come from countries where temperatures spike and they become infected easily, particularly with fungal infections. Recently, Tesco recalled its Tesco Yeast Extract due to high levels of histamine. Who would have thought that was a problem? There is a list of other products on the site that have been recalled. Of course, this shows us that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is doing a good job, but it also informs us that there are great difficulties with regard to food ingredients. Where does one start and where does one stop with the labelling? I accept that it is important to list the three most important ingredients in a product and it is right in principle to require them to be listed. However, in practice such labelling fails when these problems arise with other ingredients whose provenance is not listed.

In fact, they might be the very things that caused the problem with the food in the first instance and be the cause for it to be recalled. I particularly agree with regard to alcohol as it is plainly disgraceful that we have no idea what it contains. Neither do we know what is in toothpaste. I often wonder what on earth we are putting in our mouths as we profess to be cleaning our teeth. I would love to know what is in toothpaste and I have not quite got to the bottom of it. All I know is that the tubes are becoming more complicated and it is difficult to get the toothpaste out of them. However, that is not the subject of our discussion today.

I do not mind being a good European when progress is being made with regard to food labelling. The 2011 regulation is making progress, in my view. It provides a framework for the label listing of fat, saturated fat and carbohydrates. This is significant progress, in my view. I am fortunate to have a degree in food science and perhaps that means it is easier for me but the system needs to be simplified. For example, the traffic lights system or similar might be the best option. At least we are persuading food producers of the importance of putting that information on the food and it is becoming part of people's language. At least they can interpret the figures and decide whether a figure is too high and they can make a choice about eating the food. Food labelling is not enough, particularly in the battle against obesity. The cost of food is lower than it used to be and people are being encouraged to eat food that is not very healthy. There is a pretence that labelling food means it is the responsibility of the consumer to decide whether to eat it. That is not what could be called food education.

EU regulations stipulate that the origin of foods such as beef, honey, olive oil and fresh fruit and vegetables must be stated on the label in accordance with sector-specific legislation. The EU is currently concluding the examination of whether this labelling should be extended to beef. This audit is nearly concluded and the information will be provided by the end of the year. Within a further year the Commission will have to introduce rules on foods such as milk and dairy products. The past two years has seen much activity across all member states and this lends weight to the regulations by making them more robust. While I am happy to shout it from the rooftops that Ireland has a very fine record for very good food I am not sure on this occasion that trying to lay another piece of legislation on top of existing legislation will necessarily make it easier for legislators or make the legislation any better. Aspects of the legislation might be useful - particularly with regard to alcohol and the fresh fish and fresh food bought in certain shops - if a way can be found to inform the consumer of the provenance of the fish such as, "This fish was caught today in Donegal", or that the fish had been frozen. That might be of assistance. However, I would not be in favour of a twin-track approach with the EU regulations as there is already too much confusion. Many examples of labelling such as, "strawberry flavour" cause confusion. I am concerned that this Bill might add to that confusion and I do not think for a moment that this was the Senator's intention.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has responsibility for food labelling. In my view it should be a completely independent body which should be better resourced. As Senator Quinn said, the horsemeat scandal highlighted the length and also the complexity of the food chain. It is now a horse-traders' market, if I can be excused the description. Everyone wants to get into the market and to trade as much as possible. This was not the case even ten years ago. Even if every piece of food were to be labelled, it will not stop those who want to cheat the system. Even if food had every label under the sun, a person who wants to use horsemeat will do so, regardless. The labelling will not stop the use of horsemeat but the length and complexity of the food chain, the fact that more products are being included in foodstuffs, is the difficulty. That is why the Food Safety Authority of Ireland needs full independence and more resources to ensure it can continue to do its good work and also to support our good farmers who continue to produce good product in the name of Ireland and which is sold abroad. That is my request to the Minister of State.

3:40 pm

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I support my colleague's Bill. Few people can speak with as much authority on the subject as Senator Quinn. Few people have looked at the food supply industry as well as considered the needs and wants of consumers. Food, water and energy are the big three in determining our survival as a species in the 21st century. The supply and shepherding of the resources of food, water and energy are critical for our survival. Long after the last investment banker is flipping burgers in a fast-food joint and long after the last hedge-fund manager is dancing for hen parties in Temple Bar, we are still going to need farmers, fishermen and food producers in the future. Ireland has few enough natural resources but one critical resource is our ability to produce food. It has been estimated that our little windswept, wet island could support in food alone a population of between 30 and 50 times the current population, and equal to the population of Japan plus that of the United Kingdom. Many countries are considered as economic powerhouses with huge economies. China and Japan are in the top three of world economies but they are not food-independent and they require large imports of food to keep themselves afloat. While we consider our awful economic vulnerability to the tides of international commerce, we are pretty secure because it is unlikely we will run out of water and food although we will need to put on our thinking caps with regard to energy. It is critical to develop our food sector to its maximum efficiency.

We probably do not have the mega industrial-scale ranches nor the huge international food producers - although we have some - but we can leverage certain aspects. Our reputation has been somewhat sullied by the horsemeat scandal and by a number of scandals over the past 30 years but it exists with regard to our food produce, our tourism, our culture and for having a relatively close to nature, rural and less polluted society. These aspects resonate with many of those who visit our country and many of those who want to buy food from our country. It is critical to do everything in our power to protect this resource. It is a no-brainer, in my view. We should be way out ahead of the curve and the posse. Not everything Europe does is right; some of what it does is unbelievably swayed by, in some cases, very influential and, in my view, corrupt lobbyists. I argue there is no law which we enact that cannot be repealed if it is ultimately brought to our attention that this is necessary. We have sadly seen what can happen to even a crusading, campaigning health Minister like Deputy Reilly. I refer to the one bit of tobacco legislation he brought to the House which liberalised the sale of tobacco as a result of highly nefarious rulings made by the European courts on behalf of really regrettable forces in Europe, some of which are related to agriculture. For that reason our European colleagues must be regarded as our partners in Europe but also as our customers. They buy most of the food we sell and they will be reassured if we set the bar extremely high. However, I remind the Minister of State that they are also our competitors. We must do everything by way of product differentiation to make Brand Ireland food wholesome, healthy, traceable, back to nature, less processed and with known provenance.

The marketing opportunities are endless. This has been done domestically in some of the campaigns of both the supermarkets and some of the food suppliers, where individual farmers are filmed walking their herds across the fields. This is what we should be aiming to do internationally. An essential part of the campaign is that people know the food they think is from Ireland was actually grown, reared and processed in Ireland, and is not some kind of swiz put out by less reliable markets, branded here and marketed as being from here by packaging or preparation.

I thank the Minister of State for his time and wish him all the best in his Ministry in the years to come.

3:50 pm

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his appointment which, as previous speakers remarked, is well-deserved. We look forward to welcoming him in this House many times, at least as long as we are here.

I commend Senator Quinn for his hard work in bringing this sensible Bill to the House. It is a bid to provide an enhanced level of information regarding food, whether fresh or pre-packaged, to introduce a new, more stringent level of requirements for food labelling and signage, and to amend the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Act 1998 in light of these matters. These amendments come against the backdrop of the recent horsemeat scandal and highlight how legislation might be strengthened as a consequence of these recent issues. I may be on the other side in that I am now somewhat paranoid about what I eat. I worry about everything, even where fish oils come from, and will not buy chicken or any meat in supermarkets. I have become quite a vegetarian because I am almost paranoid about what I eat. The other thing that really gets my goat is the sugar aspect. When one sees something labelled as "low fat", the label might as well read "full of toxins, full of sugar". If one eats it one might blow up.

Children suffer in many circumstances from the lack of labelling. Brands such as Actimel contain five, six or seven spoonfuls of sugar. It is fascinating how producers manage to label things so that they appear to be really good for one's health. They may not damage one but one certainly is not eating what one intends to eat. There is a particular yogurt that is labelled low-fat and organic, which it is, but it also has a great deal of sugar in it, some 12 spoonfuls. In that sense, I may be coming from another side of the argument in that I am nearly demented thinking about what I am eating.

I agree, however, with Senator Crown and other speakers in regard to comments about Europe. This Bill represents an opportunity for us to lead the way on this issue. I hope the Minister will go to Europe taking this Bill as a proposal and to show them how things can be done. We have a really proud tradition in this country of food production and are very lucky to have such fine produce to export. We need to think about a unified EU approach, which is necessary. If nothing else, the horsemeat issue has highlighted this. We should lead the charge on this because we are eminently qualified to do so.

In regard to recent problems like horsemeat, the other thing this or any future Bills can do is to prevent food growers and manufacturers from misleading people by using Irish brands or, as other speakers mentioned, using branding to masquerade their real origins. We see this every day in a number of brands and products, many of which trade with green packaging or the word "Irish" in their title, which is misleading. As long as they are produced - tampered is the wrong word - or have something done to them in this country they can be called Irish. With clear labelling that shows where a given product comes from the impact of such misleading packaging could be minimised or possibly nullified, thus helping Irish manufacturers and producers. The proposed labels, as outlined, are very clear and perfectly easy to understand and it is clear that a great deal of thought has gone into them. On sizing, however, it is my view that a proportional approach would be best, whereby the label would be in a prominent place on the front of a given package, where it would have to occupy a certain percentage of the surface area label. This is as important, as on bigger items the importance and relevance of the information could easily be lost.

This Bill is thoughtful, highlights a number of serious issues and seeks to ensure a legislative solution to them but there are a few aspects that concern me. One issue to be considered is simplicity of labelling. I have got to the point of reading labels, wishing almost to see behind them or to ring up the producer to find out things, but most people are not at all interested. Senator O'Keeffe mentioned the traffic light system. Something like this must be considered within this whole context. While most of us present are very interested, the vast majority of people just want to eat, be fed, move on and do what they are doing. There is a fine line to be drawn concerning over-complication which, by trying to give people more information, may bamboozle the consumer and end up achieving the opposite to what was hoped.

Although it is laudable to have as much information as possible, I wonder whether the provisions of section 7, laying out as separate and distinct the places where the animal was farmed and slaughtered, might lead to some confusion. Similarly, in section 9, on seafood, the required names of the seas in question would seem bound to cause confusion among consumers who might, regrettably, begin to ignore labelling altogether. I have praise for one practical element in section 12 which I believe must be incorporated in any given solution, namely, where the provision of the Act is specifically not applied to restaurants and cafés.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's time is nigh.

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
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I did not realise I was over time. I commend Senator Quinn for his very hard work and for producing a fine Bill which, in so far as it is possible, the Minister of State should use and bring to Europe, allowing us to lead the charge in food labelling. If there must be a harmonised approach within Europe, as I believe is the case with food provenance, we should be the ones to lead.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I compliment our colleague, Senator Feargal Quinn, for introducing this initiative. He has a tough battle ahead of him. Judging from the Minister of State's reply, once again this will be kicked into Europe where the most powerful of all lobbies is operating. The food lobby is one of the biggest in Europe and features the major multinationals in particular. These have continually resisted types of proposals such as that of Senator Quinn that are in the interests of openness and transparency, consumer information and protection. It would be a coup of sorts for this country to lead on this issue, rather than kick it back into the melting pot of Europe and wait for the Commission. Time and again, whenever proposals have been brought forward to make labelling more transparent, the food lobby has somehow managed to undermine the very best intentions of Members of the European Parliament and, indeed, the Commission's original proposals. The past decade in particular is littered with examples of where the food industry has managed to get its way, even on the most basic point. For example, I am sure that if the Minister of State were to go into any supermarket or corner store, and read the labelling on any food-related product, as I do, he would find nine or ten times out of ten a reference to sodium. We call it salt, not sodium. That is just one example of where the food industry has resisted, by not using the word "salt". In the context of sugar content, the industry has played around with words time and again to ensure there is a high sugar content, especially in children's cereals. This is exceptionally damaging to the young population, not only of this country but of Europe in general.

As a result of consumer pressure, some of the major international food companies such as Nestlé and, at more local level, Marks and Spencer, have responded, albeit belatedly and, in my opinion, somewhat timidly, and have said they will reduce the salt and sugar content of their goods. They are beginning to dismantle this to a degree in the United States, primarily because of consumer pressure. There are blatant examples of sugar being used in so-called health foods.

That is why I am passionate about this subject. It is long past time the food companies were brought to heel in this regard. I hope this will be an instructive and informed debate. If the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, cannot take this legislation on, he should take on the issue in the interests of the consumer and fight the good fight with the major food industries which are an exceptionally powerful lobby. They use millions of euro to ensure legislation such as this is resisted right down the line.

I compliment Senator Feargal Quinn on introducing the Bill. I hope this is the beginning, not the end, of a serious debate on protecting the consumer, which is long overdue.

4:00 pm

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes. I worked with him when he was Chairman of the transport committee. We always got on well and it was a pleasure to work with him. I commend Senator Feargal Quinn for bringing the Bill to the House. It is a pity the Minister of State has said the timing is wrong and that he cannot accept the Bill. Ireland has always prided itself on producing food of the highest quality for the domestic market, restaurants and industry. Our food producers have worked hard to build a good reputation. I welcome any measure that would enhance their attempts to further build on this reputation.

The horsemeat scandal rocked consumer confidence. When it comes to food safety, we can never be too vigilant. On the back of this, we need to find ways of ensuring it will never happen again. Tighter rules and regulations around food provenance are one way of doing this. Coming from a community in County Kerry that is deeply rooted in farming, I know the importance of food provenance. When one goes to the local market, one knows from where the food has come, that is home-grown. Why should shopping in supermarkets be any different?

It is an ill wind that does not blow good in some direction. People became very vigilant after the horsemeat scandal and it heightened their awareness of what ingredients were in their food. I believe it drove people back to the local butchers to buy their meat. Meat from a butcher is much healthier and less expensive. Ready meals are expensive when 1 lb of beef or lamb from a butcher can be made into a stew and go much further. It is also more substantial and healthier for a family. Ready meals may be handy and convenient, but they are not as healthy as a home cooked meal.

It is difficult to have all ingredients labelled. In food processing one could even be using ingredients from different countries. While we can have control over products made in Ireland, we cannot control non-Irish products. One would have to be a scientist to know what half of the ingredients in a food product comprise. Senator Susan O’Keeffe called out various products and ingredients that I had never heard of before. When I shop for groceries abroad, I always look for Irish products. There is safety in knowing they are Irish because we trust Irish produced foods.

Senator Feargal Quinn has worked long and hard in the food industry. I commend his work on the Bill. His caring for the people of Ireland is coming through in it. It would ensure people would know what they were eating and buying. Sometimes one would want a magnifying glass to find the best-before-date on food products.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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That is done deliberately.

Photo of Marie MoloneyMarie Moloney (Labour)
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Yes, that is the case.

I hope the Minister of State will not allow the Bill to stagnate on a shelf but work with Senator Feargal Quinn on enhancing his proposals. Why can we not be the leader in Europe in food provenance? It would be a feather in our cap and we could always say it came from the Seanad, whether we are here in time to come, but, please God, we will be.

Photo of Kathryn ReillyKathryn Reilly (Sinn Fein)
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I thank Senator Feargal Quinn for bringing forward this welcome Bill. He has been consistent on this issue for several years. He has raised it a number of times and we have had the opportunity to debate it.

Food labelling is a key source of information by which consumers can determine what food to buy. It serves a primary purpose of informing the consumer who has the right to clear and understandable information on food products and their true origins. The European Union is required by treaty to contribute to protecting the health, safety and the economic interests of consumers, as well as promoting their rights to information, education and organise themselves to safeguard their interests. While the initial food labelling legislation was to provide rules for the labelling of foods as a tool in the free circulation of food, over time the protection of consumer rights has emerged as a specific objective. The consumer may be interested in obtaining additional information on health, product sustainability, animal welfare and food miles. The absence of definitive country-of-origin labelling for some products means that some can masquerade as being from elsewhere, which leads to misinformation and, down the line, potential health risks. This is a concern, with some food products being passed off as Irish which have undergone substantial transformation.

The credence characteristic of goods is defined as those the consumer cannot evaluate accurately, even after use, owing to insufficient information and the consumer’s lack of expert knowledge. In the light of this, are consumers winners in a liberal trade regime when often they are in the dark about the characteristics of the products they are consuming?

For example, if we assume that foreign suppliers are able to adopt some technology in their businesses such as biotechnology and that producers in the importing country cannot use that technology because it is not applicable there, as the biotechnology used relates to product preservation, the imported product may utilise the same sell by date as the domestic product but could have been processed earlier. In theory, labelling should be used as a signalling device to indicate to consumers the difference in production dates, but the use of technology, coupled with regulation, means that a foreign company does not have to do this. Consumers who buy foreign products over domestic products might not be aware of the credence attribute of the product which is, in fact, older than the domestic product. Many of the World Trade Organisation rules for the labelling of imports do not actually account for the market failure arising from these characteristics. They need to be addressed urgently. The Department of Health has a big say in country of origin food labelling, but what dialogue is ongoing between the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Irish Codex Advisory Committee and the Codex Alimentarius Commission on substantial transformation to deal with these issues?

We can start to properly mitigate food crises and health risks when there is transparency in the food production system. I call on the Minister to give strong consideration to this Bill which is a fantastic piece of work by a Senator who has been consistent in his work in this area.

4:10 pm

Photo of Pat O'NeillPat O'Neill (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on his recent appointment. I look forward to meeting him next Saturday night in Nowlan Park, Kilkenny for the real all-Ireland final.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allocating me time to speak on the Bill. I compliment Senator Feargal Quinn on bringing it before the House. It addresses some important legislative points on the origins and labelling of food, but in places it seems to pre-empt or even clash with legislation currently being discussed at EU level such as Regulation No. 1169/2011, as pointed out by the Minister of State, which should be in place by next year. The Bill has its background in the recent and well publicised horsemeat scandal which was dealt with very well by the Government, in particular by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney. It claims that the scandal exposed a number of shortcomings regarding the provenance of food we consume. While the origins of the meat in question were certainly a factor in the scandal, at its core was the most serious case of food fraud the European Union had experienced in its history. Someone, somewhere, seems to have profited from illegally labelling horsemeat as beef and selling the lie, not just to the Irish people but also across Europe. While knowing the place of origin of the food in question may have aided the current investigation in its infant stages, it would not have prevented these criminals from blatantly lying to consumers about what they were eating. This was the first country to introduce DNA testing for food products and this was how the horsemeat scandal was exposed. A problem that started in Ireland turned out to be a European and a worldwide problem. Every country has since followed our lead and introduced DNA testing for food.

There does not seem to be an exact costing for the labelling included in this legislation. However, these measures would be costly. The labels would require research by producers into the origins of a multitude of ingredients and confirmation and compliance by the State. We can also safely assume that the extra packaging required to comply with the legislation, as well as the obvious time and effort required to effect it, would increase the price of these goods. That money would have to come from somewhere. The people of Ireland would be hit with the added cost, as companies would pass the added cost of this packaging to consumers, while the State would require extra tax revenue from the people to fund its investigative work. With these increases in mind, we should consider the effect of such a cost increase on consumers should the cost be passed onto them, while our international competitiveness might also suffer as a result.

Members are aware of the reliance of this country on its exports, particularly those from the agrifood sector. What would happen to these exports if they were to become more expensive? A product can only stand on its superior quality to a given extent before customers begin factoring in cost. When foreign markets begin to take account of superior Irish products becoming much more expensive just in order that they know from what farm they came, of course there would be a drop in demand for these products. Our export-led recovery could quickly be jeopardised for the sake of providing a little extra information. That is not to say consumers should not know from where food comes. Every consumer has a right to know what he or she is eating and from where it came. However, what can be difficult to ascertain is the point at which to draw the line on these issues. A pack of butter traced back to a cow in a field in County Kilkenny might be flavoured with some salt from the Middle East, which itself must be traced to whatever Iraqi salt flats it came from. The same requirements would need to be met for a wrapped toffee with Irish milk and Brazilian sugar. Before we know it, the nanny state would take over and this would begin to cost more than it was worth. We should trust in the quality of the food currently produced in this country and rely on its status as some of the best products in the world. We should rely for the moment on the standards, checks and balances already in place in Ireland and we should stand on the national and international reputation of the quality of our food sector.

As previous speakers have pointed out, with a few changes the Bill could only be for the benefit of consumers, producers and retailers, as it would ease the mind and provide confidence in the food products they were buying. The primary producers, namely, the farmers, have been used to inspections and legislation in recent years and have helped to build our worldwide reputation as the safest food producer in the world. Any meat bought can be traced back to the original animal and even the generations before it.

There is no doubt that we need proper labelling, but the country cannot go on a solo run. We need all 28 countries in the European Union to be governed by the same legislation in order that the consumer can have full confidence in the food products he or she is purchasing. All our retailers and purchasers have different standards in the labelling of food and they need to be standardised. We have labels with the words "product of Ireland" or "produced in Ireland", as well as the Irish tricolour on some products, all of which is confusing as it means that in some cases imported food products, if repackaged or reconfigured in Ireland, can carry these labels.

I thank Senator Feargal Quinn for bringing the Bill before and the Minister of State for his attention. I hope the Senator will wait for the EU directives and legislation before he brings the Bill to Committee Stage in the House.

Photo of Tom HayesTom Hayes (Tipperary South, Fine Gael)
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I assure the House that it is in our interests to push this issue through in the European Union. I guarantee that all of the issues raised will be brought immediately to the European Union by our officials. It is in our interests to provide for labelling on which so much depends. As I said, today I attended the Moorepark open day which thousands of farmers also attended. They have expansion plans to develop their businesses across the agriculture sector. Only yesterday I was in Bord Bia headquarters. The country is so dependent on this issue. Perhaps I did not explain this properly in my opening statement, but I would like to give Senators that full assurance.

Photo of Susan O'KeeffeSusan O'Keeffe (Labour)
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On a point of information, I want to clarify the rules on the guaranteed Irish label. Any product or service in respect of which at least 50% of the value was added in Ireland can qualify as guaranteed Irish. The figure for the "Love Irish Food" brand is over 80%.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his clarification and Senator Susan O'Keeffe for her explanation. My job is to sum up, but I do not have that much time to do so.

We want to push on Europe the ideas brought forward by the Senators this evening. I will bring them to the attention of our officials. Our Minister, Deputy Coveney, is currently away dealing with this issue and we will be shown to lead the way as we did last week on the Common Agricultural Policy. Perhaps I did not explain that properly in my ow

I accept the points that the Minister of State has made. As I believe we can influence Europe, I am not going to seek a vote on Second Stage. Senator Crown and I have had experience of adjourning a Second Stage debate and revisiting the Bill when the issues arising have been clarified. That is what happened in respect of Senator Crown's Seanad reform legislation and a number of Bills I introduced in the past.

Speakers in the debate made a range of interesting points but I will not attempt to address all of them. Senator Comiskey referred to best before dates. One of the reasons we are opposed to best before dates is because they can be vague. This is why we prefer a use by date. I recall one occasion in which a supplier of potatoes listed a best before date that was only four days after we received the stock. We received the potatoes on a Friday but people refused to purchase them because they believed they would have gone off by the Monday. The potato supplier's argument was that new potatoes are at their tastiest when eaten in the first three or four days. They are still edible two weeks later but they do not have the same taste. Senator Ó Domhnaill asked whether we would consider extending the Bill to cover restaurants. We did not attempt to include restaurants because we wanted compact legislation. I loved Senator Mary Ann O'Brien's comments. She emphasised the importance of confidence and trust, which are what we are trying to achieve. We have greatly benefited from her experience as a manufacturer. Senator O'Neill pointed out that good labelling is beneficial to consumers and retailers.

The Minister of State indicated that he was reluctant to accept the Bill was because of the costs it might incur. I have been in business long enough to realise that consumers are good at balancing price and quality. When I started out as a retailer people were very interested in price but they later became interested in taste, health and where products come from. I have tried to incorporate as much of that as I was able.

One of the incidents that sparked off this Bill occurred when my executive assistant, Ms Anne Ó Broin, was shopping in Carrick-on-Suir a couple of weeks ago. She purchased loose fish from a van and the seller had hand written on the label the area of the sea from which the fish had been caught. I received considerable assistance from Mr. Raymond O'Rourke, who is a barrister and an expert in food technology. I was also assisted by Mr. Brian Hunt, who is an expert in drafting Bills. The help I received this evening has also been particularly useful. I propose that we adjourn our debate on Second Stage and I hope we will be able to resume when the Minister of State is ready. I will spend the interim trying to convince him of the Bill's value.

Debate adjourned.

4:20 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Michael ComiskeyMichael Comiskey (Fine Gael)
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Ar 10.30 a.m. amárach.