Thursday, 16 February 2017
Animal Disease Controls
As the Minister of State for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Doyle, is aware, there is a serious outbreak of the H5N8 avian flu. Only yesterday, the ninth case was confirmed. I compliment the Minister of State , the Minister, Deputy Creed, and the Department officials for the swift and appropriate action they took to minimise the effect of this bird flu within the Irish poultry business by introducing a compulsory housing order whereby all commercial poultry are kept indoors. I also compliment the poultry farmers who, by complying with that compulsory order, have to date kept this disease out of the commercial flock.
There are, however, many members of the industry who trade solely in the free range category, particularly free range eggs. Under EU and Irish legislation, if free range hens are continually housed for a period exceeding 12 weeks they lose their free range status. Can any action be taken to help the people involved to overcome this problem? They are in this position because they are doing what they were asked to do in good faith. I commend the Department and the farmers for their action but they will be victims of their own vigilance. The Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development was asked about this matter but he is not for lifting the derogation. Can we think outside the box? Is there a plan B to help these people get over the potential loss of their free range status which would put many of them out of business? They will lose their contractual markets. If they want to sell their eggs into the standard market, they will have to rebrand and remarket. This will have potentially serious consequences for these people. Rather than try to compensate and rebuild the industry after it has been lost, can we come up with some solution before that happens?
I thank Senator Daly for raising this important and topical matter. Following my opening comments I will be happy to further develop the points with the Senator in a subsequent conversation.
Avian influenza refers to the disease caused by infection with avian influenza or bird flu type A viruses. These viruses occur naturally among wild aquatic birds worldwide and can infect domestic poultry and other bird and animal species. The current events are caused by a H5N8 highly pathogenic avian influenza virus, which is present in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
The epizootic started at the end of October. The virus has been confirmed in 37 countries in poultry, captive birds or wild birds. Over 300 outbreaks have occurred in poultry or captive birds and a further 300 cases in wild birds in Europe since the beginning of January. Some member states have been particularly badly affected, especially Hungary and France. Over 70 wild bird species have been affected, mainly water birds, such as ducks, geese and swans, as well as birds of prey. As the Senator has said, in Ireland there have been only nine confirmed cases in wild birds since 30 December. These have occurred mainly in migratory swans and ducks. However, this week, on 10 February, we confirmed cases in a mute swan and a grey heron. These are resident species. Thankfully, to date, there have been no cases confirmed in commercial poultry flocks.
As a result of an increased risk of highly pathogenic avian influenza affecting commercial poultry flocks in Ireland, my Department introduced regulations on 23 December 2016 under the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 requiring flock keepers to confine all poultry and captive birds in their possession or under their control in a secure building to which wild birds or other animals do not have access and to apply particular bio-security measures. The Avian Influenza (Precautionary Confinement of Birds) Regulations 2016 provide for these precautionary measures against bird flu. These regulations have particular effects on free range poultry flocks.
EU regulations lay down detailed rules regarding marketing standards for eggs and poultry meat. These regulations set down minimum requirements that must be met to use the term "free range", including rules around access to the range. The regulations also provide for situations in which veterinary restrictions are imposed to protect public and animal health, as is the case in Ireland, and whereby eggs and poultry meat may continue to be marketed as "free range" for the duration of the restriction but not for more than 12 weeks.
In Ireland's case, the 12-week period expires on 17 March 2017. Several member states currently have housing restrictions in place. The issue of what to do after the 12-week period expires was raised at an EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council in January.
Since the meeting in January, the Commission confirmed its intention not to table a proposal to extend the 12-week period during which the eggs or meat from birds subject to a confinement order can continue to be marketed as "free range". The Commission stated concerns about the integrity and credibility of marketing standards that were introduced for the protection of consumers. The Commission acknowledged that the 12-week period is a balance between the interests of the producer and the consumer and that it was regarded as a reasonable period to cover an avian flu epidemic. It is acknowledged that this outbreak or epidemic is prolonged in nature and the possibility that prolonged epidemics of this duration may become a more regular event. In these circumstances, the Commission has agreed to undertake a review of the marketing standards with a view to a possible modification of the current rule in light of the prolonged epidemic such as the epidemic we are experiencing.
Free range egg production represents approximately 40% of total egg production in Ireland. Free range meat production represents approximately 5% of total poultry meat production. The importance of these free range enterprises, which are based in rural Ireland and provide jobs to the local economy, is foremost in our considerations.
Staff in the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU in Brussels have engaged directly with agriculture officials in the European Commission on this matter and are liaising closely with officials in the Department. They have been considering practical solutions in the event that the Avian Influenza (Precautionary Confinement of Birds) Regulations 2016 remain in force on 17 March and beyond.
I am mindful of the Senator's concerns and I share them. Producers and consumers have concerns too and I believe it is necessary to work to strike a balance between these competing needs.
Yesterday, I was briefed further on this matter. Key stakeholders representing free range eggs and poultry meat producers, packers, processors and retailers attended a meeting at the invitation of officials in my Department to consider practical solutions to the labelling of product from free range poultry after 17 March should the restriction remain. Industry representatives are considering the proposals and further engagement is planned.
The decision to maintain the Avian Influenza (Precautionary Confinement of Birds) Regulations 2016 is subject to regular review by officials in my Department. It has been decided that the requirement to keep poultry and captive birds confined in Ireland will remain in place due to the continued findings of the virus in wild birds in Ireland. Moreover, it is considered necessary to protect the high health status of the larger national commercial poultry flock.
The most important actions that flock owners can take to protect their birds include, unfortunately, keeping them indoors and applying strict bio-security measures. Many outbreaks throughout Europe have been identified in housed poultry. Housing alone does not eliminate the risk but it certainly reduces it. The Department has produced material on the website for the various sectors to assist bird keepers.
I thank the Minister of State. I appreciate that this situation is unprecedented. As the Minister of State rightly pointed out, those of us who have an interest in the sector are all living in hope by virtue of the fact that until the last two confirmations, the birds affected were migratory birds. It might have been a question of living in hope somewhat and the expectation that they would migrate earlier than mid-March and in that way alleviate the problem. However, as the Minister of State has rightly pointed out, the most recent cases have involved native Irish birds. This leaves open the probability that we will not lift the compulsory housing order by 17 March.
The Minister of State will appreciate from what I have said already that poultry farmers with free range status are between the proverbial rock and hard place. Do they abide by the compulsory housing order and lose free range status? Will there be a temptation on 16 or 17 March to undertake some supervised net covered release of the hens to enable them to tick one box? Ultimately, I believe there will be a reversal of that and that they should not have to release them. If the Minister of State was in that situation and his livelihood was at stake, he would have a sleepless night on 16 March. God knows, what decisions will be made off the cuff.
We have a little more than a month to the date. I have raised the matter today rather than coming to the House on 18, 19 or 20 March when the horse has bolted. I am delighted to hear about the negotiations with the stakeholders and that the European Union authorities will review the matter. When will that review take place? I doubt it will have come to fruition by 17 March.
I hope the Minister of State keeps his finger on the pulse on this matter. He referred to 40% of the eggs being free range. That is a lot. For the people concerned, it is everything; it is their livelihood.
I was surprised to learn the figure was as high as 40%. I knew it was significant but I had not realised that it was that high. The feedback from yesterday's meeting is that all sides were engaged. The relevant parties include the food and drink industry, IBEC, the IFA and all the various stakeholders referred to earlier. Those involved are trying to think outside the box. One option is an over-lay label that explains the context. In reality, if poultry has to stay inside, the produce will be deemed to be barn produced meat or eggs. An over-lay for free range stock temporarily confined could explain the position to the consumer. That option is being looked at.There have been a number of suggestions and these have been left for consideration and comment from all sectors, so it is an ongoing consultation. The officials in my Department tell me they expect to have fairly active engagement. As Senator Daly says, we have about four or five weeks before this becomes a live issue. There was significant hope that the migratory season would end and that would take it away. The concern is that the latest two outbreaks have been in resident species which, wild though they are, will not be going anywhere. It is important that we contain it.
The problem with letting them out before we know we are safe is that if there is an outbreak in the flock, one is wiped out for a period of production time. That is nearly a bigger consequence than loss of free range status. If this were to go on, it would be important that the industry and retailers would work together in order that consumers would know exactly what they were buying and that they were produced from free range animals. We are not going to have competitors from outside the country coming in and taking the market, because they have had to confront this problem before us. That is the reason they have already been to the Commission, because their 12 weeks is due to expire or maybe has expired in some cases. As I said, it is affecting other countries in Europe worse than it is affecting us.