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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 5 Jun 1996

Vol. 466 No. 4

Adjournment Debate. - Meat Inspections.

As you will know, a Cheann Comhairle, I have been trying for some time to raise on the Adjournment the veterinary inspection of meat. I was not available on a previous occasion and I am pleased to have the opportunity to do so this evening. I welcome the Minister of State, although he is usually sent in to reply when there is bad news. I will, therefore, progress with little optimism.

For many years there has been a high standard of ante-mortem and post-mortem veterinary inspection of all meat intended for export. However, throughout most of the country there was a rather haphazard spot check system in regard to meat for the home market. That system was operated by private practitioners who acted as part-time local veterinary inspectors for a nominal remuneration. In the circumstances it was not economic for them to do anything other than visit butchers shops and private slaughterhouses on an infrequent basis. Several butchers could have been slaughtering animals simultaneously, miles apart from each other, and it was obvious that ante-mortem examination was possible purely by chance. Meat inspection was often possible only in the retail outlet. Since proper meat inspection also involves the inspection of associated lymph glands, that system was, to say the least, unsatisfactory.

That system operated until the introduction of an excellent Act, the Abattoirs Act, 1988, which came into force on 1 September 1989. A circular was sent to all relevant local authorities with a reference to section 35 of the Act which requires each authority to "appoint one or more whole-time veterinary inspectors to carry out the functions conferred on a veterinary inspector under this Act". It was later shown that there was a serious flaw in the system. It had been made clear to local authorities that the new system, which was designed to ensure first class meat inspection, was to be self-financing and that there would be no subvention from central funds. It was intended that the money would come from a small fee to be paid by butchers for each animal. It soon become obvious that the proceeds from this levy would fall far short of the cost of the scheme.

It was perhaps understandable at the time that the Department of Finance was particularly strapped for cash in terms of extra funding since, with a current deficit of more than £2 billion, that was the greatest period of cost-cutting in the history of the State. However, that excuse is no longer acceptable given the current position regarding meat inspection, which makes very sorry reading. It is now more than six and a half years since the Abbatoirs Act came into force. Under that Act 32 local authorities were supposed to appoint a full-time veterinary inspector with responsibility for organising the system within his or her area, with the presupposition that the inspector would be supplied with the necessary resources. However, to date ten authorities have not appointed veterinary inspectors. Of those which have appointed full-time veterinary inspectors only five implement the Abattoirs Act, two or three partially implement it — for example, they meet most but not all the requirements for application of the traingular stamp, which is the vital last step in identifying meat that has undergone all the necessary procedures — and the remaining authorities operate as they did before the legislation was enacted.

That legislation is one of the finest Acts ever put on our Statute Book. Yet only five local authorities implement its provisions in full. Those authorities deserve to be known as the famous five because they soldiered on regardless of the financial considerations. I am proud to note, in this great week for my county, that Wexford is one of the five counties involved. I am not happy, however, that we are bordered by areas that do not come into this category. The implications for the ratepayers of Wexford are obvious, as they are for the other four areas that have complied in full. For instance, there is nothing to prevent people from bordering areas selling meat in County Wexford. As a member of Wexford County Council, I remember a heated debate about funding of the scheme, but we proceeded with it because we felt it was our responsibility to ensure that the Act was enforced in full.

Donegal is the only Border county that implements the Act in full and, therefore, is the only county in the area which is in a position to know the origin of every animal entering its slaughterhouses. That ensures that meat from outside the jurisdiction cannot be stamped by veterinary inspectors in the county. It does not ensure that such meat cannot come indirectly through another county and find it ways into a retail outlet there. That is patently unfair to ratepayers whose local authorities have implemented these very necessary procedures in good faith.

The Minister should take the necessary steps to have the Act implemented in full throughout the country and have the system standardised so that everyone will know what the triangular stamp signifies. I am sure the Minister for Health would be interested in this issue because it is a health matter. The Minister for Finance also has a role to play because it is vital that this system be financed by the Exchequer. In overall budgetary terms the total cost would be minute. When dealing with the health of the general population it is unfair to expect the shrinking minority who happen to be ratepayers to provide the funding.

I thank Deputy Hugh Byrne for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The Abattoirs Act, 1988, was enacted to remedy a very unsatisfactory situation in regard to the veterinary inspection of domestic meat production, which was governed by antiquated legislation dating back to the last century and was operated very unevenly throughout the country by the local authorities. In general only the major urban areas and adjoining counties operated a satisfactory service from a public health point of view.

The solution to the problem adopted in the Act was to divide the responsibility for abattoirs between central and local government. My Department took on the responsibility of ensuring that the abattoir premises were brought up to a satisfactory structural standard, suitable for the slaughter of animals and production of meat. The local authorities were given statutory responsibility for carrying out the day-to-day supervision of abattoirs and inspection and certification of the meat.

My Department has performed its role under the Act very successfully and has raised the standard of abattoirs to a considerable degree. Of the original 760 local abattoirs, some 330 have ceased operations because they could not reach the standard required, while a further 80 are subject to review or under notice to cease operations. In effect the number of operating premises has been halved and only the best of them are still operating. In that respect the Act has been a success and has benefited the consumer considerably.

Where the Act has not been entirely a success relates to the local authority responsibilities in a number of cases. Section 35 of the Act requires each local authority to appoint at least one full time veterinary inspector to carry out the functions prescribed by the Act. Additional inspectors may be appointed as required. Each local authority was required to make the first full time appointment within six months of the Act coming into force and two local authorities may enter into a sharing arrangement regarding the appointment of a full time veterinary inspector subject to the prior consent of the Minister.

At present ten local authorities have not appointed veterinary inspectors. These are Cavan, Kilkenny, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Louth, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo, and Tipperary N.R. I have continually urged defaulting local authorities to fulfil their statutory duties.

Some claim lack of financial resources as the reason for not appointing veterinary inspectors. The Department does not make a financial contribution towards the cost involved. Slaughter fees are payable by abattoir operators and these go some way towards meeting the expenses of the local authorities. The original expectation was that fee income from veterinary inspections would finance the service and there would be no net cost to the local authorities. This has not been the case because of the fact that there are large numbers of small abattoirs scattered throughout the counties where the small throughput does not meet the actual cost of inspections. Some counties have a number of large premises and the excess of income over costs at these premises helps to subsidise the smaller uneconomic units. If local authorities were to charge the true cost of veterinary inspections many small abattoirs would possibly be put out of business.

The situation is very unsatisfactory and I have been concerned about it for some time. Clearly extra resources are needed to achieve the full objective of the Act, but it must be emphasised that the actions of my Department and of the local authorities which have implemented the Act fully, have improved the situation considerably compared with the position which prevailed before the Act. I accept that more needs to be done and I am urgently reviewing the position with a view to devising appropriate arrangements to remedy the situation. I assure the Deputy that all abattoirs, including those in the functional areas of local authorities which have not appointed wholetime veterinary inspectors, are subject to inspection for licensing purposes by my Department.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 6 June 1996.