Priority Questions. - Food Safety Board.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn

Question:

13 Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn asked the Minister for Health the manner in which the Government's proposed agency to tackle the BSE crisis will operate; when legislation will be introduced in this regard; and when the chairperson and board will be appointed. [20486/96]

(Limerick East): A new statutory-based food safety board to replace the present Food Safety Advisory Board was one of the principal recommendations of an Interdepartmental Group on Food Safety Controls. This group was established by the Government in March 1996 and the Government last week reviewed its report and agreed to the establishment of the new food safety board.

The new food safety board will act as an independent guarantor of the safety and hygiene standards for food in Ireland. The new board will operate under my aegis, thereby signifying clearly that food safety is, first and foremost, a public health matter.

The Food Safety Board of Ireland will have a full and wide range of legal powers to ensure compliance by all agencies engaged in food controls with their legal obligations. In effect, its function is to ensure, in the interests of public health and consumer protection, that the best and highest standards of food safety and hygiene are being observed throughout our food industry.

However, the value of the board does not depend solely on the extent of its legal powers. The separate and independent status it will have,vis-à-vis other agencies, will give it its strength and credibility. It will quickly be regarded as an objective, third party guarantor of the safety of our food, whose assessments and reports will be respected both at home and abroad.

The board will have power to determine binding hygiene and safety standards for any sector where none currently exists in national or EU law and its staff will have the right of access to all premises engaged in the food trade. It will have access to all records and documentation and will have powers to seize records as well as products considered unfit for human consumption. In addition, the board will have power to prosecute for failure to observe or enforce prescribed standards of food safety and hygiene. The board will also have authority to publish reports of all its audits and these reports will have a significant influence on the level of compliance with required standards by both agencies and operators.

It is, of course, also true that our food industry will benefit from the reinforcement of consumer confidence which will result from this innovative structural and legal reorganisation of our food control systems.

I hope to introduce the necessary legislation early in 1997 but, recognising the importance of consumer protection in this vital area, the Government has agreed to the establishment of an interim board, the membership of which has already been announced. Its function will be to establish the structures and formulate the work programme to be carried out. I am confident that all the agencies currently responsible for food controls will co-operate with the interim board, pending passage of the necessary legislation.

We must proceed speedily to the third priority question. We only have three minutes remaining and if I do not take Deputy O'Donnell's question in that time I may not take it at all. Perhaps Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn will ask one brief supplementary question.

I have difficulty with that, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, because this is an important issue involving consumer confidence.

I am sorry, Deputy, but I will have to insist on this. Twenty minutes are allocated for priority questions and 18 of those are already exhausted.

How does the Minister propose to reorganise those persons involved in food control in his own Department, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the health boards? Will they be removed from those Departments and brought into the agencies' staff to put the controls in place? An important element of food control in relation to standards of safety and hygiene has been non-operational for some time by virtue of the fact that the Minister's Department and environmental health officers in the health boards are engaged in discussions and their work is not being done as a result. How does the Minister propose to bring the staffs together and resolve the outstanding difficulties with the EHOs to ensure they co-operate with the food agency?

(Limerick East): The proposition is not as simple as the Deputy seems to suggest. Inspectors controlling the quality of food in Ireland are employed by six different Departments: Health; Enterprise and Employment; the Marine; the Environment; Agriculture, Food and Forestry and Energy. Persons are also involved in this work in every local authority and in all the health boards. While the idea of pulling everybody together into one agency is a possible strategy, over a long period it would give rise to major organisational, administrative and industrial relations difficulties, particularly when we bear in mind that the bulk of these people are not only involved in the regulation of food but in other duties which they perform for the particular Department and agency employing them. It is the intention that as a first phase response to the difficulties now perceived in the food industry and in the lack of confidence in particular products on the part of many consumers, the Food Safety Board will be set up under statute. It will, however, have its own chief executive and technical and administrative staff, and it will proceed in a policing role by way of audit to intervene in other agencies and Departments to ensure that what they are required to do by law is done in accordance with best practice. They will be given strong legal powers to ensure they can do that. They will have right of access and the right to requisition documents if co-operation is not forthcoming but we hope that will not be the case. They will have the right to publish their findings independent of the Minister for Health, any other Minister or the Government. They will also have the right to prosecute independently without reference to any Department. That will result in a quantum leap in our food standards and this is the way we will proceed.

The second issue arises from an industrial relations dispute which is of long standing and which arises from a Labour Court decision on a claim when the Deputy was a Minister. We are resolving that matter under the umbrella of phase three of theProgramme for Competitiveness and Work and we have advanced the negotiations on an intractable problem to a point where we believe we will get a resolution, but it is at a delicate stage. It is untrue to say the environmental health officers are not carrying out their duties. They have claimed a regarding and are refusing to carry out duties in respect of tasks made mandatory on them after a particular date but, as a result of the negotiations, they are now carrying out some of the work in areas where they had previously not carried it out as a sign of goodwill in the negotiations. We hope it will be resolved shortly but if the Deputy wants to table a written question to me on the matter I will give her a precise answer. I am speaking from memory of the state of the negotiations which are proceeding fairly well.