Ceisteanna–Questions. Priority Questions. - Pigmeat Producers.

Paul Connaughton

Question:

3 Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development if his attention has been drawn to the continuing financial problems experienced by pig producers; if his attention has further been drawn to the fact that many pig producers are losing money and are on the point of financial ruin; the proposals, if any, he has to financially assist them; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26467/99]

The international pigmeat market has been experiencing serious difficulties over the past year or so due to the combination of oversupply of pigs and substantially reduced demand in the traditional import markets of Russia and the Far East. Ireland's pigmeat sector has not been immune from these developments.

Despite the current difficult market situation Irish pigmeat prices have increased by nearly 18% since the beginning of the year. Measures I have taken to alleviate the difficult market situation have contributed to this improvement. For example, I negotiated subtantial increases in export refunds in 1998 and again in 1999. I pressed for and was successful in obtaining the introduction of an aids to private storage scheme which helped to remove more than 420,000 tonnes of pigmeat from the EU market. The EU food aid programme for Russia which included 100,000 tonnes of pigmeat has also served to remove substantial quantities of pigmeat from the market. Nevertheless the situation is still unsatisfactory as many producers are still losing money even though prices have improved.

I raised the weak market issue at the most recent Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting in November and with several other member states requested further market support. At national level I had further meetings in recent weeks with the feed suppliers, banks and pigmeat processors to ensure everything possible was being done in terms of slaughtering schedules and capacity as well as marketing initiatives to lessen the adverse effects of the market weakness on the primary production sector. In terms of processing capacity I have asked Enterprise Ireland to examine the matter as a matter of urgency and to consider the current structure of the sector. It is commissioning a study as a result. I will continue to use every means at my disposal to ensure an improvement in the market as quickly as possible.

There are 700 pig producers, 300 of whom face the prospect of being put out of business. Several small family run pig enterprises with about 300 sows owe between £30,000 and £40,000 each. Everybody knows that they are looking down the barrel of a gun. Is the Minister prepared to bale out in an imaginative way from the Exchequer, those worst affected to ensure they will benefit from any upswing in the market or will they allowed to sink leaving us with a few big producers? Pig producers want an answer to that straight question.

Especially those along the Border.

All they are asking for is help.

According to their representatives around 100 pig producers are in severe financial difficulty. I have met Commissioner Fischler to discuss the issue. I have spoken to him twice this week already. The Minister of State, Deputy Davern, has also met him this week to put a proposal to him to alleviate the problem in the area worst affected – the north west region – arising out of the fire in Ballymoney. I hope a package will be approved within a matter of days under which resources will be provided for a new scheme on which progress is being made. I do not want to proceed without EU approval and to have to ask producers for the money back.

I hope the scheme will be seen as financially useful and can be adapted to meet demand. For my part I asked the European Commission to deal sympathetically with whatever proposal was presented. The Minister who is six months late should try to have the scheme in place in the next week.

As his constituency is one of the areas worst affected the Leas-Cheann Comhairle might give me a little liberty—

Unfortunately the Chair has no discretion in such matters.

We have no objection.

Family farms with a small number of pigs are worst affected. These will have to be saved if we are to have a credible sector in the future.