The national beef assurance scheme is primarily intended to restore confidence in a crucial sector of our national food producing sector, namely the beef industry. While I welcome the thrust of the Bill, there are significant gaps in the legislation.
In an era in which food scares are a continuing cause for concern on a near daily basis, the Bill does not go far enough to assure the consumer of the safety of Irish beef. Consumer concerns with the meat industry include, among others BSE, e.coli 0157 and salmonella. Issues such as animal welfare, problems with drug residues and quality indicators such as the origin, age, breed and feeding regime of an animal are also of concern.
Consumers at home and abroad expect to be able to buy safe, wholesome Irish food at a reasonable price. This Bill is a step in the right direction in ensuring food safety and many of my comments will relate to the consumer concerns experienced due to the lack of adequate controls in the meat industry in the past. The fall-out from events such as the BSE crisis, the dioxin scare late last year and food poisoning associated with e.coli 0157 have all damaged the reputation of the meat industry. Yesterday, the outgoing Minister for Health and Children referred to the post-BSE era. Unfortunately, we are not in the post-BSE era at all as the number of cases of BSE has been increasingly steadily since 1995. The number of reported outbreaks for 1999 was 91, the highest number to date. E.coli 0157 is also a significant problem with 51 cases being reported in 1999. As this is not a notifiable disease, this number does not provide a complete picture of the number of cases occurring in Ireland. We, therefore, have no reason to be complacent about the safety of our food chain.
Consumer confidence is very fragile and each new outbreak further undermines belief in the system of controls which is in place. The consequence of this lack of confidence is that the consumer, whether an individual or large multinational, seeks out alternative supply sources. Confidence in national and European authorities and in scientists has been damaged as a result of these scares. In a time of such consumer uncertainty, it is crucial that any new legislation would be set out in such a way as to reassure the consumer that no stone will be left unturned in an effort to guarantee safety.
Our export market has also been hit by these scares and restoring confidence and ensuring a viable, thriving market will require transparency and the introduction of a seamless code of quality assurance from farm to fork. In a recent presentation, the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Mr. David Byrne, emphasised the need for legislation which would cover the entire food chain from stable to table or from farm to fork. This Bill is restricted to dealing only with the primary production of beef and the processing of feedstuffs while ignoring the major importance of the product's safety once it moves away from primary production. Food producers realise that their reputations depend on those who precede and follow them in the food chain. Further processing, transport, wholesale and retail marketing, handling and catering industries and consumers in the home are all critical links in the food safety chain. The Bill should be extended to include these critical points.
Beef cattle are a reservoir for several of the most important food borne disease agents including salmonella, campylobacter and e.coli 0157. These agents seldom produce signs of disease in the animal which would be noted by the traditional ante or post-mortem inspection. For example, e.coli 0157 is not a cattle pathogen but it is one of many gut flora normally harboured by cattle and which causes serious illness in humans. The Bill does not make any reference to the microbiological safety of the primary product. The principles of HACCP, namely hazard analysis and critical control points systems are glaringly omitted from the Bill. This concept underpins the principle of safe food for the consumer. This system, based on the principle of excluding hazards from food in the first instance, will be wasted if the process is not carried through to the point of consumption. Recently, in the United States, a huge consignment of minced beef was withdrawn from the market because e.coli 0157 was detected in the raw product. There was no actual outbreak of food poisoning in this instance but the detection of e.coli 0157 was considered to be sufficiently serious to recall the product. What is the point of a scheme which ignores the first principle of HACCP by running the risk of allowing such bacteria to be present in the first instance?
The food industry, including the beef industry, has a huge interest in restoring consumer confidence. The industry which has been plagued by scares, outbreaks of food poisoning and various horror stories about residues, must be allowed the opportunity to ensure the restoration of full confidence and must be seen to be able to operate to the highest standards. The beef industry, more than any other, has been badly hit by these scares. BSE and its link, however tenuous, to CJD and outbreaks of food poisoning from various sources has damaged the reputation of the beef industry. As a consequence of BSE, specifically, and, to a lesser extent, due to the incidence of e.coli 0157, the consumption of beef has dropped significantly. Trade restrictions by third countries have also damaged the beef market.
It is the consumer who has ownership of food safety. Consumer expectations have increased dramatically in the last decade. Safe and high quality food is now the expectation of the consumer. The consumer pays the premium price for the product and, therefore, rightly expects that food offered for sale meets the highest level of safety and quality. The consumer also has the purchasing power and now has the greatest choice ever in terms of the range of foodstuffs available in the supermarket, including an enormous range of exotic and interesting imported foods. For example, by voting with their cheque books and transferring their allegiance to alternative sources of protein in their diet, consumers may be the arbiter of the success of the industry. Consequently, the response to the consumer needs to be given the highest priority and the Bill needs to be reviewed to take account of the importance of the entire food chain and not just one or two narrow links, such as primary production and feedstuffs.
The stated aim of the Bill is to regulate primary production and processing, grading and handling of meat. Nevertheless, it fails to address the issues that would normally apply to the processing of foodstuffs. These concerns are within the control of the Minister for Health and Children and are outside the scope of the Bill. Once again, a number of different agencies and Departments are responsible for different aspects of food safety. It does not correlate well with the concept of a seamless process of food safety from farm to fork. For the producer of the primary product the beef assurance scheme applies, while the retail sector is totally excluded from the Bill and is under the banner of an entirely separate agency.
The facility of tracing of foodstuff from farm to fork is now an expectation of the consumer. The tagging of cattle and their movements is just one narrow aspect of this. The process of tracing must continue from primary production and must ultimately reach the level where it is possible to trace every fillet of steak and every pound of mince to its farm and animal of origin. Such systems are already available. They are complex and may be difficult to put in place but it is essential we address that problem. Outbreaks of BSE, bacterial food poisoning and residues in meat have seriously damaged confidence and it will only be restored if it can be shown it is possible for the customer to follow the trail from the producer, including the origins of the animal feed, to the point of serving the cooked product.
For the traceability of the system to operate effectively there must first be in place a fully operated, computerised cattle monitoring system. Without the full and effective implementation of this part of the process, the entire principle of traceability will flounder. The outcome will be a half baked attempt to implement a process which, if improperly or inadequately applied, will do more harm than good and, in the meantime, much time and money would have been wasted.
The Bill only deals with beef produced on the home market. From a consumer point of view it could be interpreted that the export market is once again perceived at least to be of greater importance to us than the health of the customers and consumers at home. The traceability scheme outlined in the Bill does not include any assurances about the safety of imported beef. Why should producers of Irish beef be expected to meet the rigorous standards set out in the Bill when their competitors who import beef are not required to meet them? This approach suggests that the cosmetic effect is even more important than the substantive matter of food safety for all that should be applied in a consistent and vigorous way throughout the food chain. It is totally inconsistent to apply a different set of rules to home produced and imported products. More importantly, this inconsistency leaves scope for placing an inferior quality imported product on the home market.
The definitions section refers to animals or feedingstuff imported into the State. However, no reference is made to the implementation of legislation to take account of controls or traceability of imported products. At a minimum a certification process with backup documentation is required. Who will order the production facilities, trace the tagging system and inspect the carcases from animals in third countries? It appears that one set of rules will apply to Irish beef while another set, or perhaps none, will apply to imported animals, carcases or meat.
The integrity of the food chain from farmer to processor, retailer and end user is now a dominant issue in the food industry. It is a formidable challenge to be able to trace the mincemeat in the butchers back to the original farm of origin, but it must be faced. It happens with other products on the market. For example, car or washing machine components can be traced to the original supplier. It is a reasonable expectation to do the same with food.
Many sophisticated systems are now available for the complete tracing from animal to finished product. As free trade and open markets continue to develop, a system of identification across international boundaries becomes necessary. Current differences in safety regulations and production methods among our trading partners are sure to result in problems. Potential problems with animal diseases in a country may result as a consequence of free trade. Animals may be slaughtered and shipped all over the world and those coming into a country should be identifiable through any system that is applied. Imported foods that make specific claims should be verifiable through a reliable system. It is a major weakness of the Bill if imported products are not subject to the same levels of assurance as home produced commodities.
As a means of restoring credibility in any system, one of the first requirements is the independence of the system. Monitoring of the system must in the first instance be seen to be independent and be underpinned by sound scientific principles. Precedents have been set by the Food Safety Authority in relation to the application of the hazard analysis to a critical control points system in other areas of the food industry. It is not the food industry that inspects, but an independent inspectorate.
What plans are in place for the auditing of the national beef assurance scheme? Who will have responsibility for carrying out the inspection at farm and factory levels and at feedingstuff manufacture? All the professionals involved in auditing the beef industry should have a basic and common food safety management audit training and experience, preferably to a recognised international standard. Once again, the importance of follow through by the inspectorate, from raw material to finished product, is of the utmost importance to ensure continuity and consistency in the inspecting process.
Severe penalties are to be imposed on those who fail to meet the requirements of the Bill. The lack of any level of grading of breaches under the terms of the legislation means that all breaches, major or minor, are possibly open to the same level of penalty. This means that the same penalty will be applied even where the breach may be accidental or of relatively minor significance. The Minister referred to this, but it would be more reassuring if the scale of penalties was spelt out in greater detail in the Bill.
Where participants are found to be non-compliant with the conditions they will be informed of the steps to be taken to bring them into compliance. Continued non-compliance will result in notice of the Minister's intention to refuse or revoke approval and they will have an opportunity to make representations to him. In addition, there will be provision for an appeals procedure to the courts in the event of refusal or revocation.
However, the only recourse in appealing a decision is through the courts, which will inevitably be a lengthy and expensive process and it will not be an option for many small operators. An independent appeals system, comparable to that of an ombudsman, should be considered to speed up the appeals process and to avoid the heavy costs that would inevitably be incurred if recourse to the courts became the only route open for appeal.
The Minister will allow a participant to continue to supply product pending an appeal provided he does not consider the supplier to be a danger to public health. For what reason, other than public safety, would the Minister revoke a licence? If the licence is revoked it must surely mean the participant is in serious breach of the regulations and the idea of an appeal being tolerated while he is still in business is unrealistic.
The Bill provides that the period of the validity of a licence will be open ended. It would appear from this that once an inspection is carried out and a certificate issued the farmer no longer needs to be concerned about maintaining the standards. Spot checks on the process would be the only way to ensure that standards will be maintained, otherwise the farmer will have no incentive to maintain the standard and the system will disintegrate, leaving an ever worse state of affairs. While the Bill allows for reinspection there is no indication of its frequency or regularity.
Another consequence of the legislation will be the need for the documentation and production of a paper trail by each farmer to show they have complied with requirements. However, the beef assurance scheme should not become a paper chase with attendent costs for the participant, nor should it become a public relations panacea, where there is an idea that once the paperwork is done, the rest will take care of itself. Very often, reducing the paperwork and increasing the level of inspection will be much more productive. While at farm level there are commercial concerns and the fear of bureaucracy, the assurance scheme should not be driven by either of these considerations.
Provision for the manufacture and trade in feeding stuffs poses enormous problems for the beef industry if conditions are not adhered to. Is the inspectorate for meat production and feeding stuff production the same inspectorate? What training is envisaged for each of these areas? The processes and procedures for inspection will differ greatly in each case. Separate skills and competencies will be required for the proper execution of each of these tasks. I have already referred to the need for a specialist trained independent inspectorate and I emphasise it again, bearing in mind the differences in training required for the inspection at farm level and the requirements of inspecting a food processing unit. The importance of the management and control of feeding stuff production and processing does not need to be spelt out. BSE is the benchmark for all of us relating to changes in process without due consideration of the implications. The former Minister for Health and Children referred yesterday to the post-BSE era and as I said already, unfortunately we are not in a post-BSE era. It is still with us. The bulk of the scientific evidence supports the theory of BSE on the basis of a change in the process for the production of meat and bonemeal. Processors opted to reduce the heat treatment of the raw material while at the same time removing the use of an organic solvent from the extraction process. These two cost-cutting procedures resulted in what was to become the greatest threat to the beef industry in Europe this century and last century. The consequence of these procedures was that the prion protein, which was considered to be the causative agent of BSE, survived the milder processing.
The actual processing of animal feedstuffs must be policed rigorously to ensure that there is not ever again a risk of another BSE type incident. Technical requirements relating to monitoring the heating process and ensuring the maintenance of the correct temperatures for a sufficient length of time are essential for ensuring confidence in this sector of the industry. Employment of suitably qualified technical and scientific personnel to ensure the effectiveness of these operations will be required to restore confidence in the process. I urge that scientists employed in this area be adequately rewarded for their very responsible role in such industries.
Post-process contamination of feeding stuff following heat treatment is an aspect of the process that requires vigilance to ensure that the microbial contamination is avoided. Opportunities for cross-contamination between raw and processed feeding stuff, as well as packaging, storage and transport conditions must all be rigorously policed to ensure the continuity of the safety elements of the process. This point brings me back to the consideration of the need for a HACCP procedure in trying to apply a beef assurance scheme. It requires just one weak link in the chain and all the efforts will have been a waste of time and money. The recent catastrophe in the Belgian food industry arising from the dioxin residue in the food chain caused enormous problems for the food industry in that country. Dioxins are ubiquitous contaminants caused by the burning of hydro-carbon fuels by industry and can persist for many years in the environment. At present, beef and beef products is one category of foods which may not be imported into Ireland without an official Belgian clearance certificate of analysis of the consignment for dioxin. The Belgian dioxin incident decimated their food industry and brought down the Government. There are lessons for Ireland in this unfortunate incident. Not only should we have measures in place to protect consumer health but Ireland's green image needs to be protected by having in place a monitoring system for residues such as dioxin. One such incident could seriously damage our green image abroad as an exporter of high quality meat.
I emphasise the need for consideration of our imports as well as our home produced product. Will the tracking system as set out in the Bill be adequate to allow a rapid alert and recall of product should the need arise? In addition to the traceability required by the Bill it is essential to have a complete database and tracking system available for imported products.
In farming business where legislation is introduced under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, there is always a concern that the Department will be seen both as gamekeeper and poacher. A vibrant and very effective Food Safety Authority is now in place under the auspices of the Department of Health and Children. Surely this is the agency under which the beef assurance scheme should be introduced. Among the tasks identified by the Food Safety Authority is the need for a seamless food inspection service where no gap exists in the continuum from farm to fork. The future of the beef industry will undoubtedly be influenced by the effectiveness of the beef assurance scheme. To ensure that such schemes are effective and efficient, research programmes must be introduced and maintained so that Ireland remains competitive and at the cutting edge in the technology of the beef industry.
The beef assurance scheme should be under the banner of the Food Safety Authority, the body charged with responsibility for food safety in Ireland, an organisation that has established an impressive track record since its introduction. By placing the responsibility with a Department other than the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, it would help to avoid a conflict of interests between the marketing and policing needs of our beef industry and thus help to ensure consumer confidence at a time when hard questions continue to be put to our producers and processors. The philosophy must be one of excellence combined with the highest standards of production processing retail and catering practices.