I propose to take Questions Nos. 51 and 79 together.
At my request, Enterprise Ireland has undertaken an examination of the current structure of the pigmeat processing sector to establish whether further investment is necessary. This study will examine the adequacy of the current slaughtering and processing capacity of the sector nation-wide. The study will also assess the suitability of this capacity and its adequacy in terms of the location of pig production in the Thirty-two Counties. Following agreement with the Northern Ireland authorities, the study is being carried out in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Development Board to ensure a full picture of the all-Ireland situation is established.
The number of EU export approved slaughtering plants has increased in recent years, offering additional outlets to pig producers for their animals. Pig slaughterings last year were nearly 8% ahead of those in 1998. My Department is monitoring the slaughtering situation and there is no evidence that producers are encountering backlogs in having their pigs slaughtered.
Marketing of pigmeat is a matter for the industry supported by an Bord Bia. I have asked An Bord Bia and the pigmeat processors to spare no effort in developing and exploiting new markets and also in ensuring that the home market is sup plied where possible by domestically produced pigmeat.
I have taken a number of significant measures to help pigmeat producers since the difficulties began. I, together with my colleagues in other member states, sought and obtained increases in export refunds on a number of occasions in both 1998 and 1999. In addition, agreement was secured from the EU Commission for the introduction of an aids to private storage scheme. This scheme removed more than 428,000 tonnes of pigmeat from the EU market. The Commission also introduced a Food Aid Programme for Russia, and nearly 60,000 tonnes of pigmeat was sent to that country under the programme. I will continue to press the Commission to increase export refunds, with a view to getting more product off the market. On the supply front I, along with many of my colleagues at Council, have been pressing the Commission for some time now to bring forward proposals aimed at curtailing production in the pig sector.
On the home front, pigmeat prices increased by nearly 18% in 1999, and while this increase is welcome, I consider that many producers are still in difficulties. I have held discussions with the pigmeat processors to discuss the continuing difficulties in the sector. I have also met the banks and feed suppliers, who expressed their support for the pig producers during this difficult period.
I recently introduced an aid scheme for Border pig producers, who suffered financial losses as a result of getting lower prices for their pigs following the destruction by fire of their main slaughtering outlet in Northern Ireland. The scheme will enable eligible applicants to restructure their bank loans on the basis of a restructuring plan agreed with their bank, and is aimed at enabling them to return to viability as soon as possible. Applications for the scheme are currently being processed, and every effort is being made to make early payments under the scheme.
The outlook for the pigmeat market is good. The EU Commission has forecast an increase in pigmeat prices around the middle of this year. The forecast is that overall EU production this year will fall compared to last year. In addition, export markets for Irish pigmeat are predicted to perform strongly this year, which will offer opportunities for Irish processors to increase their exports, and this in turn should lead to higher prices for pigmeat producers.