While I do not want to engage in the specifics of the exchanges between the Minister and the Food Safety Authority, a large cohort of consumers thought the purchase for destruction scheme was a measure to counter BSE. It is no surprise the perception was one of consumer protection when one reads the press release from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development on the matter. It reads: "The measures were negotiated at EU level and were designed to restore consumer confidence and to provide an effective floor for the market for cattle". Priority in the statement is given to consumer confidence.
The scheme to date has commanded a spend of approximately £135 million. This money has been set aside without a murmur as a market support mechanism. The recent dispute between the Minister and the Food Safety Authority revolves around the culling of animals and the allocation of funding associated with the scheme. Whatever the intention of the purchase for destruction scheme, there was undoubtedly a perception that the scheme was intended as a consumer protection tool. Consumers can be forgiven for believing the meat they saw nightly on prime time television being slashed and sprayed with green dye was unfit for human consumption and was being removed from the food chain because it presented a risk to human health.
In reality, the animals were slaughtered and the carcasses sprayed with green dye and put in a skip to be incinerated so that the beef market could be supported. The entire destruction process had nothing to do with food safety. The cost so far of this market support mechanism is in the order of £135 million. This money has been made available without a whimper of disagreement. Some of it comes from the Exchequer and the remainder from Europe. I do not hear a comparable support mechanism being wheeled in to support the tourism or catering industries or the many sporting organisations that have suffered on account of foot and mouth disease.
To compound matters, it appears the wrong animals have been targeted in the purchase for destruction scheme. If consumer confidence is to be restored, older animals and those known to be epidemiologically most at risk of being infected should be first to be slaughtered. That approach would at least allow the possibility of removing BSE from the national herd and, at the same time, reducing the risk of infected meat getting on to the market. Surely the objective is to provide a safe product for the domestic and export market. Safe food and strong markets are entirely compatible, and the strongest marketing tool is to be able to say our product is safe. We would be able to go some distance towards saying that if the most suspect animals were targeted and removed. It is time now for the Minister to set up a working party to examine the feasibility of removing older animals and those most likely to be infected with BSE.
What is the payback for consumers in this scheme? They have a reasonable expectation of a quality product that is safe, traceable and clearly labelled. They also have, to date, paid a hefty bill for the purchase for destruction scheme. Substantial subsidies are already payable to farmers for rearing cattle. It appears an additional subsidy is payable to have young, healthy cattle slaughtered and incinerated. At the very least, consumers should be entitled to the assurance of the safety and quality of their meat as a result of paying for the scheme.
The exchange of letters between the Minister and the Food Safety Authority has done nothing to restore confidence in meat. The authority, by admission of the Departments of Health and Children and Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, has been doing an excellent job in securing a safer food supply for all. However, as I have said many times before, safe food does not begin at the farm gate. It begins with the raw materials used in the production of the final food. The miller who provides the animal feed is as much part of the chain as the processor or retailer of the food. Unless and until we have a seamless operation of inspection and monitoring from raw material to finished product, we will continue to have reason for reservations about the safety of our food.
When the Labour Party called for the separation of food safety from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development the Minister said that as far as food safety is concerned, the Department operates under contract to the Food Safety Authority. However, the Minister's website has listed food safety as one of the responsibilities of his Department.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has played an important role in highlighting the inadequacies in our systems to ensure food safety. The independence of the authority should not be undermined. BSE and foot and mouth disease have highlighted gaps in our traceability systems. Instead of instigating turf wars, the focus should be to ensure accountability for the consumer, who should always come first.