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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 7 Jul 2004

Vol. 588 No. 6

Adjournment Debate.

Food Safety Standards.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I welcome the many innovations that have occurred recently in food processing and development, and particularly in packaging. The consumer clearly stands to benefit very significantly from these developments but there is a need for caution in their application.

One must ensure that while valuable information is provided to consumers, they are protected against any potential risk that might arise from the innovations. I speak in particular of what are called active and intelligent packaging developments. These are just two of the innovations. Active packaging allows the release of approved additives into a foodstuff to control the growth of pathogens and of soilage bacteria. This prolongs the shelf life of the food and makes it safe. However, it also allows one to know the food is safe or spoiled, so that in the latter case the consumer is unlikely to eat it.

Intelligent packaging makes use of specific indicators which will allow consumers to determine, for example, the freshness of a food by means of a colour change in the packaging. Such changes in the packaging would be reversible and would let the consumer know that the product was not suitable for consumption.

The real issue is that the consumer must be assured that the innovative development is also safe. The safety of the indicators, whether they are called active or intelligent packaging or anything else, must be guaranteed. Recent EU regulations allow the use of such systems. This issue is primarily one of food safety and consumer protection. When I put the question to the Minister for Agriculture and Food this week in order to ascertain his views, I was told it was a matter for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which is correct. It is, however, an anomalous situation whereby packaging of food, which has implications for consumer safety and food protection, is the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. It is not a trade issue but one of health and food safety. I am asking that the Food Safety Authority be charged with responsibility for ensuring the safety of food, specifically with regard to active and intelligent packaging. That authority should be given a pro-active role in policing and enforcing that legislation.

The substantial matter is the responsibility for food packaging and it is inappropriate that it rests with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. We are talking of plastic materials in contact with foodstuffs and the possibility of migration of those materials into the food. The food industry and researchers will clearly have a significant responsibility and will undoubtedly take it seriously in ensuring that any materials in contact with the food are safe for human consumption.

This involves a policing and enforcement issue. The responsibility must change. Plastic materials in contact with food with the possible risk of migration should be rigorously policed. It is illogical and inappropriate that this responsibility now rests with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Department has no role, nor should it have, in food safety responsibility. That should be transferred to the Food Safety Authority which reports to the Department of Health and Children, or alternatively to a Department of food with full responsibility for all food related matters, including food safety.

I thank Deputy Upton for raising this important matter. Food contact materials are all materials and articles intended to come into contact with foodstuffs, including packaging materials but also cutlery, dishes, processing machines, containers and so on. All food contact materials can potentially transfer some of their constituents into the food they contact, a phenomenon called migration. To protect consumers' health, food contact materials should be safe and should not transfer their components into the foodstuff in unacceptable quantities. In recognition of this potential risk, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Act 1998 establishes controls on the use of food contact materials. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is responsible for enforcement of the legislation.

The potential contamination of food arising from food contact materials is an area where continual industry diligence and official controls are essential to minimise the threat to public health and confidence in the safety of the food we eat. Recent incidents such as the contamination of baby food with substances migrating from packaging materials highlight the potentially serious nature of the problem. The FSAI has requested the European Food Safety Authority to ensure that rigorous toxicological assessments are carried out on substances used to manufacture food contact materials including consideration of their degradation qualities. The laboratory facilities for testing food contact materials for compliance with this regulation have improved in recent years.

At European level there is an existing Council Directive 89/109/EEC, termed the framework directive, which established general principles relating to materials and articles intended to come into contact with foodstuffs, such as the principle of inertness of the materials. It also established that specific directives would be introduced for certain groups of materials such as plastics, paper and so on.

In November 2003 the European Commission introduced a proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and Council to replace the framework directive. This new regulation is intended to take account of substantial technological developments in the area of food packaging in the past number of years. The regulation is intended as a general framework for food contact materials and sets out the general principles that should apply to all packaging. The regulation establishes some general rules of traceability for food contact materials in line with similar provisions for food and feed set out in Regulation (EC) No. 178/2002, though there is a two-year delay before these provisions apply.

The regulation also establishes a more detailed, transparent procedure for the safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority and authorisation by the Commission of substances to be used in the manufacture of food contact materials. The regulation extended the list of materials that could be subject to specific controls, adding active materials and intelligent packaging that can give consumers information on the condition of the food, ionexchange resins, adhesives and printing inks, as well as food contact materials made from recycled materials.

The regulation also seeks to support member states' enforcement of the rules on food contact materials through the Community reference laboratory and the national reference laboratories established by the Regulation (EC) No. 88/2004 on official controls that are performed to ensure the verification of compliance with feed and food law, animal health and animal welfare rules. The proposal was actively promoted by the Irish EU Presidency and a compromise text reflecting intensive discussions in the early part of this year was approved by the European Parliament on 31 March 2004. It is expected that the regulation will be formally adopted by the Council of Ministers very soon when the text is available in all the official languages of the EU. At that stage it will be published in the Official Journal of the European Union and will come into force 20 days later. From then on the measure will apply in all member states.

The main concern over the proposal in the European Parliament and among member states was over the introduction into the scope of the regulation of certain active packaging systems that are designed to release substances such as food additives into packaged food after it has left the food factory. At present this packaging cannot be introduced into the EU because the packaging must be inert. Amendments were agreed to specify some general principles that should apply to active packaging. For example, the food industry must be informed of substances deliberately released from active packaging, and these must be identified on the label as if they were food ingredients. These should ensure that consumers are not misled about either the packaging or the condition of the packaged food they purchase.

Active packaging would only be permitted to release substances already authorised as food additives. Further requirements will be detailed in the specific legislation to be drafted by the Commission. Public health will be a primary concern in this regard.

The new regulation provides for technological developments in regard to manufacturing of food contact materials that have taken place such as the development of active and intelligent packaging. It also introduces traceability requirements in regard to food contact materials. The enhanced role given to EFSA should increase consumer protection and confidence in food safety. It will be necessary to amend the European Communities (Materials and Articles Intended to Come into Contact with Foodstuffs) Regulations, 1991 to 2003. This would be to provide that non-compliance with the new Regulation would be an offence under Irish regulations, and to establish sanctions for non-compliance.

Bovine Disease Levies.

I welcome the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh. I wish to highlight a situation which has developed in Roscommon but which I am sure is applicable in some other areas where there are outbreaks of brucellosis and TB. The motion is that the Minister review upwards the reference prices compiled by the Department of Agriculture and Food on the live valuation for suckler cows under the disease eradication scheme. Reference prices compiled weekly by the Department of Agriculture and Food and issued to valuers are not reflected in the prices being achieved in the market for quality suckler cows in particular. Farmers having suckler cows removed under the disease eradication scheme are losing between €300 and €400 per head on good quality cows. It could be argued that this is in direct contravention of what was agreed under the PPF in regard to the on-farm valuation scheme. It is important that the spirit of this scheme be honoured in full and that market prices are paid for all animals removed under the scheme.

While cattle prices in general have increased since 1 January, the reference price index has not increased. The Minister could and should intervene. In some cases, the value of an inferior suckler cow can be obtained but to replace good quality cows often comes at a cost of €300 to €400 per head to farmers, who should get a realistic market value for their cows.

County Roscommon is unfortunate in that the south part of the county had a major outbreak of brucellosis, particularly in the moor area. Just two weeks ago, a farmer told me that eight of his cows had been removed. He believed he would have to substitute the replacement to the tune of perhaps €2,000 to €2,500, which he could not afford. Farming is important in County Roscommon, which has more than 8,000 farmers and many full-time farmers with suckler cow herds. It is unfortunate that there are two disease outbreaks at present, of brucellosis in one part of the county and TB in another.

There is serious resulting hardship among farmers. I have discussed the matter at length with IFA officials and other farming organisations. They asked me to bring the matter to the House to ascertain whether we could improve the lot of the farmers. Will the Minister look sympathetically at the situation of County Roscommon? While this may also be applicable to other counties, it is a matter of concern to my constituents and the farmers of Roscommon.

By way of background, I should explain that in the context of negotiations leading to the agreement on the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, it was agreed to introduce an on-farm market valuation scheme for cattle removed under the TB and brucellosis eradication schemes. This was agreed with the farming organisations, including the IFA. In subsequent negotiations with the farming bodies, it was agreed that for the purposes of valuations, "market value" would be the price which might reasonably have been obtained for the animal at the time of determination of compensation from a purchaser in the open market. If there is a problem with on-farm valuation, there is also an appeals system and, if there is a problem with an appeal, there is an arbitration system. There are three tiers to the system in the interests of fairness.

The scheme was phased in during 2001 and was fully rolled out from April 2002 in respect of all reactor cattle disclosed at a test on or after that date. From that date, the flat reactor grant arrangements ceased to apply. However, in addition to the market valuation element, farmers whose herds are affected by these diseases may, subject to certain conditions, also qualify for assistance under the income supplement, hardship or depopulation grant schemes.

Accordingly, since April 2002, compensation for all reactors disclosed under the TB and brucellosis eradication schemes is determined in accordance with the terms and conditions of the on-farm market valuation scheme as agreed by the IFA and other farming organisations in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness. All valuations are carried out by a cadre of independent valuers who value animals in accordance with the agreed market price definition. The summary of market prices document is revised each week to take account of available data on market prices. This updated document is sent each week to each valuer to assist them in their valuation work. Farmers who are not satisfied with initial valuations can appeal them and if still not satisfied after the appeal valuation, they can go to arbitration.

The valuation system is working well and there are no plans at present to make any changes to the basis on which it operates. In support of this, I would point out that more than 20,000 separate valuations have been undertaken since April 2002 and there have been very few appeals against first valuations, not to mention those referred to arbitration. For example, during 2003, some 8,585 separate valuations were completed by independent valuers in respect of some 45,000 cattle, with only 1.6% of first valuations appealed and less that 0.2% of valuations going to arbitration. The figures indicate a significant satisfaction level with the way the on-farm market valuation system operates. I will continue to keep the scheme under review but, as indicated, I believe it is working satisfactorily.

Radio Broadcasting.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter. It seems extraordinary that North West Radio should have its right to broadcast removed. This decision of the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland seems particularly perverse and unfair considering that North West Radio had possession of its licence for the past 14 years and has given sterling and dedicated service over this time to the general community. Were proof needed of the excellence of North West Radio, it has consistently been seen as one of the top radio stations in Ireland and winning "local radio station of the year" in 2003 speaks volumes for its content and performance. Were proof of its value to virtually every man, woman and child in the area needed, then the out-pouring of grief on its possible demise is akin to the impending death of a highly respected friend or a close relative.

The high standing and global respect that North West Radio commands across the community among all age groups is a result of good and faithful service to the community. It has given everything one would expect from a true friend and more. What friend would be there to entertain, inform, console and advise at all hours of the day and night? Who else was there to help faithful listeners through the night when calamities, such as storms, raged? Many older people regard North West Radio as their only true friend. It was a constant companion to those who were otherwise alone. It was a lifeline and a bridge from their isolation and loneliness.

The most disturbing aspect of this saga is the manner in which it happened. How could such a decision, which would have such sad and major implications for dedicated staff and avid NWR listeners, be decided almost on a whim? This was a borderline decision of the six BCI members present at a meeting. It was a 3:3 split decision, with the second and deciding vote of the BCI chairman putting an end to an extraordinary public service and epic performance by a gifted and dedicated team. Where were the other members of the BCI when such an important decision was being made? They should have been there.

This is an amazing situation, a borderline decision in favour of an unknown quantity on grounds which are far from convincing. This has totally undermined public confidence in the BCI. Surely a station which holds the broadcasting rights for so many years should have an automatic entitlement to retain that licence to broadcast indefinitely, except in the most exceptional circumstances. Surely this is logical and necessary, given the considerable investment required in blood, sweat and tears as well as hard cash to sustain such a high class and effective radio station. If broadcasters have no certainty about the future of their operation and have to depend on a wing and a prayer as to whether they will be able to continue to broadcast, the result will be lower standards and mediocre radio stations.

The overwhelming feeling is that the BCI has done a gross disservice to the people who listen to North West Radio. There should be a review process with strictly outlined rules. Anything less is arbitrary and unfair. The lack of an appeal system against decisions of the BCI is a travesty of justice. The limitations of any recourse to the legal route are, unfortunately, only too obvious. It is up to public representatives to demand a solution to this situation by seeking changes in the legislation, if that is required.

I am seeking answers from the Minister as to what will be done about the injustice visited on North West Radio, the reform of the BCI and the steps being taken to provide a proper appeal system against BCI decisions. The powers of the Ombudsman should be extended to cover BCI decisions. One stated reason for the loss of the licence is shared programming. These shared programmes are the most popular radio programmes in Ireland. Tommy Marren, Paul Claffey and Gerry Glennon are bigger stars than Gay Byrne ever was. More people listen to them and one cannot get more local than that. The chairman of the BCI's reason for opting for the other crowd was that they had a vision for the needs of a greater number of listeners in the area over the next ten years. That vision is a case of the blind leading the blind. The reality is that everybody listens to North West Radio.

The system is there, or should be there, to serve the people. If the system is deficient and does not serve the people, it should be scrapped. Justice demands that North West Radio should retain its broadcast licence. What will the Minister do to ensure justice and fair play for North West Radio? The people of the north-west demand that the Minister act on this. I demand it too, as their elected representative.

I thank Deputy Cowley for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. The Broadcasting Commission of Ireland is an independent statutory body and the Minister has no role in its licensing decisions.

Last year, the Minister announced his intention to carry out a fundamental review of radio licensing in Ireland. The purpose of the review is to examine all aspects of radio licensing, including what is licensed and the processes through which licences are awarded, and to make recommendations for the future. Within this context, the workings of the commission and issues concerning appeals procedures in radio licensing decisions are being considered. The first stage of the review process was a comprehensive study of radio licensing in Ireland carried out by industry experts. That report is now completed.

The Minister now intends to hold a public consultation process on the full range of issues vis-à-vis radio licensing in Ireland. The purpose of this public consultation is to seek the views of stakeholders. The consultants’ report will be released as part of the public consultation. The public consultation process will commence within a few days. After completion of this process, the Minister will develop proposals on how the radio licensing regime in Ireland can be improved. Such changes will be considered in the context of proposals to establish the broadcasting authority of Ireland.

The consultants' report examines an extensive range of topics in the context of radio licensing in Ireland. These include the Irish radio broadcasting market, media policy issues, radio broadcasting economics and radio licensing procedures. The consultants also include detail on licensing procedures in other jurisdictions. Drawing on the consultants' report, the public consultation will seek views on all the key issues. These include overall policy objectives for the independent sector, issues around diversity and plurality, the citizen's voice, all aspects of the licensing process, enforcement of licence conditions, financial returns to the State and the possibilities available from digital radio. All aspects of the licensing process are key topics for consultation. The Minister will seek views on the different components of the licensing process, including the application procedures and the evaluation procedures, and on the options for future appeals procedures.

With regard to the specific issue of appeals, the Minister recognises that at present there is no opportunity for appeal against a decision by the commission to award a licence, other than an appeal through the courts on grounds of process. While the Minister wishes to avoid the creation of a second tier of decision making in the licence award process, he recognises that the importance of the licence award decision may merit some form of appeals outlet. The Minister will seek opinions from interested parties on the options for the development of a suitable appeals process through the public consultation.

It is appropriate to mention at this juncture that a radio licensing appeals process, if developed, would be available to all applicants for radio licences. It would be the case, therefore, that proposed new entrants to radio who did not win licences may be entitled to appeal the granting of a new licence to the incumbent. As such, an appeals process would not be confined to existing licence holders only.

The licensing of local radio services is obviously a sensitive matter. This is particularly so where an existing local radio station fails to win a new licence. The only way to avoid hard decisions and controversy would be to grant licences in perpetuity. While licence holders might welcome this, it would obviously not be in the public interest. It follows that there will inevitably be cases where licensees who have provided a high-quality service will still lose out where there is strong competition for a new licence.

In summary, the Minister intends that the comprehensive review he is undertaking will fully examine both the licensing role of the commission and the options for licensing appeals procedures. The public consultation planned in this regard will allow for a wide range of proposals to be considered. I believe local radio is providing a superb service. It has filled a gap, particularly in rural and peripheral areas, that is not covered by the national broadcasting service. The listenership figures prove that it is providing an essential service. The stations also provide a service for our democracy. It is difficult for people in rural areas to get issues of concern raised and heard through the national broadcasting service but that facility is available through the local radio service. I am a great admirer of the service throughout the country and strongly support the concept that a formal appeals system be put in place. That is the intention of the Minister.

Hospital Services.

I am grateful for the opportunity to present this case again in the House. It is ironic that the Ceann Comhairle, as a medical practitioner, should be present for this debate as well as the Minister of State with whom I worked for a considerable time on the premier health board in the country at the time, the Eastern Health Board. There we dealt with the same issues that are before the House tonight.

I raise this matter not for political reasons but out of a sense of alarm. It has come to my attention that there appears to be nobody in control at Naas, James Connolly and Peamount hospitals. Let us take the example of Naas General Hospital. A major refurbishment and expansion initiative was undertaken at Naas General Hospital by the former Minister for Health, Deputy Noonan, and subsequently advanced by the present Minister. The Taoiseach said this morning that the Government built the hospitals. In this case the money was provided by the previous Government. It is sad that everything seems to have ended with the expansion. The Minister of State is shaking his head. The original cost was €21 million. The project was delayed for two years by the subsequent Government and costs escalated and are escalating daily. The Government seems to believe that once the building is in place nothing else needs to be done, that there is no need for staff. A state-of-the-art operating theatre is unused. Orthopaedic facilities paid for by the State cannot be provided. Naas hospital is underutilised — 75% of the development plan for Naas hospital has been agreed but the hospital is running at only about 10% efficiency simply because of lack of direction, lack of resources and lack of intent on the part of the Minister.

Let me turn to Peamount Hospital. Some bureaucrat somewhere decided to phase the respiratory and TB section of the hospital. That decision was made by administrators, not clinicians. That decision was wrong. This was subsequently proved when a patient was referred to the hospital from the Mater Hospital to be turned away by administrators. This has happened in other parts of the country as well. It is a disgrace that decisions are being made purely on administrative grounds. It is a dangerous precedent and should not be allowed to happen. The Minister should address the issue and ensure that the respiratory and TB section of Peamount Hospital continues in existence.

There was massive investment by the State in the James Connolly Memorial Hospital in Blanchardstown. It was much needed and was supported by everybody. However, the back-up and ancillary services were not provided. It is a sad day for health services. It seems administrators now run the service and clinicians have a secondary role. They are required only when there is an emergency or a disaster. We are on a dangerous road and there will be serious consequences if something goes wrong. There have been a number of instances in hospitals in the Minister's constituency already and I do not want to see these repeated all over the country. However, unless a decision is taken to ensure that the three hospitals in question are given a firm footing on which to operate and a clear vision for their operation in the future, the service will collapse.

I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this issue. He is aware that the responsibility for the provision of the services at Naas General Hospital and James Connolly Memorial Hospital rests with the Eastern Regional Health Authority.

They do not want to hear about it.

Peamount Hospital is a voluntary hospital and it provides services under an arrangement with the authority. I would be deeply concerned if Deputy Durkan were under the impression that there is nobody in control. If the Deputy can substantiate that, I ask him to do so in writing and I will certainly come back and give him a name. I know the name of the person but rather than announce it in the House I would be happy to ensure that he has the name of the person who is in control.

I would also be happy to hear from Deputy Durkan, as a man who has his finger on the pulse, that he is satisfied the appropriate mechanisms are in place and are working.

Naas General Hospital, as the Deputy knows better than most, given his interest in Naas and time spent with myself on the EHB——

We soldiered together.

——has a complement of 199 beds. It provides general, medical and surgical services, acute psychiatric services and medical and social assessments for patients aged over 65 years, to more than 180,000 people in the Kildare and west Wicklow catchment area.

Phase 2 of a major development programme commenced at Naas General Hospital in November 1999. I signed that agreement with the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy.

The Government rushed in after the event.

Allow the Minister to continue. The time for this debate is limited.

My colleague, the Minister for Finance, has demonstrated very constructive and positive support for the development at Naas General Hospital and signed on the dotted line when required to do so. Phase 3A, which includes accommodation and enabling works for future phases 3B and 3C, commenced on site in April 2002. All the departments constructed in phases 2 and 3A are now in operation, and it is a mistake to send out a message that units are built but not in operation.

Additional revenue and staffing are required to fully commission this development and these are the subject of ongoing discussion between the authority and the Department. If Deputy Durkan can suggest any other mechanism for arriving at a satisfactory conclusion that ensures value for money, appropriate placement of skilled personnel and so on without negotiation, he should tell us about it. I am sure he appreciates that negotiation is necessary and that sometimes that is difficult. I have been involved in negotiations regarding a community nursing unit in the Deputy's catchment area. There has been a huge amount of discussion on it and I cannot understand why progress has not been made.

I raised the issue on several occasions by way of parliamentary question.

The Deputy and I would agree on the reasons it should be opened and on the unacceptable reasons it remains idle. However, we will not interfere with due process. I hope we will see that unit opened as quickly as possible. My Department is more than anxious to open these units on which taxpayers' money has been spent so that the communities they serve can benefit fully.

It is anticipated that the remainder of the development at Naas General Hospital, phases 3B and 3C, will commence in late 2004 and be completed in 2007. That will provide an additional 31 beds at the hospital, bringing the total complement up to 230 beds.

The Minister should conclude.

Let me deal briefly with James Connolly Memorial Hospital.

The Minister should be brief. In fairness to the staff of the House, I would prefer if Ministers did not go beyond the time allotted.

I will take less than two minutes.

The construction of the new hospital was completed in 2003 on target and within budget. A number of the facilities have been moved to the new location. Additional services will also be transferred to the new hospital. When fully commissioned, the capacity of the hospital will be significantly increased.

Regarding Peamount, I assure the Deputy that respiratory and TB services are to continue. It is part of what the hospital wishes to do regarding the provision of services. There was no reduction of funding from 2003. Additional funding was provided for intellectual and physical disability services. I am pleased to say regarding old age that there are several new units. There has also been the appointment of a new respiratory physician for the south-west who will also provide some sessions to Peamount.

I assure the Deputy that the Government will continue to invest in the development of high quality, equitable and accessible hospital services so that those availing of the services continue to receive timely and appropriate care.

The Dáil adjourned at 11.10 p.m. until10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 8 July 2004.