Private Members’ Business.

Agri-food Sector: Motion.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

—recognises that the single farm payment will dramatically change production practices in Irish farming;

—acknowledges that agricultural exports are currently worth over €7 billion per annum and account for a quarter of net foreign earnings;

—recognises that the agri-food sector accounts for almost one in ten in the workforce;

—notes that the Minister for Agriculture and Food has failed to extend the country of origin label to the catering sector;

—further notes that the Minister for Agriculture and Food has failed to adequately promote Irish food produce by providing a clear and transparent quality food label;

calls on the Government to:

—immediately implement a clear and transparent consumer focused quality food label, which includes the origin and processor of all Irish food produce;

—establish an explicit labelling system for consumers in the catering trade;

—develop an enhanced food promotion programme both within the State and within member states; and

—promote the enhancement of product development from farm to fork to support the viability of family farms.

I wish to share time with Deputies Crawford, Enright and Neville.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Ireland has moved into the post-manufacturing age. Across the majority of manufacturing sectors from textiles to electronics, plants are shutting down and jobs are being lost. Ireland can no longer compete with eastern Europe and Asia in these manufacturing sectors. Innovation led sectors such as biotechnology and ICT enterprises are now growing rapidly but these, too, are vulnerable to changing market trends, for example, the recent closure of Media Lab Europe, the anchor tenant in the digital hub in Dublin. I, therefore, believe that it is the food industry which could become Ireland's most secure economic sector for the future.

The food and drink sector accounts for almost half of the output value and for 29% of employment of all indigenous Irish industry. We can provide the raw material from beef to milk and so forth. We have a reputation for providing clean, pure and safe food. If we play smart, there is massive potential for further growth. By strategically developing Irish farming and food processing to become more commercial, more consumer orientated and more competitive on the global markets, we can secure a prosperous future for Irish farmers as the main supplier to this industry and we can aid the overall growth of the Irish economy.

Until now, Irish political debate has not focused on the future prospects for Irish agriculture and the food processing industry. The Irish political establishment has not provided vision for the long-term development of these sectors. Fine Gael is intent on raising the bar. The new order brought about by the introduction of the single farm payment as well as bringing increased focus on quality must also sharpen the focus on production and processing costs, efficient use of capacity and supply chain management issues.

Unlike other sectors, such as biotechnology and ICT, the Government is failing to provide strong direction for the future development of the food processing industry. At present, there is a diversity of State agencies dealing with the food processing sector. While each agency provides valuable and effective service, such as Bord Bia's global market development work or Enterprise Ireland's work in developing indigenous food processing enterprises, there is a lack of an overall sense of strategic leadership and co-ordination. We need a more streamlined hierarchy for State involvement in the development of the agri-food sector. A new high level body, directly responsible to the Minister for Agriculture and Food, must be established to co-ordinate, advise and oversee the work of all State agencies involved in the sector.

Bord Bia should be responsible for the global marketing of Irish food and drink and administering public funding for marketing by individual firms. Teagasc should be responsible for conducting research into primary food and base product production and administering public funding for capital investment, training and research and development by farm producers. Enterprise Ireland should be responsible for supporting development of indigenous food processing enterprises and administering public funding for capital investment, training and research and development by processors.

The Government has failed to adequately fund research and development activity across all food sectors. Despite the proven economic importance of the food processing industry to the State and the potential for future export growth, the food processing industry receives significantly less State funding for research and development than other high tech sectors. We are not doing enough to promote, enhance and develop our strategically important food industry. Under the national development plan to date, only €14 million per annum has been spent under the research, technology and innovation measure. Less than €6 million per annum has been granted to Bord Bia under the marketing and promotion measure, with only €350,000 paid out in company grants by Bord Bia in 2004 to help companies better market and promote their products. The community enterprise support scheme, which facilitated the development of community based enterprises in the food sector, has not provided one cent of support in 2004 and looks unlikely to provide assistance in 2005.

These figures are derisory and expose the incompetency and directionless stance toward developing our valuable food industry, which has become the hallmark of the Department of Agriculture and Food in recent years. Meanwhile, biotechnology and information and communications technology sectors each receive nearly twice what the food industry received.

Given the status of the food processing sector as a secure indigenous industry with strong potential for future growth, the Government must fund the development of a cutting edge research and development environment so as to develop the Irish food processing industry as one of the most innovative in the world. A dynamic and innovative Irish processing industry must develop high quality, pure, safe and traceable produce, from value added consumer products and ingredients aimed at specialist and niche markets to mass commodity and base materials for further processing; identify changing consumer trends and demands both at home and abroad, anticipate them and innovate in response; implement strong marketing programmes to increase sales of Irish produce globally; and undertake cutting edge research and development that will allow transfer of knowledge gained through research into produce development and innovation.

One critical step in achieving this is to have a clearly defined product which the consumer associates with safety and quality. Fine Gael is extremely concerned that the current labelling loopholes have the potential to erode this strength of consumer confidence in Irish produce, not least because they allow for the potential of mislabelling and for non-Irish products to be passed off as Irish. The Government's food agency, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, has already signalled that the system is being abused through its identification of meat mislabelling. Despite this, the Government fails to clamp down on those who are breaking the law. Any potential for abuse is totally unacceptable, given the seriousness of the public and animal health implications.

Surveys have shown that the majority of Irish consumers will choose Irish meat products because they are confident of their safety, quality and high production standards. There is no doubt that the current safeguards which surround Irish meat products are of a high level and that the Irish public has strong confidence in the quality and safety of the product it consumes. It is vital that this high level of confidence is maintained.

The Government's failure to close legal loopholes which currently exist in food labelling will undermine consumer confidence in our produce. It must act now to ensure that our food labelling system is watertight. Currently, some firms are reprocessing beef and other meats, such as chicken and pork, from third countries and selling them on as Irish, or at least they are not overtly pointing out that they are non-Irish. If third country meat is altered or processed in some manner, by what the EU regulations define as substantial transformation, for example, pork to sausages, the processor can label this product as Irish. This EU definition is open to significant abuse by processors. As a result, non-Irish meat is being passed off as Irish and consumers are none the wiser.

This continues to be a significant problem, particularly with meat sold by the catering industry. All meat sold in catering establishments throughout Ireland should clearly indicate country of origin. This meat must comply with the same requirements that apply to meat sold in our butchers and supermarkets.

The Minister has expressed support for regulations at EU level whereby beef served in the catering or restaurant sector would have country of origin on the menu. However, this must be extended to all meat types, chicken, pork and lamb. In May last year, the then Minister, Deputy Walsh, announced that he was going it alone and would introduce country of origin labelling requirements for all beef sold in the catering trade. To date, we have seen no action and this requirement appears to be nowhere in sight. These labelling standards are critical to protect the reputation of Irish produce.

One threat is the relabelling or non-labelling of Brazilian beef. Brazil is our largest supplier of imported beef, with 5,000 tonnes imported annually, amounting to 94% of our imported beef. Late last year, a report was published by the EU Food and Veterinary Office which indicated that imported meat does not match standards required of Irish beef products. The report on Brazilian beef, carried out in May 2004, expressed concerns over issues such as animal traceability, vaccinations, animal movement systems and slaughterhouse hygiene. This is even more worrying as Bord Bia believes there will be an increase in low-priced, non-EU beef entering Europe in 2005, particularly from South America. It is unsettling that the food and veterinary office found that in the case of Brazil significant food safety issues persist especially given an earlier report in 2003, the year in which the office last inspected the control systems in place there from the farm to the export stage. Similar complaints about the structures in place were identified at that time. It is worrying that the inadequacy of the hygiene and traceability system in Brazil remains unresolved over a year later.

It is imperative that all labelling loopholes are closed to ensure the distinction between imported meat and that produced at home is clear to Irish consumers. While the Government claims it is waiting for the EU to enact regulations, this does not have to be the case. Last year, the Department of Agriculture and Food introduced legislation to ensure that consumers buying non-prepacked poultry meat were made aware of the country of origin at the point of sale. Why cannot the Minister act to ensure the country of origin appears on all meat products sold to consumers in Ireland? The Minister is hiding behind the EU to excuse the Department's inaction. Ireland can act by itself and we need to reach agreement on country of origin labelling.

The labelling group established by the Department of Agriculture and Food failed to agree a clear recommendation for country of origin food labelling. The group has been tasked with a duty and I urge it to reach agreement as soon as possible. The current scenario is simply not good enough and we need to establish a single, clear and transparent labelling regime for Irish goods. Other countries are already labelling and branding their own products. The Scots and French are now branding beef while the Americans are doing so on a voluntary basis. A precedent exists which Ireland can follow.

Since June 1996, Scotch and Orkney beef products have been registered under the European system for the protection of traditional food names. Scotch beef has protected geographical indication status while Orkney beef has protected designation of origin status. Protected geographical indication status covers products produced and-or processed and-or prepared within a geographical area defined in an application. The product must have a specific quality reputation or other attributes characteristic of an area. Characteristics of Scotch beef are specialist breeds with naturally supple calves, relatively extensive farms based on grass feeding whether grazed or conserved hay or silage and highly competent stockmen. As Irish beef could easily fit into those three categories, why cannot we have a distinctive label for our products? It is critical to put a system in place. The mechanism for doing so exists and should be used as a vehicle to develop an Irish-branded product here and on continental European markets.

Fine Gael is intent on raising the bar in the politics of farming and food. It is only by having a fresh vision that Ireland can fully engage with the realities and challenges of making farming viable post-decoupling. We must make farming more commercial and consumer orientated to allow us to compete and win on the global food market. Fine Gael is not afraid of these challenges. We will stand by Irish farmers and strive to develop Ireland as the home of the most dynamic and innovative food-processing industry in Europe. It is critical to consider agriculture as a consumer-orientated product. We must develop our products and our industry while focusing on the consumer in the context of the single-farm payment. On that basis, I commend the motion to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this very important motion. It is not right that agriculture is often seen as the poor relation in Irish industry when it continues to be one of the main sectors and a producer of real exports. The majority products exported by the agricultural industry are produced in Ireland with the import element being extremely small. These products include dairy, beef and what used to be a great many mushrooms.

It is important to get our marketing right at home and abroad. One cannot but mention the issue of the Carlow sugar beet factory. One must ask why such a high percentage of sugar used in Ireland is not produced by our own companies. Did we fall down in the marketing of our own produce thereby allowing an industry to collapse, a factory to close and a threat to hang over what remains of an important sector? One must ask what is happening with the marketing of milk. The co-operatives blame the import of milk from Northern Ireland, but they undercut each other rather than promote a brand or market. When one compares the price of milk sold in supermarkets or corner shops with the price of Tipperary water, Ballygowan water or even imported bottled water, it begs the question of where we are going in terms of marketing. In my earlier days, I spent time as a member of the meat board and had the opportunity to travel to Germany, France and other countries to promote Irish beef. In the unique scenario which obtained at that time, there were intervention, export refunds and other provisions and those who made genuine marketing efforts did not get the respect or response they deserved. We are now in a position where export refunds and intervention are gone. Never before was there so great a challenge to the Government, the industry and farmers to ensure the right product was available and properly marketed 52 weeks of the year.

Some talk glibly about all that has happened to Irish beef in the British market. What has happened has been the result of foot and mouth disease to a large degree and the fact that sizeable quantities of UK beef in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been destroyed in the over-30 months category. As beef from the United Kingdom will come back in here, we must use the opportunity to ensure proper marketing is carried out over the next number of months rather than years. If we do not raise our profile in the UK and European markets from being just another product to market Irish beef at the highest possible price, the increased production of UK beef will certainly cause us problems.

Viability is one of the most important issues in this debate. When one looks at the average farmer's income of €15,000 and compares it with what is available elsewhere, one does not have to wonder why so many are leaving farming. There has been a 22.5% fall in farm profits since 1995 as a result of the increased costs of motor fuel, veterinary expenses, fertilizer etc. Is any other group taking that sort of treatment? Irish agriculture has performed well to increase output and meet all the challenges with which the EU has presented it. However, the number involved is falling.

I tabled a question to the Minister recently about the number of cattle in the State and I was shocked at her reply. There were almost 8 million cattle in Ireland in 1998 but at the end of 2003 the number had fallen to under 7 million or by 12.5%. This happened before the single payment issue arose and one must be alarmed about what might happen. The food industry is important to the economy and the reduction in the number of cattle reflects a reduction in the raw material available to meat factories, which will have serious consequences in terms of the number of factories available and the distance cattle can be transported under regulation.

I refer to the nitrates directive, which the Minister inherited. She has my sympathy because a number of her predecessors have a great deal to answer for. Nothing has been done about this since 1997, despite the problems caused by BSE. The rainbow Government attempted to introduce a code of agricultural practice. The directive was introduced in 1992 and we must do something about the present unsatisfactory position. Those who glibly say that as a result of the change to single payments we have the freedom to farm and can do what we like are in cuckoo land.

For example, a small farmer in Cavan, whom the Minister of State, Deputy Brendan Smith, might know better than myself, brought in an independent consultant to examine how the nitrates directive would affect him and what he would have to do. He got the good news that although he has an intensive dairy unit, he will only have to cut back his enterprise by 10%, but he must close his pig unit. That is how the directive proposed by Mr. Brosnan will affect that farm.

I am anxious not to be critical because the Minister is only a wet week in the job. However, all politics is local and the directive will have major implications for the intensive pig, poultry and mushroom industries in my constituency. It is not easy under the directive to ask a neighbouring farmer to use his land to spread slurry and so on, nor is it easy for farmers in my constituency to travel to Meath or to the North as they did in the past. The directive's provisions must be addressed positively and constructively. As politicians, we have a major job to ensure laws are introduced that will allow people the freedom to farm so that they can generate a reasonable income. It was thought in the past that if land in poor areas could not be farmed, it could be turned over for forestry. However, this option is no longer open.

I refer to the issue of food labelling. If we are serious about ensuring domestic products are given a fair opportunity to be sold, we must follow up on the labelling issue. It is unfair that products imported from Brazil, or Thailand in the case of chickens, should be repackaged in Ireland and sold as Irish products. We must be careful about this because we are allowing our industry to be undermined and that cannot continue. The Minister stated that she is trying to find ways and means around this problem to ensure Irish products are labelled properly. A number of years ago the Taoiseach could not give a direct answer to a question I put to him about this problem.

I am a member of the agriculture committee and I travelled with Deputy Johnny Brady and others to Chicago where we saw farmers openly using steroids and hormones, even though they were supposed to be producing meat to world health standards. I do not suggest our farmers should be allowed to do this but they should be able to produce on an equal footing and, more importantly, I want to ensure the consumer is not eating something that is not traceable. This issue is about making sure the origins of a product, how it was treated and its quality are known.

I referred to the 60,000 farmers who are living on the edge with less than 20 livestock units. By regulation, they cannot obtain grant aid. I urge the Minister to ensure these farmers are grant aided, otherwise there will be an exodus of older farmers from the land. They should not be forced into retirement. The Government, if necessary, should seek agreement from Brussels to provide funding for these farmers. The bottom line is the Government will provide €1.4 million this year, which is 50% less than in 1997.

I tabled a parliamentary question last week about pollution control. The Minister stated that almost €39 million will be provided in this year's budget in this area, but more than €90 million was provided in 1997 for farmyard pollution and dairy hygiene measures. When one considers the massive increase in the cost of farm building since then, one realises how far we are behind.

Young farmers are important to the industry and should have a right to installation aid but there are technicalities involved. I emphasise the technicalities are minor, but they stop genuine qualified farmers from getting their aid. I urge the Minister to ensure they get the aid. Let the Minister give Bord Bia the proper funding to market its products and Teagasc the proper funding to enable it to provide the advice and research needed to farmers.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion tabled by my Fine Gael colleague, Deputy Naughten. It is important that time is given to this issue in light of the stark reality of the decline in the number of farms in the past few decades and of the increase in the number of farmers and their spouses who have had to seek off-farm employment in the same period. The agri-vision 2015 report is particularly interesting in light of two issues which I will address shortly and to which Deputy Crawford already alluded. I welcome my colleagues' calls to implement a clear consumer focused food label, including the origin and processor, and to establish an explicit system for the catering industry. These steps will add further value to our products.

I take this opportunity to discuss related issues also. The Minister will no doubt be aware of the decision of Minch Malt, which is owned by Greencore, to close its maltings plant in Banagher and its branches in Tullamore and Borrisokane. I do not know when this decision was made but it was notified simultaneously to the staff of the three plants at 10 a.m. last Friday.

We constantly talk here and in general about added value products in agriculture, yet we now see this company turn its back in an instant on 350 specialist malting barley growers in the midland region. These growers supplied between 40,000 and 50,000 tonnes of malting barley to Banagher each year producing about 30,000 tonnes of malt.

The figures quoted by IFA deputy president Ruaidhrí Deasy show the attitude of Greencore to Irish growers. The numbers with contracts to supply Banagher have dropped from 700 to 350 in only eight years. The fact the company only announced its decision last Friday can only be interpreted as cynical and calculating. Perhaps it felt, with the heat related to its Carlow decision, it might as well make all its decisions together and take all the heat at the one time. That certainly seems to be the attitude adopted.

Where is all the Minister's care now?

I have nothing to do with malt and barley.

The farmers want the Minister to have something to do with it. Farmers naturally made their plans for this farm year long since. The crop will be sown from mid-February onwards and they do not have an option of doing anything else in such a short time. The growers had a legitimate expectation that their contracts would be renewed again this year, as has happened every other year. No indication was given to them that this would not happen. They have been left in a disastrous position.

This product is more than a commodity. It was grown locally at a premium and under certain conditions and specifications. That premium is now effectively taken away from farmers. It supplied local industry, which in turn supplied what was a national industry and is now a multinational industry. It is no secret that this company is setting up malting plants in Russia and turning its back on Irish growers and its existing employees. Ten years ago, Minch Malts's predecessor had ten branches and a maltings in the midlands. This is a significant negative turn around in such a short space of time.

This is not just a matter between farmers and a private company. Greencore has effectively been allowed to operate a monopoly in this area, with the exception of another small maltings in the south west. Overnight it can decide to close leaving farmers with nothing to turn to. It is a matter which must be addressed by the Minister for Agriculture and Food and I want to know what she can do about it. People are looking for answers and want leadership from the Minister on this issue.

Likewise, they are still looking for answers on the issue of the sugar plant in Carlow. We recognise that the agri-food sector accounts for one in ten of the Irish workforce. Unfortunately, people working in this area in both Laois and Offaly have been particularly hard hit by Greencore's recent decisions. We must remember, when we speak of the numbers in off-farm employment, that many sought employment in such plants, but this will no longer be available.

I met beet growers in my constituency last Friday. They are understandably frustrated and upset at the recent turn of events. It is not enough for the Minister for Agriculture and Food to say that "it is a matter for the farmers to negotiate with the company the best possible deal on transportation costs and the transportation of their sugar beet". It is not a matter of asking Greencore to just facilitate the farming community when it has shown a great reluctance to do this heretofore.

Government politicians who spoke at the protest in Carlow, and at the protest in Banagher today, have promised the sun, but reading the Minister's comments here last Thursday, she seems to take a different view of the power of Government.

Farmers have not got the facilities to store the quantities of beet which they will need to store if they must bring it as far away as Mallow. If they have to draw beet earlier in the year, there will be greater losses of beet and its sugar content. Carlow is the centre of the rotation crop and this too will be lost. Farmers will also lose the supply of pulp and tops for feed and while this is a less significant issue, it is still an issue.

Beet growers' contracts are usually issued in March, which leaves them very little time to negotiate on this closure. If they contract, it will be to deliver to Mallow, but they do not know what arrangements will be made regarding transport costs. They also have serious concerns about the company's intentions with regard to the sugar processing industry.

The Minister stated last Thursday that "it is incumbent on the Government to ensure replacement employment and support for the workers of the company". I will not hold my breath while we wait for this to happen. The Government owes the same duty of care to the farmers who supply both Carlow and Minch Malt. Will the Minister outline how she intends to address this?

Finally, in light of the recent developments in Carlow, Banagher, Borrisokane and Tullamore, will the Minister re-examine whether farmers as the core producers should hold the ownership of these valuable malt production contracts? The recent behaviour of Greencore suggests that it cannot be trusted to deal with growers in a fair and ethical manner.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion and congratulate Deputy Naughten on bringing it forward. I also congratulate him on the work he is doing in this area since he was appointed Fine Gael spokesman on agriculture and food.

I wish to deal with the nitrates directive, an issue of extreme concern in my area. There is considerable concern and expense involved in meeting the criteria which, though not fully outlined, are developing. While many small family farms have been under pressure and have gone out of existence over the years, this directive will cause further numbers of farmers to leave the dairy industry. In the area of Mountcollins alone, there are only approximately ten suppliers left where formerly there were well over 100. The move away from family farming and the drop in incomes is significant and has severe implications for the rural areas of County Limerick.

The nitrates directive currently scapegoats farmers. Many obvious sources of enrichment that are not farming related are ignored. The directive is excessive and will do nothing to significantly reduce pollution of waterways in Ireland. Farmers already deal with the risks of pollution. The code of good farming practice and the involvement of numbers of farmers in REPs ensure that farmers conform to best practice environmentally.

The Department of Agriculture and Food has stated that the current proposals to the European Commission were rejected, mainly because they failed to create binding rules for farmers. The prohibited period for spreading fertiliser needed to be extended, the minimum storage capacity needed to be increased and clear rules needed to be established on nutrient management by reference to crop needs. Pigs, poultry and dairy production will be severely restricted in the areas designated as vulnerable. The nitrates directive is to be used only to correct and prevent enrichment problems caused by agriculture. However, some 8% of the national land area or 12% of the agricultural area consists of soils that are no more prone to NO3-N leaching losses. That means that waters in only 8% of the national land area may be vulnerable to enrichment by agriculture. The establishment of an excessive and draconian farming control regime in the State under the nitrates directive is totally inappropriate and unfair to farmers in 92% of the land area where the risk to waters from agriculture is acknowledged to be non-existent under good farming practice.

I wish to share time with Deputy Glennon.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

—recognises that the decision to introduce full decoupling of direct payments with effect from 1 January 2005 will allow farmers the freedom to farm for the marketplace;

—acknowledges that agri-food exports are currently worth over €7 billion per annum and account for about one fifth of net foreign earnings from the manufacturing sector;

—recognises that the agri-food sector accounts for about one in 11 of the workforce;

—notes the progress made by the Government in the area of food labelling;

—recognises that Irish food is effectively promoted both within the country and abroad; and

—supports the Minister for Agriculture and Food in her efforts to continue the development of a sustainable, competitive, consumer-focused agri-food sector and thereby enhance its contribution to a vibrant rural economy and the environment.

The agri-food sector is a major player in our economy, accounting for 8% of GDP, 7% of exports and about one fifth of net foreign earnings from traded goods. One in every 11 people in the workforce is employed in the industry. Over 700 food companies provide direct employment to more than 40,000 people, while indirectly supporting 180,000 jobs in supply and ancillary services. Many of the 700 food companies are small or micro-sized enterprises with the micro-firms representing 44% of all food and drink enterprises. The industry also has a unique importance in terms of the national spatial strategy as significant volumes of food processing take place in every county.

Government strategy for the food industry has consistently been to encourage the development of a modern, innovative industry capable of competing on world markets. To that end, the National Development Plan 2000-2006 sets out a detailed strategy for the development of the food industry and indicative funding of €385 million for a range of development measures.

The measures in the plan include food research, marketing, human resources and investment measures. These measures are market-focused and designed to provide an integrated response to the challenges facing the food industry in an increasingly globalised and consumer driven market.

Proof of the effectiveness of the strategy is the growing strength, diversity and sophistication of the industry. A telling indicator of success is that the value of exports of Irish food, drink and horticulture in 2004 surpassed the €7 billion mark despite a difficult trading environment. This is an all-time high and a very fine performance, particularly in the context of a weakening dollar and sterling and downward pressure on retail food prices in the UK, our largest market. The main contributors to growth were prepared foods, dairy products and ingredients.

Ireland is the fourth largest food exporter in the European Union. This is an amazing achievement for a small country. Traditional reliance on commodity exports has been reduced as production of high value added food products increases. From a very small base, exports of prepared consumer foods, food ingredients, functional foods and speciality foods have grown substantially. The prepared consumer food sector is one of our biggest success stories, with annual sales reaching €3 billion, of which exports in 2004 alone were valued at €1.6 billion. The global demand for convenience food had been flagged in national strategies in recent years. Well targeted public funding has underpinned the expansion of this sector and enhanced its capability to respond to the global demand.

Investment in new product development and innovation is essential for any industry to grow and prosper and this is equally true of the food industry. In the period 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2004, public expenditure of €72 million was allocated to the food and agriculture sector under the research, technology and innovation measures of the national development plan. I am pleased that NDP funding of €10.6 million has been allocated in the Estimates for 2005 for FIRM, the Food Institutional Research Measure. FIRM encourages high quality research across a wide range of food science disciplines and funds and facilitates public good food research into food by third level institutions and Teagasc. Public good food research has been instrumental in the development of innovative and value added food products, whether next generation pizza or palatable gluten free products, as well as in advancing food safety. The results of FIRM research and expertise are available to food companies when developing in-house research and food safety plans.

Promotion is a key element of marketing products. As a food producing nation that is heavily reliant on export markets — Ireland is over 800% self-sufficient in the beef sector, 300% in sheep meat and over 900% in butter and milk powder — we have made it our key priority to develop a comprehensive strategy for food promotion on the domestic and export markets, within the framework of the EU state aid rules that govern the Single Market.

Deputies will be aware that Bord Bia has specific responsibility to promote, assist and develop the marketing of Irish food, livestock and horticulture on the home and export markets through the provision of innovative market development, promotion and information services. Bord Bia is widely acknowledged for doing a thoroughly professional job in branding and promoting Ireland — the food island — and providing effective and innovative services to its clients. The developing of all routes to market is a priority for Bord Bia, and it does this across the spectrum of the industry, internationally and on the domestic markets, for general and specialised food producers.

The Marketplace Ireland showcase event staged by Bord Bia in Croke Park last autumn attracted 225 buyers with a combined turnover of €140 billion from the largest retailers in the UK, continental Europe and the US. During a few days over 1,300 pre-arranged meetings took place between buyers and Irish food and drink suppliers who were seeking to grow their international sales in retail and food service.

On the domestic market more food is now consumed in restaurants and hotels than ever before. It is very much in the interest of the Irish food industry to supply this market with high quality food. In recent years an innovative promotional measure, the Féile Bia scheme, has been developed by Bord Bia to complement its quality assurance schemes. The participants in this scheme have committed to sourcing quality assured product in their catering outlets. The Bord Bia programme, Féile Bia — a celebration of quality food — which is operated in co-operation with the Restaurants Association of Ireland and the Irish Hotels Federation, with the support of the farming community, is aimed specifically at the catering industry. The objective of Féile Bia is to provide transparency and full traceability of food from farm to fork in the catering sector.

Local markets are growing in importance as an outlet for local and speciality production. In 2002 Bord Bia staged Ireland's largest ever outdoor food market on the farmers' market style for 110 small food producers at its international food symposium in Kinsale and this concept has been gaining momentum since then.

A strategy is also in place for developing the marketing capability of the small-scale food sector many of whose members are also producing speciality foods. The small business-speciality food sector has a combined turnover of €250 million. Within that category those businesses availing of Bord Bia's small business services have seen their average turnover increased by 36% in a few years.

The overriding principle in the production of food is the safety of the consumer. Only food produced to the required standards of food safety should be placed on the market. Responsibility for ensuring these standards rests primarily with the industry itself, with the role of the regulatory authorities being that of providing the assurances required by law. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has overall responsibility for the enforcement of food safety legislation in Ireland. It provides a single focus for all State agencies involved in food safety regulation, thereby guaranteeing the integrity of the control system governing the processing, distribution and retailing of food. A wide range of systems is in place to monitor and promote the quality of Irish food. For example, the national beef assurance scheme provides assurance as to the quality of Irish beef and beef products and ensures high standards of production and processing throughout the whole industry.

Quality assurance schemes enjoy confidence where they operate to objective criteria and are independently accredited and audited. Deputies will also be aware that Bord Bia has been operating quality assurance schemes for some years and of the progress being made in this area towards achieving EN45011 standards. Last year, my Department was successful in securing EU approval for an indication of origin by way of a national emblem on the logo of Bord Bia quality assurance schemes. Bord Bia has rolled out the new logo to give consumers that information in graphic form.

Deputy Naughten raised the issue of the labelling of speciality Scottish beef. Ireland tried to achieve equality on that issue but under the regulations, Scotland is defined as a region while Ireland is a member state. However, we are examining the possibility of an all-Ireland brand which would be successful, although we would have to deal with animal health issues. Although the proposal was initially unsuccessful, it is our intention to pursue it further.

The report of the food quality assurance schemes review group recommended the drawing up of national guidelines to facilitate accreditation of individual food quality assurance schemes to the international standard EN45011. At my Department's request the National Standards Authority of Ireland engaged in drawing up guidelines and is nearing completion of its work on a linear integrated standard covering the totality of the food chain from producer to consumer, including processors and the retail and catering sectors. Each specific sector will be free to tailor quality assurance schemes to suit its own particular requirements in conformity with the guideline.

In applying any particular national standard, due regard must be had to EU law protecting free trade within the Single Market. Care must also be taken to ensure that unnecessary constraints are not placed on producers and companies in establishing markets and partnerships in the distribution chain. In today's rapidly changing marketplace, both global and niche brands have a place and markets are there to be won for functional, speciality and organic foods.

The importance to the consumer of being in a position to make food consumption choices which best suit their circumstances and preferences is a vital element in today's market. An appropriate labelling system is a key element in this respect. The primacy of the consumer was recognised with the appointment of the consumer liaison panel, established in 2002. Acting on a recommendation from that panel, the food labelling group was also established in June 2002. That group reported in December of that year with a series of recommendations.

The two main issues that emanated from the recommendations of the labelling group were the centralising of enforcement in one agency and the definition of origin. On the question of centralisation of enforcement, the position is that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is now responsible for the enforcement of labelling regulations. This will not only streamline the enforcement measures but will also provide a one-stop shop for any complaints on mislabelling of food. The service contracts between the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and other State bodies, including my Department, have been amended to take account of this change in enforcement policy. Food labelling policy, with the exception of fish, is now located in both the Department of Health and Children and my Department in line with another recommendation of the food labelling group.

There was full agreement within the food labelling group that consumers have a right to information on the origin of the meat they cook in their homes or eat out. I welcome this unequivocal recognition of the rights of consumers. At the beginning of 2004, two regulations relating to the labelling of poultry meat were introduced. The first of these regulations requires poultry meat originating in a country outside the EU to bear an indication of the country of origin when offered for sale in a retail premises. The second requires information regarding class, price per unit of weight, condition and slaughterhouse details in respect of non-prepackaged poultry meat to be provided to the consumer.

EU regulations provide for a detailed labelling system for beef to be applied at retail sale, which is over and above the general labelling provisions. These regulations do not apply at restaurant and catering sector level. It is my intention to proceed with a legal requirement that country of origin must be displayed in respect of beef served on such premises. The legal options allowing for this development are currently being examined and any necessary legislation will be introduced as soon as possible.

The Minister should also consider Thai chicken, as distinct from chicken thighs.

The Deputy should know the difference between beef and a wee bit of poultry. However, I know what he is saying.

On the food labelling issue in general, I emphasise that my primary aim is to protect consumer interests and to ensure the consumer is properly informed. Ireland is a major exporter of food and food products and there is a considerable volume of imports. Therefore, it is imperative that the same standards are applied to the labelling of foods in every sector and that a level playing field exists for the entire food industry, with which all Deputies must agree. It is fair to say there has been significant progress on the implementation of the recommendations of the food labelling group. The group made 21 recommendations, the status of which are as follows: 12 have been implemented in full; one other is completed in full, except for a small element in regard to giving the breakdown of species in food with a meat content in the food services sector; five fall to be implemented by the FSAI, which is in the process of developing its systems and operations to ensure the implementation of these recommendations; and one recommendation in regard to a public awareness campaign on food labelling is being addressed by Safefood, the food safety promotion board.

The remaining two recommendations relate to the issue of origin of meat. Legislation covering the beef sector was already in place for retail outlets and similar measures were adopted for poultry. My Department and the Department of Health and Children are examining the legislative measures necessary to extend these regulations to sheep meat and pig meat. Both Departments are also exploring the necessary measures for extending the requirement to indicate the origin of all meat in the food service sector.

Given our export focus on food, no effort is spared by the Government. My Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Bord Bia support the industry in its endeavours to find and expand export markets. We have been hugely successful in this regard. For example, the position in respect of beef speaks volumes. We have made enormous strides in consolidating our position as a major supplier of quality beef to the EU retail market. This applies across all product areas.

As the House is aware, I led a delegation of food and drink industry representatives to China as part of a wider trade mission led by the Taoiseach. In the course of my visit, I signed a pig meat protocol with the Minister for the Administration of Quality, Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine that will form the basis on which pig meat products from Ireland will be exported to China. This formal agreement will provide a framework within which actual trade in pig meat products will commence later in the year.

Will the Minister's agreements be as good as those made by her predecessor with Egypt?

At least I was not in the pub in the airport at the same time. I was there.

The Minister's predecessor signed a contract and opened the market which made a difference.

I also raised the question of the lifting of the Chinese ban on beef products in my official discussions with both the Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for the Administration of Quality, Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. During these discussions I emphasised that the control and supervision of food safety is afforded the very highest priority in Ireland and that the Government is committed to the preservation of our status as a supplier of the highest quality products to international buyers.

I also addressed seminars in Beijing and Shanghai organised by my Department and Bord Bia, which were aimed at promoting Irish food and drinks in the Chinese market, providing assurance on the safety controls related to food production and details on the country's export capability. The seminars also provided an opportunity for the Department, Bord Bia and industry representatives to directly engage with the ministry and regulatory officials, Chinese importers and traders. Many important contacts were established with Chinese trading companies during the visit.

China is a huge market with enormous potential, which could be hugely beneficial to Ireland in the food and drinks sector. I have no doubt the industry, together with the assistance of State agencies, will take full advantage of the opportunities provided in Beijing and Shanghai to develop lasting trade relationships with the Chinese industry.

There is little doubt that the Irish food industry has made rapid strides in recent years in response to the policies and the multifaceted assistance which this Government has provided. While these significant changes have been taking place, a further and fundamental change has taken place in the overall policy framework. I refer to the agreement reached in 2003 on the mid-term review of Agenda 2000, known as the Luxembourg Agreement. In the aftermath of the agreement, the overwhelming opinion among individual farmers, as expressed at information seminars held by the Department, was in favour of full decoupling. After an extensive public consultation process and studies carried out by FAPRI-Ireland, it was decided to fully decouple all direct payments from production from 1 January 2005.

Farmers are now free to focus on the market and the demands of the final consumer. A further advantage of full decoupling will be a significant reduction in the level of bureaucracy, both for farmers and for my Department. While some reduction in production is expected under full decoupling, research indicates that the resulting increase in prices and reduced input costs will lead to an increase in farm incomes. Under the new regime, the food industry will be provided with better opportunities to source quality raw material. Better market orientation of primary production will assist food processors in developing and supplying quality markets. Full decoupling is also expected to have a positive impact on the environment by leading to a substantial reduction in the contribution made by agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions.

Top priority is being given in my Department to preparing for the changeover to the single payment scheme. Approximately 133,000 farmers have already been sent provisional certification of entitlements.

Some of them are still waiting for them.

We are facing a period of major change at farm and processing levels and in the administration supporting the sector. The Government will continue to lead the change agenda to ensure the agrifood sector can continue to develop to its maximum potential.

While the 2005 budget did much to enhance the well-being of every person in society, it was an extremely good budget for farmers. In addition to the general improvements in taxation and social welfare measures, the budget provided significant tax concessions for the farming community. I will allow my backbenchers to reiterate the measures to the Opposition.

Hear, hear.

Last year was positive for agriculture. The Central Statistics Office estimates agricultural income increased by 1.3%, reflecting improvements in cattle and sheep prices and steady milk output and value.

What was the rate of inflation?

These improvements are based on continuing positive trading conditions in EU markets with beef consumption exceeding production, good demand for sheepmeat and steady demand on international markets for milk commodities. Direct payments by my Department to the farming sector in 2004 amounted to more than €1.6 billion, 75% of aggregate farm income.

The House has debated the proposals put forward by the European Commission on sugar production. I have already indicated they are unacceptable. We have forwarded a submission to the Commission pointing out that its proposals would have a devastating effect on farms and industrial enterprises in the sector. While accepting the necessity to reform the existing regime, there are principles from which we cannot remove ourselves. An import system from third countries must be put in place to ensure predictable and regular import quantities. Price reduction must be significantly less than what is proposed and be implemented gradually. The impact of the quota reductions must mainly fall on overproducing member states. The transfer of quotas among member states is unacceptable. We must await the decision of the WTO panel. However, I intend to support this as best as possible. I will discuss the issue on malting barley at a later date.

I have demonstrated that the motion put down by the Fine Gael Party is wildly inaccurate. It fails miserably to recognise the recent advances made by the agrifood sector and the role the Government has played in those advances. Despite these enormous advances, the agrifood sector has further considerable potential for development and this ministerial team will support it all the way.

I thank the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, for sharing time. My sharing time with her was the source of some amusement to the Opposition benches. If those Members were more aware of the situation on the ground in north County Dublin, they would still have a Deputy there. Instead, they now have to listen to me for ten minutes on the issue.

I commend the amendment to the motion to the House. Horticulture, particularly potato growing, is important to the economy of north County Dublin. For years, the area has been known as the top market gardening area in the country. Statistics show that it produces half of the national output in the horticultural sector. Nationally, the sector is a dynamic one and has grown to be a significant entity in the agricultural industry. Farm gate production is valued at approximately €270 million, with retail sales of €650 million. The sector is also labour intensive with approximately 10,000 people employed in the production and distribution chain. A significant number of foreign nationals work in the horticultural sector, being a vital component to it. Without these immigrant workers, the entire sector would be in much difficulty.

The Department of Agriculture and Food contributes directly to the sector by providing plant health services, enforcement of quality standards and grant assistance. Bord Bia plays a key role in promotion, marketing and ensuring high standards through the operation of its quality assurance programme. A significant contribution towards the development of the sector is made through the grant aid schemes for capital investment on farms under the national development plan. Since 2001 more than €8 million has been paid to 400 horticultural producers to upgrade or develop new facilities. This grant aid has been a major catalyst for investment and growth in a sector which is making a significant contribution to the rural and national economy. The Minister recently announced a further €3.6 million grant package for 2005, which will fund projects to the value of more than €10 million. All areas of horticulture are eligible for the scheme covering mushrooms, protected crops, nursery crops, field vegetables, soft fruit, apples and bee-keeping. I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food with special responsibility for food and horticulture, Deputy Brendan Smith on this initiative. Horticultural producers benefit from EU aid under the producer organisation scheme. Last year, €5.6 million was paid to 15 recognised producer organisations, an increase of €2 million, 55%, on the 2003 figure. The development of producer organisations under EU regulations contributes to the development of the sector, enabling producers to benefit from their combined strength in production and marketing.

Traditionally the horticultural industry has been the subject of free market forces. The introduction of the single European market has brought about additional competitive pressures and challenges for Irish horticulture. The increasing importance of the retail multiple market has resulted in the concentration of buying power in the hands of five retail multiples. Between them, they control 75% of the fresh produce retail market, creating an adverse effect on the price returned to the producer. Significant changes have taken place in the supply chain, particularly in the changeover to centralised distribution and purchasing. This has resulted in both opportunities and threats to growers. I know the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister of State are conscious of the concentration of so much buying power in such a small circle.

Social and demographic changes have impacted on the industry over the past decade with an increased demand for convenience food and prepared consumer foods. Important trends in horticulture are the specialisation and rationalisation of production units and an increase in catering outlets and demand for semi-prepared produce. Growers have adapted to the exacting demands of quality assurance from the supermarket chains. However, they face considerable challenges in the future. Not least among these are energy and labour costs, increased competition from an enlarged EU and low profitability resulting in low re-investment. Multiple retailers are now competing with each other on price, meaning reduced returns to growers.

The impact of these trends and market forces has had an important bearing on the mushroom sector. This sector, which has been one of the most dynamic sectors of Irish agriculture over the past 20 years, is coming under considerable pressure due to severe competition from cheaper Dutch and Polish supplies on the UK market. With costs of production increasing, producers are caught in a price cost squeeze with profit margins being significantly eroded. In these circumstances, further rationalisation is inevitable. There are now fewer than 200 growers, but they have a much larger scale of production and, accordingly, mushroom output has remained relatively stable over recent years, with exports to the UK market valued at approximately €90 million.

To chart out a future policy direction for this important sector, the former Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, established the mushroom task force at the end of 2003 to examine the issues facing the industry and to devise an action plan for its future viability. The task force submitted its report in May 2004. It contained 35 recommendations under seven broad headings and set out a timetable for their implementation. A review group comprised of all interested parties is currently monitoring the implementation of these recommendations and major progress is being achieved on all fronts. I believe that with the full implementation of the recommendations in the report, the future of the sector will be secured.

Horticulture makes a significant contribution to the rural and national economy, particularly in my area of north County Dublin. It is evident that this is recognised by the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the two Ministers of State in the level of support provided to the sector. I wish them well as they continue their efforts and I have pleasure in commending the amendment to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this debate. In light of the recent CAP reforms in Europe, the climate for the future of agriculture and the food industry in Ireland is radically altered. When Ireland entered the EU in 1973, agriculture was our single most important industry and employer. It represented approximately 50% of our net exports. The Minister said in her speech that it now represents approximately 7% of exports and approximately one fifth of net foreign earnings from traded goods. On a relative scale, this is a significant drop, which highlights the radical change in commodity production and agriculture in this country and, consequently, the need for us to take account of that and deal with it in a way that farming will sustain the rural environment and ensure quality food for consumers.

Agriculture is still an important part of our economy by comparison with other EU member countries. However, it is now clear that as a result of the CAP reforms, the emphasis has shifted to quality food production, safety of our food, environmental protection and animal welfare. In summary, the emphasis has moved away from production and quantity towards quality and the needs of consumers. It is now consumer-driven rather than production-driven.

Irish agriculture was almost entirely dependent on subsidies. It should be noted that despite the heavy subsidies for many years, these have failed to retain the numbers in agriculture or the decline in farm incomes. Farming and rural Ireland will be changed significantly in the next ten to 15 years. This is the prediction from all the economists who have examined the future of agriculture here. The climate for change is already being experienced. Enlargement of the EU and changes to the CAP have already occurred and the consequent effects on agriculture must be heeded. Heeding these changes means taking account of economic, social and environmental sustainability. It also means that consumers will be much more aware, better informed and more demanding.

Predictions for Irish agriculture for the coming decade include the rationalisation of the agriculture and food industries. The numbers of full-time farmers will decline and the likelihood is that farm size will increase. Quality food, value for money, safe food and animal welfare will dominate the landscape. However, I believe the gap that has not been bridged by the Government is ensuring that the farming community is facilitated to refocus their priorities and to deliver based on the changes we will encounter.

The various supports and technologies required to make Ireland a viable place in which to live must be provided and accessible. I do not believe this has happened in the way it should. It is disingenuous to separate rural development from agriculture and the environment while food policy and safety remain largely within the remit of the Department of Agriculture and Food. Rural development and rural Ireland are inescapable in terms of their relationship with agriculture.

There is a major challenge ahead for food policy. We are experiencing a culture where the food industry spends millions of euro on advertisements that extol the virtues of sweet and fatty foods, for example, when it is well known that excess consumption of such foods lead to coronary heart disease, cancers, obesity, diabetes and various other medical conditions. On the other hand, the money spent on health education and healthy eating is minimal by comparison. The obesity debate is now one of the hottest topics. It is dominating the tabloids and it is reported on in every newspaper. It is good that the debate is opened up. However, this is a big issue because we must take account of the money being spent, on the one hand, on the promotion of foods that contribute to obesity and, on the other, the relative amount of money being spent on health education and healthy eating.

The food economy has been totally restructured. The arrival of giant food stores serves wealthy shoppers very well. Deputy Glennon referred to the taking over of retail food by a very small number of the multiples. As our food is packaged at the supermarket checkout, the computer informs the manager what foods need to be reordered. This is technology at its best, but it is at its best for the retailer. The large supermarkets are now the powerbrokers of the food economy.

The choice of foods is what is desired and promoted by the advertisements. New products appear regularly and are marketed aggressively. Sun-dried tomatoes are the new status symbol. It is desirable to have the choice but the cost of that choice must be identified and challenged. This is what the Government should be addressing, ensuring that quality and healthy food, clearly labelled and unambiguous, is available to everyone.

The challenge is not just about what we eat, it is also about controlling the way food is produced. The Government must be proactive in ensuring that the way in which food is produced is environmentally acceptable and safe. The lessons of BSE should not be forgotten. In recent days we had a sharp reminder when TSE, the equivalent of BSE, was diagnosed and confirmed in a goat in France. The crossing of the species barrier has enormous implications. I hope it is a one-off event and that it will not evolve into significance in terms of its occurrence in the goat population. It is a reminder of the efficiency of biological agents in surviving in what are apparently quite hostile and unsuitable environments.

I want to refer in particular to the debate about GM foods. I would like clarification from the Minister on the stance of the Government in this regard. It appears there is a two-way bet on GM foods because the Government is neither for nor against them.

It needs to know before it can give an answer to that matter.

Why do we need GM foods? There are many supporters of the technology but they are predominantly multinational companies, some manufacturers who stand to benefit from it, agro-chemical companies, seed producers and some processors. Clearly consumers have no interest in having GM foods available to them. I do not believe there is a strong case to be made for the acceptance of GM foods in this country. The usual answer in response to questions on the merits of GM foods is that they offer enormous potential to produce sufficient food to feed the starving millions. There are many political solutions to that question if we are serious about addressing it. The multinationals are clear winners in the GM debate. Consumers are against the idea of GM food and they see no need for this particular technology. Why then is Europe so tolerant of allowing GM crops to be grown and the food to be placed on the market? I do not believe there is currently a significant health issue. It would be wrong to suggest that is a substantial concern. There may be concerns about allergic reactions but it appears that currently, they are no more than already encountered by consumption of a number of other foodstuffs.

Why is the process needed in the first place and who stands to gain? The biotech companies developed an application and then went in search of a place in which to use it. It would be more convincing and a more credible argument with regard to their concerns for the starving millions if they had first identified the problem and then set about finding a solution to it.

It is important to separate out the value of investment in the technology which allows the development and indeed the monitoring of GM foods and related products from the value of such foods in our kitchens. We cannot put our heads in the sand in terms of our approach to the fundamental technology which has prompted and promoted the development of GM foods. It is important that we keep up to speed in that area but the lessons of fast-forwarded scientific developments which we have been informed about in the past should not be ignored.

Researchers engaged in animal and crop production by conventional methods have made the point that by investing exclusively or predominantly in the genetic aspects of food production, the traditional methods will suffer because the traditional support will be removed, sidetracked or refocused. We have not yet reached a point where it is wise or useful to discard such valuable older technologies, the traditional methods of animal and crop production. We have successfully used these methods for thousand of years. They have been modified gradually over the years while GM has gone from development to application in less than 20 years. That is a very short timeframe within which to examine its long-term effects.

My key point about GM foods is that there is a opportunity for Ireland in terms of marketing our foods if we are brave enough to say that Ireland should be a GM-free zone. We have to qualify exactly what that term means but regarding our contribution to or investment in promotion of GM foods we should think carefully about the implications.

Regarding the labelling of food, the consumer has a right to know that the food he or she has been offered can be traced and that all the ingredients in it are safe and acceptable. That should apply to all the ingredients right down to animal feed. The traceability of all ingredients is something which all consumers should be able to access. This debate on labelling has been rehearsed many times in the past few years. I glanced at some of the parliamentary questions tabled by myself and other Members in this House. Perhaps I should not say this but I have a certain sympathy for the people who must answer these questions because we ask them very frequently. I think the reason is that to a great extent we have the single transferable answer. The answers remain largely the same. The debate has moved on to a certain extent but not to the point where it should have gone.

A number of questions on labelling remain unanswered. A few baby steps have been taken in providing useful information on beef labelling, and that is all. The report produced on labelling in 2002 was substantial and the Minister of State highlighted some of the issues addressed in it. A number are still outstanding and I would not like to think that they would gather dust. I am always concerned when I hear that legislation will be introduced as soon as possible. That longfingers the issue and we must ask what is really meant by that phrase.

One aspect of the report which I welcome, and which the Minister of State addressed, is that all food labelling issues are now co-ordinated within the Food Safety Authority. That is useful. Traditionally they were spread across a number of Departments and it was a minefield to attempt to trace which Department one should refer to with regard to labelling aspects of foodstuffs. Very often it takes a crisis of some kind for progress on these reports. The outbreak of avian flu in Asia prompted the then Minister to insist on country of origin labelling for all poultry, whether sold loose or prepacked. Deputy Naughten already referred to this. It was possible to introduce that legislation rapidly. Why must there always be a crisis and a knee-jerk reaction before the information is provided or the legislation brought forward?

I ask the Minister to now consider fast-forwarding the labelling requirements, particularly in the catering trade, one of the big issues still outstanding. The information should be available in the catering trade for all, so that the consumer has a real choice. Two weeks ago we had a wake-up call when a suspected case of foot and mouth was reported in Carlow. Thankfully that proved to be a false alarm but it raised awareness again about the traceability of our animal feed and imported foods.

What controls are in place on the imports of animal feed from third countries? What controls are activated at airports about the illegal imports of food into Ireland? For anybody who has travelled to New Zealand or Australia there is a stark contrast in the regulations and controls on bringing in food from another country. It is high time for a review of the controls, or lack of controls, in place at Dublin Airport for example. Has anybody ever been apprehended for bringing foodstuffs in at the airport? Has anybody ever been asked to declare whether they have been on a farm in Europe or in any other country and therefore at risk of bringing in some animal disease from that environment? If so I have yet to meet him or her. Whenever I have come through Dublin Airport nobody has ever positively or proactively advised me to declare that I have been on a farm in another country. On a number of occasions I volunteered because I feel that is the responsible thing to do but nobody has ever asked me to do it. When we have another scare or outbreak it will be all hands on deck again and trade will be disrupted, the disinfectants will be lashed out again, the fire brigade mindset will set in and so on. We must stop those kind of events from happening.

The debate on agriculture and labelling should not be predicated on the hysteria over one package of unlabelled rashers, or one goat with BSE, for example. It should be targeted and focused on the future of the farming community, the need for diversity in agricultural enterprises, the need for rationalisation and the need for investment in farming and food technology to allow Ireland to remain competitive in what will undoubtedly be a global market, as it is already. Deputy Glennon referred to that and the significant competition which the fruit growers of north Dublin are experiencing. This situation is here to stay. Underpinning all of that is the right of every consumer to have a guaranteed supply of affordable food. They must also have the right to know from where foods have emanated.

Rural Ireland will be influenced in the next years by a number of factors that have not been significant in Irish agriculture in recent years. The Common Agricultural Policy will continue to be reformed and the new EU states will continue to impact on Irish agriculture, both in terms of opportunities for exports and competition for market share for other commodities. It is inevitable that the WTO talks will result in more liberal world trade. More farmers will seek off-farm employment and EU directives will continue to impact on Irish farming. Farmers whose holdings are no longer able to sustain a viable income with the current types of production will need to adjust to different enterprises and look at alternative crops, products or enterprises.

Agriculture has shifted away from intensive production towards rural development, protection of the environment and the production of safe, quality foods. Consumer demands will have to be met. Ireland must be poised to take advantage of a relatively unpolluted environment, with opportunities for marketing "healthy foods". In order to stay competitive in this climate the research base that will provide the vision and drive must be provided. Traditionally, Ireland had a strong research base for agricultural production both in animal and crop products. The European and international climate have changed and demands are different. We must adapt the research requirements to take account of those changes.

This country needs a viable rural community and a sustainable farming population. That population will have a different emphasis. This Government must look at ways of developing off-farm enterprises, promoting agri-tourism and considering alternative new enterprises such as organic farming. It must consider exploiting and taking best advantage of our strengths and investing in the development of healthy convenience foods which are competitive on the world market.

The demand for convenience foods has never been so great. There is a glut of such foods on the market but if one looks at the labels — which are useful in this context — and can interpret them, one would not always think of them in the first instance as being healthy. There is a market niche for healthy convenience foods and an opportunity for them to be marketed abroad.

Farmers are key players in protecting rural Ireland. It is within their scope to ensure a clean, unpolluted rural environment but for the farming community to deliver on this goal, it must be supported in terms of information, technological support, innovation and research. It is up to the Minister and her Department now to ensure that rural Ireland and the urban dweller, including all consumers, can benefit from a quality way of life and safe food products. I was very pleased to hear my colleagues in Fine Gael placing such welcome emphasis on the requirements and rights of the consumer.

Debate adjourned.