For the meat sector and the agri-food industry as a whole, I subscribe to the vision set out in the Agri-Vision 2015 Action Plan. That foresees an industry obtaining optimal levels of efficiency, competitiveness and responsiveness to the demands of the market while respecting and enhancing the physical environment. The Action Plan points out that the short-to-medium term goal of the meat sector, especially beef, is to ensure that high market penetration in the EU is consolidated and developed, while also recognising the importance of access to commercially attractive third country markets.
The challenges facing the meat sector are varied. They include increased competition for beef and sheepmeat on the EU market to the higher costs of feed for the pig and poultry sectors. I am committed to assisting the industry to address these issues and I have already taken a series of actions with that in mind. I am glad to summarise these on a sector-by-sector basis.
Firstly, I was delighted to recently announce the €250 million Suckler Cow Scheme. The suckler herd is the source of much of our high-quality beef and this measure is consistent with the aims outlined in the Agri-Vision 2015 Action Plan. I anticipate that over 60,000 herdowners will participate in this scheme. While the measure is primarily aimed at improved animal welfare, it will also contribute to the improved viability of suckler holdings.
Secondly, I announced in April a Capital Investment Aid Scheme for the beef and sheepmeat sector designed to support capital investment, which will increase added value at the processing level and improve efficiencies. This investment package will, I am confident, ensure the strategic and coherent development of the sector into the future and ultimately position our producers to avail of export opportunities. This also complements and underpins the existing quality assurance schemes and the advances in breed improvement programmes being developed by ICBF.
Thirdly, in order to publicise the response of the beef industry to an ever-evolving market, Bord Bia is intensifying its efforts to promote beef over the coming months. The aim is to build on the already well-established marketing and promotional activities being undertaken by Bord Bia and the industry. An extensive promotional campaign commenced in September involving 30 supermarkets across 13 European countries in 10,000 individual outlets. In addition Bord Bia is completing a new Irish beef marketing strategy. This follows consultation with industry as to how to best use the promotional resources available over the period 2008 to 2013.
I have also established a Market Access Group to focus efforts on the re-opening of markets for Irish beef and other meats. The recent re-opening of the Saudi Arabian and South African markets are welcome developments in this respect.
By far the main difficulty facing the pig sector is the very high cost of feed. The rise in feed prices can be attributed to a number of factors such as (i) heavy demand for cereals in Asia (ii) the increased demand for feed materials from the biofuel industry and (iii) unfavourable weather conditions which affected many of the major cereal growing countries.
The EU Council of Agriculture Ministers has, in response to the pressures on the international cereal and feed markets, agreed to suspend the obligation to set 10% of arable land aside. This will ensure that more arable land is available for cereal cultivation in 2008.
A scheme of financial assistance for the private storage of pigmeat has been in place since October 29. This was adopted by the European Commission in response to a request from me and some other Member States. I have also impressed on the Commission the desirability of export refunds for fresh and frozen pigmeat and this will be kept under consideration.
Pigmeat features prominently in Bord Bia's programme of promotion on the home and export markets. I have asked the Bord to intensify its Autumn pork and bacon promotion campaign in order to ensure that the market remains firm over the coming months. Additional funding is being made available for this. The Bord Bia quality assurance schemes are also a good tool in maintaining consumer confidence and, in this context; the pigmeat scheme is well established and managed.
On the export front, Irish pork has access to important markets worldwide and pork is included in overseas promotion drives and market access initiatives.
I am working with the Minister for Health and Children towards the introduction of legislation to provide better information to consumers on the origin of pigmeat and other meats.
Other initiatives aimed at sustaining the pig industry that I have introduced include the extension of the farm waste management scheme to the pig sector and my Department's programme of financial assistance for the transition to welfare-friendly sow housing.
Within the framework of the EU common agricultural policy, I will continue to ensure that pig producers' problems are highlighted with a view to suitable action.
The Irish poultry industry is an extremely important element within our domestic agri food sector. It is worth in excess of €150 million to producers and is an important contributor to economic and social development, particularly in certain areas. Overall, it is my policy that this industry should develop to its full potential and be in a position to meet the demands of today's consumers and withstand the very strong competition from abroad.
An Expert Group to advise on steps to ensure the future success of the industry will finalise its work shortly and I look forward to receiving its report. That report is likely to cover areas such as production, marketing and promotion, environmental protection and animal welfare.
I should also point out that Bord Bia, working in conjunction with the poultry industry and my Department, have in operation the very successful Chicken and Egg Quality Assurance Schemes which are viewed by consumers as a guarantee of quality and I am confident that the market position of our poultry will be enhanced as a result. It is important that consumer confidence is maintained and I believe that the Quality Assurance Schemes will be a valuable tool in this regard.
The Sheep Industry Development Strategy Group issued its report in June 2006. This is a comprehensive study of the sheep industry that sets out a Development Plan for the sector. I decided that the best way to implement these recommendations was to set up an Implementation Group comprised of representatives of all sectors in the industry, including the relevant state bodies. This Group reported to me in April this year. Most of the recommendations in the Strategy Report fall to be implemented by the industry itself and it is too early at this stage to assess their impact. The recommendations are supported by my Department through assistance for breeding and management, processing facilities, mechanical grading and quality assurance. Sheep farmers are major beneficiaries of various schemes being operated by the Department such as REPS.
I believe that all these measures, combined with our high levels of food safety standards, will contribute to underpinning the viability of the meat sector and best position it to maintain and improve its competitiveness on EU and international markets.