Vote 31 — Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Second Supplementary Estimate).
That a supplementary sum not exceeding €50,000,000 be granted to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of December 2008, for the salaries and expenses of the Office of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, including certain services administered by that Office, and of the Irish Land Commission and for the payment of certain grants, subsidies and sundry grants-in-aid and for the payment of certain grants under cash-limited schemes.
The Irish pig industry has faced many challenges in recent years but none more so than last week when its very survival was threatened. On Saturday, 6 December last, test results confirmed the presence of dioxins in Irish pork fat samples and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, initiated an immediate recall of Irish pork and bacon products produced since 1 September 2008.
Not alone was the recall decision the right decision; it was the only responsible decision that could have been taken. It has been widely commended, particularly overseas and by a number of the country's most important international customers. The decision was taken to reassure consumers that Irish pork and bacon products available on the market following the recall would be perfectly safe to consume. I am entirely satisfied that it has provided the necessary reassurance to consumers, as evidenced by the response of consumers to the reappearance of Irish pork products on the shop shelves last week.
That decision received the full backing of the European Food Safety Authority, EFSA, having been asked by the European Commission for urgent scientific and technical assistance and to provide scientific assistance on the risks for human health. The EFSA findings give considerable support for the decisions we took both in recalling products and in the actions taken to resume production.
TheFinancial Times, in an editorial on Tuesday of last week, stated of the Irish authorities’ actions that “the main lesson so far is a positive one: as soon as you can discover unacceptable contamination in food, act without delay to withdraw everything that might be affected — and tell the public exactly what you are doing”.
The importance of the Irish pig production and processing industry is clear when one considers that it is worth €1.1 billion per annum and employs approximately 6,500 people, with approximately 500 farm families involved in pig production. Since the positive tests results were confirmed and the product recall initiated, the FSAI and the Department have worked through the various phases — protection of public health, restoration of consumer confidence, securing the future of the industry, and maintenance of markets and national reputation.
The recall was in respect of Irish pork products from pigs slaughtered since 1 September last. That date was chosen on the basis of the evidence available to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on a precautionary basis.
Contrary to suggestions, both in the media and elsewhere, the Dutch authorities only contacted my Department and the FSAI after my Department issued a press release on Thursday, 4 December last, confirming an investigation into the source of a contaminant in animal feed and the restriction of a number of farms.
Having recalled the product and taken the necessary steps to both protect public health and restore consumer confidence, the Government's focus moved quickly to get processing resumed and get product back on the shelves.
The Government was particularly anxious that processing would recommence as soon as possible after the recall decision was made. We were conscious of the threat to the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of factory workers as well as hundreds of producers throughout the country. It was also important that our domestic and international customers saw Ireland as being back in business in pork production in the shortest possible time span and with the least possible disruption to trade, and I was acutely aware that many producers were ready to move animals for slaughter.
On Monday of last week, the Taoiseach and I, together with my officials, commenced detailed consultations with representatives of the Association of Pigmeat Processors with the recommencement of processing being the principal objective of the discussions. We all agreed at the outset that it was in everybody's interest that slaughtering recommenced quickly and that we get back into the market, restore consumer confidence and protect what is a vital element in the wider Irish agrifood sector.
These discussions, while lengthy and complex, were extremely constructive and led early on Thursday morning last to an agreement on the terms of a funding facility that provided sufficient reassurance to processors to enable them to commence processing later that day.
The agreement provided that processors would commence slaughtering immediately following the Department's agreement to emergency funding for a product recall scheme in respect of eligible pigmeat products. The scheme will apply to all primary and secondary processed pigmeat produced from animals slaughtered in Ireland from 1 September to 6 December 2008. Detailed terms and conditions of the scheme are being prepared and I expect to be in a position to make interim payments to those directly affected who can demonstrate verifiably the extent of their need during this early period in the process. The total facility I am making available for this scheme amounts to €180 million and my request to the House is for an advance of €50 million for this purpose, which represents the amount that I can reasonably expect to discharge before the year's end.
Having secured agreement with the processors to recommence processing, I met representatives of the producers last Thursday morning and my officials have been engaged with them since Friday on agreeing an appropriate solution which would allow restrictions to be lifted so that normal production can resume as quickly as possible. These discussions are ongoing because, while some progress has been made, a number of issues are still outstanding. However, I remain optimistic that a satisfactory outcome can be achieved quickly. My aim is to get these suppliers up and running again in terms of supplying pigs for slaughter and processing.
I am acutely conscious of the particular difficulties that have arisen for pig producers, many of whom have thousands of pigs ready for slaughter. My Department is also exploring the potential for finding suitable slaughtering facilities so that the animals may be directly removed from the food chain in a manner that is separate and distinct from the normal processing of animals.
Over the past ten days, Ireland's EU partners and the Commission have been unstinting in their support for our efforts and actions. Last week's meeting of the European Council unanimously expressed its support for Ireland's efforts to deal with the situation relating to pigmeat and our prompt precautionary actions. The Council asked the Commission to support farmers and slaughter houses in Ireland by way of co-financed measures to remove animals and products from the market. We are in the process of following up on these initiatives and an application for funding is being finalised. Last Thursday the Commission presented a proposal to member states on a private storage scheme for pigmeat exclusive to Ireland. This proposal received the unanimous support of member states and will allow the storage of some 30,000 tonnes of pigmeat products, with a potential value of €15 million, for a period of six months. This important support measure will give the industry an appropriate breathing space in view of the difficulties that may arise in the coming months. These measures demonstrate the solidarity and support that the European Union offers when one of its members, which on this occasion was Ireland, finds itself in difficulty.
In the course of my statement to the House last week, I outlined the inspection regime operated by my Department. The national residue monitoring programme together with the national feed inspection programme comprise the national food and feed control plan for Ireland. The national residue programme implements a risk-based sampling regime in which upwards of 30,000 samples are taken from across the food chain and tested for over 200 possible contaminants. The feed inspection programme involves approximately 2,400 inspections per annum throughout the feed chain. The annual inspection programme covers a range of areas, including feed importers, feed manufacturing mills, mineral mixture plants, recycling plants that manufacture feed using unused food of non-animal origin, feed retailers, wholesalers, hauliers and farms. The level of inspections carried out complies with and in many cases exceeds the requirements of EU legislation.
The premises from which the contaminated feed originated is registered with my Department as a feed business operator under the feed hygiene regulations which came into effect on 1 January 2006. The premises were inspected in September 2006 and November 2007 but on neither occasion was any problem detected. It was also scheduled for an unannounced inspection in December 2008. The EU regulation laying down the requirements for feed hygiene clearly states that the primary responsibility for feed safety rests with the feed business operator. That responsibility includes an obligation on the operator to identify as required under the legislation any hazard and critical control points and to ensure that all appropriate actions are taken to eliminate potential risks to the feed chain.
In regard to the specific investigation into the source of the contamination, my Department is being assisted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Garda. I also understand that Carlow County Council has visited the premises in the context of its responsibilities under the Waste Management Act 1996. The investigations focus on the type of fuel used in a burner which dried surplus food material for animal feed and the appropriateness of this type of oil. While the use of oil in the generation of feed drying facilities has not heretofore caused problems for the feed industry, this aspect is now being pursued with the industry and the relevant regulatory State agencies. In view of the apparent link to the type of fuel used in the drying process, I am asking the European Commission to consider whether the type of oil to be used by feed business operators can be more strictly regulated under EU Regulation 183.2005, which lays down the requirements for feed hygiene. I will also take the opportunity of tomorrow's meeting of the EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council to brief my colleagues on the events that led to the recall and the decisive response by the Irish authorities. I will also brief the Commissioners for Agriculture and Rural Development and Health.
When we have completed our investigations, we will review all activities associated with this incident. That review will inevitably include my Department's annual feed control programme. As the Taoiseach noted last week, lessons are sure to be learned from this review. My Department has always been prepared to consider and constantly review the adequacy of control measures in the area of animal health, whether in the context of foot and mouth disease, BSE, avian flu or blue tongue. The same is true on this occasion. It is imperative that we continually assess our control measures. We are proud of our country's reputation for food production and animal health and we work hard to maintain it. The House can be assured of my determination to ensure that the requisite measures will be introduced to maintain that reputation. While we are justifiably proud of Ireland's reputation as the food island, we have a responsibility to protect that reputation. I am conscious that events such as this have the potential to tarnish our reputation and damage important markets. Bord Bia and our embassies abroad are assessing the impact of recent events on those markets. Last Thursday I travelled to Paris, where I had the opportunity to reassure a number of Ireland's most valuable customers of the safety and quality of Irish meat. I am ready to assist Bord Bia in any way I can to bolster our important international markets.
The actions we took after the discovery of dioxins in pork and beef samples were well judged and measured. We acted swiftly to protect public health, provide consumer confidence and safeguard a vital industry. It is the experience worldwide of food producing and exporting counties that the crucial factor is not the actual occurrence of an event but how it is addressed. Our response was balanced, proportionate and fully supported by our EU colleagues. Having made these vital decisions we have since acted in a decisive manner to get processing back on track and to keep Irish pork and bacon products on retail shelves throughout the world. Our actions will reassure consumers and, with the assistance of a new Bord Bia labelling system, Irish pork and bacon products will again be as popular as they were before this problem emerged.
The provision of a facility of up to €180 million secures an important element of Ireland's agrifood sector, which is worth €1.1 billion per annum and which employs 6,500 people if related sectors are included. Approximately 500 farm families are involved in pig production. The industry comprises 11 major processors and up to 800 related enterprises. Approximately 50,000 pigs are slaughtered per week, or 2.6 million pigs annually, and 65% of the 200,000 tonnes produced per annum is exported. Pigmeat exports were worth €367 million in 2007 or over €1 million per day. It is estimated that the cost to the Exchequer from the loss of these 6,500 jobs in the industry in terms of social welfare payments and tax foregone would be €140 million in one year. That is to say nothing of the potential costs of statutory redundancy and the profound impact on both urban and rural communities throughout the country.
This assessment relates only to the impact of the loss of the processing jobs which would essentially mean the end of the pig production sector and the enormous impact on the 500 producers, many of whose enterprises would be lost, and the very severe impact that would have in rural communities up and down the country. The funding I am seeking today — €50 million — is part and parcel of this recovery. It is essential for my Department in meeting the commitments we have entered into with the industry and I commend it to the House.
I thank the Members with us, including party spokespersons Deputies Creed and Doyle from Fine Gael, Deputy Sherlock from Labour and Deputy Johnny Brady as chairman of the Oireachtas committee. I thank other colleagues from all sides of the House for their constructive contributions since difficulties arose last Saturday week.