Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Meat Processing Plants

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the price beef farmers are receiving for their produce from factories; the number of times to date in 2018 that beef processing factories have been fined for breaching EU carcass trimming rules; the range of fines imposed; the maximum level that can be imposed; the number of factory inspections by officials in 2018 to check grading and trimming is in compliance with regulations; the names of factories fined to date in 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51344/18]

I ask the Minister to discuss the poor price that beef farmers are currently receiving for their produce from meat factories. I also ask him to detail the number of times to date in 2018 that beef processing factories have been fined for breaching EU carcass trimming rules, including the range of the fines and the maximum amount that can currently be imposed. I further ask him to provide data on the number of inspections carried out by departmental officials to check whether grading and trimming in the factories is in compliance with EU regulations. I ask the Minister to ensure that there is transparency in the inspection system and that those factories that have broken the rules are named.

The question of the price paid is a matter for producers and processors. Steers and heifers are purchased and paid for on the basis of the quality payment scheme pricing grid.

To date in 2018 there have been 521 inspections across 32 slaughter plants and 44,332 carcasses have been inspected. A total of 19 carcasses were found to be non-compliant with the EU reference carcass trimming specification which is 0.05% of the number inspected. Under legislation and SI 363/2010, non-compliance with the carcass trim specification attracts a maximum on the spot fine of €200 per carcass.

Regarding the maximum level that can be imposed, any person who commits an offence under the current regulations is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €5,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months or to both. Recourse to this approach would preclude the possibility of an on the spot fine and conviction would require proof of intention beyond a reasonable doubt.

Carcass classification and carcass presentation controls in slaughter plants are carried out by a dedicated team of specialist staff in the beef carcass classification section within my Department. Additional monitoring of carcass presentation by my Department’s veterinary public health inspection staff is currently being rolled out. This will provide further assurance to stakeholders that the appropriate dressing specification is being applied. These staff will provide a supporting role for the beef carcass classification staff. Upskilling of my Department’s veterinary public health inspection staff has occurred at regional seminars and local training of officers is being provided. Furthermore, information seminars were held for both industry and farm representative bodies regarding the enhanced controls.

As part of ongoing dialogue with the industry both within the beef forum and directly with Meat Industry Ireland, I have stressed the need for positive engagement between suppliers and processors and I understand that Meat Industry Ireland has accepted that no individual farmer should be at a loss from a mistake made in a factory in the application of carcass dressing procedures. I further understand that processors will introduce a payment to the farmer supplier to reflect any loss in each case where the Department has applied a trim fine on a particular carcass. Such payment will be identified on the payment remittance docket so that farmers will be aware of the penalty.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The EU regulation on beef trimming specifically states that no fat, muscle or other tissue may be removed from the carcass before weighing, classifying and marking, except in cases where veterinary requirements are applied. The fact that 21 fines have been applied in 2018 shows clearly that there have been breaches of the carcass trimming regulations. Unfortunately, the performance of the Department in overseeing the trimming process has been poor. The Department has also failed to ensure accountability and transparency by naming those factories that have breached the rules. It has further failed to ensure that farmers who were affected and who suffered financial losses were informed.

The Minister has been negligent in respect of his responsibility to ensure there is proper accountability in that regard. In fact, the factories have been shielded by him from having to account publicly for the fact that they have been breaching these rules. Will he give us an assurance today that the factories that have breached the trimming rules will be named and that he will not act as a ministerial shield, protecting them from being held accountable for this breach and leaving farmers short-changed as a result?

We must observe the clock. The Minister has one minute.

I thank the Deputy. One fine for one carcass excessively trimmed is one too many. It is important to remain focused on our objective, that is, to ensure we have full compliance by the factories with the regulations. In terms of the inspections carried out to date in 2018, 0.05% of 44,000 carcasses were found to have non-compliance. Every non-compliance is one too many and, to enhance the level of further inspections, in quarter 1 of 2019, we are rolling out additional sets of eyes, as it were, on the kill line to ensure that the specifications are complied with.

The ultimate accountability in this will be to ensure that individual farmers are made aware that the carcass of their animal was excessively trimmed. They will be notified by the Department in that context. They will be remunerated for any excess trim in the docket.

We are going to have to move on.

What they do with the information is up to them but they will know the identity of the individual plants responsible.

We will have to observe the time. There are other Deputies waiting.

I asked the Minister specifically to confirm if he will name the factories that have breached the trimming guidelines. He has avoided answering that question until now. I ask him to be specific and give an assurance today that he will ensure that those that breached the guidelines will be named by him and that he will not protect them from being held accountable for their failures in that regard.

This is yet another example of the way factories have been taking advantage of farmers. In recent weeks, prices have been under enormous pressure, for example, the prices for culled cows dropped from €3.70 a kilo to €2.70 a kilo, resulting in farmers taking a loss of €300 to €400 in some instances. Unfortunately, the Minister has failed to hold factories to account at a number of levels. We have seen how the beef forum, under his stewardship, has failed to hold them to account, and this is another example of that. Will the Minister give a clear assurance that he will publish the names of the factories, that every carcass will be inspected under a new regime in the new year, that the farmers will be compensated-----

The Minister to respond.

-----for the losses incurred so far, and that there will be transparency in the system for beef trimming in the future?

It is almost 10.45 a.m. and we have dealt with one question. I do not want to interject constantly but I ask all Members to observe the time.

I do not accept that either I or the much maligned beef forum has failed. In fairness to all the participants in the forum, the resolution to this issue has been progressed through that. The fact that we are having additional staff trained and put in situ to enhance the level of inspections and the supervision of the kill line to make sure that the existing very low level of non-compliance is further inspected so that every farmer gets a fair crack of the whip in terms of the supervision of their cattle and that there is no excessive trim has been delivered through engagement. I have had direct engagement with Meat Industry Ireland, MII, but also at the forum. That has been a signal achievement. It may have taken a little longer than we would have wished but we are in a situation where, from the start of 2019, we will have additional staff dealing with this issue. Approximately 1.8 million cattle are slaughtered and, of those, 21 excessive trims were detected in 2018 to date. That does not signal a huge failure-----

-----but every one is one too many. Our ultimate responsibility in terms of transparency is to make sure that every individual farmer knows-----

I call Deputy Martin Kenny.

-----and that they will be remunerated for any cost they have incurred-----

I am asking for some co-operation.

-----and that will happen.

I am sorry, Deputy Kenny. I am asking for co-operation in the House. It is now 10.45 a.m. I think Deputies and the Minister have taken advantage of my leniency. I ask them to observe the clock. They have a responsibility, as will other Deputies later.

Common Agricultural Policy

Martin Kenny

Question:

2. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the proposed good agricultural and environmental conditions for the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51346/18]

I ask the Minister about the good agricultural and environmental conditions that are proposed to come forward in the next Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, which I understand will replace what were considered to be the greening measures in the past, and if he will make a statement on the matter.

In June 2018, the European Commission published the legislative proposals for the CAP post 2020. The proposals recognise the role agriculture has to play in helping member states achieve their environmental and climate change targets. In this context, a significant feature of the proposals is the increased environmental ambition for the CAP post 2020. The new CAP reform proposals require member states to set out their approach on environmental issues in the new CAP strategic plans.

There a number of new approaches to addressing environmental issues through the CAP including: three of the nine key objectives set for the CAP post 2020 concern the environment; the ex ante assessment for the plan must incorporate a strategic environmental assessment; the proposals include greater environmental conditionality on EU payments with links to requirements such as the water framework directive and proposals for mandatory nutrition management plans; 40% of the overall CAP budget must contribute to climate mainstreaming; member states must make schemes available as part of the direct payments that provide additional supports for eco schemes which go beyond the increased statutory management requirements and good agricultural and environmental conditions; nationally, 30% of the rural development programme expenditure, excluding payments for areas of natural constraints, must be focused on biodiversity-environment-climate related measures; and non-compliance with statutory management requirements and standards for good agricultural and environmental conditions of land in the areas of climate and environmental health, public health, animal health, plant health and animal welfare will require an administrative penalty.

Detailed proposals for new good agricultural and environmental conditions and statutory management requirements were included as part of the draft regulations published by the Commission last June, and I have arranged that the detailed list to be forwarded directly to the Deputy. There are ten good agricultural and environmental conditions, GAECs, covering a range of issues, including permanent grassland, protection of wetland and peatland, and nutrient management plans. There are 16 proposed statutory management requirements. These concern compliance with a number of directives, including the water framework directive, the nitrates directive, and the directive on the conservation of wild birds.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I firmly support the principle that there must be a high level of environmental ambition in the CAP post 2020. I believe that protecting the environment and the sustainable development of agriculture go hand in hand. However, it is essential that the new environmental conditionality is implemented effectively, with common standards that are relevant and effective.

In addition, I believe that farmers play a vital role in the provision of public goods and need to be adequately recognised and recompensed for this role. It is important that the overall level of the budget acknowledges the public goods being delivered from farmers. This places a particular focus on environmental aspects of CAP.

The Minister's answer is quite vague in respect of many of these issues. Some of the aspects that concern many farmers are that the conditions that will be set out in these proposals will be ones they would normally have seen coming through the environmental programme such as GLAS, REPS or other schemes in the past. If they are to be taken up in Pillar 1, farmers are concerned about what will be in Pillar 2, which may be more extreme or onerous on them than what they have had until now.

I would like more information on the protection of wetlands, peatlands and so on. That would have a major impact, particularly on farmers with poorer quality, marginal and mountain-type land where they find it very difficult to make a living. If more hardships are to be placed on them in terms of those kinds of environmental protections, they need to see that they will get an adequate return for that, in other words, that they are paid for the public good they provide by the way they already farm. That is not too much to ask. If this is something that will be just a condition of Pillar 1, those conditions will be for everybody. Extra emphasis will be put on those farmers, and that needs to be paid for in terms of the public good they provide. They need to see that there is a clear avenue for that to happen.

Our objective is to make the new Common Agricultural Policy as user-friendly as possible but within the context of the clear direction of travel, which is to have a Common Agricultural Policy that is far greener in its hue and assists us in meeting many of the challenging obligations we face, especially in the area of climate change. It is true that much of the landscape management in which farmers are involved, particularly in the more marginal lands to which the Deputy referred, should be recognised for what it is. It is not intensive agricultural activity. The requirement for things like nutrient management plans is not as obvious as it is in areas of intensive agriculture.

Being able to devise a structure, an ultimate policy, across Pillars 1 and 2 that will recognise the public goods that are delivered by certain sections of the farming community which are not involved in intensive agriculture and that are delivering huge gains in terms of biodiversity, water quality, climate change and so on, is an objective we share. We are acutely conscious of the CAP context.

Being conscious of it is different from making sure there will be money to back it up, which is what we want. That is the clear ambition of farmers and what they deserve to have. The fear among them, particularly those working on more marginal land and land that is difficult to farm, is that all of these environmental measures will be left to them and that in other parts of the country where there is what we would call more productive land the tasks to deal with the environmental impact of climate change will be less onerous. We need balance. In much of the north west where we see a huge amount of forestry and a strong emphasis on biodiversity, greening and so on, farmers consider they are doing this to make up for what is happening in other areas where there is intensive farming. While that is not to say there is anything wrong with intensive farming, there is a need for a sense of balance. Farmers need to be provided with an assurance that they will be remunerated for the work they do in that type of farming.

I would like to be able to reassure the Deputy that the final outcome will meet the objectives to which he aspires. The onus and obligation will be greatest on those involved in intensive agricultural activity, where the challenge to the landscape, the emissions profile and so on is far greater than for those involved in a less intensive agricultural activity. That is logical. It is right and proper that the greater focus, in the context of sustainability and the CAP, be on those engaged in more intensive agricultural activity. The big challenge is the budget, as the Deputy noted, and it will not be resolved easily. As the Deputy is aware, the current proposals envisage a substantial reduction across Pillars 1 and 2 in the order of €45 million for each of them each year. That is something on which we are also focused.

Milk Supply

Jackie Cahill

Question:

3. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of the latest developments regarding SMP intervention at EU level; if he will provide data for sales; the plans the European Commission has for SMP intervention tendering in 2019; and the position of the Government in that regard. [51345/18]

I ask the Minister the status of the latest developments regarding skimmed milk powder intervention at EU level, if he will provide data for sales, the plans the European Commission has for skimmed milk powder intervention tendering in 2019 and the position of the Government in that regard.

As the Deputy is aware, in recent years the European Union has accumulated large amounts of public intervention stocks of skimmed milk powder which are overhanging the dairy market and having negative effects on wider dairy markets and market sentiment. In the 2015-17 period a total of 405,478 tonnes of skimmed milk powder were bought into public intervention. The sale of intervention skimmed milk powder stocks is undertaken through public tenders managed by the European Commission and voted on by member states through the Common Market Organisation, CMO, management committee for animal products.

After the most recent tender on 20 November, there are approximately 165,000 tonnes remaining in public intervention stocks, representing a significant reduction of approximately one half of total public intervention stocks since the start of 2018. The increase in the price of accepted bids in recent tenders is a welcome development and bodes well for future upcoming tenders. This underlines the effectiveness of the approach taken thus far. In July the Commission proposed to extend the arrangement to reduce the threshold for the buying in of skimmed milk powder at a fixed price from 109,000 tonnes to zero for the 2019 period. This was accepted by the Council on 15 October. It should be emphasised that the revised purchase model applies in 2019 only. As I have noted, as the new regulation does not prohibit the buying in of intervention stocks, buying in can continu, but on the basis of a tendering route.

It might be effective, but, unfortunately, it is farmers who have paid for it. I am very concerned that the Government has given another blank cheque to the European Commission to remove the floor price for skimmed milk powder in 2019. Only last April the Minister told me, "...my Department also engaged with the Commission on recent measures to limit further piling up of SMP in 2018 without due justification, including ensuring that the Commission's proposal to reduce the fixed price ceiling to zero be specified as for 2018 only, to avoid setting a precedent for the longer term." There has been a complete U-turn. Unfortunately, we are facing into 2019 with milk processors telling us that milk markets will be under pressure. It is unacceptable that the guarantees given to us last year have not been honoured, given that the Minister agreed to have no floor price for skimmed milk powder and said it was for one year only and would not happen again. We now see that we will be in a similar position in 2019 and this will affect the confidence of farmers. At the end of the day, this had an impact on milk prices in 2018 and, unfortunately, it will probably have a greater impact in 2019. It is not good enough that guarantees the Minister gave us last April have been reneged on.

I take the view that a substantial overhang of skimmed milk powder at the start of 2018, in excess of 370,000 tonnes, was a significant dampener of dairy markets. I do not think there is one industry representative to whom I have spoken who is critical of the manner in which the European Commission off-loaded the skimmed milk powder intervention stock, which has worked to the extent that it has practically been halved. That gives confidence to the dairy market. I accept the Deputy's point that the industry is talking about 2019 being challenging. However, it would be far more challenging if global dairy markets were to be as they are and we were to have not only the 370,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder intervention stocks we had this time last year but, in fact - if the Deputy had gotten his way - additiional intervention stocks added in the last 12 months. To its credit, what the Commission has managed to do is reduce the overhang. This has improved market sentiment, which has to be beneficial to dairy farmers.

The Minister talks about what the position would be if I had gotten my way. The floor price of skimmed milk powder was agreed to to protect dairy farmers' incomes. If I had my way, the floor price would be kept in place and I make no apology for saying this. It was agreed in the last round of CAP proposals that there would be a floor price in the purchase of 109,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder in each calendar year. The Minister gave us a commitment that it was being taken away for one year only. As he said, stocks have reduced greatly, but he has now given another commitment for 2019. How can farmers have any faith that what was agreed to will be kept in place? The taking away of the floor price of skimmed milk powder in 2018 had a dampening effect on skimmed milk powder prices. That is fact. The intervention product was sold significantly below the fixed price and the price processors received for skimmed milk powder all through 2018 was below the floor price. That was the direct result of the European Commission taking away the floor price. As the Minister admitted, we are facing into what will be a more difficult marketing year in 2019 and the Commission has already taken away one of the prime supports farmers need to stabilise markets. I am extremely disappointed that he has allowed this to happen for a second year. As he said, stocks have been greatly reduced. Whatever justification there was for doing it in 2018, it is not there for 2019.

Undoubtedly, if the Deputy sings the same tune repeatedly, on some occasions he will hit the right note. It is unfortunate that he does not recognise that what has been done in 2018 has worked. We have managed to dispose of stock without impacting adversely on the market. As what was introduced for a 12-month period worked, we have decided to extend it for a further 12-month period. It was originally introduced for a 12-month period, but it is being extended for a further period of 12 months. Intervention instruments are still available but not on the automatic basis on which they applied prior to 2018.

Brexit Issues

Michael Collins

Question:

4. Deputy Michael Collins asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if the joint British and EU position is that sea fisheries are to be dealt with separately from trade in accordance with the wording of Article 6, paragraph 1, of the withdrawal agreement (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51347/18]

In the light of Brexit negotiations, I seek clarity on a number of issues related to Irish fishermen's rights. Will the Minister confirm that the joint British and EU position is that sea fisheries are to be dealt with separately from trade in accordance with the wording of Article 6, paragraph 1, of the withdrawal agreement?

If I am correct, the wording of Article 6 of the withdrawal agreement ensures that fisheries are excluded from trade negotiations and unless an agreement is reached on or before July 2020 on the specific issues of fisheries, all the UK rights and entitlements within UK waters will revert to the UK in full.

The withdrawal agreement provides for a transition period during which there will be absolutely no change to existing fishing rights of access or quota shares. The transition period will last until the end of December 2020 but could be extended. During the transition period, there will be negotiations on an overall future relationship agreement and fisheries will be part of those negotiations. If those overall negotiations are not concluded in time then a decision will have to be made in July 2020 either to extend the transition period or apply the UK-wide customs provisions. In the latter scenario, in accordance with Article 6 of the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement, seafood products will be excluded if no agreement on access and shares has been reached in the interim. This means that UK exports of seafood products to the EU would be subject to tariffs in the absence of a new fisheries agreement.

Negotiations on a fisheries agreement will, as is set down in the political declaration, take place in the context of the overall future economic relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom. In other words, fisheries will not be dealt with in isolation.

It is my belief that the terms of the political declaration made on 22 November this year are not binding on either the UK or the EU. Specifically, I believe that the wording in section XII, Fishing Opportunities, makes it very clear that what is set out in paragraphs 73, 74, 75 and 76 is aspirational and is legally binding on neither party. This causes serious worries for all Irish fishermen who currently are almost strangers in their own waters. Given the importance of Brexit to every single sector in Irish society, our fishing industry has serious and legitimate concerns. In order to prepare for the many challenges Brexit could bring, each fisherman needs to know the up-to-date position.

Since 23 June 2016, and even before that, we have been working closely with the fishing industry and with other member states across Europe which are impacted by Brexit, in particular those who are fishing in UK waters and face the prospect of losing access and quota shares in certain circumstances under which the UK may depart the European Union. We have successfully built an alliance of like-minded member states which is mirrored by a similar alliance of industry in those member states. Through the Barnier task force, we have successfully prosecuted a view that is reflected in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. In other words, the political declaration carefully articulates the view that continued access and quota share are things to be dealt with in the context of the overall trade agreement. The UK has asks, which are myriad and relate to the passporting of financial services, aviation and other things, while we have specific asks in regard to fisheries. They will be interrelated in the future relationship and this view is shared by the industry.

Irish fishermen who fish in Irish waters are far outnumbered by foreign vessels. They have seen the opportunities for fishing diminish in recent years and the disappointment they feel is also felt by inshore fishermen, who are also struggling. It is incredibly frustrating that Irish fishermen cannot get bluefin quota when their fellow Europeans have received it. There is a strong feeling that Irish fishermen are the poor relations in Irish politics and that these Brexit negotiations are proof of this. They need continued access to quota going forward.

I am acutely conscious of the needs and asks of the industry and I have worked closely with its representatives. The industry has spoken on the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration and it acknowledges that they achieve all the objectives we have set in the context of the Brexit negotiations to date.