Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

Matt Carthy

Question:

106. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the roles undertaken by his departmental officials in meat plants during the Covid-19 period. [24008/20]

Earlier, I was tweeting that, bizarrely, we had not yet an opportunity to put questions to a senior Minister. Therefore, I very much welcome the fact that the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is here and I take this opportunity to publicly congratulate the him on his recent appointment.

My question is to ask the Minister for an outline of the roles that have been undertaken by his departmental officials in meat plants during the Covid-19 period.

I congratulate Deputy Carthy on his appointment as the Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture, food and the marine and wish him well in that role. I look forward to working with the Deputy. It is good to be able to be here to take questions.

In the context of the Deputy's question on the Department's role in meat plants during the Covid-19 period, the Government categorised farming and food production as essential services under the Covid-19 regulations. As the Deputy will be aware, Irish meat plants and other food plants have continued to operate to ensure continuity and security of food to consumers at home and abroad during this time.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's statutory responsibility in the context of meat plants is to ensure that the Department approved plants operate in compliance with the EU's food hygiene legislation, animal health and animal welfare standards.

Within my Department, approximately 250 veterinary and technical staff are routinely involved in supervising, regulating and controlling the food safety, animal health and animal welfare standards at 49 slaughter plants and a large number of meat processing plants throughout the country. Department staff resources are supplemented by a group of approximately 700 temporary veterinary inspectors, who are private veterinary practitioners contracted by the Department to deliver ante-mortem and post-mortem inspection of animals and poultry in meat plants.

This work carried out by my staff in meat plants in relation to food hygiene, animal health and animal welfare has continued during the Covid-19 period.

In addition to this work, the Department staff in meat plants have assisted and supported the HSE and the food business operators at local level as required in relation to dealing with any outbreaks that have occurred in meat plants and in assisting with the logistics of organising and implementing Covid-19 testing in meat plants which is ongoing at present.

The Department staff have also supported and assisted the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, by carrying out Covid-19-related inspections in food plants in accordance with a memorandum of understanding signed between the Department and the HSA. All Department approved meat plants have had at least one such inspection, and inspections are ongoing. To date, the findings and feedback from my staff in respect of these inspections have, in general, indicated good compliance levels.

I thank the Minister for that response. To put on the record, I continue to support the idea that the food processing sector should have special status in the context of the restrictions that are in place. Of course, that sector needed to operate throughout the Covid-19 period. With that allowance, through even the deepest lockdown period comes a responsibility. The Minister would know of and, I think, at different points, would have shared in my critiques of the lack of transparency and apparent lack of accountability that was occurring within that sector. In many respects, it has been left up to the Minister's officials to be the eyes and ears of the public to ensure that our food is up to standard.

I will ask the Minister one question at this stage in relation to temporary veterinary inspectors, TVIs. The Minister will be aware of this letter that TVIs over 70 years of age have been asked to sign which, essentially, waives any health protections to which they might be entitled. I wonder if the Minister could tell me how many TVIs have signed this letter since the Covid period began.

I do not have that figure to hand. This matter was not alluded to in the Deputy's question. However, I take this opportunity to recognise the tremendous work that those departmental staff and everyone else working in meat factories have done during difficult period. As we have seen in terms of the numbers infected, they have continued to work at great risk to themselves. The Government, working with all agencies, takes its responsibility seriously. As Minister, I certainly take seriously the responsibility of ensuring that every safety protocol is properly followed in order to ensure that best practice is in place.

In the context of inspections, there were 26 HSA inspections in August, 25 of which were unannounced. It is important that this process of inspection continues. Of course, we see the serial testing continuing as well, at the best capacity that is allowed depending on the resource levels required within the community at the same time. That testing continued this week, and will be continuing tomorrow also.

The Minister will recall that, on Wednesday morning last, he indicated on RTÉ radio he that serial testing was continuing but it then transpired that the HSE had made a decision the day before that it should cease. I wonder if the Minister could indicate when he was informed that serial testing had been suspended and outline exactly how many factories will see serial testing being rolled out this wee, particularly in light of the concerns that have been expressed and given that the Government acknowledges that this testing has had a role to play in tackling the Covid pandemic. As the Minister will be aware, there is a considerable amount of distrust within the communities about the information that comes directly from the meat factories and yet when it comes to the cases and instances of Covid-19, we depend entirely on the meat factories or media sources to get any information. The process has been slow. In fact, when Deputy McConalogue was on this side of the Chamber, he would have heard the then Ministers for Business, Enterprise and Innovation and Agriculture, Food and the Marine indicating that they could not even divulge the number of HSA tests being conducted because of confidentiality rules even though that information was released the following day. The Minister will understand why there is confusion and concern. I hope he will be the Minister to put an end to that.

As Minister, I take my responsibility very seriously, as the Department does, with regard to working with the HSE and with other agencies in terms of ensuring that the best practices are in place at meat factories and that serial testing takes place as quickly as possible. One of the first actions I took following my appointment as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine was to seek an immediate meeting with Meat Industry Ireland to ensure that co-ordination between the HSE, the Department and the meat industry was clear and that there was a clear timeline in relation to testing taking place. This is a matter of which I have kept abreast of every day since. I was interviewed on the Claire Byrne show on Wednesday morning last and gave the most up-to-date information I had at that point. The Department had been informed the night before by the HSE that testing had been temporarily postponed. I had not had a chance to be briefed that morning before the radio interview that the HSE had taken that decision. However, I have kept abreast of how that is progressing every day. I am doing everything possible within my Department to work with them to ensure that continues. The objective is to ensure, resources allowing, that serial testing will continue, that the first series will be finalised and that testing will continue to roll out on a fortnightly basis after that.

Question No. 107 replied to with Written Answers.

Beef Industry

Matt Carthy

Question:

108. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if a protected geographical indication, PGI, status application will be prioritised for naturally reared suckler beef. [24009/20]

I am fully committed to supporting and developing Ireland’s beef sector, which plays an important role in sustaining the rural economy and rural communities across Ireland. I am well aware of the particular importance of suckler farming in this regard. The beef sector has many strengths and one way of capitalising on these is through the means available under the EU geographical indications schemes, which highlight to consumers the value adding characteristics of a given product carrying a geographical indication logo.

The Deputy will be aware of the draft application by Bord Bia for a protected geographical indication, PGI, for Irish grass fed beef, which focuses on the reputation of high quality beef produced through Ireland’s grass-based production systems.  This application seeks to capture the benefit of the PGI status for Irish beef, which has earned a reputation as a high quality product, based on our grass-fed production systems. It has been drafted with a view to bringing the benefits of PGI status for the beef output of as many Irish farms as possible, while remaining consistent with the requirements of the EU PGI regulation. 

The product specification, as drafted, would ensure that the vast majority of Irish suckler beef production would qualify for the PGI status if the application is successful. Successful registration of the name would endorse and build on the already identifiable reputation and image of Irish beef in the marketplace and provide potential benefits to all producers meeting the specification, including the protection of Irish beef from imitation.

As part of the procedure for developing the application, a national opposition procedure was launched whereby groups or individuals could submit their suggestions and observations on the proposal over a period of four weeks.  This procedure concluded on Friday, 11 September and submissions will now be examined by my officials.  There will be further opportunity for discussion with stakeholders following this, including at the upcoming meeting of the beef task force.

It is important that there is a strong partnership to get agreement on suckler beef PGI status. The farming organisations have given their views and it is important that there be strong consultation with them. My firm intention is to do this, notably through the beef task force.

I met representatives of Bord Bia on Zoom today, with my colleague from the Northern Assembly, Mr. Declan McAleer, MLA. My primary question to Bord Bia, which was not very forthright in giving an answer, was why the scheme was being led by Bord Bia. It is very unusual that a promotion body as opposed to a producer body would lead an application for PGI status.

A second concern is that the potentially very broad nature of the scheme Bord Bia is pursuing could mean that some suckler farmers will not be eligible, whereas other types of beef, which are very good quality but do not have the same natural qualities and saleablity as suckler cattle, will be eligible.

I am very worried that farmers a few miles from me will not be able to participate in the scheme because it is partitionist. It is not an all-island scheme and the Minister, who is also from a Border county, is aware of the importance of promoting the all-Ireland nature of Irish agriculture.

The Deputy's point on the potential for an all-island scheme is one that I am very open to exploring. We had a very constructive engagement with the Northern Ireland agriculture minister, Mr. Edwin Poots, during the week. There is strong potential for looking at how we collaborate and an all-island brand. Our tremendous grass-fed product is well established as is the tremendous contribution made by suckler beef. Everyone's objective is to try to maximise the price we get for that quality product on international markets and achieve a premium for it. In conducting its research, Bord Bia's objective was to ensure that the PGI that is finally agreed, submitted and approved will be one that is attractive to the consumers to whom we wish to sell it and achieves a good price.

I was in Inishowen in the Minister's constituency, very close to the Minister's home place yesterday, although I did not call in for tea. I am sure the Minister has heard and understands the concern of farmers in his area, as well as in my home county, that rather than PGI status being a stream by which additional revenue and income will be delivered, which should be the priority for our farmers who are most at risk - our suckler farmers - it will become another excuse for the factories to pay less where the PGI standard is not met. The crux of this is that the scheme is so broad that it will result in the few farmers who do not meet the standard suffering a penalty as opposed to everyone securing an increase in price. Irish suckler beef is the best quality beef in the world but this has not been reflected in the prices that Irish suckler farmers have received. This scheme has the potential to resolve that problem but I am not sure it will.

The voice of farmers is one that I take very seriously and is central to my considerations. The engagement with the beef task force is coming up and I will ensure that there are bilateral talks in advance of it between departmental officials and farm organisations. It is essential that there is a proper examination of the potential for this proposed PGI scheme. The research conducted on consumer markets and what appeals to consumers will be central to how we go about this in order that we leverage the best price possible for the very high quality product we are producing.

As Minister, I look to bringing this forward. I will engage with farmers and take on board their views and the market research conducted by Bord Bia, which is always important in how we market Irish food abroad and will be important as we seek to get a premium. I give the House a clear assurance that I see tremendous value in trying to get people behind a PGI, which the sector and all stakeholders can support. It will ensure we can market strongly abroad and build on Ireland's already strong reputation.

Food Industry

Cathal Berry

Question:

109. Deputy Cathal Berry asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of the establishment of the proposed national food ombudsman; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24366/20]

I congratulate the Minister on his recent appointment. I thank him for coming to the House to answer questions. A national foods ombudsman is proposed in the programme for Government. Will the Minister update the House on the process? Will he give a timeline for establishing that office?

I thank Deputy Berry and congratulate him on his election. I have not had the opportunity to wish him well. I know he has a strong interest in agriculture.

 The programme for Government includes a commitment to:

Ensure fairness, equity, and transparency in the food chain by establishing a new authority called the National Food Ombudsman (NFO) to enforce the Unfair Trading Practices Directive. This new authority will enforce EU wide rules on prohibited unfair trading practices in the food supply chain and will have powers to enforce this Directive, penalising those who breach regulations. The NFO will have a specific role in analysing and reporting on price and market data in Ireland.

Directive (EU) No. 2019/633, the unfair trading practices directive, must be transposed into Irish law by 1 May 2021.  This can be done by way of a statutory instrument but any measures that extend beyond the minimum harmonisation requirements of the unfair trading practices directive will require primary legislation. For this reason, I propose to adopt a two-step approach to this commitment.  First, my officials are drafting a proposal for a statutory instrument to directly transpose the unfair trading practices directive as it stands. Second, the legal requirements for the establishment of a new office of a food ombudsman are also being considered, including the requirement for primary legislation to give that office additional powers going beyond those in the unfair trading practices directive.

It is reassuring to hear that an implementation plan is in place. From my perspective, I emphasise the need for the food ombudsman to be an independent office with the statutory powers to enforce the directive as outlined. We have seen in recent months that we have to protect primary producers and small suppliers so that large retailers and conglomerates do not abuse their dominant position in the market. From my perspective, the independence of that office is crucial. If there is anything I can do with the Minister's office, I will engage constructively to expedite that process as well as I can.

I thank Deputy Berry. I look forward to working with him and with his ideas about how we can make sure that the new food ombudsman is as effective as possible in achieving its objective. I will engage comprehensively with farmer representative organisations too because I know they have been advocating for this new office for a significant period. We will look at how we can make sure the office is independent and has the remit to ensure it can carry out the role of bringing transparency and confidence to the system. We want to rebuild that relationship and, in particular, the primacy of the primary producers to make sure they get the best crack of the whip possible to deliver an income and return for them and their work, which should be properly reflected in the price they get in the international markets where 90% of our produce goes, as well as domestically.

Beef Industry

Michael McNamara

Question:

110. Deputy Michael McNamara asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine if farmers will be provided with monthly stocking levels in order to calculate the stocking reductions required for the beef exceptional aid measure, BEAM, instead of the practice of providing annual figures from which farmers are unable to calculate the necessary reductions; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24343/20]

With regard to the previous question, I ask the Minister to take on the cartel that is the meat industry in Ireland, to which the Department is so beholden, if he wishes to do anything to help farmers. With regard to the beef exceptional aid measure farmers have to reduce their stocking densities. They are given a stocking density as an annual figure, which is confusing not just to farmers but to those who advise them. Will the Department break that down into a monthly stocking density to enable farmers to ascertain how much of a reduction they have to take out to qualify for the BEAM so that there is not a clawback?

The objective of the beef exceptional aid measure was to provide temporary exceptional adjustment aid to farmers in the beef sector in Ireland subject to the conditions set out in the European Commission implementing regulation.  This aid was granted to provide temporary market adjustment support in response to a specific market disturbance as outlined in Ireland's notification to the European Commission.  As part of the notification and approval process for the measure, the 5% reduction was part of the conditionality sought by the EU.

Approved BEAM participants have given a commitment to reduce the production of bovine livestock manure nitrogen on their farms by 5% for the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021, compared with the period from 1 July 2018 to 30 June 2019.  The most recent analysis of nitrates trends in participating herds indicates that two thirds of participants have already started to make adjustments to reduce their nitrates, with almost half the participants meeting that 5% reduction already.

Participants can access their most recent nitrates figures via the exceptional aid measure link when they log in to agfood.ie. Following recent discussions with stakeholders, provision is now being made to display the updated figure monthly, as Deputy McNamara suggests. This change will allow participating farmers to more accurately monitor the effect changes they have made on their farm have had on their nitrates figures.  The Department's staff have made arrangements for the relevant data to be generated and the changes to the online display to provide monthly updates is expected to be in place for the start of November. Participants who need advice on how to manage their reduction can contact the Department or consult an agricultural adviser to work out which changes will make most sense on their farm.

I thank the Minister for confirming that the online display will be updated monthly. It will be of great benefit to farmers. I will use the limited time available to me to address this idea of a protected geographical indication, PGI. It is all well and good but all of the schemes that Bord Bia has promoted have worked not to the benefit of producers but solely to the benefit of processors. They are all being used to hammer prices. This nationwide PGI, while a good idea in theory, will be just one more thing that farmers will be penalised by processors for not adhering to. Further, it will make it harder for individual farmers who wish to register a PGI, because there will be one PGI register for the whole country which will be in the control of processors rather than producers. The whole PGI mechanism, be it in Ireland, Italy or any other country in Europe, is about a product. It gives control to producers. I am not surprised that it is happening this way in Ireland because it is the way that the Department and Bord Bia work. They give power to processors rather than producers. I ask the Minister to bear that in mind when developing a PGI, so he does not just give more power to beef cartels.

I thank Deputy McNamara for his contribution. I assure him that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with me and the Ministers of State, Deputy Heydon and Senator Hackett, will work to get the best possible return for farmers and their work. We will work with State agencies and all in the sector to ensure that is the case. That is why we are taking the initiative with regard to the food ombudsman and why I think there is merit in developing a PGI. It is important that it is done in a co-ordinated way and properly marketed and driven. Effort and resources must be put into this PGI, once it is hopefully agreed in partnership, to ensure it is properly marketed abroad, connects to the consumer and delivers the greatest possible return. It will not be a silver bullet but hopefully it can be a significant help. We need to leverage it to make sure it delivers in the best way possible for the beef sector. I am not sure from the Deputy's response whether he thinks a PGI is a good idea, as such.

A PGI is not simply something that empowers-----

It has tremendous merit. It is important that we work with everybody, especially farmer representatives, to ensure it is something everybody can get behind.

The quality assurance scheme, in theory, is a good idea.

Deputy McNamara has another minute.

I did not realise that. I would not have interrupted so rudely if I had known I had another minute. I think PGIs are an excellent idea but they are about producer groups, not a nationwide development that will be held hostage by processors who completely control the Irish beef industry. I know there have been complaints to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, and the only people who were not investigated were in the beef industry. Farmers were investigated and farmers' groups were investigated, but the processors themselves, bizarrely, were not. I do not know what sort of hold beef processors have on this country but it is substantial and it covers officialdom. PGIs are an excellent idea, as is the quality assurance scheme but all the latter does is empower processors to pay farmers less. It is never about farmers being able to say that they produce a high quality product and should get more money for it, but about processors saying that the bullock, heifer or sheep is a day over a particular age or has too much or too little fat.

I assure the Deputy that the objective of this PGI is to try to improve the lot of farmers and to ensure that we market, develop and make the most of the tremendous product we have, and that we can help to sell that message to consumers through the PGI. We aim not only to increase the volume that we sell but also the value of what we sell. We should ensure that it is followed through on with marketing afterwards. The key objective of the national food ombudsman, which contributes to the point the Deputy has made, is to bring transparency to the food supply chain, and especially to ensure there is always an eye on what is available on the international markets. The international markets determine the price that is available and we sell into those markets. We need to ensure our farmers get a price domestically that reflects the markets that processors are selling into. The intention would be that, through the national food ombudsman, we can ensure there is transparency and a fair deal for farmers.