Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

EU Regulations

Matt Carthy

Question:

23. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to outline the process carried out to grant approval for a product (details supplied); if the product was physically tested; and the cause for delay in recalling the product. [33509/20]

I wish the Minister good morning. I hope no one planning to tune in tonight is accidentally watching the US presidential results instead. I thank the Minister for being here so late.

My first question relates to the ViroPro product. Was the product physically tested by the Department in advance of it being approved? What was the cause of delay in recalling the product? Will the Minister refer to the subsequent issue pertaining to 50 other products being recalled from our schools?

It is certainly good to see so many in the Chamber this late in the evening. I have no doubt that by the time we finish these questions, we will know a little more about what is in store across the Atlantic than we do now.

Biocidal products, including hand sanitisers, may only be marketed and used in Ireland once they have been registered with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and entered on the biocidal product register in accordance with Regulation 20 of SI 427 of 2013.

The hand sanitiser ViraPro was approved by our biocides unit and registered on 21 April 2020. Administrative checks applied at registration included the provision of a safety data sheet for the ViraPro product from the supplier which was submitted with the application for registration. As this is an administrative process, no samples were required as part of the approval process. The product was approved on the basis that it contained 70% ethanol, which is a common standard for hand sanitiser products and fully complies with World Health Organization guidelines.

Following international notification of potential concerns regarding a consignment imported into Ireland, my Department took immediate steps to quarantine, investigate and test this consignment. Following investigations, laboratory results received on 16 October showed that the products did not meet the standards for approval, particularly with regard to the presence of methanol. The consignment being investigated remained under quarantine throughout this process. The company was immediately instructed to retain all product in its possession and recall all remaining product under the ViraPro name from the market or in use by the public. On 20 October, ViraPro hand sanitiser was removed from the Department's biocides register.

The primary responsibility for the withdrawal of products rests with the company concerned. On Thursday, 22 October, it became evident on the basis of communication from the company that the recall of products had not yet commenced. At that point, my Department took the additional step of issuing a statement outlining the possible risks posed by ViraPro and advising members of the public not to use it. I was informed of the situation by my Department for the first time on the evening of 22 October.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

We are taking this matter seriously and will continue to follow up and investigate as appropriate. My Department is continuing to increase its testing of product on the market to provide reassurance in respect of compliance with approved product specifications. Test results available so far indicate no safety issues with other sanitiser products sampled. I have asked my Department to review this matter to ensure that lessons are learned regarding communication of the incident.

The question I asked was whether the product had been tested before it was approved by the Department. That is a crucial issue. We know, for example, that the HSE purchased 3 million units of this product, some 1 million of which were being sent to healthcare centres, including nursing homes and perhaps even hospitals. That is above and beyond the issue pertaining to schools.

What is the process for these types of products? Is it that the Department simply receives written documentation from these companies and then approves the products? Are spot samples taken? Is it a case of companies being taken at their word? More important, what recourse is there with regard to State expenditure? Is there provision within the Department to recoup the cost, which was substantial? I understand it runs to tens of millions of euro across all Departments.

It is late at night. I am keeping everyone to time.

As I outlined, it is a paper-based application process for a licence from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Once that is approved by the Department and the composition of any sanitiser is made clear in respect of the licences provided, the legal responsibility is then on the company to ensure it actually meets the requirements of the licence which was provided.

There is therefore an ongoing legal obligation on the company to ensure that its product is fit for purpose and does what it was licensed to do. My Department is conducting ongoing tests on products that are on the market. I have ensured that a number of those have been increased to ensure there is confidence in the products that are on the market. However, that cannot at any point take away from the fact that the legal obligation is on the company providing these products, and it must provide them in compliance at all times with the licence. If one were to sample a product at the point of licensing, there would be no guarantee that the product being sampled would be the same as any product subsequently produced. The legal onus is on the company at all times to ensure that what it produces does what it is licensed to do.

I welcome that clarification on the legal obligation. The question remains: is there then recourse for the State to recoup the money that was spent on a product that was subsequently found to be deficient? The Minister told the Dáil he was informed of this issue on, I think, Thursday, 22 October. We know that the recall happened on 20 October, the previous Tuesday. We know that previously, on 16 October, the Department had recognised that this product was harmful. On 8 October, I think, there were signals that all was not right with the product. Back in September the first indication from Revenue, via OLAF, was made to the Department that the product may not have been what it had been set out to be. Does the fact that the Minister was informed only on 22 October cause him concern? Who is in charge of these issues? Will the Minister take this issue by the scruff of the neck, as is warranted at this stage?

I assure Deputy Carthy that I am certainly the one who is responsible and in charge here. I am very clearly of the view that I should have been informed on 16 October, or whenever the recall notice was issued to the company. Recalls are not unusual. They tend to be operational in nature so they would not always be escalated within the Department. This one should have been, given the nature of what was involved, and I have initiated a review of the handling of this incident. The initial recall to the company was on 16 October. It became clear, from communication with my Department, that by Thursday, 22 October, that recall had not proceeded. At that point I was informed and then the public notification went out and a public recall initiated. There are, however, undoubtedly lessons to be learned here, and I am determined they will be learned in the future.

Livestock Issues

Matt Carthy

Question:

24. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps he is taking to ensure that marts can operate functionally during Covid-19 restrictions in view of the fact that these are the only aspect of essential food production severely curtailed under level 5 restrictions. [33510/20]

The only aspect of food production that has been severely curtailed during the level 5 restrictions is the operation of marts. I have never seen an issue cause so much antagonism, anxiety and frustration among the farming community and the marts. The current system is not working. I am sure the Minister has heard the stories from several marts around the State. This needs to be addressed. Will the Minister intervene and urge easing of the restrictions to allow some physical activity to take place in our marts?

As the Deputy will be aware, on 19 October the Taoiseach announced that the whole country would move to level 5 of the framework for living with Covid-19 for a period of six weeks, starting at midnight on Wednesday, 21 October. This decision was made on foot of strong evidence presented to the Government of a potentially grave situation arising in the weeks ahead. For marts this meant a return to similar conditions under which they operated in the first phase of the pandemic.

The Taoiseach has called on us all to work together to suppress the virus and to reopen as much of our society and economy as possible when it is safe to do so. The core responsibility of the Government is to protect lives and public health while also protecting livelihoods and supporting the wider economy and society.

Protecting the agri-food sector and people in rural communities was at the centre of my Department's direction on 20 October that buyers could not physically congregate in sales rings and that all marts conduct sales by brokering transactions or using online platforms only. Marts have been using online platforms since April. Although marts are operating sales online, buyers may view livestock for sale at the mart premises and individual appointment times are allocated to individual buyers to view or collect livestock. From a position where few marts had online systems in place in April, there has been a rapid take-up of the new systems by marts over recent months. The vast majority of marts currently have online systems in place and are operating through online platforms. Some remaining marts are in the process of installing such platforms. Thousands of cattle and sheep have been bought and sold successfully online recently. As with any new technology, however, there have been some glitches, which have been dealt with. Marts have been operating smoothly in recent times.

This is undoubtedly a challenging time. My Department is closely monitoring the situation and we are seeing some positive aspects of online sales at marts, despite some reports that marts and potential buyers have not been able to access the online platforms due to connectivity issues, in particular last Saturday week.

It is not good enough. Deputy McConalogue is the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. He needs to stand up for our farming communities. Let us take some things as given. Marts are doing everything in their power to ensure that the online facilities are up to standard. They are the people telling us they are not working effectively. The people calling me - they must be calling the Minister as well - are farmers from right across the country who are telling me stories of how their animals have to be taken home and how they have taken a financial hit as a result. This is not about whether or not restrictions need to be put in place. We accept, of course, that they do. This is about what constitutes essential activity. The only aspect of food production that is not considered an essential activity is the one area within the market chain over which farmers have any semblance of control. They are begging the Minister to intervene, to stand up for them and to call for marts to be able to operate on a restricted basis that would allow some buyers who cannot currently access the market to do so.

I have been monitoring the situation very closely and talking to farmers and mart operators up and down the country. As I have outlined, there was a difficulty with one online platform provider last Saturday week which led to four marts out of 30 not being able to complete their sales. However, overall there has been a lot of success with the sales operating online. Very important from my point of view is the fact that prices have been holding up and have indeed improved across many livestock categories. That is the number one priority for farmers. Certainly for those selling this has worked reasonably well and is continuing to improve. For those buying it has posed more difficulties. Farmers and purchasers like to see the animals physically as opposed to just online or before the sale. We are, however, in level 5 and, unfortunately, not in a position to operate level 3 restrictions in level 5. The bottom line is that I am monitoring this very closely and prices are holding up, and for farmers that is the most important thing.

There is a touch of naivety in the Minister's response. In my county, County Monaghan, for example, 48% of households do not have access to adequate broadband. That is the Government's own figure. I would imagine, and I think everyone would accept, that if we were to take the farming community alone, that figure would be much higher. Where does the Minister think these farmers are buying, even when they go online? They are meeting in car parks and in cars. Many people are congregating in a small space with one young lad operating the phone because in some cases we are talking about elderly farmers. That is not doing anything for physical distancing or protecting us from Covid. The farmers who have to do this would be much better off if they were standing physically distanced around a mart ring for a restricted period. I am not just making up these things; these are the calls I have taken today and over the weekend from buyers and sellers who have pleaded with me to make the case in as strong as possible terms to the Minister to stand up for them. I am making that case once again as sincerely as I can. I urge the Minister to intervene on this issue.

I thank the Deputy. I have had many discussions with many farmers who would prefer to be operating level 3 restrictions and I have no doubt the Deputy's message is the same as mine, which is there is a personal responsibility on everyone to act responsibly for their own health, and for the health of their neighbours and friends, by following social distancing and the public health guidelines in all situations, including outside marts. The personal responsibility is on everyone in this regard. The bottom line is that I have been monitoring this very closely on a daily basis and, on particularly important days, on an hourly basis. Prices have held up strongly and have increased in many instances. Things have operated pretty smoothly since the one Saturday when the livestock platform went down. Volumes are increasing as farmers become more adapted to it, I will bet not without some hardship and inconvenience, but we are at level 5. The prices are holding up, which is the number one priority for farmers.

Veterinary Medicines

Carol Nolan

Question:

25. Deputy Carol Nolan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the status of the measures he is taking to prevent the direct loss of up to 3,000 jobs in the agricultural merchants sector following EU plans to introduce new regulations in January 2022 that will prohibit agricultural merchants from prescribing certain medications and animal products; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33310/20]

I thank the Minister for being here so late to take these questions. Will the Minister provide an update on the measures he is taking to prevent the direct loss of up to 3,000 jobs in the agricultural merchant sector following EU plans to introduce new regulations in January 2022 that will prohibit agricultural merchants from prescribing certain medications and animal products. Will the Minister indicate whether the Government will seek a derogation to bring a resolution to this matter?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter, which she has raised previously. It is an important issue for many licensed merchants throughout the country. I know it is a cause of concern. I will outline the situation. Regulation (EU) 2019/6 on veterinary medicinal products is due to come into effect in January 2022. This regulation is binding in full and has direct effect on all member states. Two issues have arisen, which are the new requirement under EU law for a veterinary prescription to be issued before antiparasitic products can be dispensed and the question as to whether Ireland can avail of a derogation in the regulation that permits professionals other than veterinarians to issue veterinary prescriptions

On the first issue, in 2004 European legislation established a requirement that all veterinary medicinal products intended for use in food-producing animals should be subject to a veterinary prescription. However, a 2006 EU directive allowed for the maintenance of non-prescription status for certain veterinary medicinal products that did not present a risk to human or animal health or to the environment. Ireland availed of the exemption in Directive 2006/130/EC at the time and antiparasitics were allowed to continue to be available without prescription.

A similar exemption is available under the new Regulation (EU) 2019/6. However, since that time, our knowledge regarding the impact of extensive use of antiparasitics has changed. Scientific evidence is now available showing that antiparasitic veterinary medicines intended for use in food-producing species do not comply with the criteria for derogation from veterinary prescription specified in Regulation (EU) 2019/6. Therefore, antiparasitic veterinary medicines must require a veterinary prescription before they can be dispensed from January 2022. We do not have national discretion on this particular issue.

On the second issue, there is a separate derogation in the regulation, which allows professionals other than veterinarians to issue veterinary prescriptions in limited circumstances, but only if this was provided for in a member state's national legislation prior to Regulation 2019/6 coming into force in January 2019.

I am aware of the difficulties and I have established a stakeholder group to try to deal with the issues and I am very much committed to working with all stakeholders to consider how best we can address the issue and find a way forward.

I would like to see the scientific evidence because I am not sure where it is coming from. Agricultural merchants are highly trained and skilled professionals who have been dispensing drugs since 2006. They also provide much-needed employment in rural towns where there is little or no employment. In my constituency we have Midland Veterinary in Tullamore, Portarlington and Edenderry and John Grennan and Sons in Kilcormac and Rath. They provide huge employment where there are few or no opportunities for people to gain employment.

When I raised the matter with the Taoiseach in September he accepted there was still work to be done on the directive. He also said he would discuss the matter with the Minister and look to see whether the application for the additional derogation clause could proceed. This derogation must be sought to protect much-needed jobs and to avoid putting financial burdens and inconvenience on farmers who are already under great strain. Perhaps the Minister might provide an update on the work of the stakeholder forum, which has been established and to which the Minister referred. Has a compromise and resolution of the issue been achieved? I have been inundated with calls from the Twenty-six Counties and there is no way forward other than the derogation.

I thank the Deputy. The scientific testing on the antiparasitics will be done at national level and will be verifiable and done in accordance with prescribed specifications. I have met many licensed merchants for whom this is a significant part of their business. Many of them have trained and responsible persons on their premises who oversee the sale of these products. I know how important it is for them to be able to continue to maintain the business line they have. I also know the importance farmers attach to being able to continue to purchase from licensed merchants. This is why I have established the stakeholder group to try to assess the challenges and concerns that merchants undoubtedly have about this and to see what the way forward might be. It has not finalised its work and will continue to do so. I will work with it to see what mechanisms might be possible to assuage concerns.

I thank the Minister for his response. The fact that change is suggested is neither fair nor evidence based. To suggest agricultural merchants represent a threat to the health of livestock, which is the assumption, is not fact based. It is a worry. The sector is a vital cog in the rural economy, as I have pointed out. I hope the Minister will take on board the following point. Given the reluctance of many Irish vets to fulfil their current statutory obligation under Regulation 43(3) of the 2007 animal remedies regulations to issue vet prescriptions to animal owners, the implementation of Regulation (EU) 2019/6 into Irish law will potentially create a monopoly on the supply of vet medicines. Could we separate the prescribing and dispensing of veterinary medicines as we do with human medicines? This is done in Scandinavian countries, such as Denmark and Sweden, and it has positive outcomes. I would be grateful if the Minister will respond to this particular question.

I will be guided by the work of the stakeholder forum in examining what options are available to try to ensure the business of licensed merchants is not affected while at the same time ensuring we are compliant with the EU regulations to which we are legally bound to adhere. My understanding is that at present Ireland, apart from the UK, is the only EU country that does not have veterinary prescriptions for antiparasitics. The particular regulation will apply from January 2022. It is about working with licensed merchants to see how we can try to deal with the concerns they have and ensure their business is not affected while, at the same time, remaining legally compliant with our obligations under EU regulations.

Beef Industry

Matt Carthy

Question:

26. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the four movement and 30 month rules imposed by meat factories; and the steps he is taking to ensure that such rules do not negatively impact on competition and farmers' ability to receive a fair price for their produce. [33511/20]

A number of rules are imposed by factories on farmers. Many of them date back to the period of the BSE crisis. The most renowned of them are the 30 month and four movement rules. They cause huge consternation for the farming community. They are seen as a way the factories manipulate prices and the market. Does the Minister have a view on these rules? Will he engage to ensure such rules are not used to distort the market?

I thank the Deputy and I know this is something that received much attention during the beef protests last year and has also received much attention since then with regard to the beef task force. The Deputy knows there is not a rule as such limiting the age of cattle or the number of movements for beef production, but meat processors do make in-spec bonus payments in respect of cattle that meet certain market specifications which can be required by retail customers.

The 30 month age and four movement specifications to which the Deputy refers fall into this category. Such specifications are a commercial matter and are not conditions imposed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It should be noted that certain third countries have imposed a 30 month age limit in respect of beef imports and that this is specified in certain veterinary health certificates which accompany beef exports to those countries.

In September 2019, consensus was reached between stakeholders on the Irish beef sector agreement. Two elements of the agreement relate to the specifications we are referring to, the first being the introduction of a new bonus of 8 cent per kilogramme for steers and heifers aged between 30 and 36 months that meet all non-age-related existing in-spec criteria and that up to now had not been the subject of any bonus. The second element is an independent review of market and customer requirements, specifically in respect of the four in-spec bonus criteria currently in operation in the beef sector here. The Deputy will be very much aware that the details of this agreement are publicly available on my Department’s website.

Grant Thornton was successful in tendering for the transparency studies, including the review of market and customer requirements, specifically in the context of the in-spec bonus criteria currently in operation in the beef sector. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused some initial delays to progress on these studies. The consultants were unable to have the necessary engagement with retail customers, both domestically and in key export markets for Irish beef, as retailers were understandably preoccupied with ensuring the continuation of their supply chains. However, this work is back on track and substantial updates on it are planned for the next meeting of the task force.

The Minister is saying that these are just private matters that the factories have control over and then, on the other hand, that the beef task force will look at it. The two positions do not relate. I am disappointed even with the terminology the Minister is using. He is basically reciting the factories' propaganda. They call it a bonus criterion. Every farmer I know calls it a penalty because it is one. It is not a bonus that people who meet the criteria get, it is a penalty those who do not must pay in the form of receiving a reduced price. Today, the Minister will see that the Teagasc annual farm survey has indicated that 40% of our beef farmers are still essentially non-viable. They would not be able to survive and stay on their farms were it not for the fact that they have other employment. The age profile of the people concerned is increasing. All of these things mean that urgent action must be taken so it is just not good enough to say this is a matter for the industry. If the farmers were doing something which was disrupting the work of the factories, the Department would intervene. The factories are bleeding farmers dry and using some of these rules to do so. There is a need for intervention.

I am very much aware of the income pressure many farmers are under. That is why in the recent budget I secured an 11% increase in funding above last year's amount to ensure that some key schemes will continue next year during the transition period running into the next CAP programme. That is something which is massively important for our farming community. Also, in the context of trying to ensure transparency in the beef sector, the Deputy will know that I have brought forward into the programme for Government a policy on implementing an office of national food ombudsman to help bring transparency to the food sector. I very much welcome the Deputy's belated conversion to the merits of that office and seeing how it can be particularly valuable.

I very much value the work of the beef task force and it is a very appropriate forum in which to examine these issues. In particular, the Grant Thornton report looking at the specifications and at the requirements of retailers and how that interfaces with processors and primary producers is really important. I look forward to receiving it and ensuring that it actually informs how we and the sector move forward.

In case the Minister is in any doubt, I wish to state clearly that we will work with whatever is put in place. The food ombudsman is something to which he has committed. I hope he does it quickly and I really do hope it works. I still have my doubts. A food ombudsman can only implement Government policy and if that policy is to turn a blind eye to these type of practices by the factories then the food ombudsman can do nothing about it. These practices go back to 2009, a very different time. Many players in the retail and food sectors say they do not make any sense. Nobody goes into a restaurant, requests its best sirloin beef and asks the restaurant to ensure that the beef is 29 months old. Nobody goes into a supermarket and looks at the packaging to see how many movements the cow that produced the beef made. These are just mechanisms put in place to distort the market. I ask again, will the Minister monitor these and analyse the impact they are having on the prices farmers are receiving? If that analysis confirms what I believe, namely, that they are actually having a downward pressure on those prices, will the Minister then look at all mechanisms to ensure we can find a means to undo the damage?

I am glad to hear that the Deputy will work with me on the policies I will be seeking to implement in respect of this matter because I have not seen any policies from Sinn Féin that would address it at all. I expect to see the report Grant Thornton is preparing on the relationship and the requirements of retailers and how that interfaces with processors and primary producers very soon. It will be really important to informing the work of the beef task force. Very importantly, I see a very strong role for that task force as the voice for farmers and the representative farmers on how we go forward from that point. As I pointed out earlier, the commitment to introduce a food ombudsman to bring additional transparency is something I am very committed to because it is very crucial for me that farmers get a fair price, are profitable and are rewarded for the very hard work they carry out.