I thank the committee members for the opportunity to present the views of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, on the questions posed by the EU Green Paper on agriculture. It is not possible in the time allocated to me to go through our document in full but it has been circulated to the committee members.
I will deal briefly with the substantive issues. I am indebted to my colleague Gillian Westbrook for the technical research. If the committee members have any technical questions I will pass them to her.
Consumers have highlighted concern about modern farming practices and methods of food production but they are often unaware of the efforts and changes made by farmers to elevate the quality of their produce. The introduction of the single farm payment, for instance, brought in onerous cross-compliance rules.
However, the consumer is often unaware of the efforts and changes made by farmers in order to elevate the quality of their produce. The introduction of the single farm payment, for instance, brought with it onerous cross-compliance rules and strengthened traceability controls. In addition, many farmers have volunteered to go that extra mile by deciding to produce food and to farm in ways which impose further restrictions, such as organic farming, GM-free farming, participation in environmental programmes, etc. Schemes such as REPS have responded to societal demands regarding the environmental impact of farming. This means farmers are now producing food that has a lot of value added at farm gate level and offers consumers a choice of quality standards that are unsurpassed anywhere else in the world.
EU agriculture is now multi-functional, providing top quality food which addressing many concerns such as environmental protection and biodiversity. The challenge now is to communicate this to the discerning consumer and to ensure that farmers get recognition which translates into better prices for their efforts. At present the consumer is unable to clearly identify these additional attributes. The Green Paper correctly outlines the need to ensure that additional quality aspects of EU food production are communicated effectively to the consumer. Moreover, it reflects the fact that telling the consumer about quality can be done in a way that the consumer can understand, can depend on and can trust. Consumers must be given information that allows them to make a fair comparison between various food choices and the farming practices involved. For this reason the ICSA recommends the development of a policy and legislative framework that builds on what has already been done. It would provide consumers with information on baseline farming standards while at the same time allowing for extension into additional standards, such as those found in REPS in organic farming, in GM-free methods of production.
We are proposing that the country of origin of all primary produce is clearly displayed on the label and consider this is especially important for products of animal origin. The current beef labelling legislation is flawed in that exemptions within the labelling requirements make it ineffective for both the consumer and the producer. Within our own national legislation, which requires country of origin labelling in catering establishments, beef burgers that contain less than 99% meat do not have to display the country of origin. An integral part of any new strategy must include country of origin labelling as a basic requirement for any primary product.
With regard to definitions of optional and general reserve terms, we suggest that it is necessary for the EU to define "reserve terms" describing farming methods, in particular those that are becoming more popular in current consumer trends, for example, grass fed beef or low carbon food, but with a degree of flexibility to take into consideration regional and climatic variations that would very much impact on Irish production. Some member states are already considering sponsoring a low carbon award scheme for the farming industry. This should be extended EU-wide if EU products are to remain competitive in their own marketplace.
With regard to the use of international standards, there are many contentious issues when comparing international with EU standards. For example, the US will not accept cheese made from unpasteurised milk and the Europeans will not accept hormones in beef. The EU should take into consideration the international standard but place the requirements of the European consumer first. That is, after all, under the umbrella of consumer protection.
Current EU schemes, coupled with an amended labelling legislation, could well form the basis for the way forward. However, it is clear that the implementation of the regulations must be intelligently focused and steered more towards the source rather than the user in the case of feed products. An example is the recent PCB dioxin scare where the feed recycler had not been inspected for the previous 12 months. Irish producers need to be encouraged to make more use of geographic indications. Currently, only four Irish producers are registered to do so. The low uptake on this may be due to the lengthy bureaucratic process that it takes to become registered. The scheme does, however, add value to produce.
In recent years, there has been a notable increase in farm certification schemes, mainly from privately owned certifiers. The ICSA recognises the benefit of certification schemes in assisting with the marketing of produce. The question of whether certification schemes actually enhance product quality will greatly depend on the scheme and the specific commodity. If the EU were to make a guideline, it should require certification schemes to demonstrate progressive developments that are beneficial to food safety and respond to consumer interests, for example, animal welfare. EU guidelines should discourage unquantifiable aspects that cause meaningless paperwork with no relation to scientific risk. Certifiers should be required to undertake analytical testing and not just an audit of documentation. Ultimately, our concern is that certification should result in better product reputation and, in turn, result in better farm gate prices.
In summary, the ICSA would like to see a retain environment where consumers are always able to choose European product where the quality and origin is clearly defined and easily understood. We see this as a system of regulated logos and labels whereby farmers are recognised for their efforts. Each product would indicate country of origin and demonstrate that it was produced to the EU baseline standard. For those producers who go to the next level, those producers who go that extra mile and participate in REPS or who are farming organically, or who can certify that their product is GM free or grass fed, should have their niche also clearly identified on the label.
While the eventual design of the label and the logo will, I have no doubt, come down to those marketing experts who are good at that job, key elements for a logo should be a readily recognisable national symbol such as the Irish map or the Irish flag, as well as the EU logo, and incorporating symbols which would indicate the specific attributes of the product. For example, an "O" in the middle of the logo would mean it was an organic product. It would be clear, therefore, that the logo would not be available to countries outside the EU.
In the long term, clear labelling will facilitate the marketing and sale of our product. It is high time that the consumer's right to simple unambiguous information is vindicated and EU farmers received a price that reflects the quality of their produce. A wise man once said that quality is like buying oats; if one wants nice clean oats, one must play a fair price but that if one is satisfied with oats that have already been through the horse, such oats can be had a little cheaper.