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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 May 1974

Vol. 78 No. 4

Food Standards Bill, 1974: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

My purpose in this Bill is to provide the statutory framework for a code of standards which will when fully developed guarantee the quality and wholesomeness of our whole range of human foods right up to the point where they reach the consumer. The Ministers for Industry and Commerce and Health are associated with me in this Bill since aspects of it fall within their competence.

The process of building a food standards code will take time, but we will not have to start off from scratch. We can of course draw up standards of our own where a special need is seen and where no suitable model exists. In the main however we will be concerned with the adoption and implementation of existing Codex Alimentarius standards and with the implementation of EEC directives in the food standardisation field.

The Codex Alimentarius is a commission sponsored jointly by two United Nations bodies—the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation. After some years of preparation it has now brought about 60 standards covering a wide range of foods to the point where it can recommend them to member governments for acceptance. Many more standards are in the course of preparation.

The business of drawing up a Codex Alimentarius standard is a long and painstaking process of drafting, consultation, discussion, redrafting and so on. Member governments can, and do, offer their views at several stages of the procedure. We have participated fully in this work from the beginning, and the officials involved have had the valuable assistance, in framing their comments, of our National Codex Committee, an expert advisory body which represents consumers and the various sectors of the food trade in addition to Government Departments and research bodies. This Bill has the full support of the National Codex Committee.

All the EEC countries are members of the Codex Alimentarius Commission and take an active part in its work. The Community is itself engaged on a programme of food standardisation but it cannot look on its own position in isolation, since the world-wide Codex standards directly concern the Community's trade with third countries. The Community therefore keeps as close as practicable to Codex standards and the member governments adopt a common approach to the acceptance of those standards. For example, the Council Directive of 11th December, 1973, concerning certain sugars intended for human consumption, prescribes standards which are close to the recommended Codex standards for sugar and will enable the members of the Community to accept and implement the Codex standards.

When a government accepts a Codex standard it undertakes that a product which complies with that standard may be freely distributed within the country and that a product which does not comply with the standard may not be distributed. When I say "freely distributed" I do not mean that the normal economic controls do not apply—I mean simply that governments cannot use their domestic quality standards as an excuse to keep products out. Codex standards are likely to be an important factor in world trade in the future and the Government regard it as essential that we should be in a position to accept and implement them where appropriate. This will be necessary both to protect ourselves in export markets and to ensure that other countries do not dump substandard food here.

These then, are the reasons why we need the Bill. I should now like to refer briefly to its provisions. The Bill is largely taken up with the power to make regulations—and the delimitation of that power—but, as was acknowledged on all sides in the Dáil, there is no practical alternative to delegated legislation in these circumstances. Regulations will, in the course of time, have to be made for a wide range of commodities, and these regulations will have to be constantly changed as international standards change and improve.

Section 1 defines "food" and "sell" for the purposes of this Bill.

Section 2 provides the power to prescribe food standards and gives an indication of the principal matters with which such standards would deal and of the obligations which they could impose. It also provides that the Minister concerned must consult with organisations who have a legitimate interest before he makes regulations. As a further safeguard, section 3 provides that a Minister must in each case publish a notice of his intention to make regulations.

Section 4 is concerned with enforcement. It may appear from subsection (1) that there would be a large corps of inspectors involved, but this is not the case. We envisage that most of the work would fall to be carried out by health inspectors, who are already responsible for the Food Hygiene Regulations made under the Health Acts. There may be need, in respect of certain foods or certain premises, to have others—such as veterinary inspectors—involved but there is no danger of a horde of inspectors harrying the individual food manufacturer or retailer. Every officer exercising powers under this legislation would have to be specifically authorised for that purpose and would have to carry an official certificate of his authority. The section also sets out the things which an inspecting officer is entitled to do and these I consider to be the minimum necessary for effective enforcement. Subsection (4) makes it an offence for a person who has obtained information in the course of an inspection to reveal it other than in the line of duty. This will protect confidential trade information.

Section 5 deals with food seized by an enforcing officer. I should like to say here that there would have to be something seriously wrong before this course was resorted to, since there are adequate powers elsewhere in the Bill to deal with any minor infringements of the regulations. However, where food is seized it can only be destroyed by an order of the District Court. There is provision for compensation where the court considers that the food should not have been seized.

Section 6 contains a number of presumptions without which a successful prosecution under this legislation would be almost impossible. It also provides a defence for two types of person who might otherwise be open to prosecution. The first of these protects any person who has innocently dealt in substandard food provided he has a warranty that the food complied with the regulations. The second, which I included in response to suggestions in the Dail, protects a person who transports or stores food for hire unless he does so in a manner prohibited by the regulations.

The remaining sections of the Bill are self explanatory.

I hope that the House will agree with the provisions of this Bill and with the objectives which it is designed to achieve.

This is a very necessary Bill. We will have some suggestions in the form of amendments on Committee Stage. This is largely a Committee Stage Bill. For that reason we will not be in a position to give the Committee Stage today. We want to take Committee Stage on another occasion in order to consider the Bill in detail and put down the necessary amendments.

I accept the basic principle put forward by the Minister that it is necessary to adopt these standards for two very good reasons: "to protect ourselves in export markets and to ensure that other countries do not dump substandard food here". There is a general movement, not just in the European Economic Community but throughout the world, towards common standards in food production, wholesaling, retailing and consumption.

One may from a legal point of view object to the fact that it is almost entirely delegated legislation. I accept that in an area of enforcement such as this, where one has to comply with a growing body of international regulations or a growing code of international behaviour and enforcement in regard to food distribution, it is imperative to have delegated facilities available to the enforcement authority. It is a flexible area. It is important as far as we are concerned, both in regard to food coming to our markets from abroad and to our exports, that we have standards in common with those throughout the world, and in particular with those in the EEC countries.

In section 6 there is a question in regard to prosecution, where a number of presumptions are written in in statute form. Again the onus of proof is shifted here. In classical legal terms it could be argued to be wrong, but I feel it is necessary in an important matter of this kind, vitally affecting our most important industry and basic values in regard to consumption, advertising, production, distribution and so on.

I will conclude by saying that the Bill is acceptable in broad outline as far as we are concerned. It is necessary both from the social point of view at home and from the point of view of our international position as a trading country. There are a number of technical aspects that could be improved. The Seanad should be enabled to have a very close look at the Bill between now and the Committee Stage when amendments can be put down that could be of a constructive nature to improve the Bill in its application.

I should like to say a few words on the Bill. First of all, I should like to welcome it. It is very important in a country such as ours, which is not only an agricultural country producing food for consumption within its own shores but, even more important, producing agricultural produce of all kinds for export abroad. It would be a serious reflection on us if we were not to welcome this Bill wholeheartedly. If the Bill can be improved on the Committee Stage, as Senator Lenihan suggests, we should not hesitate to incorporate amendments in it.

The Minister made it quite clear at the outset of his speech that this Bill is intended to provide the statutory framework for a code of standards which will when fully developed guarantee the quality and wholesomeness of our whole range of human foods up to the point where they reach the consumer. In other words, this Bill is not intended to be the ultimate in legislation for the protection of the consumer. Reading through the Bill and listening to the Minister's speech it struck me that further legislation is obviously going to be necessary in the years ahead. We in this country are becoming largely an urban society. The days have long passed for most of the people living in this country when food was either reared on two or four feet or produced from the land in the form of vegetables and cooked in the home farm or very close to where it was grown or reared. Those days are long gone. Some of us will probably still remember them. We are living in a very different world, where the consumer is daily bombarded through TV, radio or newspaper advertisements enticing him or her to purchase all sorts of exotic foods in tins or packets of one kind or another.

Therefore, it is obviously vitally necessary that the consumer is protected and is in a position to judge whether, in fact, the product advertised—in some instances at a colossal cost—is of a certain minimum quality and has a certain degree of wholesomeness. Unfortunately it is easy nowadays to make even synthetic foods tempting by additives of all kinds. I wonder whether the words "quality" and "wholesomeness" cover all the requirements for the protection of the consumer. I suggest that they do not. It will be found that further requirements will have to be added to the requirements in this Bill. It is not unusual in the process of manufacture to add elements that may be injurious if they exceed a certain minimum content in a product. This does not appear to be covered in the Bill. Perhaps I am wrong. An article or product can be said to be of a minimum standard and certainly can be wholesome if it appeals to the palate of the consumer but that does not necessarily ensure that the consumer is protected in every sense.

A day may come when we will have minimum requirements in regard to protein and other similar standards branded on packets and tins of food. It is now becoming more usual for manufacturers of animal feeds to have to do this. Farmers are aware of the necessity of knowing what is inside the bag of compound or feeding stuffs. I suggest that the human consumer will need to be protected to a similar degree in the years ahead. We should now be making preparation for this type of protection to ensure that not only will the packet contain something that looks wholesome and is of a minimum standard, but also that it will be free from any additives that could prove detrimental to the consumer.

I am not quite certain whether this Bill covers travelling shops, ice cream vans and similar types of movable shops. Perhaps it does. The Bill certainly has a very wide application. In his reply the Minister might confirm that it does in fact cover these shops because they are a growing means of trade. There is nothing wrong with that. They provide a very useful service in certain areas, particularly at hurling and football matches. They should also be subject to the same stringent regulations as the ordinary shopkeeper whose premises are wide open to inspectors from any of the three Departments referred to.

In connection with the inspection of certain foods, I should mention that the distribution of milk is now divided between the Minister's own Department and the Department of Health. Some form of co-operation, co-ordination or rationalisation of this system is desirable. The regional health boards are obvious bodies to look after this in a co-ordinated form. In the case of milk or other animal products all processes, from the production to the bottling or distribution to the ultimate consumer, should come under one Department. The responsibility should not be divided. We are told that the National Codex Committee:

... are an expert advisory body which represent consumers and the various sectors of the food trade in addition to Government Departments and research bodies.

I do not know whether manufacturers per se are represented on that committee. If they are not, they should be. The conditions under which food is produced can have a vital effect on the ultimate product. Take, for example, the use of artificial fertilisers. Standards must be laid down to ensure that the food which reaches the consumer will not be contaminated from the beginning. The days when wheat and such products were grown with the use of organic manures is gone. We live in a more sophisticated age so far as the use of fertilisers, manufacture and distribution are concerned.

There should be some control on the advertising of foods. The bigger the company the more they have to spend on advertising. The success for their products is assured. Some household products, which I do not wish to mention in the House, are so well-known and backed by such advertising strength that no competitor could hope to rival them. All of us are conversant with some prominent, international brand names. Any effort at competition can be either bought out or put out of business quickly. Where a product is advertised with a background of pop music and plenty of noise it does not necessarily mean it is the best product. An opportunity should be given for adequate competition in the food trade in all its aspects. This does not come within the Minister's ambit but it should be taken into consideration when talking about the protection of the consumer. The consumer can be protected by what is in the tin, but he or she is not protected from exploitation, price-wise or otherwise, under the terms of this Bill.

I welcome the Bill. It establishes the framework. An agricultural food-producing country should welcome it wholeheartedly.

This Bill is necessary if we are to survive as a food-packaging country. The Bill does not cover sufficiently the question of meat packaging. The main part of the Bill is concerned with the power to make regulations. Section 2 provides the power to prescribe food standards. I accept that would be the main strength of the Bill.

In his speech the Minister said the implementation of the Bill would be left to veterinary officers and health inspectors. The Minister and his Department are aware that veterinary officers and health inspectors already have a backlog of work. The health inspector is already overburdened with housing needs, and so on. Those who come from rural areas know that the veterinary officer is greatly overworked.

The Department have trained veterinary officers with knowledge of the packaging of food. Nevertheless the machinery of government through this channel is too weak and slow. We are a long way behind in these matters. The Minister and his Department must accept this. It is to be hoped that we can provide the machinery to implement the Bill and that we will not be forced to seek help from veterinary officers or health inspectors who are already overburdened.

There is a great need for this Bill. The regulations should provide for special attention to the packaging of sausage meat. Sometime ago I had occasion to visit two establishments which produce sausage meat in Dublin city. I was surprised to note that no meat whatsoever was included in the products sold as sausages. They were made from meal and water. I was accompanied by a qualified butcher. He was amazed at how the preservative was applied to the food, if it could be called food. It was applied to the food by sprinkling with the hand. One drop of that preservative, which was added in such a sloppy, careless manner, would burn the toe out of a shoe. I wrote to the Minister for Health to express my alarm after seeing this. In the second establishment I visited the lungs of cattle were being used. I do not know if this is permissible. I have not a palate for that type of food. No regulations were displayed. If the public could see how those sausages were manufactured they would be horrified. I have not eaten any sausages since then. These new measures should cover and eliminate this.

In these days a quick snack on the road and pub grub are commonplace. There are people travelling from place to place in vans who call into the lounges or pubs and sell frozen pies or ready-cooked food. There should be a proper description on the wrappers, giving the weight, date and food content. This should be attended to under this Bill immediately and treated as urgent. There is no control at the moment. I welcome the Bill. If it means the introduction of Codex standards it can only do good.

There is one other aspect of food packaging and selling which might escape the regulations made under the Bill. We import large quantities of canned fish. It is possible to buy a tin of salmon which came from Japan or the Argentine. It may not be fair to mention particular countries. We have little control over what is sold in such tins. This fish is packed by very big multinational companies. I do not know how we can control the contents of those tins. Secondly, the food varies. In some instances although it may be called tinned salmon it tastes very unlike salmon. I would hope that we have some control over the type of food marketed here, whether it comes from Hong Kong or from Killybegs. We should have standards that are not easily overlooked by the big companies who have massive marketing and advertising agencies. We should have the machinery to administer this Bill. It is too weak to tackle these giants. I hope we will deal with these problems now because the public are entitled an assurance that what is being packeted and what is being sold in the shops is safe to eat.

I welcome the Bill. I certainly hope that the Minister does not depend on the veterinary officers and the health inspectors for its implementation. I am satisfied that those two sets of officers have not the time to implement the Bill. I cannot see any value in introducing it if that is the only way the Minister has of implementing it. I hope he will find some other way of enforcing the regulations. This Bill is overdue. It can only do good.

I want to thank the Members of the Seanad for the way in which they have dealt with this Bill. It is fair to say that the attitude is one of general welcome for the Bill and what it contains. That was also the attitude in the Dáil. There was a feeling that we had to have legislation of this sort and that the very existence of such legislation would provide a safeguard against the various dangers that have been expressed by the Members who have spoken.

The question of the importance of doing something about advertising was raised again. This is something which, in fact, is not in the Bill. The question of advertising gave rise to comment also in the Dáil. It was mentioned that there was no provision in the Bill to deal with advertising which was regarded generally as being deceitful and over-pushful, particularly in an age when food has become much more complicated. This is the age of the readymix and instant foods. The feeling generally was that as long as you had straight foods you had fairly safe foods. Now with all the readymix products that are available and all the dressed-up products that exist— dressed-up for colour, dressed-up for preservation and so on—perhaps there may be many quite unsafe products around.

In relation to the advertising aspect, which is not covered in this Bill, the Minister for Industry and Commerce proposes to introduce legislation before the end of the year to take care of advertising. The feeling was that it would be wrong to deal with advertising in a piecemeal way. It was felt that it would be much better that all types of advertising should be covered comprehensively in one Bill.

Senator Russell raised the point that there should be information on the packet concerning the quality, nutritive value and safety of the product. This is fully covered in section 2 of the Bill where all the points are outlined that may be covered by regulation such as the names of the food, the description, composition and quality of the food, the methods of manufacture and preparation of the food, the additives used in the manufacture and preparation—many people are concerned about additives these days—the contaminants, including pesticide residues, in food, hygiene in relation to food, time limits for consumption of food, packaging, labelling and presentation, transportation, storage and distribution, weights and measures and matters consequential on or ancillary, incidental or supplementary to any of the foregoing matters.

Section 2 covers comprehensively any aspect of food preparation, presentation and transportation. Anything that might affect the general quality of the food is fully covered in this section.

Senator McGowan expressed his concern about a couple of firms in Dublin who were producing very inferior-quality sausages with no meat content whatever. It is quite obvious that if there is not a regulation in existence at the moment covering this point it is quite easy to provide such a regulation. I am aware, however, that most institutions which buy sausages have requirements in regard to meat-content of a certain percentage, and this is a pretty high percentage. It is quite surprising that any firm could get away with producing sausages with only meal and no meat, and hope to sell them. This is quite surprising to me. It is fair to say that on the whole our food standards in this country are very high. It would be wrong to give the impression, simply and solely because we are bringing in this legislation to protect food standards in the future and to be in line with the other EEC countries in regard to food standards, that the standards we have at the moment are in any way inferior to the standards in those countries. We have very high standards in this country and we can be very proud of them. Of course, there will always be the occasional small organisation trying to make "a quick buck". I do not think any large organisation that is serious about selling its product in any quantity over a period will have recourse to low standards. Such an organisation will ensure for their own sake, if not for anything else, that the quality is likely to be good.

Senator McGowan also spoke about imported tinned fish. He had certain doubts about it. This, of course, is fully covered. If fish is imported in this way nobody can be expected to open the tins and be certain of the quality. The importer is held responsible. If he has a warranty he is safe enough, but he must be responsible for that warranty. There must be somebody within the country who is responsible for the quality of food imported. That is the reason for insisting on the warranty.

I think I have covered all the points raised.

I had hoped that because it was not a controversial Bill we might be able to take all Stages today but Senator Lenihan expressed the view that perhaps he might be putting down amendments on the Committee Stage.

I think that a Bill of this kind, which is more a Committee Stage Bill than a Second Stage Bill, ought to be left over to consider whether we should put down amendments.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 5th June, 1974.