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.