I am pleased to come before the Seanad today to present the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Bill, 1998. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of a statutory body to be known as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland which will have full responsibility for all food safety and hygiene matters. This honours the Government's commitment on food safety as outlined in the Action Programme for the Millennium.
Since taking office this Government has attached particular importance to the issue of food safety generally and to the concerns of consumers in particular. It recognises the need for uncompromised and independently verifiable assurances on food safety to ensure consumer confidence. While the primary purpose of the Bill is the protection of consumers, the Government also recognises that one of the best ways of promoting the entire Irish food sector is to put in place a strong, independent and science-based Food Safety Authority, which will have the confidence of consumers both at home and abroad. The provisions of this Bill will not only contribute to public health but will also serve the economic development of the Irish food sector.
Food scares are nothing new. For many years we have been warned about the dangers of using unpasteurised milk, the need for proper hygiene in the home and have been advised on the proper cooking of food. Then along came BSE and the possibility of a link with new variant CJD. Consumer faith in our food industry to produce safe wholesome food was severely undermined.
As if BSE was not enough, E-coli 0157 claimed the lives of a number of elderly people in Scotland. If we add in the threats caused by drug-resistant salmonella strains, antibiotic residues in pork, angel dust and other illegal growth promoters, it is little wonder that consumers treat vague reassurances with scepticism. Other concerns have been voiced in relation to new crop developments and food processes, such as the increasing availability of genetically modified foods and food irradiation. Let us be very clear about this, consumers are very concerned about food safety and it behoves any Government to listen to and respond appropriately to these concerns. Let me assure the House that this Government will not be found wanting in this regard. The protection of public health is an absolute priority for me, as it is for all my colleagues in Government. Any threat to the safety of the food we eat, whether it be real or potential, will be responded to robustly and with transparency. It is therefore imperative that we have a structure in place that can adequately identify and assess the risk in a competent professional manner and then communicate clearly and effectively with both consumers and providers. ln November 1996 the previous Government appointed an interim Food Safety Authority on a non-statutory basis, and then proceeded to draft a Bill to put this Authority on a statutory footing. The thrust of the proposed Bill was to establish the Authority as a "regulator of regulators"— that is, responsibility for food control services would remain with existing agencies, but these would be audited by the Authority which would have a role in the setting and maintaining of standards and the promotion of good practice. Despite numerous promises, that Bill had not been published prior to the 1997 general election.
When the previous Government outlined its plans, we in Opposition vigorously opposed them — not for the sake of opposition in itself, but because we strongly felt that the proposals were wholly inadequate. What we would have had would be a toothless body supervising the same old agencies carrying on their business in the same old way, despite the fact that everyone recognised the need for a fresh approach to food safety. The only new element proposed by the previous Government was that the Food Safety Authority would have an audit function, but this in our view fell far short of the radical change and imaginative solution which is required.
I do not wish to convey the impression that the existing State agencies responsible for food controls have not done a fine job in the past. I fully acknowledge the commitment and professionalism which these agencies have demonstrated in dealing with what is an increasingly complex environment. However, it is this very complexity which now dictates the requirement for a central authority which will harmonise the State response to the food safety challenge. The Government believes that the interests of consumers are better served by the creation of an Authority which will be directly accountable for all food control functions. As pointed out in An Action Programme for the Millennium, this new Authority will take over all current functions related to food safety from existing agencies and will be independent, science based and provide for full "farm to fork" traceability. This Bill has all the features which were identified in the action programme, with the exception of the immediate transfer of staff from the existing agencies to the Authority.
I would like to explain to the House the rationale behind this adjustment to our original proposal. Responsibility for food controls currently rests with a wide number of Departments and agencies and it is delivered by a broad range of disciplines. In all some 50 State agencies and many hundreds of staff are currently involved in the delivery of food control services. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for such staff to have other duties, in addition to food controls, assigned to them. It is not possible, therefore, to definitely identify "food control" staff individually. In view of this, the transfer of all relevant staff from existing agencies to the new authority will take some time and will only take place after detailed discussion and agreement with staff representative bodies. The Bill will, therefore, provide the Authority with the capacity to discharge its functions by way of contractual agreements. These agreements, or service contracts as they are described in section 48 of the Bill, will be agreed between the Authority and the State agencies in relation to the wide range of food safety functions contained in existing legislation. Lists of this legislation and the State agencies involved are included in the Schedules to the Bill.
Each service contract will include the targets and objectives which the Authority wishes the agency to meet and the time frame within which these must be achieved. Existing funding arrangements will be maintained, that is, the agencies will make the resources available to meet their contractual obligations. The Authority will publish details of the contracts and will introduce a system of monitoring to ensure that the agreements are being adhered to. If contracts are not satisfactorily performed the Authority will report to the Minister for Health and Children, who will arrange for such reports to be laid before the Oireachtas.
Section 49 of the Bill provides for the appointment of authorised officers to carry out statutory food safety functions and these officers will be furnished with an official warrant issued by the Authority, or by the official agency on its behalf. I have already established the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on an interim basis by way of Statutory Instrument under the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1961, with effect from 1 January 1998. This arrangement was put in place to allow the Authority to recruit staff and to facilitate the development of structures in advance of the Bill being enacted.
The primary role of the Authority, as outlined in section 12, will be to promote, encourage and foster high standards of safety and hygiene at all stages of the food chain from primary production to final use by the customer. A key objective for the Authority will be to bring about acceptance that primary responsibility for the safety of food rests with producers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and caterers. It is also incumbent on the Authority to encourage a greater awareness among consumers of good food safety and hygiene practices. Although the provisions of the Bill provide in detail for a policing and enforcement role for the Authority, the Bill's main aim is to foster, through education and promotion, a food safety culture among providers and consumers which characterises the food chain from "farm to fork". The establishment of such a culture will serve public health much better than any system which relies merely on the enforcement of a regulatory régime. The Authority's role in enforcement is not being neglected and it will carry out, through the contracts negotiated with the agencies, inspections, approval, licensing and registration of food premises and equipment. It will also be responsible for the sampling and analysis of food and inspection of food labelling.
In order to maintain full traceability, the Authority's remit will extend to farms, other places of primary production, water treatment plants and any other source of materials used in food production. Indeed, section 30 of the Bill gives the Authority the power to seek reports from any State body on any matter which in its opinion impinges on food safety and to report to the Minister for Health and Children in the matter. This provision is very wide ranging and does not confine the Authority's remit to particular parts of the food chain.
The Bill provides for the Authority's involvement, either on its own initiative or in co-operation with food producers' representatives, in the establishment of schemes to protect consumer interests. These schemes, described in section 13 of the Bill as food safety assurance schemes, will cover the promotion of best practice and preparation of guidelines on raw materials, processing, packaging, preparation, storage and handling.
While the formulation of national food safety policy will remain with my Department, I foresee the Authority playing a very important role in the formulation of this policy. As was the case with the Food Safety Advisory Board, which has now been merged with the new Authority, the Government will rely on the professional expertise of the Authority to advise on matters such as nutrition, food technology and industrial practices and the cultivation of food plants and animals. This advisory role, outlined in section 15 of the Bill, will also extend to issues such as food labelling and packaging and the very important area of improving systems for the communication of information to the public on food safety and hygiene in the home. The National Disease Surveillance Unit, which will have primary responsibility in relation to food-borne diseases, will also maintain a liaison with the Authority in this area.
Much thought has been given to the structure of the Authority and the segregation of powers and responsibilities to ensure that the Authority can discharge its functions in a fair and balanced way. This has been achieved by making specific provisions in Part III of the Bill for four key, interlocking elements — the board of the Authority, its scientific committee, the chief executive and staff and a consultative council. The board of the Authority, as detailed in section 31, will consist of ten members, including a chairman appointed by the Minister for Health and Children. This body will have overall responsibility for ensuring that the proper food safety systems are in place and will act as the forum in which the work of the various structural elements are harmonised. It will provide the strategic direction for the Authority. The chief executive, together with the staff, will be responsible for converting this strategy into an operational plan and overseeing its implementation.
Section 34 of the Bill also provides for a scientific committee. This will have 15 members appointed by the Minister in consultation with the board. The Minister in appointing members will have regard to relevant scientific qualifications and experience to ensure the broadest possible range of expertise.
The scientific committee will advise on matters referred to it by the board pertaining to scientific or technical questions, food inspection and nutrition. In order to guarantee the science based nature of the authority the board will await the scientific committee's response before deciding on any matter referred. This scientific committee may establish sub-committees to undertake further investigation of matters referred to it, and it will report through its chairman who will also be a member of the board. The board will be empowered to publish the advice of the scientific committee. However, I must stress that the role of the scientific committee is to assist and advise the board. Such assistance and advice will not be the sole determinant in the board's decisions.
Food safety is a concern for the community as a whole and there will be a duty on the authority to ensure that it has access to a broad base of views. In promoting higher standards it will be incumbent on the authority to endeavour to consult representatives of a wide range of food safety interests. Specifically, section 14 of the Bill provides for a broadly based consultative council. The Ministers for Health and Children, Agriculture and Food, the Marine and Natural Resources, the Environment and Local Government and Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the board of the authority will nominate the members of this council.
Notwithstanding the fact that the consultative council will include representation from various interests — including producer interests — and that the authority will have regard to the council's views, it will not be bound by these views in arriving at its decisions. In its deliberations, the board of the authority will see the best interests of the consumer as being paramount and this notion of the "consumer as king" will be reflected in the appointment of the board's membership.
As stated earlier, the authority will exercise its powers through its authorised officers who will be empowered to enter and inspect food premises, to secure these premises for later inspection and to inspect and, if necessary, remove records. These officers may take samples of food or related materials and have them analysed. It will be an offence for any person to obstruct an officer in carrying out this duty.
Where an authorised officer is of the view that any premises or activity poses a threat to public health, he or she will have the power to dictate the remedial action required and set a time limit for its completion. These so-called "improvement notices", referred to in section 52, are a new feature. While in the past officers could advise on the required improvements to premises or equipment, such advice did not have a statutory basis. Improvement notices, therefore, give food safety professionals in the field a new statutory tool which can be used where there is clear need for some remedial action, but where a complete shutdown of operations may not be warranted. Where an improvement notice is not complied with, the officer may seek an order from the District Court to force compliance. In more serious cases where, as provided for in section 53, an officer believes there is an immediate and grave threat to public health, a closure order may be made which will require operations to cease until the problem has been remedied.
Situations may also arise where improvement notices or closure are not sufficient. For example, unsafe products or product batches may have been distributed by the producer and be on the market. In such cases authorised officers may insist on the withdrawal, recall, detention and supervised destruction of products posing a threat to public health as provided for in section 54. The Bill provides that prosecutions may be taken by the authority or by one of the contracting agencies and the provisions contained in existing food legislation shall continue to apply in that regard.
Throughout the Bill there is a strong emphasis on the openness and transparency under which the authority will operate. As provided for in sections 41 and 42, the chief executive, members of the board, the scientific committee and its sub-committees, the staff of the authority and any consultants, advisers or other persons engaged by the authority are required to declare any financial or other beneficial interests which might be in conflict with their role in the authority. Accountability measures are found elsewhere in the Bill and I have already referred to the publication of the service contracts.
The authority's accounts will be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and laid before the Oireachtas. The chief executive will be the accounting officer and he or she may be called to give evidence to the appropriate Dáil committee. Under section 25, the authority must prepare an annual report of its activities which will also be made available to the Oireachtas. The Bill also provides for the preparation and submission of other reports by the authority as the need arises.
The authority will have a broad remit in the area of research. Section 18 provides that the authority may undertake, commission or collaborate in research projects and activities on issues relating to food in Ireland and abroad.
The Dáil debate on the Bill revealed a general agreement from all sides of the House on the importance of food safety and on the value of establishing an independent body to deal with this important area. Useful and constructive amendments were proposed on a range of issues, some of which, such as the use of gender-neutral terminology and increased transparency in respect of the receipt of gifts by members of the authority, have been incorporated in the text of the Bill. The sweeping changes proposed in this legislation mirror the change in direction that is taking place at EU level.
A new Directorate-General — DG 24 — has been established within the European Commission with responsibility for consumer policy and consumer health protection. From now on responsibility for food inspection and control, as well as all the relevant scientific committees that advise on the various scientific aspects of food, will be placed under the authority of the Commissioner for consumer policy and consumer health protection, Ms Emma Bonino. The Commission's control function for the entire EU is now exercised through the Food and Veterinary Office based in County Meath. The office's main function is the monitoring of the observance of food hygiene, which is defined in EU legislation as "all measures necessary to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of foodstuffs". A new unit on the assessment of consumer health risks has also been established within DG 24.
Other EU member states are also taking steps to establish independent food safety bodies on the lines of the authority proposed by the Government. I am pleased that Ireland is among the first EU countries to have such an authority, reflecting the importance the Government attaches to food safety. Ireland enjoys a good reputation for the quality of the food it produces for the domestic and export markets. Similarly, food imported to Ireland is rigorously monitored by way of bilateral and multilateral networks with other countries.
We owe a considerable debt to our existing food control agencies for the work they have done in the past to ensure that the food we eat is safe. However, we cannot afford to be complacent and we need new structures to face the challenges which lie ahead. The enactment of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Bill will provide the framework for the future control and regulation of food safety in Ireland. We can be proud that we are far ahead of other countries in this regard and that these countries see our proposals as a very useful model.
This Bill will provide the reassurance that consumers seek in the important area of food safety and I am happy to commend it to the House.