Food Safety Standards: Statements

It is a pleasure to be back in the House to discuss agriculture, food safety and related matters. Over the past three or four months, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I have been given the opportunity to promote agriculture and to work in conjunction with our Department and everybody in the industry. It is an exciting industry to be involved in, given the opportunities presented by the great demand for food and energy. I am glad to be in the House to hear the views of Senators and to share my views on horticulture and forestry. The greyhound industry is also under my remit but everything comes back to jobs.

On several occasions I have been asked by the Minister to attend functions relating to the dairy, sheep, beef or pig industries and food safety is important. I left school at 15 to be a farmer at the time we joined the EEC. The agriculture industry expanded to produce food on a massive scale. It was always exciting to be involved and to get paid until the mid-1990s but now the door has opened again. If one's daughter was getting married to a farmer 15 years ago, the question everyone asked was how much road frontage he had whereas ten years ago it was different but now they are talking about road frontage again. That is a sign of the times. There is a significant difference between the time we joined the EU and now in that Ireland has become a serious food exporter. This is where the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, comes in. Farmers do not like to be led in certain ways but the farming community and producers of all types of food have worked with the FSAI. Regulations must be in place for everything related to eating and it is a pleasure to know that it is an independent body. It has no vested interests and its members have called the shots in the interests of the consumer from day one. We are in a fantastic position. I ask Senators for their views and I do not want everybody to be nice to me. If Members do not think something is right, I expect them to point that out.

We must not alone sell our food but also our technology. The most interesting meeting I had since taking office was with the Minister for agriculture from China. He arrived in Ireland having visited many other countries. He was amazed by our environment, food traceability standards, the manner in which we ran our herds and the manner in which every ounce of food produced met various standards. We must work as a team. Every Member comes from a different area, which is engaged in some aspect of the food industry. We have a responsibility to promote it. At the end of the year, we will show the EU that we are good at producing food and we have the capacity to feed at least 40 million people and to export our technology. Our technology has been rated through the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the farming and food producing communities. We have the required technology for all types of food production and it has been recognised that it is the best in the world.

I am pleased to address the Seanad on the Government's commitment to developing the agriculture, agrifood and related sectors and, in particular, to deal with the specific areas for which I have ministerial responsibility. Together with the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, I am determined to ensure that the sector fully realises its potential and maximises its economic and social contribution to the country. In my first few months in office, I have travelled widely throughout the country and have met thousands of stakeholders. I have been very impressed by their enthusiasm and optimism.

The Government has fully embraced the Food Harvest 2020 strategy and we intend to drive the strategy to significantly grow the sector in the next ten years. We are all aware of the headline targets set out in the strategy which the Government believes are achievable. There is an increasing recognition that our economic recovery will be export-led and, in that regard, agriculture and the agrifood sector has a particularly important part to play.

The value of agricultural and agrifood exports increased to €8 billion in 2010 and recent CSO figures suggest that the trend will continue this year. The Food Harvest 2020 strategy targets an increase in dairy production of 50% by 2020. When one considers that approximately 85% of Irish dairy produce is exported, an increasing proportion to emerging markets in the Middle East and Far East, one can see the enormous contribution that the Irish dairy sector can make through a significant increase in exports.

Similarly, the Food Harvest 2020 strategy targeted an increase in the output value of Irish beef of 20% by the end of the decade. However, last week, the Beef Activation Group revised the figure upwards to 40%. Given the sector's strong export focus, with approximately 98% of Irish beef exports going to high-value EU markets, and the fact that it is employment intensive, that is vitally important in terms of economic recovery, job retention and creation.

Irish agriculture and the wider agrifood sector are uniquely positioned to benefit from a rapidly increasing global population, increasing urbanisation and the westernisation of diets in developing economies. Those factors will lead to an increase of 50% in demand for food globally by 2030, rising to 70% by 2050. Given that background, I welcome the new, ambitious growth target for the Irish beef sector and, with my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, I wish to work with all the stakeholders in the agriculture and agrifood sector to ensure that the targets are met and the sector delivers on its undoubted potential.

This country, rightly, has an international reputation as a clean, green, high quality, innovative producer of excellent food and drink. A critical part of the reputation arises from the emphasis we continue to place on food safety. Food safety is the cornerstone of our international reputation for food production. The production of food to the highest standards of safety within sustainable farming systems is the very foundation on which the agrifood sector is built and is one of the major goals and objectives of the Department, which it pursues through monitoring, surveillance and inspection services along the links of the food chain within its area of responsibility through the enforcement of strict regulatory standards on animal identification and traceability, farm inputs, animal health, animal welfare, veterinary hygiene, animal remedies, plant health and pesticides. In addition, there is the enforcement of EU and national rules relating to transport, marketing centres, processing plants, storage and distribution operations. The import and export of animals and plant products is controlled. The network of veterinary research laboratories, dairy science laboratories, the pesticides laboratory and private laboratories all work in close co-operation with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, and other Government agencies on food safety issues.

My Department also enforces food safety controls under the single payments scheme, through cross-compliance with environmental, animal welfare and food and feed hygiene regulations. With such attributes as animal welfare and traceability, Irish food products have a valuable edge in the international marketplace. My Department has responsibility for the food safety standards of approximately 650 food premises, primary producers of milk, dairy and eggs, large meat producers and premises producing food of non-animal origin. It is also responsible for the safety of imports of food of animal origin from outside the EU and for residue monitoring. Standards across the food production sector are subject to regulation under the hygiene package for food and feed, a system introduced to regulate food business operatives. Primary responsibility for the safety of food to consumers continues to rest with individual food business operators.

My Department works closely with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The FSAI was established in 1999 as an independent regulatory agency and my Department, along with other agencies including the HSE, local authority veterinary services and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority operates under contract to the FSAI in so far as food safety is concerned. The FSAI, through its service contract mechanism, ensures overarching co-ordination of food safety controls and the application of controls across the food chain based on risk and in a proportionate manner. Ireland was one of the first countries to set up a national food safety authority. It is fair to say and generally acknowledged that it has gained both national and international credibility and adds to the level of assurance for both domestic and international consumers in the food safety control infrastructure which underpins the safety of Irish food products.

Safety of the food chain can never be taken for granted as food production continues to evolve with new processes and products rapidly emerging. Major food incidents, both in this country and abroad, have brought home in no uncertain manner the importance of being prepared to deal swiftly and effectively with new challenges. This country has established a reputation as a producer of safe food but there is no room for complacency. The food and feed hygiene legislation clearly places responsibility on food and feed business operators whether as producers, processors, distributors, retailers or caterers to ensure that the food chain is safe. At the end of the day, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the Government will continue to give priority to the maintenance of the highest standards of food safety.

A critical part of Irish agriculture and agrifood is the horticulture and potato sector which has an output value at farm gate of approximately €350 million. That figure includes both the food and amenity sectors of horticulture which make up 80% and 20% respectively of the output value. A Bord Bia review of labour in the horticulture sector in 2007 showed that full-time employment in primary production activity was estimated at 6,000. That does not include employment upstream or downstream of the primary production process on which the horticultural sector impacts, for example, preparing and packing produce, garden design and landscaping and retail, which generates upwards of a further 10,000 jobs.

The key market for the horticultural industry is the domestic market. The two main areas of export are mushrooms to the UK where we have 62% of the market and amenity horticultural products worth approximately €10 million annually. The majority of horticultural production is sold on the home market and the key outlets are the retail market, which is valued at €1.2 billion per annum.

The other important outlet for produce is the food service or catering sector. Since my appointment, I have visited a large number of producers and marketing companies. I have been most impressed by the knowledge and professionalism of growers and the consumer-orientated focus of their business. Growers are much attuned to the changes in the markets and have responded accordingly. One grower indicated to me that ten years ago 90% of his production was based on loose tomatoes but today it is less than 10%. He has now diversified into many different speciality tomato lines, adding value all the time. That is a reflection of both the dynamism and evolution of the industry.

The Food Harvest 2020 strategy identified "potential for further development in the sector". I wish to ensure that the potential is fully realised. Despite short-term difficulties, it is vital for the industry to continue investment in order to meet the competitive pressures the industry currently faces. The pressures arise, in particular, from high input costs, competitively priced imports, lack of scale and limited development in innovation. To that end, I was particularly pleased to have been in a position last month to announce a grant aid package of €4.1 million under the 2011 scheme of investment aid for the development of the commercial horticulture sector. The package will provide grants for 157 horticultural producers to assist in funding capital investments in specialist new equipment and facilities. The grant aid covers all areas of the horticultural industry including field vegetables, mushrooms, protected crops, nursery crops, soft fruits and apples, cut foliage and bee-keeping — and will assist in funding investments of approximately €10.2 million between now and the end of the year.

In the past decade the industry has consolidated with fewer but significantly larger producers. Growers have become more specialised and have invested considerably in recent years thanks in no small way to grant aid from my Department under the national development plan. Over the past decade the Department has provided grant aid of just under €30 million to horticulture projects, which supported investment of almost €78 million by the industry itself.

The extent of the competitive environment within which the Irish horticulture industry operates was illustrated clearly just a couple of weeks ago in a report from the Horticulture Action Group, which pointed out that the cost of hiring labour in this country is 26% higher than it is in the UK, given the labour-intensive nature of picking and harvesting fresh produce. The report also emphasised that the Irish retail and catering markets are the most important outlets for fresh Irish horticulture produce. Growers of potatoes, vegetables and fruit are extremely concerned at the dominant role of supermarkets in controlling the prices and quantities of produce marketed. I agree entirely with the conclusion and recommendations of the action group with regard to creating a more level playing field in the retail sector. I have written to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, to emphasise the importance of greater statutory oversight on retail multiples because of their negative impact on the industry, and I have asked him to give serious consideration to the issues raised by the action group in this regard.

I am supportive of the group's emphasis on the urgency of promoting and facilitating more collaborative initiatives within horticulture. This is something I feel strongly about and will be working to promote. Collaboration and co-operation between producers increases their purchasing power for inputs as well as their selling power to the big supermarket chains. In addition, growers who come together have the opportunity to form EU-recognised producer organisations. We currently have three such organisations, which received almost €6 million in funding from the EU in 2010. I am anxious to see further developments and I know that both Bord Bia and officials from my own Department are talking to producers about this.

The organic sector, although relatively small, also represents an opportunity for growth. Organic production, unlike the industry as a whole, is particularly suited to small-scale production. The Food Harvest 2020 strategy identified the potential for significant growth by focusing on two areas: import substitution in areas in which Ireland is under-producing at present; and large export markets such as the UK and Germany. I again emphasise my positive impressions of the horticulture sector and my belief that if we can successfully address the issues I have highlighted, horticulture operators will expand and contribute to the ambitious targets set for the agricultural industry as a whole in Food Harvest 2020.

Shortly after my appointment as Minister of State, I stated:

Forestry provides a welcome income stream for owners, the majority of whom are farmers. ... Forestry, as an indigenous industry, also provides a wider ranging, long term economic return in that it provides jobs, both directly and indirectly, and contributes to our export performance. It also provides benefits to the environment and recreation and amenity value to society in general.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to invest in a 14,700 ha. per annum afforestation programme. The private timber resource is becoming a significant element of our timber supply, with privately owned forests now accounting for about 46% of Ireland's forest resource. Significantly, these are mainly owned by farmers, and the afforestation programme is driven largely by farm forestry, with farmers now responsible for more than 90% of new forestry. The Government has made a significant investment in the development of forestry over the years in order to ensure there is a critical mass of timber coming on stream to sustain the timber and timber products sector. For example, just over €72 million was paid in premiums in 2010 to both farmer and non-farmer forestry owners, which gives a good idea of the ongoing investment in this area. I am not sure about this if we cannot maintain this level of investment.

The forestry sector is an important one, which has given rise to a vibrant and export-oriented forest products sector. The primary products produced by the Irish sawmill sector include construction and structural timber, pallet and packaging timber, and fencing products. While construction lumber is largely sold on the home market, pallet and fencing products make up the bulk of sawn timber exports. In 2010, exports totalled €286 million, which was up from €243 million in 2009. Given the number of elements within the sector, the forestry sector overall makes a significant contribution to the economy, both nationally and at a local level, through direct and indirect employment. The output of the forest industry in 2008, comprising the growing, harvesting and processing sectors, was around €1.89 billion, or just under 1% of GDP, with some 16,000 jobs dependent on it. If we are to reap the immense benefits that a healthy and vibrant forest sector can bring to our society, our forests must be managed in a sustainable way.

Forestry also makes a significant contribution as a means to displace fossil fuel, particularly in the generation of heat in industrial, commercial, domestic and institutional markets. Wood energy, which is energy produced from wood or wood by-products, is a home-grown, renewable, sustainable, carbon-neutral and secure source of heat, electricity and bio-fuel. The increasing focus on renewable energy highlights the potential of wood energy for heat and power generation. Our forests are estimated to absorb 4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, or about 6% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, which is a significant contribution to our efforts to ameliorate climate change. In complying with our Kyoto targets, the annual contribution from eligible forests will be around 2.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. This represents a projected annual saving to the taxpayer of €44 million.

Just 12 months ago, in response to a spate of forest fires, my Department established the land and forest fires working group. It was deeply regrettable and indeed distressing to see the devastating impact of the recent series of forest fires, which caused millions of euro of damage to the national forestry estate. However, despite the current economic situation, that is only money. I condemn in the strongest terms those, albeit a small minority, who showed such flagrant disregard for the law, property and people's lives, due to their highly irresponsible and criminal behaviour of starting fires around the country. I also reiterate my appreciation and that of the Government to all those who were involved in fighting recent forest and land fires. Those people, many of them members of the emergency services, demonstrated a tremendous commitment to their task and no small courage. It is quite frankly mind-boggling and totally incomprehensible that there are those in our society who willingly and knowingly embark on actions that risk the safety and lives of emergency service personnel, landowners, forest owners and fellow members of the public. The perpetrators of these acts of criminal damage can be assured that, if they are identified, they will face the possibility of prosecution, fines and imprisonment.

I am particularly pleased to have responsibility for the greyhound industry, which is responsible for sustaining 11,000 full and part-time jobs and providing an estimated €500 million into local economies throughout the country. The greyhound breeding industry has also been very successful; over 75% of greyhounds now running in the UK are Irish-bred. There is considerable scope for further development of the industry, particularly if we can encourage tourists to enjoy a night at the dogs. I want to work with all stakeholders to ensure the industry continues to develop and that its full potential is realised.

The greyhound industry, like most other industries, has not been immune from the effects of the economic downturn, and I want to work to ensure the industry has a sustainable funding model into the future. As Senators will be aware, the then Minister for Finance announced in budget 2011 that he would be making the necessary arrangements to ensure that all forms of betting, including remote betting — that is, telephone, internet and exchange betting — will be subject to betting tax, and provision has been made in the Finance Act to deal with the taxation issues. The next step will be the publication by the Minister for Finance of legislation amending the Betting Act 1932 to deal with issues relating to the regulation of remote betting.

Central to the success and reputation of the greyhound industry has been a long-standing and genuine concern for greyhound welfare. This House has already debated and passed the Welfare of Greyhounds Bill and I acknowledge the constructive and positive nature of the debate during its passage through this House. Just last week, the Dáil passed Second Stage of the Bill, and I look forward to further constructive debate during the remaining Stages. I appreciate the concerns of those who advocate the need for robust animal welfare legislation and I want to reassure them, and all those interested in this issue, that the Welfare of Greyhounds Bill is a rigorous piece of legislation and contains a number of provisions that are, in fact, more onerous than those contained in the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010.

With 17 racing tracks throughout the country and greyhound owners, breeders and trainers in every county, the economic benefit of the industry is well spread throughout the country, with employment quite often being provided in rural areas where alternative employment opportunities are at best in short supply. It is important, therefore, that the industry is consolidated, and this is my firm ambition and intention. When I said I wanted to work with all stakeholders, that includes Members of the House, all of whom, as legislators, are stakeholders in this industry. I invite them to contribute fully to the debate on the future direction of the greyhound industry in whatever way they consider appropriate.

In recent months, there has been an increasing and welcome public acknowledgement of the importance of agriculture and the agrifood sector and the critical role it will play in the country's economic recovery. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, and I are leading a team in our Department that wants to develop and grow the sector, ensure it becomes a core economic Department and that its vitality is fully recognised. What I have detected from my engagement throughout the particular sectors is a tremendous energy, enthusiasm and positivity. I want to harness that to ensure it is properly focused.

I welcome this debate and appreciate the invitation to attend the Seanad this evening to discuss the particular areas for which I have ministerial responsibility. When agriculture and the agrifood sector is discussed, much of the debate tends to focus on the large dairy and livestock sectors. This is entirely understandable, given the enormous economic contribution they make both nationally and locally in rural communities. This debate also includes three other areas, although perhaps less prominent, which are no less important. Horticulture, forestry and the greyhound industries are, directly and indirectly, responsible for sustaining more than 40,000 full-time and part-time jobs. Between them, they are worth €2.5 billion to the economy.

That is to say nothing of the absolutely essential role that food safety plays in underpinning the entire agrifood sector, which supports 185,000 jobs and has an annual output value of some €22 billion. Due to the extent to which the sector is embedded in the economy, its economic footprint is even larger than these figures suggest. The Taoiseach said recently, "Ireland's success depends on our ability to develop and grow in areas where we have real and tangible competitive advantages. The food industry is one such area." I want to work with the industry and other policymakers to ensure we build on and improve those competitive advantages. I share the commitment of the Taoiseach and the Government to work with the industry, helping it to meet the ambitious goals that it has set for itself.

I have spent the past several months engaging actively and constructively with the stakeholders in those sectors for which I have responsibility. I have some clear ideas about the direction in which I would like those sectors to go. I want to raise their profile and emphasise the critical role those less prominent sectors have to play in developing and growing the wider agrifood industry. That said, I accept that I do not have a monopoly on wisdom and I look forward to engaging with Members, as key policymakers, in this debate.

It is important to get across the importance of our food sector. We must encourage young people to take up courses in horticulture and other agrifood areas because it is the one sector with huge job potential. We must also encourage people to buy local food produce. It must be remembered that the conditions in this industry – be it in processing, picking or growing – are not what they were 40 years ago. I would be proud to work in many of the food processing factories I have visited recently. We are not all going to be Einsteins so we must divert our young people to take up horticultural and other agrifood courses.

Forestry development must also go hand in hand with other agricultural sectors. At a recent Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations meeting in Rome, it was stated that if a country wanted to develop its beef or dairy sector, it would need to develop its forestry to assist the environment.

I hope Members will be as critical as they can in this debate. There is no doubt that our young people will depend on the agriculture and food production industries to grow to provide employment. This is one area of job creation that will help us get out of this economic mess.

It was such a pleasure to listen to the Minister of State speaking passionately about his great love for the agrifood industry. His speech was fantastic. I agree more people are realising the importance of the agrifood industry, our largest indigenous industry. We have had mega-successes in multinational exports, so the agrifood sector provides a wonderful opportunity. I wish the Minister of State the best of luck in his work. I know he will be a huge success. I must also thank him for visiting Lir Chocolates recently to see how a food business which started in a kitchen has grown to employ 250 people.

The agrifood sector touches every parish and town, providing employment for up to 185,000 people. With the rising demand for food worldwide, the potential for this industry makes it the most exciting indigenous industry we have. We have marketed Irish food as green and natural. However, if something goes wrong in the food chain, it can be a disaster.

The recent outbreak of food borne diseases associated with fresh produce in Germany demonstrated the vulnerability of the European food chain to food scares. Since the outbreak began in May, 4,300 people have become sick, with 897 seriously ill with kidney failure and 50 fatalities, making this the most severe outbreak that has occurred in the European Union. While most of the cases occurred in Germany, there was a separate outbreak involving 14 cases in France and another associated with people travelling to Germany.

Having been involved in food production for 16 years, I know the importance of food safety. Ireland was one of the first countries to establish a safety authority for food. We are fortunate to have the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, run by Mr. Alan Reilly.

The German food safety sector did not handle itself very well, however, and caused much panic across Europe. The outbreak caused a serious disruption in food trade across the EU with a loss of consumer confidence in the safety of salad vegetables. The collapse of the Spanish cucumber industry has led to farmers seeking €220 million in compensation while the Dutch vegetable sector suffered losses of €10 million per week at the height of the crisis. The crisis also led to countries closing their borders to imports of fresh produce from the EU with further economic losses.

The initial investigation in Germany into the cause of the outbreak pointed to salad vegetables with tomatoes, lettuce and cucumber being the likely sources. Subsequently, the German authorities pointed to Spanish cucumbers being the most likely source of the contamination. They were, however, wrong. Being a food producer myself, I found watching the vivid pictures of Spanish cucumber producers disposing of their cucumbers moving and stressful. Following weeks of investigation involving staff from German state and federal Ministries with assistance from experts from the European Safety Authority, beansprout seeds from a farm in northern Germany were identified as the most likely cause of the outbreak. The most recent information announced by the European Food Safety Authority — it was issued earlier today — is that organic fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt are the most likely source of the outbreak. The European Union is planning to introduce legislation to ban the import of certain seeds and beans from Egypt. I am aware from experience that when one imports goods, one is at the mercy of those from whom one purchased those goods and one must hope that they operate to the correct standards. The Irish multiples provide great leadership in this area and demand that the companies with which they deal operate to world-class standards.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has dealt with over 100 alerts which were issued through the European rapid alert system in respect of certain foods and feeds and which were relevant to this outbreak. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland also keeps consumers and the food industry informed by providing up-to-date news on its website. On Saturday, 25 June last, the authority, as a precautionary measure, advised Irish consumers not to eat beansprouts. It also advised caterers not to serve raw beansprouts. This advice was issued to protect consumers because some of the implicated seeds could have been on sale in Ireland. Many other European countries have followed the Irish example and issued similar advice. This highlights the fact that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has an excellent reputation internationally.

There are lessons to be learned from the outbreak of E. coli in Germany. For example, many state and federal agencies were involved in the investigation relating to the outbreak and co-ordination between all players could have been much better. There appeared to be no co-ordination at all, particularly in the context of communication. Traceability is a major issue in Ireland and great attention is paid to it. The investigation relating to tracing the source of the relevant seeds was lengthy because of the number of intermediaries involved in the seed trade. EU law requires food business operations to maintain systems of traceability via a one step back and one step forward approach. In the instance under discussion, connecting and verifying all the links between operators took time. There is also a need for strong, supportive scientific evidence to form the basis of management decisions when identifying the food involved in the source of an outbreak.

The Irish agrifood sector is central to the Government's plans for economic recovery and is seen as the flagship for growth. It is dependent on its international reputation for excellence in safety and quality. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland, as the independent science-based regulator, is central to ensuring consumer confidence in Irish-produced foods, both at home and abroad. Ireland requires a high-profile, independent, science-based food regulatory authority to demonstrate to trading partners that we are investing in our food safety control infrastructure and that the interests of the consumer are paramount. Maintaining confidence in the safety of Irish food will be central to achieving the ambitious targets set by the former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, who valiantly pressed forward with the Food Harvest 2020 document.

We have been presented with a wonderful opportunity as a result of the worldwide demand for food. I reiterate the importance of Bord Bia's promotion of brand Ireland. I am delighted to be part of it. I know the Minister of State will be a major success in the position he holds.

I welcome the Minister of State. I am delighted he could come before the House to discuss the extremely important issue of food safety. I welcome his assertion that the Government is going to promote agriculture into the future. Earlier today I read an EU report in which Ireland was commended for the way in which it carries out its business. Problems were identified in a number of countries but thankfully those who compiled the report were very happy with the way we operate. That is good news.

Food safety is crucially important. In light of the increase in the numbers of young people either returning to the land or attending agricultural colleges, we must ensure that our standards remain high. In the past we often complained that certain regulations were too rigorous. However, I have come to realise the importance of good regulations. As the Minister of State indicated, we export a great deal of what we produce to countries across Europe. If we do not have stringent regulations in place, we will lose these export markets. In view of the fact that the global population is increasing, a number of excellent opportunities exist for Ireland. It must be remembered that there are approximately 240,000 farm families in this country and that they all derive incomes from the land. In addition, there are upwards of 200,000 people employed in agriculture.

Traceability is often viewed as something which gives rise to a great deal of work for farmers. However, when farmers do what is necessary work and when they obtain a good price for their products, then they do not object to doing this work. As soon as a calf is born, a farmer must tag it within seven days. In addition, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food must be notified of the birth within 27 days in order that the animal can be registered. In my opinion, the census relating to our livestock is even better than that which is carried out in respect of the human population. The recent census of population was out by 100,000 but that would not happen in agriculture because the regulations which apply at farm level are so tight. We know, from month to month, the exact number of animals that are alive at any one time. It is also possible to know the number of animals that are processed through meat factories, etc. If a difficulty arises, it can be detected and dealt with very quickly by means of our laboratory systems. As a result, there is no threat to our exports into the future. That is an extremely positive development.

The position is the same in respect of sheep. From this year, electronic tagging will apply in respect of the breeding ewe flock. This will prove to be extremely worthwhile, particularly as we export a great deal of sheep meat. It is good, therefore, the relevant regulations are in place. Such regulations also apply in respect of pigs and poultry.

The Minister of State referred to animal welfare. As farmers, we take pride in looking after our animals in the best way possible. Indeed, we produce only the best. We are always seeking to upgrade the quality of our animals and, in that context, we are very careful with regard to the meal and feed we use, the way in which we administer antibiotics, etc. We keep records in respect of what we do. Many people may not be aware that inspectors from the Department visit farms and check the amount of antibiotics, feedstuffs, etc., that are on hand at any one time. In the overall context, this is good for the industry.

We work closely with the dairy and veterinary research laboratories and with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. It is important for farmers and ordinary people to know that if a mistake is made or if an individual farmer tries to do something that is not right, he or she can be penalised and his or her single farm payment cut. If he or she is involved in the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, or the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, he or she also runs the risk of having his or her payment cut. These are serious penalties and, as a result, farmers are always extremely cautious with regard to how they operate. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland also works closely with the HSE and other health authorities. Again, if a difficulty arises, it can be detected and dealt with. Tight regulations apply in respect of meat factories. Veterinary inspectors visit these facilities and ensure that everything is working as it should be and that the relevant standards are being met. That which I have outlined is extremely positive in the context of the future of farming in Ireland. People across Europe and elsewhere can rest assured that farmers in this country produce to the highest standards.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland provides officials who help to man border inspection posts. Everyone is aware of the important role played by such posts during the outbreak of foot and mouth disease a number of years ago.

We were all very much involved in that and called at the time for an all-Ireland animal health policy, something we should consider for the future. An all-Ireland policy would ensure that Ireland, North and South, could deal with the problems we have on the island without reference to the Border or having to man the Border in the event of a problem. If the ports in Northern Ireland were all that had to be manned, the problem would be much easier to manage. This would unite us all even further and unite all involved in farming on the island of Ireland.

Food labelling is an important concern and it is crucial we have country of origin labelling on imported lamb, in particular, but also on pork and chicken. We have seen chicken brought in from places such as Thailand and the Middle East and then, once an additional process has been carried out on it, such as adding bread crumbs to it, it is labelled as Irish. That is unacceptable, particularly when we already have a good chicken and pork industry here. We need tighter labelling in this area. This would create more jobs, which is what it is all about. We must look at whatever will create jobs in Ireland so as to get our young people back working.

I was happy to hear the Minister of State mention organic production because some very poor land in County Leitrim is the home of The Organic Centre. This centre puts a number of students through its hands each year and trains them in organic production, mainly in the horticulture area. I look forward to working closely with the Minister and Minister of State in the future. It is important we keep adequate people in the sector to man the excellent industry we have and to keep producing the top-quality food we have been producing over the years.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. His passion and enthusiasm for this sector is clear and we are all grateful for that.

Before addressing the main issues, I suggest that one of the issues with regard to people wishing to get into the food industry at a micro level or on a small scale, with a view to expanding later, is the difficulty in finding a suitable premises. For example, kitchens that conform to health and safety regulations are not readily available to the many people trying to get in at the micro level. Perhaps that is something we should address.

Another issue that has come to my attention recently is that there seems to be a shortage of people trained to work in the forestry sector. While we may be able to plant the trees, there is a dearth of trained workers to manage the sector. Perhaps we should proactively seek people for training in that area so that the industry can develop.

It is heartening to hear that the smaller sections of our food industry are being so well promoted, and I support the Minister of State on that. Being from Sligo, I am pleased to stand next to my neighbour from Leitrim. Perhaps together, we can enliven debate in the Seanad on agriculture and agribusiness.

I want to focus my remarks on the idea that we are now in the business of an industry, the food industry. I remember when training to be a food scientist I worked for a while in a factory where our first job in the morning was to pick the flies out of the cheese vat. This job was particularly difficult because the cheese was soft curd and the flies sank into it. It was a type of paddling exercise trying to pick out the flies. That was before the days of good health and safety regulations but it is a reminder of the constant challenges that face the food industry. I have never forgotten that job and the image of the flies has remained with me. I was not very good at picking them out.

We now eat food produced in factories by an industry and no longer eat the potatoes taken directly from the ground into the house. Therefore, we must recognise that with the industry come all the dangers of the length of the food processing chain. We talk about people wanting to eat local food and food from Ireland, which is good, but we must remember that many of our ingredients come from all over the world.

We must recognise that the food safety area is now an industry in itself. While I commend the Minister of State's comments on encouraging people who do not have high points in their leaving certificate to come into the industry at the agricultural level, we should also support involvement in the food safety industry. We should work towards encouraging people towards jobs in what is a technical and difficult sector to get right.

I would like to draw attention to a story or problem that unfolded over four years in Europe as a result of the importation of a product called "guar gum". This is not something one chews in order to feel better but is a common product used for thickening products such as ketchup and soup. In 2007 the Swiss authorities discovered that certain batches of the gum imported from India were completely contaminated with dioxins. They were very concerned by this because once the gum is added to the many different foods, it is very difficult to trace the source of the problem. They went to India and carried out investigations and discovered that the Indian authorities had already carried out an investigation which they could not stand over because it was such a poor one. The Swiss then insisted that any guar gum coming from the place in India would require papers which were signed off officially demonstrating the gum production was properly controlled. However, when they returned to India again in 2009, they discovered there were still serious deficiencies in the production of the gum.

While we rightly pride ourselves on traceability here, which is second to none, our dilemma arises with the challenge that faces us in the global world, where common products in our food, like guar gum, pose their own dilemmas. Therefore, we must recognise that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has an enormous task, particularly when we consider the difficult issues it must face in terms of the safety of food. It must consider a diverse range of issues, such as whether food contains heavy metals, nutrient deficiencies, the occurrence of bacteria, the use of trans fatty acids, monosodium glutamate, irradiated water use for washing vegetables, adding vitamins to milk and in what proportions and the age old issues of additives, thickeners and preservatives. If we are to invest in our agrifood business, which is what we want to do because it is an industry where jobs are being created, we must ensure the capacity of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is maximised and that it does not lag behind. It must battle constantly to keep up with the challenges it faces as those in the technology field move ahead.

I remember being addressed in University College Cork by a colleague who had graduated some years previously. He was working in America and waxed lyrical about the wonders of strawberry milk and strawberry butter and milk that was not a dairy product. Back then — it was the last century — that seemed very strange to us, but the technology had already leapt ahead. My concern is that while we are busy investing in the food industry, we should not forget the importance of safety. We have already seen the problem here with dioxins in pork. Perhaps we need to invest more or perhaps the Department should liaise more with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which is doing a very good job. People have come to rely on the authority.

The issue of food safety is a relatively new phenomenon and we used not have problems like guar gum or overheated breadcrumbs on a pork product that ended up poisoning people. We must not allow a gap to occur between the production of food — which we are very good at — and the safeguarding of that food.

I would also like to draw attention to the sticky issue of food labelling. I realise the issue is not quite as simple as putting a label on it and saying it is Irish because that is what people want. I understand there are difficulties at European level and that the whole area of labelling is complex. We know that the voluntary task force in the UK put together the pig labelling system — I have no doubt that the Minister of State is perfectly aware of this. They decided in the absence of an European ruling on the source of products that they would go ahead and put a voluntary code in place and encourage all the producers and retailers to come together to work on the system. I know the IFA has been pressing for this here. I ask the Minister of State to yet again, I am sure he has had dialogue with the IFA, open that dialogue or to give us an update as to where the proposed system is at. We are waiting for the European Union to catch up and whether we get mandatory labelling for country of origin remains to be seen. There is clearly an argument as to whether we are allowed to say where products come from, whether the UK, Ireland or France because of the rules of competition. I appreciate that this a difficult area. As Senator Michael Comiskey has said, substantive transformation is causing headache not just to producers but to consumers also. It is vitally important that we address this in the coming years.

May I draw attention to a successful campaign on food labelling that has been announced today in Europe relating to palm oil. This again underlines the variety of ways that food labelling can operate. It can operate for nutritional or for safety reasons, as well as for country of origin. Those who were following the palm oil debate are aware of the environmental damage that has been caused by the proliferation of palm oil. It is a major environmental issue. Today the European Parliament has finally decided that it is obligatory to label palm oil as ‘palm oil' and not under the guise of vegetable oil. Consumers will now be able to see for themselves that the product has palm oil in it and if they then do not wish to buy it, they have the knowledge which gives them some control. We should consider the value of labelling together with the value of food safety. I urge that we grow an industry around food labelling and safety and create more jobs from it as a good companion to the wonderful work that farmers are already doing.

It is traditional to welcome a Minister on his first visit to the House and I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Shane McEntee. I am in bad humour tonight because we guillotined a Bill in the House in order to discuss food safety. In the past 18 years that I have been in this House we seldom guillotined a Bill, but at 6.45 p.m. we guillotined a Bill on civil law in order to discuss food safety.

The Minister of State has told the House what he does and has spoken about many topics, greyhound racing, forestry, betting taxes, but I do not think he mentioned the consumer once, but perhaps he did, but I did not see it. I am quite concerned. I was willing to put up with a guillotine on the previous Bill because we were going to discuss the important subject of how we are to achieve food safety. Yes, the Minister of State touched on it, but I hardly saw it.

I am exercised by the topic of a ministry for food and agriculture. Back in 1994, I was on the committee that established Bord Bia. However I had a minority report, which was to state that Bord Bia should be established but it should be in any Department but the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I believe there is a clash between the interests of agriculture production and food. There is a significant opportunity for food in Ireland, but that should not be mixed up with agriculture. It could well be that we use Irish agricultural products to produce our food, but if we are to create a food business and succeed in a food business we should ensure it is not being driven by agriculture alone. There should be two different hats. Today, one of the few times that the Minister of State spoke about the retail trade, what did he say? Let me quote:

I agree entirely with the conclusion and recommendations of the action group with regard to creating a more level playing field in the retail sector. I have written to the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, to emphasise the importance of greater statutory oversight on retail multiples because of their negative impact on the industry, and I have asked him to give serious consideration to the issues raised by the action group in this regard.

The action group comprises farmers who want to control the nasty supermarkets.

I believe the supermarket business has been achieving major success in bringing good food to the Irish people in years past, whether it is from Ireland or not. I believe there is a clash between farmers on the one side and the consumers on the other. Farmers must be driven by the consumer. I remember being a member of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food when the then European Commissioner for Agriculture, Herr Franz Fischler, addressed the committee for 20 minutes and never mentioned the consumer once in his speech.

We need a discussion on food safety. The Government plans to ban the sale of raw milk in Ireland. Legislation has been drafted without public consultation and it could be become law in autumn 2011. This statement was made by the slow food group. We would welcome and encourage regulations on the sale of raw milk as with any other food product, regulation is necessary and correct. At present the sale of raw milk is legal because of a 2007 EU directive, four years later the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has not introduced guidelines or imposed regulations on the sale of raw milk, but I gather the intention is to ban the sale of raw milk. With the volume of raw milk that is used in cheese and other products, it is possible to have regulations. Sheridans Cheesemongers, a very well-know cheese producer states they have been selling raw milk from David Tiernan's farm in Dunleer, County Louth in their shops since November 2010 and have had a fantastic response from customers. They are also aware of two other producers in Ireland selling raw milk. Darina Allen has written a seven-page letter, in which she suggests the establishment of a register of licensed producers who undertake an agreed greater than normal surveillance of herd health and milk quality. Best practice in other jurisdictions can be used as a model for such a protocol which with mandatory labelling for instance stating ‘may contain pathogens'. They have regulations in Britain. They have not banned the sale of raw milk but have regulations so that they control it. We could ensure that we control it in that way. I believe that is what we should be discussing.

The Minister of State referred to technology and I wish to comment further on that matter. There are major opportunities in science. There are 6 billion people in the world and it is estimated that the population will grow to 9 billion by 2050. How will we feed the world unless we use modern science? Modern science can do it. We have practically banned genetically modified organisms in Ireland. We should be the ones who are saying at least, lets investigate it, let us see what we can do. The developments in science are wonderful. One of my heroes was a man called Norman Borlaug, who died last year at the age of 95 years. He won the Nobel prize in 1970 for creating a change in wheat and maize products that saved the lives of thousands of people. He was able to create and save it. We are not moving in the direction of doing it. We are very fortunate to have the Institute of Food and Health in UCD and they have a very impressive programme. They have a very strong link with the China Agricultural University, CAU, and have an exchange programme and people come to Ireland and some have gone over to that university There is a very strong link between the exchange and what we can achieve.

Let me tell a story. In 1989, I was on a customer panel in one of our supermarkets and a customer told me they had been talking about the advertisements on the radio about the product for cattle with the slogan "it is a queer name but it is great stuff", an injection for cattle. They were worried about the meat they were eating and asked me to put their minds at rest. We put a traceability scheme in place and later when we had it established, we were able to show a photograph of the farmer whose meat was being supplied in the supermarkets that day and for the week. Four years later, on 26 March 1996, when the House of Commons announced a link between CJD, the human form of mad cow disease, the sale of beef dropped dramatically almost everywhere. At the time Bord Bia told us we were one of the few companies where sales jumped because we were one of the few who had achieved a traceability system, although it was not fool-proof.

Since then, Trinity College Dublin developed a new scheme, Identigen, which is not paper based, but is able to trace a sliver from each beast as it is killed. It means one can trace back not just to the farm but to the actual animal and every single beast. In that case it is cattle but the scheme is now capable of being applied to other animals. It is a Trinity College Dublin invention and it is now being sold in the US. It manages to establish traceability that is not based on paper, which can be fiddled with on that basis.

There are huge opportunities to get things done. It will not work unless we recognise that we need somebody to protect consumers, that is, somebody whose job it is to make sure that people who buy Irish food, whether in Ireland or exported, that they are able to get a product they know is way ahead of anything else.

The pigmeat scandal in recent years arose not because of bad husbandry but from feed. It damaged the pigmeat business over one weekend and did huge harm. That is where the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is working very hard and is doing a very good job. Let us make sure that continues to happen. If we are to succeed, we must ensure that what happened never happens again. What happened to the Spanish cucumber growers and the beansprout growers in France and northern Germany can happen so easily to us here.

We have got to ensure that somebody is wearing the hat of protecting Irish consumers and the Irish food industry. I urge the Minister to concentrate his attention on ensuring that happens rather than necessarily blaming the big supermarkets because the farmers have told him they are at fault. There will always be a blame game between the two. There will have to be some way of protecting the Irish consumers by ensuring they are getting the very best food. I know the Minister's heart is in the right place. If I am cross today, it is not just because of the previous Bill but because of this aspect also.

I call Senator Pat O'Neill who has six minutes.

I wish to share time with Senator Keane. Are we sharing six minutes or do we have six minutes each?

The Senators have three minutes each.

We are sharing the six minutes.

I thank the Senator for doing so because it will ensure that Senator Kathryn Reilly, who has been here for——

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee. I disagree with Senator Quinn that we must be prepared to promote all new scientific developments in regard to food production. Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach.

Food safety is one of the most important issues in the world today. The world has to produce 70% more food from its land by 2050 so the challenges for food, fuel and fibre safety and security will be enormous. We in Ireland must set up the best global food safety scheme because food safety cannot be looked at in isolation. We must be at the forefront of the mind of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when policy is being formulated in discussions around CAP reform and trade agreements with non-EU countries, particularly the South American states.

Let us look at the recent food scares — the baby food in China, the bean sprouts in Germany and in Ireland the pig feed issue in Wexford, a problem which we dealt with immediately. A system must be in place to enable us to deal with such problems immediately. In this regard food production in Ireland must be the safest in the world. We must strongly promote our excellent record when marketing our products abroad.

Currently, we are producing enough food to feed 36 million people. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Simon Coveney, has set a goal of producing enough food for 50 million people into the future. The Minister has been very proactive since assuming his role and has spoken frequently of his desire to promote the Irish agrifood industry and to increase Irish exports. He announced recently that our agrifood exports grew by 13% in the first five months of this year and predicted a growth of more than €600 million for a second consecutive year. While some industries have grown rapidly and then imploded, Irish agrifood has remained a constant reliable pillar of our economy since the foundation of the State and that is what we need to continue. People will always want to buy high quality food and the ability to produce excellent produce, using the highest standards of production values, is a core strength of Irish agriculture.

A significant step in linking our country with top quality food was taken in May when Queen Elizabeth II visited the English market in Cork. Viewers in the UK and around the world may have been surprised to see the quality of the produce that the Queen viewed. Of course, Cork's status as a "foodie" location has been well known in Ireland for many years and now a global audience is aware of it. The whole island will benefit from these images of the Queen admiring the produce that is available in Cork.

The Food Harvest 2020 report, which contains a programme to increase exports, is already ahead of its targets in some areas. Its targets have included an increase of 20% in the value of beef output in nine years but this target was upgraded to 40%. I urge the Minister and the Minister of State to ensure that the strongest best practice framework is in place to protect the integrity and reputation of Ministers of the member states farming interests. The E. coli outbreak was handled very badly and all member states must take a lesson from the incident. I am confident that the Minister and Minister of State will ensure protocols are in place to protect Ireland's reputation as being at the forefront of food safety.

I thank Senator O'Neill. I will speak quickly but I have something important to say on the food legislation. Senator Feargal Quinn spoke about one type of technology, the GM. I will speak about another type of technology that is not mentioned in the report, that is, nanotechnology and its application in the food sector and particularly for the consumer.

Nanotechnology is the science of engineering materials at the Nanoscale. It is viewed by the food industry as a means of enhancing food safety and nutrient bioavailability with some examples already available on the market, albeit not in Ireland but it is coming fast. In 2008 the Food Safety Authority of Ireland carried out a report on nanotechnology and its potential future applications in Ireland and food packaging. It made a series of recommendations on nanotechnology to ensure that consumer safety is protected in regard to development in this area. The report identifies potential benefits for the consumer and manufacturers from nanotechnology which excludes extending the shelf life of products as well as the possible effects of the food chain and the recognised gaps in our knowledge base on this issue. There is therefore, as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has said, a need to ensure that regulatory or legislative controls are adequate to safeguard human health.

Nanotechnology is expected to offer immense potential for future product development. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland further states that, while there are no foods currently on the Irish market that incorporate nanotechnology, policies should be devised now in advance of their arrival. They are coming in on the Internet but we do not have any legislation in that area. The report, which was compiled by our own food safety authority, recommends legislation on an EU scale.

We should look at what is best for Ireland and welcome with open arms the new technology that will benefit the country. It is referred to in some areas as the intelligence of the good. A role in the development of intelligent food packaging will provide a greater degree of traceability of products. This is where nanotechnology comes in.

All of those developments are in place and we should be legislating or preparing to legislate for them. For example, nanostructured metal films and coatings can strengthen bottles and other plastic wrappings materials and the incorporation of nanocensors into food packaging material will allow for the detection of contaminants such as harmful bacteria in food, which many speakers have mentioned, and their surroundings in the environment. As it affects the environment, we could trace the packaging through nanotechnology. I ask the Minister to do something on that issue.

I will begin by outlining a definition of what food safety means. The international agreed definition of it is the concept that food will not cause harm to the consumer when it is prepared or eaten according to its intended use. Food safety is of critical importance. All the talk in this country about our economic regeneration is around the Food Harvest 2020 report and what this country can do to meet the increasing demand for food globally. If we are to fulfil our potential, the safety of the food we produce is crucial to satisfying international demand. From a food safety point of view, Ireland is in a very strong position, particularly in respect of the commodity products we produce and export. Meat, dairy and fish products were worth €8 billion and we also produce and export drinks. Traceability of all produce in this country is first class, our processing facilities are of a very high standard, staff hygiene training standards are excellent and product processing and testing regimes are strictly enforced by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The FSAI does very good work. There has been some criticism of the FSAI due to its handling of the pork dioxin recall, which cost approximately €400 million. Perhaps the authority jumped in too soon but they are damned if they do and likewise if they do not. Overall, the manner in which it was handled won acclaim for the FSAI. We must pay tribute to the staff for the work they do.

My background is as a food technologist employed in the food safety sector. What frightens me most about food safety in Ireland is our exposure if a German or Spanish cucumber issue emerges in Ireland and affects our food exports. What would be the knock-on effects if it affected our beef sector and the Irish economy? A comment made recently by an EU food safety expert that "food in Europe has never been safer", is open to question when one considers the German cucumber incident.

We can be fickle when we think back to ten years ago and a rogue trader or importer caused the foot and mouth outbreak in the Cooley Peninsula. We are open to exposure and one such incident could bring down the deck of cards and cause major problems for the implementation of what we are trying to achieve in the Food Harvest 2020 report and to our economic recovery.

This country has incredibly high standards for food premises, which are rigidly enforced. Some say enforcement is too rigid but these standards tend to put barriers in front of smaller producers in a regional setting. The criteria may be too stringent on a region to region basis. The Department should set up a forum to assist those who want to establish food businesses. There should be a pathway for those people rather than barriers. The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food spoke about breaking down barriers and how civil servants dealing with food safety will make it easier for these people. The Minister of State might reflect on these comments and respond to the comments of the Minister.

The new term in the global context is food defence, which is an American term that refers to defending the problem before it begins. We spoke about the Food Harvest 2020 report, the objectives and the increase in the global demand for food, of 50% by 2030 and 70% by 2050. The demand this will place on the industry, the demands placed on food safety and the additional demand on the Department and the FSAI are the challenges we must meet as a country. We must ensure there is no compromise on the safety of additional production. Otherwise, we leave ourselves vulnerable. Senator Reilly may address food labelling and I would love to discuss it in detail. It is a massive area and, if we run out of time, we could have another discussion on it. It is an important aspect of economic growth and Food Harvest 2020. Labelling is crucial. I agree with Senator O'Keeffe on the British model. We should examine the model of being in isolation to Europe, jumping the gun prior to getting formal approval from Europe.

I thank all Senators for facilitating me in contributing to this debate. I welcome the Minister of State. The legislative proposals in the European Parliament this week mean we need a debate on food labelling at another stage. It is important to have a debate on food labelling when experts from across Europe are gathering in Dublin for the Society for Applied Microbiology conference. We all take for granted that the food we eat is safe and we trust that the systems will protect us from disease. However, recent scares from BSE, pork dioxins and the E. coli outbreak tell us that we must remain vigilant. These diseases have a health and economic impact. Prompt detection and identifying the sources is imperative if public health interventions are to be effective. This is not a sensationalist scare story but a real issue and it has an impact on our communities and our economy.

Senator Mary White outlined the drastic and devastating effect of the E. coli outbreak in Europe. It has killed 51 people so far, with 49 deaths in Germany, one in the US and one in Sweden. More than 4,000 people in Germany have fallen sick since the outbreak, including 851 people with serious complications that could lead to kidney failure. The same bacteria has been responsible for smaller outbreaks in France. It was initially blamed on cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and beansprouts. The source has finally been identified as Egyptian fenugreek seeds. The occurrence of a number of high-profile outbreaks of serious illness has focused more attention on this important issue. In respect of the socioeconomic impact of foodborne illnesses, the costs to be calculated include treatment costs, product recall costs and, for the food industry, the effect of the loss of public confidence in businesses in the food and tourism industries and disruption to hospital services. From the product recall point of view, we must only look at the pork dioxin scare and the cost of this to the Irish economy, estimated at over €180 million.

Senator Comiskey referred to an all-Ireland approach, on which I want to focus. safefood, the food safety promotion board, has a statutory function to develop a strategy for the effective delivery of a specialised enteric laboratory service for the island of Ireland. safefood was established in 1999 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The North-South Ministerial Council gave it a role of conducting a cost benefit analysis of different ways of meeting Ireland’s need for an enteric reference laboratory service. This would provide definitive identification of the cause of enteric illnesses. It is essential for outbreak recognition and the identification of emerging threats. Currently, much testing relating to food safety in Ireland, north and south of the Border, is conducted by the laboratory of enteric pathogens in Colindale, London. This is an internationally renowned centre of excellence. However, if there was force majeure in the jurisdiction of England, Scotland or Wales, it could result in a massive disruption to the service to the island of Ireland. Should a major foodborne disease break out across Britain and Ireland, Ireland will fall to the bottom of the list in terms of testing. Current turnaround times for samples submitted to Britain from the Republic of Ireland are longer than desirable, for the North they remain just about acceptable. However, in a time of crisis this will not be sustainable. This matter was agreed previously through the North-South Ministerial Council and would deliver substantial benefits to both jurisdictions. For that reason, I ask the Minister of State and his colleagues in the Departments of health, both North and South, if he will facilitate the costing report for an islandwide enteric reference centre on the island. Such a report would cost only €40,000 and provision for it has been made already in the safefood budget. All that is required from the Government is to expedite this process for the agreement of both Departments. This service for the island of Ireland would enhance public health protection by ensuring the rapid identification of the causes of foodborne disease, facilitating traceback to the sources of infection and allowing the sharing of comprehensive data on these organisms. It would mean that should a food scare break out in this country we would not have the Cluedo theatrics we saw with the E. coli scare in Europe, concerning the source of the outbreak.

I reiterate what I stated in this House, including last week, namely, we should not have to wait for a food crisis to discuss these important issues. The benefits of acting would be enormous. We would see the centralisation of expertise which would help the development of a high quality reference service and, as a dedicated research centre with the critical mass of scientists, a laboratory could rapidly establish a culture of excellence and professionalism and give staff improved career development opportunities. This is worth pursuing and I ask the Minister of State to consider it in a serious way within his Department and the Department of Health. I ask him to assure us this issue will be expedited and confirm when a report will be commissioned and concluded.

The Minister of State has five minutes to reply.

That could take two hours. I thank everybody for making a contribution. I am probably not in a position to tell certain speakers what will happen regarding matters they raised and will return to them.

I refer to the first issue, namely, what happened in Germany. If we had been as quick as the Germans were to blame others for their cucumbers we would now be closed down as a country. The first thing I learned about traceability in regard to a food problem when I went into my Department — an eye-opener when one is not used to it — is that within two seconds, or one telephone call, everybody is involved in tracing what went wrong and making a decision concerning our food industry. All those people, from the veterinary end and other areas, are available and this is something of which we should be very proud. We have the best people in the world — that is not to tempt fate. The Germans blamed somebody else but one should never tempt fate. In this industry we know that what can go wrong will go wrong and we have had some such instances. We should always work and progress the latest and most up-to-date technology and scientific information if we are to grow the industry. I have seen this in Monaghan Mushrooms, CNP, which has 62% of the market. All the growers were going out of business but decided to form a PO within the industry. That should be the model for everybody.

We have an obligation. Senators may ask what the greyhound industry has to do with food safety and Senator Quinn made a fair comment in one regard. A person might ask me what forestry has to do with food safety in this country. However, we must grow our industry. For the past three or four years I have been told that cow numbers or beef numbers could not be increased because of environmental issues. The poor old cow is blamed for everything. However, now one has been educated to realise that if we grow our forests in conjunction with our beef and dairy industries the whole lot works hand in hand. It is the same in the greyhound industry although it may not be related to food safety. I have visited most of the 16 or 17 tracks. Those where food is not served have poor attendances. Last Saturday I was invited to the track in Limerick, a place to which one could bring anybody in the world. It is not only about seeing dogs, or eating, but about getting the best food that one might find anywhere. There were 300 or 400 people sitting down, hen parties, and so on. It is all related, as is the growth in the industry.

Many points have been made, including the issue of young people who want to get into the industry and the training centres, as Senator O'Keeffe rightly noted. A large number of big restaurants have closed down, including a couple in my own county where we already promoted the notion of one person using these premises for two days, followed by another person for another two days. They use the facility to learn how to cook properly and prepare meals, or whatever. We cannot allow anything stop growth in jobs. In my portfolio this comes at the lower end, the least recognised areas, whether in horticulture or forestry. They must be protected first.

Senator Quinn may be annoyed about this but I could become twice as annoyed at what I have discovered. This will be addressed. Twenty years ago there were 2,000 vegetable growers in the country. Ten years ago there were 1,000. Now there are 200. If we do not start protecting them by getting their produce on the shelves in an orderly fashion they, too, will go. I realise how important the big supermarkets are in the provision of food and everything else. However, the most hurtful thing I experienced in the past three or four months was sitting down with people in the horticulture and processing business and seeing they were afraid. They were afraid that I would speak about what was happening to them and how they are being treated. As a person who comes from an agricultural background I know this should not be allowed and have started a process to ensure it will not. This is not about getting into a row with supermarkets. I will act in a proper fashion. If we allow matters to continue the way they are going we will not have a vegetable or a tomato growing in this country. There will be no horticulture industry. All I ask for, ultimately, is that if there is a shelf in a supermarket it will have Irish-grown produce and non-Irish produce. That is not to ask too much.

Labelling is a massive issue in this country and the debate on this will become stronger. Nobody questions Irish beef because it is the bigger end of the industry. Irish beef and milk products will sell anywhere but it is the small industries in our agriculture sector that are attacked. It is very annoying to sit down with a farmer who says "Don't say you were talking to me". That is wrong. The mushroom industry got that right. Those processors were out of business two or three years ago but they got together and formed a PO. They now have something the world wants, from a technology point of view as well as product, and have 62% of the market. We can do the same with all aspects of our smaller industries in the horticultural and food ends of the business.

Senator Quinn was annoyed but I get twice as annoyed, as a person who has gone around the country. Perhaps he will say I am farm oriented. However, the multinationals need us as much as we need them. I predict that in two years' time we will not have a single person in horticulture if we do not establish proper and fair labelling for food on the shelf. If materials are added to or taken away from the product let this be stated, but let one issue not hide another behind it. That is at the heart of all this. My portfolio is about protecting the 33,000 jobs involved in the three areas in question but it also concerns growing. We must work together. Many issues were discussed in the Chamber by Senators, including that of raw milk whereto names of different people were dropped. Ireland is an exporting country. If there is any doubt about a process or any risk involved, one does not take the action in question, for health reasons. Those who grew up in farming communities in the 1970s and 1980s knew there were consequences from drinking raw milk. I know it. If there is a doubt about it, an exporting country like ours should not do it unless we know it is 100% safe.

Regarding the forestry industry, it goes hand in hand with this area and it has to do with energy costs and so on. The more we use our forests for wood pellet production or whatever the better and when the refit tariff comes in we will have cheaper energy costs. All of that helps to bring down the cost of food production.

I would spend hours debating this issue. We could have the Minister for Health and others here to discuss health and safety but everything to do with agriculture has a health and safety aspect to it.

We have the best regulations in the world in regard to safety and traceability. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is an independent body. I met its representatives for the first time last week and I know they will put the consumer first. They will make a decision based on the consumer and once that is done, we will deal with everything else.

This is a growing industry and we will make it grow. The contributions of all Members will help that materialise but we must be in a position whereby the people who grow the food adhere to the best regulations in the world. It is important that we market the industry, be it at greyhound tracks or wherever. Almost every Senator and Deputy has a rural or food producing connection. We must get out and sell what is good. The jobs are being created on the ground. I would like to see more Irish people getting involved in horticulture where there are good jobs available. When those jobs are advertised, people should apply for them.

There are many issues I did not address individually but I will refer to my notes and get back to the Senator in regard to the question she raised. I may meet the Senator for perhaps half an hour to discuss it. I have not been briefed on the point the Senator was making and I would like to hear it again with a view to acting on it. I thank the Members.

That concludes the statements. When is it proposed to sit again?

Leath uair tar éis a deich maidin amárach.