Tuesday, 27 January 2004

Questions (23, 24, 25)

Oral answers (27 contributions) (Question to Minister for Agriculture)

I will call on the Deputies who tabled questions to the Minister for Agriculture and Food in the order in which they submitted their questions to my office.

Mary Upton


Dr. Upton asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food the steps being taken to protect the Irish poultry flock from the threat of avian flu; the steps being taken to ensure the withdrawal of products from the shops following the recent EU ban on the importation of chicken from Thailand; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

View answer

Billy Timmins


Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food if Thai chicken produced since November 2003 is on sale here; the way in which the importation of such chicken is monitored; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

View answer

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin


Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food if he will undertake urgent measures to protect the health of the Irish public and safeguard the future of the Irish poultry industry from the threat of the avian flu virus.

View answer

Avian influenza is an infectious disease of birds. Migratory waterfowl, most notably wild duck, are the natural reservoir of avian influenza viruses and these birds are also most resistant to infection. Domestic poultry, including chickens and turkeys, are particularly susceptible to epidemics of rapidly fatal influenza. Outbreaks of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza have been confirmed in poultry in south-east Asia and the only country approved for export of poultry meat and poultry meat products to the EU in this region is Thailand.

Avian influenza viruses rarely affect humans and do not normally infect species other than birds. The virus has on occasion, however, been isolated in humans, and in Vietnam the H5N1 virus has been isolated from a small number of patients who have died. There is, however, no evidence that the virus can be transmitted from poultry to humans other than by direct contact with infected birds. The risk from poultry meat to humans is negligible as the virus is destroyed during meat maturation, by cooking and by stomach acids.

Within the EU, the response to the outbreak in Thailand is being co-ordinated and operated by the EU Commission. In line with its responsibility, the Commission has taken a safeguard decision, No. 2004/84/EC, which prohibits the import of fresh meat of poultry, ratites, wild and farmed feathered game; meat preparations and meat products consisting of or containing meat of these species; raw material for pet food production; and eggs for human consumption. The decision does not apply to meat obtained from birds slaughtered before 1 January 2004 and poultry meat products that have been heat-treated.

The provisions of the Commission decisions apply to all EU member states. We have announced a ban on the direct import into Ireland of poultry meat and products, in line with the EU Commission decision, with effect from 24 January 2004. This is being implemented by the veterinary inspection services of the Department at the border inspection posts, in Dublin Port and Shannon Airport. Since 1 January 2004, there have been three imports of Thai poultry meat directly into Ireland and all this product was, according to the veterinary certificates submitted under third country import requirements, produced in the period October to November 2003. In view of the fact that all poultry meat imported from Thailand is frozen and takes at least two weeks to reach Europe, it is unlikely that there is any poultry meat from Thailand in Irish retail or catering premises which has been produced from poultry slaughtered since 1 January 2004.

With regard to poultry meat products in the shops, we are guided in our approach by the scientific opinions available from the European Commission services, including the European Food Safety Agency, the World Health Organisation, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and our departmental veterinary services. The risk to public health from poultry meat is small and the risk of persons catching influenza from cooked poultry meat is zero. In line with this scientific advice, having poultry meat withdrawn from sale in the current situation is unnecessary.

The Department has in place an ongoing monitoring programme for avian influenza in poultry. During 2002-03, a more extensive survey of poultry and wild birds was carried out as part of an EU survey. The results showed no evidence of H5 or H7 subtypes. These subtypes are of most importance in poultry as they are the subtypes that cause highly pathogenic avian influenza and are the only subtypes that have been associated with deaths in humans.

The introduction of avian influenza to the Irish poultry flock is a constant threat, which primarily exists from wild birds, particularly from migratory waterfowl. The risk of introduction via imported poultry meat is negligible in this country as it is highly unlikely that uncooked poultry meat will be eaten by poultry. The epidemic of influenza that is currently occurring in Asia is a timely reminder of the risks posed by wild birds. Our Department is currently contacting all poultry farmers to remind them of the precautions they can take to help keep out avian diseases. I wish to emphasise that our Department has a contingency plan in place to deal with any outbreak or suspected outbreak of avian influenza in our poultry flock.

Controls operated on imports ensure that meat imports come from third countries or areas of third countries approved for export to the EU. In addition, meat may only be sourced from establishments in those countries which are approved and must bear an EU approved health mark. The Food and Veterinary Office of the European Union carries out inspections to ensure that only establishments that meet hygiene and health standards equivalent to those operating within the EU are approved. Where the FVO is satisfied that public health requirements are not being met by an approved establishment in a third country, the establishment may be removed from the EU approved list. If outbreaks of animal diseases occur in a third country, approval to export to the EU is suspended for the infected regions of the country or the whole country, as appropriate, until the disease risk has been eliminated.

At the EU border inspection post all consignments undergo a documentary and identity check and physical checks are carried out at frequencies laid down in EU law. Where required, sampling for laboratory analysis for the purposes of safeguarding human and animal health is carried out. Once imported meat has met all the required conditions, it is released for free circulation within the Union. Copies of the border inspection post clearance document and the health certificate must accompany the consignment to its destination.

The European Commission has acted quickly and appropriately in line with the threat posed by the outbreak in Thailand. We in Ireland have acted promptly in line with the EU Commission decision in the interests of human and poultry health in Ireland. The situation in south-east Asia is being kept under review by the Commission and by the veterinary services of our Department.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, although I have a number of questions arising from it. It is clear that this influenza was rampant in Thailand long before it was officially notified. I appreciate that the Minister of State cannot take responsibility for that. However, it must be acknowledged and action must be taken on foot of that information. It is clear that during November it was basically hidden in Thailand. That is significant in terms of the dates and times after which the meat was banned in this country.

The FVO is the EU agency with responsibility for monitoring in third countries. It is located in County Meath. I understand the last time it visited Thailand was in 2001. From what I saw on its website, it visited only three slaughter houses. Is the Minister of State entirely satisfied with the frequency, extent and outcome of those visits? Is he aware of any spot-checks? Are visits pre-arranged? What representations, if any, have been made to the Food and Veterinary Office following this current outbreak?

There are serious concerns about labelling. I went to the supermarket last Saturday to buy some chicken. I did not have any way of knowing where that poultry came from as it was not labelled. It could have been from the planet Mars for all I knew. I am aware that there was no hazard associated with it once I had cooked it. There is an issue of consumer confidence and genuine consumer concern which has not been addressed. It is crucial that imported products are labelled with the country of origin. That has been highlighted during this current outbreak.

Is there any information about the process in this country for sourcing poultry from Thailand? I understand a certain amount of it comes in through the EU, but there are importers here through whom it comes in directly. What checks, if any, are imposed on such importers and what standards apply to them? Are they answerable for the quality and safety of the products they import?

It is clear that this is more an economic risk than a health risk at present. However, there are health issues which must be addressed for the future, particularly in terms of any risk which might relate to the transmission of avian influenza and its convergence with human influenza. The ultimate consequences of that have been highlighted by a number of publications, including the World Health Organisation. It is clear the consequences of that would imply a pandemic of influenza which would be difficult to control.

I thank the Deputy for those interesting questions. I do not have all the information for the questions she asked. As regards the possibility that this problem may have been rampant in Thailand before November or before it was notified, the European Commission has constantly monitored and assessed the situation. From the information available to it, we are satisfied that we are in control of the situation vis-à-vis imports to this country.

Today the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, addressed the environment and agricultural committees of the European Parliament where this issue was discussed. It was concluded at those meetings that the situation was an animal health issue, as distinct from a human health issue. It is a great consolation that there is international agreement on that. The European Commission is committed to stringent standards. We have an ongoing monitoring programme in place, which was assessed by the European Commission last autumn. It concluded in a recent report that our standards were among the highest in Europe and it was satisfied with our operations.

As regards the Food and Veterinary Office of the European Union and its visits to Thailand, I do not have information on that, but I will seek it out immediately. When I get that information, I will give it to the Deputy.

As regards labelling, the Department addressed that issue in recent years through the food division. We established a national body to assess the situation. Questions were asked about whether it was appropriate to label every product and about the type of labelling which should be done. That matter is currently under review as we work to get agreement between producers, distributors and other commercial operations to ensure that we do not create any impediment which would deflect from the capacity of Irish food products to penetrate European and global markets. That is of great importance to our economy. We want products to be labelled so that the consumer can identify where a product is produced. We hope to achieve that in a balanced way. We hope to find a resolution sooner rather than later.

Thailand exports approximately $336 million of poultry to the EU. Some 1,200 tonnes of chicken are exported to this country, mainly in the form of fillets. Deputy Upton said that people do not know from where certain products come. We do not know from where chicken fillets come. Does the Minister of State agree that is a serious issue? He said in his initial reply, "the European Commission has acted quickly and appropriately in line with the threat posed by the outbreak in Thailand." That is completely baseless because allegations have been made in Thailand since last November about the presence of bird influenza. Traders, farmers, veterinarians and consumer groups have sought to raise the issue with the Government in Thailand in recent weeks. It appears that there has been a cover-up in Thailand to protect the vested interests rather than the consumers.

On Monday week last Commissioner Byrne stated in Bangkok that there was no evidence of the existence of bird influenza in Thailand. He was misled by the Thai Government, and the food and veterinary office was not doing its job. Will the Minister of State, with the Minister for Agriculture and Food, try to rein in the food and veterinary office? I have seen inspection reports it has produced on beef in Brazil and Argentina that have identified problems, yet nothing seems to happen.

It is said that this flu does not affect humans if the meat undergoes a certain process but it is possible that chicken produced since November was infected. Is it possible that we could be importing some of that product and that it is on sale here, having come in from other EU countries? The Minister of State says that the possibility of it coming directly from Thailand is not an issue. We may, however, be taking it from other EU countries. In mid-2002 banned carcinogenic substances were found in poultry from Thailand. Prior to that approximately 20% of product was checked but following that discovery 100% was checked. Will the Minister of State say whether that check is still in place or has it been reduced? If the Minister of State cannot answer the question now he can give me the answer later.

Does he agree that this shows once again the complete lack of information given to consumers regarding products?

We do not know where or how a product is produced. It appears on this occasion that the food and veterinary office, despite the Minister of State's comments, acted quickly and appropriately. We are three months behind. The Japanese banned the import of this product, and in a pre-emptive strike, Thailand banned its export, perhaps even before the EU banned the import which it did as a reaction to the Thai export ban.

Last year we imported 966 tonnes of poultry product from Thailand. In 2002 we imported approximately 1,200 tonnes. The present system and the food and veterinary office and Commission operations in the European Union ensure constant monitoring in all the countries exporting product to the European Union. If product were coming in here through EU countries rather than directly the checks would operate. We have a very rigid system of veterinary inspectors, agriculture officers and Customs and Excise officers checking at the ports. Certificates must be shown and they carry the product to its destination. There is no need for anyone to be scared. We are satisfied there is no product here from Thailand produced since November. We have quality product, we are in a global market and within the European Union where extra checks and balances operate.

I will raise the issue mentioned by Deputy Timmins with the food and veterinary office to ensure regular checking and implementation of the regulations and criteria to provide an absolute guarantee for the quality of the product coming into the European Union. Our colleagues at the WTO are sure to raise this at the next round of discussions.

I am concerned the Minister of State does not agree that the virus potentially represents a grave danger to the health of the public and the future of the poultry industry. It represents a threat to both. Surely all chicken products without country of origin labels should be immediately removed from our market. That is the very least that should be done in this situation. I am not convinced by the EU directive on Thai imports. Maybe Deputy Upton can offer a professional opinion in this regard but frozen birds mean frozen virus, not dead virus. That is a very important point. The freezing of chicken meat does not kill a virus in the bird, it merely freezes it. The danger exists that the virus can be reactivated in the thaw-out process. Thailand is only one of eight Asian countries in which this avian flu outbreak has been recorded. There have been seven recorded deaths, six in Vietnam and one, of a six year old boy, in Thailand. This is a very serious matter.

There is one sentence in the text distributed by the Minister of State which he did not read into the record. Perhaps he overlooked it in the course of his address or skipped over it by mistake and I wish to highlight it. The record will show that I am absolutely accurate in the point I make. It states: "There are no imports of poultry meat from Thailand recorded, which have been produced in that country after November 2003." Maybe there is no significance in the Minister of State's omission and if so I am prepared to accept his assurance. I watched carefully and followed the course of his delivery and the text presented. Will the Minister of State clarify this point?

The word "recorded" in that sentence is very important. How can we be sure that poultry imported from Thailand or any of the other affected countries has not reached, or is not reaching, our shores? The poultry industry is critically important to my constituency which has recently lost one of the most significant outlets for local producers. I am concerned that there is ongoing importation of poultry meat, some of which is recorded and perhaps some of which is not. My interest is twofold, for the health care concerns of the public I represent and the producers whose livelihoods depend on a first class product, made under the stringent controls imposed by the Minister of State, his Department and the Government, which I commend. People are concerned that the situation is not as tight as it should be, and that must be addressed.

What is the position of chicken products from Thailand which remain in the European Union after the import ban has been imposed? Is it not time for compulsory country of origin labelling to be required at national and EU levels? Will the Government press for that during the EU Presidency? Surely our Presidency of the European Union is a golden opportunity for the Government, particularly the Minister for Agriculture and Food and his colleagues in the Department, to ensure that best practice is employed not only here but across the European Union. If there is laxity and an opportunity for irregular activity to take place in this very important sector, it will continue after enlargement of the Union when undoubtedly the stringency required at least for an interim period, will be absent. This is imperative for our health and for the future of this industry.

Traceability is extremely important to the consumer, the producer and those who are employed in poultry processing units. The livelihoods of the workers in these factories also depends on best practice and an above the board operation in every aspect of poultry production and its onward sale to the consumer.

There is the further concern not directly related to the avian flu virus but of great concern to the poultry sector, particularly in the constituency I represent, that is, the importation of poultry litter to the compost manufacturing yards in my constituency and other locations in this jurisdiction. What measures are being considered by the Department to ensure that these poultry litter importers operate under the waste management guidelines set down in the various regional documents? Have they got licences for the transfer of such waste material? Are the necessary checks in place regarding what the poultry litter may contain or entail in the manufacturing of compost?

This practice which has recently developed in cross-Border traffic represents a threat to poultry producers in County Monaghan and the neighbouring counties because they cannot now dispose of the waste produced at their units. I raised this important matter at local authority level yesterday and now with the Minister of State. I ask for his direct attention and intervention to protect the poultry production sector in the constituency I represent and throughout the jurisdiction.

I was a member of a health board from 1999 to last November, when I had to stand aside as a result of the ending of the dual mandate. I raised at health board level the issue of the sourcing of poultry products. I am of the view, which I believe is shared by many people, that in the catering sector and in areas under the control and influence of Government, either directly or through the various arms of local government, in this instance health boards, poultry products are used which are not sourced at home. There is a question of traceability. If we are to see best practice and confidence in this sector, we must ensure that the catering industry recognises its responsibility to consumers and that health boards publicly guarantee that poultry used in hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities under their control and aegis is sourced at home under Irish controls and restrictions so that the public can have full confidence in the product it consumes.

I ask the Minister of State to take seriously the points expressed. Nobody is trying to put him in a difficult position. We appeal to him, considering the position he holds with his colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, to recognise the seriousness of the issue. I urge a reconsideration of some of the points of assurance the Minister of State gave us in his address as they fall short of the assurances I need as a public representative and a consumer.

The Deputy has covered a lot of ground in this regard. My memory is reasonably good and the record will show that I read every sentence of my address on to the record. Lest there be any doubt, I repeat——

Will we put a euro on it?

We will put ten euro on it if the Deputy wishes. I repeat that there is no record of imports of poultry meat from Thailand which was produced in that country after November 2003. I thought I made that clear. I also made clear that from the information available to us and from the market situation, none of these products is currently on sale in Irish retail outlets. I agree with Deputy Ó Caoláin that this is an important issue, but we must consider it in terms of its importance in that Thailand is one country in south-east Asia accredited to export poultry products into the European Union. Some 966 tonnes of poultry products from Thailand came into Ireland last year. We have checks and balances of the European Commission and the rules and regulations laid down by the food and veterinary office of the Commission for products coming into the EU. We have the very strict regime operated in this country for food imports, a regime marshalled and operated by Department of Agriculture and Food staff, veterinary inspectors and agricultural officers, supported by Customs and Excise staff. There is a very strong chain of checks and balances to protect the product coming into the country.

Chicken products in other member states of the European Union are a matter for the European Commission and for each member state to decide what it wishes to do regarding those products. If the Commission gives a directive or an indication that certain actions should be taken in the interests of the poultry industry across Europe, we would be the first to respond — there is no doubt about that.

The Department and the Government are committed to traceability. We have proven that with the decisions we have taken on all aspects of food in recent years, particularly since 1997. We have been constantly abused and harangued for our insistence that we should have traceability for all products. We can never get political, or indeed public, consensus that traceability is critical in the interests of the quality of products, the health of consumers and, above all, assurance for the discerning consumer in knowing exactly the origin and quality of the product.

I am surprised Deputy Ó Caoláin has a problem with cross-Border traffic. Trade across the island of Ireland is critically important for its future. I am fully aware of the situation referred to by the Deputy. I established a national mushroom task force in early December to look at the mushroom industry, including the composting industry. The task force is looking at the quality of the compost and its component parts and will report to me later this year. We are taking a critical look at the interim mushroom industry, including composting and poultry litter. We are aware of the product coming from Northern Ireland and of the trends and the business and commercial operations building up in Northern Ireland with the Republic. We hope that will continue into the future and a cross-Border trade will develop with a strong regulatory regime. We want development to continue in the area, subject to sustainable and transparent standards in the interests of economic growth and quality product.

The poultry produced in this country and imported into it presents no threat to human or animal health. The system we have in place gives absolute assurance to all our consumers. The final assurance I give as a Member of this House is that when I have my tea this evening I will certainly order chicken.

I remind Deputies that we are dealing with a parliamentary question and statements are not in order although supplementary questions may be asked.

After some lengthy statements, I am a little disturbed that anything other than questions might be allowed. I am very conscious of this issue and more worried now than before the comments made by the Minister of State. I represent a constituency largely dependent on the poultry industry. Two thirds of all the poultry produced in Ireland are produced in that area so it is a major issue for us.

Although I know he cannot tell us today, will the Minister of State tell us what veterinary controls there are on the importation of product into Ireland? It is frightening to hear that there may have been no veterinary visits to Thailand since 2001. I ask the Minister of State to compare that situation with the slaughter of meat in this country for Israel or any other country, whereby personnel from those countries oversee such slaughter to make sure they get exactly what they want and pay for.

I raised the issue with the Taoiseach following a visit to the USA by members of the Joint Committee on Agriculture and Food. Why must our farmers be so precise in regard to production, including at factory level, while other products can be imported from Brazil, Thailand and so on, on the say so of someone else? I urge the Minister of State to look again at the situation and to ensure that products imported into this country are produced to the same high standards, systems and controls as is the case here, not just from the farmers' point of view but also from the point of view of consumers.

Will the Minister of State assure me that products imported from other European countries do not come originally from third countries and, therefore, are not labelled? It is vital that we are aware of where products originated. The Minister of State referred to mushrooms. Our mushroom market in the UK is being undercut. Some of these mushrooms may be Polish mushrooms which are being sold as Irish produce. We need to be very careful about this area. The problem is not just human health, which is extremely important and the first priority, but we must think about the future of those who built up an industry and were proud to do so.

It is disingenuous of Deputy Crawford, a man who has huge knowledge of the livestock industry in particular, to say that we do not have sufficient veterinary controls. All product imported into the European Union must have veterinary certification. The documentation is checked when the product arrives in the European Union. Veterinary inspectors, agriculture officers and various other public officials here carry out strict checks. The checks and balances are in place, not just in this country but in the European Union.

I am talking about the country of origin.

As regards product in the European Union, there are different views. There is no consensus within Europe vis-à-vis labelling and the country of origin. Many countries want a label on the product stating, “Manufactured in the EU”. That is currently the overriding view. Other countries would like the country of origin to be indicated on the product. We hope during our Presidency to make progress in this regard. The Irish Presidency has put the issue forward as one of its priorities. We will do our utmost to make progress in that area.

The Deputy referred to the mushroom industry. I have had a strong interest in that industry since taking up office. Prior to that I was not very aware of the situation in the mushroom industry. I visited the United Kingdom to promote Irish mushrooms and saw at first hand the competition from other countries. I suggest that all mushroom products coming into the UK originate in Poland, Germany and Holland. The only requirement from the major multiples who sell these products in the United Kingdom — the same applies to Ireland — is that we give them quality mushrooms which they can sell to British consumers. They do not mind where they originate once they are a quality product. We travel to the UK to promote Ireland, Irish mushrooms and Irish food products. We have a very strong market in the UK and throughout Europe. We export 80% to 90% of all our food products. If we did not meet high standards and have a good track record, we could not continue to sustain our food exports with such success. There was a 10% volume growth in our food exports last year.

In mushrooms?

Overall there was a 10% volume growth. The mushroom industry is very competitive. It is currently going through a critical period. We have established a national task force. There are excellent people on the task force, many of whom come from the Deputy's area. I await the report and we will respond to it as generously as possible.

There are a couple of important issues which must be looked at. It is clear that the virus can remain viable for long periods in faecal material, for example. As Deputy Ó Caoláin said, it can remain viable indefinitely in the frozen state. In other words, it can recover its viability. It does not die. There are consequences to each of these issues. Is there concern in regard to visitors to Thailand returning to this country or is there a need to put in place measures at airports in regard to people returning from Thailand? I accept the risk is remote but there is a need for awareness.

There has been just one statement on the outbreak on the Department's website. It would be helpful to consumers and the trade if there was more information, based perhaps on the Minister of State's statement today, and an update on a regular basis until we are in the clear in regard to this entire outbreak. I would like an assurance from the Minister of State on this matter. There is a need for a detailed audit of all the farms and factories in Thailand from where poultry is exported. This should be put in place before licences are renewed. We have become aware of the requirement in this case. I have a genuine concern that there is a hidden agenda about which we know nothing.

Deputy Timmins referred to nitrofurans, a problem caused by poultry from Thailand. We did not appear to learn a lesson from this. We must tighten significantly the controls. I put it to the Minister of State that there is a need for much greater investment in food safety in regard to both home-produced and imported products arising from this incident.

I assure the House that our Department, together with the other relevant Departments, is totally committed to supporting the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in the outstanding work it does. We have led the way and supported it. There was consensus that in all these issues there would be one final arbiter to make a decision on all food safety matters, that is, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

I assure Deputy Upton that the statement I put on the record of the House this evening will be on our website by tomorrow. We will keep abreast of the situation and, if necessary, we will put a weekly statement on the website based on the information available to us. I will request the food and veterinary office of the European Union, on behalf of the Department, to ensure that a critical audit is carried out and that the necessary controls are visited again to make sure there is no threat to either human or animal health, not just in Ireland but throughout the European Union. In so far as we can ask it, we will certainly do so. The House can be assured that we will give the matter our constant attention on behalf of the people of this country.

The Minister of State has made many comments on mushrooms. If he could get the taste back into mushrooms he would do us all a great service because they have become tasteless over time.

I believe this matter is the tip of an iceberg. There has been a monumental cock-up by the EU. It was led by the Thai Government which knew for several months that there was a difficulty, but it put the interest of its own industry ahead of consumers. Will the Minister of State agree that this is an ideal opportunity for Ireland to take the lead in the EU and perhaps bring in the officials of the Thai Government. The Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Newin Chidchob, is a very ambitious nationalistic politician — I do not know who is his equivalent in Ireland. He threatened in recent weeks to sue the media because the reports of bird flu were unfounded. This man spoke to Commissioner Byrne last week and assured him there was no difficulty, but now there is a difficulty.

Will the Minister of State agree that his statement that the European Commission acted quickly and appropriately is totally inaccurate. It did not act quickly and appropriately, and this will be borne out in the weeks ahead. Will he agree that Ireland should take a lead in the EU? We keep hearing that non-EU products do not have to meet the same production requirements as we must do. There are doubts among consumers and others. One cannot bake a loaf of brown bread or kill a turkey down the country without being hauled in, yet there are massive food scares that need to be addressed.

It would not be appropriate for me, my colleagues or the Government to haul in anybody from Thailand. This is a matter for the EU. Ireland has an accreditation system——

Now that we hold the Presidency of the EU we should get to the bottom of this.

I have made it quite clear that we will consult the Food and Veterinary Office of the European Union. Its job is to ensure that standards, criteria and regulations exist and that these are implemented to protect the consumers of the Union.

We have our own system to make sure there is a double check on any products entering the country through the Union. We will take this matter up and give it our utmost attention, as we always do. The Commission did react swiftly and we are quite satisfied that there is no threat to either the health of the people or of the poultry industry in Ireland.

The Minister of State concluded with the statement that he is quite happy there is no threat posed. Yesterday the World Health Organisation warned that the outbreak of the contagious bird influenza virus in Asia posed "a significant risk". It was not only talking about the region in Asia where the outbreak took place but also about the fact that, because of the nature of the particular virus, it has the potential to spread and spread quickly. This has already been the case. The virus is not confined to Vietnam and Thailand but it has also presented itself in a number of other countries, including Pakistan.

I remain very concerned and wish to impress this concern on the Minister of State. I have taken on board and listened carefully to the assurances he has given regarding the steps he and the Department will now seek to be employed to allow for the best possible guarantee that we are properly safeguarded against the potential risk.

How does the Minister of State respond to the World Health Organisation's stated views of yesterday and the statement of the chief executive of the Consumers' Association of Ireland, Michael Kilcoyne, who indicated that all non-labelled and untraceable poultry products should be removed from our supermarket shelves as a clear indication to all consumers that we are taking the risk seriously and that every possible measure is being taken to guarantee their health and, in my view, as a direct consequence, the future of the indigenous poultry industry?

We have to consider the World Health Organisation's statement in its totality in that it said there was a significant risk to those who came into contact with live birds in the eight relevant countries in south-east Asia. Of course we must take this into account as we look at the poultry products coming into Ireland, which are composed of dead meat. There is now a clear ban on all such products entering the country since 1 January. We do not envisage any threat in Ireland.

On the statement by the Consumers' Association of Ireland that all non-labelled and untraceable products be taken off the shelves, I am quite confident that Irish retailers, given their professionalism and integrity, will be the first to remove products if there is a doubt about them.

Will the Minister of State assure us that he and the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, will use the next five months to make sure structures are put in place so we will know where chicken meat and other meats are produced rather than how they are manufactured. Our consumers and producers are no more or less disadvantaged than anybody else. To focus on manufacturing is not good enough as we want to know where products are produced and that they are produced according to the same health standards as our own.

I assure the Deputy that the Minister, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Aylward, and I, along with our respective teams of outstanding officials, will do our utmost through the Irish Presidency to achieve a consensus on the acceptability of an EU-wide labelling system.