I propose to take Questions Nos. 545 to 550, inclusive, together.
Some 11,402 horses were slaughtered in slaughter plants approved by my Department in 2012. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has advised that 12,960 horses were slaughtered in local authority approved slaughter plants in 2012. I understand that the bulk of the meat from these animals was exported for human consumption, some following further processing in approved cutting plants in Ireland. The remainder was exported as full carcasses. The main export markets are Belgium, France and Italy.
Under EU law, responsibility for compliance with food safety and traceability requirements rests in the first instance with food business operators (FBOs). This is augmented by official controls, applied at different stages in the food supply chain. My Department implements official controls in relation to horse identification at marts and other sales venues, in abattoirs under its supervision and at points of entry to the country.
All equines (which include horses, ponies and donkeys) are required to be identified in accordance with EU and national legislation. Equines issued with a passport after 1 July 2009 must have a corresponding microchip implanted by a veterinarian, which is recorded in the passport and creates a link between the passport and the animal. The passport includes information on any veterinary medicines administered to equines. An equine for slaughter for human consumption must be accompanied to the slaughterhouse by its passport and the information on the passport determines whether the animal can be slaughtered for human consumption. Horses treated with certain veterinary medicines such as phenylbutazone, known in the industry as ‘bute’, are permanently excluded from the human food chain in order to protect public health and the passport of the horse in question is endorsed by the prescribing veterinary practitioner to this effect.
My Department has detailed procedures for the slaughter of horses in abattoirs under its supervision and has communicated these and the checks required both to its staff and the business operators. It has liaised with passport issuing agencies in Ireland and has developed protocols to allow abattoir operators to check the details of passports with these agencies to seek to ensure that they are valid and that only those horses eligible for slaughter are slaughtered. Where forged or tampered passports accompanying horses to slaughter are detected, it is the policy that such animals are destroyed and removed from the food chain.
Ongoing vigilance is maintained in relation to official controls in this area. In that connection, the European Communities (Equine) (Amendment) Regulations, S.I. No. 371/2012, introduced recently, provide for the updating of S.I. No. 357/2011 (European Communities (Equine) Regulations 2011) to strengthen the powers of the Minister in relation to approval of an issuing body for equine passports, authorised officers and prosecutions in relation to equine identification.
My Department is establishing a centralized equine database. The intention is that this database will be used at abattoirs to assist in verifying the authenticity of horse passports for the equine presented and to record its date of slaughter.
I can confirm that my Department has received a number of complaints in this area, some of which have been non-specific in nature. Information received in relation to alleged illegal activities in this State is taken seriously and investigated as appropriate by my Department and in certain cases by the Gardai. There is ongoing contact in this regard between the Department and the authorities in Northern Ireland and Britain. It must also be noted however that some claims have been made in the public domain in relation to this issue which, when examined by my Department, did not stand up to close scrutiny or warrant further investigation.
While my Department does not comment on ongoing investigations, appropriate corrective action is taken if non-compliances are detected. I can advise that during 2011-2012 the Department issued Compliance Notices to two horse slaughter plants under its supervision. This led to temporary suspension of activities while corrective measures were put in place. In addition the approvals of one organisation to maintain a stud book and issue horse passports were revoked during 2012.
With regard specifically to the BBC Spotlight programme on 5 March, it would not be appropriate for me to comment publicly on allegations made. I was not available for interview for this particular programme because of other commitments but I can advise that my Department did comment on queries received from the programme makers. I understand that some of the allegations made in this programme relate to activities outside the State, in which case appropriate checks would be a matter for authorities in the jurisdictions concerned. I understand issues were also raised in relation to an equine slaughter plant in this jurisdiction, which at the time concerned was under the supervision of a local authority. At present there are two local authority supervised equine slaughter plants in operation – one in Co. Offaly and one in Co. Limerick. I have decided to take both these plants under the supervision of my Department.