Thursday, 9 May 2019

Questions (3)

Jackie Cahill


3. Deputy Jackie Cahill asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the targets his Department and Bord Bia have set for 2019 for live exports of cattle including those aged six months or greater; and the resources that will be put in place to achieve these targets. [20276/19]

View answer

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

What targets have the Department and Bord Bia set for 2019 for live exports of cattle, especially those aged six months or greater, and what resources will be put in place to achieve them? In his reply to a previous question, the Minister referred to the considerable financial pressure currently on beef farmers. There has been a significant increase in costs incurred by farmers due to weather conditions. The price that has obtained since the middle of last year is utterly unviable. The only way competition in the trade can be encouraged is through live exports. What plans are in place to ensure that a significant number of cattle will be moved out of the country in the second half of 2019?

Live exports are a critical part of Ireland's livestock industry. They play a significant role in stimulating price competition and providing an alternative market outlet for farmers. The Department facilitates this trade, recognising its critical importance to the agricultural sector and ensuring that live animal exports meet the highest welfare standards.

In 2018, total live exports of cattle increased by more than 30% to 246,000 head compared to 2017.

This represents a value of €110 million to the economy, according to Bord Bia. This growth trend has continued into 2019, with live exports of cattle totalling 163,000 up to 28 April, a 28% increase on the same period in 2018.

My decision in 2017 to reduce the veterinary inspection fee payable on live exports of calves less than three months of age from €4.80 to €1.20 has brought greater equity to the inspection fee regime. Since then, there has been continued growth in the export of calves, rising from 102,000 head in 2017 to 159,000 in 2018, a 56% increase. According to the most recent Bord Bia figures for 2019, calf exports stand at 123,000 head, with consignments to the Netherlands and Spain accounting for 50% and 31% of this trade, respectively.

This increase in trade is also apparent with regard to the export of non-calves - weanlings, stores and finished cattle - which are approximately 23% up on last year, according to Bord Bia's most recent statistics.

The live export of cattle is a commercial undertaking. It is, therefore, not appropriate for my Department or Bord Bia to set targets; rather, they seek to facilitate the industry by creating the market opportunities for the trade. My Department will continue to prioritise efforts to deepen existing markets and gain access to new third country markets through the negotiation of new and revised health certificates.

This week, my Department hosted a visit by a Turkish technical team, including officials from the ministry of agriculture and ESK, the Turkish Meat and Milk Board. The objective of the visit was to conduct an on-site fact-finding mission to evaluate the technical aspects of live animal and germinal product exports from Ireland to Turkey. This is yet another welcome development as we seek to re-establish our live trade with Turkey. The visit by Turkish officials follows on from my March meeting with my Turkish counterpart, Dr. Bekir Pakdemirli, Minister for Agriculture and Forestry.

I also welcome the progress made on live exports to Algeria arising from the technical meetings between my Department and Bord Bia and their counterparts in Algiers last week.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister but I must ask him to hold the remainder of his reply until I allow him in again.

The Minister mentioned welfare standards. In regard to the video in the media this week, the mistreatment of animals is unacceptable. It is essential that we adhere to the highest standards of welfare in our live exports. Anyone who is found to be doing otherwise should face the full rigours of the law.

The only way to ensure increased prices in the next six to 12 months is through increased live export of cattle aged six months or over. I am disappointed that Bord Bia has not set targets for individual markets. The Minister mentioned an increase in calf exports. Unfortunately, the increase in exports is not keeping pace with the increase in dairy cow numbers. Approximately 40,000 cattle per week were killed since October. We are unable to sell the product at a viable price. These numbers can only be reduced through live exports. I do not accept that Bord Bia should not set targets for individual markets.

The Minister mentioned that other markets had been opened. We have been hearing that this, that and the other market is open for live cattle for the past two or three years but the reality is there is no significant movement of cattle. The Minister stated that live exports of cattle have increased by 23% but that increase comes from a low base. Without a significant increase in live exports, we face depressed prices for cattle for the foreseeable future.

I disagree with the notion that the Department or Bord Bia should set targets for live exports for any particular market. It is our job to facilitate exports but it is equally, perhaps more importantly in the context of the Deputy's opening remarks, our responsibility and obligation to ensure that live exports are conducted to the highest welfare standards, bearing in mind that our standards are higher than the EU minimum standards.

I welcome that the Deputy condemns the recent video of the mistreatment of Irish calves in a lairage facility, albeit in France. The record will show what I had to say previously in respect of lairage facilities in Cherbourg, which I stand by now. We will insist on the highest standards for animal welfare. The role of the Department is to open up markets and allow the industry to perform its commercial duties within a regulated space. That is critically important to ensuring that this trade continues.

The more markets open, the better, but none of the markets will be opened to facilitate exports of live cattle at a reduced welfare standard. Given the importance of live exports to the agri-economy - the value of which is more than €100 million as confirmed by Bord Bia - it is imperative that all players in the industry operate to the highest welfare standards. Nothing less than that will be condoned or tolerated by the Department.

I was on the board of Bord Bia for a number of years. When a market is opened, a target is set in respect of the tonnage of beef expected to be sold in any given timeframe. The beef sector is in crisis. We have to move cattle out of this country. To secure increased prices, we will have to reduce the number of cattle available for slaughter in the next six to 12 months. The onus is on Bord Bia to set a target for the number of live cattle it expects to be moved. My concern is that insufficient resources are being put in place to establish markets. Factories are good at utilising Bord Bia, which is as it should be. We have worked hard to secure routes to markets in various parts of the EU and across the world. However, I am concerned that there is not a similar emphasis on live exports. They are not getting a fair crack of the whip in terms of resources from Bord Bia.

We have increased stock in the country but there is no competition at the ringside. Competition will only come through live exports. I would like to know the level of resources Bord Bia is putting into live exports. I reiterate the need for a target in respect of the number of cattle expected to be exported live in the remainder of 2019.

I fundamentally disagree. If a State agency or the Department sets a target, then we are chasing a target and the accusation will be that we are compromising on welfare. There will be no compromise on welfare standards.

I never suggested that.

The Department and Bord Bia have adequate resources. We have significantly increased the resources available to Bord Bia in recent years to deal with the Brexit challenge and various opportunities. The market access unit of my Department is making significant progress in restructuring its endeavours in respect of processed beef and live exports. It must be borne in mind that the Department has to engage with competent authorities in other jurisdictions from which it takes terms and conditions in terms of market access, be that in regard to the age of the product that can be exported or the epidemiological background of the herd from which that product comes. We try to secure the most favourable trading relationships but we are engaged with competent authorities of jurisdictions. It would be wrong of us to set a target for live exports because that would leave us open to the charge that we are chasing targets at the expense of standards. There will be no diminution of standards on live exports.