Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Beef Exports.

Mary Harney

Ceist:

6 Miss Harney asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the interventions, if any, that were made regarding the crisis in the beef industry. [7549/96]

Michael McDowell

Ceist:

7 Mr. M. McDowell asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the efforts, if any, he is making to secure a re-opening of third country markets for Irish beef; and if he will make a statement on the matter.[10598/96]

Mary Harney

Ceist:

27 Miss Harney asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the contacts, if any, he has had with President Mubarak of Egypt regarding the beef exports crisis. [7548/96]

Patrick J. Morley

Ceist:

39 Mr. Morley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the plans, if any, he has to visit Libya. [10623/96]

Bertie Ahern

Ceist:

43 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the outcome of any conversations with President Mubarak in regard to the lifting of the ban on Irish beef exports to Egypt. [7641/96]

Robert Molloy

Ceist:

98 Mr. Molloy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the specific steps, if any, taken to ensure maximum co-ordination of effort and use of State resources to ensure that the message in respect of the superior quality, clean and green image of Ireland's food produce is being communicated coherently, particularly in our key international markets; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10260/96]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6, 7, 27, 39, 43 and 98 together.

These questions deal with the BSE crisis. I have made a number of personal interventions in respect of rendering, intervention, compensation and so on. I would like to focus on the market aspects of this in terms of third countries. While I am pleased that a number of third countries, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon and South Africa, have lifted the restrictions on Irish beef, it is a matter of concern that some important markets, in particular Iran and Libya, continue to restrict to our product.

The issues raised by the recent developments on BSE are primarily technical, which are not amenable to instant political solutions. My Department, the diplomatic service and An Bord Bia is continuing to address the issues and concerns as they have arisen and has gone to considerable lengths to reassure the relevant authorities of the safety of Irish beef and beef products. Strong emphasis is also being placed on the image of Ireland as a source of clean, green and superior quality food and there is extensive contact and co-ordination between the different Departments and agencies involved.

However, BSE is a very complex issue and it will take time before the problem is resolved in some cases. The task has been made more difficult by sensational media reports which are very difficult to counter.

Political interventions have and will continue to be made where required. As the House is aware, the personal intervention of the Taoiseach was a critical factor in the re-opening of the Egyptian market while political initiatives were also important in lifting the Lebanese restrictions.

I will visit Russia, a very important outlet for Irish beef next week. I propose to visit Libya as soon as the necessary arrangements can be made. While I am disappointed that such a visit has not taken place before now, it is important to ensure that the timing and the circumstances are right so that the optimum outcome will be obtained from the visit.

The Iranian authorities have agreed to send a veterinary delegation to Ireland to discuss technical issues and arrangements are being made to agree an early date for the visit. I have had contacts with Mr. Foorozesh, the Minister of the Construction Crusade and I am in regular contact with the Iranian Ambassador. The need for further action, including political initiatives, will be reviewed following this visit.

I can assure the House that I am fully aware of the importance of ensuring access of Irish cattle and beef to all third country markets. The situation is under constant review and all appropriate action will be taken.

On the various interventions other than on the question of marketing in third countries, will the Minister outline the position with regard to rendering? We were told four or five weeks ago that rendering was absolutely essential and the slaughtering and processing industry would have to close down if renderers could not stay open. A Supplementary Estimate was passed here for £2.5 million to keep renderers open until 21 May. The Minister said after that time they would get no money and would have to stay open under their own steam. The deadline of 21 May, the day many things happened, has passed and the money has been spent. What is the present position? If the subsidy is not required after 21 May, why was it required before then?

I will outline the up-to-date position as I understand it. Discussions are ongoing between processors and renderers. In many cases a substantial volume of the rendering capacity is owned by meat processors, subsidiaries or sister companies of processors, and it is in their hands to find a solution. It was necessary to have a breathing space of State support for the ongoing rendering of offal to meat, bonemeal and tallow. That window of opportunity has resulted in a reduction in stocks from 10,000 tonnes to 4,000 tonnes during that timeframe, with one individual operator taking 2,200 tonnes. Not all renderers claimed aid, but the claims on hand indicate that slightly less than the £2.5 million will be paid in storage and production subsidies. I understand renderers have agreed to operate for two weeks without subsidy to allow the negotiations to conclude.

In the order of 200,000 animals have been processed since Easter in meat factories and the subsidy is, therefore, justified. I made it absolutely clear publicily on Friday, and I take this opportunity to do so again, that there will not be an ongoing State subsidy for this purpose. Other countries in similar circumstances do not provide ongoing subsidies. While I could make a case to the Cabinet for an emergency subvention for a short period to allow the meat and bonemeal trade to restore order, export contracts are moving again and I do not believe a subsidy would be justified.

Do I understand the Minister correctly to say that Iran and Libya are the only third country markets still closed to us because of the BSE problem and, if so, does that suggest the problem is a minor one since there are 100 or more third countries, a large number of which are potential customers for beef? Apart from the two markets still closed, is it the case that the others are buying much smaller quantities of beef because of a general lack of confidence in European beef?

Many markets other than the two mentioned are closed to Irish beef, but in terms of third country markets, for the live trade the three potentially significant markets for Europe, including Ireland, are Egypt, Libya and Turkey. The Turkish market was reopened, but since there was a problem with tariffs and so on we did not make a commercial breakthrough there. In terms of beef, the key markets are Russia, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The reason I focused on the two markets still closed is that they are volume markets. Countries such as South America are closed to us, but even if they were reopened they are not of significance. Consumption is down everywhere. Even though the Libyan market is not open to us, the number of animals processed there is greatly diminished.

Will the Minister confirm that consumption is down 30 per cent in the UK, 40 per cent in France and 50 per cent in Germany; that Libya remains closed to us even though they had ordered 140,000 cattle; that 50,000 cattle and 500,000 sheep were recently exported to Australia; that the Gulf states are closed to us and that even though the Egyptian market is open — we heard much about the phone call on the open market in Egypt — there are no buyers in Egypt? Will he confirm that the position is drastic at present?

The Minister will recall that when a Fianna Fáil delegation visited Iran a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry stated that there were only minor, technical problems, that the market would be reopened in a couple of days or a week at most and that the Fianna Fáil trip was unnecessary. In view of that statement will he explain what sudden difficulties have arisen in reopening that market?

The consumption pattern in Europe is more or less as the Deputy indicated — perhaps his figures are slightly on the large side but I would not quibble with them. The figure he gave for Libya is incorrect, it should be 160,000 animals. The majority of markets in the Gulf states are open. I do not know what the Deputy's experience of the Iranians has been, but my experience has not been good.

They told me that.

When the Fianna Fáil delegation came home from Iran it announced there was no problem with shipments to Iran and that they would be unloaded.

They have been unloaded.

Today, however, I met the two principal exporters who told me they still have not been paid and there is no prospect of their being paid.

What veterinary technical difficulties remain outstanding to reopening that market?

I have had personal conversations with Minister Foorozesh who gave me assurances that if certain action was taken, commitments would be honoured. None of those commitments have been honoured. I am very anxious to resolve the Iranian problem. There is a problem in that Ireland, as well as France and other member states, was in the process of servicing a contract for an excess of 16,000 tonnes of Irish beef which has been supplied in good faith and for which an arbitary date, 5 March, has been fixed. The product is not in free circulation, in many cases payment has not been made and the companies involved are experiencing severe cash flow difficulties. There are also stocks here that never departed for Iran which have not been honoured in terms of contracts, there is an unfulfilled element of the contract and the overall ban remains in place.

I have offered to go to Teheran to negotiate on these issues and I was assured this was not a political issue but a technical one. Letters have been exchanged in recent weeks and a meeting is due to take place this week between my senior veterinary officer at the OIE meeting in Paris and Dr. Montulabi, the head of the Iranian veterinary delegation. For three weeks I have been trying to agree a date for a visit by the Iranian technical delegation, notwithstanding the fact that Iranian veterinarians have already visited the Border. I will do anything the Iranian authorities want to provide them with the necessary knowledge to lift the four aspects of the ban to which I have referred. This is a serious problem and I am determined to do whatever is necessary to resolve it.

As we are some minutes past our time may I suggest that each Deputy put a brief question to the Minister and, perhaps, the Minister will agree to a single reply? Brevity is paramount.

Since Russia is such an important market, why is the Minister delaying his visit for six weeks?

Will the Minister accept that the crisis in the beef industry is affecting the Irish economy more than others? Will he accept also that he has now handed the initiative to Britain which seems to have the greatest control in this regard? How many cattle have been exported in the past month and what Third World countries has the Minister visited in the past month?

Is the Minister aware of the difficulty currently being experienced by farmers in getting both culled and fat cows to meat factories at a reduced price? The fear is that more serious difficulties will be experienced shortly.

Is the Minister aware of the proposals by some renderers to dispose of offal in landfill sites? What are his concerns from an environmental point of view in this regard?

Will the Minister give me a categorical commitment that further State assistance will be given to the rendering industry to enable it survive if the current crisis in the beef industry continues?

Will the Minister outline his plans to prevent chaos in the second half of the year with regard to livestock for which there will be no market in view of his statement last week, which terrorised farmers, that there was no future in this regard?

That is quite a range of general knowledge questions but I will try to deal with them as briefly as possible. I want to make it clear I will not be providing any further support for the rendering industry and it is important that people are not under any illusion in that regard. There are no circumstances in which I will be providing further aid.

What will be the size of the levy?

I will not be introducing a levy. I am opposed to a statutory levy and I made that clear also.

But there will be a nonstatutory levy.

Let us hear the reply.

There will not be a levy. I am endeavouring to answer as many questions as possible.

I did not delay my visit to Russia. Some stability was needed and Dr. Zakharov, the top Russian veterinarian, has been in Ireland and I met him a number of times. I am going to Russia to attend a major food fair in St. Petersberg and I am using that opportunity — if it ain't broke, don't fix it — to work with our partners there as opposed to highlighting concerns about British or Irish beef. Russia has a state purchasing mechanism; Moscow is the largest buyer of beef in the world. The timing of my visit has to do with the fact that there is currently an election in Russia.

The beef industry is not broken, it is in bits.

I do not know the point the Deputy is making about Britain other than to say that however bad the situation——

The Minister failed for three days——

Please, Deputy Byrne, we are many minutes past the allocated time. If this continues we will have to conclude the business.

The price of heifer meat in Britain today is 80p per pound; the Deputy should check the price here. Many prime quality two-and-a-half year old 13 cwt bullocks in Northern Ireland and Britain should be going to meat factories today but instead they are being thrown in a skip and burned. Britain's long-term problems are so serious that the European problem will not be solved until the British problem is solved.

Talk to me about Irish farmers.

On the question of culled cows and the prospects for——

How many cattle were exported last month?

Please, Deputy Byrne, other Deputies' questions are being addressed.

In relation to all of these issues I have a number of standard instruments with which to improve the marketability of Irish beef now and in the autumn. These include intervention, which we have discussed; an increase in refunds, which will make meat and live cattle from Europe cheaper in Egypt, Russia and other countries; direct compensation, which is important; direct promotion as well as the diplomatic offensive.

The Minister does not have any answers.

I hope to finalise shortly a multi-million pound package with the food board. We are requesting Brussels to remove restrictions in relation to the grades and carcasses of animals that can be promoted so that we can make a sustained effort, between the national promotional agencies and the Commission, to promote the consumption of beef. These problems will not be solved overnight. The recovery will be slow but the Government will be giving them the absolute priority they deserve.

That concludes questions for today.