Other Questions. - Domestic Abattoirs.

P. J. Sheehan

Ceist:

11 Mr. Sheehan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development the plans his Department envisages to provide an incentive package to assist in the necessary upgrading of domestic abattoirs and the preservation of the family butcher trade. [9115/01]

The position with regard to abattoirs generally is that, under EU regulations, those slaughtering more than 1,000 livestock units per annum must comply with the requirements of the European Communities (Fresh Meat) Regulations, 1997. Smaller abattoirs with a throughput of less than 1,000 livestock units per annum are licensed by my Department under the Abattoirs Act, 1988. They are derogated from certain structural provisions of the EU directives. They are, however, required to achieve minimum standards regarding hygiene, animal welfare and the environment. Once licensed by my Department, the operation of day-to-day controls is a matter for the relevant local authority under the overall control of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

I fully acknowledge the important role played by domestic abattoirs within the wider food sector and this has been reflected in the approach adopted by my Department to establishments which have demonstrated a willingness to comply with the regulations. Given that consumer protection must be our absolute priority, my Department has no option, however, but to refuse to license those premises which are not prepared to achieve the minimum standard required.

Financial aid for abattoirs falls within the ambit of the processing and marketing provisions of the EU guidelines for State aid in the agriculture sector. One such provision stipulates that aid may only be granted to enterprises which comply with existing minimum standards regarding hygiene, animal welfare and the environment. While it is not possible, therefore, to provide funding to achieve minimum hygiene standards, there are possibilities for financial aid in circumstances which involve rationalisation, research and development, human resources, training and so on. In a series of meetings between my Department and the association representing small abattoirs, the criteria which would apply to such financial aid were outlined and the association was invited to submit proposals.

I have recently received a submission from the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland entitled, Food for the Future, in which it is seeking support for the retention of the family butcher-local abattoir. This submission is being examined by my Department.

I am delighted that the Department is giving consideration to the submission received from the Department from the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland. There are products available to consumers through the traditional route from producer to small abattoir to family butcher. Consumers understand that meat sourced through this route has qualities which cannot be replicated by more industrialised forms of production. The meat to which I refer emanates from animals locally reared, grass fed, hand-picked and protected from stress. These animals are then slaughtered by skilled butchers which ensures the meat is of improved quality, taste and tenderness. When one considers that traceability and food safety provisions have been adhered to in the killing of these animals and the fact that butchers possess an awareness of the particular requirements and tastes of their customers, it is clear that the product to which I refer is special. I remind the Minister of State that my constituency colleague, when labouring in the vineyard of south-west Cork during the last general election campaign, assured that every family butcher received an assurance that aid and assistance would be given towards the promotion of their trade.

That assurance was also given to butchers in the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan.

The Chair is awaiting a question from Deputy Sheehan.

So are we.

When will the Minister of State's boss, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, provide the finance necessary to protect the livelihoods of family butchers and ensure consumers can purchase locally produced meat? I am seeking a commitment from the Minister of State's boss—

She is not here.

—that finance will be made available to the 350 craft butchers remaining in the country to continue producing the type of meat to which I refer.

As someone who only buys meat at the local butcher's shop, I fully support Deputy Sheehan's point about the quality of meat produced by craft butchers. However, as he, the junior Member for west Cork, will be aware, there are now 327 operators—

The Minister of State is wrong about that.

I am not. The Deputy is the most junior representative from the constituency. I am aware that he was successful in sneaking into Deputy O'Keeffe's area, despite efforts to keep him out.

The Minister of State should not stray from the point.

The Deputy strayed from the speech he was making. We are considering the submission and will provide every assistance. It is the intention of everyone in the Department to be as helpful as possible.

That assistance has been promised for a long period.

Has the Department made a deliberate attempt to cause confusion in this area? Are butchers being told one version of the story while the House is being told another? The guidelines indicate that where investments are made in order to comply with newly introduced minimum standards regarding the environment, hygiene and animal welfare, aid may be granted in order to reach new standards. In recent months I was informed that the investment had to be made on a greenfield site. What is the position? Commissioner Fischler has set out that an exception will be made for such investments provided they do not lead to an increase in slaughtering capacity and that people may invest in order to bring establishments into line with Community health standards. Family butchers want to obtain such aid in order to bring their establishments into line. It is important that good quality meat be available locally, particularly in the light of the current foot and mouth outbreak.

The Department has stated that big is beautiful but with all we are going through, small should be beautiful too. Deputy Penrose said that finance should be made available. When will finance be made available to small family butchers so that they can provide a worthwhile service? The guidelines laid down by the European Union with regard to abattoirs are very strict and these butchers need financial assistance to help them bring the abattoirs up to those standards.

I also ask the Minister to give favourable consideration to the worthy case put forward by the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland. Those of us who had the opportunity to meet Mr. Brady and other officers of the association were most impressed by their submission. I hope the Minister will be able to give assistance to ensure that the good product produced by the local abattoirs and butchers is given favourable consideration in this context.

It was promised four years ago.

We did not abolish schemes like control of farm pollution, etc., unlike Deputy Crawford's party.

The licensing system under the Abattoirs Acts commenced in 1989 when there were 760 local abattoirs or butchers.

There are 350 now.

Allow the Minister of State to reply.

There are 327, many of whom operate only one or two days per week. In many cases, unfortunately, they operate only a half day per week. It does not pay them to operate because of the huge volume of competition from the supermarkets. We have asked them for a submission within the guidelines where we believe we can help them. We will do everything we can for them within the guidelines provided that is allowed within the European Union.

Will the Minister give them money?

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.