I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. I welcome the many innovations that have occurred recently in food processing and development, and particularly in packaging. The consumer clearly stands to benefit very significantly from these developments but there is a need for caution in their application.
One must ensure that while valuable information is provided to consumers, they are protected against any potential risk that might arise from the innovations. I speak in particular of what are called active and intelligent packaging developments. These are just two of the innovations. Active packaging allows the release of approved additives into a foodstuff to control the growth of pathogens and of soilage bacteria. This prolongs the shelf life of the food and makes it safe. However, it also allows one to know the food is safe or spoiled, so that in the latter case the consumer is unlikely to eat it.
Intelligent packaging makes use of specific indicators which will allow consumers to determine, for example, the freshness of a food by means of a colour change in the packaging. Such changes in the packaging would be reversible and would let the consumer know that the product was not suitable for consumption.
The real issue is that the consumer must be assured that the innovative development is also safe. The safety of the indicators, whether they are called active or intelligent packaging or anything else, must be guaranteed. Recent EU regulations allow the use of such systems. This issue is primarily one of food safety and consumer protection. When I put the question to the Minister for Agriculture and Food this week in order to ascertain his views, I was told it was a matter for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which is correct. It is, however, an anomalous situation whereby packaging of food, which has implications for consumer safety and food protection, is the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. It is not a trade issue but one of health and food safety. I am asking that the Food Safety Authority be charged with responsibility for ensuring the safety of food, specifically with regard to active and intelligent packaging. That authority should be given a pro-active role in policing and enforcing that legislation.
The substantial matter is the responsibility for food packaging and it is inappropriate that it rests with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. We are talking of plastic materials in contact with foodstuffs and the possibility of migration of those materials into the food. The food industry and researchers will clearly have a significant responsibility and will undoubtedly take it seriously in ensuring that any materials in contact with the food are safe for human consumption.
This involves a policing and enforcement issue. The responsibility must change. Plastic materials in contact with food with the possible risk of migration should be rigorously policed. It is illogical and inappropriate that this responsibility now rests with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Department has no role, nor should it have, in food safety responsibility. That should be transferred to the Food Safety Authority which reports to the Department of Health and Children, or alternatively to a Department of food with full responsibility for all food related matters, including food safety.