Priority Questions.

Sheep Industry.

Michael Creed

Ceist:

1 Deputy Michael Creed asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food his views on the financial and practical effects that the introduction of electronic tagging of sheep will have on the sheep sector here; if he has sought a derogation at European level regarding the introduction of electronic tagging in view of the decline in the sheep sector; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43825/09]

The introduction of electronic identification, EID, for sheep was agreed at EU level in late 2003. At that time, it was agreed to defer the implementation date until January 2008. The Council revisited this issue in December 2007 when it was agreed that the deadline for the compulsory introduction of EID should be set at 31 December 2009, six years after the original decision was taken. I have no discretion regarding the date of implementation.

I have always opposed the mandatory introduction of EID and I have used every opportunity to express both to the relevant European Commissioners, and my colleagues in the Council of Ministers, my clear view that EID should only be introduced on a mandatory basis across Europe when it has been clearly demonstrated that the benefits deriving from EID clearly outweigh any costs or inconveniences associated with its introduction. I have always advocated that EID should only apply on a voluntary basis for that reason. This position was again stated at the Council last week. I also raised the question of facilitating traditional cross-border trade in slaughter lambs at this forum. Unfortunately, most other member states do not share this problem of cross-border trade and were, therefore, unwilling to agree to further concessions in this respect.

In parallel to this opposition, I have placed an emphasis on acquiring concessions that will minimise any inconvenience in its introduction and will take due account of Irish conditions. In particular, provision has been made to exempt from EID, lambs under 12 months that are intended for slaughter. This means the vast majority of Irish sheep will not be affected by the EID requirement. Primarily, only those animals retained for breeding over the coming years will have to be electronically tagged and, therefore, the additional costs to farmers in any given year are being kept to a minimum. In these circumstances, it is with the greatest reluctance that we must prepare for the introduction of EID during 2010. I urge the stakeholders to engage with my officials with a view to implementing a system best suited to Irish conditions.

I am not sure I would like to thank the Minister of State for his reply but we are getting nearer to having all the facts on the table. I appreciate the history lesson and, in some respects, I have sympathy for him because his two predecessors, who should have killed this proposal in its infancy, kicked it to touch and the chickens are coming home to roost on his watch. Does he accept field trials have shown this system to be 20% inaccurate? We have a traceability and tagging system that works. Does he not accept the net import of the proposal for the sheep sector, apart from the cost and inconvenience, is that because EID will be superimposed on the current system, both systems will collapse and traceability will have zero effectiveness as a consequence?

It is important to bear in mind a strong qualified majority in voting terms of members of the European Council favour this new system and that has been the case for a considerable time. It has been a major achievement to defer its implementation until now and, more particularly, to ensure animals aged under 12 months that are intended for slaughter, which comprises the vast majority of the Irish flock, are excluded de facto from the system. As the Deputy said, our system works well and the Minister has made the point strongly at Council meetings. I also did so only last week and there is always a concern about the success of any new system.

The case was made by Spain, Italy and a number of other member states that they have expended a considerable amount on EID and they committed to it on foot of the 2003 decision. It is clear a large group of states hold that view strongly. From an Irish perspective, it is important to consider the importance of our export trade. That is a consideration all the stakeholders, including the Department, have to be cognisant of in the context of the decision having been made with a clear majority vote in its favour at Council.

A 12-month derogation will be meaningless because a significant element of the industry is involved in hogget production. When one goes to the mart to buy store lambs, one may buy from ten different flocks. One will then have to superimpose the new tagging system on the current system. Twelve digit numbers will have to be transcribed individually in respect of each tagging. It will not work. Logistically it is a nightmare and it will collapse both systems. We will tip the industry, which is clinging on by its fingertips anyway, over the edge. We have witnessed the collapse of breeding ewe numbers by more than 50% over the past decade. The impact of this proposal will be the last nail in the coffin of the domestic sheep industry. I do not accept it is a fait accompli. Will the Minister of State give an assurance to the House that he will go back to Europe and show convincingly that the EID system will not work? It has a 20% inbuilt flaw in its capacity to be fully traceable and superimposing it on top of a system that works will only bring both into disrepute.

I assure the Deputy that what he has suggested has been done at every Council meeting at which this issue has been on the agenda for a considerable number of years.

With no success.

A strong majority of member states favour the scheme.

Will the Minister of State seek a derogation?

A number of derogations were successfully secured, particularly in regard to lambs aged under 12 months, which comprises a considerable cohort of the Irish flock. I am familiar with the 12-digit system, as there are many sheep farmers in my area and my family has always been involved in the industry. A study found that the average cost for the Irish flock owner would be approximately €30 per flock. A logistical undertaking is involved and it will be difficult initially but eventually——

What is wrong with the existing system?

Allow the Minister to answer the question.

We have no difficulty with the existing system and we have extolled its virtue but we need to access export markets and this decision was made using qualified majority voting at European level.

It is ridiculous.

At this stage, there is considerable merit in the stakeholders sitting down with departmental officials to examine how best to address the issue.

Grant Payments.

Sean Sherlock

Ceist:

2 Deputy Seán Sherlock asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will confirm the continuation of the suckler cow welfare scheme in 2010; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43793/09]

The suckler welfare scheme is funded fully by the Exchequer. The continuation of the scheme and the level of funding to be provided are budgetary matters which will be decided in the context of the forthcoming 2010 budget and the Estimates provision for the Department. The scheme was introduced in January 2008 and has more than 50,000 farmer participants. It covers approximately 85% of the country's suckler herd. It is expected that payments in 2008 and 2009 will amount to almost €64 million in respect of the 2008 scheme year. Due to the high level of participation in year one, the rate of payment in respect of the 2009 scheme year, that is calves born in 2009, was reduced from €80 to €40 per head. This announcement was made in the context of the allocation of the funding available in the 2009 budget. However, farmers have shown they remain committed to the scheme, which has been successful in meeting its objectives of improving welfare and husbandry standards, building knowledge of herd health and improving the breed quality of the suckler herd.

I acknowledge the Minister's response, in which he referred to the importance of the scheme. Given that more than 50,000 farmers participate in the scheme while 32,000 have participated in Teagasc training and the budget is approximately €250 million, would the Minister not consider increasing the payment from €40 to €60 per head in the coming year because of the difficulties faced by farmers due to recent adverse weather conditions and the state of the market? Farmers have a deep commitment to the scheme but given the reduction in their incomes, an increase in this payment next year would provide a major buttress against loss of earnings in the current climate.

This scheme was introduced in 2008 and the payments issued in 2008 and 2009 were the first under this new stream of income. Funding for the 2009 scheme will be paid early in 2010. We do not know yet what our Estimates will be for 2010 or the indicative budget for 2011. Therefore, I am not in a position to say whether we will have resources for the scheme beyond this year's commitment. That is all for consideration in the budgetary Estimates process. I value the scheme and it has been very important for building on data available through the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, which is also substantially funded by the Department and by industry. It has done exceptionally good work and I fully appreciate the value of the scheme. However, I am not in a position to say what provision can be made for it in the future. The Government will meet the commitments which arose in 2009.

When the scheme was introduced the level of participation was not known. The figure I quoted for the percentage of suckler herds involved in the scheme is extremely high. The initial payment was more than drawn down. The future of the scheme and the level of funding will be finalised in the context of the budget.

I appreciate the Minister's answer. I speak to this issue because of the current importance of the export market. It is a very productive sector and any inputs now or in the next two years will be vital to maintaining productivity and market share. There is a logic to maintaining the scheme. I ask the Minister to give a commitment to maintain the scheme and to review the payment. The Minister mentioned the ICBF. Its recent research, as indicated in the Irish Farmers’ Journal of last week, suggests that the cow herd has shrunk by 6% this year. That could have negative implications for the future of the export market.

Is the Minister engaging with the farm organisations to, at least, maintain the scheme and to ensure, if there is a reduction from €80, that payment will continue to those farmers under the scheme?

All the farm organisations have been supportive of the scheme and have lauded its merits. Although it is less than two years old, it has been successful in meeting its objectives of improving welfare and husbandry standards, building knowledge of herd health and improving the breed quality of the suckler herd. The Deputy, quite rightly, raised those issues, which are important in the context of the challenge facing the beef industry of ensuring that the suckler herd does not decline. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in the suckler herd this year. Without the suckler scheme, the decline would have been greater.

I am aware of the importance of the scheme but I cannot make commitments until the budget and Estimates are complete.

Rural Environment Protection Scheme.

Michael Creed

Ceist:

3 Deputy Michael Creed asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food his plans to address the financial difficulty caused by the closure of the REPS 4 scheme to new applicants; his views on the uncertainty that this poses for farmers in serious financial difficulty; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43826/09]

REPS 4 was closed to new applicants in July against the background of the deterioration in the public finances, the limited resources available to the Department and the increasing cost of the scheme as a result of the increase in the number of REPS participants. Over 12,000 farmers joined REPS 4 in 2007 and 2008, and about 17,000 more applications were received up to the 2009 closing date of 15 May for 2009. A further 1,500 applications which were received up to the time of closure will be processed as applications for 2010. I will be seeking the approval of the House for a Supplementary Estimate for my Department to transfer savings and additional receipts to scheme expenditure, including REPS. If agreed, payments due to REPS farmers in 2009 will be the highest ever. All those already in REPS will continue to receive annual payments until their current contracts run their course.

I plan to introduce a new agri-environment scheme in 2010 which will reduce compliance costs to participants and which will provide a menu of targeted environmental actions from which farmers may choose. Funding for the new scheme will include the additional modulation funds which I ensured would be retained for the benefit of Irish farmers in the negotiations on the CAP health check of last year. It will also include matching Exchequer funding. My officials are at present in discussions with the European Commission on the details of the scheme. The level of funding for the new scheme will be decided in the forthcoming budget and in the context of the allocation of resources for my Department.

Does the Minister's Department have a tracking mechanism to assess the financial status of those who will exit REPS 2 and REPS 3 and who will move on to a State social welfare payment, that is, farm assist? If the Department has done such an assessment, does the Minister agree that it is financially irresponsible to withdraw REPS and thereby increase the State's liability in the form of farm assist? We need to take a cross-departmental view on this matter and acknowledge that the farm assist payment is 100% funded by the State whereas the REP scheme is 55% co-funded by the EU.

I ask the Minister to step back from the decision to suspend REPS 4 and not to conclude a deal with Brussels on a new rural development programme, pending a cross-departmental assessment of the issue.

REPS is not intended primarily as an income support measure but as an agri-environment measure. However, we all know its importance to the income of farmers.

My Department has been in consultation with other Departments, particularly the Department of Social and Family Affairs with regard to the loss of farm incomes, particularly during this year. The computations have been done of possible losses if people did not avail of such schemes. This year, we will pay out €369 million under REPS 3 and REPS 4. There are, at present, 63,000 participants in REPS, the highest level ever. Last year, there were 46,000 people in REPS. The scheme is under discussion with the EU Commission. The level of funding available for it will be finalised in the context of the budget, in the second week of next month.

The Minister may dance on the head of a pin as much as he likes in arguing that REPS 4 is not an income supplement measure. He should tell that to the thousands of farmers throughout the country who, as they exit REPS 2 or REPS 3, are losing, on average, €6,500. Given the year they have had, that payment means the difference between putting bread on the table or not. The REP scheme is co-funded by Europe. Farmers who lose it will move to a payment which is 100% funded by the Exchequer. There is no logic in that.

This year, 10,000 farmers have a farm assist payment or are in the process of applying for one. That figure will increase significantly in the coming months in direct proportion to the numbers leaving REPS. I know I speak for Opposition Deputies and, I am sure, for backbenchers in the Minister's party, when I ask him to desist from his plan to introduce a Mickey Mouse REPS 4 programme and to reinstate the scheme he suspended in July last.

We will not be introducing an inadequate agri-environment measure in 2010. I am fully conscious of the serious pressure on farmers and farm families. Poor commodity prices and other difficulties have created problems. The number of farmers in REPS this year is the highest ever.

REPS has been an important source of income but it is important to note there is a certain cost to participation in it. We should all acknowledge that people must meet certain criteria. It is not a transfer of income as such. The farmer carries out a substantial amount of work to meet the relevant criteria and some of it is a pay back for the labour costs involved in the work carried out by him or her.

I am very familiar with, and conscious of, the serious difficulties facing the farming community in regard to income pressure with poor commodity prices, extreme difficulties with weather, lack of credit and so on. All of those have combined to make this year particularly difficult. I wish to introduce a substantial agri-environment measure commencing in 2010. In excess of 17,000 people entered REPS this year and they will continue with their plans over the next five years. That is the highest number of applications ever received. The second highest number of applications was 12,000. Currently, 63,000 people are participating in REPS who will receive payments. Substantial funds will issue from the Department from mid-December onwards.

I am fully conscious of the difficulties. I know from meeting farmers in my constituency and from speaking to my colleagues, the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, the Minister of State, Deputy Sargent and Members on all sides of both Houses of the Oireachtas of the importance of this measure and scheme and its success to date.

Fisheries Development.

Tom Sheahan

Ceist:

4 Deputy Tom Sheahan asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when the national seafood development operational programme 2007 to 2013 will be finalised; if there is a time restriction at an EU level regarding the finalisation of this programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43827/09]

The seafood development measure contained in the National Development Plan 2007-2013 is divided between the EU co-funded operational programme and the national seafood development operational programme. The EU co-funded operational programme has already commenced and has funded the 2008 decommissioning scheme which has allowed 46 boats to be decommissioned with grant aid totalling €36.6 million already paid during 2008 and 2009.

The national seafood development operational programme 2007 to 2013 was advertised for public consultation in October 2008. Following this consultation process, issues were raised by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on behalf of the Central Fisheries Board regarding the grant-aiding of projects where environmental issues arise relating to compliance with the EU Birds and Habitats Directives and sea lice control on salmon farms.

This Department with its agencies working with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government developed a plan to deliver compliance with the EU Birds and Habitat Directives for wild fisheries and aquaculture over a determined timeframe. This plan was submitted to DG Environment for consideration and has been subject to detailed discussions. While DG Environment had indicated that it was in principle supportive of the plan, it has recently advised that it remains concerned about certain aspects of the planned approach to delivering compliance for aquaculture licensing. I will continue to work with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to address the outstanding concerns of DG Environment.

In that regard, I secured €1 million for the collection of baseline data for assessment purposes in 2009 in addition to funding provided by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Following an EU tender, the Marine Institute appointed personnel to operate the data collection exercise. This process is ongoing and will support compliance of aquaculture and wild fisheries with the terms of the Birds and Habitat Directives.

In regard to sea lice issues, I have met the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, on this issue, most recently early this month. I advised on the significant progress made in regard to managing sea lice levels on salmon farms and the concerns of the fisheries boards were also set down. I hope there is a better understanding of the issues involved from the perspectives of both Departments and that on this basis we can find a satisfactory resolution to the concerns raised

Grants payable under the national seafood development operational programme 2007 to 2013 will be fully funded by the Exchequer. There are no EU time restrictions on the adoption of the operational programme. Once the operational programme has been adopted, the individual schemes under the programme will have to be notified to the EU under EU state aid guidelines.

The Minister of State said there are no time restrictions. Is there any hope of getting an approximate date or any indication of when this will be finalised? It is almost December 2009 and this programme runs from 2007 to 2013. What EU funding or co-funding has been lost due to the fact we do not have an operational programme in place?

The Minister of State said he received €1 million in 2009 for data collection. I remind him that €5 million was sent back which was not spent on surveys on aquaculture. This is an operational programme for fisheries but the Minister of State's reply would suggest he has no input into it. DG Environment, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, seem to have the clout and the decision-making ability in regard to the operational programme. Will the Minister of State indicate a date and state how much funding has been lost by not having the operational programme in place?

I am assured that no funding under the co-funding programme has been lost or is at risk arising from the delays encountered here. The Deputy mentioned €5 million which was apparently provided for aquaculture surveys. I understand that was approximately 12 years ago and that the funding was not used for the purpose for which it was provided.

In regard to the work under way, a considerable amount of it is scientific in nature and is conducted by, or on behalf of, the Marine Institute on behalf of this Department and some additional work is done with the national parks and wildlife service of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. I am satisfied with the level of co-operation with the agencies and the Departments at this point.

I am not satisfied. Up to €10 million per annum in funding is being lost which could be drawn down if an operational programme for fisheries was in place. Jobs are also being lost. Is that not the case?

I understand no EU funding of any kind is at risk. Of course, if the programme were in place, we would be in a position to provide funding for aquaculture and sea and inland fisheries sectors and processors. We are working very hard towards achieving that.

While I am satisfied with the level of co-operation between the Departments and the agencies at this point, I wish it was possible to have more positive engagement with the fisheries and aquaculture interests and the environmental NGOs and that we could manage to expedite our dealings with DG Environment at Brussels level.

Up to €10 million per year in co-funding is being lost.

Food Safety.

Andrew Doyle

Ceist:

5 Deputy Andrew Doyle asked the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has received the findings of an analysis undertaken by his Department into samples of chicken fillets imported during the summer of 2009; the actions he intends to take on foot of such findings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43828/09]

My Department had analyses conducted at the Irish Equine Centre on ten batches of imported poultry this year. This was specifically in the context of the gas flushing of poultry meat.

The results of these analyses are presently being assessed. Further, more detailed, information has been sought from the testing laboratory in order to provide a fuller picture of the microbiological status of these samples. If any follow-up action is needed, such as bringing any unsatisfactory results to the attention of competent authorities in exporting countries and asking that they take corrective action, this will be taken.

My Department is currently liaising with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, in particular in regard to any action that needs to be taken at retail level when handling gas-flushed poultry.

It could be said with some justification that the pork dioxin scare came up and bit us from behind. The Minister of State mentioned ten samples. He should bear in mind that in response to a previous parliamentary question on 17 November he said he was not aware of any testing on imported poultry meat having been carried out at the Department's laboratory. The response to a parliamentary question submitted by Deputy Creed a day later stated that the Department had analyses conducted on samples of imported poultry meat this year. It was the same response as that given here.

He is covering up something.

Something is amiss. If this turns out to be a health issue and the bacterial counts of these samples are proved to be in excess of what is humanly safe, the Minister of State is complicit in covering up results by saying he has sought further more detailed information. If we should be aware of the preliminary findings, surely the Minister of State and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland have a duty to bring this to our attention and to suspend the activity.

At peak 4 million chicken fillets are imported into this country each week. It is the most popular food the Irish housewife buys for her family. It is considered to be low fat and safe. If it is not fit, they have a right to know.

I share the annoyance of Deputy Doyle in that I had hoped these tests would have been carried out more quickly. However, I am not a microbiologist and I do not know if the Deputy is one. We are taking the best advice available to us from the Irish Equine Centre. It has been contracted by the Department because it has the capability to carry out the tests to a standard that would give us the clout to take the action the Deputy is seeking, if that is warranted. For that reason, I have pressed this matter when I have been asked this question. I am advised the results will be concluded by next week at which point the issue will be taken up.

There is an interesting lacuna in legal terms in that the use by date must be displayed on a product, but the law does not specify the duration of the shelf life of a product. Normally, Irish processors apply a seven-day or eight-day shelf life to their products but with the use of gas-flushed technology, products can have a much longer shelf life. A shelf life of up to two or three weeks may be permissible on the basis of microbiological evidence.

I take Deputy Doyle's point that this is a serious matter but I do not want to overstate it. It is a matter that must be followed up with action, but it can only be action taken on the basis of comprehensive testing, the results of which we have to await. We will have those next week.

Will the Minister of State confirm that those findings will be published? On the issue of the shelf life of products, what the Minister of State said is all very fine, if one knows the slaughter date. The evidence is that chicken fillets are gas-flushed on the seventh day of shelf life of the product. Immediately the seal is broken on the wrapping of a product, the product is out of date.

That is key to this issue. We do not know the slaughter date of such products, nor their country of origin.

Why did we get two different answers on this issue last week? The FSAI convened a meeting of the suppliers and the retailers on this issue last April. It said it had no legal power to ban such a practice. The caveat here is that the retailer should have a scientifically valid way of setting use by dates. They were given two months to report back with a scientifically valid way of setting use by dates but that still has not happened.

What the Deputy has said is so significant that I suggest he table a separate question on it. In the meantime, I will examine the matter. The Deputy has asked a question that warrants a specific separate answer. It is a question that needs a comprehensive answer but I cannot give him such an answer now.

Will the findings be published?

I do not have that information, but I hope they will be. The issue warrants being made public information.

The consumer has the right to that information.

I agree with the Deputy on that, but I have to take advice on that based on laboratory findings and the legislation in place. I expect that in terms of public health, it is a matter of public interest and people should have the information. I look forward to considering the information as soon as possible.

We should have learned a lesson from the pork dioxin crisis.