Scrutiny of EU Proposals.

I welcome the officials from the Department of Agriculture and Food, the Department of Health and Children, and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to update members on the proposal COM (2002) 559, a proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on genetically modified food and feed. We are joined by Mr. Dermot Ryan, senior agricultural inspector, and Mr. John Downey, assistant principal at the Department of Agriculture and Food; Ms Roisín Cahillane, assistant principal at the Department of Health and Children; and Dr. Pat O'Mahony, Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI.

I draw attention to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege this privilege does not apply to witnesses appearing before the committee. Members are also reminded of longstanding parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. Ryan to make his opening remarks.

Mr. Dermot Ryan

I thank the chairman for inviting us to update the committee on COM (2002) 559, a proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on genetically modified food and feed. This proposal came into law when published in the official journal of EU legislation in October 2003 as Regulation (EC)1829/2003 following approval by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in September 2003. The provisions of the regulation are binding on all member states and came into effect in April 2004.

Regulation (EC)1829/2003 is divided into two distinct parallel sections. Articles 3 to 14 deal with GM food under the general headings of scope, authorisation, procedures and labelling requirements while articles 15 to 26 deal with GM feed under the same headings. The EU regulation also contains a number of articles relating to common provisions. This regulation, inter alia establishes the 0.9% threshold above which all products containing a GM event must be labelled as containing a genetically modified product. It also sets out a new enhanced authorisation procedure giving the European Food Safety Authority a pivotal role for GM food and GM feed intended for placing on the market within the EU and it provides transitional arrangements for existing GM products that have been approved under previous legislation.

The Department of Health and Children and the FSAI are the competent authorities for the GM food element of this regulation while the Department of Agriculture and Food is the competent authority for GM feed. Along with my colleague Mr. John Downey I will address our contribution to the implementation of the regulation in so far as it applies to animal feed while Ms Roisín Cahillane from the Department of Health and Children and Dr. Pat O'Mahony from the FSAI will address the issue of GM food.

This EU regulation is part of a suite of EU legislation that came into force in the period 2001-04 aimed at strengthening the controls governing the approval, cultivation and use of GM products within the EU. The legislation ensures that the highest standards are in place to protect the citizens of the Community from a food safety and environmental safety aspect.

I now wish to address the implementation of this regulation by the Department of Agriculture and Food is so far as it relates to GM feed. In May 2004, the Minister for Agriculture and Food signed a statutory instrument, SI 424/2004, to give full effect to the EU regulation and to provide for the appointment of authorised officers and set out their powers. It also sets out the penalties which should apply to breaches of the regulation.

The Department of Agriculture and Food is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the inputs to the animal feed chain meet the required standard. To that end, an annual inspection programme is drawn up in which samples are taken by routine and risk based selection from imported feedstuffs and compound feedstuffs for analysis. The vast majority of these samples relate to prohibited animal proteins, while other areas selected for sampling include additives, heavy metals and salmonella. In April 2004, a new category for sampling, GMO labelling requirements, was added to the annual sampling programme. At that time, 43 consignments were identified for sampling to monitor compliance with the GM labelling requirements. These samples were primarily selected on the basis that they were not labelled as containing GM ingredients, instead having a "no GM material contained" label or no label at all. It transpired that nearly all the samples analysed did not consist of or contain genetically modified organisms at the 0.9% threshold and, therefore, did not require any GM labelling. It should be noted that the majority of samples taken by Department of Agriculture and Food staff have labels indicating the presence of genetically modified organisms and analysis of these samples have shown that the correct genetic modification was noted on the labels. The Department has not to date received any application to market a new GM feedstuff and, as a result, has not had to put in place the authorisation provisions set out in the regulation.

I hope this describes sufficiently how the Department of Agriculture and Food has implemented the provision of the regulation. My colleague from the Department of Health and Children, Ms Roisín Cahillane will now address issues pertaining to foodstuffs.

Ms Roisín Cahillane

As outlined by my colleague from the Department of Agriculture and Food, Regulation (EC)1829/2003 governs the placing on the market of genetically modified food and feedstuffs. Policy matters on genetically modified food are the remit of the Department of Health and Children, while the Food Safety Authority of Ireland is the competent authority charged with enforcing GM food legislation. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland carries out regular checks on the market to ensure compliance with GM food legislation. The GM food and feed regulation has been in force in the EU since April 2004 but, prior to that date and since, the FSAI has carried out surveillance of the food supply at retail level to determine the level of compliance with legislation governing GM food. The FSAI surveys have focused on foodstuffs containing ingredients from maize and soya bean, which are the most common GM ingredients authorised within the EU.

Including the most recent survey, the results of which will soon be published on the FSAI website, a total of 236 samples of food have been tested since 2000, with 58 or approximately 25% of those being shown to contain GM ingredients. Unauthorised GM ingredients have not been identified and specific GM labelling requirements were not required in any of the products containing GM because their relative content was estimated as being less than the labelling threshold of 0.9%.

Currently, more than 30 GM ingredients, including maize, soya bean, cotton seed and oilseed rape are listed on the GM food and feed register on the European Commission website. As set out in article 48 of Regulation (EC)1829/2003, the Commission is in the final stages of preparing a report to the Parliament, Council and ultimately to the public on the implementation of the GM food and feedstuff regulation within the EU.

In line with the report of the interdepartmental group on modern biotechnology published in October 2000, the Department of Health and Children adopts a positive but precautionary approach to the issue of GM foods. Consumer safety and choice are paramount in the approach taken to GM foods. The Department of Health and Children, advised by the FSAI, is satisfied that appropriate arrangements are in place to ensure the safety of authorised GM foods or foods containing GM ingredients placed on the market in Ireland. The EU has one of the most rigorous regimes for the assessment of GMOs, as well as food and feedstuffs derived from GMOs. In this regard, only GM foods which satisfy the highest standards of safety are allowed on the market.

I welcome the officials from the Departments of Agriculture and Food and Health and Children and the FSAI. Public representatives are being contacted by the general public with regard to their concerns about GM foods. A difficulty exists in that not much transparent information is provided to the public on these issues.

The Commission criticised the lack of assessment by the European Food Safety Authority of the long-term implications of the use of GM foods and crops. When examining the licensing requirements and recommendations for approval sent before the Commission, Council and Parliament, the European Food Safety Authority considers short to medium term but not long-term implications. I ask the delegates to share any concerns they may have regarding the long-term impact of the use of GM foods by consumers.

With regard to the testing carried out by the Department of Agriculture and Food, Mr. Ryan stated: "nearly all the samples analysed did not consist of or contain genetically modified organisms at the 0.9% threshold." What is the Department's definition of "nearly all", how many breached the threshold and how was the matter pursued by the Department?

With regard to feedstuffs which were properly labelled, did the labelling regime reach farm level? For example, consignments of bulk feed which came into the country may have been labelled as genetically modified but that information may have not been passed to farmers. Was that matter investigated?

Consumers are demanding GM free food. With the 0.9% threshold, is it possible for producers here to be able to certify a product as GM free? If feedstuff with 0.85% GM content is fed to cattle or sheep, is it possible to certify that as GM free?

What is the threshold for bone fragments in imported feed? I know there is no scientific basis for the 0.9% threshold for GM products and that these can be detected at lower levels but what are the comparative thresholds for other contaminants? Is the Department of Agriculture and Food satisfied with the current degree of segregation, particularly in terms of the importation of GM and non-GM crops?

I would be grateful to the Department of Health and Children and the FSAI if they could also comment on the criticisms made of the European Food Safety Authority. I am surprised that 25% of the products surveyed showed GM content but were not required to be labelled as containing such ingredients because of the threshold. Is the Department concerned about the transparency of food labelling, given such discrepancies? It would give rise to concern for many of the public if they thought there was even a minuscule level of GM content in products that may have been marketed as GM free. Have any of the products identified as having GM content been marketed as GM free?

I thank Mr. Ryan and his colleagues for their presentation. A couple of the questions I wanted to ask have already been put. In particular I was curious about what exactly the phrase "almost all" means. A total of 43 samples were taken as the Department had identified the products concerned as the ones most likely to carry GM ingredients. What percentage of the total does that represent? In other words what percentage of the total import of feed do we have sampled for GM ingredients?

An important document has been published by the Commission on the relationship with the EFSA that clearly raises some concerns. What interaction is there between the EFSA and either the Department of Agriculture and Food or the Department of Health and Children and the Food Safety Authority? The EFSA is being asked to liaise more fully with national scientific bodies. The question is being put to the EFSA, but what proactive measures has the Department taken to interact with the European Food Safety Authority? Clearly that will be very important in determining final decisions regarding GM and its acceptability or otherwise.

Rightly or wrongly, there is a public perception that GM is something the vast majority of people do not want. Many have serious reservations about it. One of the problems is that we have had very little public debate on GM in Ireland. It is something that should be pushed for by all of us here and by the Department. We should have more open discussion on GM which would possibly alleviate some of those concerns and make people aware of the level of genetically modified ingredients in our foodstuffs and, I would go so far as to say, the benefits that have been achieved through some of those. I have in mind such products as genetically modified rennet. The story is very unbalanced at the moment. It is therefore crucial to have that debate.

On labelling, I think it was Dr. O'Mahony from the Food Safety Authority who previously raised the important issue of products which could never have been genetically modified in the first place being labelled as GM free. Perhaps Mr. Ryan might comment on this in the context that making such claims is another say of abusing labelling regulations. That should be highlighted again because it amounts to scare-mongering in an indirect way to suggest a product contains no GM ingredients when it never would or could have contained such ingredients.

A level of 0.9% is set down in legislation. What is the reason for setting the level at 0.9% and is the Department comfortable with that? I have raised this question before but it is important that it be answered again because the methodology seems to be in place to detect levels below 0.9%? If that is the case why can we not have legislation that can take us down on a regular basis to the lowest possible percentage rate? From a public reassurance point of view 0.9% is somewhat arbitrary. Perhaps I am inaccurate in that, but I would like to hear the Department's views on it. Why was 0.9% chosen and can we take it below that level? Would it not be more reassuring for the general public if that could be done?

Mr. Ryan

We will reply in three parts. Dr. Pat O'Mahony will deal with some of the issues and my colleague, Mr. John Downey, will deal with the others. I will begin by dealing with the question regarding the number of consignments we test per annum. We import approximately 400 consignments annually of products such as maize, soya, oilseed rape and cotton. We target our testing regime on the basis of the declarations. Consignments can be labelled as having GM content, as not having GM content, or there may be no declaration. We target our sampling on the basis of those consignments in the latter two categories, namely those labelled as not containing GM ingredients and those with no declaration.

Of the 400 consignments per annum that come into the country, half a dozen were shown to be incorrectly labelled. In other words they were labelled as not containing GM ingredients or had no declaration but, when tested, were found to have GM content. The analysis did not uncover any unauthorised event — that is important. The importers concerned were written to and told that the product was incorrectly labelled and should have been labelled correctly. The answer to the question regarding what was meant by "almost all" is that six consignments of soya, maize, oilseed rape and cotton being imported into the country were incorrectly labelled.

Six out of the 43 the Department tested?

Mr. Ryan

We tested 43 on the basis of risk assessment. We would have tested those consignments that were labelled as not containing GM ingredients or in respect of which there was no declaration. The vast majority of consignments of maize, soya, oilseed rape and cotton coming into the country are labelled as containing GM ingredients.

Is Mr. Ryan saying that approximately 350 of the 400 consignments imported on an annual basis since 2004 contained GM ingredients and were labelled as such?

Mr. Ryan

They were labelled as containing GM ingredients.

Is there a good probability that all other samples would be tested?

Mr. Ryan

All other samples are tested. Dr. O'Mahony will deal with the questions regarding EFSA.

Ms Cahillane

I am sorry to interrupt, but I will deal briefly with that issue. Some criticisms have been levelled at EFSA. The problem could be characterised as owing to a lack of communication on EFSA's part. Perhaps it needs to improve the way it communicates the science behind its decisions in a more user friendly way. There are moves to try to improve that whole area. We have had no concerns to date regarding the advice received from EFSA. We work very closely with the FSAI in regard to having our own national assessment of scientific advice issued by EFSA. Regarding improved liaison with EFSA, most of the liaison takes place with the FSAI, as the FSAI is the scientific competent authority for food safety in Ireland. Members may be aware that Dr. Alan Reilly, the deputy chief executive of the FSAI, is on the EFSA advisory forum. The FSAI would keep a close track of what happens in regard to most of the EFSA scientific panels. Any opportunity for increased liaison or involvement with EFSA is always looked on positively.

Dr. Pat O’Mahony

The criticism of EFSA is partially due to why it is there and how it works. It was set up as an independent scientific body, so it stays independent and scientific. When scientists from other member states have a different opinion, there is perhaps a clash of egos but EFSA sticks to its point, which is what it was set up to do.

With regard to EFSA and how member states interact, as Ms Cahillane said, Alan Reilly, our deputy chief executive, is on the advisory board and our former chief executive, Dr. Pat Wall, is on the management board. In the past two weeks, it has started to organise a forum for debate and perhaps more discussion with member states' competent authorities and experts which will start on 15 May. That will be the first time we have met with it as such and will be able to sit down and say whether we agree.

Deputy Naughten asked about the 25% of food products over the five years. To be honest, that is 25% of a certain niche set of products containing maize and GM, so 25% is probably an overstatement in overall terms. Having said that, from day one, we found there was a significant amount of foods which had minor amounts of GM in them. As to whether that is an issue, some individuals would say no, while others would say yes. It is within the legal framework, so it is up to the political system to change that.

Deputy Upton asked from where the 0.9% came. There is no scientific basis for it. Even when it was part of the novel foods legislation, it was 1%. To bring it from 1% to 0.9%, as one can imagine, is scientifically a bit ludicrous. The testing is very sensitive, so it can actually go down to approximately 0.1%. One will never see anybody taking a company to court with a level of 1.1% or even 1% because there are too many variables in the testing procedures from laboratory to laboratory. The 0.9% was the Commission's idea in that if a ship carrying a cargo of non-GM soya from the US had previously brought a shipment of GM soya, despite all the cleaning, there would be a strong possibility of small amounts of that GM soya remaining. Even if a person does his or her best to get non-GM soya, there will be a trace amount. I am not sure how we came up with the 1%, or what is now the 0.9%. It does not really reflect the safety or otherwise of it as such. It is just a figure. As to whether it could be lower, one would be talking about making life more difficult for industry and those who try to make non-GM products.

In our last survey, we looked at products making GM-free claims and, in particular, at products which should not have GM-free claims because the labelling legislation quite clearly states that one cannot assign a particular characteristic to a food which all other foods have. We found that a significant number do so. Some of those to whom we spoke said that is the way they like to do it. A sea change is needed but not only on the GM side. We also have issues for the same reason with other aspects of food. For example, people claiming a product is gluten-free. It is a problem within the industry overall, so we will have to take a long and hard look at how we will deal with it. Companies might be a bit reticent when it comes to change.

Has Dr. O'Mahony come across a situation where there are trace amounts of GM in a product labelled "GM-free"?

Dr. O’Mahony

Yes. I am glad the Deputy reminded me. We have just finished our survey but have not yet published it. There is a company in the UK which has been reluctant to heed our advice. The UK has a different approach to these matters. It is happy enough allowing companies to write "GM-free" or "non-GM" if the GM level is less than 0.9%. There is one company, in particular, with which we have dealt in the past four or five years that states "non-GM" on its product. It consistently comes back to us and says that it states "non-GM" , not "GM-free". Our attitude is that for the regular consumer, non-GM means GM-free. This is a voluntary label and there is no legal basis for it, so we tell them to get it off the market. Unfortunately, they are in the UK and while we went to the UK authorities they were reluctant to do anything about it. I am in the process of speaking to the Irish retail industry and, to be fair to it, it is taking it on board and is in the process of delisting the products that we have shown as consistently having GM free or non-GM labels but which contain GM ingredients. We cannot do anything legally, but I suppose we will hit them where it hurts. The Commission knows of these problems. There is no EU-wide GM-free type labels and that is a problem. Strictly speaking, we find the odd spurious GM-free label on a product which would have trace amounts of GM but it is not a consistent problem except for this one company.

Mr. John Downey

In 2004, the requirement to label animal feeding stuff as GM or not came in. Obviously, that brought its own pressures and controls. On the issue of feeding stuff being labelled as "GM-free" and "non-GM", the Department's position is that the label that has the legislative backing is that this product contains GM and no other statement is made after that. There were cases where products were labelled as "GM-free" or "non-GM" and people assumed that because the GM content was under the 0.9%, they could be comfortable with that label but the Department did not accept that position.

On the implementation of the regulation from our point of view, of the 360 or 370 consignments which came in last year, only 43 were not labelled and all of them have been tested. In reality, the importers were caught unawares as much as anybody else. It was more a communication issue and they got back to their suppliers. There is a high percentage of feed coming in GM labelled. It has caused problems in the market in certain niche areas where people are looking for material which is not labelled as containing GM. Whether there is a potential for a market for that to develop given the demand is open to question. The labelling provisions set out in the regulation are working quite well and we are satisfied the level of sampling and controls in that area is quite strict within the overall animal feeding inspection programme the Department operates. The labelling follows through in that if a consignment comes in labelled as containing GM and if compound feed is made out of that, the bags containing that must be labelled so that it goes to farm level. There is a legal requirement that the labelling follows through to farm level so the final purchaser is aware of what is contained therein.

On the question of EFSA, of the three Departments actively involved in the GM issue — the Departments of Health and Children, the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Agriculture and Food — the Department of Agriculture and Food has tended to be at post authorisation up to now because feed was dealt with under environment legislation until this new legislation about which we are talking came into play. We would not have been actively involved in the dealings with EFSA and the authorisation procedures, etc., in terms of the GM element of it. We have not received our first authorisation in the context of the authorisation application under this regulation. It will bring us more into it but, as Ms Cahillane and Dr. O'Mahony said, our officials are attending EU fora and so on. Whatever observations and comments can feed into the current discussion about EFSA will be made in that context.

On the issue of a more open discussion, that is a valid point. However in the past two years there has been considerable discussion in this forum and in the wider forum on the whole GM issue. It is still very much a two-sided issue. We have tried to do our bit, and we are actively involved in the coexistence document and arrangements. The Minister asked that it be put on the website before any final decisions are made and she asked for any observations from the general public. The EPA is doing something similar on the GM potato side — at least disseminating information. Whether there is a gathering of all people from different sides and somebody can pull it together is another issue. However, it is not a problem solely for Ireland. An international conference was held in Vienna two weeks ago under the Austrian Presidency and the same polarisation was evident. It would be helpful to find some common ground in the area. We would definitely benefit from it. There must be a middle ground somewhere.

Dr. O'Mahony has dealt with the issue of0.9%. The question of whether we just go for a simple statement that a product contains a particular amount such as 0.7%, 0.8% or 1% is probably an issue for later. The lower the threshold demanded the more expensive it is for the analysis side. The 0.9% seems to be holding its own as a threshold. Its origins may be questionable, but it is staying there as a threshold to establish some sort of base for control of GM products within the EU. The general perception is that GM outside the EU is moving apace and critically, whether the EU is for it or against it, it needs to put controls in place. Putting controls in place similar to the coexistence as we are doing is not an indication of being pro or anti. It is putting controls in place in the event of GM activity occurring as provided for in the legislation.

I ask Mr. Ryan to address the bone spicule issue.

Mr. Ryan

The question on bone spicule is unrelated to GMOs. The EU legislation lays down a policy of zero tolerance regarding bone spicules. From the start we have implemented that policy. To that end we test virtually all imported consignments. Until recently we tested all imported consignments. We do not test all imports of unprocessed products coming from within Europe, for example wheat, barley and peas — products that are imported mainly from France and other EU member states. We test approximately 15% of those on a risk assessment basis. All consignments of other products coming from outside the EU are tested for bone spicules and the zero tolerance approach is followed. Our laboratories report findings to us and we act accordingly. They have procedures that are standard with other laboratories in Europe whereby the findings must have an element of repeatability.

Does a threshold exist?

Mr. Ryan

There is not a threshold at this point. The EU is considering introducing a threshold, for example, for spicules of fish bone. There is a slight tolerance for spicules that might be found in beet pulp. It is not written into legislation as a threshold. The legislation provides that if it is possible to establish that such spicules arose from environmental factors, a risk assessment may be carried out to determine the animals to which it might be fed. However, no threshold is written into the legislation.

Mr. Downey said that the label follows through. If, for example, a consignment contained 10% GM feed and it was blended or compounded in a ratio of 1:20, would it still be required to have a GM label as it would then be below the threshold. I do not know whether those figures are calculated.

Mr. Downey

I understand the practice at the moment is that if the primary product contains GM, the labelling follows through. It probably could be questioned if one got down to the minutiae of the figures.

I thank Mr. Ryan, Mr. Downey, Ms Cahillane and Dr. O'Mahony for attending and for the way in which they responded to members' questions.

Sitting suspended at 3.46 p.m. and resumed at 3.49 p.m.

I welcome officials from the Department of Agriculture and Food, Mr. Tom O'Donnell, principal officer, and Mr. Niall Ó Nualláin, superintendent veterinary inspector, who are here to discuss an EU directive on the protection of chickens kept for meat production. Before asking Mr. O'Donnell to make his opening remarks, I draw attention to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege the same privilege does not extend to witnesses appearing before it. Members are reminded of a longstanding parliamentary practice to the effect that Members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The proposal for an EU directive on the protection of chickens was made in May 2005, following a very long consultative process. The bones of the proposal likely to emerge were largely known as far back as 2003 or 2004. This proposed directive is a consequence of a report of the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare published in March 2000, the aim of which is to protect the welfare of intensively farmed chickens.

Among the main issues covered in the proposed directive are: the requirements for keeping chickens, including stocking density; the training of operatives; labelling; inspections; guidelines on good management practice; and penalties. The main meat — no pun intended — of the proposal is covered in the annexes. Annex I sets out the basic requirements in regard to drinkers, feeders, litter, ventilation and heating, noise levels, light requirements, inspection, cleaning, record keeping and surgical interventions. Annex II sets out details of enhanced requirements in respect of higher stocking densities. This involves compliance with stricter documented welfare criteria, in particular technical details of the house and its equipment in terms of ventilation, feeding and watering systems, alarm systems, etc. It also covers production targets, management and monitoring and recording procedures. Under this directive, two stocking rates are proposed, one is 30 kg/m2 and the higher one is 38 kg/m2, as included in the original proposal. Some developments have occurred as discussions progressed to which I will return.

There has been a slight change to annex III since the proposal was made. At that time annex III set out the details for the competent authorities on inspection and the following up of deficiencies. Annex III and annex IV have been changed around. Annex IV, which originally covered the details of monitoring and the following up of deficiencies, is now covered in annex III, while annex IV sets out the details for competent authorities on inspection and the following up of deficiencies in the establishment in cases of higher stocking densities. Annex IV sets out the welfare training requirements for employees in broiler establishments.

This proposal was discussed by numerous Council working groups over several months. My colleague, Mr. Ó Nualláin, has attended meetings of all those Council working groups. The main issues for discussion have been: the harmonisation of controls and enforcement by the competent authority, in particular when the reduction of stocking density is to be used as a sanction; the scope of the directive in terms of the size of flocks, compatibility with marketing rules such as organic farming, free range, etc.; the stocking density levels and possible transitional arrangements for implementing the directive. Suggestions have come to the fore that some parts of the directive should be implemented in advance of other parts of it.

In addition to the Council working group discussions, the Special Committee on Agriculture discussed the impact assessment of the proposal at two meetings, the first in September 2005 and the second, more recently, on 13 March 2006. At the earlier meeting some member states, including some of the main producers, namely, France and the Netherlands, questioned the adequacy of the impact assessment report. Several member states questioned the timing of the proposal, particularly in the light of problems experienced by the industry arising from the threat of avian influenza. They also questioned whether sufficient consideration had been given to some other factors, in particular competition to which the industry is subject from third countries and whether sufficient consideration has been taken of this element at the WTO negotiations. Several member states expressed concern about the timing of the proposal. At the end of that meeting the Presidency indicated it was not its intention to bring the matter to Council for the present.

Technical discussions progressed at working group level and a new revised document — probably the second complete revised document we received — containing possible compromises resulting from discussions to date was produced on 11 April. Discussions are ongoing on the basis of that document. It takes account largely of points that emerged in the discussions and some points were suggested by the European Parliament, which were taken on board by the Commission in the latest version of the document.

The impact of the proposal on Irish industry will depend on what is finally agreed and on its timing. Currently, most producers operate in accordance with Bord Bia's guidelines contained in its quality assurance scheme. They, therefore, work to a stocking rate of 38 kg/m2, as agreed with the industry, IFA, retailers and the Department. That means they would be subject to the enhanced requirements set down in annex II. The information from the industry is that any reduction in that stocking rate would have a negative impact on its competitiveness. The higher stocking rate proposed is 38 kg/m2, which is the same as that contained in Bord Bia's guidelines.

Some concerns were raised about mortality rates, which might pose problems for some operators, and about compliance with standards by producers in smaller farms that slaughter birds at local authority approved plants. The Commission's proposal was that the measure would not apply to flocks of fewer than 100. Various views were put forward at the working group to the effect that this figure should be changed. Figures of 350 and 500 were mentioned.

On the broader issue, we pointed out that from the Irish point of view this industry must operate in a competitive environment and is subject to increasing pressure from third country producers. The higher welfare and environmental standards in place in the Union already have an impact on competitiveness and it would, therefore, appear to be equitable that producers in third countries who export to the EU should be required to operate to standards similar to those which EU producers must maintain.

We have had consultations with the industry. They date back to the time when wider consultations took place in 2003 and 2004. We have also been in touch with the industry following the publication of the draft directive in May last year and, more recently, have kept the industry up to date with the later versions of the documents we received, one in late January or early February and the most recent one I mentioned which we received only last week.

I thank Mr. O'Donnell for his presentation. I call Deputy Naughten.

I thank Mr. O'Donnell for his presentation and for attending this meeting to outline the intricacies of this regulation which is being considered at EU level. I have a number of questions. Regarding the proposed stocking rate of 38 kg/m2, is it tenable for Bord Bia's quality assurance scheme to retain the rate of 32 kg/m2 if a lower threshold of 30 kg/m2 will apply in the EU? I am also led to believe that there is the possibility of derogation — a dirty word in agriculture — from the proposed set of rules. Is it derogation from 30 kg up to 38 kg or is it from 38 kg to a higher level?

Is there a scientific basis to the 38 kg/m2 or 30 kg/m2 proposed? The scientific committee on animal health and welfare reported back in March 2000. What scientific evidence did it provide for this? There is concern in the industry about avian flu, the reduction in returns that processors and producers are getting at present and the dramatic increase in energy costs. There must be clarity.

The most significant issue in Mr. O'Donnell's presentation relates to improving animal welfare standards. At European level we are improving animal welfare standards and I presume there is a scientific basis for the improvement in standards. I have no difficulty with that because this is the way we should go. However, there is little point improving standards in the EU and producing product to a much higher standard if it has to compete with product from third countries that is, first, not labelled as being from third countries in many instances and, second, is being produced through less acceptable processing and production methods than those in the EU.

In the context of the discussion taking place at EU level at present, has there been any discussion about the introduction of welfare friendly labelling? The consumers can make a decision based on the information on the label on whether they want an EU or non-EU product and they can select a product from a source where there are not the same stocking densities or mortality rates. That should be clearly labelled. Are there plans to provide that type of information, which is lacking at present?

I thank Mr. O'Donnell for his presentation. Perhaps he would clarify the 30 kg/m2 versus the 38 kg/m2. He said at the beginning that there was a possibility of two rates. The rate of 30 kg/m2 would appear to be the optimum target. The 38 kg/m2 rate is currently the Bord Bia rate. Is there a proposal that the 38 kg/m2 rate might also be considered? He also mentioned organic and free range production. Perhaps he would clarify what he meant about what differences there might be in the treatment of organic poultry and free range poultry and how the legislation might impact on that.

The most significant aspect for the poultry industry in Ireland is competition from non-EU countries. The same point has been made frequently about imports of beef from Brazil and Argentina. Are we confident the standards that apply in non-EU countries are identical to those we expect from EU producers in terms not just of animal welfare, although it is important to emphasise that this legislation is driven by consideration for animal welfare, but also in terms of the quality of the product, particularly with regard to residues? What is the level of inspection and how frequent is it? How many inspections are carried out on imported product relative to what would be carried out on home produced product?

Underpinning all this is the lack of labelling and I would welcome Mr. O'Donnell's views on that. From an Irish producer's point of view, compliance with clear labelling would be welcome, particularly with regard to country of origin. That would make a significant difference.

I, too, thank Mr. O'Donnell for his presentation. These are trying times for the poultry industry. Point on improving animal welfare in the presentation is very relevant. If I understand correctly, the stocking rate has been agreed by the industry, the IFA, retailers and the Department. The producers are under extreme pressure from many sources. However, in recent years the Department has been in touch with the producers and many improvements have been made. I welcome that. We are competing with imports from countries whose standards may not be as high. I agree with what other members have said.

I refer to the avian flu and comments that were made recently on the "Late Late Show" by a leading chef. His less than parliamentary language was one aspect, but the damage he did to the poultry industry is immense, and the producers and processors will supply figures to confirm it. This committee should make its views known to the individual concerned and to RTE. There is a major question mark over the presenter who allowed that type of thing on his show, which damaged an industry of great importance in this country. The producers are mindful of the necessity to be careful because, along with the disease issue, the health problems are important and must be taken care of. I congratulate the Department on how seriously it is taking this issue.

I am extremely conscious of the disease and health factors. The scaremongering that is taking place is almost unbelievable. What was said on national television and the way it was said should not be allowed to go unquestioned.

I believe the committee is agreed that we will write to RTE. It was disgraceful and just shows that the Dublin 4 gang has no interest in rural Ireland anymore. One would not expect anything better from Mr. Kenny and company. I believe it is agreed by everybody on the committee that we should take notice of what happened and make a complaint to the RTE authority.

I thank the officials for attending this meeting to discuss this most important document. My constituency of Cavan-Monaghan accounts for approximately two thirds of poultry production in the country and it will be affected more than most if these regulations are implemented. With regard to the avian flu, some of the media reports, and not only the "Late Late Show", were extremely damaging. I wonder if some of the media personnel would make such an effort to expose the imported products that are brought into this country under dubious labelling from third countries. We do not have the same control over the environment in which this produce is reared or how it is produced. We have been discussing the labelling issue for a long time and it must be dealt with as a matter of urgency. I met a number of industry representatives last week who were extremely frustrated because they have no control over the media and they are seriously disappointed that boxes of produce can be imported, relabelled and sold as Irish products. That is doing enormous damage to producers and is putting the consumer at risk.

There has been a great deal of talk about an avian flu pandemic and the number of body bags needed but only a few hundred people have died worldwide. While it is sad they died, more than that number is killed every six months on our roads and, unfortunately, there is not the same excitement about it. People continue to drink and drive at speed. This issue therefore needs to be put in perspective. Irish chicken is produced to a high standard and in an environmentally friendly way.

Agriculture is facing a serious problem. The nitrates directive will put tremendous pressure on the poultry and pig industries, in particular, and other forms of intensive farming. The dairy sector in the Border region has been thrown to the wolves, as milk is sold to the highest bidder. The industry, which was built up over the years at significant expense, is under pressure from EU regulations that must take into account the competition we face. I thank the departmental officials for their comments to the effect that this must be taken into account, because if it is not taken into account we will quickly end up without a dairy industry. Producers must work in a high cost environment, with the cost of fuel and so on increasing dramatically. If the level of density is decreases to such an extent that the cost of heat increases by about 30% the industry will no longer be viable.

I am worried about the reference to sanctions since farmers are the group most open to sanction in the State. A person caught committing daylight robbery may be sent to jail for a few months or fined but if a farmer does not meet standards, he is fined automatically and his single payment reduced. What sanctions are being considered in the context of this measure?

The issue of third countries has been mentioned. It cannot be over-emphasised that Ireland does not have personnel on the grounds in countries such as Brazil and Thailand. When we slaughter animals for export to Egypt and other countries, veterinarian officers from those countries are there to take full account of everything done. However, we import sizeable quantities of produce from these third countries, much of it indirectly, without the same type of scrutiny or sanctions. While we are scrutinising this European document, I am not happy that imported products are sufficiently scrutinised. The Minister admitted when she appeared before the committee that when a product is in scarce supply, one must take it from wherever one can get it. Poultry is not scarce in Ireland but, unfortunately, much of it is put in cold storage and if that issue is not dealt with constructively, we will face many problems and our industry will become much weaker and more vulnerable.

Quite a number of questions were asked and I hope I noted all of them carefully. I will answer a number of them while my colleague Mr. Ó Nualláin is better equipped to answer the others.

The issue of the stocking rate was raised by Deputies Naughten and Upton. A stocking rate of 30 kg/m2 is proposed. However, there is provision for derogation up to 38 kg/m2. If an operator opts for derogation, further conditions that the operator must meet are laid down in the annex. On the other hand, the most recent draft of the directive, which we received from the Council secretariat, provides for a stocking rate of 32 kg/m2 and a derogation of 40 kg/m2 — the figures were in square brackets which indicates it is not agreed — but the stocking density of the last three flocks shall be not greater than 38 kg/m2. Essentially, the difference is that there is derogation from paragraph 2 which refers to 30 kg/m2 and member states can provide that they can stock up to 38 kg/m2 but they will be subject to requirements set down in the annex.

Deputy Naughten also raised the question of welfare friendly labelling. The directive contains a provision, which states that, within two years of the directive being implemented, the Commission will make a report on the introduction of specific mandatory labelling for chicken meat products in compliance with animal welfare standards.

That is a significant wait.

Two years after the directive is implemented.

The report will then have to be considered.

Yes.

A number of members referred to the standard of products imported from outside the EU and this is a major concern for the industry, particularly given the intense pressure. While we are in favour of good standards of animal welfare, a balance must be struck between a good standard of animal welfare and consideration of the economics involved for producers and all those working in the industry. We have always made the point to the Commission that those competing with the Community industry should be subject to the same animal welfare standards and conditions generally as Community operators, which is logical and equitable. The Commission has the powers and ability to examine operations outside the European Union and it does so through the Food and Veterinary Office much of the time. Clearly, it is a concern for us and many other member states.

Avian flu is of significant concern and has changed the landscape since the directive was first published. There is a great deal of pressure on the poultry industry in many member states. The poultry industry in Ireland is also concerned that as time goes on, certain comments may make its position even more difficult. Mr. Ó Nualláin will comment on the scientific committee and a couple of other points which I may not have covered adequately.

Mr. Niall Ó Nualláin

There is a great deal of awareness of the importance of ensuring welfare conditions stand up to scientific scrutiny. With that in mind, a reference was included in the note Mr. O'Donnell read out to the report of the scientific committee on animal health and welfare which was published in March 2000. The report is a substantial document which was drawn up by experts in their fields from various member states and which contained recommendations which fed into the Commission's proposal. While there was considerable input into the directive from welfare lobby groups and other stakeholders, the Departments agree that the scientific basis is very important. The directive goes a little further than previous animal welfare directives in introducing in annex lll animal welfare indicators. While I will not go into too much technical detail, I note the example of footpad scoring which is a direct method of examining feet in a slaughterhouse to establish in what kind of environment an animal was reared. The environment will cause damage to the feet or not. Another indicator is the mortality rate. The indicators are based on experience in other countries such as the northern member states which are perhaps a little further ahead of some of the southern states. Denmark and Sweden have had a system in place for several years to carry out footpad scoring. Animal welfare developments can be seen to be taking a certain direction. There is a scientific basis for all of the parameters set out in annex l on foot of substantial research on the best type of drinkers, feeders, ventilation etc., all of which is outlined in the document. The European Commission launched an animal welfare action plan recently and there are a range of measures to be implemented in forthcoming years to address developments in animal welfare.

We are conscious of the need for fairness and that there must be a reasonable justification for the imposition of sanctions. The industry operates to very high standards and is quite intensive. Many of the recommended measures set out, for example, are already in place. We have been told that the vast majority of producers are operating to the standard set out in the guidelines for the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme. The implementation of the directive should not, therefore, be especially onerous for producers. The requirements stem from the fact that animals are more vulnerable in an intensive system which makes it important to have high standards of welfare. Such standards are necessary from an economic as well as an animal-welfare perspective. The potential for losses is high if a producer fails to get his management right. While various forms of sanction are outlined, there is also a provision to address circumstances in which a high mortality rate among animals is outside the control of a farmer. For example, day-old chicks delivered to a farmer may be sick or weak in which case he or she will not necessarily be penalised. Mortality may also be associated with a feed problem which is why the balances have been put in place. A good farmer does not, therefore, have a great deal to fear from sanctions. Provisions are included to facilitate help from a farmer's veterinary surgeon to produce an action plan. If such a sanction were imposed the reduction in stocking density would be a gradual reduction. The Commission has tried to achieve a balance and, in a reasonable industry, the sanctions are reasonable rather than draconian.

There is a marketing directive which lays down standards for organic and free-range production, but there will be no conflict between it and the directive requiring producers to take account of animal welfare requirements. The final position is still under discussion but these types of rearing system are included.

I thank Mr. Ó Nualláin and Mr. O'Donnell for their responses. The reason we are so concerned is that if there is no domestic industry, the consumer will lose out. If we produce in the EU, we have control over product and can set the standards. Where the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme is followed, the consumer knows the product meets a certain standard. The difficulty is that if we fail to get the balance right between animal welfare and economic viability, product will be imported from third countries in which there is no control over welfare standards, quality, feed additives and the feeding to poultry flocks of additional products which are illegal in the EU. It is this difficulty which must be the kernel of the direction we take.

Are the Departments satisfied with the spot checks by the EU Food and Veterinary Office once or twice a year in import countries? Are the Departments satisfied that the office will examine mortality rates and look at the feet of the poultry to ensure the standards maintained here are observed in third countries? I am not satisfied the spot checks the EU Food and Veterinary Office carries out currently are up to the standard of regulations here or throughout the EU.

Is derogation up to 38 kilos tenable for a Bord Bia quality assurance scheme or will there be a dual approach in which some producers go for derogation while Bord Bia is required to raise the bar and go for a lower rate? Will that happen if the rules as drafted are implemented or will the 38 kilos benchmark be maintained which would allow producers in other EU member states to gain Bord Bia quality assurance certification and perhaps remove the distinctiveness of the domestic product, especially from a consumer perspective when we do not have satisfactory country-of-origin food labelling.

To come back to the matter of derogation, what type of conditions will producers have to meet to qualify for derogation? Will it be a country or an individual approach? Will these new rules and regulations be introduced in tandem with an agreement at WTO level, prior to or following on from that? We cannot move away from this, especially with regard to poultry product. Unless there is a viable industry within the EU, the consumer will not be protected because of the poor regulation of third country producers exporting into the European Union and products being misrepresented and mislabelled.

On the statement that most producers operate to Bord Bia guidelines in its quality assurance scheme, the implication is that there are some producers operating outside of that scheme. To what standards do such producers operate? Does the Department of Agriculture and Food monitor those, since they are not part of the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme? If they are not, what is the reason, and is there concern about this? I realise it is a voluntary code and producers are not obliged to participate. However, given that most producers operate within the guidelines, how many do not, and what is the significance of this from product and consumer viewpoints?

My second question is about the EU Food and Veterinary Office, FVO. That is the structure within the EU charged with responsibility for monitoring products imported from third countries. When the FVO on inspection finds a significant number of factors that do not meet the appropriate standards, what sanctions are applied to producer in the third country? We know how sanctions are applied in Ireland and that the producer is responsible and must toe the line. Is the FVO confident when it writes a report? I have been reading one recently about beef in Brazil. The FVO did an inspection some years ago. Almost all the problems that were highlighted were broadly the same two years later. It seemed that the producers in question were still entitled to export into the EU, whereas if it had happened in Ireland, severe penalties would have been imposed. I wonder whether the Department has any opinion on how the role of the FVO can be strengthened. How valuable is it if there are not sanctions and if these producers are not made to toe the line to ensure the standard of their products are comparable to those produced here? We, as importers, should have confirmation in that regard and be confident that this is the case.

Most of the issues I wanted to raise have already been covered. The one that worries me most is the issue of derogation. What regulations will producers have to meet to get the derogation, and will it be indefinite or just for a period?

On another issue, at present because of the difficulties with avian 'flu etc., producers are being forced to maintain lower density flocks. They are already meeting these guidelines and the question is what their future production will be based on. If it is to be based on their present production levels, it will certainly not be viable. They are taking a cut in flock numbers, or flock density, simply because of the loss of market share. That cannot continue indefinitely.

I want to return to the third country issue. The Chairman and I visited farms in the United States, near Chicago, and saw first-hand how production was being led by the use of steroids in milk, hormones in beef and God knows what in chickens. When we asked about standards we were informed the produce was in line with world health criteria. We are genuinely worried about how other producers are being regulated. If they come up to the same standard as Ireland, then we are happy. If not, it is unfair we should be forced to take a path that would leave our industry uneconomic and not viable.

On the question of derogation, basically the directive says that where 38 kg is applied for, the keeper must comply with the additional requirements set out in annex II. They cover a number of areas. A significant proportion of what is required involves the recording of what is going on. There are technical details as regards housing and equipment, production targets, management etc. and documentation on all these matters must be available to the competent authority on inspection. From the feedback we get and the knowledge our people have of the industry, the Bord Bia requirements already meet practically all the regulations and in some cases go beyond what is required.

Deputy Upton referred to producers who might be outside the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme. The uptake in the quality assurance scheme was a gradual process as regard people coming on board. I do not have numbers, but as far as I am aware, the vast majority of producers currently meet the Bord Bia requirements.

The question of labelling is of considerable concern especially the situation as regards labelling of poultry. I am not an expert in this area, but I am aware that the country of origin must be stipulated in the case of unprocessed product. However, a product may be processed in all types of ways and there can be confusion as regards origin in many cases. The Italians have moved to try to rectify the situation as they see it so that the consumer might be in a position to judge where something came from. They have run into some difficulties with the European Commission as regards barriers to trade, because this could place requirements on other member states, where the product might be processed in some way or other. That is something that-——

That is something we are worried about. Part of it might be processed.

I understand that. I am not an expert on labelling, but that is my understanding of the current position. The Italians have introduced some regulations and these are being challenged by the Commission on the grounds of barriers to trade.

A number of questions were raised as regards the FVO and the checks it carries out.

I cannot say much on that matter other than that the FVO is thorough when it carries out inspections and audits in Ireland.

In other fora we have argued for a level playing field. If we apply higher standards for products here, the standards for imported products should be similar.

Mr. Ó Nualláin

Mr. O'Donnell explained that each producer can make a choice with regard to this derogation. Most will choose the higher option as this is what they are producing at present. The Bord Bia scheme is voluntary and those not adhering to it are in the process of implementing the standard. Independent Bord Bia auditors are working on this and similar schemes exist in other areas, such as laying hens. This Bord Bia scheme has been successful.

It is difficult to comment on the FVO because it is outside our remit. We have considerable experience dealing with the FVO and it is most thorough. Lists of third countries that comply with import standards have been compiled and if such countries do not continue to meet the standards they will be removed from lists allowing export to the EU. In some cases a list of food plants may be compiled and individual plants can be removed from the list. I cannot comment further on FVO activity in third countries.

The EU is more developed and has higher standards for animal welfare. The world animal health organisation, Office International des Epizooties, OIE, has made considerable progress in recent years in producing animal welfare chapters on the transport of animals and standards on farms. This is a positive development in an international forum because it applies animal welfare standards to more countries. This is a long-term project that is moving in the right direction.

I refer to the 38 kg/m2. Bord Bia used a scientific basis to decide this figure. This is being abandoned because a significant welfare benefit occurs when this is reduced to 30 kg/m2. Is this true? If so, why did Bord Bia choose the 38 kg/m2? Did the Bord Bia assurance scheme set a benchmark for producers? What should Bord Bia do if this new figure is accepted as the standard in the EU?

Mr. Ó Nualláin

That many producers use the 38 kg/m2 standard, and have achieved a high standard in the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme, is a positive step. I am not convinced this directive will have a negative impact because only one or two aspects of the scheme will have to be improved to comply with this directive. There will not be a major discrepancy. All directives have resource implications in the regulatory domain and for producers. I am not convinced that every producer will meet the 30 kg/m2 standard. The higher the stocking density is, the higher the potential risk to animal welfare. There is a requirement to give details of all equipment on site, ventilation and temperature control. A higher stocking density requires better control of the rearing environment.

I thank Mr. O'Donnell and Mr. Ó Nualláin for attending the meeting and responding to members' questions.

The joint committee went into private session at 4.46 p.m. and adjourned at 4.52 p.m. until Wednesday, 3 May 2006.