Food Safety Authority of Ireland Bill, 1998: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to come before the Seanad today to present the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Bill, 1998. The purpose of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of a statutory body to be known as the Food Safety Authority of Ireland which will have full responsibility for all food safety and hygiene matters. This honours the Government's commitment on food safety as outlined in the Action Programme for the Millennium.

Since taking office this Government has attached particular importance to the issue of food safety generally and to the concerns of consumers in particular. It recognises the need for uncompromised and independently verifiable assurances on food safety to ensure consumer confidence. While the primary purpose of the Bill is the protection of consumers, the Government also recognises that one of the best ways of promoting the entire Irish food sector is to put in place a strong, independent and science-based Food Safety Authority, which will have the confidence of consumers both at home and abroad. The provisions of this Bill will not only contribute to public health but will also serve the economic development of the Irish food sector.

Food scares are nothing new. For many years we have been warned about the dangers of using unpasteurised milk, the need for proper hygiene in the home and have been advised on the proper cooking of food. Then along came BSE and the possibility of a link with new variant CJD. Consumer faith in our food industry to produce safe wholesome food was severely undermined.

As if BSE was not enough, E-coli 0157 claimed the lives of a number of elderly people in Scotland. If we add in the threats caused by drug-resistant salmonella strains, antibiotic residues in pork, angel dust and other illegal growth promoters, it is little wonder that consumers treat vague reassurances with scepticism. Other concerns have been voiced in relation to new crop developments and food processes, such as the increasing availability of genetically modified foods and food irradiation. Let us be very clear about this, consumers are very concerned about food safety and it behoves any Government to listen to and respond appropriately to these concerns. Let me assure the House that this Government will not be found wanting in this regard. The protection of public health is an absolute priority for me, as it is for all my colleagues in Government. Any threat to the safety of the food we eat, whether it be real or potential, will be responded to robustly and with transparency. It is therefore imperative that we have a structure in place that can adequately identify and assess the risk in a competent professional manner and then communicate clearly and effectively with both consumers and providers. ln November 1996 the previous Government appointed an interim Food Safety Authority on a non-statutory basis, and then proceeded to draft a Bill to put this Authority on a statutory footing. The thrust of the proposed Bill was to establish the Authority as a "regulator of regulators"— that is, responsibility for food control services would remain with existing agencies, but these would be audited by the Authority which would have a role in the setting and maintaining of standards and the promotion of good practice. Despite numerous promises, that Bill had not been published prior to the 1997 general election.

When the previous Government outlined its plans, we in Opposition vigorously opposed them — not for the sake of opposition in itself, but because we strongly felt that the proposals were wholly inadequate. What we would have had would be a toothless body supervising the same old agencies carrying on their business in the same old way, despite the fact that everyone recognised the need for a fresh approach to food safety. The only new element proposed by the previous Government was that the Food Safety Authority would have an audit function, but this in our view fell far short of the radical change and imaginative solution which is required.

I do not wish to convey the impression that the existing State agencies responsible for food controls have not done a fine job in the past. I fully acknowledge the commitment and professionalism which these agencies have demonstrated in dealing with what is an increasingly complex environment. However, it is this very complexity which now dictates the requirement for a central authority which will harmonise the State response to the food safety challenge. The Government believes that the interests of consumers are better served by the creation of an Authority which will be directly accountable for all food control functions. As pointed out in An Action Programme for the Millennium, this new Authority will take over all current functions related to food safety from existing agencies and will be independent, science based and provide for full "farm to fork" traceability. This Bill has all the features which were identified in the action programme, with the exception of the immediate transfer of staff from the existing agencies to the Authority.

I would like to explain to the House the rationale behind this adjustment to our original proposal. Responsibility for food controls currently rests with a wide number of Departments and agencies and it is delivered by a broad range of disciplines. In all some 50 State agencies and many hundreds of staff are currently involved in the delivery of food control services. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for such staff to have other duties, in addition to food controls, assigned to them. It is not possible, therefore, to definitely identify "food control" staff individually. In view of this, the transfer of all relevant staff from existing agencies to the new authority will take some time and will only take place after detailed discussion and agreement with staff representative bodies. The Bill will, therefore, provide the Authority with the capacity to discharge its functions by way of contractual agreements. These agreements, or service contracts as they are described in section 48 of the Bill, will be agreed between the Authority and the State agencies in relation to the wide range of food safety functions contained in existing legislation. Lists of this legislation and the State agencies involved are included in the Schedules to the Bill.

Each service contract will include the targets and objectives which the Authority wishes the agency to meet and the time frame within which these must be achieved. Existing funding arrangements will be maintained, that is, the agencies will make the resources available to meet their contractual obligations. The Authority will publish details of the contracts and will introduce a system of monitoring to ensure that the agreements are being adhered to. If contracts are not satisfactorily performed the Authority will report to the Minister for Health and Children, who will arrange for such reports to be laid before the Oireachtas.

Section 49 of the Bill provides for the appointment of authorised officers to carry out statutory food safety functions and these officers will be furnished with an official warrant issued by the Authority, or by the official agency on its behalf. I have already established the Food Safety Authority of Ireland on an interim basis by way of Statutory Instrument under the Health (Corporate Bodies) Act, 1961, with effect from 1 January 1998. This arrangement was put in place to allow the Authority to recruit staff and to facilitate the development of structures in advance of the Bill being enacted.

The primary role of the Authority, as outlined in section 12, will be to promote, encourage and foster high standards of safety and hygiene at all stages of the food chain from primary production to final use by the customer. A key objective for the Authority will be to bring about acceptance that primary responsibility for the safety of food rests with producers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers and caterers. It is also incumbent on the Authority to encourage a greater awareness among consumers of good food safety and hygiene practices. Although the provisions of the Bill provide in detail for a policing and enforcement role for the Authority, the Bill's main aim is to foster, through education and promotion, a food safety culture among providers and consumers which characterises the food chain from "farm to fork". The establishment of such a culture will serve public health much better than any system which relies merely on the enforcement of a regulatory régime. The Authority's role in enforcement is not being neglected and it will carry out, through the contracts negotiated with the agencies, inspections, approval, licensing and registration of food premises and equipment. It will also be responsible for the sampling and analysis of food and inspection of food labelling.

In order to maintain full traceability, the Authority's remit will extend to farms, other places of primary production, water treatment plants and any other source of materials used in food production. Indeed, section 30 of the Bill gives the Authority the power to seek reports from any State body on any matter which in its opinion impinges on food safety and to report to the Minister for Health and Children in the matter. This provision is very wide ranging and does not confine the Authority's remit to particular parts of the food chain.

The Bill provides for the Authority's involvement, either on its own initiative or in co-operation with food producers' representatives, in the establishment of schemes to protect consumer interests. These schemes, described in section 13 of the Bill as food safety assurance schemes, will cover the promotion of best practice and preparation of guidelines on raw materials, processing, packaging, preparation, storage and handling.

While the formulation of national food safety policy will remain with my Department, I foresee the Authority playing a very important role in the formulation of this policy. As was the case with the Food Safety Advisory Board, which has now been merged with the new Authority, the Government will rely on the professional expertise of the Authority to advise on matters such as nutrition, food technology and industrial practices and the cultivation of food plants and animals. This advisory role, outlined in section 15 of the Bill, will also extend to issues such as food labelling and packaging and the very important area of improving systems for the communication of information to the public on food safety and hygiene in the home. The National Disease Surveillance Unit, which will have primary responsibility in relation to food-borne diseases, will also maintain a liaison with the Authority in this area.

Much thought has been given to the structure of the Authority and the segregation of powers and responsibilities to ensure that the Authority can discharge its functions in a fair and balanced way. This has been achieved by making specific provisions in Part III of the Bill for four key, interlocking elements — the board of the Authority, its scientific committee, the chief executive and staff and a consultative council. The board of the Authority, as detailed in section 31, will consist of ten members, including a chairman appointed by the Minister for Health and Children. This body will have overall responsibility for ensuring that the proper food safety systems are in place and will act as the forum in which the work of the various structural elements are harmonised. It will provide the strategic direction for the Authority. The chief executive, together with the staff, will be responsible for converting this strategy into an operational plan and overseeing its implementation.

Section 34 of the Bill also provides for a scientific committee. This will have 15 members appointed by the Minister in consultation with the board. The Minister in appointing members will have regard to relevant scientific qualifications and experience to ensure the broadest possible range of expertise.

The scientific committee will advise on matters referred to it by the board pertaining to scientific or technical questions, food inspection and nutrition. In order to guarantee the science based nature of the authority the board will await the scientific committee's response before deciding on any matter referred. This scientific committee may establish sub-committees to undertake further investigation of matters referred to it, and it will report through its chairman who will also be a member of the board. The board will be empowered to publish the advice of the scientific committee. However, I must stress that the role of the scientific committee is to assist and advise the board. Such assistance and advice will not be the sole determinant in the board's decisions.

Food safety is a concern for the community as a whole and there will be a duty on the authority to ensure that it has access to a broad base of views. In promoting higher standards it will be incumbent on the authority to endeavour to consult representatives of a wide range of food safety interests. Specifically, section 14 of the Bill provides for a broadly based consultative council. The Ministers for Health and Children, Agriculture and Food, the Marine and Natural Resources, the Environment and Local Government and Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the board of the authority will nominate the members of this council.

Notwithstanding the fact that the consultative council will include representation from various interests — including producer interests — and that the authority will have regard to the council's views, it will not be bound by these views in arriving at its decisions. In its deliberations, the board of the authority will see the best interests of the consumer as being paramount and this notion of the "consumer as king" will be reflected in the appointment of the board's membership.

As stated earlier, the authority will exercise its powers through its authorised officers who will be empowered to enter and inspect food premises, to secure these premises for later inspection and to inspect and, if necessary, remove records. These officers may take samples of food or related materials and have them analysed. It will be an offence for any person to obstruct an officer in carrying out this duty.

Where an authorised officer is of the view that any premises or activity poses a threat to public health, he or she will have the power to dictate the remedial action required and set a time limit for its completion. These so-called "improvement notices", referred to in section 52, are a new feature. While in the past officers could advise on the required improvements to premises or equipment, such advice did not have a statutory basis. Improvement notices, therefore, give food safety professionals in the field a new statutory tool which can be used where there is clear need for some remedial action, but where a complete shutdown of operations may not be warranted. Where an improvement notice is not complied with, the officer may seek an order from the District Court to force compliance. In more serious cases where, as provided for in section 53, an officer believes there is an immediate and grave threat to public health, a closure order may be made which will require operations to cease until the problem has been remedied.

Situations may also arise where improvement notices or closure are not sufficient. For example, unsafe products or product batches may have been distributed by the producer and be on the market. In such cases authorised officers may insist on the withdrawal, recall, detention and supervised destruction of products posing a threat to public health as provided for in section 54. The Bill provides that prosecutions may be taken by the authority or by one of the contracting agencies and the provisions contained in existing food legislation shall continue to apply in that regard.

Throughout the Bill there is a strong emphasis on the openness and transparency under which the authority will operate. As provided for in sections 41 and 42, the chief executive, members of the board, the scientific committee and its sub-committees, the staff of the authority and any consultants, advisers or other persons engaged by the authority are required to declare any financial or other beneficial interests which might be in conflict with their role in the authority. Accountability measures are found elsewhere in the Bill and I have already referred to the publication of the service contracts.

The authority's accounts will be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and laid before the Oireachtas. The chief executive will be the accounting officer and he or she may be called to give evidence to the appropriate Dáil committee. Under section 25, the authority must prepare an annual report of its activities which will also be made available to the Oireachtas. The Bill also provides for the preparation and submission of other reports by the authority as the need arises.

The authority will have a broad remit in the area of research. Section 18 provides that the authority may undertake, commission or collaborate in research projects and activities on issues relating to food in Ireland and abroad.

The Dáil debate on the Bill revealed a general agreement from all sides of the House on the importance of food safety and on the value of establishing an independent body to deal with this important area. Useful and constructive amendments were proposed on a range of issues, some of which, such as the use of gender-neutral terminology and increased transparency in respect of the receipt of gifts by members of the authority, have been incorporated in the text of the Bill. The sweeping changes proposed in this legislation mirror the change in direction that is taking place at EU level.

A new Directorate-General — DG 24 — has been established within the European Commission with responsibility for consumer policy and consumer health protection. From now on responsibility for food inspection and control, as well as all the relevant scientific committees that advise on the various scientific aspects of food, will be placed under the authority of the Commissioner for consumer policy and consumer health protection, Ms Emma Bonino. The Commission's control function for the entire EU is now exercised through the Food and Veterinary Office based in County Meath. The office's main function is the monitoring of the observance of food hygiene, which is defined in EU legislation as "all measures necessary to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of foodstuffs". A new unit on the assessment of consumer health risks has also been established within DG 24.

Other EU member states are also taking steps to establish independent food safety bodies on the lines of the authority proposed by the Government. I am pleased that Ireland is among the first EU countries to have such an authority, reflecting the importance the Government attaches to food safety. Ireland enjoys a good reputation for the quality of the food it produces for the domestic and export markets. Similarly, food imported to Ireland is rigorously monitored by way of bilateral and multilateral networks with other countries.

We owe a considerable debt to our existing food control agencies for the work they have done in the past to ensure that the food we eat is safe. However, we cannot afford to be complacent and we need new structures to face the challenges which lie ahead. The enactment of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Bill will provide the framework for the future control and regulation of food safety in Ireland. We can be proud that we are far ahead of other countries in this regard and that these countries see our proposals as a very useful model.

This Bill will provide the reassurance that consumers seek in the important area of food safety and I am happy to commend it to the House.

I was disappointed by the Minister of State's initial comments because he gave the impression that the previous Government did not show concern about food safety and that it was lethargic in its efforts to introduce legislation in this area. An interim food authority was established by the Rainbow Coalition in November 1996. A draft Bill to be put on a statutory footing was ready for submission before the previous Government left office. This Bill could have been introduced earlier if the Government had not felt it necessary to oppose the thrust of the draft Bill produced by the previous Government. The Minister of State should have made reference to the work of the previous Government in this area. Had the scare in relation to BSE not taken place we might not have this legislation before us.

I welcome the publication of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Bill. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland order was revoked in 1997 culminating in the introduction of this Bill. It provides for the establishment of the Authority on a full statutory basis from 1 January 1999. The interim authority will remain in operation until then.

Much has happened since the first BSE scare in 1996. Food safety is a consumer priority today. I never gave a thought to food safety in the past. One wonders how we are alive today given our previous lack of concern in this area. I remember drinking unpasteurised milk as a child. Taking the cream off the top of the churn and putting it on porridge was part of the course of what we got every morning before going to school. Nobody questioned if we should do that. Pasteurisation was relatively new then. Whether or not we should drink unpasteurised milk has become cause for concern nowadays.

I was rushed to hospital due to food poisoning on New Year's Day in 1991. That was the day President Robinson came to Limerick. The doctor was able to identify that I had food poisoning having eaten deep fried Camembert in a Dublin restaurant which had lain over the Christmas period which it should not have. I would not like to relive the horrors of those days. I experienced the two ends of the scale — not having a care and then realising what food poisoning does to the system. It causes dehydration and resulted in my losing about three to four stone in a couple of days. Ironically, when I complained to the said restaurant, they replied by inquiring about my health and offering me a voucher for a free meal for two people. I felt it was the wrong way to deal with my complaint. I have not darkened the door since. That incident brought home to me that we are complacent about food safety. Camembert should not have been left lying around during the interim period after Christmas. I now understand the importance that must be attached to food safety.

Food sections of supermarkets are exotic places. There is a myriad of choice. Consumers demand high standards and are very much aware of food safety as a result of the many food scares highlighted by the media. People will remember the shock and horror when Edwina Currie, who has since taken up writing exotic novels, resigned over the famous eggs scandal. She became known as the "Minister for Eggs". That was the first time the media took on board consumer concerns about the scare. It was the BSE crisis in 1996 which raised our awareness in relation to food safety and resulted in the low level of consumption of beef. It remains a concern of beef producing farmers. While travelling in Britain and Germany recently I saw advertisements in relation to beef traceability still displayed on posters and billboards. Though the scare is over to a degree, people are still extremely concerned.

My colleague, Deputy Michael Noonan, as Minister for Health, at the time examined the measures in place to secure consumers' health and sought to devise new policies and strategies for the protection of the consumer. I have done some research in this area. There is no shortage of rules and regulations both in Irish and European law for maintaining and developing food safety. Legislation on food safety has been in place since 1887, over 100 years ago. The Schedule refers to the Margarine Act of 1887. We are great at introducing laws, whether it be in relation to road safety, pollution control or anti-litter measures, but slow to enforce them. I would like if the Minister of State had told us more about how the inspectorate will enforce these laws.

It is important that we have conferences, whether they be on local government or Euro-funding etc. It is also important that we have conferences in relation to food safety. Papers submitted at the Teagasc Conference in November 1997 made reference to E-coli 157 contamination of beef which a Teagasc scientist described as a major public health hazard. We have been very lucky, unlike, as the Minister of State referred to, the outcome in Scotland. Our contamination problems did not result in human tragedies. Four hundred and ninety-six people were affected by the outbreak of E-coli in Scotland, including the death of 20 elderly people. We have a great bond with the Scottish people and what happened there scared us. Reference was made at the conference to the introduction of regulations banning the sale of dirty animals to meat plants and abattoirs. Perhaps the Minister of State can tell us if that has been put in place. If it has, it would greatly reduce the risk of contamination by E-coli. This strain of E-coli was only discovered in 1982. We cannot therefore underestimate the importance of vigilance.

Three thousand consumers in six different countries surveyed said they now ate less beef as a result of the scare. I am glad to see that beef is still very much to the fore in our restaurants. Consumers in Ireland have great confidence in our beef. Consumers in Ireland, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden were surveyed. We in Ireland were most concerned about meat safety while the British are somewhat less concerned and many consumers are confident that foods in shops are safe. However, one in three EU consumers believe the contrary. It is important to take heed of how consumers respond to crises. While looking for information on meat safety I felt people had tremendous confidence in butchers, whether they were independent or in supermarkets. They were the people most trusted by consumers. It was interesting that 60 per cent of beef consumers were very concerned about hormones, BSE, antibiotics, salmonella and other bacteria. In Spain, Italy and Ireland consumers were concerned about hormones in beef. Germany and Sweden were concerned with BSE and Britain was most concerned about salmonella. There are differences on how consumers react to crises in EU countries.

I was surprised to hear that EU countries have not been to the fore in relation to food safety. We are to the fore in this field and I can understand why. We are very much a food producing country and depend on our agricultural foods. We are leaders in food safety.

Of seven factors relating to food safety in beef, pork and chicken, a survey found that consumers regarded freshness as the most helpful indicator, followed by country of origin and what the animal was fed, while price and the name of the producer were regarded as less important. Another survey of 1,200 pre-leaving certificate students, conducted in 1997, found that 60 per cent of them were eating the same amount of beef as the previous year, 28 per cent were eating less and 7 per cent had stopped eating beef. As regards those who made statements on food safety, the students had the greatest confidence in doctors — the next speaker will be glad to hear that — followed by scientists, Government Departments, teachers and, last of all, farmer representatives.

Safety consciousness has permeated food companies of all sizes and tremendous emphasis has been placed on it. Teagasc has called for the development of a national food purity database and I hope the Minister takes that on board. Senator Quinn has provided extremely good food labelling in his supermarkets; he has no shops in Limerick, sadly, but there is tremendous confidence in the origin of the food and vegetables sold in his chain and in the cleanliness and hygiene of the stores. I look forward to his contribution on the Bill.

The difference between the Minister's Bill and the legislation which would have been presented by my party, had it continued in Government, concerns the establishment of the authority as a "regulator of regulators". The Minister has taken a roundabout approach because responsibility for food control rests with the many existing agencies. They must have served us well because we had no problems in the past and perhaps they would have continued to do so if we had not suffered the BSE crisis, which caused us to act quickly to establish a food safety authority. The previous Government proposed that the existing agencies would be monitored and audited by the authority, which would have a direct role in setting and maintaining high standards and promoting good practice. That approach should have been followed. The authority would have featured a high level committee, with members from all relevant Departments, which would have reviewed the efficiency of the arrangements in place for the control and supervision of a food production chain. It would have reviewed existing arrangements, identified problems and suggested organisational or legislative improvements.

The Government should have placed more emphasis on legislative improvements in this Bill. It would have had the option to establish either a new body to assume the functions of the existing food control bodies or one with the primary role of food safety which would supervise, co-ordinate and control activities carried out by existing bodies. I prefer the "regulator of regulators" approach because it would have provided a second tier of inspection to supervise the agencies. The Minister said he had confidence in the existing agencies but our scheme would have avoided duplication, and improvements could have been put in place without any major change in the operation of the existing control mechanisms.

What regulations and safety laws will be put in place? Does the Minister intend to employ extra staff for food inspection duties? There is a tremendous need for more people to cope with the heavy workload of existing staff. The service contracts are cumbersome and provide an extra layer of bureaucracy. There are some 2,000 personnel, which is a huge number; how does the Minister intend to deal with their transfer from the interim authority to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland proper? There will have to be trade union discussions. I am unhappy about the layer of bureaucracy, which means the legislation will take time to implement.

As with many things, we are reacting to a scare and we might not have had this Bill otherwise. Nonetheless, I welcome it and I hope the Minister takes on board my points about its implementation, especially those concerning the inspectorate, the employment of extra resources and staff and the further legislation he intends to introduce.

This is a relatively uncontentious Bill because food producers and consumers alike realise the existing legislation is outdated. Some years ago, when food shopping on holiday in the Canary Islands, I noticed a carton of milk which was coloured green and covered with shamrocks and a packet of butter which bore a striking resemblance to Kerrygold. When I examined the products more carefully I found they had been produced in northern Germany and transported at great expense to the Canaries, but most people would have thought they were Irish goods. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and this shows we have a good name for the quality of our dairy products. The impression is abroad that we have a green environment so our dairy products and beef should be of high quality. We are discussing this Bill is to protect that high quality and support our exports at the upper, high value added end of the market and it is only by strict adherence to standards that we will maintain these markets.

The environment in which our foodstuffs have been produced has changed over the years. BSE, CJD, E-coli, antibiotic residues, angel dust, illegal growth promoters and genetically modified foods have all impinged on the public consciousness. There has also been a revolution in retailing and food production in terms of pre-packed, precooked and other prepared foods. Our food inspectors cannot confine themselves to checking hygiene in abattoirs, shops and factories — they must look at the food production chain "from farm to fork", as the Minister elegantly put it. This can only be done through rigorous control and strict enforcement of regulations.

I welcome the wide ranging provisions in the Bill which give the authority discretion to examine not only the food chain but anything which impinges upon it — water quality, residues, etc. It is vitally important to maintain consumer confidence. The Authority will police and enforce, but it will also educate. The promotional aspects will be left to Bord Bia. However, the Authority must, to quote the late President Roosevelt, "speak softly but carry a very big stick" if it is to be listened to and have power. I refer again to the Minister of State's commitment to full traceability from farm to fork. Senator Quinn has been years ahead of us in this area, especially through his butchery departments, which are outstanding examples of how retailing should be carried on.

This Bill will reinforce the consumers' faith in the quality of food produced, manufactured and retailed. The Minister of State referred to food produced abroad and intimated that we would depend on the bona fides of food authorities abroad regarding the quality of imported food and their adherence to certain standards. On the other hand, he stated Ireland will have the first state of the art food safety authority. Therefore, we would set standards for the rest of Europe and the EU.

This is a food quality Bill, but the quality of liquids, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, is not mentioned. Will the Food Safety Authority have right of entry to breweries, distilleries and soft drinks factories to check their adherence to standards and will it set standards for them? I commend the Bill and look forward to debating it on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Minister of State's comment that the Government will not be found wanting in regard to consumer concerns about food safety. The work he has put in and intends to put in is evident in the Bill. I was excited when I heard in November 1996 that a food safety authority was to be set up. I heard about it in my car and was contacted by RTÉ to give comment on the news that day. I was excited that it was to come under the Department of Health. It is essential that the Authority is driven by consumer interest and there is a doubt about its independence. However, I welcome this move because there is a much better possibility of demonstrating that the Food Safety Authority will be totally independent of Government and vested interests. Other vested interests present a problem.

I thank Senators Jackman and Fitzpatrick for their kind words about my business. Senator Jackman referred to the former MP, Edwina Currie, and BSE in Britain. The cause of her problem was that she sided with the interest of the health of those who bought eggs and not the egg producers. The BSE crisis occurred because short steps were taken in the interest of producers. It is essential that independence jumps to the forefront. The national interest should not be to the forefront in the short term, even though some individuals will say we are a big food producing country and should preserve the national interest. However, the interest of consumers must be to the fore because that is the national interest in the long term. We must keep our eyes on the long-term picture. In arguing from the outset about the perceived independence of the Food Safety Authority, I always stressed that such independence is in the long-term interest of the nation, the food industry itself and the economy.

Any attempt by the food industry to influence the Authority or to influence the Authority's activities from a political perspective will undermine its value to everybody in the equation. It is in everybody's long-term interest that the authority is seen to act only in the interest of the consumers of food. It seems wrong to say we should not take the national interest into account, but this body must take the consumers' interest into account and that in turn takes account of the long-term interest of the country. If one was an international buyer of Irish food and knew that an individual on the Authority was not Irish — for example, that he or she was a professor of food science from a European country — it would add much more credibility to the strength of the board because he or she would act in the interests of the consumer rather than that of the nation. That adds credibility to our food.

If we lose sight of this cardinal point about consumers in framing this legalisation, the project is doomed and it is important that does not happen. Despite all the talk about the independence of the Authority, that cardinal point has been obscured. It is easy to forget credibility is the issue and independence is the bedrock of such credibility. We are left as a result of a Government decision with a super agency approach and our task is to make it work as well as possible in the national interest. I understand the balance the Government is trying to strike, but consumers must be put to the forefront, which is in the national interest. There is a great deal of work to be done on Committee Stage and I would welcome an assurance from the Minister of State that regardless of whether the Dáil is in recess, he would be open to taking constructive amendments in this House next week. I agree with Senator Fitzpatrick that it is a non-contentious Bill and I hope my comments or suggestions are constructive rather than contentious.

I wish to outline three areas of concern where the Bill compromises the independence of the Food Safety Authority. They are the scientific committee, the status of the chief executive and the need to make it clear beyond doubt that the Authority exists to act only in the consumer interest. The scientific committee is vital to the standing of the Authority. Its work will underpin all pronouncements and policy initiatives that impinge on matters of public concern. The authority of this committee will be the most important element of the Food Safety Authority's overall credibility. The perceived independence of this committee is vital. However, having the Minister appoint the committee is totally incompatible with the perception of independence. It suggests that the Government wants to control the output of the scientific committee so tightly that it does not even trust the Authority. It does not even trust it with the task of appointing the committee. It wants to keep a dog and do the barking itself. Nobody would seriously argue that our history of ministerial appointees is without blemish or has never been tainted with the suspicion that political considerations entered into appointments. That is the reality upon which we must build.

We must not only avoid the possibility of future Government interference but also any possible suspicion of it. We will not address the problem by providing that the Minister will consult with the Authority before making these appointments, although I know those words are always used. To be blunt about it, the scientific committee will have more standing if it is appointed by the Authority than by a future Minister; in fact, its standing will be undermined if it is appointed by a Minister. It is in everyone's interest that the scientific committee has the maximum possible standing.

There is nothing personal about my remarks in this regard. I was the chairman of a State body which had six Ministers over a four year period. I am not talking, therefore, about this or even the next Minister but Ministers who will be in office in the years ahead. I hope this legislation will last for many years.

It should be the Minister's overriding concern to avoid any appearance of seeking to influence the output of the scientific committee in any way. The best and only way to do that is by keeping the committee and the Minister at arm's length. This legislation should provide that the Authority appoints the scientific committee, full stop. The Minister should have no hand, act or part in that appointment. If the Minister is moved to make only one concession to me on this Bill, I want it to be on this matter. I cannot overestimate its importance to the future value of the Food Safety Authority. We can dramatically improve the effectiveness of this legislation by making this simple change. I urge the Minister to give every consideration to that before Committee Stage next week.

My second concern is the status of the chief executive. The chief executive will be "Mr. Food Safety". I am using the term "Mr." because the person concerned is already in place, before Senator Jackman accuses me of being gender biased. The perception of his status will be a key element in the Authority's overall credibility — let us make no mistake about that.

It is completely incompatible with what we are hoping to achieve for the Authority, to disbar statutorily the chief executive from membership of both the Authority board and the scientific committee, as is provided for explicitly in section 37(7). This is an extraordinary provision and I cannot think what could have motivated it. It smacks of the Dark Ages, not of a country moving into a new millennium.

We are talking here about downgrading the chief executive's standing by statute, which seems to fly in the face of all good management practice. Bearing in mind what we are trying to do with the Food Safety Authority, we should be aiming to enhance his standing rather than trying to undermine it.

This is a major presentational issue which is directly linked to the issue of the perceived independence of the Authority, but it is also a management issue of quite some significance. Downgrading the chief executive in this way and saying he must not be a member of the board flies in the face of best management practice, not only in the private sector but also in the public sector. From my experience in State bodies, I believe very strongly that the chief executive should always be a member of the board.

Last week the Seanad passed the Bill establishing Enterprise Ireland which provides for the chief executive of that body to be a member of the board as of right. Some eyebrows were raised, including those of the Tánaiste, when I mentioned that legislation was on the way to the House which took a diametrically opposed viewpoint — I was referring to this Bill.

Having the chief executive on the board is now the norm for State bodies. One exception to that slipped through a couple of years ago without my seeing it in regard to the Medical Council but I do not know of any other such case. It is against all modern management thinking and practice for the chief executive not to be on the board.

This disbarring should be removed and replaced with a provision specifically making the chief executive a member of both the Authority board and the scientific committee. I am against leaving it up to the Authority to make its own arrangements on this matter because board membership for the chief executive should have a statutory basis.

My third major area of concern is that, despite the Minister's words today, the Bill is not sending strong enough signals that the Authority is there to act in the consumers' interest and, if necessary, to act against the short term interests of other parties involved. It is of paramount need for the Authority to be clearly seen to be acting above all and exclusively in the interests of consumers of food. I know there is a difficulty with this because people ask if we can appoint an Authority that is not acting in the national interest. However, if we act in the interests of food consumers we will be acting in the long-term national interest.

We should specify here that we are acting in the interests of the consumers, not of other vested interests. Only through this focus can the credibility of the Authority be firmly established. As I said earlier, an Authority that is seen to be acting in the consumers' interest will in the long run also serve the national interest and the real interests of food producers. It would be quite disastrous if the Authority were ever seen as reflecting the concerns of a "wide spectrum of interests", to quote the phrase used in the Bill, a spectrum of which the consumers' interest was merely part.

I am very concerned, therefore, about the consultative council provided for in the Bill and the language that is used and, more particularly, not used in this regard. It is, of course, right that the Authority should always consult as widely as possible, including consultation with those who might be adversely affected by its decisions. There is no reason the Authority's independence should be compromised by such consultation.

However, it is highly questionable whether a consultative council is the right way to go about that. It suggests a body that will hammer out compromises between conflicting interests and present an agreed consensus for the Authority to consider. That is not an appropriate way of acting when interests can be diametrically opposed. Any appearance of consensus in those circumstances is usually a descent to the lowest common denominator. Such bodies then produce fudged decisions. Neither is it an acceptable way to act when one set of those interests, namely the interest of the consumers of food, should always remain paramount in the Authority's policy and actions.

It can be said that the output from the consultative council will not be binding on the Authority, which I recognise as a possible saving factor. However, such bodies always carry inbuilt risks that they will acquire a momentum of their own, which we must guard against. Such a council could fudge issues and say that while consumers' interests are important it must take the other interests into account. However, in the long-term national interest consumers' interests must come first. For example, a German supermarket buyer will believe that a body which is seen not to act in the interests of the State, farmers or producers but only in the interests of consumers has credibility. If the Minister can get a German supermarket buyer to think that, he will be acting in the best interest of the food business and the nation.

If the consultative council approach is to stand, there is a clear need to state in the Bill that the mission of the Authority is to act in the interests of the consumers of food. I would like the Minster to consider stating that explicitly in the Bill because the current wording could lead to a fudge.

When we pass legislation we often aim to create a situation in which the consumers' interests will be taken into account, along with other legitimate interests. This case is different; here, the consumers' interests must be clearly seen to be paramount. I seem to be saying that the other interests should not be taken into account; however, taking the consumers' interests into account will be in the best interests of the nation and the other interests involved in the production and development of food. If we do not take the consumers' interest seriously, the credibility of the Authority will be questioned.

Credibility is the big issue in this Bill. Unless we legislate for credibility we will create an empty shell, which I do not want to happen. I hope the Minister of State will recognise there is still important work to be done on the Bill before it becomes law. I welcome his speech and his intentions. I also welcome the hard work he and his team put into the Bill.

There are three aspects to which the Minister of State should pay special attention. First, independence in the legislation is crucial, not just to the people of Ireland but to the buyers of Irish food abroad. If they have confidence in the independence of the Authority it will act not just in the interests of our consumers but in the interests of the nation as a whole.

Second, the scientific committee should be appointed by the Authority. I have difficulty with the establishment of a food authority which is effectively not trusted to appoint a scientific committee because of concern it may only appoint its friends. If there is any doubt about that we should not establish it. The Authority should be able to recruit the best people to sit on its scientific committee.

Good management practice says the chief executive should be on the board. I am surprised I missed the passage of a Bill through the House a couple of years ago which also debarred the chief executive from sitting on the board. In the six years I have been a Member of this House I have carefully sought to ensure that no Bill provided for that. I understand it happened once. It should never happen again because it is against best management practice. The chief executive should be a member of the board statutorily.

Third, the consumer interest must be paramount. I welcome the response of the Minister of State, especially his willingness to consider these points for Committee Stage.

I welcome this very important Bill. Since I became a Member of the House we have had a number of debates on food and matters relating to agriculture and agricultural production. However, this is our first opportunity to discuss the issue of confidence in what we produce on our farms and how it is presented to the consumer.

Senator Quinn is correct when he says the most important issue facing not just us as consumers but the entire agricultural and food industry relates to confidence in what we sell on our supermarket shelves. A number of issues, including BSE, have caused great concern and have shattered the confidence of some consumers in what is available. In this regard, the Bill puts into focus the most important issue of consumer confidence. It establishes a structure whereby the consumer has at last a major say in what goes on supermarket shelves.

Much of what I intended to say has been covered already so there is not much point in repeating it. However, a number of matters from a scientific viewpoint need to be stressed. The function and composition of the scientific committee is very important. The emphasis must be on the science and quality of food. I do not share Senator Quinn's concerns about the appointment of the members of the committee. What is important is its composition and the work it does.

However, there is much merit in Senator Quinn's view that we should consider including members from other countries on the committee, including people with high international reputations in the area of food science. That would strengthen the committee enormously. It is similar to the way articles in scientific journals are refereed by experts from various parts of the world. It is a very good system because it means the reader can have confidence that any published article has passed the eyes of very reputable people in the relevant field of science. It is important the scientific committee has the same structure.

The concerns of the public on food safety need to be quickly addressed. There have been considerable concerns regarding the use of growth promoters in beef production, of antibiotics in various forms of meat products, especially pork, and even in the area of cereals and various crops of pesticides, insecticides and fungicides. There was little use of these products 25 years ago because they were not available on the market to the extent they are today. Science has progressed enormously over those years and there are many products available that aid the production of crops and animal husbandry.

However, we must be extremely careful with the use of these products. A matter came to my notice regarding the debate in this country on genetic engineering. In potato production in the Americas, especially central America, where the Colorado beetle is an extremely damaging pest, the Americans bred a specific strain of the Russet Burbank variety of potatoes through genetic engineering that is resistant to the Colorado beetle. This was a major development and was very welcome by producers.

However, after a short period of time, the Colorado beetle built up a resistance to this gene. We must, therefore, be very careful and monitor what is happening on the use of any of these asides on an ongoing basis. While DDT was very beneficial in the 1930s and 1940s we now know, with the benefit of science and the worldwide increase in scientific knowledge, that DDT, which is in all our bones today, has resulted in the extinction of certain animal and bird species. At the time we did not have sufficient scientific knowledge to realise the dangers.

We need to invest in our scientific understanding of these products on an ongoing basis. I am not one to promote public spending to a great extent but scientific research in this country is very important, especially with regard to food safety. The use of broad spectrum antibiotics on an ongoing basis is a dangerous practice. It may make life easy for vets and farmers but there is a danger that we are using broad spectrum antibiotics to cure many different diseases. What are the long-term consequences of this? We must continuously investigate this area. That is why I believe that we need to invest much more in the food research area.

Genetic engineering has been extensively debated over the past two years. I have grave concerns about it but I do not agree with the destruction of experiments carried out in a controlled environment by self appointed guardians of the earth. These experiments are designed to discover the benefits and dangers of this scientific development and I welcome the investigation of genetic engineering and the benefits which may accrue from it in the years ahead. If a scientific paper was published tomorrow indicating that there was a possibility that cancer could be controlled with the help of genetic engineering, we would all be delighted. That is why we need to invest in this and study it. We do not destroy experiments and anyone who condones that type of action will have to answer for it.

I impress on the Minister the importance of investing more money in the scientific field. I welcome the fact that the Food Safety Authority will be under the Department of Health and Children. It is high time that the consumer was taken into consideration and responsibility removed from the area of production. They are related issues but they do not go hand in hand.

As a location for investment in this area I will be parochial and suggest Carlow. There has been a good scientific base there for many years. There is a sugar company with a high level of scientific skill and Carlow is a major centre for food production. These are the areas of expertise which we should use.

I welcome the fact that the Authority is being placed on a statutory basis through this legislation. It is the first legislation to come before us from the Department of Health and Children in 12 months. I regret that we have not seen other long awaited legislation from that Department in that time. The Health (Amendment) Bill giving effect to the changes in the Eastern Health Board and the delivery of health services has been anticipated for some time. We have also been waiting for the Mental Health Bill for a long time. Perhaps the Minister could give some indication of when those pieces of legislation will come before the House.

All sides of the House support this Bill. It is difficult to reassure consumers in an increasingly sceptical climate about food safety. It is ironic that as our society becomes more developed, the less contact there is between the production of food and its consumption. If the Food Safety Authority can bridge that gap in any way it will be doing a good job.

It is also ironic that as the consumer and producer lose contact, the more we turn to the scientific community to reassure us. That is not easy because there are differing views in science on various matters. It puzzles me that people accept without question the calling of scientific witnesses in respect of the production and consumption of food without examining the alternatives available within the scientific community. There was an interesting article about this in the book Encounters with Modern Ireland, published by the Institute of Public Administration. It states that doubt rather than trust is the glue which binds modern society together. Depending on the scientist called, there can be different doubts.

While I support the Bill in principle, I share the concerns expressed at length in the Dáil during its consideration, and in a succinct fashion this morning by Senator Quinn, regarding the gap between the laudable objective of ensuring the primacy of the consumer and the lack of specific provision for it in the Bill. I followed the debate on Committee Stage in the Dáil and there was a number of amendments which the Minister undertook to consider and return to on Report Stage. I regret that the guarantee of consumer involvement in membership of the board and of the consultative council have not yet been given. I appeal to the Minister not to treat the Seanad as the last lap before getting the legislation out of the way before the summer recess. The Minister should reconsider the points made concerning the assurance to consumers that their interests will be paramount as regards membership of the board and the consultative council.

I reiterate the concern raised in the Dáil that there should be a more direct opportunity for consultation, linkage and information exchange between the scientific committee and the consultative council. The Minister said that is not necessarily precluded but we should expressly provide for the greatest amount of interaction between the organs which are being put in place under this Bill. Only good can come from the exchange of information.

The possibility of publishing the opinions of the council was raised in the Dáil. That has not been dealt with satisfactorily. The Minister responded to it in a certain fashion but if we are to reassure consumers we should not be seen to prevent the council from publishing its opinions. We saw the difficulties which arose with the Insurance Ombudsman's role and the role of the council in the insurance industry. The public was not reassured by the way the industry or the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment handled the matter. There is an opportunity to get it right in this case and to avoid those pitfalls with this new body.

The worst thing that could happen is for controversy or difficulties to arise in the early stages of this body's operation. Fortunately, that has not happened in respect of the existing non-statutory authority. However, when something is put into law, people look at it from a legalistic point of view. If we are seen to diminish the openness with which the Authority and its various associated bodies conduct their business, we will not be doing our best for the consumers.

As regards staffing and funding, it is important that we and the public are assured by the Minister that appropriate funding will be made available to the Authority to carry out its work. My colleague, Deputy Upton, spoke eloquently on this subject in the Dáil. As someone who is involved in the scientific community, he knows more than I do about this matter. He made a good point when he said that the success of the authority will depend on the budget it is given and on the ability of its staff to carry out its work. It will be necessary for the authority to have a large research budget. It will not always be able to rely on outside support or be reassured that it is provided in an independent manner. The authority will need the financial capacity to carry out its own research and investigations at various stages of its operations. I want the Minister to assure us that the necessary funding will be forthcoming for that.

I agree that the most preferable option is to have this body under the aegis of the Department of Health and Children. I hope the Department will operate in a supportive rather than a controlling fashion in its dealings with the Authority. The board must have the greatest level of independence and latitude and it must not be seen to be in the pocket of any vested interest. Not only must consumers' interests be of paramount importance, but the level of satisfaction of those interests will determine the success or failure of this body.

It is proposed that the Authority will consult widely with relevant interested parties on standards for the food industry. These standards are generally set by legislation and the bulk of the legislation implemented in this area in the past few years has been on foot of EU directives. Any input into the formulation of these directives has come from relevant Departments. Will the Authority play a principal or a subsidiary role in this regard in the future? Will the proposed authority be responsible for drafting legislation on foot of such directives or will that responsibility remain with the relevant Departments? I hope the Minister will be able to clarify a number of such issues as this would help to guide me in my consideration of what amendments I need to table on Committee Stage.

As regards the consultative council, I was disappointed that the suggestions made for guaranteed consumer representation were not accepted in the Dáil. I give notice to the Minister that I will table amendments to that effect on Committee Stage. I have similar concerns about the composition of the board. While we are giving the Minister power to appoint the board, we should also set out the categories from which representation is to be drawn. That is a commonplace feature of other legislation and it warrants further consideration in this regard.

I endorse the comments made by Senator Quinn about the scientific committee. The authority should be able to set up its own scientific committee and be answerable for its composition. I concur with the remarks made by Senator Quinn and Senator Gibbons about getting advice from outside the country on the work of the scientific committee.

Concerns have been expressed by staff of the existing agency about their relationship with the new Authority. Section 38 deals with the appointment of staff by the board and the transfer of existing staff. I know assurances have been given about such changes in negotiations with their representative bodies. Does the Minister envisage a situation where all the staff currently employed in food control will be transferred to the Authority over a number of years?

I caution against the overuse of contract staff in the Food Safety Authority. I accept that contract staff are necessary from time to time but if we want to build up a corpus of experience and knowledge in this area, we should not follow, for example, the experience of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in recent years. That Department was set up in 1993 but because of public service recruitment restrictions, it had to employ many people on a contract basis. However, they moved on quickly to other employment opportunities. I would like a good body of knowledge and experience built up in the Food Safety Authority as quickly as possible. Proper terms and conditions for staff will play a big role in that regard.

What will happen to staff who do not wish to transfer to the proposed Authority if agreement is reached with their representative bodies on such a transfer? What will happen, for example, to the services provided by health board EHOs in the non-food areas, such as nursing homes, tobacco regulations, etc., if they are transferred from the health boards to the Food Safety Authority? These may seem like matters of detail, but they are matters of concern to people who have experience in the field and I would like the Minister to address them.

I have a number of questions about service contracts and the provisions for the issuing of contracts by the authority and the appointment of authorised officers to the Authority. Will there be an appeals system for agencies which have a service contract terminated by the Authority? Will the Authority be able to specify who it wants in particular to perform its functions within a service industry? Will the Authority be able to sanction staff in an agency above the existing management in that body? Will consultation reviews and planing processes be set out prior to an agency being granted a service contract or a service contract being removed from it? If the Minister could respond to these questions, it would help me to decide what amendments to table on Committee Stage.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate and I look forward to Committee Stage.

I welcome this Bill which is a proactive measure by the Minister and the Government in the area of food safety. While much has been said in the past about food safety, relatively little has been done. This legislation gives effect to a commitment made by the Government before taking office that it would identify matters of concern in this area.

It is often said that we are what we eat. Food safety is important whether people eat to live or live to eat. As the Minister said, food scares are nothing new. People, like myself, who come from a rural background were always told it was unsafe to drink unpasteurised milk and that proper hygiene in the home was important. We were also taught to cook meat properly, particularly pork and chicken, and the dangers of not doing so. A new agenda was established with the onset of BSE and its possible link with the new variant CJD and the creation by the farming community of bovine cannibalism through the feeding of bonemeal to cattle. The Minister of State referred to the Stephen King horror stories, but fact is stranger than fiction and it is given vent in this regard in relation to CJD. Prior to the introduction of the swill regulations in the mid-1980s even offal was being fed to pigs. Then there was salmonella in eggs. We all heard about that scare.

Senator Gibbons referred to fertilisers and sprays. When I was growing up and involved in a small way in farming there was minimal use of artificial manures. Now artificial manures are used almost exclusively in the growth of vegetables. A feature of one of the hotels in Mullingar is that the vegetables used are grown organically. That, of itself, seems to be a new trend. This is a means of saying that the provider has not used artificial sprays and manures. In the context of the use of artificial sprays, etc., what goes in must come out and what goes up must come down. Therefore, high standards must be maintained at all levels.

The Minister also referred to E-coli O157 which claimed the lives of a number of elderly people in Scotland. Some years ago a number of people became very ill with listeria and some died due to carelessness in a cooked/chill system.

The indiscriminate use of antibiotics in pigs and poultry is another matter which must be tackled in a realistic way.

This Bill is an appropriate response to the concerns which have been articulated by the public. Members of the farming community have been prosecuted for feeding angel dust and other artificial growth hormones. The greatest critics of this practice are members of the farming community and I am pleased that only a small minority of their number are involved. However, one must consider the harm done. There is a just concern abroad pertaining to this illegal practice.

In introducing this Bill the Minister has raised the concept of farm to fork traceability. It is important that food can be traced from the table to the farm from where it came. He also referred to the fact that, in all, some 50 State agencies and many hundreds of staff are involved currently in the delivery of food control services. Using the old adage "Too many cooks spoil the broth", if this Bill does anything, it rationalises the approach to food safety. In one fell swoop the Minister has put paid to that absolute nonsense, as everyone who knows anything about administration will know. I am not being critical. Given the multiplicity of agencies, a relatively good job has been done. However, the Minister has pulled together all the strands of these agencies and placed them under this appropriate body under the Bill. He also said that it is not possible to definitely identify food control staff individually. Therefore, this agency must have one remit, food safety, and that is what this Bill achieves.

I certainly do not agree with other speakers in regard to the scientific committee. Reference is made in the Bill to the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and accountability. Who is most accountable? The Minister is accountable to the House and to the electorate. That is the person who should appoint the scientific committee.

Reference was also made to Ireland's proud food standards record. With possible exceptions over the past number of years, in the main we have achieved a high standard of food production. At the end of the day, however, we must not be complacent.

Another important provision in the Bill is the placing of staff on a statutory basis. The Minister has given them the power to inspect premises and take away samples of food. The Minister stated:

Where an authorised officer is of the view that any premises or activity poses a threat to public health, he or she will have the power to dictate the remedial action required and set a time limit for its completion. These so-called "improvement notices", referred to in section 52, are a new feature.

He continued with what is the operative sentence:

While in the past officers could advise on the required improvements to premises or equipment, such advice did not have a statutory basis. Improvement notices, therefore, give food safety professionals in the field a new statutory tool which can be used where there is clear need for some remedial action, but where a complete shutdown of operations may not be warranted.

The Minister went on to state the action to be taken further to that. He also stated:

For example, unsafe products or product batches may have been distributed by the producer and be on the market. In such cases authorised officers may insist on the withdrawal, recall, detention and supervised destruction of products posing a threat to public health as provided for in section 54.

One of the drawbacks of contributing at this point is that much of what one would like to say has already been said. This is one of the most important Bills to come before this House and I am pleased to have said a few words about it. Not only has the Minister been proactive on the food safety area but he is among the first EU Ministers to introduce such legislation, and he should be congratulated. I commend this Bill to the House. It has many important provisions. I appreciate that certain Members on the other side of the House may have their criticisms; that is democracy. However, it is a great pity they did not do what the Minister of State, Deputy Moffat, has done when they were in office.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus fáilte roimh an mBille seo.

It is an important Bill because food safety is very important. The Bill is necessary because of food poisoning, salmonella, etc.

When I was a gasúr there were travelling shops around the country. Those shops carried the bread, butter, bacon and the paraffin oil. The shopkeeper would fill the paraffin oil first, clap his hands and then take in the home produced eggs. He would then throw the plain loaf into the basket too, but we had no problems with food poisoning.

When every house killed a pig, it was salted in a big barrel, brought in and hung from the roof. At night, depending on how many there were for dinner the next day, the woman of the house cut a chunk of bacon and put it into a bucket of spring water overnight to take the excess salt out of it. She washed it the next day, boiled it with a couple of turnips or a head of cabbage and a big pot of flowery Kerr's Pink potatoes, and there was no such thing as food poisoning or the present troubles.

These problems started with the scientists and the experts, and with concentrated and intensive farming. This has bred the pill society in which we live today. We have a pill or an injection to cure every ill. If we wish to take the question of food production seriously we should make a case to the EU to have Ireland — an island nation — designated as a producer of traditional foods.

We should return to the system of feeding cattle on good grass produced with farmyard manure. In the old days we grew oats, barley, wheat and rye, took them to the mill to be crushed and fed cattle on home produced foods that had no insecticides or added chemicals. In those days we had good beef, lamb, bacon and eggs because everything was produced on the open farm. We had no farm pollution or fish kills before the introduction of artificial manure. It is time we looked to the past and to the good food which was produced then.

We are now trying to develop food with a long shelf life. Why? Who is profiting from this development? Large international consortia who do not care for the farmer or farm produce are making huge profits from the production of chemicals. Artificial manure causes enormous problems to water supplies. In many cases we do not know what we are drinking. Spring wells which supplied water to families for generations are now contaminated by pollution from silage or slurry tanks and from the overuse of artificial manure.

The country could be saved the expense of importing chemical additives. We are feeding our animals with imported maize and silage. These foods are artificially produced and we do no know what they contain. The bag of feed will show a list of the ingredients but an ordinary person is as wise when he has read it as before. The law requires food packaging to show the list of ingredients but these lists mean nothing. We do not know what we are eating. When we produced our own farm foods for animals and produced animals on farms we knew exactly what the food contained.

It is time we returned to traditional production methods. When I was a milk roundsman in Sligo town in the 1950s people would not buy pasteurised milk. I had the first agency for pasteurised milk in Sligo. Occasionally, in winter when milk was in short supply, I might leave a customer a couple of pints of pasteurised milk. The bottles would be left out next morning with a note to say that pasteurised milk was not acceptable. I had great difficulty introducing pasteurised milk in Sligo town. Now we are told it is the only thing to drink. I wonder is it. A bottle of milk will now last a week but I wonder if Senators have ever opened a bottle of milk that was a fortnight old. They will find it rotten and useless. In the good old days milk was delivered fresh from the farm every morning and when it went sour it was used for baking.

Traditional farming methods would create employment in farming and bring life back to rural Ireland, and if food were produced in the traditional way we could guarantee the safety and wholesomeness of our food exports. We should get rid of injections and antibiotics and ensure the health of our animals by care and good husbandry. The injection is seen as the modern cure for all illness in animals and humans. I wonder what the outcome of this will be.

I remember the war years when an old cat might come into a shop early in the morning and lie on the warm loaves of bread. A customer might hit the cat to drive him away and then take a loaf from the pile. I never heard any complaints or knew of people contracting illnesses. I do not say we should return to those methods but our modern hygiene practices do not appear to reduce the level of sickness and I wonder if they have paid off.

I would like to see the EU designate Ireland — a small island nation — the first EU exporter of traditionally produced foods. Our economic life depends on exports. We should make less use of chemicals and forget about strengthening multi-national companies.

I pay tribute to Senator Quinn for his excellent contribution and his work in promoting Irish foods. He is an example to everyone in the food business. Irish produce is clearly identified by the shamrock symbol in his supermarkets. I wish others would follow his example.

The Minister spoke of improvements to businesses. Will these improvements be exempt from planning permission? I have seen firms being told to make improvements to comply with EU regulation only to find difficulty getting planning permission for those improvements. I can foresee problems arising and delays being caused if planning authorities do not work in co-operation with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

Meat factories are at present examined by veterinary surgeons. As far as I know environmental health officers look after the retail trade but do not inspect factories. Will the Food Safety Authority have responsibility for all aspects of food production and retailing or only for retailing? Will there be duplication in this regard? It is important to clarify these two points.

As ever it is a challenge to follow Senator Farrell because he speaks such an amount of good sense. I agree with him about the methods of food production and that it is a pity that we do not play to our strengths in food production, not only for domestic consumption but for international consumption also. I also share the Senator's views on Senator Quinn's efforts to sell Irish produce in his stores. My researcher was in a Marks and Spencer store and informs me it is running a promotion comparing Irish and American strawberries. Why do we need American strawberries in mid-June? Such policies in supermarkets need careful examination. Irish producers have limited production periods for fruit and vegetable production, in particular, and despite the GATT agreements we must take cognisance of the importance of local industry.

I welcome this Bill which is a long overdue measure. I agree with Senator Glynn's points about the use of herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics. The abuse of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics has been very unfortunate. Recent work carried out by Danish researchers indicates definitely what has been suspected for a long time, that antibiotic residues in food, in particular pork and chicken, affect those who eat them. Antibiotic resistance and allergies can be developed as a result. It is important that these issues will be taken seriously.

The Bill must be seen to operate in favour of consumers. It has been a problem in the past that much of the Department of Agriculture and Food's policy emphasis was in favour of producers. I have found it difficult to get information from the Department on herbicides and pesticides found in foods. There has been considerable concern for many years that organochlorides are implicated in the development of cancers, particularly breast cancer. Research work for and against this theory has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In view of the high incidence of breast cancer in this country I take a careful interest in this matter. I got a poor response from the Department to requests I made for information on the presence of lindane, an organochloride commonly used in the past, in a range of foodstuffs. I received helpful information from the Department's research facility at Abbotstown, Dublin. The Department of Agriculture and Food must be open to requests on these issues because they are very important to consumers.

It does not appear from the Bill that the consultative council must include consumer representatives. If that is the case an amendment should be brought forward to rectify the matter. The Consumers' Association of Ireland has done trojan work over many years, but it is important that the Bill would guarantee consumer interests a position on the consultative council.

The board and the council must be independent. If the Minister of State goes to a trade fair abroad to extol the safety and nutritional value of Irish food he will be seen as being there to sell the products. A truly independent board would have more authority internationally. There may not be the same degree of scepticism nationally because those who are appointed will be known or recognised.

Perhaps the Minister of State should think again about the manner in which the board is to be appointed. It is less satisfactory to have the board appointed solely by the Minister, rather than to have at least some of its members nominated by various bodies, such as the Science Council. It is important that the board will be able to be critical when necessary. The circumstances surrounding BSE in the UK is an example of how a lack of independence in the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food led to inaction over a ten year period.

It is a mistake not to include the Authority's chief executive on the board. Unless there is a very good reason to exclude the chief executive officer from the board the Minister of State should consider amending that provision. The Minister of State should also consider amendments to allow bodies such as the Science Council, the RDS or the Consumers' Association of Ireland, to nominate board members.

I thank Senators for their contributions to the debate. We are agreed that food safety is a most important issue and as Minister of State it is my top priority. The Government recognises the need for uncompromised and independently verifiable assurances on food safety to ensure consumer confidence. While the primary purpose of the Bill is consumer protection, the Government also recognises that one of the best ways to promote the Irish food sector is to put in place a strong, independent and science based Food Safety Authority, which will have the confidence of consumers at home and abroad.

BSE, new variant CJD, salmonella, listeria and E-coli are increasingly causes for concern for consumers, as are new crop developments and food processing. The Government must listen to and respond appropriately to these concerns. I assure the House that the Government will not be found wanting. The protection of public health is a matter of absolute priority and any threat to the safety of food will receive an immediate and strong response. It is vital to put a structure in place that can identify and assess in a competent and professional manner any risk to public health and which can communicate effectively with consumers and providers.

The Government believes that the interests of consumers are better served by the creation of an authority which will be directly accountable for all food control functions. In order for the Authority to be accountable it must have direct responsibility for these functions. While the original intention was to effect the immediate transfer of all relevant staff to the new Authority on the vesting day, it has not proved a practical proposition.

Senator Jackman referred to food poisoning. We should all be aware of the importance of food safety and hygiene, to prevent food related illness in the first place. The Senator also asked about the implementation of food safety legislation. This legislation is being implemented by the relevant agencies. Following enactment of the legislation, this service will continue to be provided by the official agencies under the aegis of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland by means of service contracts. Food safety legislation will be introduced by the relevant Departments. Following enactment, this legislation will be included in the Second Schedule. Further food safety legislation will be introduced as required. In practice, much of the legislation in this area is driven by the various Departments at EU level.

It was suggested that the Government decision not to give the Authority the audit function envisaged by the previous Government was changed for the sake of it and an attempt to put Fianna Fáil colours on the previous Government's proposals. I disagree with this. The previous Government's proposals were little more than a knee jerk reaction to the growing lack of consumer confidence. An authority with no direct role in the administration of food safety services and which would sit pontificating at one remove would not have provided the reassurance that consumers demand and deserve.

There is nothing simple or straightforward about food safety. We are talking about a complex, ever changing environment where the range of skills required extends from microbiology to animal husbandry to environmental control. It requires a structure which brings these diverse skills together and allows them to function in a harmonised and responsive way. The structure proposed by the Authority is not a bureaucratic nightmare, as some would claim. It provides the necessary checks and balances to ensure that the best interests of the consumer are served.

I wish to comment on the questions about service contracts. The provision in the Bill for contracts between the authority and existing official agencies was criticised and it was suggested that the Authority could go elsewhere for services. This is nonsense. For example, the health boards employ 200 environmental health officers who are highly skilled professionals with years of training and experience. They are in the front line when there is a food alert.

The Bill proposes that the Authority will be able to publish details of contracts and will introduce a system of monitoring to ensure the agreements are being adhered to. If contracts are not satisfactorily fulfilled, the Authority will report to the Minister for Health and Children who will lay such reports before the Oireachtas. The service contracts proposed are a practical, workable and immediate solution and do not purport to be anything else. In the long term, the authority may have its own full complement of staff, the bulk of which will come from existing agencies.

Senator Gallagher raised the transfer of staff. This will only happen following discussion and agreement with representatives of the staff concerned. The Bill provides that any staff transferred will enjoy terms and conditions no less favourable than those they already have. I will not be drawn on the timetable for transfers, which was also mentioned by Senator Gallagher, as no decisions have been made. We should be allowed to get on with the work in hand and to ensure that the Authority is operational without delay, using the service contracts device as an interim measure.

Senator Fitzpatrick referred to his experience in the Canary Islands. This is a good example of why we must always read the label of any food product. The Senator recognised the professionalism of those employed in the agencies. He complimented Senator Quinn for the work he is doing on traceability and the quality of food. Senator Fitzpatrick referred to the quality of alcohol. I do not know whether that is classified as food. Nevertheless, environmental health officers have the authority to examine areas where drink is stored to see if health regulations are being observed.

The ultimate benchmark of quality is safety and the protection of public health. This Bill focuses firmly on this. In the broader context, quality is much more subjective and is influenced to a great extent by personal taste. It is essentially a market driven concept. Different markets have different perceptions of quality. To give the Food Safety Authority responsibility for this wider area of quality would deflect it from its primary responsibility, which is to focus clearly on food safety.

My colleague, the Minister for Agriculture and Food, has initiated a wide range of programmes dealing with quality, which are complemented by schemes operated by Bord Bia, An Bord Glas and the processing and retailing sectors. These schemes represent industry's response to consumer concerns about quality and I am satisfied that area should be left to deal with them. Quality assurance schemes will benefit from the underpinning safety role of the Authority. However, this is a desirable spin-off and not a requirement of the food safety system.

The Bill provides for the Authority's involvement, either on its own initiative or in co-operation with food producers' representatives in the establishment of schemes to protect consumer interests. These schemes, to be known as food safety assurance schemes, will cover the promotion of best practice and preparation of guidelines on a range of food safety issues.

Senator Quinn raised a number of issues. He said he was concerned about the appointment of the scientific committee. It is envisaged that the principles of openness and transparency will be the key in the operation of the Authority. The board will not have sole responsibility for appointing the scientific committee from whom it will receive expert advice. The consultative process envisaged in the Bill ensures the board will have an input as regards appointments but will not be in a position to exert undue influence. This provision ensures that the independence of the scientific committee is not compromised. It does not mean the Minister does not trust the board but that he wishes to guarantee the independence of the scientific committee.

Senator Quinn also raised the position of the chief executive. In order to maintain his independence in the authority, he cannot be a member of the scientific committee. However, he may attend meetings of both bodies and advise them and seek their advice. He may also be involved in the decision making process. This is the position which obtains in the Irish Medicine Board, which has been alluded to.

Senator Quinn also expressed concern about consumer aspects of the Bill. The whole basis of this legislation is concerned with consumers. It is based on the principle that the consumer is king and the desire to ensure that consumers are as well informed as possible in relation to all aspects of food safety. Far from being a talking shop, the 24 member consultative council is a vital component of the Authority's structure and will ensure a consumer input into the day to day operations of the Authority as well as its decision making process.

I welcome also the comments of Senator Gibbons and I agree with the emphasis he put on the importance of scientific research. We are fortunate to have a scientific community covering a broad area of expertise in the food related sciences. Many give of their time spontaneously in regard to this matter and their expertise is much appreciated. I look forward to their continuous involvement in this area in the future. Senator Gibbons was also concerned about GMOs and other aspects of biotechnology — an expanding area which is of great importance to the Authority. A special group from the scientific committee will examine this area.

Naturally enough, we will hear much more about genetic engineering in future. It will not be all bad news, as has been said by many commentators in the Dáil, although I have not heard it in the House today. Naturally, there is a place for genetic modification in future.

Ireland enjoys a good reputation for the quality of food it produces, both for the domestic and export markets. We owe a considerable debt to our existing food control agency for the work it has done over many years to ensure that the food we eat is safe. We now need new structures to face the challenges which lie ahead. The enactment of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Bill will provide the framework for future control and regulation of food safety.

At an early stage of the Dáil debate on this Bill the Authority was described as being an emperor with no clothes. Let me stress that the Authority will have a full and well fitted wardrobe and will be well decked out for the job in hand.

Senator Glynn made some interesting remarks on how BSE and the new variant CJD had arisen — bovine cannibalism, as he called it. It was also interesting to hear his comments about what happened in the 1980s in England concerning salmonella and eggs, as well as what is happening today with regard to fertilisers, insecticide sprays and artificial manure. He said we must ensure the highest standards and avoid the indiscriminate use of antibiotics. As he said, the Bill appropriately responds to these concerns. He also spoke of rationalisation, and the Food Safety Authority will bring all groups together under one agency. That will be something to look forward to because it will co-ordinate the entire food sector.

Senator Gibbons also mentioned accountability, and politicians should not be afraid to make decisions about whom they appoint to boards. Ultimately, the Minister and politicians generally are responsible to the people and not some quasi groups we might hear about. We must take the responsibility and that is particularly so in regard to the Minister. I thank the Senator for his remarks.

Senator Farrell gave us a tour back to ancient times.

Down memory lane.

He spoke of his own experiences of killing pigs and said we had become a pill society. To a certain degree he is factually correct. There is too much use of antibiotics and certainly the medical people agree with that, especially with regard to the amount of antibiotics used in animal husbandry. Increasingly, people are running into antibiotic resistance which is causing major problems in our hospitals. As far as possible we should get away from the quick fix, especially in the agricultural sector.

Senator Farrell praised Senator Quinn for what he is doing for food quality and safety. I would like to add my own words of praise for Senator Quinn for what he has done. He was out there first and recognised the issue. Naturally enough it was good business, but he spotted it and has continued on that line. He must be complimented on what he has done to date. I am sure we can rely on him to keep going in that vein in the future.

I thank everybody who contributed to the debate on this important issue.

I thank the Minister of State for his kind remarks. Is he willing to accept amendments on Committee Stage next week? Is it worth our while tabling amendments in view of the fact that the Dáil is about to go into recess?

That is a matter for Committee Stage.

I am sure the Minister of State would be happy to answer the question today.

I am sure the Minister of State will give very serious consideration to any amendment tabled by the Senator.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 30 June 1998.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.