In the wake of the FMD crisis of 2001, and against a backdrop of earlier unsuccessful efforts in this regard, I introduced a comprehensive individual sheep identification system — the national sheep identification system, NSIS, which provides full individual identification and traceability of sheep from farm of origin to carcass and which is designed to be multi-functional, facilitating aspects such as flock management, consumer assurance and disease monitoring and control. In the latter regard, the FMD crisis underscored the potential damage to which our economy and the agriculture sector is exposed in the event of serious disease outbreaks if shortcomings in animal identification and traceability were not addressed. Based on monitoring of NSIS and feedback to my Department from various quarters since 2001, I am satisfied that all elements of NSIS are now firmly bedded in across the sheep sector and working well. I have however made it clear consistently that I am always willing to enhance NSIS and to address any operational difficulties which might arise, while maintaining its key components.
A new harmonised system of identification for the whole of the European Union was agreed at the December Council of Ministers. The system provides that there will be electronic individual identification of sheep from January 2008, together with a central movement database recording movements on a batch basis. The implementation date is subject to review following a Commission report in 2006. For the interim period all sheep are to be double tagged and identified individually, but all recording would be on a flock basis.
The regime agreed by the December Council affords member states which already have systems in place offering a higher level of traceability than would be the case under the interim period system, the option of retaining their own systems until the advent of electronic identification in a few years from now.
I support the broad principle which underlies the agreed system. I have always been in favour of making use of new and efficient technologies to achieve this end, subject of course to practicalities and cost-effectiveness and I would be very anxious that Ireland and other member states would be in a position to move at the earliest possible date to an electronic system. In the interim, however, I believe that the system now in place and operating throughout the Irish sheep sector will continue to afford Ireland the level of protection and assurance in relation to both identification and traceability which I believe is strategically appropriate to this country.
The package agreed by the December Council envisages the retention of systems such as NSIS, albeit with some minor adjustment, over the period leading up to EU-wide introduction of electronic individual identification. I have no plans to dismantle NSIS and roll back the progress which has been made in this area since 2001, only to see Irish sheep farmers, marts, meat processors, etc., being asked a few short years from now to once again re-instate and accommodate individual identification and traceability. However, I am willing to examine and address aspects relating to the operation of NSIS in so far as these are addressed within the EU system now agreed.