Thursday, 6 December 2018

Ceisteanna (1)

Charlie McConalogue


1. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine his views on the price beef farmers are receiving for their produce from factories; the number of times to date in 2018 that beef processing factories have been fined for breaching EU carcass trimming rules; the range of fines imposed; the maximum level that can be imposed; the number of factory inspections by officials in 2018 to check grading and trimming is in compliance with regulations; the names of factories fined to date in 2018; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51344/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (20 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Agriculture)

I ask the Minister to discuss the poor price that beef farmers are currently receiving for their produce from meat factories. I also ask him to detail the number of times to date in 2018 that beef processing factories have been fined for breaching EU carcass trimming rules, including the range of the fines and the maximum amount that can currently be imposed. I further ask him to provide data on the number of inspections carried out by departmental officials to check whether grading and trimming in the factories is in compliance with EU regulations. I ask the Minister to ensure that there is transparency in the inspection system and that those factories that have broken the rules are named.

The question of the price paid is a matter for producers and processors. Steers and heifers are purchased and paid for on the basis of the quality payment scheme pricing grid.

To date in 2018 there have been 521 inspections across 32 slaughter plants and 44,332 carcasses have been inspected. A total of 19 carcasses were found to be non-compliant with the EU reference carcass trimming specification which is 0.05% of the number inspected. Under legislation and SI 363/2010, non-compliance with the carcass trim specification attracts a maximum on the spot fine of €200 per carcass.

Regarding the maximum level that can be imposed, any person who commits an offence under the current regulations is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding €5,000 or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months or to both. Recourse to this approach would preclude the possibility of an on the spot fine and conviction would require proof of intention beyond a reasonable doubt.

Carcass classification and carcass presentation controls in slaughter plants are carried out by a dedicated team of specialist staff in the beef carcass classification section within my Department. Additional monitoring of carcass presentation by my Department’s veterinary public health inspection staff is currently being rolled out. This will provide further assurance to stakeholders that the appropriate dressing specification is being applied. These staff will provide a supporting role for the beef carcass classification staff. Upskilling of my Department’s veterinary public health inspection staff has occurred at regional seminars and local training of officers is being provided. Furthermore, information seminars were held for both industry and farm representative bodies regarding the enhanced controls.

As part of ongoing dialogue with the industry both within the beef forum and directly with Meat Industry Ireland, I have stressed the need for positive engagement between suppliers and processors and I understand that Meat Industry Ireland has accepted that no individual farmer should be at a loss from a mistake made in a factory in the application of carcass dressing procedures. I further understand that processors will introduce a payment to the farmer supplier to reflect any loss in each case where the Department has applied a trim fine on a particular carcass. Such payment will be identified on the payment remittance docket so that farmers will be aware of the penalty.

I thank the Minister for his reply. The EU regulation on beef trimming specifically states that no fat, muscle or other tissue may be removed from the carcass before weighing, classifying and marking, except in cases where veterinary requirements are applied. The fact that 21 fines have been applied in 2018 shows clearly that there have been breaches of the carcass trimming regulations. Unfortunately, the performance of the Department in overseeing the trimming process has been poor. The Department has also failed to ensure accountability and transparency by naming those factories that have breached the rules. It has further failed to ensure that farmers who were affected and who suffered financial losses were informed.

The Minister has been negligent in respect of his responsibility to ensure there is proper accountability in that regard. In fact, the factories have been shielded by him from having to account publicly for the fact that they have been breaching these rules. Will he give us an assurance today that the factories that have breached the trimming rules will be named and that he will not act as a ministerial shield, protecting them from being held accountable for this breach and leaving farmers short-changed as a result?

We must observe the clock. The Minister has one minute.

I thank the Deputy. One fine for one carcass excessively trimmed is one too many. It is important to remain focused on our objective, that is, to ensure we have full compliance by the factories with the regulations. In terms of the inspections carried out to date in 2018, 0.05% of 44,000 carcasses were found to have non-compliance. Every non-compliance is one too many and, to enhance the level of further inspections, in quarter 1 of 2019, we are rolling out additional sets of eyes, as it were, on the kill line to ensure that the specifications are complied with.

The ultimate accountability in this will be to ensure that individual farmers are made aware that the carcass of their animal was excessively trimmed. They will be notified by the Department in that context. They will be remunerated for any excess trim in the docket.

We are going to have to move on.

What they do with the information is up to them but they will know the identity of the individual plants responsible.

We will have to observe the time. There are other Deputies waiting.

I asked the Minister specifically to confirm if he will name the factories that have breached the trimming guidelines. He has avoided answering that question until now. I ask him to be specific and give an assurance today that he will ensure that those that breached the guidelines will be named by him and that he will not protect them from being held accountable for their failures in that regard.

This is yet another example of the way factories have been taking advantage of farmers. In recent weeks, prices have been under enormous pressure, for example, the prices for culled cows dropped from €3.70 a kilo to €2.70 a kilo, resulting in farmers taking a loss of €300 to €400 in some instances. Unfortunately, the Minister has failed to hold factories to account at a number of levels. We have seen how the beef forum, under his stewardship, has failed to hold them to account, and this is another example of that. Will the Minister give a clear assurance that he will publish the names of the factories, that every carcass will be inspected under a new regime in the new year, that the farmers will be compensated-----

The Minister to respond.

-----for the losses incurred so far, and that there will be transparency in the system for beef trimming in the future?

It is almost 10.45 a.m. and we have dealt with one question. I do not want to interject constantly but I ask all Members to observe the time.

I do not accept that either I or the much maligned beef forum has failed. In fairness to all the participants in the forum, the resolution to this issue has been progressed through that. The fact that we are having additional staff trained and put in situ to enhance the level of inspections and the supervision of the kill line to make sure that the existing very low level of non-compliance is further inspected so that every farmer gets a fair crack of the whip in terms of the supervision of their cattle and that there is no excessive trim has been delivered through engagement. I have had direct engagement with Meat Industry Ireland, MII, but also at the forum. That has been a signal achievement. It may have taken a little longer than we would have wished but we are in a situation where, from the start of 2019, we will have additional staff dealing with this issue. Approximately 1.8 million cattle are slaughtered and, of those, 21 excessive trims were detected in 2018 to date. That does not signal a huge failure-----

-----but every one is one too many. Our ultimate responsibility in terms of transparency is to make sure that every individual farmer knows-----

I call Deputy Martin Kenny.

-----and that they will be remunerated for any cost they have incurred-----

I am asking for some co-operation.

-----and that will happen.

I am sorry, Deputy Kenny. I am asking for co-operation in the House. It is now 10.45 a.m. I think Deputies and the Minister have taken advantage of my leniency. I ask them to observe the clock. They have a responsibility, as will other Deputies later.