Dáil Éireann - Volume 435 - 09 November, 1993

Adjournment Debate. - Food Quality Standards.

Mr. R. Bruton: I thank you, Sir, for giving me an opportunity to raise this issue. Many consumers will have been disturbed to discover from newspaper headlines during the past week that a recent survey revealed 11 out of 15 brands of food tested had at least one sample of bacterial content exceeding international limits. It is of particular concern that this would never have come to light if the consumers' association, a voluntary body surviving on a shoestring, had not had the opportunity, commissioned by the EC, to carry out the survey. The public have a right to know why the Minister and the officials of his Department did not carry out adequate monitoring, particularly in respect of food shown to contain harmful samples of bacteria. A total of 20 per cent of a particular unbranded food product revealed harmful bacteria associated with food poisoning.

Overall, the findings of this survey were disturbing for the Irish food industry. A total of 28 per cent of all chilled ready to eat products exceeded permissible levels in France, 300,000 parts of bacteria per gram. In the case of one product, 100 per cent of samples tested exceeded the French standard and in another 75 per cent exceeded that limit. It is particularly disturbing for consumers that one in five cases of unbranded products showed the presence of dangerous bacteria. However, it is reassuring that none of the familiar household food brands tested showed a presence of dangerous bacteria.

[1332] The survey also highlighted the inadequacy of nutritional information on some branded food products. The law states that people selling branded food products should specify the fat, meat and other content of the foods they are selling. It is disappointing that at least one company surveyed did not display such information on its products. Will the Minister inform the House if other companies fail to meet nutritional information requirements? At a time when consumers are becoming increasingly health conscious, many of the products surveyed contained a high fat content that would not be compatible with the recommendations of any health programme.

We must seriously consider the findings of this survey. Will the Minister give an undertaking that the inspectorate in his Department will carry out a more detailed and properly resourced study urgently so that recommendation can be made in key areas to reassure customers and restore our international reputation? Such recommendations should set out the standards which should apply in regard to bacteria content in food and state whether we should set a limit in the interest of quality production as is the case in France and the Netherlands. They should also specify the handling by distributors and retailers which must be observed to ensure quality standards are maintained throughout the shelf life of a product. We are all familiar with the “best before” date on products but the survey showed that some products failed to meet the quality standards required within that time. That may have been because the temperature of the chillers in which they were preserved was too low to preserve their quality. The Minister should tell the House the recommendations he intends to make to retailers and distributors in that regard. He should also state the inspection method he intends putting in place so that in the long term consumers can be assured of quality rather than being taken by surprise by newspaper headlines.

Associated with that we will have to consider seriously the need to invest in [1333] the industry to meet that problem. Can we ensure that Structural Funds available to support the food industry are set aside for this purpose? Consumers, particularly those in the European markets into which we are trying to direct our products, are becoming very discerning. Banner headlines proclaiming that Ireland has the worst record for bacteria content, double that of our nearest neighbour and 14 times that of the French, do not do our reputation any good. The survey was part of a European survey and the results will become available to our competitors, who will use it ruthlessly to try to gain advantage in the market. We cannot afford this sort of damage to our reputation.

The Irish food industry rightly prides itself on its quality, greenness and wholesome food products and we cannot risk damage to that reputation. We need regulations and stern enforcement from the Department to protect our reputation for the many producers who are penetrating the European markets.

The future for the food industry lies in adding value and in getting to the ultimate consumer a product with plenty of added value. That means penetrating the international “ready to eat” market. It is worrying that this survey of “ready to eat” food has shown Ireland wanting in this area. The industry and the producers have no option but to set their sights on beating the best in Europe.

I hope the Minister's reply will outline steps by which we can protect and enhance the reputation of Irish food at home and abroad. This industry already employs about 40,000 people but has the potential to employ many more if we get the balance right.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Mr. O'Dea): Deputy Bruton is referring to media reports on a survey commissioned by the EC Commission on cook-chill ready to eat meals on sale in EC countries. This survey was commissioned by the consumer policy service of the EC Commission and, I am sure, is the first of many such surveys. It was conducted by the consumer associations [1334] of each member state. It is imperative that we have regard to the findings of these surveys and we learn to apply the valuable lessons that they teach us. The Deputy will be aware, of course, that the results of this survey have not yet been conveyed to the Department of Health and so I am unable to comment in detail on its contents. I am, however, aware of media reports of its findings: in particular, the reported failure of a number of cook-chill ready to eat meals on sale in Ireland to meet the high standards set by the French authorities. I have, therefore, asked the EC Commission for a full copy of the survey and the associated detailed findings.

Our Food Safety Advisory Committee has also set relevant guidelines in its reports on microbiological guidelines for meat and meat products, milk, cream and ice cream, eggs and fish and also in its report on cook-chill systems. I have asked the Food Safety Advisory Committee to consider again the situation generally with regard to cook-chill systems and to report to me as a matter of urgency.

I will, of course, also ask them carefully to review the results of the EC survey when it comes to hand and will issue a further statement on this as soon as possible.

Breaches of the guidelines referred to do not constitute a threat to public health but are indicative of a need to improve the quality control systems in the operation. This fact does not give us any cause for complacency and I wish to advise the Deputy that I am fully committed to ensuring that standards of food safety in Ireland remain high.

I would also remind everyone of the importance of ensuring that the cold chain for frozen and chilled foods is carefully monitored at all times. There is a clear obligation on all manufacturers, distributors and retailers to ensure that their staff are fully conversant with all the safety aspects of food storage and handling. There is no shortage of courses and organisations willing to provide or indeed to tailor make courses, if necessary, for all food premises regardless of size. The [1335] food industry is one of our more important industries and it is imperative that everyone involved in the food business uphold our enviable reputation for quality and safety.

I am sure that the Deputy is aware that foodborne illness generally is on the increase in all modern states. The causes of such illness is often not clearly understood and many incidences go unreported. Reports such as this are indeed helpful to everyone involved.

In recent years there has been an increase in the evolution of the technology of all aspects of food production and marketing. Food products available on our supermarket shelves range from the most basic primary food to a vast range of sophisticated and complex ready to eat meals. The scale of production and distribution has also increased dramatically with a commensurate increase in the risk to the health of the public.

The conclusion of the Maastricht Treaty and the related completion of the Internal Market has guaranteed that our food products may be freely exported and sold to other member states without barriers or tariffs. It is imperative for the success of the Internal Market that all member states have comparable standards that protect and reassure not only their own nationals but all European citizens. The EC, while remaining sensitive to the cultural diversities of the member states, is also determined to ensure food safety standards consistent with the needs of public health across the EC.

[1336] The Deputy will be aware that in association with our EC colleagues we have embarked on a major initiative to bring our food laws and enforcement arrangements into line with the needs of modern and sophisticated food industry. We are also increasing the number of food inspectors deployed in each health board area. I have asked my colleague the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry to review the arrangements for the inspection of food plants involved in the production of these types of food.

As part of a general review of our public health programme we are actively considering new structures in each health board which will improve management efficiency and ensure a more even and equitable application of our food laws.

We are currently considering certain changes in the formation and constitution of the Food Safety Advisory Committee to ensure that we will have the best up to date expertise available to us at all times. In particular we are considering arrangements which will ensure that both industry and consumer interests are fully consulted in the ongoing development of our policy on food safety. We have provided significant capital investment for re-equiping our three public analyst's laboratories this year and have provided additional technical staff in each of these laboratories. We are committed to continue developments in the food safety area to ensure our standards continue to be maintained at the highest level.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday 10 November, 1993.