Dáil Éireann - Volume 539 - 26 June, 2001

Priority Questions. - Sheep Imports.

14. Mr. Dukes asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development the investigations his Department has undertaken into reported cases where meat factories slaughtered imported sheep and presented the carcasses for export as Irish meat and claimed a VAT flat rate refund to farmers, and where factories acquiesced or agreed arrangements to deliver live imported sheep to their premises for subsequent delivery live to farms in the State; if he has investigated the apparent failure of departmental inspectors and offices at the factories in question to detect or to prevent such activities; if any prosecutions are being contemplated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18415/01]

Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (Mr. Walsh): My Department and other agencies have carried out investigations on a number of levels into the reports to which the Deputy refers. With regard to sheep imports from Northern Ireland, the position is that since November 1992 a bilateral arrangement had existed between this Department and the Northern Ireland authorities in respect of sheep going to and from Northern Ireland. Under the arrangement, sheep of Northern Ireland origin could move freely here and vice versa. In the absence until now of a tagging and movement control system for sheep in Ireland it was not generally possible to distinguish between sheep of Northern Ireland or Republic of Ireland origin. Sheep presented for slaughter were not required to be tagged or accompanied by any specific docu[20] mentation. Sheep imported from Great Britain and other member states should be accompanied by appropriate certification and their arrival should be notified in advance by the member state.

From interviews with the staff of my Department who inspect sheep at meat plants, there was no evidence available to them to suggest that sheep were being illegally imported given that it was virtually impossible for Department personnel to effectively establish the origin of sheep presented for slaughter in the absence of a tagging and movement control system. That situation has now been rectified and in addition the Diseases of Animals (Amendment) Act, 2001, dealer legislation greatly strengthens controls.

The legal responsibility for checks on sheep presented for slaughter at meat plants rests with the owner or person in charge of the establishment. The owner or person in charge of the abattoir or slaughterhouse is required to ensure each animal to be slaughtered bears an identifying mark or number to enable the veterinary inspector to determine its origin. Department staff were asked to be vigilant in establishing the origin of sheep for slaughter but did not have the necessary identification systems available which apply, for example, in the case of cattle.

There is no legal requirement for sheepmeat to be labelled to indicate the country of origin of the animals. The procedure in Ireland and other member states is that all carcasses which passed the required veterinary inspections are stamped with the official health mark regardless of the origin of the animals prior to slaughter.

Additional InformationWith regard to the question of acquiescence or agreement by meat plants to arrangements to deliver live imported sheep to their premises for subsequent delivery live to farms in the State, the position is that investigations into these activities and others relating to the importation of sheep into this country are ongoing. These investigations are being conducted by the Garda authorities and I understand there is the possibility of prosecution under a number of headings.

Mr. Dukes: Will the Minister direct his attention to the part of the question he has not answered? Will he tell me the reason it was not possible for officials of his Department or factory management to simply inspect sheep on the basis that sheep coming from Northern Ireland, which would have carried tags when there, would have holes in their ears when arriving at factories here? Will the Minister indicate that it would have been perfectly within the competence of staff of his Department and the factories to raise questions about these sheep?

Also, has there been any follow-up investigation of the statement made in an affidavit sworn by a person involved in importing sheep into Ireland that he brought animals by arrangement to a meat factory in County Kildare where they were then redistributed live to farms else[21] where in the country? Will the Minister indicate whether he has made any investigation of who was involved in that practice, what kind of agreement there was with the factory and what action, if any, staff of his Department at that factory took in that case?

Mr. Walsh: As I said, my Department, with other agencies, the Garda and the Revenue, are carrying out ongoing investigations. Regarding the latter part of my reply and the matter of acquiescence of staff with or agreement by meat plants to deliver live imports of sheep to their premises for subsequent delivery to farms in the State, the position is that investigations are ongoing. The Deputy raised that matter at a committee last week. These investigations are being conducted by the Garda, the lead agency in this regard, and there is a possibility of prosecution under a number of headings.

Mr. Dukes: What kind of urgency is attached to these investigations? The events which gave rise to my question took place just before 21 February this year and four months later, on 26 June, the Minister is telling me that investigations are ongoing. When will we see some results from them and some action taken against those who put the status of our livestock industry at risk?

Mr. Walsh: The Oireachtas, including Deputy Dukes and others, contributed to passing legislation which will be extremely helpful with this issue. Without individual identification of sheep, it was not practical to have a complete traceability system. However, that is now in place and tagging is a requirement for all sheep going into plants since 21 June. This was resisted for a number of years. I established a sheep meat forum to have these matters addressed as the island of Ireland was a trade free area for sheep, North and South, from 1992 to date.

In relation to the progress of the investigations, as I said, the Garda is pursuing the investigations with all urgency. I more than anyone else want to see a successful conclusion. My information is that there will be prosecutions, which is what I want to see. I do not want to be in a position where there is a lack of traceability or accountability regarding the movement of susceptible animals, nor do I want that for anyone who succeeds me.