Dáil Éireann - Volume 580 - 18 February, 2004

Other Questions. - Poultry Industry.

  95. Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food his plans to protect the Irish poultry industry from cheap imports of chicken from non-EU countries; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4919/04]

  Mr. Walsh: In accordance with WTO arrangements, imports of poultry meat from non-EU countries may enter the EU and be sold on the EU market. It is, however, a condition of entry that meat must comply with EU veterinary and hygiene standards. In particular, the EU Commission must approve the country of origin and the establishment in which the product was produced in advance of importation. The granting of approvals is dependent on such factors as the animal health status of the country, the adequacy of its veterinary structures, the facilities of the production establishment and employment of hygiene practices. Third country food processing establishments intending to export to the EU are inspected by the Food and Veterinary Office of the European Commission and where they do not meet the required standards the export licence is removed.

Consumers have the right to the maximum amount of information about the food they are offered for sale so they can make informed choices about their purchases. With that in mind, the Deputy will be aware that I recently made two statutory instruments concerning the labelling of poultry meat. In introducing these [528] regulations, I took account of the recommendations of the food labelling group and also the findings of a recent consumer survey I commissioned to ascertain consumer preferences regarding labelling. The first of these regulations requires poultry meat originating in a country outside the EU to bear an indication of the country of origin when offered for sale in retail premises. The second requires information regarding class, price per unit weight, and condition and slaughterhouse details in respect of loose poultry meat to be provided to the consumer. Heretofore, while these labelling indications have been compulsory for pre-packaged poultry meat, it had not been a requirement to provide this information for poultry meat sold loose.

  Dr. Upton: I thank the Minister for his answer. While I particularly welcome the labelling requirement, there seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction. Every time there is a crisis we have a fire brigade action. I welcome the establishment of the food labelling group and its recommendations. However, we only had an immediate and prompt response because of the outbreak of avian influenza. I would like to see a considerably more pro-active approach to labelling and information on food products in general.

As there is a significant cost factor, the Irish processor, restaurateur and those manufacturing other value-added products are much more likely to import cheap poultry meat. How could the promotion of Irish poultry products be enhanced to encourage people to buy home produced product where we have a clear track record in traceability that is much more tangible than for products from third countries?

  Mr. Walsh: Unusually, Deputy Upton is being a little hard on the Department. I established the food labelling group in 2000, which was long before the outbreak of avian influenza in Thailand. Last year I initiated a consumer survey to determine consumer attitudes to food labelling. The food labelling group made 36 recommendations, which I have implemented in so far as I could. For example, the Food Safety Authority is now a one-stop shop for the enforcement of regulations. Previously the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment helped the Department of Agriculture and Food and a multiplicity of Departments had some responsibility.

While I would like to see the issue of beef for consumption in restaurants and the catering industry addressed at the earliest opportunity, it is beyond my reach. It is a matter for the Commission to ensure that people know the origin of beef on menus in various catering establishments. The Commission has promised a report on this matter by March. I hope we will be able to also address this matter, as the vast majority of consumers want to know the origin of [529] food they purchase whether in retail outlets or catering establishments.

The Irish poultry industry is sizeable and concentrated. It exports about €120 million of produce per annum. As we produce about 140,000 tonnes, it is well worth promoting. I agree with the Deputy in that it needs to use the most up-to-date technology and offer consumer cuts and the most convenient products possible. The industry is subject to imports that are relatively cheaper than Irish produce. However, the vast majority of consumers would like to get Irish poultry if they could get it in a convenient way.

We import about 46,000 tonnes, which is controlled by rigorous regulation. I agree with the Deputy that the industry needs to be given assistance and I will raise the matter with Enterprise Ireland, which is the relevant body for supporting and developing the industry here.

  Dr. Upton: When I spoke of a fire brigade action, I meant that labelling was introduced within about a week of the avian influenza outbreak. I do not believe I am being harsh on the Department in mentioning that fact. The legislation can be introduced rapidly when we appear to have a crisis. Otherwise we sit back and wait for something to happen.

While I appreciate it is not the Minister's responsibility, is he satisfied that the Food and Veterinary Office is provided with sufficient resources? Is he happy with the level of resources available and with the level of inspection in third countries? Following the avian influenza outbreak it became clear that we also needed to highlight animal welfare issues.

  Mr. Walsh: Ireland is very pro-active on food safety and was one of the first European Union countries to establish a food safety authority. In line with demand that this be independent of the Department of Agriculture and Food and the farming sector, it is under the aegis of the Department of Health and Children. There was no scare prior to my establishing the food labelling group as I felt it important to have labelling for safety reasons, to outline the possible presence of allergens and to address the accuracy of claims on some labels, which are occasionally outrageous. These matters are now being addressed. Most people would agree that it is very objective and doing an excellent job. I will take the suggestions made by the Deputy to see how we can further enhance the safety of food.

  Mr. Timmins: The Minister stated that we have very rigorous regulations. Would he agree that many consumers purchase items believing them to be Irish? In many cases this is not so, due to deceptive labelling. While I welcome his initiative on labelling and his mission statement for the EU Presidency that he would seek to enhance labelling measures, would he agree that the Food and Veterinary Office was very slow off the mark following the outbreak of avian influenza in [530] Thailand? There was word of avian influenza on the street among traders in Thailand last December. However, the EU only took action after Japan banned the import of chicken. This approach leaves much to be desired.

  Mr. Sargent: Would the Minister agree that the outbreak of avian influenza has focused minds on the EU's battery hen directive? Would he agree that it might bring forward its implementation given the warning about intensive rearing of poultry? Would the Minister be able to emulate outlets in Britain such as Tesco, Sainsburys and Waitrose, which have strong “buy British” campaigns? Is there anything in law preventing us from being as strident about Irish poultry products here, which could assure the public that they can buy Irish produce that is clearly labelled?

  Mr. Walsh: On the question of the FVO, Deputy Upton also asked whether I was satisfied that it is adequately resourced and staffed. The information I have from the EU is that it has sufficient resources and staff and that it closely monitors establishments outside the EU and ports of entry into EU countries, including Ireland. We must take its assurances at face value.

The matter of labelling has become considerably more important. The food labelling group which I established in 2000 has been extremely helpful in this regard. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has done a superb job in giving confidence to consumers. In the matter of poultry meat, we are always faced with a problem. Within the EU, we export 1.5 times as much poultry meat as we import. It is an important trading operation. Nonetheless, Irish poultry meat is strongly promoted. When it comes to tendering for supply to retailers and establishments, including hospitals and prisons, the lowest tenderer must get the contract as long as the meat is supplied by an EU country.

It can be confusing for consumers where there has been re-working of products within a European country, in other words, where a product is imported from a third country and re-worked within the country that is labelled as its country of origin. About a year ago it was discovered that poultry imported to Ireland from Holland contained non-poultry proteins. It was quite safe to eat, but nonetheless it had been reworked. We must be vigilant to ensure that labelling is accurate and contains no false claims. The labelling of the country of origin and the establishment in which the product is produced must be adhered to along the chain of supply. Consumers must be assured of that.