Seanad Éireann - Volume 165 - 21 March, 2001
Food and Environmental Safety: Motion.
Miss Quill Miss Quill
Miss Quill: I move:
That Seanad Éireann, emphasising the primacy of the consumers' need for food safety, calls on the Government to bring forward a radical re-evaluation of the management of food and environmental safety by the institutions of the State with a view to putting in place a single, integrated system of management in the consumers' interest.
In a nutshell, we are demanding that the Government set up, independent of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, a Department of food headed by a Cabinet Minister with full and specific responsibility for the promotion of a good food policy. It is necessary to have such a Department in order to give due primacy to food quality and safety at this juncture and to promote, maintain and engender consumer confidence in food products. It is also necessary to protect the best interests of the thousands of workers employed in the food industry and to enable Ireland to enhance and sustain its fine reputation as a producer of good, clean, healthy and wholesome food.
Consumer confidence in food quality and safety has been severely eroded in recent years. This is mainly due to the high profile scares arising from the outbreaks of BSE, E.coli and salmonella and the issues surrounding chemical residues, illegal growth promoters and the contamination of animal feed. The most recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease has compounded the problem and focused attention on what needs to be done.
While acknowledging that historically the primacy of the producer was paramount – to an extent, this served us well – and that we have had good and progressive Ministers for Agriculture in many ways, it is critically important at this juncture that we put in place a balancing Department which will resonate to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and which will guarantee food quality and safety. It is time for a cultural change with a much stronger focus on consumers' safety and interests. We must become much more consumer focused and cultivate a culture of food safety. To enable this to happen we need to have a specific Department which will develop a modern dynamic food policy and all that it entails.
 Central to the success of an emerging policy is the establishment of traceability of all food, food ingredients and foodstuffs. To enable a system of traceability to be put in place and to be kept in place all sectors of the food chain from farm to fork should be licensed. A substantial investment must be made in research and development so that we can be kept abreast of developments in food and the new insights into food safety. We must also make a major investment in staff training to enable the objectives of the proposed Department to be fully realised.
Food safety controls must be clearly defined in the modern context and communicated clearly to everybody directly involved in the food sector and all citizens. These controls must be stringently and consistently enforced. This did not happen in the past and it endangered much of what is essential to the well-being of the country. Farmers and the owners of meat processing factories must be subject to stringent controls. If they are found to be in breach of these controls severe penalties must be enforced and, if necessary, licences must be revoked on the spot. If we are to be serious about this issue and make what we are asking for happen we will have to be stringent about enforcement.
We were not strong in terms of enforcement in the past and lessons were not learnt from what emerged during the beef tribunal hearings. We cannot allow this to happen again. The malpractice and culture of the blind eye and nod and wink must be eradicated forever from all elements of the food industry. Never again must a small group of cowboys be allowed to put at risk an important industry, the jobs of the people who work in it and the health of those who consume its product. This must be brought to a halt.
In addition to producers, processors and retailers, consumers have an obligation in this area. They must be made realise they have a part to play in the integrated approach to the promotion of food safety. They must be responsible for the storage, handling and proper cooking of food. It is only in this way that there can be a coherent, top-down, bottom-up food policy covering all sectors of the food chain, including feed production, primary food production, food processing, transport and retail sale. The food production chain is becoming increasingly complex and this is why we cannot neglect investment in research.
Shopping has become fraught for the average housewife because of the lack of a proper traceability system and proper labelling. Consumers are unclear as to what they are buying. I pay tribute to the approach taken by our colleague, Senator Feargal Quinn, in the context of the operation he runs so scientifically and transparently. His operation is a model of best practice. That is what ought to be in place up and down the country.
 Consumers have a right to expect information on the origin, quality and composition of what they are buying. It is particularly worrying that consumers are buying chicken fillets, brought in cheaply from parts of south-east Asia, sprinkled with salt and labelled with something like a shamrock, which is sold in the pretence that it is a product of this country. That type of malpractice will have to stop.
We live on an island but in terms of open borders and common food policies we are far from being an island. If we are to put in place the kind of system that we in the Progressive Democrats are arguing for, there must be uniformity of practice and systems throughout the EU member states, which are the greatest producers of food and drink in the world. For protection here there must be stringent control at Border points and communication between different Border points to ensure that what happened recently, and probably has been happening for a long time, will not continue to happen.
Ireland has a fine tradition of grass-fed cattle, good food and great cooking. I think of our great restaurants and their good reputation and how central that is to our tourism industry. That reputation must not be put at risk but must be enhanced and continued into the next generation. That will not happen if the responsibility for food remains within the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. If these objectives are to be achieved there must be a separate department and a Minister for food.
Mr. Dardis Mr. Dardis
Mr. Dardis: I second the motion. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, to the House. His presence is important in that it highlights the role of the Department of Health and Children in many of these issues and not just the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
This issue has been brought sharply into focus by the foot and mouth crisis. We must understand the trauma that is causing to many farmers in the United Kingdom. I have no doubt many farmers here are also anxious. One does not need to be a farmer to appreciate how traumatic it must be to lose a herd one has spent many years building up. Obviously, there is still a requirement for vigilance as we are not out of the wood yet. I hope all the measures being taken will be effective and that the disease will not beat the vigilance shown by the Minister and his officials and everyone who has worked hard to prevent it. The crisis has highlighted broader issues on which it is useful to dwell. Perhaps we might return to this in a calmer atmosphere.
Have we taken on board the critical importance of ensuring that the food produced both at home and abroad, whether in the supermarket or from the wholesaler, is good, wholesome and what it proclaims to be? To accept that the consumer rules as the ultimate arbiter of what is produced and how it is produced and the environmental conditions of production, shipping and so  on is the sine qua non of modern food production. Much lip service has been given to consumer primacy.
Despite the statements to the contrary the farming industry and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development have been fighting something of a rearguard action over an extended period to protect producers at the expense of consumers and sometimes at the expense of the country and our international markets. I recall the debate about the beef hormones. In 1989 I attended a large farming meeting in Portumna for candidates in the European election from Leinster, Munster and Connacht. There may have been 500 farmers present and I will always remember what took place. When a candidate from the Munster constituency stood up and said it was anti-national to talk about using hormones, that it was damaging to our international markets and should not be spoken about, he got a warm reception. I stood up, and being the naive politician I was, and perhaps still am, said the people who were anti-national were the people who were using these materials and not the people who were talking about them. That was met with absolute silence. It taught me a lesson which has remained with me. There have been many debates about agriculture in the meantime.
Senator Quinn frequently reminds us that he has not heard a word about the consumer in some of the debates that have taken place here. There have been debates about the safety of beef hormones and whether they should have been allowed and the difficulty of competition with the United States. For the most part, the debate missed the point which was that if European consumers decided, as they did, they did not want beef with hormones, that was the end of the debate. It was up to us to produce beef without hormones and that eventually came to pass.
When Bord Bia was being established I sought to amend the 1994 and 1995 Bills to include a consumer on the board. On each occasion that amendment was not accepted. As Ministers of State, Deputies O'Shea and Deenihan resisted that proposal. It was not until the third Bord Bia Bill in 1996 that that proposition was accepted. It is a proposition that should be universal.
This bring me to another important point, the power of consumers as a group. Relative to other interest groups the Consumers' Association is not powerful. When it comes to a contest between the farming organisations and other vested interests and the Consumers' Association, we know who is likely to win.
Consumer affairs is lumped in with labour affairs and international trade. The Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, who has responsibility in that area, is highly effective and one of the most effective of the Ministers of State but he reports to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural  Development has operational responsibility for food safety but the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, whose mission is “to protect consumers' health by ensuring that food consumed, distributed, marketed and produced in Ireland meets the higher standards of food safety and hygiene”, has a co-ordinating role. It is under the aegis of the Department of Health and Children and has a co-ordinating role but the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development carries out the work on contract, on its behalf. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has no more than an auditing role and not an implementing role; implementation is for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
The fundamental difficulty of a conflict of interest needs to be resolved. People of my generation were brought up to believe that production was good and it was in the national interest to produce as much as possible from the land at a time of food scarcity in Europe. We responded extraordinarily well to that challenge, to the extent that we now have surpluses. People of my generation in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development have not come to terms with the change that has taken place. We are still motivated by the need to maximise production. That contradiction has been highlighted most dramatically by the foot and mouth disaster in the United Kingdom. Producers are stretched to breaking point by the need for maximum output at minimum cost. The cost price squeeze becomes so great that animal health, quality and all the other aspects of production go well down the line even to the extent of cutting corners and flouting the law. This has created a culture which is not confined to rogue meat factories. Angel dust, sheep smuggling, switching cattle ear tags, destroying mountain grazing and battery production are some of the manifestations of this culture.
We have to resolve the fundamental contradiction between the Department's role as the promoter of production and the regulator of the industry. This would allow us to promote environmentally friendly production which, in an Irish sense, is almost equivalent to organic production. There are major international benefits to selling our food in that context.
It took prison sentences to sort out the problem of angel dust and it may take prison sentences to sort out some of the smugglers and others who remove tags and behave illegally and contrary to best practice. This all comes back to the issue of traceability to which much lip service is paid. The foot and mouth crisis has shown traceability to be little more than a public relations invention with the exception of the few supermarkets and butchers, and I include Senator Quinn, who can stand over what they sell and who know from where their meat comes.
We should have implemented electronic tagging. Computerisation has been talked about frequently in this House but it has taken too long to  introduce and is only now coming to pass. It is incredible that the Department's plans for tagging individual sheep were resisted for reasons which did not just concern the effectiveness of tags. This begs the question of whether some of the resistance was as much to do with claiming headage payments to which people were not entitled as to any concern about the value of such a scheme. Some of the traceability standards for beef and milk must also apply to sheep.
Questions have been raised about the value of the Single Market because of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The Single Market has been of immense value to this country. No matter how difficult it is to say so in the context of what is going on, we still need the Single Market. However, we also need the protection of that market at European level. There is a quid pro quo for the Single Market in that Europe, and not just national authorities, has a role.
If one was shipping meat to the US there would be a US vet in the meat factory in Kildare checking the meat. If the meat was going to an Islamic country an Islamic butcher would be present. Does Europe have those kinds of standards when it comes to food entering the EU?
I could say much more about this subject but time is of the essence. The bottom line is that some coherence must be brought to bear on our largest national industry to ensure it can compete effectively on international markets, that we can sell and stand over our food and that domestic and foreign consumers can have absolute confidence in the food produced in this country. The regulatory authority must give full backing to that concept.
Mr. Caffrey Mr. Caffrey
Mr. Caffrey: I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome this motion and thank the Progressive Democrats for tabling it. The motion is timely and, unfortunately, very topical and comes on the heels of the proposed European food authority. It is important that there should be a convergence between the two as there is no point in legislation applying to one country if it is not applicable throughout the EU.
Just over a year ago Commissioner David Byrne unveiled plans to establish a European food authority as the centrepiece of a Commission White Paper on food safety. In the past year it has been hard to avoid the publicity regarding food and food safety. People are concerned and there are misconceptions abroad regarding the problems in this country.
On St. Patrick's Day I received a telephone call from friends in the US. These people are not Irish but have visited this country on a number of occasions. They asked if we in Ireland had to stop eating meat. I told them, even though there were no cases of foot and mouth in Ireland, that it would not affect the food chain. This point is not understood in the US and shows the widespread misconceptions about our food safety.
 This motion is timely. In the past year we have seen the dioxin contamination of food in Belgium, questions about the safety of genetically modified foods and the quarrel between France and the UK over the EU ban on British beef. In one of the first speeches made by Romano Prodi after becoming President of the EU Commission he stated that winning back consumers' confidence in food would be one of the main tasks of his tenure in Brussels. The announcement that the Commission was seeking to set up a European food authority came on the heels of that commitment.
The Commission advocates the establishment of an independent food authority modelled on the European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products which is based in London. The new authority will be primarily involved in risk assessment, the provision of scientific advice, opinions and recommendations and communicating with EU consumers on food safety issues. However, one of the problems with the proposed EU legislation is that the authority will have no decision or law-making powers. The Commission's explanation for this is that such powers would require a change to EU treaties and would be an unwarranted dilution of democratic accountability. This is a feeble argument against enhancing consumer health and ensuring the continued viability of the European and Irish food industries.
We may have to look to the US for the blueprint for an effective food authority. The US Food and Drug Administration should be the model for future European food agency legislation. It may also be the model for Irish legislation if the Minister of State takes on board this motion. The FDA has built up an enviable reputation for protecting the interests of consumers as well as having the confidence of the food industry. It has significant powers, a large staff and a broad range of activities. It can be sued for its judgments while also being able to institute legal proceedings. The FDA boasts that it protects the health of 274 million Americans at a yearly cost to the taxpayer of $3 per person. With more than 360 million people in the EU, £2 to £3 per person would be a small price to pay for protecting European consumers.
We should be looking at the effectiveness of the American legislation. European legislation seeks a less radical solution to the issues of food safety by creating an authority which will be unable to give final judgments on issues regarding EU food policy. Placing many of the EU scientific committees within the ambit of this authority would be a good idea.
The Commission also argues that, over a short period of time, the authority will establish itself as an authoritative point of reference for consumers, the food industry and national food agencies. At present, EU scientific committees with limited responsibilities and resources have earned a worthy reputation for producing authoritative  scientific advice. The recent furore over the French decision to ban EU beef demonstrates that unless scientific advice is acted upon it is virtually useless. The European Commission must come up with some system whereby the recommendations of the new European food authority will be adhered to by all member states. If legislation must be introduced, it should be radical. We have seen the benefits of radical restrictions over the past few weeks in preventing the spread of foot and mouth disease to our country. Half measures are not good enough in any area relating to food safety.
The rapid alert system for food emergencies, which is activated when the health of EU consumers is under threat from a food safety problem, operates in more than one member state. It should become part of the remit of the new authority and such a rapid alert system could also be introduced here. The system came into play during the dioxin contamination in Belgium, but it was severely hindered when the Belgian authorities delayed the provision of relevant information to the Commission for many weeks.
We have a vast area to explore and the widespread public concern about food products must be assuaged. The Government will have to introduce legislation to achieve that. I hope the motion before the House will bring the need for such legislation into focus. The motion is a timely one which will stir up much public debate. The public is very conscious of food contamination and all it implies for public health. I wholeheartedly support the motion.
Dr. Moffatt Dr. Moffatt
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Dr. Moffatt): As Minister of State with responsibility for food safety, my primary concern is public health and the safety of food consumed by the public. I am pleased to have this opportunity to advise the Seanad of the initiatives being taken to improve consumer confidence in the safety and wholesomeness of the food we eat. I thank Senators Quill, Dardis and Gibbons for tabling this motion.
Across the world the trend is for national Governments and trading blocs to change their approach to food safety. Gradually we are seeing a move away from prescriptive detailed requirements in legislation, as more emphasis is placed on risk analysis procedures and on general rulings. Risk analysis is now a basic feature of modern food safety programmes. It comprises three separate but related parts, namely risk assessment, risk management and risk communication. This has meant a readjustment for all concerned.
The job of national Governments is evolving to one of inspecting and verifying that food safety management systems are operating effectively. At the same time, we must ensure that our control services continue to meet these challenges. Never before, it seems, has food hygiene and food safety been so close to the top of both the public  and political agendas. It has long been recognised that laws and the enforcement of laws are not sufficient in themselves to ensure the best standards in food safety. Education and enforcement must go hand in hand. An essential element in the provision of safe food is adequate knowledge and education. All of us today recognise the need for education in food hygiene and for the need to overcome or remove the ignorance which can result in poor hygiene practice or, worse still, food poisoning outbreaks.
Food scares are nothing new. For many years we have been warned about the dangers of using unpasteurised milk, the need for proper hygiene in the home and have been advised on the proper cooking of food. Only recently, however, BSE and E.coli 0157 have emerged. If we add the threats caused by drug-resistant salmonella strains and antibiotic residues in pork, it is little wonder that consumers treat vague reassurances with scepticism.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland was formally established as an independent statutory body on 1 January 1999 under the Food Safety Authority of Ireland Act, 1998. The Food Safety Authority is a major catalyst for changing the food safety culture in this island. The authority is an independent agency whose function is to ensure that food produced, marketed or distributed within the State meets the highest standards of food safety and hygiene. The authority was the first in Europe to be set up with this status, independent of industry and sectoral interests. Its independence is very important to consumers. Some 1,900 professionals are currently engaged, either full-time or part-time, in food control services, working to protect consumer health. A major function of the authority is to co-ordinate the efforts of these professionals to maintain the highest standards of safety and hygiene.
The Government recognises that customer confidence, both at home and abroad, in Irish food products needs to be paramount. We in Ireland must be in a position to give independent and verifiable assurances as to the quality and purity of our food products. For this reason, the Government established the Food Safety Authority as a statutory, independent and science-based body, overseeing all functions relating to the food safety regulation of the food industry. This model is being followed in the European context, where the European food authority is being set up on a similar basis by the European Commission.
At European level, the White Paper on Food Safety was published by the EU Commission in February 2000. This White Paper reflects the European Commission's priority of ensuring that the highest standards of food safety are set and maintained throughout the EU.
One of the principal proposals of the White Paper is the establishment of a new European food authority this year. The principal objective of the European food authority will be to contrib ute to a high level of consumer health protection in the area of food safety, through which consumer confidence can be restored and maintained. At national level, several European Union member states have already established national food safety agencies and Ireland is to the forefront in this regard.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is responsible for the enforcement of food safety legislation. This responsibility is discharged by means of service contracts with the agencies which have responsibility for food control. These agencies include the relevant Government Departments, 30 local authorities, health boards and organisations such as the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs.
The Food Safety Authority is advised by a board which consists of ten members, each of whom has been appointed by the Minister for Health and Children. The board members are independent of industry. The Act provides for a scientific committee of 15 members appointed by the Minister to provide independent scientific advice to the board. There is also a consultative council of 24 members, 12 appointed by the Government and 12 appointed by the board, which represents consumer and other interests in the food sector.
Service contracts with 44 agencies were entered into and came into force in 1999. Each contract includes details on the work that the official agencies undertake on behalf of the authority to ensure compliance with, and the enforcement of, food safety legislation. The authority has functions in relation to research, advice, co-ordination of services and certification of food. It has all the necessary powers to follow the food chain as far back as necessary in order to deal with any situation giving rise to concerns about the safety and hygiene of food. Its officers have full powers to enter premises, seize documents and samples, issue improvement notices and closure orders, and to prohibit the sale of food considered unfit for human consumption.
In addition, the authority works with industry and training professionals to improve, harmonise and co-ordinate food safety and hygiene training throughout the country. Food handling plays an essential role in the prevention of food-borne disease. It is widely recognised that food handlers through poor personal hygiene, poor handling, or handling food while medically unfit, may allow food to become contaminated. Educating food handlers to adhere to good personal hygiene and good practices is therefore essential. It is equally important that employers recognise their role and ensure that food handlers have, or are given, the knowledge they need to do their work.
The Food Safety Authority has a number of initiatives under way which are aimed at protecting public health and reducing the incidence of food-borne illness. These include a campaign aimed at raising standards of food safety and hygiene practices among people working in the  fast food sector. A breakdown of data from 1999 shows that over 50% of the reported outbreaks were associated with the catering end of the food industry, most notably the fast food sector, including take-away restaurants. The authority has produced a guide for take-away premises because of the relatively high risk associated with ready-to-go meals.
Changing lifestyles have increased the demand for fast food premises, with the emphasis now on speed and convenience. This trend is reflected elsewhere in the world in that 56% of money spent on food in the United States goes to purchase foods eaten or prepared outside the home. This trend is also evident in Ireland. The “food to go” sector is enjoying a rapid growth as retailers are responding to changes in lifestyles by providing ready-to-eat meals and by expanding the range of convenience foods they supply.
Some staff working in this area may be untrained and inexperienced in food hygiene practices. In many such premises, there can be a rapid turnover of staff, which can result in poor hygiene training and knowledge of good hygienic practices. It is imperative that employees know what causes food poisoning and what they must do to prevent it. These details are provided in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland's range of publications and publicity materials.
Another major initiative relates to the catering sector and the use of eggs, which have been associated with outbreaks of salmonella food poisoning. The Food Safety Authority has collaborated with the Egg Association and Bord Bia in developing a quality assurance scheme that incorporates strict disease control and monitoring measures in flocks. The authority now recommends that caterers should use eggs which are either pasteurised or sourced from proven salmonella controlled flocks, such as those in the Bord Bia egg quality assurance scheme. In this context, the very significant reduction in the total number of reported cases of food poisoning caused by salmonella, from 1258 in 1998 to 635 in 2000, should be noted.
New threats to food safety have emerged over the past two decades, fuelling consumer concern. A number of major food safety crises and scares have also eroded confidence in the safety of food. The authority aims to be a key player in making Ireland “the food island” of Europe, a centre of excellence for agricultural produce with the highest standards of production, processing, retailing and catering practices. One very welcome development that augurs well for the future has been the establishment of the Food Safety Promotion Board on an all-Ireland basis. In December 1998, it was agreed in the context of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that an agency with responsibility for the promotion of food safety – the Food Safety Promotion Board – would be established as one of the North-South Implementation Bodies. It was agreed that the functions of the board would  include the promotion of food safety, research into food safety, communication of food alerts, surveillance of food-borne diseases, promotion of scientific co-operation and linkages between laboratories and developing cost-effective facilities for specialised laboratory testing.
The Food Safety Promotion Board was formally established in December 1999 and its headquarters will be in Cork. The creation of this board enhances the opportunity for the island of Ireland to become a centre of excellence where food safety is concerned. Contaminants and food scares do not recognise borders. I look forward to working with the Food Safety Promotion Board in the future.
We are blessed with an environment that is still among the cleanest in Europe. This, together with the natural advantages conferred on us by climate and soil, makes us one of the most favoured places in Europe for the production of clean and safe food.
As Minister of State with responsibility for food safety, I am aware of how health and the environment are closely interdependent. It is important that we do everything we can to sustain and promote a clean environment, to enhance the health and quality of life for our citizens and also for future generations. The measures which we take now in Ireland to protect and improve our environment will have long-term benefits for the health and well-being of generations to come.
We must ensure that in developing our economic and social infrastructure we do what is sustainable and not detrimental to the health and quality of life of our citizens. We launched our own proposal for a national environmental health action plan and we have a pilot local environmental health project under way in the north western region.
The current time is a very challenging and interesting one to be involved in the food business in Ireland. The internal market boundaries in Europe have been removed and the nature of statutory controls is changing. In adapting to the changing environment, the Government has invested substantially in the food control systems employed and operated by the health boards. Additional resources have been provided for extra field and laboratory staff, for computerisation and training.
The globalisation of food distribution systems and the increasing demand for convenience food have lengthened the food chain, with added opportunities for contamination to occur. The upward trends in the purchase of pre-prepared foods for eating at home, and more people eating out, mean that consumers are increasingly entrusting the safe preparation of their food to somebody else.
Across the European Union, national governments are evaluating their food safety controls and enforcement mechanisms to ensure the highest levels possible of consumer protection. I need  not remind the Seanad that for Ireland the stakes are particularly high. Food production and tourism are major elements of our economy and both depend crucially on a favourable international perception of the safety of Irish food. Therefore, Ireland has a vital economic interest in becoming, and remaining, a centre of excellence in food safety. The guarantee of safe food for all is a shared responsibility. In protecting the food chain, from farm to fork, the Government, industry and the consumer must each play their part.
I am glad to have this opportunity to address the Seanad on this important issue and I thank the Senators for bringing forward the motion. I assure the House that I, as Minister of State with responsibility for food safety, will continue to work towards reducing the incidence of food-borne infection and the maintenance of the highest standards of food safety and hygiene.
I would like to comment on the relationship between agriculture and food. While the economy has made great progress and diversified significantly in recent years, we still rely heavily on the agri-food sector. The agriculture and food sector is our main natural resource industry. In developing the sector, we are guided by the vision of agriculture encapsulated in the term “multifuctionality”. This means an agri-food industry that is sustainable, competitive, supports the countryside and rural life while prioritising consumer protection.
The agri-food sector is a main source of employment in rural areas and a major source of net foreign earnings for the economy. Government policy towards developing the agri-food sector has been set out in the plan of action 2010, which envisages an industry which offers farm families sustainable livelihood options, thus ensuring the maintenance of the maximum number of farm families on the land; which has the necessary strength and capabilities to compete successfully within the EU and on our main third-country markets; which is focused on meeting consumer demands, particularly for the highest standards of food safety; values rural environment as the basis of thriving rural communities and as our natural resource base; and develops a consumer oriented competitive food sector. This vision is firmly rooted in the principles of the European model of agriculture.
The rapid level of globalisation occurring in the food industry is placing sustained pressure on our farmers and our food producing base. The next World Trade Organisation round will in all probability intensify this pressure. Increased competition for market share among retailers is also forcing suppliers to reduce costs. In addition to securing our home market, the future of our agri-food sector can only be guaranteed through continuous and reliable access to export markets on which we rely so heavily. We know only too well how access to markets can be jeopardised by foot and mouth disease, swine fever, etc.
 The strength of our food industry is its closeness to the raw material base, agriculture. Consumers cherish this closeness and favour the shortest possible supply chain. These close links should be strengthened rather than weakened. Evidence from throughout the EU and elsewhere illustrates that the development of agriculture and food should come within the remit of the same Department or Ministry. I refer Members to recent changes in the Federal Republic of Germany in relation to this matter. This Government has placed food safety under the control of the Department of Health and Children and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The development of the closely related agriculture and food sectors has been assigned to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
In my opinion we have taken the right approach because the Food Safety Authority of Ireland deals primarily with food safety, which should not be confused with food quality. Food may be of good quality, but it may be impregnated by all sorts of hormones or antibiotics. I reiterate that we have taken the correct route because the Food Safety Authority is an independent body, completely separate from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development.
Mr. Quinn Mr. Quinn
Mr. Quinn: I thank Senators Quill, Gibbons and Dardis for tabling this motion. In particular, I thank Senator Quill for her generous comments about me.
Senator Caffrey referred to misunderstandings. Foot and mouth disease poses no threat to the health of humans. This is something people fail to understand. The Senator stated that someone telephoned him from America about this matter. I understand that the Bord Fáilte office in New York received telephone calls last week from the parents of children travelling to Ireland with high school bands seeking assurances that they would not eat Irish meat during their time here. This shows that people totally misunderstand the position. The motion also refers to environmental issues. In that context, people misunderstand the position vis-à-vis genetically modified foods. Such foods give rise to concerns about the environment, they do not promote fears about food safety. Dr. Patrick Wall has pointed this out on numerous occasions. There is no doubt that people misunderstand the position and we must face up to the challenge of educating them.
When I was involved with the leaving certificate applied course, teachers used say to me: “God preserve us from people who say that X or Y should be a separate new subject in the curriculum.” They were reacting against the fact that subjects were continually being added to the curriculum, without any being removed. The same applies to Ministers. On occasion someone suggests that a new Minister should be appointed to deal with a particular area, but they do not state that another Minister or Department should be  removed. However, these calls sometimes make sense. The reason for this is the way Government works. In theory, Departments are simply part of a greater whole and they work together in close collaboration to achieve agreed national objectives. In practice, however, that is not the case.
In practice, what happens is that a Department falls into the grip of the people with whom it deals. Senator Dardis commented upon this matter. Sooner or later a Department becomes an advocate for those who are its clients. The Department of Finance has become so powerful because there must always be some body to adjudicate between competing interests. In no instance is it more true that a Department has become the servant of its clients than in the case of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. Farmers often regard that Department as their enemy, but the truth is that it is the best friend they will ever have. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development makes decisions with the farmers' interests in mind. That is a simple truth, borne out over many years. There is nothing wrong with this because farmers are an important part of our national economy and it is correct that someone should speak for them at Cabinet level.
The arrangement to which I refer comes unstuck in situations where the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development has power over decisions that range over wider interests than simply those of farmers or over decisions where other interests may come directly into conflict with those of farmers. It is then that the system falls apart because the decisions are always taken from the point of view of farmers, even when that is not appropriate.
The main battleground in this area is over the word “food”. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development has always fought for control of anything connected with food because it shares a misconception with the agricultural community. That misconception is one which sees food as an end product of agriculture. It sees the food industry as merely part of an agricultural distribution chain. That conception of food flies directly in the face of a worldwide reality, namely, that food is a customer-driven commodity. If one wants one's food industry to succeed, it must follow the market and not be driven by the concerns of the producer. This fact has become increasingly true in the past 30 years as the world has changed to become increasingly driven by market forces and the needs of customers.
For 20 years or more, we tried to resist that reality in Ireland. We tried to pretend we could develop a food industry that was producer-driven rather than market-driven. Eventually, we fell so far behind that the expert group to which Senator Dardis referred was established approximately ten years ago to advise on how Ireland could improve its food marketing on world markets. Bord Bia was set up as a result of the work of  this group. I remember that period quite well because I was a member of the expert group in question. I was also the author of its minority report, which said that Bord Bia should not come under the aegis of the then Department of Agriculture. My message was that it should come under any Department – for example, the then Department of Industry and Trade or the Department of Health – but that it should not be under the control of the Department of Agriculture.
I lost the battle to which I refer and the food industry suffered as a result. However, it made me all the more determined not to lose the next battle which arose five or so years later, namely, the battle to establish the Food Safety Authority. Blinded as always by the word “food”, the Department of Agriculture engaged in a long campaign to have the Food Safety Authority placed within its remit. The Government of which the Minister of State is a member was not in power at that stage and I am sure no one would blame it for that. The Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development takes the view that anything connected with food should be under its control. Fortunately, it did not win the battle and the Food Safety Authority went to the only place where it could be independent of the vested interests, namely, the Department of Health and Children.
As the Minister of State indicated, this is mirrored at European level where responsibility for food safety does not lie with the Commissioner for Agriculture. At European level, food safety is clearly and correctly seen as a consumer issue, not a public health issue or a side-show to agricultural production, to be run and controlled as the producers wish. However, food production remains within the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. There is even a Minister of State with responsibility for the safety of food before it reaches the farm gate. This is because we insist – I am not sure we are correct in this regard – in separating responsibility for the safety of produce on the farm and what happens to it when it is transported elsewhere.
The Minister should not get me wrong. There will always be a responsibility on producers to ensure that the strictest standards in regard to food safety are met. I see nothing wrong in having a Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development responsible for encouraging farmers to meet those standards, but that is not the same as making a Minister responsible for food safety. A Minister with that remit needs to be more removed from the interests involved.
What is the answer to all of this? That brings me to the motion put down by the Progressive Democrats. I do not claim to have the ultimate answer but I offer this thought as something to build upon. We should have somebody at Cabinet level whose brief would be to look after the  interests of the customer in all those areas where those interests come under threat of any kind. That is why I believe there is something in the motion about which I was not sure at the outset. That brief would include food safety and could include the environment. In fact, it could include anything that affects the members of the public who come under threat when vested interests are allowed to call all the shots. If we appointed such a Minister and gave him or her real clout, it would send a strong message to the citizens that the Government is genuine about acting in their interests. There is meat – a good word to use – in this motion. Let us give it serious consideration.
I want to keep the House up to date on a document published a few hours ago in Britain. This is a report on a beautiful little village – I saw it on television – called Queniborough in Leicestershire. Five people died from variant CJD in that one village, and nobody knew the reason. An investigation was carried out in the past year, the report of which was published this afternoon. The report states that a link was found between those deaths and an association with one butcher's shop, and the manner in which the slaughtering took place in an abattoir in the area. I mention this because there is an automatic assumption that someone in my position would say that it happened on a farm but this report, which was published only this afternoon, appears to suggest that food safety is very difficult to pin down to one area. We should not divide the food safety areas between what happens on the farm and what happens subsequently.
The motion deserves attention. There is a challenge we have to face up to and it gives us the opportunity to take the first step on the road to meeting that challenge.
Dr. Fitzpatrick Dr. Fitzpatrick
Dr. Fitzpatrick: I welcome the Minister to the House this evening. In the words of Senator Quinn, I am delighted that the common-sense decision was made that food safety should come under the Department of Health and Children. Tensions have already arisen, however, between the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and the Food Safety Authority. Tension can be beneficial and it will remain for many a long day between food producers and consumers, and that is as it should be.
I am amazed by the food producing industry because there is so much at stake in this regard. Some years ago I visited a sunny area of the Continent. While shopping one morning for the usual items required in an apartment, I picked up a litre of milk and a pound of butter which I assumed were of Irish origin. They were wrapped in what looked like Kerrygold packaging, including the logo, but when I got back to the apartment and opened them I discovered they were produced in northern Germany. They had literally stolen the Kerrygold packaging and the dairy products were being passed off as Irish. It was only on reading  the small print, which was in German, that one discovered they were produced in Hanover in northern Germany.
They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery. That incident happened ten years ago, and I do not know if the practice would stand up today. At that time Ireland had an excellent reputation in continental Europe for producing beef and dairy products in pristine surroundings, with good grass, and it was a plus for us. Kerrygold was a premium product abroad and that is probably still the case. Those foreigners were copying what we had done because we had a name for producing good quality food and the consumers abroad were prepared to pay a premium for that food.
The lesson for the food and agriculture industry is that quality sells, and I hope when Senator Dardis is replying—
Mr. Dardis Mr. Dardis
Mr. Dardis: Senator Gibbons will conclude.
Dr. Fitzpatrick Dr. Fitzpatrick
Dr. Fitzpatrick: I hope Senator Gibbons mentions that agriculture and food production, from the field to the fork, should be a team effort. There should be no dangerous solo runs like the one we saw recently on the part of a gentleman who brought in sheep from Carlisle, ostensibly to go straight to slaughter but which were found on a farm. We are always told in politics that numbers make power but here was a person who rocked the food industry to its foundations with one solo run, and we are paying the price ever since. What message is that to send abroad to people who buy our products? Our food industry is over 50% export based, perhaps more, and it should not send the message abroad that we cannot be trusted in terms of the food we produce and export. We have enough reports to back that up.
We appear to be exporting more lamb than we are producing. Some years ago the Austrians got caught badly when somebody noticed that the exports of Austrian white wine were far greater than the amount of wine produced. Following an inquiry it was found that one company in Austria was importing Algerian white wine by the train load, bottling it and selling it abroad as Austrian. It took the wine industry in Austria years to recover from that practice. We should learn a lesson from that and not allow our food exporting industry to go down that road because it would place too many jobs and family incomes in jeopardy.
The Food Safety Authority has a huge part to play in terms of quality control from the field to the fork and the export market. As Senator Quinn mentioned, we do not want people abroad to get the wrong idea about food safety. Imagine parents in America ringing their children in Ireland and telling them not to eat Irish food. That is a spin we can well do without.
I agree with what Senator Dardis said in his contribution. Are we engaging in too much concentrated food development? There is heavy  stocking of land – not all land is made for heavy stocking – and battery production of pigs, hens, eggs. etc. Should we examine that development? I know there are constant demands, as Senator Quinn said, for cheaper food but there is a limit in terms of quantity versus quality. That is an area which the Food Safety Authority should examine. We have to strike a happy medium and not allow the demands for quantity to override what is our strongest trump card – quality food. The American feed lots can produce beef far cheaper than we will ever produce it. The huge collective farms, which are still in Eastern Europe, can produce far greater amounts than we can. We cannot compete on that score but we can compete on quality.
As Senator Quill said, there must be total transparency in food production. It must be transparent and available to the consumer on the package. Some years ago all hell broke loose when it was proposed that ingredients on packaged foods should be on the label. That was a battle which had to be fought tenaciously before we found out what we were eating.
As a Senator and public representative I can pontificate but at the end of the day unless the consumer feels safe with the food that he or she is eating, they will walk away from it. Whether we like it, the consumer is king and queen when it comes to the purchase of food.
Dr. Henry Dr. Henry
Dr. Henry: I welcome the Progressive Democrats motion, but I do not think that the debate has gone as far as they want because they want to set up a department of food. Having seen what happened in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development recently, there is a loss of consumer confidence. It would be worthwhile to disassociate food and agriculture. We must attempt to restore people's respect for Irish food.
The scandals over the past 20 years destroyed consumer confidence. As many Senators said, they believe that the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development is just a producer. That is important but, as Senator Fitzpatrick said, if people do not have confidence in the food and do not eat it, there is a serious problem.
I am delighted the Minister, Deputy Moffatt, is here this evening because I know the time and thought he put into this matter. His background as a general practitioner makes him ideal for dealing with it.
The Food Safety Authority did its best in the recent scandals to give consumers confidence that someone is working on their behalf. When it was set up, there was a mighty struggle by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development to have responsibility for it. It was with great difficulty that it was set up under the control of the Department of Health and Children.
It is regrettable that the authority has to be so active because we have had one drama after another recently. It is one of the most over- worked bodies within the Department of Health and Children. I congratulate everyone who works in it. I was sorry to see the spat between the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, who is an extremely affable man, and Dr. Pat Wall about the BSE scheme whereby we were killing animals over 30 months old. It was a meat trade support scheme but there were people, myself among them, who thought it was a food safety scheme. That should have been made clear at the beginning. People asked me why it was safe to eat food that was tested and unsafe to eat food that was not. They thought there must be something terribly wrong with much of the meat. Clarity at the beginning would have been useful.
The Food Safety Promotion Board is also extraordinarily useful. The debate should be expanded so that it is not just the presence or absence of bacteria or toxins in food that is discussed. I am delighted with the all-island food consumption survey which the board initiated. It was carried out by the Irish universities nutrition alliance which involves the department of clinical medicine, Trinity College, the nutritional science department of food science, technology and nutrition, NUI Cork, and the University of Ulster's Northern Ireland centre for diet and health.
Unfortunately the survey of the food we eat over a week shows that our diet is becoming less rather than more healthy. Astonishingly, 25% of people took food supplements – a generation ago that would have been considered unusual – but they were not always taking the right supplements. I recommend that Members of the House read it. Often when we produce reports we think that we have done something useful, but unless we see what action should be taken, we will get nowhere.
If the Progressive Democrats' proposal for a department for food is accepted, it could directly improve our food consumption by having a more varied and balanced diet. Then we could avoid the situation that arose in the past ten years where, astonishingly in 1990, 7.8% of the population were obese, that is, very fat. It is when the body mass index—
Dr. Moffatt Dr. Moffatt
Dr. Moffatt: Will the Senator give us a practical example?
Dr. Henry Dr. Henry
Dr. Henry: I will be going into the body mass index. Members can do this as mental arithmetic on the way home. It is your weight in kilograms over your height in metres squared. The Minister, Deputy Moffatt, can see that it is simple. If he applies the formula he will see what his body mass is – it should be about 25, but that of many people is higher than that. If it is over 30, it is serious. Today 20% of the population have a body mass index of over 30. This is amazing—
Mr. Cassidy Mr. Cassidy
 Mr. Cassidy: The formula is so complicated, they might have got it wrong.
Dr. Henry Dr. Henry
Dr. Henry: This is something we must address as a serious health issue. We relied too much on fat for food energy intake and did not take enough carbohydrate. Our meat intake is reducing. I have not bought meat for five years. Now that I have discovered the Celticisation of lamb, I am more anxious about that. In one year, 3.2 million lambs were born here but 3.7 million were slaughtered as Celtic lambs before they become hoggets which, I believe, is at a year old. There must have been many going back and forwards across the Border to achieve that. It was not, as Senator Quill said, a question of a few thousand lambs being brought here recently because of the improved price here. It is an astonishing increase.
The survey reports that only 55% of people ate beef. Meat products as a whole were eaten by 70% of people and poultry was eaten by 35%. Vegetable consumption was better than I expected – 50% ate vegetable or pulse dishes. Peas, beans and lentils were eaten by 75% of people, which is a good intake of vegetable protein, and cheeses were eaten by 74% of people. It would be interesting to have the information from ten years ago to see if meat consumption has declined. I do not mind what I am told about a reduction in beef consumption. The meat counter in the supermarket in Blackrock is much smaller, whereas the fish and vegetable counters are bigger. If I hear of anyone else trying to take the best land in north Dublin to set up dumps I will go mad. I do not blame the farmers there.
Before I conclude, I would like to praise Bord Glas and Bord Bia for their great work. They have their shoulders to the wheel trying to do the best they can. I cannot say the same for meat producers and meat factories, however. I will not describe them as farmers because I would not refer to those involved in the worst practices as farmers.
Genetically modified organisms were also mentioned. A very good interdepartmental report on GMOs was sent around, and I recommend it to Members of the House. It points out that we have no evidence of plant DNA ever getting into animal DNA. We need to be constantly reminded of that. Perhaps there are problems with regard to allegenicity when a nut gene is put into something else, for example, or if antibiotics are put in as markers. I can understand such problems, and we should look very carefully at them. The GMO debate is an environmental one to a large extent. Everyone should have the choice whether to eat them because the consumer is king and this is a market economy. I congratulate the Progressive Democrats for putting down this motion.
Mr. Callanan Mr. Callanan
Mr. Callanan: I thought I had something to say on this matter, but I have lost my train of thought. I am glad to speak on this motion which was put down by three Progressive Democrat Senators. I  welcome Minister of State, Deputy Moffatt, who is charged with the responsibility of food safety in the Department of Health and Children. The last time he was here I referred to what he said as an address and not as a speech. I found it extraordinarily informative and I brought it with me tonight and I invite Senators to read it again. I recall wondering that evening if the national press would carry one line of it; perhaps they did, but I did not see it.
I thought the Minister of State's presentation was excellent. It set out what the Department of Health and Children was doing with regard to disease controls, management of food safety products and ensuring that our food is safe. This evening, likewise, he set out in great detail the work that has been done. We have enough legislation with regard to food production and food safety as over 80 separate measures are in place.
Before I move on, I would like to repeat a thing or two. We have had many debates on BSE and foot and mouth disease, and substantial agricultural control legislation has been enacted. In 1987, Deputy Joe Walsh was appointed as a Minister of State, and I invite Senators to remind themselves what agriculture was like during the 1970s and 1980s. If this motion was before us 15 or 20 years ago, I would have had no problem understanding it and may have supported it. Deputy Walsh set about improving agriculture production, presentation and processing in 1987 to give consumers a high quality product for the first time. He had to reorganise the dairy industry and set about streamlining the beef industry, which was difficult.
The success of the dairy industry is now internationally recognised and the high quality of the Irish product is unquestionable. I think we can do the same with the meat industry. I have difficulty relating to the separation of agricultural production which basically involves the production of food for consumers. As a farmer, I am engaged in the production of food. If I cannot ensure the quality of the produce the consumer wants, and which fits in with existing controls, I will be out of business. There will be no place for me as a primary producer in the system, and the same applies to all Irish farmers.
There are people who will make a pound if it is there to be made, regardless of how they do it. I am not talking about that type of person when I speak of the high standard of the dairy industry and the beef industry. Agriculture must look to meet high standards of production, although one can always point to holes. I wonder if future legislation introduced by a Minister with responsibility for food will deal with those who bend and break the laws. We need to follow the route we are on, provide the necessary education and stimulate the industry to produce to a higher standard.
Frankly, the EU has not served us well. When the Treaty of Rome was signed, there was a deficit in the production of food in Europe. World  War II was over and a new system was introduced. We joined the EEC, as it was, in 1973, and the marketplace for Irish produce became intervention. We lost the game then, but the blame cannot be placed on Irish farmers. The blame should be with the processor who became lazy when he had an open intervention market.
Senator Dardis mentioned that he took part in a debate on hormones in the midlands. I represented my party in a similar debate in Cork. Perhaps opinions differed in the south, but the use of hormones was not popular that night. The eminent gentleman who promoted them, and we all know who he was, lost his seat, although I am not saying I had anything to do with it.
Free trade, the free movement of animals and goods, animal welfare and the food that is coming into this country and into Europe are relevant to this debate. I have mentioned in this House on four or five occasions that it cannot be said with certainty that food imported through Europe is of a high quality. I spoke quite heartily on the fact that many imports into Europe come from South America, the Far East, Asia and Africa. This food finds its way here, on to the plate of the consumer. We must deal with that through effective controls at European level which currently do not exist.
There was an outbreak of swine fever in England recently. That happened when a piece of meat was thrown over a fence to where pigs were eating. Where did it come from? We know where swine fever is prevalent. The source of foot and mouth has been traced to waste food containing meat. It is time to ensure that Europe sets standards. We have high standards here which we must implement. We will not encourage people to set standards unless we are prepared to pay for quality products. Will the consumer buy a quality product?
I read recently that Senator Quinn has introduced a system whereby he can guarantee the customer absolute traceability through DNA testing. He is employing a firm called IdentiGEN which is headed up by an eminent professor in Trinity College. We have the capacity and the capability to give consumers what they want, if we have the will to succeed. We need a European approach to a problem that has resulted in food products being filtered into Europe. I am sure Members have seen the advertisement, for example, for Irish smoked bacon. Does it say it is an Irish product? It strongly suggests the smoke is Irish. If the bacon was Irish, it would say smoked Irish bacon. Where is the origin of that meat? Until we are prepared to answer such questions, we have a long way to go.
I am sure the Minister of State is pleased with what the EU is doing in relation to the tobacco industry, although I might not be because I smoke. The EU is funding the growing of tobacco to the tune of 1 billion. Is that health related?
ÜfcMr. O'Toole ÜfcMr. O'Toole
 Mr. O'Toole: This is a timely motion and I congratulate the Progressive Democrats on tabling it. I support its sentiment. However, I am not certain it can be implemented because the issue we are discussing is so wide and complex it would not be possible to put it under a single system, although I agree it could be an integrated system of different parts.
The issue of European standards is the key, but we must look at them with a jaundiced eye. Many of the European standards are out of touch and unrealistic. They were put together by bureaucrats without the advice of people who work in greenhouses and on farms, who sell food and who work in butchers, abattoirs, etc. I want the Government to set up a group to look at European directives and legislation on food and to indicate those many aspects which seem to be totally ridiculous.
Mr. Dardis Mr. Dardis
Mr. Dardis: Straight bananas.
Mr. O'Toole Mr. O'Toole
Mr. O'Toole: Straight bananas, unshapely apples, oversized tomatoes, etc. That is not just newspaper babble. I live in north County Dublin and I am surrounded by apple farmers and market gardeners. The amount of good food which is thrown out because the cucumbers are the wrong size, the tomatoes are too large and the apples are unshapely and will not get a grade to get into the Dublin market is horrific. That is wrong and immoral. This issue must be addressed. Over the years we have sold off large amounts of food to the Third World or to eastern Europe to get rid of our dairy or food mountains. We are destroying a huge amount of good food all the time.
I would also like the Government to send a runner around Europe with a camera to visit all the great food stores and to look at the vegetable displays in any large supermarket in Provence and the south of France where people admire the glorious food. One will see pallets there on which there are pieces of food which would be unacceptable in the Dublin market under EU directives but which the French farmers blithely ignore, as they do everything else. We are at the wrong end of that. I ask the Minister of State to take that on board. We must look with a jaundiced eye at what should be taken out of European legislation and, having done that, we should put forward proposals on what should be done.
We should look at the Abattoirs Act. Europe is spending £1 billion a year on proposals for the traceability of beef, yet it introduced legislation which makes traceability almost impossible. If an animal is killed in a central abattoir, the local butcher in Dingle can go to Tralee and buy a side of an animal which has come from some place 60 miles in the opposite direction. It may be good or bad but he or she does not know. We want people to buy off the grass in their own locality. We want them to kill the animals they know and to buy from the farmers they know.
 We saw in the 1980s and the early 1990s that the oversized beef produced as a result of growth promoters made a fool of farmers and consumers. It pushed up the price as artificial growth promoters and hormone injections had to be bought. This added to the cost of the initial purchase price of the animal and thereby reduced the profit. I keep reminding farming friends and the farming lobby that we learned in primary school that profit equals the difference between the selling price and the purchase price plus the costs in between. If the purchase price and the cost of items such as growth promoters are reduced, one can still sell at a lower than expected price but have a larger profit. It seems like a simple approach to the world but they should do that.
There is a food shop in the middle of Sligo town, close to the Minister of State's constituency, called Cosgrove's. I ask any person who is interested in food to visit it. It is a tiny grocery shop which has the best food from all over the world. That shows what a small industry can do in parts of the world which produce a quality product. There are many such industries in Ireland. I recently bought in that shop beautiful air-dried venison from north Donegal which would grace a delicatessen anywhere in Europe. That was the first place I saw it. Three or four years ago the owner of the shop told me that air-dried meat was not produced in Ireland. Any such meat comes from Italy, Spain, Portugal or southern France. I am delighted that venison is now being produced in Donegal because it is a niche market. I want people to look at the possibilities.
The other area being unnecessarily damaged by European standards is the cottage food industry. That is almost becoming a black market industry operating in a twilight zone. Just because something is made in a back kitchen it is not necessarily unhygienic. We should look at standards for commercial production and have different standards for what I call cottage industry. We must let the consumer know what he or she is buying.
This is parallel with a craft industry as opposed to a commercial industry. Producers of craft items can only make small quantities and they cannot produce in multiples as a large company can. The same is true for a cottage industry. The person near Ballina with 90 beehives set in heather is producing a quality honey which would sell anywhere in the world. We all agree on that. That should be welcomed, developed and encouraged by Europe, but it is not happening. It is part of what we should be doing. There are companies who are trying to get this together and who are managing to make progress.
I ask the Government to take this on board, to look at the European regulations and identify the changes we want to make. The bureaucrats are never challenged on these issues. They bring in a small piece of legislation and because nobody is bothered, we just put up with it. When all 150 of  them are put together, the whole face of an industry is changed.
The environment is a huge issue. The necessity for clean water has been raised in this House by Senator Dardis's party on many occasions. Clean water leads to a clean environment and that is hugely important. We should start talking straight to people about issues. There is a debate over incinerators and I do not hold a brief for either side. I believe that incinerators are far safer, cleaner and more acceptable than any kind of dump and it is time that people were told that rather than frightened with the kind of nonsense that is talked about. That does not take away from the importance of getting people to manage their own waste.
I say to the IFA, as we now have them on the run, as it were, on the question of sheep tagging, that vets should be more welcome on farms. When a vet finds a reactor or some cattle with disease, it should be seen as a victory for the system rather than looking for somebody to be knee-capped, which is often the kind of reception that vets unfortunately get when they bring bad news to a farmer about a reactor herd etc. We need to change attitudes.
I welcome to opportunity to contribute to the debate and I congratulate the proposers of the motion.
Mr. Gibbons Mr. Gibbons
Mr. Gibbons: I welcome the Minister for State. I thank all the Senators who contributed to the debate. We have had an extremely good, positive debate and the contributions were very interesting.
Senator O'Toole makes the case for the motion very strongly when he talks about the niche markets that exist throughout Europe but most obviously here. We have lost many of these because of the direction of European agricultural policy since we joined in the early 1970s. The environment has changed dramatically since then. At that stage, there was a need for increasing production and the farming community reaped the benefits of that. Thereafter, intervention became a very big part of farmers' income and we continued to produce to put into intervention. Now we have headage payments etc. Intervention effectively no longer exists but the emphasis is on producing.
In the agricultural policy of Europe, there has never been any effort to produce food for consumers. That is where we are going wrong. That is why it is particularly important to separate the whole area from agriculture. Agriculture should be based on farmers producing raw material for the food industry. It should be developed in that way. We need a strong agricultural policy based on where we see Irish agriculture going over the next ten, 15 or 20 years. I am not sure that such a policy exists and this worries me.
We also need a strong, properly funded consumer body with teeth, which will give instructions to the agricultural industry outlining what  we need and making it clear that we do not need vast volumes of the products of yesterday. This must be focused in a coherent way.
I was very impressed by Senator Quinn's suggestion that rather than having a Minister for food at senior level, we should have a Minister for consumer affairs. There is great interest in that and I will talk to him in more detail about it.
We have made some very positive steps in recent years. Having the Food Safety Authority within the Department of Health and Children is very welcome, but it is an area that needs to be given more rein. We need to be more forceful about funding it. The Food Safety Authority has done extremely good work but it needs to develop on that. It needs to have the opportunity to direct policy back towards agriculture.
I thank all the Senators and the Minister of State for their contributions and I look forward to further debate on the matters raised in this motion. Given that nearly all Senators were in favour of the thrust of the motion we may see some developments in the future.
Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 7.50 p.m. and resumed at 8 p.m.
Seanad Éireann 165 Food and Environmental Safety: Motion.