Food Safety Authority Inspections (Continued)

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 788 No. 1

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney] In accordance with the official risk assessment, the plant in question was subject to monthly inspections in 2012 and my Department carried out a full inspection last December.

Under the Department's national residue programme, some 30,000 samples taken at farm and factory level and covering a wide range of foodstuffs are tested annually. These tests normally relate to microbiological and chemical standards focused on food safety and in accordance with EU testing requirements. DNA testing is not required under EU legislation and is not generally in use in respect of food production and safety. It has, however, been deployed in recent times as part of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland's food fraud control activities and these results arose as a result of that control programme.

The investigation arising from the DNA findings is continuing and the Department and Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, will incorporate the results when found to ensure that we maintain the highest food safety and quality standards within the Irish food production system. As the investigation reaches finality I will, of course, come back to this House and update it on the details concerned.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Barrett Zoom on Seán Barrett In view of the importance of the issue, I decided not to cut anybody off. Deputy Ó Cuív has one minute in which to ask a question.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív I thank the Ceann Comhairle. It was important that the full reply was on the record of the House and I am glad the Ceann Comhairle facilitated that. We need openness, transparency and decisiveness. It is very important that we get absolute clarity about what is happening and assurances that it cannot happen again.

Can the Minister clarify on what basis it is being said - the word of the factory or the knowledge of the FSAI - that the equine product was imported? It is very important for us to get to the bottom of that issue once and for all. We know that up to 30% of the equine product was found in one case. Can the Minister give us details of the level of pigmeat contamination, which I understand was minuscule? Could the Minister reassure people as to how minuscule that was?

Is the Minister willing to accept the invitation of the Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to appear before it next week with the FSAI so we can have a full and reasoned discussion on this issue and collectively in the Oireachtas be seen to deal with this matter in an agreed manner?

Deputy Martin Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris Zoom on Martin Ferris It is very important for the Minister to name the companies in the Netherlands and Spain and tell us whether any of them or any of the companies that distributed the product here were owned by Larry Goodman. It is also important for the Minister to outline sanctions for the companies involved if any underhand work has been carried out in respect of quite substantial damage to the industry in this country. All of us have been very reserved and responsible in trying to ensure we do everything in our power to ensure the industry retains its good name rather than engaging in point scoring. If ingredients coming here from another jurisdiction are sold as Irish beef and have been contaminated by produce outside the country, this situation exposes the fallacy of traceability.

Deputy Kevin Humphreys: Information on Kevin Humphreys Zoom on Kevin Humphreys We need regulation to cover how food is labelled and marketed with misleading labels. We need clarity about the source of proteins and fillers in food and must act either with regulation or legislation. Transparency is needed and we need to address this issue now with strong rules on labelling and traceability so that people know and have confidence in what they are buying. The Irish food industry has been done a significant disservice through the importation of these products as basically fillers. I have confidence that the Minister will act speedily and for future confidence, we need much stronger regulation in respect of labelling. The EU scheme of geographic indicators is not the solution and needs to go much further.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I have a few brief questions for the Minister. In respect of the burger of which one fifth was of equine origin, was the contaminated product meat or bulking agent? Does the Minister agree that supermarkets must take responsibility and stand over what they sell, especially at the lower end of the market? The public is confused about the terms "produced in Ireland" and "produce of Ireland". Both those terms are very different, as the Minister knows, but EU substantial transformation rules have added to the confusion experienced by the public on a daily basis. What can the Minister do as head of the Council of Ministers to streamline that? Can he clarify whether any of the plants involved in the Netherlands and Spain process equine meat products?

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney I will try to answer those questions as best I can. Some of the answers are not complete yet because we must wait until we have the full facts. In respect of Deputy Ó Cuív's questions, I would be happy to come before the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine to debate this issue. I might not be able to do it next week because I am due to be in Brussels for much of the week.

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív Could officials come before the committee?

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney We will do it as soon as we can and if I cannot do it, someone from the Department will do it. We need to get the full facts first, be that next week or in a fortnight's time. Obviously, I want to ensure we respond to this in as appropriate a way as possible. This is a significant industry for Ireland. One is talking about well over 100,000 jobs and an industry worth about €3 billion in exports alone. We need to ensure we do everything possible to maintain Ireland's reputation as a quality producer of food from a traceability and safety point of view.

The FSAI's press release stated that traces of horse DNA were also detected in batches of raw ingredients including some imported from the Netherlands and Spain. I want to make it clear that does not necessarily mean that companies from the Netherlands and Spain are responsible for this. In respect of some of the work we have already done in Silvercrest, they are dealing with companies in the UK, for example, in terms of importing product. The place where food originates is not necessarily where the company responsible for putting that product together and selling it into an Irish company originates. That is the kind of complex trail we need to follow to ensure we find out who is responsible, ensure it cannot happen again and put systems in place to do that. I do not want simply to scapegoat two countries but it is a fact that the FSAI referred to those two countries as a source of some of the material that came into the processor concerned.

We will name companies and I can assure Deputy Martin Ferris that if there are inappropriate linkages, we will highlight those. As far as I can see, there has been no linkage to date between some of the companies that sold product in relating to ownership of companies but, again, let us wait and see until we have a full picture because there are multiple sources for some of this product. That is the reality of the food industry.

Labelling is a very complex matter to solve. If there was to be a label on every food product which itemised where every product within that food came from, one would face a very difficult task putting an appropriate label on a pizza, for example, in terms of where all the individual products came from, be they olives, onions, fruit etc., and likewise in this sector. Having said that, what has happened here is totally unacceptable and we need to find a solution for it.

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