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Thursday, 12 December 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 824 No. 3

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Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív I am glad the Minister raised the issue of country of origin because I understand it is now being discussed at EU level. Will the Minister be ensuring that all cattle raised and slaughtered on this island will, under European law, be allowed to be labelled with Ireland as the country of origin, thus facilitating competition between all of the meat factors north and south of the Border? Can he confirm that if we do not achieve that status, cattle raised and bred here but slaughtered in factories in the North of Ireland would effectively have no country of origin?

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney That is a valid question and is an issue we are working on currently. I have spoken to my Northern Ireland counterpart, the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O'Neill, who is also anxious to progress this issue. A technical discussion has commenced at a very senior level in both Departments to determine how we can facilitate this. However, it is not as simple as one might think. There are potential problems with us supporting Northern Ireland in putting an Irish label on the food it produces because I, as an Irish Minister, must stand over Irish food in terms of its integrity, safety and so forth. If we have a food safety problem that emanates in Northern Ireland, over which I have absolutely no control in terms of supervision, veterinary standards and so on, the Irish food industry could be significantly damaged. This is a genuine problem but we are working to solve it so that food produced in Northern Ireland can be labelled as Irish. Currently such food can be labelled as coming from the island of Ireland, but producers in Northern Ireland want to be able to label it as Irish. They also want to be able to label it as British, depending on the market they are supplying. It is a bit of a having-one's-cake-and-eating-it situation but having said that-----

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív That stems from the Good Friday Agreement.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney Having said that, I am supportive of-----

Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív It is based on the concept of dual identity.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney I am supportive of trying to facilitate a situation whereby food producers in Northern Ireland, who are Irish people and are producing Irish produce, can label it as Irish. However, protocols must be in place to allow my Department and its inspection teams to be part of the rigours of the necessary inspection process in Northern Ireland, with all of the checks and balances that we insist upon for Irish-produced goods, so that we can stand over produce from Northern Ireland which is labelled as Irish.

Live Exports

 8. Deputy Denis Naughten Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney the steps he is taking to develop the live export trade to the UK; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52931/13]

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I tabled this question on the issue of labelling in the context of the fallout from the TLT collapse. The key issue is that a chicken fillet can be imported from Thailand, breadcrumbs put on it in the European Union and then marketed it as a product of the particular EU country. At the same time, Irish cattle cannot be processed in the United Kingdom and sold in that market.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney The Deputy makes a fair point but both pork and poultry products on sale in Ireland and across the EU will have a country of origin label requirement in future, in the same way as beef products do at the moment, which will be a very welcome development when it happens. The ground is moving on this issue.

  On the issue of Irish-grown, British-finished beef and the labelling system around that, there is a genuine problem with the labelling, marketing and selling of that product in the UK. That is why beef that is being sold in the UK is generally either British beef which is grown, slaughtered and processed in the UK or Irish beef, grown, slaughtered and processed here. Moving live cattle from Ireland to finish them in the UK would be welcome from a competition point of view and would also be very beneficial to live cattle exporters from a cost perspective, given the proximity of the market. This issue has been under the spotlight this year in particular because British beef prices have been higher than Irish prices, particularly for steer beef but less so for heifers. That is because of a very strong demand for British beef in Britain. However, it is also true that the prices of Irish beef have been above the EU average for most of this year. They are now slightly below the average for the first time in approximately two years.

  There is a particular labelling issue in play here. Harmonised EU rules require mandatory traceability and origin labelling for beef from slaughterhouse to point of sale to consumers with the objective of providing maximum transparency for the marketing of beef. Compulsory beef labelling requires food business operators to label fresh, frozen or minced beef with specific information to enable the product to be traced back to the animals from which it was derived and must include details of the slaughterhouse and de-boning hall in which the animal was processed as well as the country in which it was born and reared.

  The problem is confusion for the consumer around cattle born and raised here but finished and processed in the United Kingdom. That is why a lot of those involved in the beef industry in Britain do not want live cattle from Ireland

  Additional information not given on the floor of the House

  The mandatory labelling rules prevent final retailers from describing any beef products derived from animals born in Ireland but exported live for finishing and processing in Britain as either British or Irish. Labelling of such product has to state the country of birth as Ireland, the country of rearing as Ireland and the country of slaughter as the United Kingdom. As the Irish-born but UK-finished proposition is regarded as difficult to communicate to consumers and likely to cause unnecessary labelling complications, retailers prefer to market British and Irish beef separately as part of their product mix. This effectively means, as a matter of policy, they prefer beef to be sourced from animals originating in one country only. Furthermore, meat from such animals would not be eligible for the UK’s Red Tractor scheme which guarantees the UK prevalence of the meat to consumers. In addition, logistical difficulties arise when a small number of Irish-born animals are slaughtered in a UK meat plant. These carcasses have to be deboned in a separate batch, packaged and labelled accordingly, thereby incurring additional costs for the processor.

  Bord Bia actively supports the development of the live export trade through the provision of market information, developing market access and promotional activity. Although Bord Bia has repeatedly raised the labelling issue in discussions with the British retail sector, the multiples are unlikely to change their stance as they seek to shorten their supply chains in the wake of the equine DNA issue. Nevertheless, Bord Bia will continue to pursue all opportunities to maximise the value and volume of our beef and livestock exports to the UK.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten I would point out that the labelling law in the UK is the same as that in every other EU member state. We are shipping live cattle to other EU states with no difficulty whatsoever.

One of the issues that arose as a result of TLT going into receivership was how one retains title of ownership across EU member states. The Department has washed its hands of the issue as it relates to TLT, as has the Italian Government. In the context of the question I tabled, we can ship cattle to Benghazi but cannot ship cattle to Birmingham. It is far easier to collect outstanding money from Manchester than Milan. That is the context for my question. What can we do to retain ownership of shipped cattle and how can we deal with the labelling issue?

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney This is about supplying what the market wants. It is not about what we want. We must provide product that the market will pay for. In Italy there has been a demand for a certain age and quality of animal because that is what Italians want. The beef industry in Italy had a shortage of such animals. In the United Kingdom, the market wants something different. Regardless of what we want or what suits Ireland, the British beef industry has made a judgment call that British consumers want clarity in terms of labelling. Consumers want to know they are buying either British beef or Irish beef. They do not want the confusion of having both countries on the label. That is my understanding of the issue.

We must respond to the market. We export between 85% and 90% of all of the food produced on this island. We target markets where we can make a profit on the basis of what those markets want. The Libyans wanted Irish produce and so we worked hard with live cattle exporters to facilitate that in the earlier part of last year. That was welcomed strongly by the farming community because it happened at the right time and set the trend in terms of beef pricing as the year went on.

There are genuine issues in terms of what the market wants in the United Kingdom, which is the biggest market for Irish beef by a long mile. It is not, however, the biggest market for live Irish cattle. That is because of decisions being made in the UK, not decisions being made here.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten The Minister is missing the point. I am seeking answers to two separate questions. First, how do we retain ownership of live animals across EU borders? The Department is washing its hands of this issue and the Italian authorities are doing likewise.

Deputy Simon Coveney: Information on Simon Coveney Zoom on Simon Coveney I do not understand what the Deputy means when he says my Department is washing its hands of it.

Deputy Denis Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten Zoom on Denis Naughten The Department has said that these animals are not its problem. Once animals leave the island of Ireland, their ownership is not a problem for the Department to solve. Representatives of the Italian Government are saying exactly the same. Who actually owns those animals? They have not been paid for. It is legally possible to put movement restrictions in place until they are paid for but no one is prepared to invoke that power.

I fully accept the ethos and motivation behind the UK's Red Tractor labelling scheme. If we had a big domestic market, we would do the same thing.

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