Equine database is welcome

Consumer confidence in meat products will be boosted by the Department of Agriculture’s decision to establish a central, equine database on the Animal Identification and Movement (AIM) system, which contains data on cattle, sheep and pigs.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney, has confirmed he will centralise the power to issue passports for horses into one, single body.

The Minister had stated this at the height of the horse-meat scandal, and, clearly, this is now to be realised.

At present, any one of eight bodies can issue passports for horses. These include the likes of Horsesport Ireland, Weatherbys (on behalf of the thoroughbred sector), and the Connemara Breeders’ Society.

Government authorities in Britain have cited, during recent debates about food traceability, the ability of 75 equine bodies to issue passports. Their authorities estimate that 7,000 unauthorised horse passports have been circulating in the UK since 2008.

Traceability continues to be an issue in the UK, despite significant efforts to limit rogue dealers. The UK’s horse-passport system was introduced in 2005 to ensure animals destined for the food chain were drug-free. This followed an EU directive.

In 2009, Britain introduced a requirement that all foals be fitted with micro-chips. Despite this, thousands of unauthorised horse passports have been issued, and the UK was embroiled in food-chain scandals, in some cases on a far worse scale than Ireland.

The Irish investigations set in motion a chain of revelations across most EU member states. While unwelcome, the investigations did, at least, show that Irish traceability measures are efficient.

Irish farmer groups were among the first to highlight this notable positive from the scandal, while also demanding that meat plants and food processors up their game to match farmers’ conformity to standards and ethics.

When the scandal broke, food labelling went straight to the top of the EU agenda, and new measures on labels indicating provenance of food were fast-tracked.

The EU’s moves were welcomed by Good Food Ireland, who, a few weeks ago, commissioned a Grant Thornton report showing that 71% of Irish food businesses welcomed the labelling measures.

Of course, consumer fears also drove sales growth in more reputable food sources, closer to the farm gate. Just over 97% of Good Food Ireland’s members, many of them of an artisan nature with minimal processing, expected a higher turnover in 2013. They cited the horse-meat scandal as a key factor in their sales growth.

Now, with the new, central equine database, the hope is that consumer confidence can be rebuilt across the food industry.

Minister Coveney says there will be data for more than 70% of equine animals, registered since Jan 1, 1980, on the database.

The department’s contacts will continue with the passport-issuing organisations that have not provided data, with a view to having all the relevant data on the central equine system at the earliest opportunity.

Mr Coveney said: “Facilities are being put in place to receive, and record, equine animal-registration details received from passport-issuing organisations.

“The information on the central equine database will be used by my department’s veterinary staff to supplement the current checks at slaughterhouses.”

The minister also said that, following his announcement that he would like a single passport-issuing organisation, the EU Commission has said that it intends to submit proposals to the Agriculture Council of Ministers and the European Parliament to amend existing legislation to facilitate departments, or other state agencies, in being responsible for issuing passports.

The department is awaiting these proposals.

In the meantime, there will be no change in the status of the PIOs.

The minister said that he intends to work with passport organisations to introduce a new system.

“I have acted swiftly, as I promised to do in the immediate aftermath of the equine DNA issue, and will move to the final stage in the establishment of a single passport-issuing agency, once EU legislation provides me with the overarching legal base to put this into effect,” he said.

Farming Editor Stephen Cadogan returns next week.


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