Probes into the recent food scandal highlight the importance of new opportunities for Irish-British co-operation, says Joe McHugh
IN January, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland made the disturbing discovery of horse DNA in a sample of beef burgers. The products that had tested positive had come from three plants, two in Ireland and one in the UK.
In doing so the FSAI had performed an invaluable act — it had essentially blown the whistle on what now appears to be the systematic and widespread compromising of the beef supply chain across Europe.
As legislators our first responsibility is to the consumer. The consumer has every right to a product that is transparent in origin and properly traceable.
However, recent discoveries have understandably shaken consumer confidence, and without consumer confidence our beef trade cannot prosper. Agriculture and Food Minister Simon Coveney and his UK counterpart Owen Patterson recognise this well and have played a leadership role at EU level. Since the initial discovery we have seen the launch of fraud investigations and a systemic programme of product testing.
At the forthcoming plenary of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Donegal, this matter will be the subject of much discussion as a motion is presented to legislators focusing on the steps that need to be taken by the FSAI and its UK counterpart to tackle food adulteration and mislabelling.
The true extent and reach of the contamination in the beef supply chain has yet to be fully revealed. In the UK, the authorities continue to make arrests in connection with the scandal and have moved to calm public fears surrounding the presence of a veterinary drug called phenylbutazone, or “bute” for short.
Amid the uproar, we can be confident when we say that the revelations over the past few weeks has shown the extraordinary value of bodies like the FSAI and the UK Food Standards Agency. These bodies have led the way in Europe in investigating an issue of major consumer importance.
However, despite the undoubted damage in the short term to trade in agri-business, a great opportunity can emerge from this crisis for our islands. Ireland and Britain now have the chance to become the food quality hub of Europe.
There is much at stake here for Ireland and the UK.
To put things in broader context, the UK is Ireland’s third largest trading partner, with only the US and Belgium receiving more Irish exports. It is also the most important market for the vast majority of Ireland’s small and medium enterprises. For Britain, Ireland is its fifth largest export market and Ireland imports more goods from Britain than the rest of Europe combined.
In addition, the vast majority of what is produced in Ireland is exported to consumers abroad. Agriculture accounts for about 80% of Irish exports with dairy products, beef, and veal comprising half of the volume. Ireland is the biggest beef producer in the EU and the fourth largest in the world, exporting in excess of 90% of its net domestic production.
Given the importance of the agri-food industry to the economy in terms of exports and the thousands of people employed in the sector, it is essential that Irish exporters can confidently stand over the integrity of produce and that British consumers can be happy in the knowledge that they are getting a quality product.
As Coveney, said: “Our food safety, traceability and quality control systems must be beyond reproach to allow us to provide the assurances necessary to gain and maintain the edge in consumer markets worldwide.”
Likewise, Paterson reiterated the concerns of consumers when he said: “The events we have seen unfold over the past few days in the UK and Europe are completely unacceptable. Consumers need to be confident that food is what it says on the label.”
The widespread mislabelling of beef has brought to light the need to focus on food authenticity in addition to EU controls on food safety and food hygiene. DNA testing will need to be part of any future EU legislation.
The extent of the crisis and the damage that has been caused to consumer confidence and the reputation of the food industry must be evidence that the status quo can no longer continue. Our systems of checks and balances need to be improved — an EU system of DNA testing programme has recently been launched.
Now is the time for Britain and Ireland to introduce measures necessary to ensure that the consumer are in no doubt that the food product they buy is labelled correctly and contains what it is supposed to.
Reform is urgently needed and this must be based on three pillars consisting of a review of the existing legislative structures, enhanced traceability and greater sanctions for law breakers. Above all, Britain and Ireland must take the lead in pursuing a renewed shared commitment to quality.
Farmers have brought in cross-compliance and traceability at primary level and it is only right that the same standards apply at secondary level. In addition, we must look at the need for greater regulation for horse registration.
There will be barriers to introducing such change and there will inevitably be entrenchment from those who may suggest that such measures are a hindrance to business. That is not an acceptable defence.
Consumers have a right to quality and integrity of process. More than anything consumers must be protected by those who would seek to compromise the supply chain in any fashion. Those who would do so should face the full rigours of the law.
As legislators we have also have a real concern about a race to the bottom whereby corners are cut so that goods could be sold on the cheap and in order to do so, quality is compromised. We owe it to the consumers to at least ensure that we use this opportunity to put in place the checks and balances necessary to deliver them safe and authentic food.
- Joe McHugh TD is co-chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly
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