Cabinet set to act on food safety agency

 

THE Cabinet may approve proposals to set up a new national food safety agency tomorrow, in an attempt to halt rapidly deteriorating consumer confidence in the meat industry.

The proposed agency, which will be answerable to the Minister for Health, will have statutory powers, and will replace the existing non statutory National Food Advisory Board. It will be empowered to lay down particular standards and will have a regulatory function, to reassure consumers on the safety of Irish food.

The agency has been recommended by a high level inter departmental committee, representing health, agriculture, environment, which was set up by the Government in late spring.

The committee, which was chaired by Mr John Hurley, secretary of the Department of Finance and former secretary of the Department of Health, formulated its proposals on foot of a detailed assessment of existing inspections and controls by various departments and agencies.

The committee is keen to ensure that the agency does not represent "vested interests", given that the Department of Agriculture is perceived to represent the "producer, rather than the consumer. The National Food Safety Advisory Board is also perceived to have no real teeth under its existing remit.

Consumer confidence in the agricultural industry has been further shaken by yesterday's ruling in Belfast Coroner's Court, which linked the new and fatal strain of CJD to BSE for the first time and by the EU wide survey on antibiotic levels in pork meat, which found Ireland to have the worst record of residues within the community.

In yet another development, the British Farm Minister, Mr Douglas Hogg, last night accepted the possibility of a special regional beef cull to assist the early return of Northern Irish and Scottish beef to world markets.

The Minister for Agriculture, Mr Yates, took a tougher line on the pork meat survey, conducted for the EU by the Consumers' Association of Ireland (CAI), when he warned that his Department would initiate prosecutions against pork producers unless the industry acted within days to ensure animals contaminated with antibiotics did not reach the market.

The Minister said yesterday he was "seriously concerned" about the matter on Sunday, his Department had played down the CAI survey's significance, emphasising that adequate controls' were now in place and that the findings only corroborated what It had discovered itself in 1995.

It emerged last night that the Minister was not aware of his Department's own internal reports on the pigmeat industry until the CAI survey was reported over the weekend. Mr Yates was briefed yesterday on the issue by the chief veterinary officer. Asked why the Department of Agriculture had not gone public six weeks ago on the internal reports, a spokesman said "there had never been any question of dangerous food being on the shelves, but it was clear that more needed to be done to ensure that residue levels were kept right down or eliminated".

"If we'd gone `blazing guns' on this we would have been accused of sabotaging a £200 million industry," the spokesman said.

After yesterday's ruling on a "most likely" link between the new strain of CJD and BSE infected meat, the family of the west Belfast victim, Maurice Callaghan, said that it strengthened their case for compensation.

Belfast Coroner, Mr John Leckey, found that Mr Callaghan (30) had probably died through exposure to BSE infected meat.

The mechanical engineer died last November after a terrifying nine month illness which reduced him to a helpless invalid. In the last stages of the disease, he was bedridden, incontinent, unable to speak and had no idea of what was happening around him.

Mr Callaghan was married with a four year old daughter. His wife gave birth to a second daughter 10 days after his death.

Mrs Callaghan said that her lawyers were now considering the "most suitable route to litigation". She said that while she was not bitter, and her husband had been a gentle, compassionate man who shunned resentment", justice must be done for the sake of her daughters.