THE FOOD WE EAT

 

If the sentiments expressed in this newspaper by a Department of Agriculture spokesman at the weekend are to be taken at face value another day without an independent food safety board is a day of living dangerously for every man, woman and child who resides in this State. A Consumers Association of Ireland; survey on Irish pork found that one in five samples tested showed unacceptably high levels of antibiotic residue. The survey, which was conducted last March and April, was part of an EU wide exercise. Ireland's incidence of pork contamination was twice that of the next most serious offender, it was reported.

Adequate controls are in place, according to the Department spokesman. The CAI's findings "only corroborate what we have discovered ourselves," The Irish Times was told. An inquiry was conducted in 1995 which determined that farmers were failing to keep records and the Department is confident that things are better in 1996, the spokesman declares. What showed up in the CAI survey seven months ago actually represents an improvement on what was happening heretofore. This is truly breathtaking. Even the farmers themselves have acknowledged that the situation is unacceptable.

On the positive side, the CAI survey showed no breaches of regulations in chicken, turkey or beef. At least not in regard to antibiotics. But coming hard on the heels of the BSE crisis, this new evidence of dangers in the Irish diet must rightly give cause for the gravest concern. The Irish consumer has every right to be concerned and has every entitlement to swift action from the Government. What have we come to if Ireland - of all countries - cannot guarantee its citizens healthy, risk free food from its own native resources?

The Consumers' Association has long called for the establishment of an independent food safety authority. Food safety remains the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture, which is also responsible for the agricultural industry. There is a clear conflict of interests. Can any one institution - or Minister - represent adequately the best interests of both producers and consumers at the same time? The weekend response on the contamination of pork with antibiotics gives an eloquent answer to the question.

The politicians have accepted the Association's logic, at least in theory. But there has been no sense of urgency about the matter. It was gratifying therefore to learn from the Minister for Defence and the Marine, Mr Barrett, on RTE radio at the weekend, that legislative proposals will be brought forward soon and, indeed, that the issue will be discussed at tomorrow's Cabinet meeting. The consumer might be forgiven for forming the impression that the Government is making up the script as it goes along, responding to events rather than anticipating them. Announcing progress on significant innovations regarding food safety does not normally fall within the remit of the Minister for Defence. But Mr Barrett's news is welcome for all that.