Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Committee for Agriculture
and Rural Development

Friday 11 October 2002


Inquiry into Foot-and-Mouth Disease

(General Consumer Council)


Members present:
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Armstrong
Mr Bradley
Mr Doherty
Mr Douglas
Mr Dallat
Mr Ford
Mr Kane

Mrs J Whiteside OBE )
Mr S Miskelly ) General Consumer Council
Dr S Furey )

The Deputy Chairperson:
The Committee welcomes Mrs Joan Whiteside, Mr Sam Miskelly and Dr Sinéad Furey of the General Consumer Council. May the Committee hear your evidence.

Mrs Whiteside:
Thank you for the opportunity to speak here today. Dr Sinéad Furey is on our research team specialising in food. Mr Sam Miskelly is our assistant director; he has worked on food throughout his time on the council.

I should point out that the General Consumer Council was not directly involved in handling the crisis; like most people, we were simply concerned observers. Nevertheless, we hope to contribute some thoughts to the inquiry. Much has already been said and written about how the crisis was handled in Great Britain, and some of the comments were very critical. However, we understand that the foot-and-mouth outbreak was handled commendably in Northern Ireland and that we were spared the worst effects. The immediate ban on the import of animals and animal products into Northern Ireland was a crucial decision, and a comprehensive package of containment and eradication measures was introduced within 24 hours. As a general starting point, we want to say, "Well done."

Nevertheless, the crisis had some very harmful effects; it hurt agriculture, tourism and small rural businesses badly. Despite assurances that foot-and-mouth disease posed no direct threat to public health, it could not help but raise doubts in consumers' minds about farming practices and, ultimately, safety. It is therefore vital that any lessons that can be learnt should be learnt. That is our key message today, for, although we hope that there will not be a next time, it would be foolish to ignore the possibility.

In our written response to the Committee, we highlight areas that we feel should be examined. The first is better contingency planning. There was no up-to-date, properly understood contingency plan at the time of the outbreak. It seems that one was devised in the early 90s and approved by the European Commission; however, we understand that it was not well known outside the Veterinary Service and that it should be updated and reviewed. The plan should include a means for banning imports that should be banned while allowing those that need not be banned.

During the last crisis, there was a gap while the process was set up, leaving customers' shelves empty for a time. If the process has already been set up, such a gap will be avoided. We need better and more effective controls against the introduction of disease, not just at times of crisis but all year round. Local trading is a reality. Animals and food materials and products are traded across traditional boundaries, covering long distances that in the past would have been impossible. That poses new problems that require fresh thinking and new preventative and regulatory measures. Animal and human infections and diseases are not mindful of land borders.

From a consumer protection point of view, we can draw parallels with BSE and the lessons that emerged from the inquiry led by Lord Phillips. Those lessons are relevant to any future foot-and-mouth disease crisis in so far as they concern the management of risk. Lord Phillips called for better sharing of information between the Departments and agencies in the food chain; clearer lines of accountability and responsibility in an emergency; and greater transparency and openness in communicating risk to the public - recommendations with which the General Consumer Council agrees.

During the recent crisis, the public would have appreciated an explanation of why, for example, they could not buy their favourite yoghurt. If the problem were explained to the public, they would understand its implications. Where there is uncertainty, we must use the precautionary principle. As I said earlier, the council feels that the lessons learnt from the BSE inquiry might be equally relevant to the way in which foot-and-mouth disease, or a similar problem, might be handled in future.

A key to dealing effectively with animal health and food-related problems is a robust and sound traceability system. The council would like full traceability to be extended as quickly as possible to cover the electronic tracing and health status of all food animals and livestock. Work is being done on that, and the council welcomes that.

Compliance is also important; rules and regulations are no good if they are ignored. Foot-and-mouth disease was introduced into Northern Ireland by those who appeared to bend the rules. We have had similar incidents in the past with clenbuterol, which is also known as angel dust. Although only a few people broke the rules, it shows that some are still prepared to put consumers at risk. We must speak out about that. They blacken the name of their own industry. The council would like to see much stricter enforcement and penalties for those who act in that way.

Our submission refers to the disposal of cattle and sheep carcasses that were confirmed as having the disease or were suspected of being infected with it. It is a difficult matter, as a balance must be struck between fast, decisive action and public sensitivity. Concerns were also raised about the possible risk to public health from dioxins and other toxic substances, which are emitted from funeral pyres and animal carcasses.

We are not experts in that area, but all these matters suggest that it should be investigated. The General Consumer Council recommends that more research be carried out into alternative methods of treatment and disposal of carcasses in the unfortunate event of another outbreak. One means of dealing with a future outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is, of course, vaccination. The General Consumer Council strongly recommends that that be debated now; there is no point in waiting for a crisis to start debating the issue. If vaccination is to be used, consumers must be convinced that the meat from vaccinated animals is safe to eat.

The Chairperson:
Evidence suggests that there was little knowledge of the existence of a contingency plan outside the Department; that is supported by the findings of the Department's review. It is, therefore, not possible to comment on the content of the plan. Did the lack of awareness of a plan limit the community's ability to interact with and assist the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's staff in its co-operation or duties?

Mr Miskelly:
As Mrs Whiteside said, we are not experts in that; at the time, however, there was considerable confusion about how the crisis was handled. The PricewaterhouseCoopers study also drew attention to poor contingency planning and the fact that few outside the veterinary service knew of it. There is a need to communicate more broadly.

Consumers are key stakeholders, yet there seems to have been a lack of communication with them on several points. First, it was late in the day before they were given the necessary assurance that foot-and-mouth disease did not affect human health. There was considerable confusion about which products would be scarce and which would not be affected by the disease. Supermarket managers were also confused about those matters. Although there was no panic buying among consumers, it is important to build that issue into a future contingency plan. There must be a clear method of communicating with consumers. If consumers had known which foods were liable to be affected and which were not, it would have spared them much concern during the last foot-and-mouth crisis.

Mr Kane:
Ports and airports are the first line of defence against the importation of animals and products that might carry disease; they are also the first official opportunity to detect illegal imports of animals and products. There are serious misgivings about the adequacy of import controls, and these have been outlined in submissions to the Committee and in the Department's review. Can you expand on your suggestion that an animal health body, which was proposed in the vision report, could deal with that?

Dr Furey:
The General Consumer Council's submission refers to the need for stricter import and animal health controls; however, it does not call for a blanket ban on imports, as that is not in consumers' interests. It recommends that stricter movement controls be applied, especially on the movement of sheep and pigs. It would like conformity and consistency across the European Union and its member states. The animal public health and information system (APHIS) is the ideal way to do that. The council supports the recommendation of the vision document that that should be extended and applied to all animal products.

Mr Kane:
You have referred to the movement of animals across the border being encouraged by VAT differences. Long distance travel can increase the likelihood of spreading disease among livestock. What should both Governments do to ensure that those incentives are removed?

Mrs Whiteside:
It is difficult for us, as consumers, to identify what Governments should do. The consumer is anxious to have the process stopped, to have safe food, and to be confident in the controls applied. However, we are not qualified to tell experts how to do that. We simply ask that they make decisions and carry them out.

Mr Dallat:
The crisis caused major problems for the housewife when shelves were left empty for long periods. To avoid that, do you agree that any contingency plan should be on an all-island basis?

Mrs Whiteside:
I do not see the logic behind that. Consumers were worried when their favourite foods were not on the shelves and they wanted to know why. They were not always clear why cheese and yoghurt, which were "cooked", and, therefore, free of disease, should be removed from the shelves. Later, those products were allowed in under licence. People do not mind some goods being absent if that supports the farmers at a time of crisis, but they must be assured that those arguments are fair and valid. Consumers will accept that raw meat products, for example, cannot be imported if that means helping out another part of the community. I am not sure of your arguments for an all-island plan.

Mr Dallat:
The argument was that in the absence of an all-island policy involving contingency plans it is more likely that the disease could break out again.

Mrs Whiteside:
On that basis, I do not see any reason why there should not be an all-island plan. It is similar to the discussions about the low-incidence status of BSE. Without question, the straightforward implication of that was that no animal products could have been imported. There would have been huge gaps on supermarket shelves. At the time, there was a discussion with the European Union about exceptions and limited imports. That is clearly the way through.

Farmers need help, but so do consumers. Let us see what can be done for the benefit of both. We must always ask whether it is necessary to remove certain items from supermarket shelves and whether there is a way round it. We are all reasonable people; let us examine it, work out what must be done and do it.

Mr Armstrong:
Was the General Consumer Council kept fully informed throughout the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak so that it could keep the consumer informed?

Mr Miskelly:
Yes. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development included the council in its invitations to emergency meetings with all the key stakeholders. I attended quite a few of them myself. They were very helpful and enabled us to assure the public that foot-and-mouth disease posed no threat to public health.

Mrs Whiteside:
The Minister invited us to attend a meeting with her in which we discussed the goods on supermarket shelves. We were kept informed.

Mr Bradley:
How would vaccinated meat affect the market?

Mr Miskelly:
As such meat would be exported, it is difficult to say how it would affect the consumer in Northern Ireland.

Mr Bradley:
What effect would it have on produce on any shelf, at home or abroad?

Mr Miskelly:
Many animals are already vaccinated, and we have no difficulty with that so long as necessary precautions are taken to ensure that vaccination has no long-term effect on public health or food safety.

Mr Douglas:
As Mrs Whiteside said, we are all reasonable people and now is the time to put something in place. It is the duty of everyone in agriculture to ensure that the consumer is kept on board.

Mr Doherty:
It is generally accepted that there was no contingency plan - or if there was, it was so well contained in the Department that nobody else knew about it. Has the Department discussed a contingency plan with the General Consumer Council?

Mrs Whiteside:
No. We have been involved with the vision group in examining setting up a food group. We work closely with the Department in many ways, but not in this matter.

Mr Miskelly:
Consumers are key stakeholders in this matter, and if there is contingency planning for the future we should certainly welcome the opportunity to make a contribution on their behalf.

Mr Doherty:
Do you not think it strange that the Department has not been in touch with you?

Mrs Whiteside:
We have been invited to be part of the Minister's strategy group, and although it may discuss a contingency plan later, the matter has not yet been on the agenda.

Mr Ford:
Your submission discusses giving more regular information on the status of Northern Ireland food products. Whose responsibility is a food promotion campaign?

Mr Miskelly:
It is essentially a marketing matter for the Northern Ireland agrifood industry to persuade consumers that its food is of the quality and standard that they require. Beyond that, there are regulations and controls necessary to ensure that people do not bend the rules. Persuading people of the quality and value for money of Northern Ireland produce is a matter for the Northern Ireland agrifood industries. Essentially, they are trying to sell their products.

Mr Ford:
What about the Department?

Mr Miskelly:
The Department has an overriding responsibility for the industry, but product is primarily the responsibility of the industry.

The Deputy Chairperson:
Thank you for your helpful and informative evidence.

Mrs Whiteside:
Thank you for asking our opinion. The General Consumer Council wishes the Committee luck with its inquiry into this important matter.

11 October 2002 (part i) / Menu / 11 October 2002 (part iii)