EXECUTIVE RESPONSE TO RECOMMENDATIONS IN THE ARD COMMITTEE REPORT OF THE INQUIRY INTO THE DIOXIN CONTAMINATED FEED INCIDENT
The current Executive Review into the incident should look at means of streamlining the number of statutory and other agencies presently having responsibility for the production, processing and promotion of safe food. The Committee believes that this could be achieved by:-
The establishment of an Incident Management Team comprising government officials, health professionals and high level industry representatives, defining clearly the roles and responsibilities of each of the key stakeholders, and indicating their interrelationships;
Defining the processes in place to ensure that a strategic approach is taken that is mindful of the impact each decision will have on the industry;
Ensuring that all relevant primary personnel, for example Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive, are fully apprised and afforded the opportunity to input into this process at the earliest possible stage;
The review of the communication channels in order that the appropriate information is communicated to the relevant audience in a timely fashion. The Incident Management Team should assume responsibility for the communication of a single and consistent message.
- The Executive Review will consider and make recommendations on the roles, responsibilities and accountabilities of relevant bodies involved in the dioxin contaminated feed incident. It will also identify barriers to good communications and management. The review team has been asked to consider both this recommendation and all other relevant recommendations in the ARD Committee Report.
A strategy should be created to allow development of early warning systems for future potential contamination incidents so that action can be taken to minimise the risks for the food chain and the economic consequences for the farming and food production industries. This strategy should also ensure that the early warning systems inform other Member States and regions who may be affected.
- The primary responsibility for producing safe food and feed rests with individual food business operators. There is a legal requirement for such operators to notify the Food Standards Agency of any food or feed which does not comply with food safety requirements.
- At EU level the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) is a system whereby Member States notify each other and the Commission when risks are detected in the food and feed chain. RASFFs are issued and received by the Food Standards Agency.
- The Executive Review will make recommendations on communication. Pending that report interim arrangements have been made between DARD and DAFF for the notification of any incident that has a potential impact on animal products in the food chain. These build on the well established arrangements for notification of animal disease emergencies. The Food Standards Agency has also developed early warning arrangements with the Food Safety Authority Ireland which are being formalised in a concordat.
- When all the relevant review reports have been completed formal north-south communication arrangements on the notification of food and feed emergencies will be put in place by the relevant bodies taking account of the recommendations of the Executive Review.
The Committee believes that this indicates the importance, to the relevant authorities in both jurisdictions, of ensuring that feed inspection programmes are adequately planned and resourced to ensure that slippage does not occur.
- Feed business operators have primary responsibility for the ongoing safety of their processes. The purpose of inspection is to identify problems with control systems and while inspections reduce risk they do not ensure total elimination of risk. DARD is reviewing the feed inspection and enforcement programme to ensure that the best use is made of the resources available taking account of potential risks.
The Department, and other relevant authorities, should examine the current testing regimes to access what improvements could be applied to the processes, particularly with regards to ensuring a more efficient and timely testing and reporting process.
- In respect of the criticism of AFBI for delays in analysing samples it should be noted that all dioxin tests were carried out at the Central Science Laboratory in York.
- During any food or feed safety incident it is important that testing is undertaken at officially recognised and accredited laboratories. The only laboratory accredited for dioxin testing at the time was the CSL. Testing for food contaminants can be complex and time- consuming particularly when there is a need to undertake quality assurance to comply with accreditation procedures. While the dioxin testing process is not within the control of the Executive we will seek to ensure that in any future incident testing is undertaken in an efficient and timely manner.
- DARD will keep under review the processes for testing under routine surveillance programmes.
Accurate and timely communication is vital in order that industry is fully aware of all available information and is briefed to handle any inquiries. This is particularly important at Ministerial level. Therefore, as part of the review and streamlining of the agencies involved, the current Executive review should identify a checklist of key stakeholders, both internal and external to the Incident Management Team, to be contacted in the event of other incidents of this nature. This should also indicate the key times for contacting, for example, Executive Ministers and the appropriate industry representatives
- The importance of accurate and timely communication is recognised. The recommendation to prepare checklists of key stakeholders will be considered as part of the Executive Review.
The Department for Agriculture and Rural Development should critically assess its communication lines and processes in order to prevent a repeat of those circumstances witnessed on Monday 8 December 2008. This should focus on an assessment of communication lines and processes to farm businesses and industry processors, as these are providing ongoing advice in respect of the incident.
- DARD did seek to contact affected herdowners on 5 December 2008 to inform them that their herds were restricted. Only 3 out of 7 herdowners were contactable. Subsequently communication between DARD and herdowners during the incident operated satisfactorily. DARD will keep under review the communication arrangements in respect of any emergency incident for which it has lead responsibility.
The Committee recommends that authorities in both jurisdictions enter into negotiations with the European Commission to explore the potential for future joint applications for aid in the event of such an incident. This should ensure that there is parity in the levels of aid being provided to those impacted by similar incidents, avoiding the potential for placing one section of the industry in a competitive disadvantage against another. This arrangement should not affect or delay applications for aid in respect of those incidents where the scale of impact is greater in one jurisdiction.
- Where appropriate the Executive will consider the need to make joint applications for aid in the event of any such future incident. However it should be noted that under State Aid rules public funding in response to an emergency situation is only approved in an exceptional situation. The EU has commissioned work on the scope for a system of financial guarantees or insurance to be adopted to enable the industry to reduce the financial exposure in the event of any future animal, food or feed emergency.
- Funding for hardship payments to producers and processors was only possible by re-prioritising expenditure across all Departments. There can be no guarantee that it would be possible to provide similar support in the future.
In addition, the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development should review the Executive aid scheme to allow access to the scheme to those impacted on by the incident, such as those businesses impacted by feeding of contaminated feeds to their animals or those with associated costs such as the disposal of slurry, milk and processed retail material.
- The reference at paragraph 24 to aid being limited to 25% of the direct verifiable costs or 25% of the value of the animals is incorrect. The Executive made available a total of £9.6m to provide for hardship payments and to meet the costs of a cull and disposal scheme. The Executive did not agree that the hardship payments should cover a specified percentage of losses. While a small number of claims have to be processed, the costs of the Cull and Disposal Scheme were fully met by the Executive and hardship payments have been made of up to 70% of the eligible costs incurred by processors and producers.
- Specific reference is made also at paragraph 25 to costs incurred on disposal of processed retail material. All retailers have claimed through the processors and where processed retail material was disposed of through the Cull and Disposal Scheme the costs of disposal were met by the Executive. Where primary product or fully or partially processed retail material not included in the Executive Cull and Disposal Scheme was sent directly for destruction, DETI has obtained State Aid approval to enable hardship payments to be made against the destruction cost. Invest NI is currently vouching the claims submitted by processors in respect of these costs.
- The decision to provide £9.6m was taken at a time when the Executive was facing significant financial constraints and had reallocated resources to deal with pressures arising from the economic downturn. The Executive did not seek to provide full compensation for the losses which had been experienced by any business affected by the incident. There is no scope to make additional assistance available.
The Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development recommends that the Incident Management Team develop contingency plans that will allow for a proportionate response to any future incidents of this nature. The focus of these plans must be to assess the risk to public health but should also take into account the full range of options that might be available to negate this risk whilst ensuring that the risk to the agricultural and wider economy is not increased. These plans should be agreed to by the European Commission.
- The Executive agrees that the response to any food safety issue must be proportionate. However it must also respect the provisions of the relevant EU and national legislation. While in the dioxin incident it was established quickly that the consumption of products on the market did not constitute a risk to public health, the levels of contamination found in products and in animals clearly exceeded limits set in EU legislation. Action taken subsequently to prevent such products and meat from such animals being consumed was necessary to comply with that legislation. Failure to have done so would have had serious adverse impacts on the food industry including possible restrictions on exports of products being imposed by the Commission.
- Contingency plans exist to deal with a range of emergency incidents and the relevant authorities will review these to consider if further development is necessary. As part of this review consideration will be given to securing specific legal powers to allow payment to be made in any such future emergency incident.