First Minister urged to convene summit

FARMERS, agri-food organisations, retailers and the Consumer Council have collectively called on the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers to step in and ensure a co-ordinated response to the ongoing horsemeat scandal.

The call for action came following a meeting of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, NI Retail Consortium, NI Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA), Livestock and Meat Commission, NI Food and Drink Association and the Consumer Council in Belfast on Friday morning.

The result of the round table discussions was a plea to OFMDFM to convene a Food Supply Chain Summit in Northern Ireland which they believe is vital to ensure a co-ordinated response to the problem which continues to escalate.

This week has seen further revelations of products tainted with horsemeat.

UFU president Harry Sinclair, who chaired the discussions said: “We all agree that consumers must be at the centre of everything we do going forward in response to the horsemeat scandal. The entire food chain and government needs to work in a co-ordinated fashion and do what is necessary to ensure consumers can have full confidence in the produce they are buying. Equally we must ensure that the integrity of our own agri-food sector in Northern Ireland is upheld and promoted. We are calling on OFMDFM to convene a Food Supply Chain Summit at the earliest possible opportunity so that a co-ordinated way forward can be agreed upon. To date this level of cohesion has been missing and it has left consumers uncertain as to what exactly is happening in the food supply chain.

“While the horsemeat scandal has been damaging, nevertheless it has also presented an opportunity to ensure the food chain operates in the best possible way in future and indeed we are very confident that the Northern Ireland agri-food sector can deliver what consumers want. It was very positive to see such a constructive engagement this morning between farmers processors, retailers and consumer representatives. However the entire supply chain urgently needs to be collectively around the table with Government to discuss the horsemeat scandal and take whatever co-ordinated steps are needed to ensure consumer confidence and a successful future our industry.”

Meanwhile, Agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill spent much of yesterday locked in talks after she called a special meeting on the horsemeat scandal.

A number of other executive ministers are understood to have attended the briefing where they received an urgent update from senior officials of the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) on their investigations into the controversy.

The results of UK-wide tests on the presence of horsemeat in processed meals are to be released later.

Earlier in the week the minister held talks with representatives of supermarkets.

Speaking after the meeting, the minister said: “I stressed to the supermarket representatives that 2012 was an exceptionally difficult year for our farmers, with incomes falling dramatically due to a number of factors out of their control. The horsemeat controversy is therefore a very unwelcome development so early in the new year, and it is essential that the major supermarkets take this into consideration when dealing with the fallout from this serious issue for the industry.

“I made it clear that the cost of sampling food should fall on those businesses importing or utilising product which doesn’t have the authentication provided by our own local traceability systems and that such costs must not fall to our primary producers whose product is second to none.”

At the meeting the minister highlighted to the supermarkets that the quality beef from Northern Ireland, reared on grass a grass based system has a justified reputation as a premium product and consumers can have absolute confidence that it is totally natural and of the highest quality available.

She added: “The traceability controls in our agri-food supply chains are robust and well integrated which emphasises the benefits to consumers and businesses of purchasing local produce, not only due to the environmental, economic and social benefits but also the integrity and safety of our produce. This provides confidence and reassurance to concerned consumers who want to know where their food comes from and what it contains.

“The NI Beef and Lamb Farm Quality Assurance Scheme, operated by the Livestock and Meat Commission, and extensive traceability controls throughout the supply chain assure our customers of the total integrity of our beef. The Farm Quality Assurance Scheme sets standards for the care for animals and the farm environment. The Farm Quality Assured logo on a beef package or displayed at a butchers shop assures consumers that our beef and lamb is wholesome, safe and free from unnatural substances.”

The minister suggested that given that our locally produced beef has a complete quality assurance system, some form of quality assurance system in the processed meat sector might be a mechanism for establishing consumer confidence.

A delegation from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) met with the DARD Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA to discuss the on-going horsemeat problem.

The NIRC and Lidl were also present at the meeting.

NIIRTA Chief Executive Glyn Roberts said: “This was a useful meeting with Minister O’Neill discussing the need for rigorous testing, traceability and quality assurance to move the ‘horsemeat’ problem forward and to learn lessons for the future.

“At the meeting we pressed the need to restore consumer confidence in the Food and Supply Chains and to ensure that the concise information is given to retailers and processors in relation to testing.

“NIIRTA food retailers pride themselves in sourcing nearly all of their meat and poultry locally and will continue to support our agri-food sector in these challenging times,.

“We also urged the minister to host a round table of retailers, processors, suppliers and farmers to address not just the horsemeat issue but also other key issues such farmgate prices and other problems in the local supply chain.”