Minister Poots will ‘move heaven and earth’ to assist the agri-food industry
There was a wide and frank discussion at the AERA Committee meeting on Thursday when members had the opportunity to discuss measures which have been adopted by the department to deal with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
The department was represented by Norman Fulton, Robert Huey, Tracey Teague and Brian Doherty.
Briefing the committee Brian Doherty said: “We appear today before you in unprecedented and uncertain times. Coronavirus pandemic will change the lives of citizens of Northern Ireland in ways not experienced before.
“As a department we have a key role to play that we work collaboratively with other civil service colleagues, industry and stakeholders to maintain the flow of food and food related products.
“The department has evoked its major emergency response plans with the objective of ensuring the health and wellbeing of staff, continuing to deliver key essential services, such as meat and water inspections, and prioritising as necessary, keeping products flowing and the agri-food sector operational to the greatest extent possible. As well as acting in line with the Department of Health and scientific guidance.
“We have established regular engagements with the agri-food sector, processors and retail representatives to ensure that together we can address the current and emerging impacts on these sectors.”
He continued: “Minister Poots has committed that we will move ‘heaven and earth’ to assist the agri-food industry so that they can keep the supply lines operational. He also recognised the need to prioritise with a focus on a spotlight on doing everything that we as a department can do to allow produce off farm and through the supply chain.”
Concluding his briefing to the committee Mr Doherty remarked: “We all recognise that these are difficult and challenging times but the agri-food family has demonstrated on many occasions before its resilience and innovation in the face of adversity. The minister has already committed to working collaboratively with industry and stakeholders to address these unprecedented challenges. And as a department will ensure that we are not found wanting.”
During the discussion that followed the briefing from DAERA Harry Harvey raised the issue of concerns about how livestock marts will cope. He asked: “What plans does the department have for livestock marts and abbatoirs?”
Responding to Mr Harvey’s question Robert Huey, Northern Ireland’s chief veterinary officer, said: “I was very pleased to hear Markethill Livestock Market on the morning news yesterday asking people intending on attending the market only attend if they were hauling, buying or selling. And there were to be no visitors.
“I think that was a very sensible and pro-active advice to the industry. It is important that we ensure that the whole food chain keeps working and it is only as strong as it’s weakest link. I feel that it is important to keep the marts open for as long as we can as a way of maintaining incomes on farms.”
Giving consideration to slaughter plants Mr Huey said: “Each step along this path is important and we also need to keep the slaughter plants open too, hence my concentration on meat inspections.
“What will happen in these plants is that workers will find that their work is slowed and they have more space between each other to ensure they can continue their skilled work, some people may even do two roles instead of just the one.”
Mr Huey added: “The one thing that does worry me most as regards to animal welfare is the intensive livestock sector, where you are dealing with poultry and pigs. The poultry slaughter lines tend to be very automated and there will be few people working on it. But you have to keep moving chickens off farm or else you get a real welfare problem, that is something that we will be keeping in mind. Even if you have a few days wait you can have problems with processing and the market. It is the same with the pig industry.”