25 January 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Incidents such as the discovery of trances of equine DNA in burger products from meat plants in the Monaghan and Cavan region carry very serious economic implications in their wake.
As a consequence they must be responsibly handled by the media and carefully considered by the public.
The fact that there are no adverse public health implications from the contamination detected in the testing procedures so far carried out by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Dept of Agriculture should receive paramount emphasis in any public discourse on this regrettable and ill-timed development for the Irish food sector.
If the public can be reassured that their health has not been imperilled by this occurrence, the sense of disquiet and unease they will feel about the discovery will understandably take deeper root in their consciousness and will not be so readily dispelled.
Consumers will have legitimate questions about the information being given to them on what exactly the foodstuffs offered for purchase on shops and supermarket shelves contain.
These questions will have to be answered – fully and plainly – if their damaged confidence is to be restored.
When the source of the contamination detected in the current crisis is clearly established and the results of the testing and investigation procedures fully known, a very serious and open debate must take place about the very grave flaws in traceability which are besetting a number of aspects of agricultural production, some of key importance to the economy of our own region.
It must be pointed out, however, that there is some cause for public reassurance in the very nature of the current difficulty – as Fine Gael TD for Cavan/Monaghan Sean Conlan emphasied in these pages last week, the presence of equine DNA traces in the products concerned came to light as a result of the thoroughness and efficacy of the quality controls operated in this country.
Ireland’s precious reputation as a quality food producer is founded in part upon the rigorous procedures that are in place to safeguard standards – and the horse DNA discoveries, and their rapid communication to the public, show that vigilance and transparency in this area at national level is commendably high.
It is of course premature at this stage to point the finger of blame definitively at ingredient sourced from outside this country as the cause of the current controversy.
If this proves to be the case, there is some reassurance to be gleaned for the integrity of Irish suppliers, but difficult questions of traceability and best practice will remain to be addressed.
The reassurances given by ABP Food Group executive chairman Larry Goodman at the weekend that his company do not utilise inferior product as a cost-cutting measure are welcome and accepted.
But Mr Goodman’s reference, in a Financial Times interview, to the cost pressures which producers experience from the retail sector highlight an uncomfortable reality of food production in which the purchaser too is complicit.
The demand for cheaper and cheaper food products starts with the consumer, and creates an environment in which producers of the basic materials see their margins pared close to unfeasible levels, as retail competition becomes more cut-throat.
Somewhere in that mix, it is easy for the vital consideration of quality to become squeezed out of the equation by market forces.
When this process is allowed to go unchecked, quality can suffer – the message for the consumer is surely one of, ‘Careful what you wish for…’
As we await final clarity on the cause of the current crisis, the question posed this week by the President of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association Gabriel Gilmartin surely demands an answer: Why is there any need for imported ingredients in our burgers when Ireland is the biggest exporter of beef in the northern hemisphere?

If the content of much recent debate in local authority meeting chambers in Co Monaghan is an accurate indicator, we are living in the midst of a housing crisis.
It is difficult to quantify the exact extent of genuine social housing need – figures on waiting lists in all our local authority areas are high, but the reliability of these statistics as a gauge of genuine demand is clouded somewhat.
To quality for rent assistance, people must be on a Council housing list – and officials have told several local authority forums over recent times that the number of refusals of housing offers would indicate that some people listed as requiring social accommodation in reality find it more amenable to continue to rent from the private sector.
Some people are making the system work for them – but even allowing for that consideration, the numbers of people whose need for a Council house is genuine and pressing because of their family and economic circumstances is undoubtedly high enough for society to be uncomfortable with at the present time.
Everywhere we look there are vacant residences – concrete seas of unfinished housing estates flow in unoccupied abundance across the urban and rural landscape of Ireland in mocking monument to the development excesses of recent years.
Oddly, though, there seems no willingness on the part of any of the relevant parties, Government or financial institution or private developer, to allow local authorities to acquire these estates in order to meet the social housing demand.
Instead it has been the practice of this and recent Governments to choke off to a trickle the capital funding for house construction projects and to attempt to browbeat local authorities into adopting long-term leasing schemes of dubious lasting benefit to either Councils or prospective tenants but remunerative for those in whose ownership the available properties reside.
To allow available housing properties to stand idle and in some cases sink into dereliction when there are deserving people to fill them is nothing short of a scandal.
Surely there are sufficient Oireachtas members concerned about this issue to band together into a forceful lobby group to pressure the Government to exercise a little common sense on this matter.
Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner found “water, water every where/ Nor any drop to drink”. Many of those on our housing waiting lists know how he felt.

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