A CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE

8 March 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Perhaps the most important issue among the many discussed at Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council was the crisis in public confidence which is impacting adversely on many aspects of the food sector in the county at the present time.
The fallout from the ongoing horsemeat scandal, and the problems highlighted in recent times around country of origin labelling of chicken produce, have combined to create a mindset of suspicion and fear in consumers which is being reflected in their purchasing choices.
When any taint attaches to food production in the public perception, it is extremely difficult to dislodge.
The action taken by producers, retailers and the statutory authorities following the initial discovery of horse DNA in burger products was in many respects exemplary: expedient, transparent and comprehensive.
Inevitably, however, despite the efficacy of such a response – indeed, perhaps even because of it, and the attendant media attention generated – purchasers have been far from reassured.
When certain products are withdrawn from sale because of a food scare, it is human nature to avoid other similar products even though no direct suspicion of disrepute has been created in them.
From comments made by Colr Pádraig McNally at Monday’s Council meeting, it seems that this crisis of confidence is already making itself felt in the vital food production sector of our county’s economy, endangering demand to the extent that output is being reduced and employment affected.
Some form of address of this situation is urgent.
The key issue in the whole food debate is traceability – the public have legal and moral rights to easily understood information about what the products they are buying contain, and from where these ingredients have originated.
Irish food has long worn the hallmark of quality as a badge of honour, and anyone involved in the production and distribution chain is intimately familiar with the breadth and depth of regulation that has been introduced to safeguard the integrity of the brand.
As Dept of Health correspondence indicated to the Co Council on Monday, there are a fleet of agencies with responsibility in this area – and therein perhaps, as Colr Paudge Connolly assessed, lies the problem.
Responsibility divided can easily become responsibility abrogated. The infiltration of horsemeat into the food chain and the failure of country of origin requirements to protect the consumer from imported product of uncertain quality suggests at the very least that there are gaps and ambiguities in the complex protective mesh created by the abundance of agencies active in the area.
And if such a structure has been inadequate to protect the consumer from the occurrence of a crisis, it also seems far too unwieldy to respond quickly and effectively once a crisis has occurred.
This is clearly evident from another portion of the Dept correspondence which indicates that a new European food information regulation will not come into general application until December 2014, and that a European Commission study into “the potential impact and feasibility of rolling out labelling to meat used as an ingredient” – something which seems to have particular pertinence to the current horsemeat debacle – will not be concluded until the end of this year.
The Co Monaghan food sector cannot wait until the end of these labyrinthine procedures for address of the problems it is currently facing.
Those engaged in food production in the county must engage directly with the consumer at local level if the damaging crisis of confidence that currently prevails is to be alleviated.

RUBBISH ROADS
A county councillor complaining about roads was once a cliché of the local authority meeting chamber.
Over the past decade or more, however, the roads rows dropped in decibel level to become infrequent localised mutters as local authorities found themselves equipped with the funding levels necessary to bring the network up to a high standard.
But the topic has now returned to the top of the agenda for our Co Council, which on Monday passed an urgent business motion calling for significant additional funding from central sources to address what has become widespread deterioration of the county road structure.
Significant reduction in the funding available to local authorities for road repair and maintenance has been an inevitable consequence of the current economic downturn.
It is a very easy cut for governments to make, one not likely to generate the immediate outrage or uproar that follows upon the trimming of budgets in sectors such as health and education – yet it is also one of the most questionable in terms of its far-reaching negative impact.
The savings generated are far outweighed by the social and economic cost – and it surely flies in the face of common sense to undo the important infrastructural investment initially made.
It was telling that Monaghan Co Council on Monday coupled its call for more county roads funding with an appeal for representation for the elected local councillor and the interests they uphold on the board of the National Roads Authority.
The NRA exercises powerful influence over government policy and expenditure in the area of transport and since its formation has done so in a manner that has consistently foregrounded the development of the national network over and above the need to preserve and enhance the transport infrastructure of rural Ireland.
Local authorities need to be given not merely sufficient resources to ensure an adequate county road network but much greater autonomy than they currently enjoy over where and in what manner this money is spent.
Counties like Monaghan which have to maintain a vast and intricate weave of countryside roads, many carrying a nature and volume of traffic they were never initially conceived to cater for, require not just resources but the leverage to devise local strategies and solutions for particular circumstances.
It is not just more money that is needed – fundamental reform of how transport policy in this country is devised and steered must be implemented if rural Ireland is not to be plunged irrevocably back into the dark ages of rubbish roads.

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