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Launch of the Food Safety and Food Authenticity Strategy - Minister Creed

2.05 pm on 12th July in the Atrium, DJEI

Thank you Aidan  -    Good afternoon everyone

I am delighted to see the attendance here today and I welcome you all to the launch of my Department’s Food Safety and Food Authenticity Strategy.

It is a particularly welcome task for me to do this launch as I am of the firm belief that what makes it possible for Ireland to enjoy the global agri-sector trade that it does, is that first and foremost we as a Department must ensure that our own activities in relation to food safety and food authenticity are robust, and that consumer confidence in Irish agri-food products is high.

I am delighted that our regulatory partners in the Department of Health, those from the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, Marine Institute as well as representative members of the agri-sector and our State Bodies have accepted our invitation to be here today. 

In my Department we are very conscious that we are part of an overall ‘Team Ireland’ in terms of looking after the safety and authenticity of our food.

At the Food Wise Conference in December 2017, I commented that there can be no compromise on food safety and the integrity of the food chain. These are the primary building blocks of this Department’s work – from it flow many of the goods we bring to society, the consumer and the economy.

The launch of today’s Food Safety and Food Authenticity strategy serves to communicate to all that we as a Department are sharpening our focus on food safety and authenticity, public health and the consumer. It also signifies my own commitment to ensuring that food safety and authenticity is understood to be an absolute and high level priority of my Department.

Today I am happy to be able to launch this Strategy, a significant building block that gives rise to a change programme which will serve to fulfil my commitment to food safety and food authenticity. We will continue to work hard to ensure the confidence granted by consumers at home and abroad is fully justified. 

In preparing this Strategy, we were informed by a detailed consultative and analytical process, driven by a strong focus on how we in this Department can best serve the consumer into the future.

These consultations were undertaken with both regulatory partners and stakeholders, as it is a key objective for my Department to grow a communicative and collaborative framework around food safety and food authenticity within DAFM, and with stakeholders and the wider public.

It needs stating that the primary responsibility for the production of safe food lies with the Food Business Operator, and it needs to be acknowledged that the Food Business Operators under the supervision of DAFM have significant achievements, having earned the confidence of approximately 180 countries across the globe to which we export food and beverage.

In launching this Strategy, I wish to add to the points already made in relation to WHY my Department sees the need for this Strategy.

I then wish to highlight WHAT it will achieve in shaping the future of the work of the Department and finally and most importantly as to HOW it will have benefits for public health, food safety and consumers.

The ‘WHY’ relates to recognition of both changing times and challenges that we in this Department face in the coming years, challenges that demand we scrutinise  how we do things, challenge our ways of thinking and what may need to be changed to better serve both the people and Government of Ireland, and our global consumers.

Those challenges are familiar to all in the room

-        As a Department overseeing the involvement of our agri-sector in a strategic Food Wise 2025 programme, we recognise the challenge inherent in such an expansion programme where we as a Competent Authority are obliged to service new market access opportunities and demonstrate the adequacy of our food control activities with data and evidence.

-        Concerns around Food authenticity have been well illustrated in recent years to be global in nature, and this has hugely influenced food legislation – as a Department we need to be able to answer the questions our consumers ask on guaranteeing the authenticity and integrity of the food supply.

We need to ensure that consumers are not exposed to fraudulent practices or food safety threats, and that our global trade to 180 countries is not jeopardised, and our reputation remains aligned with safe and wholesome food.

-        The identification of an enhanced tool kit to identify Risks, determine their likelihood and impact and then take appropriate mitigating actions is a core need in the continuing fight to protect consumers.

-        We are already aware, for example, of the risk posed by Fipronil in 2017. The recent E Coli outbreak in the US also comes to mind – 5 people dead and over 200 cases with just under 100 hospitalised – sourcing the origin of the outbreak proved very challenging, eventually being linked to Romaine lettuce.

-        The need to anticipate risk, and the utilisation of technology and Data systems to so do, can serve to help us direct our resources in a focussed and coherent way. As a Department we will examine innovations to maximise the quality, accessibility and applicability of food safety and food authenticity data, information and knowledge by both internal and external users.

-        Yesterday I announced the award of over €14min funding for collaborative research projects. The 23 projects cover topics across a wide range of areas, including food safety and authenticity as well as innovative processing technologies.

-        My Department has invested some €124 million over the last five years through its competitive research programmes, including seeking alternate and better ways of determining and mitigating risk in the food chain. These projects will drive the future sustainability, innovation and capability of the Irish agri-food sector. The

-        Finally, we do have incoming food legislation, in force in December 2019 that sets out how we as a Department need to organise, harmonise and co-ordinate our own efforts in the oversight of food control activities. This need is amplified in the context of a fast paced, innovative and changing industry profile. As a Department, we are aware of the need for our own approach and systems to be innovative to match this environment.

As staunch members of the EU, supporting the highest standards of food safety, public health and consumer confidence we need to be to the forefront in preparations to implement legislative changes.

The stated aim for an innovative and sustainable agri-food sector operating to the highest standards demands that we as a Department ensure that we are pro-actively seeking to be the best we can be in the face of challenges.

Of course, we are not alone in facing those challenges. These same challenges are faced also by those in the agri-food sector whose primary duty it is to produce safe and authentic food, be they primary producers, food processor or manufacturers, storage or transporters, as well as retail. In planning for the future, we know that we are stronger together if we have open communications and active collaboration across the food chain, and with our regulatory partners. This collaboration is core to overcoming the many critical issues we face.

The launch of this Strategy today, and more importantly the actions and implementation plan that it leads to will enable us to answer the questions they pose.

Now I wish to highlight WHAT the implementation of the Strategy will mean for the future of the work of the Department and finally and most importantly as to HOW it will have benefits for public health, food safety and consumers.

So WHAT will change and HOW will it benefit food safety, food authenticity and the consumer?

There are 5 key goals to address in the course of implementing the Strategy.  They are governance, communication, risk, data and our regulatory framework within the Department. These are the themes that we seek to address and around which we will introduce change.

From those key goals, my Department has set out an action plan, an ambitious plan of change across multiple themes, and those changes will focus on outcomes that will reliably deliver a more harmonised and coherent system of food controls.

For instance, I have mentioned that in relation to Data, we are examining our current information technology systems across the sectors of meat, milk, horticulture and the laboratories. The questions we are asking are – what data are we collecting – is it the relevant data that will inform us on where risks lie –

•        are we exploiting our data to aid in demonstration of the efficacy of food controls or to determine where gaps exist
•        how do we use the outcomes of our analysis to be better at what we do in the Department, and
•        how can this assist Industry in ensuring they continue to produce safe food?

The discussions to be had within my Department and with our regulatory partners and stakeholders will focus on delivery of clear benefits. These benefits will include clarity around fact based findings in relation to our food controls with reports and metrics across business areas. It will strengthen evidence based policy and contribute to operational excellence. An important and ambitious element will be the facility to carry out horizon scanning and trends identification.

As another example, we will be examining food fraud in a purposeful manner, to best determine exactly what new skill sets our people need, so that they can recognise the signals indicating potential fraud issues, to train them and establish systems whereby their knowledge and skill will protect the food and feed chain.

When setting out our targets, one question we asked ourselves is  - What will NOT change? On that point, I can confirm that as a Department we will continue to carry out enforcement action to protect food safety and public health on behalf of the consumer, as and when necessary, and we are unwavering in that commitment.

That brings me to our next steps.

Our future plans for food safety and food authenticity are ambitious but we should not fear the breadth of our ambition as we dedicate our resources to improvement. Our objective now is to rise to the challenge and undertake the necessary steps to meet our goals, and reach our ambition. We intend to pursue those goals with energy and enthusiasm.

The programme of change that we are embarking on as a Department is a clear signal of recognition that Government has a leading role to play in ensuring that food safety, public health and the consumer are protected to the highest possible level.

The details of that change will come from you, all of you in this room, working and collaborating. The best of those ideas, allied to the enthusiasm and energy of all concerned is what will drive this programme. For my Department, rest assured that failure is not an option.

An integral component of this Strategy is the growth of a culture of compliance across the agri-food sector that will maximise the potential for collaboration across government and industry to work together to ensure the safety of consumers, not only at home here in Ireland but also across the span of our global consumer base.

An important component of our Strategy is to seek to identify best compliance practice, identify the triggers for compliant behaviour and to be an enabler of such behaviour.

However, we cannot do it alone. To achieve the culture of compliance that I have spoken of demands that the Department and Industry collaborate, it demands that we stretch ourselves and find new and better ways to communicate with each other and increase our collaborative framework. 

We understand that there are genuine differences between regulators and business, but the provision for a real exchange of sometimes challenging views can serve to strengthen our understanding of each other.

What will happen next is that we will continue the engage with you, as we have done in drawing up our Strategy.

The Department is currently undertaking a wide-ranging stakeholder mapping analysis. The goal of this task is to put in place comprehensive communication plans, individualised for each sector. This mapping ensures that the priorities of the sectors can be accounted for as we deal with our change management programme.

Once we have that done, the focus will be on our future engagement by use of communications, including meetings, seminars, focus groups as appropriate to each sector and the issue under discussion.

Conclusion

In terms of our take home message today, the commitment of my Department and the change management programme set out in the Food Safety and Food Authenticity Strategy can be encapsulated around harmonisation of our Department systems, communication and collaboration with our stakeholders, a desire for excellence in policy and delivery, increased innovation to meet the challenges of the future and the growth of a culture of compliance in the agri-food industry.

I look forward to working with our regulatory partners and the industry on this important initiative.

Thank you very much for attending today.