“this failure to communicate the seriousness of the situation…”

At the time of the recall of Irish pork over a dioxin contamination Sinn Féin’s Pat Doherty sought to blame the UK’s Food Standards Agency for the delay in a Ministerial response in Northern Ireland. And, as RTÉ reported in January, the Irish government’s Inter-Agency Review Group [pdf file] concluded that “Communications between agencies, industry and consumers were both timely and informative.” But the NI Assembly’s Agriculture Committee has just published their own Dioxin Inquiry report. And they have concluded that

28. The Committee has concluded that the key weakness and sole contributory factor to the near collapse of the Northern Ireland pig industry was the absence of appropriate communication to the Northern Ireland authorities by those in the Republic of Ireland, particularly on 6 December 2008. The Committee believes that the remissness of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in contacting the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland on or before 6 December 2009 was a critical failure and proof that the cooperation heralded by the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development in the All Island Animal Health Strategy does not exist and that the evidence received during the inquiry proves that this strategy is not working.

29. The Committee heard the phrase “with hindsight” on a number of occasions throughout the course of the inquiry. It is essential that those central to this incident take the opportunity to look back at their roles, and those that they interacted with, and critically assess their performance. It is equally a necessity that changes will be identified and that these changes need to be implemented with all urgency. Paramount, in the view of the Committee, is the streamlining of the process, including the number of statutory bodies and other agencies involved in the process. The Committee believes that this can be achieved through the establishment of an Incident Management Team.

30. The Committee heard from most of the organisations that they were content that their individual processes, on the whole, were successful and that the main objective, that is protecting the public health, was achieved. The Committee acknowledges this as being important. However, the Committee would draw attention to the fact that this incident did not have a “happy ending” and that the Northern Ireland industry is still struggling with the ramifications of the incident, primarily the financial consequences that have to be absorbed. If such an incident occurs in the future, it is essential that these are considered and that a proportionate response that protects both the public health and the local and wider economies is taken. It is equally important that the industry is kept informed through a single communication source, such as the Incident Management Team.

31. The events leading up to and beyond 6 December 2008 have placed the Northern Ireland agricultural sector in a precarious position at a time whenever the pressures of the global economy are being widely felt by the industry. Whilst an aid package was eventually provided by the Northern Ireland Executive to the Northern Ireland industry, the Committee does not believe this to be sufficient, as the aid package was restricted to a very precise part of the industry. The Committee calls on the authorities in both jurisdictions to revisit their respective schemes, given the benefit of hindsight and assess how aid can be provided to those currently considered ineligible to ensure that the financial risks being faced by these businesses disposing of slurry, milk and retail materials are negated.

And specifically on the lack of communication between the Irish Minister and the Northern Irish Minister

Communication

16. The Committee considers the absence of appropriate communication to be the most significant weakness identified during the course of the inquiry and that this was the single most critical contributory factor to the near-collapse of our industry in Northern Ireland.

17. The Committee believes that it is totally unacceptable for the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development to learn of the total recall of Irish pork and pork products by chance whilst watching a news programme in the late evening of Saturday, 6 December 2009. This is despite a meeting having been held earlier that day between the Taoiseach, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Minister for Health and Children, the Chief Medical Officer, the FSAI and officials from the relevant statutory bodies in the Republic of Ireland.[5] The Committee believes that it should have been incumbent on the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the Republic of Ireland to have contacted the Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland immediately following this meeting. [added emphasis]

18. The Committee is particularly alarmed as this failure to communicate the seriousness of the situation and the unilateral decision to recall these products by the Irish authorities was taken despite being aware that a number of farms in Northern Ireland had received this bread and that some 9,000 live pigs are exported to Northern Ireland per week, representing approximately 18% of the total pigs slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland.[6]

19. The Committee has noted the very positive work that had previously been taken by officials in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in respect of, for example, the All-Island Animal Health Strategy. However, the Committee remains concerned at the vast difference between the principles expressed in such strategies and processes against the practical outworkings that presented themselves during the first real test of these principles.

20. The Committee has also identified a number of other breakdowns in the communication processes and these are detailed as follows:

(a) The period between the confirmation of the test results and the initial contact with DARD;

(b) The identification of the Northern Ireland farms that had received the bread (Thursday, 4 December 2008) and communication of this to DARD (Friday, 5 December 2008). This presented a number of problems, including the fact that the contact was at too low a level, the initial contact did not contain any relevant details and that DARD were required to chase DAFF late into Friday afternoon for information regarding the incident;

(c) The FSAI contacted FSA UK in the first instance on Thursday 4 December 2008 but did not contact the FSANI directly. The FSANI was formally contacted by FSA UK two days later;

(d) The Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development contacting her counterpart in the Republic of Ireland on 17 December 2008 regarding the eligibility of processors in Northern Ireland for compensation and the formal communication from Ministers at a North South Ministerial Council meeting on 23 January 2009 stating that they were unable to do so; and

(e) Because the recall was ordered (but not communicated to DARD) on Saturday 6 December, there was a dearth of information available to producers, processors and consumers on Monday 8 December 2008. This affected the ability of DARD and other agencies to provide clear decisions to industry stakeholders at what was a critical time in the process;

21. The Committee has previously commented in respect of the numbers of organisations that were (or should have been) involved through this process. The Committee is of the view that this also contributed to the poor communication witnessed because, as has been proven during this incident, the more elaborate the means of communication, inevitably the more ineffective it becomes. This can be evidenced by the number of Northern Ireland beef producers presenting cattle at abattoirs on Monday 8 December only to be advised that these animals were not permitted to enter the food chain and by farm businesses unable to access accurate information from a number of DARD offices.

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  • joeCanuck

    That’s a rather sad indictment. Disease knows nothing about political boundaries and on a small island there should be close ties between both Agricultural and Heath departments.

  • 865. The Chairperson: The big problem for Northern Ireland was that the Republic of Ireland had considerably more information, which placed us at a distinct disadvantage. Again, that comes down to timing, because had DARD received an earlier warning, it would have been able to be more fleet of foot and been able to deal with the problem. By Monday or Tuesday of the following week, Northern Ireland was in the midst of a stampede of crisis, and we could have been able to get a handle on that crisis sooner.

    866. There is a view that by holding back that information, and not telling DARD until Friday 5 December, Northern Ireland was left in the dark, had a weekend of panic and had a real crisis by the following Monday, while the Republic of Ireland was able to manage the situation, thereby enabling the Taoiseach to be well briefed and in a good position by Monday 8 December.

    867. This Committee was told that it is very difficult to get back into a market in the modern retail world having lost it on a negative. Northern Ireland was on a double negative, because it was also blind to a lot of the information that should have been made available.