The food minister who flouts his own rules on quality

Sunday Tribune, 03/12/2000

Ned O’Keefe’s pig farm uses meat and bone meal.

Ned O’Keefe’s pig farm uses meat and bone meal.

  As Ned O’Keefe looks out from his home over his large farm in the Golden Vale near Mitchelstown, Co Cork, he surveys some of the best land in the country.

  The vale, which stretches across the hill and valleys of Tipperary, Limerick and Cork, has always been associated with excellence in Irish farming.

  The best pasture land in the country is to be found in this area, and with its large, highly mechanised farms and profitable co-ops, the area has developed an international reputation for the highest quality produce.

  And Ned O’Keefe, more than anyone else in the country, knows that such a reputation means everything when it comes to food production.

  As minister for food, he is responsible for a multibillion-pound industry that generates £5 billion in exports every year.

  Ireland has spent vast amounts of money maintaining a reputation for excellence in food production. It is also one of the most highly legislated areas, as successive governments attempt to provide guarantees of quality for customers, both at home and abroad.

  Ned O’Keefe is only too aware that the consumer is now king in this market, and even the slightest food scare in Europe can ruin a sector.

  However, The Sunday Tribune has now established that practices on the piggery owned by Ned O’Keefe and his family contravene the very food quality regulations for which O’Keefe is responsible.

  Using receipts and other documentation, this paper has established that the O’Keefe farm is one of 17 piggeries that are still using meat and bone meal, which has been linked to the cause of BSE.

  This in itself is not illegal. However, it has also been established that the O’Keefe farm is in breach of the minister’s own regulations, as it is selling the pigs with a quality assurance guarantee that they are not being fed the controversial meat and bone meal.

  The practices that are ongoing in the minister’s own piggery threaten the reputation of Irish food exports which the junior agriculture minister is responsible for safeguarding.

  And, perhaps most importantly, these revelations come at the beginning of a crucial week in Irish agriculture, as O’Keefe’s boss, agriculture minister Joe Walsh, along with officials from his department, will be in Egypt attempting to save the Irish beef industry following the latest beef scare.

  Having to explain to their international colleagues that animals on the farm of Irish food minister have been fed a food believed to cause BSE is one thing. But the fact that the farm signed up to a quality assurance scheme and signed documents saying that no meat or bone meal was being fed to the pigs is even more serious for O’Keefe himself.

  The problem down on the O’Keefe farm lies with meat bone meal.

  The farm, nearly 200 acres in total, has one of the largest and most advanced piggeries in the country, which is capable of producing in excess of 50,000 pigs a year.

  The operation is highly mechanised. As Ned O’Keefe said before he became a minister in 1997: “I have invested millions in my farm and I now have the largest minimal-disease pig unit in Ireland.”

  The O’Keefe operation includes its own mill, Ballylough Ltd, which produces feed solely for the piggery. Ned O’Keeffe is the main shareholder in the mil as well.

  Meat and bone meal is believed to be the cause of the spread of BSE. Widely used as a feed for cattle in the 1970s and 1980s, it was banned from being fed to ‘ruminants’ (cattle and sheep) just over 10 years ago as part of a package of anti-BSE measures.

  When the major BSE crisis hit in March 1996, the government tightened up its regulations even further.

  It had been found that just one gramme of infected meal could cause the BSE infection. In response, the government introduced strict legislation to ensure that no contamination of cattle feed could take place. Controls were also introduced whereby the meat and bone meal had to be heated to over 300 degrees.

  Along with other pieces of legislation, by 1997 the use of meat and bone meal as animal feed was effectively banned, except in the case of pigs. In order to feed it to pigs, you had to have a licence.

  As the situation stands, Ned O’Keeffe’s farming operation has such a licence. The Sunday Tribune has also seen documents which prove that the farm has been using the bone meal in its pig feed, which it has sourced from an animal bone and fat processing plant in Co Wicklow.

  While people may wonder whether it is prudent for a farm belonging to the minister for food to use a very controversial foodstuff, it is by no means illegal.

  The Sunday Tribune has also seen documents which show that meat and bone meal accounts for 2% of the total diet of the pigs reared on the O’Keeffe farm.

  While the proportion might be small, in any one year the piggery uses up to a thousand tonnes of the meal.

  The cost savings, and therefore the profits, from using meat and bone meal are considerable. The current price of one tonne of meat and bone meal is £70.   The alternative is soya bean meal, along with other additives, at a current cost of nearly £230 a tonne.

  Essentially, there are savings of between £2 and £3 for every pig produced. And with the O’Keeffe piggery producing 50,000 pigs a year, the family can enjoy savings of up to £150,000 annually.

  In Ned O’Keeffe’s home town of Mitchelstown, most of the industry is connected with food.

  One of the biggest employers in the area is the Galtee meat plant, a subsidiary of Dairygold Co-op.

  It produces a range of pork products for both the home and international markets. Like the farms surrounding it, it also has a reputation for excellence.

  The Galtee factory is a ‘quality assured’ pork plant. This means that its production methods comply with the highest standards set down by An Bord Bia.

  An Bord Bia’s pigmeat quality assurance scheme was introduced to ally consumer fears about pig meat. As food minister, Ned O’Keeffe is responsible for the scheme.

  The aim of the scheme is to ensure practices of excellence so as to guarantee the quality of pork produced at quality-assured plants.

  Under the scheme, all suppliers to the factory must sign up to the quality assurance scheme. This means that they must give a list of guarantees, and submit to an inspection.

  One of the conditions to be met under the scheme is that pigs must not be fed meat or bone meal.

  The condition is quite explicit and states that pig feed must be “free of meat and bone meal and with full traceability and declaration of ingredients’”

  A statement to The Sunday Tribune from An Bord Bia this weekend went further: “Pigs supplied to member processing plants which are fed on meat and bone meal are not allowed to be processed into products under the Pigmeat Quality Assurance Scheme.”

  The O’Keeffe piggery has signed up to that quality assurance scheme and has been supplying the Galtee pork factory, which has also signed up to the scheme.

  The Sunday Tribune has seen documents which show that the pigs have been sold to the Galtee plant in the name of both Ned O’Keeffe and his son Patrick.

  However, the pigs in the O’Keeffe piggery have been fed on meat and bone meal, which contravenes the quality assurance scheme regulations.

  The regulations may not be legally binding, but what is certain is that the O’Keeffe piggery could be in serious breach of the scheme.

  Over the next seven days, Irish ministers and officials will be travelling around Europe and Africa to reassure foreign customers that our food is safe and our regulations are airtight.

  But when the farm of the very minister charged with ensuring those food safety measures is in breach of them, reassuring consumers at home and customers abroad may prove a very difficult task.

Meat and bone meal ban

If a ban on the use of meat and bone meal is introduced following the meeting of European agriculture ministers next week, it will cause a serious environmental and costs headache for the Irish agriculture industry.

  Although only 17 piggeries are licensed to use meat and bone meal, they are among the largest piggeries in the state, accounting for up to 20% of all pork production.

  This means that up to a quarter of all pork products are made from pigs fed on meat and bone meal. The uses of meat and bone meal as animal feed has been a contentious issue since the emergence of the BSE problem in the late 1980s.

  When BSE became widespread in the UK at that time, experts linked contaminated meal made from infected cattle as a probable source for the spread of the disease.

  In the late 1980s, feeding bone meal to cattle and sheep was banned by the Department of Agriculture, but cases of BSE continued.

  Following the BSE crisis of March 1996, the government strengthened regulations governing the use of meat and bone meal.

  It emerged that just one gramme of infected meal with BSE could cause further infection in animals.

  In response, stringent new regulations banning the preparation of meat and bone meal in plants producing cattle feed were introduced.

  Under new regulations, meat and bone meal had to be heated to over 300 degrees under high pressure, while all spine and brain tissue had to be removed.

  The use of bone meal was also effectively banned for all animals except pigs. A stringent licensing system was introduced to ensure that bone meal from piggeries could not get into the foodstuff of cattle herds close by.

  However, due to the current BSE crisis in Europe, a number of countries, including Italy, Portugal and France, want to introduce a Europe-wide ban on the use of the feed.

  The Irish government believes this is unnecessary for Irish meat and bone meal. Irish experts such as Dr Patrick Wall of the Food Safety Authority argue that the stringent rules on heating and separation mean the meat and bone meal poses no risk.

  However, the countries that want to introduce the ban do not have the same stringent regulations as Ireland does. As a result, their herds are now becoming infected with BSE.

  If a ban is introduced next week it will cause a major headache for Ireland. Because we have one of the largest cattle herds in Europe, 150,000 tonnes of bone meal are produced every year. Most of this is sold abroad, with just under 10% of it used at home to feed pigs.

  If the market dries up because of a ban, the Department of Agriculture will be left with up to a million tonnes of animal carcasses every year which will have to be incinerated or buried.

Anti-BSE measures

Over the next seven days, the government will go into battle in Europe and North Africa in an attempt to avert catastrophe in the beef industry as a result of the BSE crisis.

  Rising rates of BSE infection in continental Europe have caused consumer panic there and have also led Egypt – Ireland’s largest non-European market for beef – to impose a temporary ban on Irish beef.

  The BSE crisis has loomed over the Irish beef industry since the late 1980s, and despite stringent new regulations. It is still the single biggest threat to the Irish food industry.

  BSE had been widespread in the UK cattle herd since the late 1980s but the British government had claimed, incorrectly, that it posed no danger to humans.

  All the same, the Irish government introduced stringent regulations banning meat and bone meal in cattle and sheep feed.

  In March 1996, the crisis hit new levels after British scientists linked ‘new variant’ CJD, a fatal brain disease, to the consumption of BSE-infected meat.

  What followed was a Europe-wide ban on UK beef which crippled its beef industry.

  The panic waves hit Ireland too. We also had BSE in our herd but at a much lower level. Countries such as Russia and Libya imposed a ban on Irish beef.

  Part of the government’s reaction was to tighten controls on feed and the disposal of animal carcasses, and slowly bans were lifted.

  However, Ireland continued to have a BSE-infected herd, although with an average of 500 cases a year, the incidence was minute compared to the level of infection in Europe.

  With the latest crisis, emergency talks between the EU Commission and agriculture ministers are taking place. The Irish government argues that, although Ireland has the second-highest rate of BSE in Europe, none of the infected cattle is under four years old, and therefore the beef herd, which is under that age, is not infected.

  However, the Irish government may be forced to accept a number of measures to combat the crisis. These include a possible Europe-wide cull on cattle over a certain age.

  The government is also considering the introduction of mandatory testing of all cattle over a certain age, in line with calls from farm leaders such as Pat O’Rourke of the ICMSA.