Beef farmers could be losing €140 plus per animal due to defective grading machines in meat plants across the country claims Roscommon Galway TD Denis Naughten.
Over the last two years, 21 mechanical beef grading machines were found not to be grading correctly and the Department of Agriculture instructed that they be replaced with manual grading of carcasses. However there was no trace back of the animals that had gone through the machines in the previous hours or days.
This can have a significant impact on the payment received by farmers because if a grading machine was out by at least two subcategories this could see farmers getting €140/head less than they should for their cattle.
Speaking in the Dáil this week, Denis Naughten pointed out: “If a faulty machine causes an O+4 bullock to be graded as an O-4 bullock, the farmer will lose 18 cent on the grid and 12 cent on the quality assurance payment. If it is an Angus animal, the farmer will lose 10 cent off the Angus bonus. In the case of a bullock of average weight, €139.60 would be taken out of the hands of a hard-pressed beef farmer. I will give a final example. If an O= animal is mis-graded as a P+ animal, the 24 cent loss caused by the miscalculation will result in an overall loss of €84 for the farmer.”
He went on to point out that under UK rules grading machines have to be checked every day and inaccuracies must be specifically recorded and addressed. However, Irish grading machines have reports produced on a weekly basis and do not record any miscalculation of grades.
“While I have no doubt that the standards that are being used here in the inspections comply with EU law, the point is that these standards are not protecting the farmers who are supplying cattle to these plants. The system must be changed to reflect this,” concluded Denis Naughten.
Copy of Dail Debate below
^^ Meat Processing Plants ^^
6th March 2019
Deputy Denis Naughten: I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, for coming to the House. It has been a very difficult year for beef farmers, particularly suckler beef farmers, across the country. I was surprised with the reply I received last week to a parliamentary question I had tabled to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the operation of beef grading machines in meat plants across the country. In the last two years, inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have found 21 beef grading machines to be working outside the rules set out for their operation. Manual grading of carcasses was introduced immediately in all of these cases. An interesting aspect of these figures is that even though 21 machines in meat plants were taken out of operation by the Department in the last two years, just four weighing scales were taken out of operation during the same period by the National Standards Authority of Ireland, which regulates weighing instruments in all meat processing facilities across Ireland. These figures are adding to the concern of farmers regarding the accuracy of grading machines. This concern is compounded by the complexity of the beef carcass classification scheme itself. With the development of technology, it should now be possible for farmers to be supplied with a digitised image of the carcass of each animal on the actual day of slaughter.
Last week, I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister, Deputy Creed, to seek to ascertain “in the case of each of the 21 instances …. the number of carcasses that were rechecked by the manual grader back to the last known point of accuracy” prior to the Department identifying the misgrading of those carcasses. According to the reply I received from him, there is “no mechanism to permit an officer to pinpoint exactly when the machine went out of tolerance”. Control reports are done on a weekly basis by the supplier of these machines to the meat plants, but they do not report on the miscalculating of grades. That is the standard set out by the Department here. I find it interesting that in the UK, the rules dictate that the operator must check each machine on a daily basis and must keep daily control reports on the automated grading. Those reports must specifically include any faults or inaccuracies, as well as the actions taken where necessary to address them. In the UK, these machines are checked on a daily basis and inaccuracies are recorded. In Ireland, one week’s full kill of animals could go through an inaccurate grading machine where the grading is at least one if not more subclasses out in relation to that grade. What does this mean in plain English for farmers? In the cases of the 21 machines I have mentioned, the miscalculation of grades was at least two subclasses. I will give an example. If a miscalculation causes an O+4 bullock to be graded as an O-4 bullock, the farmer will lose 18 cent on the grid and 12 cent on the quality assurance payment. If it is an Angus animal, the farmer will lose 10 cent off the Angus bonus. In the case of a bullock of average weight, €139.60 would be taken out of the hands of a hard-pressed beef farmer. I will give a final example. If an O= animal is misgraded as a P+ animal, the 24 cent loss caused by the miscalculation will result in an overall loss of €84 for the farmer.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Andrew Doyle): I thank Deputy Naughten for raising this Topical Issue. The Minister, Deputy Creed, is travelling to Turkey to discuss live exports with his counterpart in that country and he sends his apologies for not being here.
There are 32 slaughter plants in Ireland, with mechanical grading being carried out in 23 of them. Some 1.8 million bovines were classified in all plants in 2018, with 1.6 million of them being mechanically graded. Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2017/1184 of 20 April 2017 governs the monitoring of carcass classification, presentation and weighing. It specifies how on-the-spot checks shall be carried out in all slaughterhouses applying compulsory carcass classification. According to the regulation, on-the-spot checks shall be performed at least twice every three months in all slaughterhouses which slaughter 150 or more bovine animals per week. The regulation stipulates that each on-the-spot check shall relate to at least 40 carcasses selected at random. In 2018, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine conducted almost 550 unannounced on-the-spot inspections in the 32 factories on carcass classification, presentation and weights. There were 616 inspections in 2016 and 628 inspections in 2017. This equates to an average of 20 inspections per factory per year, which significantly exceeds the legal minimum requirement of eight inspections per year. The controls applied in Ireland are significantly in excess of those required under EU law. These on-the-spot inspections are carried out by a dedicated team of specialist staff in the Department’s beef carcass classification section. The Department has been implementing further monitoring since 1 January last. Since that date, the Department’s veterinary public health inspection staff in the factories have been providing a supporting role for the beef carcass classification staff. This should provide further assurance to stakeholders that the appropriate dressing specification is being applied in factories.
Regarding grading checks in particular, the unannounced inspections verify the ongoing accuracy of the automated beef grading. The mechanical classification method must operate within legally defined tolerances at all times. The tolerances are defined in the EU legislation. If the machine is found to be working outside EU-defined tolerances, the factory is instructed to revert to manual grading immediately. The factory must then arrange for the machine to be serviced. A classification check will subsequently be conducted by departmental officers to confirm the machine is within the legal tolerances before it is returned to mechanical classification mode. All manual classifiers are licensed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. When manual grading is instigated, this is advised to farmers through remittance dockets. Regional control staff ensure standardised and harmonised carcass classification procedures apply. There are detailed procedures in place for the conduct of inspections and protocols for dealing with issues as they arise. Standardisation exercises occur twice per year with the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, where the same classification machines are in use. This is to ensure a standard approach to inspections across the island. In addition, the EU Commission visits Ireland and other member states periodically to ensure there is standardisation across the EU. I am satisfied that the controls carried out by departmental staff regarding carcass conformation, carcass trim and weights are fully in line with EU legislation. I am also satisfied that there is a robust inspection monitoring and control system, with the number of inspections conducted well in excess of requirements set down in EU legislation.
Deputy Denis Naughten: I have absolutely no doubt that the standards that are being used here in the inspections comply with EU law. That is not my question. I am seeking to ensure the standards that are put in place are accompanied by a level of inspection that will protect the farmers who are supplying cattle to these plants. That is what I am looking for. Daily inspection reports are carried out in the UK. The faults and inaccuracies are recorded and are available for inspection. In this country, a compliance report is done once a week by the manufacturer of the machine. These miscalculations are not recorded on such reports. I mentioned an example in which a farmer could lose out on €139.60, which is the difference between putting bread and butter on the table and not being able to do so. Beef farmers have their backs to the wall at the moment. We need to look at how we can protect them and not just at how we can comply with EU law. Twelve months ago, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine supervised a trial of new grading technology. Better cameras and other forms of technology were used to provide more accurate grading. In this week’s Farming Independent, Martin Coughlan points out that the current grading machines underscore both R and U grades.
In the two years after the introduction of mechanical grading in 2004, the number of R grades reduced significantly, by a sixth. It is now 14 years since those machines were introduced, which happened three years before the iPhone first came on the market in 2007. The machines are outdated and obsolete. I believe we are under-grading cattle and taking money out of the pockets of hard pressed suckler farmers. These machines need to be replaced immediately.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: The Deputy argued in his earlier contribution that it should be possible to have a digitised image of the carcass available to the farmer on the day. I would not disagree. I will be sending a load of cattle to a factory fairly shortly myself and I would be very happy if I had an accurate read-out.
With respect, I would contradict slightly some of what the Deputy has said. In the UK they do daily checks, but are they with the new machines or with the old ones that we have here at present? Information should be able to travel through automatic checks. For example, a company based in Enniskerry in County Wicklow is able to monitor energy use in multistorey buildings in Dubai. They can switch on and off the heat via monitoring. EirGrid does it and everyone can do it. It is centralised control. A company in Germany is in charge of it. The increase in sophistication that has taken place since 2004 should allow ongoing monitoring.
I urge everybody to come together. We have set up a round-table group for a beef forum but people have decided not to engage with it. We need to get everybody around the table for transparency so that we understand the systems of grading and pricing. That must include producers, processors and retailers. Everybody should understand. I favour having a sophisticated grading system on which everybody has eyes. Health and safety does not allow an owner of animals to follow them down the line the way it used to be done years ago. There has to be another way of doing it. We should be aiming to get there and that is the purpose of having a forum.