I am very impressed at the bilingualism in the Chamber today; it is brilliant.
I have discussed the issue with ministerial colleagues in my party. However, there is no obligation on me to discuss it with other Ministers in order that I may express my view. Farmers have raised the issue with me regularly at a range of meetings and forums.
So far, we have made excellent progress in keeping out of Ireland serious diseases that have occurred in Britain, for example, foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue. Through our fortress Ireland policy, I intend to do my utmost to ensure that that remains the case. In that context, our animals having a UK identity can be a disadvantage to our farmers whenever they are transporting animals abroad, and a clearer local identity can assist in ensuring that our animals are identified clearly with the better disease status of the island of their birth. We need to maximise the potential of selling our produce on the world stage by having a clear clean, green label that associates our produce with a positive and disease-free status.
In accordance with the country codes laid down by the International Organization for Standardization, under Council Regulations (EC) 1760/2000 and 21/2004, the identification code on cattle and sheep ear tags must begin with the letters that identify the member state of origin. However, the concept of regionalisation is well established and is accepted by the EU Commission. I intend to press a case for regionalisation on this issue. Obviously, Members on the opposite Benches are likely to have an ideological objection to that. However, I ask them to think carefully about the issue and not to have a knee-jerk reaction to it. I also ask them to consider the potential benefits and the reality that our industry could capitalise on our recent record of better disease levels.
In a global market, food, or its consumption, is one of the few commodities whose locale concerns the consumer. In the agriculture business — the agribusiness — what percentage of our food goes to the United Kingdom, and how much goes to other areas? Is it not the case that the United Kingdom is our biggest single market and, therefore, our most important market? Have there not been cases, such as that of dioxins in pork, when it was an advantage to be part of the United Kingdom and not of another country?
The market across the water is our biggest market; 80% of our produce is exported to Britain. That is no coincidence. For years, a beef ban did not allow us to market our produce to other countries. We are still dealing with the residue of that beef ban, which came out of the BSE crisis. Again, the UK is linked strongly to that.
We must also deal with the new markets that are emerging. People are moving out of rural areas in China and India, which are countries with vast populations, into urban settings. They are becoming more Westernised, and they are eating more beef. There is no reason why we could not look to those markets for a premium price. Ultimately, this is about adding value and getting a better outcome for our farmers. They work very hard to produce quality products, and I want to work equally hard to get them the best price that I can for those quality products. We will market ourselves better if we can, and we will do everything that is in our power to ensure that farmers get a better price for their labour.
Does the Minister accept that the key stakeholders of the agrifood industry believe that the UK food status is to the benefit of Northern Ireland, given that, as the honourable Member for Lagan Valley said, much of our food is exported to the UK mainland? That being the case, I believe that the Minister is foolish. How can she justify a removal of UK status, given that 80% of our food is exported to the mainland?
As I said, we are a net exporter. We have a substantial amount of trade with British multiples and their own-label brands, and, in that environment, it is not easy for us to promote our own identity.
It is in the best interests of the North’s beef industry for it to determine how best to position its products in the markets that it serves. I will continue to support industry in that respect so that it can achieve the greatest returns possible. Research into the image of the North’s food and drink in international markets was recently overseen by an international image group consisting of experienced representatives from export businesses in the North. That group felt that, in order to gain the optimum advantage from its unique position, the North’s agrifood industry should utilise all options at its disposal and, depending on the market and the customer, should market itself as NI, island of Ireland or UK. That is the view of the experts.
We are fortunate that our products are sold in a wide range of markets and, that being the case, branding is tailored for specific markets in a manner that optimises the benefit of the North’s multiple identities. In the current economic climate, it is particularly important that our local businesses have the capacity to market their products in such a way that ensures that they have access to premium markets.
When I represented the North in Washington two years ago, I met representatives of companies such as Tayto crisps and Johnsons Coffee, who said that they had developed markets in America by doing just that. No company should be foolish enough to close itself down to the possibility of other markets due to the way that it markets itself. There is much to be gained from such marketing; I am told that by industry, and I am also told that I need to do all that I can to maximise that gain.
My party has been concerned about the UK identification tag on our cattle for a long time. We have seen that as a barrier to marketing, particularly in instances of crises, such as the export ban on beef and the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. Evidently, the Minister sees the advantage to the dairy and beef industries of having Irish or local identity. What is she doing to bring that about?
I have been working on regionalisation since I came into office, and my track record speaks for itself. The UK prefix did work against us, especially during the years of the beef ban. That ban was in force when the SDLP held the post of Agriculture Minister, and nothing was done about that issue.
I ensure that we do everything that we can to move our products and get a better price for them. Across the water, they have diseased status due to bluetongue. However, in case anyone would think that I am picking on it, that is not only the case across the water; bluetongue is endemic across Europe. This is the only country in Europe that does not have a problem with bluetongue. If we cannot capitalise on that now, when will we be able to?