A debate into the island’s dairy industry and milk quality descended into sniping and accusations as members made claims and counter-claims about the gov’s role in testing and ensuring minimum standards in Manx dairy products which led Middle MHK Bill Shimmins to ask if we can trust the gov’s Environmental Department.
Clare Barber MHK, who chaired the committee which looked into the issues with milk quality on the island, opened the debate by telling members that the original concerns about one of the island’s independent dairies were raised with them by Garff MHK Daphne Caine.
Mrs Barber added: ‘The Milk Marketing Association were not satisfied with the response they had received from DEFA, who did not share the concerns and felt they were in an impossible situation as DEFA were actively discouraging enforcement by the MMA owing to their status as a perceived competitor of the dairy in question. I am not going to go into detail about the particular concerns raised by the MMA, the focus of our report was on the regulation of the dairy sector. The case simply provides an example of the ways in which the system is not working.’
The regulatory framework for cows milk in the Isle of Man is more complex than is the case for most food products. It is regulated for its safety, quality and price and two bodies, DEFA and the MMA, are involved in this regulation. For its part, DEFA is responsible for food quality and safety and carries out food testing for all producers of food and for milk to ensure that only pasteurised milk is sold. The MMA on the other hand, which is a cooperative of dairy farmers from across the island, is responsible for the pricing and marketing of milk and all dairy producers on the island must be part of the cooperative.
With the exception of two producers (Cooil Bros and Aalin Dairy) all milk produced on the island is sold by Isle of Man Creamery, either as milk or other dairy products. However Cooil Bros does, when it has excess milk, also sells its produce through the Creamery. As part of the licence issued by the MMA to allow independent producers to sell their products, they must adhere to certain policies and standards to ensure the overall quality and reputation of all Manx dairy produce. This has led to the owner of Aalin Dairy to criticise the system as he is forced to pay to sell his own produce and is, in effect, regulated on by his competitor. Mrs Barber told Tynwald this has ‘clearly’ been a source of conflict between Aalin Dairy and the MMA.
As outlined on Gef previously, the committee made several recommendations to Tynwald for how to resolve some of the issues it uncovered. Mrs Barber explained that the first three of these recommendations all focused on improving the situation in the short term. Firstly, the committee recommended that DEFA ‘should develop and implement a rating scheme for food producers, based on the publication of the results of tests and inspections carried out for each food business and any other relevant information’, it wanted the dept to report on how it would be doing this by December. It also called on DEFA to ‘develop an escalation framework for food safety and quality issues, clearly setting out the trigger points for progression through the various enforcement options’, which the dept broadly accepted. Further suggestions that DEFA and MMA should create an ‘improved testing regime for producer- retailers’ and that the regulation of any industry should be separated from its promotion have both been referred to by DEFA as areas that will be covered in a consultation around the ‘Establishment of the Isle of Man Regulatory Authority’.
Mrs Barber said: ‘We remain concerned with the reticence to publish testing results and remain of the opinion that the full publication of testing results, taken as per the regimes laid out in the relevant regulations, would be the best way for consumers to make informed choices.’
The first member to speak after Mrs Barber was Bill Henderson MLC. He said that he had a list of observations which came from reading the report and meeting with Isle of Man Creamery and DEFA.
Mr Henderson said he had received ‘flak’ while looking into the issue from people who intimated that he was ‘working on behalf of Isle of Man Creamery as their representative, that is simply not true and not the case.’
He added: ‘I noticed that the committee, on page 9, clearly says they are not able to address any failing by individual producers, that is the responsibility of DEFA. The committee went on to say that they did make a concern known but that’s where they left it and said that wasn’t in their remit.
‘Well I’m sorry but as much as I applaud the committee’s report and the work they’ve done, I’m sorry but I think you’ve failed in your duties to an extent by not highlighting what you found in a more open and transparent way and I’m also astonished that you have not kicked up to DEFA in a more robust fashion with regards to what you did find out. I realise the conflict of interest situation and the recommendations that the committee have set out, all that is fine. What isn’t fine to me, is that there is a possible public health issue going on in the background that is not being fully addressed. I say that because in the report, they are in receipt of a secret report, an investigatory report from 2017, which they say in their own report, on the public record, that they have an unredacted version of this report as well.
‘They also refer in that report to a public analyst certificate of a certain producer’s milk and that certificate, which is in this publicly produced report, has written across it “not fit for human consumption”. Surely to goodness we should have had a more robust committee representation to DEFA to clarify that.’
Mr Henderson added that he felt ‘almost pushed away’ from probing further into the matter and was given the impression that he should ‘leave it alone’, which he refused to do, telling members ‘I am doing my job as we all should be, and I know we are, without fear or favour.’ The MLC said the issue raised has been a ‘consistent’ one with one particular producer and again criticised the committee for not pushing it further and asked if that “not fit for human consumption” report hadn’t found its way to a third party, if the issue would ever have been identified.
Mr Henderson then went on to seek to add an amendment to the report’s recommendation four, adding that CoMin should take the views of the MMA, Isle of Man Creamery and all other persons or entities that could be affected by changes to the regulation of the industry.
Chris Robertshaw MHK, who was on the committee which produced the report, said the issue highlighted issues of operation and regulation being blurred across government and said he would be supporting Mr Henderson’s amendment.
Mrs Caine, whose intervention led to the committee exploring the issue, said she felt the most significant issue highlighted by the report was ‘the total failure by DEFA to comply with its duty to protect public health’. She added: ‘That should come above food promotion and support for agricultural businesses but it seems that in this case it repeatedly did not. They failed to ensure that Aalin Dairy was providing randomly collected samples, failed to support the Creamery in its legal duty to collect samples and put pressure on the MMA not to remove the licence of a producer retailer that was non compliant. Why did they do that? What confidence can the public have in our food promoting dept upholding internationally recognised standards for milk production?’
Middle MHK Bill Shimmins, who is leaving Tynwald this summer, was far from shy in his opinion of the report saying it ‘raises many uncomfortable questions that need to be answered’. Mr Shimmins said: ‘How do we get to the situation where Aalin Dairy is allowed to produce a product that is not fit for human consumption? The health risks are clearly unacceptable and there’s also a risk to the reputation of the other two dairies and the wider Manx food sector. There seems to be a culture of denial from the Minister in this matter which is exceptionally concerning. And it seems that rather than tackle the root causes, DEFA, our dept which is supposed to look after food safety, spent their time trying to track down a whistleblower. There was a witch hunt, that was what happened, they tried to pressurise the lab to reissue the certificate, what does this say about the culture in DEFA’s senior management? It is deeply concerning, it shows a lack of integrity.’
He added that it was his understanding that environment health officers had left DEFA in recent years due to the ‘unacceptable pressure that was applied on them to tone down results, that is a lack of integrity and a deeply concerning lack of judgement’. Turning to the issue of samples from the dairy producer failing standard testing and DEFA’s insistence there was no issue, Mr Shimmins asked: ‘How can we trust DEFA?’
DEFA Minister Geoffrey Boot had to rise to try to defend his dept, not only from the report but also from the comments made by members. Mr Boot said he was ‘not sure where to start’ as he said he originally was going to rise to welcome the report and its recommendations but said his dept was ‘subject to unwarranted attack over the methodology it uses’. He added: ‘A certain producer who’s basically been named, has been attacked in this court and apparently we’re in a situation where milk on the Isle of Man is supposedly being sold that is unfit for human consumption. Do members of this court really believe that my dept and the qualified technical officers would allow that to happen? It doesn’t happen. Mr Shimmins has made some statements, and I haven’t seen his evidence, perhaps he would make it available to the relevant committee so they can analyse it because I’m not sure where that evidence is. I’ve heard a lot of suppositions but no firm evidence.’ Mr Shimmins interjected at this point to tell Mr Boot: ‘It’s in the report.’
The Minister responded: ‘You have raised issues about the quality of milk being sold at the moment and that it is unfit for human consumption, there is no evidence of that at all. The points raised within the report are valuable and I am pleased to report that work is underway to address, or be able to address all of the recommendations.’
Mr Boot said this included the food hygiene regulations and ongoing consultation into an Isle of Man Regulatory Authority. Turning his attention outside of Tynwald, Mr Boot said: ‘What has been disappointing is some of the publicity outside of this court and the negative press received as a result of the report. The headline “The Minister Tries to Suppress The Report” (Isle of Man Newspapers) was sensational at best, at no stage have I tried to suppress this report, there are complex issues around an arbitration process that was started some time ago and I felt the committee should be aware of this. A significant component of this, as we’ve seen being bottomed out here, revolves around a dispute between two commercial competitors in the dairy sector.’
Mr Shimmins interjected again here to say: ‘You tried to suppress it.’
However Mr Boot rejected this and said his issue was merely the timing of the report’s release rather than anything within it and said he wanted to welcome the report and its recommendations. Mr Boot also explained his reasons for declining a request for evidence submitted in private to be released as it may hinder future committee hearings if people, both in and outside gov, felt unable to speak candidly about any subject.
Turning to Mr Henderson’s comments, he said the MLC seemed to believe the allegations levied against Aalin and suggested there is a ‘sinister side’ to the matter. Mr Boot said that the 2017 report was issued incorrectly, however Mr Shimmins again interjected by referring to this as a ‘whistleblower’. Mr Boot added that much of the background to what he called the ‘concerned voice’ had occurred at the beginning of this administration and ‘revolved around a test certificate issued in error’ which came from an ‘innocent mistake’ by an analyst who misinterpreted the results and said this meant the product produced by Aalin ‘was fit for human consumption’ and said that all of the island’s dairy producers have high standards of safety and quality.
Tanya August-Hanson MLC, who was dialling into the court so the sound is at times difficult to hear, said she had concerns about DEFA and was not reassured by the comments made by Mr Boot at any point during her time as a member of Tynwald. Ms August-Hanson also raised the possibility that DEFA could face a review in the same way that the Education and Infrastructure departments have in recent years.
Responding to the debate Mrs Barber said the committee had to take into account the difference between operation and policy and that was why it elected to raise concerns about quality with DEFA rather than engage with it itself.
The recommendations of the committee were accepted by Tynwald along with Mr Henderson’s amendment.