Few people realise that there are two veterinary services operating in parallel in Ireland. Some 58 permanent veterinary inspectors are employed by the Department of Agriculture, while another 35 local authority vets are funded through the Department of Health to inspect small-scale abattoirs, food producers and control horses.

These local authority vets supervise the slaughter of 702,479 animals a year, some 6% of the annual kill, including cattle, sheep and pigs plus poultry.

This is done in small abattoirs for local farmers who want their own meat or food producers running small businesses in rural areas.

The service they provide is arguably vital for small rural economies, yet the vets are coming under increasing financial pressure.

Convoluted arrangement

A convoluted arrangement means their funding is funnelled through the Department of Health, to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), to local councils and then to the vets.

Last year, the FSAI proposed cutting its annual funding by almost €1m and, in protest, vets almost withdrew their services before the annual Christmas turkey kill.

A last-minute intervention by Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and the promise of a “one-off” funding boost of €1.5m allowed the service to continue for 2020.

However, a question mark still hangs over the future of the vets and draft documents from the FSAI seen by the Irish Farmers Journal show a drive to reduce inspections carried out by vets by over 50% in a bid to cut their funding.

’Poisonous’ relations

Although the Department of Health and Fórsa, the union representing vets, claim that relations are constructive, sources behind the scenes say they are “poisonous”.

Cutting inspections could have a detrimental impact on local food businesses and does not take into account the impact of Brexit, which means that businesses exporting meat and dairy products will need significantly more inspections.

It’s ridiculous to have it spanning so many departments

The point has been raised by Fianna Fáil TD and chair of the Oireachtas agriculture committee Jackie Cahill that the problem of funding and inspecting would be solved if the local authority service was absorbed into the Department of Agriculture veterinary service that already inspects meat factories.

“It’s ridiculous to have it spanning so many departments,” Cahill said.

“I think it should all go under the Department of Agriculture and a bit of common sense should be knocked together here.

“The small food market is depending on these vets and it’s too important to mess up.”