Animal By-Products

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Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): What would be the consequences of the EU accepting the standards and the United Kingdom not doing so? What would be the consequences of a different standard for the food chain?

Ms Quin: That would be unsatisfactory for several reasons. We face common problems in the EU. In the light of recent anxieties about bovine spongiform encephalopathy in many EU countries there is certainly a feeling that a European approach is necessary to tackle that common problem. In addition, if some countries perceived other countries to have less stringent regulations, they could use that to create barriers to trade or might feel that they had to erect barriers to trade simply to allay public anxiety. Given the history of BSE in Britain, it is politically appropriate for us to seem to be working in partnership with our colleagues and not following a separate route.

In a previous sitting of the Committee, a similar issue was raised about differences between different countries' experience. The European Commission and the EU have a responsibility to recognise that, in dealing with BSE, countries face different circumstances. In our case, the controls that we have in place seem to have started to tackle the problem effectively. We are not the same as a country that is starting to put such controls in place. For example, SRM controls and, especially, the over-30-months rule are a feature of the British system, and we are obviously a long way further down the track in making that system work. We must take into account different countries' circumstances while providing a framework for a proper approach, close and continuing dialogue and the sharing of research experience and other information.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight): Certainly, recent history has revealed the need for regulations to protect livestock, indeed, all animals—and humans, in cases involving food. What has been done to evaluate the effectiveness of the various routes of disposal set out in the regulations? Clearly, rendering is one process. Pressure cooking seems to be the favourite solution in the regulations, as opposed to composting or landfill. Where is the scientific evidence of reduction of risk following those processes? Composting may be more effective than rendering something sterile or using landfill, in which it is more difficult for something to degrade. I welcome the Government's view reported in paragraph 2.11 of the report of the European Scrutiny Committee that there should be a sound scientific basis for the regulations, and I would like to be reassured that that will be so.

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point that is linked with the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), in terms of proceeding according to the best scientific advice and via a route that involves sharing knowledge across the European Union. We have our own advisory and scientific committees in the United Kingdom, including the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, which plays an important role, as well the Standing Veterinary Committee, and, at European Union level, the scientific steering committee, which advises on all aspects of the regulation.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to flag up the fact that we may receive different advice about the extent of risks. He mentioned composting. Under the Animal By-Products Order 1999, composting is illegal in the United Kingdom. There is some debate between European experts as to the standards proposed for composting and biogas plants, and whether they can kill spores in spore-forming organisms. We must ensure that the standards are capable of destroying harmful organisms such as anthrax and botulism. There is debate about that because it is not an exact science. We need to proceed cautiously in the framework of this legislation.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I take my right hon. Friend the Minister back to her earlier answer to the question from the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), regarding remote areas. I am sure that my right hon. Friend realises that Scarborough and Whitby could be categorised as a sparsely populated area. She will recall meeting some of my local farmers' groups last summer, when farmers pointed out the current burden on their businesses. In the context of this directive, the proposed framework on waste and the soon-to-be introduced European food standards agency, has my right hon. Friend or any of her Departmental colleagues made an assessment of the likely additional burden on farmers who are already hard pressed in areas such as mine? Does she believe that the European Union will look closely at extra financial support to ensure that the much-needed measures are put in place as soon as possible?

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend's question is important. Certain assessments have been made in the information provided to the Committee by my noble friend Baroness Hayman. It is fair to say that different parts of the industries affected have expressed less concern about this regulation than about feed ban issues, which were aired by the Committee, at least in part, when I last appeared in front of it. However, there are some uncertainties. For example, hunt kennels offer a valued service. A cost has been calculated in the Burns report and elsewhere in respect of the loss of that service. However, that depends on other aspects, too. The European Commission is undertaking a study into the funding arrangements for the various disposal routes to which the regulation refers. We hope that it will be concluded shortly. We are pressing the Commission to look at the systems that operate in different countries, with the worthy aim of ensuring that costs in different countries are taken into account when the regulation is in operation.

As well as considering the overall effects on our country, we must look at some of the regional variations. When I answered a question in the House recently about the fallen stock service, it was clear that farmers in some areas benefit more from that service than farmers in other areas, according to the geographical distribution of hunts and what facilities are available. The Commission's study would fit in well with the work that the Government must do to ensure that our system is accessible to those who need to use it for safety as well as economic reasons. There must not be huge competitive differences throughout the European Union when implementing the regulation.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): I apologise to the Minister for not being in Committee for the first two or three minutes of her opening speech. I intended her no discourtesy. I declare an interest.

I am sure that the Minister would be the first to agree that livestock farmers are worried about how they will be able to dispose of fallen stock in the future, given that hunting is likely to be banned and kennels will no longer be available to offer the free service that has been invaluable to livestock farmers, such as mine, in the past.

The seventh report of the European Scrutiny Committee states at paragraph 3.14 that

    ``the original proposal would have banned the use of burial to dispose of ruminant animals which die on farm'',

although the paragraph later states that

    ``the revised text now permits the burial of fallen stock in remote areas.''

We need a clear assurance from the Minister about what will happen if hunt kennels are closed down, because the alternative for a farmer in those circumstances will be disposal by rendering. The minimum that renderers want to charge is about £90 per tonne. An average fat beast weighs about half a tonne, so it will cost about £45 to have the animal carted away for destruction. That is a serious oncost to farmers who are not making any money at the moment. We must have a categorical assurance from the Minister that on-farm burial will be allowed throughout the country, not just in remote areas.

Ms Quin: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman such a categorical assurance, although we shall work with the Commission to achieve sensible arrangements for remote areas. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Quinn) referred to that. I would encourage hon. Members who are worried about the matter to submit their ideas to us in the context of the negotiation in which we are involved.

I understand the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), given the problems experienced by the farming and agricultural community. However, the regulation is not due to come into effect until February 2003. Although the hon. Gentleman predicted an early conclusion to our deliberations about hunting, no one is in any doubt, whatever his views, that the issue is controversial and must yet go through some lengthy parliamentary procedure. Therefore, there will be time to discuss with the industry how to deal with the fallen stock service in the future.

I am not minimising farmers' worries about that matter, but we have an opportunity to discuss the best arrangements with the industry and how they may be best delivered throughout the country. Farmers with fallen stock will have the option of the rendering service, but they will also have the service of knacker's yards, in the circumstances outlined in the regulation.

Dr. Gibson: Will my right hon. Friend the Minister say a few words about the consequences of the Phillips report, which identifies the problems of knacker's yards and the feeding of SRM material to hounds in kennels? She will know that abuses and prosecutions have occurred in Somerset; will she say something about the extent of that abuse and the additional measures that we should introduce in the next few years until hunting with dogs is prevented by law?

Ms Quin: Improvements have been made since the period described under the Phillips report, as a result of the report and of the greater awareness of the importance of disposing of carcases safely. Unannounced regular inspections of hunt kennels are now made and the number of problems has reduced sharply, but the kennels are not subject to the day-to-day inspection system undertaken by the Meat Hygiene Service in abattoirs and slaughterhouses. The differences in supervision could not be altered without the constant presence of a veterinary or Meat Hygiene Service person at hunt kennels, which would be an ambitious project. The Government take the issue seriously because of the recommendations and findings contained in the Phillips report.

The hon. Member for Ludlow referred to farmers who already pay for the disposal of fallen stock. The position throughout the country is uneven, but the regulation and the possible changes brought about by a hunting ban provide an opportunity to consider the system more rationally.

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