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6.30 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I do not intend to detain the House, but I wish to speak on this important issue. For those of us interested in the evolution of food policy, this is another step along the road. I will not counter what the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) said on food labelling or on the Bill on that subject, which I shall be supporting a week on Friday and which I want to become law.

I wish to make three points: first, the role of the Food Standards Agency in relation to the European food authority; secondly, what the proposal may do in terms of food imports; and, thirdly, food labelling. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford made a valid point when he asked whether the agency would be proactive or

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reactive. One of the best aspects of the agency—an organisation in its infancy—is that it has sought to investigate, research and communicate with the general public.

I had the fortune to accompany my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey), for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) and for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) a couple of weeks ago when the agency held an open meeting. It was good to see that the agency was trying to engage with the general public on issues that matter to them. Food issues do matter. Anyone who wants a good discussion—not disregarding the subject of international terrorism—should mention food and people will put in their threepenny-worth.

It is not usually my inclination to be pro-European, but I can see the value in setting up such a European authority. However, I would not want the nature of the Food Standards Agency to be lost by being merged into something flaccid and regulatory, rather than innovatory. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give a clear indication that we will encourage the agency to pursue its exciting role in education, health and communication.

I would like to know how the European food authority will engage with issues such as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, which clearly have a pan-European importance. It is not just Britain that is struggling with scrapie and BSE in sheep; the TSE issue is something that Europe as a whole must face. There is the possibility of conflict between scientists of different nations—something we have grown used to. Scientists will give their honest and best advice on whatever issue they are asked to comment. For example, the findings of French scientists on British beef were different from the findings of scientists in the rest of Europe. They may have been looking at slightly different questions, but I want to know how the problem will pan out. We have to be aware that it could cause difficulties for the EFA. Any comments from my hon. Friend the Minister will be closely scrutinised.

I have been pursuing in Europe the question of embedded items in food. Such items have been banned in the United States, but in this country we still allow them in chocolate eggs and other foods. I was lucky enough to hold an Adjournment debate on the matter some time ago. How will the EFA deal with that issue?

I come now to the other two matters that I wish to raise. It is clear that food imports are one of the issues of the moment, and the number of written questions on the subject show that we are examining import controls in this country. Imports from third countries have been mentioned, so how will the UK tighten up on imports, given that we will be taking more of a pan-European approach? The National Farmers Union inquiry into import controls raises questions about the co-ordination and effectiveness of what is going on. I hope that the EFA will have a role in getting rid of some of the substandard products that arrive in this country and end up on our shelves.

Finally, it has been established that consumers want food labelling. The forthcoming Bill on food labelling has yet to be published so I cannot comment on it, but although its predecessor had some merit it also had some problems. Not least of those was the fact that the

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European Court was likely to rule against it on the advice of Ministers. We need some clarification on whether matters have moved on since then, as the hon. Member for West Chelmsford hoped.

It would be good to know that we are able to deal with the principle and the practicalities of food labelling. People need to know that they are buying what is listed on the label. If they want more detail, they should be able to get it from a database. That is now possible, and it is just a matter of getting the delivery right. This country wants to tighten up in this area, and it will be interesting to see what the EFA may have to say on the matter.

I largely welcome the draft regulation, although I agree with the hon. Member for West Chelmsford that we need further clarification of some matters. We should do all we can to make our food safer and better, and information about it more accessible. The draft regulation seems to be moving in that direction, and so can only be a good thing—even though some hon. Members want a national entity working in the areas to which I have alluded.

6.38 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I agree with earlier speakers that this debate is important and timely. The development of food policy and consumers' interest in the food that they eat, its safety and how it is produced, will command attention both in the House and outside it. Perhaps more people outside the House will be interested in the subject than hon. Members, judging by attendance for this debate.

Food safety issues are increasingly important, and the international aspect of the food production and processing chain is growing. We have to ensure that there is genuinely free movement of goods in the single internal market, but we must also recognise that there are clear problems and risks associated with food imports. However difficult it may be, we must try to establish some basic principles with regard to what food safety, nationally and internationally, really means.

First, the regulation needs to cover the whole of the food chain, across all the food sectors and between all the member states. If it is to work properly, it will have to be drawn up very carefully. Secondly, we must establish where responsibility truly rests within the chain and which authorities are competent to monitor and enforce matters. Having read through all the papers, I do not think that that has been made abundantly clear. Thirdly, we need to set up real traceability of feed and food. The process must be transparent and the risk analysis must have credibility based on clear science. Again, there seems to be a problem regarding where the scientific advice is established and deciding how it is to be used between the European food authority and the Food Standards Agency.

We greatly supported the establishment of the Food Standards Agency, which has made an important contribution to the process. However, it is still in its infancy and has as yet to command the unquestioning public confidence that it will need if its pronouncements are to have authority. Regrettably, some of the recent comments about BSE in sheep have not added to the FSA's credibility.

We need to extend this area into a European dimension to protect public health and restore consumer confidence now that food processing and trade has become more international. As right hon. and hon. Members have said,

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labelling will be crucial to the exercise. It was pointed out last year that our ability to introduce labelling will be subject to European involvement. Will the EFA's remit cover proactive involvement in labelling?

As the Minister mentioned, the EFA's establishment also provides the opportunity to divide the responsibilities of risk assessment from risk management. However, it is not clear to me nor, I believe, to some other speakers whether that distinction is vital to the ability to control food safety or whether it will be divisive and a means by which national food standards agencies can conflict with the European food authority. They need to be complementary, not contradictory.

There is a need to take measures to safeguard food imports from third countries, and it was brought home to me when I visited Felixstowe a few months ago. People there were obliged to accept descriptions and paperwork from European imports of food that had been imported from third countries. There is no doubt that we are all exposed to the weakest European Union border and its control and enforcement of what can ultimately arrive on our shores and on to our plates.

For the EFA to be successful, it must display true independence and be free of any commercial or political pressures. That will be one of its most important and, perhaps, difficult tasks. There could always be a suspicion that political influences and expediencies as well as commercial pressures—perhaps even via bodies such as the World Trade Organisation—may have an undue influence on its pronouncements. It must be open and transparent in its dealings with the public. For it to have respect and credibility, its science and evidence must be rooted in cross-border national scientific bodies.

It is essential that the European Commission and the European food authority evidence is always made available to the European Parliament. It is no good if pronouncements are taken to the Commission and decisions are made on evidence that is not freely and transparently available. I hope that the Minister will confirm that when we make our views known to the European Union, we will say that that transparency should be an important part of the way in which a European food authority will operate.

I agree that it is rather dangerous to extend the remit too far by including food risks, nutritional issues, animal health and welfare, environmental protection and suchlike, and so lose the focus. None the less, it has become clear that we want many of those issues to be included in the round of World Trade Organisation talks. It would be interesting to know whether the EFA will participate on behalf of the European Union, or whether its advice will be part of any EU involvement in the talks. If so, the EFA must have some involvement in and knowledge of animal welfare and environmental issues.

There has been comment about the costs of the exercise. We do not know precisely how much the EFA will cost, let alone what it will cost individual farms, food processors, businesses and shops. It would behove the European Union to give clear guidance on what the costs are likely to be. The public will not be too impressed if we merely accept something with a huge potential cost that could fall on our farmers, our agriculture industries, our retailers and our food processors.

For far too long, the general public have not been fully engaged in understanding or even accepting much of Europe, but if the consumer is to be king and is to be

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properly involved, and if there is to be proper consultation and public discussion, rather than pronouncements being received from on high, here is a real opportunity for the public to be involved in an area of policy in which they are directly interested. It behoves all hon. Members to ensure that there is proper public debate and that our constituents are involved in food policy, especially the way in which it affects our relationship with Europe.

A few concerns remain. Some of them have been aired already, but I would like to repeat them. How will the proposed EFA and the national food safety bodies—in our case, the Food Standards Agency—relate to each other? How will we ensure that they do not duplicate each other's work? If disputes arise, as they are almost bound to, how will mediation work? Who will come out on top in the end? That must be clear. Will the national body be sovereign in its own state, or will the EFA have the last word?

How will the division of responsibility for risk assessment and management work in practice, especially if there are differing scientific views? How will we be protected from the danger that regulatory decisions may be influenced and taken on overtly political grounds rather than on grounds of real agreed science? How will we ensure that in all member states the EFA has the credibility to be able to make clear decisions without undue influence being exercised? Finally, as I have said, we need to know precisely how the authority will be funded.

Those are legitimate concerns, but there is an overriding need to move on. The last time this subject was debated, my hon. Friends voted against the motion, but matters have now moved on and become more urgent. Unless we address the concerns that remain, many of which have been raised this evening, we will not get it right. At the time, we believed that it would have been appropriate for the EFA to grow out of the national food standards bodies in each member state, so that they would have a stake in how it was being formed and how it would operate and be regulated. We are now proposing to put it on top, before some member states have even established their own food standards agencies. We should realise that there could be difficulties that will need to be overcome. Despite that, we give the measure broad support in the hope that the EFA will be successful and that public food policy, and food safety in particular, will be enhanced by it.

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