Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 177-179)




  177. Minister, thank you for coming. You have brought colleagues with you. It would be very helpful if you could just introduce your officials and tell us what they do.

  (Lord Whitty) Jill Wordley, on my right, is Head of the Illegal Imports Unit—they are a great team—in DEFRA, and Dr Marion Wooldridge is from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. She is overseeing the risk assessment and other work in this area.

  178. Let us start with that risk assessment, because different groups of people have different views about the amount of risk, or alleged risk, that comes from illegal imports. I know this is an issue that the Department has been looking at very carefully. What do you think the scale of the problem is? What is the reality of this matter, rather than what you might read in one of the newspapers?
  (Lord Whitty) If I can make an initial stab at that, and then I will ask Dr Wooldridge to explain the detail of the assessment itself. Clearly, in a global market and as a trading nation we are subject to the possibility of diseased meat—and, indeed, diseased plants—coming into the country. It is not clear whether or not there is any increased risk in recent years, nevertheless there is always a risk. The regime we had in place and have had in place, more or less, for the period since the Second World War did, of course, ensure or help ensure that we had no serious exotic disease for 30 years. No doubt that regime did contribute to that degree of safety in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, undoubtedly in that period and undoubtedly in almost any country, some illegal meat is imported and some of that illegal meat will be diseased. Before the epidemic and throughout the epidemic, we did point to the problems of border control, but the far more important issue is if there is a risk of that coming in, how do we stop it getting into the food chain and, if it does get into the food chain, how do we stop it spreading? Those, to us, were the more important challenges. That is why, for example, one of our initial measures after the outbreak was to ban pigswill containing meat products, which is now a European position. That was a direct route for illegal meat into the food chain. So we have concentrated, largely, on stopping it getting in the food chain and stopping the spread of it in the food chain. We also, I believe, need to recognise that there is a risk at the border and we need to try and minimise that risk as well. I am talking, primarily, perhaps I should explain, on the animal health side. There are, of course, other issues involved here: there are issues of public hygiene, which are primarily the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency (although, obviously, I have an interest as Minister for the food chain) and also issues of endangered species, which has also featured large in some of the publicity and some of the reality of the illegal meat trade, which is the responsibility of my department. On the animal health side, our main concern is to stop it getting into the food chain and then to stop it spreading. This is therefore a follow-on, to try and stop it getting in in the first place. What we have done within the Department is to recognise that, to talk to other departments, the agencies, the farming industry, about what the risk at the border is. We have found it necessary to try and place that discussion on a more scientific basis than has been the case in the past, and we therefore commissioned a very thorough and I hope robust risk assessment study and we asked the VLA to carry that out. As I think you know, the end date of that is in September when, hopefully, greater light will be shed on this issue. That does not mean there are not measures we can take immediately and no doubt we will be going on to, but we are awaiting this risk assessment.

  179. We will come to the risk assessment in a moment but, before we do, let us talk about the action plan, which has been out earlier this year. You are a politician: how do you feel it has gone down? Has it been greeted with acclaim?
  (Lord Whitty) Not universal, I have to say!

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