Food Hygiene

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The Chairman: We now have until 11.30 for questions to the Under-Secretary. I remind hon. Members that these should be brief and be asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all Members to ask several questions. The motion will be debated after questions.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): We support the aims of consolidation and simplification. We welcome the emphasis on the whole food chain and the flexibility of HACCP. There are several areas on which I would like to question the Under-Secretary, including the effect on small business and the effect on the robust enforcement of public health standards in the UK. Perhaps I can start with the issue of consistency of regulation and its implementation.

It seems that under the first proposal there is to be an element of flexibility for small and medium-sized enterprises, for regions with geographical constraints such as mountains and remote islands and for traditional products. In the second proposal, flexibility is again allowed for small and medium-sized enterprises and for regional producers. The Food and Drink Federation thinks that there should not be exemptions for certain premises, operations, regions,

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special geographical constraints, local markets or traditional methods. Its view is that the correct application of HACCP should mean an automatic application of an appropriate level of regulatory control for the business in question. Although the UK may follow whatever regime is decided on in a straightforward and careful way, others may use whatever opportunities emerge to promote their businesses. Is the Under-Secretary satisfied that the exemptions and derogations are satisfactory in terms of British interests?

On the question of consistency of application, is she satisfied with the proposal that each country should have its own guide to the introduction of the proposals, rather than a Europe-wide guide? Is she happy with the thought that a move to more self-regulation may lead to less effective or less rigorous authorities enforcing the procedures? In other words, what is her view of the level playing field?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. We have some concerns about the flexibility based on geographical features such as mountains. I have a lot of sympathy with the point that the whole purpose of HACCP is to provide a flexible approach to the different kinds of risk present in different kinds of food businesses and different operations.

However, we are concerned about the provision for derogations under which the full requirements would not apply to certain businesses depending on their size, the remoteness of their location or their traditional production methods. It is important that such derogations reflect risk. That will be an important part of the discussions that need to take place to ensure that the legislation is flexible enough. It must be able to respond to different levels of risk and different circumstances without creating perverse loopholes that might cause problems.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about whether there should be greater adaptation and variety in member states, we would resist allowing them to adapt the requirements of the general food hygiene regulation and would want some consistency. Flexibility should be about different kinds of businesses and the circumstances that they face, not about member states taking broadly different approaches.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): When I served on the Special Select Committee that considered the setting up of the FSA, we were concerned that prescriptive regulations might drive out of business small quality food producers and people who used traditional techniques. Such techniques might be perfectly safe, but they might not fit in with new regulations because they were no longer mainstream. Am I right in saying that today's proposals will make it easier for such companies to flourish and to produce quality food that is safe and actually tastes good?

Yvette Cooper: That is the intention behind changing the approach and removing some of the most prescriptive regulations, which have nothing to do with modern production techniques or traditional production techniques that take account of food

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safety. In terms of practical outcomes for consumers, it is far more sensible to focus on the risks in each production, retail and delivery process. In many respects, businesses that take a risk-based approach should feel that the burden of regulation has been reduced, because they will no longer have to comply with inappropriate regulations.

There are other issues that we could mention, and we might be able to deal further with the prescriptions that have been retained in the proposals. That would require stakeholders fully to discuss safety and risks; part of those interesting discussions would be to discover whether we could make any changes through the European process. We may have gone as far as we can go at this stage, but I agree with my hon. Friend about the intention behind taking a hazard-based and risk-based approach, rather than a prescriptive approach.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): The Under-Secretary spoke about relaxing the approach and about taking a risk-based approach, rather than a prescriptive one. UK companies currently abide by many regulations that would no longer apply under the new approach. Has she examined which regulations would be relaxed? She mentioned cleaning heights; the relevant regulation currently applies in the UK. How would it alter?

Yvette Cooper: Before I arrived, I was trying to find some good examples to give the Committee, because I thought that that would be the best way to make tangible the differences that would arise in practice. The best example that we came up with was the current requirements for the height of the washable wall, and before we finish, I shall ask my officials for other clear examples. The FSA has extensively analysed the impact of the proposals and which regulations will change for food businesses, and I shall see whether I can refer to more examples when I sum up.

The idea as regards wall-washing is that owners would simply have to ensure that their premises could be appropriately cleaned or, where necessary, disinfected, whatever the height of the walls; they would not have to comply with requirements stipulating a particular height of washable wall surface. They would simply have to ensure that the premises were unlikely to introduce a hazard or risk into the production process, rather than having to consider a technical specification in regard to the heights of different walls that bears no relation to whether risks are being introduced into the production process.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): Concerns have recently been raised with me about the effect of the proposed directive. The argument that people have put to me is that it would limit their right to choose effective natural health therapies and to receive information about scientific developments in natural health. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary comment on those concerns?

Yvette Cooper: I am not aware of any reason why that would cause a problem. I do not know whether my hon. Friend can give me any more information,

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but if he is content to wait until later, I shall see whether my officials can give me any further advice on that.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): As someone who was, en passant, involved with environmental health matters in my previous job, may I say that I very much welcome these positive measures? However, there are one or two problems. I am concerned about the third proposal in particular, which I note has been withdrawn. That is interesting, because it is potentially the most important proposal. Why has it been withdrawn, and what measures will the Minister take to ensure that the veterinary supervision of abattoirs will be placed on a level playing field? I am thinking, in particular, about the closure of the smaller abattoirs.

Yvette Cooper: Certainly, the concern of the FSA about the third proposal centred on ensuring that none of the measures should be burdensome and that they should be capable of being applied flexibly. I know that when the third proposal was first outlined, the FSA was involved in extensive discussions with stakeholders. The important principle is that the inspection process should reflect the hazard-based approach. There should not be an additional parallel system, where the inspection focuses on completely different issues or uses different tests. That is why it is important that the first proposal provides for the extension of the HACCP principles from five to seven.

By introducing issues of verification and documentation as part of the HACCP process, it will be possible better to align the inspection enforcement process with the process of risk management in a business. The responsibility for safe food production should lie with the business, not with the enforcement agency. It should be part of the culture of the business to produce safe food, rather than merely responding to what the inspector says is acceptable. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any further details at this stage about the direction of discussions on the third proposal. I understand that the Commission will put forward a reworked proposal, but I am not sure of the precise timetable for that. I assume that the third proposal will be put forward for scrutiny by this Committee at a future date, so we will have an opportunity to discuss it then.

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): When companies register, and if foodstuffs have to be withdrawn, will they have to prove what procedures were in place? Furthermore, would they or the registering authority be responsible for withdrawing those foodstuffs?

Yvette Cooper: As I understand it, responsibility for ensuring that the product is safe shifts to the company or the food business. However, the situation regarding the withdrawal of safe products would not change as a result of the proposals. The proposals improve and consolidate the process of risk management, preventing unsafe products from reaching the market. If they do reach the market, the current restrictions, legislation and protection for the consumer would apply. I will make sure that I have clarified that properly when I come to my final remarks.

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