Food Hygiene

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Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Although there is still a feeling that our domestic producers are sometimes penalised because they adhere to higher standards than their foreign competitors, the Opposition obviously welcome some of the measures. Having said that, is the Minister satisfied that enough is being done to regulate the flow of food—particularly illegal meat, about which we will hear more later—coming into the country? I wonder what she would say to John Averns, London's port health director, who, among others, has called for more staff and legislation, and greater powers to search bags. It is one thing to tighten up and comply in our domestic markets; it is quite another to stop the inflow of products that do not meet any recognised hygiene standard.

Yvette Cooper: In terms of the legal framework of the proposals, it is clear that the standards of risk management and food safety that apply to production across the UK and EU also apply to imports. The document suggests setting out clearly the countries that have the right systems, institutional structures and legal framework in place to comply, and where the EU Food and Veterinary Office will be able to carry out checks that that is happening.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the separate issue of enforcement. He may be aware that DEFRA is carrying out a full review of enforcement in order to make sure that imports of unsafe products of animal origin and, in particular, meat are being properly addressed, and to see whether more—or something different—needs to be done to protect public health. A full of review of enforcement is going on at the moment.

Richard Younger-Ross: I am worried about compliance across the EU. I am concerned that there is still a tendency for the UK to set up a regime that is harsher than that which applies in Europe. I noted the Minister's earlier comment that she wanted to see compliance across the board. There is a problem at the moment—my predecessor and I pressed the FSA on it for some time, and got absolutely nowhere—with the extraction of bivalve molluscs.

The regulations in France and the Netherlands currently state that if molluscs fail to pass a test, one cannot extract them, and when one has the green light one can extract them, which is a common-sense approach. In the UK, we have a system by which if molluscs fail a number of tests over several months, come September one is stopped from extracting them for the next 12 months, despite the fact that such mussels and oysters may be edible during that period. That approach has decimated the bivalve mollusc industry in my constituency and other areas. Will the Minister assure me that that will be looked into, that we will have a level playing field and that the FSA will take a common-sense approach and listen to the industry?

Yvette Cooper: I cannot comment directly on bivalve molluscs, but the idea is to have a consistent approach across Europe. One relevant factor is that we are talking about regulations rather than directives. Countries often implement directives in different ways in their regulations. In the UK, we transpose directives into our secondary legislation, but that is not the way

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in which that case would be dealt with. The regulation would come into force, as it stands, right across the EU. There would be no question of a different legal framework applying in different countries. The issue would come down to whether or not there was differential enforcement across the EU. The FSA's approach to all negotiations, and the Government's approach to negotiations in Council, will be consistent. I am happy to respond further to the hon. Gentleman on the specific example that he raised.

Mr. Heald: My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made a point about imports, and I notice that page 15 of the regulatory impact assessment refers to their impact on primary producers. It talks about the assured chicken production scheme, pointing out that in the UK every flock has to have a health and welfare plan in place, has to be tested for salmonella and has to have sick and injured animals withdrawn from it. As far as I am aware, that scheme does not apply to chickens imported from overseas, which is a point that is always made when one visits a chicken farm. Is the Minister saying that the assured chicken production scheme will be adequate for the purposes of the proposed regulations, and that it, or something similar, will apply to chickens from Thailand and Brazil?

Yvette Cooper: The important test will not be whether a particular scheme applies, but whether different countries fulfil both the HACCP requirements and overall food safety requirements. There may be different ways of doing that, but the important thing will be that they are implementing the right kind of risk-based approach and achieving the right levels of food safety. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a guarantee that individual requirements will apply to individual countries because the important thing will be that they meet appropriate standards. It will be for the European Commission to ensure that imports from particular countries into the whole of the EU meet the standards set out in those proposals because it would be inappropriate to have standards that apply only in the EU, but not to imported produce. It will be important that any country importing any product, be it chicken, meat or whatever, to this country and the EU has the right standards in place to be able to do so.

I have been advised by my officials that the issue about bivalve molluscs was covered in proposal 3, which is one of the areas that has been withdrawn, and will come back before the Scrutiny Committee at a future date.

Dr. Murrison: I am a little concerned about derogations in the context of the European Union because unless we are clear about what they are going to be, there will be room for misunderstanding. I am particularly concerned about the manufacture and marketing of traditional products, and we need to be clear about what we mean. I was wondering whether the Minister would define that a little more closely and perhaps give us some examples of the kind of things that she considers to be traditional products.

Yvette Cooper: As I suggested earlier, that is an area about which the FSA has some concerns. The approach needs to be both risk-based and public

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health-based, and not simply based on categories of food that should be exempt from standards of public health, food safety or hygiene simply because of their particular origin. The FSA's approach to the negotiations and discussions in that area will be to probe exactly those kinds of issues in considerable detail. I will obviously listen closely to the Committee's view on that point because the hon. Gentleman is right that that is something that needs to be pinned down in order to put the right kinds of standards in place.

Mr. Swire: The Minister's response to this may well be that it is DEFRA's responsibility. However, foot and mouth—particularly in my part of the world—has had a great effect on farmers and producers. There is, for example, one cattle market, which is struggling to reopen, left in Axminster. What assistance can be given to ensure that the cattle markets that remain up and down the country can reopen without being swamped by legislation? What aid is proposed to help them?

The Chairman: Order. I have advised hon. Members that one question should be asked at a time.

Yvette Cooper: If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the broader problems faced as a result of foot and mouth or by particular parts of the agriculture industry, of course he is right. My answer has to be that this is a matter for DEFRA, which takes it very seriously.

On the question of support for businesses to comply with the proposals, the FSA is already working to see what kind of support individual businesses and organisations need, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. It has been developing a HACCP strategy to provide support, advice and assistance to businesses to help them take up the HACCP approach, but to do so in a flexible way that suits them. They then will not feel that they need to call in outside expertise; the huge HACCP teams with extensive experience in big factories, which would not be appropriate for some organisations.

The Government's response to the proposals addresses the issue of support for organisations. Obviously, in this forum, I cannot give a broader answer on support for the agriculture industry in general.

Mr. Heald: Given that all the HACCP procedures will apply once a chicken has arrived in this country, can the Minister explain how we can trace back that the chicken—whether it has come from Thailand or Brazil—has been subject to HACCP-equivalent procedures? How can we ensure that traceability and enforcement are properly dealt with in that part of the chain?

Yvette Cooper: The European Commission will be responsible for ensuring that approved third countries have the right procedures in place to monitor their approved food establishments that produce food products of animal origin for export to the EU and check that they continue to comply with food hygiene arrangements. Countries with clear, established inspection procedures and enforcement mechanisms that already meet the conditions in the proposal will be

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in a very different position from countries without such national controls or a national inspection framework. There, we might be looking at what individual companies and production plants have in place, whether over traceability, testing or an approach to the different standards.

The proposal requires the European Commission to draw up lists of third countries and establishments from which products of animal origin are permitted to be imported into the EU. Obviously, if the products arrive at a UK port or airport, the import controls for the inspection of imported food under current legislation also apply. The FVO will carry out inspection, and only plants approved as meeting requirements will be able to send products here. The officials inform me that those plants will then bear a health and veterinary certificate mark, which uniquely identifies plants and can be checked back. Traceability issues are being set out as part of the proposals.

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