Food Hygiene

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Richard Younger-Ross: Let me take the question down to even smaller businesses. I am thinking of market stalls and farmers' markets. There are clear requirements in terms of the need for appropriate personal hygiene, sanitary and changing facilities. If a farmer had to put those on a stall, it would be difficult to make it economically viable. Has the Minister consulted about how far local authorities will assist in the provision of those facilities so that farmers markets and the like can comply?

Yvette Cooper: I am not aware of what detailed discussions have taken place on farmers markets. Certainly, extensive consultation on the proposals has taken place with all kinds of different stakeholders. The approach to farmers markets is to look at the products that they are selling and think about the different risks and problems that might arise, whether to do with temperature, storage, sanitation, who touches the products and so on. The approach is to identify the different risks and what the effect might be on food safety, rather than starting with the different prescriptive requirements that need to be put in place. That is a shift in approach.

As I said earlier, the shift may not be entirely reflected at this stage, because various prescriptions will remain in force. Some should remain in force but, over time, others will be removed, in addition to those that have already been removed.

The Chairman: Order. That brings us to the end of the time allotted for questions.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That this Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 10427/00, four draft Council Regulations and a draft Council Directive relating to food hygiene, and No. 15475/01, Commission Communication withdrawing one of the draft Council Regulations relating to food hygiene, and supports the Government's aim of securing effective, proportionate legislation throughout the food chain to protect public health in relation to food.—[Yvette Cooper.]

11.31 am

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): We have had a good question session, but I would like to make just a few points at this stage. All the parties represented in the Committee have supported the idea of consolidation and simplification and have welcomed the emphasis on the whole food chain and the flexibility that HACCP provides. To emphasise the importance of the issue, it is clear from Department of Health figures that about 1.7 million cases of food poisoning lead to infectious intestinal disease each year, and about 580 people in the United Kingdom die each year from food poisoning. The issue is important and, if we could get Europe-wide standards and international agreement to improve food safety, we could save the lives of UK citizens.

It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary were to give an overview of where European legislation on the matter was going. How do the regulations interrelate with the general food law? Are they part of it,

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subsidiary to it or separate from it? Perhaps she could clarify that.

In annexe E to the regulatory impact assessment, there is mention of the need for further research, particularly into the extent to which retailers are using HACCP. Can the Under-Secretary tell us what research the Department and the Food Standards Agency will be undertaking into the current use of HACCP? Are there plans for further research into the effect on small businesses of associated costs and documentation? It is not clear how much documentation will be required and what its nature will be, or what the costs will be. I have seen the taskforce evidence and the University of Wales study, but they do not present a very clear picture. I would have thought that the small business case was an important one for the Government and that, in developing their negotiating position, they would want to be clear as to the effect of the policy.

On the issue of consistency of regulation and implementation, does the Under-Secretary accept that there should be negotiation in Europe on the guides? The Food and Drink Federation point out the danger that separate national guides could lead to non-tariff barriers to trade in the EU. Clearly, that would be damaging to British interests.

As far as the various derogations are concerned, as the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) said, there is a case that we should be able to eat decent cheese, and traditional products made in a traditional way. At the same time, if there are too many areas where it is possible to derogate—small and medium-sized enterprises, mountainous areas, areas that have particular regional flavours and so on—a country such as the UK, which has large producers and very good overall hygiene standards, could be disadvantaged. Other countries might claim that almost every producer was either a small or medium-sized enterprise up a mountain, or has some regional flavour to it. If the Under-Secretary can give us any more assurance about that, it would be most helpful. It would be interesting if she contrasted the derogations that are set out in the first proposal on food production with those in the second proposal on hygiene for food of animal origin, which seem slightly different. There seems to be a wider category for the first proposal than for the second.

The transfer of emphasis for safe food from the enforcement authorities to the food producer leads to a concern expressed in the FSA consultation by consumers that such a move could lead to a reduction in the responsibility of the enforcement authorities, and the effectiveness with which they enforce food safety standards. Does the Under-Secretary share that concern? What will the Government do to ensure that that does not happen? Does she agree that it should not be an excuse for less enforcement in other countries? It is very easy for a regime that does not have many enforcement authorities to heave a sigh of relief when new regulations referring to flexibility come in and say, ''Oh well, we are being flexible''. As a country, we have

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always supported the idea that there should be a level playing field and equally rigorous enforcement throughout Europe.

The food industry has raised concerns that small businesses will have an excessive amount of documentation and so on. I think that I have covered that point. What evidence is there that small retailers are familiar with the principles of HACCP? I mentioned research; will the Under-Secretary tell us where we are on that at the moment?

Local authorities have expressed concern about the resource implications. They are very supportive of the general idea. Will she tell us what will happen concerning the cost of training personnel to audit HACCP systems? Does she believe that there are substantial costs? What about the cost of time that will be spent advising premises owners and businesses on the new procedures? Will that require extra resourcing for councils? Are they right to be worried about it?

As far as primary producers are concerned, I have asked how the inter-relationship with imported meat will work. Will the Under-Secretary give us some more information on which quality assurance schemes already present in the United Kingdom will qualify as HACCP-compliant? Will there be a whole load of new burdens on farmers?

We have had a good debate. We all agree on where we are going, but it would be helpful if the Under-Secretary could assure us that the position will be more fully researched and that the Government will stand up for British interests.

11.39 am

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): This could be the first time that I have spoken in a debate where the tabloid headline will read, ''Euro regs to cut UK rules''. I hope that is a correct interpretation. Though I suspect if that is left to some editors, it will read ''Europe to cut UK''; not that I am cynical.

Professor Tim Lang of Thames Valley university recently gave an interesting perspective when he said that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the British people rioted over the quality of food, food availability and the market system. I doubt that people will riot over the regulations, but there is good reason why some sectors are close to riot over some regulations currently imposed. I shall return to bivalve molluscs in a minute.

It is important that, in training, the old-fashioned commonsense approach should prevail, and I hope that that is taken into education too. My wife and I both love cooking, but my wife hates our kitchen at home because it is not quite finished yet. Bits of plaster are broken, the tiling is not quite done and the surfaces are not quite sealed. However, we apply old-fashioned commonsense—hot water and bleach—and I do not think that we have poisoned anyone yet, although I shall keep my fingers crossed and touch wood, because we have dinner guests in a couple of nights' time. It is that sort of commonsense approach that is required, not a formulaic one that says, ''You shall tile walls to full height and hermetically seal your kitchen to

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produce good food.'' It is what one does that counts, not what is around one.

On deregulation, I disagree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald). I would rather see lots of deregulation, especially because my understanding is that we are all in favour of local produce. The way to improve local produce is to help, and relax regulations on, very small producers. I am committed, as is my party, to ensuring that the regulations and red tape imposed are cut and that life is made easier for people to get started and make a profit. Certainly, we should make life easier, rather than harder, for those who wish to diversify, especially in the farming sector.

I take the point, however, that if deregulation meant that a big factory were deregulated because it were on top of a mountain, that would take us down the garden path rather than up a mountain path. We would have to resist that.

 
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