Food Hygiene

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper): These important deliberations have underlined the importance of food hygiene legislation, the importance of promoting public safety, public health and food safety, and the need to modernise and, where possible, simplify our approach. I shall respond to the points made by hon. Members in no particular order.

Beginning with the overall context of the regulations, the general food law sets out principles, including the prohibition against putting unsafe food on the market. The proposals fit within that approach and specify how food businesses should operate. They consolidate many existing regulations and directives and attempt to simplify and modernise the process in line with increased technology and different approaches to food production. I understand that the definitions in the hygiene proposal require some amendment to bring them in line as far as possible with those in the general food law and that there will be a need to repeal domestic legislation that currently implements the EU legislation that is being replaced.

Several Members referred to derogations and the double-edged sword of flexibility. The negotiations have acknowledged that derogations should not proliferate or be allowed to undermine food hygiene. We will be working to put in place a mechanism that requires any derogation to be assessed by all member states and approved by the Commission. There should not be blanket derogations but consideration on a case-by-case basis. In that respect, much work has already been done. Certainly, all member states should be informed of any proposed exemption to allow for proper consideration of the justification. I am very alive to the concerns that have been raised by Members on that basis.

Several issues were raised about farmers markets and so on. Those are not specifically covered by the proposals; markets are currently covered under the general food hygiene directives. Issues were raised about traditional products and derogation. We need to be clear that we are not condoning inappropriate practice. It may have been traditional to make meat pies in a shed, but that may have been be extremely unhygienic and bad in terms of food safety. There will need to be further agreement and pinning down of what that means so that foods given a unique characteristic by their production processes can flourish, provided that the procedures cover hygiene.

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) asked about products where there may already be some inherent risk, such as cheeses. Raw cheeses are currently closely legislated for, and are covered by the current dairy hygiene directive. The consolidation proposal will not change that situation. Any case to ban raw milk cheeses in the EU would

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have to be pursued under the provisions of the treaty of Rome. Any plans for a wider ban would have to accord with the sanitary and phytosanitary provisions of the world trade agreement. In both cases, that would be likely to mean that the notion that raw milk cheeses presented an unacceptable risk to public health would have to be substantiated and accepted within the terms of the treaty and the agreement. There are several hurdles that that would have to get over, so it seems unlikely.

Questions were asked about whether the best practice guides might be potential barriers to trade. The guides do not supplement the law. The FSA are aware of the Food and Drink Federation's concerns about them. Any guides must be drawn up by the industry together with the enforcers and other stakeholders. That mirrors the current position on guides to best practice; that there should be member state guides and community guides. I understand that there have been various attempts that have not yet been successful in agreeing on a Community guide in any sector, even for those that are relatively standardised in the EU, such as confectionary.

Mr. Heald: Will the Under-Secretary amplify on why that might be? Is it because some countries are trying to use the rules in a way that is different from us? Why could the EU not reach agreement on something as simple as a bit of guidance on sweet sales?

Yvette Cooper: We must be clear that there is a difference between the guides to best practice and the legal framework. What is important is that the legal framework—what is set down in the regulations—provides a common standard that is applied throughout the Community. That is why there has been support from the Government for consolidating in that area, and for simplifying the framework. It does mean that we still do not have agreement on the guides to best practice, but by having the regulatory framework in place, we are still making substantial progress. That provides the bottom line, even where it has not been possible to secure further agreement on some of the detail of best practice in terms of implementation.

Richard Younger-Ross: Does the Under-Secretary agree that if there is not to be EU-wide guidance, a meat shop in Exeter should not be able to cite examples in the rest of Europe when arguing with an environmental health officer about what it should do?

Yvette Cooper: It sounds to me that that might well become part of the discussions that would take place at a local level between the enforcement officer and that business if that business were aware of different practices taking place in other parts of the EU. The bottom line is about meeting regulations in terms of risk, and deciding what constitutes a risk to food production and public safety. Whatever the niceties of the modern equivalent of the size of the walls, in the end the point about the HACCP proposals is, ''What are the risks?'' That debate will take place between an enforcement officer and a business.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): Is it not true that most European legislation is aimed at bringing things

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up to the highest possible standard across the whole European Union? Would it not therefore be ridiculous to talk about lowering standards, which in this country are among the highest anywhere in Europe, to the level of an abattoir in Greece? It is nonsensical to suggest that a shopkeeper would say, ''Please can we have dirty meat because they have got it in Greece?''

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The bottom line is food safety. As part of the negotiations, we are also trying to get a level playing field on which to promote UK interests and UK producers. We have to ensure good food safety for UK consumers, whether food comes from this country, Europe or anywhere in the world. All kinds of local discussions may take place about what constitutes risk, the different ways in which other countries avoid risk or which new technologies can be brought to bear. In the end, the question is what is the risk. If there is a risk to consumers from a certain kind of production, it should not be taking place or changes should be introduced.

Dr. Murrison: Risk is a relative term. What might be an acceptable risk through tradition in Greece would not be an acceptable risk in other parts of the European Union. The hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) made a very good point that the Minister has not quite addressed. If we are setting common standards across the European Union, case law or its equivalent will emerge with the passage of time, and may well be cited in this country as a reason for not prosecuting people whom we would currently regard under our domestic regulations as offenders.

Yvette Cooper: Some of those concerns are misplaced because we set up a food standards agency in this country in order to provide clear, independent advice that puts the consumer first. It was intended to make it clear to everyone what counts as providing safe food and what counts as promoting public health. The Food Standards Agency has made it clear that introducing the HACCP-based approach will improve food safety in this country. It will improve food safety for consumers in this country who are eating food that comes from Europe and the rest of the world.

Anxieties about the HACCP-based approach leading to a diminution of standards in this country are misplaced. It is about raising standards in this country while raising enforceable standards across Europe in order to improve the prevention of harmful or dangerous food reaching the UK market. The FSA's advice is clear. It does not see the approach as a way to unravel the standards in this country. It sees it as a way to prevent food-borne infections and cases of food poisoning in this country by improving the way in which we manage and prevent risk.

I accept that in all the EU negotiations and discussions there are important issues around the single market, and we need to be alive to those variations. We must make sure that UK interests are properly pursued and that we have a level playing field. Nevertheless, the overall aim of the proposals, their consequences for food hygiene and the interests of the UK consumer will be subject to potentially

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significant improvements. Other research is going on into the proposals' impact on food standards.

A series of other points, including HACCP documentation for small businesses, has been raised. Our negotiating position is to ensure that we do not have unnecessarily complex systems of documentation, because it ought to be possible to use relatively simple documentation that assesses risk and ensures that the FSA is monitoring the risk and implementing HACCP effectively without that being overly complex and burdensome—and the FSA is looking at that in great detail.

Businesses have found it difficult to estimate their costs in this area. The FSA is working to improve their assessment of costs, and it has particularly looked at the burdens on small business. Examples of things that came up in the consultation include the fact that the cost to a small restaurant with an owner and 11 staff would be about 0.5 per cent. of net turnover. In the case of a small independent supermarket, the cost would be in the region of 0.9 per cent. of net turnover per year. That will obviously vary widely from one kind of business to another and according to what such businesses are already doing.

 
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Prepared 24 April 2002