Food Hygiene

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Mr. Heald: The regulatory impact assessment seems to say that much of the cost would be the start-up cost. Likely costs will therefore depend on what sort of documentation will be required. Although there is a kind of circularity to that, does the Minister agree that further work could be done on the impact of costs and appropriate documentation?

Yvette Cooper: Yes, I do. That is exactly the work that the FSA is doing. It is also working on minimising costs—deciding what kinds of documentation and procedures would be simplest in order to achieve the right kinds of results for public health and food hygiene without creating unnecessarily complex situations.

On hunters and fishermen, the advice that I have received from the FSA is that the reason for the difference in the rules is because there is less public health risk from fish than from mammals and birds. In practice, fewer fish than pheasants and deer caught during leisure pursuits are put on the market. It is important to make it clear that the issue is about game that reaches the market, and not about game for domestic consumption.

Dr. Murrison: I agree that the risk of food poisoning or sudden death from eating a fish product is rather less than the risk from eating meat. Concerns have, however, recently been raised about the effects of North sea toxins, for example, in fish and hormone levels in, for example, salmon. In other words, there are potentially undiscovered public health risks. It would be unwise to assume that public health risks will not emerge in the future, and we need to make contingency plans for that.

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to be alive to the kinds of public health risks that may arise, and ensure that the system is sufficiently responsive. We shall certainly look at that further as part of the discussions before the negotiations.

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Reference was made earlier to the assured chicken scheme and other quality assurance schemes. Assured schemes are marketing schemes. Imports must therefore meet the equivalent hygiene standard to that which will be enforced by the Food and Veterinary Office. The role of the assured schemes is to promote confidence in aspects of UK produce, and I am advised that the FSA will be working with primary producers on that. Where assurance schemes already give the necessary guidance on how best to control hazards, the approach will not be to try to invent such guidance.

Mr. Heald: As the Minister probably knows, an assured scheme often involves a farmer reaching an agreement with a supermarket to produce products in a particular way, which means that many records have to be kept. Does she accept that a requirement to keep a separate set of records for HACCP purposes could be very burdensome?

Yvette Cooper: There is no point in re-inventing something that is already doing the risk-management job that is required. The FSA would look closely at how one implements it in practice and what sort of documentation is needed. We should use existing schemes if they work. The approach of simplification, where it promotes public health, is obviously better.

I understand that revised proposal 3 is expected sometime in May or June. On the issues around registration and preservability mentioned earlier, I understand that general food law provides for food businesses to withdraw food that they find to be unfit. Additionally, competent authorities are empowered to withdraw food and take necessary action. The current proposals do not change that situation. An example of legislation or controls that would be struck down by the proposals is the present requirement to sterilise equipment with water at 82 deg. The new approach would allow other means of disinfection rather than specifying one particular method.

I am still not clear on the implications for natural health products or foods. Natural health foods are covered by the Food Safety Act 1990 and the proposals, as is any food. They already have to meet food safety requirements, but it is not clear how the proposals would constrain the operation of natural health food businesses. Obviously, such businesses will have to address food safety risks so that they produce safe products in the same way that everyone else does.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) referred to issues about information. I am not sure of the effects of the proposals, but I think that I can reassure him. The proposals will apply to catering on ships, aircraft and trains. The UK Government pushed for it to be made entirely clear in the legislation that such food is covered.

As I said earlier, DEFRA is reviewing meat import controls. It is important to be clear that this is not simply about the legal framework but about the practicalities of implementation and enforcement. Given the scale of food imports and the different routes by which products can enter the country—the hon. Member for East Devon mentioned the example of something that arrives in someone's suitcase—we

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need to assess the practicalities. DEFRA is considering what more needs to and can be done, but we must also recognise that protecting the human food chain is not simply about checking imports. It is also necessary for farmers to adopt stricter biosecurity measures to increase hygiene and prevent the introduction of disease.

Mr. Swire: Does the Minister agree that while the investigation into illegally imported meat is continuing, the precautionary measure suggested by the hon. Member for Teignbridge should be adopted? At the least, we could have something at the airports, as in the United States, clearly identifying what one is allowed to bring in. That purely preventative measure would not need a great deal of consultation but is just common sense.

Yvette Cooper: I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. Actually, providing consistent information at airports cannot be done at the drop of a hat, but his suggestion should certainly be passed to DEFRA.

Dr. Murrison: I accept that that is not the sort of thing that can be done at the drop of a hat, but the very sensible suggestion of the hon. Member for Teignbridge and my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon can be carried out at minimal cost and very quickly.

Yvette Cooper: As I said, I shall certainly pass to DEFRA the points about providing people with information. However, the Department is very alive to the issue as a result of foot and mouth.

Tony Cunningham: Just for information, I spoke on the Animal Health Bill debate and raised those issues. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Morley) said that DEFRA would take them on board and seriously consider making posters, leaflets and all sorts of things available at airports so that people understood what they could and could not bring into the country.

Yvette Cooper: I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. DEFRA is concerned about what more can be done at every stage of the process to prevent contamination of the food chain, and to prevent things such foot and mouth, which caused British agriculture so many problems.

One hon. Member raised the issue of resource implications for enforcement and training. The FSA provides resources for the training of environmental health officers and is doing so to support the implementation of HACCP by small and medium enterprises. It is worth noting that where they have introduced the HACCP approach following the general food hygiene directive, local authorities have reported an improvement in the relationship between businesses and the local authorities that deal with enforcement issues. A constructive approach based around risk, rather than around elements of prescription that do not seem relevant to the production process, is a welcome step forward for both businesses and enforcement officers.

We have had a good debate and it is clear that there is broad support for the overall direction of the

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proposals. Clearly, details must be pinned down in discussions at European level and in implementation. In the end, the proposals are about promoting public health and food safety, about introducing a system in which, as evidence has shown, it is better to prevent risk from food-borne disease and food poisoning, and about protecting consumers. Public safety is the priority and must be the bottom line in negotiations.

We must also be alive to issues that relate to a level playing field and promoting UK interest. We must ensure that we introduce sensible regulations, and a system that is more efficient and responsive to the needs of businesses and operators, and that promotes consumer choice. In discussion so far, the FSA has been alive to all those factors. The UK Government

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are also concerned about them and will take them up during every stage of negotiations in the Council. They will be important steps forward, and it will come as a great reassurance to British consumers that their interests in food safety are being properly promoted here and in Europe.

Question put and agreed to.


    That this Committee takes notes 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.

Committee rose at twenty-three minutes past Twelve o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Chidgey, Mr. David (Chairman)
Cunningham, Tony
Havard, Mr.
Henderson, Mr. Ivan
Ladyman, Dr.
Luke, Mr.
Murrison, Dr.
Smyth, Rev. Martin
Swire, Mr.
Wright, Mr. Anthony D.
Younger-Ross, Richard

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Caplin, Mr. Ivor (Hove)
Cooper, Yvette (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health)
Drew, Mr. David (Stroud)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Poplar and Canning Town)
Heald, Mr. Oliver (North-East Hertfordshire)

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