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The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): The total value of imports of food, feed and drink last year was £17 billion, £10.9 billion of which was imported from the European Union. Meat imported from other EU member states must be produced in conformance with EU laws on meat hygiene and on controlling the risks of BSE. Imports of meat from non-EU countries are allowed only if the country and the meat plant involved have been approved by the EU Commission as producing to standards at least equivalent to those applicable in the EU.
My right hon. Friend is in contact with Commissioner Byrne and has requested that an examination of the legislation and enforcement measures relating to the controls on imports of animal products into the EU takes
Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. Given the flow of imports that do not satisfy the meat hygiene or animal welfare standards that we rightly demand of our own produce, will the Minister now impose a precautionary ban on German and Dutch beef, protect the public from the illegal inclusion of animal products in consignments of non-animal products, and introduce honesty-in-labelling legislation so that consumers can know the country of origin and method of production of food and make a free and informed choice of what to buy?
Ms Quin: On the hon. Gentleman's last point, he will know that, under this Government, new beef labelling rules have been agreed that are much stricter than was the case before. He will also know that the Food Standards Agency is examining 100 per cent. of the meat imported from Germany and the Netherlands to ensure that there is no risk of specified risk material coming into this country. As a result of the FSA's investigations, there has already been a suspension of activities in abattoirs in Germany.
Mr. Syms: Will the Minister set out in detail what action Ministers took when Mr. Clive Lawrance alerted them in May last year that hundreds of tonnes of illegally imported meat was coming through Heathrow airport?
Ms Quin: Mr. Lawrance rightly drew attention to a number of instances where illegal products had been discovered. His comments and observations were passed on Customs and Excise. Furthermore, Mr. Lawrance wrote to me in March this year. I acknowledged his letter straight away because he mentioned foot and mouth disease, and I have since responded to him in full and have also asked him to contribute to the work that we are doing on the review of import controls.
The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned honesty in labelling. This Government have made greater progress on labelling than anything that was done under the previous Government. That is certainly true of meat labelling. On previous occasions, I have recommended the work of the Ministry's verification officer in changing misleading labels in supermarkets.
Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of the devastation that has been caused, there is a very good case for a total ban on the personal imports of meat and meat products into the European Union? Recently, a group of students from my constituency went to France, and they were not even allowed to take a packet of crisps into that country. Does she further agree that we need to take urgent action? I urge her to press this issue with her European colleagues next week.
Ms Quin: My hon. Friend is right; this issue needs to be considered urgently and it needs to be considered at the European level. At the same time, as my right hon. Friend the Minister made clear, we are also leading a
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Does my right hon. Friend accept that many countries outside the European Union--for example, Botswana--produce meat to the highest possible standards? Does she also accept that many developing countries want trade not aid? Will she take this opportunity to move away from the protectionism of the common agricultural policy and encourage the purchase of more meat from third-world countries which seek the opportunity to sell to the EU?
Ms Quin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a very important point. Some countries have high standards and, in this debate, we must avoid jingoism and false patriotism. On the other hand, we must be vigilant to ensure that sub-standard meat does not enter the country.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): The Minister's officials confirmed last year that the outbreak of classical swine fever was caused by illegally imported meat. It would now seem that lightning has struck twice, with the preliminary finding that imported meat was the probable source of the current foot and mouth disease outbreak. How many times does disaster have to strike the agricultural industry before the Government do something about illegal meat imports?
Ms Quin: I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman, who knows better, should present such an over-simplified version of events. He knows well that we suspect that imported meat was the cause of the outbreak of classical swine fever, but we do not have absolute proof. Quite rightly, investigations are taking place into the current outbreak. Although it is certain that some kind of imported product must have been the origin of it, another attached problem is that that product may have been inadequately treated in pigswill. That is why the Government are proposing in their consultation to end the use of pigswill.
The Government have responded to recommendations about improving and eliminating the undesirable feeding of certain mammalian products to animals in a way that the hon. Gentleman's Government did not. My right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) made that point very clear in last week's debate.
The movement of animals direct to slaughter has been permitted since 3 March. Local and occupational movement licences allowing short-distance movements were introduced on 9 March, and longer-distance movement licences were introduced from 17 March. For circumstances in which these schemes will not alleviate
Mr. Todd: I share my right hon. Friend's commitment to tight movement controls, but do not experience of the risks and the epidemiology advice available lead us to think that we may be able to refine those movement controls? For example, could we not reconsider the 21-day standstill period, which is obligatory for local movements, and consider speeding up the process of awarding occupational licences, which can take three to four days? The sloth of that process is directly linked to the vast call on the welfare scheme that has been introduced. If we can obtain quicker and more precise movements, we may avoid some of the welfare problems that we currently face.
Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: where limited trade can take place under licence, it should be the preferred route for the industry--for the farmer and the meat trade in general. As the pattern of the disease is regionalised and reducing, I envisage that it will be possible to relax the control measures in parts of the country that are disease free. Our priority must be to keep those areas disease free as we bear down on outbreaks. I know that it is hard, but strict controls and a strict licensing regime are necessary to eliminate the disease.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Given the backlog in issuing licences and the problems that farmers face in moving stock, especially from one clean area to another, may I suggest that it was hugely crass and insensitive of the Ministry to send out the integrated administration and control system forms now to be returned fully completed by 15 May? I urge the Minister to reconsider that cut-off date and, if necessary, to make representations to those in Brussels who are in charge of the scheme so that the farming community is not further penalised or subject to additional anxieties.
Mr. Brown: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. It is necessary for people to complete a claim. We are able to invoke the force majeure rules in those circumstances when people, for perfectly understandable reasons, are not able to fulfil the scheme's conditions, but they must claim and explain why the force majeure rules should apply to their case. That is a reasonable way to proceed. Officials have behaved sensibly and the Commission has gone out of its way to help to us in the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli): Will my right hon. Friend look again at the granting of movement licences in unaffected areas? I understand the difficulties, but a farmer who owns two farms that are not close enough to enable him to benefit from short-distance licences might have to move cattle on animal welfare grounds.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Given the overstretch of the Ministry's vets, would it not be sensible to allow local private vets to authorise movements within uninfected areas, so that welfare problems are resolved? On the number of animals awaiting movement and slaughter, if we accept the Minister's comments about contiguous animals being slightly less important than the infected herd for slaughter and if the 24-hour and 48-hour targets are being met, should we not expect the number of animals awaiting slaughter to fall? Is that number falling, as the Prime Minister would have us believe, or is it still rising, as figures on the Ministry's website demonstrate?
Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman makes the same mistake as the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) by confusing two different issues. The crucial intervention is the 24 hours between report and slaughter. Animals that show signs of infectivity are most likely to spread the disease, which is why they are culled out before cohorts on infected premises. If it is possible to cull out the neighbouring premises with the same teams--which it is, in some circumstances--that is done. If it is not, there is a delay as further slaughter teams are sent for. We should not understate the size of the problem. Some holdings have 10,000 animals on them. Although a holding might appear as one farm, the work can be substantial. Given the scale of the work, there is a necessary gap between the start and the finish of slaughtering.