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Column 810comment on it in his reply. If it is the case, and if the incentives are inappropriate, we should consider the matter again. As so often in these matters, the Treasury is the uninvited guest at every Whitehall table. Once again it has held the purse strings and has starved the regulatory machinery of resources. The result in this case, though not always, is that the cost to the taxpayer has been more than would have been necessary if there had been adequate resources from the start. This must not happen again. The Government must find the resources for regulation so as to restore confidence in the industry. The events after 3 December show clearly what happens when the Government move from a smooth top gear into overdrive ; a measure of supercharging goes into the system and things go much better.
We are all conscious of the extreme sensitivity of the public to allegations of risk. The counterpart is the extremely vulnerable state of consumer confidence in many foods. It is not always justifiable, but that vulnerability is now established. It is the peculiar and special responsibility of Ministers of the Crown to inform the public clearly about what is happening. Never is that more so than when the responsibility crosses departmental boundaries. Once again hindsight comes cheap. One major lesson to be learnt from all these events is that Ministers at their own level must consult each other and they must speak as a single voice. In this case I fear that careless talk has cost the taxpayer and the egg industry a pretty penny. It has also, sadly and unnecessarily, cost one ministerial life.
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clywd, South-West) : It is not surprising that our Select Committee report on salmonella in eggs is welcomed by the Government with the same sort of enthusiasm to be expected from the Ayatollah Khomeini on being presented with a bound volume of "The Satanic Verses" in Farsi. Apart from the obvious embarrassment that any Government would experience from having some major blunders of several Departments exposed to the public gaze, we are, I believe, experiencing, too, the exposure of the fundamental flaw in free-market Toryism. Later Victorian society was not the laissez-faire heaven that the Government would have us believe, but it was a period when the increasing complexity of society and the increasing evils of free-market theory were beginning to become so evident that they had to be controlled. Food and water were the first areas in which social planning and collective provision were considered necessary.
The report and the Supplementary Estimate to which the debate refers expose a catalogue of errors, many of which arise from the ridiculous assumption that the state has no role in the production of anything. In a sense, the report should have had a wider brief, because one of our problems in Committee was that of avoiding expanding the remit to take in areas which perhaps were the real cause of burgeoning public health problems--for example, the poultry meat problem that has been around for some time ; the uncontrolled growth of new methods of food preparation, such as cook-chill and the perhaps dangerous combination of that with microwave cooking, or, to be more exact, reheating ; the reduction in the numbers of public health officers employed by local authorities ; and the appalling cuts in research which cannot pay its way in
Column 811purely commercial terms. All those areas require close examination, but they were not unfortunately included in our remit.
As the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) said, the report was unanimous in its conclusion. I believe that the report's main areas are valuable assets to the safety of the consumer and to the guidance of the producer. As we are now in the Chamber, I am sure that it is in order for us to stress areas of political dissent, some of which I have already mentioned, such as cuts in research and the role of the Ministers involved.
It was amusing and puzzling to witness the antics of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) after she had made her statement. In fact, she became the very model of ministerial discretion only after resigning from her ministerial post. Could that be because she was told to be quiet by the Secretary of State? If so, why? If that was her own idea, was that for an egotistical or, dare I say, a literary reason?
The Minister said that it was not possible to eradicate salmonella enteritidis, but I am told that Sweden has already done that. I remind him also that there is a part of the British Isles--Northern Ireland--which has managed to stay free of salmonella enteritidis.
Mr. Jones : I am sure that the Minister's assumption is right, but I am sure that it does not have enteritidis phage type 4. I was trying to make a point that salmonella is a term that was used rather loosely by many people giving evidence to the Committee. As a Committee, we have been looking at enteritidis phage type 4 because that is the one that is rapidly increasing in Britain.
It is possible that we can eradicate enteritidis phage type 4 in Britain. All that would be required to do that would be for some of the balance of the £19 million allocated to repairing the damage to the egg industry- -some £16 million to compensate for the destruction and disinfection of the few tens of flocks which have already proven to be infected--to be put into the immediate initiation of research into finding a quick immunological test for specifically salmonella enteritidis phage 4. The technology is there, and it was used for salmonella pullorum eradication. The difference, of course, is that salmonella enteritidis is near market only for consumer health, whereas salmonella pullorum is a chicken pathogen and directly affects the profitability of the producer. Near market research is a nonsense when we are considering public health and food production. I shall quote from an article on Government cuts in research in the Farmers Weekly of 24 February 1989. It said :
"Agricultural research and development is in danger of collapse. About 2,000 scientists, almost one in three, face redundancy, work on environmental pollution and public health will disappear and ADAS is fighting for the survival of its R&D.
The latest Government spending cuts strike at the heart of agricultural science and have triggered a massive reorganisation as beleagured scientists try to salvage a coherent research programme from the wreckage.
The Government plans to increase private funding of R&D by reducing the financial support it provides. But the speed of the attack has left the agricultural industry floundering and unable to react fast enough to save many
Column 812endangered projects. At a time when many of our European competitors are stepping up research spending, Britain has embarked on a programme of cuts and closures.
Reductions in Government spending on agricultural R&D are not new. But the cuts looming now are not the penny-pinching of a cost-conscious Government. They represent a profound change in political motives and will have an impact that far outweighs the sums of money involved.
Even after pruning another £30 million from its annual budget over the next three years, the Minister of Agriculture will still be spending £200 million a year on scientific research. But the figures hide a massive shake-up in the way those funds are shared out. ADAS will lose more than a third of its budget, while the Agricultural and Food Research Council will lose £10 million (nearly 25 per cent.) and divert more of its money away from its own research stations and into the universities.
The effect is to leave more and more ADAS and AFRC scientists fighting for a share of the Government's shrinking purse and the private sector's near- stagnant spending. Confidential documents leaked to Farmers Weekly show the enormous extent of the damage. ADAS R&D could shrink by two-thirds while the AFRC is considering axing as many as 1,150 jobs. The omens are not good.
The political logic behind the cuts is persuasive. The Government argues that if private industry profits from the results of scientific work, then private industry should be prepared to pay for that work."
What industry will pay for research into consumer safety when all that that will do is to decrease that industry's profitability? That is, however, what free-market monetarism means. We are supposed to believe that the Ministry will enforce legislation. But that implies state control--the testing and the sampling of farms and producers. Who will do that? Will it be the veterinary service? The Government are closing two veterinary schools--Cambridge and Glasgow. Will the industry pay? I doubt it.
How can the Government claim to be turning green but at the same time believe in free market capitalism--the dogma of which implies the exploitation of any market to its cost-effective limits? That is an especially obvious nonsense in a complex 20th century situation of public health.
What further delights of free-market choice have we to come? Will there be more listeria and clostridium botulinum cases? Will we see bovine spongiform encephalopathy spread to humans and become an epidemic? Will we see a reduction in standards of water quality--so that the Government can sell off a monopoly with more liabilities than assets--resulting in an epidemic of cryptosporida or enteric viruses?
The free market is a 19th century myth, and to apply it to 20th century food production is bordering on insanity. The report has illustrated that fact graphically.
Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West) : In strict response to the subject of this debate as to whether the cost of this intervention scheme was good value for the taxpayers, I must say that I believe that the money spent was essential and gave good value to the taxpayers and to the consumers. Apart from anything else, it stabilised the egg market. If there had been panic slaughtering of chickens, there would have been a massive drop in production and we should not only have had imported eggs, with all the dangers that that implies, but the price of home-grown eggs would have soared. I believe that it was the Government's responsibility to find that money because it was as a result of a Minister's blunder that the matter blew up in the way that it did. In
Column 813my view, the Government were liable and it was right that they should come forward with the money. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) agrees with me. He said that £3 million was expensive, but had there been a panic slaughter of, say, 25 per cent. of the chicken flock, there would have been a massively increased surplus of cereals. I have it on reliable authority that the extra cost of storing those cereals and buying them into intervention would have been £110 million, rather than the £3 million that the hon. Gentleman criticises.
Dr. David Clark : To make the matter quite clear, when the Minister introduced the claim in December--the hon. Gentleman will recall this as I believe that he was present--we supported the Minister, who had no alternative, because we feared the import of eggs and poultry from countries where conditions would not be so good as those in this country.
Mr. Marland : I thank the hon. Gentleman. It is helpful to have that cleared up. I wanted to make the point about the £110 million as against the £3 million. Fair is fair--I will accept the hon. Gentleman's point if he will accept mine.
There is no point in reiterating what has already been said about the report. I confirm that we on the Select Committee considered its contents very carefully. Like others, I am grateful for the remarks that have been made about the effort that we put in on this and I add my words of good will and my compliments to the Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), whom I think one can describe as being in most cases fair and firm. I hope that our report has brought some sense of order to the situation and will help to get things into proportion and serve as a useful background document to any further consideration of salmonella in eggs or micro-organisms in food generally. The report attempts to show the way forward.
The report highlights the fact that Ministers have a responsibility to be measured in their actions and in their responses to any situation. I do not believe that since 3 December Ministers have done anything wrong. The hype and hysteria and the genuine desire of people to know what the situation is have focused a great deal of attention on the whole subject, which in itself has demanded instant attention and cried out for instant action. But instant action in this situation is not possible--we have to find out the facts before the Government and Ministers pontificate on the subject. People are confused and they want a guide as to what is safe and what will happen in the future.
The Government's action and speed of reaction to the correct information have been highlighted and complemented in the lead article in this week's Farmers Weekly, which gave the Government eight out of 10 for the way in which they responded to and handled the Southwood report on bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Such a high score from a magazine not usually disposed to write complimentary things about the Government is a great credit to my hon. Friend the Minister. The magazine's only reservation is one that I share--it felt that if farmers found that their animals were suffering from a notifiable disease and informed the Ministry they should have 100 per cent. compensation for slaughter. I agree because it is all too easy to slip an animal into the market if one thinks it is showing any signs of a notifiable disease
Column 814before one has to notify it. It would be sensible to give 100 per cent. compensation and I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that.
I emphasise again that the Government need a steady hand when dealing with these emergencies. We have seen the damage that hype and hysteria can do. We have also seen, with other measures that the Government have taken to try to give guidance to the public, that if things are dealt with quietly and steadily they can be effective. The introduction of seat belts and warnings against smoking, alcohol and AIDS, for instance, have been handled gently and steadily and people have gone home, considered what has been said and acted accordingly. I do not think that hysteria is the way to deal with such matters. For all their self-righteous indignation, members of the Labour party--with the exception of those on the Select Committee--have contributed little of value to the debate. I do not remember their ever acting in the consumer's best interest. Throughout this whole episode they have fed the nation's worst fears with scurrilous remarks which have absolutely no foundation. Saying that the Ministry of Agriculture is in the pocket of the farmers is about as accurate as saying that the Department of Energy is in the pocket of the coalminers. The nation deserves a steady hand, and I believe that that is what we have both at the Ministry of Agriculture and at the Department of Health.
We need full details of research, and perhaps more research. A review of Government research and the publication of that information would be most helpful. With the benefit of hindsight, if the Government publish this information for goodness' sake let us try to do a better job than we did with the publishing of Sir Donald Acheson's advice on what to do about eggs. If ever I saw a diabolical advertisement, that was it. [ Hon. Members :-- "Scaremongering."] That is a matter of opinion.
As the Select Committee report states, we need an information and education campaign for cooks, whether private or commercial, male or female. In a recent Which? report published earlier this week in most of the national newspapers all manner of dangers were revealed. It spoke of dog hairs in the kitchen, cats on the washing up, dirty dishes left in the sink, inaccurate defrosting of food, wrong storage of food that is not defrozen and the inaccurate setting of refrigerator temperatures, all of which can induce salmonella in food.
I know of a friendly vet in Gloucestershire who has done some experiments on listeria to see whether and how it is controlled by cooking. He injected listeria into meat and then took two similar samples. He put one in a conventional oven and cooked it in the normal way. This killed 99 per cent. of the listeria, as he found when he tested the sample afterwards. He cooked the other sample in a microwave oven. When he tested it, he found that only 25 per cent. of the listeria had been killed. This is very important. In their own best interests, the public should be told these things and how to handle a microwave oven. I also know an intelligent grandmother who proved the point by putting her grandchild's milk in the microwave oven to heat it. The top part of the bottle of milk was nice and warm, probably a little over body temperature, and the bottom was still stone cold. Luckily she knew what to do and fed the baby the milk only when it reached a steady temperature. But that proves that microwave ovens need careful handling.
This is not a finger-pointing exercise, but I believe that the people of this country want to know the truth. I
Column 815wonder if schools could have more of an input into teaching young people how to go about cooking. Years ago we used to learn domestic science, but sadly that has now been dropped from too many schools and the children learn something else. Boys as well as girls should be taught. We are moving into new systems of food production which necessitate different handling of food in the kitchen. There must be a new regime of food preparation and a new awareness of the dangers of prepared foods. Changed circumstances necessitate new guidance. Many supermarkets are being thoroughly responsible in highlighting the way in which their customers should store and defrost food, but we still need more information --information rather than direction. I should not like to see the banning of green-top milk or soft cheeses, wherever they come from, because we could be banning shellfish next. Conservative Members do not want to live in a nanny state--we want information, not direction. The Opposition like direction and nannies, but that is not how it is with us.
The problem should not be underestimated. People both within and outside the House want information and guidance. Being a practical person, I intend to do what I can to get information to feed to my hon. Friend the Minister and the Department of Health. I am doing that by having a public meeting in my constituency on 22 March. I have invited a local doctor, a representative of a supermarket chain, with whom I came into contact at Gloucester chamber of trade and commerce, a microbiologist from the public health laboratory in Gloucestershire Royal hospital, egg producers from Day Lay in Monmouth and an environmental health officer. I, of course, will be in the chair. I hope that we shall receive some interesting information from the meeting and I shall pass it on to my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that we can all depend on him and his colleagues to do the right thing with it.
Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles) : It is with great pleasure that I join with other colleagues who served on the Select Committee in complimenting the Chairman on his deft, sensitive and, happily, at times lighthearted handling of the Committee. I also thank and compliment the clerk who served the Committee, his assistant and the advisers and others who served so expertly and did a tremendous job behind the scenes to produce the report. It was with great satisfaction and some pride that I served on the Committee and participate in tonight's debate.
The Select Committee report is very important, not just in its subject matter, which clarifies the position on salmonella and eggs, but in establishing the powers of Select Committees. The Committee handled a politically sensitive topic in a unanimous way. I also pay tribute to the courage shown by Conservative Members who served on the Committee ; they did the Select Committee system a great service.
Rather than go over the ground of the report, I shall comment on the Minister's opening speech this afternoon. His speech was empty, and his various excuses to try to explain away the report's criticisms were unconvincing. The Minister cited the difficulty of achieving Utopia on earth as an excuse for some of the Government's failures
Column 816and incompetences. When a Minister starts explaining his failures by saying that there is no such thing as Utopia, it is a sign that he is in trouble.
Another excuse used by the Minister and other hon. Members who have spoken was that it was not fair to criticise the Government using the benefit of hindsight, and that certain matters could not have been anticipated before the Government acted. However, some of the report's most telling criticisms cannot be excused or deflected by talking of the benefit of hindsight. There was no hindsight involved in the Ministry's failure to prevent eggs from farms deemed responsible for food poisoning outbreaks from entering the food chain. It simply failed to take the necessary action. Likewise, it is no use saying that it is only with hindsight that one realises that the Department of Health should have issued advice to the public at the same time as it issued advice to the National Health Service. The vulnerable groups concerned were at large in the public as well as in NHS hospitals.
Paragraph 60 of the report deals with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Government's failure to take the statutory powers necessary to prevent feed found to be contaminated with salmonella from being sold. That does not involve hindsight, either of the Committee or of the Opposition Members who have criticised the Government. As the report states,
"the action should have been taken several years ago."
The Government cannot hide behind the excuse of hindsight. The third excuse that we have heard from the Minister and Conservative Members is to concentrate attention on what the report describes as skilful handling of the intervention package. The Opposition gave credit where credit was due and agreed that the intervention package was handled skilfully. The Minister chose to dwell on that at great length in his speech. However, to use that as an excuse for the earlier failures--
Mr. Macdonald : I think that the Minister dwelt on that topic with a great deal of relief and loving attention, thereby hoping to deflect some of the report's criticisms. For the Government or their Back-Bench defenders to try to use that argument to exempt the Government from criticism is like a motorist who has knocked down a pedestrian claiming credit for skilfully administering the kiss of life afterwards.
We must consider--as does the report--the earlier problems and failures that led to the crisis which necessitated the intervention package. At least the Minister is here to defend his Department. It is a cause of great regret that no representative from the Department of Health is present, even to listen. The report covers that Department's failures and shortcomings as well as those of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It would have been sensible for a Minister from the Health Department to be present to hear some of the comments made by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the failure of the Health Department and the Secretary of State for Health's inadequate response to the report's criticisms of him. He has tried to brush off some of the criticisms as being ridiculous and preposterous.
When I raised the question of the Secretary of State's responsibility in an earlier debate on a similar topic, the
Column 817Secretary of State tried to deny any failure on his part or that of his Department. He said that there was nothing wrong in the way that his Department had handled the difficult task of explaining to the public what was meant by the then junior Minister's statement on 3 December 1988. The Secretary of State said that the appropriate person to handle the matter was the chief medical officer and that no blame should be attached to him or to the Department for the way in which the affair was handled.
That still strikes me as somewhat mysterious. If there was nothing wrong with the way in which the Department of Health handled the fallout from the 3 December statement, one wonders why the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South was allowed to resign. If, on the other hand, she was right to resign, surely the Secretary of State must carry some of the blame, because he was her superior.
This is where I differ from the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen). He rightly attacked the cavalier attitude of the Secretary of State to the criticisms made of him in the report, but he was wrong to insert a wedge between the responsibility borne by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South and by the Secretary of State, because the responsibility for the crisis and failure of communication was shared by both. The right hon. Member for Shropshire, North said that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South should carry a political health warning, but, although her original statement was undoubtedly wrong, as was her refusal to correct it, the Secretary of State was equally wrong in his handling of her statement. Hereafter he, too, should carry a political health warning.
One of the things that strikes me about the comments that the Select Committee saw fit to make about the Government's handling of the salmonella problem was how much they parallel criticisms that we made in an earlier report on Chernobyl. Then, as now, we found a slowness to act and delays in taking vital decisions. Then, as now, we found confusion and lack of co- ordination between Ministries. On both occasions we found a failure to inform the public in time or adequately. Perhaps if the Government had taken our earlier criticisms to heart they would have avoided falling into the same mistakes on this occasion--but they did not, and they still do not. The Minister mentioned the salmonella control programme being undertaken in Sweden. I asked the Minister a parliamentary question about that this week. I understand that the Ministry sent some officers to Sweden to examine its salmonella eradication and control programme. I understood that a report had been prepared on the programme and on its success or otherwise, and I asked the Ministry to deposit that report in the Library so that hon. Members could have the benefit of some of the information on which Ministers rely when making statements. Unfortunately, the Ministry responded that it would be inappropriate to place the report in the Library for the benefit of hon. Members. After all the problems and travails that the Ministry has undergone because of its failure to be open, such secrecy is deplorable.
As I have said, many criticisms parallel to those that have been made of the Government on this occasion are to be found in earlier reports such as the one on Chernobyl. There is, however, one vital difference. One of the causes for the Government's mishandling of the affair has been what some have termed their cosy relationship with the producers. This is not a broad -brush criticism ; I do not say that the Government enjoy a cosy relationship with all
Column 818producers. I sometimes regret that they are not more sympathetic to some producers. But if we contrast the Government's intervention package after the salmonella egg scare with their handling of the rescue package after Chernobyl, the cosy relationship with the egg producers can clearly be seen.
Tonight, the Minister said that the Government were determined that there should be no half measures about the intervention package for eggs, but when it was a question of compensating the hill farmers who were affected by the Chernobyl fallout the Government took the line that the farmers would have to accept some rough justice. The contrast is obvious--
Dr. David Clark : Before my hon. Friend leaves Chernobyl, and in order to emphasise his point about obsessive secrecy, may I ask him whether he is aware that the Ministry of Agriculture is holding a public meeting tonight in Cumbria to explain to the farmers in the restricted areas the results of the aerial survey? The only trouble is that the Ministry has not supplied copies--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. By decision of the House, the debate must be confined to salmonella in eggs. Has the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) concluded his speech?
A group of producers in Scotland who do not enjoy such a cosy relationship with the Government are the fishermen, who have been affected by the quota cuts in haddock and cod. Another group are the hill farmers, who will lose out under the sheepmeat regime. When these cases have been brought to the Ministry's attention, it replies that it will have to assess the effect on their incomes retrospectively--no question of rushing in with an intervention package of £19 million to help fishermen or hill farmers in Scotland.
The lesson to be learnt from this episode is that ordinary people who do not possess the economic clout of the large
producers--fishermen, small hill farmers and ordinary consumers--cannot look to the Government for protection. They can look only to the Opposition for protection and support.
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : Earlier in the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) alluded, in a witty and informative speech, to the proceedings before the Select Committee that produced this report. In one respect he was in error. He said--I think that I quote the substance of his comment accurately--that if a Member of this House appeared before a Select Committee and did not answer its questions, there was nothing that the Select Committee could do about it.
Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop : I am sorry, it appears to have been the Chairman of the Select Committee. However, I think that hon. Members will find that it was also said by my right hon. Friend. The comment was not correct.
This House sets up Select Committees by an Order of the House and empowers them with their terms of reference. If a Select Committee's inquiries fall within
Column 819those terms of reference and if it finds it cannot continue its inquiries to the point of the production of the report, either because a Member of this House refuses to attend or because a Member of this House does attend, but refuses to answer the questions that the Committee puts to him which are within its terms of reference, it makes a special report to the House stating those facts. The Leader of the House is then, by convention, bound to move a motion from the Dispatch Box ordering the hon. Member concerned to attend the sitting of the Select Committee at a time notified by its Chairman and there to answer to the satisfaction of the Committee--not to the satisfaction of the House--the questions that the Committee addresses to that hon. Member. The position is not obscure ; it is clear. Select Committees are chosen by the Select Committee of Selection, not by the normal channels. The House, which sets up the Committees to do a job for it, grants them the power to do that job. It is perfectly true that the Chairman cannot issue a witness summons to a Member of either House, as he can to anyone else. The remedy that applies to a Member of this House, which does not, of course, apply to a Member of another place, lies in a special report. It is then the duty of the Leader of the House, who moves the motion in the first place setting up the Committee, to move the motion in the name of the House directing the hon. Member to attend and to answer the questions put to him or her. It is as well that that should be put on the record.
I read the report carefully, as soon as it come out. My judgment is that the Committee had discharged admirably its duty to the House. It would have been easy for it to produce a report lacking in precision or lacking in scope. It avoided both of those pitfalls and the whole House has reason to be grateful to the Committee and its Chairman for their industry and also for their lucidity, both of which can be seen in the report.
May I also commend the Committee's use of heavy type, which makes it easier to identify the recommendations from the general text. I want to focus on section (vii) of the part of the report which is headed "Countermeasures". It is of crucial importance, and I was disappointed that my hon. Friend the Minister, in responding to the Committee's report on behalf of the Government, ignored it. It is an important section and is headed "Imported Eggs". It says : "S. enteritidis is not confined to Great Britain, but the Government's present powers do not allow it to prevent the importation of infected eggs as readily as it can ban imported protein."
May I mention in passing that the treaty of Rome allows importation bans if they are bona fide for the protection of health? If we are not talking about the protection of health, we are not talking about anything at all. It is clear to me that bans on infected food fall within the bona fide protection of health provision. I imagine that that would be so even after 1 January 1993, which is so often referred to as 1992, as I must say for the avoidance of doubt. Importation bans are a necessary protective measure.
I now come on to a part of the report in heavy type.
said our Committee, because it is a Committee that reports to the whole House,
"that MAFF study how far imported eggs are contributing to the present problem ; and whether any tighter restrictions are needed."
Column 820The report then goes back into normal type and the Committee tells us :
"Since the UK is not alone in the European Community in having a problem with poultry-borne salmonellas"--
and here the report continues in heavy type--
"MAFF should press for Community initiatives to prevent the trade of infected products ; and should hold similar discussions with other trading partners."
There are good precedents for such a step. For a long time, we have been concerned that two EEC countries in particular--Holland and West Germany-- have been sending pork meat products to this country that are so lightly cooked that they have caused outbreaks of disease in our pigs, when discarded sandwiches and food, inadequately recooked, have found their way into the diet of pigs. There is nothing new in saying that we need to intervene in the EEC to raise the standards in other countries. However, the last observation in bold type that I quoted does not remove the necessity for the first. Unless and until the other EEC countries adopt measures and enforce them--the one does not necessarily, alas, entail the other--which will result in salmonella-infected eggs not being exported to the United Kingdom, we are perfectly entitled at the moment, as I read the treaty of Rome, to ban them at the port of entry. However, in practical terms, that could be done only if the eggs were inspected, because nobody will know whether they are infected unless they are inspected. It is here that we come up against the difficulty that unless and until we have a national inspection scheme, funded nationally on the Estimates that we are discussing today, we shall not have effective control over imported eggs. As this excellent report says, the only way in which one can tell whether an egg is infected is by penetrating its shell and testing what is inside. That is not in dispute. There must be, therefore, extensive sampling of imported eggs.
Such sampling would be far too much of a financial burden to impose on inspectors paid from the rates, which are rigidly controlled by the Government. That is why it must be a task adopted by central Government and charged to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or to the Department of Health. I said that in last Monday's agriculture debate, but it is wholly relevant to the debate today. Effective import controls to prevent the ingress of disease will not be achieved at bargain-basement costs. All the money that the Department is spending on controlling this disease will not achieve the confidence in this product of the consumer unless the market is protected from the infection of salmonella-bearing imported eggs. I do not believe that many consumers notice whether they are buying imported eggs. If they get salmonella poisoning from eggs, as far as they are concerned they are getting it from eggs, and eggs are eggs. It is no good asking them, "Are you sure that it was not an imported egg?" They will attribute it to a failure of the measures taken by the Government and the industry.
Let me say how glad I am that my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super- Mare and his Committee also focused on the importance of hygiene in the catering industry and in the home. People do not smell their own breath. If they get salmonella poisoning from an egg, the last thing that they will believe is that it is because they cracked the egg on a dirty draining board in case it leaked out, and that from that draining board--which had previously had raw meat on it and had not subsequently been cleaned with disinfectant or boiling water--the egg
Column 821picked up salmonella. They will be convinced that the salmonella must have been in the egg when they bought it. They may have beaten it with an egg whisk which had been lying on the draining board before being used. Why? Because the draining board is a convenient place to wash up.
These are important considerations. I do not suppose that I am the only Member to receive letters from constituents who applaud free-range eggs but decry the Government for not preventing salmonella poisoning. What has become clear from the report, if it was not clear before, is the significantly increased risk of salmonella in free-range eggs, which are exposed to the droppings of wild birds which may themselves be infected.
Apart from that, as the report points out, if the eggshell is dirty with the faeces of the hen that laid it--which is less likely in the case of battery hens, because their conditions are designed in such a way that it does not happen--there is a greater likelihood that the eggs will be contaminated at the moment of breaking.
The report makes useful reading not only for Members of the House of Commons but for women's institutes and mothers' unions, so that the message about home hygiene--whether it relates to eggs or to many other forms of food--is at last really appreciated. It may not be glamorous, but it is necessary if the public expenditure that we are discussing today is to achieve its final objective.
Finally, let me draw attention to the cost of inspecting flocks. If blood tests are to be taken, that could well be very expensive. I imagine that a separate needle will be required for every bird, for the same reason that separate disposable needles are now used when different people are given blood tests or injections by their local general practitioners. If the test on one bird is not to give a false result resulting from the test on another, the procedure is likely to be very costly.
If the cost is borne by our producers, whose eggs will be priced out of the market, the United Kingdom produced eggs or the imported eggs which do not have to bear the cost? As the imported eggs carry a much greater risk of infection, is it in the interests of the consuming public for the cost of the tests to be borne from central Government funds, or should it be borne by the producer, with the result that people must eat untested imported eggs?
I think that the question answers itself, as important questions so often do if we put them clearly and logically. The message that must reach the Treasury from the debate is that a significant amount of increased public expenditure will be necessary if we are to protect the integrity of the food chain--from the food delivered to the producer to the birds producing the eggs, and subsequently to the shops where the eggs are sold and the homes or catering establishments where they are consumed.
Catering establishments are not just cafeterias. As I queued for 10 minutes yesterday to pay for my petrol at a motorway service station, I watched fascinated as for the whole of those 10 minutes the door of the refrigerator containing sandwiches was left open while a girl put in packets of sandwiches, removed the prices and re-priced--I hope that that was what she was doing--the sandwiches already inside. The door of the refrigerator, a cabinet, was open for all the time that I was there, and the
Column 822House will be interested to learn that there were egg sandwiches within. The final part of the food chain may be in a cafe or restaurant ; it may be in a home ; but it may also be in the self- service cabinets that are now to be found all over the place. If we want value for money from the additional public expenditure involved in preventing the consuming public from becoming infected with salmonella, those are some of the aspects that we shall have to watch.