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8 Jun 1999 : Column 480

Food Contamination (Belgium)

4.32 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): With permission, Madam Speaker, I want to make a statement on the discovery of the presence of dioxins in certain Belgian animal feedstuffs and food products, and on the action that the Government have taken in response to safeguard human health.

The Belgian Ministry of Agriculture first received information in mid-March that severe health effects were being detected in laying chickens. The problem was traced to fat manufactured in January by the firm Verkest in Belgium and supplied for the production of animal feedstuffs. Approximately one month later, the Belgian Ministry of Agriculture was informed that high levels of dioxins had been found in feed for breeding chickens and in chicken fat analysed by the company producing the feed. After further tests for dioxins, the Belgian Government initiated, on 25 May, discussions on preventive measures with the Belgian industry. The UK Government firmly believe that the Belgian Government should have acted earlier to inform trading partners of the problem.

Dioxins are a group of closely related chemicals produced during combustion and as unwanted byproducts of some industrial chemical processes. Dioxins are not acutely toxic to humans at very low doses. Thus the likely intake of dioxins from short-term and sporadic consumption of contaminated food is expected to be insufficient to cause harm. Nevertheless, sustained exposure to dioxins over a long period is potentially damaging to humans: studies relating to industrial processes show that exposure to high levels of dioxins over a period of 20 years increases the risk of cancer.

The Government's public health advice on this incident is that, although it is clearly undesirable to consume contaminated products, there is no reason to anticipate harmful effects from the consumption of those contaminated Belgian products which may have entered the UK market. Feed contamination is believed to have occurred over a period of less than six months, and Belgian food in the affected categories represents a very small proportion of total UK consumption. None the less, the Government have acted swiftly, in close and effective co-operation with all the sectors of the food industry, to take all the steps necessary to protect UK consumers.

We first received information on Friday 28 May suggesting possible contamination of some eggs and poultry produced in Belgium. We established immediate contact with the European Commission, which was holding urgent and detailed discussions with the Belgian authorities about the extent and nature of the problem. Although at that stage the Belgian authorities suggested that exports of potentially affected product to the UK were minimal, we immediately advised the food industry to check with its suppliers that such products did not originate from the affected Belgian farms.

On Sunday 30 May I personally discussed the issue with Commissioner Fischler in the margins of an informal meeting of European Union Agriculture Ministers at Dresden. There were further extensive discussions between the Commission and the Belgian authorities, and with the member states, on 31 May to 2 June. We maintained close contact throughout with the food

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industry, and specifically with a small number of companies which had sourced product in Belgium. The food industry acted quickly to withdraw potentially affected product.

On 2 June, in anticipation of a decision by the European Commission to prohibit the export from Belgium, and the sale in all member states, of poultry and eggs from the affected farms unless they could be shown to be free from contamination, the Government issued a food hazard warning on the action to be carried out by local authorities to trace all imports of eggs and poultry from Belgium. The European Commission decision was given formal effect on 3 June.

On 4 June, in anticipation of a further Commission decision extending the prohibition on export or sale to a further range of products--pork, beef and milk and milk products--I made two emergency orders under the Food Safety Act 1990 and section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 to give formal legal effect to the Commission's decisions for the full range of affected products. Parallel legislation has been made in Northern Ireland. The European Commission formally adopted its decision on pork, beef and milk and milk products on 7 June. The powers under the emergency orders made in the United Kingdom had been in effect since midnight between 4 and 5 June.

The emergency orders make full legal provision for the seizure and destruction of any products that violate the requirements. Local authority enforcement officers have been fully briefed on those powers and on the need to ensure that food businesses are in compliance. Those measures complement and complete the speedy and proportionate action already taken by Government and the food industry to protect the public. I believe those actions to have been proportionate and in line with the need to protect public health and guarantee consumer confidence.

Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that some non-EU countries, including the United States of America, Canada and Singapore, have taken steps to impose restrictions on imports of products from the EU. Although it is understandable that third countries should want to introduce restrictions on the import of Belgian products until the situation is resolved, it is disproportionate for other countries to seek to restrict imports from all the affected categories from all EU countries. There can be no basis on food safety grounds for such action, and it is deeply unfair to our domestic producers that they should, at least temporarily, lose their markets.

The Government are determined to continue to act with the food industry and local authorities to protect British consumers. Swift, proportionate action has been the Government's guiding principle since taking office, and it will continue to be so.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I am grateful to the Minister for making the statement so promptly in the House, and for making a copy of the statement available to me in good time this afternoon.

The overriding priority must be the protection of all British consumers, as the Minister says. However, the issue also affects British farmers, whose products are banned from the United States, Canada and other countries.

With regard to British consumers, we fully support the action that the Government have taken so far. Will the Minister say when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries

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and Food first knew about the problem? Does he agree that it is disgraceful that the Belgian Ministry of Agriculture was informed about it in the middle of March, but that Britain was not told of the possible contamination until 28 May? Is it true that other European Union countries, including Holland, were told days, if not weeks, before Britain? What protest has the Minister made to his colleagues about that?

Does the Minister agree that to be kept in the dark by European Union countries is a pretty poor reward for all the concessions that the Labour Government made in the recent farm policy reform talks? Is it not possible that British consumers were needlessly placed at risk by the failure of the Belgian and European authorities to inform Britain more promptly? What assurance can the Minister give that if similar future situations arise, he will be informed more quickly?

Does the Minister agree that the scare highlights the urgent and overriding need to improve the labelling of food products in Britain? Why are not British consumers told where food was grown, not just where it was processed? Will he require all labels to show, first, the country of origin of the food, and secondly, the method of production of that food? Does he agree that without that information, every customer in a British supermarket is buying blind?

Does the Minister agree that the effectiveness of the current food traceability system is faulty? At a time when British farmers are required to invest more and more to improve traceability, there seems to be evidence that others are not doing enough. Does he accept that until traceability becomes more foolproof, consumers will not have confidence in labelling?

The Minister calls for proportionate action. Why does he not apply that principle to the ban on beef on the bone? If the ban on beef on the bone is the Government's idea of proportionality, can we take at face value their claim that

--especially as it seems that until 11 days ago, the right hon. Gentleman did not even know of the existence of those risks? The Minister must not use proportionality as an excuse for inaction or complacency.

Does the Minister accept that in addition to protecting British consumers, he has a duty to protect and promote British agriculture? Does he believe that he has done so in this case? Does he agree that the current scare will strengthen the reasonable demands of British farmers to block imports of food produced by methods unlawful in Britain?

Can the Minister say how the proposed Food Standards Agency would help in such situations? Does he understand the fears of many British farmers and retailers that the agency will scrutinise them more closely than their counterparts abroad? British farmers are prevented from exporting to the United States, and the Minister says that that is deeply unfair. That reaction reflects his usual sympathetic response--but what does he intend to do about it? Has he a single proposal to make today that will end that outrageous discrimination against British farmers?

Is it not time that Britain's farmers and the countryside which they look after received some support from the Government? Is it not time we had a Government who

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worked for a fair deal for British farmers, not only for farmers abroad, and who recognised that a fair deal for British farmers is an essential part of achieving proper protection for British consumers?

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