Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520
WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999
ATTENBOROUGH and MS
520. Do you think that would give an advantage
to smaller abattoirs?
(Mr Attenborough) If they wanted to practise it,
521. Have you found any difference between
smaller and bigger abattoirs in their hygiene performance?
(Mr Attenborough) You can get a mix of performance.
I have seen small abattoirs which have excellent hygiene practices.
(Ms Browning) Taking up that point, one of the
problems with over-enforcementand we are seeing this, we
are aware, with the Meat Hygiene Service at the moment with new
charges coming throughyou may well be knocking out a lot
of very good small practitioners, which might mean that you are
having to ship cattle further for slaughter. This increases the
risk of E coli because this cattle is more likely to get
dirty. That is a very simple example. We are involved in working
with farmers who are killing their poultry on the farm, through
low output or derogated abattoirs, 200 to 500 birds a week. We
have not yet seen salmonella out of any of those units. This is
over a five to six-year period. Certainly in the case of BSE,
the centralisation of the feed plants was certainly a factor in
accelerating the spread of BSE. So small is not the only route
but it is a route that has to be allowed and encouraged. If we
allow this over-enforcement to knock out every small scale abattoir
in the country, we will be doing our food safety a great disservice
over time. We need to maintain the infrastructure. We do need
to make sure that there is somewhere that farmers can kill their
cattle locally and we need to be able to contain risk within smaller
units. You get an airport effect in some poultry processing. You
can get cross-contamination actually within the abattoir.
(Mr Attenborough) Both large and small processors
can have excellent hygiene practices. Hygiene approach can have
an influence on the bacterial count of the carcase. If you have
good practice in terms of, let us say, rodding and bunging, that
obviously has an effect on minimising the likely spread of certain
bacteria. Cross-contamination is another. These are good practices
which you build into your hygiene risk assessment called HACCP.
You can do it if you are small or if you are big. The hygienic
culture is what you do to improve performance and reduce and minimise
522. I am very conscious of the time. I
know we have other witnesses waiting to come in but there is just
one area I would like you briefly to answer. The question of this
flat rate levy: its effects on the wholesalers and retailers in
the meat industry. Also, at the same time as well, the possible
implications on current legislation that some sections of the
meat industry could end up with two lots of legislation. I wonder
if you could add a very brief response to that for the Committee.
(Mr Maclean) We hold the view that the charges
should paid by the Government, let us be clear, not by the industry.
We believe this is an area of public good and is an area that
during the stages we have described to you, the early stages of
building up the competence in this area, it is very important
that we have the confidence of the public. Therefore, we think
that is a very good reason for charging. The second is that we
believe it will penalise the industry. It is not a major amount
of money except to some small businesses starting up, but with
the enormous charges that Mrs Browning has just described it is
a serious consideration. The third and perhaps interesting point
for you to note, is that one of the objectives of this Agency
is actually to be sure that it does register and look after all
the food premises. Now we know from our colleagues in some parts
of the environmental health system, that the present mechanism
where there is no Draconian stipulation for registration of food
premises, in many cases food premises can be there without even
being known to the authority. Therefore, even the present legislation
cannot be properly implemented. If you put a £90 million
per premises charge across that, you are asking for that situation
to become worse not better. What we are trying to encourage here
is actually an improvement right across the board, including in
many of the premises to which I have referred.
(Mr Gill) The brief response would be that if
there is one case where everybody in the country benefits from
effective food safety legislation and is seen to have an authoritative
body, it is food. Any charge will affect disproportionately lower
income people because unless that charge goes it takes up a bigger
proportion of income. Furthermore, it is alarming to hear some
of the costs that have been attributed to the collecting of the
£41 million, which really makes a mockery of it all. The
Government should pick up the full cost of the Agency, which will
then ensure the full integrity of the Agency as being independent,
and that it is preserved in the public's eyes.
(Ms Browning) One way or another, the public is
going to pay for this Agency. That is the bottom line. I think
it is largely a political issue, to be honest. It is going to
cause a lot of problems out there with smaller retailers and trying
to mitigate against that. If you decided you wanted to recoup
some of it from food businesses, it may make them think again.
I think I would love to seeand I have not seen, maybe it
is not in the public domaina much more thorough costing
of the Agency; how it is going to be set up; what new funding
is going to be required; and what is coming across from the other
departments which are being included in it. This is because I
think it is very difficult to comment on exactly how it should
be funded until you can see the breakdown. It may well be that
certain parts of its work should be more publicly funded. It may
be, for instance, that some of the research work, if it is going
to do research work, should be funded in a slightly different
way. I think there are all sort of ways of breaking this down.
An overall charge is going to be resented and I think there may
be a more sensible way of approaching it, even though the amounts
are actually negligible even for small scale businesses.
(Mr Gardiner) Of course, we are talking about
£41 million, which is a current estimate, which the Government
Ministers have committed themselves to for the three years of
the Public Expenditure Round; but you should remember that the
Bill allows for recovery from the industry of the expenditure
of the Secretary of State or the Minister of Agriculture in connection
with the Agency and of the existing enforcement authorities, including
therefore all local government costs. If there is a flat rate
charge and all those in four years' time came on the industry,
everything which we said about the effects on the small business
would be magnified tremendously and the control problems, which
my President referred to, would become very significant indeed.
Chairman: I suspect
we will be pursuing that with other witnesses before the end of
this week, Mr Gardiner. Could I thank you all very much indeed
for coming along here this afternoon.