Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 520 - 522)



  520.  Do you think that would give an advantage to smaller abattoirs?
  (Mr Attenborough)  If they wanted to practise it, yes.

  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-enforcement—and we are seeing this, we are aware, with the Meat Hygiene Service at the moment with new charges coming through—you 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 risk.


  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 see—and I have not seen, maybe it is not in the public domain—a 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.

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