Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 680 - 699)



  680.  They are in pig meat production which was discussed before the House this morning.
  (Mr Rooker)  Pig meat production is a very good example. It was one I was going to refer to. How can I put it: the idea that we are going out of our way currently, let alone under the Agency, to put more onerous conditions on British food manufacturers than our European partners is something I do not think holds up. Clearly in the case of BSE and its aftermath we freely admit we are. There is no meat and bonemeal available for feed and I do not think in the very near future that will be the case. There are no animals going into the food chain, cattle that is, over 30 months old. I have to say British pig meat producers had eight years to get ready. This Parliament freely voted for the legislation in 1991 I think it was. It is true that we have got a voluntary arrangement. This is the kind of thing that would happen in the future. Where there are differences we would try and get a voluntary arrangement with those importing food particularly where it is animal welfare considerations to try and get equal treatment with our importers and that is what we will try and do. We have not got a Single Market in every single item. Much to my astonishment I found we had not got a Single Market in chocolate when I arrived. This was one of the issues we had over milk chocolate and the arguments there. There are some still loose areas even relating to Britain's membership relating to 1971. The idea is to get a Single Market where we have got a common set of rules within the European Union on food standards and food law including labelling. That is the objective of the exercise and we can do some aspects of this by regionalising our foods as well as important marketing aspects in terms of the labelling in terms of what you can claim and what you cannot claim. We are making progress. It is going forward rather than backwards. Pig meat is a good example but it will be some years before we can persuade our European partners to operate legally the same rules we have got here. However, as we know, the big importers, the supermarkets, have given a commitment that they will not import pig meat into this country that is produced to lesser welfare standards than required in this country.

  681.  That is fine on welfare standards but we are talking about health protection.
  (Mr Rooker)  The issue with pig meat is welfare standards; it is not the quality of the meat.

  682.  In Continental Europe meat and bonemeal can be fed to pigs but they cannot be fed to pigs in this country on the grounds of health protection.
  (Mr Rooker)  That is right.

  683.  What can the Food Standards Agency do on the grounds of health protection, if it agrees with the United Kingdom Government's policy which effectively it has got to do, to prevent pig meat coming into this country which is fed on meat and bonemeal?
  (Mr Rooker)  Nothing at the moment. The reason for this is that this is a BSE enforcement measure. This is not something in the normal run of the mill in terms of food safety. Let's be serious. I am not saying you are not being serious but the fact is we have had 174,000 recorded cases of BSE. The next highest country in Europe is about 250. I am not sure about the current figures for Portugal where there is a ban. We have got a meat and bonemeal mountain in this country which we have got to get rid of which is well over 300,000 tonnes simply because we do not allow cattle into the food chain over 30 months old. That is still the case. We have got some unilateral rules in this country, the SRM controls, because Europe refused to bring them in on beef imports which we implemented ourselves because, as we freely admit, we were not prepared to have beef coming in unless it had followed the same SRM controls and we do send consignments back. I would not like that situation to exist for any longer than it has to but given the fact we want the Food Agency up and running, if we can, before the middle of next year, it is likely that situation will still be around. That will be a legacy of BSE. That is not a central issue of food safety and standards with respect.

  684.  Let's take something that has not got anything to do with BSE, growth promoters in poultry. We are bringing in poultry from outside the European Union which have been fed growth promoters. We have banned them right across Europe, we have certain banned them in this country and presumably across Europe as well because it is a EU Directive but is it for the Food Standards Agency on health grounds, which is the reason we banned them, to ban the imports of poultry that have been fed on growth promoters?
  (Mr Rooker)  No, in that respect it would be for the European Commission to try and get that because this is a European wide ban and also it is only four growth promoters. They call them dietary enhancers or digestive enhancers. They do not like the term growth promoters but I am quite happy to use it. We all know what we are talking about. The fact is those four were banned because of the human health risk with antibiotic resistance. The ban has not quite come into force at the moment. The concern of the agricultural ministers who decided that was what about imports from third countries into the European Union. They are going to address that issue in June (because that is when the ban will actually come into force) because they are conscious that we have imposed because that is when the ban will actually come into force, a ban on the use of a drug for animal feed for growth promotion which would put European producers, both pig and poultry, maybe at a disadvantage. It is not their intention that that continues and therefore the Commission will be asked to come forward with some proposals to make sure that produce into the European Union meets the standards of the European Union. You are absolutely right, it is very serious and very important and Nick Brown made that point when he made the statement about the decision on the banning of those four growth promoters.

  685.  What you are saying is that the Food Standards Agency in terms of health protection in this country could not take that decision unilaterally?
  (Mr Rooker)  No it could not because the decision was taken by the Commission, by the Council of Ministers and that is where the buck would stop, if you like. This would be a European Union decision you are talking about not a United Kingdom decision because that was the decision. It is European-wide in effect. It is what is coming into the European Union that we have to consider. Now the Food Agency would not have a role in deciding that. That would be for the United Kingdom Government working with our partners in the European Union. The decision would be taken at a different level.

  686.  What I am trying to get at is let's say the Food Standards Agency was existence, it had been involved in research into growth promoters, enhancers, whatever we want to call them, and had decided that they were a danger to public health protection and they had recommended to the United Kingdom Government that no poultry should be available for public consumption in this country containing those growth promoters. We have arrived at the decision by a slightly different route. You are saying they would still not have the power to recommend to the United Kingdom Government that we did that in the interests of protecting the United Kingdom consumer?
  (Mr Rooker)  They could publish the advice but for the United Kingdom Government to bring in a unilateral ban would leave us subject to proceedings from the European Union. We would have to have good scientific grounds for bringing in such a ban. If it was thought because of international——

  687.  You did it on beef on the bone imports.
  (Mr Rooker)  Sorry? What do you mean, beef on the bone imports?

  688.  Imports of beef are supposed to be off the bone, are they not?
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes.

  689.  So you have done that unilaterally.
  (Mr Rooker)  No, we did that with specified risk materials as well.

  690.  But you have done that?
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes.

  691.  And you are saying you cannot do it with poultry meat?
  (Mr Rooker)  We would have to have good scientific reason for doing it is what I am saying. In other words, what you are giving me an example of is if the Food Standards Agency actually discovered—the example you have given is a growth promoter—that a growth promoter was causing a problem with antibiotic resistance, this is essentially a matter for both the Department of Health and, of course, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate by the way because that was where the advice came from, it was not within the joint group, it came from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, that was the subject of international negotiation. If you are asking would it happen unilaterally here in the UK, if the Agency gave the Government advice based on some sound science that there was a problem the Government would actually consider that, decide whether to act or not, and if it did act it would have to report its decision to the European Union, to the Commission, that it had acted on this science, and put the science to the veterinary committees and to the food safety committees of the European Union to get approval for what we had done. It may be other countries find the same problem, hence you can sometimes get a collective decision and indeed a European wide decision. If you have got good scientific grounds to act yourself then you can do but you have to do so on the basis of some evidence which you then offer up to the Commission.

  692.  I hoped that we had introduced this ban on growth promoters on the basis of good scientific grounds.
  (Mr Rooker)  We did, that is why we got a majority in the Commission.

  693.  Therefore, I do not see why we cannot go to the next stage.
  (Mr Rooker)  Which is?

  694.  Which is to have a unilateral ban on third country imports.
  (Mr Rooker)  That is where the European Commission has got to have some discussions and think about our world trading obligations and argue the science at a global level rather than at a European level.

  695.  And the UK consumer continues to eat these products that you have already decided are inferior or a health risk?
  (Mr Rooker)  No, they are not inferior. They would not be allowed in the European Union. We have got these four growth promoters, and I am not going to try to pronounce them I have to say, Chairman, that there has been a debate about for a while. This did not pop up out of nowhere, the debate had been ongoing for a considerable amount of time. There have been other cases where the UK Government have gone to Brussels and have been in the minority where we have wanted to do something, maybe stop something happening, and have found ourselves in the minority. Part of the price of being in the European Union is that we accept the majority decision. Then we have to think about our own producers and I should imagine the French Government and the German Government and the other governments are just as good at thinking about their producers as we are of ours in respect of third country competition and third country imports. There is a whole set of rules and regulations involved in this which in some ways, while the food agencies will be involved to a degree, go way beyond the Food Standards Agency, they cut right across the whole of Government.

  696.  I am not going to labour this point any more, Chairman. I am going to conclude it as I see it. We have, at a European level, banned a series of veterinary medicines, growth promoters, whatever you want to call them, on the grounds of protecting public health.
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes.

  697.  But we cannot follow through, even though we accept those grounds, in banning imports that contain those growth promoters which are being consumed by consumers here.
  (Mr Rooker)  I just said it is not true to say we cannot follow through. What I said was the Commission and the ministers are going to consider this matter again in June with this very point in mind about what we do about third country imports into the European Union where these growth promoters have been used. It is not true to say that nothing is happening, this matter is of very serious importance to poultry manufacturers in the European Union which is why the ministers have got to address the issue and why the Commission has been asked to come forward with proposals.

  698.  Forgive me, Minister, I am not arguing here on behalf of the poultry manufacturers, I am arguing on the behalf of the consumers who are supposed to be protected by this Agency. We are saying that we cannot do anything to protect the consumer because we have to take a decision in the light of how it affects poultry producers at the European level. If this is a matter of health protection and we have taken a decision on the basis of the evidence that these things should be banned then surely they should be banned from all the poultry meat consumed in this country, not just the poultry meat which is produced in this country?
  (Mr Rooker)  That may in due course be what happens. I am not ruling that out.

Dr Brand

  699.  I was hoping I was going to be able to ask you some simpler questions. I want to concentrate on the structure of the Food Standards Agency. Today we have been given a couple of sheets listing all the various advisory committees on food related issues. Unfortunately it is a bit short of information. They all report to the FSA or others but it does not actually say who they are accountable to and who they have been set up by. Perhaps "report to" means something specific to the Civil Service. I really want to know something about accountability especially where you have got committees which report to at least three agencies and in one case four agencies.
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes.

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