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The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): The Department has a wide-ranging food surveillance programme to protect consumer safety, food authenticity and the nutritional quality of the UK diet. During 1998, it spent more than £10.5 million on those surveys, carrying out more than 190,000 analyses on more than 63,000 food samples.
Mr. Hall: I thank my right hon. Friend for her helpful answer. Does she agree that what she has outlined represents the sensible steps taken by the Government--as promised at the general election and including the establishment of the independent Food Standards Agency--in order to make our food safe and more nutritious, and to restore consumer and producer confidence, thereby strengthening the economy and boosting our exports of food products?
Ms Quin: My hon. Friend makes some important points, particularly on building consumer confidence and ensuring consumers that we are taking the issue of safety standards as seriously as we are. I am delighted that, just before Prorogation, the Food Standards Act 1999 finished its passage in the other place and in the House, after we considered further amendments, paving the way for the agency's early and successful establishment.
Ms Quin: As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the appointment is a matter for the Department of Health. We are very confident, however, that the arrangements being made for the agency's establishment will help to ensure consumer trust and confidence, about which the Agriculture Committee and other hon. Members have been very concerned. We are also pleased that both the Government and the agency will be committed to openness and accessibility of information, as the sharing of information is a very important part of building consumer confidence.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): On the subject of food safety, will the Minister tell us whether it is true, as reported in The Mail on Sunday--[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Labour Members will undoubtedly be delighted to hear whether it is true that European inspectors have not inspected a single Thai chicken factory. Is it also true that Ministry of Agriculture officials have inspected Thai chicken farms and found problems that have not been resolved? How much longer will British producers have to compete with lower standards overseas, and British consumers have to accept importation of sub-standard products from countries that do not have British standards?
Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that national and Commission experts work closely together, and write reports for each other, so that informed decisions may be taken on suppliers from third countries to European countries. I confirm that our officials and Commission officials have both investigated those issues, to ensure that European consumers are protected. The situation, however, is on-going: we cannot have a once-and-for-all investigation. We have constantly to make checks--not only in liaison with authorities in the countries concerned, but in investigations made by Commission and national authorities--and to monitor, in the interests of our consumers and European Union consumers generally.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): Food labelling rules are harmonised at European Union level and apply to home and imported produce alike. We are pressing for a number of improvements in European Union rules and consulting on improved national guidelines aimed at clamping down on labels that mislead consumers about country of origin.
Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman should know that we are going through that process now, in consultation with the industry and the European Commission. Labelling is partly a matter over which we can have national influence, and partly one where there is European Union responsibility. I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Ministry in promoting clear and accurate labelling. I have discussed this matter with the pig industry recently, and we are determined to clamp down on misleading labelling and to make sure that food that is described as British actually is British.
Gillian Merron (Lincoln): Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents would like to buy British products in recognition of the higher quality and higher welfare standards of British food producers, but find it difficult to do so because of labelling that implies that a product is British when it is not? What can we do to assist consumers in my constituency and across the country?
Ms Quin: We hope and expect that the verification officer we have appointed precisely to deal with this issue will be successful in his work. He has already had important meetings with supermarkets and others in the food supply chain. The Government's record on labelling is excellent and contrasts strongly with the lack of effort of the previous regime to get labelling systems in Europe or to consolidate labelling systems at home.
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Will the Minister confirm that much of the meat sold in this country--whether it is poultry meat from the far east, pigmeat from Holland or Denmark or meat from illegally fed cows from France--is produced under conditions which are against the law here? Why do the Government not think it necessary to draw that to the attention of consumers on the label?
Ms Quin: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman checks on the rules because he does not seem to know them. Meat coming into Britain has to conform to European standards. I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman on the "Today" programme a couple of days ago, and he simply does not seem to understand the moves that have already taken place in the European Union on the labelling of beef, for example. I suggest that before he asks other questions on this subject, he checks out the facts first.
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): The Government have further deferred plans to charge industry for the cost of specified risk material enforcement until 2002-03 at the earliest. In
Mr. Marsden: Hard-pressed farmers in Shropshire will welcome the waiving of SRM charges and the fact that the working group is reviewing farming regulations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government seek to reduce red tape for farmers, unlike the last Tory Government who, while they scrapped 77 MAFF regulations, introduced 331 new ones? Do not the Tories say one thing and do another?
Mr. Brown: And they then change their minds and say something else--we are all familiar with the scenario. During my stewardship of this office, I am determined to bear down on the regulatory burden on the industry and to make certain that regulations are proportionate and justifiable.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): The Minister will be well aware of the consequences of the regulations imposed on the beef industry, as they affect the pig industry--the pig industry has been the innocent victim of controls imposed on the beef industry. He has been given a long period of notice. If he would authorise the dedication of pig-rendering offal plants, it would help the industry financially and would mean no extra cost to the taxpayer. However, at least 18 months after this suggestion was first made, there has been no progress. Does he recognise that by the time there is any progress, a lot of the pig farmers to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) referred will have gone out of business? This inaction by the Government is not acceptable.
Mr. Brown: It is important to point out to the House that the regulations that the hon. Gentleman denounces were introduced in 1996 under the Conservative Government. Nevertheless, as he knows, I think he is on to a good point, but it is not fair to say that the Government have done nothing. I have already approached SEAC--the Government's advisory committee--once on the issue to see whether the rules could be relaxed, so that some commercial value could be returned to the sector for the pig farmers. SEAC said no, so I have gone back to it, together with the Meat and Livestock Commission, to try to find some way to get trade back in a way that is acceptable to the Government's scientific advisers. The report that I have submitted with the MLC will be considered by SEAC at its meeting this month--by which I mean November.