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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Pesticides (Maximum Residue Levels in Crops, Food and Feeding Stuffs) (England and Wales) Regulations 2000

First Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 30 November 1999

[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]

Draft Pesticides (Maximum Residue Levels in Crops, Food and Feeding Stuffs) (England and Wales) Regulations 2000

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Pesticides (Maximum Residue Levels in Crops, Food and Feeding Stuffs) (England and Wales) Regulations 2000.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Stevenson. This is the first occasion on which you have chaired a Standing Committee that I have attended. It is a particular pleasure because we are colleagues, not only in the House, but previously at the European Parliament.

The regulations introduce maximum residue levels for a new fungicide called azoxystrobin. More fundamentally, they consolidate the original Pesticides (Maximum Residue Levels in Crops, Food and Feeding Stuffs) Regulations 1994 and five sets of amending regulations into a single statutory instrument.

The regulations are made jointly under the European Communities Act 1972 and the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. The former provides powers to introduce MRLs adopted as part of the European Community's programme to harmonise residue levels throughout the Community and I shall say more about that shortly. The 1985 Act provides powers to introduce national MRLs pending the adoption of harmonised Community limits. The introduction of MRLs under the 1985 Act is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It is the fact that the regulations carry forward the levels established under the Act in the 1994 regulations that has led to today's debate.

The regulations extend to England and Wales only and the Welsh Assembly approved them in draft on 10 November. Separate regulations will be introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the substance of the regulations is the same in all devolved Administrations.

MRLs are an integral part of our system of controls on pesticides. They are not safety levels, but set the maximum levels that apply when giving approval for the use of a pesticide. They are set at levels below those that are safe for consumers, so there is a difference between the MRL and what is believed to be a dangerous level for consumers. That is an extra safeguard.

MRLs are based on so-called good agricultural practice. That means using only the amount of pesticide necessary to control a particular pest, disease or weed. It reflects the maximum allowable use of a pesticide according to its label directions. Most MRLs are set at levels below the maximum level allowed from the health point of view. That helps to ensure that pesticide use is reduced to a minimum.

Most of the MRLs in the regulations originate from European directives. The European Community has embarked on a programme that aims to establish individual MRLs for each different pesticide on each of the crops for which it is approved. When there is no approved use of a pesticide on a particular crop, an MRL set at the so-called limit of determination, which is the lowest level that can be measured, is put in place. That makes it possible to take legal action if a pesticide is used on a crop for which it is not approved.

There are nearly 11,000 individual MRLs in the regulations—Committee members who have seen the regulations will believe that. They consist largely of an extensive numerical schedule, which makes them a highly technical piece of legislation, although they have important practical purposes. Their technical nature means that if a Committee member questions me on an abstruse technicality, I may need to pray in aid unseen forces or respond in writing.

The main ministerial responsibility is borne by Baroness Hayman, who has been concerned to meet the all-party group on organophosphates, which comprises hon. Members from different parties, and who is keen to continue dialogue on such matters.

The core of any system of pesticide controls is a rigorous approvals system that lays down which chemicals can be used on which crops and stimulates precisely the conditions, such as rates and timings, that apply. Linked to that approval process is the establishment of MRLs to control residues in crops.

The Government run a major annual surveillance programme to check for pesticide residues in food. That involves collecting between 2,000 and 3,000 samples of food per year from retail outlets throughout the United Kingdom and testing each sample for a variety of pesticides, thereby generating up to 90,000 analytical results a year. The programme currently costs £1.7 million per annum. We use the results of that programme together with the MRLs that are established in the regulations in three main practical ways.

First, we can check that regulatory decisions on pesticide approvals have been soundly based and that the scientific assessment reflects what is actually happening in the field. Secondly we can check that farmers are using approved pesticides in accordance with those approvals and that there is no misuse. Finally, we have a standard against which to judge imported produce where we clearly cannot control directly how pesticides are used. The regulations in effect provide a benchmark for us to do all those things. They also allow us to take enforcement action where necessary. I will return to that point later.

Maximum residue levels are established on the basis of crop trials in which a pesticide is used according to its approved conditions of use. Under the European system, for major crops such as wheat, eight residues trials in two different seasons are required. On the basis of those trials the maximum residue level likely to occur in the crop is provisionally established as the MRL. That is checked to ensure that the level poses no risk to consumers. If it does so, such use is not approved, but if it does not, the MRL will be confirmed and introduced into legislation.

The regulations also contain enforcement powers. There are no new provisions: the powers have been carried forward from the 1994 regulations. We believe that they are appropriate.

The surveillance programme that I described earlier showed that residues that are above the MRL are uncommon, that they occur in domestic and imported produce, and that there have been occasional repeated breaches of an MRL. In that situation, we take enforcement action and collect samples directly from growers or retailers with a view to prosecution. The regulations provide for fines of up to £5,000 on summary conviction and unlimited fines on indictment. If necessary, they also provide for produce with levels above the MRL to be seized and destroyed.

MRLs are a key element in the Government's pesticide controls and an important part of our wider food safety arrangements. I believe that consolidation of the current statutory instruments will help all who work with the regulations, and I commend them to the Committee.

4.40 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I echo the Minister's words of welcome to you, Mr. Stevenson. Sadly, this is the first time that I have served on a Committee under your chairmanship, but I am sure that it will not be the last. I look forward to repeating the experience in future. I also welcome the Minister to the Committee. I believe that this is the first statutory instrument with which she has dealt since moving to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I see that she is nodding her head. Certainly, this is the first Delegated Legislation Committee in which I have opposed her from the Opposition Front Bench; had she participated in other such Committees, I am not sure who would have opposed her. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who I assumed was responsible for agriculture in England, told the House an hour or so ago that in fact she is the agriculture Minister for England, so I congratulate her on that as well. I wonder what responsibilities are now left to the right hon. Gentleman, but we shall find out in due course.

Clearly, there is a need for maximum residue levels. The Minister is right to say that they are a key part of the regulatory process for approval of pesticides in this country. The industry should be congratulated on the fact that last year more than 98 per cent. of tested samples had low MRLs; 73 per cent. had MRLs of zero. That shows that the vast majority of food in this country is safe. To judge by the Minister's comments, as far as UK producers are concerned, the chemicals have been applied in accordance with label guidelines. I shall deal with one or two possible examples to the contrary in a few moments, but it is true that the vast majority of British farmers and growers are using pesticides wisely. That is another reason why the pesticides tax proposal is crazy.

What is the relationship between MRLs and safety levels? The Minister implied that, as we know, they are not the same thing: MRLs are arrived at through proper use of the chemical and through testing the food product residue. She rightly pointed out that the chemical is then tested for toxicity and, if it is proved to be dangerous, it will not be used in that way. Nevertheless, there must be a safety margin; there must be a relationship between the MRL and what is considered safe. For example, if an MRL of three were arrived at through proper use, but it was known that an MRL of, say, six could prove potentially toxic to humans, would an MRL of three be permissible? What multiple would be used? I suspect that a factor has been established about which the Minister can tell us. It is not simply a question of eating one apple or one serving of peas; we must consider the cumulative effect of residues in the human body. The Minister referred to the results of field trials, but how is the effect tested in safety terms?

The Minister also referred to enforcement. Naturally, I welcome her statement that between 2,000 and 3,000 food samples were tested by the working party. I understand that last year 2,187 samples were tested. I can read the Minister's press releases—even if she cannot—in order to obtain that figure.

A vast range of food groups is covered—the staples of bread, milk and potatoes, all fruits, vegetables and cereals, and some animal by-products. Reading through those various items, one sees the names of fruits and vegetables that some of us have probably barely heard of. One has only to look at the long list of potential active ingredients in schedule 1 to appreciate that, having done the sums, one would end up with a fairly small sample of any one commodity—green beans, say—that might be tested, because of the vast total number of possible permutations.

I am sure that the Minister accepts that there is widespread concern about the level of inspection of imported food. I am certainly not suggesting that all imported food is somehow inferior to British food. It is not—most of it is perfectly wholesome and meets our requirements. However, there is little doubt that British consumers, and especially British producers, suspect that imported food is not subject to the stringent tests that are applied to domestic products. I hope that the Minister will explain a little more about the inspection and testing process as it applies to imported food. What proportion of imported food is physically tested, and what proportion is tested only by checking the paperwork?

I am concerned about the testing of imports for residues of products that are banned in this country. I would be the first to accept that the Pesticides Safety Directorate—with which I had contact on a professional, prior to a political, basis—must consider issues other than food safety alone. It must also consider the environmental impact and efficacy of any particular product. However, food safety is a critical, and ultimately the most important, aspect.

If a product is banned from use in this country for food safety reasons, how can any MRL be acceptable in imported food? Pears provide an example. The press release about the annual report of the working party on pesticide residues that was issued by the Ministry on 16 September states that

    ``Residues of chlormequat in imported pears were found above the statutory maximum residue level.''

That refers to a statutory instrument that laid down a limit for pears of 3 mg per kilo of chlormequat. The press release continues:

    ``Residues were also detected in some UK pears which suggests non-approved use of this pesticide as it is not permitted for use in the UK on fruiting pear trees.''

The Minister said that the use of MRLs allows enforcement in the UK. That is perfectly reasonable, and no doubt she will be taking the necessary action on those samples that showed a residue in UK domestic products. However, I should like to challenge her as to how she can justify banning such a product in this country—because any residue is clearly unacceptable—while an imported pear can carry 3 mg per kilo of the same active ingredient. Can she explain why it might be acceptable to eat an imported pear with that MRL, but it is not satisfactory to eat a comparable British pear?

The press release also refers to a monitoring programme to allow legal action against growers and retailers. Again, what about importers? A product that is tested because it has been taken off a supermarket shelf somewhere in the country could, if it is an imported product, be part of a consignment that is spread far and wide across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Indeed, much of it could already have been sold and consumed. Can the Minister return to the point about the testing of imports?

I am concerned about competition. The list contains not only crop protection products but ones that can be used directly on animals, and certainly many that can emerge as residues in animal by-„products. Why is it then acceptable—as in the case of the pears that I have described and also in the case of a number of the other active ingredients{**mrl**}to import foods containing residues of a chemical that is banned for use in this country?

The purpose of those chemicals is to control weeds, pests, diseases and parasites. They are by their very nature a husbandry tool that is beneficial and cost-effective to the producer. If they were not, the producer would not use them. It stands to reason that a British producer who is banned from using such a chemical is at a commercial and economic disadvantage compared with overseas producers who are able under their national law to use that active ingredient and then to import it to the United Kingdom.

This issue is magnified by the question of grey imports, and by the fact that pesticides that are not permitted here are sometimes approved for use elsewhere. Furthermore, a British producer might wish to go to France or somewhere else in Europe and purchase the same pesticide much more cheaply than he could here, except that British regulations prevent him from doing so, even though most farmers would suggest that the products are identical.

I do not wish to put words into the Minister's mouth, but I suspect that she might respond that she understands my point about competition, but that EU law prevents us from banning the imports of many of these food items—as long as they meet the European Union's MRLs, we are prevented from banning them, even if they are banned from use in this country. I will happily withdraw that suggestion if the Minister challenges me on it, but I want to take the opportunity to rebut the point before she has made it, because it has certainly been made by others in her Ministry. It is a weak response to the cares and needs of British consumers and producers, but even if we accept it at face value, how can she justify different rules for British producers? I return to my earlier point that a chemical residue has the same potential toxicity whether it is on a plant grown in Britain, Bangladesh or Botswana.

If the Government are determined that European Union law should prevail, how can they justify British law being different from EU law on these issues? They are not protecting the British consumer by maintaining that position, but they are disadvantaging the British producer. It is a no-win situation for the MRLs and rules on pesticides to be different in the United Kingdom from those in the rest of Europe, unless those in this country can be enforced and imposed on all imports. That is clearly not the case at present. I look forward to the Minister's response on that matter.

The Minister also referred to organophosphates. I do not wish to make a great deal of this, and I am aware that the report was published—or, at least, released to the Library—last Friday, as a result of a written parliamentary question. However, I would be grateful if she could say a little more about the report, and especially about the conclusions of the working party that looked into the use of organophosphates. They recommended more research in a number of areas, which I shall not detain the Committee by describing in detail.

The Minister announced in her written answer that she is consulting a number of other Government advisory committees, but I hope that the Government accept the need for more research, and will immediately commission that research so that we can obtain answers to the many questions that the report raises. There is widespread concern and a great deal of disappointment at the report. I am not criticising it, because I do not have the knowledge to challenge the eminent people involved in it, but the Minister will be aware of the widespread disappointment that it did not come out more strongly regarding the potential for low-dose poisoning of regular users of OPs in sheep dip and so on. Will she confirm that that research will be commissioned without delay?

It is probably clear from my earlier comments that I have no intention of voting against the order. Some serious questions remain to be answered, however, and I hope that the Minister will respond as soon as she has the opportunity.

4.55 pm


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Prepared 30 November 1999