Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 400-419)



  400. Can I lead on—and it may not be logical—to the question of food imports. Obviously this is crucial for everybody involved, particularly for farmers because of the consequences of swine fever and foot and mouth. The Government has identified that it is likely the infected meat came from abroad but is unable say basically when and where. You come out quite strongly on this. Can you say what weaknesses you identified in the current import controls that we have?
  (Sir Donald Curry) We state, as you say very strongly, that control at ports, points of entry needs to be seriously stepped up and there should be greater monitoring and greater enforcement. The evidence would suggest that other countries have much more stringent and more strictly enforced controls at the point of entry than we have here. Australia, New Zealand and the States have been cited as examples where controls are much stricter than they are here. We believe government has been lax in this area and needs to seriously strengthen their control. We heard from Mrs Beckett last week that the Government is now doing that and there has been a strengthening of control. If that is the case we welcome that. It certainly does need to happen.

  401. You talk in general terms here but what specific controls are you talking about? Are you talking about the fact there should be a strengthening of Customs & Excise, a strengthening of inspectors to deal with the health problem of imported meat? What do you have in mind?
  (Sir Donald Curry) There are two areas where we need to be rather more rigorous than we have been in the past. One is on the quality of the food that is legitimately being brought into this country, to ensure that it is being produced to the standards that we require, and that our food processing industry is obliged to conform to, and that the controls that are exercised in other countries are adequate. There is a need to monitor this sufficiently. We have had, thankfully, a few examples where good policing has identified spinal cord on carcasses over the last 12 months and that inspection needs to be rigorous. Of greater concern is the illegal importation of food brought in in suitcases and the like through airports and points of entry. People, passengers, tourists need to be scrutinised, I think, to a much greater extent for what they may be carrying into this country. That appears to be acceptable in other countries. They do not see that as an interference with free trade or the freedom of the individual. We need to have stricter controls through inspections at points of entry to ensure that we are not bringing in illegal meat that may be carrying infection and disease.

  402. You put in your Report that DEFRA "must draw up a sophisticated assessment of the risks of illegal imports, and then lead a cross-departmental approach to implement it . . ." I think a number of us are worried that DEFRA has the ability even to run itself let alone to lead a cross-departmental approach. Do you have any faith that DEFRA will actually be able to do this?
  (Sir Donald Curry) Clearly because Customs & Excise have a responsibility in this area, it is not entirely DEFRA's responsibility. What we are saying is where it involves other government departments, there needs to be a co-ordinated approach to this problem. It is not just a single department's a responsibility, so the policing and monitoring of this needs to be a government action. I hope that they will take this recommendation seriously and deliver it.

  403. Obviously there would be—and I think we are all agreed here on the measures that should be taken—extra cost implications in this. Were these extra cost implications part of the ball-park figure of about £500 million?
  (Sir Donald Curry) No.

  404. They were not?
  (Sir Donald Curry) We did not include the additional costs that might be incurred in more rigorous controls of points of entry.

Mr Todd

  405. I welcome this part of the report which is taken from, among other people I am sure, the things that I sent in. On the import controls one of the things that is absolutely clear is that there needs to be one executive authority to handle this matter. Keith hinted at that without drawing it out forcefully enough, that having it handled by the Port Authority, Customs & Excise and other agencies, depending precisely what you are talking about, produces this under-funded, quite often poorly legislated system. Some things which are clearly a danger to this country's health are not even subject to any penalty. You cannot fine someone or do anything about the offence that is perceived. Do you think that is one of the things that perhaps should have been brought out more forcefully and clearly in this Report, that there should be one executive agency to handle this problem and not the current confused matrix of bodies which we always tend to rely on in this country?
  (Sir Donald Curry) I hope that if the cross-departmental discussions take place as envisaged that that might be one of the outcomes.

David Taylor

  406. In my earlier question to you I referred to the small section of your Report which related to animal welfare and my disappointment that there had been relatively little research in that area. I am back to Keith Simpson's area of licensing again. You say that you are aware that a small minority of producers are operating well below the provisions of the welfare codes of good practice. Are we talking about the red meat area or the white meat area? Did you look at intensive farm production?
  (Sir Donald Curry) We would not want to exclude either. Both would be included within this concern we have.

  407. Is it your belief that that small minority is a rather larger minority when you look at certain white meat areas such as poultry production?
  (Sir Donald Curry) Can I correct something which you said earlier. We did talk at length with the Farm Animal Welfare Council and indeed had some work carried out by them for the Commission. So we did have some research commissioned by them —

  408. I stand corrected.
  (Sir Donald Curry)—Which was helpful. However, there is serious debate, of course, about space allowances and the like within the white meat sector. I would have to say that improvements in animal welfare standards need to be based, as far as it can possibly be, on sound scientific knowledge. For example, we conducted within MLC quite a lot of work on behalf of government into the transportation of animals and journey times and distances and the like. There is a very emotive element about this saying that animals should not be transported more than a few hours in the lorry and should be slaughtered as close as possible to the point of rearing. There is a huge amount of emotion but when you explore the stress levels scientifically on the movement of animals it is difficult to prove that the stress is any greater whether an animal travels two hours or ten hours. The greatest stress is loading and unloading. Any fundamental improvement in animal welfare standards should be based, as far as possible, on sound scientific knowledge of what happens, not on an emotive view that ten square foot is the space allowance. One needs to base it on, as far as possible, sound knowledge. We are recommending a review of the standards within the assurance schemes and that could include all of these issues, space allowances, etcetera, but it must be based as far as possible on sound scientific knowledge.

  409. I accept that. A final question Chairman. You recommend efforts to establish EU-wide agreement but the export of cruel practices, if I can call it that, is typically from non-EU countries. Some of the intensive poultry production is now being sourced in Thailand and in the red meat area Botswana and Argentina, so raising concerns on an EU-wide basis would not contribute much, would it?
  (Sir Donald Curry) I agree. Our poultry producers here find it exceedingly difficult to compete with poultry production in other parts of the world, particularly the Far East, and it is an important competitive factor. Standards that are required here by our retailers and food service sector should also be applicable to suppliers that are sought elsewhere in the globe. It is a thorny issue with food producers here that they are required to comply to a different set of standards and others may be free to import products that are not subject to the same rigorous standards.

  410. The point I am making is that this is an economic issue and should we be doing more to improve labelling and consumer awareness of standards that do exist in other countries from which we are sourcing? Would that not help farmers?
  (Sir Donald Curry) We have taken, quite rightly in my view, a positive approach to this rather than a negative, saying we need to promote our food as having been produced to best practice standards, and encouraging consumers to purchase our food because we can give them assurances which other food may not carry.

Mr Drew

  411. A very quick point that I hope encapsulates all the different arguments in this area. Surely DEFRA should be producing an annual report to the effect of just bringing forward the numbers of cases of illegal imports taken at the ports, and looking at some labelling issues in terms of what is being labelled, how it is being labelled. There are so many lists about because there is such a lack a information which people could then at least evaluate. Is that not something the Report could have highlighted even more trenchantly?
  (Sir Donald Curry) We want illegal imports banned full stop.


  412. They are banned.
  (Sir Donald Curry) We do not want to be exposed to the risks. We want barriers to prevent them from coming in in the first place is what I am saying. We state categorically that labelling needs to be much clearer and we feel very strongly about that.

Mr Mitchell

  413. I wonder about your recommendations on research. There is a plethora of bodies doing research in this area of food and farming but you recommend two more. You want a Priorities Board and you want an Applied Research Forum. Surely this is pie-in-the-sky, albeit locally produced "Curry pie-in-the-sky". You do not say anything about where the money is going to come from, how it is going to tie in with the existing research and whether farmers are going to contribute to this. All this is left unresolved. It is therefore a fairly naive recommendation, is it not?
  (Sir Donald Curry) No.

Mr Drew

  414. Paid for in euros!
  (Sir Donald Curry) We recommend that there is Priorities Board established for government funding of strategic and basic research. It is essential, in our view, that the government funding of research is influenced by industry priorities and indeed consumer priorities, and that there is a vehicle through which the determination of government priorities has within it industry representation, consumer representation and, indeed, one could argue, environmental representation, too, so the research priorities are properly set and influenced by what is regarded as priorities by these industry and stakeholder representatives. Government may—one assumes they are—trying to interpret now what the research priorities should be, but they should be honed by the influence of those who are actually closer to the coal face. It may be an extension of an existing forum but there is a need to have a Priorities Board that is influenced in such a way. The coming together of applied research bodies in a forum is an important link in this research chain in that currently there are many organisations funding applied research, the Levy Boards for example, but most of them operate within their own silos without being influenced by other sectors. We believe, in order to ensure that the research funds that are available are properly targeted and utilised to greatest effect, that there should be a debate which takes place between the various bodies that are responsible for applied research. Within a forum they should discuss what priorities their particular sectors have identified as needing funding and, where possible shared funding, and there will be areas to a much greater extent than there are now where there is shared responsibility for funding projects, so we get maximum benefit from the research funding that is available to us.

Mr Mitchell

  415. Your Report calls for measures costing around £500 million over the next three years to bring about a change in the direction of farming and food. That is not really likely, is it?
  (Sir Donald Curry) What, that we will get the money?

  416. That you will get £500 million from Gordon Brown over the next three years?
  (Sir Donald Curry) I think the case for funding this programme is a sound one. The industry is going through a period of immense difficulty. It has bounced over the last five or six years from crisis to crisis. To have an industry that is continually knocking on government's door saying, "We have a continuing crisis, we need another emergency aid package", is not a sustainable way to behave.

  417. You could say all that about manufacturing.
  (Sir Donald Curry) We need to get the farming industry back on to a sustainable footing. In the short term that will require additional resource to help it through the transitional period and we believe that the recommendations of the Report and the funding attached to it is justifiable. It will not be easy, of course, against the backdrop of serious pressures on public expenditure on the Health Service and defence, which were identified yesterday in the FT as priority areas, however in government terms this is a relatively small amount of money for the benefit it can bring. It is crucial to the industry and crucial that the modulation recommendation is seen as a component of this. We believe that levering out the funding that is needed to be able to offer some of the existing support, which after all is taxpayers' funds, will be helpful.

  Mr Mitchell: You can say all that about manufacturing and that makes a bigger contribution to exports and to economic activity and to GDP.

  Chairman: That is a statement; you do not need to answer it.

Patrick Hall

  418. Picking up finally on cost, Sir Donald, you talk about £500 million of new money, government money. Have you estimated the whole costs, including the existing funds that are applied and that you want to redirect and the costs that would be met by the industry? Is there a global figure, part of which is the £500 million new money?
  (Sir Donald Curry) Within the report, the modulation recommendation would add £200 million to that figure, which is the extent of the modulated funds over two years. We have attempted to calculate the cost to Government. It is difficult to calculate the cost to industry of all of the recommendations we make in this report but we know that substantial additional costs are going to have to be borne by the industry to implement the various regulations that have been signed up to, or are about to be signed up to by Government, which is why we have strongly recommended the environmental audit approach to minimise the impact of those costs. There is a need for the industry to play its full part in delivering the vision and the recommendations within this document, and for sections of the industry that will involve some cost but the cost is in order to get it on to a more sustainable footing and more profitable footing. That will mean in some cases investment to achieve that. It is very difficult to quantify that across the board

  419. Indeed difficult but perhaps something it might be helpful to think about. Could I turn to priorities, which does follow, and the point about Gordon Brown maybe not providing £500 million immediately or over three years. Where would you start? Is there an order of priorities amongst the 100 plus recommendations that are in your report?
  (Sir Donald Curry) Yes, there is. There is a need to discuss immediately with industry and stakeholders the ranking of these recommendations in terms of their priority. I am already having initial discussions with a number of key people on this subject. It is essential, for example, that the collaborative board is established as soon as possible in order to seriously accelerate progress in the area of collaboration/co-operation. It is essential that the food chain centre is established so we begin this process of supply chain analysis and benchmarking and we get those underway straight away. It is important we begin the process of reviewing our recommendations on research and development and look at encouraging development farms to trial research work, and we have those tools available. There are a number of other things. We need to begin the debate on the broad and shallow scheme and its components. We are encouraging the retail and food processing sectors to adopt the code of practice immediately, and there seems to be a willingness to accept that recommendation. There are a host of recommendations which we can introduce now with small amounts of seed corn funding from Government which are crucial to encourage our industry to look at market solutions to its problems and to begin to focus on the market place and drive this message of greater competitiveness, greater efficiency, greater focus through the industry now. It does not require hundreds of millions of Government funding to get that underway. We want to get that underway as soon as possible.

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