Examination of Witnesses (Questions 177-179)
TUESDAY 2 JULY 2002
177. Minister, thank you for coming. You have
brought colleagues with you. It would be very helpful if you could
just introduce your officials and tell us what they do.
(Lord Whitty) Jill Wordley, on my right,
is Head of the Illegal Imports Unitthey are a great teamin
DEFRA, and Dr Marion Wooldridge is from the Veterinary Laboratories
Agency. She is overseeing the risk assessment and other work in
178. Let us start with that risk assessment,
because different groups of people have different views about
the amount of risk, or alleged risk, that comes from illegal imports.
I know this is an issue that the Department has been looking at
very carefully. What do you think the scale of the problem is?
What is the reality of this matter, rather than what you might
read in one of the newspapers?
(Lord Whitty) If I can make an initial stab at that,
and then I will ask Dr Wooldridge to explain the detail of the
assessment itself. Clearly, in a global market and as a trading
nation we are subject to the possibility of diseased meatand,
indeed, diseased plantscoming into the country. It is not
clear whether or not there is any increased risk in recent years,
nevertheless there is always a risk. The regime we had in place
and have had in place, more or less, for the period since the
Second World War did, of course, ensure or help ensure that we
had no serious exotic disease for 30 years. No doubt that regime
did contribute to that degree of safety in the United Kingdom.
On the other hand, undoubtedly in that period and undoubtedly
in almost any country, some illegal meat is imported and some
of that illegal meat will be diseased. Before the epidemic and
throughout the epidemic, we did point to the problems of border
control, but the far more important issue is if there is a risk
of that coming in, how do we stop it getting into the food chain
and, if it does get into the food chain, how do we stop it spreading?
Those, to us, were the more important challenges. That is why,
for example, one of our initial measures after the outbreak was
to ban pigswill containing meat products, which is now a European
position. That was a direct route for illegal meat into the food
chain. So we have concentrated, largely, on stopping it getting
in the food chain and stopping the spread of it in the food chain.
We also, I believe, need to recognise that there is a risk at
the border and we need to try and minimise that risk as well.
I am talking, primarily, perhaps I should explain, on the animal
health side. There are, of course, other issues involved here:
there are issues of public hygiene, which are primarily the responsibility
of the Food Standards Agency (although, obviously, I have an interest
as Minister for the food chain) and also issues of endangered
species, which has also featured large in some of the publicity
and some of the reality of the illegal meat trade, which is the
responsibility of my department. On the animal health side, our
main concern is to stop it getting into the food chain and then
to stop it spreading. This is therefore a follow-on, to try and
stop it getting in in the first place. What we have done within
the Department is to recognise that, to talk to other departments,
the agencies, the farming industry, about what the risk at the
border is. We have found it necessary to try and place that discussion
on a more scientific basis than has been the case in the past,
and we therefore commissioned a very thorough and I hope robust
risk assessment study and we asked the VLA to carry that out.
As I think you know, the end date of that is in September when,
hopefully, greater light will be shed on this issue. That does
not mean there are not measures we can take immediately and no
doubt we will be going on to, but we are awaiting this risk assessment.
179. We will come to the risk assessment in
a moment but, before we do, let us talk about the action plan,
which has been out earlier this year. You are a politician: how
do you feel it has gone down? Has it been greeted with acclaim?
(Lord Whitty) Not universal, I have to say!