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Wednesday 24 April 2002
[Mr. David in the Chair]
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Yvette Cooper): The proposals in European Union document 10427/00 represent a much needed and important opportunity to overhaul European Union legislation on food hygiene.
As originally presented, the document comprised five measures. The first is a regulation on hygiene rules applicable to all food sectors. Of the five, it involves the most significant changes in approach. The second is a regulation on specific hygiene rules that should apply, in addition, to products of animal origin. It involves a lot of consolidation of existing measures. The third regulation, on official controls on products of animal origin, has been withdrawn and will, I understand, be presented by the Commission at a later date in a reworked form.
The fourth is a regulation consolidating existing animal health provisions on the marketing of products of animal origins. Negotiation on such matters is the responsibility of DEFRA, but it is predominantly a consolidation of existing measures. The fifth proposal is a directive to repeal existing legislation. It tidies up the legislation and directives that are affected by the previous proposals.
It is important to be clear that the proposals do not cover the prevention or control of BSE, which is the subject of separate legislation.
The proposals are under discussion. There have been extensive and lengthy negotiations Council working group on the first two proposals, both of which have also reached First Reading stage in the European Parliament Environment Committee. The third proposal has been withdrawn for further consideration and the fourth and fifth proposals are yet to be discussed.
I understand that the European Parliament's First Reading report is due to be adopted on 14 May and that it is the intention that the presidency of the Agriculture Council at the end of the June should agree a common position on that.
I should like, briefly, to cover the proposals. We are not starting with a blank sheet of paper. Much of this hygiene package is about delivering existing good practice and consolidating existing measures. Many food businesses already exceed the requirements of the new approach and, for most, the basics of day-to-day food hygiene practice will not change as a result of this recasting and simplification exercise. However, some of the additional elements in the approach are viewed by the Food Standards Agency as important, in that, compared with current legislation, they enhance the food safety assurances.
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The first proposal, which is on the hygiene of foodstuffs, applies to all food businesses. It is the cornerstone of the package. It extends to all foodstuffs the existing principles embodied in Council directive 93/43/EEC. The most significant of those are the paramount concern to protect human health, the use of measures based on HACCP principles—hazard analysis and critical control points—to control food safety, the use of industry guides to good hygiene practice to underpin compliance and the obligation on food business operators to ensure that only foodstuffs that are not harmful to human health are placed on the market. The important element of that is the introduction of a requirement for all food business operators other than primary producers to apply the HACCP principles.
HACCP is a structured food safety management system internationally regarded as the most effective approach to preventing food safety problems and is based on seven principles, systematically applied. They relate to the identification of hazards to be controlled and of the stages in production where controls need to be applied; the establishment of the nature and extent of the controls; the setting and implementation of procedures to monitor the controls in operation; the establishment of corrective actions to be taken where the monitoring process demonstrates a need; the verification that the measures are working effectively; and the establishment and maintenance of documentation to demonstrate the system and its effective implementation.
The first proposal also seeks to ensure that good hygiene practice is established throughout the food chain, starting with primary production. Primary producers will not be subject to the full application of HACCP principles; instead, the control of possible hazards in primary production will be addressed in codes of practice. Primary producers will need to follow good practice and to manage their operations in such a way that hazards are acceptably controlled. That is referred to as a hazard-based approach. The proposal also provides for the continuation and extension of the existing system of voluntary guides to good practice to help food business operators to comply with the requirements.
With the aim of improving the traceability of food, the proposal would require food businesses to be registered by the competent authority—including the allocation of a registration number to each of them—and to have adequate procedures to withdraw food from the market where there is an unacceptable risk to health.
The proposal would also allow flexibility in controls for small and medium-sized enterprises, such as those situated in remote or mountainous regions, and for the manufacture of traditional products. Member states could, under the proposals, grant certain derogations for those enterprises, so long as that was acceptable to the European Commission and did not compromise the overall objective of food hygiene.
The second proposal lays down specific additional hygiene rules for food of animal origin to complement the general hygiene requirements in the first proposal. Some of the existing legislation in this area is over
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35 years old. Naturally, it reflects the understanding of, and approach to, public health issues at the time when it was made. In general, that has meant a detailed, prescriptive approach to hygiene, with the imposition of specific standards for, say, the construction of premises, hygiene measures and production processes, which has not tended to keep pace with new developments in food production.
The proposal aims to reduce and rationalise the detailed prescriptive requirements applying to products of animal origin. Again, certain controlled derogations for particular small and medium-sized enterprises are proposed. To give the Committee an idea of the consequences of shifting from the prescriptive to the hazard-based approach, the new proposal would remove a significant amount of prescriptive detail from current legislation, particularly in relation to the construction of premises. For example, the current meat product legislation requires that walls have a washable, covered surface up to a height of at least 2 m. The new approach would make it clear that premises should be easy to clean, able to be disinfected where necessary and not be a hazard to the foodstuffs. That would allow individual businesses the flexibility to respond to their particular circumstances and the risk to their particular products, rather than obliging them to follow a prescription as to the height and texture of the surface.
As I mentioned earlier, the third proposal has been withdrawn. The fourth consolidates existing animal health rules for products of animal origin intended for human consumption. The overall objective is to prevent the spread of animal diseases resulting from products of animal origin. Negotiations have not yet started on the proposal. Overall, we support it, but there are points of detail that it will be important to clarify.
The fifth proposal repeals or amends the existing EU legislation, paving the way for the new approach.
The FSA has consulted widely with stakeholders with an interest in the food hygiene proposals. I understand that they have generally welcomed the strategic direction of the proposals, especial the farm-to-fork approach, the focus on hazard-based food safety management systems and the simplified legislation. Many respondents have raised concerns about the potential impact on smaller businesses, particularly about how the application of HACCP-based food safety management systems can be effective and proportionate in those circumstances. That is an important issue that we need to address during both the negotiations on and the implementation of the proposals. The views of the stakeholders have been taken into account in formulating the Government's attitude; we think that this is an important opportunity to establish integrated, consistent and effective legislation to underpin the safe production of all food. It is important that the legislation should be enforceable and proportionate to the risk to public health. We welcome the clarification that responsibility for producing food safety should rest unambiguously with operators, and that it should be based on the
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need to control hazards. We also welcome the fact that, for the first time, the proposals would clearly embrace primary producers within the farm-to-fork control continuum. Independent scrutiny by the enforcement authorities should provide the necessary checks to ensure that operators' controls are adequate and effective. There must be robust enforcement, and appropriate penalties if business controls are found to be ineffective to the extent that they may jeopardise public health.
Government policy has been to encourage the application of HACCP principles in all food sectors other than primary production; it has been so for a long time. In practice, most food businesses are already required to operate on the basis of five of the seven HACCP principles. In addition, there was a Government commitment to HACCP when the recommendations of the Pennington report were accepted following the serious E.coli 0157 food poisoning outbreak in central Scotland. The FSA has pursued those recommendations. In addition, the national legislation licensing certain butchers shops, which Parliament introduced following that outbreak, is conditional on those business operating on the basis of all seven HACCP-based principles.
It is worth trying to understand what the proposals mean in practice. On the one hand, some of our outdated prescriptive measures, such as those for wall heights, may be removed; on the other hand, we can focus on the actual risks involved. It will be made clear that businesses will have to take responsibility. Most food businesses are already obliged to operate the five of the HACCP principles under directive 93/43 on general food hygiene. The two additional principles are about verification and documentation, so that businesses can properly check what they are doing and to bring inspection and enforcement into line with the risk-based approach rather than simply enforcing prescriptions that may sometimes be irrelevant to the risks involved. We should also be clear that this does not involve bringing in detailed HACCP teams with expertise to every business. It applies the principles in way that is appropriate for each business.
The internationally accepted HACCP-based approach is flexible, and it can be applied proportionately to the nature of the risks inherent in any given food production process. There is no reason why small businesses in the UK cannot apply HACCP principles effectively. However, we should not underestimate the need for support. The FSA's view is that there is no reason why the application of HACCP principles should present an unjustified or unmanageable burden on small business enterprises, partly because many of them will already be applying a HACCP approach but also because a number of small business and small business organisations support the use of HACCP principles, including the National Federation of Meat Traders; so long as it is proportionate. Many will need assistance. The FSA are working on that, and the matter will be dealt with also in discussions and negotiations. We know from local authorities' surveillance activities that when businesses have effective management controls in place, the control of food safety will ultimately have
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an impact on consumers and public health will improve.
The regulatory impact assessment strongly indicates that the application of HACCP principles is not seen to present any great burden by small and medium-sized enterprises, and retail businesses consulted are already complying with the major elements. A realistic timetable for business to adopt a HACPP-based approach will be key. With that in mind, the FSA is already doing a lot of work to increase the uptake of HACCP principles.
The Government consider that there is scope to seek further rationalisation and simplification of the proposed requirements without comprising food safety, particularly in relation to the second proposal. The proposals for registration of food businesses, especially their application to primary producers, and identification and marking of produce to improve tractability will require further consideration, given that there is now an overlap in those areas with new EU regulations that lay down general principles of food law.
We have some concerns about the application of the flexibility proposed for producers in certain circumstances. The exercise of flexibility would need to be carefully balanced against the primary objective of safeguarding public health. A risk-based approach to managing food safety hazards could be applied to all establishments and could improve the safety of our food.
I hope that that sets out the scope of the proposals, the stakeholders' views and the Government's approach. Food safety is extremely important to consumers and they have a right to expect that high levels of protection will result from the proposals. Those are the broad objectives and I hope that the Committee will unite and support the motion.