Food Hygiene

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Richard Younger-Ross: A number of food products contain an inherent risk, such as sheep-milk cheeses and green-top milk. Has the detail been thought through of what the impact of the regulation will be on those products? The consumer is aware of the risk of buying those products, and they are unsuitable for young children and older people in particular. I would be concerned that a risk assessment might be done and that, because there was a risk, they would be prevented from being sold. Can the Minister comment on that?

Yvette Cooper: That is one of the issues that need to be pinned down as part of discussions and negotiations, but my understanding is that where there is clarity, where proper risk management processes have been applied and where full information is available, the proposal is not about restricting consumer choice with regard to such products. I will be happy to clarify that further for the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Murrison: I am pleased that the regulatory impact assessment seems to suggest that there will be some reduced costs. However, one area gives me some concern, although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) will not agree with me. Where there is room for interpretation, there seems to me to be room for lawyers. At the moment, environmental health officers work to fairly didactic rules, and most people know where they stand. If we replace that environment with a more interpretive situation, where people have to justify what they are doing and the onus is on the retailer to decide whether what he is doing is appropriate, there might be room for lawyers to be involved. What assessment has the Minister made of any extra legal costs that will be involved for retailers and manufacturers?

Yvette Cooper: We are not aware that there will be a large increase in legal costs, although I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point that when there is a shift to a more interpretive and flexible approach, it potentially leaves more room for disagreement. It is very simple to say whether a washable wall measures 2 m, 3 m or 1.5 m—that is a clear statement of fact that no one can dispute. That is one of the challenges of moving towards a more

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flexible approach, but it would be ridiculous for us to be trapped in an approach that says that something must be 2 m, or whatever, simply because that is the simplest way to enforce and inspect a system.

The enforcement agencies, the food businesses and the Food Standards Agency will be required to do some work to ensure that interpretations are clear. That will be facilitated through the codes of good practice. It is clearly set out that there will be such codes, to inform different kinds of food businesses of what they need to do to meet the HACCP approach. That will reduce the likelihood of strongly different interpretations. The FSA wants the approach of the different enforcement and inspection officers to be to support businesses and work with them over what they are doing or not doing that might constitute a risk, and what they could and should be doing.

I agree that we need to be alive to what the hon. Gentleman mentioned but, in practice, we should be able to respond to it. If we are to modernise the way in which food businesses are inspected and can produce their food, so that they can respond to, and introduce, new technologies and not be hidebound by traditional restrictive procedures, the proposal is the right way to proceed.

Mr. Heald: The proposal mentions guides to good practice and states, in article 7, that member states can encourage the development of guides. Article 8 says:

    ''Where a Member State or the Commission considers that there is a need for uniform Community guides''

the Commission can consult and produce a Community-wide guide. The Food And Drink Federation supports the principle that, within a single market, there should be equivalent standards across the community. What is the UK Government's view? Do they consider that there is a need for uniform Community guides, or will they be happy with national ones?

Yvette Cooper: I think that there is a strong case for moving towards uniform Community guides, but that is a process that we shall work through. I think that it will come up in the discussions on the proposals as they proceed. Having standards that apply across the EU will be important in ensuring consistency but, equally, as part of the process and discussion leading to that, we might have greater flexibility in the shorter term.

Mr. Swire: The document contains a considerable amount about the training of hunters in health and hygiene, and the killing and transport of wild game to an approved establishment. I suggest that some of its drafting owes more to the tradition of our European partners than to our own. Given that some of it is draconian in the onus that it puts on small businesses, why is there little mention of fish? Why are the same principles not being applied to training for water bailiffs and those involved in river management? Surely that is equally important.

Yvette Cooper: That is very good question. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall reply in my summing up.

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Mr. Heald: The point that the FDF makes is that separate national guides could lead to non-tariff barriers to trade. Can the Minister explain how that might happen, how the Government will negotiate so that it does not, and what she views as the risks?

Yvette Cooper: The issue of barriers to trade is what the single market is all about. To have differently applicable codes of practice, which make for strongly different standards in different countries and create problems for producers, would run counter to the principle of a single market. We would therefore not support it. We will pursue the issue at official-level negotiations, and in the Council. I assume that the European Parliament will also need to consider it in its discussions.

Richard Younger-Ross: I am concerned that the Minister mentioned the words ''codes of good practice''. My background is in architecture, and building regulations are fairly short, but the guidance that goes with them is prescriptive. I hope that the guides to good practice will not also be prescriptive. It is important that they are Europe-wide, not just national, but where does the power of interpretation lie in the United Kingdom? Does it lie with the FSA, DEFRA, or some other body, and what powers of interpretation will be given to environmental health officers?

Yvette Cooper: The use of the guides to good practice is encouraged in the proposals, but the aim is that they remain voluntary not mandatory. Regardless of whether they are national or Community codes of practice, this is about informing the process of discussion between the business and the inspector, rather than about having a mandatory requirement.

The proposals state that the guides should be developed by the food and business sectors and representatives of other interested parties, including appropriate authorities and consumer groups. They make it clear that extensive consultation with the interests that will be substantially affected should take place. When we talk about Community guides, the proposals must be practicable for all sectors and interests. The process has plenty of scope for organisations, such as the Food and Drink Federation and different interest groups, to raise points and make clear their representations in relation to over-burdensome codes of practice and achieving consistency throughout the European Union.

Mr. Heald: On the impact of the document on small businesses, a point that was made in representations during consultation with the Food Standard Agency was that the documentation requirements to prove that HACCP had been implemented could be substantial. Can the Minister tell us about her negotiating position on documentation requirements for small businesses to prove HACCP implementation?

Yvette Cooper: The documentation requirements will vary from one business to another depending on the procedures that are operated; for example, they will be different for a corner sandwich shop than for a meat factory. That is an important part of having the

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flexibility to apply it to a particular process of production.

The documentation is important partly because businesses need to ensure that they are doing things properly—that they are checking the temperature of a refrigerator twice a day, or whatever it is that they need to do to ensure that the sandwiches are being kept safely. It is partly about facilitating the inspection process because it is not possible to shift the way in which the inspection processes work if the right sorts of documentation are not in place to support the HACCP process. If businesses cannot prove that they are doing that, it is harder for inspection to shift away from the prescriptive—''what are you doing? How high are the walls?''—to support of the HACCP approach.

Mr. Heald: Is it right that there are no particular requirements that have been worked out at the moment and that they are still in negotiation? If that is so, can the Minister tell us what the likely costs are for small businesses? I read the university of Wales institute research in the regulatory impact assessment. The costs referred to are all over the place. There is no clear picture of what the levels of cost for a small business might be. Later on, it describes the butcher's shop experience, with £1,000 to £5,000 needed for premises that are manufacturing and selling cooked meats. Does the Minister agree that there is a need to establish what the costs and documentation are likely to be, and to analyse the effects on small businesses so that the analysis can inform the Government's negotiating position?

Yvette Cooper: Part of the issue is that first, those matters need to be pinned down through the discussions and negotiations, and secondly, the right kind of flexibility needs to be retained for each sort of business. That makes it difficult to pin down exactly what the cost will be to a typical business.

There is no typical business because the impact on different sorts of business will vary. It will vary partly according to how much businesses are already doing in terms of the HACCP. For many, that is the sensible way of managing food safety, and is what they already should be doing. For those businesses there may be few additional costs, if any. For some, there may be additional savings because of the changes in the way that the inspections take place. For some, there may be additional costs because they may not be doing something. Issues of food safety then come into play. Evidence from local authorities, surveillance and different research shows that the HACCP process improves food safety and prevents all sorts of inappropriate operations from taking place and risks from being added to the process, so there are substantial public health gains in its introduction.

It is quite difficult to pin down the costs to a typical business. However, we need to carry out further work on supporting individual businesses, minimising the impact, and clearly assessing what it might mean for a sandwich shop, a small factory or a small retailer in different circumstances. We need to have more information about that, and the FSA has already been working to determine what sort of support small and medium-sized enterprises would need in order to

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comply. The FSA has been carrying out a lot of work on that, and on how to promote the HACCP approach. We need to carry out additional work, but it is something to which the FSA is alive.

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