Food Hygiene

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Mr. Heald: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about supporting particular traditional farming products and developing new ones but it is important that there is a level playing field. I hope that he agrees with that.

Richard Younger-Ross: I am all for a level playing field for those competing on the same football pitch—apart from those who used to play at Yeovil, which had a steep slope—but the import is that the very small people are not playing on the same football pitch. They are competing on a local level, not trying to take on the big food manufacturers. We can give them as much help and assistance as possible without undermining or upsetting the big players. I want to see more competition and more people coming into the market, rather than help for those who already have a near-monopoly in some sectors.

Still on the subject of common sense, I return to the regulations on bivalve molluscs. If we have national regulations, as we currently do on bivalves, the interpretation of them puts the UK at a disadvantage. I hope that the Under-Secretary will resist, at every opportunity, allowing those doors to open. Several people have come to me, on a regular basis, saying that they have been disadvantaged by that interpretation. That is one particular sector, but other sectors suffer equally badly because of such regulations.

The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) has mentioned meat imports. That subject is very important and is a matter of enforcement; if we are to have new regulations that create a level playing field in the EU, they must be adequately enforced. The UK farming industry is suffering because of meat imports, including poor-quality imports. I hope that the Under-Secretary will ensure that adequate monies are put into enforcement and that we have the people at the ports to carry out inspections. The numbers of such people has been cut, year on year on year, for the past 10 or 15 years.

11.44 am

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): I am grateful for being called. I should like to make a few points, largely

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to reinforce what various Members have already said. On the whole, we welcome the proposals. We have heard that 4.5 million people a year suffer from food-borne disease, more than 750,000 of whom have to consult their doctor, and that there are 50 to 60 deaths from food poisoning each year. That costs the national health service an additional £350 million a year. That is money that we want to try to save, at a time when we want to see as much money as possible going into the NHS, as long as it is well spent.

There is a point that we are missing on the preparation of food, although it might not be a subject for this morning. It is a great pity that we are not re-introducing the teaching of food preparation in secondary schools. Many people leaving school have absolutely no idea at all of how to prepare a wholesome meal, which can lead to complications in later years, not least in terms of personal hygiene.

I regret that there is no mention in the proposal of the preparation and monitoring of airline food. Airlines bring food from all over the world and perhaps some of the less good airlines reheat unused food, which is taken off to another country, not always in a controlled environment. Several people have suffered after eating airline food. I would like that subject addressed in any future debate on this topic.

We have discussed additional problems and costs for the farming community, something dear to my heart. Although I totally support the farm-to-fork principle, I think it worth spending some time addressing what we, in turn, are trying to encourage farmers and small producers to do; to diversify and to think of new ways of bringing products to the market, for example through farm shops and farm markets. Can the Under-Secretary tell us how she thinks farm markets, for example, can be properly monitored, given that they have what amount to basic stallholders? If one stallholder does not come up to the required standards, how does that affect the farm market as a whole?

We are nervous about additional red tape. We have heard nothing about food prepared to meet religious demands. In short, I am keen on the consistency of regulation and implementation. There is no doubt that there is still a feeling that there is one rule for them and one for us. If the proposal goes any way towards mitigating that feeling, it will be of tremendous benefit to all involved.

There is, perhaps, a different culture on the European mainland in terms of the presentation of food for sale. We are moving towards that through farm markets, although we have some way to go. Some time ago, I was talking to a butcher in Exmouth who was complaining about the hygiene standards that he had to meet in his shop, the regular inspection and the cleanliness of his tiles. He was comparing that to butchers in France, where he had just been, whose meat is on the pavement but who, although traffic goes up and down emitting noxious substances, seem to be unregulated, so far as he could see. We have some way to go in overcoming the suspicion that there is still, in a real sense, one rule for them and one for us.

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We have talked about meat production in this country and the trade in illegal meat. The different standards of meat are a very real problem. I am worried that the excellent document on the subject really refers to the importation of products of animal origin from third countries. It mentions

    ''the hygiene conditions of production, manufacture, handling, storage and dispatch actually applied to products of animal origin destined for the Community''.

It talks about the

    ''assurances which the third country can give regarding compliance or equivalence with the relevant health conditions'',

and refers to

    ''experience of marketing of the product from the third country''.

That is all fine if we are talking about regulated mass importation, but often we are not. We are talking about the personal importation of meat, which could contaminate the food chain. Who is to say that that has not happened in the past? I worry that we are still not doing enough.

Richard Younger-Ross: It is quite remarkable that when one goes abroad, particularly to America, there is a big list, and one is quizzed on what one is and is not allowed to bring into the country. In the UK, there is no one to say what one can and cannot bring in.

Mr. Swire: Indeed; that is a good point, which warrants further debate. Some years ago when we were not perhaps as aware of these things as we are now, I was given some biltong—dried meat from South Africa—as a gift, which just came through into this country in somebody's luggage. I fear that more exotic substances may now be coming in; we have heard of dried monkeys being brought in from the African continent. That poses a health hazard and could contaminate the food chain.

I largely support the document, but I seek further reassurance from the Under-Secretary that, as regards the personal illegal importation of meat products, more will be done to check baggage—particularly from countries where we suspect such products to originate—to enforce fines and to create a deterrent to stop the products from entering the United Kingdom.

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Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): I reinforce the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) about illegal meat imports. When we deal with food safety issues, we must consider those areas that are transgressing the most.

The majority of manufacturers and retailers in this country produce products of high standards, and market them to a high level. The problem largely lies with the illegal import of meat. Recently, we have seen products on the streets of London being dished out from the back of transit vans. That poses a real hazard, particularly to those who are most vulnerable. We have heard reference to deaths by food poisoning; they probably represent the tip of the iceberg, in that the vast majority of food poisoning episodes are never reflected in the available data.

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Hysterical remarks have appeared in parts of the excitable press about a plethora of epidemics, from ebola to yellow fever, resulting from illegal meat imports. The people who write them probably have a flimsy grip of epidemiology. However, a more reputable source, Professor Joe Brownlie, a pathologist at the Royal Veterinary College, believes that illegal imports pose a grave risk. He said:

    ''We don't know what, if any, viruses this meat contains. It could be foot-and-mouth or it could even be some human virus like tuberculosis.''

That is a slightly more realistic assessment of the threat posed by the products. The overwhelming problem is posed to individual, not public, health. Generally, we are talking about low levels of illness, but a lot of it nevertheless. I should like the Under-Secretary to focus on that because it needs to be addressed more than the directives under discussion.

In dealing with the directive, I should like to emphasise a few points, most of which have probably been made already. My constituency is a rural place with many small towns and few large outlets for food. It predominantly has small outlets, such as farmers markets and stalls in ordinary markets, which peddle food at a low volume. They are what one might call traditional-reinvented, and have sprung up in recent months and years. My concern is that they may not be defined as traditional—in the way in which a French market that has existed for hundreds of years would be—even though they are selling traditional goods made in a traditional way.

My question to the Under-Secretary regarding the definition of traditional products was driving at that point. I would be grateful if she would bear in mind that we need to define ''traditional'' in a way that will not disadvantage small traders, particularly those at the farmers markets that have sprung up relatively recently but can properly be defined as traditional, like some of the outlets on the continent to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon referred.

I remain concerned about the differential legal costs that might result from the directive, particularly the costs that might be borne by small outlets relative to larger outlets such as Tesco, Asda and all the rest. There is no doubt that the regulatory burden falls more heavily on smaller outfits and has a greater effect on their viability. My concern is that farmers markets, for example, might find themselves at a disadvantage with respect to larger outlets. We might have before us a set of regulations that favour the interests of the larger rather than the smaller retailer, and I think that everyone in the Committee would find that regrettable.

We have touched on the third proposal. In a sense, it is probably wrong to be debating a proposal that is being withdrawn, but I am concerned that we should focus on re-establishing a level playing field. There is widespread concern in this country that there is no such level playing field at present, particularly for the inspection of abattoirs. I suggest to the Under-Secretary that this is a good opportunity to try to re-establish the competitive basis of the food industry in this country.

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In summary, I broadly welcome the proposals and hope that the Minister will take up the opportunities that they offer. I feel strongly that further work needs to be done to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises do not suffer in comparison with their large competitors.

11.57 am

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