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European Standing Committee C Debates

Official Feed and Food Controls

European Standing Committee C

Wednesday 29 October 2003

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Official Feed and Food Controls

2 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Miss Melanie Johnson): With the Committee's permission, I shall invite Members to ask questions now.

The Chairman: We now have until 3 o'clock for questions to the Minister. I remind Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for all Members to ask several questions.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): May I ask the Minister about the paperwork and bureaucracy that will accompany the measure? As she will know, many in the farming world believe that over-regulation is unnecessary and over-complicates farmers' lives. Does she accept the view of the National Farmers Union that a risk-based approach would be more satisfactory and help to reduce red tape, and that assessment should be based on the experience of individual farmers rather than on blanket measures?

Miss Johnson: We believe that a key benefit of the proposal is that it adopts a risk-based approach to official controls as the best way to ensure public health and consumer protection and as the most appropriate use of resources. On the impact on businesses, about which the hon. Gentleman is mainly asking, I emphasise that the proposal does not set out new requirements for businesses, but addresses how enforcement authorities will check that they are complying with feed and food law. Officials are seeking information to help in assessing the likely impact of charging importers for controls on products of non-animal origin. Let me also emphasise that charging for import checks on products of animal origin is not new, but is an existing provision.

The Government are in favour of flexible provisions on the funding of all other controls, so that current national arrangements may continue as much as possible. We acknowledge concerns among businesses that they may be affected if costs for other official controls are recovered from them, but if costs for additional controls are levied, it will be following detection of non-compliance, and they will have to be passed on. Some businesses would be affected, but as a result of not complying with the law. We are endeavouring to ensure that the needs of small businesses are taken into account when charges are levied—a point that the proposal recognises.

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Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): On page 299 of the documents, the partial regulatory impact assessment, document 6090/03, states:

    ''Any requirements for prior notification and use of designated ports may have cost implications for both businesses and for the enforcement bodies.''

However, on page 308, the assessment states:

    ''It is not envisaged that the designation of specific ports for 'high risk' non-POAO will impose additional costs on businesses.''

Are those contradictions? If so, will the Minister help to explain them?

Miss Johnson: That is a very interesting question, and I am not sure that I can truly answer it. I do not believe that there are contradictions, but the hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point and I would be happy to write to him about it.

Chris Grayling: The Minister will be aware that one of the concerns that has been expressed over the years in the agriculture sector in this country is that, while new regulations impose clear and sometimes onerous requirements on producers in this country and other parts of western Europe, the same requirements are not placed on suppliers of agricultural produce from outside the European Union. What affirmation can she give the House that the measure under discussion will not result in further requirements for our producers and thus put them at a further competitive disadvantage in respect of products coming from parts of the world where such regulations do not apply? What assurances can she give that the Government and the Commission will be able to prevent products that might represent a health risk of the sort precluded by the regulations from coming in from outside the EU?

Miss Johnson: As for the costs associated with the proposal, almost all the additional costs will fall on enforcement agencies. Those costs have been estimated at about £2.9 million a year. The issue relates to matters such as the auditing of control bodies, the accreditation of feed laboratories, the designation of national reference laboratories, the liaison body arrangements, the national control plans and import controls. I have details about the import controls on products of non-animal origin. The cost to the enforcement authorities of requiring controls on high-risk products of non-animal origin to be carried out at designated ports under the new facilities is still being assessed.

As for Community controls in member states and third countries, we welcome the risk-based approach that I mentioned, which should result in better targeting of available resources. We will also press for proper transitional arrangements for third countries to prepare control plans to minimise disruption to trade. We acknowledge that any plans produced by those third countries must be proportionate to the volume and type of trade.

Richard Younger-Ross: Further to the point raised by the Conservative spokesman, the EU currently sends delegations abroad to look at risk practice among producers such as those in the shellfish industry

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in Thailand or in south America. We allow them to import into the European Union on that basis. However, we are aware in the United Kingdom that some producers flout regulations and it is only by inspection that we can catch them out. Can the Minister say whether the inspection processes will be reinforced to catch out importers who are not complying with regulations and, if they are to be reinforced, explain how?

Miss Johnson: Is the hon. Gentleman talking about United Kingdom-based importers?

Richard Younger-Ross: I am talking about importation into the European Union from the third world. Obviously, we are worried about E. coli counts in shellfish and BSE in meat. What inspection processes will there be under the new regime? Will they be strengthened?

Miss Johnson: Third countries that export to the EU will be required to meet certain conditions. Under the proposal, general import conditions will require third countries to present guarantees that exported products meet Community standards. Those guarantees will take the form of a control plan setting out the organisational management of the control system in the country in question. Third countries must also have written records of implementation of the plans. Guidelines will be drawn up to assist those third countries in meeting the requirements. There will be an assessment of the guarantees on whose basis lists of approved third countries will be established.

After the regulation enters into force, specific import conditions for feed and food may be drawn up, depending on the type of products and the associated risks. There will be specific import conditions for some products. Indeed, the new conditions may replace some or all of the current import conditions. Pending the adoption of such rules, current EU legislation setting down specific rules for the import of food and feed will remain in force.

Under the proposal for import controls, the current harmonised arrangements for import checks on products of animal origin will continue. All imports must enter the EU through designated border inspection posts, where they are subject to documentary and identity checks and physical checks at prescribed levels. There are also welcome new harmonised rules for feed and food products of non-animal origin. High-risk non-animal products will be identified through comitology arrangements and will be subject to more stringent control than other non-animal products.

Richard Younger-Ross: On that point, traceability is very important. Can the Minister tell us whether there will be traceability of beef or lamb imports from Argentina, for example?

Miss Johnson: I am not sure, so I cannot supply the hon. Gentleman with an answer now, but I undertake to write to him.

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Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): On imports, will there be requirements on control facilities at ports and airports over and above those that currently exist?

Miss Johnson: I apologise; will my hon. Friend repeat the question?

Mr. Henderson: Under the regulation, will control facilities be subject to requirements over and above those that currently exist at ports and airports? Also, will the regulation involve any extra cost for the port and airport industries?

Miss Johnson: I am aware of the interest that my hon. Friend takes in the subject, given his constituency. Many of the existing arrangements will continue and will be adequate. Some investment in computer and information technology facilities may be necessary, but it will not be significant.

I should like to return to the question asked by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), as I now have an answer. Traceability is set out in general food law regulations, and not in the proposals under consideration. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson), we do not expect significant extra costs, as facilities are already in place.

Chris Grayling: The Minister will be aware that the historic precedent for uniform enforcement of regulations across the EU is not outstanding. I remember having a conversation with a farmer in this country who said, ''I spend huge amounts of time doing paperwork. It sits on the shelf, and the inspector might take a look at it when he comes.'' In reality, we ask our farmers to conduct much more monitoring and analysis on the ground than many other European countries do. What steps can the Minister take to ensure that measures are applied consistently across the EU and that our producers are not disadvantageously affected because they do the job properly when others do not?

 
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Prepared 29 October 2003