Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Pension Books

7 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): The petition of residents of Brecon and Radnorshire declares:

To lie upon the Table.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The petition of residents of Montgomeryshire declares:

To lie upon the Table.

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1163

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1165

Meat Fraud

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

7.1 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate on meat fraud, and it is appropriate that I should follow the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who pursued exactly the same issue when he faced a case of meat fraud in Rotherham identical to the one that has recently arisen in my constituency.

We are facing a sophisticated meat mafia that peddles dangerous meat in a way that other criminals peddle dangerous drugs. Julie Barrett, the director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in Wales, said at its conference three weeks ago on cracking down on meat crime:

In my constituency, the conspirators at Denby Poultry Products made hundreds of thousands of pounds processing and distributing more than 450 tonnes of rotten poultry to shops, supermarkets, schools, hospitals and pubs, undetected over a period of at least five years. Derbyshire police think that the meat even got into their own canteen. I invite the Minister to congratulate the Amber Valley officers, Sue Sonnex and Steve Haslam, whose salary was covered by the Food Standards Agency, and Derbyshire police, particularly Neil Perry, Darren Hunt, Nicholas Mathews, Colin Newton and Greg Dexter, on their surveillance and investigation, which led to five people being jailed for a total of 11 years for conspiracy to defraud, although the ringleader Peter Roberts is still on the run overseas.

A "Panorama" programme a few weeks ago showed footage of the raid. It described the stench of rotting flesh in the plant, rats running over people's feet, and overflowing sewage. It also showed pictures of the diseased meat. I do not welcome the fact that the police have given me their file of dirty photos, but I will happily pass it on to the Minister to have a look at. The meat was transported in unrefrigerated, maggot-ridden vehicles, and high-risk, contaminated poultry waste was taken from slaughterhouses to Denby, along with low-risk animal by-products, allegedly to be turned in to pet food, but in reality mixed and passed on to other processors and distributors and passed off as meat fit for human consumption. Anyone who looks at the video footage or the pictures in my police file would just feel sick. It is disgusting.

We do not know how many people became ill or even died as a result of this. It is all too easy for the issues involved to be given low priority, compared with more obvious and immediate dangers to human life, and for this to be reflected by a lack of urgency when serious cases such as Denby emerge. Ministers must not take this as an isolated crime. They must look at the lessons to be learned, and treat it as a serious public health and criminal issue.

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1166

Why did it take an anonymous informant to tip off Amber Valley's environmental health officers about what was going on, when we supposedly have a licensing and meat inspection system in place? How could a vet visit MK Poultry, the Northampton cutting plant that did much of the distribution, every week, yet not notice containers saying "Reject" and "Unfit for Human Consumption"? What if Amber Valley council officers and Derbyshire police had not been prepared to put in the resources for a massive operation involving more than £1 million of police resources to tackle a conspiracy that was a danger to public health way outside Derbyshire's borders? Why do we only now have an action plan under the waste food taskforce of the Food Standards Agency when an identical meat fraud had happened in Rotherham?

My particular interest arises from the Denby Poultry fraud case, but I want the Minister to consider a range of other serious meat crime issues, including the illegal importation of meat and, specifically, dangerous imports of bush meat through illegal air freight and the illegal killing of animals for delicacies such as smokies. We have had Operation Fox, Operation Aberdeen and Operation Lobster Pot as well as operations in Ceredigion and south Norfolk. We need a consistent campaign co-ordinated across those various illegalities to crack down on meat crime. I congratulate and support the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and its Environmental Health News on their "Stamp It Out" campaign, which aims to stamp out the illegal trade in unfit meat, which puts the health of us all at risk.

Arising from that, I have a number of issues that I want to raise with my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that she will not be able to deal with them all tonight and some will need to be raised with other Departments, but, above all, I ask her to take meat crime and fraud seriously and to give it priority as a public health issue. I also ask her to meet Amber Valley council officers and the Derbyshire police involved in the Denby Poultry investigation to hear at first hand of the weaknesses in our regulatory and legal system as well as in co-ordination between agencies, preferably with a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because one of the issues is the way in which this matter crosses Departments.

I ask the Minister not just to leave the issue with the Food Standards Agency, but to keep a close watch on the progress of its work and to give it added impetus. Progress is being made through the waste food taskforce report, but I have heard and received a number of criticisms of omissions from it and of the speed with which recommendations are being implemented. I shall come back to some of those.

The FSA is only one of the agencies involved. It is essential that the FSA functions well—we need it to do so—but any criticism and weaknesses and gaps between agencies undermine confidence. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that both all those involved in food enforcement work and the public can have full confidence in that agency's work and the work of other agencies; she cannot just take a hands-off approach.

On the legal framework, I am calling for a new meat crime offence: to knowingly procure, process, sell, deliver or manufacture foodstuffs that are unfit for human consumption with an intent to defraud the

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1167

consumer and place the public's health at risk. We need a separate criminal offence that will enable us to catch large-scale trading in unfit meat.

Conspiracy to defraud charges had to be used in the Denby Poultry case because offences under existing food safety regulations only carry low penalties—a maximum of two years in prison, even if the case can be taken from the magistrates court to the Crown court—but it is difficult to win conspiracy cases, and preparing them is complicated.

Also, I am told that the courts do not take seriously enough those powers that they do have in food crime cases. We need punitive and deterrent sentences. This is not a minor crime. Perhaps we could consider the criminal offences available to Customs and Excise. We need an offence that can be pursued more straightforwardly. We also need to consider the matter in the context of the police and who should be responsible for tracking down and dealing with meat crime. We need further training of enforcement agency staff on establishing evidence trails that stand up in court.

The next issue involves co-ordination between Departments and agencies. Major weaknesses were identified in the Denby Poultry case. Who has regulatory, licensing and inspection duties in slaughter processing and distribution of meat? Let us go through them: the FSA and the Meat Hygiene Service, DEFRA and the state veterinary service, environmental health and trading standards in local authorities, and now, apparently, the police when regulation fails. The Department of Health, DEFRA, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office all have an interest.

I shall point out some flaws and gaps that need to be closed to prevent another Denby, but I note that it was primarily the local authority, with some FSA funding and support, and the police that investigated and pinned down the criminals. Things get worse when we add in the other areas of meat crime. On the scandal of illegal meat imports, Customs and Excise and other inspectorates become involved. Following suspicions on the origin of the foot and mouth epidemic, the Cabinet Office, as I understand it, has given the FSA a year to deliver a step change in delivery or lose control to a new centralised agency. In reply to a question that I tabled, the Prime Minister himself stressed the urgency of stamping out the practice.

I understand that a ministerial group chaired by DEFRA was to be established for co-ordination purposes. Has it met? Let me also ask the Minister to press for the establishment of a ministerial group covering all Departments with responsibility for meat crime to review such crime across the board, to look at arrangements for co-ordination to plug gaps and loopholes, and to give impetus and political commitment to the tackling of this threat.

May I ask the Minister to consider specific issues arising from the waste food taskforce report and the Denby Poultry case, or pass them to the relevant Departments? There has been concern about weaknesses and omissions in the recommendations, and in some instances action has seemed unduly slow.

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1168

There is a huge amount of money to be made from meat fraud. We will only be able to prevent the next Denby or Rotherham case if the potential criminal can no longer obtain contaminated meat intended for rendering dirt cheap, then package and sell it on illegally, at a vast mark-up, so that it goes into the human food chain. That will require a robust audit trail of where by-products go from the slaughterhouse and where they end up. Even if they had the time, meat hygiene inspectors would still only have powers to investigate at the slaughterhouse end; DEFRA and state vets have powers relating to the rendering and pet food plants.

We need an independent body or one of the agencies to follow the whole train. We should know now where each slaughterhouse sends its diseased meat so that checks can be carried out on what happens to it at the other end. To follow the audit trail, we need information sharing. DEFRA was first asked back in 2001, by my local police and local authority officers, to provide an electronic database showing all animal by-product premises. Enforcement agencies and those in the industry need such a database to verify disposal routes and methods. Apparently, however, no list will be published until 2005. Why must it take four years? DEFRA may wish to re-license its premises, but that is no excuse for it not to publish the current list now, perhaps on its website. Why is the Meat Hygiene Service not publishing its list of licensed plants until 2004? Why is it taking so long to produce recommendations?

According to "Panorama", supermarkets said that they would accept products that carried a meat hygiene standard stamp of approval, but they need to be able to check where the meat comes from. Without the necessary information, how can anyone check the trail of meat products? Food officers need it in order to establish the legitimacy and traceability of meat during routine inspections of the premises of, for instance, butchers and caterers, and the food trade needs it in order to establish where its meat has come from and where it is going.

I have raised the issue of co-ordination and information sharing in the context of meat fraud, but it covers the whole range of meat crime. It is a serious issue—a weakness that we need to tackle.

Meat Hygiene Service inspectors are at licensed poultry slaughterhouses every day, but at present the service level agreement between DEFRA and the MHS allocates only 15 minutes a month for them to supervise the segregation, storage and disposal of waste—of animal by-products. That is woefully inadequate, and would allow the Denby and Rotherham cases to occur again elsewhere. I understand that the Food Standards Agency says it has doubled NHS resources for this purpose, but is that really adequate to cover 1,400 licensed plants?

Denby Poultry was licensed by DEFRA, and the state veterinary service is meant to visit annually to check the position. I should like the Minister to look into suspicions about whether the failure to supervise animal by-product premises of that kind is due to the fact that the service looks primarily at animal health, rather than public health, issues.

Many issues arise from this case, and a number of the principles involved affect meat crime in general. I am thinking of co-ordination, information sharing and the

10 Dec 2003 : Column 1169

need to establish an adequate and proper regulation system. That is not to say that lessons have not been learned or that recommendations are not being dealt with; but there are omissions from the system, it is too slow, and it needs to be looked at across the board. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will get to grips with the situation and take responsibility, but she will need to work with other Ministers.

In the light of the Denby Poultry scandal and the problems of co-ordination between those involved, I cannot for the life of me see how extending privatisation of meat inspection and the MHS can be justified. We clearly cannot trust meat plants to conduct their own private inspections; nor do we want to add to the number of groups involved in meat inspection. So I ask my hon. Friend please to oppose the European privatisation proposals.

I am aware that I have raised a whole range of issues, and I certainly do not expect the Minister to be on top of them all, particularly given that many do not fall within her sphere; indeed, that is precisely one of the problems. The main thing that I want to hear from her tonight is that she realises—as I am sure she does—that meat crime, specifically the meat fraud experienced in my constituency, is a very serious issue. Indeed, this is a massive issue in terms of crime, involving criminal conspiracy and the making of huge amounts of money from dirty meat. It does not get highlighted and we do not necessarily understand the dangers to public health, so I hope that my hon. Friend can give priority to it.

If my hon. Friend watches the "Panorama" film, of which I have a copy—I do not recommend that she watch it over dinner, as I did—she will hear some interesting "vox pops" from ordinary shoppers. They assumed that proper safety checks were being made throughout the food production and distribution chain, but how are consumers meant to know the dangers and what is going on? They cannot take responsibility for their own health in such circumstances. Much responsibility for their safety rests fairly and squarely with the food brokers—incidentally, a further information gap is that we do not know who the food brokers are—and with the meat industry itself. The industry must look at its own procedures, and it should be brought to book.

All the public agencies and Departments must adopt a more coherent and systematic approach to taking responsibility for tackling meat crime and meat fraud. I urge my hon. Friend to put this issue on the agenda in her meetings with her ministerial colleagues, so that we can indeed stamp out such crime. I want to be able to tell my constituents and friends and family—and, indeed, my hon. Friend's friends and family—that they can sit down and eat their dinner confident in the knowledge that they will not end up in hospital with food poisoning the next day. Let us stamp out this terrible crime. I urge my hon. Friend to take this issue on board.

Next Section

IndexHome Page