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7.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Miss Melanie Johnson): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) on her choice of subject for this Adjournment debate. Meat fraud is a serious issue, and I can reassure her that all those involved with it in

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government take it seriously. I am very happy to join her in congratulating those who brought the criminals to book.

My hon. Friend mentioned the exercise in Rotherham, codenamed Operation Fox. It was shortly after the conclusion of that case that the Operation Aberdeen investigations began into a serious meat fraud that centred in her constituency. It was those two cases in particular that prompted the Government and their agencies to respond with a series of tough measures to crack down on such crimes. It is important to point out that the Operation Aberdeen investigations revealed that, at that time, the enforcement agencies' performance had not been up to the task; indeed, nor had Government policy succeeded in staying ahead of the criminals' game. Things therefore had to change if enforcers and the Government were to make a serious effort to stamp out this criminal activity. In picking up on the points that my hon. Friend has raised, I can reassure her that substantial progress has now been made.

The Government's efforts started in September 2001, some six months after the first raids in the Operation Aberdeen case, with a seven-point action plan on unfit meat. The action plan was a big step forward in tackling meat scams of the type uncovered in Amber Valley. Its first, and perhaps most significant, action was to extend the staining requirements from red meat to poultry meat by-products. As my hon. Friend will know, many of the issues that arose related to poultry meat.

Judy Mallaber: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Miss Johnson: I will, but if I do so too many times I shall have very little chance to respond to the debate.

Judy Mallaber: One issue that I did not raise, and which my hon. Friend could perhaps look at, is the staining of low-risk, as well as high-risk, waste. Without such staining, it is very hard to know whether low-risk waste is also being used improperly and entering the food chain.

Miss Johnson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The question of low-risk meat gives rise to slightly different issues. Low-risk products have been passed as fit for human consumption, but are not intended for such consumption. That is different from high-risk meat, and the Food Standards Agency currently believes that the staining of low-risk products would not be proportionate to the public health risk in respect of fitness for human consumption.

So the first measure was the staining requirements for poultry, and the second and third measures were to extend the staining requirements from slaughterhouses to cutting plants and cold stores. That was important, because waste is not generated only at slaughterhouses: some is generated later. Those two actions cut off two more avenues for the meat criminal.

The fourth point in the action plan was to encourage the meat industry to adopt a voluntary code of practice on the handling and disposal of animal by-products. That is important because, if we are properly to crack down on meat scams, both Government and industry must each play their part. I am pleased to say that in

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August this year the industry did indeed adopt a comprehensive code of practice, which is now being widely promoted across the industry.

The fifth point in the action plan was to improve enforcement in respect of poultry by-products. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for the regulations on animal by-products, has done much to turn the enforcement ship around in the last two years. Completely new enforcement arrangements are now in place, and they have been rolled out with a comprehensive package of guidance and training in partnership with all the enforcement agencies involved. The arrangements are now backed up by revised audit arrangements to ensure that they deliver effective enforcement.

The sixth point in the action plan was to improve traceability within the meat supply chain. The FSA took that forward as part of its programme on traceability. It has been backed up by concrete measures, notably by improved record keeping and certification arrangements. Those were introduced as part of the Government's plans to implement the new EU animal by-products regulation, and include a requirement for movement certificates to be triplicated to ensure that all animal by-products are fully traceable.

The seventh point in the plan was to set up the independent waste food taskforce, which I shall deal with in a minute.

Judy Mallaber: May I ask my hon. Friend to examine more closely her previous point about the audit trail? As I understand it, we still do not have a proper independent auditor. I urge her to consider that point in more detail.

Miss Johnson: I shall come on to that in more detail later, when I clear up some of my hon. Friend's points.

To return to what was in the action plan, the independent waste food taskforce was set up. The aim was to examine not only issues covered in the rest of the action plan, but issues that emerged from the ongoing Operation Aberdeen investigations. To that end, it was important that officers from Amber Valley borough council were members of the taskforce. Indeed, they contributed much to the recommendations that the taskforce eventually made.

The waste food taskforce report was published on the day that it was received by the FSA, which immediately launched a full public consultation exercise on its recommendations. The consultation revealed that stakeholders supported the direction in which the report was pointing and also supported the measures that the Government had taken so far to crack down on meat scams. Following that, in September this year, the FSA adopted a second action plan, with the aim of taking the Government's efforts to combat meat crime several stages further. In that action plan, all 24 of the waste food taskforce's recommendations were to be acted on. Indeed, work has already started or been completed on 22 of the 24 recommendations. The work consists of 55 individual action points by the FSA and DEFRA, 27 of which have already been completed. The action points vary from the high profile to the esoteric, but together amount to a powerful suite of measures to make life more difficult for the meat criminal.

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A key part of the plan is that the FSA and DEFRA are working on a new enforcement scheme for animal by-products in licensed meat plants. The aim here is to replace the old scheme with a new one based on risk. The approach will be one of blanket and blitz, whereby each plant will have a blanket of routine supervision, backed up by blitzes targeted according to risk to trace waste from source through to its destination, in co-operation with the other enforcers involved.

It may be appropriate to say here that many of the problems arose because the agencies and enforcement bodies had not worked together as they should. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that the trick to making it effective is to ensure that that works. Much effort has gone in to ensuring that that is working across the piece. The amount of Meat Hygiene Service resources devoted to animal by-products enforcement has increased more than threefold since the Rotherham and Amber Valley scams, and the aim of this new work is to make the most effective use of existing resources and thus improve the outcomes of enforcement effort.

Further measures include the setting up of a team of 30 trained and experienced local authority enforcers whose role will be to assist investigations of alleged meat scams and to provide intelligence on what is happening in the field. That is backed up by a fund to provide local authorities with extra financial resources to investigate alleged meat scams. The Food Standards Agency is also recruiting two more investigation officers in order to reinforce that effort.

That action will not be the final word. The Food Standards Agency brought the key stakeholders together on 26 November to review the lessons learned from the Operation Aberdeen investigations. Officers from Amber Valley borough council and Derbyshire constabulary took part in that review, and the Food Standards Agency board will now consider the lessons learned. The board will also monitor the progress of the new action plan, and will formally review the outcome when the last of the action points is due to be completed in early 2005. We do think that this is an important subject.

My hon. Friend raised other issues. On the question of co-ordination between Departments and agencies, she mentioned the co-ordination work to be headed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The new Cabinet Committee will meet for the first time on 8 January 2004 and it will consider the issues that my hon. Friend has raised, among others.

Good progress has been made in liaison arrangements between Departments and agencies. A change of culture was necessary and is proceeding rapidly. The number of agencies is not necessarily the issue: what is important is whether the enforcers involved talk to each other. Now that we have changed the culture, liaison with other agencies is seen as part of the enforcers' day job, rather than as an optional extra. Routine and successful liaison is the reason why we have seen excellent enforcement operations recently, such as those in the Harrogate case.

On the waste food taskforce issues, the new rules in the EU animal by-products regulations tighten up the audit trail. I have already mentioned the triplication of movement certificates. I also mentioned the blanket and blitz regime. The Department for Environment, Food

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and Rural Affairs has set up a database of animal by-products premises, which is now available to all enforcement officers and will appear on the Department's website early next year. A database of licensed meat plants will appear on the FSA website shortly and the Meat Hygiene Service is devoting much more time to inspections and enforcement in plants. As I said, it has more than trebled that work. Action is occurring in all those areas.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of penalties. There are penalties greater than the maximum two years' imprisonment under the Food Safety Act 1990, because other charges—such as conspiracy to defraud, which was used in Operation Aberdeen—can be laid. In reality, proving such offences is more difficult than proving the food safety offences. As I mentioned, the EU general food law regulation 2002, which will come into force on 1 January 2005, will make it an offence to place food on the market if it is unsafe. The issue will then be subject to EU legislation, not just UK legislation. Therefore, the UK will not be able to act unilaterally to provide for offences distinct from those in the European regulation. However, the new EU legislation will clearly make a difference.

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