Work of the Committee: 2010-15 - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Contents

3  Food

26. Commensurate with its central role in Defra's remit, food policy is a common theme underpinning a great deal of our work during this Parliament. We have addressed a plethora of related issues including the security of the UK's food supplies and food production issues, food safety, and fisheries.

Food security

27. Although the UK currently enjoys a high level of food security, it faces challenges from future changes in weather patterns and the changing global demand for food. In the past year we have conducted two inter-linked inquiries into the actions the Government and food production sector need to take to ensure the nation's future food security, as well as the actions consumers can take and how demand can be managed to ensure all have access to safe, affordable and healthy food. Our Food security report, addressing production issues, recommended that supermarkets shorten their supply chains; that more food be produced per hectare of land in a sustainable way including through better use of technology; and that plans need to be in place for alternative animal feed in the event of increases in global demand threatening the affordability of UK supplies.[42] The report flagged up strategic issues which a future Committee may wish to monitor, such as the level of UK self-sufficiency in the light of the fact that currently only 68% of the nation's food supply is produced in the UK. We welcome Defra's efforts to promote consumption of UK products by UK consumers as well as to increase exports to countries such as China. We also looked at genetic modification (GM) technology and its ability to import desirable traits into a plant, but acknowledged that the Government must address consumers' concerns about the implications of GM, using science to counter food safety fears. This is a developing issue with new approaches emerging from the EU since we reported. In future Member States will have more freedom to determine their own approaches to allowing or banning the use of GM crops in their countries. This is an issue which may warrant future scrutiny of Defra policies.[43]

28. Our Food security: consumption, demand and waste report focused on the impact of myriad choices consumers make every day over what food to buy and from where to buy it.[44] A key government objective should be to harness these choices to deliver public policy goals, such as a healthy population and reduced environmental impacts through sustainably grown products and lower levels of waste. Our Committee also heard evidence on food affordability and its link to the expanding food aid sector. Factors identified as affecting food affordability included rising global prices and pressure on household incomes. Defra should appoint a Food Security Co-ordinator, with a remit including spurring a step-change in the redistribution of surplus food to those in need. Future issues for scrutiny include progress in reducing food waste from its current annual level of 15 million tonnes against a background of budget constraints for bodies such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme, and action by retailers to promote choices of healthy, affordable and sustainably produced food.

Food safety

29. One of the major topics impacting upon our work this Parliament has been the safety of the UK's food supply networks. Our initial scrutiny was triggered by the horsemeat scandal but we subsequently broadened our work to consider wider aspects of the integrity of food supply networks.


30. On 15 January 2013 the Food Standards Authority (FSA) announced that FSA Ireland had found horse and pig DNA in a range of ostensibly entirely beef products on sale at several supermarkets.[45] The following day we announced an inquiry into the Contamination of beef products, which reported in February 2013.[46] We were concerned that food safety and hygiene were more likely to be compromised if the authenticity of food could not be assured. We argued that all parts of the food supply chain had a responsibility to ensure the safety and authenticity of their products. The Government agreed: its response stated that the primary responsibility for the quality of food products and their accurate labelling lay with the food businesses that supplied them.[47]

31. We held a follow-up Food Contamination inquiry to consider the testing of processed and frozen beef products sold in the UK. We noted that more than 99% of products tested were found to be free of horse DNA.[48] However we also noted that in separate, EU-mandated tests for the presence of the drug phenylbutazone (known as bute) in horses slaughtered for food, the UK had the largest number of positive results. We recommended that the Government work with the EU to ensure the introduction in every Member State of a single national database for the issuing of horse passports to help combat fraud.


32. Defra commissioned Professor Chris Elliott of Queens University, Belfast and Director of the Institute for Global Food Safety, to examine and make recommendations on the integrity and assurance of food supply networks and to consider issues which might impact upon consumer confidence in the authenticity of food products. Interim conclusions were published in December 2013,[49] and a final report was published in July 2014.[50] In both reports Professor Elliott considered the role of the FSA and the ability of public laboratories to test for food authenticity, auditing and information-sharing within the industry. Professor Elliott discussed his interim findings with us in January 2014,[51] and his final conclusions in November 2014.[52] On both occasions we examined the diminished role of the FSA following machinery of government changes in 2010. These changes divided responsibilities between the FSA, Defra and the Department for Health, and arguably reduced the UK's ability to horizon scan and identify possible food authenticity or health concerns because of poor co-ordination between departments and lack of clarity on the division of responsibilities.

33. The Government's September 2014 response accepted all the recommendations made in Professor Elliot's final review: this included the creation of a Food Crime Unit (FCU) within the FSA and a cross-government group on food integrity and food crime.[53] The first prosecution for horsemeat contamination took place in January 2015.[54] The FSA estimated that the FCU would cost £1.5 million in 2014-15, rising to £2 million for the first, two-year phase. The FSA is expected to maintain the FCU from within its existing resources. However, by the end of 2015-16, the FSA's overall budget will have been reduced by £22 million since the start of the horsemeat problem in early 2013.[55] We are concerned that taking the FCU beyond the first stage of development would stretch the FSA's current budget and resources. A future Committee may wish to consider further the remit of the FSA. Furthermore, an update on the FCU's progress and the work of the new cross-government group could be sought. In particular any expansion of the FCU would be challenging given the reducing budget of the FSA. We took further evidence in February 2015 from FSA Chief Executive, Catherine Brown, who reiterated that a full costing exercise had yet to be completed and that risks from food fraud and contamination, remained one of the FSA's major challenges.[56]


34. We launched an inquiry in April 2012 as a response to the moratorium on the production and use of desinewed meat (DSM) issued by the EU.[57] The moratorium had an immediate negative effect on this part of the UK meat industry. This was not an issue of food safety, and there was no public health concern about DSM: it was an issue of food product labelling.

35. We considered the actions of the Commission to be heavy-handed and disproportionate and recognised that individual businesses were suffering huge losses with no warning or chance to prepare. An October 2014 ruling by the European Court of Justice confirmed that DSM could not be sold under this label in the UK: instead the product should be labelled as mechanically separated meat.

36. Our inquiry criticised the FSA for a lack of political awareness. The moratorium came as a surprise: the Authority failed to prepare or to protect the UK meat industry. The Government's response to our Desinewed meat report stated that the FSA had worked hard to mitigate the impact of the moratorium and that it did not believe there was an alternative course of action that the Agency could have followed.[58] However, a future Committee may wish to consider the Government's effectiveness in influencing the policies of EU bodies such as the Health and Food Safety Directorate.


Common Fisheries Policy

37. We considered fisheries issues in 2011 with specific regard to domestic fisheries management,[59] and again in 2012 with a wider look at the EU's proposals for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CfP).[60] During the former inquiry, fishermen told us of their frustration with a number of aspects of the operation of the quota system used to determine how much fish vessels are permitted to catch, including the reallocation of unused quota. We were critical of Defra's failure to address quota management effectively, a short-coming which we considered had led to many members of the inshore fleet being disadvantaged. Defra's response recognised that there was uncertainty and a lack of transparency and flexibility in the management system.[61] Its response to its own 2011 consultation on reform stated that tackling the difficulties facing those operating smaller vessels (those under 10 metres long) in the English fleet remained a key priority, but the Department did not then take forward some of its own proposals. Instead it has piloted a method of allocating quota to local community groups.[62] We came back to this issue this January, in an evidence session with the Marine Management Organisation (MMO).[63] It was clear from their evidence that quota management remains a contentious topic for many parts of the fishing industry.

38. Any assessment a future Committee undertakes into fisheries management will take place in the context of the implementation of the substantial reform of the CfP which has taken place since 2014. Key developments include a 'landing obligation' (sometimes referred to as a 'discard ban') under which fish caught must be landed, and a promise of more regionalised approaches to fisheries management. Our EU proposals for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy report criticised centralised micro-management by the European institutions, so we welcome the reforms as a step in the right direction.[64] However, whilst some initial progress has been made, devolution of decision-making to regional Member States is still at an early stage. We expressed reservations about the landing obligation since it could simply shift "unwanted fish in the sea to unwanted fish on land". We wanted a delay in the ban to 2020 to allow time for groundwork for effective implementation to be done. A future Committee may wish to assess whether the pelagic landing obligation now in place and the proposed demersal one to come into force from 2016, work effectively to end the wasteful catching of fish that are subsequently not put to good use. We support sustainable fishing but raised in our report the concern that the 2015 target for raising stocks of fish to above the levels that can produce a 'Maximum Sustainable Yield' was not achievable. Future work programmes may wish to consider how effectively EU decision-making about the appropriate levels is supported by scientific evidence and how well this is translated into the quotas allocated to UK fishermen.

42   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2014-15, Food security, HC 243 Back

43   See Europa website for more information on EU proposals to come into force in spring 2015 Back

44   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2014-15, Food security: demand, consumption and waste, HC 703 Back

45   Food Standards Agency, 'Timeline on horse meat issue', accessed 17 March 2015 Back

46   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13, Contamination of Beef Products, HC 946 Back

47   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Special Report of Session 2012-13, Contamination of Beef Products, HC 1085 Back

48   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2013-14. Food Contamination, HC 141 Back

49   HM Government, Elliot Review Interim Report, December 2013 Back

50   HM Government, Elliot Review Final Report, July 2014 Back

51   Oral evidence given on 8 January 2014 to the Elliott Review inquiry, HC953 Back

52   Oral evidence given on 18 November 2014 to the Food supply networks inquiry, HC 771 Back

53   Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 'Elliot Review Response', accessed 17 March 2015 Back

54   The Guardian, 'Horsemeat prosecution', accessed 20 February 2015 Back

55   Food Standards Agency written evidence linked to oral evidence session on 18 November 2014, for Food Supply Networks inquiry, HC 771 (FSN 0001), para 9 Back

56   Q 224 Back

57   Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2012-13, Desinewed meat, HC120 Back

58   Cabinet Office, Government Response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Report of Session 2012-13, Desinewed meat, CM 8462, October 2012 Back

59   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2010-12, Implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy: Domestic Fisheries Management, HC 858 Back

60   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2010-12, EU proposals for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, HC 1563-i Back

61   Government response to Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report of Session 2010-12 Implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy: Domestic Fisheries Management, HC 1485 Back

62   Defra, Government response to the consultation on domestic fisheries management reform, accessed 25 February 2015 Back

63   Q 1-80 Back

64   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Twelfth Report of Session 2010-12,EU proposals for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, HC 1563-i Back

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