Orders of the Day — Meat Products (Imports)

– in the House of Commons at 8:55 pm on 22nd May 1995.

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

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall 9:09 pm, 22nd May 1995

In recent months we have heard a great deal about the export of livestock. Consumers, producers and all those who are concerned with animal welfare should be examining the implications of that controversy for the import of meat and meat products. My text tonight is as follows: Some people, led by some supermarkets, are selling veal that may be imported but take great care to ensure that it comes from humane rearing sources in Holland and elsewhere. I hope that nothing that we say today will diminish our commitment to that type of effort because, every time that a supermarket does that, it helps us to ensure that animals are reared humanely before we manage to change the law to ensure that they are reared humanely."—[Official Report, 22 February 1995; Vol. 255, c. 295.] I think that we would all agree with that. Who made those remarks? It was none other than the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in a debate in this place on 22 February. He went on to say that the case for such a selective attitude to imports was "interesting and powerful". The question is why he does not follow his point to its logical conclusion and take action to exclude products that do not meet our own standards of animal welfare and hygiene.

That is the real debate that should be occurring, and the furore in Plymouth, Brightlingsea, Shoreham and elsewhere has surely distracted attention from it. The fact is that farm animal welfare standards in the United Kingdom are unparalleled anywhere in Europe and probably in the world. Instead of vilifying our farmers we should be celebrating their achievements and considering how best to export our standards to the rest of the European Union.

The real issues are three-fold: first, promoting the highest possible standards of farm animal welfare, including poultry, and meat hygiene across the whole of the European Union; secondly, sustaining and promoting the development of a vibrant, prosperous and innovative agricultural community in the United Kingdom and throughout the European Union; and, thirdly, ensuring that fair competition takes place in a genuine single market. Obviously those three issues are closely related.

The public demands meat that has been produced in the most humane fashion possible and that is as hygienic and of as high a quality as can be achieved. If consumers think that they are getting less than that from domestic producers, they will buy elsewhere and our farmers will suffer accordingly. As most farmers know, in that way the highest standards of animal welfare and hygiene are not just an irksome burden, but the bedrock of their trade and a vital marketing tool.

Equally, it must be the business of government to work at every level to ensure that those objectives are met. It is emphatically not sufficient merely to set up new mechanisms to introduce new policies in the United Kingdom. For example, policing the quality of domestically produced meat is a key weapon in the battle to ensure that British produce maintains and increases its competitive edge, but it is not enough. Just as important is working to promote those same virtues across the whole European Union. All too often at present the Government seem to be hell-bent on doing the opposite: punishing our farmers for their success in raising standards.

Let us take Britain's pig producers as an example. New Government regulations mean that they will have to phase out the use of sow stalls by 1998. Although it is not without controversy, I believe that it is a welcome move that will lead to a marked improvement in animal welfare standards. There is wide agreement, even in other European states, that it is the way to go. However, the policy has been introduced in the kind of unilateral fashion that Ministers oppose so vehemently with regard to livestock exports. There has been no effective attempt to persuade fellow member states to follow our lead.

Worse still, there has been no attempt to assist domestic producers with the costs involved in making the necessary changes—at least, not in mainland Britain. In Northern Ireland, Ministers have recognised that the regulations will impose extra costs that are unique to our domestic producers and which therefore threaten to diminish their advantage over continental competitors. Accordingly, there is a system of European Union and national grant to help Northern Ireland pig producers through the transition, as I was able to disclose to the House recently.

In Scotland, Wales and England, however, the same Government Ministers see no such justification and refuse to give even a penny of assistance. Meanwhile, across the channel, our competitors are laughing all the way to the bank. Producers in Denmark and the Netherlands, who supply the lion's share of United Kingdom bacon imports, are under no such obligation to improve their standards; instead they enjoy a massively increased competitive advantage as United Kingdom producers struggle to meet the costs of conversion. If anything, the gap is widening, not narrowing.

The result is inevitable. Despite, indeed because of their uniquely high standards, British pig farmers are going out of business. A recent National Farmers Union survey showed that one in 10 pig producers could leave the industry after the introduction of the ban and that United Kingdom sow stocks could be reduced by as many as 93,000 animals. The NFU survey further estimated that that could mean a loss to the British economy of some £141 million, with 3,000 jobs slashed in the agricultural community.

The solution is not to go back on the sow stall regulations. Very few would advocate that and I certainly would not support it, but we cannot support ministerial idleness while pig producers go to the wall. The solution has to be to persuade our continental competitors to follow our lead, and the best way to do that would be to require their imports to meet our own standards. That surely is logical and reasonable and there is a powerful case for it.

When I asked the Minister, who, I am glad to see, is to respond to the debate, whether she was able to restrict the import of inhumanely reared pig meat, her answer was blithely dismissive: It is not apparent that it would be feasible to identify the production methods used for the imported goods mentioned."—[Official Report, 2 February 1995; Vol. 253, c. 848.] Many things in life are not apparent until one starts looking for them. That must be the experience of all Administrations and all Ministers. I would respectfully suggest that it is the job of the Minister, the Ministry and the Government to delve a little deeper into the issue. The Minister's glib answer was merely another indication of how far removed many Ministers appear to be from the traditional rural constituencies that they claim to represent.

Imports that fail to meet our standards are not simply matters of animal welfare; they involve real dangers of hygiene and purity. In particular, there is a danger that United Kingdom consumers are being fed imported meat that contains illegally high chemical residues.

Clearly, the legal advice that the Minister and the RSPCA have received in relation to livestock exports is relevant. The obligations and responsibilities of our national Government to our national citizens to protect our consumers have a legal resonance way beyond that claimed for the treatment of animals once they leave our shores. It must be the responsibility of Government to protect our citizens, and the treaty of Rome and all other European treaties recognise that national responsibility.

I would instance the particular problem that was brought to light recently by the Consumers Association, which revealed how EU legislation on the use of hormones in livestock rearing was being routinely flouted on the continent. In tests on beef, traces of illegal synthetic hormone were found in 21 states from 10 countries and in liver samples from 11 out of 21 countries.

The drugs found, such as clenbuterol, are growth-promoting hormones and have been banned by the European Union since 1988. Their implications for human health are largely unknown but are certainly worrying. As the Consumers Association says: some of the samples had concentrations of clenbuterol nearly high enough to be a single medicinal dose for humans. I have no doubt that United Kingdom farmers are not entirely blameless. One or two traces of hormones may well be found in United Kingdom produce. However, UK farmers are always at or near the top of the hygiene safety league table. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of some continental competitors. Belgian beef liver produced nearly eight times as many positive results, and Spanish beef liver was 12 times more likely to contain traces of illegal drugs. More than one third of all Spanish beef liver sampled was found to contain traces of clenbuterol. No wonder the Consumers Association concluded that we advise you not to eat Spanish calf's liver or beef liver. That is surely a worrying sign for a Government who are protecting their citizens.

The implication is that UK consumers are unwittingly eating meat that is illegally contaminated and possibly dangerous, and that many continental farmers are routinely getting away with the use of illegal drugs—thereby gaining an important competitive and economic advantage over their more scrupulous UK colleagues. The answer must be to crack down on the importing of meat that does not meet our national standards. Unlike the problem of lower welfare standards, where there may be a question mark over whether it would be legal selectively to ban the import of certain products, this case is clear cut. The chemicals involved are illegal and their use cannot be tolerated.

Luckily, we now have a body that is well placed to stop contaminated meat reaching consumers—the Meat Hygiene Service. By giving it the task of cracking down on the clenbuterol cowboys, we could score a double whammy—safeguarding public health and protecting our farmers from unfair competition. If the MHS has any useful additional role to justify the replacement of the local inspection system, that must be it. At a time when many people in the agricultural community are less than happy with the MHS—rightly so, given that its charges are dramatically higher than under the old system—such a change could not come soon enough. Otherwise, many people will ask whether the service is anything more than just another wing of the quangocracy.

The importance of urgently taking action cannot be overstated. Late at night, it may seem a peripheral problem of interest only to a few livestock farmers—but meat imports into the United Kingdom total £1.9 billion every year, while exports are worth only some £900 million. That is a £1 billion trade deficit, and the gap is growing remorselessly. The gap in bacon alone is more than £400 million, and many UK bacon producers have gone out of business.

Ministry inaction in the face of the growing livestock crisis must cease. Here is a positive way forward that would be supported by the farming industry and have the backing of animal pressure groups. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recently reiterated that it is critically important to keep re-emphasising the long-term objective of Europe-wide improvements in animal welfare.

The stark lesson is irrefutable. Boycotting one's own exports is unlikely to cause one's competitors anything more than bemused entertainment. An entirely legal boycott of their substandard products exported to our country is far more likely to produce real economic results. Demonstrating for that purpose may have less emotional appeal, but it would have far more practical effect.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 9:23 pm, 22nd May 1995

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) chose for his Adjournment debate a subject about which we all care—the welfare of farm animals. His concern that some food imported into this country might not have been produced in accordance with the animal welfare standards that apply here is shared by many other people. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, this country has high standards of farm animal welfare. We have a strong framework of legislation in the form of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 and its subordinate regulations and welfare codes. We also provide advice to farmers and conduct publicity campaigns on specific welfare issues.

To ensure that our decisions are firmly based, we have the benefit of the recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which provides independent advice, and we carry out extensive programmes of research. Given the long history and depth of interest in this country, and the efforts that we have devoted to the issue, it is hardly surprising that some of our animal welfare requirements set higher standards than apply elsewhere.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall has mentioned, the veal crate issue is of concern. In 1990, we banned those crates, and close confinement stalls and tethers for pigs will have to be phased out by 1999. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman must be aware, in both those cases, in 1991 the Council of Ministers regrettably refused to agree that our high standards should be included as requirements in the directive that laid down minimum standards for calves and pigs.

Unlike some other members of his party, the hon. Gentleman has been supportive of the need for the live animal export trade to continue.

Photo of Mr David Harris Mr David Harris , St Ives

Not all that party's members.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Not all its members, as my hon. Friend says, but the hon. Gentleman has publicly and openly gone on record as saying that he understands the argument. I hope that his understanding is not just based on the need to maintain a legal trade, which of course it is.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman also understands European law in relation to specific directives that allow other countries to produce under systems that we have made or will make illegal in this country. When the hon. Gentleman talks about banning specific meat imports from the European Community on the ground of the welfare conditions under which the meat has been reared, he must also understand that the same ruling would apply. It is legal in that country and we are a single market. Of all parties in the House, the federalist party that he represents surely understands the intricacies and detail of the single market, European rules, and the fact that, when a European directive applies, it does so throughout the Community; it is not selective in the way in which it applies. Instead of making cheap jibes at me about being glib, I hope that he would have the grace, therefore, to understand the law that he and his party constantly advocate should apply: we should have a single market and we should all agree to European rulings.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall

The Minister may have missed my point about the different legality of the two positions. As I understand it, the Government of the member state is entitled to take a view about the protection of their consumers in a way that would not apply to the export of products to another country. It is a different legal situation. As I understand it, both the advice to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and to the Minister, which we have not seen the detail of, makes that distinction.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman may not have seen that advice, but he will be aware that today my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made a statement about the legal advice that the RSPCA has asked us to consider. In the further consideration of that legal advice, we have not changed our view; nor has the legal advice suggested to us that we should change it. As my right hon. Friend has said more than once to the House, it stands that we would be in serious trouble if we tried to contravene that legislation. That still holds good.

Photo of Mr David Harris Mr David Harris , St Ives

Will my hon. Friend confirm that some other members of the Liberal Democrats have actively campaigned to stop the export of animals to the continent? What are her views on that?

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

My hon. Friend is right. We are all aware of early-day motions on the Order Paper which contain the signatures of some of the hon. Gentleman's friends. If he really wants to start at home in convincing people about animal welfare and the legalities that apply in this matter, he could do as well to start in his own party.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall

I honestly do not think—I hope that the Minister will agree with this—that it will be helpful if we cast aspersions across the Floor. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Sir A. Bowden), who is a member of the party of the Minister and of the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), has been a vociferous advocate of a ban on all exports of livestock. I understand that there are people who take a different view. This evening, I hope that we will agree that, if we can find some way of exerting real pressure on other continental producers in the way that I have suggested, that will be helpful to all interests.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

After a rather personal attack on me, including the way in which I have answered questions and dealt with these matters in the past, it is no good the hon. Gentleman playing the Liberal Democrat trick of saying that we all want to work together and to be constructive. It is not possible to take that attitude after setting down a marker that he intends to be personal. If the hon. Gentleman cannot take it, he should not dish it out. I shall continue my speech.

Earlier this year, we secured the Commission's agreement to bring forward the review of the veal calves' directive, which was due originally in 1997. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take note of that when he accuses us of doing nothing and suggests that suddenly he has had the bright idea that things should be done and that the Government have dragged their feet. My officials and I have visited European capitals to impress upon Governments the weight of scientific evidence against the close confinement of veal calves and for a diet that includes roughage and adequate iron. The scientific veterinary committee is considering all the evidence and will report to the Commission later this year.

In the meantime, there are real concerns that the impact of the two important United Kingdom measures on the welfare of calves and pigs has been limited because they do not extend to the rest of Europe and elsewhere. I should mention that, although the ban on veal crates is not part of European requirements, a number of other member states, such as Germany, have standards that are in line with our own. It is true, nevertheless, that there are some important producers that do not, and that is why we are working to have the directive amended.

There are two concerns about the use of veal crates. First, as has been discussed in the House on many occasions, there is concern about calves transported from the United Kingdom to be reared in veal crates. Secondly, there is the concern voiced by the hon. Gentleman that imports from countries with lower welfare standards continue to be accepted despite the worries about the conditions in which animals were raised. The same concern also will apply in due course to imports of pork and pork products.

The hon. Gentleman has called for action on such imports and, as I have explained, we are taking action to have our standards adopted throughout the Community. He has suggested, however, action of a slightly different sort—a ban on the import of meat and meat products from those countries with less rigorous standards than our own. It is not that simple. I am advised that selective import restrictions of the sort proposed would not be compatible with Community law. As I have explained, the UK is part of the single European market and we must accept products that comply with the laws of the European Community.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones , Clwyd South West

I am grateful. Of course, the debate can continue until 10.30 pm. Urgency is not as great as it usually is on these occasions.

Might the Ministry not take another tack, notwithstanding the regulations that we must follow within the single market? Would it not be possible legally to provide aid to our producers to enable them, for example, to label their products as welfare friendly? That would enable them to get around the problem and ensure that we do not import welfare-unfriendly products.

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. What he has suggested is encouragingly happening in the marketplace. Consumers are becoming aware of welfare-friendly methods of rearing animals when they take decisions in butchers' shops and supermarkets to buy meat.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall seemed to suggest that consumers automatically made that choice. I think that there is quite a deal of work yet to be done to persuade consumers to be prepared to make the choice at the point of sale. I have been enormously encouraged by the supermarkets and butchers who have been talking to the Ministry about ways in which they can flag up on packaging the fact that an animal has been reared welfare-friendly conditions. I hope that we shall see more and more action to reinforce that trend.

The hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) is right to say that such labelling informs the consumer. I hope that the consumer will be prepared to seek it out and to pay for welfare. Although we hear a great deal of noise about animal welfare, sadly that is not translated as much as we would like at the point of sale.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , North Cornwall

On that point about information for consumers, will the Minister confirm that it is no longer possible to insist that the country of origin is put on a label, which might help in the circumstances about which she and I are worried?

Photo of Angela Browning Angela Browning Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, although in one case it is easy—for example, if one is shopping for bacon, it is pretty easy to mark out Danish bacon. That will be quite an issue once the ban on sow stalls and tethers comes into effect, because in the discussions that I have been having with the trade, undoubtedly the message to the pig farmers from the purchasers is that they will be actively sourcing pigmeat that has been reared in those conditions. I think that that is very encouraging for the pigmeat trade as a whole. So, certainly in those areas, there is a precedent that it is very clear and easy to define. In many cases, although it is not mandatory, many producers and retailers are seeing the benefit of voluntarily flagging up on the label the country of origin. The United Kingdom is becoming known to the UK consumer as the country that does apply high welfare standards, and we are doing all that we can to encourage that and to ensure that consumers actively seek it out when purchasing from their butchers or supermarkets.

As well as Community purchases, I know that there is concern about imports from outside the Community. In particular, many people are anxious about the effect of the new general agreement on tariffs and trade and are worried that it will have a detrimental affect on welfare standards. I understand that; at the same time, we should not overestimate the risks. GATT has been in existence for close on 50 years. In all that time, there has never been a successful challenge of the farm animal welfare safeguards applied by the member Governments of GATT. Nor does the new agreement impose any obstacles to the negotiation of bilateral agreements between the European Union and its third-country suppliers of meat and live animals. Indeed, the sanitary and phytosanitary code encourages the voluntary negotiation of "equitable agreements" between member Governments, where each agrees to recognise the health and hygiene requirements of the other where these have broadly the same effect.

The Commission has made clear that, in negotiating agreements of this kind on behalf of the EU, it will want to include animal welfare. That, I am sure, is the right way forward for the time being. It will take some time to build the same consensus internationally that we have at home about the need to respect animal welfare safeguards throughout the production chain. As a result, it will be premature to try to force the issue on to the agenda of the World Trade Organisation now. Were we to do so, we would end up with international standards far below our own and far below what are needed. I am sure that the best way to achieve our objectives is to build agreement in Europe and with our trading partners outside.

I must tell the hon. Member for North Cornwall, who has raised this important debate this evening, that getting a European-wide agreement and bringing the standards of other European partner countries up to our level has been and will continue to be a major part of the work that my right hon. Friend does in his negotiations with our partners.

I have dwelt until now on the legal issues, and although I do not pretend that our task will be easy, we will continue to work towards a position where the law as it applies within the European Union and in relation to its trading partners does not require us to contemplate what to do about lower standards—because it simply will not be relevant. There is, of course, other action that we can take while that process is going on. We are already looking at the prospects for developing the welfare-friendly veal market in the UK. We held a seminar on the subject in February and are also funding a demonstration farm, where producers can see how veal can be produced in systems with the highest welfare standards, and also suggesting to caterers that they should consider using welfare-friendly veal produced under the sort of conditions that we require in this country. I recognise that welfare-friendly veal is and will continue to be a specialist market which will account for a relatively small number of calves. Nevertheless, precisely because it is a small market, the work in which MAFF and the Meat and Livestock Commission are engaged can make a difference.

I would also hope that our pig industry will seize the opportunity provided by the forthcoming ban on sow stalls and tethers, and emphasise to consumers the high welfare conditions under which British pigs are produced. When last week I attended the pig and poultry fair at Stoneleigh, I had many discussions with people in the industry. It was very encouraging to see that the people who purchase the pigmeat, the retailers and others, are very conscious of the fact that they will be demanding these high standards if they are to purchase in the future. That will automatically exclude imports from countries that do not raise their standards to the level demanded by the United Kingdom.

Consumers also need to be encouraged to look for British pork—especially bacon, which has already been mentioned this evening. Bacon has a guarantee of high welfare standards and high quality, 85 per cent. of British pigs being in the top two quality grades. At present much of the production in other member states from which we import pigmeat—mainly bacon—relies on systems that will be banned here by 1999. I think that consumers should be made aware of that.

As I have said, retailers are also conscious of the high-quality health and welfare standards that British pigmeat guarantees them. We have encouraged the development of the British quality assured pigmeat initiative, and announced recently that the Government would continue to run the pig assurance scheme—the farm assurance part of the BQAPI—and hold fees at current levels for three years. I hope that that will prove helpful to the pigmeat industry.

In recent months, retailers have made encouraging statements. I hope that those statements will come to fruition, and they will buy all their pigmeat from systems that meet our welfare standards.

Promotion of British meat and meat products is a major responsibility of the Meat and Livestock Commission, and it does a very good job. Hon. Members will have seen the entertaining and highly successful television campaign entitled "Recipe for Love". Retailers need to be encouraged to identify and promote British meat to consumers, so that all the awareness of the quality and value being built up can be fully exploited.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the question of meat products coming into the United Kingdom and the possibility that they may contain veterinary medicine residues, hormone growth promoters and other types of drug which—as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out—would be a matter of great concern. Intra-Community trade in meat and animal products has now largely been harmonised: red meat and poultry products must be health marked, and accompanied by commercial documentation confirming that the consignments are in accordance with both public and animal health trade rules. Consignments of other animal products must currently be accompanied by official health certificates confirming compliance with Community or national rules, pending the introduction of new arrangements similar to those applying to red meat and meat products and poultry meat.

We take very seriously the need to test and monitor meat products that come into this country. The hon. Gentleman mentioned clenbuterol. I am aware that traces of clenbuterol have been found in meat; we are investigating the specific case that the hon. Gentleman cited, to ensure that we obtain all the facts and are able to discover how the information came through the Consumers Association and, if necessary, take action.

We should beware of complacency. The Ministry is working hard to secure EC-wide agreements to ensure that standards equal our own—not just so that people are not disadvantaged commercially; we genuinely believe in the need to raise animal welfare standards throughout the Community.

I am encouraged by what I have seen in my visits to countries in Europe. I believe that we have led the way, and that we are making some progress. I do not deny that in some cases it may be a long haul, but Britain has led the way. Farmers, the food industry and consumers also have a part to play. The Government, meanwhile, will continue to maintain the safety and quality of our meat here at home, and will do our best to ensure that standards in other EC countries are brought up to the level of ours.