Backbench Business — Food Fraud

Business of the House (10 September) – in the House of Commons at 6:02 pm on 8 September 2014.

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[Relevant documents: The Eighth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, on Contamination of Beef Products, HC 946, and the Government response, HC 1085; and the Fifth Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Session 2013-14, on Food Contamination, HC 141, and the Government response, HC 707.]

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire 6:04, 8 September 2014

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered food fraud.

First, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate on this important and topical issue. I must say that some of us had anticipated that the Government business would take rather longer this afternoon and that this debate would start rather later. I was given the information that we might have the debate this evening rather late last week, and despite the best efforts of my staff to contact right hon. and hon. Members to urge them to make a contribution, the message obviously got out rather late. Perhaps there was not much contentious business to debate today, either. Nevertheless, the debate is topical, coming soon after the Elliott report, which the Government commissioned following the horsemeat scandal of just over a year ago. I should declare my interests related to meat production, which appear in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I first became interested in food crime when I was elected in 2001. We were in the middle of a foot and mouth disease outbreak, and the election had actually been postponed for a month until the first Thursday in June so that the outbreak could be contained and dealt with. Unfortunately, it went on well after the election, particularly in my constituency. Thousands of sheep were slaughtered on the Brecon Beacons in an attempt to control the disease, which did happen. At that time, farmers were concerned about the lack of checks taking place at the ports on meat coming into this country. They were particularly concerned about the seaports through which meat was imported and the airports through which illegal meat was thought to come. I tabled a ten-minute rule Bill to ask the Government to re-examine the checks and balances, and that was what happened.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the lesson that we have learned about food fraud is that we need spot checks on processors so that they do not know we are coming? We should go to them and find out exactly what sort of meat they are processing so that we can stamp out fraud, rather than carry out general testing all the time, which is expensive.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which is made in the Elliott report. Intelligence-led monitoring is also important. Controls on food coming into this country have been tightened at the airports and seaports. Sniffer dogs have been introduced at

Heathrow, and I have been there and seen them in action. It was extraordinarily impressive to see dogs being able to find little bits of food that were being brought into the country—not intentionally but because somebody had forgotten they had left a ham sandwich in their suitcase or backpack.

Photo of Ian Swales Ian Swales Liberal Democrat, Redcar

I congratulate my hon. Friend on fighting on this issue. My hon. Friend Neil Parish mentioned checks on food processors. Given the amount of food that comes into this country already processed, is my hon. Friend Roger Williams satisfied that spot checks and other measures can be undertaken outside the country?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, because we are in the European Union we expect that all food that comes into this country will have been slaughtered, processed or manufactured to a standard that would be acceptable in this country. Food coming in from third world countries is another matter altogether. One issue that I concentrated on when I first became involved with the issue of food fraud was the smuggling of meat into this country from Africa. There were various types of meat, but the most serious were parts of primates, including gorillas, apes and monkeys, which certain ethnic communities in this country particularly value. It was obvious that there was no scrutiny of the safety of these meats or even what they were. There was a real concern that not only animal diseases but human diseases could be brought in by this means. Much of the meat came from west Africa. The problem of Ebola today shows that we might still face a real danger from this problem.

I certainly welcomed the final publication last Thursday of the Elliott review of the integrity and authenticity of the UK food supply. We waited quite a long time for the report, but it was worth the wait because it is a comprehensive and well set-out document. It demonstrates the UK Government’s commitment to improving the integrity and assurance of our food supply networks. Professor Elliott’s report highlights that the UK has one of the safest food supply systems in the world, with a great deal of work being done to ensure that food is safe to eat and free from chemical and microbiological contamination, and all those involved in the supply of food and those responsible for developing and enforcing legislation should be commended for what has been achieved.

More attention and more resources, however, need to be put into food authenticity and combating food fraud and food crime. At the beginning of the horsemeat problem, the important question arose about what was meant by adulteration and what was meant by contamination. As far as I am concerned, contamination is not the deliberate introduction into food of other substances—it happens by mistake or inadvertently—whereas adulteration is the deliberate introduction into food of mostly lower-priced commodities. That issue was certainly at the heart of the horsemeat scandal.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

My hon. Friend will remember that I had some involvement in the problems at that time. It was important early on to establish a threshold for contamination/adulteration that made sense. Otherwise, we would have been in the absurd position of testing every piece of meat and finding that it was contaminated simply because somebody in the room might be shedding human DNA or because the meat had been sitting in a butcher’s shop where beef or pork sausages were not in separate airtight compartments. The level of the threshold, it seems to me, was one of the most important early advances we made in understanding the issue and ensuring that we were not attacking the wrong problem.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I commend my hon. Friend for the work he did right at the beginning of the horsemeat scandal. He provided us with greater clarity about what was involved and about the difference between contamination and adulteration. Of course, contamination is not something that should be taken lightly in its own right. Halal meat contaminated by pork, for example, is a very serious matter for the religious beliefs of some of our communities. I do not in any way view contamination as of little interest; it is of great interest, but it must not be confused with the deliberate adulteration of food.

Food fraud is corrosive of consumer confidence, which has ramifications right through the food chain. The horsemeat contamination incident last year is an example of such a damaging effect on the food industry and on consumer trust. After “Horsegate”, a poll showed that only 56% of consumers were confident that the food they bought was what it claimed to be—a rather shocking statistic. This figure is far too high, and it is one of the reasons why it is so important that we are having this debate today.

Small businesses are especially vulnerable to food fraud, and according to the Elliott review, many have said they are struggling to stay in business because they are competing against those who cheat. That goes for farmers, too, as they grow the raw ingredients for the food industry and rely heavily on consumer confidence. It is essential to safeguard this industry.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. Does he agree that there is huge pressure on the processors to reduce their prices, especially from some unscrupulous retailers? Of course, if we drive the price too low, beef cannot be put in the beefburgers and other things start to get mixed in with them. Although retailers are not directly responsible for what happens, I think they play a rather bad part in the whole saga.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

My hon. Friend is completely right that food fraud is price-driven—there is no doubt about that. Food adulteration and fraud are as old as history, as we know from many centuries of experience. The watering down of milk was one such example, but an even more heinous crime is the watering down of beer, which should carry an especially heavy penalty!

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

We do not have any examples in Brecon; it is mostly down in south Wales! But the history books are full of examples of this sort of thing.

As I was saying, it essential to safeguard this industry. Food and farming is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, contributing £96 billion to the economy and employing almost 4 million people. It is essential to keep up confidence in the UK, while also protecting the reputation of our food abroad.

Another point inn Elliott’s proposals is the setting up of a cross-Cabinet Committee on food safety and food crime. I fully agree with that recommendation and I am glad that the Government have accepted it.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and thank him for giving way. Particularly in the light of the splitting of the roles and responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency in 2010, was he surprised that some sort of cross-Government or cross-Cabinet regular systematic group was not established to take account of that fact?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point—one that is addressed in the Elliott report and one that the Government have accepted, as I said. I am very pleased that the Government have accepted all the report’s recommendations, so we should pay tribute both to the report and to the Government’s response to it.

Following on from the hon. Gentleman’s point, there was such a cross-Government forum for co-ordination on food at Cabinet level until May 2010. Up to that point, there was also more clarity on the responsibilities for food, as the FSA then had the responsibility for authenticity, testing and policy on compositional labelling of food, as well as on nutrition policy, which subsequently went to the Department of Health.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for generously giving way again. In his interim report, Professor Chris Elliott made it clear that he wanted to see both responsibilities returned directly to the FSA. In his subsequent final report—he has made it clear that it is because of the political difficulty—he has stepped back a little from that, but the suggestion is that he would still like to see this done. What does the hon. Gentleman think about that? Should these responsibilities be returned to the FSA?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

If the hon. Gentleman reads the full report by Professor Elliott, he will find that he responds to the concern that the final report took quite a long time to come out. He makes it very clear that none of the recommendations in the final report is the result of any political pressure, but are the result of his committee looking at the issue and coming up with what he believes are the best proposals for protecting food and consumers.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

No doubt the Minister will correct me later if I am wrong, but I believe that Professor Chris Elliott said he was loth to include the full recommendation in the interim report—that is, the recommendation that all the responsibility should be returned to the FSA—and made clear that that was because of the political difficulty of doing so. I make that point purely for the sake of accuracy.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will develop his point further when he makes his own speech, and that the Minister will do so as well.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. As he has already pointed out very eloquently, the Government will be setting up—at a very early date—a cross-departmental Committee, which I think will prevent the same thing from happening again.

On Thursday, the Minister did not have time to respond to an important question that goes to the heart of this issue, namely the question of what is happening in regard to traceability and labelling at European Union level. I hope that we shall be able to stay here all evening and hear about that at first hand from him.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

As always, the Chairman of the Select Committee has made a very good point. I listened to what she said on “Farming Today”. Was it on Thursday? I cannot remember. When one is up very early in the morning, the days may not be readily identifiable. Anyway, the hon. Lady made the very good point that the real problem with the horsemeat scandal was that we had never identified the point at which the horsemeat entered the food chain. There have been a number of prosecutions, but they have taken place on a very small scale. Whoever perpetrated this fraud on such a large scale is still out there, and is still, perhaps, waiting for an opportunity to commit either the same or a similar crime.

The real problem is that we do not know where that horsemeat came from. Were the animals slaughtered in a registered slaughterhouse? Were they slaughtered in a farm barn? Was the meat properly looked after? As it turned out, there was not, we understand, a very big threat to public health, but that may have been due more to luck than to judgment.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

In order to prevent a Select Committee love-in, may I press my hon. Friend a little further? I think that the key proposal from Professor Elliott is the proposal for a food crime unit, with intervention by the police. However, even a close reading of the Secretary of State’s written statement does not make immediately clear what powers the police will have. Perhaps my hon. Friend has had more time to look into the matter than I have.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I have not, but I was going to mention the establishment of a police crime unit, which I think is essential. This was criminal: laws were broken, and people should face the consequences. I hope that the new unit will ensure that those people are brought to book in future, that they are named and shamed, and that they will not be able to have a role in the food industry again.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton

I thank my hon. Friend for indulging me a third time. I rather fear that a few small operators may have been singled out for what happened, and that there are some very big guys out there who have never been thoroughly investigated.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

That is the point that I was trying to make. There have been a number of arrests, but on a very small scale. Certainly the prime operator in the crime has not been identified and brought to book. It is important for there to be a police involvement, but it is also important for there to be an international police involvement. As the horsemeat scandal demonstrated, the food chains are very long and convoluted, and the people involved often do not actually handle the meat at all. They are traders who buy and sell it without ever knowing its quality or composition. It is therefore essential for an international police view to be maintained.

Photo of Ian Swales Ian Swales Liberal Democrat, Redcar

While we are on the subject of crime, may I ask what my hon. Friend thinks are the ultimate responsibilities of retailers? Are they not ultimately responsible for what they sell? Does my hon. Friend believe that the right controls are in place, and that the penalties are right? Neil Parish mentioned the prices of some of the processed meals involved. Does my hon. Friend not think that the retailers ought to have known that those meals could not have been produced at that price with the proper contents?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

My hon. Friend has put his finger on it. As has already been pointed out, price is the driver of food crime, and as Professor Elliott said in his report, if major retailers or processors have a deal that is too good to be true, they should trace it to its source. Both processors and retailers have a real responsibility in that regard. It is no good saying that they have not the facilities or the wherewithal; they have the ultimate responsibility.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is making a very good and wide-ranging speech on the basis of his experience. He mentioned European and international co-operation, whose importance Professor Elliott has stressed strongly and repeatedly. Did he share my concern when, only a few months after the height of the horsemeat scandal, the European Commissioner for crime and justice—who deals with such collaborative approaches—remarked how preposterous it was that, at a time when we were seeking international collaboration, the coalition Government were seeking opt-outs on 130 areas of European co-operation on that very issue?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to introduce a political point which is far outside the scope of the debate.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Let me return it from the political point-scoring of Huw Irranca-Davies to the fact that we all support the fundamentals of the report. More specifically, and more importantly, does the report not ram home the point that our constituents should be buying from their local butchers whenever possible, because they offer the greatest possibility of traceability in the food chain?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am tempted to give a long list of local butchers in my constituency, but I will confine the list to butchers in my village. Brian George operates a very fine butcher’s shop, and slaughters the animals in the back. I am told by the Welsh Assembly Government that the hygiene standards there are excellent. I also know that it is possible to walk around other butchers’ shops in my constituency, and to be told “This piece of beef came from a bullock belonging to Mr Price of Llanafan”, or “Mr Jones of Drostre”. After the horsemeat scandal, there was a tendency to use local butchers, but, unfortunately, people now seem to be going back to supermarkets and more processed food.

My father always used to say that he would never eat any meat other than in slices, because then he could see where it came from. Once people started mincing it up, he said, there was doubt. That takes me back 30 or 40 years, but it strike me as good advice which some of our retailers could have taken during the horsemeat scandal.

Professor Elliott rightly observed that the main priority should be a “consumers first” approach. That returns me to the point made by my hon. Friend Ian Swales about the interface between the retailer and the consumer. Given that interface, the retailer should take the responsibility.

Photo of Ian Swales Ian Swales Liberal Democrat, Redcar

To press my hon. Friend on one of the points I made earlier, does he feel that the legal responsibilities of the retailer are sufficiently strong and that the penalties on the retailer in this case were sufficiently punitive?

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

No, my hon. Friend makes a good point, and certainly there was a lack of prosecutions. Where penalties are imposed, they tend to be of a very low order. Some of this large food fraud involves large criminals, probably acting across-country. They get involved because profit from food fraud is equal to that from drug smuggling or human trafficking, yet the chances of being caught are a lot lower, and if they are caught, the penalties are a lot lower as well.

Despite the Government’s having implemented many of the recommendations already, research done by Which? that tested 60 takeaway lamb curries and minced kebabs found that 24 of them had been mixed with other meats such as beef and chicken. Worryingly, seven of the samples did not contain any lamb at all. That is particularly worrying to me, given the area I represent and our dependence on the lamb trade. I was very pleased that recently our local authority prosecuted a restaurant that was advertising Welsh lamb, but in which inspectors found nothing but New Zealand lamb. That is obviously a fraud of its own kind—only on a small level, but even at that level, local authorities must take action.

Since the publication of the Elliott report, Which? has conducted another poll through Populus, and it shows that there is still concern among the public. The fieldwork for that research was conducted between 5 and 7 September, and the poll shows that, even after the publication of the Elliott review, over half of people are worried that a food fraud incident will happen again, a third are not confident that the food they buy contains exactly what is stated in the ingredients list, and, a year after the fiasco, nearly a quarter say that in the past 12 months they have changed the type of meat products they buy because they are worried about food fraud.

We welcome the publication of this report. The Government have accepted all the recommendations, but one thing that will give us cause for concern is whether the resources will be available to carry out all the recommendations, and if they are carried out, whether that will be at the expense of other good work that needs to be done in this area. In general, however, I welcome the report and the Government response.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse 6:32, 8 September 2014

I congratulate Roger Williams on leading our bid to secure this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for affording us the opportunity to have it. It is good to see the Minister and the shadow Minister in their places. I think this is the third time in four days that we have been in the Chamber discussing various issues that fall under their brief, and we look forward to hearing their comments in due course.

I am also delighted to see the Chair of the Select Committee, Miss McIntosh, in her place. I see that she issued a press release last week, in which she says:

“Many of Professor Elliott’s conclusions echo those made by the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee in its two reports on Contamination of Beef Products and Food Contamination.

In particular, both the Committee and Professor Elliott raised concerns about the reduced capacity for testing in the UK and stressed the need for more Public Analysts to undertake such testing. The Government must set out how it intends to deliver this.

We also welcome the creation of a Food Crime Unit which should help to deter criminals from seeking to defraud consumers.”

I know the hon. Lady will speak extensively on those points, and I will return to them in my comments, too. I do not intend to speak for long. I just want to draw on several of the briefings we have all received over recent days, and I will begin with the National Farmers Union briefing.

The NFU makes two very strong points which are worth reading into the record. It says:

“It is important that the costs of any new regulation, or the proposed food crime unit, aren’t pushed on to farmers, who weren’t implicated in the horse meat scandal.”

That is very important, because farmers may very well end up being looked on, sometimes unfairly, by Governments of different colours as the people who should be funding certain things, but this scandal was not of their making and therefore they very strongly defend their position, which is absolutely correct. The NFU goes on to say:

“This highlights the need for short, traceable, supply chains and the importance of food assurance schemes such as ‘Red Tractor’, which ensures high standards and traceability from farm to fork.”

The Minister may well wish to discuss such schemes that provide assurance to consumers that the products they are purchasing are safe.

The Food and Drink Federation is a very respectable organisation that represents very respectable trade bodies that are, however, vulnerable to unscrupulous traders who damage reputations across the industry. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, the latest polling of consumer confidence demonstrates that the industry’s reputation has been damaged. It is not the reputation of those involved in criminality or unscrupulous trading that has been damaged, but the reputation of the whole industry—the good traders and good producers. The FDF says in the opening paragraph of its briefing:

“The final report of Professor Elliott’s Review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks…recognises that UK consumers have access to perhaps the safest food in the world. However any supply chain, no matter how simple or complex, can present risks that need to be adequately managed.”

I want to draw quite heavily on the briefing from Which? It is extensive and highlights the eight key pillars identified in the Elliott report. It refers to

“the National Food Crime Prevention Framework for ensuring the integrity of our food system” and, of the eight key points, it starts with the “‘consumers first’ approach”, which must be the key priority of any Government. It goes on to talk about zero tolerance and states:

The Report’s call for the reintroduction of a central register of food law convictions should be acted upon urgently to ensure information is available to consumers to enable them to make an informed choice about the food they buy.”

The briefing also talks about improved intelligence to pre-empt fraud and says:

“We support the creation of an FSA intelligence hub and a ‘safe haven’ to enable industry intelligence to be better shared…The Government should also address the need for mandatory local authority testing and sharing of information in order to identify problems and draw national linkages.”

I would very much like the Minister to address the local authorities issue. We covered it in when we debated puppies last Thursday, when my hon. Friend John McDonnell in particular said it is all very well us all wanting trading standards bodies and local authorities to do a better job, but if local authorities are not resourced, they are not going to be able to do the job we expect them to do. One theme that frequently crops up in the different briefings we have received on food fraud is that the quality of the job the public sector and local authorities are able to do varies across the country. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments on local authority testing and their ability to carry out mandatory testing, and how to make sure best practice is replicated across the country.

Which? goes on to talk about laboratory services and says it

“supports the finding that a more strategic and effective public sector laboratory testing service is necessary.”

It also says that the Government’s

“additional £2 million funding is welcome, but in light of the challenges raised by the Elliott report, a more systematic approach to ensuring future provision is required.”

I would welcome hearing the Minister’s comments on the Which? analysis that the £2 million is very welcome, but is it going to be adequate for the task in hand?

On audits, Which? states:

“The Government should now provide guidance and set minimum standards to help smaller as well as larger players understand the level of action that is appropriate, including the level of testing that is needed. It is also important the FSA leads national investigations and works more closely with local authorities to ensure effective enforcement.”

It then goes on to talk about Government support. It shares the report’s concerns about local authorities’ resources being increasingly stretched. As evidence, it cites a 16.8% drop in food standards interventions and a 6.8% drop in testing the composition of our foods. It states:

“Our research has also found a huge variation in the way that food enforcement is carried out across the UK.”

Will the Minister tell us more about the standard and quality of testing across the different local authorities? On Government support, Which? goes on to state:

“The FSA’s audit process identifies areas of weaknesses within individual local authorities, but now needs to take a more fundamental look at the way local authorities are performing. The Agency must also have sufficient powers to intervene in particularly complex or national cases.”

On leadership and co-ordination of investigations and prosecutions, the Which? briefing states:

“The report raises questions around the effectiveness of penalties and the limits of the current sanctions to deter criminal activity.”

I shall ask the Minister a question about that in a moment. On crisis management, Which? states:

“The Report notes the need for timely support to the FSA from across government in the event of a serious incident.”

It goes on:

“The Report identifies the need for the Government to urge the FSA to be better prepared for responding to future food incidents.”

In conclusion, I want to make a couple of brief comments and ask a few questions of the Minister. My hon. Friend Huw Irranca-Davies pointed out to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire that the machinery of government changes and the weakening of the FSA in 2010 was criticised by the National Audit Office, which stated that the changes had created confusion and offered “no obvious benefit”. The changes included removing responsibility for food authenticity from the FSA to DEFRA, which was thought to have been part of the problem. Do the Government now accept that that change was a mistake?

Professor Elliott’s report, which was commissioned by the Government, was due in the spring. It is now here, and we would be interested to hear about the delay and about what is believed to have been the softening of the recommendations between the publication of the interim report and the final report. The fact that the Government are accepting all the recommendations is good news, however.

Returning to one of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, serious criminality has been uncovered but, although investigations are continuing here and in many other countries, there has been only one prosecution for breaching food regulations and a lack of traceability of meat. Huge frustration has been expressed over the lack of accountability. Does the Minister envisage more prosecutions as a result of these recommendations, or does he think that the legal examinations and prosecutions have run their course? Are we drawing a line under that and moving on to change the regulations?

I hope that the Minister will also comment on the eight pillars of the Elliott review. Everyone agrees that food security is too important to be left to chance or to unscrupulous traders. It is up to the Government to act, and I am pleased that they will be acting on the Elliott recommendations. We look forward to those recommendations being implemented, but the fundamental question relating to the ability to act revolves around the adequacy of the funding and resources to enable the appropriate agencies, the new structures and the local authorities—especially trading standards officers—to deliver the improvements that we all want to see.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee 6:44, 8 September 2014

It is a great pleasure to follow my fellow Committee member, Jim Fitzpatrick. I congratulate him and my hon. Friend Roger Williams on their contributions to the debate. Before I begin my speech, I should like to say how sad I was to hear today of the loss of Jim Dobbin. As a microbiologist, he played an important role in the health service and in keeping us all safe. He was a particularly delightful colleague, and I had the pleasure of working with him on the European Scrutiny Committee. Our thoughts are with his friends and family at this very sad time.

The Committee met briefly on Thursday to consider the Elliott report. The Minister also gave a good summing up of the report, and I hope that he will now be able to respond to all our questions. I repeat the request I put to him on Thursday to update the House on the labelling and traceability provisions at European level.

There have been two positive and, I hope, long-lasting developments following the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal. One is that buying meat more locally from butchers and local shops has increased incrementally. That is very welcome and I hope that it will be a lasting trend.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her work on the Committee. I declare an interest in the agri-food sector. Does she agree that, even though it is a good thing to put in all the necessary strategies and traceability mechanisms, if we are going to root out fraud in the food sector—and in any other industry—we need proper deterrents? The perpetrators need to know that they will do time for this. No matter how big a company is, or the reputation that it has had in the past, penalties need to be put in place so that it cannot perpetrate such fraud again. Some people are making millions of pounds out of this.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has made a similar point. I believe that the new provisions will address this; the use of the criminal law is important. The fact that the City of London fraud police were invited to carry out the examinations was illuminating, in a sense. They are very skilled in tackling business fraud and paper crime. I shall elaborate on that point later.

The second development, which I hope will be long-lasting, following the horsemeat scandal is the emergence of shorter supply chains. A number of hon. Members have already mentioned the comments of the Food and Drink Federation and the testing that has been carried out. We must not forget the cost of that testing. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that such testing will be more regular. I welcome the fact that there will be unannounced testing and auditing of food companies. Will he confirm that the testing will take place not only on the basis of risk assessment?

We can see the lengths to which the retailers are now going from the briefings that they are issuing. We must not forget that they were not necessarily in the best place. One supermarket—a leading household name—had not checked the integrity of its supply chain for months, if not years. That simply cannot be allowed to happen again. The Food and Drink Federation has flagged up certain questions for retailers. It has asked them to identify their key raw materials, asking the simple question, “Where do they come from?” It also asks them to assess how resilient their supply chain is, and how they protect their business from food fraud. This shows just how far the food industry has come.

Like other hon. Members, I was approached by Which? magazine in advance of today’s debate. I took the precaution of contacting my local authorities in North

Yorkshire. I am sure it took them time and probably some expense to go through the recent testing, but I have reams of results from North Yorkshire county council, Hambleton district council, Scarborough borough council and Ryedale district council. I say to

Which? that it would be helpful to know how extensive its survey was, because such surveys can be alarmist if the message goes out to consumers that our food is in any way unsafe to eat, and we have come on a long journey since the first horsemeat adulteration was found in January 2013. In welcoming this evening’s debate, it is important to accept that the Select Committee has not had the chance to consider collectively the final report and recommendations of Professor Elliott on food security, but it is very welcome that the Secretary of State and the Government have announced that they will accept all the proposals. I am delighted that the two reports on contamination of beef products and on food contamination that the Committee adopted last year form part of this evening’s debate.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

One important part of the report is where Professor Elliott says that he anticipates that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology will be keeping a watching brief on how the recommendations are put into place.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Indeed. I wish to record how pleased I am that Professor Elliott has agreed in principle to come to discuss his final report findings with us.

It is a matter of regret that no prosecutions leading to conviction have been brought—one might say that the horse has already bolted.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I fully support some of the proposals the hon. Lady has mentioned, and I think there should be criminal prosecutions in this area and more inspections. Have there been any more incidents of horsemeat finding its way into the food chain?

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Not to my knowledge, but the Minister will be better placed to answer that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, there have been instances—I believe this was in part of Yorkshire, but, thankfully, not in North Yorkshire—where kebabs and other takeaway foods were found not to have been what they were reported to be; we are talking not about processed food there but about other retail outlets. So we must be ever vigilant and the level of testing must remain high. The point raised earlier is key: consumers must now be at the heart of this process, as Professor Elliott has said and the Government and DEFRA have accepted. However, the second note of regret is that we still do not know at which point the adulteration or contamination, whichever we want to call it—my hon. Friend gave some eloquent definitions—entered into the food chain. This was a multimillion-pound business and, as Professor Elliott concluded, these events crossed 26 out of 28 EU member states, which is why it is so important that we must find out where the adulteration took place. Perhaps we will never know that, but if we do not, how can we say to consumers, in all honesty, that we can prevent it from happening again?

Importantly, Professor Elliott’s interim report identified two weak links—two particularly vulnerable areas—in respect of the horsemeat scandal. The first was slabs of cold meat held in cold storage. The second was raw products, and ingredients of processed foods or processed foods, travelling the long distances that we now know they did. I will be honest and say that I have not had chance to go through Professor Elliott’s report line by line, but it is extremely important that the Minister reassures us this evening on the Europol aspect, where there has been wilful criminal acts. It is also important that he reassures us that the rest of Europe has tightened up its act. This is not just about Europol and Interpol. I go to markets regularly in my constituency—I tend not to go to abattoirs—and if someone were to string up a cow carcase and a horse carcase, I would be hard-pressed, ignorant as I am, to tell the difference between them. Professor Elliott did us a great favour by spelling out in his interim report, and repeating in his final report, the two most vulnerable aspects in this country. I do not think that he was being in any way alarmist, so we must not lose sight of the fact that he did say that we are still vulnerable to such adulteration in future. The purpose of the

Which? report is probably to say that the criminals will move on, and they have moved on from the meat, slab or carcase form—the processed form—to other retail outlets selling kebabs and other takeaways.

The Committee’s report and Professor Elliott’s conclusions show the concerns about the reduced capacity for testing, which has been alluded to by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse. The Committee report stressed the need—we took powerful evidence in the Select Committee—for more public analysts to do the testing. The hon. Gentleman made the point well that it must not be the innocent party—the farmers—who should pay for that. Obviously, the closer to home it is produced and the shorter the supply chain, the more confidence we can have in our food and in our meat. I am a meat eater who represents a large livestock producing —meat producing—area. I want to make sure that we have absolute confidence in the production in this country, and I believe it is second to none.

Professor Elliott’s final recommendations are on the national laboratory service and the drawing together of the nine—I believe it is—public laboratory services. He specifically says that public laboratory services need to be protected, that they are in “a fragile position” and that the review should be seen as

“an opportunity to develop a sustainable national asset.”

A lot can be done through DEFRA, the Food and Environment Research Agency, which is in my constituency, and LGC, a major science service company, to develop these centres of excellence—that would be pleasing indeed. He goes on to say that the Government should:

“Work in partnership with Public Health England and local authorities with their own laboratories to consider…options for an integrated shared scientific service around food standards”.

The Minister must grasp that point and reassure us—whether it is the labs, the food analysts or the police—that they will be given a specific target and resources to do that. It is important that the Government address the potentially reduced capacity for testing arising from the stranglehold on local authority budgets. Will the Minister use his good offices to speak to the relevant Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government to see whether this money for public testing and public analysts could be ring-fenced? That would put a lot of people’s minds at rest. So we need the national laboratory service and we need to ensure that the level of food testing by local authorities remains high. These unannounced audits and tests by the food industry will be a very positive development. Perhaps we need to be reassured again that shorter supply chains are in place and will not be jeopardised in the future.

Briefly, the food crime unit will go to the heart of preventing food adulteration incidents in the future. We need to see real leadership. The fact that the new unit will be placed within the FSA is pleasing. There was some criticism of the FSA in the Pat Troop report and in our own report. It was felt that perhaps the agency needed to co-operate more with local authorities and with other FSAs across the European Union. I hope that the Minister will tell us that that will be a top priority.

Huw Irranca-Davies rightly touched on the matter of crisis management. The Government must clarify the roles and responsibilities of the various agencies before another incident occurs—it could be an incident of food safety rather than food adulteration—and ensure that all incidents are regarded as a risk to public health until there is evidence to the contrary. That was in the Troop report in June 2013. Will the Minister assure us tonight that NHS England will make that matter a top priority?

The Secretary of State set out in her written statement that she would like to see the food crime unit set up by the end of the year, which is pleasing. Will the Minister assure the House that the resources will follow the responsibilities and set out who will pay? I was very taken by the two models set out in Professor Elliott’s report. The Danish model was found to be slightly less adequate than the Dutch one, but if we look at the costings on page 138 of the report, we find that they are very high for the Dutch model. The population of Denmark is 5.5 million, and the population of Holland is between 10 million and 11 million Obviously, the costs will increase incrementally; one figure that is mentioned is between £2.8 million and £36 million. Can the Minister explain how those costings have been reached and promise that the money will match the responsibilities? How does he think the money will be raised and who will pay?

Importantly, will the police have the ability to make arrests? Apparently, police in Denmark do not have that power, but they do in Holland. Under the Elliott model, the police will have the powers to swoop and investigate. Presumably, they will then be able to make an arrest. As concerns on that matter have been expressed this evening, it is extremely important that the Minister clarifies whether arrests can be made. Furthermore, will the Minister set up a detailed timetable for implementing the recommendation, confirm that the food crime unit will be in place by December, provide an update on labelling and traceability and tell us whether the police will have the right powers in this regard?

Finally, in November 2012, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland alerted the FSA in England to a potential food adulteration problem, as meat was being sourced from the same suppliers. No testing took place in England until we had the horsemeat adulteration confirmed in January 2013. What reassurance can the Minister give the House tonight that we will not find ourselves in that situation again in a year, two years’ or three years’ time?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome 7:04, 8 September 2014

I congratulate my hon. Friend Roger Williams on securing this debate, which is of critical importance to consumers, retailers, producers and everyone involved in the food industry. As I said earlier, I was Minister with responsibility for food when the horsemeat scandal broke, and I have to say that nothing has made me angrier than what was happening then. Not only was a deliberate fraud perpetuated on consumers who deserve better, but that fraud had a serious reputational effect on very good producers in this country who had no part whatever in what had taken place. Retailers who had good reputations were trying to do the right thing but were none the less affected. We must put in place systems that are as effective as they possibly can be to prevent such a thing from happening again.

I am unashamedly a fan of British food and British food producers. We have some superb production in this country, and we should be proud not only of the quality of the food we produce but of the standards that we maintain day to day, week to week and year on year. We should deal to the best of our abilities with anything that sullies that reputation.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I thank the hon. Gentleman and former Minister for giving way. He has great experience and knowledge of this area. One of the great things about Professor Elliott is the great emphasis he places on this safe haven of intelligence coming forward and on a strengthening of the powers around whistleblowing. When the scandal was kicking off, it astonished me that people were then coming forward and whistleblowing. Elliott is right to say that there is a cultural change in the industry. There are lots of good players out there, but there needs to be a cultural mindset change to encourage people to come forward.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. One of the earliest actions I took as a Minister was to convene a meeting—I remember it happening—at the Food Standards Agency with all the major retailers. I made it plain to them that they had a very real problem to deal with, and that that problem was not going to be resolved unless they were prepared to do the work that was necessary in terms of testing and of sharing information, which were not part of the culture of the industry at that point. I said that unless they were prepared to do that, it was impossible for the Government to take the steps that would help to restore the reputation of the food industry.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse

Let me reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Every food retailer was affected by the scandal. Nobody was left untouched. The most diligent retailer was also being conned by unscrupulous dealers somewhere down the chain. Did the hon. Gentleman get a sense that they were going to invest more in their own testing, or were they looking to Government for that investment? What was the balance there?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

We made it clear that testing was the retailers’ responsibility. Retailers had not only a legal responsibility but a moral responsibility to their consumers to ensure that the material they put on their shelves was what they said it was. They had no doubts whatever that they had to up their game, and they did, and all credit to them. I have no criticism of the actions that the retailers took to meet the demands that we placed on them for this very comprehensive testing regime, which took place not just once but time after time to ensure that the incidents that had been identified had been eliminated and remained eliminated. I have one caveat, which the Minister may wish to address: I did not feel that I had the same level of commitment from the catering industry. I am worried that as a lot of food arrives unlabelled on tables across the country through the catering industry, that might perhaps still be a weak spot. I would like to think that continuing pressure will be placed on the catering industry to be as assiduous as I hope the retailers now are about composition, testing and ensuring the integrity of their systems.

Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park

I enjoyed my hon. Friend’s tribute to British food earlier, to which I completely subscribe. Does he share my hope that we will do everything we can to maintain the high standards of British food as progress is made in the transatlantic trade and investment partnership? As negotiations continue, there is tremendous pressure from US agribusiness to try to weaken our resolve to avoid unlabelled GM food, beef treated with hormones and poultry meat that has been contaminated with chlorine, and we should do everything we can to resist that pressure and to maintain the standards that he has just praised, which I totally support.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

I see no reason to compromise on high standards of quality. There are areas that I think we can quite properly discuss with the United States in which the answer is labelling and letting consumers make the choice rather than simply having bans. Some of the areas the hon. Gentleman mentions fall into that category; others do not. I have no interest in hormone treatments being used in this country and think that it would be a very great shame if that were standard practice in our dairy herds. We have been down that road before; I remember having exactly that conversation 30 years ago when I was leader of the county council and American Pharmaceuticals proposed to bring in bovine somatotropin to increase yield in our dairy herds. As a Somerset representative, I would say that we simply do not want that. It will be bad for our cattle and for their welfare and it will also be bad for the industry as regards consumer acceptance of a very wholesome product. I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I neglected to apologise for my late arrival when I intervened earlier, so if I was repetitive I apologise. A number of the complaints I received in my constituency from commercial companies concerned the fact that although we welcome an open border policy for free trade within the European Union, it has its downside as regards free movement, and there were not the border checks that there should have been. There is paperwork, and we can do many things with that, but there are not the necessary physical checks. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman heard that complaint when he was a Minister.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

I did hear that complaint and I must say that what was coming into our ports from outside the EU was a great concern of mine. I do not think sufficient precautions were in place, although they have improved since. Within the EU, although there were theoretical paper trails, when they were examined in the context of the horsemeat scandal they were found to be relatively easy to falsify. That cannot be acceptable and we need co-operation on that between member states.

The paramount responsibility of the Food Standards Agency and of Government is to maintain the safety of food. I do not want anything to be done in terms of the composition that takes away from the primary responsibility of ensuring that when consumers eat something, they are safe from infection or poisoning. That is not to say that composition is unimportant. It gives consumers something other than what they think they have bought. As we have heard, for some communities that is of very great significance, particularly those that have religious requirements about what they eat, but anybody is entitled to be sold what they think they are buying according to the label that the product bears. If people are deliberately setting out to sell something other than that, there is a very simple word for it, and that is fraud. The title of today’s debate is “Food Fraud” and the significant point is the fraud, not the food. It is a crime, and one that needs to be treated as serious. We need the apparatus to ensure that we interdict when it comes into the country and that we ensure prosecution when people involved are in this country.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I am following my hon. Friend’s elegant words very closely indeed. The Secretary of State when he was the Minister responsible for farms and food, my right hon. Friend Mr Paterson, promised that the perpetrators of this crime would be brought to book. It must be a source of great disappointment and regret to my hon. Friend, as it is to me, that no convictions or successful prosecutions have been brought.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

I find it enormously frustrating because, frankly, the then Secretary of State and I did absolutely everything we could to mobilise and energise enforcement agencies across Europe to try to ensure that the problem was traced. I can say now because I am free to do so—the Minister may feel more constrained—that I believe that at the root of this was large-scale, European-based organised crime and that more could and should have been done by other member states to get the bottom of it.

It was a very convoluted story—we know that—and it was not easy, but I felt that having raised the issue very effectively in European Council meetings, obtained the involvement of the Commission and persuaded other member states to take it seriously, there was a palpable feeling once the press and media furore had died down that some member states were suggesting, “Let’s not push it too hard, shall we, chaps? Let’s not remind people that we had a problem and let’s just hope it all goes away.” I do not think that is good enough. I do not think that the UK Government took that view, but I am not convinced that others did not feel that once the storm had passed, it was easier simply to carry on as before. The trouble is that that meant that those people who were making an awful lot of money—we are talking about huge sums of money across a European nexus—continued to do so, which means that the problem will arise again.

We in this country and manufacturers and retailers across Europe made the situation worse through the complexity of the supply chain. That has been mentioned time and again, and the more we looked into it, the more extraordinary seemed the number of different hands that some of these products went through across so many jurisdictions in Europe. One only had to look at the price of the finished product and the number of people who were supposedly making a profit to realise that that could not possibly be done in a legal way. Some of our big retailers, which have very sophisticated procurement offices, perhaps had some responsibility to ask more questions. They do now, but they should have been asking at an earlier stage about how so-called beef could travel all the way around Europe only to be sold as eight burgers for less than £1 on a British supermarket shelf. It could not be done legally.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic contribution to the debate. Does he agree that one of the strongest recommendations in Elliott is that part of the due diligence, for want of another term, from here on must be that when those in the supply chain see an offer that is too good to be true, they must ask why? When horsemeat was being sold for a quarter the price of good beef, anybody looking at it should have asked what on earth was going on.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

They should indeed. People should also be aware—Neil Parish made this point in an intervention—that the more price wars we have in our supermarkets, the more dangerous it is for good, honest suppliers, and the greater the propensity for those in the middle to try to scrape an extra margin through unfair practice. That is why I worry when our major retailers engage in food price wars, because although it may seem that that is in the interests of consumers of modest means, it is not, because those people are just as entitled to get good-quality produce for the money they spend as those paying much higher prices.

Although they are beginning to do this, retailers need to raise the status and increase the independence of those they employ to carry out testing throughout the supply chain. That will mean that if the testers suspect that something is wrong, they can say, “This has to be looked at,” and the matter will be considered at board level so that appropriate action can be taken. I do not want to start a hare running or to suggest that something very wrong is happening in the catering industry, but I worry that there is a real problem that the quality of products that sometimes find their way into catering establishments is not as high as those sold on retail supermarket shelves.

The Food Standards Agency has a crucial role to play, but one of the difficulties that I faced as a Minister—the current Minister will face the same situation—was that I had no responsibility for the agency, so I had to answer questions in the House that were strictly speaking nothing to do with me, in the sense that the FSA had an independent role. The distinction is important, because the food industry’s sponsoring Minister should not also be its regulator, and we saw many years ago that if that happens, the public lose confidence in the regulator. However, it is important that there is the greatest possible co-ordination between DEFRA and the FSA. We had that, and I pay tribute to the agency and its officers for the work that they did with me and for their help, which I appreciated. It is important that such co-ordination take place at a high level.

I worry that local authorities do not always play their part. We need a comprehensive local authority testing system. Some local authorities are very good, but others, frankly, are not. It is easy for anyone to say, “Oh, it’s about resources,” but there is no direct correlation between the resources available and whether an authority does a good or bad job. It is more a case of whether an authority recognises that it has an essential and primary responsibility to keep people in its area safe. Just as central Government have a responsibility, so does local government, so local authorities need to carry out testing. There is a question about the laboratory service—the recommendations on the laboratory and public analysis services are crucial aspects of the package—but I do not accept that local authorities should be let off the hook if they say, “This is a low-priority area and we want to spend our money elsewhere. It’s all the Government’s fault.” That is not the case, and local authorities must recognise their responsibilities.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that resourcing is no guarantee of local authorities providing good services, because there are some very good authorities and others that are not so good. The practice of various local authorities shows that this is not a party political issue either. However, one of the Elliott report’s main recommendations is that there should be an examination of what is happening in local authorities so that we can identify the good guys and those who are not doing such a good job, find out what is best practice and how it can be achieved, and then share that information.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

I entirely agree, although I suspect that the Food Standards Agency knows an awful lot of that information already because it works directly with local authorities from day to day and will know of the results it receives from local authority analysts.

We must not set out rigid structures for the FSA that impose testing regimes for no benefit. The system must be based on intelligence and proportionality. Earned recognition, if appropriate, is an important way of redirecting resources effectively but, as Professor Elliott says, that must be coupled with spot checks to ensure that what one thinks is going on is actually going on. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to redirect FSA resources, which are always under pressure owing to the extent of its responsibilities, to testing that serves no useful purpose.

I understand exactly what Professor Elliott says about the concept of a food crime unit, but I have a concern. Food crime and fraud covers a wide spectrum of offences, ranging from low-scale inadvertence and very minor adulteration—frankly, it is not difficult to pick up and prosecute such practice, and it should be well within local authority or FSA officials’ power to take appropriate action to deal with it—to the large-scale fraud that the horsemeat scandal revealed, which I think is based on organised crime. Such fraud might require action at a much higher level, such as through the National Crime Agency, and to deal with that sort of organised crime, we need a sophisticated approach and co-operation with counterparts throughout the world, such as Interpol and Europol. I worry that if we are not careful, the food crime unit could fall betwixt and between those two ends of the spectrum, and we might have something that is ineffective at dealing with the big guys, but over-designed for the little guys. The Government need to give serious thought to the terms of reference and composition of the food crime unit, as well as to how it reports and feeds into the gangbusters in the NCA.

The one thing that worried me enormously when I was a DEFRA Minister—it still worries me enormously, and I think it will worry me more and more—was the resilience of the Department itself. DEFRA is a good Department. It does an awful lot of good work and has to cover a huge number of contingencies, but its funding and resources are now such that it would find it difficult to deal with a major incident. I hope that the Treasury and leaders in government recognise that if we have a major incident to which DEFRA is unable to respond, the consequences could be enormously damaging. I am not saying that we are at that point yet, but we must be cautious that we ensure that we do not stretch what is already a thin line—a thin blue line, red line or whatever; let us think of a colour—

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for coming up with a suitable colour on the spectrum. We must not stretch the thin green line so taut that we are unable to deal with an act of God, or an act of wicked men, that might cause our nation enormous problems, but I just feel that we are getting close to that edge.

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer 7:29, 8 September 2014

I apologise for missing the opening few remarks in this important debate, and I warmly congratulate Roger Williams on securing it. It is a privilege to follow Mr Heath.

I draw Members’ attention to my declaration of interests. As a proud Yorkshire farmer who supplies genuine Maris Piper potatoes to a well known Canadian French fry producer with a factory in Scarborough, based in Yorkshire, I could not pass up the opportunity to say a few words in this important debate.

It is reassuring that Professor Elliott has commended the British food industry so highly for providing one of the safest food supply markets in the world. The report acknowledges the importance of developing shorter supply chains and securing domestically produced food for a more resilient food network. Indeed, I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will join me in recognising the hard work of British farmers, who have invested to provide us with such high-quality produce. We must do all we can to strengthen our nation’s food security, increase investment and maintain our international reputation for producing the finest quality produce anywhere in the world.

As has been made abundantly clear, however, the problem is increasingly complex retail supply chains, which can make accurate tracing of food all but impossible. According to the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the factory that supplied a British supermarket with burgers made up with 30% horsemeat sourced the ingredients from 40 different suppliers. In such a long, complicated and unaccountable supply chain, the opportunity for fraud is sadly all too clear. Having familiarised myself with Professor Elliott’s excellent report, I agree entirely with the emphasis he places on the eight identified pillars of food integrity. It is, however, essential that we do not overlook the most effective way of ensuring the integrity and assuring the quality of our food: buying British produce.

Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park

On supporting British food and farming, does my hon. Friend celebrate as I do recent moves by DEFRA to encourage much greater use of the £2 billion or so we spend each year on food for schools, hospitals, military barracks and the like on domestic produce, so that a far greater volume of funds will be used to source and access good-quality local food for our children, patients and so on than was the case before?

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who makes the point well. It is important that the Government, of which DEFRA is one Department, lead by example, and I feel that they are doing that.

In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, it was clear that consumers want to see more British food on the shelves of supermarkets. They want to buy more British food and eat more British food, whether they get it through schools and hospitals, or by buying it in their local supermarket and from local producers. Buying British food is important, because animal welfare in our country is second to none. Our farmers are rightly proud of their world-beating record, which sets us apart from other global producers. We must celebrate that. For me, that is a gold standard, which we have to maintain.

I draw the House’s attention to the fantastic but often overlooked red tractor assurance scheme, which was mentioned by Jim Fitzpatrick. The logo, with the Union flag, shows not only that the food was produced in the UK, but that the highest standards of animal welfare, food safety, traceability and environmental management have been rigorously enforced. Almost 90,000 farmers now take part in the scheme, and the retail value of food carrying the logo is now estimated to be more than £12 billion a year. Next week is red tractor week, and I urge everyone to support the scheme where possible. Young people are being asked to become red tractor recruits, to spread the word of high-quality British produce on social media. Sadly, I can no longer claim to be a young person, nor have I ever been an avid tweeter, unlike some other Members, but I hope my contribution will convince some consumers to put British produce into their shopping basket—or to buy local, which we have not touched on yet—

Photo of Julian Sturdy Julian Sturdy Conservative, York Outer

I do apologise—buying local has been talked about already, but it is worth mentioning again. The best form of traceability and quality assurance is to go down to the local butcher, greengrocer or fishmonger and buy local. When we buy local, we know where the food has come from—we can ask the butcher where the meat has come from, even down to the individual farm.

The importance of farming to our economy should not be underestimated. Food production and farming contributes almost £100 billion to the British economy each year, employing almost 4 million people in the process. We can be proud that farming remains a family affair, with 90% of the more than 140,000 registered farming businesses run as sole traders or family partnerships. Food and drink products are now the country’s fourth largest export sector, with sales booming by about 5% a year. Indeed, some of the UK’s most lucrative exports are now from the farming sector, with lamb exports up 8% year on year, cheese exports up 9% and dairy produce up an incredible 18%. Such successes play an important part in creating jobs and fuelling our economic recovery and must be encouraged to continue.

We must also take the necessary steps to safeguard our hard-won reputation of excellence, which could easily be jeopardised by rogue elements operating in an increasingly complex international marketplace. Professor Elliott rightly calls for a zero tolerance approach as one of the pillars of food integrity. I understand that, at the request of the Food Standards Agency, the Sentencing Council is considering whether there is an opportunity to provide fresh guidance on food and hygiene offences. I urge that tough sanctions be brought to bear on anyone who would not only jeopardise the health of British consumers, but cheapen the reputation of the agricultural industry, which farmers have worked so hard to rebuild after the scares of the 1990s.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s response to the report, which recognises not only the value of British farming, but the importance of educating children about quality food. Cookery and food education will be a vital part of the national curriculum, and young children will now enjoy a much better understanding, not only of where their food comes from, but of why it is so important to eat fresh and healthy produce.

I could not let this debate pass without mentioning food security, as it remains a fundamental concern across the country. We are only 68% self-sufficient in food—a level that has, sadly, steadily declined over the past 20 years. Well meaning but poorly implemented schemes such as the common agricultural policy have limited our ability to increase food production in a sustainable way. Our competitive edge in quality and our capacity to increase yields can be promoted only through better understanding of the farming sector and investments in new technology.

It is all too easy to forget that the industrial revolution began with a revolution in Britain’s farming practices, transforming our island nation into the world’s foremost power for more than a century. With such a proud heritage we must remain focused on increasing yields, boosting exports and safeguarding our gold standards in quality produce and animal welfare.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 7:39, 8 September 2014

I congratulate all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed. We may be few in number, but we have had a very insightful debate with a lot of quality in the speeches, with more to come as well.

Guy Opperman, in response to an intervention, accused me of bringing politics into the debate—heaven forfend! That is my day job; I am a politician. I try to deal with evidence and rationality, but I am also elected democratically and I am a politician. If the hon. Gentleman, who is no longer in his place, does not understand that, I will happily sit down with him over a coffee.

I congratulate Roger Williams on introducing the debate. We go back a very long way. He talked about the 2001 election, which was delayed because of foot and mouth. I recall that well, because we were sparring partners, but he was also seeing daily, alongside farmers, the horror of the burning carcases. He has great experience in this area. He reminded us of the importance of Elliott, food fraud, food criminality, traceability and all the aspects of this to the farming community. As many hon. Members have said, those who are often hit really badly by this are the primary producers—farmers. It is they who get squeezed, whether in price wars or in burdens being laid on them. We need to guard against that.

The hon. Gentleman, like many others, strongly supports the proposals in the Elliott report. As hon. Members will know, I have spent my weekend poring over every line and word of it, as well as other briefings and so on. Professor Elliott makes it crystal clear that not only the eight pillars of food integrity but every detail must hold together. These proposals are not to be cherry-picked; equal effort must be put into every aspect.

During an intervention on the hon. Gentleman, we briefly discussed the FSA’s interim proposals, which some would argue have different emphasis from the final report. However, it is about more than degrees of emphasis, because the Troop proposals mentioned by Miss McIntosh, who chairs the EFRA Committee, among others, expressed a preference for putting these responsibilities into the FSA. Even though this is slightly modified in the report, Elliott makes it clear that if that is not going to be the case, he wants the matter to be pursued in a different way with equal rigour and clarity. Let us see how it emerges.

My hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick has great experience in these matters. I served alongside him when he was the Minister responsible for food, farming and agriculture. He brought a great deal of experience to bear, as he always does in these debates. He talked about not having the full impact of this falling on farming communities. He discussed, as did others, including Julian Sturdy, the importance of the red tractor assurance scheme. That is an important element of some of the briefings from the National Farmers Union, the Food and Drink Federation, and Which? magazine—I am sorry, not Which? magazine but Which? the consumers association. It used to be a magazine when I was a young man but now it is far more than that.

My hon. Friend said that Elliott is proposing not to increase burdens but to reduce the burdens on the good guys and put the burdens on to the bad guys and the criminals. He talked about the importance of a strategic laboratory service, which is crucial. He asked whether the resources were sufficient for this very wide-ranging set of proposals to do Elliott justice. He referred to the machinery of government changes in the FSA. Like many Members, he queried why prosecutions are so few and far between and often do not go after the big fish in the pond.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton has a great deal of experience in this area. I commend not only her speech but the work that the EFRA Committee has done over time on putting a spotlight on to this issue with considerable detail and forensic analysis. She opened her remarks by paying tribute to a friend of all of us right across the House—the late Jim Dobbin. We are all very sad and our thoughts are with his family. One of his great causes related to DEFRA—open access and the right to roam. There is nothing more political than putting one foot in front of the other and walking out into the countryside. He was a great believer in that. In fact, I have a debate about such matters on Wednesday afternoon in Westminster Hall, and anybody who wants to can come and take part.

The hon. Lady talked about the desirability of shorter supply chains. A lot of the retailers have “got” that now, but we have to keep the pressure on. On the day of the National Farmers Union conference a year ago, one retailer—I will not name it for fear of embarrassment but it knows who it is—took out full-page adverts with a big banner headline saying, “We get it”, that talked about how it would transform its business. I have met it subsequently, and it is trying to do that. It is our biggest supermarket chain. A lot of farmers are now watching for it to carry that through relentlessly.

In an intervention on David Simpson, the hon. Lady talked about penalties, which the hon. Member for York Outer also mentioned. We need to consider not only what the Sentencing Council is doing, and stronger penalties, but broader penalties so that some of these cases do not have to end up in court. That could be to do with naming and shaming, but there might be McCrory-style types of penalties that deal in the right way with relatively minor offences early on and deal in a heavy-duty way with the big offenders as well.

It was asked whether more incidents have taken place post-horsemeat. It is interesting to refer to the very good House of Commons Library briefing, which draws on Elliott’s observation that in 2007 there were 49 reports of food fraud to the FSA’s food fraud database, while in 2013 it received 1,538 reports. According to the National Audit Office, local authorities reported 1,380 cases of food fraud in 2012, up by two thirds since 2010. That is the scale of what we are looking at. That emphasises the importance of local authority intelligence, which a few hon. Members mentioned, and of how this ties together. It will not all be carried out by serious crime people; local information on the ground will open it out.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

As I hope the hon. Gentleman will confirm, there is not sufficient intelligence. A lot of the testing is done purely on the basis of risk assessment. The key is not just the food crime unit but the fact that there will be spot checks—unannounced audits. Surely that has to be a good thing.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I could not agree more. I hope that the Minister will also say that that is the way forward. It is not only about routine checks or risk assessment-based checks but turning up unannounced.

The hon. Lady rightly made a point about Troop and the FSA leadership, and clarity of roles. She also talked about the police’s powers of arrest, and I will be interested in the Minister’s response to that.

Mr Heath, a former Minister in the Department who also has great experience, discussed the importance of cultural change, which is crucial. He rightly talked about the importance of driving this through every area, including catering. It has to go deep into every individual sector and employee as well as the bosses and the leadership. The importance of caterers was brought home in the horsemeat scandal, because horsemeat was appearing not only in hospitals and schools but in the food used by caterers who were supplying Royal Ascot and the royal family—so at least we were all in it together.

On the complexity of the supply chain, Elliott says that we have to recognise that, even though it is more desirable to have shorter supply chains and to encourage food retailers and providers to move towards them, we are in a global system, under which global intelligence and the pursuit of crime come into play. He also says, wisely, that ultimately the food price wars that take place from time to time, including now, are not good for the consumer if they jeopardise food authenticity or—heaven help us—food safety.

The hon. Member for York Outer spoke up strongly for British farming and food produce. He talked about the gold standard of British farming and I agree with him. Curiously, when we were on the Government Benches, others would shout at us about gold-plating, but that is exactly the gold standard he was talking about. That is the reason our exports to many other countries are doing well—they demand the standards of animal welfare, hygiene and testing that this country delivers. Regulation is a darn good thing when it protects the consumer and allows us to export around the world. Curiously, the FSA has traditionally been looked on as the gold standard of food regulation.

The hon. Gentleman also talked wisely about the importance of knowing where our food actually comes from. There is a great deal of work to do on that right across the population, ourselves included. There is real value in knowing where food comes from; it ties into so many good things.

The Labour party is very clear—as we were when we were in government—that the consumer has always to be put first. That is why, when in government, we established a strong and independent Food Standards Agency, which had a powerful reach right across Government to regulate this vital industry that creates so many jobs and that wants the very highest standards. However, the changes brought about by tinkering with the machinery of Government have jeopardised that.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Professor Elliott says in his report that when the FSA had control of authenticity testing in 2007-08, under the previous Government, it took the decision, as an independent body, to cut spending on the testing programme. If the hon. Gentleman had been a Minister at the time and had received a submission recommending such a cut, would he have agreed with it or might he have questioned it?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I was not the Minister at the time, but I would like the hon. Gentleman to continue to make his point, because Professor Chris Elliott was unable to address the detail. Will he confirm whether authenticity testing continued even though it had been reduced?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Yes, it continued, but the point Elliott makes is that the FSA, as an independent body, took the decision to start winding down authenticity testing.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Let me put it back to the hon. Gentleman: when the coalition Government entered office in 2010, one of their first decisions in DEFRA was to split away authenticity testing. At that point, did they think it was appropriate to increase investment in it? We could go back and forth on this issue, but authenticity testing was still happening at that time, even if it had been reduced. I am interested in the detail, but it was continuing.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome

It is very important to distinguish between the testing regime that remains within the province of the FSA and local authorities, which continued according to their priorities, and the policy developed by civil servants, which was moved to DEFRA in order to inform Ministers who were having to deal with very complex European issues of labelling and composition. That was perfectly logical. If there was confusion, it was not at the level of central Government; it may have been elsewhere.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

After the horsemeat scandal erupted in February 2013, the National Audit Office looked at the contributory factors to any delay or confusion. One of the things it pointed fairly and squarely at was the confusion as to who was doing what. It pointed the finger at the machinery of Government changes. The hon. Gentleman, who was a Minister, may be saying that he was not confused, but there was certainly confusion between local government and Whitehall, as well as within Whitehall, as to who was doing what. I agree with Troop and with Elliott’s interim findings that it should be put back together again, but we will have to differ on that. The question for the Government is, can they make this work if they are not going to do that?

One of our criticisms relates to the fact that just before we left government in 2010 we published what was at the time a ground-breaking, comprehensive food strategy, “Food 2030”, which followed on from our previous work on “Food Matters”. It mapped out a comprehensive and long-term strategy to ensure the provision of safe, nutritious, affordable and sustainable food, but it has been left on the shelf. Where is this Government’s overarching strategy to pull everything together? The answer is: there isn’t one.

Labour welcomes and supports fully all the Elliott report’s recommendations, and we will continue to urge the Government for full and speedy implementation. Professor Elliott sets out a new Government-industry partnership, some aspects of which will require a culture change in Government and in industry. He makes sound recommendations for a new food crime unit and a whole framework for national food crime prevention, encompassing Government, the FSA and industry. He calls for—it is interesting that he deals not just with the mechanics—a new mentality to meet the challenges of sourcing from complex international supply chains, and a zero-tolerance approach to food crime. He also fashions detailed proposals on whistleblowing, intelligence-gathering and co-ordinated laboratory and testing services, and stresses the need for leadership at all levels, including in

Government. Most of all, he stresses—he puts this top dead centre—the need to put the consumer first, and we agree.

Labour supports the report and all its recommendations. We believe that the industry is ready to drive the culture that Elliott demands and that the consumer and the public deserve. I say to the Minister, however, that we have reservations: we do not have the same confidence that the Government are serious about these changes.

Make no mistake: the Elliott report is not only a series of sound recommendations, but is an expert analysis and critique of the coalition Government’s policy on food governance and food crime. Since 2010 under this coalition Government we have seen the fragmentation of food governance; an ideological fetishism for stripping out regulation for the sake of it, whether that regulation is good for the consumer and industry or not; and front-line cutbacks in inspection at national and local level and in food testing capabilities.

The Government have also been asleep at the wheel, reacting only when disaster happens, realising too late that cutting the brake cables and unscrewing the steering column was not a good idea. In 2010, one of this Government’s first actions was to split the responsibilities of the FSA, an agency that was, as I have said, previously regarded as the gold standard of consumer protection and industry regulation. It was deliberately fractured, which hampered clarity and leadership in food governance in the UK. It is not just me saying that; others are saying it, too.

The horsemeat scandal was the slow-motion car crash that showed how crazy that decision was. The NAO stated that when a prompt response was required to the breaking horsemeat scandal, there was confusion between and lack of leadership in Whitehall Departments and confusion between Whitehall and local government.

Similar, repeated concerns about the mishandling of the FSA and food governance have been raised for some time by the EFRA Committee and many other industry and food policy experts. Labour raised those concerns from the word go.

The interim Elliott report made it clear that the FSA responsibilities should be brought back together. That would deal with the NAO view that fragmentation had led to needless confusion and additional complexity. The final report has stepped back slightly, but it is still commendably forthright on the need to put rigour and reach back into the FSA.

On that and many other issues, the report carries implicit and sometimes explicit criticisms of this Government’s approach to food policy and food crime. It calls for a more robust FSA, retaining its independence, and for far greater co-ordination, which has been lacking, across Government and industry. It highlights the absence of high-level round-table meetings between the chair of the FSA and the Secretaries of State for Health and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which seems to me to be a shocking omission and a glaring fault bearing in mind the fragmentation of responsibilities since 2010.

The report cites evidence from recent local authority testing that appears to show high levels of failure, particularly in meat authenticity testing, which possibly indicates fraud or the criminal adulteration of food. That is deeply worrying set against a near halving in the number of DEFRA officials working on food authenticity since 2010, as revealed by an answer given to me by the Minister in July. It is even more worrying in the light of the immense pressures on local authorities, which have led to severe cutbacks in local food inspections.

Professor Elliott does not pull any punches. He states on page 49 of his report:

“Enforcement activity is…very vulnerable when local authority services are cut to the bone.”

He also draws attention to the average 27% reduction in the number of trading standards officers dealing with food matters, and to the 40% cut in overall trading standards services during the lifetime of this Government. Concerns for consumer protection and for the reputation of the industry are heightened when, as Elliott notes, the number of public analyst laboratories has been reduced from 10 in 2010 to six today. I simply say to the Minister that he has his work cut out if he is to explain how, against the background of cuts in front-line FSA inspection, front-line local authority inspection and laboratory facilities, he can do what Elliott asks and put the consumer first.

Given that we are now four and a half years into this Government, the Minister must explain why the UK has been behind the curve and behind European counterparts in establishing a food crime unit. That led Elliott to note that the Dutch crime unit could find no one in the UK—whether in a crime unit or anywhere else—to speak to when the horsemeat scandal happened. Had the Government’s reluctance to place any burdens on industry given them an aversion to being proactive in such a way? Had Ministers looked at the threat of food adulteration and food crime since taking office? I understand that the Minister was not in office for the whole of that time, but I am sure that he has discussed it with his officials.

One month after the horsemeat scandal erupted, a survey by the consumer organisation Which? found that six in 10 shoppers had changed their shopping habits, and that trust had fallen by a quarter. A year after the scandal, an Ipsos MORI survey showed that 95% of consumers remembered the horsemeat scandal. As has already been mentioned, the latest polling by Which? has shown this month that 55% of people are worried that a food fraud incident will happen again, that a third of them do not have confidence that the food they buy contains what it says on the label—by the way, that goes up to half for people who have takeaways on a Saturday night—and a quarter maintain that they have changed the type of meat they buy. Seven out of 10 consumers have told Which? that more action needs to be taken. The damage is lasting, so we need to get this right.

Let me ask the Minister some initial questions; in the months to come, we will return with more. As the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton suggested, will the Minister publish a detailed timetable for the implementation of every recommendation in the Elliott review so that the Government’s warm words can be measured against actual implementation? Will he give assurances that the resources for the new crime unit and the crime framework to go with it can be found from within existing FSA funding?

Will the Minister now apologise on behalf of the Government for the decision to fragment the responsibilities of the FSA, or does he continue to ignore the argument that that decision damaged its power, authority and independence? Does he accept the Elliott proposal that the FSA should continue as a non-ministerial department so as to retain its necessary independence from the Government? How does he answer critics who believe that the FSA has gone beyond the necessary close co-operation with the industry and is now too close to the industry to be a useful and critical friend? The recent decision not to publish campylobacter rates is one such example.

Bearing in mind the need for a more robust and rigorous FSA based on the report’s proposals and the need for the FSA to have the effective and independent leadership identified by the Elliott report, will the Minister give us an update on the search for a new chair? Will he confirm that the person shortly to be proposed as chair will appear before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee before final confirmation in post?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

They will, which is great.

What other foodstuffs are of primary concern for authenticity fraud, and which are on the priorities list for criminal activity at present? How will the Minister guarantee that the high number of authenticity failures can be identified now and in future against the backdrop of cuts in the front-line services involved in food authenticity? As so many hon. Members have asked, 18 months after the horsemeat scandal erupted, why have prosecutions been so few and far between? Does he share the public’s frustration that criminals appear to be getting away with messing with their food?

Elliott repeatedly argues for improved co-operation on an international and especially a European level to tackle food crime and fraud. Does the Minister expect us to believe that the Government’s general approach to European co-operation and the specific Tory proposals to opt out of 130 areas of European policing and justice measures will help the fight against international food crime? If so, has he done an impact assessment on those proposals? Will he support calls for an urgent review of criminal, financial and other penalties to toughen and widen the measures against rogues and criminals, and to protect the many good food businesses? Finally—for now—will he guarantee consumers and the industry that another horsemeat scandal or the like will not happen in the short time left of this Government?

Let me end by saying that this Government have their work cut out to persuade the industry and consumers that they are serious about tackling food crime and fraud because, as they say in police dramas, this Government have got “previous”. Their track record of delay and dither when facing a crisis, their ideological aversion to effective regulation and their wholesale absence of leadership and strategic thinking on food mean that they are in the dock as a serial offender. We urge the Government to get serious about food crime, food governance and food strategy. We will support them if they drive through all the recommendations with the rigour they deserve, because consumers and this vital UK industry deserve no less.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 8:07, 8 September 2014

I congratulate Roger Williams on securing the debate. He expressed some disappointment about the number of Members attending, but we have had a really substantive event; it does not take away from the gravity of the issue, because the speeches made have really got to grips with the issues. Let me start by making it absolutely clear that food fraud is totally unacceptable: it is a crime, and this Government will not stand by while consumers are duped and deceived.

As my hon. Friend Julian Sturdy made very clear, food and drink manufacturing is important to this country. It is our largest manufacturing sector, a significant contributor to economic growth and a big employer. British food is renowned throughout the world for its quality, and our farming industry is world-renowned for our high animal welfare standards. The integrity of our food supply chain is essential for the great reputation of our exports, as well as for the confidence of consumers at home.

I want to say a little about the action that the Government and others have already taken since the horsemeat scandal broke at the beginning of last year. First, there has been robust testing of meat by industry and by the Government, with more than 50,000 tests of processed beef products carried out during that time, and I can say that no horsemeat was present in any of those 50,000 tests undertaken since the initial scandal at the beginning of last year. The Government have provided an additional £2 million of funding to local authorities for food sampling in the current financial year to help them carry out that vital consumer protection role.

We have commissioned additional sampling and testing for authenticity in response to intelligence that has been received. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire cited the example of lamb kebabs that did not contain as much lamb as they ought to have done. There has been comprehensive sampling of take-away meals to seek undeclared meat and undeclared allergens, which are another cause of concern. We have also instigated the development of new testing to ascertain provenance and country of origin, so that we can check that the country of origin that is stated on the label is correct and that those who claim that products come from the UK are being honest.

Finally on testing, we are developing and road-testing a new method to detect undeclared offal in processed meat products. Huw Irranca-Davies asked me what area we would look at next and where we think there might be additional problems. This is an area that we highlighted very early on. That is why we have been developing testing in the area.

At the end of last year, the FSA set up a new intelligence hub to collect, analyse and share information on emerging risks. We have also taken action to empower consumers to understand where their food comes from. That includes improved country of origin labelling requirements for products such as lamb and pork that have been set at an EU level, which take effect from April next year. The UK argued strongly for those changes. We are also improving the public procurement of food and catering services to provide schools and hospitals with high quality British food.

A great deal has been done, but this debate has focused very much on the final report of Professor Christopher Elliot, which was published last Thursday. I want to say at the outset that the Government have accepted all Professor Elliott’s recommendations. As I said earlier, many of them are already being implemented. We will be taking forward other improvements that were recommended by him to ensure that consumers have absolute confidence in the food that they buy. I think that there can be a universal consensus around the House about the key point that Professor Elliott made: the consumer must come first.

Chief among Professor Elliott’s recommendations was the formation of a new food crime unit, based within the Food Standards Agency. That will build on the intelligence hub that was established in the FSA at the end of last year, but will add investigative powers. We have made a commitment to establish the unit and it will be fully operational by the end of the year. Initially, it will focus on building the intelligence and evidence picture of the risks and nature of food fraud in the UK.

It is important to note that Professor Elliott made it clear both in his interim report and his final report that the incentives for organised crime to get involved in food fraud are high. Jim Fitzpatrick highlighted that in his contribution. Although Professor Elliott stated that he was unable to find any credible evidence of serious organised criminals operating in this area in the UK, he highlighted the serious risk of that happening, given the incentives. The Government are not at all complacent about that. If there is any evidence of criminality in our food supply chains, we are determined to find it and fight it.

A number of Members, including the hon. Member for Ogmore, highlighted the importance of whistleblowing. That is the subject of one of the main recommendations made by Professor Elliott. There is a concern that employees and others who have knowledge of food fraud do not feel that they have the right mechanism through which to alert people. The FSA has had a whistleblowing service, but it is fair to say that the awareness of it has not been sufficiently high. The FSA is looking seriously at steps that can be taken to increase people’s knowledge of the whistleblowing service. In addition, steps are being taken by the food industry to put in place similar measures to make it easier for whistleblowers to report wrongdoing.

Linked to that issue is the need for better intelligence gathering and sharing across Government and the industry to improve our ability to protect consumers. As a number of hon. Members said, Professor Elliott spoke about the need for a safe haven for industry so that businesses can share intelligence in a way that does not compromise commercially sensitive information. The FSA has made a commitment to improve its systems for dealing with sensitive information and to facilitate the kind of intelligence sharing and analysis for which Professor Elliott called. We will work with the industry to facilitate its development of a safe haven to contribute to that intelligence-sharing process.

A number of hon. Members, including the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Miss McIntosh, and my hon. Friend Neil Parish, talked about the importance of supply chain audits. That is another key theme throughout Professor Elliott’s report that we want to learn from. Professor Elliott highlighted the action that the food industry has already taken to assure the integrity of its supply chains and restore consumer confidence following the horsemeat fraud.

Professor Elliott made a number of key recommendations for the industry on that issue. First, he said that there should be a shift of emphasis towards the use of unannounced audits and the use of sampling as part of the audit process to act as a deterrent. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton made the point powerfully that we need to have unannounced audits if the audits are to be meaningful.

Secondly, Professor Elliott made an important point about duplication in the audit process. The hon. Member for Ogmore has talked about Government Members being negative about regulation. We believe in having regulation where it serves a purpose, but we should all share the hope that we can remove duplication. Professor Elliott made the point that a lot of retailers are doing similar audits, but with slight differences. There is a good case for the British Retail Consortium bringing its members together to review their audit standards and give consistency to their approach to audits so that there is a single industry audit system. He also called for the introduction of a new fraud module in the audit, which is incredibly important.

We must recognise what the industry has done to restore confidence in the food supply chain. I commend the work that the Food and Drink Federation has done to introduce a guide to help its members protect themselves against the risk of food fraud. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton referred to that. Although a number of hon. Members, notably the former Minister, Mr Heath, highlighted concerns about the catering industry, it is important to note the good work that is being done by the British Hospitality Association to engage small catering businesses on good practice in food authenticity, and its work with Whitbread to develop an audit standard for larger food service businesses. He is right to highlight the concern and there might be further difficulties in making progress on that front, but we welcome the work that the industry has done.

The shadow Minister spoke about the machinery of government. He asked why, after the interim report called for a change in the machinery of government, Professor Elliott seems to have stepped back slightly from that. Professor Elliott spells out the reason quite clearly on page 49, where he highlights the fact that representations were made to him regarding the machinery of government changes. He says:

“The review investigated this issue and was able to ascertain that the winding down of the FSA’s food authenticity programme was initiated prior to the machinery of government changes. While not attributing any blame for this decision, it was certainly not helpful”.

The final point he makes is that wherever the boundaries are drawn in the machinery of government, there will still be a need for different parts of the machinery to work together. That is why his ultimate conclusion is that wherever the boundaries are drawn, the most important priority is to have better co-ordination. That is exactly what we will deliver with the food crime unit.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse spoke about the vital role of local authorities, and around 2,500 trading standards officers provide an important part of our field force in that area. As he knows, we have made available an extra £2 million per year, and the Food Standards Agency runs training programmes for those 2,500 officers in the field. Local authorities have a legal responsibility to do that work under the Food Safety Act 1990, and a number of protocols and service agreements that the FSA has with local authorities set out exactly what is required, which is monitored centrally by the FSA. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there could be a mixed picture, with some local authorities being better than others, but the FSA monitors them and holds them to their service agreements and requirements.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse

In my exchange with Mr Heath, I accepted that this issue is not necessarily about extra funding, and it is certainly not about party political control because there are good and bad local authorities. The hon. Gentleman said he believed that the FSA had information about which local authorities were good and which could perform better. Is the Minister personally examining that in discussions with the FSA or with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government? Getting those local authorities to raise their game, whatever the reason, is an objective that I am sure the Minister holds. Will he reassure the House that he is considering that issue?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The FSA manages and monitors the work of local authorities, but one of Professor Elliott’s recommendations is that we should have a new committee on food integrity and food fraud. I will chair that committee, and it will be attended by my colleagues and a Minister from the Department of Health. We will discuss those issues and monitor the situation to which the hon. Gentleman alludes.

Let me mention some of the other points that Members have raised. Sanctions were mentioned, and it is important to note that the maximum penalty is already 10 years. Sentences are ultimately a matter for the courts and the Ministry of Justice, but 10 years is quite a significant sentence. A number of Members asked why we have been so slow to get prosecutions, but as many will know, the City of London police are leading the investigation. There have been five arrests and two prosecutions, which are currently going through the courts. Hon. Members will understand that it is not appropriate for me to comment on ongoing legal cases, but we should recognise that the City of London police have faced challenges as they have had to engage with many different police forces across the European Union to bring prosecutions together, which has taken some time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton raised the issue of labelling in the European Union. From April next year we will introduce improved country of origin labelling measures for pork, lamb and goat. In future—just as has been the case for beef for the last decade or so—pigs and sheep must be reared and slaughtered in the country that claims to be the country of origin. That is similar to the situation that pertains for beef production. On traceability, provisions have been in place for more than 12 years, and EC regulation 178/2002 requires all member states to establish a means of monitoring where the food has come from at every stage of production. That legal requirement is enforced by the FSA in this country and by other member states.

My hon. Friend made the good point—my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer also alluded to this—that however good the traceability and labelling systems in place, a long supply chain is not conducive to eliminating food fraud. It is important for retailers to look at their supply chains and try to shorten them. It is also encouraging that many consumers have taken more interest in where their food comes from, and we need both consumers and retailers to take a little more interest.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way because he did not have the chance to reply on this point last Thursday. Will the police have powers of arrest? We will not be rushed by future business, Madam Deputy Speaker. We need to know whether the police will have powers of arrest, and who will pick up the bill for the additional costs of the food crime unit.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The key point is that the new food crime unit will have investigative powers, and it is envisaged that people from the National Crime Agency in the police force will be seconded to that unit. As my hon. Friend knows, the police always have powers of arrest—indeed, they have arrested people in this current investigation. The new food crime unit will be properly linked to the police force so that it has those powers.

Finally, let me turn to lab capacity. Professor Elliott raises a specific concern about whether there is consistency between existing private labs and their approach to testing. As a result, we accept his recommendation and have asked the analytical methods working group—an advisory panel to the Government—to consider that issue and ensure consistency. We had no lack of lab capacity in the crisis last year. In fact, our excellent laboratories at the Food and Environment Research Agency in York were on stand-by if they were needed, although in the event they were not. Private labs like LCG, which I will visit tomorrow, led on most of that work. My hon. Friend also mentioned the Danish model and expressed a view—perhaps because she has Danish roots—that it is better than the Dutch model. When it comes to the food crime unit, it is difficult to compare the Danish or the Dutch model with what we have in the UK because we have some 2,500 trading standards officers in local authorities, who are an integral part of our protection in that area.

It is perhaps fitting to conclude where the hon. Member for York Outer ended his remarks, and with Professor Elliott’s conclusion that we have some of the safest food in the world. I completely agree with him that we should protect the reputation of our hard-working farmers. The Government have introduced a new Government procurement plan which, as my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith pointed out, will encourage greater sourcing of local food. We are also working to encourage more schools to take a greater interest in and promote food and an appreciation of food in the curriculum. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to the discussion. We have covered many detailed issues, and I again congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire on securing the debate.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire 8:27, 8 September 2014

I voiced a slight concern at the beginning of the debate that I thought the seriousness and importance of the subject might be compromised by the small number of hon. Members present, but that concern has been confounded by the quality of the contributions made. I thank all Members who took part, including Jim Fitzpatrick, my hon. Friend Mr Heath, the Chair of the Select Committee, Miss McIntosh, and Julian Sturdy, for their contributions and a number of helpful interventions on the subject.

Professor Elliott set out eight pillars for the work that needs to be done. Paramount are the quality and reputation of British food and the rights of the consumer. I am sure that the House, the House’s Committees and Committees in the other place will take an interest in how the Government deliver on their commitment to accept all the report’s recommendations. We look forward to continuing that work.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered food fraud.