May I start, Mr Amess, by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time? It is a particular privilege to introduce the debate, because it is the first time I have had the honour to do so since I was elected to Parliament in a by-election last November. I am delighted that the debate is on such an important matter.
At heart, we are debating whether consumers can feel confident about the meat they are buying and eating. People buying what they thought were beefburgers from supermarkets, including Tesco, Lidl and Iceland, were horrified to discover that they contained horsemeat. Muslims, including many in my constituency, were upset to discover that the beefburgers they were eating contained pork DNA, which is forbidden by their religion.
Aside from the shock of discovering that they were eating a completely different animal, what confidence can we have that the meat we buy is not contaminated or unfit for human consumption if we cannot even be sure what meat is in the product in the first place? Of 27 samples tested by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, 10 tested positive for horse DNA and 23 for pig DNA. One Tesco beefburger, in probably the most celebrated instance, was found to contain 29% horsemeat.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. Does he agree that there is a difference between a product having traces of something in it, however problematic that may be for people’s religious views, and the adulteration of food with large amounts of material, probably for commercial purposes?
I do agree. The problem is that consumers cannot be sure what is going into the product they are buying for consumption by them and their family. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
First, we have to ask whether the Food Standards Agency is still fit for purpose. Let us not forget that it was the Irish authorities and not our own that exposed the problem of horsemeat in beefburgers. Our system has been fragmented by the Government as part of a drive to deregulate. Labelling, food composition, nutrition and food safety used to be dealt with by a single agency and are now handled by three: the Department of Health, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the FSA. That fragmentation and additional bureaucracy make it much more likely that problems will be missed.
Standards in the British food industry are high, and it is vital that those standards and that reputation are not undermined by the Government’s actions. The FSA’s budget has been cut by £11 million over the past year alone, reducing its capacity to detect contaminated food. At the same time, the swingeing scale of Government cuts to local government has seen funding for local trading standards services plummet by a third from £213 million in 2011-12 to around £140 million this year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the Government’s scrapping of the national equine database was sheer folly? We have the risk of bute entering the food chain, but, putting that to one side, any savings that may have been made by scrapping the database have been totally dwarfed by the commercial and financial damage to the food industry.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to the national equine database and the risks that its scrapping has created for consumers and the industry. I thank him for his welcome intervention.
On local trading standards services, a freedom of information request by the trade union Unison exposed the fact that 743 trading standards jobs have been lost since 2010, resulting in fewer inspections and, consequently, higher risks for the public. Unison has questioned whether councils still have the resources they need to do the job. It is not enough for the Government to blame councils for cutting those services when the Government have cut councils’ funding to such a huge extent in the first place.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s interesting speech on this extremely important subject, which is damaging our meat industry and our farmers. I am not certain about his logic regarding Government cuts to local authorities and elsewhere. He is politicising what should be a non-political discussion, because we all hate the notion of horsemeat in burgers. The issue has nothing to do with Government cuts; it is to do with supermarkets buying cheaper and cheaper burgers from doubtful sources.
There are certainly issues to do with what the supermarkets are sourcing, which is contributing to the problem, but if we do not have a properly resourced system of regulation, consumers cannot be confident that what the supermarkets and other retailers are selling them is what they believe they are buying. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
There are serious questions about the role of the supermarkets in forcing suppliers to cut corners to meet commercial demands. There are reports—we will all have read them—of products being bulked up with protein powders containing trace DNA from other animals, with no way of tracing those products back to their origin. There are further concerns about the processing of meat from different animals through the same production equipment, leaving trace DNA behind despite attempts at deep cleaning, as well as about meat from different sources being commingled without any labelling to warn consumers about what they are buying. The National Farmers Union has raised concerns about that, warning that the drive towards “more for less” risks compromising consumer health, the need for transparency and, ultimately, consumer confidence.
On horses slaughtered in the UK for food, the past four years have seen an 84% increase in the number of animals slaughtered, mostly for export. In 2012, 9,405 horses were slaughtered, but only 1.5% of those animals were tested for phenylbutazone, or bute, as it is more commonly known. That drug is commonly administered to race horses, but it can cause cancer in humans and is banned from the human food chain. Of that small sample, the FSA has confirmed that eight slaughtered horses tested positive, potentially exposing fraud in the system. That risk of fraud was made worse by the Government’s decision to scrap the national equine database last August, which my hon. Friend Andy McDonald alluded to. That has made it more difficult to trace which British horses are being slaughtered for meat and whether the meat is fit for human consumption.
The Government have chosen to rely on the horse passport system alone. Under that system, 75 different organisations are authorised to issue passports, which contain details of the drugs a horse is given during its lifetime. The British Horse Society confirmed this month that
“with no central database…it is now possible for a horse to be issued with two passports: one in which medication is recorded and an apparently clean one to be presented at the time of slaughter—allowing the medicated horse to be passed as fit for consumption.”
The system is clearly wide open to fraud and abuse.
I will make progress, if I may. I have taken several interventions already.
Those failures of Government threaten the very high reputation of the UK food industry. The NFU has spoken out clearly for a more robust system, with clearer labelling of ingredients in products, and a new requirement that processed meat products should display the species of meat and meat derivatives alongside the country of origin. On the difficulties in tracking the source of horse DNA in burgers, the NFU has called for a review into how the origin of meat is identified and maintained throughout the trade and between different countries. The Government should adopt that proposal, and I hope the Minister will respond to that in his speech.
My contention is that the Government have underfunded, fragmented and undermined the food safety system. We must reassure consumers that the meat they buy is correctly labelled, legal and safe to eat. The Government’s actions, driven by cuts and an ideological pursuit of deregulation, made the latest food crisis more likely and mean that it could happen again.
Like many others, I think that the debate is hugely important, and with my background in the livestock industry I know what the concerns are there. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the reason the issue has come to the fore—and we are pleased that it has—is the improved testing in
Ireland, which is, essentially, where the problem arose? We should congratulate the Irish Government on raising the bar for testing. It would be encouraging if testing of that standard could happen in as many countries as possible, including ours.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman; the standards of testing in Ireland seem to be admirable, and we should replicate that in the UK.
In summary, it is time for the Government to review the whole system and take urgent action to restore consumer confidence in the meat products that we buy and eat, for the benefit of consumers, retailers and the food industry in the United Kingdom.
I was not necessarily intending to speak at any great length, but I have been inspired by the speech of Steve Reed. I congratulate him on making such an excellent speech so early in his parliamentary career. I am not sure that in my 15 years here I have quite achieved the expertise that he has in a few months. It was a most useful introduction to an important and interesting debate.
I took issue with the hon. Gentleman to a degree, because in discussing a cross-party issue he strayed slightly into party political issues, blaming the Government and everything to do with them for an appalling incident over Christmas, when horsemeat was found in supermarket burgers. I am not certain that Government cuts to local authorities and the other things that he listed can necessarily be directly blamed, and I felt that that was an unfortunate part of the speech. Overall, however, he made an extremely important point—that, as my hon. Friend Roger Williams pointed out, even the smallest traces of DNA in a burger could damage consumer confidence to an extraordinary degree. That has happened before, such as in the Edwina Currie and eggs episode, with beef and on other occasions since then.
The slightest hint that supermarket burgers might not be up to scratch could lead to a disproportionate effect on the burger and supermarket industries, and therefore on farmers. I speak particularly on behalf of farmers in my constituency where there is significant beef production. I pay tribute, in passing, to McDonald’s, which now sources all its beef from UK sources. That was a worthwhile thing to do, and it would be appalling if confidence in the excellent McDonald’s product—I hold no brief for McDonald’s—were to be undermined by the unfortunate incident that has occurred.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on making a very good speech. Local food provenance is important, because among EU nations the UK is unique: it has the highest proportion of food retail—and beverages—from sales from shops and restaurants. That is very important, so trading standards are critical. Even in the past month, trading standards in the south-west found lamb kebabs, which everyone likes to get when it is late, on the way home, containing chicken, beef, poultry and other assorted goodies. It is important to keep local trading standards.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and am about to discuss trading standards, and how we can restore consumer confidence. If consumers believe that what they buy is different from what the packet says, they will stop buying it. That damages not only dodgy products—and I think some supermarkets have been guilty, under commercial pressure, of buying products at a lower price than they might reasonably have done—but also first-class ones. I agree with the hon. Member for Croydon North about the importance of strong local trading standards, a strong Food Standards Agency, and strong Government controls, to ensure that the highest possible standards for food are maintained in supermarkets. That applies particularly in the present case to meat, and particularly beef, in the context of horse-contaminated products. I agree with the broad thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Minister how we can be certain to restore consumer confidence.
I want, however, to touch on an aspect of the opening speech that I disagreed with; Andy McDonald also touched on the same point in an intervention. The suggestion seemed to be that if the system in the UK for the control of the killing of horses were somehow better, incidents such as the recent one would be less likely. The hon. Member for Croydon North mentioned the Government’s recent abolition of the national equine database and the operation of horse passports. I remember a debate in this very Chamber in 2005 when my right hon. Friend Mr Cameron argued passionately that horse passports were a complete waste of time, and committed himself to abolishing them when he came to power. I keep reminding the Prime Minister of that, and he has not yet got round to it, but I am confident that sooner or later he may go down that track.
The idea behind the introduction of horse passports was that every medicine administered to a horse would be stamped on the passport. In particular, as the hon. Member for Croydon North mentioned, bute is a common medicine—and not only among racehorses, as he mentioned; often ordinary hacks will be given bute. That is or could be harmful to human beings. It is important that those horses should not go into the food chain. Abattoirs should know if horses have taken it, and prevent that from happening. The idea was that every horse—there are getting on for 2 million of them in the UK; we do not quite know the number—should have a passport. Every time it went to the vet the passport would be stamped, and when it appeared at the abattoir the staff would say, “No, Mr Horse, you have had bute. You can’t come in here. Please go away.”
From the start, that was a ridiculously flawed principle. The basic flaw is that although a horse owner such as me might be persuaded to buy a horse passport on first getting the horse, it is difficult to remember to cancel it when the horse dies. Already, roughly half of 750,000 horse passports in circulation in the UK today are for dead horses. The document is entirely meaningless, and a great many horses—particularly low-value ones, belonging to various groups of people—have no passports at all. The system is blown wide open. Decent, sensible, ordinary horse owners get round to buying them. People who try, criminally, to get their horses into the human consumption chain do not, so the system does not work.
That system failure was compounded by the national equine database. I must pick up the hon. Member for Croydon North on one point: of course the NED did not cost the Government anything. It was the passport-issuing authorities that paid for it. Abolishing it did not save any money; it was abolished because it was not working. An enormous computer, with a list of animals on it that die at the rate of 100,000 a year and are born all over the place, without anyone knowing where they live, is a worthless piece of bureaucracy. It cannot keep an accurate record of where all the horses are. It did not work. It did not even begin to do so, or come close to it. The Government sensibly realised that. I hope that they will go further at some stage and abolish horse passports, challenging the European Union in doing so, but that is another debate.
I have taken the same view of horse passports as my hon. Friend, because I knew they would not work. Does he agree that the issue is particularly relevant where there are many wild horses? Because of the bureaucracy affecting passports and ownership, and fear of in some way getting into trouble, the likelihood of their being got rid of when they die is far greater. That is one reason why the whole industry is not run properly. That is particularly relevant in places such as north Wales, where there are huge numbers of wild horses.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and I was about to move on to it. He speaks for north Wales, where there is a large problem there, but it is also a problem across the rest of England—less so in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK.
The fact of the matter is that the NED and horse passports cannot, by definition, prevent horse medicines from getting into the human food chain in the UK; neither can they prevent horsemeat from entering it. They do not work, but there is a simple solution. Only about 7,500, or perhaps 8,500, horses a year go to the one or two functioning UK abattoirs that still take them, which is an incredibly small percentage of the 100,000 or so horses that die each year. Horses are generally shot by a vet, and either buried on a farm or given to packs of foxhounds to consume. The latter is a common way of disposing of horse carcases, with a very small number indeed of horses going to an abattoir. All horses that do go to an abattoir are exported overseas on the hook, as it were, for eating in Italy and elsewhere.
Many purists who think that eating a horse is a disgusting idea, would say, “Fine. Let us abolish the killing of horses in the UK. There is a very small number, so let us just abolish the abattoirs.” That would also abolish the need for horse passports, because if someone could not take their horse to an abattoir they would not need a passport to prove that it had not taken bute in the previous couple of years.
That is a possible solution, but either way, I do not believe that the way in which the horse passport regime, the NED and the UK abattoirs work has anything to do with the scandal of horsemeat in burgers. That came from elsewhere in the world, and no one is suggesting that UK abattoirs were somehow feeding horsemeat into burgers in the supermarkets. Saying that the horse passport system is somehow bad, that the NED should not have been abolished or something about abattoirs in the UK has nothing to do with what we are discussing, so I want to press the Minister on this matter.
If the Government have a primary duty to consumers, it must be to say to them, first, “What you are buying in the supermarkets is what you believe you are buying.” What it says on the tin must be what they find inside the box, and if that is not the case there is a slippage somewhere, whether with the Food Standards Agency, local trading standards or elsewhere. Secondly, the Government must be able to tell consumers that the product is of the highest possible quality. Our farmers depend on the consumer relying on top-quality supermarket products, and the moment the consumer—because they are Muslim or do not like eating horses, or for another reason—begins to believe that a product might somehow be contaminated, they will stop buying it, and that has an extraordinarily bad knock-on effect on our nation’s food producers.
The Government have an absolutely fundamental duty to discover what went wrong in this case, to put it right, and to consider whether the newly established supermarket ombudsman might have a role to play, possibly in examining how purchases are made. In all events, I want to be able to say to consumers in my constituency, “What you buy in supermarkets is exactly what you think you are buying and it is of the highest possible quality. There is no possibility of cross-contamination, from horsemeat or in any other way, and you will get precisely what it says on the tin.”
I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North on securing this important debate, and I very much hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister responds he will be able to put at rest the minds not only of consumers across my constituency of North Wiltshire but of the food producers there too.
I congratulate Steve Reed on bringing this matter to the House. It has been very much in the press over the past few weeks, and it continues to be an issue that concerns us. My constituency is a very rural one, and because of the scare in certain parts of the country the importance and quality of the foodstuffs produced in Strangford must be illustrated and underscored.
Up until a few years ago, before I was elected to this House, I was a pork retailer. I had a business that sold bacon and sausage across the whole country. I sold good- quality meats to local butchers and restaurants, and had a very good trade. Times have changed since the day when people knew the farmer, knew the guys who slaughtered the animal and knew their butcher, and with the current lack of knowledge, uncertainty has crept into the market, which is at odds with the new mindset of being aware of and cautious about what we eat.
As a type 2 diabetic, I have become very aware of what I eat and of the need to control my diet carefully, so when it comes to checking food labels I try to look for the good things to eat. Labels tell us what is in a product—but do they? That is the question that the hon. Member for Croydon North is asking. Do labels tell us what we are eating? No, clearly they do not. This debate will hopefully address that issue, and consider where the responsibility lies. In the short time I have, I want to illustrate where I think the focus needs to be.
We teach primary schoolchildren how to read nutritional labels and to be aware of what goes into their bodies, and this shock of a label not actually covering what is in the product is alarming news. In a recent interesting article about the horsemeat issue, the Countryside Alliance raised the following important point:
“A food scare never fails to alarm, and when the spotlight shines on the unsustainable cheap-end of the market we must use the opportunity to inform consumers.”
One reason we are where we are today is the demand from the public and the consumer for cheaper products, as other Members have illustrated. Cheaper products are not always better products. Very often, as has recently been seen, they are not what they seem to be, and I, and many others in this Chamber, want to ensure that there is more information for consumers, that lessons are learned from this latest debacle and that things change for the better.
Although eating horsemeat poses no health risks, I and many others in this Chamber consider it distasteful. People should be informed about what they are paying for and eating. When we buy a beefburger we want a beefburger, and when we buy a beefsteak that is what we expect to get. In one of this morning’s papers, it was indicated that there is some concern about beefburgers in Spain. We know that our European colleagues have much more unusual eating habits and tastes than we do in this Chamber, and there might be a liking for some things that I, and many others, would turn our noses up at and not be happy with, but the point is that in Spain they thought that they were eating beefburgers and they were not.
There should be an assurance that British beef is indeed British, and not just packaged in Britain as the labels so often tell us. When I was wearing my previous hat as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, alongside my hon. Friend Mr Campbell, the issue of clear labelling was brought up. At that time the scare was about pork contamination, but it was clear that Northern Ireland’s pork was free of any contaminants. That scare reminded me of when Edwina Currie made her comment about the egg industry. I am not being disrespectful to her, but right away the impact on that industry was colossal and people were ruined over night, yet the threat, the contamination and the damage were coming from outside.
Does my hon. Friend agree that what is important now is to restore the confidence of the wider community—the general consumer—in the accuracy of labelling and the safety of meat products? That needs to be done with the utmost urgency, to try to ensure that there is no repeat of the salmonella and other such issues, to which I think my hon. Friend was alluding.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that matter. The farming industry does its bit, and trading standards has a role to play, but the supermarkets also have a clear role because their push for insatiable profits and cheaper items means that they cast their net wider when it comes to getting the product.
At the time I was talking about, the shelves were emptied of bacon, sausages and other pork products, even through they were safe. The spin-off in Northern Ireland was worrying. The contaminated products came from the Republic of Ireland, and their origin was not clear from the packaging. There is a clear role for local councils and trading standards on clear packaging.
There is a question to be asked about the degree to which the Republic of Ireland is guilty of lower standards than we have in the United Kingdom. I heard of a case this week in which a horse with a decent passport was exported to southern Ireland to be administered drugs and the passport was not changed. The horse was re-imported into the UK with an apparently clean passport, despite having been given drugs in the Republic. One or two of the Republic’s practices might need to be examined with some care.
The hon. Gentleman has illustrated that well. There is a question on the standards in neighbouring countries, and that question must be addressed.
The Northern Ireland pork contamination of 2008 is happening today in the United Kingdom, and this time we must take action that ensures that the good-quality products that farmers produce across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are given the status that they deserve. That raises the issue that butchers and the like have been touting for years: buying from reputable local retailers ensures that food is locally or responsibly sourced, although it may cost slightly more. Local butchers have local products. Many farmers have direct access to butchers, and people can be assured that the local butcher, by and large, has the best product and ensures animal welfare.
We had a debate in this Chamber two weeks ago—several Members here today were in attendance—on veterinary products that are put into animals and sometimes carry over into the food chain. There is concern about animal welfare, but there is also the reassurance and confidence, to which my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry referred, that British farming almost certainly guarantees a first-class product every time.
Hailing from a rural constituency and working with farmers and fishermen, I know the hard work that goes into providing top-class produce. In my eyes, buying locally, supporting the local economy and ensuring that farmers get a fair price for their product is worth every penny. I am concerned about local supermarkets and their drive to keep prices low, which is good for the consumer, but only if the product is good. The recent situation should not have arisen, but, as the saying goes, there is no use crying over spilt milk, just fix the jug handle and make sure that it does not happen again.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. At one end of the market, people are becoming very conscious about what is in their meat—they are looking for locally sourced, organic produce, perhaps cattle fed on grass, rather than on grain, and so on—but at the other end of the market, people who cannot afford to pay for such products are increasingly going for the very cheap options, and we have no idea what they actually contain. As we have heard today, in some cases those products are contaminated. I am unsure of the solution. Does he have any ideas?
I do not always have solutions to the issues that come along. I hope the Government, in whom we have confidence, can provide some of those solutions. I know one thing: when it comes to cheaper products, we need a guarantee that there will be monitoring of what takes place.
My constituency is no different from any other. I represent people who buy something because it is cheaper, and many people who buy cheaper perhaps do not fit into the physical, visual strata of being well off.
I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should not create an impression that, just because a product is cheaper, in some way it is of poorer quality, because that is not the case. We need a system whereby what is said on the tin is what is actually in the tin. Just because a product has been produced more cheaply using cheaper cuts, that does not mean it is an inferior product.
I accept that point. Cheaper does not always mean that the quality is inferior, but—this is why we are having this debate—we must underline where the labelling on the tin or the package has not been correct. That is the point. We need councils or the Government to oversee a system in which labels stating that a product is sourced in Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom mean that the product comes from Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom, not on a lorry into an abattoir in the middle of England from across Europe because that would not be entirely accurate. We want to address those things.
We must ensure that steps are taken to ensure that produce is clearly marked with the country of origin, country of packaging and exactly what the product is made of. As the hon. Gentleman says, that what it says on the tin is what is in the tin, and that what it says on the packet is what is in the packet. The best way to do that is by buying locally. I know the price squeezes that large chains put on local farmers make it hard to survive, which is why I have always supported the idea of a supermarket ombudsman or regulator. Perhaps the Minister could give us some indication of whether there is a role for the ombudsman or regulator. I suspect everyone in the Chamber has pushed for the groceries code adjudicator, for instance, and the Government have committed to introducing that. Is there a role for the adjudicator? If there is, perhaps that is how we can address the issue.
The price gap from field to plate is increasing, and as the price of fuel increases the farmers once again feel the brunt. Too often, supermarkets expect farmers to absorb the price increases, and, indeed, too often supermarkets push for a price decrease, which means they will not buy locally. Farmers in my area tell me that the supermarkets will say, “Here is the price for this week,” even though it costs the farmer more to produce their quality product. There has to be a role for the adjudicator. My firm belief is that, had the meat been locally sourced, there would not have been an issue. I support those who call for an investigation into the way labels are written and for all things to be made clear, which is what the hon. Member for Croydon North proposes.
Have we learned a lesson? I hope we have, and I hope we can improve. The major supermarkets are saying that they have learned a lesson, and I hope they have; consumers are saying that they have also learned a lesson, and I hope they have, too. They are both committed to the product. Our job is to ensure that the lesson learned translates into action so that we do not find ourselves in the same position in five years’ time. The next time someone has a burger containing horsemeat, it should be because they are aware of what they are eating, not because they went to the local supermarket and chose a cheaper brand.
I start by declaring an interest as a producer of beef and sheep, but not horses. The last time I sold a horse was when it was outgrown by my daughter, which was before passports were introduced.
I commend Steve Reed on obtaining this debate. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason why such debates are well attended or not so well attended, but he has been rather ill served today because he has introduced a subject of great interest both to the House and to the public outside.
A range of organisations and people across the country are looking to the Government to ensure that confidence is re-established in food, particularly meat products and burgers. Not only farmers and food producers, but food manufacturers, food retailers and consumers must have confidence so that our food industry, which has been of a high standard, maintains that high standard and goes on to improve.
The hon. Gentleman did a good job of breaking down some of the issues that have been conflated by other people. The excellent work in the Irish Republic to identify the matter has raised a number of issues, the first of which is contamination. Some food manufacturers’ processes are not as good as they could be, and they use machinery that has been used to make pork products to produce a beef burger without cleaning the equipment well enough, so that some pork residue ends up in the beef product. That can be of huge consequence to people whose religion teaches that they should not eat pork, so it is of great significance to us.
The other issue occurs when large amounts of cheaper product are introduced into another product in order to reduce the cost, and the product is not described accurately on the label. That is food adulteration, and it is as old as the food industry itself. When commodity prices are high, people will always cast around for a cheaper alternative to put into their products. There is no real problem with doing so, as long as it is made clear to the whole supply chain so that people know what is in the product. In this case, it was a complete deception, possibly by the supplier of the meat, which it is suggested originally came from Poland. The supplier had a duty to make that clear to the Irish who bought it, and so on down the supply chain.
It is a difficult issue. The food manufacturing business is this country’s biggest manufacturing sector, and it is sometimes overlooked as simple or primitive. I do not mean that in a derogatory way; it does not have the same great initiatives and research as some of the other sectors, but it fulfils an important purpose.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good and intelligent contribution to this debate. I suggest that one thing that has changed in how we source and identify our meat and trace ingredients is the increasing globalisation of the meat market, both inside and outside the EU, the Republic of Ireland and the UK. For that reason, adulterated meat, which he says is a problem that is as old as the hills, is of greater concern now, particularly when it can involve imports from Argentina, North America or elsewhere into the EU market, and possibly into the UK thereafter. We must be even more stringent.
The hon. Gentleman, because he is aware of these matters, will know that if meat or any other foodstuff is imported into the European Union, it must come through a port and be inspected, but if meat is transferred between European Union nations, it is expected that each nation will have done the appropriate tests and is confident that the product is as described and is safe. Safety is key.
During food manufacturing, a lot of products are taken out and put in. One of the simplest examples is bread. Some or all of the bran is removed from wheat to make flour, and then chemicals are added, particularly nutrients to prevent birth defects. We agree that those additions to wheat are a good thing, but we must ensure that other things added to our food products maintain safety.
Trading standards and the Food Standards Agency have been mentioned, as have this country’s public health bodies. The key issue is to have joined-up working between those organisations locally, in policy making and in ensuring that all the necessary tests are done to maintain food safety in this country.
We must stand up and say that Britain has a remarkable record on food safety. When issues have been identified, Governments of all persuasions have been ready to take action to ensure that consumers are safeguarded. I am sure that this Government will be no different in taking such action, and I have every confidence that they will do so.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Steve Reed on securing this debate, which is of vital concern not only for food production but for manufacturing and processing. It affects every constituency in the UK; I doubt that there is a single one that does not have jobs related to food manufacturing and processing. As the Minister will know, it is one of the largest employment areas in the UK economy, but is often overlooked. It is important to get food provenance and consumer confidence in the sector right, and to ensure that what is written on the label is accurate.
As my hon. Friend outlined in his contribution, this debate should focus on restoring confidence after a scare within the industry and among consumers, but in order to do so, we need complete and utter transparency. I agree with the comments made by Roger Williams; in the past couple of decades, we have become increasingly rigorous in inspecting and testing meat, in terms of slaughter and processing. However, we also need candour, not only about the successes in the sector and in implementation across the EU but about potential failings. If we do not do so—if we try to conceal issues that might be of concern—we have learned nothing from previous scare stories that have caused a run on consumer confidence and hit the economy of the food processing sector. It is vital to be honest with consumers, ourselves and industry in order to restore and maintain confidence.
That might be uncomfortable, but before I begin, let me highlight, as I am sure the Minister will do in his speech, the importance of the sector. The meat processing and slaughter sector in the UK involves more than 300 businesses and contributes more than £4 billion in revenue and turnover. In the European Union, of which we are still a member nation at the moment, the meat processing sector employs 48 million people, and here in the UK it employs 1.25 million. It is economically important, but consumer confidence is equally important. People need to know that what they eat is what is described on the package.
I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate, and I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. His point about confidence is of the greatest concern to many Muslim and Jewish consumers in my constituency and across the country. Although, as we know, none of the products recalled was labelled as kosher or halal, the case has unfortunately eroded confidence more widely. Does he not think that it is crucial to rebuild confidence in the industry?
My hon. Friend makes a critical point. There are technical issues that we need to consider and ask the Minister to deal with, but fundamentally, consumers might overlook much of that technical detail. They want to know exactly what the Government, the Food Standards Agency, individual food processors and manufacturers and supermarkets are doing to give utter confidence to the nth degree, so that they know what they are purchasing, whether in a local takeaway or restaurant, a supermarket or elsewhere. In a moment I will mention some ways in which we might want to deal with that.
I should like to discuss some salient points that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North mentioned, including on the fragmentation of the labelling system between three different areas and the cuts to the FSA budget, from £143 million to £132 million by 2014-15. It will be interesting to hear the Minister’s comments about how he can avoid those cuts having any impact at all on front-line testing. The National Audit Office states that Government funding is falling substantially. Unison has some views on the matter, too.
I do not think that hon. Members have mentioned the detection of bute, or any other substance, whether in trace elements or otherwise—an issue that has recently emerged. The interesting response from the FSA, when this matter was pushed, was that it could provide reassurance that none of the animals slaughtered in which bute was identified were put into the human consumption chain within the UK. It is, of course, illegal to put such animals into the human food chain. However, five animals were identified later as having been subsumed into the food chain in another country in the EU. In light of comments made during this debate about integration and the fact that food now does not necessarily go straight from farm to fork—it could go through various stages of processing—it is interesting to note that food produced in this country that was tested and identified as containing bute, albeit with trace elements, entered the human food chain somewhere in the EU. Whether in respect of bute or any other substances, can we give consumers confidence that, in that spider’s web of food processing networks, nothing containing those substances is re-entering the UK for consumption?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. He has been doing some work on bute. Animals receive many other medicines as well and not all of them can be tested, but there is a process involving withdrawal periods, whereby animals should not be slaughtered within so many weeks of such medicines being administered. Quality is assured on that basis.
The hon. Gentleman tempts me to mention the Government’s own veterinary advice, although I was not going to mention it. The veterinary residues committee, which advises the Government, has repeatedly identified concerns about trace elements of bute, or other substances, in horses coming into the slaughter process in the UK, although not entering the human food chain. That committee identified a failing in the system, regarding the veterinary process and the horse passport, which has been mentioned. Horse passports are fragmented now over more than 70 organisations.
Just to correct the hon. Gentleman on a small point, it is not a matter of fragmentation. When the Labour Government introduced horse passports, there were 93 passport-issuing authorities and that number has been reduced to 75. So it is nothing to do with fragmentation. The system was flawed before it started.
This is fascinating, because that was why we introduced the national equine database, which centralised data in accordance with European regulations to with horse passports and aspects of safety in the supply chain. I ask the Minister how, in the absence of the NED, can he assure himself about issues to do with passporting, when there is a report showing that there is concern about double passporting. Vets must be much more rigorous in ensuring that non-passported horse is not entering the food chain. I will cite the report if the Minister would like me to.
Double passporting and fraud would occur whether or not there was a national equine database; that would not prevent it. I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on a factual point. The NED was not set up by the Government. It was a private not-for-profit company, run by private individuals—directors—to which the Government provided some small subsidy. It did not cost the Government much at all. It was a private company that never worked, and I am glad it has been abolished.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Prime Minister was always opposed to the NED and spoke openly about his opposition to it and his wish to get rid of it. However, it provided a central database, as required under European legislation, which allowed for cross-referencing of records. I will not dwell on that any more or take any more interventions on it, because it is a matter for a separate debate.
On the industry’s response, at one point there was a suggestion that the transparency that I am calling for was unnecessary and that reassurances should be offered. That is not the view of Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers Union, who said:
“The events of the past few days have severely undermined confidence in the UK food industry and farmers are rightly angry that the integrity of stringent UK-farmed products is being compromised by using cheaper imported alternatives”.
John Sleith, the chairman of the Society for Chief Officers of Environmental Health in Scotland, said:
“We note that statements are being made that it is not a health issue, but our concern is that there is no information on how the horse meat came to be in the burgers and so there is no way of telling whether the meat is safe to eat, it could be from diseased or injured animals, for example.”
What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office about this matter? We know—Jim Shannon will be well aware—that there have been suggestions in recent weeks, as this matter has come to light, that it may not simply be an issue of adulteration, whether in Poland or elsewhere. Criminal gangs may be involved. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said that this issue was as old as the hills, but it has tended to be localised in many ways. If there is a serious criminal gang operation involved, that will be a major concern.
I have spoken to people who work in the UK slaughter trade—they are doing a fine job and are proud of the standards in the industry—who tell me of their concerns about adulteration. An individual mentioned to me in a conversation yesterday that they were sympathetic to Tesco and the other big retailers, because Tesco, for example, does spot checks and checks the veracity of its supply chain. However, the adulteration of food happens the moment that it leaves. That is a concern, because the information comes from people working in the industry.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the illegal meat trade has always involved criminal activity. Some of us were involved in trying to prevent the import of bush meat into this country, which was run by criminal gangs. It has been going on forever and I am sure that criminality is still part of the illegal meat trade.
Indeed, hence my insistence on doing more. It is not sufficient just to say, “We have checks in place.” We need to do more.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my praise for an announcement made by Tesco this morning, about its introduction of its own self-funded, comprehensive system of DNA testing for meat products. That innovation is welcome; there should be more of that sort of thing, which the NFU and others are calling for. We need to be far more rigorous than we used to be, and such innovations show us how we can do that. It is not the same world as it was 20 years ago.
It is not only me saying that double passporting is a matter of concern. With no central database to facilitate checks, it is now possible for a horse to be issued with two passports, one in which medication is recorded and an apparently clean one to be presented at the time of slaughter, allowing the medicated horse to be passed as fit for consumption. Hamish McBean, chairman of the National Beef Association, has said:
“It is obvious that here in the UK consumers, quite rightly, have high regard for the excellence and integrity of beef produced on British farms and that British beef is their favoured purchase.”
He is flagging up exactly the same issue.
I would prefer not to take an intervention, because a separate debate is needed on the matter and I am up against time, but okay.
I am extremely interested in the whole topic of horse passports, but it is a diversion and a red herring in the debate. Only one abattoir in the United Kingdom kills horses, and it kills nothing apart from horses—it is a pure horse abattoir. In the recent scandal, no one has suggested that something going wrong in the British abattoir system was to blame. That meat could have come from anywhere in the world; as he correctly pointed out, it could have been internationally sourced. The notion that we should somehow undermine the credibility of the British abattoir system because of apparent cross-contamination seems entirely fallacious. A small number of horses are killed in Britain, and there is no suggestion that the abattoir that does it is guilty of the cross-contamination in the recent case.
Another debate is needed, but I can cite root and branch opinion, including from members of DEFRA’s own equine expert groups, on the necessity of a central database to deal with controls and stringency on passports.
To move on to my fundamental point, the issue is not only a UK one. In recent weeks and months, we have had warnings over dyed pork sold as beef; in Sweden, meat imported from Argentina and sold as beef turned out to be other meat products; in Spain, in recent days, a similar horsemeat scandal to ours has been unravelling. As I mentioned earlier, trading standards are now picking up adulterated meat issues locally, not only in supermarkets but in takeaway shops and restaurants.
I am interested in the Minister’s comments on whether the country of origin labelling proposals before the European Parliament and Commission—due to be resolved this year—provide an opportunity for more stringent labelling. The NFU, the National Beef Association and others are keen on that. When something is marketed as British beef, it is really important to know that it is sourced and produced in Britain, not transported from somewhere in the EU, potentially with adulteration, and that it is only processed in Britain before being put on the shelves.
In the Minister’s response, will he deal with the fundamental issues of adulteration, which are not UK issues only? Does he have any evidence on whether adulteration is going on more widely in the supply chain and, potentially, in the EU market, and what lines of inquiry is he pursuing? What additional steps is he taking to tackle the issue, in the UK and in the EU? Does that involve discussions at EU level? Does it involve further discussions with the supermarkets about following today’s example of Tesco on DNA testing? Has he had any discussions whatever with the Home Office on the criminality involved in the sector, whether in food adulteration or in horse passports, in order to get horsemeat into the food chain?
The issue is vital, and I know that the Minister wants to give complete confidence. We are forthright about our concern on the subject, as are the NFU, the National Beef Association and people who believe in provenance labelling such as red tractor labelling. They are concerned about the matter not only because of its economic importance but because they want to give people long-lasting confidence, in the very different age we now live in, so that they know exactly what they are eating and can trust what is said on the labels.
I congratulate Steve Reed on securing and introducing the debate, which is timely. I am sorry that more colleagues were not able to contribute.
Nothing is more important than giving our consumers the confidence that what they see on the label of a food product is what they get. Sadly, that confidence has been undermined by the recent incident—there is no doubt about that—which is why it is essential for us to find out as much as possible about what happened. We need to take any appropriate steps to deal with the situation, but we also need to look again at the whole range of activities that we carry out in this country in order to ensure conformity with labelling, as far as consumers are concerned, and to put right anything we are not doing that we should be doing.
Having said that, I want to put the situation into context. When we had the urgent question in the main Chamber, I was accused of complacency or arguing purely from the producer interest, but I make no apologies for saying that there is abundant evidence for, in general, our producers, our processors and our retailers doing a good job at maintaining high levels of food standards in this country. That point was made by Jim Shannon and my hon. Friend Roger Williams. We do no one any favours by suggesting that every piece of meat on the shelf is adulterated, dangerous or whatever, which would simply undermine confidence inappropriately. It is a question of identifying and dealing with risk properly and, as far as possible, giving that assurance to our consumers.
As Huw Irranca-Davies said, that assurance is also important for our industry, which relies on its good reputation and people’s trust. That certainly applies to the big retailers, but also to anyone engaged in the sector. Those engaged in the food chain need to know that it is assured at every point, which is why I was pleased with the immediate response of the big retailers. I welcome Tesco’s further announcement today, which has been mentioned. Sellers are required to know where their goods come from and that they conform with their labels—that is their responsibility, in law and morally, to the people who buy products. I think Tesco has suggested today that its supplier in the recent case had been using produce from a non-registered or non-approved forward supplier, which must be of concern to a supermarket in regulating its food supply chain.
I, too, welcome the announcement that Tesco will do DNA testing, but we should not be misled in thinking that Tesco has not always been vigilant previously. I supply animals to a slaughterhouse in Merthyr from which Tesco sources a lot of its meat. Tesco certainly examines the processes in that slaughterhouse, and ensures that they are fit for purpose and that consumer safety is at the top of the list for that organisation. I am sure that other supermarkets do exactly the same.
I am sure that that is absolutely true, as it is of other retailers. Waitrose, for instance, wished to point out that its contracts require its own-label burgers to be made on the first run in the morning, to ensure that there is no cross-contamination from other products later in the day. Retailers take the matter terribly seriously, and we should not give the impression that they do not, because that would be a false impression.
Ultimately, however, the Irish authorities did pick up a serious example of adulteration, and I congratulate them on that and on communicating the facts to us, so that we and others have been able to work closely with them to investigate what happened. While I do not diminish the point made by Stephen Doughty about those whose religious dietary requirements may be affected, the trace findings of porcine and equine DNA elsewhere were a much lower level of contamination than the burger containing 29% horsemeat, which appears to have been a case not of cross-contamination but of deliberate substitution.
One confidence restorer that consumers will expect is that those responsible for the current adulteration will face the full weight of the law. People should not be let off the hook. There has been an element of pointing the finger further and further down the supply chain. If a processor in the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere did not follow due diligence down the supply chain and used an unauthorised supplier, I hope that they will be prosecuted—I am interested in the Minister’s comments on this—by the supermarkets and others because of vicarious liability for negligence down the supply chain. Someone is responsible, and the finger should not be pointed to the nth degree at someone in Poland if some culpability lies within the supply chain in the Republic.
The hon. Gentleman must be careful to distinguish between prosecution and litigation. Civil litigation may follow—I do not know—if there is prima facie evidence. When I responded in the House to an urgent question, I said that it seemed to me, without being in possession of all the facts in Ireland, that there was a possibility of criminality. That is a matter for the Irish authorities, and it would be absolutely wrong of me to assume any responsibility or to encourage the Irish in one way or another in their prosecution policy. However, they will no doubt consider whether fraud has taken place, and trace the perpetrators, whether they are the supplier in Poland, as it seems if their tracing is correct, or the people in Ireland who took receipt of the meat. That is for the Irish to decide, and I cannot interfere in that process. I can only express a view, which I think is shared by many people, that if criminal activity takes place on something as important as the food that people eat, we should use whatever powers are available.
The Minister referred to cross-contamination being a source of trace DNA found in other food products. Does he accept that other meat derivatives, such as protein powders to bulk up products, could be deliberately included in processed food when their origins are unclear, because there is no secure system for labelling and tracking the source of such additives through the supply chain?
It is not uncommon in inexpensive burgers, for example, to use bulking material such as beef protein, and it is not illegal to do so. The EU labelling regime changes to which the hon. Member for Ogmore referred will require such material to be more specifically labelled in future. I agree that it is a difficulty for those who are trying to enforce compliance because it is obviously much more difficult to identify the speciation of a brown powder than a rump steak. The hon. Member for Croydon North points to a difficulty, and we must be aware of it and consider what we can do about it.
I want to deal with some of the broad points that were raised. First, it is simply not the case that the system has been fragmented and, suddenly over the past two years, no one has known what anyone is doing. There was a change in 2010, but the Food Standards Agency has always been the key player in food safety and analysis, including competition. It has always worked incredibly closely with trading standards departments throughout the country which often do the testing at local level. The Department of Health has always had parliamentary responsibility for answering for the Food Standards Agency in response to questions from hon. Members. None of that has changed.
The only change in 2010 was in labelling policy, which was returned from the FSA to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs because we knew that there would be issues in the EU about country-of-origin labelling and we wanted to have a clear handle on that. Ministers in my Department were inevitably involved in those negotiations. They were going to be advised by civil servants in the FSA or the Department, and it seemed more sensible for them to work with those in the Department. That was the change that was made in 2010, and it does not imply fragmentation of responsibility. There is still a close working relationship between us and the FSA, and I do not think anyone would seriously challenge that or the close working between the FSA and trading standards departments.
Secondly, another charge was that the FSA’s overall budget has been reduced. That is a matter for my colleagues in the Department of Health, but let us be clear that that is not an operational reduction, but a result of the merger with the Meat Hygiene Service, which has produced economies of scale by restructuring support staff and accommodation charges, and enabled us to save money. Saving money is a good thing if it can be done without detriment to the service. We must be clear about that.
Thirdly, there is a feeling that there are vastly fewer trading standards officers around the country and that the service is denuded of capacity. I accept that there are fewer trading standards officers, but the scale of that reduction is nothing like what has been suggested. Local authority returns suggest that on
We sometimes talk about the number of samples taken, but we should distinguish between the number of samples and the number of tests done on them. We are becoming more and more sophisticated in what we can provide. I will give an indication of some of our work in the Department. One policy area is the research that we commission every year into new methods of testing for compliance of foodstuffs. We put £450,000 into that each year.
DNA testing is by no means the only tool available for testing. Stable isotope testing is being developed and is a valuable tool. Proteomics are a key test which is more often used in ELISA—enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay—which gives similar findings of speciation and origin to DNA, but at a lower cost. Metabolomics involves looking at metabolites in food. All those tools are being used to ensure that the service we provide is as effective as possible.
Let us not run away with the idea that we have a supine, inefficient service in this country that never catches anything, and the wonderful Irish can do it, but we cannot. Some of the things that have been found and dealt with over recent years include buffalo milk adulterated with cow’s milk; fruit juice adulterated with sugar and water; maize adulterated with rapeseed oil; the identification of basmati rice from its origin; the speciation of meat and fish, making sure that no offal and blood proteins are in meat products; the origins of beef; traditional breeds—distinguishing between one breed and another—the origin of fish, whether chicken has been previously frozen; and production methods, so whether something is organic, as it says it is on the packet. We test for all those things. We occasionally find non-compliance and we deal with it, so let us get away from the idea that somehow we are either complacent or have ineffective protection in this country.
I hear what the Minister says about the reduced numbers of local authority food safety officers, but will he give us the figure for the reduction in food safety tests carried out? Unfortunately, I do not have the documentation here, but I believe that in the freedom of information request obtained by the trade union, Unison, there was a 30% reduction in tests, which would mean a considerable increase in risk to consumers purchasing burgers or other meat products, not only from supermarkets, but from the many other outlets that operate in that area, and—I will leave it at that.
The distinction I was trying to make for the hon. Gentleman—I accept that he has been given figures—is between the number of samples and the number of tests. The samples have gone down, and that is what I think he is quoting. In 2009-10, there were 105,556 samples—and that is down—on the local authority side, to 78,653 in 2010-11. That is the diminution that he refers to, but the number of tests done on them has gone up to 92,181 in comparison. It is not quite as clear a picture as crude figures sometimes suggest. As I say, I accept the fact that the number of people working in local authorities has reduced, which is a proper cause for concern for me and others in central Government. What I do not accept is that it is on the scale suggested by some commentators, who are perhaps taking crude figures and interpreting them in an inappropriate way.
The Minister has rightly drawn attention to the success of testing in the meat processing and abattoir sectors, but what is his view on the situation we have just come across involving five horses that were tested and identified as having bute in them, and although they did not enter directly into the UK chain, it was too late to stop them potentially entering the food chain elsewhere in the EU? Is that acceptable? What has gone wrong? They should not be entering the human food chain at all.
I was going to move on to the issues about phenylbutazone and horse passports, as that was the other factor that has been referred to several times in the debate.
Let us be clear about phenylbutazone: it is a potentially harmful substance—in fact, there is little evidence one way or another, but we cannot say it is safe. That is why it is excluded from the food chain and it is quite right that it should be. It is principally excluded via the horse passport system. If the horse passport system is being properly applied, it will be excluded at the point of the abattoir. It should not enter the food chain and it should be simply disposed of in other ways. It is not the only drug residue that is occasionally tested for and that we need to be aware of. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate checks for a string of residues that we would also wish to exclude from the human food chain. The evidence from sampling suggests that a small quantity of phenylbutazone is making its way through, in some samples. That is concerning and it has to be investigated, which is exactly what we are doing. The Food Standards Agency is now looking at that in detail to see whether it can get a clearer picture.
There is a problem with the fact that it takes a long time for the test results to come through. I am afraid that I cannot explain why that is, but I am advised that it takes about three weeks to get the results back. During that time, it is entirely possible for food to be passed across the English channel to French markets, where it could enter the food chain. As soon as we have a positive confirmation, we advise the French—or whoever it is—authorities in the same way that they advise us. We have a wonderful network of agencies around Europe. They are constantly in communication and advise one another, which is why we knew about the Irish issue and why we would always notify the French—to ensure that that is the case. However, there is a delay, and the hon. Gentleman raises a point that I accept I need to look at further, to see if there is more that we can do.
Does the Minister not agree that it would make much more sense to prevent the transport of such meat to its destination before the results of the tests for bute have come through? For instance, it could be possible to keep it frozen until it is clear that there is no contamination.
That would require all 9,000 horses that are killed for human consumption—the vast majority of which go abroad, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, because there is no appetite for horsemeat in this country, generally—to be kept in cold storage over a period of time while tests are being conducted. That is an option. What we have to do is be proportionate—we are required by law to be proportionate about what we do, because there are costs involved for exporters—and we can only do that if the evidence shows that it is a proportionate action to take. We are collecting that evidence at the moment and I will then take advice. If at any stage, the chief medical officer or the Food Standards Agency advises me that taking any action of that kind is necessary for the protection of human health, I will take it. I have not received that advice at the moment.
I welcome the Minister’s candour. In the couple of minutes that are remaining, will he deal with the other issue about horses and the food chain? In July 2012, the Veterinary Residues Committee, which reports to him, said:
“Defra’s follow-up investigations in recent years have found that some vets are still prescribing phenylbutazone without checking the passport or ensuring that the horse is subsequently signed out of the food-chain. Phenylbutazone residues have also been found in horses that have changed owners prior to going to slaughter, and whose passports do not indicate that they have been signed out of the food-chain.”
Does he have a view on that, and will he take action?
I am very happy to look at the operation of the horse passport. However, the national equine database is a red herring. It never provided any information on the food-chain status of individual horses, and therefore, it really is not relevant. What is relevant is that passports need to be robust. They need to have the information, and people need to respect the fact that if they do not put that information in, the passports cannot serve as the sort of check and balance that we need. It is wrong to falsify a document such as a passport. Its purpose is to protect to the public, but there is evidence of occasions on which people have falsified them.
We have a very complicated system of issuing horse passports. Mr Gray discussed it, and the hon. Member for Ogmore did not seem to recognise that his Government set it up. I understand why they set it up, because there are EU rules on the matter. Each breed society can issue a passport, because they keep the stud book and therefore, there is a proliferation. If we can take action to ensure that there is no duplication, it would be a good thing. Let us look at that, but again, I emphasise the point that if people want to defraud the system, they might do so.
Our job is to try and pick that up, but let us not pretend that we can stop anyone from trying to defraud the system—sometimes they will.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Croydon North on securing the debate. I hope that it has been helpful in outlining some of the actions that we are taking. We will take more, because we need to make sure that the consumer is best served by labelling, and that what it says on the packet is what they get on their plate.