HC Deb 10 June 1976 vol 912 cc1879-90

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

1.49 a.m.

Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker, for this second chance to bring an important subject before the House. This should be an important debate because there is growing opposition to the two proposals to which it relates. I refer to the Poultry Meat (Hygiene) Regulations and the banning of New York-dressed birds.

It may well be that some of us should have been better informed of the effect of the two sets of Regulations. I have a feeling that tonight the Minister in charge will say that the previous Government approved the Regulations, but I think we now know the effect of them and certainly in my area in South-West England we think they will have a serious effect on

The House divided:Ayes 6, Noes 1.

many small producers—and indeed will put them out of business. I believe that in the Community as a whole people are also having second thoughts about this proposal. No only producers but consumers will be affected by the curtailment of choice.

This is a serious position, and the trade feels exactly the same about it. It is reluctant to accept these proposals. In the South-West we have made a sticker for certain cars. I should be out of order to show it, but I believe that I may make use of copious notes. I quote it: Keep your hands off my bird".

The South-West has taken this matter very seriously indeed and wants to see that public opinion is roused so that, we hope, the Government will change their views.

I believe that the small producer stands to lose his livelihood under the Poultry Meat (Hygiene) Regulations for two causes. There is the economic cause. Under this legislation, except for hand-cut birds for farm-gate sale the processor must conform to structural standards by August 1977 at the latest, and the costs of doing so are likely to be substantial. Many processors will not be able to afford the structural alterations necessary to bring them up to the correct standard. A figure of £30 million has been mentioned as the cost to the industry of bringing all slaughterhouses up to these new standards. Is that really necessary?

The number of people who have been taken ill is very low. Many people feel that there is no danger from the way we slaughter our poultry at present. On a practical point, let us consider the £30 million cost. How many hospitals, schools or other important things could be provided with that money?

The second cause of loss to producers is the operation of the law, because under the new regulation it appears that after 1981 these sales, other than at the farm gate, will be banned. That could reduce the income of many small producers and put them out of business. The people who cater for this trade can do so only in this way and could certainly not compete with the big producers.

I should like to put a further question to the Minister. What will happen to spent birds from egg-producing units? It will be difficult to get these birds slaughtered after they have finished laying. This is an enormous number of birds. Millions of spent birds are dealt with each year. If they are subject to these Regulations and instructions, we shall find that it will not be worth while to collect and process them. Most of them go into chicken paste and things like that. Poultry farmers will have to gas them and perhaps to dig a great pit and bury them. It will not be worth while to collect and process them for food.

Let me quote from a letter addressed to me by the director of the British Poultry Federation, Mr. Neville Wallace, who writes: It is of course difficult to say that every single producer-processor should be guaranteed continued livelihood—he may be inefficient and not worth protecting. However, the general arguments we are deploying are, first, that our own food and hygiene regulations cover domestic trade perfectly adequately, and, secondly, that there seems no justification for harmonisation with European standards to take away the livelihood of those producing only for domestic trade.

He is right. It will be a sad day if so many producers in this country, especially in my own area, go out of business.

The NFU, too, has been very active in trying to stop these proposals. In my area, one of the vice-chairmen of the Poultry Committee, Mr. Michael Turner, has given me much information of great use. Perhaps I might pass on to the House some of the facts that he has given me.

He estimates that the latest running costs of veterinary inspection amounts to £10 million, in addition to a cost of between £30 million and £40 million to set up slaughterhouses to the required standard. He also says that New York-dressed birds will keep fresh for between 10 and 14 days and improve in flavour— many of us will agree with that—while eviscerated birds will keep for only three days or so. Hence, there is a double advantage in being allowed to continue as we are at present.

Then there is the important point that consumers should have a choice—and why not? One has seen the reactions from women's institutes and various other people all over the country who have written in, upset at what is happening. In the South-West alone, I understand that 40 per cent. of the birds produced are sold as New York-dressed. It is quite obvious that people want this type of bird. It is true that there is a much bigger market for frozen birds, and one knows the advantages of them for the supermarkets and for storage. But there is also a growing demand for fresh poultry New York-dressed, and I do not see why it should be denied to our consumers.

I wonder whether the consumers realise the extra cost per bird. It is 1p per lb for veterinary inspection and 2p per lb for buildings and structures. On a 4-lb bird, that amounts to an extra 12p. I believe that that is a needless increase in the cost of living.

I turn now to the Food Law Action Group. I do not know much about it, but it seems to have its facts right. It says in a letter to me: Quite simply, a vet dominated Ministry of Agriculture is using Common Market Directives as an excuse to build a vast new food hygiene and inspection empire, staffed and controlled by veterinarians. The Directives themselves probably exceed their power allowed by the Treaty of Rome, but no official attempt is being made to counter them.

It goes on to say that it believes that the Regulations, in turn, may exceed the requirements of the directives.

I ask the Minister whether these Regulations exceed the power allowed by the Treaty of Rome and whether those introduced by the Ministry exceed the requirements of the directives. We ought to have an answer. If we cannot have an answer tonight, perhaps I might have an answer by letter.

I believe that strong views are held by the Environmental Health Officers Association, which states: The Poultry Meat Inspectors which the Regulations will call for just do not exist and even if they can be recruited they cannot be trained in time in sufficient numbers.

The association adds: Within the plant the Environment Health Officer, with a century of experience behind him, can be relied upon to ensure that good standards of hygiene are maintained. The absence of any E.E.C. counterpart is surely no reason for changing the U.K. system of food hygiene control.

We would like to know from the Minister why these people cannot be used instead of the expensive way of using veterinary officers, even if it is for supervision.

A further point which I would bring to the Minister's attention is the amount of water which will be used if these Regulations come into force. My own neighbour, who runs a fairly large slaughterhouse, tells me that under these Regulations 2½ gallons of water per chicken will be used. That is six times the amount of water now being used. To us in the South-West, that is an important point as we already have a water shortage and there has been no evidence of illness or death through the present system. If there had been such evidence, of course that would be an entirely different matter.

I now turn to the problem of carrying out the terms of these directives. We need to have fair play in this as well. There are strong rumours in the trade that the French Government are considering giving an exemption of up to 16,000 birds per week. That would be of enormous advantage to producers if it was allowed here. I shall be glad to have an answer from the Minister as to whether there is any truth in this rumour. Of course, it is an entirely different matter if one is producing these chickens for the export market, but tonight I am discussing and thinking about the effect on the home market.

The NFU, in its opinion column in the British Farmer, makes its objection quite clear. It says: Obsession with pettifogging harmonisation in minor unimportant areas simply adds to criticism of the Commission, and makes our membership of the EEC increasingly unpopular here. Let them concentrate on rules which help to realise the cheap, and praiseworthy aims of the Treaty of Rome.

With that I agree. I am wholeheartedly in favour of harmonisation going on within the Community, but this sort of harmonisation does no good whatsoever and discredits the whole business.

The Minister must realise that it will be extremely difficult to get this legislation through the House of Commons when it is finally discussed here. I hope that the Government will seriously think again before proceeding with it. The Minister of Agriculture should say "No" to Brussels. He should tell the Commission that we have thought better in the light of experience and discussions. I believe there would be considerable sympathy within the Community to look at this matter again. Perhaps we could have a further derogation to continue with our own methods.

I am in favour of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), the Shadow Minister of Agriculture, has said. He said that we were opposed to the implementation of these EEC directives as now drafted and that we required to renegotiate for an optional directive. That is important. That is what I favour and that is where I stand. I should like to hear from the Minister that we will make a change, that he will take this matter seriously and that the consumers' and producers' views will be taken into account. I repeat: keep your hands off my birds.

2.6 a.m.

Mr. John Davies (Knutsford)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) for allowing me to make a brief intervention in this Adjournment debate.

I speak in support of what my hon. Friend said. I recall to you, Mr. Speaker, that since our accession the mind of the Community has been developing in these areas.

The original purpose of the harmonisation arrangements was to try to dispel areas of distortion in competition so that the Community as a whole could rely on a free, but fairly competitive, source of products and services on the one side and, on the other side, arrangements whereby the health and welfare of its citizens could be protected by harmonisation rules in certain areas—for example, pollution—against depredation caused by industrial and other processes.

In its origin the Community moved very much in the direction of harmonisation arrangements which were universally applicable. But since our accession, and under the auspices of the Danish Commissioner Finn Olav Gundelach, there has been the development of the optional directive in the industrial sphere. That means that anybody producing any product or giving any service to the standards set out in the directive can be assured of an open market in all parts of the Community whilst not preventing individual countries from pursuing their own arrangements in their own way if it suits them. That has been a substantial development in the industrial sphere during our membership, but it has not emerged greatly within the agricultural section.

I suggest that there is no reason why such an arrangement should not be negotiated. It is a new arrangement within the framework of the Community. There seems no reason why the doubts about the applicability of this instrument should not be dealt with by means of the optional directive to which I have referred.

2.8 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)

I welcome this opportunity to debate the subject of poultry meat hygiene. The proposed Poultry Meat (Hygiene) Regulations which we hope soon to lay before the House have already been the subject of widespread comment—some of it highly inaccurate—and it will serve a useful purpose if tonight we can establish the main facts.

I do not propose to dwell on the history of the two EEC directives on which our Regulations are to be based. Suffice it to say that Directive 71/118, which lays down a comprehensive system for the hygienic production of poultry meat in slaughterhouses, was adopted when we joined the Community and that Directive 75/431, which was intended primarily to extend the original directive to poultry cutting up premises and cold stores, also included a number of changes that will help our poultry industry to adapt to the new regime. In particular, we gained more time: whereas the original directive would have applied to the domestic trade of member States from February 1976, we now have until August 1977 to meet the structural requirements, until August 1979 to provide a full inspection service, and until August 1981 to phase out the trade in uneviscerated poultry except at the farm gate. These changes were welcomed by the poultry industry, and I do not want to waste the time of the House in arguing whether the Conservative Government who accepted the original directive would have achieved any different result if they had been in power at the time the amending directive was agreed.

In this country we have no specific regulations for the hygienic production and inspection of poultry meat, though we have long applied such requirements to other types of meat. It was time we remedied this omission. Poultry is now a major item in the diet, and the British consumer is entitled to expect the same high standard of protection that consumers in several other countries have enjoyed, some of them for years past—for example, the United States, Canada, Sweden, Denmark and Holland. The proposed Poultry Meat (Hygiene) Regulations will do no more than set that standard.

In stating that our hygiene requirements are falling behind the standards set by other countries, I imply no criticism of those who are currently responsible for enforcement of the Food Hygiene (General) Regulations. Within the powers available to them and the many other calls on their time, they have served us well. Nor do I imply criticism of those poultry meat producers who maintain high standards through their own quality control systems. But not all are in this category, and we believe in any case that there is a public duty here of the type that we have long accepted for red meat.

The purpose of the EEC directive is to establish common standards of poultry hygiene that are acceptable to all member countries. Their implementation will mean that poultry meat produced in any part of the Community can be sold in any other part without having to meet special additional veterinary certification and other conditions before it is allowed across the frontier. They will also enable our product to meet the hygiene standards increasingly being required in wider export markets. Such freedom of trade offers considerable advantages to an efficient poultry industry such as our own. I believe that the ability of our processors to export any of the poultry meat they produce rather than have to arrange special export runs under ad hoc veterinary supervision inspection will greatly facilitate our export trade.

Inevitably, there is a price to pay for these benefits. The industry has estimated that to bring its buildings and equipment to the required standards will cost between £8 million and £12 million—nothing like the £30 million suggested by the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills). We are giving active consideration to its application for Exchequer assistance towards meeting these structural costs.

There will also be the cost of the veterinary-supervised hygiene inspection service—a subject on which there has been a great deal of wild speculation. We originally estimated this at £5½ million a year after 1979 or 0.4 pence a pound of poultry meat. The figure suggested by the hon. Gentleman was £10 million. But we now believe, in the light of consultation with the industry, local authorities and other representative bodies—and a great deal of consultation has taken place—that the net cost will be considerably lower, probably no more than 1p per bird. That is our official estimate. The figure of 12p is preposterous, as the British Poultry Federation would be the first to acknowledge.

We are continuing our discussions with industry representatives and with the local authority associations on the arrangement for phasing-in the inspection service over the next three years and hope to reach an outcome satisfactory to all.

Let us be clear about the cost of the poultry hygiene service. It is not the Government's intention that the district and metropolitan authorities, which will be responsible for operating this service, should be asked to meet any of the cost from the rates. They will be empowered to recover their full costs from inspection charges on the trade. I am sure it will be agreed that that is fair and reasonable. I have little doubt that the consumer would be willing to pay another 1p a bird to know that it has been officially inspected. I judge that costs consumers probably assume that, like red meat, their poultry is already officially inspected.

The hon. Gentleman suggested, I think when quoting from the Food Law Action Group, that it might not be possible to recruit and train sufficient poultry meat inspectors in time to bring the new arrangements into operation on 1st January 1977. I agree that it will be difficult, but we are not expecting many poultry plants to request a service from that date, and, for those that do, we shall ask the local authorities to take a flexible attitude to manning levels while the inspection service is being phased in.

I turn to the question of New York-dressed poultry. Not surprisingly, given the hon. Gentleman's constituency interest, that was the area on which he concentrated most of his remarks. We have heard a great deal about this subject in recent months.

I should like to set out a few of the facts. The hon. Gentleman spoke of New York-dressed accounting for about 40 per cent. of the production in Devon. I would not dispute that. But New York-dressed, farm fresh or fresh plucked poultry, though still a significant part of the market, represents nothing like the 25 per cent. that is often claimed for it on a national basis, except at Christmas. We believe that over the year as a whole the proportion is about half that—about 12 per cent.

It is also wrong to imply—I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman did this, but I had the impression that he did—that New York-dressed is the only alternative to frozen poultry. In recent years there has been a considerable increase in fresh, chilled poultry which has been eviscerated in purpose-built plants rather than in food shops. We believe that the growth in sales of this type of fresh poultry will continue in the years ahead.

Thirdly, I know of no reliable evidence to support the claim that New York-dressed poultry is "safer" than frozen poultry. Some of the recent publicity on this score has been quite misleading.

New York-dressed poultry is a very varied commodity, ranging from birds grown specifically for the table to spent hens from egg-laying batteries. The scientific advice is that they cannot be properly inspected without an examination of the viscera, and such official examination is clearly impracticable when the viscera are drawn in a food shop. Moreover, most of us would surely agree that evisceration of any animal or bird in a food shop is undesirable if it can be avoided.

This is the essential background to the hygiene arguments about the New York dressed trade and why the directives provide for the trade to be phased out, except for direct sales from producers to consumers. The directives allow a further five years for the trade through food shops to continue, though producers who are unable to market their poultry through an approved slaughterhouse will be confined to sales to local retail outlets after August 1977.

For many farmers, New York-dressed sales are essentially a local side-line; they will have five years to adjust. But I recognise that there are others who sell substantial quantities of poultry well beyond their own locality and who will be faced with the decision whether to find slaughterhouse facilities or to reduce ultimately to direct farm sales. I realise that this will be a hard decision for most of them to take, especially where the bulk of their production goes for the Christmas trade. I realise, too, that there will be supply difficulties over fresh poultry meat at Christmas that will not be anything like so acute at other times of the year, and for this reason we are giving further consideration to see if anything might be done for the Christmas trade.

In the time available I have tried to explain that the basic issue here is one of food hygiene. We should bear in mind the recommendations of any responsible group of people who have looked at the meat industry in recent years—for example, the Verdon-Smith Committee, which reported in 1964 and unequivocally recommended that there should be veterinary-supervised official inspection of poultry slaughter houses. The Swann Committee more recently made that recommendation.

Therefore, we must face up to the fact that this is something that should have been done long ago. We estimate that it will cost about 1p per bird. I can understand the point of view of the members of the Food Law Action Group, and we are doing our best, in so far as it is consistent with our objectives, to meet the aspirations of the environmental health officers and everyone else who is interested in the matter. But the figures the group has bandied about are inaccurate. The hon. Gentleman might find that the British Poultry Federation, now that it has had a proper chance to consult us—and we have gone to considerable lengths—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes past Two o'clock.