HC Deb 03 April 1981 vol 2 cc659-66

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

2.30 pm
Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

I begin by apologising to my hon. Friend the Minister for detaining him here on a second consecutive Friday. I hope that it will not become a habit for him.

I thank my hon. Friend for the trouble that he has taken to look into the subjects that I wish to raise. I also apologise to him if I overrun slightly, because I wish to put some matters on the record. I shall keep my detailed remarks as brief as possible, and I may have to overlook what I had hoped to say about my constituency. However, I make no apologies for raising this important subject of meat hygiene, which goes far beyond the scope of the Food and Drugs Act 1955.

Gerald Durrell, in his most amusing book "The Bafut Beagles", reports that, as I was reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Grist), who served in the Cameroons with great distinction, the natives there describe all meat as "beef". It is not simplicity of language or thought that has led evil men to profit from passing off other meat and unfit meat as beef. Their motive is profit. It is an exceedingly lucrative trade, and a longstanding and increasing trade. That is why I have sought to raise the matter in the House.

The people concerned are taking advantage of the development of technology, in the shape of processed foods and the freezing of meat, to exploit loopholes in our regulations and in their supervision. The whole business has been described by one environmental health authority as a nationally organised racket and a national scandal. It is not simply a local matter. My researches have led to reports from Yorkshire, Wales, the South-West, Kent, Surrey, Bedfordshire, my own Midlands, and Cheshire. I am sure that if I had had more time I should have been able to uncover more sources.

It is not my intention in any way to sensationalise the matter, nor shall I name names under the cloak of parliamentary privilege. I pay tribute to those journalists who have taken the interest and trouble to uncover the matter. I refer in particular to the articles that appeared over a number of weeks in The Sunday Times, the Daily Mirror and Municipal Engineering. I also pay tribute to those public-spirited and interested environmental health officers, including my own in Redditch, and their supporting committees, and to certain port health officers.

My interest in the subject started in my constituency, where a canning factory was found to have included in its canned meat pies meat that was not that which appeared on the label. Further tests are currently in progress to see whether the meat was unfit for human consumption. I should add that the tins in question were withdrawn immediately from the point of sale.

A long trail leads from the processors, through cold stores, to Smithfield, to dealers, and then either to knackers or to importers. I believe that hundreds of tonnes of contaminated meat are being blended into a wide range of convenience foods, and even finding their way to the butcher's slab. Indeed, I have heard reports of supplies to hospitals and old people's homes.

The best estimate that I have been able to obtain is that the annual trade may amount to about 10,000 tonnes internally, and about 5,000 tonnes imported per annum. Those could be conservative estimates, because I know that a recent firm in Fulham that was prosecuted accounted for 1½ per cent. of the total meat trade.

The loopholes that I have mentioned cover the knackers, the processors, horsemeat, enforcement and port health. I shall try to deal with the loopholes in that order. First, however, I want to draw attention to the lack of interest in this important subject that afflicts some of the responsible health committees and officers and that has led to a lack of interest by the police in following up incidents that merited prosecution. I want to draw attention, also, to the inadequacy of some of the current test procedures and, finally, to the inadequacy of the penalties. From what I have said it will be appreciated that many of these matters can be improved readily and quickly by stronger administrative action, although I fear that further legislative action may also be required.

The loophole involving knackers concerns the lack of regulation over their activities and—even more important—the dropping of the requirement that unfit meat should be stained. There is now no practical means of tracing the destination of meat once it has left the knackers. I give an idea of the profitable nature of the trade. A knackered cow is worth approximately £10, but a cow that has been dead for only about six hours can fetch as much as £135. Indeed, a horse in Southall market can fetch £300. Those are prices that no pet food manufacturer or processor could pay.

Finally, on the subject of knackers, there is the importance of separating knackers from slaughtering and, possibly—this is a matter that needs further consideration—from the transport of meat. There are premises near Bradford where, on the same site, there are a slaughterhouse, a knacker's yard, a pet food manufacturer and a maggot producer. So the House will readily appreciate the difficulties that are involved.

There is a lack of power for health officers to enter the premises of processors. In a meat sterilisation regulation there is a lack of definition of what constitutes a proper processor. In the EEC very few processors have to be strictly controlled. It is a matter for further consideration—I am not pressing it this afternoon—whether we should seek to impose greater control over knackers and reduce their numbers, or over processors. In the meantime, processors should be defined. They should have to produce records of the origin of the meat that they process and its weight. I shall return to the idea of monitoring domestic consumption of meat.

At the moment there is no need to mark and there are no powers to seize horsemeat. Records are not kept of horsemeat or its quantity. The fact that horsemeat, or kangaroo meat, is going into a product does not necessarily mean that it is unfit. However, it is impossible to be certain without records and if there is no separation.

I refer now to enforcement powers and the actions of environmental health officers. As I said, this trade is widespread. The meat is surprisingly mobile. Consignments will travel great distances and go through various cold stores before processing or consumption. Environmental health officers are hampered by their inability to act outside their own boroughs or districts.

In county areas there is a separation of powers. The county has the trading standards officers and the districts have the environmental health officers. Environmental health officers do not have power to take samples. The sampling powers under the meat regulations do not correspond with those in the Trade Descriptions Act. Therefore, there is a loophole, because there is a shorter time for taking and reporting on samples. I revert there to the tests.

There is a loophole in port health in the trade traditionally going through the Irish ports. Ireland was part to the United Kingdom in 1875 when the Port Health Act was passed. Therefore, there was no requirement for ports involved in the Irish trade to have port health officers. Since then, by convention, there has been exemption for the Irish trade because of the Irish vote. As a result, ports concerned with the Irish trade have not been licensed by the Department. Apart from having no port health officer, there have been no facilities for the proper inspection of meat.

There has been a considerable trade from Ireland, the nature of which became apparent only when a shipment had to be diverted to Pembroke dock. In August 1980 a port health officer discovered two shipments of unfit meat, and in March this year a further shipment was found not to comply with the regulations. I understand that 40 containers a week—about 800 tonnes—go through in this way.

Ireland should be put on the same footing as the rest of our EEC partners in this respect. I see no objection to that, because Ireland will not allow meat to come in, and refused to take back the two consignments to which I have referred. There is an added inducement in the case of Ireland in the matter of the EEC levy, which is not levied on unfit meat. That was what the March 1981 case was about.

There are also some anomalies in the case of Scotland, where the meat sterilisation regulations do not apply and there are differences in the meat inspection regulations, which have led to a growth in the cross-border trade from that country—if I may refer to it in those terms.

Therefore, as a result, I believe that extra powers are needed. I believe that we should consider once again the staining of unfit meat. We must consider the separation of knackers and slaughterers. We must define and provide for control of processors; for the marking of horsemeat and the keeping of records; for better sampling powers for environmental health officers; for the improvement of tests; for making it illegal to be in possession of unauthorised meat stamps; and, most importantly, for the marking of the plain cardboard boxes in which this frozen meat travels up and down the country and in and out of stoves. There is no distinguishing mark on the boxes as to content, origin, weight, or whether the contents have been processed.

I have no time to go into further detail or to cover my constituency points. I have been trying to show that there is abuse, that it is a serious matter, and that something must be done about it. I believe that there is scope for a great deal by tightening up now on enforcement. I hope that this short debate will have increased the consciousness of those who should be involved in this matter. But I fear that some additional legislation will be required, and I would urge that it be kept as simple as possible.

Finally, I ask my hon. Friend to institute some kind of monitoring of the domestic consumption of horsemeat and other meats and to report to the House in due course on what he has been able to achieve.

2.48 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jerry Wiggin)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) on raising this matter—although, like him, I hope that he will not make a habit of this on Friday afternoons.

The Government view with great concern recent developments concerning the activities of a small part of the meat trade. I welcome this opportunity to explain the Government's views on it.

I do not propose to talk about individual cases today, although several, of course, have featured recently in the press and have been the subject of contact between individual local authorities and my Department. I am aware that one such case is connected with my hon. Friend's constituency. However, in some cases, evidence is already sub judice or may shortly become so; and, anyway, I think that it will be more profitable to concentrate on the more general issues involved.

I must emphasise that the Government have no enforcement responsibility in this area. Enforcement of the various pieces of legislation is entirely a matter for the local authorities at district level. I am most grateful for the firm action which many local authorities have been taking in recent weeks, and the Ministry has helped some of them by the provision of technical advice on particular lots of meat. We can give such help only if local authorities ask for it.

The safety of the consumer in England and Wales is protected by the Food and Drugs Act 1955 and by regulations made under it, including the Meat Inspection Regulations 1963, as amended, the Slaughterhouses (Hygiene) Regulations 1977 and the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations 1969.

The effect of this legislation is that meat sold for human consumption must have been produced in licensed slaughterhouses, which are subject to detailed hygiene requirements; it must also be examined by an official inspector and passed as fit for human consumption. Similar requirements are applied to imported meat under the Imported Food Regulations. It is an offence under the Food and Drugs Act to sell unfit meat or knacker meat for human consumption. There are also specific provisions applying to the sale of horsemeat for human consumption which in effect amount to a requirement that it should be made quite clear to the purchaser what he is buying.

To complete this brief summary of the legislation, the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations 1969 require, subject to certain limited exemptions, that all unfit meat, whether produced in slaughterhouses or imported, and all meat from knackers' yards, should be sterilised before entering the chain of distribution. These regulations are intended to ensure that unfit meat and knacker meat does not contaminate at any point in the distribution chain any food intended for human consumption. They also, of course, reinforce the provisions of the Food and Drugs Act on unfit meat.

I have gone into some detail on the legislation because it is necessary to appreciate that there already exists a considerable body of law on this subject. In fact, all the alleged activities of unscrupulous meat traders featured in recent press stories are prohibited under the existing law, and the fact that the recent activities of local authorities have yielded a number of actual and possible prosecutions has shown that the law is enforceable.

However, one of the difficulties, particularly in enforcing the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations, consists ofachieving effective methods of enforcement when meat is conveyed across one or more local authority boundaries. This requires close co-operation between local authorities, and I understand that there have recently been welcome examples of such co-operation, which I hope will be built on in the future.

The other point which I should like to stress before dealing with the possibility of amendments to the legislation is the contribution which purchasing departments in the meat industry are already making to reduce these problems through proper vigilance and quality control. This is something which is already widely practised by companies in the meat manufacturing industry, and I understand that the Bacon and Meat Manufacturers Association has issued a code of practice to its members giving them additional advice on writing safeguards into purchasing contracts and on making checks on goods received.

We have already received some suggestions for amending the present legislation, including a set of proposals from the Environmental Health Officers Association designed to make it easier to detect malpractices and to enforce the law. These are being considered urgently. However, we also think it is necessary to obtain views from the many other organisations which might be affected by changes to the legislation. These include the various sections of the meat trade as well as a wide range of other interests, such as pet food manufacturers, zoos, and processors of unfit meat. We have therefore asked for early comments on the way in which the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations have been working, and have said we would also be interested in any general comments on other relevant legislation.

We hope to have replies from all interested organisations by the end of April, when we shall consider the possibility of proposing amendments in the light of all relevant factors.

My hon. Friend has today made a number of suggestions for amending the legislation. These, too, will all be carefully considered. I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate why I cannot give him definite answers today. I should however, like to make some general comments.

My hon. Friend's allegation concerning quantities is a matter of considerable interest to us. I hope that if he has managed to pick up any hard facts he will convey them to my Department. We do not think that the problem is of the size that he states, but if he has evidence on it we shall, of course, consider it.

A number of my hon. Friend's suggestions related to the better identification of unfit meat so that it is more difficult for it to be passed off as fit meat. We shall consider the possibility of reintroducing some rule regarding the staining of unfit meat in the light of all the comments we receive. We shall also look carefully at other possibilities, such as stricter requirements on the marking of vehicles and boxes containing unfit meat at all stages in the distribution chain. Also, we are ready to examine the other suggestions which my hon. Friend has made, for example, for making even stricter the existing provisions on the sale of horsemeat to which I earlier referred. However, it is important to bear in mind the problems of enforcement of such marking requirements, especially on premises in which there is no regular local authority presence. It will not help much if by imposing tougher requirements we simply impose greater burdens on the legitimate trade while leaving loopholes for the unscrupulous.

My hon. Friend made a number of suggestions which appear to require changes to the Food and Drugs Act, for example, control of processors of unfit meat, which presumably would involve some kind of licensing or registration, alteration of the time limits for prosecutions, extension of the powers of environmental health officers, and increased penalties. All such proposals would have implications which go much wider than the control of unfit meat and would affect the law applying to food generally. As the House will know, the Government have decided that there should for the time being be no major revision of the Food and Drugs Act However, this decision does not automatically rule out any amendment which might be indicated, and I can give an assurance that we shall look on its merits at any proposal which would help to achieve improved control over unfit meat. I cannot, of course, give any undertakings about finding parliamentary time.

Scotland has its own food and drugs legislation, similar to that for England and Wales, but, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations do not apply in Scotland and there is no equivalent legislation there. The possibility of introducing similar regulations in Scotland to close possible loopholes in the law is obviously one of the matters which the Government will have to consider.

As for possible deception to evade levies on imports, the transport of fit meat and unfit meat in the same container would not be permitted under our imported food regulations or under EEC directives. My Department, however, is aware of allegations that imported fit meat may have been misdescribed to Her Majesty's Customs in order to avoid the monetary compensatory amount charged on imports into the United Kingdom. All products are subject to checks at the point of entry to ensure that they are properly described. It is perfectly logical that different types of product should attract different rates of levy and subsidies.

My hon. Friend said that there might not be powers to seize unfit horsemeat. There definitely are such powers, just as there are for other meats, if it is unfit. That is the key point.

My hon. Friend also referred to what sounds like a miraculously efficient site near Bradford. A great many activities seem to take place on the same site. We agree that such premises exist. However, each part of the operation has to satisfy the relevant legislation, and it should not be assumed that abuses occur. If we decided to ban having slaughterhouses and knacker's yards on the same sites I am afraid that it would require an amendment to the Slaughterhouses Act.

If I have time I wantto deal with the question of imports from the Irish Republic. I think it is necessary to distinguish several different aspects. First, as regards animal health rules applying to imports from the Irish Republic, it is true that, because of its disease-free status, meat may be imported into any British port without the specific licensing requirements which apply to other member States. But the public health requirements for imports of fresh fit meat from the Irish Republic are exactly the same as for imports from other member States, and follow closely the rules of the EEC directive on this subject. Imports of such meat are subject to checks by public health authorities. In some ports this task is made more difficult by the lack of suitable inspection facilities, and an inspection may be deferred to an inland destination.

Imports of unfit meat from the Irish Republic are subject, like other unfit imported meat, to the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations. A recent incident revealed differences between ports in the application of the requirements on the labelling of imported unfit meat released from ports for sterilisation elsewhere. We have given advice on the correct application of the rules which involve the labelling of each package.

I hope that I have been able in a very short run through this complicated subject, which my hon. Friend was correct to raise, to clarify the Government's approach to these problems. In the short term, the answer must lie in continued strict enforcement by local authorities and close vigilance by the meat industry. In the longer term, we shall be considering with all interested organisations whether effective enforcement can be improved by possible amendments to the existing law.

We consider this an extremely important and highly sensitive matter, to which we should give our closest and most urgent attention. Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me this opportunity to explain the Government's general position.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.