HC Deb 27 October 1982 vol 29 cc1135-44 10.35 pm
Mr. Mark Hughes (Durham)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Meat (Sterilisation and Staining) Regulations 1982 (S.I., 1982, No. 1018), dated 22nd July 1982, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th July, be annulled. My joy at arriving at this point is almost unalloyed. It appears that we now have regulations which have received the unanimous support of the House, and I think it only fair to explain why this prayer was tabled. As will be seen from the dates, it was made on the last day before the House rose for the Summer Recess, and at that time a prayer had to be tabled before either I or my hon. Friends had the opportunity to study it in detail. Now that we have had that opportunity, apart from a few minor points, we welcome and endorse the regulations and delight at everything that the Minister is doing, and wish them great success.

None the less, given the timetabling of praying, we had no choice but to table a prayer to enable the interested bodies and this House to give information and evidence to the Opposition, the Government and every right hon. and hon. Member so that we might all be assured that these excellent proposals received the approbation of all. Had we not prayed, neither the pet food industry nor anyone else would have had the chance to register any opposition that they might have had after the regulations were laid.

However, I am happy to reassure the Minister and the House that no significant opposition has been registered to these proposals. Nevertheless, there are certain minor points on which I hope that the Minister will comment. First, as some of the questionable meat came from Scotland and/or Northern Ireland, why do the regulations apply only to England and Wales? Are there shortly to be analagous regulations for Scotland and Northern Ireland? We hope so.

Secondly, can the Minister assure the House that the problem of non-laboratory—in the veterinary sense—access to specimens will be uninhibited? Can he further say whether non-veterinary and non-hospitals laboratories at school level which use materials from knackers' yards and so on for experimental purposes are covered by section 17?

Given that the regulations are consequential upon the excellent Private Member's Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) I know that he would also welcome them. He has apologised to me for his absence, and through me to the House, but he hopes to be here at 11 o'clock.

The prayer is laid only to enable the Minister to explain in detail to the House what the regulations involve. I assure the House that we do not wish in any way to impede their progress but welcome them.

10.40 pm
Sir Peter Mills (Devon, West)

I welcome this important measure. The Opposition were right to pray against the regulations because there are one or two matters that need explaining. I and other hon. Members raised the problems many years ago and it is nice to see the fruition of those efforts. There are important issues at stake. The public need to be protected. In some quarters there has been serious abuse. Real safeguards are needed and the regulations help to provide them.

As a result of the regulations the consumer will have more confidence in purchasing meat products. We have all heard the stories of the kangaroo meat. That abuse did occur in parts of the country and I am pleased that the measures will help to stamp it out.

I must declare an interest, being not only a farmer but a shareholder in North Devon Meat Ltd. which has a large processing plant for animal by-products. That is a business of increasing importance. I wonder whether the House and consumers at large realise the importance of by-product and knackers' plants to the welfare of the community. They have an important role to play.

Vast quantities of meat unfit for human consumption come from dead animals and that must be processed. Such animals cannot simply be buried. It is an important industry, not only for pet foods, meat and bone fertiliser, but because some of the glands and other parts that are obtained from the carcases are important to the community's general welfare.

Article 17 deals with the removal of unfit meat to a zoological garden, menagerie, mink farm or maggot farm—that is interesting. Recently in North Devon Meat Ltd. as one of the skips was being tipped into the processing plant a remarkable thing happened. To the astonishment of the operators it was found that there were two dead lions in it. Was it right that they should have been processed? It certainly gave the workmen quite a shock.

Article 17(2) states that containers should be kept closed and locked or sealed at all times except when necessary for the loading or unloading of the contents". That is very important. There have been complaints, particularly in Okehampton in my constituency, that the smell is sometimes pretty grim when vast quantities of such material pass through the town to be treated. The containers should not only be closed and locked but sealed. Those who have travelled behind such container lorries know of the terrible smell. That point should he emphasised.

I also hope that measures such as article 16(1) w ill stop the kangaroo meat nonsense, Perhaps the Minister could tell us what the cosy of the regulations to the consumer will be. That might be of interest. Although everyone is in favour of hygiene in our slaughterhouses and better controls, someone has to pay for meat inspection charges and so on.

Finally, failure to comply with regulations carries a maximum penalty, on conviction, of a £100 fine, three months' imprisonment, or both. That is nothing like enough. Hon. Members should consider the price of a hind quarter of beef. There will be a great temptation to use a substandard meat and to make steaks from meat that is unfit for such use o: that comes from an animal other than a bullock. Therefore, £100 is peanuts to a dishonest person who is willing to risk getting away with it. The regulations are important and [ wish them well. It is right that the House should discuss them, particularly given past events. I hope that in the long run the consumer will be protected from the small minority who try to get away with such things.

10.47 pm
Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I shall not delay the House for long on the eve of Prorogation, and I shall not raise many detailed points.

I congratulate the Government on bringing forward the regulations. If I were to be critical I would say that I wish that they had been introduced earlier. Nevertheless I welcome them. I do not know why the Opposition have prayed against them. The reasons given by the Opposition have been extremely weak. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to the respective points about Scotland and the level of the penalities to be applied. We have an opportunity to welcome the covert support from the EEC. It has helped to introduce regulations that will benefit every consumer.

I do not propose to discuss the individual horror stories that have appeared in the media and beguiled us. Some of them are a testimony to the strength of the human stomach, but even the stomach must be protected by law, and I hope that the regulations will do that. They cover some of the areas of concern. The worry about the different labelling techniques in the ports before the meat is sent elsewhere for sterilisation has been eliminated. The way in which the containers are closed and sealed is important, and we have heard about the smells and disagreeable odours that emanate from them. I am also glad that the various records on how unfit meat is dealt with will be subject to closer control and scrutiny.

I, too, wish to stress that a penalty of £100 is not a sufficient deterrent to a person wishing to recycle unfit meat for human consumption. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that firmly on board.

As had already been said, these regulations apply only to England and Wales. At this stage, Scotland is not covered. I know that the Scottish stomach is trained on haggis and porridge, but I wonder whether that is sufficient to enable it to consume unfit meat. Can my hon. Friend give us a date or a period within which equalisation of treatment will be introduced for the people of Scotland?

I return to my original point. Why have the Opposition prayed against these regulations? Of course, it is a glorious opportunity to talk about meat staining. Hon. Members on both sides could willingly do that for hours on end, and it is certainly an important subject. Nevertheless, all day today and throughout the past few days, Opposition Members have been moaning and groaning that they have had no opportunity to discuss matters of national importance and cases in which their constituents have been ground down by the Government's actions. Yet what do we have as the final item before we prorogue tomorrow? We have meat staining. Are the Opposition so bereft of worry about the Conservative Party that that is the best that they can manage? It is indeed clear that the Opposition are bereft of any ideas.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Page

No, I shall not give way. I am about to finish and other hon. Members wish to take part in the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on bringing forward these regulations, and I look forward to their implementation on 1 November.

10.52 pm
Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire)

I wish briefly to emphasise a point that is of concern to me. As my hon. Friends the Members for Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) and Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) have said, the penalties set out in article 26 seem very modest in view of the nature of the offence.

I am open to correction on this, but it seems to me also that, as the provision stands, although for the first offence the penalty may be a £100 fine or a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months, for a subsequent offence there is only a fine not exceeding £5 per day and no mention of imprisonment. I should therefore welcome clarification as to what will be the penalty for a second or subsequent offence.

Perhaps the Minister will also say whether she proposes to seek an updating of the penalties at an early stage. I assume that this statutory instrument is subsidiary legislation to the Food and Drugs Act and it may be possible to update the penalties by an amendment to that Act. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would advise the House on that point.

10.53 pm
Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government on the expedition with which they have moved. Some of us were lucky enough to be sponsors of the legislation relating to this very matter that the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) succeeded in getting on to the statute book this year and I know that he would have wished to be here today to welcome the implementation of the promises made by the Government during the long debates on that legislation both in Committee and on the Floor of the House.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page). It is a worthy and important subject. When the hon. Member for Tottenham introduced his Bill, I believe that he had an almost record postbag expressing public anxiety about the situation.

I welcome the Government's expedition and the fact that the regulations will be introduced on 1 November. I have a special interest. My borough council had great difficulty under the old regulations in pinning down several flagrant attempts by transgressors to make immense profits. It pursued the miscreants closely, but one difficulty was that the penalties under the old legislation were inadequate. I am glad to see that the system has been tightened up and that for the first time a term of imprisonment is to be provided. That will be a great deterrent.

My hon. Friend the Minister will agree that consumer protection must be the first priority. Although we have nearly reached Prorogation, I do not believe that it is too late to be talking about consumer interests. Unfit meat must be disposed of, and legislation must not be unnecessarily restrictive for legitimate operations. I am glad to see that after considerable consultation with the interested and responsible parties my hon. Friend has secured the interests of the large and growing pet food industry, which has a turnover of over £500 million per annum and supplies food for a large population of dogs, cats and other animals.

Local authorities have had difficulty in enforcing the old, outdated legislation. An alert and vigilant local authority can do much to stop the illegal trade, even with the present powers. With the new armoury, however, that important task will be made far easier. The measure introduces wider and stronger powers, which I hope local authorities will use effectively. I hope that they will continue to place a high priority on preventing the illegal trade.

Conservatives are committed to cutting out red tape and keeping down paperwork. I hope that the paperwork will be kept to a minimum and that local authorities will interpret the regulations correctly and cut down on unnecessary paperwork by allowing regular movement of unfit meat under the standing authorisation procedure permitted in the regulations. The Government have been pragmatic in exempting low value slaughterhouse waste from the movement permit system.

I welcome the regulations. I am glad that they concentrate on those areas where action was badly needed and where my hon. Friend promised that it would be taken at an early date.

10.58 pm
Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) was right to differ from the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page). The regulations and the legislation that preceded them were desired across the House. All environmental health officers or directors of environmental health, especially Neil Morton in Rotherham, were extremely anxious that the House should make the arrangements. I intervene briefly to express my support for the regulations and to echo the comments that have been made, suggesting that a fine of £100 is insufficient.

I received a letter from the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association. The Minister may have seen the letter, as several hon. Members received it. The second concern of pet food manufacturers was that although the specified stain disappears on heat processing, the toxicology of the breakdown products is not fully understood. If the fine is to be only £100, people might wish to subject the specified stain to heat treatment to make a great deal of money. We cannot allow the failure to understand the toxicology of the breakdown to persist. Will the Minister agree to reconsider as early as possible the amount of the fine and ensure that the Ministry's scientists properly understand and investigate the toxicology of the breakdown products so that the stain does not cause a disadvantage to the community if and when it is applied?

11.1 pm

Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

I shall express some brief thoughts, following my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Sir P. Mills). It is a beautiful part of the country that produces some of the best meat in the world. However, some of the offal and remains can be much less pleasant in their handling and transit. I support everything that my hon. Friend said. We need to have sealed containers so that our tourists' nostrils are not offended as the tourists enjoy the beauties of the countryside.

However, there is a problem. As I am involved in the retail trade, I am aware that every shopkeeper in the world and everyone who deals with products of the knackers' yard or the back end of the butchers' world breaks the law every time he opens up the business. People may comment on the paucity of the fine, but many of the smaller slaughterhouses have a hard job staying in business at all these days. A fine of £100 once, twice or thrice may be enough to push them out of business.

I sometimes wonder whether we take a little too much care in crossing "t"s and dotting "i"s, particularly in the regulations. I am aware that experts in the legal profession understand every word. I doubt whether the man who is concerned with implementing the regulations understands them. Ignorance AS no excuse, but, while I support in every way the need for the regulations, it would be good if they were issued in a summary form, so that the poor man at the end of the line who has to act each day within the law or who may suffer this small, but significant penalty, will be able to find hits way around the regulations.

The points made about the future of the pet food industry have not been covered as much as they could be. There is no doubt that many people pay sums for pet food that are in excess of what they would pay for human food.

I welcome the regulations. I am glad that the Opposition have provided us with the chance to speak on them. In adding my small piece, I ask that we should not make them so difficult that the poor chap who has a dirty and messy job inadvertently finds that he is at odds with the law.

11.4 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I thank the hon. Member for Durham (Mr. Hughes) for the kind words he used in his opening remarks. I shall take this opportunity to explain the Government's view and to answer the points that have been made by Opposition Members and my hon. Friends.

I shall remind the House of the origins of the regulations that we are considering tonight. The purpose of the regulations is, of course, to impose strict and effective controls on the disposal of meat that is unfit for human consumption. For many years that subject has been dealt with under the Meat (Sterilisation) Regulations 1969. It was only relatively recently that it became apparent that serious problems were arising in the enforcement of the 1969 regulations and cases came to light with which we are familiar where unfit meat was being diverted illegally into the human consumption market. The Government took a serious view of these events, as did the local authorities who were charged with the enforcement of the regulations. Therefore, in February 1981 we issued a consultative letter asking for views from many interested organisations on how the legislation had been working.

In the light of the comments that we received, it was decided that it was necessary to bring the old regulations up to date and to introduce wider and stricter controls on the unfit meat trade. Specific ideas for amending the regulations were accordingly issued in October 1981 and we received many and diverse comments on the approach that we were proposing to adopt.

A final consultation letter was issued in May of this year with our detailed proposals for amending the regulations. As I explained to the House in the debate on the Food and Drugs (Amendment) Bill on 23 April, we intended to lay the new regulations before Parliament before the Summer Recess. That objective was achieved although only just. I know that the hon. Member for Durham will understand that that was our firm intention. It was difficult to do it in time. That is why it was only just fitted in and he was put in some difficulty.

I am aware that the Government have been criticised for not acting more quickly. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) said that it was good and asked why we had not done something before.

Criticism, however, is not justified. It was essential, first, to establish the precise nature and extent of the problem. When it had become clear that local authorities were having serious difficulty dealing with the illegal trade that was thought to be widespread, we decided that amendments to the regulations should be made.

The preparation of the amendments inevitably took a considerable time, first because many organisations have an interest in the matter and had to be consulted; and, secondly, because the disparity in the comments that we received was such that it would clearly be difficult to produce new regulations that would be acceptable to all concerned.

The problem of how to control the trade in unfit meat is complex in view of the numerous different uses to which unfit meat may be put. We intended to ensure that the new regulations recognised the legitimate interests of those who safely and legally dispose of unfit meat, while making it as difficult as possible for abuses to occur.

It is, of course, unavoidable that in a slaughterhouse, for example, considerable quantities of waste material are produced. It is essential that proper arrangements exist to allow its safe disposal. We also had to consider the interests of the operators of knackers yards who perform a valuable service to the agriculture industry by disposing of casualty animals. Pet food manufacturers form a valuable and efficient industry and have a legitimate interest in obtaining supplies of meat of a kind not commonly used for human consumption.

We had to ensure, therefore, that the interests of those and other organisations would not be seriously prejudiced by the new system of controls that we were proposing to introduce. Having made this point, however, I must make it clear that our first priority was to ensure that the new controls would be sufficiently strong to provide an effective weapon against further illegal operations and to ensure that consumers could have full confidence in the quality of the meat that they purchase.

I now wish to comment on the regulations themselves. I am conscious of the fact that the regulations are very complex and need to be studied with some care in order to understand their full effect. That is, however, largely a reflection of the complexity of the subject to which I have already referred, and on careful study I believe that the logic of the approach that has been adopted becomes clear. I am also aware, and this view has been reflected in some of the comments, that some people consider that there is an inadequacy in the penalties. It is fair to say, however, that the regulations are generally accepted by all the main organisations concerned as an acceptable solution to the problems. The regulations will provide a sound basis for controlling the trade in unfit meat. Their success depends to a large extent on their being strictly applied by the enforcement authorities. It will also be necessary for companies in the meat trade to continue to exercise very careful vigilance over the quality of the meat that they purchase.

At an early stage of their consideration of the matter, the Government accepted that a fundamental element in the new regulations should be the introduction of a requirement to stain certain types of unfit meat. We accepted that staining is an unpleasant procedure, that it adds to the costs and that it is not easy to arrange in a slaughterhouse with a steady throughput of animals—but we considered that those problems were outweighed by the great merit of staining as an efficient means of identifying unfit meat. Having decided that basic principle, we had to determine the precise extent of the staining requirement, and that proved to be a contentious issue. It was generally accepted that unfit carcase meat should be stained, but there were very diverse views on whether that requirement should be extended also to offals and whether it should cover imported meat as well as meat produced in the United Kingdom.

On the question of offals, although there was limited evidence of any illegal trade in that material, we took the point that was pressed strongly by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, and also by the meat manufacturing industry, that to exclude offals entirely from the staining requirement would create serious potential loopholes. The regulations accordingly incorporate the principle that offals of the types most commonly used for human consumption—hearts, livers, kidneys and lungs—should be stained if they come from animals in a knacker's yard or if they were rejected in a slaughterhouse as unfit because of certain diseases and conditions.

Those are described as "specified offals" in the regulations, and I should emphasise—as this point has caused some uncertainty—that in a slaughterhouse those are the only offals that must be stained. Other sorts of offals, and any offals that are passed as fit at the time of meat inspection, will not have to be stained. The effect of the arrangements is that offals may continue to be sent to pet food manufacturers and other destinations without staining, provided that they have not been condemned on meat inspection. That requirement also does not extend to imported offals because our existing controls on imports of meat exclude material from knackers yards or from animals suffering from the main animal diseases. To have required the staining of imported offal would have caused severe disruption to the existing legitimate trade in offals for pet food manufacturers. I should emphasise that the trade in imported offals will be carefully controlled and monitored by port health authorities and local authorities under the movement permit system.

The system of movement permits is another important element in the new regulations. It had become apparent that a main problem in controlling the trade in unfit meat was the lack of detailed knowledge on the part of the enforcement authorities about the disposal of unfit meat. The essence of the new system of documentary controls is that the local authority responsible for any establishment despatching unfit meat should give prior authorisation to the movement and should, therefore, be fully informed on the details of the consignment and when the meat arrives at its destination the permit will be forwarded to the local authority responsible for the receiving establishment and will then be returned to the authority that issued it. We were, of course, concerned to avoid the unnecessary imposition of new paperwork and bureaucracy. I am delighted to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) that the regulations allow for sensible arrangements to be worked out by local authorities for the issue of supplies of movement permits where there is a regular trade between two establishments. The implications for local authorities of having to deal with the additional documentation were fully discussed with the organisations.

The regulations also take account of the fact that animals are sometimes slaughtered or die in places other than slaughterhouses and knackers yards, for example, on farms. The regulations accordingly provide that unfit meat that is produced from animals slaughtered in places other than slaughterhouses and knackers yards is subject to the same requirements for sterilisation or staining and movement permits. We have also made it clear that the regulations apply to unfit poultry meat as well as to red meat. That point gave rise to some ambiguity in the previous regulations. However, we did not consider that it was necessary to apply to poultry meat the full range of controls applicable to red meat, because there was no evidence of a significant illegal trade in poultry meat.

In preparing the new regulations, we have also taken the opportunity to introduce several clarifications and requirements, such as the requirement that unfit meat held in stores should be marked properly and kept separate from meat fit for human consumption.

I shall now answer the valid points made by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) mentioned the cost to the consumer. The regulations will not add significantly to the costs of the meat industry or the consumer. As the regulations are much stronger than those which they replace, they should help to prevent the costly investigations caused by the illegal practices that we have seen during the past year. The hon. Member for Durham asked about specimens for experimental purposes. Regulation 17 states that unfit meat can be used for genuine research and instruction. If the wording does not cover every such activity, I am sure that the enforcement officers will adopt a sensible approach to the interpretation of the section. We do not wish to rule out such legitimate activities.

Several hon. Members referred to penalties and I know that the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) wished very much to be here this evening. He has already expressed regret that he could not attend the debate. The Food and Drugs Act 1955 covers England and Wales only, so these regulations could not cover Scotland. The Scottish Office is engaged in discussions and consultations. I understand that the first round has already been completed and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food hopes to issue final proposals for broadly parallel regulations next month.

Mr. Mark Hughes

What is the position in Northern Ireland?

Mrs. Fenner

Northern Ireland already has meat sterilisation regulations. Although the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not undertaken consultations this year, I understand that it intends to introduce regulations on similar lines as soon as possible.

Regulations under the new Food and Drugs (Amendment) Act 1982—the Private Member's Bill of the hon. Member for Tottenham—are being prepared. These will increase the penalties under the meat sterilisation regulations and from 1 January offences will be tried summarily or upon indictment. There will be a maximum fine of £1,000 on summary conviction or an unlimited fine or imprisonment on conviction on indictment. I hope that that will satisfy many hon. Members who have been concerned with the penalties, which have obviously been written in as they stand until 1 January, 1983.

Mr. Mark Hughes

The penalties in these regulations last for two months only from 1 November to 31 December. Thereafter they are greatly increased.

Mrs. Fenner

From 1 January 1983 the penalties will be those—this forms part of the new Food and Drugs (Amendment) Act 1982—that I have just outlined. I am reliably assured that that will be so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West: was naturally concerned about the presence of two dead lions in a slaughterhouse. Dead animals from zoos might be brought into the rendering plant at North Devon Meats, but not into the slaughterhouse. If there is any other matter that he wishes to raise on this issue, I shall be obliged if he will give me the details. If he does so, I shall investigate them.

On the basis of this brief summary of the regulations, I hope that the House will agree that they form a valuable new measure that will do a great deal to protect consumers and to clamp down on the activities of those who are tempted to trade illegally in unfit meat. Given the difficulty of the task of drawing up new regulations which would be acceptable to all the interests concerned, I hope also that the House will accept that the result is, at least at present, the best that could have been achieved.

Question put and negatived.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to move the Second Reading of my Scottish Parliament Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Ernest Armstrong)

Order. The hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) has already been told by the Chair—

Mr. Canavan

I ask for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

There is no provision today for Private Members to move their Bills.

Mr. Canavan

May I ask for your guidance on the matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker? This Session is coming to a close and this is the last opportunity for the Second Reading and remaining stages of my Bill to be taken. I do not want to interfere with the time of my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), who is about to initiate an important debate on the steel industry, and I do not want to delay the House any longer, but if I could just formally move, That the Scottish Parliament Bill be read a Second time—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Canavan

—that would—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. That would not be in order. The hon. Gentleman is not able to move his Bill under today's provisions.

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