HC Deb 21 December 1988 vol 144 cc446-51 3.31 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

(by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he has taken any steps to ensure that meat entering the United Kingdom from the Republic of Ireland is fit for human consumption.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John MacGregor)

There are standard arrangements for port health authorities to carry out checks on meat imported into the United Kingdom from the Republic of Ireland. Environmental health officers from Carrick district council have, over a period, been monitoring regularly meat coming into Mid-Cornwall Meat Packers, and on a number of occasions meat has been surrendered. Last week the company refused to surrender part of a consignment which the EHO considered unfit. It was taken before a magistrate, who condemned it. We have asked the authorities of the Republic of Ireland to investigate the origin of the consignment of meat sent.

Mr. Taylor

Is the Minister convinced that standards in Ireland are equivalent to our own? If he is, will he explain why consignments of this sort have been entering the United Kingdom in this way? We are aware of the problem in Cornwall, but does the problem extend further? To what extent have such consignments been entering the country?

What reassurance can the right hon. Gentleman give consumers that the meat that is on their plates is clean, pure and wholesome, unlike that which has been imported into my constituency? Can the Minister explain how it is that, on "The World at One" today, the Irish Minister of Agriculture said that he had not been contacted by the Ministry and that it was not conducting an investigation?

Mr. MacGregor

My officials have been in touch with the Ministry and I hope later today to talk to the Minister myself.

Under the EC rules, all meat that is imported from other EC states—[Interruption.]—has to be accompanied by health certificates. The incident demonstrates that the effective action taken by Carrick district council should have ensured that no unfit meat enters the human food chain. Several consignments that have come to the company have been surrendered. The checks to ensure that unfit meat does not get into the human food chain—I agree that they are extremely important—are, first, a check by the environmental health officers of Carrick district council.

It is clear that that procedure has worked, and I pay tribute to the work that has been carried out by the district council's EHOs. Since September, they have been monitoring rigorously the meat coming into the company. Secondly, there are checks by EHOs in manufacturing plants to which the meat has gone. Thirdly, there are checks by the companies, which are most anxious that their products are safe.

Also, because of the concern felt by Carrick district council EHOs, they alerted EHOs in all other parts of the country though their electronic mail line. We have checked with the Institution of Environmental Health Officers and I am assured that there is no particular concern as a result of the information that has been provided to all other EHOs. In other words, the EHOs in Carrick have picked up this problem and, by the other action I have outlined, should have ensure that none of this meat has entered the food chain. That shows that the system works well, and has done so on this occasion.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this incident causes concern as the imports come from the Republic of Ireland, a fellow Community country?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is no evidence that the meat in question got into the human food chain on this occasion?

Mr. MacGregor

Obviously, we shall follow up this consignment, like others, with the Irish Government. I am sure that they will be equally concerned because they do not want any negative attributes to attach to their exports. I am sure that both countries will follow up this matter.

The most important point is that the system has worked. The meat has been found and taken out of the system and all the checks worked. I can assure my hon. Friend [...]hat there is no evidence that the meat has entered the food chain; we have made sure, through the checks, that it has not.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Contrary to what has been said, is it not a fact that animal health standards in various EEC countries are not up to British ones?

Secondly, the Minister mentioned monitoring, but is it not true that spot checks can be carried out in as few as 5 per cent. of cases at some points of entry into the United Kingdom? Should not that proportion be increased?

Mr. MacGregor

We are keen to ensure that our standards are enforced to the highest level, as I am sure exporting countries are. This instance has shown that we are ensuring that. I have forgotten the right hon. Gentleman's second point—

Mr. Molyneaux

The 5 per cent. spot checks.

Mr. MacGregor

Obviously, it is not possible to check every consignment, but there are careful checks. In all cases there are two checks—that is the important point. The first is carried out by the port health authorities and the second by the EHOs, who are responsible, as members of the local authorities, for the plants in their district council areas. Because they were concerned about the meat in this plant, the EHOs have enforced rigorous monitoring for some time now. That has ensured that any meat thought to be unfit in any way has been surrendered or, as I said, condemned by a magistrate in this case.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Can my right hon. Friend clear up one point? Does the check at the port of entry merely consist of ensuring that there is a valid certificate, or does it look behind the certificate and check that it has been issued to a consignment that complies with it? Clearly, false certificates were issued in these cases. That is an important point. It shows that we cannot rely on the certificates.

Mr. MacGregor

The check is done on the certificates. One of the problems is for EHOs, who carry out the main check to determine wether meat is unfit for consumption, to be certain whether it became unfit after or before it entered the country. That point has been checked on some of the meat consignments that came into this plant.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, South)

The Minister will be aware that many meat producers in this country will be very concerned about the possible spead of the effect of the news about this incident—particularly those in my area, the Grampian region, which is one of the largest meat production areas in the country. What assurance can he give the British public that the meat which they expect to be wholesome actually is?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is on exactly the right point. The checks that worked in this case are clear evidence that the system works. Effective action taken by the district council should have ensured that no unfit meat has entered the food chain from this source. We all know about the excellent standards of Scottish meat. The real lesson of this episode is that the system works: that is the best guarantee for consumers.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

Did the meat in question, coming from Ireland, come from EEC-approved abattoirs or from abattoirs of the lower standard accepted by the Irish? As we approach 1992, it is very important that all abattoirs in the Community should be up to the higher EEC standards, and it is insufficient to accept the lower domestic standards.

Mr. MacGregor

If it was exported from another Community country, it would have had to be from an abattoir that was export-approved. My hon. Friend is right on the wider question of 1992: it is important that all abattoirs are brought up to the same standard. That is part of the discussion that is taking place on all matters relating to 1992.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Yns Môn)

The Minister referred to the way in which checks were carried out effectively in Cornwall. Will he also bear in mind the fact that checks are made at points of entry, such as Holyhead in my constituency, by very efficient and hard-working environmental health officers? Will he recognise that last year they carried out extensive checks at the port and found no contaminated meat? That should be a reasonable assurance for our meat consumers.

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the points that he has made will get wide circulation. I should like to pay tribute to all those who are involved in ensuring that our food is safe. That includes EHOs, people at the ports and many others who work extremely hard to ensure that that is so. In an isolated case of this kind, it is doubly reassuring to be able to say what I said earlier, that there is no evidence that the meat has entered the food chain. Enormous imports and exports and food processing are taking place all the time, and the hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the work of all those people and to the fact that there are so few incidents of this kind.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Is it not true that environmental health officers have been present in this plant since September monitoring all the consignments coming into it? Does that not show that no contaminated consignments have got through into the food chain? Has my right hon. Friend received any suggestion from other parts of the country that there have been complaints about contaminated meat?

Mr. MacGregor

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The answer to his last question is that the EHOs did an

exemplary job in warning all other EHOs of what they were finding in this case. The fact that we have not been able to find any other similar evidence shows that the system was working extremely well. The lesson from this case is that the EHOs in Carrick district council were doing a splendid job. The fact that they were monitoring the meat so carefully since September should be another reassurance.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

While the Minister repeatedly says that the system is working—given this discovery, one obviously would say it is—whose laws are we under? Are we under the laws of the EEC or the laws of this Parliament? I remind the Secretary of State that a distinguished Member of this House, Norman Atkinson, who sadly is no longer here, introduced a Bill some years ago specifically on the issue of the quality and kind of meat that could be sold to the general public. That became the law of this country.

If we are operating under our own laws, the general public would know that they were safeguarded and would have total confidence in them. However, if they are laws imposed by the EEC, then, in view of comments made by Conservative Members, surely it is time that we made clearly known that our safeguards will be stringently imposed irrespective of the origin of our meat imports.

Mr. MacGregor

Yes, our safeguards are stringently imposed. We apply the highest possible practices. It is equally desirable that the same levels and standards should apply throughout the Community. When one is dealing with intra-Community trade, one obviously operates within EC rules. As I say, we are endeavouring to ensure that the EC rules apply the highest standards. That is happening in the case of exporting abattoirs. They now have to meet the EC rules.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I am sure that the whole House and the general public will be reassured by my right hon. Friend's statement. He will be aware that, as we move towards 1992, we will become more and more dependent upon the inspection that is carried out in the exporting countries. Will he take this opportunity to remind our brothers in Europe that they must get their act together if they are to retain the confidence of the British public in the products that they consume from other Community countries?

Mr. MacGregor

I know that my hon. Friend has extensive knowledge of the meat industry. I can give him the assurance that, between now and 1992, I shall do precisely as he wishes in all the discussions which I have on these matters. I shall make the same point in my discussion with my fellow Minister in the Republic of Ireland. I am sure that he will be as concerned as I am to ensure that Irish exports are of a high standard, because that is obviously of great importance to him in terms of Irish exports.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a private notice question and I must have regard to the important debate to follow, in which many right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part. I shall take two more questions from each side of the House.

Ms. Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. In view of the answer which the Minister just gave, can he explain why he said earlier that he had not yet talked to the Irish Minister of Agriculture? In view of the communication difficulties which we have had with the Republic over the Ryan case, and in view of the incompetence which the Minister has shown over the egg fiasco, would it not have been common decency, let alone common sense, to talk to the Irish Minister first?

Mr. MacGregor

I think that that is a rather pointless question. My Ministry has been in touch and I shall be in touch later this afternoon. Last week, I had a good series of discussions with my Irish colleague on an issue which is important to many plants in this country in relation to the Scotch whisky industry. Those discussions led to his seeing our point of view and removing an objection he had. That was of great importance to the Scotch whisky industry. I have been in pretty constant communication with him during the past week. The moment that I can get hold of him, I shall talk to him about this incident.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The private notice question is about meat, even though it is Christmas.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, if the meat was contaminated when it entered this country, it is 99.9 per cent. certain that it was contaminated when it was in Ireland?

Mr. MacGregor

The EHOs and my Ministry are investigating to establish exactly when the contamination occurred. That is obviously one of the difficulties. it is certainly one of the points that we are pursuing.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

I note the Minister's fulsome praise for the environmental health officers. Can he assure the House that there are enough such officers to carry out a 100 per cent. inspection of meat? Are there not dotted across the country small abattoirs which are difficult to control? Is it not about time that we had a look at this problem?

Mr. MacGregor

That is obviously not a direct matter for me. The example of this case shows that those officers are doing a good job.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

In view of the alarming reports circulating about animal and poultry feed, can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the source of the beef feed was not in any way contaminated? What action has he taken to ensure that animal and poultry feed is properly processed and is not likely to cause this kind of problem?

Mr. MacGregor

Animal feed in this country is certainly properly controlled. I have announced the further steps that we intend to take. I do not at this stage know the source of the feed that was given to these animals.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

May I gently remind the Minister that the second "F" in "MAFF" is supposed to stand for "Food". How can it be possible for contaminated meat to be diverted towards the public food supply? Will the right hon. Gentleman take immediate action to make the local, national, and, most important, international system of inspection and control work properly now and after 1992? We are grateful for the categorical assurance that none of the contaminated meat has got into the public food supply. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would assure us that anyone who may have attempted to commit that offence will be brought to book by the relevant authorities.

Events over the past two weeks demonstrate a disturbing failure by Ministers to maintain proper health standards in the nation's food. The proof of that is in the eating, with a doubling of salmonella food poisoning cases over the past three years, up to 39,000. We are grateful to Carrick district council for doing its work properly. I wish we had the same confidence in Ministers.

Mr. MacGregor

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would recognise that this was a case of the system working properly, as it does very often in this country. My Department, too, acted immediately it received the information. We followed up the matter straight away. That is evidence of not only the local authority working properly, but also my Department.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the amount of effort and resources that we have put into the food side of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has increased during recent years, and will continue to increase. I assure the hon. Gentleman, too, that during the past 18 months, I have been spending a great deal of my time—both in this country and in the European Community—on food matters, food legislation, food hygiene and food safety.