HC Deb 19 January 1989 vol 145 cc467-9
2. Mr. Barron

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the British Poultry Federation; and what matters were discussed.

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

My hon. Friends last met representatives of the British Poultry Federation on 23 and 29 November and 18 December 1988, to discuss consumer interests and animal welfare.

Mr. Barron

Has anyone in the Minister's Department explained to the federation, and will the Minister explain to the House, why his Department has refused to accept its statutory responsibility under section 8 of the Food Act 1984 to prosecute egg and poultry producers who have been selling eggs and poultry contaminated with salmonella?

Mr. MacGregor

The action that we have taken also relates to poultry feed plants. Our vets go to look at the situation, particularly where investigations are required, and tell the companies what work is required to put the situation right. They then go back and look at the situation again. In almost every case, the situation has been put right. The important point is whether there is a case and sufficient evidence to carry through a prosecution; so far, we have been advised that there is not.

Mr. Marland

Would my right hon. Friend care to speculate on what would have been the effect on the taxpayer, the consumer and the market, if the rescue package that he so quickly announced after the crisis had not been launched?

Mr. MacGregor

There are later questions on the Order Paper about this. As I shall indicate later, this has been a cost-effective scheme for the taxpayer. The advertisements to indicate the measure of risk involved in relations salmonella in eggs, the chief medical officer's advice, the 15 measures that I am taking to deal with the problem at the production end and the two steps to stabilise the market have all been very much in the consumer's interest. The consumer benefits from continuity of supply and from the removal of the aging eggs. The steps that we took helped to restore stability to the market quickly.

Mr. Canavan

Will the Minister confirm the recent New Scientist report that the Government were directly responsible for cutting the number of scientists doing research into salmonella in poultry and eggs? If that report is true, should not more heads roll than that of the former Under-Secretary of State for Health?

Mr. MacGregor

I have not seen that particular report, but if it refers to the research at Bristol, I should point out that that decision was taken by the Agricultural and Food Research Council because it believed that exploitation in the market place was now required. Consultation is now taking place with interested companies to see whether such exploitation can take place.

However, the funds which may not be used to continue that research will be diverted to other microbiological research. It is a question of the priorities set by the AFRC. I have just received the report of a working party that we set up last autumn, following the information given to the Department of Health, to consider what extra research and development might be required on salmonella and I shall consider that immediately.

Miss Emma Nicholson

Will my right hon. Friend educate the House a little further on the knotty question of salmonella by explaining that vegetarians are also at risk because sprouting beans and even watercress are major carriers of salmonella? In that context, the Norwich city council leaflet and advertisement at Christmas, showing a nut roast and saying that nut roasts do not grow salmonella alongside a defrosting turkey—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am interested in all this, but was it discussed with the British Poultry Federation?

Miss Nicholson

Yes, Mr. Speaker. It is my understanding that the public has been led by the media to believe that salmonella is confined to animal protein products. I should like my right hon. Friend to tell the House that that is not true. Salmonella is part of the food chain and British food producers do their utmost to get rid of it. In that context, British poultry products are among the cleanest, the cheapest and the best protein sources.

Mr. MacGregor

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For as long as anyone can remember salmonella has been a major problem in food in all countries. It is in the environment and despite all our efforts it is not possible to eradicate it. That is why everyone takes steps—at all points in the production chain and also when cooking food—to minimise the risk of salmonella.

My hon. Friend is right. Salmonella is certainly not confined to eggs. There are 2,000 different strains of salmonella. In the middle of last year we faced evidence which convinced us that there were more cases of food poisoning from one particular strain. When that was identified and linked with eggs, we took action. However, my hon. Friend is right and the same situation applies in other countries.

Mr. Beggs

When the Secretary of State met the British Poultry Federation did he discuss the possibility of stopping the inclusion of recycled poultry offal and protein in feed for the poultry industry? What would be the additional cost to the consumer of a dozen eggs if we removed recycled protein in poultry feed and replaced it with vegetable protein?

Mr. MacGregor

That matter was not discussed at the last meeting, to which I referred earlier. We are considering the matter, but it is important that everyone should understand that any recycled material has to undergo heat treatment and other processes to ensure that salmonella is dealt with. The main problem with salmonella in general, and with the particular strain that has caused the most recent problem, is that it often arises at subsequent points because salmonella is in the environment.

Mr. Hunter

In the course of his discussions with the British Poultry Federation did my right hon. Friend discuss the federation's egg improvement scheme and what was his reaction to it?

Mr. MacGregor

That scheme was put to me in the middle of December. We considered it and I discussed it informally with one or two federation members. However, I do not believe that the scheme would have been compatible with European Community legislation.

Mr. David Clark

As the Minister has admitted in a parliamentary answer that there is no statutory reason for witholding information, why will he not give the House details of the 21 protein processing plants which were found to be supplying salmonella-contaminated feed to the egg and poultry industry? Surely we have the right to know the guilty parties.

Mr. MacGregor

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I give as much information as I can to the House, to the Select Committee on Agriculture and in many other ways on all these matters. However, in those cases we must observe commercial confidentiality and other matters of that kind in fulfilling our statutory responsibilities where it has been made clear that the identification of plants will not be divulged.

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