HC Deb 19 January 1989 vol 145 cc470-2
5. Mr. Matthew Taylor

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has received any representations concerning the import of Irish meat; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Donald Thompson

Since my right hon. Friend replied on 22 December to the hon. Gentleman's private notice question on this matter, various hon. Members have put down related written questions which have been answered.

Mr. Taylor

Will the Minister elaborate a little more on the evidence that he has about how contaminated meat came in from Ireland and, in particular, how contaminated meat appears to have been stamped with Irish veterinary inspection stamps as being fit when it was not?

Mr. Thompson

The last correspondence that we had from the Irish Republic was on 12 January when it gave us a full report of its investigations into that particular meat consignment. We are not entirely satisfied with all those explanations and have asked for further details. There were 19 cases of meat that we considered unfit coming from Ireland in 1988 and we have followed up each of those.

Mr Nicholas Bennett

What examination is made of Irish meat that has been trans-shipped across the United Kingdom to a third country? Can my hon. Friend guarantee that no Irish meat so trans-shipped finds its way into the United Kingdom market?

Mr. Thompson

Irish beef that is trans-shipped across the United Kingdom from Ireland to a third country obviously cannot impinge upon public health in Britain. Meat that is shipped into Britain receives a veterinary certificate from the country from which it emanates. The documents are inspected by the port health authority and the local environmental health officers are diligent, as they were in Truro. Companies have their own rigorous inspection because they live by selling meat and if there is any shadow of doubt about the quality of their products they will lose customers. In addition, shop inspectors, environmental health officers and trading standards officers check meat within various retail and wholesale outlets.

Mr. William Ross

Is the Minister aware that Newry is the fourth largest point for the export of food into Great Britain? As Northern Ireland is also a food exporter, very little food from the Republic stays in Northern Ireland and a large part travels on to Scotland, England, and elsewhere and thus passes through the three legal jurisdictions of the United Kingdom, all of which have different food hygiene laws. Will the Minister ensure that the forthcoming food Bill will cover the entire United Kingdom so that the problems currently experienced by enforcement and health officers in Northern Ireland in citing British case law when prosecuting in Northern Ireland will no longer be an inhibiting factor?

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and it is one that we are examining in relation to the forthcoming food Bill. Although standards in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England are equally high, it is important that they are easily understood both by traders and by lawyers in each country, and we shall be working towards that in any new legislation.

Mr. Redwood

Is the Minister satisfied with current subsidy arrangements, which appear considerably to favour the Irish in exporting their meat to this country? Is he satisfied also that those subsidy arrangements are well administered?

Mr. Thompson

That is a different question.

Mr. Ron Davies

Is the Minister aware that when his right hon. Friend the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food addressed the House on 21 December 1988 he made several factually incorrect statements? Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that his Department does not require systematic inspection of all meat imports, and that only the most cursory and inadequate examination is undertaken by an understaffed and overworked environmental health service under its general obligations? Will the Minister act on the warning given by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers that contaminated imports are being sent elsewhere in the United Kingdon"? Or does he not really care about the interests of consumers?

Mr. Thompson

I care about consumers, and about the excellent work done by environmental health officers in indentifying contaminated meat entering Cornwall and preventing any disease that might have emanated from it. My right hon. Friend said that port health authorities carefully examine all documentation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that perhaps only 5 or 6 per cent. of the meat coming within a port authority's responsibility is inspected, but consignments carry a veterinary certificate from the country of origin, which is keen to export its meat.

As I said, inspections are undertaken by the port health authority. The particular consignment of meat entering Truro, to which reference has been made, was examined by local environmental health officers in both London and Truro. Companies also have their own inspectors, and environmental health officers are good at inspections in their own districts. I have nothing but good words to say about environmental health officers. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that they are hard-pressed and harassed. They do a good job calmly and efficiently.

Mr. Redwood

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will the Minister be kind enough to send me a written answer—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is not a point of order. It is a question to the Minister.