HC Deb 09 November 1989 vol 159 cc1150-2
7. Mr. Baldry

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received concerning the testing of small flocks of free-range hens.

Mr. Gummer

I have received a large number of representations. These were taken into account in the preparation of the new orders of 26 October and will result in a considerable reduction in the cost of testing, particularly for small flocks.

Mr. Baldry

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the testing requirements for salmonella for small flocks have caused considerable concern for organisations such as the Women's Institute and for people such as my mother-in-law, who sell free-range eggs at stalls at Women's Institute branches and at farm gates? These organisations and individuals will welcome the much simplified testing arrangements. the substantially reduced requirement for testing and the substantially reduced costs of testing for salmonella. Any reasonable-minded person will feel that my right hon. Friend has struck a fair balance.

Mr. Gummer

I have received many letters from people who have stated that we have done exactly what was right. I do not know whether my hon. Friend's mother-in-law was among them. We had to put the safety of the eggs first. If we had not done that, smaller flocks such as those owned by my hon. Friend's mother-in-law might have been blamed for a future outbreak of salmonella. That would have been damaging to the consumer and to my hon. Friend's mother-in-law.

Mr. Beith

Why was it that when one of my constituents from Wooler made representations to the Minister on this matter and was featured in a national newspaper, a newspaper cutting was sent to the regional eggs inspector, who was dispatched on a 300-mile trip to warn my constituent to stop selling eggs that were not in boxes and had not been through a packing station? Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to enforce these crazy packing rules on all free-range eggs sold in shops, or is enforcement reserved as a form of intimidation that is more characteristic of East European regimes than one would expect in this country?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is being less than kind. We sought to help his constituent—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman should hear me out. In the course of becoming aware of the lady's problem, we discovered that she might inadvertently have been breaking the law. She may have been doing what the hon. Gentleman said: selling her product through the village shop. We have laws that are designed to protect people from being ripped off. If we allowed free-range eggs to be sold that were not boxed some people would try to obtain a premium from eggs that were not produced in that way. I thought that the hon. Gentleman belonged to a party which believed in protecting the consumer. I put the consumer first.

Mr. Key

As a rural Member, I have been under pressure from a number of members of the Women's Institute, including my wife, about egg production. I hope that my right hon. Friend can clarify a serious issue that arises from the orders that he has laid. There is genuine confusion about small flocks. When there is talk about a small flock of fewer than 25 birds, does that mean chickens or a combination of 25 chickens and ducks, for example? Will my right hon. Friend clarify the position?

Mr. Gummer

We are talking about 25 chickens. The combination position is quite different. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that those of us who believe that we should be allowed to buy free range eggs, in the knowledge that they are both safe and free range when we pay for them, do not want the market to be undermined by those who want to get rid of the restrictions. We do not want them to move in and make a fast buck.

Mr. Home Robertson

Will the Minister confirm that in recent months six consignments of imported eggs have been found to be contaminated with salmonella, yet all those consignments have been sold on the British market without let or hindrance? What is the point of driving 1,600 British egg producers out of business, as the Government have done during the past year, and then allowing foreign producers to fill the gap in the market without being subject to equivalent safety tests? Should there not now be effective health controls on all eggs supplied to British shops?

Mr. Gummer

Of course I can confirm those figures because they are my own figures; they were given to the hon. Gentleman by my Ministry. The hon. Gentleman does himself and his party no service if he does not admit that the Government are fighting for our regulations on salmonella to be extended throughout the whole of the European Community. That is the only fair way to go about things. In the meantime, the 97 per cent. of eggs that people buy in this country, which are produced by this country's farmers, are all the safer because they are protected by our regulations. The hon. Gentleman should be fighting for people in Britain to buy British eggs, knowing that they are better protected. He and his hon. Friends should not constantly try to undermine the market.

Mr. Alexander

Is it not true that free-range hens can often be more at risk of salmonella than battery hens because of birds of the air and others farmyard detritus? Have the figures that my hon. Friend has produced helped to resolve that argument?

Mr. Gummer

When the salmonella arguments began, there were those who immediately jumped to the conclusion that the problem would help them in their argument in favour of free-range hens rather than battery hens. The very best that can be said is that there is no proof that the risks of salmonella are any less in free-range eggs than they are in any other sort of eggs. Indeed, my hon. Friend is right to say that there are natural hazards which could perhaps lead to somewhat greater risks in free-range eggs.

If we are to have a healthy egg industry in Britain, we must ensure that our eggs are better protected than other eggs. People should be aware that the eggs that they buy are much safer and much more likely to be healthy eggs if they buy British. Whether my hon. Friend or his constituents want battery eggs, perch eggs or free-range eggs, they should first ensure that they are buying British eggs.

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