HC Deb 30 April 1998 vol 311 cc443-5
4. Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

What measures he is pursuing to promote the sale of British beef. [39110]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

The Government have continued to support various initiatives to help restore confidence in beef and, therefore, promote consumption. As a result, the latest figures show that household consumption is back to 85 per cent. of the 1995 level.

Mr. Jenkin

May I draw to the Minister's attention the fact that I was asking about British beef, not beef consumption in general? I welcome efforts to promote British beef, but butchers in my constituency are complaining that in order to label beef British, they must pay a fee to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Moreover, and unfairly, a family butcher has to pay the same fee as a supermarket does. When will the Ministry bring fairness and reasonableness to that situation?

Mr. Rooker

If the hon. Gentleman is opposed to the beef labelling scheme, he should stand up and say so. That scheme is a major European initiative, and we want people to be accredited. Some 8,000 retailers have been accredited by 80 separate independent organisations. If the scheme is to work and the consumer is to believe that the information on the label is accurate—it includes the age of the animal, sometimes its tag number, the sex, method of slaughter and where the animal was reared and slaughtered—there must be independent accreditation. That independent accreditation will come not from my Ministry, but from the independent accreditation authorities.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East)

Is the Minister aware that there is one sure way in which to assist British beef producers, and that is by taking advantage of the succulent British beef steak that is being served in our Terrace Cafeteria today? I assure him that it is beautiful. If, however, he wishes to avail himself of some wonderful fresh fish, lightly battered, which was brought in by British trawlers, he should visit the Dining Room tonight where he may also have some golden chips and lovely mushy peas.

Mr. Rooker

Like the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), my hon. Friend refers to a particular aspect of British beef. He understands the position in terms of the Government's promoting a product in line with the guidelines set out by the European Union. We are unique in our publication of the hygiene assessment scores of abattoirs and meat-cutting plants in this country. That does not occur anywhere else in Europe. I encourage retailers and retail butchers to make it clear to customers that they are purchasing beef and other meat that comes only from abattoirs with high hygiene scores. That is how the customer knows that it is British beef.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

In view of the fact that the Government fell flat on their face in the Selkirk sheriff court—and it was a very welcome ruling—would it not make sense, politically, commercially and in terms of public health and the consumption of beef generally, to pull the plug on the outstanding legal case that the Government are pursuing south of the border? In so doing, they would enable people to make their own assessment of the billion-to-one risk associated with eating beef on the bone. Every register of public opinion on the matter has revealed that people believe that the Government are wrong and that the courts, increasingly, are correct.

Mr. Rooker

For two days running this week, I have seen letters in the Scottish press supporting the Government's position.

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy)

Will my hon. Friend confirm that, to date, 24 people have died from new variant CJD? Will he confirm also that we are not yet aware of the incubation period of the disease, and therefore we cannot at present identify how many cases there might be—it could be hundreds, tens of thousands or even more? Therefore, will my hon. Friend assure the House today that the Government have no intention of being deflected from their purpose of maintaining the ban on infectivity in meat by the stupidity of the Opposition or other political parties, or by the mendacity of the press?

Mr. Rooker

I have not forgotten—and I have received letters from the general public that confirm it—that the night we debated the beef on the bone regulations and I read to the House the clinical symptoms of new variant CJD, I was laughed down by the Opposition.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Is the Minister aware that Airtours, one of the leading package holiday firms in this country, has a policy of serving only Argentinian beef for its in-flight meals? Is that not a scandal at a time when the beef industry is under severe pressure? Will the Minister make urgent representations to Airtours to lift its ban on British beef?

Mr. Rooker

Yes, it is a disgrace. There is no justification for that policy and if the hon. Gentleman cares to write to me, I shall follow up the matter.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Is it not the case that any course of action other than banning beef on the bone would have meant repeating the same old mistakes that the previous Government made? We have seen what happens when reports from medical officers are swept under the carpet or dismissed. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if it were left to the public, various experts would appear on the media, week after week, arguing that beef on the bone was or was not dangerous, and there would be a protracted period in which confidence in beef would dramatically fall? The Government's swift action did not dent confidence in beef, and beef sales did not fall significantly.

Mr. Rooker

I agree with my hon. Friend—any sensible person would. The House should think about what the headlines would have been had we been the first Government knowingly to allow BSE infectivity into the food chain.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Will the Minister and the House share some good news with me, and join me in congratulating a company in my constituency called Pure Organics? The company was almost put out of business by BSE, but has come good. In Brighton recently, it won the organic award at the Brighton natural products show with its magnificent and innovative products—"Meaty Hoolas", "Barmy Bangers" and "Veggie Beanies". It has become a winning company, which illustrates how British food producers can adapt from crisis to success.

Mr. Rooker

I am more than happy to join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating the undoubted success of that company in his constituency. Perhaps an early visit is called for.