HC Deb 19 February 1998 vol 306 cc1167-8
3. Mr. Thompson

If he will make a statement on how much beef by tonnage and value has come into the United Kingdom from outside the EU in 1997.[28747]

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

Provisional figures for United Kingdom imports of fresh, chilled and frozen beef from non-European Community countries from January to the end of November 1997 indicate that some 53,000 tonnes were imported to the approximate value of £135 million.

Mr. Thompson

I thank the Minister for his reply. Is there any truth in the rumour that some of the beef is fed to the armed forces? If that is so, will the Minister contact the Minister for the Armed Forces and advise him that British beef should be fed to British forces? Furthermore, will there be a traceability system so that we can trace where the beef goes and from where it came?

Mr. Rooker

I should imagine that the beef will be covered by the forthcoming beef labelling scheme. Consumption of British beef by the armed forces is much higher under this Government than the previous one.

Mr. Gareth Thomas

Will my hon. Friend confirm that labelling has a part to play in improving confidence in domestic beef? Will he confirm also that steps will be taken to improve the labelling system so that consumers will be sure that they are consuming quality British beef?

Mr. Rooker

Yes. From April, the beef labelling scheme will come into force. At present it is voluntary. We have encouraged all producers to become accredited. There must be independent certification before the product can be sold as British beef. In the meantime, farmers, supermarket owners and customers could ask whether the beef that they buy has a hygiene assessment score. The only beef to which that system applies is British beef.

Mr. Paice

Will the Minister confirm that hygiene assessment scores do not involve any microbiological testing of the product? I hope that he will take that up in response to a question that I have already tabled.

Will the Minister accept, without bringing in the absurd political points that have been introduced by his hon. Friends, that there are many farmers and consumers who believe that there is much imported meat available in this country that has not been produced to the standards that we require, including standards of hygiene, of microbiology, of abattoir practice and, importantly, of animal welfare? Are not virtually the only checks that are made on entry documentary checks?

Is it not time that the Minister emphasised and accelerated the Government's ability to make proper checks on imports of meat to ensure that the ever-rising standards of British production are matched for farmer and consumer by the ever-increasing volume of meat that is being imported?

Mr. Rooker

Last year we imported about 2 per cent. less non-EC beef than was imported during the previous year. Less non-EC beef has been imported under this Government than under the previous Administration. In other words, there has been a decline. At the same time, there has been more activity in making checks at the ports and raising standards.

No one has ever said that hygiene assessment scores involve testing the meat. It is a process of testing the quality of the abattoir and that of the cutting-plant premises. We are talking of a hygiene score for the premises in which the killing and cutting takes place. It is right that that information is made available to the public.

Mr. Todd

On the question of non-EU products, will my hon. Friend address the World Trade Organisation at the next round of negotiations to ensure that the same high standards that we insist on for our beef products are also insisted on in other states that are seeking to export into the United Kingdom, especially in the areas of animal welfare and environmental care, along with many of the other quality issues which were referred to by the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Sout-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice)?

Mr. Rooker

The points that my hon. Friend raises are not ignored by the Government. Even from non-EU countries, there must be conformity with the standards that apply within the European Union—a single market of which we are a part of under legislation introduced by the previous Government. Checks are made in third countries to ensure that their products conform with the standards required by the single market.