HC Deb 12 November 1998 vol 319 cc464-6
3. Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

If he will make a statement on the current state of the pig industry. [58043]

10. Mr. John Townend (East Yorkshire)

If he will make a statement on the current state of the pig industry. [58051]

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

I take the current crisis in the pig industry very seriously. The industry is going through a difficult time as a result of low market prices. That is mainly the result of over-production, which has led to a distorted version of the classic pig cycle.

Mr. Thompson

I welcome the Minister's reply that the Government now appreciate the serious problems in the pig industry and the fact that there will be a statement next week, but will he confirm that the package will contain a significant element to ease pig farmers' problems?

Mr. Brown

The Government have been taking a range of actions to try to help the pig industry, and I am conscious of the particular difficulties in the Province, where the processing fire made matters substantially worse. We introduced special aid there to help in those local circumstances. I cannot introduce new state aid for the pig industry. It is a relatively liberal market; the Commission determined that it should stay that way, and its broad approach is right.

Mr. Townend

Does the Minister agree that one of the major problems facing pig farmers is that they are not able to compete on a level playing field with their competitors in Europe, principally because of the actions of British Governments? For example, they have to spend millions of pounds on getting rid of stalls and tethers, which the Dutch and the Danes do not have to pay for; they are not allowed to feed bonemeal to their pigs, but the Dutch and the Danes can; and the income that they used to get from rendering has been turned into a loss because of the increase in health regulations. What will the Minister do to make that playing field more level?

In view of what his colleague the Minister of State said about the need for the supermarkets to buy pigmeat that is welfare friendly, will the right hon. Gentleman instruct public sector institutions such as hospitals, schools and defence establishments to change their tender specifications so that the only pork and bacon that are acceptable come from pigs that have not been fed bonemeal or kept in stalls and tethers, so levelling the playing field a little?

Mr. Brown

I fully accept that pig producers are entitled to a welfare premium on their produce. Parliament put in place the stall and tether ban for perfectly proper reasons. That is an on-cost in the industry, and in the European Union market, which is a free market; it is not met by other producers. In those circumstances, it is reasonable for parliamentarians to say that consumers should be able to buy to the highest welfare standards and the highest produce standards. As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, meat and bonemeal are not fed to pigs in this country. As a consumer of pigmeat, that is something that I like to know—so when I buy pigmeat in the supermarket, I look for the Union Jack. That is a perfectly sensible thing to do.

On public procurement, I cannot rewrite the procurement policies of other Departments, but I have had discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence, who assures me that purchases for the armed services are 100 per cent. British for fresh pigmeat and over 50 per cent. British for bacon. The services are trying to improve on that. I have made representations to other substantial public sector purchasers. I certainly intend to do everything that I reasonably can, within the rules, to help the industry through what I freely acknowledge are very difficult times.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Will my right hon. Friend enlighten me? I understand that, as a result of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis, the technology of traceability has improved by leaps and bounds. If we are to emancipate the consumer, can we use that new traceability technology—the ability to identify whether products are British or foreign, and even trace back to the field and farm where the pig was produced—to provide real consumer choice, including organic choice, in pig production?

Mr. Brown

The conditions of production are such in this country that, if a discerning consumer wishes to purchase to the highest welfare and feed standards, he or she could do no better than to buy British pig meat. As my hon. Friend points out correctly, traceability is here to stay. It will be a continuing feature of all meat markets in the United Kingdom in one form or another.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Last Wednesday, the Minister claimed, at column 952 of Hansard, that he had agreed with the British Retail Consortium that all pigmeat sold in supermarkets would be from animals raised to the high welfare standards required in Britain. Is the Minister aware that, the previous day, the consortium had said that the agreement applied only to fresh pigmeat? Was the House misled last week? Does the Minister understand that there is a huge difference between those two statements? Do not pig farmers deserve a fair deal from the Government, not a fudged one?

Mr. Brown

Pig farmers will get the fairest deal that I can give them. The original press release issued by both my Department and the British Retail Consortium was agreed by the parties beforehand. A second version of the press release was issued by the British Retail Consortium, inserting the word "fresh". Therefore, it could be claimed that that distorted its meaning.

The British Retail Consortium assures me that its commitment regarding pigmeat sold in its outlets—being stall and tether-free and meat and bonemeal-free—applies not only to fresh pork but to processed products, such as bacon, and is being extended to cover ham, sausages and even pork pies. Some retailers are already sourcing welfare-friendly pigmeat. They are major advances, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming them.