§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)
With permission, Madam Speaker, I want to make a statement on the discovery of the presence of dioxins in certain Belgian animal feedstuffs and food products, and on the action that the Government have taken in response to safeguard human health.
The Belgian Ministry of Agriculture first received information in mid-March that severe health effects were being detected in laying chickens. The problem was traced to fat manufactured in January by the firm Verkest in Belgium and supplied for the production of animal feedstuffs. Approximately one month later, the Belgian Ministry of Agriculture was informed that high levels of dioxins had been found in feed for breeding chickens and in chicken fat analysed by the company producing the feed. After further tests for dioxins, the Belgian Government initiated, on 25 May, discussions on preventive measures with the Belgian industry. The UK Government firmly believe that the Belgian Government should have acted earlier to inform trading partners of the problem.
Dioxins are a group of closely related chemicals produced during combustion and as unwanted byproducts of some industrial chemical processes. Dioxins are not acutely toxic to humans at very low doses. Thus the likely intake of dioxins from short-term and sporadic consumption of contaminated food is expected to be insufficient to cause harm. Nevertheless, sustained exposure to dioxins over a long period is potentially damaging to humans: studies relating to industrial processes show that exposure to high levels of dioxins over a period of 20 years increases the risk of cancer.
The Government's public health advice on this incident is that, although it is clearly undesirable to consume contaminated products, there is no reason to anticipate harmful effects from the consumption of those contaminated Belgian products which may have entered the UK market. Feed contamination is believed to have occurred over a period of less than six months, and Belgian food in the affected categories represents a very small proportion of total UK consumption. None the less, the Government have acted swiftly, in close and effective co-operation with all the sectors of the food industry, to take all the steps necessary to protect UK consumers.
We first received information on Friday 28 May suggesting possible contamination of some eggs and poultry produced in Belgium. We established immediate contact with the European Commission, which was holding urgent and detailed discussions with the Belgian authorities about the extent and nature of the problem. Although at that stage the Belgian authorities suggested that exports of potentially affected product to the UK were minimal, we immediately advised the food industry to check with its suppliers that such products did not originate from the affected Belgian farms.
On Sunday 30 May I personally discussed the issue with Commissioner Fischler in the margins of an informal meeting of European Union Agriculture Ministers at Dresden. There were further extensive discussions between the Commission and the Belgian authorities, and with the member states, on 31 May to 2 June. We maintained close contact throughout with the food 481 industry, and specifically with a small number of companies which had sourced product in Belgium. The food industry acted quickly to withdraw potentially affected product.
On 2 June, in anticipation of a decision by the European Commission to prohibit the export from Belgium, and the sale in all member states, of poultry and eggs from the affected farms unless they could be shown to be free from contamination, the Government issued a food hazard warning on the action to be carried out by local authorities to trace all imports of eggs and poultry from Belgium. The European Commission decision was given formal effect on 3 June.
On 4 June, in anticipation of a further Commission decision extending the prohibition on export or sale to a further range of products—pork, beef and milk and milk products—I made two emergency orders under the Food Safety Act 1990 and section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 to give formal legal effect to the Commission's decisions for the full range of affected products. Parallel legislation has been made in Northern Ireland. The European Commission formally adopted its decision on pork, beef and milk and milk products on 7 June. The powers under the emergency orders made in the United Kingdom had been in effect since midnight between 4 and 5 June.
The emergency orders make full legal provision for the seizure and destruction of any products that violate the requirements. Local authority enforcement officers have been fully briefed on those powers and on the need to ensure that food businesses are in compliance. Those measures complement and complete the speedy and proportionate action already taken by Government and the food industry to protect the public. I believe those actions to have been proportionate and in line with the need to protect public health and guarantee consumer confidence.
Right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that some non-EU countries, including the United States of America, Canada and Singapore, have taken steps to impose restrictions on imports of products from the EU. Although it is understandable that third countries should want to introduce restrictions on the import of Belgian products until the situation is resolved, it is disproportionate for other countries to seek to restrict imports from all the affected categories from all EU countries. There can be no basis on food safety grounds for such action, and it is deeply unfair to our domestic producers that they should, at least temporarily, lose their markets.
The Government are determined to continue to act with the food industry and local authorities to protect British consumers. Swift, proportionate action has been the Government's guiding principle since taking office, and it will continue to be so.
§ Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)
I am grateful to the Minister for making the statement so promptly in the House, and for making a copy of the statement available to me in good time this afternoon.
The overriding priority must be the protection of all British consumers, as the Minister says. However, the issue also affects British farmers, whose products are banned from the United States, Canada and other countries.
With regard to British consumers, we fully support the action that the Government have taken so far. Will the Minister say when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries 482 and Food first knew about the problem? Does he agree that it is disgraceful that the Belgian Ministry of Agriculture was informed about it in the middle of March, but that Britain was not told of the possible contamination until 28 May? Is it true that other European Union countries, including Holland, were told days, if not weeks, before Britain? What protest has the Minister made to his colleagues about that?
Does the Minister agree that to be kept in the dark by European Union countries is a pretty poor reward for all the concessions that the Labour Government made in the recent farm policy reform talks? Is it not possible that British consumers were needlessly placed at risk by the failure of the Belgian and European authorities to inform Britain more promptly? What assurance can the Minister give that if similar future situations arise, he will be informed more quickly?
Does the Minister agree that the scare highlights the urgent and overriding need to improve the labelling of food products in Britain? Why are not British consumers told where food was grown, not just where it was processed? Will he require all labels to show, first, the country of origin of the food, and secondly, the method of production of that food? Does he agree that without that information, every customer in a British supermarket is buying blind?
Does the Minister agree that the effectiveness of the current food traceability system is faulty? At a time when British farmers are required to invest more and more to improve traceability, there seems to be evidence that others are not doing enough. Does he accept that until traceability becomes more foolproof, consumers will not have confidence in labelling?
The Minister calls for proportionate action. Why does he not apply that principle to the ban on beef on the bone? If the ban on beef on the bone is the Government's idea of proportionality, can we take at face value their claim thatthere is no reason to anticipate harmful effects from consumption of … contaminated Belgian products—especially as it seems that until 11 days ago, the right hon. Gentleman did not even know of the existence of those risks? The Minister must not use proportionality as an excuse for inaction or complacency.
Does the Minister accept that in addition to protecting British consumers, he has a duty to protect and promote British agriculture? Does he believe that he has done so in this case? Does he agree that the current scare will strengthen the reasonable demands of British farmers to block imports of food produced by methods unlawful in Britain?
Can the Minister say how the proposed Food Standards Agency would help in such situations? Does he understand the fears of many British farmers and retailers that the agency will scrutinise them more closely than their counterparts abroad? British farmers are prevented from exporting to the United States, and the Minister says that that is deeply unfair. That reaction reflects his usual sympathetic response—but what does he intend to do about it? Has he a single proposal to make today that will end that outrageous discrimination against British farmers?
Is it not time that Britain's farmers and the countryside which they look after received some support from the Government? Is it not time we had a Government who
483 worked for a fair deal for British farmers, not only for farmers abroad, and who recognised that a fair deal for British farmers is an essential part of achieving proper protection for British consumers?
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am sorry to intervene so early, but did you see what happened just now at the Dispatch Box?
§ Madam Speaker
I saw nothing happen at the Dispatch Box, but I now see what looks like a rather nice box of chocolates. As hon. Members will know, if something is brought into the Chamber to be used as an illustration, it has to be described in such a way that it can be properly reported by Hansard.
§ Mr. Brown
The Opposition spokesman waves a box of Belgian chocolates at me. I am not sure whether that is intended as some sort of threat or as a goodwill gesture, but in any event I commend the chocolates to him and urge him to eat them.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) asked about the Food Standards Agency. The embryonic arrangements are already in place between my Department and the Department of Health and seem to have worked very well in dealing with this issue—officials were on to it straight away and issued the necessary notices in time. More than that, they worked closely with the United Kingdom food industry, which I praise for the close co-operation that the Government have enjoyed to make sure that the precautionary measures were put in place at once to provide protection for the public. Like the hon. Gentleman, the Government have that as their first and foremost objective.
I reject the charge of complacency. I was careful in my statement to go through the timetable of events and it would be impossible for any fair-minded person examining that timetable to decide anything other than that the Government have taken swift, effective and decisive action to protect the public.
As he always does on these occasions, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of beef on the bone. On the beef on the bone ban, I am acting on the clear-cut advice of the chief medical officer. There is no room for manoeuvre given to me, and the difference is that exposure to dioxin, we understand, is harmful to human health over time—it is necessary to be exposed to large quantities over a long period—but exposure to new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is invariably fatal to the victim. That is quite a difference and the ban is in place because the chief medical officer says that it is necessary for the protection of human health. Risk is proportionate, but if the disease hits, the effect is absolute—it is fatal.
The hon. Gentleman referred to traceability and asked whether the systems that are in place are faulty. That is not the case. We were able to act as proportionately as we have and in a targeted way precisely because of the traceability arrangements that are in place in the retail sector and in those sectors that service the catering sector.
The hon. Gentleman was on to a perfectly good point when he talked about labelling. All Agriculture Ministers are under pressure on labelling schemes—labelling for 484 point of origin and method of production and to provide consumer information about ingredients. I am sure that we will return to that issue, but the Government are committed to providing proper information for consumers so that they can make informed choices on point of origin as well as on ingredients.
The hon. Gentleman implied that consumers have somehow been placed at risk in this country. It is the Government's view that no consumers have been placed at risk by this episode. He implied that we somehow made concessions that we should not have made in the recent renegotiation of the common agricultural policy. Far from it; I have told the House on a number of occasions that the United Kingdom's was a vanguard position designed to drive forward the agenda for reform of the CAP and I achieved more success in that than any previous United Kingdom negotiator.
I am disappointed that the Belgian authorities did not pass the information on to the Commission and other member states as soon as they had it and I believe that it is a scandal that the information was withheld. The hon. Gentleman asked when I first found out about it; the answer is 30 May, when Franz Fischler explained the situation to me in discussions about this and other matters. The Department first knew on 28 May, and officials immediately contacted the industry, particularly the sector that imports from Belgium.
We are having discussions with United States officials on the ban that the US has put in place. They are already re-examining the case for the ban, and are implying that it will not apply if European Union suppliers are able to show that their products have not been tainted with the contaminated Belgium feeds. So we are already making progress.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Canada. The Canadian ban applies not to the European Union as a whole but only to Belgium, which is a more reasoned, measured and proportionate response to the crisis.
The measures that the Government have taken, including using the reserve powers, are proportionate to the problem that we face. They provide for the protection of consumers, and do not require us to embark on the larger trade war that the hon. Gentleman seems to be urging on the Government.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether the dioxin in Belgium is anything like the dioxin that we had in Bolsover some years ago in many of the fields around the coalite plant? Does he accept that what the Tories have said today is in sharp contrast with what they said when I called for a public inquiry into the high penetrations of dioxin in the Bolsover area, which were affecting the cattle and fields? Despite the 12 attempts that I made in the House, I never got a Tory Minister to agree to a public inquiry. When we hear the Tories now, we understand what a load of hypocrisy it is.
Will my right hon. Friend make the necessary inquiries, because people in Bolsover want to know which variety of dioxin is involved and whether there is any comparison? The dioxin in Bolsover was 245T.
§ Mr. Brown
There is a comparison. For human health purposes, the dioxin is essentially the same. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The longstanding issue of 485 dioxin contamination in his constituency is still of concern. If my hon. Friend would like to come and discuss what can be done about it, I should be more than happy to see him. Yes, the problem exists and these dioxins have the same effect on human health. It is a question not of the existence but of the levels of contamination.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
The Minister has been rightly critical of the Conservative-led coalition Government in Belgium, who have obviously been extremely complacent and lethargic about giving information to the Commission and to other member states. Did he raise this issue with his opposite number in the Belgium Government at the Council meeting on 30 May? Does the Council of Ministers propose to make any improvement to the role of the European Commission as the watchdog on this matter? That is clearly an extremely important role.
Secondly, will the Minister enlighten us about what precisely is happening in this country to monitor the existence of these problems? The creation of the joint food safety and standards group, which was announced during the recess, is a welcome move, but it is extraordinary that the Ministry announced at the same time that the group does not intend to meet between June and October. Will it be a working, hands-on group carefully examining this issue, or will it simply be a backstop?
Thirdly, the Minister was right to draw attention to the action of the United States Government. Does he accept that, in the forthcoming trade talks in the World Trade Organisation, if the Americans are allowed to get away with this measure without proper scientific evidence that there is any public health reason to stop the import of food from the United Kingdom and to penalise British farmers and food producers, we will have a good case for resisting the import of American food products to this country because of the scientific concerns about genetically modified food?
§ Mr. Brown
I am absolutely convinced that economic protectionism offers no solution to any of these problems. The British Government believe that decisions in this area should be made on a scientific basis, and that public safety measures should be proportionate to the risk and should be targeted at the problem and not spread more widely.
The joint food safety and standards group was established in September 1997 to make the administrative arrangements that preceded the setting up of the Food Standards Agency. They seem to be working well, and officials stand ready to respond to any problem that may occur in the future. Nothing in their working arrangements would prevent them from doing so effectively.
As for the powers of the Commission, I believe that it acted firmly and decisively as soon as it found out about the problem. It was Commissioner Fischler who informed me of the issue and the background. The Commission seems to have taken a tough line with the Belgian authorities, which I consider wholly right. It has responded proportionately as well as firmly, and my actions here have paralleled those of the Commission on behalf of the European Union.
486 The hon. Gentleman asked what I had said to the Belgian Agriculture Minister at the informal Council meeting. The Belgian Agriculture Minister did not attend that meeting, because he had resigned.
§ Audrey Wise (Preston)
I thank my right hon. Friend for his speedy and effective action to protect British consumers. I suggest that he remind the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo)—in the context of his sniping at the Food Standards Agency—that the pre-legislative Select Committee considering the agency was, happily, able to conclude unanimously, in a helpful report, that the agency would be extremely helpful in maintaining food safety.
In the light of his answer to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), does my right hon. Friend agree that what some of us are after can be properly described not as economic protectionism in relation to the United States, but simply as a strong and passionate desire for our consumers to be afforded the full right to choose what they consume, rather than having food imposed on them by the United States?
§ Mr. Brown
I strongly agree with what my hon. Friend has said about choice. The only way in which to provide proper consumer choice is to ensure that consumers are given adequate information at the point at which they make their decisions, and that means clear labelling. I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for South Suffolk said about labelling, but I should feel more sympathy if the Conservatives had done more when they were in government.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Food Standards Agency. The Government's proposals were broadly welcomed, by the Scrutiny Committee among others. The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has held a number of public consultation meetings throughout the country to discuss the Government's policy on the agency, and there has been an overwhelming welcome for the principle. Where there has been disagreement, it has concentrated on the method of funding.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Mid—Worcestershire)
I think there is general agreement in the House that the Minister's response has been entirely appropriate in relation to public safety, and that he has given consumers the necessary reassurance that this unfortunate incident poses no health risk to them. British farmers, however, may take a rather different view of the impact on them.
Some of what the Minister has said is confusing. Will he clarify it, and tell us exactly which countries are taking action against all European Union food exports? In his statement, he suggested that Canada was taking action, but in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) he said that it was not. Will he list the countries that are taking action, and will he demonstrate that he is taking the American threat, in particular, much more seriously than he appears to be? Is he, for instance, referring America's action to the WTO, given that the impact on British pig farmers would be particularly serious?
§ Mr. Brown
The action against British pig farmers is the most serious of the United States actions. If anything
487 could be more unfair than the totality, it is that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the pig industry is experiencing difficulties in both the European Union and the United States. The prohibition of the relatively small but important volume of exports of pig products—worth about £8 million—from entry into the United States is disproportionate, and is not warranted by the facts.
I hope that it will not be necessary to take up the issue through the WTO. In my statement I referred to three countries: the United States, Canada and Singapore. The Canadians have banned only imports from Belgium; the ban does not extend to European Union products covered by the feedstuffs statement which come from outside Belgium. The United States and Singapore, however, have banned all European Union products that are covered by the European Union statement on affected products. The Government are making known our view that we regard such action as disproportionate, and we are already achieving some success in getting the action scaled back to what it properly should be.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
My right hon. Friend will know that when contaminated food is removed from a food counter in a shop, the shopkeeper has the right to claim against his insurance policy, thereby affecting the premiums paid by all policyholders nationally. Has my right hon. Friend considered co-ordinating action by insurance companies—which, from what I have heard, must have been faced with a very large bill—with a view to bringing an action for negligence against the Belgian authorities, who were negligent in failing to reveal the information that they had on contaminated food in circulation?
§ Mr. Brown
I can foresee a number of civil actions arising from the incident, and there may be criminal actions as well. I have no statement to make now on those matters, which are for the civil courts and the appropriate authorities. However, my hon. Friend was quite right to say that food that may be a risk to the public has to be destroyed. That was the main thrust of the powers that we exercised between Thursday and Saturday last week.
§ Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)
Does the Minister accept that, when farmers are being asked to dig into their pockets to pay for traceability, the current situation only serves to show that their investment could be in a flawed traceability system, and therefore not worth their while?
§ Mr. Brown
I do not think that. Traceability is of enormous importance for farmers and underpins consumer confidence. Moreover, if such a situation should arise in the United Kingdom, for example, we would be able to trace it back to its real source, rather than have a broader and perhaps more alarmist series of bans, with a detrimental effect on consumer confidence. Traceability ensures that United Kingdom consumers are able to have confidence in United Kingdom produce.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
While I agree with everything that the Minister has said, and congratulate him on his swift action, is it not the case that people in the United Kingdom are still suffering from the previous Government's denial of information on food safety? Is 488 there not still an attitude of fear in any food scare? Although it is right that we should be cautious of any additional risk from dioxins, dioxins are widespread—almost universal—in the environment. If one had a garden bonfire in which plastics were burned, dioxins would be present in fairly high concentrations. The risk from dioxins is always there.
The Minister said, and I fully accept, that his actions were proportionate. However, would it not be helpful if we stated the risk of dioxins in understandable terms, and compared that risk, even in Belgium, with that facing someone who is a smoker or a drinker? About 4,000 cancers are caused annually by alcohol. Would it not be sensible if we helped the public to understand and assess risk by stating it in numbers? If we were to do so, we would not have an entirely irrational situation in which food from the United Kingdom and many other European countries—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. The hon. Gentleman has gone on far too long. He must be aware that other colleagues wish to contribute.
§ Mr. Brown
I am extraordinarily sympathetic to what my hon. Friend has said. The Government have tried to do two things: to ensure that we protect the public in a proportionate way, and to do so without the issue causing alarm and unfounded fears.
My hon. Friend asked me about quantification—or at least explanation—of risk. Work is currently being done by my Department and by the Department of Health to examine how that might best be done. For the moment, however, we rely on the English language and on phrases such as "very small", which are insufficiently precise for the types of discussions that we are not infrequently finding that we have to have. I therefore agree with my hon. Friend that more work has to be done, so that we are able to explain risk in a measured way.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)
Does the right hon. Gentleman have any estimate of the total value of the goods that have to be destroyed throughout the European Union, and in the United Kingdom in particular, as a result of what has happened? Does he recall the enthusiasm of the then Belgian Government and the Belgian Members of the European Parliament for the establishment of a European Parliament inquiry into Her Majesty's Government's handling of the BSE situation? Will he use his best endeavours to encourage the European Parliament to set up a similar inquiry into the Belgian Government's conduct of this difficult situation?
§ Mr. Brown
That is very tempting, but no. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] Let me answer. I am content to leave the policing of the matter to the Commission, which has responded promptly, fairly and proportionately. Commissioner Fischler has made it clear that he is considering legal action on behalf of the Commission. It is appropriate that the matter should remain with him.
I do not think that the value of the goods to be destroyed in the United Kingdom is very great, but the situation is different throughout the European Union.
489 The sums of money involved in Belgium and to a lesser extent in France, Holland and Germany may—I repeat may—be considerable, but I have no firm estimate.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Perhaps my right hon. Friend might succumb to temptation. Many moons ago, when Madam Speaker and I were among the Members of this Parliament indirectly elected to the European Parliament, we noticed that our partner countries were somewhat more tardy in coming clean about their scandals than we British. May I press my right hon. Friend to find out by what mechanism countries can be made to be a bit more candid with one another more promptly?
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that traceability in the retail trade is as active as animal traceability, following all his good work?
Finally—I do not expect an answer immediately—my right hon. Friend referred to studies of the industrial processes. I have great confidence in the scientific advice to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under all Governments. Will my right hon. Friend put in the Library the basis of the Government's concerns about the industrial processes, dioxins and cancer?
§ Mr. Brown
My understanding is that the industrial studies on dioxins are already in the public domain, but if they are held by my Department and are not in the public domain, I am happy to put them there. Our approach is one of openness. We intend to provide information promptly and we intend to hold others to their obligations. The correct mechanisms for doing that are through the European Union and the Commission in this case. The Commission has acted properly.
§ Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)
Does the Minister accept that in recent years UK farmers have invested considerable sums in traceability and farm assurance schemes? Other member states have not. It is essential to press for the maximum amount of labelling and information partly so that consumers have the fullest possible information, but also so that UK farmers can be properly rewarded for the investment that they have made in full traceability and farm assurance.
§ Mr. Brown
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a strong supporter of the farm assured schemes. Traceability is in the interests of producers and consumers. It behoves us all, regardless of the politics of the situation, to get behind the Meat and Livestock Commission and its farm assured schemes, particularly on livestock. If people want to be certain that they are not consuming contaminated products during the current scare, they should look for the assured British label.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
There is of course an international trade in animal feedstuffs and the former Minister for Agriculture presided over the export of 490 contaminated feed to France. Has any Belgian contaminated feedstuff been imported into the United Kingdom, or indeed exported to any other EU country?
§ Mr. Brown
We understand that there have been exports to other European countries. The Belgian authorities have now confirmed that none of the contaminated feed has been exported to the United Kingdom. There have been imports of some Belgian feedstuffs, but because of their value, we believe that they could not have been contaminated. However, I am ensuring that that is thoroughly checked.
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
Further to the highly pertinent question from the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), and given what the Minister described as his disappointment at the scandal, will he now tell the House whether he is satisfied, as a Minister accountable to the House, that there are sufficient penal sanctions available to apply to the Belgian Government and others who might in future be tempted to conduct themselves with such cavalier disregard for their responsibilities?
§ Mr. Brown
I do think that it was scandalous that the information was not provided at the appropriate time and I have no fear of saying so. I am content for the Commission to deal with that aspect of the matter. My first concern is the protection of the public in this country and we have taken robust steps to ensure their protection. As the crisis in Belgium unravels, the costs will become substantial. I would not want to forecast where it will end up, but surely the way forward for the European Union is to put right the problem of contaminated feedstuffs in Belgium and to make sure that the safeguards there are sufficiently robust to ensure that it cannot happen again.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
I was alarmed to hear the Minister say a moment or two ago that the Department knew about the crisis on 28 May, but that he heard about it during casual conversation with Commissioner Fischler on 30 May. Is it normal that the Department keeps matters of huge importance secret for two days before reacting? In that context, will he tell the House whether he has 100 per cent. confidence in the very large quantity of chicken meat and dried egg imported from Thailand? If so, how does he come to have such confidence?
§ Mr. Brown
Because the European Union carries out inspections of producers in Thailand. I believe that my Department was represented on the last mission that went to inspect. As for the point about when Ministers were told, the Minister of State was told on 28 May, which was a Friday. I was told on 30 May, which was a Sunday. During my meeting with Commissioner Fischler we discussed a range of issues. He informed me not that the issue was in the public domain—I knew that—but of its details. He was good enough to talk me through precisely what he perceived the problem to be and how the Commission was able to proceed. With that knowledge, our officials could make sure that we set in hand the necessary safeguards here—or at least some of them—in advance of the Commission taking action.