HC Deb 05 April 2001 vol 366 cc489-91
4. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

If he will make a statement on agricultural imports from other EU countries. [155681]

7. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

If he will make a statement on agricultural imports into the United Kingdom. [155684]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin)

The total value of imports of food, feed and drink last year was £17 billion, £10.9 billion of which was imported from the European Union. Meat imported from other EU member states must be produced in conformance with EU laws on meat hygiene and on controlling the risks of BSE. Imports of meat from non-EU countries are allowed only if the country and the meat plant involved have been approved by the EU Commission as producing to standards at least equivalent to those applicable in the EU.

My right hon. Friend is in contact with Commissioner Byrne and has requested that an examination of the legislation and enforcement measures relating to the controls on imports of animal products into the EU takes place at the earliest opportunity. I shall reinforce that message with colleagues in the EU Agriculture Council this weekend.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. Given the flow of imports that do not satisfy the meat hygiene or animal welfare standards that we rightly demand of our own produce, will the Minister now impose a precautionary ban on German and Dutch beef, protect the public from the illegal inclusion of animal products in consignments of non-animal products, and introduce honesty-in-labelling legislation so that consumers can know the country of origin and method of production of food and make a free and informed choice of what to buy?

Ms Quin

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, he will know that, under this Government, new beef labelling rules have been agreed that are much stricter than was the case before. He will also know that the Food Standards Agency is examining 100 per cent. of the meat imported from Germany and the Netherlands to ensure that there is no risk of specified risk material coming into this country. As a result of the FSA's investigations, there has already been a suspension of activities in abattoirs in Germany.

Mr. Syms

Will the Minister set out in detail what action Ministers took when Mr. Clive Lawrance alerted them in May last year that hundreds of tonnes of illegally imported meat was coming through Heathrow airport?

Ms Quin

Mr. Lawrance rightly drew attention to a number of instances where illegal products had been discovered. His comments and observations were passed on Customs and Excise. Furthermore, Mr. Lawrance wrote to me in March this year. I acknowledged his letter straight away because he mentioned foot and mouth disease, and I have since responded to him in full and have also asked him to contribute to the work that we are doing on the review of import controls.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) mentioned honesty in labelling. This Government have made greater progress on labelling than anything that was done under the previous Government. That is certainly true of meat labelling. On previous occasions, I have recommended the work of the Ministry's verification officer in changing misleading labels in supermarkets.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of the devastation that has been caused, there is a very good case for a total ban on the personal imports of meat and meat products into the European Union? Recently, a group of students from my constituency went to France, and they were not even allowed to take a packet of crisps into that country. Does she further agree that we need to take urgent action? I urge her to press this issue with her European colleagues next week.

Ms Quin

My hon. Friend is right; this issue needs to be considered urgently and it needs to be considered at the European level. At the same time, as my right hon. Friend the Minister made clear, we are also leading a cross-departmental review on the ways in which we can ensure that our national controls, as well as the European Union controls, are as effective as possible.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many countries outside the European Union—for example, Botswana—produce meat to the highest possible standards? Does she also accept that many developing countries want trade not aid? Will she take this opportunity to move away from the protectionism of the common agricultural policy and encourage the purchase of more meat from third-world countries which seek the opportunity to sell to the EU?

Ms Quin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a very important point. Some countries have high standards and, in this debate, we must avoid jingoism and false patriotism. On the other hand, we must be vigilant to ensure that sub-standard meat does not enter the country.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

The Minister's officials confirmed last year that the outbreak of classical swine fever was caused by illegally imported meat. It would now seem that lightning has struck twice, with the preliminary finding that imported meat was the probable source of the current foot and mouth disease outbreak. How many times does disaster have to strike the agricultural industry before the Government do something about illegal meat imports?

Ms Quin

I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman, who knows better, should present such an over-simplified version of events. He knows well that we suspect that imported meat was the cause of the outbreak of classical swine fever, but we do not have absolute proof. Quite rightly, investigations are taking place into the current outbreak. Although it is certain that some kind of imported product must have been the origin of it, another attached problem is that that product may have been inadequately treated in pigswill. That is why the Government are proposing in their consultation to end the use of pigswill.

The Government have responded to recommendations about improving and eliminating the undesirable feeding of certain mammalian products to animals in a way that the hon. Gentleman's Government did not. My right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) made that point very clear in last week's debate.