HC Deb 05 April 2001 vol 366 cc484-5
2. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)

What discussions he has had with representatives of the food manufacturing sector on the effect of the foot and mouth outbreak on their industry. [155679]

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

This week I have met representatives of the Food and Drink Federation, the Institute of Grocery Distribution, the British Retail Consortium, the Provision Trade Federation, the British Meat Manufacturers Association, Dairy Crest, Express Dairies, Nestle, Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrison's. This is in addition to the weekly meetings with food chain representatives and others which my right hon. Friends the Ministers of State chair.

Mrs. Williams

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he confirm that many more people are employed in the food manufacturing industry than in farming? Will he assure the House that serious attention is being given to food manufacturers, especially those who rely on export markets?

Mr. Brown

As well as meeting senior representatives of the industry, I have, as I said, put in place weekly meetings for the trade to discuss issues arising out of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. It is true that many people are employed in downstream activities such as food processing and distribution, and retailing, and that their numbers are greater than the total number of people employed in agriculture. However, the food industry is an integrated whole, and I never lose the opportunity to emphasise to everyone that it is a great British industry and that we all have a vested interest in the well-being of the different parts of the chain.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Does the Minister agree that consistency of advice is important, especially in respect of dairy products? Yesterday, at the seminar that the right hon. Gentleman kindly organised, a question was asked about whether cattle should be put out to pasture. The advice given was that there was no problem, provided that they were kept at least 100 m away from sheep. However, on the 8 o'clock BBC News this morning, it was announced that the right hon. Gentleman would be telling the House that the Government would be discouraging farmers from putting cattle out to pasture. What has happened in the past 18 hours to change the advice that was given yesterday?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman should not look for an inconsistency where none exists. It is perfectly true that if cattle are put out to graze on their own, without any other animals being present, their vulnerability is greatly reduced. However, the presence of sheep that might carry the infectivity poses an enormous danger to dairy animals. That is why, working very closely with the National Farmers Union, we are trying to keep the dairy animals housed for as long as we can so that the culling policy, especially relating to fat sheep in Cumbria, has a chance to take the fullest possible effect.