HC Deb 10 December 2003 vol 415 cc1165-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Paul Clark.]

7.1 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab)

I am pleased to have secured this debate on meat fraud, and it is appropriate that I should follow the Minister for Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who pursued exactly the same issue when he faced a case of meat fraud in Rotherham identical to the one that has recently arisen in my constituency.

We are facing a sophisticated meat mafia that peddles dangerous meat in a way that other criminals peddle dangerous drugs. Julie Barrett, the director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in Wales, said at its conference three weeks ago on cracking down on meat crime: Illegal meat is a multi-million pound trade that presents a major and growing risk to public health in the UK. The dangers are not widely understood, systems of detection are under-resourced and poorly coordinated, and the law lacks the necessary teeth to bring perpetrators to book.

In my constituency, the conspirators at Denby Poultry Products made hundreds of thousands of pounds processing and distributing more than 450 tonnes of rotten poultry to shops, supermarkets, schools, hospitals and pubs, undetected over a period of at least five years. Derbyshire police think that the meat even got into their own canteen. I invite the Minister to congratulate the Amber Valley officers, Sue Sonnex and Steve Haslam, whose salary was covered by the Food Standards Agency, and Derbyshire police, particularly Neil Perry, Darren Hunt, Nicholas Mathews, Colin Newton and Greg Dexter, on their surveillance and investigation, which led to five people being jailed for a total of 11 years for conspiracy to defraud, although the ringleader Peter Roberts is still on the run overseas.

A "Panorama" programme a few weeks ago showed footage of the raid. It described the stench of rotting flesh in the plant, rats running over people's feet, and overflowing sewage. It also showed pictures of the diseased meat. I do not welcome the fact that the police have given me their file of dirty photos, but I will happily pass it on to the Minister to have a look at. The meat was transported in unrefrigerated, maggot-ridden vehicles, and high-risk, contaminated poultry waste was taken from slaughterhouses to Denby, along with low-risk animal by-products, allegedly to be turned in to pet food, but in reality mixed and passed on to other processors and distributors and passed off as meat fit for human consumption. Anyone who looks at the video footage or the pictures in my police file would just feel sick. It is disgusting.

We do not know how many people became ill or even died as a result of this. It is all too easy for the issues involved to be given low priority, compared with more obvious and immediate dangers to human life, and for this to be reflected by a lack of urgency when serious cases such as Denby emerge. Ministers must not take this as an isolated crime. They must look at the lessons to be learned, and treat it as a serious public health and criminal issue.

Why did it take an anonymous informant to tip off Amber Valley's environmental health officers about what was going on, when we supposedly have a licensing and meat inspection system in place? How could a vet visit MK Poultry, the Northampton cutting plant that did much of the distribution, every week, yet not notice containers saying "Reject" and "Unfit for Human Consumption"? What if Amber Valley council officers and Derbyshire police had not been prepared to put in the resources for a massive operation involving more than £1 million of police resources to tackle a conspiracy that was a danger to public health way outside Derbyshire's borders? Why do we only now have an action plan under the waste food taskforce of the Food Standards Agency when an identical meat fraud had happened in Rotherham?

My particular interest arises from the Denby Poultry fraud case, but I want the Minister to consider a range of other serious meat crime issues, including the illegal importation of meat and, specifically, dangerous imports of bush meat through illegal air freight and the illegal killing of animals for delicacies such as smokies. We have had Operation Fox, Operation Aberdeen and Operation Lobster Pot as well as operations in Ceredigion and south Norfolk. We need a consistent campaign co-ordinated across those various illegalities to crack down on meat crime. I congratulate and support the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and its Environmental Health News on their "Stamp It Out" campaign, which aims to stamp out the illegal trade in unfit meat, which puts the health of us all at risk.

Arising from that, I have a number of issues that I want to raise with my hon. Friend the Minister. I know that she will not be able to deal with them all tonight and some will need to be raised with other Departments, but, above all, I ask her to take meat crime and fraud seriously and to give it priority as a public health issue. I also ask her to meet Amber Valley council officers and the Derbyshire police involved in the Denby Poultry investigation to hear at first hand of the weaknesses in our regulatory and legal system as well as in co-ordination between agencies, preferably with a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because one of the issues is the way in which this matter crosses Departments.

I ask the Minister not just to leave the issue with the Food Standards Agency, but to keep a close watch on the progress of its work and to give it added impetus. Progress is being made through the waste food taskforce report, but I have heard and received a number of criticisms of omissions from it and of the speed with which recommendations are being implemented. I shall come back to some of those.

The FSA is only one of the agencies involved. It is essential that the FSA functions well—we need it to do so—but any criticism and weaknesses and gaps between agencies undermine confidence. I hope that my hon. Friend will ensure that both all those involved in food enforcement work and the public can have hill confidence in that agency's work and the work of other agencies; she cannot just take a hands-off approach.

On the legal framework, I am calling for a new meat crime offence: to knowingly procure, process, sell, deliver or manufacture foodstuffs that are unfit for human consumption with an intent to defraud the consumer and place the public's health at risk. We need a separate criminal offence that will enable us to catch large-scale trading in unfit meat.

Conspiracy to defraud charges had to be used in the Denby Poultry case because offences under existing food safety regulations only carry low penalties—a maximum of two years in prison, even if the case can be taken from the magistrates court to the Crown court—but it is difficult to win conspiracy cases, and preparing them is complicated.

Also, I am told that the courts do not take seriously enough those powers that they do have in food crime cases. We need punitive and deterrent sentences. This is not a minor crime. Perhaps we could consider the criminal offences available to Customs and Excise. We need an offence that can be pursued more straightforwardly. We also need to consider the matter in the context of the police and who should be responsible for tracking down and dealing with meat crime. We need further training of enforcement agency staff on establishing evidence trails that stand up in court.

The next issue involves co-ordination between Departments and agencies. Major weaknesses were identified in the Denby Poultry case. Who has regulatory, licensing and inspection duties in slaughter processing and distribution of meat? Let us go through them: the FSA and the Meat Hygiene Service, DEFRA and the state veterinary service, environmental health and trading standards in local authorities, and now, apparently, the police when regulation fails. The Department of Health, DEFRA, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Office all have an interest.

I shall point out some flaws and gaps that need to be closed to prevent another Denby, but I note that it was primarily the local authority, with some FSA funding and support, and the police that investigated and pinned down the criminals. Things get worse when we add in the other areas of meat crime. On the scandal of illegal meat imports, Customs and Excise and other inspectorates become involved. Following suspicions on the origin of the foot and mouth epidemic, the Cabinet Office, as I understand it, has given the FSA a year to deliver a step change in delivery or lose control to a new centralised agency. In reply to a question that I tabled, the Prime Minister himself stressed the urgency of stamping out the practice.

I understand that a ministerial group chaired by DEFRA was to be established for co-ordination purposes. Has it met? Let me also ask the Minister to press for the establishment of a ministerial group covering all Departments with responsibility for meat crime to review such crime across the board, to look at arrangements for co-ordination to plug gaps and loopholes, and to give impetus and political commitment to the tackling of this threat.

May I ask the Minister to consider specific issues arising from the waste food taskforce report and the Denby Poultry case, or pass them to the relevant Departments? There has been concern about weaknesses and omissions in the recommendations, and in some instances action has seemed unduly slow.

There is a huge amount of money to be made from meat fraud. We will only be able to prevent the next Denby or Rotherham case if the potential criminal can no longer obtain contaminated meat intended for rendering dirt cheap, then package and sell it on illegally, at a vast mark-up, so that it goes into the human food chain. That will require a robust audit trail of where by-products go from the slaughterhouse and where they end up. Even if they had the time, meat hygiene inspectors would still only have powers to investigate at the slaughterhouse end; DEFRA and state vets have powers relating to the rendering and pet food plants.

We need an independent body or one of the agencies to follow the whole train. We should know now where each slaughterhouse sends its diseased meat so that checks can be carried out on what happens to it at the other end. To follow the audit trail, we need information sharing. DEFRA was first asked back in 2001, by my local police and local authority officers, to provide an electronic database showing all animal by-product premises. Enforcement agencies and those in the industry need such a database to verify disposal routes and methods. Apparently, however, no list will be published until 2005. Why must it take four years? DEFRA may wish to re-license its premises, but that is no excuse for it not to publish the current list now, perhaps on its website. Why is the Meat Hygiene Service not publishing its list of licensed plants until 2004? Why is it taking so long to produce recommendations?

According to "Panorama", supermarkets said that they would accept products that carried a meat hygiene standard stamp of approval, but they need to be able to check where the meat comes from. Without the necessary information, how can anyone check the trail of meat products? Food officers need it in order to establish the legitimacy and traceability of meat during routine inspections of the premises of, for instance, butchers and caterers, and the food trade needs it in order to establish where its meat has come from and where it is going.

I have raised the issue of co-ordination and information sharing in the context of meat fraud, but it covers the whole range of meat crime. It is a serious issue—a weakness that we need to tackle.

Meat Hygiene Service inspectors are at licensed poultry slaughterhouses every day, but at present the service level agreement between DEFRA and the MHS allocates only 15 minutes a month for them to supervise the segregation, storage and disposal of waste—of animal by-products. That is woefully inadequate, and would allow the Denby and Rotherham cases to occur again elsewhere. I understand that the Food Standards Agency says it has doubled NHS resources for this purpose, but is that really adequate to cover 1,400 licensed plants?

Denby Poultry was licensed by DEFRA, and the state veterinary service is meant to visit annually to check the position. I should like the Minister to look into suspicions about whether the failure to supervise animal by-product premises of that kind is due to the fact that the service looks primarily at animal health, rather than public health, issues.

Many issues arise from this case, and a number of the principles involved affect meat crime in general. I am thinking of co-ordination, information sharing and the need to establish an adequate and proper regulation system. That is not to say that lessons have not been learned or that recommendations are not being dealt with; but there are omissions from the system, it is too slow, and it needs to be looked at across the board. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will get to grips with the situation and take responsibility, but she will need to work with other Ministers.

In the light of the Denby Poultry scandal and the problems of co-ordination between those involved, I cannot for the life of me see how extending privatisation of meat inspection and the MHS can be justified. We clearly cannot trust meat plants to conduct their own private inspections; nor do we want to add to the number of groups involved in meat inspection. So I ask my hon. Friend please to oppose the European privatisation proposals.

I am aware that I have raised a whole range of issues, and I certainly do not expect the Minister to be on top of them all, particularly given that many do not fall within her sphere; indeed, that is precisely one of the problems. The main thing that I want to hear from her tonight is that she realizes—as I am sure she does—that meat crime, specifically the meat fraud experienced in my constituency, is a very serious issue. Indeed, this is a massive issue in terms of crime, involving criminal conspiracy and the making of huge amounts of money from dirty meat. It does not get highlighted and we do not necessarily understand the dangers to public health, so I hope that my hon. Friend can give priority to it.

If my hon. Friend watches the "Panorama" film, of which I have a copy—I do not recommend that she watch it over dinner, as I did—she will hear some interesting "vox pops" from ordinary shoppers. They assumed that proper safety checks were being made throughout the food production and distribution chain, but how are consumers meant to know the dangers and what is going on? They cannot take responsibility for their own health in such circumstances. Much responsibility for their safety rests fairly and squarely with the food brokers—incidentally, a further information gap is that we do not know who the food brokers are—and with the meat industry itself. The industry must look at its own procedures, and it should be brought to book.

All the public agencies and Departments must adopt a more coherent and systematic approach to taking responsibility for tackling meat crime and meat fraud. I urge my hon. Friend to put this issue on the agenda in her meetings with her ministerial colleagues, so that we can indeed stamp out such crime. I want to be able to tell my constituents and friends and family—and, indeed, my hon. Friend's friends and family—that they can sit down and eat their dinner confident in the knowledge that they will not end up in hospital with food poisoning the next day. Let us stamp out this terrible crime. I urge my hon. Friend to take this issue on board.

7.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Miss Melanie Johnson)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) on her choice of subject for this Adjournment debate. Meat fraud is a serious issue, and I can reassure her that all those involved with it in government take it seriously. I am very happy to join her in congratulating those who brought the criminals to book.

My hon. Friend mentioned the exercise in Rotherham, codenamed Operation Fox. It was shortly after the conclusion of that case that the Operation Aberdeen investigations began into a serious meat fraud that centred in her constituency. It was those two cases in particular that prompted the Government and their agencies to respond with a series of tough measures to crack down on such crimes. It is important to point out that the Operation Aberdeen investigations revealed that, at that time, the enforcement agencies' performance had not been up to the task; indeed, nor had Government policy succeeded in staying ahead of the criminals' game. Things therefore had to change if enforcers and the Government were to make a serious effort to stamp out this criminal activity. In picking up on the points that my hon. Friend has raised, I can reassure her that substantial progress has now been made.

The Government's efforts started in September 2001, some six months after the first raids in the Operation Aberdeen case, with a seven-point action plan on unfit meat. The action plan was a big step forward in tackling meat scams of the type uncovered in Amber Valley. Its first, and perhaps most significant, action was to extend the staining requirements from red meat to poultry meat by-products. As my hon. Friend will know, many of the issues that arose related to poultry meat.

Judy Mallaber

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Miss Johnson

I will, but if I do so too many times I shall have very little chance to respond to the debate.

Judy Mallaber

One issue that I did not raise, and which my hon. Friend could perhaps look at, is the staining of low-risk, as well as high-risk, waste. Without such staining, it is very hard to know whether low-risk waste is also being used improperly and entering the food chain.

Miss Johnson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The question of low-risk meat gives rise to slightly different issues. Low-risk products have been passed as fit for human consumption, but are not intended for such consumption. That is different from high-risk meat, and the Food Standards Agency currently believes that the staining of low-risk products would not be proportionate to the public health risk in respect of fitness for human consumption.

So the first measure was the staining requirements for poultry, and the second and third measures were to extend the staining requirements from slaughterhouses to cutting plants and cold stores. That was important, because waste is not generated only at slaughterhouses: some is generated later. Those two actions cut off two more avenues for the meat criminal.

The fourth point in the action plan was to encourage the meat industry to adopt a voluntary code of practice on the handling and disposal of animal by-products. That is important because, if we are properly to crack down on meat scams, both Government and industry must each play their part. I am pleased to say that in August this year the industry did indeed adopt a comprehensive code of practice, which is now being widely promoted across the industry.

The fifth point in the action plan was to improve enforcement in respect of poultry by-products. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is responsible for the regulations on animal by-products, has done much to turn the enforcement ship around in the last two years. Completely new enforcement arrangements are now in place, and they have been rolled out with a comprehensive package of guidance and training in partnership with all the enforcement agencies involved. The arrangements are now backed up by revised audit arrangements to ensure that they deliver effective enforcement.

The sixth point in the action plan was to improve traceability within the meat supply chain. The FSA took that forward as part of its programme on traceability. It has been backed up by concrete measures, notably by improved record keeping and certification arrangements. Those were introduced as part of the Government's plans to implement the new EU animal by-products regulation, and include a requirement for movement certificates to be triplicated to ensure that all animal by-products are fully traceable.

The seventh point in the plan was to set up the independent waste food taskforce, which I shall deal with in a minute.

Judy Mallaber

May I ask my hon. Friend to examine more closely her previous point about the audit trail? As I understand it, we still do not have a proper independent auditor. I urge her to consider that point in more detail.

Miss Johnson

I shall come on to that in more detail later, when I clear up some of my hon. Friend's points.

To return to what was in the action plan, the independent waste food taskforce was set up. The aim was to examine not only issues covered in the rest of the action plan, but issues that emerged from the ongoing Operation Aberdeen investigations. To that end, it was important that officers from Amber Valley borough council were members of the taskforce. Indeed, they contributed much to the recommendations that the taskforce eventually made.

The waste food taskforce report was published on the day that it was received by the FSA, which immediately launched a full public consultation exercise on its recommendations. The consultation revealed that stakeholders supported the direction in which the report was pointing and also supported the measures that the Government had taken so far to crack down on meat scams. Following that, in September this year, the FSA adopted a second action plan, with the aim of taking the Government's efforts to combat meat crime several stages further. In that action plan, all 24 of the waste food taskforce's recommendations were to be acted on. Indeed, work has already started or been completed on 22 of the 24 recommendations. The work consists of 55 individual action points by the FSA and DEFRA, 27 of which have already been completed. The action points vary from the high profile to the esoteric, but together amount to a powerful suite of measures to make life more difficult for the meat criminal.

A key part of the plan is that the FSA and DEFRA are working on a new enforcement scheme for animal by-products in licensed meat plants. The aim here is to replace the old scheme with a new one based on risk. The approach will be one of blanket and blitz, whereby each plant will have a blanket of routine supervision, backed up by blitzes targeted according to risk to trace waste from source through to its destination, in co-operation with the other enforcers involved.

It may be appropriate to say here that many of the problems arose because the agencies and enforcement bodies had not worked together as they should. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that the trick to making it effective is to ensure that that works. Much effort has gone in to ensuring that that is working across the piece. The amount of Meat Hygiene Service resources devoted to animal by-products enforcement has increased more than threefold since the Rotherham and Amber Valley scams, and the aim of this new work is to make the most effective use of existing resources and thus improve the outcomes of enforcement effort.

Further measures include the setting up of a team of 30 trained and experienced local authority enforcers whose role will be to assist investigations of alleged meat scams and to provide intelligence on what is happening in the field. That is backed up by a fund to provide local authorities with extra financial resources to investigate alleged meat scams. The Food Standards Agency is also recruiting two more investigation officers in order to reinforce that effort.

That action will not be the final word. The Food Standards Agency brought the key stakeholders together on 26 November to review the lessons learned from the Operation Aberdeen investigations. Officers from Amber Valley borough council and Derbyshire constabulary took part in that review, and the Food Standards Agency board will now consider the lessons learned. The board will also monitor the progress of the new action plan, and will formally review the outcome when the last of the action points is due to be completed in early 2005. We do think that this is an important subject.

My hon. Friend raised other issues. On the question of co-ordination between Departments and agencies, she mentioned the co-ordination work to be headed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The new Cabinet Committee will meet for the first time on 8 January 2004 and it will consider the issues that my hon. Friend has raised, among others.

Good progress has been made in liaison arrangements between Departments and agencies. A change of culture was necessary and is proceeding rapidly. The number of agencies is not necessarily the issue: what is important is whether the enforcers involved talk to each other. Now that we have changed the culture, liaison with other agencies is seen as part of the enforcers' day job, rather than as an optional extra. Routine and successful liaison is the reason why we have seen excellent enforcement operations recently, such as those in the Harrogate case.

On the waste food taskforce issues, the new rules in the EU animal by-products regulations tighten up the audit trail. I have already mentioned the triplication of movement certificates. I also mentioned the blanket and blitz regime. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has set up a database of animal by-products premises, which is now available to all enforcement officers and will appear on the Department's website early next year. A database of licensed meat plants will appear on the FSA website shortly and the Meat Hygiene Service is devoting much more time to inspections and enforcement in plants. As I said, it has more than trebled that work. Action is occurring in all those areas.

My hon. Friend also raised the question of penalties. There are penalties greater than the maximum two years' imprisonment under the Food Safety Act 1990, because other charges—such as conspiracy to defraud, which was used in Operation Aberdeen—can be laid. In reality, proving such offences is more difficult than proving the food safety offences. As I mentioned, the EU general food law regulation 2002, which will come into force on 1 January 2005, will make it an offence to place food on the market if it is unsafe. The issue will then be subject to EU legislation, not just UK legislation. Therefore, the UK will not be able to act unilaterally to provide for offences distinct from those in the European regulation. However, the new EU legislation will clearly make a difference.

Judy Mallaber

I am aware that new EU legislation is pending, but we will still have flexibility on how we interpret and introduce it. The point that I raised about the new offences needed should not be pushed to one side on the grounds that everything will be done in Europe. I urge the Minister to see whether we can tackle those issues seriously when we argue for such legislation in Europe and when we implement and introduce it here.

Miss Johnson

I shall of course bear in mind the points that my hon. Friend has made. I am not familiar with the detailed requirements of the legislation; however, the point is that negotiations have been completed and we have an obligation to take it forward and implement it according to certain parameters. We shall obviously consider whether, within those parameters, there is scope for us to take up the points that my hon. Friend made. I shall be happy to write to her further about the opportunities for doing that, so that she is aware of the situation in more detail.

Meat fraud is a serious issue and we take it seriously. I must reassure my hon. Friend that there has been a step change in the way in which meat scams are dealt with since the Amber Valley fraud was unearthed. We constantly monitor progress to ensure that we stay ahead of the game.

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-nine minutes to Eight o'clock.