HL Deb 08 June 1999 vol 601 cc1339-48

5.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, with permission, I should like to repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend Nick Brown. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a Statement on the discovery of the presence of dioxins in certain Belgian animal feedingstuffs and food products, and on the action which 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 feedingstuffs. 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 25th May discussions on preventive measures with the Belgian industry. The United Kingdom Government believe firmly 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 by-products 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 human exposure over a long period to dioxins 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.

"Our public health advice on the Belgian incident is that, whilst it is clearly undesirable to consume contaminated products, there is no reason to anticipate harmful effects from consumption of those contaminated Belgian products which may have entered the United Kingdom 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.

"The Government have nonetheless acted swiftly, in close and effective co-operation with all the sectors of the food industry, to take all the steps necessary to protect United Kingdom consumers. We first received information on Friday 28th May suggesting possible contamination of some eggs and poultry produced in Belgium. We established immediate contact with the European Commission, who were holding urgent and detailed discussion 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 products to the United Kingdom were minimal, we immediately advised the food industry to check with their suppliers that such products did not originate from the affected Belgian farms.

"On Sunday 30th May, I personally discussed the issue with Commissioner Fischler in the margins of an informal meeting of European Union Agriculture Ministers.

"There were further extensive discussions between the Commission and the Belgian authorities and with the member states on 31st May to 2nd June. We maintained close contact throughout with the food industry, and specifically with a small number of companies which had sourced products in Belgium. The food industry acted quickly to withdraw potentially affected products.

"On 2nd 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 3rd June. On 4th 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 to give formal legal effect to the Commission's decisions for the full range of affected products. The European Commission formally adopted its decision on pork, beef and milk and milk products on 7th June. The powers under the emergency orders made in the United Kingdom had been in effect since midnight on 4th to 5th June.

"The emergency orders make full legal provision for the seizure and destruction of any products which violate these requirements. Local authority enforcement officers have been fully briefed on these powers, and on the need to ensure that food businesses are in compliance. These measures complement and complete the speedy and proportionate action already taken by Government and the food industry to protect the public.

"I believe these actions to have been proportionate arid in line with the need to protect public health arid guarantee consumer confidence. Honourable 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 European Union. While it is understandable that third countries should wish 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 European Union 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 this Government's guiding principle since taking office, and will continue to be so".

5.31 p.m.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by his right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture. Of course, the first priority in the matter must be the protection of British consumers. But the issue also affects British farmers whose products are now banned from the United States, Canada and other countries.

With regard to the consumer point, we support the Government in the action they have taken so far. Will the Minister confirm when the Ministry of Agriculture first knew about the problem? Was it on 28th May? If that is the case, does he not agree that it is disgraceful that., if the Belgian Ministry of Agriculture was informed in mid-March, no inkling of it seems to have reached Britain until 28th May? Was it never discussed in the corridors of EU power in Brussels? Furthermore, is it true that other European Union countries, including Holland, were told days, if not weeks, before Britain?

Does the Minister agree that to be kept in the dark over such an important matter is a poor reward for all the concessions made by this Government in the recent farm policy reform talks? Further, is it possible that British consumers were needlessly placed at risk by this unexplained delay by Belgium and other European authorities in informing Britain?

Does the Minister agree that this whole mess highlights the imperative and urgent need to improve food labelling in Britain? It would, of course, help if food labelling were accurate on the continent. I wonder whether the Minister has read an article which appeared in the Independent which states: In France. meanwhile, a huge consignment of chicken legs—up to 20 tonnes—marketed by a Brittany firm and labelled as French were withdrawn after a national hunt for risky food products uncovered that they were in fact Belgian". Is there any chance that such a worrying event could happen in Britain? Why are not British consumers told where food is actually grown and not where it is processed? Also, why are they not told rather more about how it is produced? British consumers must be more and more confused by this failure to inform them adequately about their food.

In order to label effectively it is, of course. essential to have effective traceability of products, British farmers are doing a great deal and investing a great deal in traceability. Why does it appear that others are not doing anything like enough? Will the Minister state today what he proposes to do to end this outrageous discrimination against British farmers? Does he agree that this scare will strengthen the reasonable demands of British fanners to block all imports of food produced by methods which are illegal in this country?

British farmers are prevented from exporting to the United States and other countries. In fact, the Minister of Agriculture says that this is deeply unfair, and we all agree very much with that. But what does he intend to do about it? I return to what I said earlier. Food safety is the absolute priority and the general public are rightly worried by this situation. Let us hope that they are at least partially reassured by the Statement. But a great deal more needs to be done to rectify the imprecision of the way in which we approach food safety, in particular with regard to food imports.

5.36 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I too wish to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which is important. It is right and proper that it should concentrate on the protection of the consumer. However, I fully support the noble Lord, Lord Luke, who spoke from the Tory Front Bench, in saying that the farmers are suffering from the illegal methods used and the lack of information. It bears an unfortunate resemblance to the development of BSE, in that apparently it all started with some method of manufacture with fat which produced a lot of dioxins, over and above the normal process, which got into the food chain. That is exactly what happened in Britain in that the method of manufacture of blood meal and so on was changed from the batch method which killed the bacteria to a much cheaper, more efficient method with a continuous chain which was not at a high enough temperature.

Can the Minister tell us a little more about what is happening with the firm concerned? Are all the possible places being followed up where the fats could have been used? Obviously the firm sells outside Belgium, probably in Holland, Germany and certainly France. It appears that the lessons we learnt were that contaminated animal foods stayed in the chain much longer than they should have. Really energetic methods need to be pursued before the problem can be stamped out and we can get rid of the excuse by the United States, for example, not to take British produce.

Perhaps we could now have another look at this infinitely less serious and dangerous matter of steak beef on the bone in this country. I am sorry to raise it again but it has gone on for too long.

The Government must push the Commission to put pressure on the Belgian Government because their record appears to be appalling. For them to have cognisance of this in March and to find very high levels while we only learnt of it in late May is a scandalous piece of European non-co-operation. Could he at the same time tell us whether we have an official level of dioxins in food which we test? We know about the other levels. Can we test for dioxins? Is there a permissible level? In addition, what can be done in manufacture to reduce the possibility of contamination? We know that heat is used in the case of BSE. If dioxins are produced by heat, it must be more difficult to use heat.

I believe that a great deal of effort should be made by our Government to ensure that the Commission does its job, that the Belgian Government are persuaded to do their job, and that our farmers have the present disadvantages of the system removed and are able again to export their very safe beef.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for supporting the actions that we have taken to defend the consumer. That is always our first priority. When noble Lords have leisure to read the Statement and the chronology, they will see that the British Government acted with considerable speed and introduced our emergency orders before the Commission's decisions were finally enacted, so that to some extent we pre-empted them.

I agree with what the noble Lord said about the delay on the Belgian side, which is very regrettable. My advice is that the first time we heard about the problem was on 28th May and that the information came from industry sources in this country. That is regrettable. There does not seem to have been very speedy communication from Belgium to this country.

We believe that it is indeed true that two member countries were informed in advance of information being given to other member countries. Holland and France were alerted before we, or perhaps even the Commission, were informed. That is presumably because Holland and France are the main recipients of the contaminated feed. That is indeed a fact. I agree that it would have been preferable to have known earlier, but I believe that the Government acted as swiftly as humanly possible in the circumstances, and we regret that some of our European partners did not act as swiftly.

We agree with what the noble Lord said about labelling. We wish to introduce the maximum amount of labelling information to the consumer. We have made progress in that area. It is correct that it is not complete progress in terms of country of origin. We are pursuing better labelling in Brussels.

In terms of the United States and other third countries—Malaysia, Hong Kong and Canada—it is very regrettable that our producers are suffering as a result of this problem in certain of their big overseas markets. The noble Lord asked what could be done about that. We shall do everything possible to produce evidence that our products have had no contact with the sources of contamination. The United States have stated that their ban is in place until evidence of non-contamination is produced. We must do everything possible to produce evidence of that and press for the lifting of these bans.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, referred to the fat process. I am not an expert and I know very little about the nature of that process. What I heard about it left me with the feeling that I would not be examining it too closely. He draws a parallel with BSE. There are parallels. However, the scale of the threat to human or animal health is very different. It is the case that this once again raises questions about modern food production processes and mass food production. Everything possible is being done in this country and in Europe to trace the sources of contamination. According to reports, I believe that the Belgians themselves are in a state of near siege, many of the relevant food shops having been closed.

The noble Lord raised the question of beef on the bone. I repeat what has been announced. That situation is to be reviewed by the Chief Medical Officer in a couple of months and the decision will be based on scientific evidence.

The noble Lord referred to the Belgian record. I have said that we regret it and deplore the delay. Within Europe, it is incumbent upon all member states to make information of this kind available to their partners and to the Commission as rapidly as possible.

With regard to dioxins, tests are available. However, the tests are quite long. That is why, at this stage, we still do not know the level of dioxins in certain other foods. Nevertheless, we are able to trace the sourcing from Belgium. Our information—and the Belgians insist that this is true, and we have no evidence to the contrary—is that this year we have imported no feed from any of the contaminated sources. We imported only 728 tonnes of feed, which is less than one per cent of our imports. The evidence, and my advice, is that none of that comes from a contaminated source.

The noble Lord asked about levels. We have levels of acceptability. In the contaminated Belgian products, the levels of dioxin were up to 100 times the level that we consider to be acceptable.

5.47 p.m.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has described the action of the—

Lord Kennet

My Lords, perhaps I may—

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, we do have 20 minutes. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, would like to continue.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has described the action of the Belgian Government and the manufacturer concerned as regrettable. Will he not speak a little more plainly? Would it not be more accurate to say that their behaviour has been outrageous, devious and probably criminal? Would he also say what the Government are doing to seek from the Belgian Government and the manufacturer full compensation for the damage that they have caused to the food industry throughout Europe?

Returning to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, asked about the levels of dioxin, can the Minister tell the House exactly what testing is being carried out in relation to suspect food in shops, warehouses and catering establishments? Can he also tell us how many of those tests have shown unacceptable levels of dioxins? More important, over the weeks and months ahead, as the tests which he described as taking some time are conducted, will he ensure that, as in previous cases, the results of the tests and the source of the material tested are made fully public? That will ensure that we all know precisely what levels of dioxin have been found in food imported into this country which was originally sourced in Belgium.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I was happy to accept the noble Lord's description of the Belgian situation, but I felt that it was more appropriate that I did not say it myself. The noble Lord asked about compensation. It is very early days. This has hit us only recently but I can assure the noble Lord that we will do everything we can to protect and compensate the British interest. It would presumably be more appropriate to do that through the European channels. I spent last week in France and I can assure the noble Lord that the French were extremely agitated about this matter. We will not be alone in that.

'['he noble Lord asked about the tests. I am not aware of us as yet having sufficient tests that would give an indication of unacceptable levels. But I will write to the noble Lord about the test situation and then tell him what the position is on publishing the results. In terms of risk, our advice is that there is very little danger to humans, although there is to animals such as guinea pigs. There is little danger to humans from low-level exposure over a short period. Our evidence is that the danger is from high-level exposure over a long period. Our advice is that it is unlikely that there will be human damage from this incident, given the efforts that have been made and are being made to identify all products sourced from Belgium and to remove them and have them eliminated.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend two questions. First, what proof, if any, is there in the allegations that we have seen in our own press that the dioxin got into the chicken feed because some manufacturer or salesman of chicken food was putting used machine oil in the mixture? My second question concerns the issue of scientific evidence in these decisions in general. Is this not rather a good example of what happens when a government take the absence of evidence of harm to be the proof of absence of harm? I gather that two Belgian Ministers were involved. The two months of delay seem to have been spent worrying about whether there was sufficient evidence to worry. Does my noble friend not agree that in these cases the first lesson is worry at once if you are worried at all and act, even if only provisionally, at once?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, my noble friend asked about the use of machine oil. I have not seen, and l do not know whether there exists at the moment, definitive proof of what was the cause. But we are aware that that is a report of what was the cause. On my noble friend's second point, I agree with him that the absence of evidence of harm does not prove the absence of harm. I think that we do worry at once and that is why we act on the precautionary principle in general. That must be correct. We have of course acted on the precautionary principle in relation to beef on the bone.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, the Minister has told the House this afternoon that two emergency food hazard orders have been issued and that dioxin levels may be up to 100 times greater than that which he would find acceptable. Yet he has also told the House that there is no public health risk. Does he not agree that this will lead to confusion in the minds of many consumers? Would it not be helpful to the House and to the public, learning from experiences with BSE, if all the scientific information which was made available to the department in coming to that conclusion was made public and laid in the Library of your Lordships' House? Does he not further agree that the resignation of the Belgian food Minister, after trying to suppress the details of this scandal for so long, demonstrates yet again the need to separate consumer interests from those of the agricultural industry? Far too often—this is a lesson not just for the Belgian government but for all European governments—the watchdog is too closely identified with the burglar.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, perhaps I may say in response to the noble Lord that I did not categorically state that there was no public health risk. I said that our advice was that it was unlikely that humans would suffer damage from this incident. But because we act on the precautionary principle, because we cannot be absolutely sure, because public health comes first, we have taken the steps that we have taken just in case it could be worse or more serious. The noble Lord asked about the publication of evidence. I have no reason to believe that that would not be published. If it is not published, no doubt the noble Lord will ask again and I shall do my best to get him the information. Whether the Belgian Minister resigned because, as the noble Lord said, he tried to suppress the evidence, I am not sure. I do not know that that has been proven. He resigned because in the event the delay was clearly unacceptable. But there are times when the evidence is not entirely convincing and the advice and opinions move in different ways. So I do not know that one can say that he resigned because he tried to suppress the evidence.

The noble Lord's final point was about burglars arid whether governments are too close to producers and not close enough to the health of consumers. I believe that to have been the case in the past. One of the main endeavours of the new government has been to try to alter that balance. I am not saying that the previous administration did not have as a prime concern the health of the public too. But we have definitely tried to alter that balance and to put the consumer and public health first.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, if contaminants from this Belgian animal feed stuff can be passed through to eggs, milk and milk products, could not genetically modified ingredients in animal feed also find their way into eggs, milk and milk products? Might not sustained exposure be potentially damaging to humans over a long period?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am not aware that there is a meaningful comparison between genetically modified ingredients and these ingredients. There is a difference. Dioxins are proven to damage health. This level in consumed chicken, although I have stated that our advice is that it is not believed to be a serious threat, can be damaging over the long term. It is carcinogenic and may affect other aspects of health. There is as yet no evidence that GM ingredients have any such effect.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, the Government have clearly acted with commendable dispatch and will maintain concern for British interests. However, my noble friend will be aware that many British citizens work in Brussels—in the EU, NATO and the WEU. Have the Government taken action on their behalf and have the Belgian administration offered any promises or indemnities in the event of any of those individuals suffering disadvantage or a serious condition?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to express concern for British citizens in Belgium as the Belgian Government now show concern for their own citizens. As to what can be done by way of indemnities and so forth, it is very early days, but I assure my noble friend that we shall do whatever is necessary—as we already have—to protect the interests of British subjects here and in Belgium.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, for myself I am satisfied that the Government have acted both rapidly and correctly to safeguard human health in this country. However, there is a wider dimension to this. The Government have repeatedly told us that the European Union is not a federated state, nor do they intend that it should become so. Quite clearly, the Governments of the United States and Canada have taken action in respect of these products on the basis that the European Union is a federated state and in their eyes we are all tarred with the Belgian brush (if I may put it that way). Therefore, what is the Ministry of Agriculture and, more importantly, the Foreign Office, which has a great part to play in this particular matter, seeking to do to correct this mistaken impression on the part of our allies?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, first I thank the noble Lord for his generous words about the action taken by the Government. As to others viewing the EU as a federated state, I am not sure that that is precisely so.

They see Europe as a free market within which products move freely. If a product is defective in one it is liable to be defective elsewhere, but they will also see the very vigorous actions that have been taken both nationally and on a Europe-wide basis. We believe that they should be very rapidly convinced that the actions taken in Britain, by individual member states and the Commission should make them view the markets of particular member states as not suffering contamination. As to the Foreign Office, fortunately I do not have to answer for it, and never intend to do so.