HL Deb 10 May 2000 vol 612 cc1566-8

2.57 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What legislation they intend to introduce in the light of the report by the European Union's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare entitled The welfare of chickens kept for meat production (broilers).

Lord Carter

My Lords, the report by the European Union's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare addresses production at the EU level. That is consistent with the Government's view that any new legislation should be pursued on an EU basis. We look forward to proposals from the EU Commission to that end. We must aim, if at all possible, for EU legislation which will apply to all EU producers rather than take unilateral measures which would impose requirements on our producers alone.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he not agree that we have often in the past set a good example to Europe and have paved the way by producing our own legislation? Does he remember that as long ago as 1992 the Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended that maximum stocking densities should be statutory? When I introduced a Bill to that effect in 1996, the then Labour Party Front-Bench spokesman was very sympathetic to the idea.

Lord Carter

Yes, my Lords; I remember that very well indeed. Unfortunately, the Bill did not get very far. The noble Lord is correct that there was an excellent report from the Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1992 which led to research and to the broiler welfare code. I understand that additional research is being undertaken and that we are awaiting a further report from the Farm Animal Welfare Council. It would be wrong for me to try to second-guess its conclusions. It is an entirely independent body.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, will the Minister say whether he has the same concern for the welfare of farmers?

Lord Carter

My Lords, the noble Lord should know that the welfare of farmers has been my lifetime career.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, if the regulations are introduced in this country or in the European Union, how will this Government or European governments enforce the same standards on imported chickens and chicken products from countries where the same standards may not apply?

Lord Carter

My Lords, that is a perfectly fair question. There are strict rules on the importation of poultry meat from third countries outside the EU. They must originate from a third country that is approved by the Commission; they must originate from premises that are approved by the Commission; and they must be accompanied by a health certificate completed by an official, a veterinary in the country of origin. Under EU rules, all consignments of poultry meat imported from third countries are subject to veterinary inspection. Therefore, there is a wide-ranging area of inspection and regulation with regard to imports. It is true that standards are lower in some countries than in others. However, the rules are there, and if they are complied with, the poultry meat is perfectly safe.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, do the Government agree that the key to this matter is labelling so that consumers know whether or not they are buying a chicken that is produced to high animal welfare standards? In the pig industry, labelling on pig meat products is still inadequate. What progress has there been on the Government's better labelling initiative which the Minister launched with the statement that it would contain information about how foods were produced? We have yet to see the effect of that initiative on the supermarket shelves.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the labelling proposals are going forward. They require agreement from the Commission. Of equal importance are the new assurance schemes that are being implemented. A chicken assurance scheme will be part of the British farm standard. If one adds to that the high standards demanded by supermarkets of their suppliers and the work that we are carrying out on labelling, consumers can be satisfied that poultry meat is safe.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, can the Minister state what percentage of imported chicken meat is tested to ensure that it meets the standards that he mentioned earlier?

Lord Carter

My Lords, every consignment of poultry meat imported from a third country is subject to at least a documentary and identity check at a border inspection post at the external EU border. On average, one out of every two consignments is also physically checked for health and other purposes.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, can the Minister give an indication of the possible cost implications to the British poultry industry of implementing the EU regulations as opposed to those that we have at present?

Lord Carter

My Lords, we have not even seen the regulations. At some stage, the report will lead to a draft directive. We shall then know what the regulations are and the cost of them. I believe that every farmer now realises that the safety of the product and the satisfaction of the consumer is well worth paying for.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the industry in this country is already at risk of being uncompetitive due to the hundred-plus pieces of legislation emanating from the United Kingdom and the EU? Does he also agree that any further legislation will put businesses in this country at risk and open the door for further imports from countries that are far less regulated, particularly those in the Far East?

Lord Carter

Yes, my Lords; the noble Lord is correct. The Government are concerned to raise the standards of broiler welfare in this country. As I have said, any changes are best achieved on a Europe-wide basis to maintain our competitive position. National legislation, however well intentioned, has a real risk, referred to already, of simply exporting the welfare problems of the home market to products produced elsewhere to lower welfare standards.