HC Deb 20 March 2001 vol 365 cc1-19WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.[Mr. Mike Hall.]

9.30 am>

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I welcome the opportunity to introduce this debate. Although it is being held in the midst of another food crisis, I do not want to dwell for too long on foot and mouth. The Minister of Agriculture is coming to the Select Committee on Agriculture tomorrow, and no doubt he will give us an update on events.

I would like to examine four key themes. First, one cannot ignore the difficulties that we are having with our food chain, and their implications not just for the immediate future but for the longer term. Secondly, I would like to examine possible alternative strategies for bringing some balance back into the production and consumption of food. Principally, that would involve the localisation of production and, let us hope, of consumption, following on from some of the excellent work that has been done through the farmers markets. My farmers market in Stroud was, until recently, flourishing. Like every other farmers market, apart from a couple in London, it has had to shut down. I will say more about the implications of that, and the markets' future prospects, later. Thirdly. I want to examine food poverty, which is sometimes talked about without being understood. Significant moves have not been made to eradicate it. Last, but not least, I shall make some comments on the animal by-products industry—I think that the Minister of State would expect nothing less of me.

In putting those ideas together, I have gratefully drawn on the expertise of various people. At a national level, my principal sources have been Tim Lang, for whom I have great respect, Erik Millstone, Toby Peters and Mike Rayner. Locally, I have talked to the key person involved in introducing the farmers market in Stroud—Clare Gerbrands—as well as Robert Rees and Carol Endicott, who have worked with her and have pursued the educational benefits of the scheme through the education business partnership. I want to discuss education, because that is the key not just to what we eat but to what we think about what we eat, and what the next generation will think about what they eat.

We meet at a grave time. Two farmers in my constituency have been affected by foot and mouth, and I pass on my condolences to them. More than anything, I hope that we can learn from some of the problems that have arisen in regard not just to this particular crisis but to others. It is wrong to say that there is one overriding cause for all the problems. The situation cannot be explained by a conspiracy theory; it has arisen through a combination of different factors

However, we must learn from what has happened. The events can be interpreted in different ways. There are the gradualists, who stress the need for small changes—more regulation in one area and less in another, perhaps. Then there are the structuralists, who would like much more fundamental change in the evolution of our food chain. I tend towards the second camp, but I accept that it is not always easy to implement radical reform in the midst of a crisis, or over short periods. Nevertheless, we have a number of problems. I think not only of the well-known problems of BSE, bovine TB, classical swine fever and foot and mouth but of other problems that we have suffered over the years, including salmonella and E. coli 0157.

We must remember also that people do not want their food to contain additives such as BST—bovine somatotrophin—or other hormones. I know that the Government and I have slightly different views on the subject, but consumers are starting to question what is in their food. The vast majority want to eat good, wholesome food, although we must cater for the fact that some people are still attracted to junk food. All manner of issues arise from that, including environmental factors, food poverty, health and allowing people to exercise choice.

The number of food poisoning cases has risen dramatically in recent times, and estimates suggest that it costs us about £1 billion a year. That may be more to do with how food is prepared than with how it was grown or produced, but it is clearly telling us that something is going wrong. On the back of that, much of our food, by its very nature, is not as healthy as we would want it to be. We continually receive guidance—not lectures, but thoughtful guidance—from the Minister for Public Health on what we must to do to overcome some of the poor eating habits that still kill people. I shall discuss the figures later, but there is evidence of a link between poor diet and cardiovascular problems. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) is here. He will doubtless want to say more about such health problems.

I believe that the Government are fit and able to take up the challenge of evolving a more coherent and clear-cut food policy. After all, it was a Labour Government who set up the post-second world war agricultural system. I know that that system has been fundamentally changed by the common agricultural policy, but aspects of it still exist.

We started to grasp the nettle in our manifesto for the 1997 general election. We made some important pledges, the most obvious and most successful of which was the introduction of the Food Standards Agency. People have strong views about how it is grappling with the way in which we move around food that is produced not only here but internationally, and some would like to see the role of the FSA widened. For instance, if it was a food agency, it could deal also with education and nutrition, matters on which it seems to have only a watching brief. Unfortunately, because the agency has been hived off to the Department of Health, the Minister cannot answer on behalf of the FSA; we need joined-up responses as well as joined-up thinking and action

Last September, the Government and 50 other countries signed up to the World Health Organisation European region's four-year programme, which is based on the three pillars of nutrition, food safety and sustainable food supplies. We must make sure that those three subjects are to the fore in our policy evolution. Everyone agrees that the overhaul of the CAP is long overdue; we must ensure that it becomes more of a food policy than a purely agricultural policy. Many farmers would now support such a change because, although the CAP principally supports farmers, it is not the best way of doing so. We must ask some serious questions. Is the subsidy regime right? Do subsidies go to the right people? Are there better ways in which support can be developed?

Tackling food poverty will be another of my key themes. All the research suggests that poor people's food costs are high, for reasons of what they buy and where they buy it. It might be a question of education or of lack of access to quality food. The system militates against their having access to the right food in the right way.

Any reform of the common agricultural policy should aim towards more sustainable farming practices. I am not here to take onward the baton of organic farming. I am on record as supporting the Organic Targets Bill, and I argued vigorously in favour of organic farming when the Select Committee on Agriculture last reviewed it, but that does not necessarily mean that other forms of farming should be precluded. It is the way that the consumer wants to go, and we must provide a mechanism to facilitate it. If that means improving food quality, so be it. It is important that it be based on local food production, as I can foresee that, if organic farming is allowed to become just another ratcheting-up of the globalisation of the supply chain, the basic opportunity to grow, to supply and to consume food on a more localised basis will be missed.

It is said that there is no possibility of re-engineering a system of localised food production. I do not believe that. There are many indications that people want to source locally and to buy in farmers markets. Anything that we can do to help in what Tim Lang calls "reducing food miles", to lessen the environmental damage involved and give people access to the food that they want, is a jolly good thing. We must make it happen.

Local retailing is about joined-up government. It is about providing alternatives that people seem to want. It is, if we are honest, about protecting the rural way of life, which has been undermined by the centralisation of the food chain, by the placing of supermarkets and by supermarkets' demands. I am not necessarily here to attack supermarkets, but I would, at least, like them all to clear some of their shelves tomorrow and to put local produce on sale, as happens in other parts of the world. The centralised food chain has evolved, in part, at the cost of the healthy and sustainable rural quality of life that most of us want.

We should recognise that there is a policy vacuum. We must fill it with action, not just local but regional. Regional development agencies can play a key role, and I am pleased to see that they are already trying to make money available to deal with the current crisis. They could become key drivers for change. They could use some of their investment streams to go into the food production and processing industries to ensure that local food chains operate.

It is time that we stopped sticking plasters on the problems and looked for more radical solutions. We should not talk glibly about local shopping and local food chains, but should put time, money and effort into rebuilding neighbourhood stores and looking at ways in which we can lock into developments such as farmers markets.

I am grateful to Clare Gerbrands who was the driving force behind the Stroud farmers market. The joy of the enterprise is that, as yell as recycling funds in a localised area, it ensures that farmers receive a true share of the value-added economy. The profits are channelled directly back, which should not be underestimated as a benefit to farmers. The money enables them to go on to market more effectively and to provide consumers with even more choice.

What is being done is a question of access to fresh food and of economic benefits. Many changes can follow from it. An estimated 30 to 40 per cent. additional footfall comes to Stroud on farmers market days. That is a hint of what might be possible in the future. There is a belief—although it may not in every case be justified—that we can further improve animal welfare standards. People want to know how food is sourced, and to learn more about the countryside and animal rearing. I do not suggest that they should go out to do that at present for obvious reasons, but there are ways to achieve the benefits in question.

In Stroud, we have built on our achievement, by trying to make some of the relevant knowledge more applicable and available to younger people. We have a flourishing education-business partnership. Among the activities of young people in the past year has been a study of the food chain, and evaluation of the benefits of local food chains and farmers markets, as against more centralised food chains. The great benefit of that is that it educates people about the countryside and about the realities of food. It makes them think not just about where they buy food and where it comes from, but about what they do with it.

I have worked with Robert Rees, a chef who has worked closely with Carol Endicott, who leads the education-business partnership in Stroud. They have done innovative work, involving not merely talking about the food chain as a general concept but getting children to prepare food and think about its natural cycles. Such work makes the children think much harder about what they eat and its effect on them, in the context of healthy eating. The distinctiveness of local produce and the effect of that on the local economy, as well as consumers, is another issue to be considered. The project is exciting and deserves high praise. It shows that there is life in the localised food chain. However, as always, work on that idea must start with the next generation, in view of some of the mistakes that we have made.

Public health priorities certainly arise in this context. I referred earlier to the work of Dr. Mike Rayner of the university of Oxford. He alleges that there is a considerable correlation between the incidence of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular problems and poor eating. About 250,000 deaths result from those conditions, and it has been proved that that is to a great extent due to diet. There is an enormous monetary cost, but more importantly there is a cost in people's lives. We should encourage people to think more about what they eat and what it does to them.

We need also to think about the structures of the industry. I do not intend to argue against supermarkets or caterers, but we should realise that some of the poorest paid jobs are those in the food business. That fact implies that we do not invest sufficiently in those who are being trained for such work, or in the industry itself. The minimum wage has had an enormous impact—and jolly good, too—but we must dwell on the need for future action.

I could say more about science, consumer protection and competition policy, but I shall pass quickly over those topics to give other hon. Members a chance to speak. I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State knows, because of the somewhat hard time that I gave her in a European Standing Committee debate on transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, that I think that we need to look hard at the animal by-products industry. The more that I have considered that industry in relation to the problems of BSE and of foot and mouth, the more that it appears not to be marginal to the production of food but to be something that must be properly evaluated in its own right. The Government have cottoned on to that; they have been working closely with our colleagues in Europe, but we must recognise the need not for less regulation but for better regulation. If we propose a bonfire of controls—unfortunately, other things are in bonfires at the moment—that will be at our long-term cost. We must be careful about how we monitor the food chain, because unfortunately, it takes only one or two people doing silly things to have not only an enormous economic cost but, more important, an enormous cost in people's lives, which is totally unacceptable.

I was lobbied effectively by a constituent who works for the Meat Hygiene Service, who was unhappy with proposals coming from Europe for hazard analysis and critical control points in local abattoirs to be at the cost of the role of the Meat Hygiene Service. My right hon. Friend may want to comment on that, but that must be carefully considered.

In conclusion, it is not that current food policies are not working, but we could haw, the best of both worlds—we could introduce alternative ways for people to buy food. We must consider what we do in this country in relation to the rest of the world. Although it is easy to talk about problems coming from abroad, I know someone who was recently on a trade delegation to the Netherlands, which I always thought was a moderate country. Besides meeting lots of nice people who were interested in what he had to sell—this was before foot and mouth—he receive d abuse from people saying, "You're the country that gave us BSE." We are not without our problems in selling our message internationally.

We need to consider price and what is introduced into the food chain. I hope that we can have joined-up thinking, consider opportunities and revisit different ways in which the food chain can operate. If that process starts now, that will be one advantageous thing to come from the depths of a deep crisis.

9.53 am
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

We meet today to discuss food policy in the most difficult and testing of circumstances. We have a national emergency, a national crisis, with the epidemic of foot and mouth. We all share in having foremost in our thoughts the anxieties and distress of farmers and all those concerned with the rural economy and the British countryside. If it were in order, which it clearly is not, I would ask for us to observe a minute's silence for all those who are going through such a difficult time. I am sure that that sentiment will be shared throughout the Chamber today.

Farmers in Eddisbury and across wider Cheshire were devastated by the foot and mouth outbreak in 1967. It is with them in mind that I have been keen since I entered the House 18 months ago to find the food policy issues that tie together the interests of producers and consumers. It has become clear that consumers properly demand quality, choice, reliability and a fulsome supply of the food that they need and enjoy, which forms part of their standard of life, as well as being a staple of life.

In addition, there are public safety and public health issues, but it is important to stress at this difficult time in the countryside that foot and mouth is not a public health issue and not a disease that is a danger to human beings. In trying to tackle these difficult issues as best we can—I am at one with the whole House on this—we must be careful to dissect the issues so that we do not send out any alarmist messages.

In focusing on food policy, we must recognise that we live in a country where, by any relative test, the highest quality of food is produced and made available to consumers. We can be proud of that, but it is no accident; there has always been a commitment in this country to producing the highest quality food. However, our debate would not be completely honest if I did not record that I believe that the Government are generally inimical to tying together the interests of consumers and producers. I mean no disrespect to the Minister, who has made time to be here to reply to the debate when, as part of the Executive team dealing with the foot and mouth crisis, she has so much on her plate. However, while the subject of food remains in the title of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Government have assigned the Food Standards Agency and food policy generally to the Department of Health. Why, therefore, has a Health Minister not come to reply to the debate? I can only suppose that, although responsibility for the FSA as a quango has been assigned to the Department of Health, there is a lack of expertise and knowledge in that Department about the issues surrounding the responsibilities of the FSA. That would make it right for the Government to send an Agriculture Minister, who is likely to have received the best briefing and to have most knowledge. Of course, we met in the House in March last year when I promoted the Food Labelling Bill as a private Member's Bill.

It will be interesting to hear the Minister's justification, not for being here but for why the Government have deployed someone from MAFF rather than from the Department of Health, given the changes that have taken place in responsibility for this area of policy. If the subject is hybrid, we need clarification of who in Government has responsibility for food policy. Is it MAFF or the Department of Health? Is the Department of Health focused on the more alarmist danger signals relating to food and public health and MAFF more concerned with the supply chain? If so, that reinforces my point—this has certainly been my experience in dealing with such issues on behalf of my constituents—about the essential need to tie together the interests of consumers and producers, in order not only to maintain the high quality of food in this country but to ensure accountability. Accountability is the key to confidence—an important word—on the part of the consumer and producer in the food industry. That may be at the ultimate end, when the purchasers make decisions, or initially, when the relevant issues are for farmers and others. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made farmers' reasons for wanting a rural way of life clear, but that must be based on economic justification. That is why some producers take investment decisions. Their interests must be protected.

As part of our important considerations of the country's food policy, I intend to review the position that we have reached on food labelling. I was able to promote a private Member's Bill on food labelling, so, naturally, I have studied the subject greatly. When I framed the Bill, I was glad to gain the support of the National Farmers Union and the National Pig Association. The Bill proved not only that honesty in food labelling is of high public interest, but that it is important to tie together the interests of producers and consumers on food labelling, rather than to drive a wedge between them.

The Bill called for labelling to state both country of origin—that should be clear, simple and honest—and standards of production. Of course, there were all sorts of complications. As we said on the Floor of the House late last night, when we were discussing the Select Committees on European Scrutiny and on Defence, the devil is in the devil not that we received many answers. Pre-prepared foods are likely to combine ingredients of different origins. How is a regime to deal with that? We tackled it in the Bill by saying that the country of origin would have to reflect all the ingredients that constituted more than 25 per cent. in weight of a product. I accept that it became clear during the debate on 3 March last year that the Bill needed amending if it was to become law, but it had the right strategy and employed the right series of policies.

We are not yet clear about the source of the current foot and mouth outbreak, and—who knows?—my Bill might have helped to prevent it. It would have recorded constituent ingredients sourced from another country if they made up more than 25 per cent. by weight of any product. It is well known that our armed forces have changed their policy of being supplied exclusively with British food and are allowed to be supplied with food from abroad. Questions are being asked as to whether scraps from food fed to the forces at Catterick were in pigswill that ended up at the farm at Heddon-on-the Wall. That could be a source, given that some of the food came from South Africa. We know that foot and mouth disease is endemic in parts of South Africa. That is supposition, and I am anxious that none of us should be alarmist. However, had there been a better regime on labelling the country of origin and production standards of food, we might have had the necessary information and certification on foodstuffs, in the private or public sector, to have had a chance to prevent foot and mouth from entering the country. Of course, that is pure speculation. As the Minister recalls—she was present—the Government chose to talk out my Food Labelling Bill. We all know that hon. Members sometimes speak at great length on private Members' Bills so that they run out of time, and my judgment was that it was better to ensure that all the points were made. I made a fairly long speech because I was anxious not to give the time to those who had no interest in seeing my Bill on the statute book. The Minister dealt with some of the points that I made. She argued that the proposals on country of origin did not need the force of law, but subsequent events have shown that there is an issue of confidence for consumers and producers because country of origin labelling is inadequate. The proposals on standards of production raise mare intricate details and difficulties. The Minister argued that that was fully covered by a series of regulations because it had been delegated to wider European Union responsibilities, and that the Government were seeking urgently to negotiate and advance the matter in those councils. It is worrying that we have heard little more about it, although there have been a number of reports.

An easy regime would be to display the country of origin simply with a letter, perhaps in large print. Such information appears on some products, but not clearly and obviously. On standard of production, there could be some form of kite mark certification. Some product labels include an essay of information on ingredients, including whether they are genetically modified, contain nuts and so on. That is confusing and unhelpful for consumers at the point of decision in a supermarket or a local shop. That is why the kite mark analogy was raised. It would be possible to arrange certification, and many European Union member states have an equal interest in the matter because they want to protect their regional markets. There are derogations in regulations and legislation to enable regional origin of products to be certified, but the only result to date is from the National Farmers Union, which, laudably, initiated the red tractor logo. Many consumers who want to buy British farm-assured duality food welcomed that. Many genuinely British food products sport the union jack on the packaging and m my consumers prefer, if they have the chance, to focus their purchasing on such products.

I do not want to denigrate the NFU's red tractor logo. It has been extensively applied in many supermarkets and other outlets, but it does not guarantee that the product is British. It demonstrates that the food has been produced to British farm produce standards and many producers of imported foods have insisted through the distribution chain that their foods are labelled with that logo, so its meaning has been thrown into doubt. I shall not pursue the point too heavily because the logo should be encouraged rather than diminished, but it is lot the same as a true country of origin label and it is not what can be achieved under the current law and regulations.

In the enactment of the Food Standards Act 1999, which led to the creation of the Food Standards Agency, we saw that this country has enormous expertise in food labelling and certification, but this has not been brought to bear domestically to the extent to which it should. That is part of the reason why I introduced my Food Labelling Bill, and why I argued a year ago that we should show leadership in the field. European member states are hungry to see us take leadership, as they recognise our enormous expertise, as shown by the speed at which we have developed the quality choice that is available in supermarkets and other outlets. I join the hon. Member for Stroud in celebrating the farmers markets and all the other outlets for high-quality food. There could be a joint enterprise with the EU to ensure that our leadership and understanding of the issues is brought to bear.

I fear that there is a reluctance to go faster than the slowest pace set in the EU in achieving a significant uprating in honesty in food labelling in this country. After my Bill failed to be enacted, I had discussions with the Food Standards Agency, and although I received an extremely sympathetic hearing to the aspects of the Bill on country of origin labelling, there was considerable suspicion. indeed doubt, about my proposal on standards of production. It would be both irresponsible and inappropriate to try to introduce improvements in our food policy without introducing measures on standards of production. Our approach to food labelling would allow consumers to be confident about food, and farmers would know how the high-quality food that they produced was represented.

The importance of my proposal on standards of production was most clearly evidenced in the enormous concern expressed about the stall-and-tether method of farming pigs. There has been an admirable move away from that method, at huge investment cost to many pig farmers. That change has not been matched by our key European competitors. Denmark is a case in point. This country is a great consumer of Danish bacon. We do not denigrate its quality or availability, but there is concern at the lack of speed at which Denmark is abolishing stalls and tethers in pig farming. Denmark has sought a derogation under the EU directive.

It is important to note that we seem to be going at the pace of the slowest member state on certain issues, although we are going faster than other member states in policing the EU directives that apply to domestic marketplaces. That is why there is deep concern, and why we would do well to consider framing a law that reflects our domestic needs, rather than relying simply on EU regulations that are subject to interminable negotiations without result.

What has been done since we debated my private Member's Bill on food labelling a year ago? It is not apparent what has been achieved. I accept that the Minister cannot be blamed, but there is a sense that the Government have found themselves in hock to the supermarkets to a degree. At the same time, as soon as the going gets tough, the Prime Minister says that the supermarkets have the farmers in an arm lock. This is not a battle between two sides and it is unhelpful to regard it as such. As I have said, we must try to unite producers and consumers, and the Prime Minister was ill-advised in using the phrase "arm lock", even though it doubtless struck a sympathetic chord with the many farmers who continue to feel desperately blighted and let down by this Government.

Even though the Prime Minister 's spokesman sought to backtrack on the use of that phrase the following day, it would be extremely helpful if the Minister could clarify what the Prime Minister meant when he used it in relation to supermarkets and farmers. I am reminded of the debate surrounding community health councils. The Prime Minister said that there had been no consultation on scrapping community health councils, but then asserted that in fact there had. He had to write to me to make it clear that the Government had already decided to scrap them.

One issue raised by the hon. Member for Stroud was greater public education on food policy. The Select Committee on Education and Employment produced a report on school meals and the availability of fruit and other suitable foods. In the light of it and the evidence taken, we must remember that there is no point in producing food for any sector of the population—particularly children and young people—that is not attractive to them. Food that they cannot be persuaded to eat, however worthy and nutritious, is simply not acceptable, and alternatives that are perhaps not as healthy must be used.

A local Labour councillor in my area successfully undertook a cross-party initiative, which I supported fully and publicly, to encourage the availability of free milk in schools. However, it is disappointing to note that very few parish councils have taken up the initiative. The problem is not a lack of will or initiative on the part of the local town councillor or, indeed, the local Member of Parliament, but the reluctance of parish councils and others to respond positively. To our great surprise, the few replies that we received were ambivalent. We must look again at how to make the right food attractive to young people and other elements of the community.

I am conscious that time is running out, and I shall try to bring my remarks to a close. The Conservative policy on honesty in food labelling picks up on the proposals in my Food Labelling Bill, although I recognise that those proposals need amending to some extent. We should not worry about the hurdles that we encounter. Like the hon. Member for Stroud, I have spoken to organisations such as i-Label, which has considerable expertise in respect of consumer access to ingredients, and to those who know how to put together a standard of production certificate that includes the country of origin.

One has only to access the internet and type a phrase such as "Swedishsafemeat.com" to discover that it is possible to trace every single pig, sheep and cow product in Sweden. Those who buy a joint of meat in a Swedish shop can determine from which animal it came by accessing the relevant website, and we should all copy that approach. If Sweden can manage that, it is surely not beyond the wit of this country, given our great expertise in food products and food regimes. It is important to tie together consumer and producer interests, including supermarkets, distributors, restaurateurs and those involved in public procurement, as well as securing the support of everyone involved in the rural economy, including farmers and producers.

The hon. Member for Stroud referred to joined-up government. The Government's proposals must be based on joined-up thinking. There is a proposal afoot to introduce a law on corporate manslaughter. If some absolute outrage took place in the food chain, the last thing that a director of a supermarket chain or distribution company would want is to find themselves liable for an offence of corporate manslaughter as a result of inadequate information and inadequate labelling. Every constituent member of the food chain should be required to have the relevant information about food, including its origins and standards of production. Perhaps the foot and mouth outbreak would not have occurred had that been implemented through domestic law rather than treated as a matter for negotiation under our obligations to the EU.

One saving grace about honesty in food labelling—which I should have thought that other parties, as well as the Conservative party, would wish to recognise—is that it is a completely cost-free option to the public purse. The burden could properly fall on those at the retail end of the food chainx—not, for once, putting the squeeze on the farm gate.

I have spoken at length. I look forward to hearing the Minister respond to the points that I have made.

10.21 am
Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his excellent introduction; I am sure that no hon. Member would disagree with a word of what he said. I congratulate him and the people of Stroud on their local initiatives, which are a beacon that the rest of us might well follow.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) made an interesting point about the common interest between producers and consumers. However, over the years, the processes of distribution have come between producers and consumers. In respect of food labelling, I am afraid that the party that he supports so loyally spent 18 years actively destroying the local link between producers and consumers by allowing regulations to be used in such a way that local abattoirs and packing plants were frozen out, forcing producers to deal with one or two big players in their region. It is no accident that those involved in the big business end of the food sector supported the then Government. It is all very well to say now that labelling is the answer to everything. Of course, we all support labelling. One of the big issues in the debates on the Food Standards Bill was the remit of the Food Standards Agency. Many of us wanted the Bill to cover labelling.

I am pleased to see the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food here after her trips around the country. Food policy is a public health matter. However, we should not concentrate purely on the producer end of the food chain. As the hon. Member for Stroud said, food policy necessitates joined-up action by the Government. He saw that as a threat; I see it as a challenge and an opportunity. If we do not do something, we will end up like the Americans. There are two types of American: those who need three chairs to sit on because they are so grossly obese and those who are neurotically thin and eat hardly anything because they are so worried about their weight. I am concerned that we are drifting in the direction of larger seat sizes. It is not right to continue with the token actions that are being taken, because, as the hon. Member for Stroud said, food policy affects heart disease, cancers, and people's general fitness and productivity.

Despite the bad press that supermarkets have received, they have made a good job of delivering consistent quality at a reasonable price for most people. It is sad, however, that a small group of people cannot afford the bus fare to the big supermarket or to buy larger packs. Such people are trapped into using corner shops, which often sell goods of lower quality at higher prices, and are thereby put at a tremendous disadvantage. My home village is not unique in having to run a breakfast club at the primary school to ensure that children are given at least one decent meal a day. In the 21st century, that is not acceptable in a country as wealthy as ours.

However, unlike supermarkets on the continent, supermarkets here have not taken on board the idea of using local products. French supermarkets always source vegetables, meat and bakery items locally. Perhaps we could encourage that here, through negative taxation or tax breaks.

Every year, I speak to a combined meeting of members of the Country Landowners Association and the NFU on the Isle of Wight. Every year, I tell them that we need to move away from subsidising production through the common agricultural policy and towards supporting farmers in their stewardship of land and encouraging them to produce quality, identifiable produce to be marketed locally. On the whole, they listen to me tolerantly. This year, I spoke to them two weeks before the foot and mouth outbreak. They wrote to me saying, "Thank you very much. We had a stimulating evening. It is good for us to hear things that we do not necessarily want to hear."

It is interesting that since the foot and mouth outbreak, everyone is talking about the importance of keeping matters local. That will be difficult for some farmers. A pig breeder told me, "It's all very well having a local abattoir for some purposes, but we cannot sell all our products locally." It costs money to ship out refrigerated meat; it is much cheaper to ship livestock—on the hoof—across the country, or across Europe. That situation is unacceptable. There should be a way of influencing movement patterns to the benefit of animal welfare and quality of product. The less stress that an animal suffers before it is slaughtered, the better the product, and the better it is for us all. I will try to keep my remarks brief, Mr. Jones.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Barry Jones)

Order I invite the hon. Gentleman to consider referring to the Chair as Mr. Deputy. Speaker.

Dr. Brand

I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have not caught up with the late night ramblings of the House. I sincerely apologise because I have been caught out in the other direction previously.

The issue of labelling has been covered by the hon. Member for Eddisbury and we agree that an initiative is essential. We also need to examine the producer end and consider giving more positive support to local co-operative efforts, for example, for dairy production or milk distribution. It does not make sense to shift bulk milk 200 miles, then shift the empty bottles back again.

We also need to consider whether our tax regimes are helping producers. My local glasshouse industry is unsure about the effects of regulations on combined heat and power plants. It needs them to produce carbon dioxide to grow its product and it uses the surplus energy to produce electricity. The regime to protect the glasshouse industry against unfair competition from abroad is unsatisfactory, which is not the case in other European Community countries.

Mr. Drew

I must declare an interest. I am both a Co-operative and a Labour Member of Parliament. Will the hon. Gentleman accept that one good result of the new initiatives is the attempt to rebuild co-operation in terms of both the immediate food chain and its adjuncts?

Dr. Brand

Matters are progressing, but I am frustrated that they are not moving fast enough.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government chose to overturn the recommendations of what was the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in its milk report. It recommended that there should be value added opportunities on milk products for effective co-operatives. However, the Government chose to split up the collection of mil, so I have six lorries going past my gate at home in Cheshire, rather than one. Co-operatives are now allowed to take value added opportunities, but there have been massive increases in the cost of distribution. The decision by the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to overturn that recommendation was wrongheaded and the hon. Gentleman will know its effect on difficulties that he is exposing.

Dr. Brand

The Government sadly chose to go in neither of those directions. The current set-up does not allow true local co-operatives to function. Local farmers are still tied in because they fear that co-operatives will be established over which they will have no effective influence.

The Government's scheme to introduce fruit and vegetables in schools is laudable. However, schools also receive commercial sponsorship from the manufacturers of fizzy drinks and crisps, which sends a peculiar message to young people. We must restore domestic science and practical subjects to the classroom for boys and girls because many people cannot boil the proverbial egg. A whole generation finds the preparation of a Pot Noodle challenging, which is unhelpful if one is trying to promote good diet and sensible food policy.

This is proving to be an interesting debate because our minds have been concentrated by the emergence of problems caused by an over-centralised supply chain. I thank the Minister for making time to debate these problems because they lie within he; remit. However, I hope that her presence does not mean that the Department of Health does not recognise the Government's broad responsibilities. Food policy affects the Treasury, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Department for Education and Employment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in addition to the Department of Health.

10.33 am
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his success in obtaining this important debate. However, the number of hon. Members who want to participate will disappoint him. Food quality has been a high-profile issue for many years and it is disappointing that more hon. Members, particularly Opposition Members—

Mr. Stephen O'Brien


Mr. Moss

I mean Government Members, who are opposite us. In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Stroud talked about difficulties in the food chain. He mentioned BSE, swine fever, bovine TB, foot and mouth and hormones in beef. Those affect the quality of meat products and bovine TB also affects milk. We could look beyond animals and consider pesticide levels in fruit and vegetables. Controls on the growing number of genetically modified crop trials and standards for organic food could also be mentioned.

Dr. Brand

Is the hon. Gentleman implying that food-related concerns may relate to GM crops?

Mr. Moss

I am talking about food production in general. The debate is about the end product and the quality of food. I am not saying that the food produced from GM crops will necessarily injure individuals' health.

The matters that I have mentioned are all within the remit of the Minister. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food still retains that title. However, no representative from the Food Standards Agency is here. I would also have expected a Minister, or other representative, from the Department of Health to be present today, as responsibility for the issue has been transferred to that Department from MAFF.

That lack of representation allows us to focus on a problematic dichotomy: the dissociation of food production from the end product in the shops. The process of control and regulation—from the farmer, through the farm gate, to the processor and the supermarkets—should be continuous and integrated. If we separate its stages too much, we do it a disservice. I would like the debate to take account of the fact that the process should be an harmonious whole. We should not isolate its different stages into pigeonholes.

Foot and mouth has been mentioned. I follow the lead of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) in reiterating that foot and mouth has no implications for the quality of beef, lamb and pork, or any knock-on effect on human health. That important message must be conveyed. However, the causes of the terrible outbreak have ramifications for animal welfare and, therefore, for food safety.

The closure of abattoirs, which the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) mentioned, and moves to slaughter animals in larger and more diverse geographic units, has caused greater movement of animals. When the report on the outbreak is published, it may indicate that that has been an ingredient in the more rapid spread of this especially malevolent disease. Following comments that other hon. Members have made, I welcome the Minister, and thank her for her presence at a time when she and her Department are deeply involved in the terrible crisis. We look forward to her remarks.

Milk prices have been mentioned. It seems unreasonable that farmers at the farm gate sometimes get a price for their milk that is lower than their production costs. Will the Minister comment on any plans that the Government might have to introduce legislation to prohibit products being sold in supermarkets at prices that are lower than producers' costs?

My hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury has talked brilliantly on labelling, about which he .knows a great deal. I will not cover the same ground, but I urge the Minister to answer my hon. Friend's questions as he brought great expertise to bear on the subject. Although the Government pay some lip service to labelling, they have not, in the opinion of Conservative Members, done what they need to do to rectify the problems associated with it.

I will concentrate my remarks in the next few minutes on imports. Conservative Members feel that our farmers and producers are subject to greater regulation and red tape than many of their counterparts in the EU, to say nothing of the rest of the world. We feel that those regulations and that red tape should not bear down on them disproportionately so as to disadvantage them. We believe that food imports that do not meet the standards required by law for British farmers must not be allowed to undercut British produce and undermine British standards.

When we return to government, we intend to use article 36 of the treaty of Rome, which defines the circumstances in which cross-border trade can be restricted, to ban unfair agricultural imports. The obstruction of British beef exports by France and Germany has shown just how other EU procedures can be used to disadvantage unfairly British farmers. The Government have repeatedly refused to subject imports to the same standards that they impose on British farmers. Instead, they have assumed, without foundation, that restricting imports on the basis of animal welfare would not be admissible under article 36.

In 1995, when the Labour party was in opposition, the then spokesman on agriculture, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang), spoke on the "Today" programme about Labour's plans to halt the export of veal calves. He said: We don't doubt that this would lead to a legal challenge. But we believe the British public would rather see this argued through the courts and a real attempt made to end this system. Of course, in government, the Labour party has failed to take any action of that kind, on the basis of animal welfare or on that of other food standards, such as safety and hygiene.

One of the examples that we put to the Government was that of the French sewage scandal. A European Commission report exposed France as a nation in which animal and possibly human waste had been routinely and illegally used in farm feedstuffs. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was quoted in The Daily Telegraph of 26 October 1999 as saying: The EU's report describes practices which are illegal, highly undesirable and needed to be stopped but there is no immediate justification on safety grounds to engage in the withdrawal of products. The Government chose to ignore the scientific advice at the time. Professor Hugh Pennington, who conducted the investigation into the Lanarkshire E. coli outbreak was quoted in the Daily Mail on 26 October 1999 as saying If you are padding out animal feed with treated sewage, the likelihood is that the gunge will also include ground-up animal waste including nervous tissue. This means that there is danger of BSE in addition to the very real possibility of bacterial infections. Then there is the more recent risk of BSE in French beef. The French Government have consistently excused their illegal ban on British beef on the grounds that BSE is common in Britain but rare in France. It is true that the epidemic in Britain has been much greater than anywhere else in Europe, but infection rates are now rising in France, at the same time as they are falling in this country.

For some time, British farmers have had their suspicions that cases of BSE in France have been underreported. Those suspicions were spectacularly confirmed when the European Commission published a damning investigation into the failure of the French authorities either to contain or honestly to report their growing BSE epidemic. The Commission released the results of that investigation in February 2000. The final report exposed a catalogue of lax procedures that would be unthinkable in Britain, and which almost certainly resulted in massive under-reporting of BSE in France.

I shall cite five conclusions of the report. First, technicians rather than veterinarians performed inspections of suspect animals before slaughter. Secondly, there was poor compliance with rules demanding special certificates for possible BSE cases. Thirdly, animals with neurological disorders were instantly diagnosed as victims of non-BSE diseases. Fourthly, animals that died before slaughter were admitted to the food chain without inspection. Finally, cattle feed routinely showed traces of meat and bone meal—there is, of course, an EU-wide ban on the use of animal protein in cattle feed. So we have said for some time that we should carefully inspect the quality of beef imports from Franc and other countries in which the BSE problem is now increasing.

The Food Standards Agency has become something of a fig leaf. When during Agriculture questions we ask Ministers about any matter relating to food, the answer comes back, "That's not our remit; that's nothing to do with us. That is the Food Standards Agency's responsibility." However, never since the Food Standards Agency has been in operation has a question about food been asked during Health questions.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food tMs Joyce Quin

So table one.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien

We have tried.

Mr. Moss

My hon. Friend says that we have tried, but we are getting no clear answers.

Mr. O'Brien

It has been difficult to frame questions that the Table Office has been prepared to accept. Since a form of words on the Food Standards Agency for Health questions has been agreed with the Table Office, it just happens that. despite desperate attempts, we have been unlucky in the shuffle.

Mr. Moss

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for trying on so many occasions to ask such questions. We must keep trying because the Minister concerned admitted to me privately that she has not been asked one question on the FSA since she took over her responsibilities. That cannot be right.

In conclusion, two issues relate to the quality of beef imports. Cattle more than 30 months old are now routinely tested, we are told, in those EU countries that have BSE. It is admitted that the test is not foolproof, so it is likely that over-30-month meat is still being imported in carcass form—and that, crucially, for many years, it has been admitted in processed form. Although we introduced the rule that no over-30-month-old animal would enter our food chain, we have discovered—I have questioned Ministers on this many times—that processed meat has been allowed into this country during the past few years that must have contained meat from over-30-month cattle. It may well be argued that now that over-30-month testing is being introduced in Europe, that problem will disappear, but that does not answer the question of why such processed meat has been allowed in during the past few years.

Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has several times denied that arty over-30-month-old processed meat ever entered the food chain. The Department no longer claims that, but the last time that the Minister of State was challenged on the Floor of the House to say what was the truth, she ducked the question. I trust that she will not duck it today

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) introduced the debate with a characteristically thoughtful speech that reflected the keen interest that he has taken in agriculture and food in his constituency and in his work on the Select Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In case anyone reading the Hansard report of our debate gets a misleading impression from the comments about attendance made by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), I should make it clear that three Labour Members, two official Opposition Members and one Liberal Democrat Member have been present. Otherwise, the impression that hordes of Opposition Members attended might falsely be given.

The debate takes place against the serious backcloth of foot and mouth disease. It is not surprising that all Members who have spoken have expressed their deep concern and strong support for those most affected by the dreadful outbreak. The Government are tackling the disease, first and foremost by slaughtering and destroying large numbers of animals. Also, we are already paying compensation to farmers and allowing movement of some animals, both to slaughter and on welfare grounds. I know that there is agreement on such matters among all Members.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury I Mr. O'Brien) said that we should not be alarmist on food safety issues and foot and mouth disease. I strongly agree, and other Members also referred to that. It is wise to report on the gravity of the foot and mouth situation, but to avoid alarmist comments that could worry people unnecessarily. I feel that especially strongly, having been in Cumbria at the weekend. Some of the press reports, that all the skies were black, and that towns and villages were ghost places to which no one would want to go, were deeply inaccurate. Many in Cumbria said that they found such reporting upsetting and unhelpful as they coped with the actual situation.

I am sure that foot and mouth disease is already reinvigorating the debate on food policy, and more widely on agriculture policy. That comment fits with the broad thrust of the arguments and ideas proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud. However, we must recognise that a great deal of work has already been done. The Government have been actively engaged in devising a forward-looking strategy for agriculture, in seeing agriculture as a key part of the rural economy, and in seeing the link between agriculture and other parts of the economy. My Ministry takes co-operation and dialogue across the food chain seriously, and we have been considering the important issues that also affect other Departments and Government bodies. I commend that work. It has taken the domestic agenda on the issues forward, as it has the work that must go on at a European and a wider international level. When the foot and mouth crisis is overcome, I hope that some recognition will be given to the work that has already taken place. We can build a thoughtful debate for the future on it.

Understandably, the Food Standards Agency has been referred to a great deal during the debate. I do not accept that it is used as a fig leaf by Ministers, as the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire alleged. It is important that Ministers highlight the agency's work and responsibility, and where the ministerial line of accountability should be in relation to the FSA. That is simply to stress to the public that the creation of the FSA met a real need, and that we are keen that its work should be properly appreciated and understood.

I can think of no subject that can be neatly contained within the work of one Department of State. The problems of joined-up government, referred to by several hon. Members, are real. For example, I have been involved in the active promotion of the Department of Health's free fruit scheme for school children. I have tremendous enthusiasm for it, not only because it sends out an important message about healthy eating and nutrition, but because it offers help to the horticulture industry in finding new markets and customers. It makes perfect sense to take a joined-up approach. I was pleased to take part in promotional efforts at Hill Mead school in south London and other schools in the area; not only did they stress the importance of healthy eating but they increased awareness of rural issues in urban areas. That sort of joined-up work is important.

Mr. Moss

We are all in favour of joined-up government, but the Minister has not yet explained why she and not the Minister for Public Health, who is responsible for the FSA, is answering a debate on food policy

Ms Quin

The subject of the debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud includes a good many issues that are the responsibility of my Department, including the food chain initiative referred to by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand), and reform of the common agricultural policy. The latter is a key element, because we are not divorced from Europe on agricultural matters. Those questions are extremely important for my Department. In the context of my hon. Friend's remarks, I must conclude that it was right for an Agriculture Minister to respond. In preparing for the debate,I have had contact with other Departments. Such matters are not hermetically sealed; nor should they be. The hon. Member for Eddisbury took me to task once again over his labelling Bill. A number of points need to be made in response. I find it rather odd still to be accused of talking out a Bill when less than a third of the time was made available to me—the rest of it was taken by the hon. Gentleman himself—and I did not have enough time to respond to the valid points raised in that debate. If he were to ask whether the Government were in favour of a Bill in that form, the answer would be no. It would have taken us directly into illegality in Europe. However, I hope that I can give him some reassurance.

Having promoted the idea of labelling to show country of origin in conjunction with the Italian agriculture Minister at a recent Agriculture Council meeting, I assure the hon. Member for Eddisbury that we are actively considering the matter. It is time to overhaul European Union labelling arrangements, because various directives are causing confusion. Fruit and vegetables have country-of-origin labelling, which is extremely helpful to consumers. Beef and wine are also now labelled with their country of origin. We also have regional appellations, which give more information to consumers.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We now come to the next debate.

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