§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Chapman.]10.16 pm
§ Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)
The reason for this debate is to seek action for a major sector of agriculture.
Poultry is the most popular meat in Britain, selling one and a half times more than beef and as much as pork and lamb combined. Last year, the poultry sector had a combined production value of £1,766 million. It employs about 50,000 people, mostly based in rural areas. It uses 30 per cent. of the total United Kingdom feed wheat harvest and therefore directly affects other sectors of agriculture.
The poultry industry receives no direct subsidies or income support under the common agricultural policy. It is highly competitive within Europe, but, unfortunately, it is now suffering job losses and is threatened by cut-price imports from the third world. Of the poultrymeat now available in the United Kingdom, 18 per cent. is imported at a price that is between 5p and 6p in the pound below that obtained through British production.
The problem is being exacerbated by European legislation on poultrymeat inspection charges, which has been implemented in five out of the 12 European Community countries. The United Kingdom is alone in failing to provide financial assistance to reduce the charges to its industry.
Local authorities have been burdened with the responsibility for the regulations, for the collection of the charges for the inspections as well as for all aspects of food health. I submit that that system is not good for the local authorities or for the poultry industry. It has meant that the United Kingdom's cost burden on production is 4p per pound compared with our French competitors. I am told that the Food Safety Act 1990 has added another 1/2p in the pound to United Kingdom costs compared to those of the French industry.
Government policy has created significant on-costs to the poultry industry, thereby widening the trade gap, encouraging lower priced imports and inhibiting the export competitiveness of British companies. Any loss in home production will be immediately replaced by imports, and 18 per cent. of United Kingdom poultry consumed already comes mainly from France, Denmark and Holland. There are ominous signs of import penetration of meat from eastern Europe, Brazil and Thailand at dramatically lower production costs.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
Has my hon. Friend seen the letter from Mr. Stephen, the group director of Grampian Country Foods Ltd., one of the fastest growing and most enterprising poultry companies? Mr. Stephen argues that the imports from Thailand and Brazil are entering at about 60 per cent. of the production costs in the United Kingdom because those countries have been able to take advantage of access to exports of subsidised European Community grain.
§ Mr. Welsh
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those enterprising companies are now faced with unfair competition. They believe that, given a level playing field, they have the quality to take on any competitors and win.
No information is available about the British Government's action to ensure that imported food products conform to United Kingdom safety standards. 121 Because of the extra burdens placed on the United Kingdom industry, as imports grow the Government's problem in maintaining safety standards will increase. The Government have rightly laid down those standards for our industry, but they are not on a level playing field.
The Government's present policy gives us the worst of both worlds, especially in the context of a net £6 billion trade deficit in food and drink products. On the Government's insistence, the poultry industry has taken on board all aspects of food quality, hygiene and safety as required under the Food Safety Act 1990, as well as poultry inspection costs. They did so while recognising that those huge on-costs would rapidly lead to an uncompetitive position. Such a position has existed for the past 12 months, and unless a level playing field is created to allow that non-subsidised, professional part of the food sector more freedom to compete, there will be major redundancies and reduced job opportunities, and rural communities will be destroyed. The net result will be an inevitable increase in imported poultry.
Is it the Government's desired policy to oversee the demise of the poultry industry? If not, will the Parliamentary Secretary explain what the Government intend to do about it? Animal welfare standards must be encouraged Communitywide. Severe welfare standards or those that are not replicated raise United Kingdom costs of production and lead to lost export markets, while home market competitors use methods and practices that have rightly been banned here.
My sympathies rest with the animal welfare organisations, which also have a duty to ensure that reforms here do not handicap our industry, or encourage or reward bad practice elsewhere. What progress are the Government making with other Governments? Will they ensure that Europewide improvements are instituted at a pace that will not handicap our industry while it adjusts to improved animal welfare standards? Will the Parliamentary Secretary assure me that there will be a level playing field?
The egg sector, too, is important, with an annual production valued at some £500 million. The egg sector has been particularly damaged by outside interference. The Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary association agreements have caused poultry levy reductions of up to 60 per cent. over a three-year period. Linked with large amounts of American inward investment, that will put enormous pressure on the United Kingdom poultry industry, which must result in severe cost-cutting exercises. It must mean redundancies, and knock-on losses for cereal producers—quite apart from the obvious problems that loom in regard to the GATT negotiations.
Do the Government wish some 20 per cent. of all the eggs that are sold in this country to come from Poland or Hungary in three years' time? How will such imports be dealt with under the salmonella and welfare regulations? What tests will they undergo, and what security will British consumers be given?
Despite higher feed costs, in most years the United Kingdom industry can compete effectively with its European competitors. It usually supplies 98 per cent. of the home market—or did, until that outburst from the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), about which the less said the better: in 1990, the figure fell to 93 per cent., and the industry is only now managing to fight the imports.
I question the basis of the Government's present policy. Let me refer the Minister to the evidence submitted by the 122 public health laboratory service to the Select Committee on Agriculture on 11 January 1989. Paragraph 17.3 refers specifically to the eradication of salmonella pullorum as the basis for similar flock destruction to eliminate salmonella enteritidis—PT4. Sir Donald Acheson, the Department of Health's chief medical officer, said that the solution lay less in end use in kitchen and cooking processes than incontrol of the infection at source".If we combine those statements, it seems that the policy of flock slaughter is the Government's answer. As a result, an enormous burden of testing and inspection has been placed on the industry. The Minister's own departmental evidence to the Committee stated that salmonella enteritidis was ubiquitous. According to paragraph 18,Salmonella organisms are present in many areas of the environment and are persistent. There is no technically sound method which is certain to eliminate them from laying houses. Even after very thorough cleansing and disinfection, salmonella may recur. Because of this, a policy of slaughtering flocks with the aim of eradicating salmonella would not have a realistic prospect of success. There would be a serious risk that even after an infected flock had been slaughtered out and the premises disinfected, subsequent flocks in the same building could become infected from the environment.That evidence, given to the Minister by his own Department, was ignored in the policy that the Government subsequently produced.
That MAFF/Department of Health view, so clearly stated on 11 January 1989, leaves us wondering what has changed since then—apart from the fact that more than £4 million has been paid out in slaughter compensation for more than 2.5 million birds that have been slaughtered. The Minister ignored the advice of his own Department, and that led to a slaughter policy that is wrongly founded and bound to fail.
Why did the PHLS use the example of a host-specific organism such as pullorum as the model to eradicate enteritidis, which is well documented as a non-host-specific and ubiquitous organism? Given that it is a specific phage type, on what evidence of phage-typing was it established that type 4 was specific to poultry? It is well documented that the phage type does not appear to affect the host specificity of other salmonella strains.
For example, pullorum has several phage types, all specific to poultry. Typhi has many types specific to humans. There is no evidence that enteritidis phage type 4 is confined to poultry in the same way that pullorum is. It is perfectly logical to conclude that type 4 is widespread not only in other avian species but in other animals and in the general environment. If salmonella E affects humans, why does it not also affect poultry? After all, we are discussing living organisms with their own defence mechanisms.
While more cases than hitherto of salmonella E in humans have been traced to foods containing eggs, usually uncooked or partly cooked, the great majority of these cases have involved food prepared outside the home and frequently associated with poor hygiene and/or handling practices.
The incidence of naturally infected eggs is low. A 1989 survey of 300 flocks in Canada led Agriculture Canada to conclude that less than one egg in a million would be thus infected. The natural defences possessed by the egg militate strongly against widespread infection or multiplication of the organism in the intact egg. The risk to consumers of being infected with salmonella E as a result 123 of eating eggs at home is almost zero. That was never the impression produced by the massive public fuss following the statement by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South.
The risk is somewhat increased outside the home, but it remains extremely low compared with many other risks to which consumers expose themselves daily. Given the scientific knowledge available, the eradication of any salmonella species, especially one as ubiquitous as this, is not feasible in the short term. Even if it were posssible, there is no assurance that such a reduction among laying hens would be reflected in lower numbers of outbreaks in the human population.
Having disturbed the balance of natural immunity, the Swedes, who attempted such a programme, now apparently find that the level of salmonella in their population is higher than ever, and much higher than this country's.
The eradication policy was based on a generalisation and a previous example that was invalid—it did not compare like with like.
Will the Government abandon their slaughter and inspection policy and look again at a proper scientific investigation into these forms of salmonella? Now that the fuss has died down, in the calm and quiet that prevails, will they look again at the problem with a proper scientific investigation to find out the truth? It is crucial to get to the truth of the matter, because the egg industry may have been cruelly and unfairly misused on insufficient and hurried evidence.
I have tried to highlight the dangers of an uneven playing field for this important industry. I have questioned the Government's policy on salmonella and eggs. I have questioned its damaging effect on poultrymeat and especially the effects of inspection charges. Both factors have been exacerbated by the fact that the Food Safety Act applies only to the United Kingdom.
These aspects add major costs throughout the industry. That will lead to loss of market share and to imports that are not subject to similar impositions and safety provisions. The Government created this problem; what do they intend to do to provide solutions? The industry and I look forward to the Minister's detailed answers.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry)
The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) has made a series of points about the poultry industry. I shall arrange for my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) to answer the points to do with public health if I cannot cover them this evening, and I shall attempt to deal with the points relating specifically to the industry.
During the salmonella crisis, consumer confidence completely collapsed. There followed a catastrophic decline in sales. The Government were not able to work out a response at their leisure. We had a crisis that had to be dealt with and that is why the Government took immediate and far-reaching action. Failure to do so would have meant that the industry would have died in the water. It is significant that there has been a great recovery in confidence in the industry because of the measures that we 124 have taken. It is a credit to the industry that it co-operated in the implementation of those measures and that so many producers recognised the need for urgency.
I recall the Select Committee to which the hon. Gentleman refers because I was a member of it. The evidence to the Committee and the Committee's report endorsed in broad measure the steps that were taken by the Government to deal with the crisis.
§ Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)
Why did not the Government feel confident enough to respond immediately to the crisis? Given all the information that was available to the Government, they should surely have been able to obviate the whole problem, which arose because of careless remarks by a junior Minister.
§ Mr. Curry
The Government cannot respond at 10 minutes' notice to a collapse that spread across the industry and affected consumer confidence throughout the country. Most of the reproaches against the Government are that we responded too quickly with measures that were too far reaching. Most of the pressures from the industry were directed at trying to unwind some of the measures. As I shall shortly explain, in so far as the Government think it prudent to do so, we have pursued that policy.
The hon. Member for Angus, East has raised some important issues. I accept the dilemma about animal welfare. We have a choice. We can say that we will do nothing until there is a Community-wide agreement. The result of that is that measures, which I am sure every hon. Member considers to be important, would not be taken. For example, if we had said that we would not outlaw veal crates until they were outlawed throughout the Community, they would still not be outlawed. If we had not taken measures on the tethering system for pigs until a ban was agreed in the Community, pigs would still be tethered.
There comes a point at which we must ask whether these issues matter sufficiently to us to ask our industry to see to them, knowing that measures will not be taken elsewhere however hard we try to bring them about. The answer to whether we do our utmost to ensure that Community harmonisation produces the standards that we observe in the United Kingdom is yes. However, the hon. Gentleman knows that I cannot guarantee the outcome because matters are decided by majority vote. An animal welfare issue arose at a recent Council meeting and for the first time the United Kingdom voted against the package because the measures did not go far enough. I am unable to guarantee that we can deliver in such circumstances, but the dilemma is real, as the hon. Gentleman realises.
§ Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend. Does he accept that, while we are educating the rest of Europe, our producers will be going bankrupt?
§ Mr. Curry
Much depends on the circumstances. I do not accept that our producers necessarily go bankrupt. In some areas of activity our producers have a good marketing campaign as a result of our measures. I know from talking to supermarket groups that pork from animals reared in what I might call pig-friendly conditions is taking a growing share of the market. I appreciate that one can argue about the definition of free-range because the term is covered by a series of Community definitions, 125 but free-range chickens are selling in increasing numbers. One should not always regard such matters in a negative way, because there is often a marketing advantage.
The hon. Member for Angus, East is a reasonable man. How do we deal with eastern Europe? It will not go away. The most logical way to help people there is to accept what they can produce. But we must strike a balance between what we can accept from that area and the impact of those imports on our industry. The hon. Gentleman represents a Scottish constituency and knows the difficulties that arose on Tayside in the soft fruit industry. In that example an association agreement has put down some firm signposts for a trade for which we had to rely on recent safeguard action by the Commission. None of us can ignore these dilemmas.
I shall try to deal with the salmonella issue. The Government are keeping under review the whole package of measures to control the problem of salmonella in eggs and poultry. We have introduced some changes which have sought to ease the burden on producers without compromising the protection of public health. In particular, we have recently agreed, with the support of the Department of Health, to allow eggs from infected flocks to go for pasteurisation in approved plants under strictly controlled conditions. While we are satisfied that the pasteurisation process, properly carried out, is effective in producing a safe product, it must be for the producer and the industry in this country to consider the use that they wish to make of such arrangements. We are exploring the possibility of exporting eggs from infected flocks for pasteurisation abroad.
It is important that the industry has its own decisions to take. The hon. Gentleman will know, for example, that we have banned the use of specified bovine offals in feed. The fact is, however, that the United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association, the feed compounders and the retail trade have introduced what is effectively a voluntary ban on the use of offals. That is not something that the Government impose. It is something that the trade has decided that the consumer would be reassured with and, therefore, it does not have a statutory backing. The trade decides at the end of the day that it needs to be able to reassure the consumer.
Subject to the possibility of greater interest in pasteurisation in future, I have to say that at present we see no viable alternative to slaughter for infected breeding and laying flocks. It has yet to be established that antibiotic or other treatment can be effective in restoring an infected flock to a state in which it can safely be allowed to return to production. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the use of antibiotics brings its own problems of residues, for example. We are considering, with the Department of Health, what further work could realistically be done in this area.
For the longer term, research work is in hand on the possible development of a vaccine to protect poultry flocks against salmonella infection throughout their laying period. Much work remains to be done before we can expect adequately to evaluate the practical feasibility of such an approach.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the actions of other member states. Several states have taken measures in recent years to tackle the problem of salmonella—especially salmonella enteritidis—in poultry flocks. There are similarities and differences with our own approach. In France, for example, which has been cited frequently, 126 controls have been operated through a voluntary scheme, which has been taken up by the vast majority of producers. Originally confined to breeders and hatcheries, the scheme has recently been extended to all levels of the laying flock. The individual producer undertakes to abide by specific codes of practice and to submit his flocks to regular tests. Should there be evidence of salmonella pullorum or salmonella enteritidis, he has to accept slaughter of the flocks concerned. In return, the state undertakes to contribute to the costs of the tests and to pay compensation.
In the Netherlands——
§ Mr. Andrew Welsh
There is a massive feeling in the industry that if salmonella enteritidis is ubiquitous, a host of inspectors will find it and slaughter. That is the point that I was trying to get across to the Minister. The fundamental premise on which the Government's policy is based is wrong. Pullorum was more specific. Enteritidis is ubiquitous. There is a strong feeling in the industry that if there is an extension to the whole of the Common Market, a host of inspectors will find and slaughter. I ask the Government fundamentally to examine the policy and to ensure that it is based on a proper scientific evidential basis.
§ Mr. Curry
Our scientific advice is that we are pursuing the right policy. As I have been explaining, our colleagues on the continent appear to be pursuing the same course. France has a slaughter policy, as have the Dutch.
Perhaps it will be helpful if I outline the proposals that are coming from the Commission, which in due course will be European-wide. The Commission has published a draft regulation for the control of salmonella and certain other zoonoses throughout the European Community. It has been drafted largely in response to pressure from the United Kingdom for salmonella controls to be introduced on a Community-wide basis. That is precisely because we recognise the validity of the demands that there should be a level playing field.
There are, however, three important differences from the United Kingdom measures, and in some respects the Commission would go further than us. First, the proposals provide for the control of salmonella in commercial laying flocks, as in the United Kingdom at present, but not coming into operation until July 1994. Secondly, the proposal requires the testing of broilers and breeding flocks for salmonella and heat treatment of infected flocks whereas the United Kingdom's testing and slaughter measures apply only at parent and grandparent broiler breeder levels. Thirdly, the proposal requires the testing of poultry compound feeding stuffs for salmonella, which is not the case in the United Kingdom, where certain high-risk feed ingredients are required to be tested, with codes of practice operating for the control of salmonella in feeding stuffs and raw materials.
Under the proposal, flocks which are found to be infected will be subject to movement restrictions and their eggs may be used only in the manufacture of pasteurised egg products.
§ Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)
Surely the one action that could be taken immediately is to alter the basis of meat inspection from local government to national Government. That happens throughout the European Community, including Northern Ireland. That measure 127 would remove the 4p in the pound disadvantage that the British producer faces compared with producers in the rest of the EC.
§ Mr. Curry
As my hon. Friend knows, we conducted a review of the meat inspection system. That review has concluded and we are considering its proposals. I hope that, when we can make those proposals public, they will be well received by the industry. There is much work to do. The disparity in the charges of local authorities is of concern.
The Commission's proposals are now out for consultation with the industry and other interested bodies. We shall take careful account of what they say when we begin to negotiate in Brussels. An agreement on an EC-wide arrangement is an important priority for the United Kingdom. We hope that the Portuguese presidency 128 will aim for discussions early next year, but I assure the House that it is amongst the top priorities for our presidency. In the meantime, for reasons which I explained, we do not consider that there is a viable alternative to the slaughter policy.
We cannot compromise on matters affecting food safety. I recognise the problems that the industry faces. We are in constant touch with it. We listen hard to its concerns and do our best to respond to them, in terms of the way in which we manage activities and in response to the wider European issue. The argument for the level playing field is powerful, and we shall do our best to achieve it, provided it is borne in mind that in matters of overwhelming importance the United Kingdom must retain the discretion to act in the interests of public safety and the industry.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.