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First Standing Committee on European Community Documents


Thursday 21 June 1990


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Sir John Hunt

Carlile, Mr. Alex (Montgomery)

Jack, Mr. Michael (Fylde)

Jones, Mr. Martyn (Clwyd, South-West)

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

Maclean, Mr. David (Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Malins, Mr. Humfrey (Croydon, North-West)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle)

Miscampbell, Mr. Norman (Blackpool, North)

Morley, Mr. Elliot (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Peacock, Mrs. Elizabeth (Batley and Spen)

Pike, Mr. Peter L. (Burnley)

Stanley, Sir John (Tonbridge and Malling)

Stewart, Mr. Andy (Sherwood)

Summerson, Mr. Hugo (Walthamstow)

Twinn, Dr. Ian (Edmonton)

Wardle, Mr. Charles (Bexhill and Battle)

Williams, Mr. Alan W. (Carmarthen)

Wood, Mr. Timothy (Stevenage)

Mr. R. J. Rogers, Committee Clerk

3 First Standing Committee on European Community Documents Thursday 21 June 1990

[SIR JOHN HUNT in the Chair]


10.30 am

Motion made, and Question proposed: That this Committee takes note of European Community Document No. 10438/89 and the Supplementary Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 12th March 1990 on marketing standards for poultrymeat; and supports the Government's aim of negotiating measures that take account of the interests of consumers and poultry producers in the United Kingdom.—[Mr. Maclean.]

10.31 am

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): I shall make only a few remarks to allow the Minister to catch his breath. He and I face the same difficulty. I am supposed to appear in two Committees this morning and while I am here one of my colleagues is attending the other. When a number of European items are being dealt with, one can become confused trying to discover in which Rooms they are being considered. This document on poultrymeat is of some importance and I raised the matter with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food earlier in the year. I agree with the line that it is following because harmonisation raises questions about the sale of farm-fresh products and the difficulties which that involves. It is obvious that the line pursued actively by the Ministry is supported by those in the industry. The objectives of harmonisation are to have a uniform health guarantee throughout the European Community, to ensure free circulation of all goods and to ensure a high level of protection of animals and public health. It also aims to reduce the distortion of competition between producers in the different countries of the Community and to control infectious diseases present in wildlife which could be transmitted to domesticated animals. We support all of those highly desirable objectives. Derogations and exemptions are referred to in the porposals and I know that the Ministry has been following up queries about the definition of "small quantity" and "same area" that arise from them. How have those consultations been progressing? These issues are likely to be the subject of later debate and that clarification would he helpful. 4 As fresh poultrymeat is considered a highly perishable foodstuff, it is desirable that the date of minimum durability should be replaced by the "use by" date. There is argument about the best way forward and the Minister should tell us how he views the position because such proposals are covered by various Acts. If conflict arises between the provisions of the Food Safety Bill, if it is enacted, and the proposal that we are considering, which legislation will be applicable? Traditional farm-fresh poultry, is the greatest cause of worry. The United Kingdom market for poultrymeat is quite large. It is highly desirable that that should continue, not only for the British Poultry Federation and the National Farmers Union but for the consumer. In recent debates on other issues, the Minister has said that it must be left to consumer choice, although, on one occasion, we took a slightly different line. Consumers have been shown to want to purchase such poultry. The Minister will be aware that many New York dressed turkeys are sold at Christmas time and that there is a growing market for them at Easter time. I speak of the matter now because a turkey producer in my constituency raised the matter with quite some force just before Christmas. It was then that I learnt that the Ministry was actively pursuing that highly desirable line. We want to be sure that the market in traditional farm-fresh poultry continues in the United Kingdom. There should be equality of treatment for the traditional products of member states in the EEC. Farm-fresh birds are premium products, appreciated by the customer. The availability of traditional farm-fresh chickens, turkeys and geese widens choice. That poultry comes mainly from small-scale producers. Semi-eviscerated birds—the traditional method of farm production in France and Italy—are included in the draft regulations, but uneviscerated birds are not. Trade in traditional poultry is primarily to be found in the member state in which it is produced. There should be equality of opportunity for intra-community trade; that is one objective of such measures as this. The Ministry has so far supported that view and has sought parity between uneviscerated and semi-eviscerated poultry. There has been some opposition to that by the Commission and others. The Commission has stated that non-inclusion in the regulation does not mean that uneviscerated birds cannot be sold, subject to the relevant health rules. Ministers have raised the matter in the Council and have secured a declaration from the Commissioner that non-inclusion in the regulation will not affect the status of uneviscerated poultry. Nevertheless, if the regulation remains as currently proposed, it is likely that semi-eviscerated poultry from other member states will be permitted to be traded into the United Kingdom while our products will be excluded from other EEC countries. Further harmonisation will deal with health. That is not yet finalised, but it has been put forcibly to me that, on a point of law, what we have been told may not be applicable. We should be quite certain that even if a product is not listed in the proposals and the producers are not named, it can be freely sold. Those are my anxieties. I hope that the Minister can reassure us. We go along with the broad objectives of the document, but there remain a few queries. I do not think that there is much difference between the parties here, as we 5 are all anxious to protect the interests of both the consumer and the industry.

10.40 am

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery): I have two points to make about the document. First, I support the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). It is essential that the Commission should understand that the British housewife will not be told that she can no longer buy farm-fresh chickens. This goes further than chickens bought at the farm, or, in my case, at the village butcher's shop on a Saturday morning. For example, once a week the Welshpool branch of the women's insitute holds a produce sale in the market, at which jams, chutneys, pies and farm-fresh chickens are sold. Many of the ladies in the women's institute are farmers and farmers' wives. We buy our farm-fresh chickens from the women's institute, and we are blowed if we will be stopped from doing so by a bureaucratic measure. I do not know how much is known about the Welshpool WI in Brussels, but the bureaucrats ought to be told that if they ignore the views of women's institutes in the United Kingdom, they will be in deep trouble. A demonstration by the WI would have a greater impact than a procession of French farmers in Bulgarian and Czecholslovakian tractors. Secondly, I understand that the proposal is a framework measure, as it contains no specific details of what is intended in due course. I am worried about the injection of water into meat, including poultry. I pay tribute to trading standards officers—I single out the chief inspector of trading standards and his deputy in the county of Shropshire—who have done everthing in their power to expose the injection of water into meat. I have been involved both professionally and politically with the problem, and have seen some of the journals of the meat trade. Anyone who can sell water at meat prices is making a jolly sight greater profit than he would selling meat at meat prices—despite all that the Government have done to increase the price of water. Month after month, these journals advertise machines, devices and systems for selling water at meat prices. The ways in which the water is injected almost defy belief. I have read detailed descriptions, and sometimes they involve destroying the structure of the meat and reconstituting it after water, polyphosphates and many other ingredients have been injected. The regulations coming from Europe will be important in two respects. First, they will have to ensure that the water content in poultry, and all forms of meat, is kept down to the minimum level consistent with reasonable marketing practices. That is extremely important to the consumer, who otherwise will be swindled. Consumers, housewives and husbands, buying meat, including poultry, from the best supermarket chains and grocers are being swindled by meat processors, who put large quantities of water into it. The other important feature of the European regulation is protection for farmers. Many poultry producers in this country are small producers and if the processors can get away with injecting water into chickens, poultry producers lose money that they should be making from the sale of their chickens. I know that the industry is worried about that because I have received many representations on it. Some poultry producers are huge; but many are small, their margins are extremely tight and they face many problems, often unpredictable. A proper water content regime will 6 ensure that when a housewife buys a chicken or other poultry product it will be as stated on the label. That is also important for farmers. Will the Minister ensure that when further negotiations on the subject take place in the Community, those matters are kept well in mind?

10.46 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Maclean): I am delighted to reply to this short but important debate. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) began by referring to this as another hormonisation measure. It is notable that this is the third morning in succession when there has been considerable harmony between the Opposition and the Government on issues, which may be small in the overall range of Government business, but are important to British consumers in giving us the choice we desire. The hon. Gentleman put his finger on the crux of the matter when he referred to farm-fresh turkey and farm-fresh poultry. I and all my hon. Friends welcome the stirring contribution of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) who is a member of a party that believes in an integrated and federal Europe. It was wonderful to hear his speech, which would have done proud my hon. Friend and Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Sir J. Stokes). The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery was wearing his Union Jack waistcoat and told the foreigners where they could stuff their effilé poultry. There has been some confusion—not in the Committee, but outside—about the scope of the proposals. They would introduce standards on appearance of carcases and cuts—for example, flesh development, the presence of fat and the amount of damage—and requirements on labelling—for example, whether the poulty is fresh, frozen or quick frozen, and the method of chilling and type of farming. The proposals would also mean, as the hon. Member for Montgomery said, extension of controls on the extraneous water content of poultry other than chicken. The existing regulation No. 2976/76 on water content will be repealed when the new rules are in place. The hon. Member for Burnley was correct in saying that the proposals contain no provision on hygiene—for example, rules on slaughtering and evisceration, health inspections or conditions at slaughterhouses. Such matters are relevant to poultrymeat hygiene legislation, not these measures. The proposal for regulations to replace directive No. 71/118 on health rules for production and the placing of fresh poultrymeat on the market will be debated later. Any questions on that can be dealt with then. We have before us a simple framework regulation that provides for detailed rules to be adopted by the management committee procedure. The Commission adopted that approach because it learnt from its previous abortive attempt to draw up marketing standards in the 1970s that it is difficult to secure agreement to detailed measures. That was the problem with the jams directive. It is appropriate that, again, the WI and jams have been mentioned. If the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery reads the Hansard report of our debate on the organic farming directive two days ago, he will see that we had a long discussion on the WI and jams. The Council 7 learnt that it is impossible to have a standard European jam because all sorts of problems arise. The Commission's intention in bringing forward this proposal now is to ensure that EC-wide standards are introduced before 1992. There are differing marketing standards in member states and the Commission is anxious to ensure that there are no problems or barriers to trade. The Commission is worried about the German Government's proposal to introduce national standards on different types of chilling. That would act as a deterrent against imports to Germany, including those from the United Kingdom. We have carefully considered the comments made by interested parties on the proposals and have borne them in mind during our negotiations. Initially, we were not in favour of this legislation as the poultrymeat sector in the United Kingdom has been working pretty well. However, we concluded that EC legislation could provide some advantages, such as the standardisation of the definition of free range farming, which could help with our trade problems with Germany, for example. We thought that consumers would benefit from more information, such as labelling and controls on water content of other poultry in addition to those already covered. We supported the Commission on the need for measures to be as simple as possible, and to be of the kind that would lead discussions towards a system that would be helpful to consumers without being burdensome to the trade. We are aware of the general concern about lack of detail on the criteria for implementation of the standards. It is usual for detailed rules to be left for discussion after the adoption of the main regulation, as that allows flexibility. I assure that hon. Member for Burnley that we have not reached a conclusion on the definition of what is a small quantity, or on how many turkeys or chickens a week a producer can sell before the regulations apply or before he qualifies for a derogation. That matter is being discussed with the main poultry organisations and we are determined to ensure that we keep as many of our traditional farm sales as we can without blatantly driving a coach and horses through the intention of the European legislation.

Mr. Pike: How will the Minister make information about small quantities available, after the consultations have taken place? Will the final decisions be published?

Mr. Maclean: Of course it will come into the public domain, but I am not sure what the mechanism will be. When the Government have concluded what to fight for, we shall make our position clear in Europe. We need to establish the size of the derogation—how many turkeys or chickens a week, a month or per annum can be sold, and the extent of on-farm sales. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman what form the publication of that information will take, but undoubtedly he and his hon. Friends will table questions periodically, so that we can give the position at the time. If I am terribly pleased with our position, I shall issue a press release. The matter will not be kept secret, and will reach the public. Other matters have been raised, such as tolerances. On the definition of fresh poultrymeat, a temperature range of minus 2 degrees to plus 4 degrees, as requested by the British Poultry Federation is now proposed, so that traders can have a wide range of minimum storage temperatures. It has also accepted that setting of tolerances for frozen 8 poultrymeat should be discussed in the management committee. The text has been clarified on other matters, too. The hon. Member for Burnley asked about use-by or sell-by dates. In a product such as fresh poultrymeat, the use-by date would apply. I have already said in the Committee considering the Food Safety Bill and in countless press releases that we intend to get rid of sell-by dates and that use-by dates will be phased in by 20th December this year. Those will apply to fresh poultry products. Farm fresh poultry and uneviscerated birds has been the main cause of anxiety among my hon. Friends, Opposition Members and many others. We want to keep our traditional fresh farm poultry—known as New York dressed. As the hon. Gentleman said, that has been excluded from the proposal. The problem arises because the definition of "carcase" excludes uneviscerated poultry, although it includes effilé, which is the semi-eviscerated poultry that is produced in France, Spain and Italy. That caused much worry in the trade and among ordinary small producers in Wales, Scotland and England because, at the time, the Commission's proposals for regulations to replace Council directive 71/118 on poultrymeat hygiene had a similar omission. Uneviscerated poultry is now reinstated in the hygiene proposal. We pressed the Commission on why this marketing standards proposal does not also include uneviscerated poultry. It explained that the intention was that only the main types and presentations of poultry that were traded throughout the EEC should be covered. Uneviscerated poultry is produced only in the United Kingdom and Ireland, so it does not fall into that trading category. However, the Commission reassured us that that would not prevent such poultry being marketed provided that it was permitted under the hygiene rules. The UK has now obtained a formal assurance, which will be written into the Council minutes. I shall read the statement to the Committee, so that it is on the record. It states: "The Council and Commission state that the marketing of uneviscerated poultry (known also as New York Dressed or Traditional Farm Fresh) will continue to be permitted notwithstanding that marketing standards cannot be set for such poultry under this regulation." We consider that that is a satisfactory solution. Uneviscerated poultry can still be marketed, but it will not be subject to the detailed rules on grading—A, B, and so on—which, bearing in mind the many ways in which uneviscerated poultry is presented, would have been difficult to devise. Discussions on the proposals are at an advanced stage. We hope that they will be adopted by the Council next week. We consider that the proposals are now more sensible and practical than previously, and that they take account of the views of UK consumers. As the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery said, they will be good for farmers. They should be suitable for the poultry farms in the constituency of the hon. Member for Burnley.

Mr. Pike: We are happy with the Minister's clarification. We recognise that the Ministry has pursued a strong line on the issue, and the hon. Gentleman's explanation of the proposals is helpful and will be welcomed by consumers and producers. It is right that they should be included in the hygiene list. The Minister's reassurance will satisfy many people who were worried about the matter.


Mr. Maclean: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. It is helpful when hon. Members are united on an issue that will greatly benefit British consumers. I commend the motion to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this Committee takes note of European Community Document No. 10438/89 and the Supplementary Explanatory 10 Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 12th March 1990 on marketing standards for poultrymeat; and supports the Government's aim of negotiating measures that take account of the interests of consumers and poultry producers in the United Kingdom.

Committee rose at two minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Hunt, Sir John (Chairman)

Carlile, Mr. Alex

Jack, Mr.

Jones, Mr. Martyn

Maclean, Mr.

Peacock, Mrs.

Pike, Mr.

Stanley, Sir John

Stewart, Mr. Andy

Summerson, Mr.

Twinn, Dr.

Wood, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(2): Davies, Mr. Ron