First Standing Committee on European Community Documents


Nos. 4780/90 (Com(89)668, 4596/90 (Com(89)673, 4781/90 (Com(89)669, 4863/90 (Com(89)671, 4782/90 (Com(89)670) RELATING TO MEAT HEALTH STANDARDS

Thursday 12 July 1990


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


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

Jack, Mr. Michael (Fylde)

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

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlise)

Mates, Mr. Michael (Hampshire, East)

Morley, Mr. Elliot (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Moss, Mr. Malcolm (Cambridgeshire, North-East)

Pike, Mr. Peter L. (Burnley)

Raffan, Mr. Keith (Delyn)

Stern, Mr. Michael (Bristol, North-West)

Stewart, Mr. Ian (Hertfordshire, North)

Taylor, Mr. Matthew (Truro)

Trotter, Mr. Neville (Tynemouth)

Vaughan, Sir Gerard (Reading, East)

Waller, Mr. Gary (Keighley)

Williams, Mr. Alan W. (Carmarthen)

Wood, Mr. Timothy (Stevenage)

Ms. E. C. Samsen, Committee Clerk.

3 First Standing Committee on European Community Documents Thursday 12 July 1990

[SIR JOHN HUNT in the Chair]

EUROPEAN COMMUNITY DOCUMENTS Nos 4780/90, 4596/90, 4981/90, 4863/90 and 4782/90 relating to Meat Health Standards

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry): I beg to move, That this Committee takes note of the European Community Documents Nos. 4780/90, relating to health rules for poultrymeat, 4596/90, relating to health rules for fresh meat, 4781/90, relating to health rules for meat products, 4863/90, relating to health rules for minced meat and certain other meat preparations, and 4782/90, relating to the conditions for granting derogations from specific Community health rules on the production and marketing of products of animal origin; and supports the Government's aim of ensuring that any measures resulting from these proposals contribute to effective harmonisation and efficient hygiene controls throughout the Community. We have here five fairly complicated proposals, some of which are fairly imprecise. I shall try to outline the nuts and bolts of them so that the debate is as clear as possible. The proposals cover poultrymeat, fresh meat, meat products, minced meat and other preparations—a category that includes the British sausage, and conditions for granting derogations. Together, they form a package of proposals by the Commission for common standards for the production of all meat and processed meat. At present, two sets of rules operate in the member states, one applying to products going to export trade, and one to those limited to trade within the member states. The high standards that apply to the export trade are applied generally. The proposals are timed to come into force on 1 January 1993. The rules are not yet in place, and negotiations are not far advanced. However, we have urged industry that it must start preparing to get its house in order now, as it cannot afford to wait in the hope that there will be a delay. We realise that in some cases, some additional time may be needed, but we wish it to be as short as possible. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said in a similar debate yesterday, we believe that there should be no exceptions from the common standards, although there will be pressure to meet special requirements in remote areas and small premises. However, if they are necessary, these exceptions must be kept to a minimum, must be evenhanded and must operate throughout the Community. At the same time, there must be effective supervision and enforcement of the rules throughout the Community. That means that we have to find a sensible role for the environmental health officers who form-the backbone of our monitoring and supervisory inspection services at present, although the role of veterinary surgeons is likely to he enlarged because of their role in intra-Community trade. 4 The other aspect that we have to watch carefully is that measures that refer to specific product areas—which are thus vertical measures in the Community jargon—should not be at odds with measures that have a general application—which are horizontal measures in the Community jargon. We do not want a kind of variable geometry—or is it trigonometry—on the rules developing for health standards for meat and meat products. The Community has already taken steps towards creating common public health rules for fresh meat. The directive 88/409 extends to ante mortem inspection of plants serving domestic markets, and rules on hygiene and inspection, which currently apply to those approved for intra-Community trade. Directive 88/408 lays down rules for charges for the cost of carrying out hygiene controls and meat inspection. We have to implement those on 1 January 1991, and we are about to consult the interests concerned on the means by which we bring them into force. The new proposal would extend the structural and inspection requirements for intra-Community trade to all meat plants. The essential difference between licences for export and those for national trade is much more related to inspection of, and structural requirement in, the plant. Rather than being about whether the meat is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy meat, this is predominantly a structural requirement. The proposal contains exemptions for retailers who cut and store only for direct sale to the final consumer. It proposes power for the Commission to grant permanent derogations from the structural rules for small businesses. We came up against this problem yesterday and our view is exactly the same here. If there are to be rules on derogations, we must know precisely what they are and they must come into force at the same time as the rest of the measures so that people know where they stand. The rules cannot simply be tagged on, ad hoc. In theory, a single standard for poultrymeat already exists under directive 71/118, which applies to intra-Community and domestic trade. Therefore, licensed poultrymeat production should be largely unaffected. The proposal would, however, remove the ability of member states to exempt from the scope of the controls small-scale on-farm poultrymeat producers supplying local markets and butchers. The proposal also extends the scope of the requirements to include pigeons, farmed pheasants, quails and partridges. The main concern relates to small-scale on-farm production. All poultrymeat, except that supplied in isolated cases by farmers direct to final consumer, would have to be produced to Community standards. Most on-farm poultrymeat producers would need to obtain licences and comply with full structural, hygiene, storage and inspection requirements. The only concession would be the possibility of individual Commission derogations from the structural requirements only. We are currently discussing the needs of the smaller producer with representative organisations. In Brussels we shall be seeking provisions that do not make production uneconomic or place unnecessary burdens on those producers. Uneviscerated poultry, called New York dressed, ranks alongside the British sausage as part of our natural heritage, and we are seeking to defend it. Nothing has raised the hackles—or, perhaps, ruffled the feathers—of the poultrymeat industry as much as the proposals from 5 Brussels that our traditionally produced poultrymeat should be banned. That means birds sold uneviscerated by the slaughterhouse or farm or hung before being eviscerated—the sort of thing that my wife dispatches me to get from our local farm on Christmas eve. Even worse was the suggestion that our birds should be banned while the traditionally produced birds—the so-called effile or semi-eviscerated birds—from some other member states—should continue to be permitted. However, in response to intensive representations in Brussels, this proposal would continue to permit both types of presentation. I have to say, before we go home rejoicing, that this measure is strongly contested by other member states. It still has a long way to go before acceptance and we would be hard pressed to defend it as it stands. We are determined to do so, but it would not be honest to say that the battle was over—it is just beginning. However, we believe that we have an excellent case. I also intend to consider carefully, with the industry, the hygiene aspects of poultry sold uneviscerated, because public health must be our predominant concern. After 1992, it is likely that many on-farm poultrymeat producers will have to be approved, like their counterparts who produce on separate premises. As a consequence, I expect that most uneviscerated poultry will be produced in licensed plants in good, hygienic conditions. After discussions with the industry, we shall seek in Brussels to ensure that uneviscerated bird production is properly catered for. We shall need to permit the hanging of birds to develop flavour, followed by cold evisceration. We shall also need to ensure, in particular, that any potential risks from the evisceration process—in butchers' shops, for example—are reduced to a minimum. In other words, we want the maximum consumer choice coupled and consistent with public safety. The proposal on meat products would introduce a system of common hygiene rules for the production of all meat products in the single market, based on the current arrangements for trade between member states. All plants trading in the single market would need to satisfy requirements for structure, general cleanliness and supervision of production. Special conditions would apply to meat products in cans or other hermetically sealed containers and prepared meals. Retail shops or adjacent premises where production is solely for direct supply to the final consumer would be exempt. The measure also contains the procedure for authorising temporary and limited derogations after consultation with the standing veterinary committee in Brussels. The minced meat directive touches emotional chords because it affects the sausage. However, minced meat also has problems of its own. The directive would introduce a single standard for the production of minced meat and meat preparations, including the British sausage, throughout the Community. Many continental sausages are the saucisson type. All plants would need to satisfy the standards for structure, hygiene, testing and supervision that currently apply to intra-Community trade. Proposed rules would not extend to premises where all production is sold on site direct to the final consumer. Again, procedures are proposed under which the Commission would be able to grant temporary and limited derogation. 6 I shall briefly elaborate the two main problems applicable to minced meat and sausage. As they stand, the rules include the need for minced meat and sausages to be prepared from fresh chilled meat within six days of slaughter; the use of some fit meat, including shin and skirt, would be prohibited; and chilled minced meat and sausages could not be made from frozen meat and would be required to be chilled to 2 deg C within an hour of preparation. The present rules are geared towards the production of mince as raw meat—a process used on the continent. It does not accommodate the shepherd's pie form of mince meat, which is by far the most familiar in the United Kingdom and an important part of our diet—especially for those of lesser means. We are aware of the social factors involved. There are no hygiene reasons for the restrictions. If we had any doubts about that, we would not argue the case. Only because we are convinced that there is no hygiene risk are we pressing to defend the product. There is no sound reason for prohibiting it. We have consulted consumer and trade interests. I saw the Meat and Livestock Commission and the British Meat Manufacturers Association in my office only a couple of days ago. These groups and the rest of the meat industry are making energetic efforts to spread the word to their colleagues on the continent. My only advice would be to ensure that they speak with the same voice and make the same representations so that the collective effort is not diffused. The relevant rules apply to minced meat and sausages. Finally, once the rules specific to various products are in place, plants that cannot comply are supposed to apply for derogations for a further limited period. That proposal is unacceptable. Once again, we are being asked to sign to accept rules without knowing what the rules are. It is unfair to the industry if significant investment is being made on the grounds that the plant must be in order before 1 January 1993, and then exemptions are granted to others who have not taken the same risks or made equivalent preparation. The scope of the rules is not limited to meat and meat products. They extend to a wide range of other products. We considered milk and milk products yesterday. Fishery products, live bi-valve molluscs such as oysters, raw milk, heat-treated drinking milk, dairy products, egg products, animal fats and rendered products are all involved. In other words, we are dealing with a global measure that is wholly unspecific in its purposes, and therefore unacceptable. I have taken more time than I should have liked in my introductory speech, but I thought it would be helpful to outline the ABC of the proposals to facilitate subsequent debate. We support the principles of the standards, but we want the rules and regulations to be effective, practical and achievable. We do not want unnecessary restrictions, especially in so far as they affect the United Kingdom and our traditional products.

10.44 am

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley):I thank the Minister for his opening comments, which have been useful in clarifying the five documents before us. We all agree that the objective is to set the highest possible standards of safety and hygiene in food production, distribution and sale. We fully support the Government in protecting British interests from changes that do not improve quality standards. 7 The Minister spoke of remote areas and small units, which are always difficult to define, and the need for a sensible role for environmental health officers, veterinary officers and veterinary assistants. I do not want to speak about the poll tax or other financial measures introduced by the Government, but I am worried that the pressure on local government finance will make the role of EHOs more difficult. Local Authorities will be increasingly hard pressed to maintain the staff needed to fulfil the EHOs' growing work load. Ministers have repeatedly said that finance will be made available to ensure that EHOs can meet the extra duties imposed by the Food Safety Act 1990, but the Opposition retain grave doubts about that, although I do not expect the Minister to respond to it, that is a legitimate point, as those officers will be involved in implementing the measures before us this morning. The same difficulties face veterinary officers and assistants, whose responsibilities are also increasing. We do not object to that, but the Government must ensure that there is no shortage of properly trained staff. Again, I do not intend that to be a major subject for debate this morning, but merely wish to place on record our anxiety about it The Minister was right to say that we must understand what derogations are. They do not amount to a blank cheque and cannot be entered into without proper attention to detail. We support stringent standards of health and safety, but the Government must be vigilant against unnecessary measures that might result in higher costs and diminished consumer choice. Moreover, it is important that the word "small" be properly defined so that it is clear which small establishments will be eligible for exemption. I am sure that the Minister will agree that minimum rules in respect of small establishments should be established to ensure that public health is protected. The definition of prepared meats in COM 89/669, which deals with meat products, is poorly drafted. It is intended to apply to ready-made meals consisting of several foods, but could be interpreted to include such items as canned Irish stew and pork pies. I believe that the Minister accepts that there are no health and safety reasons to justify that possible interpretation which, as it would incur increased production costs without benefiting the consumer, we should have difficulty in supporting. As the requirement that prepared meals should be "wrapped immediately before or after cooking" would prevent some present safe production practices, it should be questioned. Document 4863/90, (corn (89) 671) deals with minced meat and meat preparations. We agree with the way that the Minister intends to proceed. The regulation is rightly aimed at controlling the hygienic standards for products to be eaten raw, such as viande hâchée or German hackfleisch. Its construction embraces products sold raw but cooked by the purchaser. The main product affected is the traditional British breakfast sausage, which has a good safety record and forms an important part of our diet. The British Meat Manufacturers Association, representatives of which have met the Minister, has told me that the main provisions that will change traditional manufacturing practices are, first, that the ban on the traditional use of frozen meat will cost £30 million a year. Secondly, the requirement that fresh meat must be used within six days of slaughter, although there is no evidence of risk if meat is used after longer periods of modern controlled storage, will cost £6 million a year. Thirdly, the 8 ban on the use of traditional meat cuts—they are used in many EC meat products—without technical justification for a product cooked before eating will cost £31 million a year. Finally, the requirement to store and to distribute below plus 2 deg C, which would make the product virtually frozen and would deny the consumer choice of a traditional fresh chilled produce, would affect small butchers, grocers and caterers who rely on deliveries in vans that cannot maintain those temperatures. Such people could no longer sell manufactured sausages. I do not know whether Holland pies are sold in the Minister's constituency, but he will have seen the fleet of distinctive vehicles. I am sure that Holland pies will be worried about the effects of its delivery of products that are bought and sold on the day of distribution. The massive additional cost that would result from the EC requirement will almost certainly reduce the range of products that the company supplies and distributes, which are well appreciated by the public. Doubtless that situation will apply throughout the country, but I have mentioned Holland pies because the Minister and the hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) will know of the company. The items being considered this morning form part of a group for which standards must be approved. We have already dealt with some, and more will follow. Yesterday was the turn of milks and I have also been a member of other recent Committees that considered European Community documents. The purpose of the regulations is to extend earlier legislation on trade between member states to all production in the Community, whether for domestic consumption or for export. I do not disagree with that objective. It is advantageous to move away from dual standards, so that presents no problems. However, problems will arise in implementation of the regulations because they propose detailed hygiene requirements that often differ slightly. Regulations are directly applicable in member states whereas some discretion is allowed in implementing directives, so there will also be problems by virtue of the regulations being directives. The regulations on poultry and fresh meat are similar in many respects but there are some differences. Why are premises used for fresh meat production to be registered by "competent authorities", while those used for poultry are to be registered by "member states"? Those phrases may mean the same. If they do, why not use the same wording? Standardisation of wording, as well as procedures, would be helpful. Why can the same premises be used for fresh meat and game or poultry and game but not for fresh meat and poultry? When fresh meat is health marked, the letters used must be at least 1 cm high. Why should such letters be only 8.0 cm high on poultry? The temperatures to be maintained through production, storage and transportation of meat and poultry are different. Is it essential to keep meat products at 2 deg C, offal at 3 deg C, minced meat and poultry at 4 deg C and fresh meat at 7 deg C? Are those differences necessary? They are not great, and it could be easier for people to learn a standard figure. Why are fresh meat transport requirements more stringent than those for poultry'? Why are maintenance of the right temperature and protection from contamination the only requirements for minced meat transport? 9 Exemptions and derogations allowed under the regulations, such as those for small establishments that produce fresh or mince meat or other animal products not covered by these regulations are dealt with under the regulations on products of animal origin. These measures are less detailed and loosely drafted. The piecemeal approach of the European Commission to food hygiene is bureaucratic and confusing. There is no good reason for having detailed regulations on all aspects of hygiene for every product. We need an EC law to establish essential hygiene rules for the production of all foodstuffs, wherever they are made or sold. If specific regulations are necessary for certain products, they should add only those rules essential for hygiene of those products. Regulations should resemble each other as much as possible. The Commission has drafted a general hygiene directive, which has appeared as a working paper. It has been welcomed by retail, enforcement and consumer groups in Britain and should be introduced as soon as possible as an umbrella proposal. At present, regulations do not refer to the general directive. Further regulations should be held back until the general directive has emerged. We discussed some aspects of poultry treatment last week. We have all received a document from the Northern Chicken Growers (U.K.) Ltd. I am sure that the Minister will answer those points if he has not already responded. Could a more sensible system of veterinary inspections of poultry production be adopted? The number of birds to be treated in different establishments will vary. That must be tackled sensibly or difficulties will arise. We dealt with the main points about New York dressed, uneviscerated and semieviscerated poultry a fortnight ago, and the other Parliamentary Secretary to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food tackled that issue then. We acknowledge the warning given by the Minister today that, while our uneviscerated and New York dressed birds remain acceptable at present, our European partners object to them. That threatens those involved in the poultry 10 industry and it could also affect consumers. New York dressed and uneviscerated birds are popular, as is shown by the large number of those items that are purchased. The Opposition strongly support the Government's efforts to ensure that the present position is not eroded by attacks from other EEC members. That is important both to producer and consumer. No reasonable objections have been raised on grounds of food safety, quality, standards and hygiene. No evidence has been put forward to prove that New York dressed or uneviscerated birds should not continue to be sold.

11.2 am

Mr. Curry: What the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has said complements my views. We agree entirely. A directive is preferable to a regulation, because it gives more flexibility in implementation. The Government also support a law to cover all food. A basic law about food hygiene would enable us to dispose of the products of animal origin proposal, which is haphazard legislation. We have written to the Commission about that, and we await a reply. The Committee's discussions could be summed up by the mutilated French phrase, "Chacun a sa saucisse".

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered European Community Documents Nos. 4780/90, relating to health rules for poultrymeat, 4596/90, relating to health rules for fresh meat, 4781/90 relating to health rules for meat products, 4863/90 relating to health rules for minced meat and certain other meat preparations, and 4782/90 relating to the conditions for granting derogations from specific Community health rules on the production and marketing of products of animal origin; and supports the Government's aim of ensuring that any measures resulting from these proposals contribute to effective harmonisation and efficient hygiene controls throughout the Community.

Committee rose at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.


Hunt, Sir John (Chairman)

Curry, Mr.

Jack, Mr.

Jones, Mr. Martyn

Mates, Mr.

Moss, Mr.

Pike, Mr.

Stewart, Mr. Ian

Taylor, Mr. Matthew

Waller, Mr.

Wood, Mr.