MP calls for European Commission action to ensure high standards of egg production
Neil Parish calls on the EU and the European Commission to take a firm stance on compliance with the new Welfare of Laying Hens Directive so that UK producers who have invested in higher welfare standards are not put at an economic disadvantage.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is nice to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Amess. I, too, thank the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), for securing the debate; we all supported her in securing it.
I do not think that the Minister should be in the dock this morning; it should be the European Union and the European Commission. As has been said, directive 1999/74/EC is 12 years old. What has the Commission done about it in the meantime? Last June, Commission officials came to see us in our Select Committee, and we had figures from Spain. There are 42 million hens in Spain, of which 2 million are free range and 40 million are either in enriched or in non-enriched cages; people did not have a clue as to how many hens have been put into enriched cages. How can we be confident that Spain is converting? Will it have one or two poultry houses on each farm that have converted to new enriched cages? In that case, an awful lot of eggs produced in non-enriched cages in other parts of the same farm could find their way on to the market as grade A eggs. There are many reasons for the Commission to get strong.
Spain has a record of non-compliance, especially on welfare standards. When I was in the European Parliament, I chaired an all-party group on animal welfare. When it came to achieving welfare requirements, Spain was always one of the worst for compliance. Basically, the responsibility goes from the national Government to the regional and local governments—people pass it from one to another and wring their hands, and nothing gets done.
The Commission has seen this coming. In our Committee last June, we told it that hens, which will lay for 13 months, were going into non-enriched cages. One does not need to be Einstein to work out that, when 1 January arrives, lots of eggs will still come from non-compliant cages. We want to see action taken on that.
It has cost our industry £25 a bird to convert to enriched cages. Let us not forget—I have said this before—that the poultry industry does not receive any money from either the common agricultural policy or the single farm payment. It has to compete on not only a national stage, but an international stage. This country has a good and highly competitive poultry industry, but the industry cannot stand having many inferior eggs, produced under lower standards, coming into the country. The industry reckons that it costs 11% less to produce in non-enriched cages than in enriched ones. We need to take action.
I commend the Minister for his work with retailers. In the end, whether it is the law or not, we must physically ensure that such eggs do not come in. The best way to do that is to look at what we are eating and where the egg has come from. Not only shelled eggs are imported; we reckon that about half the 18% that we import comes in liquid and powder form. That is the area—where they could well get in—that causes me most concern. By working with retailers, we can stop a lot of that happening.
The Commission has a problem because it has taken no action for so long. At this time of higher food prices, it will be difficult for the Commission to smash 45 million eggs a day. That will not look terribly good to the consumer.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I have huge respect for everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) says on such issues and I sympathise hugely. The issue comes down to whether the UK should take unilateral action on 1 January. I think that the Select Committee would agree on everything else. I am interested to know my hon. Friend’s view on whether the UK should take unilateral action?
Neil Parish: I am sure the Minister will cover this matter in his summing up, because it relates to legal advice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said, one can get two or three lawyers in a room and have two or three opinions. I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say on legality.
I still maintain that we must look at the market; otherwise we will be left with inferior eggs produced under lower welfare standards. From a food point of view, there is probably nothing wrong with the eggs, but they are not compliant. We must ensure that they are driven down in price, so that it is uneconomic for farms to produce them across Europe, and in the end that becomes a matter of the market. If we can drive those prices down, so that those eggs are only worth half a grade A egg, it will not take too long. Farmers may be many things but they usually work out the law of economics, and they will soon find that it is uneconomic to produce those eggs, especially with the high cereal prices at the moment. That must be our main goal. I am happy to slate supermarkets when they do not get it right, but they have got it right in this instance.
Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful contribution to the debate. Assuming that the Minister will not say that he has found alternative legal advice and that we can have a unilateral ban, does the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton agree that it is right to have a live updated rolling register positively identifying those supermarkets that comply with the Minister’s request and, by implication, identifying those that do not? The only way to do this through a market as opposed to a legal mechanism is to name and shame, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies). Let us recognise the good producers and processors and vilify those who do not maintain the highest standards of animal welfare and British food production.
Neil Parish: I could not agree more with the shadow Minister; it is a case of name and shame, and we need to know where the eggs have come from. I have looked at where all the beef, lamb and so on in supermarkets comes from. It would be good to discover not only the method by which the eggs have been produced, but where they have come from. I believe that the British public are more and more interested in where their food comes from and are keen that it is produced not only under higher welfare standards, but in this country. It would be a double-edged sword: we would look at not only non-compliant eggs, but where they were produced. That could be very good.
Jason McCartney: I join my hon. Friend in praising my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) for securing the important debate. I am here because two egg producers from my area got in touch. One has willingly and enthusiastically invested tens of thousands of pounds in new facilities, believing in high welfare standards in the UK. However, I would like to echo the point about the economic argument. At a time when supermarkets are pushing prices down and when people are suffering because of the economy, it is important not to put such producers at an economic disadvantage. We need to support them in any way that we can. I like some of the ideas that we have just heard on naming and shaming and supporting high welfare standards in British eggs.
Neil Parish: That anticipates my final point. The industry has to deal across Europe in a single market. The European Commission is not taking the right steps to ensure that that single market works properly; there are inferior eggs on the market, and it is not doing enough about it. I commend the Minister for the agreements that he has made with retailers and supermarkets. If we can work with them to stop as far as possible these eggs coming in and drive down the price of B quality eggs, so that they are uneconomic to produce, it will not take so long for those countries that have not conformed to do so quickly. In the end, we have to ensure that we look after our own highly competitive producers, to ensure that their investment bears fruit and that we have high-quality, good welfare standard eggs, which we can all buy with confidence.