Neil Parish MP on lessons from recent food contamination scandals


The Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, of which Neil Parish MP is  a Member, has debated two of its recent reports on Contamination of Beef Products and Food Contamination on Thursday 17 October in Westminster Hall, Palace of Westminster. Below is a transcript of Neil’s speech in this debate:

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I welcome the new Minister to his place; we worked well together on the Select Committee and I look forward to him having views entirely consistent with those he had in Committee now he is a Minister. I am partly teasing him, but I look forward to working with him. I enjoyed his friendship on the Committee. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), the Chair of the Select Committee, on securing the debate, because it is necessary for us not to forget exactly what happened.

I want to concentrate on the consequences and on the many lessons that we need to learn. For many years, I have been saying that we have not had proper labelling of the origins of processed food, especially meat products, and the contamination has highlighted that hugely. Basically, the product was travelling all across Europe from the Republic of Ireland, Poland and Romania into Luxembourg and France—it was travelling all over the place. The trail—exporting from one country and importing to another—was almost impossible to follow.

As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) highlighted, the value of the processed meat is key. If someone bought a joint of beef and a joint of horse—we cannot do that in this country, but in many European countries they can—they would immediately be able to tell the difference. If we minced them up and put them in a burger, however, I suspect that when we actually looked at it physically, we would not see a great deal of difference. If horse meat is trading at a quarter to a third of the price of beef, it is tempting to the unscrupulous in the food processing industry to substitute one for the other.

Not only the Government but the large retailers should keep a check on the situation. If retailers are buying beef burgers for less than the cost of the beef that should be in them, they should ask how on earth a company can produce that product for that price. That is a lesson for the industry and the big retailers to learn. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire probably shares my view that although the big retailers are necessary, they have used their muscle over the years to drive down prices for primary producers and farmers. They have spent their lives doing it. This time they drove the price down too far, and people came in who said, “Okay, these big retailers want cheap burgers; well, we’ll mix in a bit of horse meat, and it’ll be fine.” That is where questions need to be asked.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton made the case that the Government need enough public analysts, but retailers also need to employ such people or franchise out the work to somebody else. When I go into a large supermarket, I expect to buy a product that is made of what it says on the label. That is the retailer’s responsibility; the Minister may well make that point later. Yes, it is the Government’s responsibility, but it is also very much the responsibility of the retailer.

I noticed that the Chair made a bit of a face when I said that one could tell the difference between a joint of horse meat and a joint of beef. Ethically, we in this country do not eat horse meat, but it is eaten in many countries across Europe, and it is legal. It is necessary to be able to slaughter horses for meat. There are so many horses in this country, some with huge welfare problems, that if we could not slaughter them, the welfare problems would be even larger. I would much rather those horses be slaughtered humanely in this country than taken on vast journeys across the continent in poor conditions to be slaughtered. We must remember that slaughtering and trading horse meat are not crimes in themselves.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman is making a good and cogent point. We must guard not only against inhumane transport but against the possibility that imports of horse meat from places that previously discarded the slaughter of horses, such as the United States—they are now slaughtered in other countries instead—might find their way back to us through Poland or the Czech Republic, with added ingredients such as phenylbutazone, known as bute.

Neil Parish: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It leads me neatly on to the fact that, as I said, horse meat must be traceable. It is not only a case of what is imported into this country. In America, there are many racehorses and other sorts of horse that are more likely to have been treated with all sorts of drugs throughout their lives. We must be careful of that.

We in this country must also be careful to ensure that we know where the horses that we slaughter have come from. At the moment, under the passport system, many horses have one, two or several passports, one of which is clean and says that the horse has not been injected with anything, and another one of which may have been used when the horse has been injected with various drugs throughout its life. We need a better passport system and a central database so that we know where horses come from, to ensure that when they are slaughtered, we know that they are healthy. Although we may not eat the meat, it will be exported for someone else to eat. It is essential.

I believe that some good things will come out of this situation. As other Members have said, it would have been terrible if the contamination had led to a public health issue, but fortunately it did not. One or two horses slaughtered were found to have levels of phenylbutazone, but not enough to hurt anybody eating the meat. We must learn to ensure that horse meat is traceable in future, not because it should be mixed with beef and sold fraudulently but because the meat should be safe.

The other great lesson to be learned concerns the traceability of our own meat. People like farm-assured schemes, such as the red tractor promoted by the National Farmers Union and many others. As soon as horsegate—the problem with horse meat in beef burgers— occurred, people wanted meat from this country. I do not wish to be churlish, but Tesco did not decide to source all its meat from the British Isles out of the goodness of its heart; it decided that that was a good way to make consumers buy at Tesco.

Roger Williams: Was my hon. Friend amazed, like me, to hear that Tesco has said that British lamb is now out of season? I find that extraordinary, given that the UK produces lamb in season all year round.

Neil Parish: The fact is that for most grass-fed lamb from Wales, the west country and other parts of the country, the height of the season is exactly now, from September onwards. When I used to produce lambs, I did not feed them a lot of concentrates; I fattened them on grass, and they came out in September, October and November. Whoever put out that particular press release probably got it slightly wrong.

That takes me back to the fact that although Tesco wants to source British meat, which I welcome, it does so from a commercial point of view. Therefore, having systems in place to ensure the traceability of that meat is important. However, there is also a knock-on effect. At a certain conference in Manchester—I will not mention which one it was—I was talking to the poultry industry. Again, Tesco has decided to source all its poultry meat from the UK, which is great, but the problem is that it is absorbing all the poultry meat that we produce, so we need to produce more. In order to produce more poultry meat, of course, we need more poultry units, and in order to build more poultry units we need planning permission. All those things have a knock-on effect.

It is the same with the pig industry. We need more pigs and pork so, again, we need planning permission. Those Members who represent rural constituents will find that when a piggery or a poultry house must be built next door, individuals do not always welcome it with open arms. I understand that the Minister is not responsible for planning, but the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs should make the case if we are to have more British meat. I am a great supporter of it; we are only 52% self-sufficient in meat, so there is much more that we could do. Production of poultry and pigs in particular can be built up quickly, but again, we must ensure that we have enough premises where they can be produced.

Many more people now ensure that they buy locally produced and British food, which is a great asset, but I also want them to be sure—again, this is a lesson to be learned—that when they go into a big retailer or other shop, they can pick up a product, especially a processed product, and be absolutely certain where it has come from. Sometimes my wife comes back with a product that she presents to me and says, “Where does that come from?” I read the label and it is more confusing than enlightening about where it has come from. I urge the Minister, newly in post, to realise that labelling of country of origin—knowing where a product is from—is fundamentally important. If it has been imported, so be it, but say so. If products are from all over the world, fine, but say so, so that people have a choice. I do not like the old system that states “product of the EU” and “processed in the UK”, and displays a Union Jack. Everybody picks it up, convinced that it is entirely a British product, when it is not. It is perfectly legal to do that, and that is what happens.

With the reports that we have had and what we have heard, we would all accept, to a degree, that we got away with it. It was not perfect, but we got away with it, despite the fact that it was a fraud and we were eating horse when we should have been eating beef. However, nobody was injured. We need to wake up to the fact that horse meat and slaughter need to be much more traceable. When people pick up products, particularly processed foods, they need to know exactly where they have come from. We want to ensure that the supermarkets that genuinely want to have British products are stocking them and that they have not come from somewhere else in the world. We expect our Minister, newly in post, to guarantee that all that will happen.

We can learn positive lessons. The fact that people now want to eat more home-produced meat is a good thing. Let us be absolutely certain in future that that is exactly what we are eating. Although Government have a responsibility, so do the large retailers and the processors that manufacture and process the products. They are the ones that acted illegally. Let us not forget that, whoever was at fault, it was illegal. It was fraud.

Finally, although I agree with the other hon. Members who have spoken, I fear that in the end we will find one or two small processors here and there who will be hung out to dry, and the rest of the larger processors and others will largely be left untouched. Certainly the Irish Government have been rather reticent about prosecuting anybody. I think that that is the tactful way of putting it. Also—the point was made earlier—when a member state of the European Union is having a problem, it should be brought to the notice of our authorities and others much more quickly so that we can take action. There was definitely a slowness in the whole process. I look forward to the new Minister sorting it all out, and I again welcome him to his new post.