Thursday 16th June 2022

(2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, for securing this debate, and draw attention to my interests in the register.

The pig industry is not only a substantial economic part of our food industry, worth over £14 billion pounds per year, exporting over 400,000 tonnes of pork to over 40 export markets; it is also an important pillar of our food security. Currently, we are 66% self- sufficient in pigmeat. However, as we all know, various substantial challenges face the industry, which are neither caused by our pig farmers nor ones that they alone can easily surmount. They include labour for processing, low prices in the supply chain, increased costs of feed and grain, and lower-cost imports.

With respect to labour, I acknowledge Her Majesty’s Government’s relaxation of the visa requirements for butchers, which has been referred to. On prices, while it is important to keep food affordable, it is a fact that, on average, food has never been more affordable in our history. The national average expenditure on food is around 11% of disposable household income. In the UK, 50 or 60 years ago, that figure was nearer 30%. In developing countries, it is still 50%, 60% or more. I recognise that food poverty is a genuine problem, but I suggest that this relates to a fraction of our population with very low incomes. Therefore, it is a matter of financial inequality and low incomes, rather than expensive food. Our pork is not expensive: the other day, I purchased a nicely formed gammon joint for £3 in a supermarket. It was not a special offer; this was nearly a kilogram of lovely meat for £3 which provided beautiful nutritious food for five or six servings or more. Was that a fair price? In fact, the current cost of production is £2.40 per kilogram, but the standard pig price paid to producers is only £1.80 per kilogram.

If we are serious about the sustainability of UK food security and ensuring high environmental and animal welfare standards in the rearing of the animals we eat, we need to ensure that farmers are paid a fair price to cover at least the cost of production. There seems to be an irony that, while there is laudable public awareness of Fairtrade regarding food products we import from developing countries, there is not an equivalent concern to ensure fair conditions for our UK farmers. We need to value our food more. Perhaps our failure to appreciate the quality and value of our food contributes to the appalling amount of food waste. In the UK, in total, we waste around 17%—9.5 million tonnes—of food production post farm gate in households, hospitality, retail and food manufacturing. This has a value of £19 billion and is associated with 25 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

This issue of food cost and food waste brings me to the cost of pig feed, which, to a large extent, depends on grain—the price of which, as we all know, has risen dramatically as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I put this to the Minister: is this the time for us to revisit the issue of swill feeding? We have massive food waste with an associated high environmental cost; we have pigs, which are omnivores, yet we feed them grain, which humans could eat and which is becoming excessively expensive. As a vet, I fully understand the risks of swill feeding, and how essential it is to heat treat swill to prevent the transmission of epidemic animal diseases, such as foot and mouth. However, the heat treatment of swill is something we can control, and maybe the feeding of swill is a risk we should re-evaluate in the current situation.

This brings me to a major disease risk we are not controlling: recently, for the fourth time, the Government have delayed imposing checks on imported animal products from the EU. This has two main consequences. First, it reduces the cost of imports, which creates unfair competition for our farmers, whose exports face added costs due to checks still required. Incidentally, the absence of import checks and associated charges is estimated to have resulted in a loss to our Exchequer of £1.4 billion so far.

Secondly, and most importantly, the failure to check imported EU animal products is creating a major risk to the biosecurity of our pig population with specific regard to African swine fever—as has been mentioned by other noble Lords. African swine fever, or ASF, is a real and present danger in plain sight. It is a highly infectious disease of pigs with a high mortality rate, for which there is no treatment and, as yet, no commercial vaccine—indeed, vaccination is prohibited. Recently, Vietnam announced in collaboration with US scientists that it has developed a vaccine, but it is not yet known when that might be commercially available. Importantly, ASF also infects wild boar, which then provide a wild animal reservoir for infection to pigs.

So far in the six months of this year alone, there have been cases in Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Moldova, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine. Recently, the infection has jumped nearly 500 kilometres in Germany to close to the French border. This virus can survive for 30 days in salami and for a lot longer in Parma ham and cured products. I remember three or four years ago travelling in south-eastern France and stopping in a lay-by which was clearly a favourite picnic spot. I was somewhat intrigued and surprised to see a notice warning people not to discard their uneaten sandwiches because of the risk of infecting wild boar with ASF.

In contrast, given the number of people living and working in Britain with origins and family in Europe, there appears to be a dearth of warnings about the dangers of carrying pork products into the UK. Are Her Majesty’s Government satisfied that sufficient public information about the risks of ASF is provided to passengers coming into and out of the UK, especially for high-risk countries? Your Lordships will be aware that we have wild boar populations in the UK. Not only would the infection be catastrophic for our pigs should it reach here, but it would also be extremely difficult to eradicate due to that wild animal reservoir—just think about badgers and TB.

Failure to conduct checks on imports not only creates an unfair economic playing field for our producers but is gambling with our biosecurity. Maybe it reduces the costs of imported goods in the short term, but an epidemic of ASF in our pig population will have huge financial impacts and long-term effects on our food security which will far outweigh the marginal additional costs of proper inspections. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider urgently restoring appropriate sanitary checks on animal products from the EU?

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I was at the launch of that report yesterday. I read it and it has been received by the department.

Lord Trees Portrait Lord Trees (CB)
- Hansard - -

Can the Minister reassure us that the Government will reinstate sanitary checks on animal products from the EU?

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Already, the 180 extra inspectors are doing that. We have built our BCPs and will be occupying them in the coming months.