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Frozen Foodstuffs

Volume 81: debated on Wednesday 19 June 1985

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10.23 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I beg to move,

"That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9402/84 on the approximation of laws relating to quick frozen foodstuffs for human consumption; and supports the Government's intention to oppose Community measures in this field, unless they can be modified to meet United Kingdom interests.
The Ministry's explanatory memorandum which is before the House sets out the background for this evening's debate concerning a proposal by the Commission for a Council directive relating to quick frozen foodstuffs for human consumption. The directive is an attempt by the Commission to harmonise member states' laws on frozen foodstuffs which they consider constitute a barrier to intra-Community trade. Let me, however, fill in some details about what the Commission is proposing and why.

The Commission has had plans to introduce proposals for harmonisation on quick frozen food for the past 10 years. The first working group meetings began in Brussels in 1975. The United Kingdom made it clear from the start that it did not favour a directive in this area and was certainly opposed to one applying to the local distribution and retail end of the frozen food chain as these were essentially domestic issues which did not affect intraCommunity trade. Since that time, the Commission has produced various drafts for discussion at working group level, and each time the United Kingdom has argued strongly that there has been no need for such a directive.

Despite those criticisms, in September 1984 the Commission finally put formal proposals to the Council. Under this directive, all frozen food, with the exception of ice cream, that had undergone a defined freezing process would have to be kept at minus 18 deg C or colder up to the point of retail. Certain upward fluctuations in temperature would, however, be permitted during storage, local distribution and in retail display cabinets. Member states would be required to conduct random checks on the equipment used for quick freezing and on the temperatures of quick frozen products.

The Commission introduced these proposals because it claims that legislation covering all links in the cold chain guarantees the consumer a high quality finished product regardless of country of origin, and by means of appropriate labelling enables the consumer to distinguish a quick frozen product from refrigerated or other frozen products. It provides figures to show how the consumption of frozen food has grown rapidly over the last few years and which, incidentally, put the United Kingdom at the top of the league, but makes the point that intra-Community trade remains low. Why is that? The Commission claims that, according to the frozen food industry itself, the lack of trade between member states stems from the absence of common rules. To back that up, the Commission quotes examples of national laws made by France and Italy tending to put up technical barriers to trade. It does not believe that the UN-ECE agreement on the international carriage of perishable foodstuffs concluded in Geneva in 1970 solves these trade problems.

Thus, the Commission says that a directive is necessary to protect consumers by guaranteeing product quality. It does, however, recognise that at present some equipment used for local distribution or retail sales of frozen food is not able to run at the temperatures proposed in the directive and that there should therefore be a transitional period of 10 years to allow for normal depreciation of existing equipment.

The House may ask, therefore, why the United Kingdom, alone among member states, has remained unconvinced by the Commission's arguments that a horizontal directive is required in that area. We do not consider that the Commission has adequately demonstrated that there are real intra-Community trading problems that would be overcome by a frozen food directive. The mere fact that there is a growing market for frozen food products is not in our view a reason in itself to introduce harmonisation measures. The commission cites the example of national laws introduced by France and Italy as proof that there are technical barriers to trade. Certainly in the case of France, whatever the theoretical position, we have had no real evidence that a French decree that has been in existence since 1964 has hindered British exports of frozen food. As to the Italian case, I can only say that if there have been difficulties that were peculiar to the frozen food sector arising from an Italian decree, our own exporters have not so far brought them to our notice.

However, our chief reservation on the Commission's proposals arises from the fact that the directive would extend right through to local distribution and retail. We feel very strongly that these areas are a national matter, since any shortcomings would have little or no effect on the intra-Community trading position. It is not surprising, therefore, that retailers and wholesalers are the strongest opponents in the United Kingdom of a directive.

Our retailers argue that there is no evidence that legislation is required on health grounds. They consider that it is inappropriate to introduce measures relating to the quality of frozen food, since quality is determined by a range of factors concerning the handling of the product which cannot satisfactorily be subject to legislation. They are concerned that the temperatures proposed could not be maintained during summer without additional air conditioning and they fear that the energy implications particularly for the small business man could be enormous, not to mention the capital costs involved in re-equipping with new freezer cabinets. These higher costs, they say, could well mean the abandonment by many retailers, especially the smaller ones, of quick frozen foods. In addition, they are proposing to introduce their own voluntary guidelines to regulate retail handling of frozen food.

The wholesalers have expressed the same fears that the higher costs involved could hit the small businessman hard and in the long term could lead to a less competitive, more expensive market for frozen food. The manufacturers of frozen food have close contacts with other European manufacturers and have not been opposed to the principle of a directive, although they have not argued either that this proposed directive will lead to the removal of trade barriers.

What the hon. Lady is saying about the retailers prompts two questions. If we are alone, is it not our intention to use the veto to stop this from coming into force? If we do not intend to do that but rather, as the motion indicates, to seek modification of the measures to meet United Kingdom interests, does that mean that the prime modification that this country wants is the omission of the retailers? That would he to get the worst of all worlds. It would create a ludicrous position with a chain that ended before the retailer.

No. I hope I can develop the argument and reassure the hon. Gentleman. I am talking basically about the wholesale and retail distributors and the manufacturers, but the view of our consumer organisations is balanced. Consumers see advantages in consistent rules affecting the whole of the frozen food chain, but any reduction in the number of outlets selling frozen food would be a disadvantage for the consumer.

So much for the position within the United Kingdom. We know from discussions in the past in Brussels that our doubts about the need for a directive are not shared by other member states. France and Belgium see the proposal as a means of overcoming any problems that might arise particularly on the Italian frontier. Germany and the Netherlands also support the measures and the other member states have raised no objections to them. The Economic and Social Committee has given its backing, and the European Parliament is soon likely to. The formal proposals thus have now gained a new momentum. Despite the Government's own strong reservations about the need for this directive, and the opposition—or at least lack of enthusiasm—among our own trade and consumer interests, the Government recognise that serious consideration must be given to the views of other Community members. It may therefore be worth exploring whether amendments could be made to the proposals which would lead to rules which were not onerous and would enable us to move from our present position of outright opposition.

If I remember rightly—I think I do—the Government were elected on the basis of various promises. One promise was that we would introduce the minimum possible legislation. My hon. Friend has said that she is opposed to this measure but that, if it is modified slightly so that she is not then so opposed to it, she might see her way to agreeing to it. That would mean introducing unnecessary legislation in breach of the promise that we gave to the British people. Surely she can be a little stronger than that.

No, there are indeed occasions when we battle our corner. We are alone in this but believe that there could be amendments which would enable us to move from our outright opposition. We could not do that unless our major anxieties are dealt with adequately in some revision of the present proposals.

When the first working groups meet in Brussels to discuss the proposals, we shall have a much clearer idea of the possibilities of getting changes to the present draft. However, there have been signs during past negotiations that encourage us to believe that the Commission is not so firmly committed to the present draft that it would try to resist well argued changes in certain provisions. We should prefer the omission of the retail and local distribution provisions. However, if they can be modified so that retailers and local distributors have a permanent right to keep quick frozen food at a slightly ligher temperature than required under the directive for the rest of the cold chain, we should have gone a long way to overcome our most serious criticism of the proposals.

What is the objection to the temperature of minus 18 deg C?

We do not believe that it is necessary for health reasons or for the protection of the food. Minus 18 deg C is 0 deg F, and might have been chosen for that reason.

I appreciate that. Is my hon. Friend saying that most retailers do not have the equipment to achieve that temperature? Does it impose additional costs?

I am so sorry that my hon. Friend did not hear me. I said at the beginning that the temperature will incur capital costs in the form of different freezer cabinets. That is why achieving a slight modificaton so that the temperature can be a little higher than minus 18 deg C would overcome the most serious criticisms.

There are other changes that we would also like at a more technical level. For example, we will be looking carefully at the scope of the directive to see whether certain foodstuffs and ice cream should be omitted because other rules apply to them. The provision laying down the point at which the temperature of a quick frozen product is to be measured must also be considered carefully. Similarly, the enforcement provisions must be weighed up to see whether they need changing.

Since the United Kingdom is the largest producer and consumer of frozen food products in the Community, our views on the practicalities of particular provisions ought to carry great weight, and we will not lift our general reserve on the proposals until our essential aims have been achieved.

To sum up, therefore, we do not consider that the Commission has made a convincing case for the need to introduce legislation on frozen food, but we are prepared to give it further consideration provided that essential amendments can be agreed, particularly to protect our retail and local distribution interests.

10.40 pm

The Minister's attitude to this matter seemed to be less than convincing at some stages during her speech. We have learned to expect something called "the resolute approach" from this Government, but I am not sure that that is what we have been hearing about from the Minister.

The common agricultural policy is in a state of collapse. The European Council has refused to deal with the crucial problems of cereal surpluses. The Commission does not know what to do about all these problems. But when we have the maximum disharmony on matters of importance we can always rely on the European Commission to produce a draft directive for the harmonisation of details. The show must go on, and here we are with a draft directive which would stipulate that the temperature of the centre point of each and every frozen pea in Europe must remain below minus 18 deg-C subject, of course, to permissible fluctuations of 6 deg-C.

European harmonisation proposals generally start from a serious point and then reduce to the absurd, and this one is no exception. This proposal for harmony in the refrigerators of Europe is intended to promote trade and to protect consumers. It will also, I suppose, promote the employment of an amazing new breed of cold store inspectors with special thermometers for taking the temperature at the centre of blocks of ice.

It seems to me that this directive is most unlikely to promote trade and will do precious little for the protection of consumers. It gets off to a bad start because it is badly drafted. The Minister has already referred to that point.

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that the Consumers Association is enthusiastically in favour of the proposal?

If the hon. Member can contain himself for a minute or two, I will come to that. He and I have for a long time been equally enthusiastic about the principle of European unity on various issues, so I hope we shall not break that unity on this issue.

There is one very fundamental drafting point which I think we ought to clear up. Why does this directive deal only with quick-frozen foods? If it is desirable to impose common standards for frozen foods, why not apply them to all sorts of frozen foods—deep-frozen, quick-frozen, the whole lot? I know that a number of other detailed points about drafting have been made to the Government by interested organisations and I assume that they will be properly considered by the Government and by the Commission. Perhaps the Minister will say a bit more about that in due course.

In the interests of consumers, clearly the most important consideration must be food hygiene and the risk of food poisoning. The Minister for Health told me in a written reply yesterday that there has not been a single case of food poisoning caused by quick-frozen food in Britain during any of the last five years. So there seems to be very little evidence of need for change on that account. But on the more general point of the quality of food products, I see that the Consumers Association—this is the point to which the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) referred—has welcomed the objective of ensuring what it refers to as
"a consistent temperature chain for the distribution of frozen foods based on sound practice".
The Consumers Association has identified a problem in retail outlets. It says that some retail frozen food cabinets are not up to the appropriate British standard. That raises two important points. The first is, as I understand it, that where there is any risk to public health from an inefficient or overloaded retail freezer cabinet local authority environmental health officers should have ample power to deal with the problem already. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that point.

The second point is that, where a retail cabinet may be cold enough to prevent health risk but not cold enough to maintain the texture or the taste of the product, I have no doubt that both the consumers themselves and the manufacturers of the products will take appropriate steps to ensure that the retailer puts his shop in order. Once again, as I understand it, local authority trading standards officers would have the power to deal with such cases. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that point also.

Would my hon. Friend agree that a third point arises from the Consumers Association's evidence on this matter, because it gives the impression that several retail food cabinets maintain temperatures above minus 20 deg C? If that is so, and if the Government are seeking to get the retailers out of the coverage of this piece of legislation, we are protecting piggy conditions in retailing by imposing severe restraints on the manufacturers, who will be harmed by those restraints.

If there is a problem in a corner shop in Grimsby, that would be most appropriately dealt with by local authority trading standards officers or environmental health officers. I cannot understand what European directives have to do with an issue such as that. I understand that powers already exist, and I would be obliged if the Minister could confirm that they do.

No. I want to get on.

It is essential that the interests of consumers be protected. The Government must ensure that local authorities have the resources needed to exercise their duty to supervise the hygiene and quality of frozen food in British shops. There is legitimate concern on this count, especially in view of the cuts in local authority finances in recent years, and the Government must be clear about their duty as well as the duty of local authorities.

The Minister spoke of the cost to consumers of keeping food colder then necessary. She also mentioned the extra cost of new bureaucratic controls. I suppose that those problems could be overcome by phasing the introduction of any new standards and by adopting more sensible enforcement measures. But if there is any doubt about the correct maximum temperature to protect the interests of consumers, we would want the Government to err on the safe side—the cold side.

Enforcement is likely to be of exclusively British interest, if experience in other areas of Community rules is anything to go by. I have tried to solve the puzzle of how one establishes the temperature at the centre of a frozen haggis or indeed, a frozen pea. Just how does one locate the epicentre of a fish finger? Even if one has established all those things, how does one do them without horribly mutilating the product with a drill? Even if one gets to the core of the frozen haggis and discovers that it is only minus 12 deg C, instead of minus 18 deg C, who is to say that that temperature rise is not a permitted fluctuation of
"6°C during local distribution and in retail display cabinets" under article 5.2 of the draft?
Apart from all that, I foresee some fine arguments about whether a cash and carry store is a local distribution centre. That brings me back to the method of measuring the temperature of products in store. I have done some homework on this, and read an intriguing suggestion by the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland that we should consider the introduction of a temperature control technique that is in use in parts of the United States.

This apparently involves placing a small thermometer capsule in each consignment in each cold store. I understand from the institute that this capsule comprises a small red ball of frozen liquid surrounded by frozen clear water. When there is a significant temperature rise, the frozen water and the red ball melt and mix. The capsule is sealed and the process cannot be reversed, and any consignment or container found with this defect in the capsule is presumed to have thawed and it can therefore no longer be considered to meet the temperature control requirements for frozen food.

That is one intriguing possibility, but it would be even simpler to improve the standards for refrigeration equipment in distribution stores, lorries and retail premises as well as in domestic freezers, as has been suggested by the United Kingdom Association of Frozen Food Producers, among others. That would be simpler than any of the other things we have talked about to ensure proper refrigeration standards all the way down the chain.

This exercise is supposed to promote trade in frozen foods. We know that the United Kingdom agriculture, fishing and food industries can produce food products that are second to none. British and especially Scottish meat, fish, vegetables and soft fruit are of the highest quality. We have a highly developed processing, freezing and distribution industry and we now consume 16·6 kg of frozen food per head per year—67 per cent. more than the average for other EEC countries.

With that combination of high quality raw materials and a highly developed freezing and marketing industry we ought to be able to take full advantage of the export potential of markets such as Italy, France and Germany, but it seems that that is not happening. According to a written answer from the Department of Trade and Industry which I received on Monday, both the value and the volume of our frozen food exports to other EEC countries are falling, while the value and volume of our imports from those countries are rising steadily.

Since 1980, frozen fish exports have fallen from 24,000 tonnes to 22,000 tonnes, frozen fruit exports have fallen from 7,000 tonnes to 3,000 tonnes and frozen vegetable exports have fallen from 33,000 tonnes to 24,000 tonnes. Meanwhile, imports of frozen fish have risen from 30,000 tonnes to 42,000 tonnes, frozen fruit imports have doubled from 3,000 tonnes to 6,000 tonnes and frozen vegetable imports have increased from 40,000 tonnes to a massive 137,000 tonnes. We should therefore be taking steps to achieve some import substitution and export promotion in the area.

I have discussed the draft directive with people from Birds Eye, Christian Salvesen and the excellent Scotfresh company which markets frozen vegetables not just from my constituency but from my own farm, so perhaps I should have declared an interest at the outset. None of those firms has complained about restrictive regulations affecting exports which could be relevent to these proposals. Nevertheless, there is clearly a serious problem in our trade balance with our European Community partners, presumably due to the fluctuating value of the pound. I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that.

The Government should be taking urgent steps to promote exports of British frozen food, but the Minister will be relieved to hear that the Opposition are inclined to agree with her that the directive as it stands is ill considered and could harm the United Kingdom food industry without achieving anything worthwhile for the consumer. We therefore agree with the general position that the Government have adopted on this.

The message from this House to the European Commission and to the Council of Ministers should be that they are unlikely to achieve much harmonisation or harmony even in the rarefied atmosphere of cold stores until they get to grips with some of the more fundamental problems of the common agricultural policy.

10.53 pm

I support the robust opposition of my hon. Friend the Minister to the proposed directive. She has explained clearly that it is unnecessary and potentially damaging to our frozen food industry. My concern, however, is that it would reduce our ability to protect British consumers.

Despite the pious protestations of the explanatory memorandum to the directive that the consumer
"should be able to benefit from the products that suit hail best regardless of their country of origin"
"would be offered a range of products of faultless quality,"
I am not optimistic that it will achieve that happy outcome.

I am especially interested in paragraph 7 of the explanatory memorandum, which makes a critical reference to an Italian ministerial decree of 15 June 1971. Apparently the decree stipulates that quick frozen food produced abroad may not be imported into Italy unless it comes from establishments which are recognised as satisfactory by the Italian health authorities.

If we had an equivalent control in our law, one of my constituents might have been spared a most disturbing experience recently. Her purchase of ratatouille, which had been imported from Spain, proved not to be of the faultless quality to which the enthusiasts of the directive have referred. Indeed, it proved not to be wholly vegetable, as there was animal as well. To her horror, she found the tasty morsel on the end of her fork was mouse, not aubergine. She complained to the local environmental health department but found that as the product came from abroad there was no action which could be taken against the producer. The producer in Spain was outside the scope of English law. I have been unable to detect any powers to exclude from our markets products such as the rodentatouille, if I may so describe it, that was purchased by my constituent.

If the Government's approach is to seek to improve the directive, one essential modification to ensure that it meets the interests of British consumers is the provision of powers to prosecute any producer who supplies unsatisfactory goods. We should have the power also to ban further imports from that source of supply.

As I hope that the implementation of the directive in English law is far off, both because of my fears of what it would do for the protection of our consumers and for the cogent reasons advanced by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, I ask my hon. Friend to review the current regulations on imported frozen foods and to consider whether we need any further powers to protect the interests of consumers, such as my unfortunate constituent.

10.57 pm

Grimsby has the greatest concentration of the frozen food industry within the United Kingdom, so the directive is of particular importance to my constituency, where the fish of the North sea and the north Atlantic meet the vegetables of the rich Lincolnshire farmlands in the factories of Birds Eye, Findus, Icelandic, Chaldur, Ross, Wold Farm and others. Grimsby is Britain's premier freezing and food processing town and, therefore, the directive is an important measure for it as it is for the United Kingdom generally.

Britain leads the world in the freezing industry. It was the first country to develop it on any scale and Britain has the most highly developed industry in the EEC, the highest consumption of frozen food per capita and the highest ownership of home freezers in the EEC. As we have the most highly developed industry, we have the most to lose from inadequate regulations or regulations which will impose harm on the industry. Britain's industry should have been more adequately consulted and its practice should have been taken more closely into account in the development of the proposals. A 10-year gestation period is an enormously long one and that is a measure of the failure to take British practices into account.

The proposed regulations are remote from the practical side of the industry and that is the source of the main accusations against them. They amount to harmonisation pretty well for the sake of it. That is something with which we want to have no truck.

It is understandable that the reaction has been adverse. It could be said that the reaction of the industry to the proposals has been a chilled one or that it has been praising the measure with faint damns. The United Kingdom Association of Frozen Food Producers says:
"unlikely to serve any useful purpose for the UK industry or for UK consumers."
The Wholesale Distribution Federation says:
"The proposals would lead in the long term to a less competitive, more expensive and much smaller market for frozen food and one of the first victims would be the small business man."
The National Cold Storage Federation is unhappy about the proposals'
"atmosphere and the feel of what they say."
The British Poultry Federation gives the proposals the bird and says that they are
"unnecessary so far as the poultry industry is concerned."
The detailed representation deals several body blows to the draft legislation. The frozen food producers emphasises that the proposal for date marks is misguided. The crucial factor is not the date, but the temperature. It does not matter how long a product has been kept, but whether it has been kept at the right temperature. It would be more sensible to mark the date of sale. If a product is stored at home under less than perfect conditions deterioration will begin when it is sold. Date marking relating to production is not the solution.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) asked in his humorous analysis, how will the temperature at the centre be found? Will it have to be smashed, bored, drilled? Will Euro-inspectors armed with braces and bits have to travel around testing centre temperatures? The provision is ludicrous. The peripheries are as important as the centre when one eats.

Article 13(2) is incorrect because the intention is to give retailers a sensible period in which to bring their cabinets up to standard. However, the tolerances in article 5, which should apply up to 1 January 1995, will not be available until after that date. After then goods must be maintained at minus 18 deg C for the transitional 10 years. That seems to stand the draft provisions on its head.

The Consumers Association say that tests reveal that the temperature in some retail cabinets is above minus 10 deg C, because they are too old, incapable or overloaded. That is not good enough.

The standing group on food freezers recommended in 1976 that the trade should be allowed to deal with the problem voluntarily. But it has not been dealt with. We must face the need for reform at the retail end of the trade. It would be wrong to protect that section from its own inadequacies at the expense of imposing burdens on the rest of the trade.

Why cannot we provide that cabinets be closed, as several EEC countries do? If temperatures rise to unsafe levels, particularly in the top layers, it would be sensible to ensure that the cabinets are kept closed.

The trade says that it is better to have regulations based on International Standardisation Organisation standards for refrigeration. That is a more sensible way to impose control because it does not necessitate inspectors shoving bits and thermometers into fish fingers.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a British standard covers refrigeration equipment and that a code of good practice takes care of any inadequacies?

Of course I am aware of that, but we are talking about machinery which might have to operate in Spain or Greece as well as in Britain. Therefore, the ISO standards are probably the more relevant standards to which to refer on a European-side basis. They relate to the class of countries in which that equipment can operate.

The trade has put another point, not in evidence but in informal representations and discussions. The trade knows that, if the regulations are accepted on a European-wide basis, they will be enforced rigorously in Britain, because this is a law-abiding country, but will not be enforced with the same vigour and concern in other EEC countries. The burden that we are imposing on the most advanced industry is greater than the burden imposed on its competitors.

What should we say in answer to these proposals? As one who has never been known to be a Euro-enthusiast, my answer is that we want to have nothing to do with it. Always be suspicious of Europeans bearing regulations. The firms in my constituency to which I have talked are not keen on these regulations. They see no advantage to be gained from them. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian made an important point when he chronicled the decline in our exports of frozen goods and the increase in imports. We imported £34 million of fish in 1980 and £53 million of fish in 1984 while our exports have decreased. Imports of vegetables increased from £14 million in 1980 to £62 million in 1984. This especially affects a firm such as Wold Farm, which is a large exporter of frozen vegetables. This decline in exports is due mainly to the overvaluation of sterling compared with other European currencies.

We must ask whether the regulations will mean trade advantages. This brings me to the crucial point of the debate. I am suspicious — perhaps unfairly — of the Government's motion. The real question is: are we isolated? The Parliamentary Secretary appeared to say that we are on our own in opposing the regulations. Some trade associations have accepted them. Our key trade association does not think that great advantages will be gained from accepting the regulations.

If we are on our own in opposing the regulations, will we impose a veto? Do we have the nerve to say, "We are on our own"? The Parliamentary Secretary did not answer that crucial question. What will we do about the regulations? The motion states:
"unless they can be modified to meet United Kingdom interests."
I understand from that statement that we will not impose a veto but that we will try to modify the regulations in favour of United Kingdom interests. If those interests are the ones that I have mentioned, OK, but it would be wrong to modify the regulations to defend inadequate sales by retailers and wholesalers. It would mean getting the worst of all worlds. We shall be imposing an inspection regime with increased costs and difficulties on the manufacturers and those involved in the cold stores and the distribution system — the competitive part of our industry which needs to compete overseas — but not imposing it on retailers. We shall gain nothing. It is a case of all or nothing, because the food chain is a continuous process in which food must be maintained at a certain temperature until it gets to the home freezer and the table. Retailers are the weakest link in that chain. There is no point in regulating these other aspects unless they are properly integrated into the food chain. A chain with a weak link breaks, and that is what we shall be creating if we justify the opting out of retailers.

I should be happier, therefore, if the motion did not contain that provision. If the Government are saying that we should accept it but not have it applied, say, to wholesalers and certainly to retailers, that would be wrong. We should reject it — we should defend the industry by vetoing it—but, if we are forced to accept it, we should accept it all, modified only to make sense of it and applied to the technical points that the industry has raised, not to excuse inefficient retailing.

11.11 pm

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said that he was suspicious of the Government's motives. I am suspicious of the motives of the people in Brussels.

Indeed, I am disappointed that the directive has reached this point. I thought we had knocked it on the head a long time ago. It is nearly two years since I wrote to the Minister — I also wrote to the Secretary of State for Energy and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—about the problems inherent in the directive. The replies that I recieved then suggested that we were so opposed to it that we would hear no more about it.

I am disappointed, therefore, that it has reached this stage and that the European Parliament is thinking of proceeding with it. I wonder what is going on in Brussels and what our people are doing there. If we must belong to this club, why not shift its headquarters to this country so that we can run it properly.

I should declare an interest, because I run a refrigeration engineering business. But all hon. Members have an interest, because the British people consume an enormous amount of frozen food. This is a sphere about which we have considerable knowledge.

The directive is so wrong that we can find little in it with which to agree. I support the Government in saying that we want to amend it so that we can use it, and the two issues that we must face are the need to reduce burdens on business generally and to remove Common Market barriers.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby misses the point when he says that the directive should aim at the retail industry. Nobody will pop over from Brussels or anywhere else to Grimsby to buy a packet of peas. We must make trade in the wholesale product and in refrigeration equipment easier so that we can export freely and have a good market. We should not impose burdens on the retailer when, frankly, they are not necessary.

I know from my experience of the industry that we have not had many health and hygiene difficulties. My problems are related mainly to trying to make a profit. Any problems that might present themselves are more likely to be related to noise, for example. I should be interested to hear whether any hon. Members have had brought to their attention problems relating to refrigeration. The only one that has been brought to my attention related to noise.

It is estimated that, if the directive is applied, the energy consumption of equipment in Britain will double, the noise factor will double and the extra investment in equipment will be £500 million—but to what effect? It has been pointed out that there has not been a serious case of food poisoning reported in the last five years.

The number of people who would be affected by the proposed legislation is great. There are said to be 34,000 independent retailers in Britain selling frozen food. They can already look to British standard 3053 and to the proposed code of practice, which the retail consortium has put forward, entitled,
"Guidelines for the handling of frozen foods at retail levels."
I should have thought that they were satisfactory. They comply with long-established practice in this country, where, I remind the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, the climate is not the same as in Italy. It is ridiculous to impose on retailers here the same conditions for retail equipment as would be needed in countries with much higher ambient temperatures.

All the comments from the industry are that this legislation is not necessary. Why cannot the people who represent us in Europe get the point across? To improve trade, we should be removing the barriers and looking for legislation that finds common factors between member states and builds on them, rather than aiming at something that is way beyond what the country with the greatest experience in the industry is doing.

We should seek to amend the legislation to include practices that are agreed here and that can be used as the basis for common points throughout the Community. We could then apply that as a directive, so that we do not have any immediate changes imposed here, and build from there. If it is then felt necessary to move towards the stipulation of minus 18 deg C, whether it is applied at air temperature or at the core, it can be done at a rate on which everybody agrees, without imposing burdens on business. Not only in this country, but in the Community as a whole, there are many unemployed people, and I am sure that they are not unemployed because of a lack of directives along these lines.

11.16 pm

I share the apprehension that the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and every other hon. Member have expressed. However, I do not know how far down the line I would go in support of the hon. Gentleman's thesis, which seemed to be in favour of something that I would support—a truer Common Market—while saying that there is not a place for some moves towards harmonisation. Although we are not very happy with this directive, we cannot have our cake and eat it—even a frozen one. That is one of the difficulties that we face.

I agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) about the difficulties with the sea fishing related industries. He will appreciate that my constituency has similar interests, although they are not as concentrated as in his constituency. I can envisage a similar lack of enthusiasm for the directive in my constituency.

However, I should be interested to learn about the attitude of Lord Cockfield towards the directive. He has made his name in a more robust and dramatic way than the Prime Minister may have anticipated when she first sent him to Brussels, through his fairly aggressive—and often laudatory — attitude towards the breaking down of barriers within the Common Market. How is the Conservative appointee viewing this development?

The policing that would be involved in carrying out the directive could lay considerable burdens on the British taxpayer, and doubtless on the industry and the retailing outlets. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) spoke of the written answer giving facts about the absence of food poisoning as a result of frozen food over the past five years. That shows clearly that our policing, and the standards that we are enforcing, must be pretty good.

Although we would be interested to learn a little more about the Government's intentions, as one who generally supports the move towards majority voting in Europe—I accept that that might not command much support among certain hon. Members—I would not expect the Minister to say this far in advance whether the Government intend to cast a veto on the directive. That would not be good politics now, and would hardly encourage the granting of concessions, which the Government will look for in due course.

We wish the Government well in trying to make more sense of the proposal from Europe. We share the anxieties which have been expressed from both the political and the constituency points of view. With that in mind, we hope that, during the remainder of this year and next year, steps will be taken to the satisfaction of Britain and in harmony with our partners in Europe.

11.20 pm

I agree with the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) that the veto is abhorrent, especially in a case such as this, I was glad to see my hon. Friend the Minister shake her head in disapproval of it and to hear her say that that would be too much. In addition to the fundamental rejection of the veto, there is the lack of enthusiasm about revealing the negotiating position. It is good that the United Kingdom Government are becoming more enthusiastic about the idea of banishing veto-itus. Indeed, last week the Government would surely have been tempted to denounce the Germans for an utterly selfish stance on the refusal to consider the reduction in cereal prices and for applying a national veto to a relatively minor matter, caused only by a schism in the two main German ruling parties.

On this issue one sees the virtues of the way in which Community legislation is originally proposed by the Commission, processed through the Council of Ministers, consulted about with the European Parliament, and then passed through a civilised process of consultation and general agreement. That should be the basis on which qualified majority voting takes place, if a vote is necessary. That virtue of the Community is often beyond the comprehension of Members of Parliament. With conflict politics, with which we are all so drenched, we cannot understand having a process of consultation and a gradual elaboration of sensible legislation between various institutions and the countervailing forces that they represent. How awful! How immoral! Surely we must have the gladiatorial clash, a tremendous vote and schism, and the other party saying that it will repeal the legislation when it is in power. Otherwise it is not the macho behaviour to which we as legislators in the British Parliament are used. The Community has shown us another way in which to produce legislation, similar to the habit and custom of other member states, such as Germany and Italy. We must get used to the process, even the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), because we have been a member of the Community since 1973.

The Minister has got the matter about right by saying that there are considerable misgivings about the details, including the temperature stipulation, but that we shall have further discussions and elaborate it finally into a rather good directive, which will be good for United Kingdom industry. It was interesting and amusing to see all the contradictions in various speeches. The advice of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby became so tortuous and complicated, one was almost unable to follow it. He advised not to apply the veto—

I will not because of lack of time and because the hon. Gentleman made a much longer speech.

I am sorry not to give way, but I have been asked to speak briefly, which is why I am rushing my words now. I think I know what the hon. Gentleman meant. However, he reflected to some extent the contradictions that people feel.

The directive is imperfect now but is potentially extremely good. It would help United Kingdom domestic industry, which is the most powerful among member states. It should be exporting much more. Why does it not? The directive will eventually help the industry to do so. A directive on a technical matter, such as this, always looks rudimentary and primitive when it starts, but 10 years after it has been passed it will be the basis of a great expansion of trade in a particular product or series of products. The directive is good incipiently and will be better if the Government make robust efforts to ensure that the negotiations lead to a constructive conclusion.

11.25 pm

I am pleased to note the all-party opposition to the directive. It is a worry to hon. Members on both sides of the House who still have some remnants of a European ideal to see directives rolling from the Commission that can bring no benefit to Europe, and certainly not to this country. We are, for the most part, dealing with a trade that is within this country and not intra-Community trade. There may be some need for harmonisation in dealing with intra-Community trade, but not for the bulk of the trade which is within the United Kingdom.

I cannot share the hope of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) that consensus will produce sensible results. This directive has been rolling around the Commission for 10 years—it has produced rubbish even after 10 years. I do not know how much longer we need to produce a sensible directive; I suspect that we will not achieve one.

There are no benefits to this country, certainly not in trade, and it is doubtful whether there will be any for consumers. There is no evidence of a health hazard, and few problems result from that industry. The United Kingdom experience is good. Our standards are higher than the United States, which is the largest consumer of frozen foods—and we have a reasonably healthy trade there—and we hve the highest standards in Europe. Our voluntary code for the large manufacturers and distributors is approaching the standards in the directive. Therefore, we are approaching the standards in the directive by voluntary means.

The Commission wants us to produce some system of inspectors wandering around the countryside — as we have humorously heard — boring holes in frozen fish fingers to find out their core temperature. That is an amusing thought, but it is technically known as destructive sampling, which is precisely what will happen. It will produce additional costs for retailers, manufacturers and the consumers. The price of a fish finger will rise if the directive goes through. It may not rise by very much, but it will certainly add to the cost of living. We should not contribute towards that.

There is also the cost to the taxpayer. We have an efficient system of trading standards — something of which we can be proud. However, that creates problems when we start talking to our European partners. We will comply with the directive if it is passed; we will be frighteningly efficient in our compliance with it. We will have more trading standard officers wandering around boring holes in food and saying, "No, no, this food has risen above — 12 deg C, so it has to go."

Italy has virtually no system of trading standards, so I cannot see how it intends to implement the directive. The same is virtually true for France. The truth is that it has little intention of implementing the directive. One wonders why the country which initiated the scheme in the first place is pushing behind the scenes.

We need to look at the retail trade and the corner shop, where retail cabinets may fall below standard because they are old or overcrowded, need maintenance or because the retailers bought cheap Italian products that do not meet British standards. However, I recommend that we look to the International Standards Organisation standards. If we want to ensure that we have good standards to protect the consumer and if we are convinced that the consumer needs protecting, we should enforce ISO standards for cabinets. That is relatively simple without raising costs.

I encourage my hon. Friend to resist the directive and not to lead us down the path of increased costs of an inspectorate, increased costs to the industry and no tangible benefit to the consumer.

11.29 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary not only on the substance of what she said, in that she resisted this most meritorious of Brussels directives, but on the fact that she managed to keep a straight face—as an excellent politician should be able to do — when reading out the reasons why the Commission thought the directive was essential.

The directive started life being so nonsensical that it forced us to go into protracted dialogue with our European colleages and to become more communautaire and more pro-European in the process. It is an interesting exercise, but if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) said, we started with rubbish, went through all this marvellous dialogue and came out with rubbish, we will have done a great disservice to the British people and to Parliament.

There are only two reasons for any legislation on food safety grounds. The first, and by far the most important, is health and safety. Is a particular law necessary to safeguard the lives of our citizens who may eat the product? We all know that this requirement is not necessary. We have heard on numerous occasions tonight that there have been no examples of serious illness or death in the last five years. The reference is to the last five years, because that is the only period for which the Government can answer. If we checked the records, no doubt we would find that over the preceding five years, and the five years before that, there was no death or serious injury caused by any health problem associated with quick-frozen food The cases in hospitals and elsewhere that have caught the headlines about terrible outbreaks of salmonella and so on were caused not by frozen food but by poor hygiene in regard to food that had already been cooked and left out all day. So there is no health ground for the directive.

The second reason for enshrining something in legislation would be sound commercial grounds. Again, this directive fails the test of commerciality. We have already been told that in this country we have one of the most vigorous frozen food industries. We are one of Europe's largest and most successful producers. The British housewife is one of Europe's largest users of frozen food. Therefore, there is no consumer resistance in the United Kingdom to buying quick-frozen food. In fact, one of the biggest worries of many of the farming unions is that there is a move towards easy-to-cook frozen foods and away from the traditional roast. We should recognise that and gear our marketing accordingly. Therefore, there is no consumer resistance to force us to adopt the directive and to persuade consumers that it is safe and good for them to eat quick-frozen food.

Nor is there any commercial interest in regard to the export market. We have always been poor at exporting much of our food products. We have failings in the marketing of frozen food, as we have in all other commodities that are not within the scope of the directive. The solution is not to go ahead with the directive. It will not open up vast markets overseas that we will be able to capture easily. If our experience of the last 15 years is anything to go by, we know that the reverse is true.

The only reason why we have the draft directive is that we have a frozen food market that is ripe for plucking. The other EEC countries recognise that, as they have done in other of our commodities in which they wanted to capture a large share of the market. The directive fails the test of commerciality.

What, therefore, should my hon. Friend do? Being reasonably communautaire, we cannot reject the directive outright. We must continue the process of negotiation to get something more sensible. In that regard it is not right to stick to the temperature requirement of minus 18 deg C. That is dangerous and unnecessary. We have heard that it would be impossible to enforce with teams of inspectors checking the insides of peas, fish fingers or Brussels sprouts. I shall not go into the technicalities. I merely repeat that a temperature of minus 18 deg C. is an unnecessary and penal restriction when we have for generations lived on quick-frozen food that may have been colder or less cold. That temperrature is not required for health and safety reasons.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that there are 38,000 retailers of quick-frozen food. That is an underestimate. There might be that many big retailers, but almost every village in my constituency has a post office or little shop, perhaps even a garage, with freezers containing ice cream and frozen foodstuffs.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the one small glint of sense in the directive is that ice cream is not to be included, so that might reduce the number of outlets that my hon. Friend has in mind?

I was not suggesting that ice cream is not to be included. The freezers that I have seen also have frozen foodstuffs that would come within the scope of the directive.

It would be iniquitous to insist that all outllets should keep food at minus 18 deg C, or within a tolerance of plus or minus 3 deg. C, at all times. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said, it would be ridiculous, just to meet rigid but unnecessary European standards, to get inspectors to check food at the point of manufacture, at the point of transport and at the point of distribution, but, when it gets to the final link in the chain, to say, "We will not inspect it at this point." That would be nonsense.

If we must go along with the directive, the only way forward is to pursue ISO standards or British safety standards for refrigeration equipment. My hon, Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) should be pleased about that, as it would generate more business for his company. It is honourable of him to oppose a directive which would generate business for the refrigeration industry because he does not believe that it is sensible.

There is no point in pursuing the minimum temperature part of the directive, because that would be inherently dangerous for our trade. We should pursue the line of safety standards of equipment. It is easier to police and we could do it alone, just as we have in the past. There is no need for a European directive, but we must harmonise European standards. We must also protect our retailers.

When I lived in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) and we had one of those terrible winters when we were cut off for nine days, we discovered on the second day that it would be a long time before the electricity supply would be restored, so we emptied the deep freezes and threw the food outside. We were not being profligate. I do not know whether the temperature outside was minus 18 deg C, but it was pretty dashed cold. We buried the food in 6 foot of snow and it tasted pretty good when we dug it out again. No doubt the Sicilians will not understand that story, but I feel quite fit and hearty. I went to a Burns supper and used my Skean-dhu to open the haggis. The temperature inside was pretty hot and the whisky made it even hotter. We are alive and kicking today.

The draft directive has been called horizontal legislation. We should turn it into vertical legislation and put it straight down into the bin.

11.38 pm

There have been some very witty speeches. Perhaps I should follow up the more serious ones first.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) asked why only quick-frozen food is covered. The draft directive imputes a wide meaning to the term "quick-frozen", which includes all products except those frozen in still air. We shall in the working groups seek clarification of the term's coverage, so that there are no anomalies in the directive.

The hon. Gentleman made much of measuring the centre of the product. There has been a lot of criticism of taking the temperature at the centre of the product. The directive says that it should be at the centre of the product and although techniques exist for this, we shall be discussing with manufacturers and retailers whether they would prefer air temperature or temperature at the centre of the product. There is a risk that temperatures measured elsewhere than at the centre could result in even tighter controls and greater energy expenditure. So we shall have to look at our arguments on that to make sure that we are not imposing an additional burden.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) asked whether we had consulted industry properly on this. We have consulted repeatedly with our manufacturers in the United Kingdom. We have said that the directive as drafted, however, does not take account—we agree with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby—of their technical or manufacturing expertise, and we shall aim to be correcting this in discussions on the basis of what we regard as our greater technical knowledge in this field.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) raised the disturbing matter of the constituent who had ratatouille — rodentatouille, he called it, rather appropriately. But whether or not there is a directive on frozen food will not affect any occurrence such as this, which is due to manufacturers' human error in not checking sufficiently closely at the packing stage that there are no foreign bodies. Incidentally, I spent the morning at a seminar on foreign bodies in food, so I am up to date on that.

Foreign objects can be, of course, and sometimes are, found in any foodstuffs, whether or not they are frozen. A dead mouse is a pretty horrible object in food, whether it is frozen or thawed. When complaints are made to enforcement officers by the public, if, as in this case, they concern imported food, those officers usually ask the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to approach the embassy concerned and ask them to approach the appropriate enforcing authority in their country for an investigation. As much detail as possible to facilitate identification of the foreign manufacturer is given and the Ministry asks for and often receives the results of the investigation.

Of course, if an object is found in food produced in the United Kingdom, the enforcement authorities can take action against the guilty parties and prosecutions are usually instituted under section 2 of the Food Act 1984—that is, on the ground that the food is not of the nature, substance or quality demanded. My officials will take up with the Spanish embassy the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough if he would care to provide me with the relevant details.

We were asked whether we could tighten up import controls in this respect. We have sent out a consultative document on the review of food legislation. We shall be considering the comments on that document to decide whether steps should be taken to go ahead with changes in food legislation. One of the recommendations of the consultative document is to tighten up the requirements of the importers' code of practice and determine just how much they should do to ensure that their suppliers have followed hygienic production methods, and so on. So the importers would have the responsibility of ensuring that they were importing from a supplier who used hygienic methods.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby asked whether, if we are concerned about retail and wholesale distribution standards, we should not be discriminating against manufacturers if we did not carry it right through the chain. There is less problem with maintaining a minus 18 deg C temperature at manufacturing and international distribution levels, partly because those sectors tend to be already geared to working at that temperature and partly because handling conditions are so very different.

For example, in a retail shop, the opening and shutting of cabinets makes it much more difficult to maintain a very low temperature, even when tolerances are allowed, than in a factory. A retailer might be forced to keep his cabinets well below this level, and might even have to install air conditioning to have any chance of the temperature at the centre of the product being minus 18 deg C. Similarly a van making local deliveries might have to open and shut the door at several shops, and would therefore find it much more difficult to maintain minus 18 deg C. than a long-distance carrier making a large delivery at the end of a long journey to a single depot.

The attempt in the directive to cover purely domestic arrangements such as local distribution provisions and conditions in retail shops seems to go beyond what can be justified as a directive under article 100 of the treaty of Rome, which is concerned with the removal of obstacles to the establishment and maintenance of a Common Market. I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) that we are concerned with maintaining a true Common Market, but we believe that at the local distribution and retail levels this is not concerned with intra-Community trade.

There is no virtue in maintaining a temperature that is lower than justified on grounds of health and quality. Rather, it constitutes a waste of energy and money. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said, it could also reduce the number of retail outlets carrying frozen foods, even though at present they are demonstrably capable of handling a range of wholesome quality products. As a number of hon. Members have pointed out—the hon. Member for East Lothian had this confirmed in a written reply—there have been no health problems at all with frozen foods sold by retailers. We are determined not to be left with a directive that will impose real and unnecessary economic costs, particularly on small enterprises serving local needs.

As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), who I believe has had to leave, there is no scientific case for minus 18 deg C. It just happens to be 0 deg F., and we believe that was set as an easy marker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Dr. Twinn) said that the directive was rubbish. I take issue with him. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby asked for a statement on the use of the veto. The hon. Gentleman will accept that we are the largest producer and consumer of frozen foods in the Community, so our views can be expected to carry considerable weight because we speak from wide practical experience.

Hitherto, we have argued on the principles of the directive. We have not been greatly concerning with the detailed, technical features of the proposals. But once we address ourselves to these issues, we will be in a good position to influence opinion on this subject.

The Government will not argue for temperatures to be tolerated that would involve any risk to health, but I reiterate that minus 18 deg C goes far beyond what is necessary on health grounds. We think that quality can be adequately safeguarded by voluntary control The manufacturers already have a code of practice, and the Retail Consortium is in the process of finalising guidelines for the handling of quick-frozen foods. There will be a marked disadvantage to consumers if over-strict regulations lead to closure of retail outlets which previously supplied frozen food or the imposition of unnecessary costs on retailers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) asked why we had brought this forward when we so resolutely opposed it, and he submitted a paper based on his wealth of experience in the refrigeration industry. We still do not accept that the Commission has adequately shown that there are real intra-Community trading problems which would be overcome by a frozen food directive on the lines proposed. Nevertheless, the Commission's views have gained much support from other member states, they have the backing of the Economic and Social Committee and they will probably be supported by the European Parliament. In those circumstances, it is sensible to re-examine the proposals to see whether they can be made to conform more closely with United Kingdom interests.

Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that the directive would mean a massive investment of £500 million in equipment that this country cannot possibly provide and which would have to be imported mainly from the EEC? Does she agree that we should be on our guard against any underlying motive of that kind by other member states, given that the United Kingdom is the biggest market in the Community for such equipment?

I have made it clear that we are concerned about the capital investment that would be required if small retailers had to meet these proposals, but I do not think that my hon. Friend should be too pessimistic about motives. We are mindful of the cost, and we take the view that unless the proposals can be made to conform more closely with out interests and the unnecessarily onerous features removed from them, continued opposition is the only possible course. We hope, however, that it may be possible to safeguard our interests by seeking commercially sensible and technically sound amendments.

I hope that I have covered all the points raised in the debate. It is clear from the number of Members present at this time of night that there is great interest in this matter, and we shall carefully consider the views that have been expressed. There is now considerable momentum behind the proposals and this is an opportunity to consider what is the best course of action, taking into account the various interests throughout the United Kingdom.

I believe that there is no option but to oppose the directive in its present form. It is unnecessary and goes far beyond what is justified in terms of facilitating intra-Community trade. It fails to take account of the practical realities of local distribution and retailing of frozen food and in some areas it appears to contain technical inaccuracies and confusions. Nevertheless, I believe that it is worth trying to get the proposals modified so that they become sounder and more acceptable to the United Kingdom, particularly at the local distribution and retail levels.

This approach offers an ultimate safeguard against attempts to impose extensive and unjustified constraints and allows more constructive tactics to be employed. Given the favourable climate of opinion in other member states, it will probably offer the best chance to reach generally acceptable conclusions on the treatment of frozen food.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 9402/84 on the approximation of laws relating to quick frozen foodstuffs for human consumption; and supports the Government's intention to oppose Community measures in this field, unless they can be modified to meet United Kingdom interests.