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Foodstuffs (Radioactivity)

Volume 130: debated on Thursday 31 March 1988

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he has any plans to change the levels of radioactivity permitted in foodstuffs exported from, and imported into, Britain and the EEC.


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what were the permitted radioactivity levels following the Chernobyl accident for the import and export of foodstuffs in Britain and other EEC countries; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Donald Thompson)

Good morning, Mr. Speaker.

I have no plans to change present national arrangements regarding radioactivity levels in foodstuffs imported into or exported from this country.

Following Chernobyl, maximum permitted radiocaesium levels for Community imports of foodstuffs from all third countries were set at 370 bq/kg for milk and babyfood and 600 bq/kg for other foods. Those levels remain unchanged. No comparable legislative measures were adopted governing either intra-Community trade or exports. Changes in EC arrangements are, of course, a matter for the European Community.

Good morning, Mr. Speaker.

I am grateful to the Minister for that full reply, and I am sure that the information that he gave will be useful to many people. But is he aware that there are reports from many Third world countries that they have received consignments, especially of dried milk powder, which exceed those levels; that, despite that, pressure has been exerted on those countries to accept the consignments; and that some consignments have been returned to Britain? Will the Minister look into the matter to see whether the reports are true? If they are, where are those consignments stored and what will be their future use?

I would understand the hon. Gentleman's concern if what he said had any basis in fact. No Third world country has registered any protest —[Interruption.] I shall answer the hon. Gentleman's question as gently as I can, and we shall see what he makes of it after I have finished.

No Third world country has registered any imports from the United Kingdom that are above the EC recommended levels. There were two prongs to the hon. Gentleman's question: first, materials going to the Third world in aid; and, secondly, materials going to the Third world in normal trading patterns. There is no doubt that, at first, in the normal trading patterns some of our customers were reluctant to accept goods from Europe and the United Kingdom. That reluctance has been overcome. As the hon. Gentleman said, there has been much publicity about goods going in aid to the Third world. I shall consider any documents or evidence that the hon. Gentleman may have, but at present it seems that that charge cannot be laid at our door.

The Minister probably knows that a consignment of EEC food aid to Mexico was traced to the Irish Republic and accepted back by the Irish Republic after complaints from Mexico. Although, as the Minister said, Britain has not been a source of over-contaminated food, does he agree that it reflects badly on the EEC as a whole? Did the Minister see early-day motion 733, which brought these matters to the attention of the House, and did he discuss them with those responsible during his visit to Brussels earlier this week?

I agree with the hon. Lady that the United Kingdom's record in these matters is remarkably good and should be a model—[Interruption.] I would have agreed with the hon. Lady had she said that. Since Chernobyl, the United Kingdom's record has been remarkably good. I am as worried as the hon. Lady is that the good name of the European Community will be spoilt by such incidents. It reflects badly not only on aid but on trade, and that is bad for all of us.

Is the Minister aware that my constituency is still suffering from the effects of the Chernobyl accident and that it is affecting sheep production in the mountainous areas? Given recent reports of the slow breakdown of radioactive materials, especially in peat vegetation, can the Minister give the House and the country an assurance that we know how long it will be before the caesium levels in those peat and upland areas fall to a reasonable level so that we can get rid of this dreadful problem, which must have an effect on food production and exports?

Despite the occasional levity, I take the problem seriously, especially in Wales, Cumbria, and Northern Ireland, where the effects of the accident at Chernobyl still linger. Unfortunately, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any idea of how long it will be before the effects of the accident have gone from our land. We are monitoring on a continual basis, not only in the affected areas, but throughout the country and we are also monitoring imports of goods. The hon. Gentleman has heard the answer about exports.

Does the Minister agree that one cannot differentiate between aid and trade when talking about becquerel levels? Those levels are laid down by the EEC and should be adhered to in aid and trade by all countries. Will the Minister once again give us an assurance that he will examine the newspaper reports? I accept that most of them suggest that contaminated food has not been exported from this country, although there is the possibility of one shipment to the Philippines from this country. Will he give us an assurance that he will not only look into that but will take the matter to Brussels and ensure that food that is above the safety becquerel limit is not being exported, in either aid or trade, from any of the European countries? That is important.

Aid and trade are equally important. In many ways, perhaps aid is more important because the recipient countries have less sophisticated facilities than the trading countries that accept our goods. I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point on that. I reiterate what I said to his hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). I will look again carefully at any documentation that he or his hon. Friends present to me. Having looked at that, I shall talk to my right hon. Friend the Minister and see whether it is necessary to take the matter to Brussels to encourage or fortify our friends there.