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Shellfish Industry (Devon)

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2003

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11 am

The Minister is well briefed on shellfish today, having attended the centennial of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain at Fishmongers hall last night, as did I and many others. He will have heard an eloquent speech by Captain Phillip Gibbon, who outlined the problems of the shellfish industry over recent years. I noticed that the Minister also spent some time afterwards talking to fishermen, rather than just rushing off, and I compliment him on that. He will have heard directly their concerns and fears about the future of their industry. I spoke to a number of those fishermen, and two or three of them told me to say a special thank you to the Minister—the crab fishermen from south Devon, in particular, were pleased with he has achieved on their behalf.

However, I am not here merely to praise the Minister. The River Teign's problems go back over a number of years, and I shall briefly go through the history. In July 1997, the testing for E. coli in bivalve molluscs recorded two failures over the accepted limit of 4,600 parts. That is not a problem under the current regulation: in a year, from April to April, up to a 10 per cent. failure rate is allowed. However, the following January there was, bizarrely, a spectacular failure. The rate exceeded the limit, going up to 35,000. Everyone in the industry said at the time that that result was a glitch and I still think that it was an error that arose from putting the decimal point in the wrong place. However, whether that result was real or an error, its consequence was that the Teign estuary could no longer be considered as category B. It had failed and had to be downgraded to category C. The Teign estuary was shut down as of 1 September 1998.

In the previous year, 110 tonnes of oysters and mussels had been extracted from the estuary, which employed 40 individuals, some full-time, but mostly part-time. The shutdown devastated the industry. Mussels are not like oysters—the issue mostly concerns mussel production—in that they cannot be picked up and moved, as that is not cost-effective. Many people have left the industry, some almost certainly permanently. In the second year of reopening the beds, those in the industry have managed to extract 25 tonnes. It is a cause of some bitterness to the shell fishermen and watermen of the Teign estuary that it now employs only three individuals.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising this issue, which is critical to south Devon. I should also like to associate myself with issues concerning the Teign, because there are similar problems in the Dart and the Avon. Does he agree that, in Britain, we are now, perhaps understandably, neurotic about hygiene and food safety? In France, Spain and Italy, people produce all those wonderful fruits of the sea. The public eat them, survive and are healthy. Would he agree that our officials seem to be over the top on many of these issues to the detriment of the public in Britain?

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. I will go into slightly more detail as I progress.

Was the shutdown in 1998 necessary? The fishermen say no, local consumers in Teignmouth, Shaldon and Newton Abbot say no and the environmental health officers for Teignbridge and for South Hams, whose job is to protect the public on matters of food poisoning, also said no. My view is that that is the correct answer. The shutdown was not necessary and it was not justified at that time. As I outlined, the shutdown took place from 1 September 1998. If the January reading of 35,000 was correct, why did it take nine months to shut the river down? If there was a problem then, surely we had a risk of food poisoning for the rest of the season from the continued extraction of the shellfish.

France and the Netherlands follow the same EU directive on the amount of E. coli in bivalve molluscs, but they follow a simple red-light, green-light system. If the test is failed, they stop extraction. When, after extensive testing, they get the all clear, they can extract again. Therefore, when they have good molluscs—good mussels and good oysters—they can sell them. The River Teign has some superb mussels and oysters. If they have a problem, they are not sold. The problem is that, under our system, bad mussels and oysters can be sold because of the delay in the order to stop extraction. The following year perfectly good mussels and oysters can live happily, lying on the riverbed, enjoying the sunshine and not being extracted.

That was the problem that the shell fishermen described to me and to the others who would listen in 1998 and 1999. I spoke to Graham Watson, a Member of the European Parliament, to see whether he could organise a meeting in Westminster. Later that year, he led a delegation to see Baroness Hayman. The delegation also included the then Member of Parliament for Teignbridge, the environmental health officers from the two south Devon districts, fishermen and representatives from the Shellfish Association of Great Britain.

We got a good reception. The noble Lady clearly listened. The civil servants prevaricated and justified the existing situation. However, we left that meeting clearly of the view that the noble Lady had turned to Richard Hardy and said, "Sort this out. Investigate this and let us know what the answer is." This would have made a good episode of ?Yes Minister", because nothing happened. The fishermen waited, and they wrote. The Shellfish Association wrote, but there appeared to be no action for a number of years.

Eventually in 2002, there was public consultation that had to be completed by 6 December 2002. Evidence was gathered to look at the problem and we should have expected an answer by now. But no, we have heard that the Shellfish Association has been told that the Foods Standards Agency is too busy. It does not have enough staff and the earliest that it can begin to review the consultation carried out last year is at the end of this year. Does the Minister believe that that is good enough? I do not. If he does not believe that it is good enough, will he do us and the industry a favour and give the FSA the proverbial kick up the backside? In this instance, it needs it.

There are a couple of other areas in which there are problems with the way in which we administer and test for problems in bivalve molluscs. We should look at instances of diarrhetic shellfish poisoning. The testing method is to take a sample of a mollusc, mince it up, inject it into a mouse and observe the mouse for 24 hours. If it dies, one has a problem and stops extraction.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

indicated assent.

The Minister nods. He is clearly familiar with the method. Mice came up at the dinner last night—but only in the conversation. The question that the industry asks is: when the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science at Weymouth carries out the test, why do the mice die? However, when samples from the same beds are sent to the marine laboratory at Aberdeen, why do the mice not die?

When the Shellfish Association has had concerns about the testing methods at Weymouth and has sent samples from the same batch to the national laboratories of France and Holland, which use different testing methods, it has been told that there is no diarrhetic shellfish poisoning. There has to be a question about how CEFAS at Weymouth carries out the tests. I understand that the method is to inject into the gland. If all the mice are dying, are the scientists using a hammer to put the mice to sleep before injecting them? I hope that the Minister will ask his Department to look into the disparity between the test results. If the results come back negative, it has a devastating effect on the beds and on the people trying to make a meagre living—they do not make vast fortunes—out of the growing and extraction of oysters and mussels.

I know that the Minister and his colleagues in most countries in Europe are concerned about the way in which we measure E. coli and whether the present methods are accurate and reliable. I should like to give him a piece of information that was passed to me at the weekend. Last September, there was a problem in the River Teign. The environmental health officer was concerned when he learned about it, but he was not told at the time. Those with such information are at CEFAS in Weymouth, and they sit on it. One of the points made to the Minister last night concerned the remoteness of CEFAS from what is going on. We should consider a system of local control, so that environmental health officers can be told what is going on and can carry out investigations into problems and resolve them.

The Government are keen on decentralisation and on giving powers to local people; we have seen that in many policy areas. I do not believe that decentralisation has, necessarily, been carried out correctly, but the principle is right. On the occasion in question, an investigation was carried out some time after the problem occurred. By chance, one of the harbour commissioners asked when it had occurred, and remembered that 6 September had been the day when some of an excess of sprats had accidentally spilled into the River Teign. The consequence of a large number of dead fish in the river is a large number of seagulls on the estuary. It is more than conceivable that the guano from seagulls caused the problem. However, I understand that the human E. coli is dangerous and that the E. coli from seagulls is not a big problem in the minute particles in which it is found in bivalve molluscs. I am happy to take alternative scientific advice, but that is what I am advised.

We have other problems. The River Teign is dredged as the tide is coming in, not when it is going out. Pollutants on the river bed will be disturbed as the tide is rising which will therefore affect the mussel beds. I wonder whether we need greater liaison between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the FSA and the Environment Agency on dredging procedures. Teignmouth has a small port, but many other rivers are dredged.

Finally, the European Union FSA sent a delegation to the United Kingdom last year, between 8 and 17 June. It produced a report on the implementation of directive 91/492/EEC on live bivalve molluscs, and directive 91/ 493/EEC on fishery products. It visited Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The Minister may not know, because it concerns another Department, but I wonder why it did not visit England. Despite requests, it did not meet people from the industry because it was not permitted to do so. On page 11, the report states:
"Traceability was often not of the required standard. Registration documents were not always received with batches of bivalve molluscs. Dispatch centres did not necessarily maintain the required records."
What will the Minister do to improve traceability and to answer that criticism?

I thank the Minister for what I hope will be a short reply. I say that because, putting it bluntly, the industry does not want a long speech that was prepared by officials. I hope that he will recognise the problems and give us an assurance that they will be resolved. Will he finish the work started by Baroness Hayman? Will he change the system from the lunatic 12-month ban that starts in September to a stop-go, red-light, green-light situation?

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of both the Member and the Minister?


Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I shall be brief.

I support the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross). I had similar experiences in my previous constituency of South Hams, where oyster beds and mussel beds were lost because of overzealous enforcement by environmental health officers. The problem is that the Government can never get it wrong, because in matters of health and hygiene and the good management of shellfish, they will always go for the safe option. They will always say that things are not safe unless they have an absolutely green light. That is true of all food.

We now live in a state in which food is so processed and pure that one would expect no illnesses, yet we have more incidents of food poisoning under the new agency for health and hygiene. There is no correlation between the obsession about health and hygiene, and the health of the nation.

I entirely support what the hon. Gentleman said. I have similar stories, but it is not appropriate to tell them now. I have complete confidence in the Minister's ability to take the matter by the short and curlies—if he so decides. I know that eating shellfish can be dangerous and that the health of the country is important, but the Minister must not go overboard, as the Government often do, on matters of hygiene and safety, because that would eliminate jobs—and a wonderful crop of oysters and mussels.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on his introduction of the debate and on asking a number of relevant questions. He is right: I went to the Shellfish Association of Great Britain dinner last night on its 100th anniversary, which was an enjoyable occasion. I was touched to be presented with a special badge by the association, and I listened carefully to the concerns raised by the speakers.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, I also took the opportunity to stay on after the dinner to talk with representatives of the shellfish industry. I discussed in more detail their concerns, which are pretty consistent. I understand the importance of the shellfish industry to the hon. Gentleman's constituency—shellfish is a quality product and the sector is successful. We are keen to support and promote the industry and to address its concerns.

It might be useful if I concentrate on the points that have been raised and which I understand—I spent a considerable time talking about them last night. This morning, I had further talks with my officials about how we can address those concerns and what we can do to assist. The issue of classification of waters is important; there is no dispute about that. Shellfish waters have to be classified and the testing of shellfish for toxins is a public health matter that rightly falls in the policy scope of the Food Standards Agency. However, as a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I am responsible for the fisheries industry, so it is perfectly legitimate for the industry to raise concerns with me. I am more than happy to raise those concerns with the FSA and to address the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

One of the hon. Gentleman's points was about the tests, which were again discussed last night. Mice get a hard time in those tests, yet in the 21st century we could and should have a more sensitive and more accurate test than feeding bits of shellfish to unfortunate mice to see whether they keel over. Our laboratories want to move away from such tests involving mice, as there are more modern tests available, such as molecular and DNA tests. I shall raise the matter with our DEFRA chief scientist. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, for example, is anxious to move away from such tests, and the Home Office is also committed to modernising and reducing the use of animals. More sensitive tests may be helpful here.

I appreciate that Members understand this point, but it is worth emphasising that food safety and the safety of consumers are paramount. The idea behind the FSA is addressing what happened to the red meat industry. Consumers lost confidence in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and in the testing procedures in the wake of BSE. The red meat industry suffered devastating consequences from which it has not fully recovered even today. We do not want that to happen to the shellfish sector, which has a good image and sells a quality product. We want to maintain that strength. The idea behind the FSA's independence is to ensure that there is consumer confidence. Consumers can then be reassured that there is neither ministerial interference nor attempts to put industry concerns above consumer protection. That is a strength and success of the FSA.

Despite that, it is not unreasonable to raise some of the points that have been made. I am well aware of the worries about the atypical testing results for diarrhetic shellfish poisoning and the fact that the FSA has, from time to time, closed harvesting areas as a precautionary measure to protect human health. There have been a number of atypical DSP results in Devon. The FSA has assured us that it is, investigating the cause of those results as a priority, and it has a substantial programme of work under way to assess the human health implications.

In the meantime, DEFRA, working with the sea fisheries committees for affected cockle grounds, has been doing what it can, in consultation with the agency, to try to address some problems in relation to management. Where practicable, we can operate zoning arrangements, so that even where there have been positive test results we do not necessarily have to close all the shellfish beds. We can create a zone from the areas where there have been positive results, and allow harvesting from some other areas. We have been doing that in various parts of the country where there has been a problem, and we have had some success.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about the need for a consistent approach to what is done in Europe and how it addresses this issue. We are prepared to take that up with the FSA, because we would not want our shellfish sector to be unfairly disadvantaged compared with others, and I understand the point about the classification of water quality in shellfish harvesting areas. We are pressing his point on reviewing all those issues.

The FSA is thinking about a longer-term classification—over five years—to improve the stability of area classifications and safeguard public health protection. The industry is interested in that. I also take the point that when there is a positive result on quality— a negative result, in this case—there is an argument for perhaps closing the area and reopening it as soon as there is a better result. I am happy to talk to the FSA about that. In all fairness, the FSA and CEFAS are aware that there are so-called spikes in water quality, particularly when there is a downpour and perhaps sewer flooding and discharge. They understand that, and it is taken into account in their monitoring, but I will certainly raise those points.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to improving our coastal waters—indeed, all our waters. I am glad to say that the trend in water quality is upwards. The Government aim to achieve bacteriological standards that allow all shellfish sites to gain at least category B classification. As part of our commitment to implement the shellfish water directive, we have designated 93 shellfish waters in England as category B—an increase of 76 sites since 1998.

We have been talking to the water and sewerage companies, which are one of the principal reasons for waters failing the quality test, about their investment programme. In the Devon area, South West Water is making significant investment to improve sewage treatments. Most of those improvements are under way or planned to be completed by the end of 2005.

On that point, South West Water has already carried out a clean sweep of the River Teign. Bizarrely, the failures happened after the cleanup programme. That is what makes them so inexplicable.

I may be able to explain. I understand that there has been a problem of intermittent discharges from the sewerage system upstream of the estuary at Newton Abbot. That may be responsible for the downgrading of the waters to category C in 1999. However, I understand that some have been recategorised as category B, so things are clearly going the right way.

We want to consider schemes to help to upgrade some areas from category B to category A in the next periodic review of water price limits in England and Wales. That involves building into the investment programme consideration of water quality generally and taking account of the shellfish industry's needs in particular. We certainly want to take that forward, and CEFAS has contributed to it. It is working with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain to identify priorities for category A waters.

I well understand the points that the hon. Gentleman has made and the shellfish industry's concerns. We must look after consumer interests. No one would disagree that that is in the industry's interests. However, questions have been raised that deserve to be taken seriously, and we will take those up with the FSA. It is important to have local information, and it is a fair point that the Environment Agency should be informed.

It is also important that the industry is involved from the beginning of the process in relation to the assessments and how they are done, and that its views and local knowledge are taken into account within that approach. We will take up those issues with the FSA. I hope that we can address them for the benefit of the industry and water quality.


Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.