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European Pig Industry

Volume 557: debated on Wednesday 30 January 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

It is an enormous pleasure, especially following our debate on Europe, to speak in an attempt to protect the British pig, a noble beast, from the depredations of the European Union.

On 1 January this year, a European directive, Council Directive 2008/120/EC, came into force throughout the EU. It lays down minimum standards and requirements for the welfare of pigs, and, most notably, outlaws the use of systems, known as stalls, which in fact confine sows in individual metal stalls. It was originally passed in 2001, and in this respect—as in so many areas of animal health and welfare—the United Kingdom has been in the vanguard.

The Minister is a former pig farmer, as is his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), who is also present this evening. I only wish that I too had been a pig farmer: I should have liked that very much. My right hon. Friend and the Minister will know—as, indeed, will many other Members—that Parliament placed a complete ban on sow stalls in 1999, and that the United Kingdom had already achieved full compliance with the directive when it came into force this year. Unfortunately, however, that is not true of all member states.

In June 2012, the European Commission reported that 18 of the 27 member states expected to meet the January 2013 deadline for full compliance with the directive. Despite assurances given to the Commission, however, figures leaked from the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health in December 2012 showed that 80% of member states were expected to fail to comply with the ban.

I welcome the debate, because I want to draw attention to a difficulty affecting Europe’s enforcement of the directive. One of the problems with EU legislation is that it is only when it has actually become law that the European Commission can take action. It should be able to take action before the event: that would enable the practice of keeping pigs in stalls to be stopped in Denmark and in all member states.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In this country, once the rules come into force on a given date—1 January 2013, in this instance—that should be it. There is a huge difference between our approach to the law, what we do with it and how we obey it, and the approach of many countries on the continent, where law and the making of law are more of an aspiration than a statement of what is and how things should be. I do not want to dwell on that point too much, because it is outside the terms of the debate, but I think that it highlights one of the fundamental differences between us and many European countries, which makes the melding of our countries—should we wish it, which we do not—almost impossible.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this very important issue before the House. My constituency used to have 30 pig producers, but we now have just one, although it is a large one. The problem has been that we in the UK have religiously followed the regulations, to the detriment of local pig farmers. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the supermarket chains should give a commitment to sourcing pork from local farmers, rather than buying from across the rest of Europe?

Yes, that is important, and the evidence is that where supermarkets—such as Waitrose and Morrisons —have made such a commitment, it has had very favourable consequences and customers like it.

As a result of 80% of EU member states not being expected to meet the deadline, many illegal farms are likely to operate well into 2013. Only five nations—the United Kingdom, Austria, Estonia, Luxembourg and Sweden—achieved full compliance with the directive by the 1 January 2013 deadline.

As the Minister will know, at the Council of Ministers meeting on Monday of this week, fresh figures on the extent of compliance with the directive were provided. The latest data from Agra Facts revealed that an additional five member states—Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Romania—are now fully compliant, taking the total number of compliant countries to 10. It is interesting that some countries that might have faced more difficulties and that are less economically developed have been able to achieve full compliance, while other countries, such as France and Germany, have not. That speaks volumes about why compliance has not been achieved. The reality is that it has not been achieved because it was not in those countries’ interests to achieve compliance, as they can get more profit by flouting the law, and they have done that up to, and beyond, the last possible moment.

Many of these countries export to the UK in significant volumes, including Denmark, the Netherlands and the EU’s largest pork producer, Germany. To take Germany as an example, one quarter of the EU’s pigmeat—some 5.6 million tonnes—is produced by German pig farmers. Recent Eurostat figures show that Germany has 27.4 million pigs, over six times the number of pigs in the UK, and 18.5% of the overall EU pig herd. The website for German Meat, the joint export promotion organisation of the German meat industry, proudly proclaims:

“The production of pork has a long tradition in Germany. Production methods and structures today are of a high standard and undergo constant further development in terms of animal genetics, animal health, production technology and hygiene.”

However, the December 2012 figures for compliance show that fewer than half of Germany’s pig farmers—just 48%—had achieved full compliance with the directive. That figure now stands at 73%—so still more than a quarter are not compliant—and both figures place Germany at 24th place out of 27 member states in terms of the percentage of pig farms in full compliance.

In December, four member states had compliance rates of below 50%: Germany, Portugal, Belgium and France. Together, they produced 49.7 million tonnes of pork and pigmeat. By contrast, the five countries that were fully compliant by December 2012 produced 9.4 million tonnes. These figures help to illustrate the scale of the challenge. Europe is awash with cheap pork produced illegally, forcing down the price of pork and other pig products and adding yet more pressure on Britain’s already hard-pressed pig farmers, who are complying with the law, unlike many of their major competitors.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this hugely important issue for our pig industry. May I caution him about the use of the word “compliance”, however? We are talking here about compliance with the EU directive, but that directive does not meet the standards on our statute book in this country. The EU directive allows farmers in other member states to continue to keep sows in stalls for, I think, the first 21 days, while they are being served —or mated—for the future. Therefore, every other farm in Europe is entitled to have some sow stalls on their farm for that reason, but they are completely banned in our country, so even European farmers who are in compliance with the regulation are not necessarily keeping their pigs to the high standards we uphold in this country.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has probably forgotten more about this subject than I will ever know, for pointing that out. In a way, that makes my point even more strongly: even though the word “compliance” must be treated with care, such farmers are not able to reach even that lower standard, which shows how much further there is to go.

Of course, in this country we do have farrowing crates for sows that are giving birth, which I support. That is the safest and best method. I have been in pig houses and watched the process, and it is the right thing to do. The British Pig Executive is sponsoring research into other methods, but at the moment that is the best technology we have, and I support it.

The problem, however, is that, of the top 10 pigmeat-producing nations in the EU in terms of production tonnage, only Romania and the UK are fully compliant, and they are ninth and tenth respectively. The top eight countries, by volume of meat produced, are non-compliant. They include Germany, with 6 million tonnes; Spain, with 3.5 million tonnes; France, with just under 2 million tonnes; and Poland, with 1.8 million tonnes. The vast majority of the big producers are not compliant. In other words, the biggest pork producers are those who have made the least effort to comply with the law and who have benefited accordingly from lower costs. This is more than a question of fairness or a matter of principle. Poor harvests last year have resulted in very high feed costs. That is fine for wheat farmers, but for pig farmers, who rely on buying feed, it is not fine at all, and means that many farmers are under great financial pressure.

If illegal farms either complied with the law, as they should, or stopped producing pork altogether, that would tighten the supply chain and lift pork prices, creating a much brighter future for those who have made substantial investments in making sure the pork they produce is legal. It now falls to the European Commission to work with member states to enforce the protection of pigs directive. However, the Commission’s attempts to enforce it are already going awry. An inadvertent and unofficial derogation has already been granted to Ireland and France, after the European Commission gave them an extension to the deadline for applying for funding for pig farmers who have yet to convert their pig houses. Ireland has until September 2013 to access the funds. In the case of France, a quarter of French pig farmers remain non-compliant.

Together, Ireland and France account for 2.25 million tonnes, or just over 10%, of EU pork production. Interestingly, that is more than the total combined production of the 10 member states that are fully compliant, which between them manage only 2.23 million tonnes, or 9.97%, of EU pork production. Ideally, the money should be withheld until the French and Irish farmers expecting these funds can prove that any illegal sow houses have been empty since new year’s eve, although I recognise that in practice that would be very difficult to achieve.

However, there are three things the Government can do now that would make a real difference to British pig farmers and help to stop illegal pigmeat entering the UK. First, effective enforcement of the directive must begin at home. The Government must ensure absolute clarity in their own buying standards for pork and other pigmeat products. This affects purchasing for schools, the NHS, the armed forces, local government canteens and every other public sector body. By now, every tier of government, from Whitehall to the town hall, should be making sure they are not buying meat that has been produced illegally, and that they know they are not. The Government need to make sure that people in the public sector are aware of this obligation.

However, it is not enough for Government buyers simply to rely on suppliers’ assurances of compliance. The Government must show leadership by making certain that all their suppliers operate a traceable supply chain that procures pork and pigmeat from legally compliant sources. The Minister will recall that at the pig industry summit which I hosted in November, he undertook to write to Government Departments reminding them of their obligations. I look forward to receiving an update from him on this matter and hearing more about what the Government are doing in this area.

Secondly, retailers and food service companies, having been shown leadership by the Government in the way I suggest, should be strongly encouraged to adopt full traceability, so that any pigmeat products they sell are guaranteed to come from legal sources. Such companies should then be expected to have fully transparent systems in place to guarantee that to their customers. The need for full and open traceability has been aptly demonstrated by the recent detection of horse DNA in beefburgers. That discovery not only inspired the largest accumulation of equine puns known to mankind, but illustrated the importance of a fully transparent supply chain.

Tesco chief executive, Philip Clarke, wrote the following in his “Talking Shop” blog:

“We expect our suppliers to deliver to a standard, and to meet basic food traceability rules. But our customers shop with Tesco, not our suppliers, so you won’t find us hiding behind suppliers. It’s our job to ensure they are meeting our high standards.”

I commend Tesco for its speed in reassuring customers and withdrawing suspect products from sale, but the key lesson to take from the scandal is that food traceability rules need to be strengthened significantly. Retailers, processors and food manufacturers know that improved traceability is difficult, but they also know that it is possible. They need to be pressed for commitments to guarantee traceability that extend to branded products such as Wall’s, as much as to supermarkets’ own brands. Claiming either to have assurances from a supplier or to have no control over branded products can no longer be regarded as sufficient.

I am indebted to the National Pig Association for sharing with me an encouraging letter from Mr Martyn Jones, corporate services director for the supermarket Morrisons, to NPA chairman Richard Longthorp. The letter stated that Morrisons’

“commitment to the integrity and transparency of our offer remains paramount. For the pork and pork products we are importing from the EU, we have been clear to suppliers of both branded and tertiary products that this must meet the requirements of the new pig welfare directive”.

I very much welcome Morrisons’ commitment to the transparency of the supply chain. Every company within a supply chain should have sourcing policies that can prove beyond doubt that the pork they are using or selling was legally produced. I am sure that the Minister will join me in encouraging other retailers to follow Morrisons’ example. I would welcome his comments on how that might be achieved.

Finally, what must be avoided at all costs is a further protracted period before 100% compliance across the EU is finally achieved. The European Commission has a responsibility in that regard; it can and should be demanding to see deliverable action plans from non-compliant countries. In the meantime, we should stop illegal pork and pork products from entering the country. Non-compliant nations must be pressed for specific guarantees on when they intend to reach full compliance, rather than some vague promise to be delivered by some indeterminate date. To encourage them, we should refuse to allow illegally produced meat to enter the United Kingdom.

Member states have had more than a decade to move towards full compliance with the directive, so there are no excuses. We used to have to say that British farmers faced unfair competition from imported meat that was produced overseas using methods that would be illegal in the UK. Now, British pig farmers face unfair competition from imported meat produced overseas using methods that are illegal overseas, too—we cannot accept that. We must bear in mind what happened in the poultry industry. It had a far greater number of regulations, agreements and testing regimes than the pig industry to help enforce the directive on the welfare of laying hens. Nevertheless, a year on from the original January 2012 deadline, an estimated 5% of Europe’s egg production still comes from chickens in conventional battery cages.

The British pig industry receives no subsidies—pig farmers live and die by the market—yet farmers across Europe who are in full compliance with their obligations are being undercut by illegally produced pork and pigmeat. Above all, what pig farmers across the UK want, and indeed what compliant pig farmers across the continent want, is a level playing field. Those nations edging towards full compliance have the largest number of pigs in the EU and they have also had more than a decade to get their house in order.

Of course, I would ideally wish to see British pork as the first and only choice for consumers, retailers, the Government and the whole public sector. But right now what matters most is preventing British pig farmers from being continually undercut by illegal pig products that should not be on the shelves at all and should not be in this country at all. The UK’s pig farmers have had to put up with an unfair market for 13 years, and that is far too long. The law is now finally on their side, and I expect the Government to ensure that the law is enforced.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing this important debate. He described me as a pig farmer, but I ought to say that that slightly overstates the case. I had four pedigree Tamworth sows. I do not think that quite constitutes a farm. It does mean, however, that I have farrowed a pig and got my hands dirty, so perhaps I have some affinity with the industry.

The provisions in the EU pig welfare directive, which bans the use of sow stalls from 1 January, represent a significant welfare advance across the EU. It has been a long time coming. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) said, although it does not level the playing field entirely, as European pig producers, unlike UK producers, will still be allowed to keep sows in close-confinement stalls for the first four weeks after service, it means that when all member states achieve full compliance there will be far greater parity for UK producers—provided that we have that full compliance. The hon. Member for South Norfolk probably knows the old saying, “Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you, but pigs is equal.” UK pigs are not quite equal at the moment and that is what we need to achieve.

It is very disappointing that so many member states were not fully compliant with the sow stall ban on 1 January, particularly as it is the second of Europe’s flagship animal welfare measures on which there has been large-scale non-compliance across Europe. The first, as the hon. Gentleman said, was the ban on the keeping of hens in conventional battery cages, which came into force in January 2012.

The UK pig industry is understandably extremely concerned that non-compliance across Europe will continue to disadvantage UK producers who went through the process of investing heavily in converting to group housing systems to comply with the UK’s unilateral sow stall ban in 1999. I assure hon. Members that I recognise and share the industry’s concern about non-compliance. We have been working very closely with it over the last year and it is extremely frustrating that we have been unable to achieve compliance across the EU on a ban that was agreed almost 12 years ago.

I also recognise that non-compliance is a huge challenge for the Commission and some other member states. We are continuing to work to ensure that the ban is fully and effectively implemented across the European Union as quickly as possible. That is essential to avoid damaging compliant businesses and to demonstrate that the EU can deliver agreed long-term policy.

As the hon. Member for South Norfolk shared with the House, the Commission reported at the Council of Ministers on Monday that 17 member states are not compliant with the sow stall ban. The figures are changing rapidly, but as at mid-January 10 member states were more than 90% compliant, three were less than 90% compliant and four were less than 75% compliant, so there is certainly an issue. As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, the problem is—we should stress this—that the Commission could not take any action until the ban was in force. So we are starting from where we are now.

At the Council of Ministers on Monday, Commissioner Borg demanded that member states provide regular updates of progress with implementation. That goes quite a long way towards what the hon. Member for South Norfolk was saying about a clear map of progress towards full implementation. Commissioner Borg urged member states to apply dissuasive sanctions to non-compliant producers and we will have to wait and see what exactly they comprise. Most importantly, he said that he will commence formal infraction proceedings against non-compliant member states at the end of February. That is quite quick action on the part of the Commission compared with what sometimes happens.

The Commission has held two stakeholder meetings to discuss compliance and enforcement, the most recent this Monday. Commission officials remarked on the rate of progress with compliance in the last couple of months and put the onus squarely on the competent authorities in member states to take tough action against non-compliant producers.

What are the Government doing? We are using every opportunity to press the Commission to take a firm stand, as the priority must be to protect producers across the whole EU from illegal production. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I met Commissioner Borg on 17 January and raised our concerns about non-compliance. At the Council of Ministers on Monday, the Secretary of State led a call for the Commission to pursue a level playing field vigorously, so that compliant producers are not disadvantaged by inaction elsewhere in Europe.

I will be clear: enforcement on imported pigmeat is challenging. There are no marketing rules to prevent imports from non-compliant systems. The Government thoroughly investigated the possibility of taking unilateral action and bringing in a UK import ban on egg and egg products at the end of 2011—I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire has some recollection of that—because at that time it was clear that many member states would not be compliant with the conventional cage ban. It was not a realistic option for eggs, however, and I fear it is not an option for pork and pork products either, because of the legal and financial implications of introducing such a ban and the practical difficulties of enforcing it. The Commission has repeatedly made it clear that it will not allow member states to impose unilateral trade restrictions for welfare reasons, so we have to rely heavily on the competent authority in each member state to take responsibility for ensuring that their producers comply with the directive.

Does the Minister agree that retailers and supermarkets have a huge responsibility? We have seen in the past two weeks that when they want to clean up their supply chain quickly, they can do it. Why can they not do the same for pigmeat and eggs?

I agree, and I was coming to that point.

The UK relies heavily on imports, being only 40% self-sufficient in pigmeat and 20% self-sufficient in bacon. Denmark and the Netherlands are the largest suppliers of pigmeat to the UK; both countries are more than 90% compliant and are already taking tough action against non-compliant producers. I have spoken to the Danes and the Dutch and I believe that they are serious about reaching full compliance, so the major importers to the UK will come into compliance.

I was disappointed but not surprised by what the Minister said about competent authorities. I take his point about the Danes, but of course the reason the pig herd here is now so much smaller than it was is precisely that other countries were not enforcing the rules because they did not have to. Does he not understand the broader point, which is that if the competent authorities on whom he says we must rely were competent, we would not be in this mess?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—I do not disagree with him at all on that point. That is why we must make sure that if those authorities are not prepared to be competent, somebody must make them competent—in effect, the Commission by taking infraction proceedings. I think that is the right approach.

To answer the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), an essential part of our enforcement approach is to ensure that retailers, processors, food manufacturers and the food service industry have stringent traceability in place to ensure that they source pigmeat only from compliant production systems in other member states. In October last year, I met representatives of the whole pig supply chain and they assured me that they will use their best endeavours to source from compliant systems. There is clearly a significant reputational issue here for individual companies and trade associations. I followed that up by writing to the major pork product manufacturers to seek their individual assurances on traceability, and I will have a further meeting with the supply chain to take stock on 6 February. Let me make it absolutely clear: the major retailers in the UK have promised me that they will not sell illegally produced pork products. In some cases, that will be difficult to implement—I know that—but I will hold them to that promise.

We agree with the broad thrust of the request to ensure that the Government buy pork and pork products that comply with the new directive which came into force this year, and I have been taking action, as the hon. Member for South Norfolk says. I hope he accepts that, although it is complicated, we are making progress. I will of course report back to him on progress in due course. The Government buying standards are mandatory for central Government Departments and voluntary for the wider public sector—hospitals, for example. If we can get this built in, we will have made a significant contribution to ensuring that we do not buy from non-compliant sources.

This is a timely debate and an important one for pig producers around the country. I want to make it clear on behalf of the Government that we are doing everything we can to ensure that member states that are not compliant are made to be compliant. The weapon that we have at our disposal is the pressure we are able to apply on the Commission, but to be fair to the Commission, it is equally adamant that it wants full compliance from member states and it is prepared to back that up. We need to deal with the use of non-compliant meat products in this country, and we have assurances from retailers and others that they will not use such products. We also need to make the general public aware that this is an issue. If they value the welfare standards that we have in this country, they should follow that action with their purchasing.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. I hope what I have said demonstrates how seriously Ministers and the Department view the issue. We need to protect UK pig producers. That is paramount and we will continue to do all we can to ensure swift compliance across Europe.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.