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Agriculture: Swill Feeding

Volume 699: debated on Monday 25 February 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What consideration they have given to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration’s report into the ban on swill feeding.

My Lords, the Government welcome the thorough report published by the parliamentary commissioner for administration in December 2007. We are considering the report carefully and will reply to the ombudsman before the end of March.

My Lords, I am grateful for that encouraging response, but does the Minister accept that the ombudsman found that there was maladministration on behalf of Defra? What new evidence has Defra brought forward to justify the continued refusal to give compensation to the pigswill feeders? Was the swill tested at the time for virus?

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Baroness has given a fair assessment of the ombudsman’s report. Six out of seven complaints were dismissed. There were two areas of maladministration, one of which was discretionary by the Ministers about compensation and has been revisited by other Ministers on at least two occasions. In the report, the ombudsman has declared herself satisfied that she could not and would not wish to interfere in that decision. The only other area of maladministration relates to the record keeping of the vet, who was not responsible for foot and mouth. With respect, we will give a formal, considered response to the report, which did not find in the way that the noble Baroness said, before the end of March.

My Lords, is not one of the most important potential uses for waste food that of producing energy through anaerobic digestion? Given that the Government say we are leading in terms of renewables and the environment, why, on British farms, do we have only 20 anaerobic digestion systems whereas Germany has 3,000?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. There is no argument about what can be done with the waste, including catering waste. In 1999, swill feeders were banned from using airline waste food and non-GB food. They were also banned from putting dead piglets in pigswill. The complete ban put in place in 2001 and subsequently across the European Union in 2003 means that an enormous amount of food waste is unfortunately going to landfill where it will pollute the planet. As the noble Lord says, anaerobic digestion would get the energy out of the waste.

My Lords, does the noble Lord recall that only 26 pig producers were involved in this, that the activities they were carrying out were perfectly legal, and that they had to re-equip themselves with the boilers necessary to bring the swill up to the temperatures required by Her Majesty’s Government and the European Union? They spent many thousands of pounds setting themselves up and their businesses were peremptorily closed by the Government at the start of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. For the noble Lord’s information, the pigswill was not tested for foot and mouth disease. I have the answers to a Written Question going back to just after the foot and mouth disease testing period.

My Lords, with respect, it goes wider than that. The advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee—SEAC—has always been that inter-species feeding ought to be banned, so you can put foot and mouth to one side. Feeding pigs to pigs and lambs to lambs does not make sense and the committee said it should not be done. That was part of the reason for bringing in the complete ban. It was suggested before 1997. Steps were taken in 1999 to make certain reductions. That is not the issue. There is no analogy with the fur farmers and others who were completely put out of business. There is business in waste and in trading in waste. I fully accept that, while the equipment is there for the boilers, pigs can be fed other materials and the waste can still create a lot of money for people unless they put it into landfill.

My Lords, there is increased pressure on food supplies. We know that poultry and livestock consume large quantities of cereals. Does the noble Lord not agree that it is time to reconsider the ban on swill feeding and devise methods of using the one-third of food that is grown in the UK and currently classified as waste?

My Lords, I am surprised at that suggestion from the noble Lord. SEAC has never changed its advice on this—it does not matter what you do to the material or how well you might cook it, inter-species feeding in this way is not a good idea. We do not want to turn the clock back on that. The noble Lord is quite right: one-third of the food that we sell and produce is not used. It is wasted, but it should not go to landfill. There are other ways of getting money and energy out of that waste food.

My Lords, it depends on the particular farm. The swill was made on a different farm from the one where foot and mouth started. I do not know whether that particular feed—or, indeed, feed around the country—was tested for foot and mouth. Obviously, as the noble Countess said, there were some two dozen swill feeders. There are 62 members of the swill users’ group, but I do not know whether all 62 were producing feed at the time. I will provide a Written Answer on this, but it does not alter the fact that we will give a considered reply to the ombudsman’s thorough report, which did not find in favour of six of the seven complaints made.