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Livestock Feed: Processed Animal Protein

Volume 813: debated on Tuesday 6 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they intend to take, if any, in response to the European Union’s expected reintroduction of processed animal protein into livestock feed from August.

My Lords, the EU is introducing changes that follow the World Organisation for Animal Health feed rules, and its own agreed road map. These permit the feeding of porcine processed animal protein to poultry and poultry processed animal protein to pigs, and ruminant gelatine and collagen, and protein derived from insects, to pigs and poultry. The Government are assessing the implications of these changes.

My Lords, given the association of processed animal protein with BSE and CJD in the past, if, having assessed the situation, Her Majesty’s Government decide to ban the import of food produced in this manner from the EU, is there a mechanism in the trade and co-operation agreement that would allow for that? If so, is there a means of making it legally effective in Northern Ireland, given the protocol?

My Lords, I first say to my noble friend that the experience of BSE has scarred both me and the Agriculture Minister, Victoria Prentis; we both well remember that awful time. I assure him that at the moment we receive into this country meat products from countries that sign up to the OIE, that are of a lower standard even than the one to which the EU will go following the changes it has announced. There is no question of this concerning any trade and co-operation agreement, and meat products will still be able to be traded to and from Northern Ireland, as they will with the EU.

My Lords, feeding animal remains—brains, spinal cord and small intestines—to livestock in pursuit of higher profits and executive bonuses will only lead to another health disaster. Will the Government legislate to ensure that appropriate food imports from the EU will carry a warning, stating that the product carries a risk of mad cow disease?

May I reassure the noble Lord that we are not talking about BSE here? We are talking about the products of pigs and poultry, for which there is no evidence of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. He can be assured that the strictest regime remains in place to protect the public and our animal health, and that any changes we make can reflect this. To the wider public I would just say, “Buy British”.

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s decision to sign up to the Northern Ireland protocol has placed the Province’s agri-food businesses in an increasingly perilous situation. We were promised that Brexit would improve food standards right across the United Kingdom, but this will not be the case if processed animal protein is allowed to enter the food chain in Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Moylan, mentioned Northern Ireland. What representations have her Majesty’s Government made to Brussels to stop this policy being extended into Northern Ireland? Can the Minister tell the House whether Boris Johnson was aware that the EU’s ban on animal protein was about to be lifted before he agreed to place a regulatory border in the Irish Sea?

The EU made this announcement in May, but it had been under discussion for a long time—even when we were an EU member. It does not affect trade in Northern Ireland or in this country, because our current standard is the same as the EU’s. The EU is changing that standard, but it remains considerably higher, covering countries around the world from which we receive meat imports. This issue is not affecting the Northern Ireland protocol or any other aspect of trade with Northern Ireland. We have ongoing discussions about it with the EU at a scientific and animal health level, and will continue to do so.

What does my noble friend think will happen to our meat exports from the UK to the EU, at a time when we may import meat from countries, such as Australia, which use hormones to produce beef and other methods that we do not accept here and are not accepted in the EU? Would it not be better, at this stage, to agree an SPS system similar to that agreed between New Zealand and the EU, to make sure that we can export meat to the EU?

I entirely understand the point my noble friend makes, but we must not conflate issues relating to trade agreements with this particular issue. We have the highest standard here, which was brought in in a very precautionary way, at the time of a terrible disease. Science, and our understanding of this disease, has changed. Our ability to track where processed animal proteins come from allows for a change in policy. We have not taken that step yet, but we will consider it in due course with all the evidence. We must not conflate it with the trade issues that are so important to your Lordships.

My Lords, feeding animals processed animal protein is a revolting practice. Poultry, pigs, sheep and cows are not carnivores; they are vegetarian. Can the Minister give reassurance that no meat from animals fed on processed animal protein will enter the UK food chain? No matter how many standards and checks he thinks are in place, this should not happen, and the meat should not come from any country that has this practice.

Processed animal proteins have long been established as part of the rendering process. As a result of BSE, changes were made to prevent them. Currently, all processed animal products from this country are exported across the world for the pet food industry. We import vegetable proteins, such as soya, from countries which have much lower standards of agricultural environmental protection. I assure the noble Baroness that we are very cautious in this country about reducing the standards that were brought in at the time of BSE. What we are talking about here is TSE —about pigs, poultry and parts that are heat-treated and are an alternative to the proteins that other farmers use.

My Lords, the Minister has talked about trade; the effect of the Northern Ireland protocol, as agreed, is that these SPS rules and laws apply directly in Northern Ireland, uniquely within the United Kingdom. Therefore, how does he protect consumers within Northern Ireland and, indeed, elsewhere, when not a single Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly or any Member of Parliament in either House will be able to prevent this proposal becoming law in Northern Ireland, which is an outrageous abuse of the sovereignty of Parliament and “taking back control”?

I understand the point that the noble Lord makes. The truth is that products will be coming from around the world—from the EU and beyond—into supermarkets in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, as they are this very day. They will be up to a particular standard, and will not be ruminant to ruminant, so in that respect, Northern Ireland will be no different from the rest of the United Kingdom. But I recognise the democratic point the noble Lord makes; that is the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol which, if he will forgive me, I will not go into today.

My Lords, based on scientific evidence, the EU proposals allowing certain processed animal protein, including insect protein, to be used in some livestock feeds—not for ruminants, I stress—appear safe and economically beneficial. What encouragement are Her Majesty’s Government giving to the development and use of insect protein as a replacement for soya in animal feed in this country?

The potential use of insect protein is an attractive concept, along with other potential changes to livestock feed controls. They will require careful consideration, assessment of the scientific evidence and, of course, consultation. Before taking any policy decisions, officials will obtain advice from government scientists and the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens regarding any potential risk to human or animal health. As part of the assessment, we will look at the environmental impact of any changes on current imports of protein, such as soya, and our current exports of animal proteins not used in Great Britain.

My Lords, we all want to preserve the UK’s excellent reputation as producers of the highest quality and safety of food. What matters here is that we get a crystal-clear response about what the Government plan to do, but I fear that what we have heard is something of a holding response. It would be enormously helpful to producers and consumers alike if the Minister could be clear about the Government’s intention regarding whether to maintain the current situation in the UK and, if so, for how long, and, to assist those of us attempting to hold the Government to account on this matter, whether they will undertake to conduct their own review of the science in this area and to publish it so that we can proceed with some kind of ability to assure consumers.

I will take that last point away and try to give the noble Baroness some reassurance. These are not state secrets, and there is nothing that I fear sharing with anybody about the work that the Government are doing. Our response to changing science and changing understanding means that there is a degree of uncertainty for everyone, including Ministers, and I assure her that we have been considering this for a long time. The measures that were brought in for pigs and poultry were precautionary because it was not possible at that time to easily detect the origin of the protein. Now, with DNA, we can, and this may be a path to offering the kind of clarity that the noble Baroness seeks.