Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the Eggs (England) Regulations 2021.
Relevant document: 17th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, this instrument allows marketing standards checks on class A eggs imported from third countries to continue to be conducted at the locations where they already take place. It is needed because, without amendment, the retained regulation on egg marketing standards will require these checks to be relocated, causing disruption to the current inspection process and requiring considerable additional resources, with no material benefit for consumers. This instrument will have effect only in England. The Scottish Government and the Welsh Government will make the same amendment to their own domestic legislation.
Marketing standards are intended to ensure that the market is supplied with products of a standardised and satisfactory quality to meet consumer expectations. They are in addition to, and separate from, sanitary standards. Sanitary standards will continue to be checked at the border. The amendment made by this instrument is not a change of policy and confirms the existing arrangements for these marketing standards checks.
Through the functioning of the Northern Ireland protocol, Regulation 589/2008 on egg marketing standards, which Great Britain has retained, will continue to apply to Northern Ireland as it has effect in the EU. Therefore, the current checking arrangements for the movement of third-country class A eggs into Northern Ireland will not change. For class A eggs to be imported into Great Britain from a third country, the Secretary of State must determine whether the third country has equivalent egg marketing standards following an assessment of its legislation and checking practices. Only EU member states are currently recognised as producing eggs to this equivalent standard.
In the future, should we wish to import eggs from any third countries other than the EU, the Secretary of State must first make a similar determination of equivalence. Until then, class A eggs may not be imported into Great Britain from non-EU countries. We will continue to uphold the high standards expected by UK consumers and businesses.
Since a grace period has been granted for marketing standards and SPS checks on EU goods until 30 June 2022, checks will need to be conducted on class A eggs from the EU from July 2022. Any third-country imports that might be agreed before July 2022 would also require border checks. Under current legislation, all these checks would need to take place at the border.
If this statutory instrument does not pass, our current operating practices will not be compliant with our retained legislation. The change contained in this statutory instrument has been discussed with British egg industry stakeholders. Defra has held a joint consultation with the Scottish and Welsh Governments on the proposed change and continues to engage closely with the sector. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing the instrument before us this afternoon, on which I have a number of questions. Paragraph 8.1 on page 2 of the Exploratory Memorandum says that:
“This instrument does not relate to withdrawal from the European Union or trigger the statement requirements under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act.”
However, it would seem that it relates entirely to our withdrawal from the European Union and the retained legislation that pertains to that. I am therefore not sure why that paragraph is there. Can the Minister clarify that please?
Paragraphs 10.4 and 10.5 of the Explanatory Memorandum refer to the consultation, which was carried out through
“the online survey Citizen Space”.
I do not know about other noble Lords, but online surveys are complete anathema to me. They do not seem a very personalised or direct form of consultation. Can my noble friend please explain to us whether this is now the way forward? Is this the Government’s consultation mode of choice? I want to place on record that I do not approve of that at all. It was also carried out on what is traditionally a holiday period—from 19 July to 16 August. I thought that consultations normally take place over a 12-week or three-month period to enable those who wish to respond in some detail to do so. This also allows the industry to talk among themselves to see whether they want only one person to respond, or everyone.
Paragraph 10.4 goes on to say that:
“The consultation targeted stakeholders from the egg sector, with close engagement with egg enforcement bodies.”
It would be interesting to know whether the six responses received match those that were actually sought. How many targeted invitations were sent out? Of those six, only one agreed to the proposal. The overwhelming majority of respondents disagreed with it,
“preferring checks to take place at the border, due to concerns that these measures should mirror the requirements for import of Class A eggs into the EU.”
I would like to know the basis on which we have moved away from the historic checks that we did at the place of import and why the Government are not carrying the industry with us.
I have to say that I am deeply unhappy that, to mitigate the concerns expressed by the vast majority of those who expressed any concerns at all, all we are going to do is to organise a round table. Clearly, we cannot amend the statutory instrument so I would be very interested to know what form the round table will take. The fact that a round table is going to be convened demonstrates that there are widespread concerns in the industry. I would be very interested to know who from the department will attend the round table. Will it be at ministerial level or official-only level?
I pay tribute to the report produced by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and refer to the committee’s thoughts on page 12 and in Appendix 4 on page 32. It appears that there are going to be two different types of checks in relation to GB to Northern Ireland. There will be checks at the border to ensure that the consignment contains either class A or B eggs, as at present. However, all eggs from Northern Ireland will continue to have unfettered access to the UK market. There is clearly a discrepancy there.
Finally—I had better stop because I could spend the whole of the afternoon on this one little instrument—my noble friend said in his introductory remarks, if I heard him correctly, that sanitary standard checks will continue to be made at the border. If we are doing those checks at the border, why on earth can we not do all the checks at one place on imports into this country?
I did say finally, but I did not mean finally. Will my noble friend commit to bringing forward an instrument on the question of equivalence at such time as he suggests that non-EU countries may come forward with imports? I think he said that there would be an instrument at that time. Can he confirm that that is indeed the case? I think he will understand from my drift that I do not like the instrument before us.
My Lords, the Minister referred to paragraph 10.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum, which states that consultation
“was undertaken as a joint consultation with the Scottish Government and Welsh Government. Northern Ireland is not involved in these amendments, due to the effects of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.”
I declare an interest as a member of the House of Lords sub-committee that is scrutinising the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, and I have some questions in this regard. What does that mean in practice? Can eggs from GB be put on the market in Northern Ireland, and vice versa? Do these eggs have to be checked before they can be put on the market in Great Britain or Northern Ireland? That issue was raised by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Living in Northern Ireland, I am very well aware that Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury’s sell quite a lot of products that come from GB. What will the nature of these checks be? Where will they be carried out?
I support the protocol and believe in its sustainability, but perhaps the Minister can advise on progress in the ongoing negotiations on the protocol between the UK and the EU, with particular reference to the SPS arrangements. That was one of the “non-papers” from the EU in relation to this issue.
As this is a domestic statutory instrument, it falls to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee rather than our protocol committee to scrutinise it. What is the interaction between this statutory instrument and the protocol? Perhaps the Minister can give us some detail and clarity on that interaction and on the practical impact on the supply of eggs from GB to Northern Ireland and vice versa. As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, eggs that travel from Northern Ireland to Britain enjoy unfettered access, so it would be good to get clarity on that.
It is important that the Government make a full analysis of the interaction of domestic primary and secondary legislation with the protocol. A lot of these statutory instruments come to us simply for information purposes, but we also get referred legislation from the EU that will affect and impact Northern Ireland on an ongoing basis. The Government have analysed the interaction of domestic primary and secondary legislation with the protocol. What has been done to ensure that that analysis takes place on an ongoing basis? If it is taking place, is it possible to publish the results and for a copy to be placed in the Library of both Houses?
My Lords, we started out as an egg producer on our farm in Norfolk about 10 years ago. For the first few years, it was a reasonably profitable business, but as more farmers have come into the market that profitability has increasingly been reduced. It is all about supply and demand. As the number of producers has increased, margins have been squeezed. In the past few years, we have been seriously considering whether it is worth our while continuing in the business, but as we employ three local people and it is still just profitable, we have continued in the hope that egg prices will go up.
On the surface, these regulations look innocuous enough. They went out to consultation, and of the six respondents, who all look after the interests of UK food and egg producers, only one was prepared to agree with them. The other five argued that the checks should take place at the border. Many emphasised that this change should be reciprocated by the EU to benefit British egg producers and egg exporters. This has not happened—I do not know whether Defra even tried—so exports from the UK to Europe will be subject to the full range of EU checks and bureaucracy, thus raising the costs and reducing the competitiveness of our exports.
As things stand, these regulations will make things lopsided—or rather, one-sided—with EU imports of eggs into this country being exempt from checks, bureaucracy and costs at the border but our exports being fully subject to all the EU rules and costs. So no level playing field there then. To my mind, Defra has scored an own goal here in not supporting its own UK egg producers, who have the highest welfare standards in the world, while helping with the import of cheap, low-welfare eggs. Thanks a bunch. One has to wonder why.
After the initial consultation, Defra held a virtual meeting in September with the consultees, who were told—I find this unbelievable—that the Government want their support to facilitate importing cheap EU eggs to help feed the nation. You could not make it up. Here we have a Defra official asking the very bodies that look after the interests of UK food and egg producers to support flooding the UK market with cheap, low-standard foreign imports. With margins already tight, we egg producers need that like a hole in the head. No doubt the Government were concerned about the supply chain problems, the lack of HGV drivers and the prospect, circulated in the media, that there would be empty shelves in the supermarkets at Christmas, but here we have Defra saying that it wanted cheap imports of eggs and to hell with its own egg producers.
Defra went on to say that it wanted to ease the process, as border inspections would involve more time and costs for egg importers. As an egg producer, am I bothered? All these regulations will do is flood our market with cheap eggs and increase the pressure to reduce the price that we get, thus further squeezing our margins. I am told that, when the consultees explained to Defra that UK producers could easily produce enough eggs to feed the nation—we already produce 90% of our requirements—but that with these regulations they were going to be undercut by lower-standard, lower-cost imports, Defra responded by saying that the consultees were acting only in the interests of protecting UK producer profit margins. As an egg producer, I say, “What profit margins?” They are tight enough already.
Just whose side is Defra on? Quite clearly, it is not its UK food producers. The Government have a cheap food policy priority and an anti-producer, pro-consumer mentality that seems prevalent in Whitehall. Surely the Government, and a Tory one at that, ought to protect and promote their own food producers, which they expect to operate with ever-higher welfare standards, rather than to protect and promote cheap imports? The problem is that although we have a Defra Secretary of State, George Eustice, an Agriculture Minister, Victoria Prentis, and my noble friend Lord Benyon, who all have farming interests and all support British farming, we have a Government who do not.
My Lords, before I start, I want to register a complaint about this Room. Since 2013, I have sat on this side of the Room, previously being a Minister and chair of the FSA. I am fed up to the back teeth; that light up there has been flashing for over eight years. It does not affect people on the other side. I fully accept that you have to be pretty sensitive to it, but it has been like that for eight years and no one has done anything about it.
Having got that off my chest, I thank the Minister for bringing forward these regulations. I accept, as he said, that they are very narrow, but this is a golden opportunity to raise other issues relating to eggs, as has been the case. I agree entirely with the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. Some time, I would like the Minister to answer the point just made by the noble Lord: what is our latest self-sufficiency figure? I found a figure of 89% of imports, or £1.7 billion, and exports of only £315 million. It is not a big issue. I just wondered what it was.
People joked about egg fraud when I raised it as a Minister, but it is big business. We must take steps to stamp it out. I will give only a snapshot. In 2010, Mr Owen of Bromsgrove was fined £3 million and did three years inside. That case started while I was at Defra, from 2006 to 2008, because of the way it was tipped off. Some 100 million eggs were mis-sold due to mislabelling. The defence had the brass neck to argue that Owen was not the only person “creating mischief in the egg industry”. That is the kind of class act of barristers. That was the defence argument—a bit of mischief. Some 100 million eggs were mis-sold; basically, low-level stuff sold as free range.
In 2018—it has not gone away—there was payback of £500,000 and 30 months inside for Anthony Clarkson of Preston. Again, it was free-range egg fraud—buying barn eggs and selling them free range. There are plenty available. In February 2019, a Netherlands trader was convicted of selling eggs unfit for human consumption. The other thing is: can we trust the statistics on eggs? We are talking about big figures by definition. I regret to say that I have only just discovered that, from 1996, hopefully not until now, HMRC showed errors in its imports and exports of three times the real figure. For 2008, the claim was that 600,000 cases—a case is a lot of eggs, at least 360—were exported, but it turned out to be less than 200,000.
In February 2013, Defra reported that the UK imported 267,000 cases, but, in reality, it turned out to be 127,000 cases. The exports in the same year were given as 61,000 cases, but, in reality, it was only 16,000 cases. There is a brilliant graph of what HMRC was producing. I take exception to this because, at some point during that period, I would have answered Parliamentary Questions, both in 1997-99 and 2006-08, giving false information. I have never been informed about this; it has come about only because I was searching the web in preparation for this debate. I had no idea about the revised figures of this HMRC miscalculation. Quite a serious issue is: can we trust the figures that we are given?
As the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, said, this is all about the EU and Brexit. The EU’s export figures and documentation are brilliantly accessible, unlike ours. I gather that, in 2019, the EU exported to the UK 12,048 tonnes of eggs for consumption—I have dealt only with eggs for consumption; I have not dealt with eggs for food production or day-old chicks. That figure is down in 2021 to 7,358 tonnes. The UK exported almost a similar figure in 2019: we exported to the EU 11,022 tonnes. That is now down to 6,685 tonnes. The EU imports eggs from all over the world. I am not familiar with the sanitary checks at the ports or the others. We are facilitating food imports from the EU without lots of checks because we accept it; we trust it. If anything is going around and being marketed in the EU, then it is okay by us—that is what we said—and it is why we are not employing loads of people to go round the world checking on food production, which is what the EU was doing for us before Brexit. We are relying on the EU to do it for us. If it is okay for the EU, it is okay for the UK.
The EU imports eggs from around the world—and I mean around the world: from Ukraine, USA and Argentina. It also imports from China—I repeat, China: the equivalent of 1,348 tonnes of eggs in 2020. Other countries include North Macedonia, Albania, Norway, Switzerland, Kazakhstan and Bosnia-Herzegovina. How do we know that the eggs that we import from the EU are only from the 27 member states? If eggs are being moved around the EU—and let us not forget that many of them will come in unmarked; they will be marked in the EU—how do we know that we are not importing from outside the 27?
I would hate to think, for example, that we were importing eggs from China without any checks. We would not know whether they were produced via slave labour, which, as we know, the cotton pickers are in Xinjiang. Who is checking on this? There are some serious issues. In 2020, the EU exported to the UK 100,160 tonnes equivalent. The UK was the biggest destination of eggs from the EU. The next were Japan, with 68,163 tonnes, Israel, with 14,809 and Russia, with 45,378, so the UK was by far the biggest recipient of exported eggs from the EU, with Japan being the next.
Where are they coming from and how do we know? Those are legitimate questions for me, for regulators, for food producers, for customers and for supermarkets. A lot has been done to improve the standards of egg production in the UK—I fully accept that—but how do we know that eggs are coming only from the 27 EU member states? There are some serious issues here that the Minister will, I hope, be fully briefed to answer.
My final point concerns another aspect of this. The eggs that are coming in will not all be for consumption; some of them will be for food production. I picked up from Food Manufacture magazine concerns about the importing of eggs to the UK for use in “British” products—that is, as ingredients in pre-prepared foods. We use imported eggs. If the fact is that we are only 89% or 90% self-sufficient, that 10% represents a hell of a lot of eggs.
I understand that there is a petition asking UK supermarkets, although this is not their full responsibility, and food producers to stop such imports. There is a complete lack of transparency in the sourcing of egg products in such foods. Customers today are faced with eggs on the shelves in supermarkets with the British Lion brand and the name of the farm on them —great—but nobody knows where the eggs they are consuming in the pre-prepared foods they buy on the shelf next door come from, because there is a lack of transparency. They will certainly not all come from the UK as, by definition, they are imports. British Lion egg producers are quoted as saying:
“In recent years there have been a number of food safety issues associated with egg products produced in Europe and further afield.”
“Further afield” means outside of Europe. They go on:
“Using them also adds unnecessary food miles and does not meet the guaranteed, high standards provided by the Code of Practice for the production of Lion Quality Egg Products.”
What is the Minister’s view of the petition?
I have a soft spot for Defra and MAFF, having spent four years in total in both departments. It is the producers’ ministry; that is what I used to say when we were setting up the FSA. “We want the consumer to be looked at. Carry on being the producers’ ministry”, I used to say—but, listening to what the Minister said, it is no longer the producers’ ministry if its approach is to smash up the UK industry by saying that it wants lots of cheap imports. If that is its attitude on eggs, that will be the policy attitude on other foods and ingredients, which is what some of us said would happen before Brexit. We were constantly told by the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, who was the Minister concerned—I must have a dozen cases of this in my files upstairs—that there would be no diminution in the quality of and food standards for imported food. That was repeated day after day, month after month, with great sincerity. Nobody is questioning the noble Lord’s sincerity but the reality is that the department is seeking to go back on that commitment. That is the only conclusion to draw in talking about cheaper food. Cheaper food comes about only because of less regulation, lower welfare conditions and worse pay and working conditions for workers. That is the only way it happens. It is what happens in this country, which is why we must be careful about the work of the gangmasters organisation.
The reality is that this is a good example. It is an egg. We all know what an egg looks like and what we can do with it. It is not so easy with other products, such as cuts of meat and grains; that is all too technical. The public understand that, if we as the public are being cheated on egg imports, how do we know we are not being cheated on other food imports when the ministry that is supposed to be looking after this and guarding the regulations is now hell-bent on trying to reduce standards? It is no good the Minister shaking his head; he has to give chapter and verse to answer exactly what his current department’s attitude is.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this short statutory instrument. I think it is the shortest statutory instrument I have ever had to speak to, but it has very important issues at its heart.
A small percentage of British eggs are exported, and these are only ever grade A eggs, according to the Explanatory Memorandum. The British egg industry is 89% self-sufficient and produces plenty of eggs for consumer needs. A very small percentage of eggs are imported. During the period when Covid-19 was at its peak, eggs were imported from Spain due to supply chain difficulties. It is essential that only grade A eggs are imported and important that there should be adequate checks on these eggs.
It is, of course, practical for these checks to be done at the packing centres where egg marketing inspectors are already carrying out visits. However, I would like reassurance that it would not be possible for imported eggs to enter the retail market without going through a packing centre. I presume that if eggs were checked at the border on the point of import it would be very difficult for them to go unchecked and enter the retail chain. Can the Minister say whether it would be possible for eggs to leave the point of import and avoid going through a packing centre?
There is also an issue with labelling. Eggs stamped with the Lion symbol are processed through exclusive Lion packaging centres that do not deal with imported eggs, as that is prohibited under the Lion scheme rules. The BEIC, which runs the Lion Quality scheme for egg production, owns the Lion Quality trademark and is obviously keen to protect its product.
Eggs entering the GB market and coming from countries that have equivalent standards to home-produced eggs are not labelled. However, eggs coming from countries that do not have equivalent standards are labelled “non-UK standard” or “non-EC standard” and with the country of origin. How confident can consumers be that this labelling is accurate?
I understand that these eggs are likely to be used for mass catering and retail. Given the small percentage of imported eggs—10%—it is likely that these eggs will end up being used for catering purposes—
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Baroness. She will be aware that a Division has been called in the Chamber. The Committee will adjourn—I am hesitating to say for 10 minutes, because I am not quite sure whether that is what has been agreed—for certainly no more than 10 minutes to allow noble Lords to register their votes.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, as I said, given the small percentage of imported eggs—10%—it is likely that they will end up being used for catering purposes. However, the consumer will not be informed that they are consuming products made with imported eggs. Given the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on the fraudulent labelling of eggs, is this a concern for the Minister?
The consultation carried out online received six responses, with one agreeing to the proposal and the other five expressing a preference for checks at the border. Could this poor response be due to the online nature of the consultation? Although it is practical for the checks to take place at packing centres, it is important to keep the industry on board. With only one in six producers content with the proposals, it seems as though the Government are riding roughshod over the egg-producing industry. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, referred to this, although she did not use those words.
The Explanatory Memorandum indicates that:
“a round table will be scheduled with industry”
to mitigate any concerns. Can the Minister say whether this round table has taken place yet and, if so, what the outcome of the discussion was? If it has not yet taken place, has a date been fixed in the future? Can he provide reassurance that the cost of checks will not fall on the egg industry? The noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, referred to the costs involved. I am concerned to hear again from him that Defra is actively encouraging the import of cheap eggs. Why, given that GB is virtually self-sufficient in egg production?
Lastly, given that the Lion Quality assurance scheme accounts for 90% of GB egg production, can the Minister say how many packing centres are therefore likely to be dealing with imported eggs? The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked some very searching questions, and I look forward to the Minister’s response, but I am generally content with this SI.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this SI, and for the helpful briefing that he organised with officials beforehand. However, he will know that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has drawn this SI to our attention. Like other noble Lords, partly arising from that, I have a number of questions.
Obviously, our main concern is to maintain our high animal welfare and food quality standards. Clearly, we can maintain those standards more easily if the eggs are produced within the UK. I am absolutely with the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, on that issue. Can the Minister remind us what percentage of class A eggs are currently being imported from the EU into the UK? We have heard some statistics today, but it would be helpful to have clarification from the Minister on that. Is it the case, as my noble friend Lord Rooker is saying, that third-country eggs are also coming to us via the EU? Is that standard practice? I think we should know more about this. Given that many of these procedures in the SI are about potential third-country egg producers coming direct to us in future, it would be helpful if the Minister could say whether he is aware that there are, in the sidelines, third-country producers awaiting some sort of green light to be able to sell into the UK market, and what the consequences might be.
That is just a general point. I now want to ask some specific questions—and the first question is about arrangements on the Northern Ireland border. In response to the question from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee on this issue, Defra said that all eggs from Northern Ireland to GB would continue to have “unfettered access” to the UK market. Does that mean that there are no checks carried out on these eggs at all either at the border or at the so-called points of destination, or anywhere else?
Meanwhile, as I understand it, class A eggs going the other way—from GB to Northern Ireland—will continue to be checked at the border, as GB will have the status of a third country with regard to Northern Ireland. Those are the issues that my noble friend Lady Ritchie raised, and I agree with her: we need to know more detail on the practical application of how the rules will apply going in both directions. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify those arrangements under the terms of the protocol. Also, can he clarify how the outcome of the current negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol between the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and the EU might impact on the regulation of imports to and from Northern Ireland in future? Will eggs be caught up with this, and is this an issue on its agenda for change?
Secondly, like other noble Lords, we share the concern expressed by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that the majority of respondents to the original Defra consultation were against the proposals in this SI. The Defra letter explains that a subsequent round table was held on 24 September. Stakeholders expressed concerns about whether imported eggs would be subject to the same standard of checks as domestic eggs and produced to the same high health, welfare and food standards. Rightly, my noble friend Lord Rooker raised issues about egg fraud, and he gave some shocking examples of it this afternoon. Clearly, we need to ensure that our consumers are not being mis-sold—and that is a concern that the stakeholders expressed at the meeting on 24 September.
What do the current checks on UK eggs entail? I do not quite see how we can differentiate between the sanitary provisions that the Minister was talking about and how they are marketed. I would have thought that the marketing is about the sanitary provisions, so the two should go hand in hand. Does the Animal and Plant Health Agency regularly and randomly visit UK poultry farms to check on animal welfare issues and on whether the birds are, for example, being reared organically? Does the same provision for checks on animal welfare et cetera also apply to imported eggs? Otherwise, how can we be sure that food standard equivalence is being applied?
The Defra response to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee referred to the APHA carrying out random checks on domestic and imported eggs at warehouses, distribution centres and packing centres, but this does not seem to include visits to where the birds are being reared, so how can we be assured that the high animal welfare standards included in the marketing of imported eggs can be trusted? This was an issue raised by a number of noble Lords. Obviously, this matters because descriptions such as “free range” or “organic” carry a premium price, so the temptation for some degree of fraud is obvious for all to see.
Once we have finished the 21-month transition period with the EU, what arrangements will be in place to check welfare standards on site for both EU and third-country egg producers? Will we go to see where the chickens are being reared and the eggs are being produced?
Thirdly, are all UK eggs currently produced distributed via warehouses and packing centres or do some go straight to market? This was the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. I can imagine that there is a healthy trade in local eggs at farm shops and farmers’ markets or potentially in the restaurant sector, so how is the APHA monitoring the quality of eggs that do not go via those distribution centres? What would stop egg importers avoiding packing and distribution centres and therefore avoiding the checks? Could they also go straight to market or to some locality without going through the distribution centres?
Then there is the question of what happens at the ports. This issue was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. Presumably the APHA is already doing other checks at ports and custom points on foodstuffs being imported; it is already there with the resources, so it would not be too much of a stretch to check egg imports as well, particularly as we have heard that the phytosanitary checks will still carry on at the ports. Therefore you could argue that it would be more efficient to inspect all those consignments together, so I wonder why we are not still planning on doing that.
Finally, I am trying to get to the root of this issue. Is it an issue about overall APHA staffing levels? Is this ultimately the issue? Is it about staff shortages? What level of vacancies is being carried by the APHA? What proportion of APHA staff were previously EU staff who have left and cannot be replaced? Is this an issue at the heart of the matter?
The most important aspect of this debate is the need to maintain our high animal welfare and food safety standards. I absolutely share the concern of stakeholders and noble Lords this afternoon that these proposals do not provide sufficient reassurance that we will be maintaining those same high standards. I hope the Minister will be able to provide further reassurance on this issue, and I look forward to his response.
I thank noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I will endeavour to answer all the questions that have been asked.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh referred to the sentence in the Explanatory Memorandum that relates to whether we used the European Union (Withdrawal) Act powers for this statutory instrument. I can confirm that we did not. I think she and others also asked why, given that the egg sector opposes the proposal—or so it was deemed from five out of the six responses—the Government are moving ahead with it.
In response to the consultation, Defra and the Welsh and Scottish Governments held a round table, as has been said, on 24 September to address the concerns raised by the industry. Invited to the meeting were the checking authorities responsible for egg marketing standards checks across Great Britain—the APHA egg marketing inspectors, who operate in England and Wales, and the Scottish Government poultry officers. In response to concerns expressed by the industry that imported eggs should be subject to the same standard of checks as domestic eggs and produced to the same high health, welfare and food standards, Defra explained that the checks will continue to be made on a risk basis, as well as randomly, in line with Article 24.2 of Regulation 589/2008, and that food quality will not be impacted by this SI.
My noble friend Lady McIntosh also asked about the nature of the survey, noting that it was online. All relevant industry representatives responded and were at the round table, so it is fair to say that a pretty full consultation has happened. She asked about UK exports to the EU. I can confirm that UK exports are checked at the border for both hygiene and marketing quality.
A number of noble Lords asked about resources at the APHA. This statutory instrument changes the current legislation, requiring marketing standards checks to take place at the border to allow the continuation of a current practice. We have the resources to do this now. I am quite open that, if we were not to pass this and require those checks to take place at the border, it would put considerable resource demands on the APHA. It would require a border control post to have a very large chilled space, so that every lorry that came in with its 28 pallets of eggs could be safely unpacked and those eggs moved into a chiller space. If they were not, they would risk deteriorating in quality, so that would have to take place. They would then have to be reloaded and taken to a distribution point where we had the resources to check them. I hope noble Lords remember this important point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, raised a very well-made point about the implications of this SI for Northern Ireland eggs entering the UK and whether they will be treated differently, with Northern Ireland continuing to follow EU rules. Eggs produced in Northern Ireland are not considered to be entering GB from a third country. The statutory instrument does not change the way eggs moved from GB to Northern Ireland will be checked. Northern Ireland eggs will continue to have unfettered access to the GB market, as at present, and will continue to be checked in the same way as domestic eggs from England, Scotland and Wales. In any case, the checks on third-country eggs are identical to those performed on domestic eggs. They will continue to be checked by egg marketing inspectors on a risk-assessed and random basis at the point of destination, at packing centres, at distribution centres and at wholesale premises.
I think she asked whether eggs from GB can be put on the market in Northern Ireland. Class A eggs imported into Northern Ireland from third countries will continue to be checked at the time of customs clearance and prior to their release for free circulation, in accordance with Article 24.3 of Regulation 589/2008, as it has effect in the EU. I think I have said whether eggs have to be checked before they can be put on the market in GB.
My noble friend Lord Cathcart made an impassioned plea on behalf of egg producers. I say to him and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that Defra is absolutely determined and passionate about promoting British food. I know that nobody here would say that we want a ban on imports—I know noble Lords understand that that would cause a very difficult situation in our trade with our closest and most important partners—but we are now at nearly 90% self-sufficiency on eggs and it seems perfectly possible that we can improve on that still further. Nevertheless, there will be a free flow as supply chains dictate, but I can absolutely assure my noble friend that we want to see eggs sold in the country being produced to our high welfare standards. Any eggs that come in must remain produced to our clear, high standards in a state of equivalence. I will come on to talk about that a bit more.
Imported eggs are subject to exactly the same level of checks as domestic eggs. These checks are conducted by APHA egg marketing inspectors on a random and risk basis. They check quality, weight, grading, labelling, marking and packaging, as well as farming methods such as free range, barn and caged. I have been fascinated to learn how they do this: using ultraviolent light, they can detect by looking at an egg how it has been produced. So the eggs that are being checked cannot be ones produced in battery cages that we would not allow here.
Fraud, which the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, raised, is an important point. I cannot stand here and guarantee that every egg coming into—or, indeed, produced in—this country is produced to the standard that it says on the box, but we have a very strict checking system. We currently import class A eggs only from EU member states. We recognise that eggs from the EU are produced to an equivalent standard. The EU has reciprocated on this and recognised the equivalence of our eggs. We have regular contact with our friends in the EU, and we will make sure that we continue to do so, so that the standard and quality of any eggs that come into this country do not put our producers at risk.
As I said, in 2020, the UK was 89% self-sufficient in eggs. A staggering 11.2 billion eggs are eaten in this country; we import 1.7 billion and export 315 million of them. Eggs are imported on commercial documentation, and importers are not currently required to pre-notify the authorities before the import of eggs under marketing standards or SPS rules, but, as I say, the Government will continue to promote British produce. We have not imported non-EU, third-country eggs for many years. At present, we only import equivalent, third-country, class A eggs from the EU. If dodgy eggs coming from appalling producing circumstances—both for the livestock and those operating the production—are coming into this country as class A eggs, they will be found and discovered by our inspectors. In the UK, all imported class A eggs are required to undergo marketing standards checks. I hope I have reassured my noble friend Lord Cathcart. He is obviously on the front line of this issue, but I want to get across to him and to other producers the message that we are on their side.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, talked about the origins of eggs. The regulations require the country of origin to be stamped on the egg itself, not just on the packaging. Eggs will also be accompanied by an export health certificate signed off by a vet—probably a measure introduced by the noble Lord himself when he was at Defra. The APHA will check the stamping on those eggs.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, made an important point. A relatively small number of imported class A eggs do not pass via packing and distribution centres. In this case, the eggs go straight to retail, but it is a small percentage. There is a possibility of further checks by trading standards officers from local authorities.
The noble Baroness asked whether eggs which are non-UK standard or non-EC standard can be sold in the UK. Eggs which are not of an equivalent standard to those produced domestically and which are deemed to be produced to non-UK/non-EU standards may still be sold in Great Britain. However, the packaging of such eggs must be marked with the country of origin and the farming method as non-UK standard. No eggs currently imported into the UK require such a label, as we do not receive eggs from countries that do not have equivalent standards. The Explanatory Memorandum to the SI states that if any third country—that is, non-EU country—wanted to export eggs to the UK, the Secretary of State would be required to sign that off to make absolutely sure that those standards were being maintained.
Defra explained in the round table and in the consultation that checks will continue to be made on a risk basis as well as randomly and that food quality will not be impacted by this amendment. I hope that has gone some way to reassure the important people whom we want to continue to support in the production of eggs in this country.
There were broader questions about egg marketing standards. I have to say from the six months that I have been in this role that the APHA is one of the most impressive organisations that I have dealt with. I have full confidence in it. Are there enough people? No, we need more. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, made a very important point. It is well known that we are short of vets and other people, but we are able to manage this if this SI passes; if it does not, we would be short of the resources we need.
I think that I have answered all the questions on Northern Ireland.
On Northern Ireland, I mentioned the importance of a full analysis by Her Majesty’s Government of the interaction of domestic primary and secondary legislation with the protocol. I also asked what is being done to ensure that such analysis takes place and that, if it is taking place, a report could be placed in the Library of both Houses.
The noble Baroness is right to raise this point, as others have done, about the ongoing negotiations around the Northern Ireland protocol. I do not feel qualified give an accurate, up-to-date report. After this Committee, I will find out whether there is going to be an immediate communication about the status of the Northern Ireland protocol and an analysis of its functioning, particularly in relation to this matter. If there is not, I will make sure that she receives more information. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, raised that as well.
I have answered quite a few of the questions—probably not every single one.
The Minister has been very helpful; I fully accept that. I do not expect him to know the answer to this, but I hope that he will take my word for it that if any of us in this Room is wearing any cotton fabric or garment, it is possible using element analysis to find out where the cotton was grown. The same technique can be used to decide whether lamb was created in Wales or New Zealand. Does the technique of element analysis figure in any of the checks about where eggs have come from?
That is a very good point, and I will seek further information. I hope to reassure him and my noble friend Lord Cathcart that the idea that we are somehow allowing the import of substandard products that discriminate against our domestic producers is easily detectable through the measure that he mentioned which shows precisely how that egg is produced. I do not know whether it can deal with the point about fraud, or whether it can say, for example, that the egg came from Argentina or China, but this is a fresh food product, so obviously there is an issue about timing. I think that would militate some of the fraudsters who might want to try to enter the supply chain, but I assure the noble Lord that no undercutting of our producers will be facilitated by this measure or by my department in our determination to support the producers of this country. I really want to re-emphasise that point.
I hope that noble Lords fully understand the need for this instrument, which is to ensure that marketing standards checks on class A eggs imported from third countries continue to happen at the locations where they take place today. As I outlined in my opening speech, the instrument will also avoid any disruption to the level of checks that currently take place and will allow egg marketing inspectors to continue to uphold our high standards. I believe I have answered all the questions, but if I have not, I am very happy to provide written answers, I will check Hansard and respond in writing to any questions I may have missed.