Hogg: I have a grip on meat safety

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The Independent Online
Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, told the Commons yesterday that he had got a grip of meat safety and that criticism contained in leaked "pieces of paper" were, in effect, so much hogwash. Condemning his many critics out of hand, the minister said: "This irresponsible scaremongering will not only damage the meat industry here in Britain, but will also damage our standing in Europe.

"The fact that it is hysterical, irresponsible and ill-informed will not be understood in Europe. They will simply treat it at face value." That could be soon tested because the European Commission is planning to send a team of veterinary inspectors to Britain.

The furore in Britain over failure to enforce rules to protect consumers against BSE, E. coli or other potentially fatal infections has triggered alarm in a number of European Union capitals not just about British beef but also about the safety of British lamb, pork, ham and chicken which are still widely exported to the continent.

Brussels last week demanded a copy of the 54-page government hygiene inspector's report, allegedly suppressed because it revealed shocking lapses. But last night a Commission spokesman confirmed that nothing has been submitted. "We are still waiting" he said.

No dates have been agreed for the Commission's inspection, but sources said some urgency would be required to determine the full extent of the problems as soon as possible.

"This is a source of great concern to the Commission but also to the member states which rely on British certification that the meat exported from the UK has been slaughtered in keeping with strict EU hygiene relations" a Commission official said.

It also emerged yesterday that an EU inspection of four abattoirs during a spot check in Britain last June found "serious weaknesses". The slaughter houses were found to be flouting anti-BSE rules which require the removal of certain cattle tissues, but were also failing to safeguard against contamination of meat by animal faeces.

Faced with a barrage of leaked evidence that the ministry had suppressed one report on abattoir cleanliness, had taken no action on inspectors' allegations of a "timebomb" of declining standards, and had ignored repeated local authority warnings of inadequate resources to tackle food safety, Mr Hogg said meat hygiene standards were being driven up.

He told the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Paul Tyler: "I very much regret the fact, but I accept that over a long period of time people have become sceptical about assurances that they have received from ministers and others."

But he added: "That scepticism is not justified, but it is a fact and it needs to be recognised and acknowledged."

However, he told the House that any public inquiry would completely vindicate his position. Against a background of spluttering protest, he said: "I have the advantage of knowing the facts and therefore I am able to say what the outcome is going to be: that the decision to set up the Meat Hygiene Service was a very sound one ... and that during the last two years there's been a substantial improvement in standards, there's more to be done, and the Government's gripping it."