Parliament: The Sketch: Tory swine uncover the great porkballs carve-up scandal

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The Independent Online
WE'VE HAD a Cod War and a Beef War and now, it seems, Tory backbenchers are determined to try a new recipe for Eurosceptic belligerence. They want a Pork War and yesterday, during agriculture questions, they indignantly pestered the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, to start one at the earliest opportunity.

Why did he not ban the imports of pigmeat (it sounds so much less appetising put like that, doesn't it?) on the grounds that the animals had been raised in inhumane conditions? Typical of the pork hawks was the Tory MP Desmond Swayne, reminding Mr Brown that he had existing powers to repel Italian salami and German speck from our borders and urging him to do so at once. Did he not know that producers in this country "are being undercut" because foreign producers are less tender and solicitous of their swine?

In truth one of the reasons they're being undercut is because their pigs are not - a detail conveyed in the Agriculture Committee's recent report on the UK Pig Industry, a scintillating document which I can recommend to readers as perfect beach reading if they happen to be taking a sunshine break in the near future. The report points out that castration is far more widely employed on the Continent, which allows pigs to reach a much heavier weight without developing what is known as "boar taint". As a result the "finished" pig (meat production generates almost as many coy euphemisms as war) is cheaper, kilogram for kilogram, than the British product.

If you were a pig, then, the issue would be clear: impose a ban now. I can almost hear the songs already: "There'll be big boars over the white cliffs of Dover", "We'll meat again", "It's a loin way to Piccalilli".

Tory members, of course, were less concerned for the welfare of Euro- pigs than the fiscal health of their pig-farming constituents, not to mention their own standing as a plausible opposition. They were rooting in the churned-up field of food production for some juicy morsels of righteous indignation and this certainly seemed promising. Even Dale Campbell-Savours stood up on the Labour benches to clarify the matter. "Why shouldn't we on principle block the importing of pig meat if it is inhumanely raised?" he asked, with a brevity that is normally synonymous with hostile intent.

Following the Tory leader William Hague's lead yesterday, there was also a fair amount of poking and snuffling around the issue of genetically modified food and the proposed levy on food shops to fund the new Food Standards Agency.

But the big issue of the day was the continuing ban on beef on-the-bone. This has not been handled terribly well by Mr Brown's office, from which tantalising smells of roast sirloin have been wafting in recent weeks, fanned to eager nostrils by unseen hands. Then, once farmers and restaurateurs were salivating at the prospect, Mr Brown threw open the door and announced that the beef was off, and that the Chief Medical Officer haddeclined to give it a clean bill of health.

Mr Brown defended his decision perfectly well yesterday, sidestepping the Tories' advocacy of individual choice (you don't get to choose what goes into restaurant gravy, particularly if you're rude to the waiters) as well as emphasising the clarity of his scientific advice. But he ignored the question-mark over the clumsy spinning of this move, like a man who had accidentally trodden in a cowpat and was trying to pretend that the smell had nothing to do with him.

Voters who are left feeling dietetically nervous by this curious vacillation were offered some free advice by the Labour MP David Winnick, who, with a bean-fed piety, asked the Minister to tell him whether there were any vegetarian foods that caused the same difficulties as the House had just been discussing ("Peanuts!" shouted some of his colleagues helpfully).

Mr Winnick should simply have stood up and said "Meat is murder" - Mr Brown is a carnivore but yesterday he might well have agreed.

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