Tories want to scrap food safety rules

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The Independent Online
THE Government wants to scrap food hygiene and public health regulations - including some rules affecting the meat industry - at a time when it faces the biggest public health crisis arising from food in living memory.

The scope of the proposed changes will be spelled out in a consultative paper this month, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said yesterday.

The plans to ease rules covering the handling, freezing, chilling and recovering of meat are intended to ease controls on farmers and food processors.

They have been under consideration for months and were discreetly mentioned recently in a White Paper on Europe issued ahead of the EU's Inter-Governmental Conference which began last week in Turin.

Tucked away at the bottom of page 11 were the words: "We have suggested Standards and Food Hygiene as particularly ripe for review in 1996." By way of explanation, readers were referred to an earlier official paper making plain ministers' irritation at regulations "which have become increasingly complex and burdensome over time". The document called for a new code "based on proper assessment of the risks and benefits".

Labour criticised the moves. Derek Fatchett, front-bench foreign affairs spokesman, said: "Surely, the lesson of the beef crisis is that we need to give the highest possible priority to enforcing our present food and hygiene standards.

"At a time when the Government is going cap in hand to Europe for help on the BSE crisis it seems strange to make deregulation of food hygiene one of its top priorities."

The Government is acting at the urging of Conservative backbenchers who have repeatedly raised the issue in the Commons. Last November, Jacques Arnold MP asked Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, what the Government was doing about "the considerable irritation" shown by businesses about "the regulations that pour out in respect of food hygiene and safety". Mr Heseltine stressed that "all those regulations are the subject of review".

Despite the Government's wish to accommodate industry, it was clear last week that its handling of the BSE crisis has brought it into conflict with some big businesses.

On Friday it failed in an attempt to sign up burger and retail food giants to its package of measures to restore confidence in the beef industry.

McDonalds, the leading hamburger chain, made it clear privately to ministers that it will return British beef to its restaurant network only when it judges customer confidence to have been won back.

Ed Oakley, McDonalds UK vice president in charge of purchase and quality assurance, and other big food retailers, met the Secretary of State for Health, Stephen Dorrell, on Friday at the minister's request.

One source said that nothing had been resolved by the meeting. The retailers, most of whom are still selling British beef, were said to be more positive than the restaurant chains.

Vegetarian boom, page 8; Birth of BSE, page 17; pounds 1bn share loss, Business