Beef Stramash In Strasbourg Still Leaves Bad Taste

26 November 2009
Alyn Smith MEP has demanded that meat imports from outside the EU meet all EU standards in a lively debate on the issue in Strasbourg late last night (Wednesday).

The Agriculture Committee had, cross party, brought an Oral Question demanding the presence of EU animal health Commissioner Vasilliou to the Chamber to explain and justify the continued importation of Brazilian beef into the EU despite the fact that of the last veterinary inspection, half the farms failed with half of those being found to have major flaws in their traceability. While the debate focussed very much on Brazilian beef, Smith sought to broaden the issue from the specifics of one country to the wider principle that Europe's farmers and consumers, and some MEPs, demand the self same standards in imports that the EU's farmers meet.

The Commissioner admitted, for the first time on the record, that the traceability rules in Brazil were only "equivalent, but not identical" to EU rules, and made the remarkable statement that the "EU cannot force our rules on third countries" when market power clearly means the EU can.

In a lively debate which saw one of the Liberal Democrat MEPs echo a colleague's call for vegetarianism, Smith also took UKIP MEP John Bufton to task for exaggerating the issue and thereby undermining the serious points being made by some MEPs, and thereby not helping but hindering the campaign.

After the debate, Smith said:

"I am not going to let this issue rest. It is not just about Brazilian beef, it is about products with chemical residues as we tighten our chemicals regime; it is about American chlorinated chicken; it is about broiler chickens raised in pens smaller than those allowed in the EU; and indeed New Zealand untraceable lamb as we look to implement EID ourselves. Europe's farmers work to strict food quality controls and itis only equitable that importers must operate to the self same same rules, our consumers expect nothing less.

"That the Commissioner admitted that Brazilian meat production met "equivalent but not the same" criteria on traceability as the EU's showed that there are still some very important questions remaining over the traceability of that country's meat exports. As one of the Irish MEPs, a former maths teacher, said if half her class had failed their exams, and half of those with serious failings, then she would not be pleased with their performance. Likewise there remain real concerns over Brazilian imports, and I remain of the view that a ban should remain very much to the fore in our discussions with the Brazilians.

"However, the debate was not always so illuminating.That there are some in the Parliament who would seriously suggest that the solution to this argument is promoting vegetarianism in the EU is extremely concerning, and the UKIP intervention was singularly unhelpful, making us all, including those of us who are actually looking to get a result by focussing on the issue rather than the hype, look like we do not understand the issue. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and hope he really was trying to help get a result rather than just sounding off, but I'll let his waffling ramble in response to my intervention speak for itself."

Mr Smith's speech, and the exchange with UKIP MEP John Bufton, is reproduced below:

Alyn Smith, on behalf of the SNP Group. - Madam President, I would also like to thank the Commissioner for her very full statement - possibly one of the fullest and most substantive statements we have heard from a Commissioner lately.

This issue does merit it and, as one of the last veterans of the first battle of Brazilian beef, it is a pleasure to see so many familiar faces in the Chamber tonight. I hope that indicates that we are interested and serious regarding this issue. We support you in what you are saying about the import controls and about FMD. Frankly, that is not quite what this issue is about, and that is why I am so glad that those who wanted to broaden this issue out to imports from third countries have achieved that aim.

It is not just about Brazilian beef. It is about the wider principle that our consumers, our voters and our farmers demand that imports from those countries which would seek to bring their produce here meet our standards - and that means meet all our standards.

So it troubles me to hear you accept the fact that Brazil has lower standards of traceability than we do because it might not create such a disease risk coming into the territory of the European Union. Our consumers expect exactly the same standards in all things coming into the European Union. I accept your point if you are talking about strict disease control, but we are talking about equity and fairness. Our consumers demand - and our farmers demand and we, frankly, demand - that we have exactly the same standards of traceability across Brazil and across all third countries. For an FVO report to come back that said 50% of the inspections failed or had problems with them is just like throwing red meat to a pack of hungry wolves, as you perhaps see this evening. Can you assure us: when is the next FVO report, and will you actually take it seriously and ban whichever countries fail to meet our standards?

John Bufton, on behalf of the UKIP Group. - Madam President, I too want to raise serious concerns about the safety and suitability of Brazilian beef exports. Unregulated meat is imported from thousands of miles away at the expense of native farmers. The meat brings with it the risk of contamination such as foot‑and‑mouth disease, as we have heard tonight.

The lack of strict regulation in Brazil means exporters also have an unfair competitive advantage over European farmers. The extent of hypocrisy on the matter of foreign beef exportations is made even more apparent in the context of climate change discussions. Whilst we are told we must commit to an ambitious climate change agenda, the EU turns a blind eye to the fact that the Brazilian beef export industry is responsible for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Before a ban in 2007, 30000 premises in Brazil exported beef to the EU. Today only 12% of those exports are authorised, but more and more premises are approved for EU exportation daily. Around 100 farms per month are given that right.

At the start of this issue, the Food and Veterinary Office reported significant problems in Brazil with the certification of farms and traceability of livestock. There are grave concerns about unidentified cattle in slaughterhouses. It is also widely held that many inspectors have strong connections with, or even own, the farms being granted authority to export beef.

European farmers must abide by rules put in place for the safety of the consumer. The fact that their foreign counterparts do not work under the same regulations gives overseas exporters an unfair competitive advantage. The UK beef industry faces real problems from producers outside the EU, who can mass export meat at much lower prices.

Some of the world's largest retailers, such as Carrefour and Wal‑Mart, have already banned Brazilian beef on the grounds of the deforestation the industry is responsible for. Each year, an area in the Amazon the size of Belgium is cleared for the lucrative beef export industry. It is estimated that cattle rearing is responsible for 80% of illegal deforestation.

It amazes me how there is one set of rules for British and European farmers and another for farmers in Brazil. Which agricultural industry does the EU and the Commission actually support?

(The speaker agreed to take a blue-card question under Rule 149(8).)

Alyn Smith (SNP). - Madam President, I would welcome much of what Mr Bufton was saying, but I would take issue and question him on one of his phrases there. He said that unregulated meat was imported into the EU. You said that, Mr Bufton, quite early in your presentation. Given the 15‑minute presentation we heard from the Commissioner earlier on, would you accept that that is just clearly not the case; that your sort of hyperbole undermines the case in the serious discussion we are having here tonight about a very technical piece of legislation and regulation; and that you are not actually helping the case, you are hindering it?

John Bufton (UKIP). - Madam President, I will answer that. Certainly if we look at what is happening with meat coming into the country from Brazil and countries like that, where we know there are problems with it, that is unregulated, of course. It is quite simple. The whole issue is there: it is quite clear. So I know the point you are making is a very important point, but I am telling you now that there is unregulated meat coming in from these countries.

Why on earth have we got this situation now, within the European Union? We have got meat coming across - we have heard tonight about how this meat is not being inspected in these places, in slaughterhouses and so forth, and I mentioned earlier on about the fact that we had the Food and Veterinary Office reporting these issues. That is clearly the case. We are on the same side with this one.