15 July 1998
Beef is safer than sex MPs told

By Trevor Mason, Press Association

BRITISH beef is “safer than sex, the Commons was told last night, as MPs again urged a lifting of the European Union ban on exports.

Peter Luff, Tory chairman of the agriculture select committee, said: “British beef is now unequivocally the safest in the world. As a memorable sign was proclaiming on the M5 in Worcestershire only last week: British beef is safer than sex.”

Opening debate on the committees report on the beef industry, Mr Luff (Mid Worcestershire) said: “The overwhelming message from my farmers is: lift the export ban and reduce the level of sterling.”

Mr Luff warned that farming was in an “exceptionally serious state at present”. There had been an overall fall in farm incomes of 47% in the last year. And although beef consumption was up by about 7% compared with the same time last year, there were still some “very real problems” facing beef producers, he said.

Mr Luff urged a four point plan on ministers to:

  • get the EUs worldwide ban on British beef exports lifted,
  • improve the competitiveness of the beef industry,
  • tackle the problems caused by the high level of sterling,
  • introduce a clear Government strategy for the industry,

    Calling for the over 30-month scheme for culling cattle to be phased out and a promotion drive drawn up in a bid to recover lost markets, Mr Luff said: “The government can set a course for our beef industry.

    “Once the industry is through its present difficulties, its future will be bright. We wish to see a prosperous and thriving UK beef industry and we have confidence in the resolve of the industry to re-establish itself as a leading force in the global markets.”

    Mr Luff told the House: “There are grounds for long-term optimism. But in the short term things are going to be very difficult indeed. The opportunities are there and my committee believes the government can play its part in seeing the beef industry through to the time when it can take advantage of them.”

    Charles Kennedy, for the Lib-Dems, said that, unlike supermarkets, which could redirect customers to alternative produce when something went wrong, farmers had no such safety net to fall on. He urged the government to consider early entry into the European economic and monetary union because of the benefits it would bring to agriculture.

    “Sterlings early entry would in all likelihood lead to a degree of alleviation in the strength of sterling which agriculture, like manufacturing and industry generally, is currently suffering.”

    Mr Kennedy warned social security and income support benefits were being drained for the first time by farmers whose businesses had failed. He said this could be turned around by doing something about the strength of sterling.

    Agriculture select committee member, Paul Marsden, (Lab Shrewsbury and Atcham) called on the government to consider setting up a Ministry for Rural Affairs to deal with lack of investment in rural areas.

    Martyn Jones (Lab Clwyd S) called for an inquiry into “profiteering” by supermarkets over beef prices. He said: “The Office of Fair Trading ought to be asked by government to intervene with a full-blown expert inquiry into the meat food chain.

    Tory former agriculture minister, David Curry, backed the drive to overturn the beef ban – but warned: “We should not fool ourselves into believing that the actual act of the removal of the ban, when it eventually comes, is likely to represent some golden dawn for the agricultural industry.

    “First of all, those markets are going to be very hard to win back. The Continental consumer of the most important market, the high values market, is in many ways now conditioned to think of British beef as having a problem associated with it. “Nobody on the Continent is going to go out of their way to market British beef to the consumer.”

    Farmers had to face the “new realities” of the market, including the enlargement of the EU, environmental concerns and the role of supermarkets.

    Mr Curry said: “However much we may like or not like supermarkets, these great superpowers are there. The Orwellian world of competition between them is going to remain. Farmers are going to have to live and work with the supermarkets. They do not have to love them, but they are going to have to live with them.”