HC Deb 07 April 1970 vol 799 cc359-78

By a date not more than six months from the passing of this Act the Ministers shall make regulations for the purpose of establishing a register of chemical substances which may not be used at sub-therapeutic levels in animal feeding stuffs.

For the purpose of this section "the Ministers" means the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland acting jointly: and "animal" has the same meaning as in section 65 of this Act.—[Mr. Kitson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The purpose of the new Clause is to implement one of the main recommendations in the report of the Joint Committee on the Use of Antibiotics in Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine which was presented to Parliament in November, 1969. In recent years the medical profession, the veterinary profession and the agricultural industry have been considering the possible dangers of drug resistance and what safeguards should be introduced to control the use of antibiotics as food additives and in veterinary medicine. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern that the Government should take action to control the situation. Many of us believe that it is necessary for the Government to state what controls or safeguards they intend to introduce to implement the recommendations of Professor Swann's Committee.

In 1950 research had shown that it was possible by the addition of small amounts of antibiotics in animal feeds to get a faster growth rate and better conversion rates into meat and other products. The use of specific antibiotics in restricted amounts to promote growth in certain classes of livestock was therefore permitted, and it has been the common practice in Britain since 1953.

In the late 1950s it became apparent that there was an increase in the inci- dence of strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics in both the medical and the veterinary professions. The Agricultural and Medical Research Councils recognised the potential dangers and set up a joint committee under the chairmanship of Lord Netherthorpe to examine the possible consequences of the feeding of antibiotics to farm animals and to consider whether this use constitutes any danger to human or animal health. That committee reported in January, 1962 stating that it saw no reason to discontinue the permitted usage of feed additives and recommended that the use of additives could be extended to young calves. However, the committee also recommended that it was necessary to watch the situation as it developed.

Then in 1961 a new situation arose. Scientists in Japan, at Tokyo University, discovered a new medical phenomenon which is now called infectious or transferable drug resistance, sometimes known as infective or transmissible drug resistance. This resistance had two disturbing features. It was multiple and concerned the drug employed against bacillary dysentery such as streptomycin, chloramphenicol, tetracyclines and sulphonamides and it was infectious; that is to say, all the resistance could be transmitted from one bacteria strain to another by contact. So it spread like an epidemic in a formerly sensitive strain.

There is little doubt that this form of drug resistance emerges in human intestinal bacteria as a result of the use of antibiotics in man, and Professor Swann in his report emphasises these dangers.

Then in 1965 a further risk was exposed, that if the spread of drug resistant bacteria from animals to man. Salmonella typimurium is an organism which causes infectious diarrhoea with high mortality in calves and food poisoning in man. In efforts to control the disease antibiotics were freely administered to infected and apparently uninfected animals, both therapeutically and as food additives.

Predictably, Type 29 became progressively more drug resistant and strains ultimately appeared that had acquired transferable resistance to ampicillin, chloramphenicol, streptomycin, neomycin, kananycin, tetracycline and sulphonamides, and resistant strains of Type 29 were communicated to man. It was on the basis of these observations that a re-examination of the whole question of the use of antibiotics and other drugs in the rearing of livestck was called for.

As far back as 1957, Dr. Smith of the Animal Health Trust in Essex predicted this situation. In my own constituency some of my constituents developed gastro-enteritis only three years ago. The House may remember that 15 children died in a maternity hospital because they were resistant to eight of the 11 known antibiotics which were in use. The House was never allowed to see the report because the Minister felt that it was too complicated. Shortly afterwards there was a serious outbreak in Lancashire where more than 20 children died in maternity hospitals in Bootle. Again, we do not know where or how that drug resistance developed.

The Swann Committee's Report in paragraph 9 on page 43—and I am afraid this is rather a long quotation—said: Thus it is certain that the use of an antibiotic in animal feed produces large numbers of resistant organisms, including organisms with transferable resistance, and that these resistant organisms may be transmitted to man. The potential dangers of the wide spread of resistance to therapeutic antibiotics have been sufficiently set out earlier in this report. We were told that the use of an antibiotic in animal feed often means that the antibiotic will be ineffective (because of the development of resistance) for the treatment of clinical disease of the animals, but apart from this we were urged that no definite ill-effect has been shown from this use, as distinct from the other uses of antibiotics. That this may be so does not mean, however, that there has been no ill-effect, still less that there will never be any ill-effect if therapeutic antibiotics continue to be added to animal feeds. We judge that there are grave potential disadvantages for animal and human health in adding in this way to the pool of organisms which are resistant to the antibiotics of most value for the treatment of disease. The report goes on to make recommendations for controls which we hope that the Clause in some way covers.

These reasons alone justify the implementation of the Clause. I have studied the problem, recognising, as a farmer, that the controls in the Clause will create difficulties and additional costs to the farming industry, and I believe that the additional costs will be very much higher than those set out in the Swann Committee's Report. But I genuinely believe that, at the moment, we are using antibiotics haphazardly without facing the dangers that we are creating for human health.

There are those who have commercial interests in supplying the farming industry with large quantities of antibiotics and will be opposed to the Clause. There are those in this trade who argue that the scientific grounds upon which Professor Swann made his recommendations are inadequate and who now call for a further inquiry into the scientific evidence on which the Swann Committee based its recommendations. But there are also those in the trade who believe that there are enough danger signals around to adopt all or any of the recommendations in the Swann Report which the Government decide to implement.

It is true to say that these arguments will go on, almost inevitably. There will be those who disagree with the evidence. Very often in a large organisation there are those who disagree with scientific evidence produced by other sections of their organisation.

It can be argued that if we adopt these controls we shall put our farmers at a commercial disadvantage with our overseas competitors. However, many countries are looking to us and may very well follow our example. I would like to have moved a Clause implementing the whole of the Swann recommendations, but we recognise the difficulties that this might create. I hope that the Minister will be forthcoming and say how far and how soon he is prepared to go in dealing with the existing situation.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is the third of 53 debates which will take place during the night before we come to Third Reading. Reasonably brief speeches will help.

Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I listened with care to the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson). I admired his presentation of the facts, though I am not altogether in agreement with him about the causation and history of the outbreak of gastro-enteritis among infants which occurred in 1968. My recollection is that there was no question of resistance to antibiotics which had been transmitted in some form. It was a matter of finding the right antibiotic, and there were certain weaknesses in nursing which came out in the evidence. In fact, all the information was distributed to the medical profession. It was a very technical matter, but I think that we gleaned a great deal of information from that experience.

My doubt about the Clause is in no way concerned with that. I wonder whether the Clause is necessary. I notice that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) is present. He will recall the long sittings in the spring and summer of 1968 when we discussed a relatively uncontroversial Bill which is now the Medicines Act, 1968. He will remember that there was then a great deal of discussion about the incorporation of drugs into feeding-stuffs. My recollection is that it was not confined to fears about antibiotics but also about hormones used for veterinary purposes. Quite apart from the danger of transference of resistance, there is the other equally alarming side which causes alarm and despondency to consumers of undue, unnecessary and undesirable absorption of hormones.

Under Sections 40 to 43 of the 1968 Act, there appeared to be adequate safeguards against the danger which has been foreseen or against which it is considered necessary to protect the public. In dealing with the product licensing system, which my hon. Friend perhaps will confirm is now in operation, there should be adequate safeguards to prevent these products being unwittingly fed to live stock unless it is clearly under the control of the Department concerned. Under Section 130 there are adequate safeguards for the proper packaging, labelling and other kinds of alerting information which must be used in connection with feeding-stuffs so qualified.

I would have thought, therefore, that it is very undesirable to introduce a new Clause like this, although I absolutely accept the motive for putting it forward, because the powers already exist. I would have thought we should not add unnecessarily to the kind of information farmers have to absorb as to the state of legislation on the subject.

Mr. W. H. K. Baker

I would like strongly to support this new Clause. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) in introducing it mentioned possible adverse economic effects. I realise those, of course. The Swann Report did not recommend that chloramphenicol and polymyxins be restricted to humans only; and perhaps like other hon. Gentlemen and right hon. Gentlemen in this House I am by no means expert on this subject. Therefore, I took the step of consulting an epidemiologist, a medical micro-biologist of international repute at present working in this country. I would submit to the House that to neglect this eminent man's view would be the height of folly.

I am told that without restriction on chloramphenicol and polymyxins we place man in a particularly dangerous position. Chloramphenicol remains the most effective drug to fight typhoid and paratyphoid together with certain other infections occasionally encountered in hospitals. In addition, polymyxins are the last remaining reliable treatment for enteropathogenic escherichia coli infections in babies. This is an extremely serious situation. On page 65 of the Swann Report there is a table for the usage of antibiotics. It shows quite clearly that polymyxins in Group III antibiotics have only recently been used in veterinary medicine and as feed additives, and that in very small amounts. It seems to me and certainly to my informant that there must be strict limits to these agents in veterinary medicine in the future. It is not possible to compromise. There must either be a complete restriction of use in veterinary medicine and feed additives or complete freedom of usage by all, including farmers and veterinary surgeons.

9.30 p.m.

The important point—again, I rely on my informant—is to get this carried out quickly. The new Clause may not be adequately worded, but something needs to be done urgently to protect the community. We must, in the view of my informant, provide a substantial degree of safety for humans at once. The consequence of such action would mean that the other recommendations of Swann could be enforced more slowly than is otherwise possible and with more consideration of the economic factors involved. This, in turn, would alleviate, to a certain extent at any rate, the financial and other hardships which might otherwise arise in the farming community.

The onus is on the Government to protect people, not least the youngest members of the population. I very much hope that the Government will accept the new Clause or, if not its actual wording, the spirit of it.

In conclusion, I should like to refer to the Swann Report. In the "Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations" on page 60, paragraph 12.2 contains the positive statement: It is clear that there has been a dramatic increase over the years in the number of strains of enteric bacteria of animal origin which show resistance to one or more antibiotics. Further"— this is the important part— these resistant strains are able to transmit this resistance to other bacteria. This resistance has resulted from the use of antibiotics for growth promotion and other purposes in farm livestock. That is a positive statement which underlines what I have said. I hope that the Government will accept the new Clause.

Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Derbyshire, West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) for bringing in this new Clause and allowing us to discuss the matter. Since publication of the Swann Report we have not had an opportunity to discuss its details and we shall not have much opportunity this evening.

The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) made the point that under the Medicines Act, 1968, it is possible for the Government, if they wish, to bring in regulations to control the use of antibiotics. I do not know whether the Government intend to do so. I hope that we shall hear, before the end of the debate, whether they will accept my hon. Friend's new Clause or bring in regulations. I understand that they have circularised the chemical industry, which produces the necessary antibiotics, saying that they intend to bring in regulations on 1st July. It would be a courtesy to the House if, when replying, the Parliamentary Secretary gave an outline of the kind of thinking that will be embodied in the regulations concerning the control of antibiotics.

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks is that there is anxiety and danger whether immunity to bacteria in animals, because of the feeding of antibiotics over a period at sub-therapeutic level, can be transferred to humans who can be put at hazard by contracting a disease and not be able to be treated by the normal antibiotic.

The difficulty is that for every expert like Professor Swann who puts one view, there is another equally eminent expert who is prepared to give completely contrary evidence. For instance, an extremely eminent man, Professor Chain, who was involved in the discovery of penicillin, refutes in rather strong language the evidence which Professor Swann purports to use in coming to the conclusion in his report. I shall not weary the House by going through all the various eminent scientists on either side who can be produced to speak for and against this particular problem which the House is facing of immunity of bacteria being transferred from animals to humans. The point is really that the case has not been completely proven. There is still a wide field for further research and there is still a wide field for further, deeper study.

There are certain points upon which all the experts agree. My hon. Friend the Member for Banff (Mr. W. H. K. Baker) mentioned one of them in his short and interesting speech when he was talking about chloramphenicol. I have not met a single expert, scientist or other, who was prepared to say that this should not be banned and the recommendation of Professor Swann should be brought in at the earliest possible moment. He suggests the danger to human life through its use on animals, particularly sheep, was completely intolerable. This is one of the recommendations which I think is unanimous.

What I ask the Government to do in thinking about this new Clause is to consider whether they can publish the evidence, not only that produced by Professor Swann which we had in the report, but at the same time and in the same volume the evidence of the other side—the evidence of people like Professor Chain. There is no difficulty in the Government finding these gentlemen. They have come forward and I have attended symposiums, meetings and discussions where all these points of view have been put by extremely eminent and respected scientists.

I ask the Government to find a method whereby this could be published so that we can weigh up the facts involved. For my part, I am sure that all the farmers I know would go along with this particular point of view. If there is the slightest danger that human life can be lost through the use of any of the antibiotics mentioned in this report of Professor Swann—or not mentioned as yet and not even yet discovered—through them being used on animals, whatever the cost to the industry and no matter what problems this may pose to the agricultural industry, they would be prepared to see them not used for animal sub-therapeutic uses. They would be prepared to accept this.

But they would want evidence that this was so, and they would want to be shown that it was definitely so and that there was no doubt—or the minimum doubt—in the minds of those experts and scientists putting this theory forward. If this was so I know no one—and certainly not myself—who would be against regulations being brought in to stop the use of antibiotics on sub-therapeutic levels in animal feeds and so on.

But until this is done and until it is proven, there are great difficulties in proceeding along this particular line. The opposition and the difficulties within the industry would be considerable. I do not know for example whether the veterinary service and the veterinarians in this country are sufficient in number to be able to cope with the increased demand that would come upon them with the increase of disease which undoubtedly would take place if the small doses used at the moment were not applied. I do not know whether they could cope. How could the Minister deal with the fact that large farmers employing their own vets might be able to get around these provisions?

Sir Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

I am listening to the debate with fascination. I do not know whether this applies to animals in the same way as it applies to human beings, but surely if one gives animals small doses regularly one is probably breeding a resistance, so that if one gives them these drugs when they have a disease they have become resistant to them. Surely the drugs would be more likely to cure disease if the animals were not already taking them regularly. That applies to human beings.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

The point is that, by these minimal doses, disease is kept at bay, and in any case an animal's life cycle is relatively small. Animals are slaughtered before disease actually comes in.

The new Clause is designed to find out the Government's intention. I ask the Government to probe the evidence before going into this new field. If there is sufficiently conclusive evidence that any particular penicillin or whatever it may be—such as chloramphenicol, as I believe it is—is harmful, then it should be banned, as it is at the moment, at sub-therapeutic level. This is essential. Until that is done, I ask the Government to be careful in how they proceed. There are all sorts of snags and pitfalls into which one can fall and do irreparable harm, not only to the agricultural industry but also to the veterinary service and the drug industry. I ask the Government to be careful. There is a great deal of worry in all sections of the community—farmers, scientists and others. We must proceed with caution and not leap in too quickly on insufficient evidence.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I must first declare an interest in as much as I am connected with the pharmaceutical industry. But I am not making any plea, as the House will understand, for any freedom for the industry in this subject. What we are debating is the series of recommendations of the Swann Committee. The point I wish to raise concerns the recommendation for the banning of antibiotics, particularly oxytetracycline, penicillin and chlortetracycline, being used in feed additives for pigs, for example.

The basis for that recommendation is that the continued free use of antibiotics as a feedstuff would constitute a public health hazard. I am entirely of the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) that if there is any possibility that a public health hazard may exist, with danger to life of the type mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorkshire (Mr. Kitson), who said that there was a possibility that the death of 15 children on Tees-side might have resulted from the use of antibiotic feedingstuff, the use of these substances should be banned.

Mr. Kitson

I did not say that. I said that the children died because of drug resistance. We never saw the report. All we know is that the hospital used eight antibiotics before it found one that worked. It was because of this condition in the children that they died. But we never saw the report on the reason for their death.

Mr. Crouch

My hon. Friend is right to take me up on the point. That is the situation. They died because of a resistance to antibiotics in medical treatment. I am sure the whole House agrees that if there is any suggestion that such a resistance has occurred in people, even if only one person, it must pause before considering allowing the use of these antibiotics in this way.

The House is a very serious place on occasions. It is very serious when it considers an argument such as this. My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West has pointed to the other side of the argument. I wish to do so. I, like my hon. Friend, do not feel, having read the Swann Report many times, that a public health hazard has been proven. It is suggested: I am very concerned it might exist, but I do not think it has been proven. I know, too, of scientific opinion in this country and in other countries that agrees with the view that it has not been proven.

9.45 p.m.

The free sale of these antibiotics for feedingstuffs has been admitted in the Swann Committee's Report. We should remember what it said in paragraph 2.39, page 14: What may be said is that economic benefit results from this practice, which may be very important to the individual farmer and could possibly mean a difference between profit and loss. That is one side of the argument that has to be taken into account, but it is not the main point. I agree we are not talking about profit and loss compared to the danger to life. We shall have to accept the loss of profit as the cost of meeting any possible hazard.

The Swann Committee also recognises the contribution which these antibiotic foodstuffs are making in the economics of intensive animal production. Paragraph 9.4, page 41, says: The animals achieve marketable weight sooner and in some cases they eat less food in reaching this weight than they otherwise would. There is clear acceptance by Swann that the antibiotic foodstuffs do perform a valuable function in this modern type of farming which we have to live with.

As I said, there is a wide body of scientific opinion which disagrees with Swann. As far as the United States is concerned, the Federal Drug Administration is not proposing to take any action until it finds the case proven. I have recently discussed this question, since the publication of the Swann Report, with a certain Professor Huber, visiting this country to study the Swann Report and to study scientific opinion on this matter. That is what I have heard from him.

Neither the World Health Organisation nor the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has decided that it is necessary to take such action as Swann has recommended. They have studied the same subject but have not come to the same conclusion.

One of the critical questions—perhaps the most critical question in this matter—is whether the organism that produces disease or death is obtained from animal or from human. This is the nub of the question; this is what I must ask the Minister to consider with his scientific advisers: whether that point has been established to his satisfaction. I hope he will tell us something about that tonight.

The likelihood of the organism that might have caused death or disease being successful and, as is said, "colonising" is said by many scientists to be greater if the organism is derived from man rather than from animals. That again comes from Smith of the Animal Health Trust in a publication in the Lancet of last year.

Infections caused by resistant bacteria are not necessarily the result of transfer of these organisms from animals; they are just as likely to come from the human pool of resistant organisms. The problem is not only one of resistance coming from antibiotic treatment of animals, but also of antibiotic treatment of humans. Humans are also treated with large amounts of antibiotics, often over long periods, and particularly in the case of older people. Man is continually, as the scientists would say, selecting out his own resistant strains of bacteria, without any animal connections at all.

To sum up, there is no convincing evidence anywhere, not in the Tees-side or the Manchester epidemics, that the multiple product resistance was derived directly or indirectly from animals. As Swann said in paragraph 4.4: most salmonella infections in man in England and Wales are cases of 'food poisoning' contracted by eating infected food. Perhaps it would be more correct scientifically to have said not "infected" food but "contaminated" food, which might have been contaminated in handling.

I suggest that the case is not yet scientifically proven. We are afraid of what we think is happening or of what might be hapenning scientifically, so we are going to act with caution. I am not against that. We are going to stop the use of this growth promotant in intensive farming, with all the advantages but with the possible dangers. We must learn to live scientifically in a modern world.

I ask the Minister only three questions. First, what will he do about getting the scientific evidence to support his decision, which will ultimately slow up food production in some measure? Second, how does he intend to prevent the use of the banned antibiotics being given widespread application on prescription as a prophylactic for disease in poultry or pigs? Third, what safeguards will apply to prevent the import of any food, poultry or pig meat which might have been pro- duced on a feed containing the banned antibotics?

I do not say that we should do nothing and set up another committee. What I am saying is that we should pause and prove the case. Let the Minister set up a study group for this purpose. Swann in itself is an incomplete story. For one thing, no bibliography is attached to it. We do not know the full data on which Swann reached its conclusions and made its recommendations. If we are to live in a scientific world and make a decision, let us make it knowing that we are absolutely right.

Mr. Peter Mills

The Clause could present real difficulties for practical farming. The problem is serious. Some dangers are emphasised more than others, but there are enough danger signals to make the problem serious. Modern agriculture needs to produce food intensively. With the danger signals on the one hand and the need for intensive farming on the other someone will have to pay the cost of withdrawing these antibiotic substances. The public cannot have it both ways. If they want these substances withdrawn they will limit the intensive production of meat and eggs and so on. If they are prepared to pay the cost, that is fair enough, but if not, the present position must continue. It is no good blinking this fact. It has been estimated, I believe by the Ministry, that the withdrawal of these substances would cost the industry £2 million to £3 million. Others have said that it would cost £30 million. Whatever the cost, the burden on agriculture would be considerable.

At this stage, I am neither for nor against the new Clause. There are real problems ahead, particularly if we abandon the use of antibiotics. However, if the public accept the situation and are prepared to pay, then perhaps this step should be taken. We may have to accept this course as research develops. As my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) pointed out, there is the problem of imports from countries where antibiotics are used. This may place British agriculture at a serious disadvantage.

I hope that the Minister will deal with these matters because we cannot have it both ways. If the public are prepared to pay, then we can do away for antibiotics for this purpose. But can that be done at present? There are danger signals and it is obvious that the Government must make up their mind on this issue.

Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

Bearing in mind the long night ahead of us, I shall be brief and concentrate on the new Clause.

I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) and I hope that the Minister will seriously consider presenting the two major opposing views on the Swarm Report, not least Professor Chain's view, so that we may judge this matter in a fully informed way.

That should be done in the way the Government, for the first time in Parliamentary history, enabled us to judge the important issue of the 300 GeV accelerator for C.E.R.N. It was the first time that all relevant scientific information was contained in one document.

I sympathise greatly with my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks. (Mr. Kitson), bearing in mind what happened in his constituency. He would not have been doing his duty to his constituents had he not expressed grave concern over what happened to those unfortunate children. However, I ask him to consider withdrawing the new Clause, since I understand that the Government are about to lay regulations dealing with certain of these substances. That will give us a wider opportunity than we can have tonight to discuss the whole matter.

If the Government have already made up their mind that it is necessary to take action in this calendar year, then dealing with the issue on this basis—passing this Measure now and having to take further action in, say, six months' time—will result in unnecessary delay. If the case can be proven for taking action, the sooner it is taken the better. I would not like to rely on the passing of this Measure for some steps to be taken along these lines, with perhaps six months elapsing before the Government publish their list.

I hope that there will be the closest possible consultation with those most qualified to give evidence and that we will have a real opportunity to debate the Swann Report and the opposing opinions in a fully informed way, which we cannot do at present.

Mr. Stodart

We are obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) for raising this subject in the form of the new Clause. He has a reputation for persistent questioning and inquiry into what is an immensely serious matter, and this has been reflected in the discussion.

Some of my hon. Friends have studied this subject closely since Professor Swann reported. It is an extremely technical subject, probably more technical than the laws of compensation, with which we have been dealing. It is difficult for a layman to know who is right, be it Professor Swann or Professor Chain.

I was interested when the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) suggested that powers may already exist. No doubt the Minister will tell us about that when he replies. I speak as one who has been farming for a long time——

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Ordered, That the Proceedings on the Agriculture Bill may be entered upon and proceeded with at this day's Sitting at any hour, though opposed.—[Mr. Armstrong.]

Question again proposed, That the Clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Stodart

For nearly 20 years now antibiotics have been used with apparent success in animal feedingstuffs. I use the word "apparent" because of the misgivings expressed by the Netherthorpe Committee in 1966. It said that there were grounds for concern but that there was no evidence. Hence there arose the Swann Committee. I suppose that, naturally, I lean slightly towards Professor Swann's findings as he is one of my distinguished constituents. If I knew that he was one of my distinguished supporters, I might lean more heavily on them but of that I have no inkling.

The Swann Committee has reached conclusions and says that harm has been done to human life. It also says, on page 40 of the report, that the evidence available is not yet sufficient to allow a precise quantitative assessment of all the different aspects of the argument. So—and this is inevitably reasonable—it says that certain precautionary steps had better be taken.

The controversy that has been aroused by the report has been fairly brisk. It is on two points. The first is the cost. I see from the Scottish Farmer of last Saturday that a speech was made by Mr. Keith Grainger in which he said that the implementation of the recommendation had been estimated to cost British farmers over £30 million at the time when they were very hard pressed for cash. I set that against the figure which Professor Swann quoted to me of £3 million. Strangely enough, there is the same range of difference proportionately between the figures quoted in the Government's White Paper about the cost of going into Europe. Perhaps the Government may be able to tell us tonight what their precise estimate is.

The second point in the controversy is that scientists are by no means unanimous. I wonder whether we shall ever reach a situation in which scientists are all agreed. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) about the anxiety we must feel when children are dying. There must be anxiety and a searching after the cause. Should we therefore take the responsibility of waiting until that day, when the Netherthorpe Committee admitted that there were grounds for concern four years ago and the committee set up to investigate those grounds has declared that there is harm to human health?

This is a responsibility, and it is no light responsibility, for the Government. I am well aware that the Minister realises this. I still hold the view which I expressed when the right hon. Gentleman made his original announcement after Questions in the House. This sentiment has been re-echoed by many of my hon. Friends tonight. It is that human health overrides absolutely and utterly any economic advantage no matter how great that economic advantage may be.

Imports of this kind would seem to be uncontrollable except by international agreement. It would be useful if the Minister could tell us something about this. What are the Government doing as a result of the Swann Report? It was to find out this that we were prompted to put down the new Clause, and short though the debate has been, it has been very useful.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Hoy)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Kitson) for putting down the new Clause. I cannot accept it, but at least it gives me an opportunity to explain what powers we have and what action we propose to take, which is very useful.

One thing that has stood out is the difference of scientific opinion. I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) that if we are to wait until all scientists are unanimous it will perhaps be too late and there will be nothing to cure. We must remember that we are discussing not profits or losses but what might well prove to be a matter of life or death.

I was a little surprised that the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) said that the Americans have come to the conclusion that they will do nothing until they can get positive proof. It is not so long ago that I was badgered in the House for not taking certain steps because American scientists had decided otherwise. We must follow our own best judgment and that of our advisers. The Swann Committee had all the evidence, and there is hardly an hon. Member in the House—there may be one or two—who is technically competent to make judgments of this kind. In the main we must rely on the people who are regarded as expert in the matter. I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West that no Government, no matter what their political colour, can do other than accept the opinions of those who advise Departments.

The Swann Committee was appointed to consider all the evidence, and the Government have in general acceptqd its advice. We hope to put some of its recommendations into effect. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) gave the date of implementation as 1st July. There is no secret that the Health Ministers have that date in mind. It is a preliminary date, and discussions are proceeding about its feasibility.

I should now like to go on to what I consider to be the main reason for the debate and let the House know where we stand on the matter. The debate is welcome not only because it gives me the opportunity to make information available but also because we can make it clear that we have specific necessary powers already available. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) said, they are included in the Medicines Act, 1968, under which substances may be incorporated in feedingstuffs only if they are covered by a product licence and are incorporated in the manner in which the licence permits. The products licensing system under the Medicines Act 1968 is not yet in operation, but the health Ministers will bring in these regulations by order as soon as possible. The substances concerned are those which are incorporated for a medicinal purpose.

It may be felt that this unduly limits the effect of the provision to which I have just referred. However, this is not the case since the breadth of "medicinal purpose" is such that it covers chemical additives used at sub-therapeutic levels, including antibiotics and other prophylactics used for disease prevention, and chemicals such as mineral additives used for growth promotion.

The hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks said that we should implement the Swann Report as soon as possible. We are always being pressed to do things more speedily. It is a change of opinion from the view expressed opposite that we should not move too hastily. We have already made clear our wish that the Swann Report should be dealt with as quickly as practicable. But before we take steps to carry out the Swann recommendation that penicillin and the tetracyclines should be withdrawn from use as feed antibiotics, it was necessary to ensure that the agriculture industry had at least one feed antibiotic which it could use in their place.

My colleagues the Health Ministers have now made regulations, the Therapeutic Substances (Supply of Zinc Bacitracin for Agricultural Purposes) Regulations, 1970, Statutory Instrument No. 475 under the Therapeutic Substances Act—this all sounds very technical, and I give the House the assurance that I will not seek to compete with the hon. Gentleman in moving the new Clause and his pronouncements on at least nine substances, but this is an important matter for the industry—which permit the use of zinc bacitracin as a feed antibiotic with effect from 26th March. The way is now clear to restrict the use of penicillin and the tetracyclines.

We are consulting the organisations concerned to decide the date by which the substances should be made available only on prescription. I agree that the date is important in this respect, and this is why we are consulting all the interests concerned so that we may get the greatest amount of agreement. We shall certainly not get 100 per cent. agreement; that would be asking too much, but we shall make every effort.

In the light of these remarks, I hope that the House will appreciate that there are already powers available to limit the use of chemicals in animal feedingstuffs, and we are taking action following the report to meet the needs of most people. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now feel that he can withdraw the new Clause.

Mr. Kitson

We are grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for his reply and for its content. I am delighted with what he had to say, and I only hope that the new Clause has played some part in getting the regulations brought forward. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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