HC Deb 17 February 1975 vol 886 cc1072-82

11.1 p.m.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe)

On Sunday 24th March 1974 Mr. Keith Holland of Clap Gates Farm, Haslington, Cheshire noticed that one of his 65 cows appeared to be rather unwell. He did not realise that his herd had been struck by one of the modern plagues. The difficulties that would then continue to complicate his life for a number of years have been so great that even now, long after, he is still considerably troubled by the plague of salmonellosis. His losses have amounted to well over £6,000 and his milk herd is still returning about 40 gallons a day less than usual. He has had six dead cows and innumerable aborted calves to look back on, and his cattle are still affected.

In the Press this morning we were told about the effects of salmonella as a bacteria on human beings. Since I know that you are a gentleman of great sensibility and feeling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will not go too deeply into the symptoms or effects of salmonella on humans. I am sure that you will know that two of the symptoms most commonly associated with the disease are vomiting and diarrhoea. In animals salmonella in its various forms can produce dramatic and unpleasant effects.

It is extraordinary that in a land such as ours which prides itself upon its public health and its animal health legislation, salmonella is still not a notifiable disease even though there is considerable evidence that the numbers of cases affected by the various forms of the disease have accelerated in such a way that it can now almost be said to be running at epidemic speed. The Ministry still has no accurate information about the number of cattle involved because there is no compulsion on farmers who are affected to return the necessary information.

Perhaps I may give an example. Mr. Holland is an astonishingly responsible young man. He is a working farmer with one cowman and he farms his own land. He is concerned about the effects of many of the problems farmers must deal with. When he discovered that his herd was badly infected he took steps not only to inform the local public health authorities but to attempt to dissuade people from crossing his land by the public footpath. He took such personal care that the veterinary report of the outbreak pays particular tribute to his efforts.

These included the constant use of instruments which were kept in one place and refusal to allow visitors on to the farm—the specific precautions normally taken with a notifiable disease. He took these precautions because he felt strongly that he should protect those who might in some way be infected. His milk yield had to be destroyed. His family, luckily, were not contaminated by the disease. However, they had to bring in bottled milk for their own use while the herd was infected.

Salmonella has many forms, but the most common in Britain are Salmonella Typhinurium and Salmonella Dublin. Until 1968 these two types tended to dominate those cases which were returned as being due to the salmonella bacteria. Suddenly, however, in recent years Salmonella Exotica was introduced into this country in large numbers. In 1968, 1,654 cases of salmonella typhinurium were returned, compared with 2,142 cases of other salmonellae. Salmonella agona now appeared in Britain.

J. A. Lee, of the Epidemiological Research Laboratory at the Central Public Health Laboratory in London, said in a paper: How did S. agona first get into England and Wales? The most likely explanation for the appearance of a new serotype seems to be importation in an animal feed ingredient. S. agona was isolated from imported fish meal in May 1970, and it is likely that this introduced the organism into domestic livestock in England and Wales. Since then, it has been isolated from feed ingredients including meat and bone meal, feather meal and poultry offal meal … it is likely that it is now being maintained through recycling of these treated animal wastes which are fed back to animals. We have the bizarre situation that it seems likely that we have not only introduced new strains of salmonella into this country but are recycling the disease through herds many of which, because of the new husbandry techniques, are in closed quarters. Because of the use of poultry waste, which is being increasingly included in feed, we are not only putting the herds at risk but are in many instances contributing to the possible risk to human beings.

It is obvious that we have a law which is adequate in the way that it says feed waste should be dealt with when being imported. What is also obvious is that the port controls are not adequate and are not being enforced. There are suggestions that when feed has been turned back at the port of entry—there are large ports with proper port officers—it has sometimes found its way to a smaller port elsewhere in the country and has been admitted. What is being done to enforce the law at points of entry?

If feedstuff processing is controlled by law, is the amount of sterilisation being used adequate? In a modern society there should be a straightforward process of fumigation. If there is, why is recycled animal protein containing dry poultry waste not carefully sterilised before it is mixed in meal? I have no intention of attacking the people preparing meal. They must think of the price, and I know that they perform a useful service.

I am not talking only of Cheshire, although there are strong indications that a number of farms in Cheshire have been affected. There is a suggestion in the Ministry's own figures that in the 12 months preceding last May there were 700 cases reported in Cheshire alone, which makes one wonder whether our general protection is adequate.

If it seems likely that these cases are on the increase, how is it that the Ministry can send my constituent a letter couched in what I can only call equivocal terms? I have stood at the Dispatch Box often enough in the dark watches of the night holding forth about such fascinating subjects as rape seed, in the careful phrases of civil servants, to know that my hon. Friend the Minister is not necessarily the author of all the things he will say tonight. It is not enough for any Government Department just to send soothing phrases to a man who has lost a great part of his herd, who faces the risk of being forced into bankruptcy, and who is likely to find himself in great difficulties, simply because of his responsibility and honesty. It is not enough to say to that man that it would be difficult to bring in any kind of restriction on the movement of animals, because it would not be as effective as it might seem as a method of controlling the disease as salmonella organisms exist widely in nature. Unfortunately, we are only too well aware of that.

It is not sufficient to say that, even it restrictions in individual cases of clinical disease were applied, many other undetected cases of animal infection which could be as serious as a means of spreading the disease would remain. We are aware of that fact as well.

It is no answer to say that, apart from the fact that movement and other restrictions on animals would not be effective as a means of dealing with salmonellosis, it would be impracticable, due to the scale of the operation, for the Ministry to intervene with compulsory measures in all cases. What precisely is meant by that? Is the Ministry accepting that there is so much salmonella that it does not have sufficient manpower to deal with the problem in all its horror?

If notification of information were made compulsory, we should know how many cases and what types. If there were restrictions on the movements of cattle and of people across farms and the general treatment that is given for cases of foot-and-mouth disease, we should have better facts on which to work. We must have far better enforcement of our laws at the ports. We must improve the fumigation procedures. These are only some of the problems facing farmers at this time.

My constituent does not regard his problems as so great that, at the first suggestion of the disease—I know that the majority of farmers would not do this—he should unload these infected cattle very rapidly on to the local market in order that they may be sold before the information has reached the ears of the authorities. But if anyone were to do that, he could successfully infect whole herds before the source of the infection was traced.

When Mr. Holland pointed out this fact—he was thinking of getting rid of healthy beasts only after the others had been slaughtered—he was told by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Agricultural Development and Advisory Service: The Ministry has no power to prevent you from doing this, but I would strongly urge you to consider that the law, as it stands, could well result in criminal and civil proceedings against a person for misrepresenting the state of health of an animal to a purchaser. It is even possible that a person might be liable for damages if he knew, but simply did not disclose, that an animal he sold was suffering from an infectious disease and the purchaser thereby suffered loss from the spread of infection. In other words, the modern Catch 22: "Do not keep them, do not tell us, but do not sell them because, if you do, we shall have a go at you through the law." That is totally inadequate as a means of protecting either human beings or the herds of this country.

The terrifying thing is that this is not the first time that the matter has been raised in Parliament. I recall sitting in this Chamber listening to Sir Arthur Vere Harvey, now Lord Harvey, raising the difficulties facing people who had to contend with brucellosis. As a Devon Member at that time, I had seen the practical effect of brucellosis on human beings with recurrent fevers and the difficulties that they created for patients. Yet it was a long time before the House was prepared to take practical measures to protect both human beings and cattle.

I consider that we cannot afford this leisurely approach. Unless strong action is taken very soon—I do not mean the gentle discussion of some small powers to allow veterinary surgeons occasionally to enter farms with a view to protecting human health rather than thinking of the implications of animal health on human beings in the final analysis—we shall be failing in our duty as parliamentarians.

Recycled products are coming into greater use in this country. There is clear evidence that poultry particularly contribute to disease. If the products used in the recycling process are not properly sterilised and protected, the infection will spread.

If the Ministry is under-staffed and if it is unable to give monetary assistance to farmers who are affected in this way, it must come to this House to ask for more cash. It must demand more urgent action. It will not do for us to sit here and say that the problems which affected Keith Holland are the result of an unfortunate act of God which is affecting more and more farmers but which has no effect on the community as a whole. It has a definite effect, not just on the farming community but on those who are likely to come in contact with its products. There may be a case of infected milk. There may be a spread of infection amongst our dairy herds. We in this House are the only people who can ensure that these health laws are brought into being as soon as possible.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to say that he intends to take urgent action, not just to protect my constituent, not just to seek monetary compensation, but to make every effort to ensure that the safety of the public is properly protected in every way.

11.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Gavin Strang)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) for raising this question of salmonellosis. The number of severe cases has, I know, been causing much concern, and I agree with my hon. Friend's view that this is a very important matter where it is not sufficient for the Ministry to continue simply to deliberate and not take decisive action.

Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's comments about the letter which her constituent, Mr. Holland, received from the Ministry, I am sure that she will not regard it as inappropriate for me to express my deep sympathy about the very difficult circumstances and hardship which her constituent and other farmers have suffered as a result of outbreaks of this disease.

The records kept by our veterinary laboratories show that isolations of salmonellae in animal material reached a peak in 1969 and 1970 and have diminished somewhat since. However, the reduction has been mostly in Salmonella Dublin which is almost entirely confined to cattle and sheep. The salmonellae which affect humans have not been reduced; they have in fact shown some increase.

Perhaps I might say a few words about the causes. There are grounds for saying that the recycling of infection in the protein content of animal feedingstuffs plays a substantial part in the introduction of salmonellae on to farms. Salmonella bacteria may also be introduced by infected animals, by rodents and wild life, and through contaminated watercourses. Humans can also be a source of animal infection.

There is no doubt, however, that the tendency towards higher stocking densities creates the conditions in which a heavy infection can build up quickly. Outbreaks which would have been mild, or possibly unnoticed, before, may therefore develop into something more serious, and, since salmonella infection can readily be transmitted directly or indirectly to other animals, the general level of salmonellosis tends to rise.

Mrs. Dunwoody

That is true where there is recycling. It is not true where a new strain of salmonella is brought in from outside sources.

Mr. Strang

I do not quite understand. If my hon. Friend suggests that the intensity of modern livestock production does not in itself make herds more vulnerable to these organisms, I cannot agree with her.

I come now to the point pressed by my hon. Friend, that salmonellosis should be made a notifiable disease so that affected animals may be compulsorily slaughtered and compensation paid. The compulsory slaughter of stock and the payment of compensation could be justified only in relation to a policy of complete eradication of a disease, or where the objective is to keep the incidence of a disease at the lowest possible level after it has been brought under control.

We also need to have in mind what the notification procedure entails for notifiable diseases. Notification is dependent upon the observation of clinical symptoms in the animals and presupposes that certain control measures will follow. In the case of foot-and-mouth disease there is the restriction of movement of animals over a wide area. Infected and contact animals are slaughtered and compensation is paid. If we take anthrax as another example, restrictions are confined to the affected animal and its immediate surroundings and no compensation is paid.

Let us consider whether this type of action could be appropriate for the control of salmonellae. Salmonellae are extremely common and widespread. Most infections in animals show no symptoms at all. They are not particularly serious for the farmer. There are always, therefore, a large number of unidentified animal carriers of salmonellosis which are potential sources of infection. In these circumstances a policy of salmonellosis eradication by the notification of the disease and by a slaughter policy would be impracticable and inappropriate.

To demonstrate the point perhaps I might mention a few of the problems. For instance, some farms where the disease had been diagnosed would be subject to restrictions and would have stock slaughtered. Others, where the infection was present, but in sub-clinical form, would escape. Both types of farm could be equally serious sources of infection. Further, most animals fully recover and thereafter cease to transmit the disease. A slaughter policy would result in many unnecessary killings.

We are, of course, anxious to do all we can to help in individual cases of salmonellosis and to improve the situation generally. Our veterinary investigation centres are always available to assist veterinary surgeons with laboratory and other work and to give advice on control measures.

I have already referred to the risk that contaminated feedingstuffs can be a means of spreading salmonellosis. While great care is often taken to ensure that feedingstuffs are not contaminated, there is room for improvement. Indeed, we are at present engaged in consultations with the interests concerned to ensure that all feedingstuffs containing animal protein come up to the standards of the best manufacturers.

I am happy to inform my hon. Friend that we intend to introduce a new order which will require that animal protein used in animal feedingstuffs must be processed in approved plants reaching specified standards.

Mrs. Dunwoody


Mr. Strang

My hon. Friend asks, "When?" Let me come to that later.

My hon. Friend made the point that present legislation is not adequately enforced. I am sure that she will agree that the present import legislation is not aimed at salmonella. That is one of the reasons why we want this new protein processing order. This order would extend to imported feedingstuffs, which would then have to enter with veterinary certification from the country of origin or would be reprocessed in this country at an approved plant.

There are substantial practical problems to overcome with this order but we are making progress as quickly as possible. Because of swine vesicular disease we have had to give priority to the Diseases of Animals (Waste Foods) Order which is now in operation but this will also help with the salmonella problem.

I should also refer to the point raised by my hon. Friend in connection with the use of dried poultry waste as recycled animal protein. Our Veterinary Service has no evidence that this kind of material has transmitted salmonella infection. Indeed, the heat treatment required to extract moisture from the raw material gives a good measure of protection aganist harmful organisms. If my hon. Friend has any evidence—she used the phrase "very clear evidence"—I would be happy if she would pass it on to me.

I would now like to say something about the human health aspects. The House will be pleased to know that we have proposals to enable us to exercise compulsory control over an outbreak of salmonellosis in livestock as a precaution against the infection being passed on to humans. These proposals will take the form of a further new order—to be called the Zoonoses Order—which we hope to make in the next month or two.

It would enable us to investigate outbreaks; and we would be able to control the movement of livestock if, for example, it was considered that they should not go for slaughter for human consumption. We do not expect that this would often be necessary but, on the other hand, we regard the present state of affairs as quite unsatisfactory. This is because we cannot at present control the movement of livestock known to be infected with salmonellosis even if there is clearly a serious threat to human health. My hon. Friend referred to this state of affairs.

Although I have explained why we would not wish to make salmonellosis a notifiable disease, we are in fact considering, as part of our proposals, a procedure which would require diagnosed cases of salmonellosis in food animals to be reported to the Ministry's Veterinary Service. The difference here is that notification under the notifiable disease procedure depends on the observation of clinical symptoms in the animals, whilst our proposed reporting procedure would apply only after salmonella bacteria had been isolated from material sent to a laboratory.

A reporting procedure on these lines would improve considerably our knowledge of the epidemiology of the disease—its sources and methods of spread; and would improve our ability to advise on effective control measures. I think that my hon. Friend would agree that such a control measure would go a considerable way to meeting the points she made about the notification of the disease when it was obviously prevalent in a herd.

Perhaps I might say something more about the timetable for the Zoonoses Order. We circulated our proposals about a year ago. We had many interests to consult—including of course the farmers' unions and the poultry industry—and we had to deal with a number of problems arising from that democratic process. I am glad to say that those consultations are now almost complete and, as I have already said, we hope to make the new order very soon.

Let me sum up. The Government are in fact tackling the problem of salmonellosis. We do not consider that the right solution is to treat the disease in the same way as foot-and-mouth and other notifiable diseases. The plans we have in mind are control measures for animal protein in feedingstuffs; the reporting procedure I have outlined; the investigation of outbreaks; the identification of sources of infection and the methods of spread; and improved advice and control. All these steps, when implemented, should result in a better control of salmonellosis from the points of view of both human health and animal health.

I think that my hon. Friend would agree that if these are pursued urgently and implemented they would certainly very substantially improve the present unsatisfactory state of affairs with regard to this disease.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend once again for raising this subject and for giving me the opportunity to explain the measures on which the Government are now working to control salmonellosis. As a result of her raising this matter and the debate tonight, I shall certainly do what I can to see that greater urgency is injected into the work we are doing on the control of this important disease.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.