HC Deb 09 December 1985 vol 88 cc719-36 10.14 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's un-numbered explanatory memorandum dated 19th November 1985 concerning a proposal for a Council Regulation amending European Community Document No. 7948/84, draft Directive amending Directive 81/602 on the prohibition of certain substances having a hormonal action and any substances having a thyrostatic action; and supports the Government's view that, while the provisions of this proposal should take into full account the interests of consumers, livestock producers, the meat trade and the pharmaceutical industry, they should be firmly based on a rigorous scientific assessment of the available information as to the safety in use of hormone growth promoters. This proposal would ban the marketing and use for fattening of five hormonal substances widely used as growth promoters for cattle. As the House will recall, they are administered to animals in the form of implants placed at the base of the ear. The active ingredient is slowly released and improves the weight gain and feed efficiency of the treated animal. The ears are, of course, discarded at slaughter. The therapeutic uses of testosterone, progesterone and oestradiol 17 beta would be allowable.

It is worthwhile reminding the House about the means we have used for some time to control these substances in the United Kingdom. Any product containing one or more of them must be licensed under the Medicines Act 1968 before it can be legally sold or supplied. Any company that seeks a licence has to submit to my Department detailed evidence, firstly about the safety of the product. That includes the safety of the consumer who eats the meat from a treated animal, the safety of an operative who handles it, as well as the safety of the animal itself. Of course, we need evidence of efficacy—that it will do the job claimed for it—and evidence of the quality of the product as it will be marketed.

That evidence is scrutinised rigorously and, if necessary, we seek more evidence from the company on any point that is not clear. We are meticulous on the subject of the residues that may be left in the meat or other produce from a treated animal. The instructions for use which we approve state precisely what withdrawal period or equivalent should be observed after treatment so that residues at undesirable levels do not get into the food chain.

In that scientific scrutiny the licensing authority—Agriculture and Health Ministers—are assisted by the advice of the Veterinary Products Committee, a statute-based committee of independent veterinary and medical experts in the various disciplines, including medical toxicology. If necessary, it can draw on advice from further committees that report to Health Ministers. Medical experts from DHSS and food science experts from my own Department attend its meetings. I can assure the House that the scientific evidence is scrutinised most carefully before those products are licensed. The United Kingdom is not alone in subjecting those products to scrutiny. Other countries such as the United States do the same and we have their experience, as well as that of other regulatory authorities, to build on.

There is now wide experience to suggest that those hormone growth promoters, when properly used, are safe for consumers, those who implant them and the treated animals themselves.

I can understand the consternation in the European Community when it was discovered that some baby food made from veal was contaminated with di-ethyl stilboestrol, DES. The debate that followed gave rise to the directive 81/602 which banned the use of substances having a thyrostatic action and stilbenes and allowed for scientific assessment of the five hormone growth promotion substances at Community level. That assessment was undertaken by a committee of European scientists headed by Professor Lamming of Nottingham university. Three years ago it cleared the three natural substances, progesterone, testosterone and oestradiol 17 beta, for safety. Its work on the two synthetic substances, trenbolone and zeranol, was within an ace of completion recently and I am confident that they, too, were on the point of being cleared. It is a pity that Professor Lamming and his group were not given the facility to finalise their work.

I hope that the House feels reassured as to the safety of those compounds.

The Government find it extraordinary that, in the face of the weighty scientific evidence that has been meticulously scrutinised by more than one authority, including its own scientific working group, the Commission is now proposing that the use of those compounds in the way approved by the licensing authority should be banned.

Mr. Mark Hughes (City of Durham)

I apologise in advance for the fact that the early hour of the last train may prevent my being present later. Will the hon. Lady assure the House that no discussions in the all-Ireland conference will inhibit her Department's ability to stand up for what we believe to be right? We know that the Irish Ministry of Agriculture has already accepted this ban. The hon. Lady is arguing against it. Will she assure the House that no discussions on that arrangement will inhibit her ability to continue to stand up in favour of the type of scientific evidence that she is giving against this flat ban?

Mrs. Fenner

I can only assure the hon. Gentleman that we strongly believe that the scientific evidence should weigh in the balance. I hope that we shall be supported by the House.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Some of us were told in the briefing that scientific investigation into zeranol and trenbolone has not yet been completed. That was the case at the end of November. Are we to believe that it has now been completed? This is an important matter.

Mrs. Fenner

I understand that it has been completed. However, there will not be another meeting of the working group—

Mr. Mark Hughes

They have suspended it.

Mrs. Fenner

I believe that the working group has been suspended and that it is not working. The investigation certainly is within an ace of completion. Short of another working group, that is the best answer that I can give.

Mr. Dalyell

Has it come to a definitive conclusion?

Mrs. Fenner

I am confident that the inquiry is within an ace of completion and that these items will have been cleared. I can add no more.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Will my hon. Friend answer a more basic question? What is the point of giving these poor animals these nasty drugs and chemicals to make them bigger and fatter when we have an all-time record surplus of beef, are running out of storage space for beef and have to export it at 15p a pound to Russia?

Mrs. Fenner

There are those who argue that the use of these growth promoters adds to the beef mountain. The way to deal with surpluses is to have a proper pricing policy, not to put up a bar to improvements in efficiency. These products allow for a more efficient conversion of animal feeding stuff to protein and produce a leaner carcase. That is a benefit to the livestock producer and to the consumer. I do not believe that a tool of management which helps efficiency so plainly and is proved to be safe should be denied to producers.

How well would a ban work in practice? The origin of the current controversy and proposals for legislation was the discovery of di-ethyl stilboestrol in baby food from veal which came from animals reared in France. There was a ban on the use of di-ethyl stilboestrol in operation in France at that time, but it did not stop its illegal use. That illustrates the difficulties of enforcement that we would face if the proposed ban came into operation. Black market supplies of licensed drugs might increase and more use might be made of the cheaper and more dangerous substances, such as DES. There is no veterinary involvement to advise on the right dose in those circumstances. By contrast, if the products known to be safe in use are authorised, the veterinary profession can discharge its responsibilities. I believe that the consumer's interest would be better safeguarded than under an absolute ban of this nature.

I turn now to the question of imports from outside the Community. Every year about £500 million worth of beef and offals are imported from third countries, nearly all of them authorising the use of growth promoters, especially zeranol. Under this document imports would not be possible from treated animals in those countries, but it is not clear how this provision could operate. It is difficult to foresee third countries operating a ban like this in their own territories. On the other hand, if they do not, they will have to be allowed to certify that their meat and offals come from untreated animals. If that is the case, why could we not operate a similar system in the Community for the purpose of intra-Community trade and so allow the use of these growth promoters where member states wish to do so?

I might make another point about import certification. If imports are allowed from a country that uses zeranol—provided such imports are certified as coming from untreated animals—producers generally in that country will still enjoy the benefits available from these growth promoters. That would perhaps enable the price of supplies to the EC to be shaded down, thus disadvantaging EC producers. I am sure that the House will agree that that is not satisfactory.

But there is a deeper question than just hormone growth promoters. It is whether we are prepared to trust scientific assessment. I know that the Commission, in making this proposal, has reacted to consumer pressure from one or two member states and from a surprising vote in the European Parliament. But is doing so it has flown in the face of scientific evidence. That has its dangers. There are quite a number of areas of concern where consumer or other public anxiety is similarly at odds with scientific assessments of safety. But, surely the way forward is not to disregard the science but to try and reassure the public.

The proposal now before the House, though one understands how it came about, is ill-founded and it marks a precedent that the member states of the Community may come to regret if they adopt it. I should, perhaps, note in passing that some tentative alternative thoughts emerged last week in the course of Council discussions at official level. The idea of a prohibition was still featured, although after an interim period. For all the reasons that I have set out, the Government remain opposed to this kind of scientifically unjustified ban. I reaffirm that we have to trust the assessments that are made on these compounds and continue to base our policies on stringent and meticulous scientific judgement.

10.28 pm
Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I stand for the first time at the Dispatch Box to discuss proposals which, by their nature, are extremely complicated. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will agree with me not only that the proposals complicated but that the argument changes day by day.

The question of hormones is important. Hormones occur naturally in the body and are produced by various glands. Natural hormones are produced in plants. The properties of sexual hormones make them useful in reproduction. Such hormones not only influence sexual behaviour and development but enhance growth. The extra growth-promoting hormones can be implanted in the animal—usually in the base of the ear. Such implantation is used extensively by British farmers and other farmers throughout the world. This method is attractive to British farmers, because they tend to raise steers and feed them on grass, whereas many EEC farmers raise bulls but enclose them and feed them on cereals.

It could be argued that our method is more acceptable from an animal welfare point of view, but the issue is more complicated than that. Steers, as a result of castration, are unable to produce growth hormones, so British farmers feel that they need to implant growth hormones to ensure that bulls and steers can be equated in terms of beef production.

Growth-promoting hormones promise farmers good financial returns, and for small outlays they can enhance the weight gain of an animal by between 10 and 20 per cent. claim the manufacturers of the products. In addition, as the Minister said, the meat produced is healthier, because it contains less fat. The Opposition believe that it is desirable that consumers should have the choice of being able to buy healthier meat in that respect.

Farmers are supposed to observe strict rules when using hormones. If the rules are ignored, it is possible for high concentrations of chemicals to remain in meat for human consumption. To put this in perspective, the British Veterinary Association claims that it knows of no instance when man has suffered from the toxic effects of residue in treated animals.

The dangers of hormone residues were first publicised in 1980, as the Minister said, when traces of a particular synthetic hormone were found in some Italian baby foods and certain veal products. That led to the frightening development of adult sexual characteristics in babies. As a result, the EEC banned the use of those synthetic hormones, known as DES, and related synthetic hormones. That was in 1981. The ban did not affect other growth-promoting hormones so long as they were already in use in member states.

Subsequent to the ban on DES and related synthetic hormones, the EEC considered what further steps it should take to control the use of growth-promoting hormones. It commissioned a programme of investigation, under Professor Lamming of Nottingham university into a range of products. It was envisaged at the time that if the substances were cleared on the basis of rigorous scientific assessment, that would provide a reasonable basis for considering the continuation of their use.

It is important to put dosage levels and their consequences into perspective. Representations from the British Veterinary Association suggest that while enormously raised levels of hormones in meat could be harmful to humans, a normal bull or cow, for example, or even many plant products, have higher levels of testosterone or oestrogen-like substances than the regulations permit for a hormone implant.

Support for a total EEC ban on the use of hormones is growing, and the British Government now appear to be out on a limb on this issue. According to Farmers Weekly of 6 December, farmers seem to be in favour of a ban. Indeed, an article in that publication is entitled: Jopling is out of touch with beef producers. It is interesting that farmers seem to be supporting the ban. It is difficult to say from this sample of farmers whether it is representative. One questions whether farmers are happy to do without the £30 or £40—whatever the figure is—per animal that they can get by using growth promoters.

There are more problems than the possible side-effects on health of hormone-based growth promoters. For example, there is the massive beef surplus in Europe, and the falling demand for meat and beef products. Clearly, concern for the full protection of the consumer must be one of Parliament's key priorities. We support the notion of making decisions about the use of hormones based on scientific evidence rather than responding emotionally on the matter. However, if a scintilla of doubt arises from the scientific assessment of these products, showing that they could be dangerous to the consumer, the Government can expect our total opposition to the use of these products. On those grounds, we shall not be dividing the House on this measure.

The Opposition feel disappointed at the way in which the Commission is now moving towards a total ban on growth promoters before all the scientific work has been completed. This is illogicial, irrational and wasteful. The Government have made clear their position, and the Minister did so again. Essentially, they are saying that the EEC legislation should be based on the vigorous use of scientific assessment. It is encouraging to see that the tests carried out by Professor Lamming have already cleared oestradiol, 17 beta, progesterone and testostrone. Work on the other substances is either complete, or near completion, and the Parliamentary Secretary referred to some of the additional hormone products that were cleared before the Lamming committee was wound up.

However, there are conditions surrounding the use of these substances—one being that they should be administered properly. The Minister is aware that enormously raised levels of hormones in meat may be harmful to the consumer. Will she confirm that she is satisfied with the current methods of administration of these substances, which might affect human health? The organisation, Consumers in the European Community Group, has expressed its concern about the monitoring of the use of hormones.

The conditions are that implantation must take place in a part of the animal's body that will be discarded at the slaughterhouse, so that a high concentration of chemicals cannot get into the food processing chain. Secondly, the farmer must observe the withholding period—this applies to synthetic hormones—and end the treatment a specific number of days before the animal is slaughtered. The CECG feels that these conditions are difficult to monitor and enforce, as farmers, vets, and the meat trade acknowledge. The CECG has expressed its concern that tests, recommendations for use and safety margins have not so far been strict enough to ensure full consumer protection. I should welcome the Minister's comments on those points.

That brings me to the unnumbered explanatory memorandum issued by the MAFF on 19 November and signed by the Minister. I understand that document Com(84)295 of 12 June has been superseded by document Com(85)607. Why do we seem to be discussing an out-of-date document? Surely it is possible for the Department to ensure that the House has up-to-date documents. The same thing happened last week when we discussed sugar. It does present difficulties.

Paragraph 3 of the MAFF memorandum refers to provisions for imposing close controls on the administration of permitted substances. That would include identification of treated animals. How much will such a system cost? Presumably it will be done by computer, but there will have to be field staff to collect the data, the data will have to be vetted for accuracy, and the information will have to be analysed. It could be a long and costly exercise. What use will be made of this information?

Paragraph 2 indicated that EEC legislation could permit the use of hormones for therapeutic purposes. If so, how will it be possible to establish, for example, that hormones used in imported beef from a third country were for therapeutic reasons rather than for growth promotion?

Reference is made in paragraph 3 to the labelling of products indicating whether or not growth enhancers have been used in their production. How will this system be enforced? Will it not be open to all sorts of abuse? However, the Opposition do not object to the principle of labelling, as it gives the consumer freedom of choice to decide what kind of products he wants. It is in the interests of farming to win and maintain the confidence of the consumer in relation to the safety of products.

Although drugs licensed under the Medicines Act 1968 may be used legally, the results of the tests evaluating those drugs are not made public. Consumers are concerned that adequate tests on hormonal products should be carried out effectively. What steps does the Minister intend to take to help build up the confidence of the consumer through the provision of such information to the public?

According to the MAFF, where there has been illegal and uncontrolled use, the use of these hormones has flourished. It would be interesting to know the countries in which this has taken place. If that is the case, a ban could clearly have the opposite effect to the one intended. The Opposition do not want to see illegal use of these products. If a ban is imposed by the EC, what steps will the Minister be taking to prevent such illegal use?

Since the explanatory memorandum was prepared on 19 November, the EC Agriculture Ministers meeting has taken place. According to the 23 November edition of the magazine European Report, a total ban could be put to the vote at the next meeting, which I believe is today and tomorrow.

In Farmers Weekly dated 6 December the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is reported as saying that he did not think that the issue was one where he could use his veto. That is presumably because he does not regard it as an issue of vital national interest. Will he state, therefore, whether that ban will be tested by a majority vote? Clearly, a ban on the use of hormones as growth promoters would have an effect on patterns of trade. The restrictions would apply to inter-Community trade in meat and livestock, imports into the EC and exports to third countries.

There are major trade implications for third countries using growth promoters, such as Argentina, the United States of America, Brazil and Uruguay, which supply the EC with about 450,000 tonnes of beef and veal each year. What discussions have taken place with those countries, and how much warning would they be given in the event of a ban? Does the Minister agree that short notice of a ban would be regarded by some as unfair, especially to the poorer countries?

The explanatory memorandum of 19 November 1985 states that a ban could become operative from 1 January 1986. That baffles me because we seem to have a great deal of beef in production. What will happen to it? Will it be destroyed, or will special dispensations be made for beef already in production? Will the Minister tell the farming community what will happen to existing stock which is in the 18-month productive cycle, if the ban of 1 January 1986 is enforced?

The EC report of 23 November 1985 states that Commissioner Andriesson said that the provisions of the draft directive would provide an adequate basis for limiting the risks of fraudulent use of hormones. Will the Minister explain to the House exactly what the EC Commissioner meant by that, since it conflicts with the views of many people who are associated with farming. It is felt, for example, that it will be extremely difficult to distinguish whether a hormone-based substance is used for therapeutic or fattening purposes.

Finally, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Association believe that hormone-based growth promoters must be fully tested and properly controlled. They also believe that consumer protection methods which reflect sound scientific principles will always attract full support from consumers. They feel that the requirements of the consumer can be met without going to the extreme lengths proposed by the Commission in document 84/295. They also feel that new substances should be administered by a vet or someone under his direction. It is not surprising that those two institutions would make that recommendation, but it is worthy of note. They add that the sampling of animals—both meat and meat products—would call on resources out of all proportion to the need, and that competent authorities in member states should be trusted to carry out such checks using agreed methods.

10.49 pm
Mr. Andy Stewart (Sherwood)

Responsibility for the meat surplus is increasingly being attributed to anabolics. That is erroneous for several reasons. It is true that there are extensive public stocks of meat—720,000 tonnes at the end of July this year. It is true that typical growth promoters make the conversion of grain to meat more efficient. However, those facts are not related. Meat surpluses occur in countries where anabolics are banned, just as they occur in countries where they are used.

Anabolics make cattle raising more efficient. It is a basic economic axiom that efficiency means greater economic benefits for all. Hormones increase growth rates of animals. For example, the farmer adds protein to the animal in a shorter period at less cost in feed. The result is more efficient use of capital and land. The amount of meat available to the consumer does not increase but is supplied more efficiently at less cost.

Since the gestation period for producing offspring cannot be altered, the number of animals remains unchanged in any fixed period. Animals are not larger than normal; they simply mature more quickly. The total available quantity of meat remains the same unless herd size is increased or decreased. That has nothing to do with growth promoters.

Anabolics, when used in the safest manner through implants, result generally in a 10 to 15 per cent. improvement in total weight gain and a 10 to 15 per cent. improvement in feed conversion ratios. Those are savings that can be passed on to the consumer.

Allegedly, a shift in consumer tastes has occurred and people are eating less beef. That is largely incorrect. The decline in the consumption of beef today in Europe is related to price, not to shifts in taste. Thus it stands to reason that the current slump in beef consumption could be turned around by allowing the greater efficiency of feed conversion ratios to contribute to overall lower prices. Increasing efficiency would not cause the cattle raiser to lose revenue. His operation would be more efficient. In the long run he would gain because of the expansion of the market for his product that would result from lower prices.

Today's meat surplus in Europe is largely the result of short-term policy measures and is not a long-term problem. To associate meat surplus in Europe today with the use of anabolics is to adopt a very short-sighted approach. One of the main causes of today's meat glut is the attempt to reduce the size of dairy herds. More animals are consequently being slaughtered. That will not last for ever. Then where shall we be in five to 10 years when the dairy problem is solved? Meat shortages, with accompanying higher prices for the consumer, will be the result.

To reject the use of anabolics on the basis of meat surplus in Europe alone also evades a fundamental issue which concerns all. A very large sector of the world's population is suffering from lack of protein in the diet. Europe and the other industrialised countries must set an example so that the less fortunate can learn and adopt more efficient techniques instead of receiving charity and emergency relief. Europe is considering rejecting those techniques which could be so essential in combating one of the greatest problems of the modern world— starvation. Furthermore, anabolics, especially the safest ones which are implanted, risk being rejected not on rational economic grounds but because they are efficient and economically beneficial.

10.54 pm
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

There is a surplus of European beef, with over 600,000 tonnes of meat in intervention store. It has been said that the balance of the cost of storing that meat equals the advantage of using hormones. Live weight has increased by 15 per cent. through the use of hormones. We have to look at the subject overall and balance the arguments against hormones with those in favour and see what conclusion we arrive at.

Is it desirable to have a 15 per cent. increase and to have 600,000 tonnes of meat in intervention stores? As we have heard, the analysis is that stilbenes and hexoestrol have already been banned by the Community and, in addition, one can make a strong case for banning anabolic steroids, the commercial names being Ralgro and Finaplix. Whether there is a case for that should rest on the scientific evidence of their harmfulness to humans. Methods have been made available through the Food Research Institute and the institute at Compton to measure the effects of anabolic steroids on animal residues.

There are immunological techniques that will negate the effect of growth inhibitors in the animal's body and thereby marginally increase the growth of the animal. With good foundation the natural hormones that are increased as a result of that process increase the weight gain of meat. We must wait for the Lamming committee to report before we get an objective assessment on these matters.

On balance, one must say that there is a case against the use of hormones because of the reduction in the overall quantity of meat produced. We must also recognise that, the elasticity of demand for beef being sensitive to price, if less beef is produced the price will increase and that will benefit the farmer. We must take that factor into consideration. The production of more pure beef breeds will assist in the production of more quality beef, which is desirable at present. We must also recognise that if hormones are banned, there will be more bull beef. Comments have already been made about that.

The technology that has enabled use to be made of hormones has, in part, been responsible for overproduction of beef. That is fuelled by certain commercial interests, which have an interest in increasing beef production through the use of their products. I can fairly confidently predict that the rest of Europe will probably reject the notion that our hormones are safe, and that the implantation of hormones in beef will be banned. That could occur early next year, and it could affect our exports of meat to the rest of Europe.

Many farmers now agree that a ban on hormones would be helpful. I believe that the industry is divided on the issue and that we shall find an equal number of farmers who are in favour of the use of hormones. Therefore, I do not think that there is a clear view on the part of farming in favour of the banning of hormones.

With hormones being used for cull cows and animals such as holsteins, which do not have a good conformation, there is a case for hormones being used to increase their conformation. We must rightly ask whether that is desirable when we could be producing more genuine quality beef.

However, serious drawbacks have to be set against those arguments on behalf of British farming. Our farming is geared to the use of steers and castrated animals on extensive systems. It has been said that it would be extremely difficult for farmers to change overnight to more intensive systems, and to bull beef systems at that. Therefore, this country cannot face a change with such rapidity.

The powerful point has been made that, if hormones are banned, there will be an increase in illegal trade in veterinary products with growth promoters. If we cannot regulate that, there could be a serious problem in the illegal under-the-counter trade in those products.

The value of the use of hormones to the United Kingdom beef trade is £40 million. That is a significant sum. It is clear that Europe has less to lose than Britain on the banning of hormone promoters. We should wait for the Lamming committee to report, and for factual scientific evidence on which to judge those products objectively.

11.1 pm

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary the same question that the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) asked. It is the crucial point about the proposals. What will happen if we find that the Council of the EEC votes for the ban by a majority vote?

It is all very well all of us in the Chamber going away with all-party agreement and no vote, and saying, "We are all in complete agreement, and these ludicrous regulations must not go through," but if our wisdom is not echoed in the Council of Europe, and it decides to ban, we shall have a bit of a panic on our hands. In agriculture, we do not want the same to happen as when quotas were introduced. At the time we said that we were fighting to the death for price restraints. We did up until the last moment, when the EEC decided that quotas were the answer, and overnight we had to adopt quotas. That caused a little bit of a problem, which is probably an understatement.

What will the effects be? What are our plans if our wisdom is not accepted in the EEC, and we end up with the ban?

I agree entirely with the Government's plans that we should come to conclusions on scientific matters based purely on hard scientific evidence. In this case, the scientific evidence does not warrant a ban. Similarly, if we are making law, it should be based on reality, not on emotion. Much of the movement towards a ban on hormones has come about through emotion. Emotion may not affect us in the Chamber, coolly, rationally and sensibly debating the issue, which I bet we shall never hear on "Yesterday in Parliament" or "Today in Parliament", but never mind. Emotion might not affect us, or the splendid gentlemen who wrote the report in complex scientific language, but unfortunately the people about whom we should be most concerned are the housewives, the 35 million housewives and consumers who will be purchasing foodstuffs produced in this country and the EEC.

Many hon. Members probably do not have the report as standard reading in the Tea Room or at home, but instead of reading the superb EEC documents, they should look at one of their wife's magazines, such as "Cosmopolitan", "Woman's Own" or even the latest pseud foodie magazine "A la Carte". There hon. Members will see time and again the message now being put across that any hormone implants are bad for us.

I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart). Some of the decline in the consumption of beef has come about because of changing consumer taste—

Mr. Andy Stewart

And price.

Mr. Maclean

The price mechanism is there as well, but I think that the reason is changing consumer taste.

The greatest danger to British agriculture is not the effect of the weather or the EC, not the effect of politicians—

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

It is the Government.

Mr. Maclean

No; not necessarily of the Government, or even the Opposition. The greatest threat to British agriculture is changing consumer trends. Time after time, we find in our postbags reports suggesting that too much fat, too much sugar, too much starch and too many carbohydrates will kill us within the next two years. Last week, I received a form to fill in detailing every item of food that I eat in the House of Commons in one day. I believe that if I go to the Lower Waiting Hall next week, the form will by analysed by computer, which will predict the exact week of my heart attack.

Such information is being given to the housewife all the time. If, at the end of this month, a majority of members of the EC conclude that hormones should be banned—however irrational or wrong that decision, which is not based on scientific evidence, may be—we can bet our bottom dollar that all television programmes, all food magazines and all the magazines read by housewives will carry that information. It is no good our saying, "Hormones are not dangerous and everything will be all right," because the housewife will believe that those products are unsafe. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food must be ready to cope with the problem and to give advice to farmers.

I agree with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) that there is no unanimity among farmers. I believe that the NFU in Cumbria has decided, by an extremely narrow margin, that artificial hormones should be banned but that natural ones should not be banned. I suspect that it came to that conclusion, not on an analysis of the scientific evidence, but because it believed that a ban on artificial hormones might placate public opinion, and that the housewife might be convinced that natural hormones are good for her. However, the NFU in Cumbria agreed completely that there is no question of Britain implementing the ban unless it applies equally in effect—not just in law or in name only—to all EC countries. It must be seen to be enforceable and it must be policed.

There is no case for banning those products, and my hon. Friend's stance is correct. But we must be prepared to face the day of judgment at the end of this year, when Britain will be in splendid, knowledgeable isolation, and the EC imposes a ban to which we must rapidly adjust. Let us start warning our farmers now about the consequences.

11.7 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

With my hon. Friends, I await with interest the Minister's response to the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall). It deserves a serious answer. Because of his comprehensive speech, I wish to put only two different questions to the Minister.

The first question concerns anecdotal evidence in relation to the black market in veterinary drugs. Are the Government worried about that? It seems that cheap, though relatively effective, stilbenes are on the market for those who wish to indulge. Therefore, control is becoming increasingly difficult. Are the Government as worried as some other people are about the black market in veterinary drugs? If they are worried, what mechanisms do they suggest for its control? I believe that it will be extremely difficult to control it. It is all very well for politicians to clamour for controls, but this is easier said than done. Of course, a complete ban would drive hormone sales underground. Controls on residues in meat are extremely costly to operate, so I must ask how much this will cost.

My second point is completely different. For four and a half educative years, I was a Member of the European Parliament or Assembly—according to taste—and saw a good deal of the scientific set-up in Brussels, which in those days was impressive and efficient. I should be the last to sneer at Brussels bureaucrats, as those people operated extremely effectively and had access to the best information throughout Europe.

Against that background, why should Commissioner Andriessen suddenly blurt out opinions when he knew damned well that an expert scientific committee was due to report to him? Professor Lamming has every right to be angry, because his conclusions were prejudged. The information that I managed to garner at the weekend was that the Commissioner was pandering to certain vociferous elements in his own country, West Germany and Belgium. That is no way for the Commission to operate.

Will the Government try to extract from Andriessen an explanation for his behaviour? The Minister is right. Either we believe in proper scientific assessment or we do not. If Commissioners take action on what seems to be whims and fancies that is not the way in which Brussels should operate. There may be another side to the story, but I am not sure that there is. Did Andriessen take action on the basis of advice and agreement with his colleagues on the Commission? If not, why was he allowed to get away with it?

In the final analysis, this is a matter which should be raised with the Commission as a collegiate body. There are other examples—it would be out of order to cite them in this debate—in recent times in which, on a scientific basis, the Commission has been shown to have acted somewhat irresponsibly. If I am being unduly harsh, doubtless the Minister will tell me so.

11.11 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

This is a well-informed and rather surprising debate. It seems to be common ground in all parts of the House that hormones can lead to live weight increase and thus benefit the consumer, that there is no scientific evidence so far to justify the claim that the use of hormones causes any damage, but that scientific research should be continued to see whether there is any risk of damage. I think that it is also common ground that if such evidence emerged it would be an extremely serious matter and the Government should act at once, no doubt with the support of the whole House.

It also seems to be common ground that the European Community in its wisdom is moving towards a ban on hormones for two reasons. One appears to be that the removal of the growth progenitor in this way will assist in reducing the increasing surplus of meat caused by overproduction. The other seems to be the fear that the products in question might be used inappropriately, obtained through the black market and not subject to proper control.

I should declare an interest, as a company in my constituency with which I have a connection manufactures the products in question and has been good enough to brief me on the subject. I believe that the veterinary profession, the manufacturers and the distributors in this country have a very heavy duty to ensure that the products are distributed and used correctly. They should work with the Government to ensure that standards in this country, which I believe to be higher than in the rest of Europe, are maintained.

The argument that hormones lead to greater growth and therefore greater overproduction and excess in Europe is the most curious of all. Despite massive publicity given to worldwide hunger and the fact that one third of the world's population goes to bed hungry every night, it is said that we should be worried about overproduction in Europe. European practice tends to be followed elsewhere. If we ban the manufacture and use of these products, we shall eliminate productive capacity, make hormones more expensive and set an example that will be followed. A ban in Europe would be counterproductive for those who are short of food. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will advance these and other arguments that have been advanced when standing up to her European colleagues who want to impose a ban.

11.16 pm
Mrs. Fenner

With the leave of the House, I should like to reply to the debate.

It is quite clear that this subject exercises the minds of many hon. Members. May I tell the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) that I have become used to his presence on the Front Bench so I did not realise that this was his first attendance at the Dispatch Box. I naturally congratulate him. He shot his questions with tremendous rapidity so, if I do not answer all of them, I shall ensure that after a close study of Hansard I provide answers to those that I have omitted.

The hon. Gentleman told us that Farmers Weekly said that the Minister was out of touch and asked whether farmers wanted a ban. Farming News took quite the opposite view and asked, "What hormones?" It went to Balham high street—[Interruption.] No, this is not the man on the Clapham omnibus but the man in Balham high street.

Mr. Home Robertson

Are they farmers?

Mrs. Fenner

No. They buy meat in Balham.

The paper asked shoppers to list their priorities when buying meat and one said that she bought fresh meat once a week and the principal thing I think about when buying meat is to maintain variety. I am not worried about all the health talk I hear about meat. I do not believe it. If consumers do not share that view, farmers are free to produce hormone-free meat just as they produce free-range eggs and organically grown vegetables in response to the market.

Several hon. Members have mentioned monitoring. Since December 1980, we have operated the national surveillance scheme which is designed to monitor the extent to which residues of veterinary substances, including prohibited substances, are present in the meat supply. The scheme is designed to serve as a check on controls on the distribution and sale of veterinary substances laid down in the Medicines Act 1968, to keep a watch on the observance by farmers of directions for use and any recommended withdrawal period between the last treatment and sale for human consumption and to enable export certification to be provided in accordance with the requirements of some importing countries.

The statistical design of the scheme is such that, if there is a residue problem in more than 1 per cent. of a given animal population, there is a 95 per cent. probability that it will be detected. That is achieved by collecting at random 300 tissue samples annually from the carcases of animals from the main slaughter populations—cattle, calves, sheep and pigs—from slaughterhouses in Great Britain. Chicken and other poultry were brought within the scope of the scheme as from September.

The Government fully appreciate the importance of effective residue controls for the protection of public health, and the development of our national monitoring arrangement provides a useful assurance to consumers. It is significant that the same statistical sample is used in the United States although the animal population is much larger there than in Britain. The results of the surveillance scheme have been generally very reassuring. I assure the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that for stilbenes, which are now banned substances, none of the samples analysed in the past 12 months have been positive.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West asked why we are discussing an out-of-date document. The answer is that we are not. The 1984 document is modified by the 1985 document, and the constitutional elements that relate to article 43 of the treaty stem from the 1984 document. The hon. Gentleman asked, as did the hon. Member for Linlithgow, whether the scientific evidence on trenbolone and zeranol was or was not complete. The full evidence has been submitted to the scientific working party but the working party did not complete its work because the Commission cancelled its last meeting—a move which we deplored.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West asked me to confirm that I am satisfied with the administration of these substances in the light of consumers in Europe having asked especially about observance. Traditionally, there has been reliance on farmers to use animal medicines in accordance with the directions for safe use and to observe any stated withdrawal period between the last treatment of the animal and sale for human consumption. We monitor the degree to which farmers observe the recommendations through the national surveillance scheme for residues in meat, which I have outlined in some detail. We published in August a code of practice for the safe use of veterinary medicines on farms, which reminds farmers of the importance of using medicines properly and of keeping adequate records. The operation of the code will provide useful experience on which any future legislation to control the use of veterinary medicines can be based.

Hormonal growth promoters are prescription-only medicines and may be administered only in accordance with the directions of the veterinary surgeon who is responsible for the care of the animals concerned.

Mr. Viggers

Am I right in thinking that our European partners are not always as scrupulous as we are in observing the rules? Would it not be a good course for us to follow to encourage our farmers to exercise care rather than yield to the blandishments for a ban?

Mrs. Fenner

That is a course that we follow constantly in ensuring that good standards are universal throughout the Community. We do not always succeed but we have managed in areas of animal welfare to introduce directions which are harmonised throughout the Community and which raise standards. Britain has been very much a part of that process. I understand what my hon. Friend says and I can assure him that we try to ensure that that which he suggests is done.

Consumers within the European Community suggested that residue testing needs to be stricter. Some controls have already been adopted and the Council is considering what further measures may be needed. It has been proposed that animals which have been implanted should be identified by a mark.

It has been agreed that animals or carcases would be sampled for residues. That may give some reassurance to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). The scale of sampling is being debated. If illegal levels of residues are identified, it has been agreed that the authorities would trace the carcase to the farm of origin and carry out further tests there.

Animals containing illegal hormones could not be sold for animal or human consumption. Animals with excess residues of authorised substances would need to be kept under surveillance until those residues fell.

Arrangements for marking animals are yet to be discussed in detail in Brussels. We intend to ensure that any system that is introduced will be cost-effective. We have some anxiety about that.

The possibility of labelling to satisfy consumers has been mentioned. We believe that it would be difficult to label all cuts throughout the chain.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West asked how the proposal would operate in respect of third countries. That is not clear. It seems that meat could be imported, as I said, from third countries which already authorise the use of hormones provided that the animal has not been treated. If that is acceptable for third countries, we cannot understand why it is not acceptable for intra-Community trade. Nations could then use their own system of growth promoters but for intra-Community trade could certify that the meat had not been treated in that way.

The Government continue to argue for third-country implications to be taken fully into account before decisions are reached. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the decision was sudden and whether third countries had had sufficient warning. I said that some different arrangements, including an interim period, were being discussed last week at official level, and that could be of assistance.

The hon. Gentleman referred to discussions with third countries. I am not aware of any such discussions. The proposal has been introduced at short notice. He referred also to meat already in store. The disposal by us and third countries of meat treated with hormones would have to be a matter for discussion.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the use of the veto, and whether the matter would be decided by a majority vote. The proposal is a draft regulation based upon article 43 of the treaty of Rome, which allows the Council to adopt measures by a qualified majority vote. However, directive 81/602 requires a unanimous Council decision on authorisation.

My right hon. Friend has already queried the legal validity of the proposal in its present form and he will continue to press those points in the Council tomorrow.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) agrees that scientific evidence should provide the basis for the use of hormone promoters. He referred, correctly, to Professor Lamming's working party; we regard the cancellation of its last meeting as deplorable. He also asked what contribution the growth promoters had made to the beef surplus. At the end of November, EC stocks were about 650,000 tonnes. The cyclical peak in production in 1984 coincided with the imposition of dairy quotas arid the consequent high level of cow culling. The forecast for 1986 is a better balance for the EC as a whole.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) said that housewives have been worried, which is why some farmers think that a ban might not be a bad thing. As I said, farmers can respond to any market request. He asked whether housewives' lack of confidence might cause a further decline in meat consumption. The National Food Survey statistics show a small increase in beef consumption in the most recent quarter—an increase of 4 per cent. between January and September 1985 conpared with the same period in 1984. I do not believe that housewives are now lacking in reassurance. One would always want to feel that they are wholly reassured about any such substances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Maclean) asked what would happen if the Council voted for a ban. My right hon. Friend the Minister will remind the Council that a vote on this issue would be illegal in the Government's view, and it would then be open to the Government to challenge the legality of such a vote in the European Court of Justice.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

Do I understand the hon. Lady to say that the Government will challenge the legality in the European Court?

Mrs. Fenner

I said that it would be—

Mr. John


Mrs. Fenner

—open to the Government to challenge the legality.

Mr. Ron Davies: (Caerphilly)

Answer the question.

Mrs. Fenner

That is as far as I am prepared to go at the moment.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow expressed his concern about anecdotal evidence of a black market in veterinary drugs and about whether stilbenes were in circulation. The enforcement of the law relating to distribution lies with the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. Recent successful prosecutions demonstrate that enforcement seems to be working. However, we agree that the cost of enforcement will increase substantially if all growth promoters are banned. We have firmly pointed out to the Council of Ministers that we believe that that will happen.

Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) asked sotto voce whether it was the Commissioner, Mr. Andriessen, or the whole Commission that was responsible. In the days of Mr. Lardinois, the Commissioner would have taken that responsibility, but he would have paid great attention to scientific evidence. Are the Government prepared to require an explanation from Mr. Andriessen as to why he behaved in this extraordinary way?

Mrs. Fenner

Yes; but we believe that it was a decision taken with the consent of all the Commission. At the last Council, my right hon. Friend protested to Commissioner Andriessen about this issue. He intends to do so again tomorrow. I must reiterate that the proposal was issued with the consent of all the Commission.

I hope that I have covered the majority of the points made by hon. Members. It has been a valuable debate which has reinforced our concern at this decision, which is based on not waiting for the scientific judgment of the last two hormone growth proposals.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's un-numbered explanatory memorandum dated 19th November 1985 concerning a proposal for a Council Regulation amending European Community Document No. 7948/84, draft Directive amending Directive 81/602 on the prohibition of certain substances having a hormonal action and any substances having a thyrostatic action; and supports the Government's view that, while the provisions of this proposal should take into full account the interests of consumers, livestock producers, the meat trade and the pharmaceutical industry, they should be firmly based on a rigorous scientific assessment of the available information as to the safety in use of hormone growth promoters.