HC Deb 01 December 1988 vol 142 cc861-2
4. Mrs. Golding

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he has discussed the use of bovine somatotropin for boosting milk production with representatives of the Womens Farming Union; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. MacGregor

I am well aware of the views of Womens Farming Union members on this subject, which I discussed with them last week.

Mrs. Golding

Is the Minister aware of the concern of all women about the use of BST? Is he aware that in America there are many adverse views about the use of it and about the effect that it may have on young children? Will he discuss with all farming unions, before he grants a licence, the adverse effects that it could have on the farming industry?

Mr. MacGregor

I have discussed this subject with all farming unions, and there are varying views within the unions, including within the Womens Farming Union. It is important to reassure women by saying that before the trials were approved safety was carefully assessed by the Veterinary Products Committee, as it has to be under the Medicines Act 1968. That Act lays down the criteria that it has to apply. The committee consists of experts in human and animal health and it advised that there was no risk to consumers arising from the trials. That is an important point, and the same processes would have to be followed if there were an application for a licence. It is also the case that many countries, including the United States, are allowing these trials because they too have been advised that there is no risk to human health. That is an important point to make clear to consumers.

Mr. Latham

In view of the traumas that we have had over milk quotas in the past few years, why are we talking about boosting milk production by artificial means?

Mr. MacGregor

We must be careful to distinguish several factors. Under the Medicines Act, when there is any application for a new scientific development, we have to ensure that it is assessed by the experts on safety, efficacy and quality. Safety is paramount, and that is what we have to be sure about. But one has to be careful about saying that one should inhibit new agricultural development simply because we have a surplus. I am anxious that our industry should remain highly competitive and able to take advantage of all legitimate technological developments. Otherwise, it will become uncompetitive. As to surpluses, we have a milk quota system that guarantees that we shall not have an increase in milk production as a result of the application of BST. The point about not disadvantaging our industry or research effort by banning products that are safe is important.

Mr. Geraint Howells

Will the Minister prevent the Milk Marketing Board from selling milk for human consumption from the trial cows until the findings are known?

Mr. MacGregor

Under the Medicines Act, I have no powers to stop something if the Veterinary Products Committee guarantees that it is safe, efficacious and of quality. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it would be extremely difficult in practice to do that. We should emphasise the fact that there is no scientific evidence of risk to human health.

Mr. Churchill

Is it not time that the consumer was given the protection of the right to know precisely what is in the pint that he drinks? Is it not time that there was a proper requirement for labelling when such additives, hormones and other products are used to boost milk production?

Mr. MacGregor

It is important that the consumer should know that, according to all our expert advice, there is no risk to human health. In any case, the hormone is already present in the milk produced.

I am keen to ensure that more informative labelling is available to consumers wherever possible. There are practical problems with the Milk Marketing Board with regard to this product, but I am willing to consider all possibilities for improving the information available to consumers.

Mr. Ron Davies

Does the Minister recognise, from the questions that have been put to him this afternoon and from motions on the Order Paper, that there is outright opposition, both inside and outside the House, to the proposed introduction of BST? This afternoon the Minister has taken refuge behind the Medicines Act. Does he accept that if the Medicines Act is not an adequate instrument to deal with the threat posed by BST he should review the provisions of that Act? In the interim, will he acknowledge that he has powers to ban BST under the 1968 Act? Will he now give an assurance, before he makes a decision, that he will give full consideration to banning BST, using the powers in the 1968 Act?

Mr. MacGregor

There are a wide variety of views about BST and it is important that they are based on full knowledge. With regards to the animal test certificate under the Medicines Act I have to approve any product if the Veterinary Products Committee assures me that it is safe, efficacious and of quality. As regards issuing a licence for the product, that again would go through that committee and through a European Community committee, so there would be a full process before a decision was made.

There is another important point that I should stress to the House. There is concern about ensuring proper research and development possibilities in this country. If major companies thought that their major investments would be put at risk by changing policy decisions in mid-stream without a good basis for doing so, we would be disadvantaged in this country, because that research and development would go elsewhere. That is another important consideration to be borne in mind.