HC Deb 01 December 1988 vol 142 cc862-4
5. Mr. Tony Lloyd

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what estimates he has for the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy over the next six months; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Donald Thompson

All the evidence available so far suggests that the disease is not spreading from animal to animal, but that the cases identified are attributable to a common source. Our knowledge is still developing and any estimate must be tentative. Based on the incidence since the disease was made notifiable, the number of cases likely to be confirmed over the next six months may be about 350 a month.

Mr. Lloyd

Will the Minister confirm that his Ministry was aware of the widespread belief that "spongy brain" is transmitted from one species to another—from sheep to cattle—and that during that period infected meat was sold for human consumption in the markets because of the lamentable failure of his Ministry to stop it? The Minister should apologise for that. What action will he take to prevent the import of infected meat? There has been no recorded outbreak of the disease outside this country, but that may simply reflect the fact that veterinary practices are not at the same standard as those in Britain.

Mr. Thompson

Far from apologising, I shall say that the response of all concerned with the disease has been exemplary. The Ministry, the farmers and the renderers have acted in concert to attack the disease at its onset. The Ministry has diverted funds to find out exactly where the disease is coming from and has found, as the hon. Gentleman said, that it may have started in sheep and been transmitted through animal feedingstuffs to other animals. Therefore, the rendering industry—renderers make protein for animal feedingstuffs—have withdrawn that protein and we have extended the withdrawal period for another year. The farmers are notifying the disease and have accepted 50 per cent. compensation. The Southwood committee has made recommendations which the Government have implemented immediately.

Mr. Robert Hicks

Is my hon. Friend aware that the incidence of outbreaks of the disease is particularly high in the south-west? Will he consider carefully the existing level of compensation for affected animals? There is, after all, a precedent in the brucellosis eradication scheme, in which the figure was higher than 50 per cent. for infected animals.

Mr. Thompson

I omitted to mention imports in my answer to the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd). He said that there are no notifications of the disease anywhere else. We are studying the position carefully. I know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks) knows, that the disease started in the south. Nobody knows why there have been far more incidents in the south-west than in the rest of the country. [Interruption.] The south-west would not think its economy was over-heated. Compensation is at about the right level. The animal withers and dies, so is worthless even if the farmer does not notify, although we have no information that farmers are not notifying us of the disease.

Mr. Skinner

Can the Minister say whether there has been any incidence of the disease in Leicestershire, particularly in Blaby? Can he also confirm that if human beings eat large quantities of meat that has been infected by "spongy brain", the disease can be transmitted to them? Could Ministers, who go to large banquets, be infected with the disease, and can he confirm that that is why the Chancellor has tunnel vision?

Mr. Thompson

The hon. Gentleman began well. There have been outbreaks of the disease in every county. [Interruption.] The disease does not affect meat, therefore neither I nor the Chancellor can be affected by it.

Miss Emma Nicholson

I congratulate my hon. Friend on acting so swiftly and circumspectly to contain the disease within animals—if not on the Opposition Front Bench. Has the Ministry managed to achieve proper incinerating facilities? In the south-west we are concerned about the open burning of the repulsive carcases.

Mr. Thompson

There was open burning of carcases in Cornwall, at Lean quarry, in Peasedown St. John and in Cheriton Bishop in Devon. That has now stopped. We have a perfectly adequate facility in Hertfordshire, where we are collecting carcases and taking them to the incinerator in refrigerated vehicles. That facility is in Royston and will meet our needs for the foreseeable future.

Mr. Heffer

What about heifers?

Dr. David Clark

As the BSE-type disease has jumped species from sheep to cattle and there is some evidence that it has jumped to humans, why is the Ministry withholding cash for vital research work on BSE, which obviously poses a potential threat to public health?

Mr. Thompson

The answer to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is that we have found the disease only in female cattle, with one exception, so he had better be careful.

The answer to the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) is that there is no evidence that the disease can move from cattle to human beings. Scrapie has been endemic for many years and there is no evidence that it will move from sheep to human beings. We are burning the animals and have banned the milk in order to be doubly safe. We have spent a great deal of money on this disease and its eradication. We may be accused of spending too much, but I am sure that we cannot be accused of spending too little.

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