HC Deb 11 July 1989 vol 156 cc807-10 3.31 pm
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the outbreak of anthrax in Clwyd.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. Wyn Roberts)

An outbreak of anthrax has occurred on a pig farm near Wrexham which has a stock of about 4,750 animals. The disease was first confirmed in a pig which died on 19 April. Since then the outbreak has continued, with the latest suspect dying on 6 July. To date, anthrax has been confirmed in 17 animals.

Under the terms of the Anthrax Order 1938 statutory responsibility for confirming the disease rests with the state veterinary service. Clwyd county council is responsible for the destruction of carcasses and the cleansing and disinfection of the premises. Disposal of carcasses and cleansing and disinfection is sufficient to curtail any outbreak. Despite these measures and antibiotic treatment of the animals, the outbreak continues. The normal course of action would be to vaccinate. A new batch of vaccine is being prepared at the central veterinary laboratories.

The continuing outbreak means that slurry must be considered to be infected. Under the Anthrax Order, the local authority is required to disinfect or destroy it. Disinfection requires high concentrations of formalin, which poses health and safety problems. Various disposal options are being considered. To date, no satisfactory disposal site has been identified.

Farm personnel, slaughtermen and others, who come into contact with the pigs, have been advised to be vaccinated. Precautions are being taken to prevent affected pigs entering the food chain, through inspection by veterinary officers on farms and prior to slaughter.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my Department and the state veterinary service will continue to give the fullest support to the efforts to curtail this outbreak of anthrax.

Mr. Jones

I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he know that on 28 June the community physician of Clwyd health authority wrote that she was greatly concerned about the possibility of anthrax infection being transmitted to humans from the livestock at Singrett farm? She said that she was worried for the slaughtermen and the meat inspectors. She was also worried about the hazard to the general public from infected meat, as anthrax was "very persistent". She went on: I consider that the practice of allowing animals to leave the premises even following veterinary examination is unacceptable in the present circumstances and request that the movement of animals out of the farm should cease under powers granted in the Anthrax Order 1938 until the animal outbreak is brought under control. I ask the Minister to concede the point made by the community physician.

Does the Minister know that on 15 June, the senior lecturer in farm animal medicine at Liverpool university, Dr. Walton, wrote that he was appalled that a notifiable disease—that is zoonotic as well—could be dealt with in such a low-key manner. He further asked in his letter: Is this farmer to continue to medicate his whole herd with the very real risks of tissue residues at slaughter? Has the Minister done his homework on tissue residues and the human food chain? A housing estate is 15 yd from the garden of the farm. Farmer Geoffrey Priestley suffers a personal nightmare. I want my constituent, Mr. Priestley, to be helped by the Government. He is a good and clean farmer and even in the foot and mouth crisis he had a clean bill of health. He has been well supported by Gatehouse veterinary hospital at Rossett. There are approximately 4,500 pigs. Mr. Priestley rents 121 acres. Has the Minister discovered the source of the outbreak? I remind the Minister that nine sows have been infected and have survived, and that in the judgment of professionals the contamination must be astronomical. Many sows must be carriers. How does farmer Priestley stay in business and avoid bankruptcy? How will the Minister act decisively to avoid a potential major health hazard?

I remind the Minister that 250,000 gallons of slurry now fill three temporary tanks and must be disposed of. The slurry becomes toxic waste when treated with more than 1 per cent. of formaldehyde. Where will farmer Priestley dispose of that toxic waste? I want the Welsh Office to pay the £30,000 that it will cost to dispose of that slurry. Farmer Priestley cannot afford it.

Next, I want the Welsh Office to implement destocking—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt a Front-Bench spokesman, but this is a private notice question and a question is not a statement.

Mr. Jones

It is a matter of great importance to my constituent. I feel that I should put on record his real worries, because at this time he has no other redress.

I was about to say that I want the Welsh Office to implement destocking, clean up and to give Mr. Priestley compensation. Why should Mr. Priestley be ruined where a notifiable disease is concerned?

Does the Minister know that on 2 July, a highly qualified veterinary surgeon from the hospital told the chief veterinary officer that he felt that the situation had now got out of control? What is the risk of the spread of the disease from manure from the infected pens? The Minister must know that a warm environment encourages the organism to sporulate.

The Minister in his statement appears to have passed the buck. He has fumbled and he has fudged. He and his right hon. Friend have been secretive and laggardly. My constituents face a potential grave health hazard and Mr. Priestley needs a fair deal. I ask the Welsh Office to act as urgently as it might. Will the Minister accept responsibility and will he give leadership? So far there has been none.

Mr. Roberts

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has taken a somewhat alarmist line, but I shall deal with some of the points that he raised. The origin of the outbreak has not been identified, despite extensive investigations by veterinary officers. All kinds of investigations were undertaken into the history of the disease on the farm and into the sources of food—the most common cause of infection. Manure, dust, and other environmental samples were also cultured. Again, the results were negative. Those investigations are, of course, continuing.

As to the risk to the public, I am aware of the views of the community health physician, who has advised that people who, in the course of their business, came into contact with the pigs should be vaccinated. Restrictions on the premises prohibit the movement of pigs and of any potentially infected material, except under licence. All pigs sent to slaughter are inspected by our veterinary officers at the farm and again on their arrival at the abattoir. Animals who die from anthrax are cremated by the local authority, and subsequently their surroundings are cleansed and disinfected. Treatment with antibiotics is being undertaken, and an emergency batch of vaccine is being produced at the Weybridge laboratories.

The disposal and disinfection of the slurry is the responsibility of the local authority, but the disposal of the remaining waste is, claims the local authority, the responsibility of the owner, Mr. Priestley. Places where the slurry may be disposed of are still being investigated, and it is hoped to begin disposal in the very near future.

There is no compensation mechanism in respect of anthrax, because, while it is a notifiable disease, its nature is such that it is not highly infectious or transmittable animal to animal—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] If lion. Members doubt that, they have only to compare the total number of pigs that have died since 19 April with the very large intensive unit of 4,750 pigs.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question, which is an extension of Question Time, I can allow questions to continue for only a further four minutes.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

My hon. Friend is of course aware of the seriousness of the matter, but the public will rightly deplore any attempt to frighten them or to exploit the situation for political purposes. Is my hon. Friend aware that while my right hon. and hon. Friends are confident that he will be careful to watch over the situation, we expect him to exercise the utmost vigilance?

Mr. Roberts

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, which confirm my own view that there is no need to be alarmist, and assure him that we shall do everything possible to curtail the current outbreak and to deal with the ensuing problem of the slurry.

Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

Over the years there have been many outbreaks of anthrax in Wales, and my experience is that the Department's officials have always done an excellent job to help all concerned. I am sure that the Minister will give the people of Wales, and of Clwyd in particular, his assurance that his officials will do their utmost to safeguard everyone's interests.

Mr. Roberts

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that. There have been seven anthrax outbreaks in Wales since 1983. They were all in cattle, whereas the latest outbreak is in pigs. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the state veterinary service does a very good job on such occasions. By imposing restrictions on the movement of animals, and by inspecting animals at the farm and prior to slaughter, the service is safeguarding both the public and the food chain. We shall continue to seek a resolution to the remaining problems in conjunction with the local authority, which of course has a significant role to play.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Are there enough scientific civil servants to test immediately if an outbreak is suspected? Can the hon. Gentleman assure us that, if an outbreak is confirmed, there are sufficient scientific civil servants to monitor and advise? If the outbreak is traced back to food, will the hon. Gentleman get the animal feed industry into a fit shape to provide proper feed for animals so that the public can be assured of the quality of the food that they eat?

Mr. Roberts

It would be wrong for us to anticipate the source of the outbreak when all the investigations that have been carried out so far have failed to reveal it. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the source is frequently the food given to the animals. If that source is discovered, of course we shall take appropriate action. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are adequate numbers of veterinary staff to deal with this kind of emergency.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of his problem comes from the fact that anthrax, although a notifiable disease, is not one for which his Department can pay compensation for compulsory slaughter? Will he urge my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to review thoroughly the categories of disease that should qualify for compensation, because this probably should never have arisen?

Mr. Roberts

I am not sure that the problem that we face necessarily has a great deal to do with the absence of compensation arrangements. After all, only 17 pigs out of a herd of 4,750 have died.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on to the statement.