HC Deb 13 November 1989 vol 160 cc27-32 3.31 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

(by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on lead in milk and meat following the discovery of lead in cattle feed.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer)

A consignment of rice bran was contaminated during its transport from Burma. On its arrival in Belgium the unfit cargo was not destroyed, but sold on and reprocessed into animal feed. The Dutch embassy informed the Ministry's legal department on Wednesday 1 November of a specific consignment thought to be contaminated and delivered to two companies based in Teignmouth and Liverpool. By this time, our own veterinary investigation service had identified from its own investigations a connection between cattle deaths and lead contamination in animal feed.

As soon as my Department learned that contaminated animal feed had been distributed to farms in this country, it took urgent steps to trace the suppliers, merchants and compounders and used their customer lists to warn the farmers concerned. It stopped the movement from these farms of animals and foodstuffs which might have been affected and arranged with the Milk Marketing Board for the segregation of the milk. These voluntary arrangements were confirmed by order under part I of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985.

The European Commission was also contacted to request urgent investigation of the possibility that this incident was the result of criminal activities in another member state. Throughout all this we have worked closely with the Department of Health. It confirms that, on present evidence, even in the worst case of the maximum possible intake of lead and other metals from this incident, there has been no hazard to human health.

I pay tribute to the staff of the Ministry and the Milk Marketing Board, who have handled the massive task of dealing with the 1,500 or more farms concerned and who are now involved in the testing procedure through which we can continue to protect human health and begin to de-restrict farms. I am sure we all recognise the very severe effects that these strong measures have on the farmers involved. They have shown considerable co-operation and I am sure that they will realise that these restrictions must continue to be maintained as long as is necessary to safeguard the health of the public.

Dr. Clark

We on this side of the House approve of the Government's decision to impose restrictions. First, will the Minister explain why, having been alerted by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture on 1 November to the presence of the lead-contaminated cattle feed in Britain, he waited five days, until 6 November, before imposing restrictions? Why did the Minister not issue a precautionary notice to farmers warning them of the possibility of contamination and asking them to withhold the cattle feed, thus avoiding unnecessary cattle deaths and preventing potentially hazardous milk from entering the food chain?

Secondly, has the Minister seen the report in The Sunday Times that the Milk Marketing Board was not informed of the seriousness of the problem until 5 November—four days afterwards? Why was there that delay? Why did the Minister wait not five but 10 days before commencing the testing of meat for lead? As he knows, it is a potentially dangerous by-product.

I associate the Opposition with the sterling work done by the Ministry officials and the vets. Does the Minister recall informing me in a parliamentary answer that, in the past 10 years, the state veterinary service has been cut by 25 per cent? Will he now reverse that process as a first step to improving our ability to respond to food emergencies such as the one now on our hands?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that most hon. Members would feel that this subject should not be drawn into party political debate, and particularly by armchair critics. On the speed of response, I would prefer to listen to the views put forward by local people. One of the south-west regional chairmen of the National Farmers Union wrote to me yesterday. He said: I congratulate you and your staff on the superb reaction to the crisis. I know that Ministry staff and NFU staff have worked all hours since the issue broke and that there has been close co-operation throughout". That is a fairer statement of what happened.

It will immediately appear to all hon. Members that it would be impossible to ask all farmers to withhold their cattle feed. To suggest that all cattle feed should be withheld because a specific consignment of cattle feed——

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The Minister said—[Interruption.]

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) should listen to what his party says. He obviously does not listen to what the Government say.

The most important thing to do was precisely what the Ministry did. It had specific information, it followed up that specific information as fast as was humanly possible, and it made sure that a good deal of the feed did not go out. Much of the rest was recovered, and the farmers were informed so that they did not move cattle or milk from their premises.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) must accept that we brought in the Milk Marketing Board at the very point at which we were able to segregate the milk, which we did on Sunday; that was perfectly proper, and that was the order in which we should have done it. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to mislead people, so I am quite happy for him to go through the details. The hon. Member for Workington always tries to make party political points out of these matters, and enjoys doing so, so I will not listen to him. His hon. Friend the Member for South Shields is a much more decent person and he knows the facts in these matters.

May I explain why we did not test meat earlier? We felt that it was necessary to do things in a proper order. The milk was obviously the biggest and most important matter. Once we had stopped material moving off the farms, it seemed that the first priority was to deal with that product which is in large quantities and which causes considerable storage problems. Therefore, the first thing to do was to test it. Of course, we could not allow any to leave the farms. One must have tests over a period before it is possible to declare that the milk is fit to go back into public supply.

On the testing of meat for lead, the first thing to do is to make sure that there is a proper test to cover not only lead but anything else that might be available, because lead is an impure metal. That is the order in which scientists advised us to do it. We feel that that is the right order, and the farmers certainly feel that that is the right order. No animals are leaving the farms, so there can be no threat to public health. That is the right thing to do. I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman's argument because no one, apart from himself, thinks that that is the wong way to do it.

I gladly welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about the vets. One of the reasons they were able to do the job so well is because of the efficient reorganisation of the state veterinary service which has been carried out over the past 10 years.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

May I say how glad I am that my right hon. Friend has twice visited the area concerned and, I believe, the Starcross veterinary inspection centre in my constituency, which has played a leading part in controlling this imported menace, rather than just sitting in his Department in London and waiting for other people to report to him? That is very much appreciated. May I ask him whether it is not possible to supply the actual figures to farmers who want to know the degree of lead contamination so that they and their general practitioners can make an informed judgment as to whether their families are at risk, who have been drinking the milk concerned?

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I had hoped to make such a visit today—indeed, I was on the train today ready to make a further visit down to the south-west but had to return to the House to respond to this important question. I am sure that my hon. Friend will remind his farmers of the statement by the chief medical officer, who said clearly that there was no need for their families to be worried, on the evidence that we have. I do not want anybody to be worried in that way.

However, I have not made that my first priority. My first priority has been to test and to re-test where early tests show that the level of lead in the milk is low. That has enabled such milk to come back into the system, and we have so far allowed 10 farms to do that. The second priority is obviously to test those farms that have not been tested before.

Greater than either of those priorities would be circumstances in which the figures suggested a particular danger on a particular farm. However, there is no such evidence at the moment and those farmers need not be concerned. Without holding up the other testing arrangements, I am making arrangements so that, as soon as is practical, we can provide those figures for each farm. I shall, of course, ensure that the confidentiality of the figures will be as one would want; otherwise, the farmers might be less than happy.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

Since the lead in the animal feed was present in sufficient concentration to cause the deaths of about 30 cattle, thousands of calves and cows must have sub-lethal concentrations of lead in their meat and bones. What will the Government do about that? Will they allow and pay for the slaughter of those lead-contaminated cattle to prevent that lead-contaminated beef from getting into the food chain?

Mr. Gummer

The Government will certainly prevent that material from getting into the food chain if there is any danger to the health of the public. That is first and foremost. We will make decisions about what we have to do when we have done the testing and know the extent of the problem and the issues involved. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there can be circumstances in which lead poisoning gradually diminishes, out of the animal altogether——

Mr. Williams

Very slowly.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman may not know this, but it is the advice of the state veterinary service. That is what happens. I am in the business of using the scientific advice available to us as much as possible; and not of frightening people unnecessarily, while always warning them. On no occasion have any circumstances arisen in which the public has not had all the details, to such an extent that every test result given on all the milk during the past few days has been given out to the public so that people know exactly what is happening, and I shall continue to do that.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the wild allegations by the Opposition Members on this issue show that they are the enemy not only of the food industry but of the farming industry also, and of all who work in them?

Mr. Gummer

It is important to say that the public's health comes before anything else. If I am unhappy about one or two of the wilder statements that have been made, it is simply because, by suggesting things that are not true, those doing so are worrying people in circumstances in which they need not be worried, and those who have worked so hard to protect the public may feel that they are being snubbed by some hon. Members.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

Given the existing pressures on farm incomes in many sectors of the agricultural community, does the Minister think that, as a result of this latest problem, the Government might take any steps to compensate those farmers who will incur financial loss as a result of the very necessary restrictions that his Department has sought to impose in this case? The Minister referred to the possibility of the involvement of some criminal organisation in Europe, and as there was press speculation over the weekend, perhaps completely unfair to the Minister, which said that that might have been a smokescreen, has the right hon. Gentleman received any further information from the Commission about its investigations?

Mr. Gummer

On the first question, I have been in touch with the National Farmers Union and I know that Sir Simon Gourlay takes exactly the same view as I have stated publicly—that this is a matter for the courts and not one for compensation. I want to help the farmers as much as possible and, through our legal department and with the NFU and others, I am trying to see how best this matter can be dealt with. We shall, of course, keep farmers in touch with what is happening in Holland and the rest of Europe.

I believe that the only press speculation to which the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) refers was a comment by the hon. Member for South Shields, the spokesman on agriculture for the Labour party. He suggested—I thought unfortunately, as the facts are exactly opposite—that there was a smokescreen. It is extremely difficult to believe that someone could accidentally turn into cattle feed a substance that was so badly contaminated that it was of a different colour from what it should have been. If that is the case, I cannot believe that it was done by, as someone suggested, a silly accident. That would take a great deal of believing.

From the court transcripts of the first case that has taken place in Holland, I understand that the firm that originally bought this feed and brought it into Antwerp has stated that, on no less than three occasions, it telexed the firm that had been paid to take the feed away and to destroy it to say that that feed was contaminated and had to be destroyed.

There is hardly a question mark as to whether the act was done criminally; the question is who did it, when, and how soon there will be a prosecution.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is an Opposition half day. I shall allow two more questions to be put from each side and then we must move on.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

My right hon. Friend will know that my constituency has been affected by the sales of the contaminated foodstuff. My constituents have asked me to pass on to my right hon. Friend their appreciation and thanks for the prompt action that he took and for the courtesy and thoroughness of his officials, with which I am glad to concur. We have a problem in south Derbyshire about contaminated meat. Will my right hon. Friend reassure us about how the carcases will be disposed of so that they cannot enter the human food chain inadvertently?

Mr. Gummer

Those animals that have died from lead poisoning and those that tests are likely to reveal have died from such poisoning will either be buried or incinerated. There is no question of that meat getting into the human food chain. I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words on this matter; she, of all people, knows how important it is.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Does the Minister agree with the policy adviser to the NFU who has said that there is already an established trade in contaminated feed? When the right hon. Gentleman says that I am being political, does he understand that I have sat here on four occasions in recent years and today, when we discussed Chernobyl, bovine spongiform encephalopathy and listeria, and have witnessed clear delay from Departments when dealing with those matters? That was especially true of Chernobyl, when I was told at the Dispatch Box——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Keep to this statement, please.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Three years they waited.

Mr. Gummer

As the hon. Gentleman uses those three examples, which are not directly involved with this matter, he might know that we were the first Government to warn people about listeria. How that can be described as delay I do not know. As I understand it, we are still the only Government in western Europe who have warned people about that disease.

Our record stands supreme on Chernobyl. As I said to the hon. Gentleman before, I was happy for my wife, who was then carrying one of our children, to eat that lamb and I am still happy that I said that it was safe, because it was. I continue to believe that that is so. I have taken measures on BSE that are tougher than those recommended by scientists. No Government would have taken measures as tough as our own, because we put food safety first. The hon. Gentleman is wrong on those three examples, and he is wrong in this case. We take the view that feed should not be contaminated; that is why we have taken measures as tough as this. If the hon. Gentleman cared about food safety, instead of being interested only in party politics, he would be quiet a bit more often.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the speed with which his officials met the danger shows that there is absolutely no need for an independent body to be set up to consider food safety, and that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has discharged its responsibilities in an excellent way?

Mr. Gummer

I disagree with my hon. Friend, because I think that we are the independent body on food safety. That must be so, because our first and primary interest is the protection of the public. Nobody could have moved as fast as we were able to move except a Ministry which was responsible for both food and farming.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What are the levels of lead in the British food chain? When does the Minister expect to get rid of those levels?

Mr. Gummer

I do not think the hon. Gentleman can have thought of his question before he got up to speak, because the average level of lead in the food chain is so small as not to be measurable. The question we are interested in is whether the level of lead at any part of the food chain is dangerous to public health. The Department of Health has made it clear that no one need have any worry on that account.

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