HC Deb 17 May 1990 vol 172 cc1009-14

The following question stood upon the Paper:

7. Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions he has held with the organisation, Parents for Safe Food, with regard to its allegations concerning the safety of British meat.

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

My officials offered some time ago to meet Parents for Safe Food to discuss its concern about BSE and meat, but the organisation has not taken up this offer, nor has it submitted any scientific evidence that we can study.

I am naturally concerned to ensure that the public know that the clear and consistent advice of the best scientific opinion is that British beef is safe.—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

This is an important matter, on which I am sure the House will wish to hear the Minister.

Mr. Gummer

I refer the House to the statement that the chief medical officer made yesterday. He said that he had taken advice from the leading scientific and medical experts in this field. To quote his words, "They have consistently advised me in the past that there is no scientific justification for not eating British Beef and this continues to be their advice.".

The Government have tackled the problem of BSE with a carefully considered and coherent programme of measures based on the advice of the most authoritative and independent scientific experts.

First, we destroy any animal that is found to have BSE and no part of it enters the food chain in any way. Secondly, any cattle entering the slaughterhouse have the specified offals that could harbour the agent removed. Those offals are not allowed to be used in any food or food products. Thirdly, almost two years ago we stopped the feeding of ruminant protein to cows and other ruminants. We thus cut off what is considered to be the source of infection.

In all this, we have followed the best independent scientific advice available. Even our critics must support this clear policy of taking that advice. The health of the public is our overriding concern.

There are always those who want us to take their advice and not the advice of the experts. I have been asked, for example, to ban the use of ruminant protein in pig and poultry diets. Doctors and scientists see no justification for that. Some have suggested that there should be a ban on breeding from the offspring of BSE-infected cattle. The Southwood committee did not recommend this. But I was concerned to ensure that all up-to-date information was taken into account so I referred the question back to the Tyrrell committee. It confirms fully what Southwood said. I am placing a full statement of its advice on this point in the Library.

We have taken action to deal with the public health concerns and the animal aspects of BSE on the basis of the best independent scientific advice. We have published that advice together with full information on the disease and how it is being tackled. We shall continue to keep the public fully informed. We have taken all necessary measures to tackle this disease. There is certainly no justification for the alarmist reporting that has appeared over the past few days. As the chief medical officer has confirmed, British beef can continue to be eaten safely by everyone—adults and children alike.

Mr. Mitchell

I thank my right hon. Friend for that helpful and detailed statement, which will be reassuring to the many consumers who have been alarmed by much of the speculative comment in the press in recent days. Will my right hon. Friend give the House the absolute assurance that to protect the interest of the consumer, he will base his policy on the best medical and scientific advice from independent expert sources and eschew some of the quack solutions and quick fixes that have been suggested in recent days?

Mr. Gummer

There must be two basic rules behind our action. First, consumer safety comes first and last. Secondly, our actions must be based on the best available medical and scientific advice. I assure the House that I shall not deviate from those two bases.

Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

I am sure that the Minister will agree that the irresponsible statements that have been made in the past fortnight about the BSE issue, without any proof or evidence, have caused consumers and producers alike a great deal of concern. To try to end this problem, will the Minister advise the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture to interview scientists on both sides of the argument and to produce a report as soon as possible that will clarify the position? Does the Minister further agree that British beef today is better and healthier than ever?

Mr. Gummer

I very much welcome the Select Committee's inquiry and hope that the Chairman will take the hon. Gentleman's advice. I also hope that those people who have pontificated on television will now send the Tyrrell committee the research material that they claim to have so that it can be considered. I further hope that before interviewing people as "experts", the BBC, ITV and others will ask, first, whether those people have published their evidence in journals that their peers can check and, secondly, whether they have submitted their evidence to the Tyrrell committee. If those interviewed cannot say that, I hope that they will be interviewed not as experts but merely as people who have an idea or two.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) in thanking my right hon. Friend for his trenchant reply. I hope that it will do much to reassure the general public that British beef is safe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is outrageous that so many unsubstantiated claims have been made about BSE and British beef and that Opposition Members are flying in the face of sound scientific evidence, preferring to be guided by a bogus professor and a dead cat?

Mr. Gummer

We must not underestimate the anxiety that people are bound to have about an unpleasant disease that we wish to eradicate and which we must ensure is no longer in the British herd. Having said that, I should add that those who seek to make capital out of the perfectly natural concern of the public should look most carefully at their motives and wonder whether they are putting party political points before any real concern.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

As scrapie is known to be transmitted from ewe to lamb and as BSE is closely related to—indeed, derived from—scrapie, is not there every danger that BSE could be transmitted from cow to calf? Why do the Government hide behind Southwood and Tyrrell and not listen to the National Farmers Union president Sir Simon Gourlay, who wants the Government to introduce a slaughter policy of the calves of BSE-affected animals with 100 per cent. compensation?

Mr. Gummer

Although the hon. Gentleman is a doctor, he will agree that he is not an expert on this subject. He will also agree that on several occasions he has told me that I should not listen to the National Farmers Union but put the interests of the consumer first. Now he has said something peculiar. He said that I should not hide behind the opinions of the experts. I hope that he will read carefully what the expert Tyrrell committee said to me. It said that there may be positive disadvantages in taking the measures that the hon. Gentleman advocates.

The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but he is not an expert. He may be a doctor, but he is not an expert. I should prefer to take the views of doctors who are experts than those of a doctor who is not an expert.

Mr.. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents have expressed great support for his approach to these matters, but great surprise at the reference to him as a lout by an Opposition spokesman on a television programme? Would not that description be better applied to some of the academics and journalists who have written about the matter than to a Minister who is dealing with it responsibly?

Mr. Gummer

The serious issues that we are discussing are not helped by the abusive comments that have been made on television by the Opposition spokesman. We must deal with the matter seriously. I hope that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) will read the teleprint of what he said and perhaps take the opportunity to apologise. The matter is too serious to make that type of cheap comment.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the staff of the Moredun research institute in my constituency on its world-leading research on scrapie? Will he further condemn the cuts in the budget of that institute and guarantee to review the budget and increase it as necessary?

Mr. Gummer

I willingly admit how much we rely on the work that has been done by that institute. That is part of the reason why I have made it clear that the money that is necessary for research into both scrapie and BSE and across the board will be available wherever it is required. We must find the best answers to these questions. The hon. Gentleman is a responsible man and I hope that he will help by pointing out that the points that I have put forward today are fully supported by expert opinion, including that of the people at the research institute in his constituency.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

May I thank my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for their outstanding efforts to bring home to the British public the fact that there is no risk in eating British beef? Will he personally contact all the local authorities that have banned British beef? Will he make every effort to stop people pontificating on television and in the media without any scientific evidence?

Mr. Gummer

I have already contacted all the local authorities with the full background briefing. I have given them a fax number so that they can fax to a central control point any questions they may have. It is noticeable that Westminster city council first banned beef without considering any of the evidence. When it considered the evidence, beef went straight back on the menu. That must show that, when one reads and listens to what the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food say, the evidence is overwhelming that what we are doing is right. The chief medical officer is perfectly correct in saying that British beef is safe to eat for adults, children and NHS patients.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clywd, South-West)

I do not profess to be an expert on this subject. We have had a definition of "expert" as "ex" being the unknown factor and "spurt" being a little drip under pressure, and we are bandying the word about rather too much. Evidence shows that once the scrapie agent has passed through one set of laboratory animals, in this case hamsters, it would infect a rabbit, although not directly. That particular property of the organism is worrying. Has the Minister taken it into account? As the NFU and consumers are both asking for the same thing, the Minister should take on board what Simon Gourlay is telling him.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman should he clear what the NFU said in its statement. I respect his knowledge of the scientific method, acquired from his own expertise. The information of which he speaks has been available for nearly 20 years and it has certainly been taken into account. Because I take the matter extremely seriously, I am happy to pass to the Tyrrell committee any information that he would like me to take fully and specifically into account. The committee's purpose is to bring the best group of experts together to look at the evidence and to advise.

I hope that the Opposition will follow the hon. Gentleman's view, which I have read in the press and believe to be accurate, which is to consider the situation as impartially as possible. Certainly, I am willing to take any sensible advice from him or anyone else, because we should all be involved in the eradication of BSE from Britain, and from animals in Britain and, above all, in the continued protection of the British public.

Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston)

Although I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is taking the matter seriously, does he agree that, if his officials continue to go about the country advising us in the farming community how to keep our animals in ever more intensive conditions, we shall face serious risks because we cannot continue to rely on the present level of antibiotics?

Mr. Gummer

I have read my hon. Friend's article in today' Evening Standard and many of the concerns that he raises are serious and are being addressed in a number of policy changes that we are making, not least the important proposals on extensification and the like. At a time when over-production rather than shortage is the key word in farming communities we certainly have the opportunity to look most carefully at what we do. I have already said publicly that I believe that feeding the ruminant to animals that are naturally herbivore is wrong because it is contrary to what would occur naturally. That is the line which I wish to draw and I believe that there is a real response to that in the public mind.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I wish to clarify the allegation made today in the House that I accused the Minister of being a lout. I was most upset when I heard that reported about me. We have a sound clip of the news item. I did not say that the Minister was a lout and I am sure that if he checks, he will find that that is not the case. I said that he had done nowt. If southern stenographers cannot understand the northern vernacular, I do not apologise for that.

May I take this opportunity of saying once again today that the Minister has done nowt? Does not he realise that his indecision and vacillation this week have lost the general public's confidence in beef? It has threatened the long-term future of our cattle industry. What the Minister said today has done nothing to reassure the general public or the farmers. The Minister made great play, and I take his point, of the need to follow the recommendation of his own expert committee, the Tyrrell committee. If he takes that line, he cannot pick and choose advice from that committee. Why will he not implement the recommendation of the committee and take a random sample of routinely slaughtered cows so that we can judge the extent of BSE in the British herd and plan accordingly? In the meantime will he support the call for not feeding offals to pigs and chickens and to our pets?

Mr. Gummer

As I understand the hon. Gentleman's policy, it is to have regulations about Britain's food set by an independent group that is outside the Government. No doubt the hon. Gentleman would expect to take the advice of such a group. He says that when we ask an expert committee about, for example, the feeding of animal matter to animals that eat it, and the committee says that we should do so and there is no justification for not doing so, we should ignore the official advice. I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman advances that proposition. He must accept that advice from such an independent body must be followed in a matter as serious as this.

The recommendations to which the hon. Gentleman refers are part of the Tyrrell recommendations for research and were in three groups. The first was about priority research, the second was about research that is not high priority but ordinary priority, and the third was about low-priority research. I have already instituted all the high-priority and normal-priority research and I am now going through the low-priority research. I am following that order, first, because the expert committee asked me to do it like that. That is why it had three sets of priorities. Secondly, there is a shortage of people with the expert knowledge that is needed to carry out this research. I have therefore placed those people in areas that the Tyrrell committee said were most important for public health reasons. I think that the House will accept that.

The hon. Gentleman has clarified that he did not call me a lout but said that I had done nowt. He cannot have been listening for the last 20 minutes. If he had, he would have heard me say that I have done everything that the expert advisers have asked. Indeed, I have gone further because I take from every healthy animal all the specified offals in order to provide yet another protection. It is entirely untrue to say that I have done nowt.