HC Deb 10 January 1996 vol 269 cc164-71 12.30 pm
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise, albeit briefly, the issue of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and concerns about the possible connections with Creuzfeldt-Jakob disease. My particular interest in the issue arose out of representations I received in 1991 from the family of a constituent who had been diagnosed as suffering from CJD. Since that time, I have asked a significant number of questions in Parliament, of both the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health, the answers to which have, on some occasions, left me in some doubt about how seriously the Government are treating public concern about BSE and the possible connections with CJD.

My serious concern is how much the extent of BSE infection and its implications have been underestimated by the Government. The Minister will recall that by 1989 BSE had been studied for some three years. In that year, the report of the Southwood working party on BSE predicted that the total number of cases would be between 17,000 and 20,000—on the assumption that vertical or horizontal transmission did not occur.

According to a parliamentary answer on 31 October 1995, by 26 October the number of confirmed BSE cases in the United Kingdom was 154,150. I understand that the figure is now about 157,000. In view of the length of time that it takes for an animal to show signs of the disease, it is reasonable to assume that many more affected cattle must have been slaughtered before symptoms were recognised. To put it mildly, there is a significant discrepancy between the Southwood predictions and the latest figures. It is important to consider the possible reasons for that.

When the Southwood working party was announced on 21 April 1988, the Government said that they would legislate to ban the feeding of rations that contained protein derived from ruminants. That decision arose from studies completed a year earlier, which concluded that the only viable hypothesis for the cause of BSE was meat and bone meal from ruminants. By the time the Southwood committee reported, it was assumed that the ban—introduced on 18 July 1988—had been implemented effectively. The subsequent ban on specified bovine offals was, according to the Government, a precautionary measure introduced alongside assurances that any health risk to humans from beef consumption was remote.

We all recall a former Minister publicly forcing burgers down his daughter. The tone of such highly placed reassurances, geared to a concerned public, clearly also left farmers, abattoir workers, renderers and compounders believing that affected cattle showing signs of the disease would hold no risk to humans. Now, the Government are implying in parliamentary answers and statements that a key factor in explaining the huge difference between Southwood's maximum of 20,000 and the reality of more than 157,000 is widespread breaches of regulations.

The Times on 20 November 1995 quoted Government statements to the effect that the state veterinary service made unannounced visits to 193 abattoirs last September and found failings in the handling of offal in 92 of them. The service visited 153 in October and found failings in 52. Although the Government's statements were qualified to assure the public that such failings were mostly not of a serious nature, the implications are clear—that such problems offer some explanation of the extraordinary discrepancy in the figures for infected animals.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hinchliffe

I am afraid that time is limited. I had hoped for a longer debate. I do not intend to give way, but I mean no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman.

Unfortunately, the limited number of prosecutions for such breaches—for example, only two in 1991 and 1993—undermines the Government's professed concern about the alleged law-breaking. The figures for confirmed cases clearly raise a serious question about whether previous assumptions about vertical or horizont al transmission are correct. The Minister will know that between September 1988 and April 1989, new-born calves were removed from more than 600 dams in a Ministry experiment and were reared on fresh grass, with the aim of quantifying the extent, if any, of vertical transfer. According to a parliamentary answer on 31 January 1995, by that time more than 30 of those animals had developed BSE. Will the Minister confirm my information that by last month the figure had risen to 42?

I also note from a letter from the Minister on 20 November that since the feed ban was imposed in 1988, more than 22,000 calves with BSE have been born, one as recently as June 1993. The range of ages of those born since the ban is virtually the same as those born before it. In a series of replies, the Minister has claimed that all 22,000 were exposed to remnants of contaminated feed. However, that does not explain the results of the experiment, which seem to show the occurrence of vertical as well as horizontal transfer.

On 23 October 1995, the BSE advisory committee—the SEAC—announced that it had reviewed the reported case of CJD in a farmer who had a case of BSE in his beef suckler herd. It noted that three previous CJD cases had been confirmed in dairy farmers whose herds also had BSE. It concluded that it was difficult to explain that as a chance phenomenon given the statistical excess of cases on cattle farms compared with the general population.

The SEAC's statement noted examples of CJD in other European countries with few or no cases of BSE. I know that the Government have also drawn such comparisons on a number of occasions. However, it has been put to me that those comparisons are flawed unless the number of BSE and CJD cases are expressed as a fraction of the at-risk cattle and the human population. Assuming an annual incidence of CJD of one case per million of population per year and 20,000 farmers at risk, I understand that it would be expected that one farmer at risk would succumb only every 50 years—not four in the past three years.

Serious questions must also be asked about assumptions about BSE-free herds, in relation to both the domestic and the export meat trade. The Craven Herald and Pioneer newspaper, in its edition on Friday 8 December 1995, reported the conviction of two farmers—Stephen and John Thompson, a father and son, of Old Hall farm, Gargrave, Yorkshire—for trades description offences. They included falsely declaring the age of a calf and not declaring that the animal had been born to a BSE-infected cow. The report quoted John Thompson as saying to Skipton magistrates: We have had around 1,200 BSE cases on our farm and have kept these out of the food chain. In the following week's edition of that newspaper, on 15 December, a letter was published from R. W. Payne, of Marton close, Gargrave, pointing out an apparent error in the previous week's report of the court case. The letter said: It surely cannot be that they have had 1,200 cases when the whole of North Yorkshire had had 7,000 total over the last 10 years. At a time of BSE worries, I think that the correct figure should be found and printed this week. The letter was accompanied by an editor's note stating that both figures were correct.

I am reliably informed that the herd in question contains around 100 milkers and that the worst possible scenario would be an average of 2 per cent. BSE cases a year, giving a total so far of, say, 20. A number of cases totalling 1,200 is regarded as being completely impossible, and it has been put to me that the only way in which so many BSE cases could be collected is by the farm representing a massive offloading station for other farmers who can continue to claim that their herds are BSE-free.

I am unclear about the legal position on transferring animals in such a way. It is just one illustration of the way in which figures on the incidence and location of BSE-infected animals are open to serious question. It is also evidence of the financial pressures of centralising on one herd. I will be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts on the implications of that practice.

I will also be interested to hear the Minister's thoughts on the policing of the order made in 1991 under the Animal Health Act 1981, banning the use of protein material derived from specified offal as fertiliser. I shall refer to another cause for concern in Yorkshire. I understand that for several years Keighley abattoir has put unusable and unsaleable blood and guts into tankers, the contents of which have been sprayed on fields owned—I am told—by Mr. Harvey Smith, which are in close proximity to the local Graincliffe reservoir. It is apparently a common sight to see gulls foraging on the freshly sprayed fields before settling on the nearby reservoir.

If what the tankers spray is not specified bovine offal, I would stress that that practice, as I understand it, is perfectly legal. I wonder, however, how it is possible in a slaughterhouse to ensure that such specified offals are totally separated, especially when cattle comprise the greatest volume of carcases. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on that.

Apart from my serious doubts about the assumptions that the Government are making in relation to the transfer of BSE, I am greatly concerned about the effectiveness of the measures being taken to keep infectivity out of the human food chain. Although it is possible to exclude bovine tissue from symptomatic cattle entering the food chain, how can the Government guarantee that no infectivity from infected but non-symptomatic cattle from purportedly BSE-free herds will enter the food chain? The Minister will of course recall that the "World in Action" programme screened before Christmas showed that symptomatic and pre-symptomatic cattle with BSE were being eaten in the United Kingdom.

Sir Bernard Tomlinson, the neuropathologist who has advised the Government on health issues, was reported in The Times on 14 November 1995 as saying that he was no longer eating products likely to contain beef offal. His decision was based on the rise in cases of CJD, the disproportionate number of farmers contracting it and the recent deaths of two teenagers from the disease. He stated that the Government are taking an unjustifiable risk in allowing brain and other offal from calves under the age of six months into the food chain. His views and the views of a number of other eminent scientists raising similar doubts about the Government's handling of the matter must be treated seriously.

The Government say—and I would accept it—that there is no evidence that BSE can be passed to humans. The other side of the coin, which I think the Minister will accept, is that there is no evidence that it cannot be passed to humans. If the Government cannot give a 100 per cent. assurance that there is no transmissibility to humans or that infected tissue from non-symptomatic cattle cannot enter the human food chain, there is clearly a serious possible risk to human health which must not be ignored.

I urge the Government to take a number of immediate steps in view of the present circumstances. First, they should take action to stop completely the movement of animals from infected herds and practices such as those in Yorkshire that I have described. In "Farming Today" on Radio 4 this morning I heard allegations being made about a similar practice in the Republic of Ireland. Will the Minister consider them? They clearly tie in closely with the concerns that I am expressing about Yorkshire.

In addition, the Government should prevent breeding in such herds and evaluate very carefully the advice of those who have urged a planned and sensible slaughter prior to the replacement of those animals from BSE-free herds on new territory. I stress that I have farmers in my constituency—with boundary commission changes I have an increasing number of them—and I do not in any way underestimate the cost implications of such a policy. We have to balance those costs against the future health of the nation.

The Government must markedly increase research into trying to find the agent responsible for CJD, the extent of infected produce that humans need to consume before they are at risk and treatments for the disease. It is quite incredible that, given public concern over the issue, research evaluation is being reduced by the Government.

The Minister for Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Hinchliffe

The Minister shakes her head. I shall be interested to hear her comments.

As a parent of two school-age children, I also urge the Government to take urgent and significant steps to reduce the risk to children, especially pre-school children.

I recognise that the Minister does not have a specific health brief, but will she, with her colleagues in the Department of Health, listen to the concerns of the CJD support network, an organisation set up last year by families who have cared for relatives with CJD with the backing of the Alzheimer's Disease Society? Specifically, I understand that the support network is pressing for CJD to be made a notifiable disease, for the establishment of an independent inquiry into the causes of it and for a much greater consideration of the practical help and support needed by those caring for sufferers. I endorse in full its concerns.

I am conscious of the need to give the Minister time to reply in some detail, but in the context of the question mark over BSE, may I press the Minister to recognise the serious lack of public confidence stemming directly from the Government's failure to separate ministerial responsibility for the production of food from the responsibility for consumer interest? I hope that she will understand that, regardless of one's views on BSE, there is a clear public perception that her Government are always rather more concerned with protecting the business interests of food producers than with the health of food consumers.

12.47 pm
The Minister for Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)

Although I very much welcome the opportunity taken by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) to bring this very important subject to the Floor of the House, I somewhat regret the tone in which he has presented his case. First, there has been no reduction in research into BSE. In fact, as a result of the Budget, an extra £1 million will be going into research into BSE. Of course the Government rely on the spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee to advise us on areas in which it feels additional research would be beneficial—whether it concerns BSE or CJD. We obviously listen very carefully to its advice.

The hon. Member for Wakefield raised particularly cases in Yorkshire and cited specific companies involved in the purchase of animals which he says act as a collecting point for BSE cattle. A total of 915 BSE-positive cattle have been reported by Messrs Thompson since 1988, of which 76 per cent. have been traced to the original owners. We take very seriously the question whether people—perhaps—on occasions try to circumvent the system in order to keep the BSE-free status on their holding through the offloading of animals as the hon. Gentleman described. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if he has further examples and writes to me, I shall ensure that officials do those tracings. If problems are found, obviously we will encourage trading standards officers to take out prosecutions. Prosecutions have been brought in cases in which we have found such circumventions.

The Government's position on BSE and CJD is based on listening to the experts and following the advice of the independent advisory committees, which are made up of leading experts. The opinion of the overwhelming majority of those experts working on BSE and CJD, not only in the United Kingdom but in the European Union and elsewhere, is that the Government's actions are not only prudent but sufficient to protect the safety of people who eat beef and bovine products. I must say that we have always taken the advice of the SEAC and put it into the public domain as quickly as possible.

The Government have a responsibility to protect the health of the individual by removing products that could present a risk from the food chain. But we also have a responsibility to take a balanced view and to avoid responding to unfounded fears by banning material that is perfectly safe.

It is wrong to suggest that the Government have been in any way reckless in relation to BSE and CJD. We have taken expert advice and worked on the precautionary principle that BSE theoretically could be a risk to humans. We have based our controls on that hypothesis even though there is no evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans and despite good evidence gained from several centuries of experience that the similar disease of scrapie in sheep is not linked to CJD in humans. We have assumed that BSE could, in theory, be a risk. We have therefore taken proportionate action to ensure that the risk is removed should there ever be evidence that that scientific link is made.

On that basis, suspect cattle are destroyed—whether on the farm, in the market, at a dealer's premises or at the slaughterhouse—and their owners are compensated. It was also on that basis that the specified bovine offal ban was introduced. Again on the recommendation of the SEAC, we have tightened up the administration of the SBO ban in cases in which the order was not being complied with in accordance with the committee's advice. We have recently, for example, taken action to ensure that specified bovine offal is properly stained, separated and disposed of quite separately from materials which might enter either the human food chain or animal feed. Those important measures are designed to protect human health and have ensured that the only tissues in which BSE infectivity has ever been detected, either experimentally or in clinical cases, have been completely removed from both the human and the animal food chains.

The SBO ban applies to all cattle, other than calves under the age of six months, which are slaughtered for human consumption. As a result of experimental findings in 1994, the ban was extended to cover the intestine and the thymus of calves, which is a precaution because infectivity has not been detected in the thymus.

The Government's policy is a cautious, belt and braces approach. The "belt" is taking all cattle which show symptoms of the clinical disease out of the system and destroying them and the "braces" are removing the SBOs from all healthy cattle at slaughter. That ensures that they do not enter either the human or the animal food chains. The "braces" are required because we recognise that the "belt" cannot detect animals which are incubating the disease before the clinical signs develop.

The hon. Member for Wakefield raised the issue of animals going to market and then being sold on. He might be interested to know that animals often show no clinical signs of the disease on the farm, but that the clinical symptoms are accentuated because of the stress placed on the animal by the transit and the offloading at market. Animals are sometimes picked up at market which have been incubating BSE, but it is the transit which has exacerbated the clinical symptoms.

Much has been made in the media recently about the fact that we cannot identify infected cattle which show no signs of the disease. Some mischievous journalists have presented this as a new finding. The press notice issued in June 1989, however, when the SBO ban was proposed, made it clear that the ban was being introduced precisely because we recognised the fact that pre-clinical cases could enter the food chain. The ban was designed, and all the subsequent scientific evidence has shown that it was correctly designed, to remove all the tissues that could harbour the agent. The Government do not argue that BSE in cattle could not be a risk to human health if no preventive measures were taken.

The Government have taken an ultra-precautionary line, and the overwhelming view of international experts is that we have acted correctly. Unfortunately, that does not make a good story in the press, which has tried to whip the issue up into a frenzy of public alarm when there is simply no cause.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that it is most regrettable that the media choose to interview scientists and people who are eminent in their own specialty, particularly of medicine, but who have not been involved in the day-to-day research and information collected on the subject. They have been paraded as advisers to the Government, but the media have then not agreed to interview the very people who advise the Government. That poses the question whether the media, lacking other news stories, particularly in the pre-Christmas period, were rather unprincipled in the way in which they went about reporting the subject.

Many eminent scientists, including the chairman of the SEAC, and the chief medical officer advise the Government. The chief medical officer, not the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is responsible for human health. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the separation of responsibilities. Obviously MAFF Ministers must answer questions about the animal food chain and how it interfaces with the human food chain, but the chief medical officer has responsibility for human health. He has made it clear that if he felt there was a need to warn the public of a threat to human health it would be his duty to do so regardless of what was said by other Ministries and other people. I am quite sure that he would carry out that duty and obligation to the country.

Mr. Gill

The debate is about serious matters and I think that the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) was in danger of confusing the animal health issue with the human health issue. As he knows, there is no direct proof of any connection between the two. He was able to make such a speech because no scientist worth his salt—I am sure that the Minister would agree that this is the problem from her point of view—will stand up in public or publish his findings stating categorically that there can be no link between BSE and CJD or between any other animal disease and any other human disease. That is the problem. The fact that scientists cannot give that categorical assurance does not license the hon. Member or the press to continue to make allegations without any basis of truth or science behind them.

Mrs. Browning

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Although we have had some encouraging interim reports, the nature of the research into BSE and CJD means that it will take a long time to conclude and to come up with the definitive answer that I am sure that my hon. Friend and I would like. It is not a matter of saying that the Government could find some extra money to carry out a six-month experiment and we would then have the answer. That is not the nature of the type of research conducted. I hope that the hon. Member for Wakefield will accept that, because I am sure he will appreciate that if we could have come up with an earlier answer than that given so far, we would certainly have made sure that that was possible. Where possible, we encourage research that is done in the private sector as well and put it in the public domain. Where possible, we also publish interim results and, although they are not definitive, they help to identify a trend and the thrust of research. That is helpful to us all.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House do not consider the subject a matter for party political debate. It is a grave matter, which the Government take seriously. We have at all times relied on independent scientific advice and have made it public. In particular, I hope the House will be interested to know that the most recent progress report on research was put in the public domain just before Christmas. I would like to tell the House that the chairman and deputy chairman of the independent SEAC committee have recently written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. The letter says: If there was any risk to human health from BSE, and there may be none, then we have no doubt that that risk is very much less in December 1995 than it has ever been. I am disappointed that that clear statement of confidence has not been taken up by the media as vociferously as that which they said before, when they were trying to put the other side of the argument. I have arranged for a copy of the letter to be lodged in the Library today, and I hope that hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Wakefield, will avail themselves of the opportunity to read it and that it will reassure them.