HC Deb 04 June 1998 vol 313 cc494-5
9. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What steps he is taking to prevent the use of low-level antibiotics in animal feed as a prophylactic. [42730]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

Low-level antibiotics are simply not authorised for prophylactic or preventive use in animal feeds. However, certain low-level antibiotics are authorised as growth promoters, but only under the terms of EC directive 70/524.

Mr. Prentice

The Government moved swiftly last month on the Agriculture Committee's recommendations of 22 April. However, we are very close to witnessing some kind of biological Armageddon—and that is not overstating the issue. [HON. MEMBERS: "Come off it."] Well, perhaps it is overstating the issue. But, seriously, what can we do to persuade farmers to return to more traditional methods of animal husbandry? People are sick to death of all the food scares, of the fact that we seem to have been poisoned year after year and of the fact that farmers are congenitally incapable of producing food that is safe to eat.

Mr. Rooker

For the record, the Government did not move quickly after receiving the Agriculture Committee's report. We are still considering our response. A week earlier, the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology reported on antibiotics for human beings and included a chapter on animals. That will also be carefully considered.

We are taking a range of measures to encourage farmers to produce food without lots of chemicals. We have a rigorous surveillance programme for pesticide and veterinary medicine residues. We shall publish brand names when people exceed limits in future and we are giving more aid to organic farmers.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Will the Minister accept from me, as someone who perhaps has a slightly longer memory of farming practices than the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), that there were no good old days of animal husbandry before some of today's wonderful medicines were developed? The matter of concern is not medicines, but how they are used. If today's agriculture did not have access to a range of antibiotics and other medicines developed by the Central Veterinary Laboratory at Weybridge, the standard of animal welfare would not be the highest in the world, which it is. Will the Minister ensure that all farmers are given sufficient guidance to ensure that medicines are not inappropriately used and that there are no high residues in food to cause unnecessary concern?

Mr. Rooker

I am happy to pay tribute to the work of the Central Veterinary Laboratory at Weybridge, which is a world-class organisation. Last year, it examined 34,000 samples of residues in meat, fish and honey. Only 0.01 per cent. of samples proved to be over the limit, which is a tiny proportion. In future, we will even publish brand names. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right that there never was a golden age, and it is a mistake to assume that there was.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

The Minister will be aware of the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee's report on antibiotic resistance and of the alarming rise in methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus caused by it. The agriculture industry has rarely taken responsibility for that, but it is an urgent problem. Should not the Food Standards Agency, which is responsible to the Department of Health, investigate that problem in detail?

Mr. Rooker

Yes, except that the Food Standards Agency will not be up and running until the second half of next year—and we are not waiting for that. The independent Veterinary Products Committee, which advises the Government, is to hold on 18 June a meeting on antibiotics in animal feedstuffs, and we await a report later this year from a sub-committee of the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food.