HC Deb 28 January 2004 vol 417 cc313-9 12.30 pm
Hon. Members

On a point of older, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The point of order comes later. I would ask hon. Members to leave the Chamber quietly.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD)

(urgent question): Will the Minister make a statement on the outbreak of avian influenza in Thailand last week?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

When avian influenza was confirmed in Thailand, the European Commission immediately suspended imports into the European Union from Thailand of fresh poultry meat and poultry products indefinitely. We have prepared a risk assessment—available on the Department's website—which concludes that the risk of the disease being transmitted to the UK poultry flock is low. But we must be on our guard, so we have taken the additional precaution of asking ports to be extra vigilant and to prohibit the importation of consignments that do not fully comply with the rules. Waste from commercial plants is already subject to strict controls, but we have reminded the Meat Hygiene Service and local authorities to exercise more vigilance over the disposal of animal by-products to mitigate further any risk. There is already heightened awareness across the industry and the state veterinary service, but I would urge the farming community and the poultry industry to be on their guard and to ensure that their biosecurity arrangements are tight.

The Food Standards Agency has advised that there is no risk of acquiring the avian influenza virus through eating chicken. There has never been a case of humans contracting avian influenza by eating meat. The deaths reported in south-east Asia are the result of close contact with infected birds. There have been no known cases of human-to-human transmission during the current outbreak. The action that we have taken so far is proportionate to the disease risk, but we are closely monitoring the situation in south-east Asia. The situation will be reviewed again next week and we will press the Commission to take any further action that we consider necessary.

Andrew George

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement. The Government have certainly acted quickly in response to the potential threat to the UK, and to the poultry industry in particular, from the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza that was reported in south-east Asia last week. As the Minister said, avian influenza is a highly contagious poultry disease that can be transmitted to humans through contact with poultry. The foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001 coincided with a human outbreak of "benefit of hindsight disease", but at least we now have the benefit of foresight, and I hope that robust measures will be put in place to protect the biosecurity of the country and of farmers—in this case, poultry farmers in particular—following the lessons learned from the foot and mouth outbreak.

Will the Minister confirm that EU Commissioner Byrne made a public statement on Monday last week to the effect that there was no outbreak of avian influenza in Thailand, yet by Friday he had changed his opinion and acknowledged that there was an outbreak, which precipitated the EU ban? How confident is the Minister in the competence of the European Commission to monitor the progress of this disease? Although we have been assured that they involved a different strain of avian influenza from the one that we are now concerned about, will the Minister confirm that there were outbreaks of the disease in other EU countries, namely Holland and Italy, last year? What assessment has he made of that situation, and of the ability of other EU nations to establish adequate biosecurity arrangements to deal with the disease if it were to be brought into the EU?

In view of the delay in Thailand's admitting that there had been an outbreak of avian influenza, what reassurance can the Minister give that imports, particularly of frozen poultry, into this country are safe? There is a ban on fresh poultry imports from Thailand, but is it wise to permit the import of heat-treated products? Will the Minister tell us whether there is any truth in the theory that wild migratory birds are carriers of the disease? If so, what implications would that have for such birds? We have been told that the import ban applies only to Thailand and not to any other south-east Asian country, on the basis that no other south-east Asian country exports to the UK. Will the Minister confirm that that is accurate and, if so, that it is adequate? What other measures does he think might be necessary?

What implications does this outbreak have for the Government's efforts to control illegal meat imports? In answer to a recent question, the Secretary of State told me that intelligence in respect of such imports into the UK—they are still coming in—was not all that it could be. If that is the case, is the Minister content that existing measures are sufficiently robust? Now that the ban has been implemented, will the Minister tell us how long it is likely to last, and at what point it will be reviewed?

Will the Minister acknowledge that this is a good opportunity to promote the benefits to consumers of purchasing high-quality British-produced foods? Poultry farmers have established excellent measures in this country, particularly under the farm assurance schemes—characterised by the little red tractor label—which confirm high-quality production, traceability, health, hygiene and biosecurity. Would it not make good sense for consumers in this country and elsewhere to be made fully aware that, when buying British produce, they are buying high-quality goods that have been produced to high livestock production standards?

Mr. Bradshaw

I thank the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for his kind comments when he said that he was grateful for the way in which the Government had dealt with this matter very quickly. He cited some comments made by Commissioner Byrne. I suspect that they were related to when the Commissioner was first satisfied that the outbreak had been confirmed. There will always be a time lag between reports of the suspicion of an outbreak and their confirmation, but, yes, in answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, we do have confidence in Commissioner Byrne and in the work that the permanent veterinary councillor of the European Union does in Thailand. He is there all the time to monitor exactly the kind of risks that we are talking about.

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that we had a serious outbreak of avian influenza last year in the European Union, centred in Holland. I would suggest that that outbreak posed a much greater risk to the United Kingdom than the outbreak currently taking place in south-east Asia. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the disease is spread by migratory birds. We are very close to the continent, and many birds from the continent move here, particularly at this time of year. He is right about that, and right to say that that outbreak was more serious.

I am satisfied that we reviewed our contingency plans following that outbreak in the Netherlands. As hon. Members will know, we reviewed our overall plans to cope with animal disease following the foot and mouth outbreak. Our contingency plans for an outbreak of avian flu are better than they have ever been. The most recent outbreak in this country—in 1992, on a single property—was dealt with very swiftly, and I am confident that we could do so again if necessary.

On heat treatment, we are advised by the Food Standards Agency, which is responsible for food safety, that it is perfectly safe to consume meat products, especially if they have been treated to 70°.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the danger posed by migratory birds from south-east Asia. My understanding is that this country does not receive birds that have migrated from south-east Asia, but I am happy to send him the map that I pored over this morning showing the migratory habits of birds in that part of the world, which shows that they do not come here.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the ban applies only to Thailand. That is because, as he said, Thailand is the only country in south-east Asia that is allowed to export chicken to this country, and we are not about to allow any other country to do so given the current circumstances.

On illegal imports, I would simply add to my comments about how we have tightened up our system since foot and mouth. I am confident that our monitoring of imports is better than it has ever been. The chicken products that are—or were—imported from Thailand come in big batches from big food manufacturers, not small-time importers, so they are subject to very rigorous controls.

The ban will be indefinite, as I said in my statement.

Finally, I join the hon. Gentleman in taking this opportunity to congratulate the excellent work of the British poultry industry. I urge consumers always to consume British products if they can, especially British poultry. Our poultry is produced to standards that are unmatched anywhere in the world. I always choose British chicken, and I would urge everybody else to do so.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con)

Yesterday, I tabled a number of written questions on the subject of avian flu. Will the Minister let me know when he intends to reply?

The House and the public will be pleased to hear that cooked chicken meat presents no risk to human health. Can the Minister confirm that cooked poultry meat and canned poultry meat may still be imported from Thailand? If so, is there any way of limiting the relevant areas to those where flocks are free of avian flu?

The Minister referred to other Asian countries. To date, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Cambodia have reported instances of avian flu. Has he discussed those outbreaks with the authorities in those countries? What measures has he taken to discuss the possibility of travellers from those countries bringing infections into this country?

The Minister mentioned last year's outbreak of avian flu in Holland. Although that was a different strain, many lessons could be learned, as he rightly says. In April 2003, an important conference was held at Garderen, which made specific recommendations, especially on vaccination. Have those been acted upon?

Mr. Bradshaw

In response to the hon. Gentleman's first point, his written questions will be answered as soon as possible. He is inundating our Department with questions at the moment—as is his right, of course. Officials are very busy dealing with the immediate threat posed by this outbreak and other problems that we face, but I assure him that we will answer his questions, numerous as they are, as soon as we possibly can.

On cooked meat, as I said to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), according to the advice of the FSA and its European equivalent, there is no danger from meat that has been heated to 70°, so the import ban does not extend to products that have been thus heated.

Discussions have been held with the Thai Government and with other Governments in the region. The advice to UK travellers there would be to avoid, if at all possible, anywhere where they may come into contact with poultry.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab)

As my hon. Friend will know from his previous incarnation as a Foreign Office Minister, we have good relations with the countries of south-east Asia. However, is it not of paramount importance that there is candour as to what has happened, and that to achieve that we must offer help? One practical piece of help would be to approach the university of Edinburgh and the research organisations centred around Edinburgh, which have internationally famous expertise in tropical diseases and, indeed, in poultry research. Will my hon. Friend approach Professor Ian Maudlin or other heads of department to see whether it is possible that a small group could be sent to help in south-east Asia?

Mr. Bradshaw

I absolutely agree with the Father of the House about our good relations with the countries of south-east Asia. That is particularly true of Thailand, which is very friendly towards the UK. We have used those good relations to avoid some of the danger that might have been posed by the outbreak. I will consult my officials about his kind offer. We are as interested as anybody in exchanging expertise on the matter, and if it was felt that such a visit would be helpful at this stage, we would consider it very positively.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

Anybody who has heard the BBC's "Farming Today" broadcasts from Thailand will understand the devastating effect that the outbreak is having on local communities there. Following the comments of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), what steps are being taken to encourage throughout south-east Asia a regime of openness about outbreaks of this or any other animal disease conditions? For example, there are reports that ducks in China now have the same condition.

What contribution is the UK scientific community making to monitoring the possible development of mutant species of the condition, which may jump species or even affect human beings? Those are the unknowns: what are we doing to address them?

Mr. Bradshaw

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of openness. I, too, have read some of the more alarmist media reports suggesting a cover-up, but we have no evidence of a deliberate cover-up in Thailand. The matter has been handled well by contrast with the way in which China handled the severe acute respiratory syndrome—SARS—outbreak last year. However, one of the lessons that we have learned in Britain and in wider Europe is that when it comes to food safety and animal health, openness is essential if one is to maintain consumer confidence in one's product.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw the House's attention to the dangers of the virus mutating, because that is when it could become really dangerous to human beings. If it mutated into a virus that could be passed from human to human, as happened more recently during the 1952 outbreak, we could face real problems. He will be well aware that the World Health Organisation, as well as UK health authorities, is keeping close watch on the situation.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

The Minister made some nice and accurate comments about the poultry sector, which, as he is aware, receives no Government funding. If he is as satisfied as he says about the biosecurity actions taken by the Government to protect the British poultry sector, will he guarantee to pay compensation if the disease gets to Britain?

Mr. Bradshaw

It is a notifiable disease, so of course compensation is considered in the event of stocks having to be destroyed. The hon. Gcntleman is right to congratulate the poultry industry on being a part of our agriculture sector that does not, in general, rely on subsidy—it would be nice if that practice was more common throughout the sector.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD)

The Minister highlighted the importance of people recognising the quality of British-produced poultry. Coverage of this incident might have brought home to people who take good animal welfare standards seriously the different standards that are operated by producers in different parts of the world and the importance of backing the British poultry industry. To that end, is it important to get across to them the fact that whenever they buy produce made from chicken, the chances are that it will come from imported chicken?

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman is right. Not just the quality of the product in the UK, which is superior, but our welfare standards are second to none in the world. Consumers should take that into account habitually when making shopping decisions. Labelling, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is the responsibility of the FSA. At present, processed meat in food products is not labelled as clearly as he and others might wish.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con)

The Minister has spoken of the devastating effect of the virus in the far east, but obviously we are worried about any implications for the United Kingdom and our citizens travelling abroad. I understand that the new H5N1 virus is resistant to the old generic flu drugs. Have the Government been able to establish whether the newer drugs, such as Tamiflu and Relenza, would be effective against it? Can the Minister tell us what is the current position in regard to their supply?

Mr. Bradshaw

In vitro work is under way in a number of countries, with the use of the H5N1 virus isolated from humans. The virus is expected to be susceptible to the neuraminidase inhibitors, but preliminary sequence data suggest that the Vietnam strains to date have a mutation in the viral M2 gene that will render the viruses resistant to Amantadine—although experimental confirmation is required. I will ask a ministerial colleague from the Department of Health to write to the hon. Lady comprehensively about vaccines.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)

The Minister will know how dependent this country has become on imports of poultry meat from Thailand. Just before Christmas he wrote to me apologising for not being able to meet a group of poultry producers because of lack of time. They wanted to discuss threats to the poultry industry.

The country will now depend on those producers even more now. It will depend on them to fill the gap left by the lack of imports from Thailand. Will the Minister reconsider his decision?

Has the Minister made any assessment of how the country will fare in terms of its favourite dish, which I take to be chicken tikka masala?

Mr. Bradshaw

The hon. Gentleman is not quite right in saying that the UK has become dependent on imports from Thailand. Most of the chicken consumed here is still home-produced. It is true, however, that after Brazil, Thailand is the main source of imports, particularly of chicken for the processing industry.

I am sorry that I had to decline the hon. Gentleman's kind invitation to meet his local poultry producers, but I meet poultry producers fairly regularly. For me, one of the highlights of the run-up to Christmas was presenting the awards at the annual British Poultry Council award ceremony. As the hon. Gentleman says, our poultry industry makes a massive contribution to our rural economy. It is highly successful, very skilled and makes products of great quality. I am sure that the recent scares, which have been exaggerated in some media reports, will not prevent people in this country from enjoying their favourite dish, whatever it may be.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC)

At least the Minister does not look like a turkey over this one. [HON. MEMBERS: "He does."] Well, possibly. Anyway, will he look at the effect of the EU ban on the Thai economy? Producers in Thailand may be tempted to try to get around it, which could increase the difficulties we already face in regard to illegal imports.

We hope that the ban will be lifted when a solution is found. What work will the Minister undertake at EU level to ensure that labelling is better in future, thus improving consumer choice? We may think about that when choosing chicken from the United Kingdom in supermarkets and butchers' shops, but we may not think about it in McDonald's or Wimpy bars. It might useful to consider what we can do at EU level to support homegrown industries that have better environmental and welfare standards.

Mr. Bradshaw

I have no doubt that there will be a serious impact on the Thai economy, because chicken production is very important to Thailand; but Thailand has had a robust economy for a number of years—perhaps the most successful economy in the south-east Asian region. We will do all we can—both Britain and the EU as a whole—to encourage further trade with Thailand, and to help it to recover from any setback that this causes.

I have nothing much to add to what I have already said about labelling. It is the responsibility of the FSA. It has improved significantly under the present Government, although it has still not improved as much as the hon. Gentleman and others might wish. I can only repeat that most fresh chicken, and indeed most meat on the shelves in shops in this country, is labelled, and I recommend that people look for the British label.