HL Deb 21 February 1928 vol 70 cc206-15

LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM rose to ask His Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in this country through the importation of meat from foreign countries where the disease is prevalent; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not intend to make an attack upon the policy of slaughter which the Government have carried out for a considerable number of years. I myself think that in all probability that was the right policy to carry out, but the fact remains that that policy has not resulted in the stopping of the disease and, therefore, that there must be some source from which infection comes. I had the privilege of asking the other day the noble Earl who represents the Ministry of Agriculture how many outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease there were in 1915, 1916, 1917 and 1927, and I asked that question for this reason, that in 1915, 1916 and 1917 we were at war and consequently the importation of meat from abroad was very much smaller than it is now.

The answer to my Question was that in 1915, when the War had been on only some few months, the number of outbreaks was 56. In 1916, when the War had been on for a considerable time and when consequently the importation of foreign meat was less, there was only one outbreak. In 1917, when the submarine menace increased and there was consequently not very much, if any, foreign meat imported, there was no outbreak. When we get to the period after the War we find that in 1927 there were no fewer than 143 outbreaks. The noble Earl who represents the Ministry of Agriculture stated in his reply that 1927 was by no means the worst year and that there had been between 1921 and 1927 more outbreaks than the 143 in 1927. That looks as if the contagion was introduced into this country by the importation of foreign meat. There was in The Times this morning a letter from Sir William Haldane. I do not know who Sir William Haldane is, whether he is any relation of the noble and learned Viscount who sits on the Front Bench opposite.


His brother.


No doubt I shall receive the support of the noble Lord, Lord Parmoor, and the noble Lord who sits next to him (Lord Muir Mackenzie). This is what Sir William Haldane says:— The information I am receiving at present from Argentina makes it evident that now foot-and-mouth disease is prevalent all over that country, unless possibly in a few remote districts, and that it has passed beyond the power of the Argentine authorities to save the herds of that country from this devastating disease. From a most trustworthy and well-informed quarter I have private confirmation of the published statements as to the serious position of matters. Without going into detail, the position as described is such that no effective quarantine of the cattle to be slaughtered for export to this country is possible now against this insidious disease. All that can be done is to endeavour one way or another to reduce somewhat the amount of infection that Argentine chilled beef will necessarily carry here while its importation continues. The Argentine authorities— I would draw the attention of the noble Lord particularly to this— appear no longer to question that chilled carcasses of infected cattle retain the disease in virulent form for several weeks, and thus are an almost certain source from which infection can be spread in countries where their beef is consumed. But naturally they are desirous to avoid any measure so drastic as to stop their large export trade. Later he goes on to quote an article in the Review of the River Plate. Apparently, Lord Bledisloe has arranged with the Argentine that there shall he more inspectors in the Argentine Republic. The Review of the River Plate does not seem to think that is very much use, and neither do I. I have not very much faith in the endeavours of an Argentine inspector to prevent his brother's meat being exported to this country. Then Sir William Haldane goes on to say:— On the other hand, there is an obvious sense of temporary relief because Lord Bledisloe is reported to have agreed on behalf of the British Government that the Argentines are to be allowed to continue their beef trade with this country for two years on their assurance that they will appoint a largely increased number of inspectors of cattle or carcasses for export to Britain. On that I can only repeat what I said just now, that I have not very much faith in the action of the Argentine inspectors stopping cattle coming to this country.

There is another point which I think emphasises the fact that in all probability this disease has been brought into this country through the importation of foreign meat, either chilled or frozen. That is that the Ministry of Agriculture themselves—I think, it was some two years ago—stopped the importation of pork from Holland and other neighbouring countries on the ground that they were afraid that the importation of pork from those countries, where there was foot-and-mouth disease, did spread the infection in this country. If that is so—and I think that cannot be contradicted—it is evident that meat coming from the Argentine Republic, where the disease is certainly if not more prevalent at least as prevalent as it was in Holland and those other countries, does spread disease. Therefore I think I am justified, in view of the very great loss to the agricultural community which is caused by foot-and-mouth disease, and also in view of the large sums which the taxpayers have to pay for the slaughter of cattle, in asking the Government what steps they propose to take in view of the facts which I have—I am afraid very feebly—put before your Lordships' House.

Unfortunately there was recently an outbreak of the disease in Ireland, and the Minister oil Agriculture, in another place, said:— As soon as full reports are received from the Irish Free State Government the Ministry will be able to settle from which ports in Ireland animals can be accepted for slaughter within 96 hours at those ports at which there is slaughtering accommodation. I am not sure whether that statement means that animals are to be slaughtered at ports in Ireland or whether they are to be slaughtered at ports over here. I presume it means at ports over here. I would like to ask in reference to that, if any steps have been taken to prevent the importation of dead meat from Ireland. With all due deference to them, I rather think that what applies to Argentine inspectors would apply to Irish inspectors and that in all probability an inspector in the Irish Free State, if he were too officious, might get shot. I think I have said enough to show that there is considerable danger in the importation of dead meat, but before I sit down I should like to add a word in case the Government are afraid that an agitation may be got up by the Labour Party—and possibly also, although I do not think it likely, by the Liberal Party—that the food of the people is in danger. There are plenty of other places from which meat can be exported. It can be exported from our own Dominions, from Africa, Australia and other places where foot-and-mouth disease is not prevalent. Therefore that argument falls to the ground. There is no danger of preventing a proper supply of meat coming into this country. The only question is whether the importation of that meat supply should be limited to countries in which there is no foot-and-mouth disease. I beg to move.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord has himself answered some part of the Question with regard to what is being done in South America. I should like to remind your Lordships—the noble Lord has referred to it already—that in June, 1926, the Government made an Order prohibiting the importation of fresh meat from the Continent because there was danger of infection being brought here in that way. It may be interesting to note that during the eighteen months preceding the prohibition there were 51 initial outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease confirmed in this country as compared with 32 initial outbreaks during the eighteen months succeeding the embargo. That seems to point to the fact that the embargo did diminish the risk of foot-and-mouth disease being brought into the country. The difficulty is that one is never able to prove exactly where infection does come from. A suggestion has been made—the noble Lord has referred to it—that infection is brought in by chilled meat from South America. I would point out to your Lordships that a great deal of chilled meat has been brought from South America for many years. Before the War something between two million and five million cwts. of chilled beef used to be brought into this country from South America. The importation of chilled meat has increased from about three million cwts. in 1921 to ten million cwts. in 1927.

Of course there is nothing really to prove that disease is brought in by chilled meat or by frozen meat. The quantity of frozen meat imported has greatly diminished. The quantity increased very largely during the War, when we got great quantities from Australia and other countries, but the importation has now decreased, while the importation of salted beef into this country is now an almost negligible quantity. The view of the Ministry is that the proper place for the inspection of imported meat is in the country of origin. With that in mind arrangements have been made to which the noble Lord has already referred. As your Lordships are aware, Lord Bledisloe has recently been in South America and he has made arrangements with the Argentine Government which he hopes will at any rate diminish the danger which some people fear is caused by the importation of chilled meat from that country. I cannot give the full terms until Lord Bledisloe returns but, as your Lordships know, he will shortly be in this country and the terms that he has arranged can then be stated.

In the meantime, I can say that arrangements have been made with the Argentine Government, and Orders have been published in their papers, taking effect from February 1 last. These Orders provide that: (1) animals cannot leave an estancia without a certificate of freedom from disease and also a certificate that the cattle on the estancia are free from disease; (2) the wagons in which the cattle are conveyed must be disinfected and thoroughly cleaned, and the transport companies are responsible for this being done; (3) a certificate of freedom from the disease is required before the animals can be taken from the markets and sent to the frigorificos; (4) if animals awaiting slaughter in a frigorifico are found to be affected, they must be isolated until they are passed as being free from disease; and if by any accident such animals have passed into the slaughter house, their carcasses are on no account to be exported; (5) only new coverings can be used for meat for exportation; and (6)—this is a matter which Lord Banbury mentioned and, I am afraid, rather laughed at—the Argentine Government will appoint from 60 to 70 additional veterinary inspectors for the control of the disease in the interior of the country. These are the provisions that the Argentine Government have promised to make with a view to lessening the risk and in the hope, I suppose, of stamping out this disease in that country.

We must bear in mind, however, that there is no direct evidence that foot-and-mouth disease has been introduced by chilled or frozen meat. The Research Committee have made the very disquieting discovery that the virus of foot-and-mouth disease can be found in the marrow of the bones of carcasses as long as 76 days after slaughter. Consequently, the Ministry of Agriculture has issued an Order prohibiting the feeding of animal matter to animals in this country unless it has been boiled for an hour, and also prohibiting such foodstuffs from being brought into contact with animals until so treated. Packings in which meat is imported must also be entirely disinfected. The suggestion has also been made that infection is brought in by the importation of shrubs and plants from countries where foot-and-mouth disease exists. We have no evidence on that point, but in order to protect ourselves an Order has been issued prohibiting the holding of sales of these shrubs and plants on any place which is used for the sale of livestock, and the straw and packing cases in which the shrubs are packed have to be destroyed, and such packing materials must not be brought into contact with animals.

Turning to the suggestion that we should get our meat supplies from other countries, your Lordships are probably aware of the enormous quantity of meat that comes from South America. No less than 48 per cent. of the beef consumed in Great Britain comes from South America, and, if we were to cut off that supply suddenly, it would lead to great dislocation and discomfort to many people. We cannot hide the fact that these restrictions and Orders made by the Ministry of Agriculture are very inconvenient to farmers and in some ways act detrimentally to the carrying on of their business, but it is impossible for any Government Department to make these restrictions valid and these Orders workable unless they have the active and thorough support of the farmer. We hope that farmers will help in this direction by carrying out to the letter the Orders that are issued by the Ministry of Agriculture. These are not only the views of the Ministry itself. In one of the issues of the Farmer and Stockbreeder which I read recently the view was expressed that the time had long passed when farmers could say that they did not know what foot-and-mouth disease was or recognise its symptoms, and that their duty was to learn all the signs and to teach their employees, so that if any animal were stricken with the illness it could be at once reported.

It is most unfortunate that in some cases outbreaks have not been reported, with the result, I fear, that the disease has spread from the district in which it is now rampant. I trust that everybody will help the Ministry in stamping out the disease by reporting at once when any outbreak occurs, so that the district may be isolated and the danger of spreading the disease minimised. The disquieting thing is that, while the Research Committee have always had before their minds the discovery of some preventative of this disease, unfortunately they have not so far been able to find it. They have heard of many cures that have been discovered and the researches that they have made have led to a great deal of useful information being gained regarding this terrible disease, but they have not yet discovered a preventative, and they are still working to find an effective means of preventing a disease which has done such an enormous amount of harm to stock owners and breeders in this country. I think that I have answered the questions put by the noble Lord, and I only wish that I could tell him that we had found some means of stamping out this horrible disease.


My Lords, I wish to ask the noble Earl one question. When I was at the Privy Council and had to deal with research matters I gathered that it was extremely difficult to isolate the virus of foot-and-mouth disease. The noble Lord has told us, and we have seen in the Press, that the virus has been discovered in the marrow of bones of animals seventy or eighty days after death. The matter raised by the noble Lord is so important that I wish to ask if any advance has been made by the Research Committee in the way of ascertaining by scientific tests whether, for instance, chilled beef from the Argentine is infected or not with this virus. That has been the great difficulty in the past. I do not ask this in any contentious spirit. Everyone knows the extreme importance of this matter. If there were a scientific test of this kind, it would appear to be a comparatively simple matter. I agree that it is convenient that the inspection should be made at the port of the country of origin, but it is desirable, as Lord Banbury pointed out, to find a system which gives real security, or which can be trusted to the same extent as you could a test made by scientific means, before the meat was exported to this country. I should like to know whether advance has been made so far that a test of that kind could be applied.


My Lords, before the noble Earl answers I would like to put a question to him, in view of the statement that the Ministry has still under consideration the question of what ports in Ireland should be closed for sending beasts over to this country. In deciding from what ports cattle are to be allowed to be imported, may I ask whether he will bear in mind two points of distinction between the Free State on the one hand and Northern Ireland on the other? As I understand it, this country has no control over the inspection of animals in the Free State, for the purpose of detecting foot-and-mouth disease. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, we have power of inspection. Then there is this further difference, I understand, that at the present moment there is no foot-and-mouth disease in Northern Ireland—that the outbreak, so far as information has reached the newspapers, is entirely confined to the South. I desire to ask whether those facts will be borne in mind when the Government decide from what ports in Ireland cattle are to be allowed to come over to this country.


My Lords, with regard to the question of Lord Danesfort every care will be taken in deciding from which ports in Ireland cattle can be allowed to be exported. With regard to the question of Lord Par-moor, I can say that I am satisfied that every effort is being made by the Research Committee to find out where this virus comes from. It has been found to be existent, it is true, in the marrow of bones, and that has been proved by feeding bones to pigs, which have been infected in consequence.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Earl for the answer which he has given me, but I would like to point out to your Lordships that, I think almost for the first time, it has now been admitted that the infection can be brought into this country by the importation of foreign frozen or chilled meat. I think I am not misrepresenting the noble Earl when I say that he stated that when the importation of such meat from abroad was stopped the disease went down by a certain number of outbreaks.


Or fresh meat.


What we are all trying to do is to endeavour to get the disease stopped, and I think it is evident that the disease is brought into this country by the importation both of fresh and frozen or chilled meat from countries where the disease is prevalent. The noble Earl said that the Ministry thought that the proper place to inspect the animals, to see whether they had foot-and-mouth disease, was abroad in the exporting country. I should not have said that that was the best place. Surely it is the object of exporting countries to get their goods sold, and to leave it to them to decide whether we are to lose, by having our cattle slaughtered, seems to me to be a rather quixotic enterprise. I am glad that the result of the debate to-day is to show, as I have already said, that there is a danger from the importation of meat from infected countries. I do not want to press the matter any further, but I do hope that the Ministry will consider whether or not the steps which they are taking are sufficient.

I think the noble Lord said something about the great many years during which meat has been exported from South America—the Argentine Republic is of course the place in question—and nothing very serious has resulted. My information is that it is only within the last ten years that the disease has been so prevalent in the Argentine Republic. What they tell me is done in the Argentine, Republic, if any cattle are found to be suffering from the disease, is that they are not killed or even isolated, but merely put in a place enclosed by rails, with the other cattle all round, and so the disease is spread until the Argentine Republic is full of it, as emphasised by the letter of Sir William Haldane in The Times to-day. I hope that now it will not be necessary to bring the matter forward again, but that the Government will take steps to prevent the importation of meat which may bring infection. I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.