HL Deb 08 May 1928 vol 70 cc1015-28

LORD ERNLE rose to move, That all refrigerated meat imported from countries in which foot-and-mouth disease is prevalent should be placed in cold storage at the port of landing, and not released for sale till the expiration of twenty-one days or of such shorter period as may be specially sanctioned. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise at a rather late hour in the evening but previous discussions on this subject enable me to go straight to my main point. They have established these facts: that foot-and-mouth disease is highly infectious, that it has now become so prevalent in South America as to be endemic, that at cold temperatures it preserves its infectivity, that the virus of the disease remains active in the blood of infected meat for a period of forty days, that if it is sold in this country during that period of infectivity it may be a source of danger to our livestock, and, finally, that the Government have no information as to the stages in the growth of the disease in South America and have no knowledge at all of the proportion of meat infected which is imported here from that country.

Refrigerated meat is either frozen, to last for an indefinite time, or chilled, to last for five or six weeks. It is only with the chilled meat that I propose to deal. The life of the meat and of the poison is practically coterminous; that is to say, the meat keeps for forty-two days and the poison lasts for forty days. The result is that chilled meat must be distributed, marketed, exposed for sale, sold and cooked in private houses when the virus of the disease is active in the blood. That being so, it is important to know how this meat is distributed in this country. On its arrival here it is not placed in cold storage but is distributed from the ship into all parts of the country by trains and motor lorries to the depots, market stalls and shops owned by the meat packing companies, as well as to independent butchers. In this way, taking the average of the last four years, 850, 000,000 cwts. of chilled meat are annually sold and marketed in this country, an unknown quantity of which is infected. If you consider the great extent of the trade and the number of persons by whom it is handled, if you think that a drop of blood or a smear on the coat of a man or woman will remain infectious for twenty-one days, if you imagine the score of ways in which a subtle and elusive poison may be spread, you cannot, I think, resist the conclusion that the importation of chilled meat into this country from countries in which foot-and-mouth disease is rampant not only may be a source of contagion, but actually is, and from its very nature must be, a danger to our livestock.

It is quite true that no case of foot-and-mouth disease has ever been traced to refrigerated meat. That would be a very important fact if more outbreaks could be traced to their origin. But they are not in any number so traced. "Origin obscure" is the usual report of an inspector, and it is among those obscurities of origin that the finding of the Research Committee that the virus remains in the blood for forty days becomes so intensely significant. I think it is obvious that the Ministry themselves suspect the danger. They show this by their negotiations with the South American Governments and the companies. They show it also by their Orders dealing with packing cloths and bones and so on. But they still seem to me to miss what is my main point. If the animal is infected, it is the meat itself that is infective through the blood. If a local authority dealt with an outbreak of smallpox by regulating the clothes of the patient, and allowed the patient himself to go freely into the crowd, it would make itself ridiculous. But is that not very nearly what the Ministry are now doing by their Orders? They deal with these packing cloths and with butchers' refuse, but they leave the meat itself, which is highly infective, to mingle freely with our daily life, to be marketed, sold and cooked in private houses without any control whatever.

What are the Government going to do? I sympathise with their reluctance to deal with food supply, and perhaps not least a few months before a General Election; but they surely cannot be content to wait until public opinion in South America is educated on this subject. A generation has arisen to which foot-and-mouth disease, in the mild form that it takes there, has become so familiar that it is allowed to pass quite unheeded from farm to farm, along the roads and the railways, through the markets and even into the quarantine stations. You cannot alter the habits of a lifetime in a few months, or even a few years. We cannot afford to wait until that has happened, and what do we gain by waiting? Whether you maintain the slaughter policy or abandon it, you are equally obliged to control the sources of foreign infection. If you maintain the slaughter policy and do not control the sources of foreign infection, you are wasting public money. You are feeding the disease with one hand and attempting to strangle it with the other. If you abandon the slaughter policy without controlling the infection, you are exposing British farmers to the disease, you are throwing upon them the loss by the death of their animals and the financial cost of their permanent injury and of treatment. To put it mildly, I think that the first course is inconsistent and that the second is unjust.

I wonder whether the public realise to any extent the full meaning of abandoning the slaughter policy without controlling all the sources of foreign infection. I hardly like at this late hour to inflict figures upon you, but I think I really must do so, because the subject is very important. In the nine years from 1919 to 1927 we in this country had 5,300 initial outbreaks. Compare that figure with the figures on the Continent, where the disease is allowed a freer course. In round figures, while we had 5,300 initial outbrbeaks, Germany had 1,132,600; Denmark, 168,900; Holland, 378,100; Belgium, 135,700; and France 314,300. Now, one of the greatest disinfectants is the sun. In our climate, sunless as it is, cold and moist as it is, we are going to suffer in all probability worse than our Continental neighbours. Take two bad years here and on the Continent. In 1920 we had 94 initial outbreaks; Germany, 746,500; Denmark, 5,400; Holland, 53,200; Belgium, 42,800; France, 168,500. Take 1926. In that year we had 204 initial outbreaks; Germany, 187,500; Denmark, 95,500; Holland, 62,600; Belgium, 35,500; France, 48,900. Those are terrible figures, but they do not tell one-twentieth part of the story, because you must remember that each of these initial outbreaks probably means from ten to thirty animals infected with the disease. In Spain, where they record the number of animals attacked, and not the initial outbreaks, the figure rose in 1920 to 2,032,600.

Those figures afford some measure of the value to us of the slaughter policy, and they afford some indication of what may happen in this country if that policy is abandoned, and the source of foreign infection not controlled. Of course the Government want to economise. They can save the taxpayer's money if they will control the source of infection, and return to the conditions which prevailed from 1892 to 1918. In those twenty-six years the veterinary staff of the Ministry was very small, and the annual sum paid in compensation for slaughtered animals was £12,000 a year. In the nine years, 1919 to 1927, the staff of the Ministry has been enormously increased, so much so that the salaries, bonuses and expenses are pretty nearly trebled, and the sum paid in compensation for slaughtered animals has risen to an average of £500,000 a year. That half million means the net figure after making allowances for salvage receipts. Even of those salvage receipts the unfortunate taxpayer seems likely now to be deprived. They averaged from 1919 to 1926 something like £90,000 a year. In 1927 they dropped to £77 11s. 3d. That reduction took place partly because a smaller number of animals was slaughtered, but mainly because experience of the risk of handling infected carcases compelled the Ministry to adopt greater stringency. They no longer undertake salvage in the case of any group of animals among which infection has broken out, or which have been directly exposed to infection. They are all destroyed at once, there and then, and, if such severe precautions are necessary in dealing with infected carcases from Northamptonshire farms, perhaps the Government will tell us why no similar precautions are used for infected carcases from South American ranches.

A week ago a resolution was passed by the Royal Agricultural Society of England, which dealt with the infectivity of bones as well as of blood in refrigerated meat, and it practically eliminated the chilled meat trade, because it imposed upon it a limit of cold storage for seventy days. Whether a bully beef election is a real danger, or only a bugbear, I do not know; but my Motion—I admit it is less logical—goes less far than that. I leave to the Ministry the problem of bones. I believe that if they will tighten up their orders and see that they are carried out, they can deal with bones effectively. I deal only with the infectivity of the blood in refrigerated meat, and I interfere as little as possible with the supply of meat which, infection apart, is excellent in quality and uniform and regular in quantity. My Motion is:— That all refrigerated meat imported from countries in which foot-and-mouth disease is prevalent should be placed in cold storage at the port of landing, and not released for sale till the expiration of 21 days or of such shorter period as may be specially sanctioned. That Motion means that six weeks must elapse between the animal being slaughtered and the carcase being exposed for sale. It secures that no refrigerated in eat coming from countries where foot-and-mouth disease is rampant can be handled, marketed, or sold, until the virus of the disease is extinct from the blood. In order that that may be done and that there may be time for sale, the keeping quality of the meat must be prolonged a fortnight.

That can be done by lowering the temperature at which the meat is chilled and keeping it in cold storage. The process is already familiar to the trade. It is adopted on emergencies, and the product is known as chilled meat. It will be marketed in this country with the poison gone out of it before it is released from cold storage. There is abundant storage accommodation at the three ports at which the trade is concentrated—London, Liverpool and Southampton, and the present charge is at the rate of 37s. 6d. a ton per month, or, if you work it out, at a fraction under ¼d. per lb. The meat undoubtedly will lose that brightness of appearance which enables it at present to pass as fresh home-produced meat, but I am assured that the nutritive qualities of the meat are quite unimpaired. I do not know whether the suggestion has been before the Ministry before; if so, I hope they may reconsider their decision. If it has not, I hope they will give the suggestion their very careful consideration; for, if you come to think of it, this foot-and-mouth disease is a matter of most serious national importance.

It inflicts great suffering on the animals that it attacks, especially sheep, and though 97 per cent. may possibly recover many, especially the milking and breeding animals, are permanently injured. The outbreaks dislocate the business of farmers, they dishearten stock breeders and stock feeders, they threaten our milk trade, they endanger our export trade in pedigree cattle, and, finally, human beings are susceptible to this disease. Hitherto, the subject has been mainly treated on its veterinary side, and medical opinion has not yet pronounced authoritatively as to the means by which it can be communicated, or as to the diagnosis by which its presence can be detected. But the danger to human health and, I may add, to human life, is one which cannot be ignored. I beg to move.

Moved, That all refrigerated meat imported from countries in which foot-and-mouth disease is prevalent should be placed in cold storage at the port of landing, and not released for sale till the expiration of twenty-one days or of such shorter period as may be specially sanctioned.—(Lord Ernle.)


My Lords, I have listened to the speech of the noble Lord with much interest. The Motion before your Lordships to-day, whilst nominally to protect British herds from the dangers of foot-and-mouth disease being imported from abroad, would, if adopted, result in the maximum possible hardships to consumers of meat both in town and country. What are the facts? Last year, in 1927, the total consumption of meat in this country was 2,048,000 tons, of which no less than 925,000 tons were imported from our Dominions and foreign countries. Refrigerated meat is imported in either "frozen" or "chilled" condition, but frozen beef is inferior in quality to chilled beef, due to the low temperature at which frozen meat in maintained. Beef brought to this country in a chilled condition is nearly as good as the best home-killed beef, but, in order to ensure its satisfactory condition on arrival, the transport from port of loading to port of discharge should be accomplished within about twenty-two days.

It is possible to transport beef satisfactorily in a chilled condition from Canada, South Africa and Rhodesia, and everyone interested in the development of New Zealand and Australia hopes that before many years are past it will be possible to carry chilled meat home satisfactorily from these far-off Dominions. If chilled meat had to go into cold storage in this country for about twenty-one days its quality and value would be considerably reduced, as it would have to be frozen down hard in order to preserve it for this extra period; as a consequence the importation of chilled meat would cease, as there would be no object in transporting the meat in a chilled condition and afterwards freezing it down hard. Briefly, the result of the proposal of the noble Lord would be that nearly half of the people residing in England and Wales would in future have to consume meat of an inferior quality and the price would be increased on account of the elimination of competition with chilled beef. This, in my opinion, would be a heavy price to pay for a problematic reduction of foot-and-mouth disease in this country.

As a farmer myself I know what a very difficult time farmers in this country and in Wales are going through, and how they will welcome the steps the Government are taking to relieve them from the payment of rates on agricultural land and buildings, and also the new scheme of credit to farmers. The recent visit of the noble Lord, Lord Bledisloe, to the Argentine and Brazil in his then capacity of Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture has had most satisfactory results, as it has caused both the Governments of the Argentine and Brazil to take drastic steps in regard to the inspection of cattle, which should practically eliminate the possibility of chilled beef from South America arriving in this country affected by foot-and-mouth disease. I can only say that if the proposal of the noble Lord were adopted it would be one of the greatest inflictions that has ever been put upon the great majority of people in this country.


My Lords, we have listened to two very remarkable statements from two great authorities on the different sides of a burning question, and, if I incline to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Ernle, it is certainly not as a Protectionist, because Free Trade is one of the last of my beliefs, but because I feel as an agriculturist that the whole question of successful agriculture in this country, which depends on its stock, is dependent upon the prevention of disease. And how do we stand? The last thing to be desired is that foot-and-mouth disease should become endemic in this country, as it is over all the rest of the world. There are, no doubt, advantages to some countries in pursuing the policy of allowing the disease to run, but it is certainly, with our class of stock, not to our interest to permit the disease to become endemic. We have experience in that line, because contagious abortion itself in our herds is already a sufficient handicap, without having foot-and-mouth disease added. The enormous cost of controlling foot-and-mouth disease to the taxpayer is not the only loss incurred, because, although a farmer may get compensation, hardly anything can compensate him when the whole of his stock has to be destroyed, and that is sometimes done over the whole of a wide district.

I had to serve on a Cabinet Committee at the time of the last great outbreak, when, in Cheshire, whole districts had to be cleared of cattle. And the danger is not only the cost to the taxpayer but the incapacity of the Ministry of Agriculture to cope with such an outbreak as then occurred. The mistakes that were made, the slowness of the slaughter and the great loss to the farmers themselves seemed to make it uncertain whether, unless the disease could be stopped, it would be possible to pursue the policy of slaughter. The real danger always seems to me to be that given these very serious outbreaks—one cannot very well see how the outbreaks are stopped, though stopped they are after enormous expense, trouble and loss—it is conceivable they may occur on an even larger scale than we have yet seen them; and in that case the policy of slaughter itself might be endangered. In the debate the other day it was shown—I think it was acknowledged by the noble Earl who spoke for the Government—that the Government really could not do very much and that the farmers had to protect themselves in importing stores and so forth in the same way as other industries. But the Government will have to do all they can to try to check the importation of disease. And I am certain of this: although the results may be serious as regards the supply of chilled meat from the Argentine, there is something even more important, and that is giving security to British agriculture in respect of its stock. Whether the proposal of the noble Lord who initiated the debate is one that is capable of being carried out I am not prepared to discuss, because I have not gone into the subject; but I am certain that it demands the very grave consideration of the Government.


My Lords, the noble Lord who placed this Motion on the Paper would always command the attention of your Lordships' House because nobody, I think, is considered to be a higher authority on agricultural matters than he. Anything he said would always be listened to with the very greatest interest, and it will have been listened to with special interest to-night because he has brought forward a subject which has been before your Lordships already on several occasions and has been the cause of much anxiety to the country for some years. I can certainly assure the noble Lord, Lord Ernle, that what he has suggested will receive the most careful consideration of the Government. We are only too glad of any suggestions and I am much obliged to him for bringing this matter forward in the way he has done. We have listened to a most interesting speech from him and to most interesting speeches from other noble Lords on the subject of how to fight foot-and-mouth disease. Your Lordships will forgive me for saying that the Ministry of Agriculture are fully alive to the danger and that they endeavour to take all possible steps to eliminate the risk of the importation of this disease into the country. The Ministry are anxious to stop that risk and to put a stop to any suggestion that infection is being brought in through carelessness on the part of inspectors.

The noble Lord, Lord Ernle, raised the point of the virus that exists in the blood of the carcases brought into this country and which is supposed to live for forty days. I must inform your Lordships that it has been proved by experiment that the virus may exist for seventy-six days in the marrow of the bones of carcases. The experiments were only continued for that period of time because seventy-six days was considered to be long enough to cover the voyage of any ship from any part of the world to this country. As all experiments of that nature are very expensive they were not carried further, and we have to face the very unfortunate situation that the virus may live for a longer period than seventy-six days in the marrow of the bones of carcases. It has been mentioned already this evening that the voyage from South America to this country occupies about thirty days and, therefore, the twenty-one days which the noble Lord proposed should be added for the time during which this chilled meat would be kept in cold storage—


The voyage takes 21 days.


I am obliged to the noble Lord. In that case the twenty-one days to be added for the time during which the meat would be kept in cold storage would bring the period to only forty-two days altogether, and that would not eliminate the danger which we fear of the virus still being active after forty-two days in the marrow of the bones. With regard to chilled meat, the proposal of the noble Lord would not be practicable unless other precautions were taken, because chilled meat will only keep for forty days in good condition. He mentioned that there is another process by which the meat might be partly frozen. If that is done I believe that for sale purposes the value of the meat would practically drop to that of frozen meat. It would seem, therefore, that the process of freezing meat entirely should be gone into rather than there should be a half-and-half process of chilling and then freezing after it comes to this country. It is true that there is ample storage here for the chilled meat after it has been brought to this country; but naturally any lengthening of the period during which it was kept in such storage would add to the expense, which would be passed on to the purchasers of the meat. The noble Lord said that the cost of transporting the meat from the ship to the cold storage and of keeping it there for, I think a month, was 40s. I am told that after that period the charge for carcases hung in cold storage is 2s. per ton per day; so that the cost might become quite considerable if it was ordered that carcases should be detained in cold storage for a long period.

Might I remind your Lordships that the Research Committee is always at work studying the viability of the virus in the carcases, the offal and the skin. That Committees makes all its experiments on the lines of treating the skin, the offal and the meat in the same way as they would be treated under commercial conditions. That Research Committee is composed of ten of the greatest experts on animal diseases in the country. Its Chairman is Sir Charles Martin, director of the Lister Institute, and two of our chief officers of the Ministry work with them. I think, therefore, that the Research Committee should command the respect and the confidence of the whole country. They are always on the look out for anything that may arise, and inform the Ministry and give them advice on any subject by which they can help us to eliminate the risk of the spread of the disease.

The noble Lord has given you various figures as to the number of outbreaks in this and other countries of foot-and-mouth disease. It is quite true that there have been a terrible number of outbreaks during the last eight years in this country. The greatest number was in 1923 when there were 1,929 outbreaks in this country costing £2,205,000, whereas last year (1927) the number went down to 143 outbreaks, costing £121,000; while this year so far there have been 91 outbreaks, costing £71,300. The number of outbreaks, therefore, has gone down steadily during these last years, which perhaps may be taken as an indication that the action of the Government has had some effect in reducing this scourge of foot-and-mouth disease. Although 91 may seem a considerable number, the greater majority of those cases occurred in January, the outbreak having commenced last year, chiefly in December. During the past six weeks, I am glad to say, there have been only two outbreaks, in two areas, one in Nottinghamshire, and one in Yorkshire, which are still declared infected areas, and one of those two will came off the list tomorrow, leaving only one case, that in the Yorkshire area which should be free on the 20th of this month.

As noble Lords know, we have taken steps to arrange for the Government of the Argentine to take on their part all the care that they can that infected animals are not sent to the slaughter houses, or if they are, that their carcases are not sent over to this country. We hope that that will have the effect of preventing any diseased carcases arriving here. At the same time we are not in any way going to relax the safeguards that we have thought fit to impose. The noble Viscount, Lord Novar, has referred to the fact that when I last had the honour of addressing your Lordships I mentioned that although these Regulations may be very good they are of no use unless the farmers carry them out, wholeheartedly. We do ask them to have confidence that the Government are doing their very best to eliminate all risk of contagion being brought into this country, and everything that they can to put a stop to any supposition that the disease is being introduced in any way which can be prevented. It is true that the expense incurred by slaughtering the animals is a very heavy one indeed, but it is only a trifle to what farmers would suffer if this disease became endemic in this country. You have only to look at the European countries concerning which the noble Lord, Lord Ernle, gave some figures, to see the tremendous losses they have sustained through this disease. The United States, I may mention, adopted the same policy as the Ministry are carrying out here of slaughtering animals, and they have expended a very much larger sum of money than we have done in stamping it out. They were successful in doing so on one occasion a short time after an outbreak, and again they tackled the matter in the same way, and I believe now they are quite free of foot-and-mouth disease. I understand that in Norway the same policy is being adopted with equal success, though of course Norway is hardly comparable with this country, being an entirely exporting country. They do not import, and therefore do not run the risk of imported animals bringing in foot-and-mouth disease.

The noble Lord said that the disease might be a source of danger to human life. I think that is, if I may be allowed respectfully to say so, problematical. We have heard of one suspected case, that of a man who is supposed to have got foot-and-mouth disease from the animals, but I cannot admit that the disease is a source of danger to human life. If it is that is certainly a matter that must be very carefully looked into. I do not know that I can add any further information to that which noble Lords already have as to the steps we are taking to prevent infection being brought into this country, but you may be sure we will leave nothing undone to bring about the elimination of any infection. I would thank the noble Lord, Lord Ernle, for bringing this subject before us. The suggestion he has made in regard to chilled meat will be carefully considered by the Government, and if anything can be done in that direction which will bring greater assurance to the people of this country and, above all, prevent the importation of disease, we shall certainly take steps to bring it into effect, but I cannot accept the proposition of the noble Lord at once. I can only say that we will give it the most careful consideration and do all that we can.


My Lords, I am glad to hear what the noble Earl has just said, and I hope that the giving of the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Ernle careful consideration will mean something more than merely saying: "I will give your suggestion careful consideration; mind the step; good afternoon," and that we shall hear nothing more about it. The noble Lord has said that it must be remembered that the contagion survives in bone, I think he said for seventy-six days. He will remember that only about a week ago I made a suggestion that bones should be left out and that we might do something in that way in addition to the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Ernle. I hope that the noble Lord will not pay any attention to the statement made by the noble Lord on my left (Lord Kylsant), because after all, what does that statement amount to—that if Regulations such as my noble friend proposes are enforced, people will not be able to buy chilled meat under the impression that it is English meat, and they will have to buy frozen meat for which they will probably pay less, and that will be an advantage to them, though it might not be an advantage that will be welcomed by the people who are importing meat from the other side. So far as the consumer here in England is concerned, he will get meat, which, I understand from my noble friend (Lord Ernle) who is a great authority on the subject, is quite as nutritious in the frozen form as in the chilled form, though it does not look quite as nice, and therefore the consumer will get a good article for which he will pay a proper price, whereas under the present system he is probably getting meat imported by the noble Lord from Argentina which is sold by Mr. Smith, butcher, as the best home killed.


I would like to say at once that I have never imported an ounce of meat from anywhere.


My Lords, after the speech of the noble Earl who represents the Ministry I can do nothing more than thank him for his promise to consider my suggestion. He spoke of America as an example. May I remind him that America puts a heavy duty on all meat from South America, which perhaps is rather a confirmation of my views than of those which he used as an illustration? I cannot press my Motion and therefore I beg the leave of the House to withdraw it.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes past seven o'clock.