HL Deb 16 November 1987 vol 490 cc65-72

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (England) Order 1987

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Wales) (No. 5) Order 1987

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 3) Order 1987

6.41 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 3) Order 1987 (SI 1987/1837), which was laid before this House on 22nd October, be approved. With your Lordships' permission, it would be convenient to debate all four instruments together.

The orders before us are the latest in a series of instruments controlling the movement and slaughter of sheep from certain areas of Cumbria, North Wales and Scotland following the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station on Saturday, 26th April 1986. So that they may be seen in context, it may be helpful if I briefly recount something of the events which led to the initial introduction of such restrictions and why some minor re-adjustments to these controls were introduced in recent months.

As your Lordships may recall, the Government began daily sampling of milk as soon as we received indications that a major, accidental release of radioactivity had occurred and even before the plume of radioactive material reached the United Kingdom. This sampling was rapidly extended to cover a comprehensive range of food and agricultural products throughout the country. The results showed that radioactivity levels generally were well below those at which protective action might need to be considered. The one exception was sheepmeat from certain upland areas of Cumbria, North Wales and Scotland.

The progress of the radioactive plume, rainfall patterns and the results of sampling data all pointed to the heaviest depositions of radioactive material having taken place in the North and West of the country. These areas therefore became the subject of particularly intensive monitoring. Even here the levels of radioactivity found in milk and other fresh produce were not sufficient to require protective action. However, our testing in mid-May of young lambs not yet for slaughter in certain areas of Cumbria, North Wales and Scotland showed higher levels of radiocaesium 134 and 137 than those found in the rest of country. We kept a close watch on the position and when it became apparent that levels might exceed our action level of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram before the animals went to market, agriculture Ministers took the precautionary step of using their powers under Part 1 of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 to enact emergency orders controlling the movement and slaughter of sheep from the affected areas. The first such orders were enacted on 20th June 1986 in respect of England and Wales, and on 24th June in respect of Scotland, some 8,914 holdings with over 4 million sheep were originally caught by the restrictions.

It should be emphasised that 1,000 becquerels per kilogram was and remains an extremely cautious action level. When, immediately following Chernobyl, the Government had to decide what criteria to apply when determining whether or not to introduce control measures, they were faced with a range of options. The published advice of the National Radiological Protection Board was that the generalised derived limit for sheepmeat would be 10,000 becquerels per kilogram. At the same time, the group of experts set up under Article 31 of the Euratom Treaty issued interim advice that, pending more detailed information on the accident, a level of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram would be safe no matter what range or combination of foodstuffs was affected.

We knew that 1,000 becquerels per kilogram was a very cautious figure since it was only 10 per cent. of that recommended by the National Radiological Protection Board. However, we were also aware that some other countries were adopting extremely low figures for trading purposes and that any levels adopted by the United Kingdom should be seen to conform with the advice given to other EC countries. A figure of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram was therefore adopted for UK sheepmeat. However, the practical implications of this figure so far as consumer safety is concerned are perhaps best demonstrated by considering the fact that, if a person ate lamb for a whole year at a level of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram radiocaesium, he would receive a dose comparable to one chest X-ray; or, to put it another way, less radiation than he would receive during a return transatlantic flight on Concorde. I hesitate to say that it is cheaper to eat lamb every day than to travel on Concorde!

The initial restrictions placed a complete movement ban on sheep from the areas designated in the orders. However, such drastic measures could be only a short-term solution and, in order to minimise disruption of normal farming practices, on 18th August a modified system of control, commonly known as the "mark and release" scheme, was introduced.

The principle behind mark and release is a simple one. Sheep may only leave the designated areas with the consent of the agriculture departments. The consent is conditional upon the sheep concerned being clearly identified as ineligible for slaughter by a distinctive paint mark applied to a shorn patch on the back of the animal's head. Since September 1986 it has been possible for agriculture departments to live-monitor individual sheep moving off for radioactivity so that only those which fail need to be marked in this way.

Radioactivity levels in marked sheep tend to fall rapidly once the animals have left the restricted areas and are grazing clean pasture. Therefore, in December 1986, a futher modification to the mark and release scheme was introduced whereby the purchasers of marked animals can apply to have them re-monitored. If, on re-monitoring, their radioactivity is shown to have fallen to acceptable levels, their paint mark is cancelled by means of a distinctive ear-tag and they can then be slaughtered in the normal way. By regularly changing the colour used for marking purposes it is possible, when re-monitoring evidence warrants, to release from slaughter restrictions all sheep marked with a particular colour.

Although the mark and release arrangements may sound somewhat complex, they provide a flexible system of control which is of good assistance to farmers and others in the affected areas. The system involves a regular sequence of small adjustments to the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) Orders under which the scheme operates. It is for this reason that the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (England) Order 1987 consolidated the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (England) (No. 2) Order 1986 and no less than seven subsequent amendment orders. Changes to the mark and release schemes are one reason why today's debate is taking place. The second reason is recent adjustments to the boundaries of the Welsh and Scottish designated areas.

As I mentioned earlier, when restrictions were first imposed in June last year some 4 million sheep and 8,914 holdings were affected. The numbers both of animals and holdings were gradually reduced throughout the summer of 1986 and into the autumn until, by early this year, all but some 174,000 sheep from 468 holdings in Cumbria and North Wales had been released from restrictions. These derestrictions took place against a background of falling radioactivity levels which took sheep in all but a few core areas below the Government's action level of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram.

However, spring brought evidence of radiocaesium being recycled in the new growth of vegetation in certain areas and government monitoring showed that this, in turn, was being taken up by sheep grazing such vegetation. In parts of North Wales and Scotland this recycling led to instances of sheep in previously derestricted areas once again exceeding 1,000 becquerels per kilogram. Therefore, movement and slaughter restrictions were imposed and even, in a few small areas of Scotland, introduced for the first time.

Some people have questioned whether those restrictions mean that the situation is deteriorating. I think the answer lies in the fact that, even after account has been taken of these recent measures, today 635 holdings and approximately 746,000 sheep are subject to control in England, Wales and Scotland as against 8,914 holdings and over 40 million sheep in June last year.

As to whether the fact that in parts of Scotland restrictions have been imposed for the first time only this year means that sheep containing in excess of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram were previously entering the food chain, we are confident that the answer is no. A comprehensive and regular policy of monitoring in slaughterhouses has been in force in Scotland since the Chernobyl accident. In only one case was a level of radioactivity above the limit detected at a slaughterhouse and that led to the prompt imposition of restrictions on the movement and slaughter of sheep from the area in question.

The Government are by no means complacent about the continuing need for restrictions. We are continuing to undertake and sponsor research aimed at increasing our understanding of how caesium behaves in upland eco-systems. We are also investigating possible remedial treatments of the land or animals affected. However, for the immediate future at least we believe that the present movement and slaughter controls provide the most practicable way of ensuring the continued safety of the food chain, the maintenance of public confidence in UK lamb and the minimum disruption to farmers' normal husbandry practices. I commend these orders to the House.

Moved, That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 4) Order 1987 laid before the House on 5th November [5th Report from the Joint Committee]; the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (England) Order 1987 laid before the House on 5th November [5th Report from the Joint Committee]; the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Wales) (No. 5) Order 1987 laid before the House on 5th November [5th Report from the Joint Committee]; and the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 3) Order 1987 laid before the House on 22nd October [4th Report from the Joint Committee] be approved—(Baroness Trumpington.)

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, the last time I stood up to reply to the noble Baroness, I accused her of telling us too much. Tonight I must congratulate her on telling us exactly the right amount about this important subject.

We are very glad to hear of the progress that has been made in getting over the difficulty, which was no fault of ours or of the farmers concerned. The orders are essential. They are necessary to reassure the public that they are not eating meat which is radiated, although we are now being faced with the question of irradiation, which is a different matter. As the noble Baroness has pointed out, the amount allowed—I can never pronounce the word—

Baroness Trumpington

Becquerels, my Lords.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness. It is a low amount and it is very safe indeed. As the noble Baroness has said, one receives more radiation when crossing the Atlantic in Concorde. I think there was an incident when a noble Lord visited Sellafield. He had a watch which produced so much radiation that it set off an alarm. The public can therefore be assured that the Government are taking adequate action in terms of the amount allowed.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness about press reports concerning a situation in Yorkshire. The newspaper stories may be slightly exaggerated. However, the noble Baroness may feel that she can comment on that situation.

Perhaps I should mention that there is a wad of paper with each order. Those papers describe the areas in tremendous detail in terms of map references, where they are, and heaven knows what else. One such description finishes: the unclassified road running in a north-westerly direction until Bargrug Cottage". I hope that someone knows where Bargrug Cottage is. Would it not be much easier simply to copy a map and issue it, rather than have pages and pages of description of the area? However, there may be some reason for that.

I gather from talking to farmers and unions that they are generally happy with the compensation. There have been some delays in Wales. However, I understand that sympathetic consideration is being given with regard to the delays. There is still the problem of what I think can be described as the third leg of the situation as regards the compensation of £1.37. There is supposed to be a five-day delay. However, it is felt that that delay is often increased and that the 1.37 does not really cover the matter. I do not think that it is a serious point but it was put to me.

This has been a difficult situation with the enormous number of farms and sheep affected. It is gratifying that the report tonight shows that the matter is being well controlled. We hope that next time the noble Baroness comes to the Dispatch Box concerning this subject she will be able to tell us that all the sheep are free of contamination, as well as the one or two shepherds and farmers who have been affected.

Lord Walston

My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Baroness has been able to put this matter in perspective, which seems to me to be one of the most important things that can be done. People become terrified by radiation and obviously they are right. It is a frightening matter. However, while taking seriously the potential risk from eating animals or drinking milk which has been produced from animals grazing on contaminated grass, one cannot allow that to give sleepless nights to any consumer in the British Isles. I think that the noble Baroness has put that fairly and squarely.

It is obvious that when such matters arise there must be speedy action. There must also be continual monitoring of those areas which are likely to be contaminated. That clearly involves close liaison with the meteorological office. Is the noble Baroness quite satisfied that the liaison is as close as it should be? I am not suggesting that it is not. But I should like her reassurance on that point because it is something which must be relatively new in the activities of her ministry and of the meteorological office.

I also gather that an important factor which is emerging is the question of soil types. Certain soils appear to retain contamination for longer than others. Is that something which has come as new knowledge to the experts? Is it something which has been known for many years? In either case, has the noble Baroness or her department sufficient detailed information about soil types to be able to cope with this phenomenon?

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, raised the question of Yorkshire. I am glad that he did so. I should like to ask the noble Baroness if it is true that there is a small area of contamination in Yorkshire. Without in any way appearing to cast blame on anyone, how is it that a small area was, in the first instance, not noticed and how was it that, in the second instance, it was noticed? By what procedure has this occurred? Is the noble Baroness satisfied that there is no risk of any significant areas being overlooked in the future?

My final question is perhaps an unfair one and I shall quite understand if the noble Baroness cannot answer it. Are the experts satisfied that human beings can be contaminated only by ingesting the milk or the meat from animals that have grazed on contaminated grass, or can there be contamination by contact with the wool, for instance, or the hide? Is that a theoretical possibility? Is it a practical possibility? It is not a question to which I expect the noble Baroness to have an answer at her fingertips but it would be interesting in due course to know what the experts think about that. These orders are obviously correct and the right ones and we naturally support them.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am grateful for the points raised by the two noble Lords. Perhaps I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. It is a funny thing how fashions change. Radiation was considered the "in" thing in the 1920s. His reference to a wristwatch prompted me to say so, because when I went to one of the government laboratories in my previous incarnation I copied an advertisement which offered radiation of one's corsets. I know that that does not apply to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, but it might have applied to me in the 1920s, had I been alive!

Boundaries—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie—are designated by reference to hard features such as roads, walls and houses which appear on maps. Although the list of marks is long it is a simple collective system.

Both noble Lords asked me about the publicity about Yorkshire. I should like to set the record as straight as I can, because there has been much exaggeration in the press. Recent information and rainfall in Yorkshire have led us to reinvestigate the area around Skipton and Ilkley. A small number of sheep out of 600 examined proved to have elevated levels of caesium. These sheep are breeding ewes and will not be slaughtered for food. Normal farming practice in those areas is to bring sheep off the moors for finishing on lower grazing before slaughter. This makes it likely that they will lose their caesium before entering the food chain.

I am not sure whether this was queried but I shall say this to pre-empt any further queries as to why that part of Yorkshire has not been included. In Cumbria, Wales and Scotland, by contrast, sheep may be sold directly off the moorland and thus go to slaughter without the opportunity to lose their radioactivity. All lambs destined for market in Yorkshire which have been tested have been found to have low levels of radioactivity. The deposition area in Yorkshire appears to be confined to a single area of moorland on which one flock of breeding ewes has been grazing. Testing will continue to make doubly sure that there are no other pockets elsewhere. We have live-monitored 950 animals in Yorkshire. Only two were just above 1200 becquerels, confirmed by laboratory testing of meat from slaughtered animals.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, raised the point about leg 3. Leg 3 covers certain direct losses for each week the animals were held back by the restrictions. Since the introduction of restrictions we have paid out to producers over £3 million in Wales, some £1.5 million in Scotland, and in total almost £4.9 million on 9,500 claims.

The noble Lord, Lord Walston, asked me about which land types held the radiocaesium. We are sponsoring a range of laboratory and field studies with the urgent aim of more closely defining the situation with regard to radiocaesium of Chernobyl origin still present in high fell areas of England and Wales and of predicting its behaviour in future years. The availability of radiocaesium for uptake by pasture plants is being studied in a range of soil types, as is the distribution of radiocaesium at different depths of soils and overlying litter layers. Comparison with measurements of pre-existing weapons-test radiocaesium will provide data as to longer-term behaviour.

I can go on and on. For instance, there is the question of worm activity. However, there are many different forms of experiment being carried out in order to ascertain the effect on soils. We know that anything with peat is a likely source, and badly drained, poor, land will also carry the radiocaesium. But we are still in a fluid process of experiment to predict the future.

I am glad that your Lordships have welcomed these regulations. I trust that noble Lords, like the farmers in the affected areas themselves—whose cooperation throughout this difficult period we cannot praise highly enough—will continue to bear with us as we work to maintain both the safety of, and the public confidence in, UK lamb.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at eight minutes past seven o'clock.