HL Deb 27 February 1989 vol 504 cc851-5

2.42 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will publish their report on salmonella infection in laying hens in this country, and what action they propose to take on the report.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, the joint report by government and industry on salmonella and eggs was placed in the Library of the House on Tuesday, 7th February. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has distributed it on request to members of the public. Ministers are considering its recommendations.

The Government are already supporting a large research programme into salmonella. As it is, around £1 million is spent on research each year into the microbial safety of food, including salmonella.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply and for placing in the Library a copy of the report, which I found interesting reading. There are two major points which it makes where action should be taken: first, in applying a general blood test to all laying hens in the country for salmonella and, secondly, for preparing a vaccine against invasive salmonella for use with all laying hens, especially breeding flocks. Those two points seem absolutely right and necessary. Will my noble friend tell the House what progress is being made on those two essential measures, when they will be completed and whether all necessary resources to complete them quickly are available to those who are working on them?

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, we have already published codes of practice for laying hens and breeding flocks. Those codes include requirements for regular and effective bacteriological monitoring, including for salmonella. We shall shortly be making those requirements compulsory for breeding and laying flocks. As regards a vaccine, it is too early to say. Research is in progress but it will be a long while before results are known and an effective vaccine made available commercially.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, perhaps I may come back to my noble friend on this point. In view of the considerable general anxiety about this infection, is he aware that greater urgency is required? Have he or his advisers consulted veterinary scientists in the United States who have some experience of this matter to see whether they can help in creating a vaccine? A vaccine is the only way we can be sure that our laying flocks are safe.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I very much agree with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend. I can assure him that there are effective links between this country and the United States and also between ourselves and our partners in Europe. There is a concerted effort on all fronts to achieve the desired result.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on 14th February, in a Written Answer (col. 161 of Hansard) the Ministry of Agriculture revealed that in 1988 there were 35 reports of salmonella enteritidis in 49,937 flocks of table egg and breeder layers? Since there is more than one report per flock, this means that fewer than 35 flocks have been found to be infected out of the 49,937. In the light of those figures can the Minister tell the House whether the Government agree or disagree with the statement made by Mrs. Edwina Currie in her letter of 25th January to the Select Committee on Agriculture in another place? She said: a significant number of the egg laying hens in many of the egg laying flocks in this country are infected with salmonella".

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, as regards the measure of the problem I believe that there is general agreement that we are looking at a worrying increase in salmonella. I do not think that there is any doubt about that. A great many cases are not reported and whatever evidence one has to go on must be multiplied by a factor to take that into account. However, I take the point made by the noble Lord that the evidence we have does not show a dramatic number of cases, whether one looks at it from the point of view of the producer, the flocks and the eggs or from that of the harm done to the consumer.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, the Minister said that there is a widespread programme of research into the problems of salmonella. Can he therefore explain why scientists engaged on salmonella research at the Food and Agricultural Research Institute at Langford, Bristol, are under notice to quit what they are doing in April of this year?

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, that is consistent with our pursuit of a solution to the problem. Work on the manipulation of microbial flora of the gut of young chicks will cease from April of this year because it is ready for industry to develop. Two companies are now considering applying this technique commercially. Government financial support will be used for other important microbiological research.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, can the Minister tell me whether the report, which I shall read with interest, includes laying ducks?

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, but I strongly warn her not to consume too many eggs laid by ducks.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, does not the noble Earl agree that the urgency which his noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford advocated is very deeply felt both in this House and in the country as a whole? Can he say why implementation of the two major recommendations appears to be somewhat delayed? Is it in any way due to the failure of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of Health to work jointly on this serious problem?

The Earl of Dundee

No, my Lords, there has been very good collaboration in work between the two departments. I understand the desire of the noble Lord to he reassured that action is timely and I can reassure him that it is. We have a good balance now between statutory measures and voluntary codes. I can give examples. Stop notices are now served on flocks known or suspected of being infected. We have compulsory slaughter powers. Statutory compensation will shortly be introduced under the Animal Health Act 1981 and we will shortly be making compulsory the regular bacteriological testing of flocks of laying hens.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the noble Earl has just warned the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, against eating duck eggs. Was that a personal opinion, or a properly considered opinion of the department?

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, personally I am very fond of duck eggs. I would like to eat as many as possible. However, the risk of salmonella is rather higher from duck eggs than it is from other eggs. That is not to say that if one eats them one will necessarily contract salmonella. There are all kinds of places where that can happen, as the noble Lord will be aware. He has to come into the dining room here with a certain amount of caution.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, following the important question of the noble Baroness, does this report cover quails' eggs? The consumption of quails' eggs—though by a minority—is very considerable. Is there a danger from them as well?

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, my noble friend touches on an important point, but I cannot answer without notice.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that there is complete confusion within the public mind. There seems confusion in the Government's attitude too. I ask the Minister a straight question, and I would like a straight answer. Can ordinary people go out and buy eggs today and eat them as they normally did?

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, the straight answer to the noble Lord is, yes.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I am sorry to come back. Irrespective of his view of the dialogue in this place, can the noble Earl tell me whether the remarks he made about duck eggs were his personal opinion or the considered opinion of the department? That is what interests us.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord that it is the opinion of the department that you are slightly more at risk if you eat duck eggs than if you eat other eggs. That is not to say that though you are slightly more at risk you are bound to get salmonella if you eat them.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl can clarify one point. The Minister answered "Yes" to the question asked just now by the noble Lord on my left. The Minister says that one can buy eggs as one normally used to do. In that case what is the purpose of all the warnings that have been issued by the Government? Have we to take special care as regards pregnant mothers, and old and young people? Or do we take no notice at all? Can the noble Earl clarify what he meant by answering "Yes" to that question?

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, just because we have an increase in the problem of salmonella, I do not believe that the noble Lord should feel that he has to radically change his diet or that other people would definitely feel that it was unsafe to go on eating eggs. All we are doing is responding to what the evidence shows; namely, that we have an increase in the problem of salmonella and that we are putting together a variety of measures to deal with it in a sensible way.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that his reply as regards the curtailment of research stations and the transfer to private industry will be alarming to many people? What will be the relationship of the industrial research to the two ministries concerned?

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, as I said earlier, the research is now complete. It is therefore ready for industry to take over. I can tell the noble Lord that funds made available on completion of the work at Bristol on the so-called competitive inhibition of salmonella will be used to support work on the prediction of the growth of microbes in food to develop and improve strategies for food preservation.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, have the Government considered the possibility of sterilisation of eggs in the shells by means of gamma rays?

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend. Irradiation has been considered: the problem is that, applied to eggs, it rather alters the aspect and the flavour. Where applied to poultry meat, it is not necessarily unsatisfactory. As my noble and learned friend may be aware, we have a ban on the irradiation of poultry meat at present.

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