HL Deb 05 June 1990 vol 519 cc1214-8

2.56 p.m.

Lord Hunter of Newington asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many offspring of cattle affected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy are being monitored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, the Ministry is monitoring 312 offspring of confirmed BSE cases together with the same number of control animals at experimental husbandry farms, to determine whether maternal transmission occurs and, if so, at what incidence.

Lord Hunter of Newington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Can she say whether French veterinary experts visited this country recently and whether the disease occurs in France? Can she also say whether substantial numbers of cattle have been exported from this country to France? Is it correct that feedstuff which is suspected of causing this condition has also been exported to France?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the French vets were here last week. They were given full details of the measures we have taken. They have agreed to report these to their Minister. BSE became a notifiable disease throughout the EC from 1st April this year. France has not reported any cases. We have kept other countries fully informed about the development of BSE in Britain and of the probable role of meat and bonemeal as the source of infection. In the light of that, it is for the importing countries to decide whether to accept this material and, if so, under what conditions. For example, this material may be for use in pig and poultry rations, which is permitted in this country. The information that I have received from trade sources is that Belgium, Denmark, France and Ireland are still feeding meat and bonemeal to ruminants.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether or not the rate of diagnosis in Scotland is in any sense comparable with the figures that she may have with her for England?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, in answer to my noble friend's question, the best thing I can do is to put into the Library a list of all the cases that we have had in numbers and the confirmed beef suckler cases by breed. I also tell my noble friend that we have one confirmed case in a pure-bred Aberdeen Angus and 43 in Aberdeen Angus crosses.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, have the Government had discussions with the British Veterinary Association? If so, what was the outcome of those discussions? Were they held at national level; and will they be continued?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, we are in touch with all the scientific expertise which we think can be helpful to us.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that monitoring such a relatively small number of calves in relation to the totality of BSE cases might lead us to very dangerous conclusions at the end of the day, particularly in relation to the hereditary factor? If the small number that has been mentioned are shown to be clear through the monitoring, that will not necessarily mean that the disease is not a hereditary one.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the animals involved in the experiment will be under observation for up to seven years. Results are unlikely for at least two years because of the long incubation period. I believe that we have the numbers about right. Two separate herds are being used in the £12 million research experiments.

Lord Somers

My Lords, have there been any reports of other animals such as cats being attacked by the disease?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, two cases in cats have been confirmed out of 7 million cats in the United Kingdom. Investigations are in hand, but there is no evidence to suggest a connection with BSE, which in this instance would be FSE.

Viscount Mountgarret

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that beef farmers are today experiencing unprecedented difficulty? Is she further aware that the price of beef has fallen in the past two months from £1.50 a kilo to 95p a kilo? Does she recognise that this represents a loss to the farmer of about £100 per animal? This may mean the difference between a profit and a loss to the farmer and whether or not he can pay his rent. Will my noble friend please indicate whether the Government will pay attention to the request of the president of the National Farmers' Union, Sir Simon Gourlay, that consideration should be given to banning all beef imports until such time as this difficulty is resolved? In that way the beef that is marketed by our farmers can be sold at a recognisable return to the farmer who has put so much into it, and the people who have perpetrated the fault in the feedstuff which appears to have contributed to this disease may be called to book?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, perhaps I may take the two parts of my noble friend's question in the order in which he raised them. First, I should like to express my sympathy and that of my colleagues to cattle farmers. They are having a very difficult time, particularly following on from the lead in milk situation. We have asked the European Commission to recognise the weak market position for beef here and in Ireland, and it has opened intervention for unlimited quantities of beef to provide a safety net. With regard to retaliation, I do not agree with my noble friend. We are playing by the rules. We are using the proper European procedures. Two wrongs do not make a right, and importantly, the Commission is on our side.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether sellers of such calves are required to make buyers aware of the fact that they have been delivered from cows affected by BSE? If they are so required, can she say whether compliance with the requirement is being monitored?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, details of all female offspring are kept on computer. Legislation will be introduced as soon as possible requiring details of the dam and offspring to be recorded and retained for 10 years. This is to provide the means if results of research indicate that further action is necessary to help eradication. Advice has been made known via ADAS, the farming press and farmers' meetings. Written advice is provided to the owners of all suspect cases at the time of the diagnostic visit and an advisory pamphlet is in the final stages of preparation following scientific advice.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, in the light of the findings of the Southwood Committee and also of the deliberations of the Tyrrell Committee, is it not good advice for the consumer not to be unduly worried by the scare stories presented in the media and perhaps to take advantage of the low price of beef at the moment?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am delighted to give my noble friend an assurance based on the best advice available. The Chief Medical Officer has said that beef can be eaten safely by everyone, both adults and children, including patients in hospital. Furthermore, most animals currently slaughtered are of an age not to have been exposed to infection via feed.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Baroness informed us that the feed which causes BSE is used extensively in France, Denmark and other countries. Is there a record of an outbreak of BSE in any of those countries? In the circumstances, is there any justification for France and other countries to ban the import of beef into those countries?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition for his intervention because it gives me the opportunity to say that the action taken is without any scientific justification whatever. Earlier this year the top scientific experts in the European Community endorsed the view of our own experts that British beef is perfectly safe to eat. Urgent discussions are taking place at all levels and with the full support of the European Commission to get the restrictions lifted.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the noble Bareness announced proudly that this country is playing by the rules. However, if other countries alter the rules in the middle of the game, is it not inevitable that we shall lose the game?

Baroness Trumpington

No, my Lords. I do not believe that retaliation would actually help our farmers.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Mountgarret, mentioned the dramatic decrease in the price of beef Has the noble Baroness any idea when that decrease will work its way through to the consumer?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord has recently been buying beef, but I think he will find that the decrease already has worked its way through.

Lord Borthwick

My Lords, I note that the Minister of Agriculture has been telling us all about the Continent and our surrounding neighbours but has said noihing about the United States of America. We know that a good many experiments have been carried out there into this new disease. I say "new" but per [laps I should not. It has probably been around for a long time but it now has a name—

Noble Lords


Lord Borthwick

My Lords, I want to ask why America is not in this as well.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am not quite sure what America has to do to get in this.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, can a calf get BSE through the milk of its mother or through the placenta?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, perhaps I may answer in this way. In sheep with scrapie the placenta is a source of infection and it can be passed on through ingestion. We are experimenting with cattle although at present there is no evidence. As far as I am aware from scientific opinion we have been given, milk would be safe for the calf to drink, but it is taken away from the mother as soon as it is born.