HL Deb 20 June 1991 vol 530 cc302-6

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions)

(Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 2)

Order 1991

5.40 p.m.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne rose to move that the two orders laid before the House on 23rd May and 4th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, these orders ban fishing for certain species of shellfish in certain areas off the north-east coast of England and the west coast of Scotland. They are required because of the build-up of a naturally occurring toxin, paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP for short, in the flesh of these species which could be dangerous to anyone who ate the fish. The orders will remain in force for as long as necessary and no longer than necessary. They will be revoked as soon as the results of continued weekly monitoring indicate that the toxin has subsided to a safe level.

PSP results from a build-up of toxin in certain species of shellfish. The species most affected are bivalve molluses such as mussels and scallops. Traces can be found in other types of shellfish such as crabs and lobsters, but normally at very much lower levels. The build-up arises from the ingestion of algae containing the PSP toxin. These are common to many north-west European countries and further afield. Problems generally arise when there is exceptionally high production or blooms of these algae.

They are normally associated with calm, sunny weather and hence tend to occur in late spring and summer. The blooms are therefore naturally occurring. They are not associated with pollution. On the east coast of Great Britain traces of the PSP toxin have been recorded in every year since 1968. Last year and this year PSP was also detected at significant levels on parts of the west coast of Scotland.

In the system of measurement used for this toxin, a reading of 400 units is internationally accepted as the level at which action needs to be taken to protect human health. Last year there was a major surge of PSP, with levels well in excess of 400 units. Public health warnings were issued covering a large part of the east coast of Britain and specific parts of the west coast of Scotland. These were effective in that no human cases of poisoning were reported, but the resulting scare stories in the media caused serious disruption of the shellfish market. In the light of last year's experience the departments involved—the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Health and the Scottish Office—reviewed their monitoring and action arrangements with a view to ensuring effective protection of the public with minimum disruption of the shellfish market.

There is now a comprehensive programme of monitoring in the area known to be at risk—the coast of Scotland and the north-east coast of England—with samples of shellfish being taken at frequent intervals at selected sites. This programme enables us to base action on a type of shellfish on results from that type. Where action levels are reached, we take one of two types of action according to circumstances. Where no commercial fisheries are involved it is sufficient to post signs along the beach warning against collection and consumption of the specified species of shellfish. That has been established practice for many years. Where commercial fisheries are involved, however, we now have a policy of closing the affected fishery by statutory order under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985.

In some circumstances voluntary closure of fisheries may be adequate because only a small number of shellfish farmers or fishermen are involved. In most cases, however, such action alone cannot be sufficient to guarantee that no affected shellfish will reach the market. The industry was consulted over the new arrangements and is generally content with the revised monitoring and action procedures.

Against that general background your Lordships will want to know the specific circumstances which led to the making of the orders before us today. They are as follows. In England a result of 904 units was obtained on 22nd May from the scallop beds off Berwick-upon-Tweed. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food acted immediately to close the affected fishery by statutory order. That is the first Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) PSP order before the House today. The order prohibits the taking of scallops (including queen scallops) in UK territorial waters from the Scottish Border to Newcastle. The landing and use in production of food of scallops is also prohibited. The area to which the order applies includes the affected scallop beds, together with a safety margin to the north and the south.

In Scotland, high levels of toxin were detected in queen scallops at Loch Dunvegan, Skye and Badicaul, Kyle of Lochalsh. The readings were 772 and 1,177 units respectively. Immediate action was taken to have warning notices posted on the shores of the affected areas, and the Scottish Office contacted shellfish farmers in those areas and advised them not to harvest or sell. However, as there are also fishing boats which operate in the area, an order was made on 29th May, the (No. 2) order before us today, banning fishing for all bivalve molluscs.

The orders will be revoked when we are satisfied on scientific and medical advice that it is safe to do so. In the case of the English order that point has in fact been reached: it is being revoked this afternoon and will cease to have effect at midnight tonight. The Scottish order, if last year's pattern is repeated, is likely to have to remain in force for some time yet. I beg to move.

Moved, That the two orders laid before the House on 23rd May and 4th June be approved [22nd Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.)

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, we are grateful to the Minister for his detailed explanation of the orders. The powers embodied in them are most important because of the serious nature of the contamination. The very fact that they are designated as emergency orders ensures that, far from trying to oppose them, we are anxious to see that they are implemented. The Minister will be aware of some of the anxieties expressed by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments about the possibility of the orders being ultra vires. But I am sure that they will have been drafted in such a way that the committee will be satisfied that those who drew them up will have made allowances in regard to the advice it submitted.

However, a few questions remain to be answered. The Minister went into some detail about how the public are informed of the dangers of consuming shellfish from a particular area. I am not as familiar with the area on the English side, but I roughly know the area around Applecross. It is a large area. If the Minister were to look again at the schedule to the Scottish order (the No. 2 order) where "Area One" is designated, he would see that there are no fewer than 12 refererences to "latitude" and "longitude" which the casual stroller along the coast would be hard pressed to identify. Can the Minister tell us whether there are maps available to people entering these areas? I am sure that there must be proper designations on Ordnance Survey maps, but are there rough marks on maps to indicate to people where these dangerous areas are situated?

I am pleased to note that notices are placed along the beaches, but some of these areas are very remote. I know the Kyle of Lochalsh to some extent and the Applecross area, but there are areas which people visit only occasionally. There may be a tendency to say, "This area is not used much, we hardly need to post bills in it". Then a family comes along with children and they fill several black plastic sacks with shellfish. It could cause considerable harm.

I assume that the control over the commercial gatherers and commercial farms is firm enough for the problem not to present a serious danger. One assumes that anyone with a commercial interest in the area will be anxious to remain on good terms with the health authorities and fishing authorities when there is such contamination. Therefore, these areas may be more easily policed than areas where there are casual, innocent people on the seashore. I should be interested if the Minister can tell me whether casual gatherers can be protected.

On the inner Clyde coast, despite a number of newspaper warnings, there are frequently no notices. I have seen people gathering whelks knowing they were dangerous. Children probably took them home, boiled them up and tried to eat them. Whether or not sickness resulted, I do not know, but there is that possibility. The Minister spoke about mussels which are becoming extremely popular. I am not concerned so much about the commercial side but about the casual gatherer. I hope that the Minister can satisfy the House on the matter.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, for his comments. He asked a number of questions to which I shall attempt to reply. First, he referred to the policing of the areas. Commercial fisheries are known to the sea fisheries inspectorate of the Scottish Office which is well placed to police that aspect.

The second point which the noble Lord raised concerned casual gatherers. To deter members of the public from casual gathering of shellfish, as I stated in my opening speech, warning notices are posted on beaches by environmental health officers who would also be in touch with local traders and hoteliers. The environmental health officers are authorised officers under the Act to enforce the orders. It should also be borne in mind that the trade has its own reputation to protect. Shellfish farmers in particular have been most co-operative.

The final point raised by the noble Lord concerned maps. Maps are not produced but local authorities make sure that all people in the locality know of the orders. I hope that that answers the various queries of the noble Lord. I commend the orders.

On Question, Motions agreed to.