HL Deb 24 July 1996 vol 574 cc1394-402

3.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay)

My Lords, this may be a convenient moment to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about transmissible spongiform encephalopathies in sheep. The subject was discussed at the Agriculture Council last Monday. Commissioner Fischler there said that he intended to put forward proposals for controls on sheep to apply across the Community.

"Scrapie, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) of sheep and goats, has been known for over 200 years. There is no evidence that it is linked to Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (CJD) in humans. CJD occurs at approximately the same level in countries with and without scrapie.

"I have recently received advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) that BSE could, theoretically, become established in the sheep flock. It notes that in experiments (the results of which have been published) one out of six sheep experimentally challenged orally with BSE brain material succumbed to an encephalopathy; and that when their brain material was tested in mice the same strain type as BSE was found. It notes also the possibility that some sheep could have been exposed to feed contaminated with the BSE agent before the ruminant feed ban was introduced in 1988.

"The committee points out that there is no evidence of BSE occurring naturally in the sheep flock. However, the SEAC concern is, while there is no evidence to this effect, scrapie might be masking BSE in the sheep flock. On the basis of present knowledge SEAC has made three recommendations.

"First, that the Government should consider this issue further with EU partners. We have started that process. We are keeping in close contact with the French Government, whose scientific committee equivalent to SEAC has made certain recommendations on the basis of the laboratory evidence about BSE in sheep, and of concerns about scrapie. At the Agriculture Council on 22nd July Commissioner Fischler announced that the Commission intends to formulate proposals for the removal of certain offals of sheep and goats from the human and animal food chain. These proposals are to be considered initially by the Standing Veterinary Committee in early August, and then by other EU expert committees.

"SEAC's second recommendation was that the Government should give early consideration to removing the brains of sheep, whatever their source, over six months, from the food chain. The agriculture departments are today issuing for consultation a proposal for the heads of all sheep and goats to be removed and destroyed in the same way as specified bovine material. This measure would go rather further than SEAC suggested, taking into account the practical difficulty of distinguishing the age of sheep at slaughter. It should not have a major economic impact as the vast majority of sheep's heads are already destroyed. It is worth noting that sheepmeat for human consumption comes predominantly from young lambs under 12 months.

"We intend to reach a final decision in the light of responses to this consultation and in the light of progress of EU discussion. Action on this issue at EU level would be preferable, but it is desirable that these measures are put in place promptly. There is no direct threat to human health; the action now being proposed is precautionary, to respond to what appears no more than a theoretical risk.

"SEAC's third recommendation is that further research should be done to establish the levels of scrapie occurring naturally in sheep and to investigate further the risks of BSE transmission to the UK sheep flock. We accept this. Some relevant research has already begun.

"I emphasise that these steps are being taken out of an abundance of caution. There is no direct threat to human health. With the exception of the consumption of brains, there is absolutely no reason for anybody to change their eating habits. I repeat: there is no evidence at all that in field conditions BSE has got into the national flock: but as that possibility cannot be wholly excluded we are proposing to take these precautionary measures.

"I am putting a copy of SEAC's advice and of my Ministry's consultation letter in the Library of the House." My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, the House is very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by his right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As always, I should declare an interest as a director and shareholder in a farming company with dairy cattle.

Before we turn to the Statement, it would be helpful to the House if the Minister could bring us up to date with what is happening with the slaughter scheme and the necessary orders both as regards the cull-cow slaughter and the selective slaughter scheme. In the very helpful Ministry BSE newsletter on the 4th July it says: We aim to introduce the necessary legislation before the House of Commons rises for the summer recess. In order to meet this, the consultation period has had to be restricted and will finish on 9th July. I understand that orders will not now be laid until we return, presumably in the overspill. Does the timetable still hold that the Prime Minister gave when he made his Statement after the Florence summit, in which he very clearly stated the October, November and various other dates for the slaughter schemes? This is a chance for the Minister, before we rise for the Recess, to bring us up to date on that, although now is not the time to go into detail on the slaughter scheme. I am receiving a lot of information from farmers, from slaughterers and from renderers that it is not working well in practice, but there will be plenty of time to go into that when we deal with the orders on our return.

Perhaps I may now turn to the Statement. The phrase which puzzles me is: I have recently received advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) that BSE could, theoretically, become established in the sheep flock". The progress report from the ministry, which is an extremely helpful document that was produced in May this year and referred back to all the research which has been going on for some time, says: BSE has been experimentally transmitted … to cattle, pigs, sheep, goats"— and to other species— Cattle, sheep, goats … also succumbed to oral challenge in separate experiments"— that is mentioned in the Statement. It continues: The susceptibility of sheep to challenge with BSE was demonstrated in 1989 … the finding of infectivity in the spleen of sheep is consistent with the known distribution of the scrapie agent in the species". What has happened? This information has been available. It was published in the Veterinary Record, I believe, on the 1st June, and it was published by the ministry in May, and then all of a sudden we have a crisis again which is affecting the sheep market substantially.

Could the Minister tell the House why there is this sudden need to produce this information now in the way in which it has been done? It was obvious that it was known in March when the first Statement was made about the BSE in cattle. Why is it now being produced in the way that it is?

Perhaps we can turn to the handling of the announcement itself. It seems that the Commission and the Government have learnt nothing. We understand that on Monday evening this week Commissioner Fischler made a statement in the Agriculture Council in which he called on the Standing Veterinary Committee to recommend that the spleen and the central nervous tissue, brains and spinal chord, be removed from sheep and goats. I emphasise that it was the commissioner who called on the Standing Veterinary Committee to recommend that. The commissioner did not specify any age limits in this regard. These issues will be considered by the Standing Veterinary Committee at the beginning of August and its discussions will include the practical implementation of sheep offal controls as well as the possibility of distinguishing between lambs and older sheep.

So there is that and there is the television news, with the Minister, Mr. Hogg, announcing—I think correctly—that there is no risk in eating sheep meat. The news reader immediately went on to say that it would be a month before the ban would be introduced at the very earliest. So what is happening to sheep that are being killed today? Are the specified offals being removed? We all know the effect on the sheep market as we heard it on the radio this morning. It is now 25 per cent. down. Those are the prime lambs—the sheep farmer has just one harvest a year—and they are just coming to market. Once again, there are announcements which cause great concern; information which has been available for a very long time; the European commissioner instructing the Standing Veterinary Committee on what to do; and the Minister attempting to catch up on behalf of the British sheep farmer. Cynics might just wonder about the timing of our European partners, just when our sheep are coming to market. We need now from the Government a clear statement which traces the whole of the scientific background and explains just why it has been felt necessary to bring out this news now.

How much notice did the Commission give the Government of its intention to make the announcement? Was it any longer than the 30 minutes that the Government gave the Commission in March? Perhaps I may also take this opportunity to ask the Minister to bring the House up to date on what is happening with tallow, gelatine and semen? What is the news on the ban? Is there any more news? Are we any further in ensuring that the ban should be lifted?

My last point on the Statement is that the Government, correctly, have overruled the scientific advice in which SEAC spoke of removing the brains of sheep, whatever their source, over six months from the human food chain. I believe that we all think that the distinction at six months is quite absurd. How on earth does one know whether a sheep is five months and two weeks old or six months and two weeks old or whatever?

The Government said that they will be issuing for consultation a proposal that the heads of all sheep and goats be removed and destroyed in the same way as the specified bovine material. The assumption is not entirely correct. I believe it is true that the brains of calves under six months old can still enter the human food chain. I ask the Minister whether it is correct for them to go in their present direction and overrule the SEAC advice in the case of sheep's brains. Why does the same point not occur with calves' brains?

Finally, the Government and the Commission are at last working on the precautionary principle. I feel that that is absolutely correct. That is what we have learned from the whole of the BSE debacle—which is what it has been. Only recently the Minister in a public speech said that since the late 1980s the Government had the working assumption that there was no connection between BSE and CJD, and that has now been called into question. They are therefore changing their policy. The possibility of such a link was made known in the 1980s and the Government were working on the wrong working assumption in effect. If they had followed the precautionary principle then, we should not be in the mess that we are in now with cattle. At last, I believe that they are following the correct principle—the precautionary principle—in dealing with this recent matter.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, the Statement says that: one out of six sheep [were] experimentally challenged orally". It seems to me that your Lordships have been experimentally challenged orally this afternoon, in both the previous business and this.

How many years do we have to go without BSE affecting an agricultural sheep in the field before this ban—which has been described by the British Veterinary Association as ludicrous and by the President of the Federation of Vets in Europe as a remedy for a non-existent disease—is reviewed? The Government suggest that this is only a temporary measure while more investigations are made. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that it is wise to adopt a precautionary principle. But there has been no known case of this disease in sheep. How long do we have to continue with these absurd ways of dealing with the food scares that turn up from time to time?

Lastly, perhaps I may ask the noble Earl, when he is wearing another hat, on behalf of your Lordships and all his Scottish colleagues and certainly my wife and myself, whether or not we are allowed now to eat haggis.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, we should take the most important points first. I can assure the noble Lord that haggis remains absolutely safe. It has sustained the Scottish nation over many thousands of years and I suspect that it will continue to do so.

Both the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont and Lord Carter, made some very constructive points, which I welcome. Perhaps I should point out to the House as background that the concern with scrapie and the possible pathway of BSE into sheep is a European problem rather than a problem specific to any one member state. As such, we have been and will continue to be involved with consultation and discussion with our European colleagues, both at member state level—I single out France particularly in that instance—and with the Commission itself.

The precautionary principle was mentioned by those noble Lords and I agree that it is a vital principle and one that we always seek to follow. The recommendations that have come forward from SEAC have always been acted upon by the Government and promptly acted upon. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, touched very pertinently on the fact that an element of common sense is also needed. Otherwise, there is a danger that the precautionary principle will stop us getting out of bed in the morning. So moderation is needed at the same time.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked why suddenly today we have a Statement on the subject when much of the information that is coming forward today has been in the public domain for some time. That latter statement is correct. I should point out that the recommendations from SEAC have just been delivered to us, after it met as a committee on the 19th June. Also, the Dormont Committee in France, which is France's equivalent to SEAC, delivered its recommendations to Fischler at approximately the same time. That led Fischler, also on Monday at the Council of Ministers, to make a statement on the subject and to outline the kind of proposals that he would be bringing forward. So there was sufficient profile for this subject for the House of Commons in particular to demand some kind of Statement from my right honourable friend. I believe that it was his intention to deal with the subject in the Adjournment Debate, which has just started in the other place, but other parties there felt that something more formal was needed.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, casts some doubt on whether the commissioner himself should tell the Standing Veterinary Committee what he wanted to hear it conclude. I stress again the extent to which we are all involved in negotiating and discussing the subject. I certainly hope on behalf of the Government that the undoubted pre-eminence of SEAC in this entire field will be an influence on the European discussions.

As regards the handling of sheep today, I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and other noble Lords that almost all sheep's heads are already kept well away from the food chain when sheep go to slaughter. So in a sense we are going out to consultation to implement the SEAC recommendation that sheep's heads should be treated in the same way as specified bovine material. We are merely formalising the existing practice—the status quo.

The noble Lord also mentioned calves. My general observation on that point is that with cattle there is very often better documentation as to the exact date of birth. That is not the case at the moment with the sheep flock.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether there are any public expenditure implications in what he has said today and, if so, what are they?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, that point will become much clearer at the end of the consultation period that starts today. We shall be consulting all relevant parties. They will inform us of any expenditure implications in terms of the private sector. We shall also have to establish to what extent additional enforcement and monitoring might be involved. The pertinent fact is that, as nearly all sheep's heads are already kept out of the food chain, we are simply formalising an existing practice rather than demanding a new one.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, on this question of sheep's heads, can the noble Earl inform the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that the brains of sheep and goats which appear to die from some form of encephalopathy are monitored and analysed? Do we not need to know whether these animals die from BSE or from scrapie?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, the noble Lord asks a good question. A considerable and increasing amount of research is being done both on the consequences of the laboratory experiment that proved that BSE could be artificially transmitted to sheep and indeed on the scrapie disease itself. I can reassure the noble Lord that analysis of the results indicates there is no evidence that BSE is present in any of our national sheep flock. The testing of material from sheep with scrapie, a similar disease to BSE, has failed to identify anything other than scrapie itself.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, in view of the circumstantial evidence—or the lack of it—on the transmissibility of BSE to humans, causing CJD, which has resulted in the beef ban, does my noble friend agree that, on the basis of what is new and significant evidence on the transmission of BSE to sheep (even those genetically resistant to scrapie) and to mice, it is a realistic precaution to treat mutton in a similar way to beef? Does he also agree that the primary method of stopping BSE in both cattle and sheep populations in this country is the strict enforcement of the ban on the feeding of meat and bonemeal? Will he ensure that this is done effectively and that the appropriate manpower is provided for it to be so done?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Soulsby, especially because of the background from which he asks questions on such complex subjects. He referred to the evidence which has come forward as being new and significant. I do not want to disagree wholeheartedly with him but at the same time I stress that there is no evidence of our national sheep flock becoming infected with BSE under its natural circumstances and natural feeding habits. What there is evidence of is experimentally transmitted BSE, so I believe that those riders which I add to my noble friend's remarks are perhaps more significant.

The advice of SEAC has always guided us through the encephalopathy policy areas. Given its undoubted expertise in this whole area, the number of scientists and the amount of research that the committee draws together, and given that it includes vets and veterinary scientists who come from countries other than our own, we are and will always continue to be guided by it on the best recommendations we can bring forward.

My noble friend made a good point about the proper enforcement of MBM. Although there has clearly been some leakage since the 1988 ban on including ruminant protein in ruminant feed, the fact that we largely stopped that practice in 1988 and then closed off all remaining avenues earlier this year will help us to prevent any possible problems within our sheep flock. I would point out that it was only at the end of last year that France, for instance, decided that MBM should not be included in ruminant feed.

Lord Desai

My Lords, one of the things we should have learnt is that the way scientists perceive risks is different to the way people perceive risks. Although scientists may think there is a risk, it is the way we convey that information to the people that determines how people think. It is no good saying there is a one-in-a-million risk of getting CJD because for people who eat beef every day a one-in-a-million chance becomes magnified.

One of the great problems with this particular announcement is that even saying—as the noble Lord said—that we are only formalising the status quo alarms people because they have not been made aware of that. For example, if at the minimum level this had been described as something to do with mutton rather than sheep generically, the lamb market would not have suffered the price shock it did. If somebody had invented the mad mutton crisis that would very likely have got lamb off the hook.

However, I am making a serious point. We are not making sufficient distinctions of this kind. More alarm is spread than is strictly necessary. The next time we have a crisis like this, will the Government please take note of the fact that there is a lot of research available on risk perception in human beings, which is different to the way scientists calculate risk? If the noble Lord wishes I can give him many references on the subject because there is an important point to be made there.

The Earl of Lindsay

I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Desai, has focused on risk perception. Undoubtedly the longer term consequences of the supposition made by SEAC, both in March and again today—the first was made on no direct evidence whatsoever but merely on a likelihood, and that of today was made on the basis of experimentally transmissible evidence—have all arisen from the perception and understanding of the wider public of the risk that scientists seek to explain. I am sure the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Desai, with regard to this area, is relevant.

The fact that I said that we were formalising the status quo is of great relevance because the danger otherwise is that the public may think that sheeps' heads have regularly and widely gone into the human food chain and that is not the case. SEAC has not concentrated on mutton any more than it has concentrated on lamb. It has concentrated merely on the brains of sheep; not even on the tongues of sheep. Sheep's tongues will still be available. Therefore, the thought of a mad mutton crisis, or that that might become a label that the press use, for instance, would be very misleading indeed because the simple scientific focus by the SEAC experts is on the sheep's brain itself.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, we have had scares about eggs, about beef and about sheep. Could the noble Earl the Minister say to what extent there is now control so that these scares will not be followed by a scare about chickens, ducks and fish?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, there are so many scientists in the world who need to feed the mouths of their children, as it were, and at the same time such great thirst among the media to suggest that things which we all find familiar are not as comfortable as we might have thought, that we are likely to have continued doubts cast on many of those things which we would otherwise trust.

I would refer my noble friend back to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Desai, about risk perception. If the Government are advised by experts that there is a potential threat to human health, they must act on the theoretical or potential risk if there is action that they can sensibly take. What happens thereafter is what the noble Lord, Lord Desai, articulated; namely, that the perception changes as it is interpreted by others.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not the case that sheep are very rarely fed on concentrates? In fact, lowland sheep are normally only so fed at lambing time. If no sheep has been fed with meat and bonemeal since 1989 and a sheep's life is perhaps nine or 10 years at the most, there should be no sheep in the national flock, in the food chain, that have been affected by BSE. Could the noble Earl confirm that please?

I should also like to know how it is proposed to keep a check on the possible spread of BSE in flocks. With BSE in cattle it is intermittent. You get two or three in a herd. I understand it is the same with scrapie in sheep. Many farmers, when their sheep die—and this is particularly so with hill sheep—leave them out on the hill for the foxes. Lowland sheep are very often sent to hunt kennels. I do not expect the Minister to be able to answer my final question immediately. Is there any indication of hounds in kennels suffering from encephalopathy as a result of eating sheep's brains? I imagine that the hounds in kennels eat the whole of the sheep.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am not aware of any evidence of hounds suffering from encephalopathy. The best I can tell the noble Countess is that all scrapie controls are now under review, both in the UK and in a European context. We do not feel that there is a need to be unduly concerned about current practices because of the tight focus that SEAC have currently employed on the sheep's brain and its head rather than on other parts of the sheep's body.

In relation to the banning of meat and bonemeal in ruminant food, as the noble Countess pointed out, that was enacted in this country in 1988 and therefore, if that is a possible pathway of BSE in sheep as has been shown by experiment in the laboratory, then this country should show a much lower profile in terms of the threat that it poses than those countries which have not or only recently banned the use of ruminant protein in ruminant feed rations.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether saddle of lamb, rack of lamb and lamb cutlets are going to be unobtainable?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I certainly hope not. The consultation paper published today will focus on the recommendation that only the sheep's head is kept out of the food chain, as is the case with sheep's heads at the moment. The noble Lady's rack of lamb remains safe for the moment.