HL Deb 20 March 1996 vol 570 cc1307-17

5 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on BSE which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

"In view of the Statement which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health has just made, the House will wish to know the action I propose to take to ensure the risk to the public is minimised.

"The additional recommendations just made by SEAC that most immediately affect agriculture departments are that carcasses from cattle aged over 30 months must he deboned in specially licensed plants supervised by the Meat Hygiene Service and the trimmings kept out of any food chain; and that the use of mammalian meat and bonemeal in feed for all farm animals be banned.

"The committee goes on to state that if these and its other recommendations are carried out the risk from eating beef is now likely to be extremely small.

"The Government have accepted these recommendations and I will put them into effect as soon as possible. Any further measures that SEAC may recommend will be given the most urgent consideration.

"Also, and with immediate effect, I have instructed that existing controls in slaughterhouses and other meat plants and in feed mills should be even more vigorously enforced.

"I do not believe that this information should damage consumer confidence and thus the beef market. But I should say that support mechanisms exist in the common agricultural policy and the Government will monitor the situation closely. I will naturally report developments to the House.

"I recognise that there will be public concern, but the Government's Chief Medical Officer advises us that there is no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted to man by beef. Indeed, he has stated that he will continue to eat beef as part of a varied and balanced diet, as indeed shall I. In view of what I have announced, we believe that British beef can be eaten with confidence."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.2 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement which was made by his right honourable friend in another place. In responding to it, I should declare an interest. The farming company of which I am a shareholder and director has dairy cattle in its farming. As the Minister said, it is a serious matter. The effect on the cattle industry is obviously grave, but immediately I must agree with the remarks of my noble friend Lady Jay that public health must come first.

If the Government have changed their view on the possibility of a link between CJD and BSE, it is serious. There must be the fullest and most open publication of all new information that the Government have on the matter. When the Minister replies, perhaps he could tell us whether there is any further information to come.

There are three immediate steps that the Government should take. First, they must ensure that cattle that have BSE are not going into our food chain. That will mean ensuring that no animals displaying the symptoms of BSE are slaughtered for food and making sure that the controls are watertight. It will also mean redoubling their efforts to establish a reliable live test for BSE. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what is the state of play on research for establishing a live test for BSE. In that way we shall know which animals are carrying the agent before they start to display the symptoms and they can be slaughtered.

Secondly, the Government must make sure that none of the specified bovine offals and other organs that have been identified as being carriers of the BSE agent are getting into our food. The Minister had to accept last year that there had been a failure there and the control regime was tightened up. He must take an urgent look again at the efficacy of the controls.

Thirdly, the Minister must ban from human food the specified offals of calves under the age of six months. Calf brains are still allowed into our food. The House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture recommended six years ago that those offals should be banned. The ban must be brought into force forthwith.

Have the Government considered the likely effects on our beef exports? I repeat the point that I made about the importance of research into a means of identifying BSE in cattle before the symptoms appear. I refer to research mentioned in the previous Statement: the Committee recommended that there should be urgent consideration of what further research is needed in this area and that the Health and Safety Executive and the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens should urgently review their advice". Obviously, we agree with that; but what is the situation with agricultural research and the identification of the agent in live cattle?

The Government bear a direct responsibility for what happened between 1986 and 1989. The Minister will remember that for some considerable time the Government only paid half compensation, half the market value, on the infected animals. That led to a considerable risk of infected animals entering the food chain through farmers deciding that if the animal looked a hit groggy, they would send it to the cattle market and get the full value from the market rather than half compensation from the Government.

When I put down a Question for Written Answer about the saving to public funds of that policy, which was eventually changed, I was told that it was £4 million. That is disgraceful. The Treasury saved £4 million through that policy and undoubtedly the result was that infected animals reached the food chain.

It behoves all of us to do our best not to spread panic and alarm. Equally, the public must have their confidence restored. There are two specific points on the Minister's Statement. First, he said that, the risk from eating beef is now likely to be extremely small. I understand that a risk analysis has been carried out. How small is the risk? Can the Minister give us the figure shown by the risk analysis? Secondly, the Statement says: I do not believe that this information should damage consumer confidence and thus the beef market. If the Minister believes that, he will believe anything. The way the Government have handled the matter today, with the joint Statements and other actions, can only damage consumer confidence and the beef market. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that all government departments involved—health, agriculture and so on—will make the restoration of public confidence paramount, through the fullest and most open publication of the relevant information.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, from these Benches I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said. Public health comes before the financial welfare of the beef industry, and of that there is no question. However, a number of actions could help. The first is that we had the reassuring statement from the committee that there is no need to change its advice on milk. That is useful to the industry.

However, the Statement contains a number of points which worry me. First, there is the fact that the use of mammalian meat and bonemeal will be banned. I thought that much of the use of mammalian meat and bonemeal had been banned. What new bans will be imposed? Certainly, any products resulting from the removal of spinal cords and other parts that are thought to be a possible source of infection should be totally banned and destroyed.

Another matter on which the Minister must respond is this. If the intention is to debone all cattle over 30 months in specially licensed plants, how soon will those plants be set up? How many plants can be set up in the United Kingdom so that cattle do not have to be sent immense distances before they can be treated?

Will the Minister assure the House that the suspicion of infection relates not to the good steaks and roasts of beef that come from our cattle, but to the offal and to certain other parts? Will it be made absolutely certain that those parts cannot enter the food chain? That would reassure people. I find an indication from the Chief Medical Officer that he will continue to eat beef quite reassuring. However, there is a lot more to this matter than his confidence.

Will the Minister tell the House what is the progress of the disease in cattle'? I understand that it has been falling, and falling fast. Will he give us the up-to-date figures for the reduction in BSE in the whole cattle stock in the country?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful for the interest and for the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Mackie of Benshie. Questions are being asked about today's developments and it is useful to air them here. I can assure both noble Lords, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who made this his first point, that the Government have always been, and will always be, open about BSE and any concerns that spring from it, such as a possible link to CJD. That has been the case for many years. We have been, and always will be, guided by the experts on this subject. We within government cannot pretend to be scientists. However, we know where the expertise is, and we shall be guided in policy by those experts.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked if there was more information to come. Indeed there is. The SEAC committee will sit very soon to consider whether further measures might be needed. It will report to Ministers as soon as it has come up with those details. In turn, Ministers will place that information in the public domain. The major research programme that is being conducted behind SEAC will also deliver information when it is ready.

Funding for research into these areas is fairly substantial. For research into CJD and BSE together it totals about £9 million; for research into BSE alone it has gone up by nearly 20 per cent., from between £5 million and £6 million to between £6 million and £7 million. Therefore, there is considerable commitment to establishing necessary answers to the questions. There are some promising findings coming forward from that research. But the speed with which they are being developed and proven to the point when they can be incorporated into policy and farming practices is slow. One of the inevitable features of this kind of research is that early findings have to be developed sufficiently before they can be translated into farm practice.

The risk analysis that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, demanded is extremely difficult. The entire SEAC committee of experts has been fielding questions by Ministers and others regarding details of risk analysis. One essential problem lies at the heart of this whole issue. We are still dealing only with theoretical risk. There is still no proven link between BSE and CJD. There is still no evidence that man can get CJD from beef. Therefore, all that the scientists have to work with is theory. It is because they see the theoretical possibility of a link that they asked us to take this action, and we are taking it. If there was evidence of a proven link, risk analysis would be very much easier.

As my noble friend Lady O'Cathain mentioned, the SBO regulations led to much tighter practices within slaughterhouses and other meat processing plants. Those came into force in 1989. Some failings have been identified, many of which were of a fairly minor kind. For instance, if all offal has to be stained, the rule is that it is stained on all sides. It was not always the case, for instance, that every side of all the offal was properly stained. However, those regulations and practices have been progressively tightened. They will be tightened considerably further after today's announcements. I remind noble Lords that the Meat Hygiene Service has the major obligation to ensure compliance. The State Veterinary Service ensures that the Meat Hygiene Service is fulfilling that obligation.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, complained about the fact that initially we offered only 50 per cent. compensation to farmers who had BSE-infected cattle. In fact, we have been offering them 100 per cent. for over six years now. In retrospect, we possibly unwittingly allowed a temptation to which some farmers may have succumbed. Since February 1990, that avenue has been closed to them. We pay farmers full market value compensation for BSE-infected cattle that have to be destroyed. It is also against the law for farmers not to report a BSE-infected cow to either MAFF in England or the Scottish Office in Scotland. So, quite apart from receiving full compensation, they are breaking the law if they fail to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, said that the House of Commons Select Committee called for a ban on access to the brains of calves under the age of six months. I point out that if SEAC, the committee of experts, tells us that that is what we should be doing, we will do it. I am absolutely certain that the committee will continue to examine this point. It has access to the research that has been done in this respect. Calves that have been deliberately infected with BSE, even when they reach the age of 18 months, still show no infection in the brain. Therefore, by allowing the sale of calf brains up to six months, there is a 12-month safety margin. If SEAC experts tell us that the use of brains of calves under six months should also be banned and destroyed, we will act on that advice immediately.

I turn quickly to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. Public health is paramount. I hope that there is no suggestion that we have ever put the beef industry and its livelihood ahead of public health. If anyone suspects that, it is a misunderstanding. I confirm that the safety of milk is absolutely undoubted. The SEAC committee has always said that milk is safe, and today it reiterated that advice to the nation.

On the point about meat and bonemeal, since 1988 it has been banned from being fed to ruminants. The pig and poultry world was, however, still able to gain access to meat and bonemeal. Today's announcement in effect bans even its supply to the poultry and pig markets. It therefore prevents any confusion on farms where, for instance, there are different animals being tended, and prevents meat and bonemeal supplies being fed to the wrong animals.

I hope I have answered most of the questions from the two spokesmen opposite. It is important to stress that in this matter we will always be guided by the scientists. Records show that the 1989 specified bovine offal order has produced a dramatic fall in recent years in the number of BSE cases being confirmed. There are now about 250 new suspected cases across the UK being confirmed each week. That is a dramatic fall from the very high figures of 1992–93. In Scotland, the figure has dropped to less than one a day. So the measures put in place in 1989 have begun to take effect. The measures that we have added today should speed up the total elimination of BSE.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in his original Statement, the Minister indicated what was being done in the case of beef created by slaughter in this country. Can the noble Earl say what steps are taken in respect of imported beef and offal?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, both within UK regulations and European regulations there are extremely strict rules applying to all food products imported into this country. Although there is some incidence of BSE in other countries—Ireland, France and Switzerland spring to mind—in fact the extent to which this BSE has taken hold is very small indeed. I can assure my noble friend that the meat and other hygiene conditions which apply to all food products coming into the country are sufficiently tight, and the public buying imported beef can be reassured by that.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether the bone meal he spoke of is the same as the bonemeal that we throw on the garden to boost our vegetables? If so, could the disease get into them?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, rather than assuming that I know the answer to that question, perhaps I may write to the noble Baroness and tell her exactly.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement. Perhaps I may pick up one matter that was raised in the Statement and ask some questions about a point that has not so far been mentioned this afternoon.

The Chief Medical Officer's statement said that he would continue to eat beef. We need to beware of statements from people in what I might call high positions. We remember that the chief executive of Yorkshire Water said that he had not had a bath and it transpired that he had gone over the border and had a bath with friends and relations. That was not available to the population of Bradford. The Chief Medical Officer said that he will eat beef. Is he to continue to eat British beef or will he eat imported beef that may not be available to the rest of the British population?

I have two more serious questions, if I may put it that way. A large number of people in this country derive immense personal reassurance and a degree of assistance in leading their lives from their pets. Cases have been reported in the media of domestic cats that have succumbed to a disease similar to CJD and BSE. At this point, I suddenly remember that I must declare an interest because in my family we have two cats.

What advice will the Government give to pet owners? Secondly, what research is being conducted to ensure that pets are protected from the risk of contracting that kind of disease?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, neither the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, nor the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, should feel disturbed by the Chief Medical Officer broadcasting his decision to continue to eat beef. My informal understanding is that members of SEAC, who have been researching this topic in a more expert fashion than any others, are also of the opinion that beef remains a crucial part of a varied and balanced diet. They are very aware that it is only a theoretical risk. There is no firm evidence. Moreover, the theoretical risk is not between beef meat—the flesh or muscle that we buy in butchers' shops or on the bone—and CJD; but between bovine offal—specified offals which have been known to become infected by BSE—and CJD. So it is a theoretical risk between bovine offal and CJD that they are researching.

The Chief Medical Officer and others also know that the existing measures have already produced dramatic results in the decline of BSE, that the risk is extremely small and that the new measures, in addition to the existing measures, make an extremely small risk yet smaller.

When people in public life and such positions whose habits are subject to scrutiny decide to eat beef, they do so quite deliberately on the scientific information that is available to them. With regard to pets, the SEAC remit is without any restraint whatever. Wherever BSE exists or any of the concerns that spring from it, SEAC is able to investigate. I know that the pet food industry and pets generally are an area covered by SEAC which it will continue to look into.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, the noble Earl referred to the work of the Meat Hygiene Service. In the Statement of his right honourable friend, there was reference to existing controls being even more vigorously enforced. That is reassuring, except that many of us would have assumed that the controls had been vigorously enforced for a substantial period of time. Can he say what specifically will change as a result of the Statement? Will more staff be employed, for instance, by the Meat Hygiene Service to make quite sure that the existing controls are fully implemented in slaughterhouses.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, instructions have already gone out to the Meat Hygiene Service and the State Veterinary Service today that compliance with every control that has been in place since 1989, including the regulations from 1995, for instance, which tighten the 1989 regulations, must be absolutely and rigorously enforced.

Secondly, more continuous visible inspection is required at crucial moments in the slaughtering process, especially when a carcass is split, which involves the backbone potentially coming into close contact with open meat that could then be sold at a later date. We fully recognise that the Meat Hygiene Service must put in more hours in order to perform that duty. We shall fund the additional workload that we impose upon them.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I am absolutely convinced that my noble friend the Minister is right and that the risk is only theoretical. Otherwise, why would scientists say that? The effect on public confidence has been huge as has the effect on the standing of our farming in international circles. The epidemic of BSE has been here for 10 years. In 1967 there was a frightful epidemic of foot and mouth disease in our national herd. That was stamped out by burning all the diseased cattle. Is it not now time to take the radical decision to burn all infected animals and once and for all get rid of this disease?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I sympathise with the concern and frustration expressed by my noble friend. All BSE infected animals are destroyed and burned in incinerators. There is no chance of parts of such an animal entering the food chain in any way whatever. There is a danger, if we burn animals that do not have confirmed infectivity, that we begin to burn animals which do not suffer from BSE but from some other ailment.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, my point is that, so far as I remember, in 1967 over two million cattle were destroyed because of foot and mouth disease. That got rid of the disease absolutely. We are speaking currently of around 167,000 cattle. I should have thought that the risk of burning animals that were not infected should be set against the advantage of ridding the country of BSE.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I understand the point that my noble friend made. As I said, the farmer who has a BSE-infected animal must report that animal. He will be paid full compensation for it. There is no incentive whatever for the farmer to keep that animal on his farm.

As I said before, the incidence of BSE is dropping quite fast. The total number of cases of BSE, which is just under 160,000, is the total number of cases recorded over a 10-year period. In fact, in 1995 the incidence of BSE was 40 per cent. lower than in 1994 and the numbers in 1994 were significantly lower than in 1993. On the graph, the line is extremely sharp in its downward curve.

My noble friend mentioned the issue of public confidence, which is vital. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, rather mocked me for my hope that public confidence would survive this incident. I know that there was a large and healthy degree of optimism in the Statement from my right honourable friend. However, one would hope that, because we are dealing with a theoretical risk of a connection between bovine offal and CJD where there is still no firm evidence of it, responsible scrutiny within the public domain and responsible reporting by the media will minimise the impact which will undoubtedly be felt. If we can minimise that impact and speed recovery back to normal beef-buying patterns, we will he doing everyone a favour.

Lord Winston

My Lords, I apologise that inexperience led me to be on my feet too long last time and I promise to be brief this time. I accept completely that part of the reason we have this problem is that we have such good public health surveillance and control in this country. That is to the credit of the Government and I want to make that point.

Perhaps the Minister can give me an assurance—nobody wants to damage our excellent beef industry—that there will be a continued search to make certain that no other exogenous proteins are involved in connection with the disease in those patients. For example, in medical research we use bovine serum albumen, derived from cattle, for the culture of viruses for immunisation. It was suggested that that may be a possible carrier for the disease. Similarly, we regularly use a number of hormones which are mammalian derived. I want to make sure that we obtain the fullest information in that regard as soon as possible.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, for his recognition that surveillance on public safety matters is rigorous and, I hope, effective.

The search into all aspects of BSE and its theoretical link to CJD will continue with increasing funds being made available and therefore increasing research projects and jobs. SEAC will remain in a strategic position to gather in research and indicate where the research is needed. SEAC tells us what we must hear; we do not tell SEAC what we do and do not want to hear. I can therefore reassure the noble Lord that all areas, including those he mentioned, will be considered by SEAC as part of the research projects.

The noble Lord mentioned various special uses of bovine materials in the medical profession. I know that vaccines are completely safe and have been for some years. We anticipated that there may have been public anxiety in that regard. Both myself and my noble friend the Minister for Health made sure that we were equipped to reassure people that SEAC is absolutely certain that everything from gelatine and stock cubes to vaccines and cat gut are safe; that safety is not compromised in the making of any of those products. They are all composed from BSE-free sources or, in the case of gelatine, its production is such that any BSE infection is unable to survive.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, reverting to the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, perhaps, in my usual way, I can be helpful to the Minister by asking him if he is aware that the bonemeal that we use on our gardens is sterilised at an extremely high temperature and is therefore quite safe? In the spirit of the exchanges perhaps I can announce that Lord Ewing of Kirkford, former winner of the Rose Bowl for the best garden in Leven and enthusiastic gardener, will continue to scatter bonemeal on his garden.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, as a neighbour, give or take five miles, of the noble Lord, his horticultural prowess is well known over a wide radius. I am therefore grateful for the wisdom that the noble Lord brings to the discussion on horticultural bonemeal. However, I shall deliver the letter in case the noble Baroness wants a second opinion.

Lord Vinson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is some comfort to be drawn from the fact that this disease has been known to he present in sheep for over 200 years and there does not appear to have been any major health hazard in humans as a consequence? Perhaps we can draw deep comfort from that. In fact, we may he talking about a storm in a teacup.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point that over a 200-year period some sheep have been diagnosed as having scrapie and there has never been any evidence of that entering the human food chain. However, the SEAC committee will continue to pursue any area where it believes that the theoretical risk to public safety justifies its exploration. Indeed, the area it identified today is one where, though there is no real evidence, it feels justified in alerting us to the possibilities.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, perhaps I can ask a question from the Back Benches. The Statement states, I do not believe that this information should damage consumers' confidence and thus the beef market. But I should say that support mechanisms exist in the Common Agricultural Policy and the Government will monitor the situation closely". That does not appear to me to be definite enough. If great damage is done to the beef industry, will the Government support it?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, as I said when I repeated the words of my right honourable friend in another place, we will continue to monitor the situation. Nothing has been stated by the CMO or SEAC that can in any way justify a long-term or structural decline of the beef industry in this country. The risk is not proven; there is no evidence; the whole thing is theoretical.

Agricultural Ministers will continue to be concerned for the livelihood of farmers. For instance, the noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that beef makes up 30 per cent. of Scotland's entire agricultural output. The value to Scotland of its exports of beef is around £180 million per year. It has almost doubled in the past few years. It is a valuable commodity. If the farming industry .and the beef sector suffer unduly and disproportionately from events such as today, we will he monitoring the situation and seeking appropriate measures.

Lord Annan

My Lords, is this, like the decline in the male sperm count, a case of an issue being hyped up by the media? All the answers given by the noble Earl suggest that the risks are minimal, though the noble Lord, Lord Winston, made an extremely important point.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, in some respects the noble Lord, Lord Annan, makes a good point; that is, that the response by the Government, by those in the public domain such as noble Lords in this House and by the media should he proportionate to the news delivered by the experts. It would he disproportionate and unjustified if they delivered today's announcement from SEAC and the CMO in a light that scaremongered beyond that justified by the evidence.

I have stressed many times the theoretical aspect of this case and that we are talking about a further reduction of an already small risk. There is considerable reassurance in that. In addition, SEAC feels that the most likely way in which the 10 people who are believed to have suffered from a new form of CJD may have been exposed to a possible BSE route or pathway arose from experiences that occurred 10 years ago, perhaps in the 1980s before the measures we took in 1989. I therefore share the noble Lord's plea that the media and others deal with this whole issue realistically and in the proportion that it deserves.