HL Deb 25 March 1996 vol 570 cc1492-503

4.30 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 the beef industry which is 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 wish to make a statement about the beef industry.

"My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health has informed the House of the advice we have received from SEAC earlier today. I hope that this will help to reassure consumers as to the safety of British beef and that this in turn will lead to an improvement in market conditions.

"Some of the SEAC recommendations are for the agriculture departments to take forward. In particular, SEAC has given advice on the treatment of trimmings from cattle over 30 months of age, on meat and bonemeal; and on the status of heads from animals over six months of age. The Government have accepted these recommendations in full and I will bring orders before the House as soon as possible. Because of the nature of the advice given by SEAC, these require consultation with the interests concerned. However, I propose to proceed as expeditiously as possible.

"The House will appreciate that the orders will be complicated since, in particular, a new system of licensing for plants authorised to bone out animals over 30 months of age will be required.

"However, the House will also be concerned about the effect of recent alarm on the beef market and on the livelihoods of the many thousands employed in the several industries connected with it. As I made clear to the House last week, a number of mechanisms exist within the common agricultural policy to support the beef market. These include intervention on young male animals, including safety net intervention if prices fall to particularly low levels, export refunds, and other measures such as aids to private storage, and aid for the slaughter of young male calves from dairy herds.

"Obviously the precise use we wish to make of these, or other, mechanisms will depend upon the extent of the market reaction. It is too early to judge this with confidence, but I am in touch with the Commission so that measures can be put in place as soon as it is clear that they are justified.

"Madam Speaker, I believe that, second to putting in place the necessary measures recommended by SEAC, the most important task is to rebuild consumer and market confidence, a process helped by today's Statement from SEAC. However, confidence is fragile. I shall monitor it with scrupulous care and I shall not hesitate to come before the House with further measures if it is clear that they are justified by the circumstances".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement which was made in another place by his right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I should also declare an interest as a director and shareholder of a farming company which has dairy cattle.

As we said last week, this is a very serious matter. Despite all the problems of the agriculture industry, public health must come first. However, if we are in the situation in which agriculture in this country faces what is potentially the worst crisis in its post-war history, a combination of complacency and hand-wringing will just not do. There has been a catalogue of incompetence, misjudgment and inertia. But that can be dealt with on another occasion and I hope that time will be given for a debate on that. But I trust that all of us who must deal with this matter will act responsibly and do our utmost to allay public alarm.

I start with a simple question. Will the research findings, when they are finally published, explain why the incidence of BSE in this country is 422 times the incidence in the rest of the world put together? Can we have an answer to that?

Last week I referred to the fact that I am sure that a contributory factor to the introduction of animals into the food chain is the obstinate refusal of the Government to pay full compensation on animals—only 50 per cent. compensation was paid—for over three years. The saving to public funds was £4 million. That may be the most expensive £4 million that any government have ever saved. Even in January 1994, there was a further reduction in the compensation paid on affected animals.

Perhaps I may give an example of the seriousness with which the Government took the situation in 1990. When the announcement was made that compensation would be increased to 100 per cent., it was carefully timed by the Minister at the time, Mr. John Gummer, to be released on the afternoon of the evening on which Mr. Neil Kinnock was to make his speech to the annual dinner of the National Farmers Union. If Ministers spent less time in childish headline massaging and more time in responding to their responsibilities for the safety of public health, we might not be in this situation today. By refusing to pay full compensation, the Government gave a perverse incentive against eradication from the food chain.

We must have the strictest controls in our slaughterhouses. We know that the random investigation by the State Veterinary Service last year revealed a worrying state in which controls were not being enforced. Perhaps I may refer to the statement from the SEAC which states: Other bones do not need to be treated as SBO"— that is, specified bovine offal— if they can be separated from the vertebral column, without cross contamination. It is also recommended that the whole head of animals aged over 6 months of age, except for the tongue (provided that it is removed without contamination), should be treated as specified". Have those people ever been anywhere near an abattoir? Who is supposed to exercise and enforce those controls?

We entirely agree with the banning of the use of offals in meat and bonemeal but there will be a major problem of waste disposal of those offals. What plans do the Government have to deal with that?

The Statement refers to intervention but I understand that, for intervention to apply, meat has to be saleable. Is there an undertaking that if the meat cannot be sold, it will be accepted into intervention? I was told only this morning of a major slaughterhouse which is losing £100,000 per day at present because of lack of sales. It is having to stockpile everything. If there is to be compensation, who pays? Will it be the British taxpayer, the European Commission or both?

The Statement refers to export refunds. What exports are the refunds to be paid on? Will the Government now accept the argument which we have made since the mid-1980s that there should be an independent food standards agency which is responsible for the quality and safety of the nation's food, whether imported or home produced? Every time these matters are discussed, there is divided responsibility. There is always this unique situation of a joint statement by the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture. This shows that divided responsibility must be ended. Consumer safety must be separated from producer protection.

Perhaps I may refer to the health Statement which speaks of: other relatively minor recommendations concerning the treatment of specified bovine offal". We do not want "relatively minor recommendations". We want serious recommendations to deal with the problem which faces us.

The statement from the Chief Medical Officer states that: The term safe is not the same as zero-risk". That will do for a degree in philosophy but how will that run in McDonald's and Burger King?

Will the Minister undertake to ban from human and animal food the specified offal of calves? We do not accept that it is wise to continue to allow offal from cattle under the age of six months into the food chain. The Minister made much of the fact that the Government have listened to the outcome of research by scientists. Will the Government consider random testing for BSE in the brains of cattle routinely sent for slaughter, as recommended by the Tyrrell Committee in 1989? Will he reconsider the safety of MRM— mechanically recovered meat—in the light of the new concerns?

For the sake of both farmers and consumers alike, I make it clear to the Minister that only when consumers are satisfied that they are protected by rigorous regulations which are properly enforced will there be confidence that our beef is as safe as any other beef in Europe.

The enforcement of all the BSE controls and legislation is crucial. I remind the Minister that as recently as last summer the State Veterinary Service found that BSE control rules in abattoirs were being flouted. Will the Minister give the House an assurance today that the State Veterinary Service and the Meat Hygiene Service will be given all the resources and all the statutory authority that they require to execute their duties?

As regards the new steps that the Minister has announced today, will he confirm that if a carcass, or part of a carcass, is believed to have been contaminated in the slaughterhouse, or in any other part of the chain, with specified offal, that carcass, or part of a carcass, is to be prohibited from entering the human or the animal food chain? Can the Minister tell us who will be responsible for taking the decision that this action is necessary, and who will be responsible for enforcing it? Will the Minister consider ensuring that all cull cows are slaughtered and destroyed? Does the Minister agree with the statement of the former Prime Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, that advisers advise but Ministers decide?

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, it is difficult to follow the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in that he has specified a great many matters that are wrong. I believe that great harm was clone because the Government were not sure what the advice was from SEAC. They then set it to work for a weekend, after making the announcement which destroyed our beef trade in Europe, and they then make this Statement now which could have reassured a great number of people if they had not been totally upset and terrified by statements, such as that which emanated from the Minister of Agriculture when he said that, if necessary, he would kill every cow in Britain. It appears to everyone that great harm has been done to the industry by the handling of the announcement which the Government made last week.

As regards the Statement made today, I was going to urge that the Government do nothing for publicity's sake, such as slaughtering large numbers of animals, but the Statement now includes such phrases as proposing to proceed as expeditiously as possible. That is hardly likely to do immense good on the Continent where people are waiting to see what energetic steps the Government are to take. Will the Minister assure us that instructions have already been issued to every slaughterhouse to ensure that they tighten up, and that inspectors are working overtime to ensure that they do so? That is an absolute necessity at the present time. Will the Minister also assure us that every cattle beast which has been found to have BSE is slaughtered and destroyed and does not enter the meat chain at all? Will the Minister tell us how soon he thinks licences can be issued to slaughterhouses to bone out completely, and does he think that any interim steps should be taken before that is done? There might well be a case for slaughter and destruction until the slaughterhouse is ready to carry out the instructions and the recommendations of SEAC.

Will the Minister also assure us that all the necessary staff will be put in place to carry out these stiff recommendations? Will he make a statement to assure the public at large that milk has never had any connection with any infection put forward? Finally, can he tell us what exactly is the position in Europe, not as regards the number of BSE cases but as regards the precautions that they are taking? That might do something to help. The damage has already been done. There is reference in the Statement to the measures that could be taken if prices fall to particularly low levels. If the Minister had read the agricultural papers, he would know that the prices in Aberdeen have fallen by £100 per head. I hope that that fact will be taken into consideration and will not be regarded as a necessary sacrifice by the farming community.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I was grateful when the noble Lord, Lord Carter, acknowledged the fact that public health is being put first. However, the other allegations he made were wide of the mark and were somewhat extraordinary at times given his knowledge of the industry and of some of the complexities of the industry. There has been no complacency in the handling of this matter. We have been guided for the best part of a decade now by the leading experts on this subject. We introduced orders in 1989 and in 1990. We have tightened those controls since. All the time we have sought to reduce a small risk. We have increased the research. We have researched both CJD and BSE. The arrangements, the restrictions and the controls we have had in this country to date have been approved both by European veterinary experts and indeed by the World Health Organisation. They have led to the comment that they go beyond the controls that those bodies might otherwise have expected of us. Therefore, according to those bodies, we have exceeded the minimum threshold.

As regards why the incidence of BSE in the UK is so much higher, there are a number of factors which occur together uniquely in the UK which has meant that BSE has entered the cattle food chain. However, as the noble Lord will know as well as I, there are still more unanswered questions about BSE's pathway than there are answers. I remind the House that there is still no direct evidence that there is a connection between BSE as it is found in bovine offals and human diseases such as CJD.

The noble Lord returned to a favourite subject of his—compensation. I remind him that the Select Committee in another place did not find evidence that paying less than 100 per cent. compensation led to under-reporting. The history of notifiable cattle diseases is that less than 100 per cent. compensation was paid in such instances. The House may be interested to know that when the Government raised the compensation level from 50 per cent. to 100 per cent. the number of reported cases of BSE per annum levelled off. It did not continue to rise as it had under the 50 per cent. compensation level.

We have, and want, the strictest controls on slaughterhouses. Where the Meat and Hygiene Service has direct responsibility for administering those controls, and where the State Veterinary Service checks the MHS's control of the orders, there is, as it were, a belt and braces approach. I can assure the noble Lord that the disposal of SBOs involves incineration. It would be premature to go into the details of intervention at the moment should that be triggered. After just a few days the market is still fluid and to establish a rescue package when the market is still unstable would be premature.

The noble Lord returned to a subject which he raised last week; namely, that of calves. The SEAC experts are convinced that calves up to the age of six months remain safe. The research it has undertaken involves contaminating calves and then checking them after a 12-month period. It found that the brain of a calf at 18 months has still not become infected, despite the calf being infected with BSE at an earlier age. It is the experts who advise us on these matters. If they had any doubts about this, they would have told us.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie. Perhaps I may make this basic point. The first interim report of SEAC involved some vital information. Considerable extra scrutiny was required to come up with the recommendations on that information. But to have had that information spill into the public domain, as it were through informal means, in the middle of last week without the Government presenting the information formally would have been grossly irresponsible. Speculation resulting from such informal leaking of information would have done incalculable damage. It was better in every way that we were absolutely open about the fact that the information had been presented to us in an interim format and that SEAC would make specific recommendations as soon as they had been finalised.

The speed at which we shall introduce the new regulations is laid down in the Food Safety Act. It requires consultation. The consultation will be immediate and it will be quick. The Food Safety Act specifies that that initial consultation must take place, however brief. There are emergency procedures. But again it is worth the House keeping matters in perspective. We are not looking at an emergency threat to human health. We are looking at a focus that the SEAC experts have adopted of a temporary exposure during the 1980s. They are not doubting current beef and beef-related products. Their focus has been on an historic and not a current exposure.

I reiterate, as I did last week, that milk is absolutely safe.

The noble Lord also asked about Europe. I believe—I shall need to double check the fact—that Denmark and Ireland have not banned our products, but many other European member states have banned our products. There is no scientific basis for that ban. It is unnecessary. It is, therefore, an overreaction; and because of the lack of justice in that ban we have taken up the matter with the Commission.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, 27 years ago I had the responsibility of dealing with two outbreaks; namely, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and of rabies. I know and appreciate how difficult these days are for Ministers in charge of this matter.

This is a more serious outbreak, with all its implications, and I welcome the steps that the Government are taking. However, I have a certain doubt about whether or not the Government are going far enough in dealing with the matter. The implications of a further major outbreak would he disastrous not only for the farming industry but for the community in general. There has been advice in newspapers from other experts in this field. One of them thought that cattle over the age of two and a half years should be slaughtered; that that would give security from the possibility of a major outbreak. Has that proposal been considered? What was the reaction of the Government? What was the advice of their experts on the proposal?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful for the memories of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, on issues with which he had to deal in the same area of policy.

I stress to the House that this is not an outbreak. We have 10 cases of a new variant of CJD. There is no direct evidence linking this new variant of CJD, or indeed any CJD, with BSE, bovine offal and, least of all, beef flesh or beef meat. We do not have an outbreak. It is also not infectious in any way. That may further reassure the noble Lord.

Have we gone far enough? Should we be slaughtering all cattle over the age of two and a half years? The SEAC experts, and the experts they commissioned to cover different angles, have the option to recommend to us whatever they think will be necessary in order to tackle the problem, as they see it, which relates to a brief period of exposure during the 1980s. They see no scientific justification whatsoever for slaughtering any cattle except those which are currently slaughtered. At present, we slaughter any cattle that are suspected of having BSE. But there is no scientific justification for slaughtering any other age range or type of cattle.

Lord Moran

My Lords, how soon will the measures to which the Government are now committed be brought in? The Minister of Agriculture said over the weekend that some of them would require under statute a period of consultation. It would be helpful to know how long it will be before those measures are in force.

I think that all noble Lords will have welcomed the immense thoroughness with which SEAC, and those it brought in for consultation, have addressed the problem. They will have paid particular attention to the conclusion that those experts did not believe that additional measures are justified at this stage. If it is decided at any future period that we need to go further and to have a slaughter policy, will the Government be clear that that slaughter policy should apply only to herds which have BSE and should not be, as has been suggested, indiscriminate, applying to herds which have never had BSE and cattle fed entirely on grass, hay and silage?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, the noble Lord asks how soon the new measures will be introduced. As I believe I said to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, we shall consult immediately; we shall consult briefly. The industry has a vested interest in seeing these measures installed as fast as possible. As soon as the necessary legislation can be brought before the House at the end of the short consultation, it will become law. I would guess—everyone involved hopes—that we are talking of a matter of weeks and no longer.

If and when a wider slaughter policy becomes necessary—as I said, the experts in this area see absolutely no justification for that at present—we would be guided by the evidence behind such a recommendation on how that slaughter policy should operate. I cannot speculate on that point at the moment.

Lord Rea

My Lords, will the noble Earl confirm or deny a report in a newspaper on Saturday that a microbiologist, Dr. Narash Harang, who is an expert on spongiform encephalopathies, working with the public health laboratory service in Newcastle, was in the process in the early 1990s of developing a test which could detect BSE in infected cattle before the disease manifested itself, and that his research was not further funded? The speculation is that the discovery of such a test would have been awkward. It would have been expensive to have slaughtered and incinerated all the cases, and potential cases, of BSE that the test would have detected.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am familiar with the work of Dr. Harang and am aware of the claims that he has made. I am also aware that no details of the tests that he has carried out have been published in peer reviewed scientific journals, which is one of the usual pathways towards validation of such tests.

The SEAC experts are also aware of the work that the doctor is carrying out. They have access to all thinking and researches in the field. MAFF is also working to develop a test to detect BSE in live cattle. There is some promising progress in that area, but it will take time to develop and to put into practice effectively in the field.

Lord Monson

My Lords, as British animal husbandry has been singled out for attack, can the noble Earl say whether we are meant seriously to believe that all beef produced on the continent of Europe is automatically safe for human consumption? As has been mentioned, a number of continental herds have suffered from BSE. Can the noble Earl confirm reports in the weekend press to the effect that one-third of Belgian cattle have been fed or injected with illegal growth hormones which pose a danger to human health?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I cannot immediately confirm the extent to which hormones are used, legally or illegally. I can confirm that there is BSE in other countries but not to nearly the same extent as we have it in this country. In some of those other countries—for example, France—there are no specified bovine offal restrictions or controls, unlike this country.

All that lends weight to the fact that the experts reckon that beef is safe to eat as long as it has been processed subject to the regulations and controls. The only speculation in which scientists are indulging is on the possible link between offal and human diseases such as CJD, not between beef meat, beef muscle and CJD. Two pieces of common sense came out in the SEAC statement this morning, from the scientists. One was the remark that, no human activity is without some risk". That may help put into perspective the 10 people who suffered from a disease which may or may not be connected with beef. The second piece of common sense from the SEAC statement is the following: It is important to be aware that many foods are associated with health risks, and that changing from beef to non-beef products is not necessarily without risk". That underlines the point that there is a small, defined area of concern. I regret that the way in which the matter has been handled by some of the media has blown it up into proportions that are not justified by the facts.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, will the Minister expand on his statement that there is no evidence or no ground for thinking that failure to pay full compensation from the beginning affected the attitude of farmers? Many people, particularly those of us from areas where hill farmers are struggling to make a living, would find that statement hard to believe. If the Government feel that there is no connection between failure to pay full compensation and the desperation of farmers in those circumstances, is it likely to affect the Government's policy?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, the noble Baroness has raised that important issue again. I repeat that not only did the Select Committee in another place not find any evidence that the 50 per cent. compensation paid between 1988 and 1990 led to under-reporting; but also in retrospect we have no belief that that was the case. It is based largely on the fact that the reported figures rose each year with the 50 per cent. compensation. In February 1990, 100 per cent. compensation was introduced. That was over six years ago. The number of reported cases suddenly levelled off. Then the SBO regulations, brought in in 1989, began to take effect and since then the levels of BSE have been falling.

Lord Hamilton of Dalzell

My Lords, I was grateful for what the Minister said about taking the matter up with the European Commission. It is extremely important for our industry that we should re-establish our export markets and also prevent imports pouring in. They may well include meat which is less safe than ours in this country.

There is general agreement in this shady area that the disease was promoted by feeding animal compounds to cattle. The compounders who put animal products in the feed refused to tell the farming industry that they had done so because of commercial confidentiality in a highly competitive market. I cannot believe that, since we are in such a highly competitive market and the single market, the compounds were only fed to British cattle. Has my noble friend at his fingertips or can he discover how many compounders are international companies and what were the imports and exports of compounds during the relevant period? From that we may establish that British beef is still the best.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I feel certain that British beef is still the best. However, I do not have with me the final batch of statistics which my noble friend Lord Hamilton requested. He raised serious issues but ones which cannot be defined with speed or certainty. In world export markets the level of competition may tempt some of our competitors to use scientific or other public health claims in order to disrupt our access to those markets. I am certain that many in such countries which have temporarily suspended the import of British beef have genuine cause for concern about their consumers. But if they examine the facts produced by SEAC and acknowledge the clean bill of health that both the World Health Organisation and European vets have given to our controls, there is no need for them to remain concerned. There may well be others in those countries with commercial interests in maintaining a ban on our products, underneath a scientific guise.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, can the Minister say what has happened to the price of beef in countries banning our exports? It could be profitable for them to ban our exports. I entirely agree that in normal circumstances and under normal policies it is right that experts advise and Ministers decide. However, in this matter I agree with the Secretary of State who said that the Government rely entirely on what the scientists say. The last thing I wish is for non-scientific, ignorant Ministers to make decisions without scientific backing. That also goes for unscientific, ignorant members of the media.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises two extremely good points on which noble Lords could ponder with merit. The soundbite which the noble Lord, Lord Carter, carefully built into the end of his speech about experts advising and Ministers deciding was erroneous and misleading. In such a complex area of science and knowledge, it is much better that the experts advise Ministers and tell them what they recommend be done. The consequences of erroneous policy making, with political considerations upsetting scientific recommendations, could be dangerous. To an extent, the media made a lamentable effort to look at the calm language of the chief medical officers north and south of the Border and the SEAC statements last week. One or two newspapers saw the real reassurances which came through in the statements, but for most, the opportunity to grab short headlines on a scaremongering basis was regrettable. It will have long-term consequences, unless the media desist soon.

The price of beef in other countries where British beef has been banned is a question which I cannot answer immediately. Last week I promised that I would write to the noble Baroness on a matter which she raised and I will write to her on both questions.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, my noble Friend said that we are dealing with a historical event, that arrangements put in place at the time have been effective and British beef is safe. The only declaration of interest that I have to make is that I am too old to care. Did not the problem originate from intensive systems of farming which have been nurtured by the common agricultural policy? Is it not time to encourage more extensive methods of farming in the British community?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Clanwilliam touches on extensive farming. A number of schemes and incentives are available to land managers and farmers of all types to take up more extensive methods of farming. The effort and prominence which the Government attach to the schemes are growing every year and I hope that the noble Earl will take comfort from that. Noble Lords and others outside the House of all ages are justified in taking the issue seriously, but at the same time whether one is a father, grandfather or whatever, the reassurances which the experts are able to give us are solid.

Lord Crawshaw

My Lords, we are very grateful that the incidence of this disease is definitely now on the wane. From my own experience I have figures to support that. If, in the end, some form of slaughter policy is decided upon, If wonder whether the Minister will agree that the right approach would be to look at the dairy herd in general, particularly the older cattle in the dairy herd, and see that somehow, when their useful life had finished, they were disposed of through the ministry and did not somehow get into the food chain. By doing that we could avoid mass slaughter, which could do the country's health a great deal more harm than BSE itself. On those grounds I very much support the restrained and responsible approach that the Minister and the ministry showed both yesterday on television and this afternoon. I congratulate them on that approach.

I hope also that we can avoid the sort of situation that we got into with eggs and salmonella a few years ago. Quite honestly, that did not help anybody, and put 4,000 small egg producers out of business.

Finally, will the Minister agree that in one sense we have time on our side? We now face the seven easiest months of the year in terms of feeding and managing the herds of cattle. We should make use of that time to best possible advantage.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, we will waste no time in establishing what needs to be established, acting on the recommendations and carrying out that which needs to be done. We will not waste time.

The policy on slaughter, which I partly explained to the noble Lord, Lord Moran, is that until the experts tell us there is a reason to extend our slaughter policy, it is hard to know or to speculate as to the exact detail of such a policy. We should be reluctant to do it unless it were justified. I reassure the noble Lord that the exact details of any such policy will be worked out very carefully indeed with all those who are expert in such matters.

Incineration is the approved method of disposal. From one end of the industry to the other there is a vested interest in ensuring very high compliance. That will continue to be the final disposal route of all contaminated matter. I will pass on the congratulations of the noble Lord to my right honourable friend the Minister on the way he has handled this matter.