HL Deb 21 May 1997 vol 580 cc384-6

3.9 p.m.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they intend to take in the light of the evidence in New Scientist of 3rd May that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is widespread in the cattle herds of other European Union countries and that such cases are not reported.

The Parliamentary Secretary, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, we have pressed the European Commission to take Community-wide action to prohibit the use in human food and animal feed of material at risk of containing potentially infective tissue. We shall be keeping up the pressure for rapid action now that it has announced its intention to introduce Community-wide measures. We welcome those plans. In addition, SEAC, which is the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee—I did not have any drink at lunchtime for that particular reason—has been asked to advise Ministers on the implications of the recent draft report from the EC Commission on surveillance and controls on BSE in the other member states which is mentioned in the article in the New Scientist. Appropriate action will be considered immediately that advice is available. I must stress that the Government and the department are firmly committed to making the protection of public health our top priority.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, perhaps I may congratulate my noble friend, if I may call him such, on his appointment. I am sure that he will fulfil it with distinction. However, in view of the fact that distinguished veterinary scientists on the Continent are deeply disturbed at all the secrecy and the lies that are being told, including the chairman of the advisory committee on veterinary matters and BSE in the European Union itself, is it not the case that either the ban should be completely lifted on British beef or it should also be applied to all the other European countries?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not accept that as an interpretation of what was contained in the article to which reference has been made, nor do I believe that there is any firm scientific evidence of a major BSE risk from Europe. However, we have the impression that the systems of surveillance and control are not as good in all member states as they are here. I should point out that the Commission is fully aware of the situation and is actively engaged in the matter. As noble Lords will know, it produced a draft report in May on risk and surveillance and made an announcement only a few days ago of its future intention to ensure that the systems of surveillance and control in Europe are as good as they are in this country.

It is our intention to work for a Europe-wide system that is satisfactory to all of us. However, in the interim, we have asked SEAC to investigate the Commission's proposals to see whether they are adequate. We expect to receive a report from the committee within a few weeks. We shall study it and take whatever action is necessary.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I should also like to welcome the noble Lord to the Dispatch Box and to his new position. However, given the level of cheap beef imports which have begun flooding into the United Kingdom over recent weeks—many of them coming from countries which have a higher incidence of BSE than they are prepared to admit; indeed, some countries which the noble Lord said perhaps had inadequate surveillance systems—can the Minister tell the House exactly what proportion of the imports is checked on arrival in this country for proper documentation in order to prove that both public safety and animal health are protected?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I should like, first, to thank the noble Earl for his congratulations, or consolations. However, as he knows, there is a proper Europe-wide system of inspection which operates at the point of entry and at destination. We operate that while bearing in mind such hazards. Should it be the case that that system appears to be in any way inadequate—and I believe that SEAC would advise to that effect—we would consider what action needs to be taken. I should point out to the noble Earl that the main reason for the growth in imports is the strength of sterling, given the great confidence in the new Labour Government that the worldwide markets are expressing. There is not much we can do about that in the short term.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the expert committees of the Commission are satisfied that the precautions which we are taking are fully in place and working—such as the removal of the spinal cord, the prohibition on the use of offal and the whole range of regulations on abattoirs? If the Commission is so satisfied, surely it should now be prepared to admit that our beef is probably the safest in Europe.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, those committees are currently examining the situation. We are pressing them for our release from such bans. However, I should point out to the House that at this moment my right honourable friend is in Brussels arguing the case, as, indeed, he was yesterday and last week. That is one way that we are proposing to make progress by adopting a more positive approach with our European partners. My right honourable friend has already had constructive talks with Commissioner Fischler and Commissioner Bonino. In fact, I see from reports in today's newspapers that he certainly got much closer to the latter. Through that approach, I believe that we shall make progress, but of course we have to wait for the outcome of the detailed negotiations.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, in view of the disturbing nature of the report identified by the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt of Weeford, does the Minister agree that it is even more important now to have an objective test to identify BSE in cattle? Further. can the noble Lord give the House any information as regards the progress being made to develop a test for the pre-clinical diagnosis of BSE in cattle and also for BSE carcasses derived from BSE cases?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I should stress again that the article in the New Scientist was not the basis for any major concern. But, equally, massive scientific and veterinary resources are being applied in Europe and in this country and, indeed, considerable progress has been made. We must depend on the scientific advice that we receive. My impression as regards both Europe and this country is that it is of very high quality.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House how many tragic deaths from CJD in the young are attributable at present to BSE being passed on by jumping from one species to another? That seems to be the nub of the question. The original danger was that it would move from cattle to human beings. Can the Minister say how many people have actually had this disease or even died from it where it has been proven that it originated from cattle?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not have details of the exact number of new variant CJD cases with me, but I believe that it is about 16. Nevertheless, I shall certainly write to the noble Earl with more information.