HL Deb 14 January 1998 vol 584 cc1053-6

2.56 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing I declare an interest as a partner in a farm with a minor involvement in beef production.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why they consider that the public, having received a suitable health warning, can make their own decisions on the danger of smoking but, given an equivalent warning, cannot make their own decisions on the alleged dangers of eating beef on the bone.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount. He asks a very relevant question about that rather aggravating feature of modern life, which I believe can be called comparative risk assessment. It seems to dog decisions about everything—decisions about how to deal with freak weather, whether we take a forward position on the World Cup and about what we drink or eat.

On serious questions of public health, this Government and others before them have taken the view that where the consumption risks are well known, or where risky activity or a substance which is risky is obvious, individuals are able to choose whether to take that risk, for example whether or not to smoke. The link between nvCJD—a really terrible disease—and bone in beef is a new and potentially extremely dangerous threat. Consumers cannot tell whether a piece of meat may be infected and the infective agent is not destroyed either by being sterilised or in the cooking process. Less than one gram of infected meat may be a fatal risk if it is eaten. Taking account of the advice of the specialist advisory committee in this area, before Christmas the Chief Medical Officer took the view that this was an unacceptable risk beyond individual choice. The Government have accepted that advice and acted to protect public health.

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. Does she accept that it is highly illogical? Are the Government saying that where it is known for certain that something has substantial and proven risk and the consumption of it has no benefit whatever the public shall make up its mind, but that where there is a possibility of a slight unproven risk and the substance being consumed is admirable protein necessary for human health the public cannot make up its mind? Surely, on the standards of the chief health officer he would have banned cigarettes ages ago. Therefore, why do the Government blindly follow his advice on beef and allow people to go on smoking? Does it have anything to do with the income derived by the Government and the Labour Party from smoking rather than farming?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I hesitate to reply to the final part of the noble Viscount's point. I hoped that I had made it clear, although perhaps I had not, that this was about comparative risk assessment, and that logic is difficult in that context. Many of us would agree—I certainly would—that if tobacco were introduced today it would almost certainly not have the remotest chance of being a legal product. We are talking about comparative risks over a length of time. The noble Viscount declared an interest as a meat producer. I would say to him that one of the factors has not so much to do with the area of concern with which I am primarily involved in public health, but more to do with those delicate negotiations that my right honourable and noble friends are undertaking in Europe. Had we allowed the sale of beef which was technically described as unsafe, it is unlikely that we would have made any progress in Brussels towards lifting the beef ban. That decision was made on the basis and with the support of farmers as being their top agricultural priority. Today we have seen some movement which may indicate that there is a changed position in Europe. I should not be at all surprised if the decision we made about beef on the bone were not relevant.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, in view of the fact that the Minister mentioned the unacceptable risk which is beyond individual choice, does she agree that the premise upon which the Question is based is wrong in that people are inhaling other people's smoke all the time? What advice have the Government given to employers and the proprietors and operators of buildings in which people work, including the Palace of Westminster, on the dangers of the 25 per cent. increase in systemic heart disease, resulting from inhaling other people's smoke?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, we are concerned about it. It is part of the project on which my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health is engaged. She is formulating widespread action on the whole issue of smoking and public places. We are looking closely at the costs, both in human and NHS terms, of passive smoking. The White Paper which will be forthcoming with the broad anti-smoking strategy which the Government will be promoting later in the year will cover all those issues.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House and the public what is the different between a T-bone steak bought in the butchers, from which the butcher removes the bone on his counter, which the consumer takes home, and the T-bone steak which, until recently, the customer bought with the bone in it and perhaps removed in her own kitchen?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the point is the one that I tried to explain in the original Answer: we do not know how these dangerous new prions—as they are described—are transmitted, and in which part of the dorsal ganglia—again to use an elaborate technical expression—they live. The noble Baroness asked that the point be made known more widely. One of the difficulties is that we are not talking just about T-bone steaks, which, as she rightly said, are obvious and identifiable, but about bones in general. One of the points which has not been so widely understood is that when one is talking, for example, about eating in a restaurant or preparing in one's kitchen one's own stew or sauce out of bones, that might equally be a source of the infectivity which can be so fatal.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that many beef producers seem to be unaware of the fact that if the Minister of Agriculture had not taken his responsible decision, after receiving the highest level of medical advice, then the chances of the ban being removed would be slight? Does she further agree that if people wish to see beef and tobacco treated the same, then, just like every packet of cigarettes or tobacco, every piece of beef sold over the counter would have to bear the words that beef, "seriously damages your health"?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful for that advice. That may be taking the risk assessment too far. I take my noble friend's point about the way in which the decision taken before Christmas by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture has made an impact in Europe. I shall re-emphasise what I said in answer to the previous question: the lifting of the ban by Europe was regarded as a top priority by farmers. Therefore it is plain that they need to make a clear assessment about where their best interests lie.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I speak as a smoker, which, alas, has not stunted my growth. Am I to understand that if I put bonemeal on my garden, and then eat the vegetables that I have grown in that bit of land, I risk getting BSE, or whatever the other awful disease is? Will the Minister please tell me what action the Government intend to take about bonemeal?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I understand that there is no risk.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the number of cases of CJD related to BSE has been only 22 since the scare began? Does she understand and realise that the public, whether she applies logic or not, does itself apply logic? It will not see the logic of banning beef on the bone, where there is virtually no risk and where no deaths have been proved, but of not banning homosexual activity between males as a result of which 9,116 people have died since 1983?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I raise again the subject of comparative risk. As my noble friend will know, because we have had both written and oral debates on this subject, what we learnt from the early stages of the HIV period of infection is relevant to today. At that stage we were widely told that far too many hysterical, over-the-top pieces of advice were being given to the public. On the basis of the full public education campaign conducted by the previous government, we now have one of the lowest rates of HIV infection in the Western world. It is certainly much lower than that of our immediate neighbours in France and Belgium. If we adopt the same position about the relative risks of CJD and eating beef on the hone, we may be equally impressive in protecting our public. There is nothing in the present regulations to suggest that, if we are successful in eliminating BSE from the British herd—that may take a number of years—this ban should be permanent.

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