HL Deb 17 June 1999 vol 602 cc409-11

3.10 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Meat Hygiene Service's instruction that the head and ears of slaughtered lambs should be cut off and discarded prior to grading and inspection will discourage efficient lamb production and traceability.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the whole head of a sheep, including the ears, is removed and discarded immediately after slaughter to meet longstanding statutory requirements in respect of both fresh meat hygiene and specified risk material controls. However, effective means are available to enable sheep carcasses to be traced through the abattoir, usually on a batch basis, so removal of the head should have no effect on efficient lamb production or traceability.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I acknowledge the effort the noble Lord has put in to try to bring the agricultural market into the 20th century. However, is he suggesting by his Answer that I should personally follow my lambs from the time they lose their heads, in and out, round about the slaughter line until they get to the grading table? In which case, can he assure me that having outwitted the meat hygiene inspector, I will not be caught by the safety inspector? Will the Minister try to explain to his noble friends that, despite their pathological hatred of the hereditary principle, it is a necessary evil in improving my lamb carcasses?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I appreciate the links made by the noble Lord. I assure him that the last thing I would wish—I have not consulted my noble friends—would be for him to be "topped" in some remote Welsh abattoir. However, I would seriously point out that any noble Lord who comes to this House and puts down an agricultural question on Ascot Gold Cup day is putting his head on the block.

In response to his Question, there are no rules that require individual identification of sheep. We have rules that require temporary identification in movement. The rules require individual identification for export. In the abattoir there is no requirement for identification relating to the head. The carcasses, or the previous animals, can be identified in relation to batches. However, we do not have a requirement for individual identification. I accept that those such as the noble Lord, who are concerned with the breeding of sheep, would find that helpful.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord referred to "remote abattoirs". Is not that exactly the problem? All the local abattoirs to which the farmer could go and which would solve the problem referred to by my noble friend Lord Stanley are being closed down through excessive costs and bureaucracy. What is the noble Lord doing to ensure that they can stay open for the local farmers?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, this most important question is currently of concern to us. As the noble Lord will know, we announced a review of the impact of charges on abattoirs. We have delayed the proposals to introduce charges for SRM controls at a cost to the Government of some £20 million. We are still considering an increase in the meat hygiene service charges. We wish the maximum number of abattoirs and small abattoirs to continue. It is a free market. This matter is for the industry. If there is an over-supply, some will disappear. We believe that small abattoirs in the remote areas such as those referred to by the noble Lord serve a very important purpose to the rural community and local producers.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, Is the Minister aware that we used to feed our dogs on sheeps heads, which were a valuable nutrient, and that we cannot now do so? The last time my husband went into a butcher's shop to buy a sheep's head, he said, "Have you got a sheep's head?" The butcher said, "No, it's just the way I part my hair".

A Noble Lord

Follow that!

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I enjoyed that but I shall not attempt to match it, just as I have never seriously attempted to part my hair. For the record, perhaps I may point out that the exclusion of sheep's heads was introduced under the order of the previous government as a result of SEAC advice on the possible danger of BSE. It is a precautionary principle.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

My Lords, as somebody who has no hair and no problem in that connection, perhaps I may ask a question of my noble friend. Brains used to be a delicacy in restaurants. Can he say whether calves' brains are still allowed to be eaten, and, if not, why not?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the exclusion of various offals has been the result of scientific advice of where there is a possible danger of disease. We have not excluded anything that has not been the subject of scientific advice.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, is the Minister aware that for those who keep livestock, and particularly those who keep cattle, torn ears and missing tags are an everyday feature? Can he tell us what, if anything, the Ministry is doing to try to devise some rather more up-to-date and less primitive methods, such as micro-chipping? That could be applied cheaply, would be tamper-proof and would not lead to the stress caused by the present system.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. We are very aware of the disadvantages of tagging and of the technical advantages of micro-chips. However, given the price of lambs, since the chips would cost £3 to £4, we believe that is an unacceptable additional burden.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, can the Minister clarify the long-term hygiene regulation about the removal of sheep's heads? It seems to me that it was not so very long ago that it was introduced mainly on the basis of an EEC regulation.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, there was a regulation in relation to meat hygiene. But we, or the previous government, acted on the basis of scientific advice and introduced the 1996 regulation for the removal of sheep's heads in relation to sheep's heads being a specified risk material. That will be in force as long as there is that threat to health. We all look forward to the time when that threat is lifted.