HL Deb 19 December 2001 vol 630 cc241-4

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Byford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures have been put in place to ensure that animal brains or any other tissue used for research are correctly labelled and stored.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I presume that the Question relates to the department's transmissible spongiform encephalopathy research programme. Most of that research programme is conducted by the department's Veterinary Laboratories Agency or by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council's Institute for Animal Health. Both have quality systems for the storage and labelling of tissues. Following the discovery of mislabelled samples originally collected for an entirely different purpose and involved in one particular experiment at the institute, urgent reviews of the assurance system are now in progress. We, together with others, will implement all the lessons learnt. There is, however, no indication that that rare lapse in one particular and unusual experiment has compromised other parts of our TSE work.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and appreciate that the Government are considering the mistakes made. I remind the House of my family's farming interest. Further to his response, is not the Minister concerned that, as recently as 17th December, mistakes were still being made—although, it is true, not within that programme? The department sent the wrong genotype results to five farmers. Will he join me in condemning the comments of his honourable friend Mr Morley when he said that he was glad that the quality control arrangements had been robust enough to pick up those wrong results at an early enough stage? That is not good enough.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not quite follow why I should condemn my colleague Mr Morley. He rightly said that the mistakes made in the genotyping of sheep for scrapie were made at the initial stage and immediately identified by the quality control system. Those five farmers were therefore immediately notified. That is part of the system. The problem with the other experiment on sheep's brains, to which I thought that the initial Question related, was that the mislabelling was not picked up early enough. In the case of genotyping, the system worked.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that we on these Benches are relieved that he, at least, knows the difference between a cow and a sheep? Is any additional work now being carried out to make up for the research effectively lost through the invalidation of the earlier work?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am grateful that my noble friend recognises my vastly improving agricultural knowledge in this job. The experiment was a small part of a major programme. It has therefore not been necessary to replace that work. The total programme consists of £17 million of research by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, another £3 million of research by the Food Standards Agency and more research financed by the research councils.

A substantial amount of effort is under way to establish the truth about BSE in sheep and other species. That particular experiment, based on out-of-date material collected for an entirely different purpose, was only a minor part of the programme. The rest of the programme is beginning to yield results, although some of the experiments are inevitably long term.

Baroness Northover

My Lords, does the Minister agree that cutting corners by commissioning research on the cheap on samples that were, as he said, collected for other purposes and with a real risk of contamination from the beginning, was, at the least, foolhardy? Was that the best way to protect the national sheep flock or, more importantly, to safeguard public health?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the initial experiment was one of many commissioned. It was an experiment that required an assay in mice that runs for a long time. The intention was to use the brain material originally collected for a rendering experiment. It was originally intended to establish whether BSE was in scrapie-infested sheep in the early 1990s, when there was clearly a problem with BSE in cattle. It was therefore related to an historic situation, not the current one.

The only material available was that collected at the time for different purposes. There was therefore not much option but to use old material. Regrettably, at some point between the early 1990s and 1997, when the experiment began, there now appears from our audits to have been serious mislabelling. However, when the experiment was changed to consider the possibility of BSE being in those scrapie-infected sheep, there was no alternative.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, what is the Minister's position on what I can only describe as pseudo-science—the "what if?" syndrome? On "Farming Today" this morning, there was a discussion about what if sheep had BSE and how much of such sheep we would be able to eat. As a consumer, I would be extremely confused about whether I should eat lamb and how much, and what parts of the lamb I should eat. The same thing happened with the microbacterium avium para tuberculosis in milk. Should I drink milk? Should I drink pasteurised milk? Should I drink milk that is ultra-heat treated or what? Could the Minister play a part in ensuring that proper science is given to the public and not the "what if?" science?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Countess raised two separate issues which she calls "pseudo science". I am sure that it is not correct to call them "pseudo science", although they are based on a hypothesis. The person she heard this morning on "Farming Today" was the chair of SEAC and he was addressing the question: if there were BSE or any TSE in sheep, what parts of the sheep would be affected? That is solid science, but, as we have indicated, there is no proof that there is BSE in sheep. He made it clear, as has the Food Standards Agency, that there is no change in advice to consumers on eating lamb. Indeed, perhaps I may put in a plug and say that British lamb is well worth eating and I advise your Lordships to do so.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, has the Minister noted that the UCAS report on the work of the Institute of Animal Health which went wrong in the experiment was carried out using a standard called ISO 17025? That is a standard for the accreditation of testing and calibration laboratories. If the standard is to be used for all laboratories, it will place an enormous burden on ordinary research laboratories. Do the Government have plans to come forward with another standard for research laboratories?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the review identified systems which might be appropriate but there has been no decision that they should be applied in bodies which the Government fund. The Institute of Animal Health is looking to its own procedures to meet an output equivalent to that standard, but there is no adoption of that standard as such.