HL Deb 24 October 2001 vol 627 cc973-5

3.11 p.m.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes asked Her Majesty's Government:

What, in the aftermath of the failure of the study commissioned into BSE, is the current advice on the safety of eating lamb, especially in relation to food given to babies.

'The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath)

My Lords, the Government set up the independent Food Standards Agency to advise on food safety. The agency's advice continues to be that while consumers should be aware of the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep, it does not advise them to avoid consumption of lamb. This applies equally to all sections of the population, including babies.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Does he agree that the Government set up the Food Standards Agency—with a great deal of ballyhoo and taxpayers' money—and then proceeded to give it the wrong answers to tell consumers? Does he further agree that it was a marvellous example of double talk when his noble friend Lord Whitty said in your Lordships' House last Monday that no advice has been given to consumers not to eat sheep meat? Will the Minister, please, now tell consumers in a straightforward way whether or not it is dangerous? Will he relieve the fears of many parents about baby food? While he is doing that and giving a straight answer, will he also apologise for the whole fiasco?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the FSA was not responsible for the commissioning of the research. That was the responsibility of DEFRA. So far as concerns giving straight advice to the public, the very reason the Government set up the Food Standards Agency was because of what happened with BSE under the previous government. The FSA has said—and it reiterated its position at a board meeting on Monday—that the risk of BSE in sheep remains theoretical and that it is not advising against the consumption of lamb. That was not the response of my noble friend Lord Whitty but the response of the Food Standards Agency. That advice applies equally to meat used for infants as for any other section of the population.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, given the mistake that came to light last week, does my noble friend the Minister believe that the FSA is building public confidence in the safety of food?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, my noble friend is probably referring to the original comment made by the chair of the Food Standards Agency on the "Today" programme, when he said that all lamb in baby food is sourced from outside the UK. Within a very short time he had made clear that he had misremembered the fact on that broadcast. The fact is that most, but not all, lamb is sourced from outside the UK. Sir John corrected himself as quickly as he possibly could. So far as concerns the performance of the agency, it has a very important role in enhancing public confidence in food in this country. It has made a steady start. Building confidence is a long-term process, but the work that it has done, the surveys of public attitudes to food and food safety, the publication of a comprehensive food labelling action plan and the involvement of members of the public in its work show that it has made a substantial start.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that Welsh lamb is the best meat in the world? Does he agree that we should congratulate the Welsh Development Agency on its excellent promotional work in persuading the British housewife and others to buy our produce?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I shall, of course, have to refer to the Food Standards Agency for advice. However, as I am hoping to go to Wales tonight, I shall certainly take advantage of the noble Lord's advice.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, if I understood the Minister correctly, he said that most of the lamb we eat comes from abroad. Does he not consider this to be a disgrace when so many of our farmers are in difficulties? Can he do anything to persuade people to eat more home-grown lamb and less imported lamb?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the noble Lady may have misunderstood me. I was referring to the consumption of lamb used in the production of infant food. So far as concerns the consumption of mutton and lamb generally in this country, my understanding is that in 2000, 395,000 tonnes of beef and sheep meat were produced for home consumption, with exports of 134,000 tonnes. The position is a lot better than the noble Lady suggested.

Earl Howe

My Lords, taking the Question back to baby food, can the Minister say whether any lamb that is processed in the UK for baby food is sourced from any country where scrapie in sheep is endemic?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, not as far as I am aware, although I shall follow up that matter with the noble Earl. We obviously have to be concerned that imported lamb which is used in products in this country is as safe as possible.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, given that the FSA is an independent body and ought not to be susceptible to manipulation, is it subject to any sanction by the Government for the advice that it tenders?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, it is worth reiterating the point that Sir John corrected the misleading statement that he made on the "Today" programme within a very short period of time. Anyone can seek redress from the agency through its own published complaints procedure. Complainants can also ask, through their MP, for their case to be referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, and, of course, it is always subject to judicial review. The chair, deputy chair and board members can be removed from office by Ministers who make their appointments for any serious failure by the agency. But, in general, these matters are best discussed through proper dialogue between government and the Food Standards Agency. As I said, my own view is that the agency's performance over the first few years has been satisfactory. It is making progress in ensuring that public confidence is enhanced in food that is produced in this country. We shall encourage the FSA to continue that work.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, given the implications for both health and the British farming industry, is the Minister satisfied that the amount of money given to this research by the Government—some £1,000 per week—is sufficient? The implications of anything affecting the sheep flock are huge.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I think that the thousands of pounds per week refers to a specific project of research. My understanding is that the Government as a whole are funding 140 projects, which are looking at the whole issue of BSE and TSEs. Of that funding, DEFRA provides £17 million and my own department £4 million. There is a substantial research element. Of course, in the light of what has happened in the past few days, I have no doubt that SEAC and the Food Standards Agency will be providing more advice to the Government on research and what needs to happen. We shall pay very careful attention to that advice.

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