HL Deb 14 January 2004 vol 657 cc560-3

3 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether background marine pollution poses a threat to United Kingdom fish farming in general, and to Scottish salmon farming in particular.

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

My Lords, we have no reason to believe that the background levels of pollution pose a threat to the future of salmon farming or fish farming generally. In response to media coverage on contaminant levels in farmed salmon, the Food Standards Agency has advised that these levels are acceptable and pose no threat to human health when fish are eaten as part of a balanced diet.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Does he agree that this is not a new problem? Three to four years ago, Miriam Jacobs of the toxicology unit at Surrey University pointed out to MAFF the levels of organo-chlorides, dioxins and a range of other chemicals that were to be found in farmed fish. In the intervening years, what work has been done by Defra to identify whether the levels have been caused by general pollution in the water around our seas caused by, for example, run-off from the land, whether the levels have been caused by pollutants in the feed that salmon are being fed—in other words, in other wild fish that perhaps come from more polluted waters—or whether they have been caused by the treatment of the cages in which the fish are kept?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not think that there has been definitive research on the levels since the studies to which the noble Baroness referred. But measurement in the fish is continuously being carried out. Clearly, farmed fish, almost by definition, are likely to have a higher level of pollutants than those at sea, particularly in the further oceans. Effectively, that is what the US study covered by the media found. As I say, that is not surprising.

The issue is whether that level is, in any sense, a threat to human health in normal circumstances, to which the FSA has given the very clear answer, "no". In terms of whether it comes in the ground water running off, in the water that is used, in the sediment or in the food, a good deal of it probably did come in run-off water. Some of the pesticides found a few years ago have subsequently been banned. Therefore, if anything, there should be a lower level arising from man-made problems on inland and coastal farms.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this matter has caused grave concern in Scotland where many people are employed in fish farming? Has he noticed that the science on which the challenge was based this weekend has been answered by the Food Standards Agency? It is the Food Standards Agency to which we should address ourselves when faced with food scares. But the fact remains that Scotland produces quality food in every sector.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, at the risk of alienating English farmers, certainly I accept that Scottish food is of high quality and that it is safe. In relation to salmon farming, clearly the FSA's judgment is that the level comes nowhere near any threat to human health. But it is not just the FSA standard; it is also the EU standard, the WHO standard and, indeed, given that it was American research, it is also the FDA standard in the United States, which is well above any levels detected by this latest research. Indeed, the information is not new; it is the same information that has been available to those authorities over some time.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, is not the matter a little more serious than the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite is giving the appearance of accepting? Is he aware that attempts to farm cod are being started now on the Shetland Islands? If that works, it could be a very important development for Scottish fishing, but even more for producing cod at a time when the shortage of North Sea cod becomes more serious, with the likelihood that North Sea fishing for cod might have to be stopped altogether. Against that, the growth of farmed cod is very important. The fear that there is something wrong with farmed fish is very prevalent. Can the Minister therefore make absolutely certain that the stories about Scottish farmed cod are put to rest so that other parts of the Scottish fishing industry can prosper?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I certainly think that the way in which some of the media treated these reports was erroneous and of great detriment to the Scottish farmed fish industry. Fish farming of all sorts, including, potentially, for cod, is an important part of the future. That is why we, and the EU, have a positive approach to the development of aquaculture in Europe, in part to offset the problem of declining stocks in the ocean. However, it is not possible to say that there is an equivalent level of pollutants in farmed fish as against wild sea fish. As I say, that is not surprising. Nevertheless, it is at a level which nowhere near threatens human health.

Lord Winston

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the paper published on 9 January in Science, on which this evidence is based, has some very curious findings? For example, the next highest area of contamination is the Faroe Islands, where the levels are very similar to those in farmed fish in Scotland but where the pollution position is obviously quite different. Further investigation is therefore needed before we jump to too many conclusions about the unsafeness of Scottish salmon.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is right. It indicates that there is some pollution at sea as well, particularly off the coasts of Europe. It is important that we continue to monitor the situation, but there is no reason why we, or the other authorities internationally, should draw attention to salmon as being a threat to human health. It is not.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not the case that the Scottish salmon industry has conducted a big clean-up of what it was doing? It used to use nasty organophosphates, which noble Lords know I do not like very much. I gather that at one stage it was using the avermectin group to kill sea lice on salmon. It was found that there were problems with flora and fauna on the sea bottom. Has the industry now stopped using those chemicals? Has there been any recovery of the sea bottom around fish farms?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I confirm that a number of chemicals are no longer used, both in terms of general use that affected the organophosphates and in terms of damaging chemicals that were previously used in fish farming, such as malachite green and certain other chemicals that have been banned. I need to check whether we have a complete block on the chemicals to which she referred. Certainly, there has been a substantial clean-up. I shall write to the noble Countess on the particulars.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that fish farming can develop arid spread pollution, particularly if the fish are confined in too small a space? For example, parasites, such as sea lice, can appear and multiply.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes. That is why the development of aquaculture needs to observe very effective standards of control, of checking and of what we bring into the farmed area. But it is also true that sea lice has been a particular problem and, on occasion, has spread into the wild fish population. That is something that the industry itself is addressing.

The Duke of Montrose

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Scottish fish farming industry maintains that the fishmeal it uses comes from the same sources as that used in North America and Chile? Should the Government be looking at testing fishmeal to ensure that those chemicals are not accumulating through that source? Considering that the study conducted by the US universities found that six picogrammes of dioxin per gramme of salmon were found in the samples that they had, how much salmon would an average person have to eat in one sitting before the Food Standards Agency would consider that a dangerous level had been reached?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the answer to the second question must be, "A lot, and far more than the noble Duke's appetite!". On the first part of his question, I shall check on the tests on feed but it seems unlikely that feed is the source of this pollution. However, we have to look at all possibilities.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, in answering the Question, the Minister said he did not think that this was a threat to the industry. Does he remember the egg situation where egg farmers nearly went bankrupt when that scare led to eggs not being sold? Has he not read in newspapers how salmon cannot even be given away at the moment in some supermarkets? Is he not afraid that this might be a similar situation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the unhappy episode of eggs and salmonella, which had far more basis in fact than this scare, was given extra legs by the way in which the then government handled the situation. The FSA and this Government are making it clear that this is not a valid food scare and that we are keeping the situation under constant monitoring. Nothing that has been found in this study should raise the kind of anxieties that have been blazoned across some of the less responsible media in recent days. I recognise that if this scare did get out of hand there would be a serious problem. However, all the authorities acting together to indicate that this is not a serious health threat will help to damp down that scare.