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Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Chapman.]

12.38 am

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : I am pleased to have the opportunity of raising on the Floor of the House tonight the subject of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. It is a matter of great concern to thousands of dairy producers and presents a major potential risk to public health. I am afraid that it also demonstrates the indecision and evasiveness that currently dominate the approach of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to questions of food production and quality control. The fact that this is the first debate on the subject to be held in the House shows the complacency with which the Government are viewing the problem. Even when they unveiled the only substantial step that they have taken so far in investigating the disease, they did so by means of a written answer rather than having the courtesy to make a statement in the House.

It will already be clear that I differ from the Minister on several matters of substance over the way in which MAFF has responded to BSE and the hazards that it presents to human health. Before I refer to them, it will be convenient to describe the disease, because its nature is the only common ground between myself and the Minister. As its name suggests, BSE is specific to cattle. It is a degenerative disease that effectively destroys the brain. It is incurable, can have an incubation period of several years, and is transmissible and invariably fatal. Death ensues rapidly after the onset of clinical symptoms. It is one of a group of related diseases that affect species as diverse as humans and hamsters. The Southwood report records spongiform encephalopathies in sheep, goats, deer, antelope, mink and mice. Other research has uncovered the equivalent disease in squirrels, ferrets, guinea pigs, chimpanzees, squirrel monkeys and other primates.

I have read a scientific paper which complains of the reluctance of laboratory workers to research into transmissible encephalopathies because of the evidence of transmissibility to humans. Another paper remarks on the extraordinary similarities between the respective diseases that affect different species. The conclusion is that it is probably caused by the same agent manifesting itself slightly differently, as would be expected, from species to species. In humans, the disease is known as Kuru and Creutzfeldt -Jakob dementia. The bovine form was first identified at MAFF's laboratories in late 1986, and is accepted as having been caused by feeding cattle with the rendered remains of sheep infected with the bovine form known as scrapie. As well as being known to resist high temperatures and normal disinfecting procedures, the causal agent has been shown to have the capacity to cross the species barrier outside the laboratory as well as in it.

That much is known. However, we do not know the nature of the causative agent and precisely how it is transmitted outside the laboratory. Under laboratory conditions, it has been proven to spread through ingestion of infected material, inoculation through abrased skin and intracerebral injection.

The unidentified agent within the host animal gathers a protective coating of proteins specific to that animal, and

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thereby avoids provoking any immune response. It is therefore unlike normal viral infections, in that it is undetectable until the onset of clinical symptoms of the disease that it causes. Now to more disputed matters. There is clearly a theoretical risk to humans who handle or consume infected material, although the Government, through their scientific advisers on the Southwood committee, describe the risk as "remote". Which word, I wonder, would the Government have chosen in the early 1980s to describe the possibility of scrapie in sheep crossing the species barrier and occurring as BSE in cattle?

Clearly the chances must have been considered even less than remote, because the Government then moved to lower standards of processing animal remains for animal feed. However, the positions then and now are not entirely analogous. During the early 1980s, when cattle were fed with scrapie-infected animal protein, there was no evidence that cattle could contract a similar disease. In 1989, humans are eating animal products infected with BSE, when it is an undisputed fact that humans can contract a form of transmissible encephalopathy. Now that the outbreak has occurred, even though the Government regard the risks as remote, they have banned the use of ruminant remains in ruminant rations, made the disease notifiable, introduced a slaughter policy and compensation, banned the sale for human consumption of meat and milk from infected animals, and banned the use of certain bovine organs from baby foods. All that action has been taken to combat a risk that the Government have described as "remote".

We welcome and support those measures. Unfortunately, they do not amount to a coherent and comprehensive policy. They are inadequate, and far too many loopholes exist. The Government's response to the Southwood committee report implied that the problem was fully recognised and that adequate measures were being taken to investigate and control the disease, thereby protecting the public.

In a parliamentary answer to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) on 27 February, the Minister said that the Government were acting with "extreme prudence". Now that we have had time to look more closely at the issues involved, it is obvious that the Minister's political response to the scientific issues raised by the Southwood report has been wanting. My view is shared by eminent physicians. The public health committee of the British Veterinary Association and the organisation with potentially the most to lose, the National Farmers Union, have all declared their concern at the inadequacy of the Government's actions.

Let me illustrate the point. A distinguished neuropathologist from Charing Cross hospital, Dr. Helen Grant, writing in The Times, says of the official assurance in 1987 that BSE posed no risk to humans : "This view is highly irresponsible and dangerous. The fact is that there may be a risk to humans : indeed some of us may already be incubating this fatal dementia".

Dr. Grant and Professor William Blackwood, who is also from Charing Cross hospital, again in a letter to The Times, this time after Southwood had reported, stated :

"unless bovine brain is totally banned from food, or is avoided, a new human health hazard hovers over us, potentially far more serious than the various treatable infections we have lately heard so much about. It is the risk of an untreatable dementia."

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The Times' medical correspondent, who is a practising doctor, has written that no one can be sure that the causal agent has "not already been picked up by people as they enjoyed a piece of marrow or an Irish stew, or ate a meat pie which had contained brains or meat from an infected, but not yet stricken, animal".

He goes on to say :

"recent research has suggested that it is probable that many cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease have followed the eating of sheep infected by scrapie".

With regard to the risk of BSE to humans, he states :

"If the disease can be spread in food from sheep to cows, why not through beasts to humans?".

I could cite further expert medical opinion ; however, veterinary and farming interests are equally concerned. The public health committee of the British Veterinary Association has called for an increase in the amount of compensation payed on infected animals, and, according to a recent press release,

"believes that there should be restrictions on the movement of offspring as well as compulsory veterinary ante-mortem inspection of all bovines".

The NFU also recently said of Southwood :

"No recommendation was made on compensation terms and the NFU will continue to pursue with MAFF the need for 100 per cent. to ensure total reporting".

In other words, both the NFU and the BVA acknowledge that there is currently a financial incentive which has encouraged submission of infected animals for human consumption.

Compensation levels are clearly a very controversial subject. I am surprised that the Southwood report dealt so cursorily with the issue, apparently believing that 50 per cent. compensation was sufficient. I have heard that that was not its original recommendation, but the Minister denies that he pressured the committee into changing any of the report. When challenged on the "Face the Facts" radio programme at 7.20 pm, the Minister refused to say whether Professor Southwood had recommended to him that the compensation level should be 75 per cent.

I am also very unhappy with the current level of compensation. It is not good enough for the Minister to tell me, as he has done recently, that because it is illegal, farmers are not entering suspect cases for slaughter. He knows that infected animals are being entered into slaughterhouses--Southwood says so. While the farmer can gain financially by not reporting a suspected case, we cannot be satisfied that everything is being done to minimise the risks of infected cases entering the food chain.

That is what is happening now. The Minister told me in a written answer that 63 suspected cases were identified in markets and slaughterhouses in 1988. Forty of those were subsequently confirmed and they were identified by ante-mortem veterinary inspection. Unfortunately, that inspection takes place in only 10 per cent. of British slaughterhouses.

Some 1.6 million bovines were slaughtered last year in slaughterhouses at which there is no such ante-mortem inspection. If the Ministry had implemented the recommendations of the Preston report, which it commissioned, the position would be different. Typically, however, it chose not to act until forced to do so by the European Community. In the meantime, thousands of cattle each week are slaughtered without ante-mortem

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veterinary inspection, and it is inconceivable that all sufferers of BSE are being weeded out. That is the predominant view among those who deal with BSE in the field. It is well put by the senior National Farmers Union source, who, in The Sunday Telegraph of 19 February 1989, is reported as saying :

"It is common knowledge in the industry that infected animals have got into the food chain. The Ministry's approach has been illogical".

I have repeatedly asked the Minister to provide figures for the post- Southwood period relating to inspections and confirmation of BSE at EEC and non-EEC approved slaughterhouses. He has repeatedly refused to provide the information, although he has acknowledged that it is collated by his divisional officers. He asserts that there is no evidence that infected cattle are passing into human food supplies. The plain fact is that he is deliberately refusing to collate the information that would demonstrate whether this is or is not the case. Even if all BSE sufferers were weeded out, people in Britain would still be eating infected material--

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford) : Why?

Mr. Davies : Because cattle brains carry the infection in high concentrations prior to the onset of clinical signs of the disease. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) asked why. The simple reason is that the Minister refuses to collate that information, because it would force him to acknowledge publicly that BSE-infected cattle are now being consumed by humans in Britain in 1989.

By consistently refusing my demands for the banning of the sale of all those organs that are known to carry the disease, the Minister is ensuring that our citizens go on eating products which are infected with a potentially fatal contagion. Even if his claims that no infected animals are getting through were true--which they are not--people would still be exposed to infection. That applies not just to the consumers of beef products. Those whose work involves the handling of beef products are also at risk. That is especially true of slaughterhouse workers, who frequently handle beef products with little protective clothing and who frequently will have cuts and abrasions into which infection can enter. That is known to be one of the most effective routes for the transfer of transmissible encephalopathies.

In his reply to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove in February, the Minister said that the Health and Safety Executive was considering what further action was necessary to ensure the safety of such occupational groups. Three weeks after that statement by the Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Employment told me :

"The Health and Safety Executive is not operating separate procedures for monitoring spongiform encephalopathy".--[ Official Report, 21 March 1989 ; Vol. 149, c. 555. ]

A further two months later, after hundreds, probably thousands, of animals carrying the BSE agent will have passed through slaughterhouses, the Health and Safety Executive has yet to act. If it is not monitoring for CJD--the human form of encephalopathy--it may have no information to act upon. In the light of the conflicting statements from the two Government Departments, perhaps they are confused as to what is expected of them.

In his reply in February to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove, to which I referred, the Minister said :

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"the Chief Medical Officer is ensuring mechanisms are in place to detect any change in the pattern of Creuzfeldt- Jakob disease." [ Official Report, 27 February 1989 ; Vol. 148, c. 90. ]

In other words, the chief medical officer would be examining the incidence of CJD in humans to see if there was any evidence of transmission of encephalopathy from cattle to humans.

In a written reply to me in mid-April, the Under-Secretary of State for Health revealed that the chief medical officer was still discussing with the Medical Research Council the most effective way of doing this. To date, nothing has happened. So no action has been taken either to protect groups that may be at risk, or on monitoring such groups for the disease in question. Confusion reigns. It would help us to know the extent to which the infected animals are being slaughtered at commercial slaughterhouses. If the Government agreed to implement a system of random monitoring of the brains of cull cattle--perhaps 10 per cent. of all cattle slaughtered--they could be examined for this encephalopathy. I have consistently called upon the Minister to do that and he has consistently refused. Having spoken to vets, I know that they would value such monitoring as a way of increasing epidemiological knowledge of the disease and improving our imperfect knowledge of its development.

Random sampling need not be expensive, but it would reveal that animals infected with the disease are unavoidably being slaughtered for human consumption--unavoidably, because, although they are infected, the disease may be at the pre-clinical stage. The reason for the Government's refusal to implement such a policy is, I imagine, that they deny that infected beasts--clinically or sub-clinically infected--are getting through. Until they wake up and face the reality of the situation, as recognised by the majority of people dealing with BSE, they cannot tackle the problem to the necessary extent. The Government can, however, put an immediate stop to the staggeringly irresponsible practice of exporting meat and bone meal for possible inclusion in dairy rations--the very source of the disease in the first instance. Infected meat is now being exported in its raw state to other countries. The Government's failure to take any action to prevent the possibility of the disease spreading is so grossly irresponsible as to be scarcely credible. Assuming that the meat and bone meal exported is typical of that produced in the United Kingdom, last year nearly 3,000 tonnes of such meal derived from sheep infected with scrapie was exported from these shores. If one adds to that the proportion of meal rendered from cattle carrying the BSE infection, which is known to survive the rendering process, one has an enormous reservoir of infection that the Minister continues to allow to be exported.

The Under-Secretary told me that he has issued no advice to those countries importing that meat and bone meal. He also said that the disease has not yet been discussed in the Council of Ministers. Such complacency and disregard for animal health issues elsewhere than on the Minister's own patch is so blinkered and selfish as to constitute a scandal--a scandal to which I hope our trading partners will wake up before BSE hits them to the extent that it has hit us. If they avoid that fate, it will not be due to any consideration of their interests by the British Government. Therefore, the pattern before us is of the

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Minister exposing people at home to the hazards of infection and wilfully allowing the export of the source of infection to imperil our trading partners.

I call upon the Government to end now the export of infected material, to raise the compensation level payable on infected cattle in line with the calls of the National Farmers Union and the British Veterinary Association, to ban the sale for human consumption of all cattle brains, spleen and thymus, to introduce random sampling of cull cattle so that we have a greater understanding of the extent of BSE, and, finally, to bring forward for immediate introduction the Minister's 1991 proposals for ante-mortem inspection of all cattle at slaughterhouses.

I cannot believe that the Minister would wilfully imperil the nation's health. If he refuses to take urgent action, that is precisely what he will do.

12.59 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Donald Thompson) : The hon. Memer for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) has rightly taken a great interest in bovine spongiform encephalopathy since its onset. As my hon. Friends and hon. Members will have gathered from his speech, he has asked many helpful and constructive questions on the matter. I am surprised that tonight he has managed to muddle so much of what has been done so speedily, which has received almost universal approval by those who are concerned directly with BSE. I reject completely the hon. Gentleman's charges of complacency on the part of the Ministry or of my officials.

BSE is a terrible disease and it must be heartbreaking for the farmer to see one of his animals succumb to the distressing and inevitably fatal condition, to say nothing of the financial effect. We have taken BSE extremely seriously. We have implemented a coherent and vigorous programme of measures to contain it, which has been based on the best scientific knowledge available to us. We called together the Southwood committee, and before it had concluded its deliberations we had done much that had been recommended. In addition, we have the Tyrrell committee, to which the hon. Gentleman failed to refer, which is considering many of the issues which he has raised this evening.

Up to 12 May, there had been 4,570 cases of BSE. About 600 new cases are being reported each month. That is the rate which was predicted. The hon. Member for Caerphilly outlined the basis of the disease. As he said, the clinical symptoms are similar to a number of other animal diseases, notably scrapie in sheep. The Southwood committee identified the probable source of infection as the use in cattle feed of material derived from sheep infected with scrapie, which for a variety of reasons posed an increased risk of transmission over recent years. The hon. Gentleman went into those risks.

It is hoped that we have found the correct reason for BSE occurring in animals--

Mr. Ron Davies : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Thompson : I shall not give way.

The cow receives an almost identical ration every day from the same person.

Mr. Davies : The Southwood committee did not say that.

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Mr. Thompson : No. I am saying that. With the same ration, there is a build-up in the animal. Human beings eat a variety of rations and no one eats the same ration every day.

Since 1732, Britain has had scrapie. The incidence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease--CJD--is no higher in Britain than the international average. There is no scrapie in Australia, for example, but the incidence of CJD is no lower there.

As I have said, the Goverment's response has been vigorous. It has been based on three elements. First, we have acted to eliminate the source of infection--the feeding of ruminant protein to ruminants has been prohibited. The ban will be lifted only if a way can be found of treating such material so that the infective agent is destroyed. We know that the agent is unusually resistant, so this will not be an easy task. It is in this important area that there needs to be further research.


Mr. Davies : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Thompson : No. I ask the hon. Gentleman to remember that there was silence in the Chamber when he made his speech.

Secondly, we have acted to block off the route by which transmission to humans might occur, even though this is recognised to involve all sources. Sir John Walton, a neurologist, was a member of the Southwood committee, and he is as eminent a figure as Helen Grant. The committee's report states over and over again that the risk of transmission to humans appears to be a remote possibility. This is ensured through the compulsory slaughter of cattle suspected of being infected. Farmers receive compensation at the rate of 50 per cent. of the value of the animal if post-mortem examination confirms that it was infected, and 100 per cent. if clinical diagnosis cannot be confirmed. I can update the figures that I have given to the hon. Member for Caerphilly. The figures of 30 and 33 have moved to 41 in markets and 58 in slaughterhouses over the past three months. Southwood says that it has been suggested that because compensation is set at 50 per cent. some farmers are evading the law, and as a result carcases of infected animals are reaching the human food chain. However, the evidence does not support that suggestion. That is Southwood's view ; it is nothing to do with the Government. We accepted the report, putting no pressure on Southwood before it and changing not a word after it.

The number of suspected cases being reported is said to have gone up since the compulsory slaughter programme was introduced. I have heard time and time again of the suspicion that some people were getting animals through, but have seen no evidence of it. I have asked the hon.

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Member for Caerphilly for such evidence on a number of occasions, the most recent being 13 April, but I have not received it. The meat and milk of infected animals must be removed from the food chain. The carcases of such animals must be disposed of under supervision of the state veterinary service in a way that will prevent the spread of the disease to other species. The Southwood committee saw no need to make recommendations for the changes in our practice which we had already implemented. As a measure of extreme caution we shall prohibit the use of certain bovine offals in baby food, although in practice such materials are not used for that purpose. We have issued guidance about the use of bovine offal in the manufacture of pharmaceutical products.

Finally, but no less important, we have taken steps to improve our knowledge of the diseases. We have set up a scientific committee under Dr. David Tyrrell of the Medical Research Council to make recommendations about research requirements. A thorough research programme is under way into the background of the disease, its transmissibility and the genetic and microbiological aspects. We have a core of 300 calves, with the equivalent number of control animals, so that we can see how they develop and can reassure ourselves that there is no vertical transmission.

Let me deal with the points that the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to put to me. I have discussed compensation levels and I cannot think that we are being cheated, but I shall be pleased to examine any evidence. As for the risk of BSE-infected animals entering the food chain and the need for random sampling, we hope that Tyrrell will provide a method by which we can obtain samples from the brains of living and dead animals so that we can see what is happening. The hon. Gentleman asked about lack of veterinary inspection. Many slaughterhouses are inspected by environmental health officers. There seems to have been a movement against EHOs recently by the Labour party, but I have every confidence in them. As for continued exports of meat and bonemeal, we still use them for fertiliser and for feeding chickens and pigs. Other countries are well aware of the position here ; they discuss it with us and import such material, probably for those purposes. Southwood recommended that CJD be monitored : that, as the hon. Gentleman said, falls into the province of the chief medical officer.

Safety of slaughterhouse workers is very important, and the Health and Safety Commission is examining how we can best protect them from this and other diseases

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Madam Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order . Adjourned at eight minutes past One o'clock .

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