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Column 819Janman, Tim
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Morrison, Sir Charles
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Porter, David (Waveney)
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Waddington, Rt Hon David
Winterton, Mrs Ann
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. Tom Sackville and
Mr. Greg Knight.
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Wise, Mrs Audrey
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Ian McCartney and
Mr. Harry Barnes.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill (as amended in the Standing Committee), to be further considered this day.
Tuition Fees and Loans
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme) : I am pleased to present a petition signed by some 820 university students and others in my constituency on a subject that concerns them, and me, greatly. It ends by saying :
Wherefore your Petitioners Pray that your Honourable House do reject any proposals to introduce the payment by students of tuition fees or student loans.
To lie upon the Table.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Chapman.]
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : I shall address myself to the Zoonoses order of March 1989, which gave the Government draconian powers to slaughter chickens particularly, with inadequate compensation for farmers whose flocks were slaughtered. Despite the fact that domestic chickens are still being slaughtered under the order, foreign chickens and their eggs are allowed in without testing. The order is based on what I hope to show is tenuous scientific evidence that eggs are responsible for food poisoning. I am a biologist by training and have been in the profession for more than 20 years, so my interest in the subject, and in the attitude to eggs, comes from a scientific background.
The Zoonoses order applies to vertebrate animals allegedly carrying diseases which can be transmitted to man. Man is usually excluded from the slaughter order, which is surprising as this is largely a people problem rather than a chicken or an egg problem. The majority of alleged salmonella food poisoning cases relate to people and the way in which they handle food rather than to the fact that there is salmonella present in chickens. That is a long-established fact. Everyone has known about that. Salmonella is endemic in chickens as it is in other animals, including people. There are about 2,000 different species of salmonella, which are quite common in many places. We are largely concerned here with salmonella enteritidis and typhimurium, the two forms held to be responsible for outbreaks of salmonella food poisoning.
Since March 1989, almost 750,000 chickens have been
slaughtered--most of them from the flocks of small farmers. As a result of this policy, small farmers' flocks are being decimated, their income has been destroyed, and the compensation that they are receiving is grossly inadequate. If there were reason to believe that the policy of slaughter was having an effect on the number of food poisoning cases reported and alleged to be associated with salmonella, there might be some sense in it. Despite the slaughter, however, which is on a large scale, despite the fact that we have all been educated to cook eggs much more carefully--the results of national surveys show that precautions are being taken--and despite the fact that the Government have introduced quite draconian measures, the number of food poisoning cases being reported is much the same as it was before. We might reasonably ask, therefore, whether the policy is having the desired effect and whether the diagnosis on which it is based--that eggs are responsible for outbreaks of food poisoning--is correct.
The domestic production and consumption of eggs has decreased considerably- -sales of British eggs are down by about 12 per cent.--but total sales are down by only about 5 per cent. That is because foreign eggs are being imported and sold in Britain. Those eggs come from flocks which are not subjected to the type of tests to which we are submitting our domestic flocks. As a result, it is cynical for the Ministry to allege, as it does, that it is concerned that the problem of salmonella and eggs is being dealt with properly. The Ministry has stated that salmonella organisms are widespread and that their complete elimination from the
Column 821environment cannot be expected. Yet we continue to adopt a policy which suggests that if we slaughter chickens in which there is some trace of salmonella we shall reduce the outbreak of food poisoning. I am sure that the Minister knows, however, that in Sweden a draconian policy of slaughter has been implemented and that chicken flocks are largely free of salmonella, yet salmonella food poisoning is still commonplace in the population. It is brought in from abroad and transmitted from person to person through the food chain. The logic of that is that if we were seriously to go about eliminating salmonella, we would slaughter people as well as chickens. That would be ridiculous, but that flows from the so-called logic which seems to underlie the exercise.
About three quarters of a million chickens have been slaughtered, most of them from small farmers' flocks because outbreaks of food poisoning are often allegedly traced to small farms. A small farm will have a relatively small flock, and it is often easy to say that such a flock must be responsible for the outbreak. Farmers who deal with large and disparate flocks are often immune in the sense that it is not possible specifically to trace an outbreak of food poisoning to a particular flock. Furthermore, the larger egg producers and distributors have access to, and are involved in importing, foreign eggs to make up a shortfall. By and large, the problem is related to small farms.
If a farmer's flock is identified as possibly having traces of salmonella, the flock is virtually isolated. The farmer is not allowed to bring in an independent expert to test the flock to confirm the evidence that the Ministry alleges that it has found. As many species of salmonella are transient--they can be said to be the equivalent of flu--as they come and go and last only for short periods, it is doubly unjust that flocks are slaughtered when by the time the slaughter order is invoked they may already be clear of salmonella in the natural way of things. That is why the Daventry sisters felt strongly that they were not allowed to have their flock tested to ascertain whether salmonella, as alleged, was present. Even the Ministry's assessment of the flock suggested only tenuously, having slaughtered about 50 chickens, minced their guts, tested them in batches of five and failed to trace in one batch, that salmonella was present. On that evidence, the whole flock was slaughtered. Compensation is inadequate. It is sometimes 60 per cent. of the value of the chickens, but it does not take into account the cost of replacing a flock or the loss of business, to say nothing of the farmer's reputation.
As a result, as the nuns' story illustrates, small farmers will receive about £2,000 in compensation, but to replace the flock and start all over again may cost 10 times that amount--£20,000 or even £30,000. The order is grossly unjust and, as I have already pointed out, there is no evidence to suggest that that ruthless policy is effective.
Perhaps we should look at the evidence produced in the past to suggest that eggs are responsible for the problem. Is the egg really the guilty party?
As I have said before in the House, eggs are a complex system of mechanisms specifically designed by nature, or by evolution, to prevent bacteria developing inside. There is a relative lack of oxygen within the egg, but salmonella requires oxygen to develop in numbers which can become a health hazard for human beings. There are a number of substances within an egg to restrain the growth of bacteria. The albumen of an egg contains enzymes which are bacteriocides and cannot in
Column 822the normal way tolerate the growth of bacteria. The egg underneath the shell is contained in a semi-permeable membrane which, again, is designed by nature to prevent the free passage of substances such as oxygen.
The only permeable part of an egg that would allow bacteria in from outside is the shell itself. But once bacteria get through the shell there are plenty of obstacles designed by nature. Furthermore, unless the egg is fertilised and the embryo begins to develop, there is no other mechanism for gaining oxygen from the outside world. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister does not believe me. The biologists advising the Minister are extremely poor in their scientific knowledge. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) on this subject, my hon. Friend the Minister said :
"As to the point raised by Teresa Gorman an egg is not anaerobic. Its shell is perforated by millions of pores which allow the embryo to breathe and to achieve moisture balance. That is why eggs are susceptible to salmonella."
He seems to be trying to suggest that, because there are minute pores in an egg shell, salmonella can enter through the shell, multiply and become dangerous. If that were the case, a rotten egg would not smell of hydrogen sulphide when broken open, as it does. That is produced by anaerobic respiration. An egg is an anaerobic capsule. There is no free oxygen, so even if salmonella were present inside the egg it would not have the oxygen that it requires to reproduce.
Therefore, there is no good evidence to suggest that eggs have the capacity to produce large quantities of salmonella. Yet it is on that flimsy biological evidence that an industry is being condemned, flocks are being slaughtered with inadequate compensation and people's livelihoods are being jeopardised. Where the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has sought to show that salmonella bacteria can grow within an egg, it has artifically inoculated the egg and thus disrupted the complex natural anti- bacterial system which is part and parcel of the structure of an egg. Those experiments in no way imitate the true conditions that exist in nature.
Radical measures have been adopted on very poor evidence. I ask the Minister today to go back to basics and to re-examine the evidence before we have literally destroyed our domestic egg-producing industry while at the same time, and quite illogically, allowing eggs into this country from flocks that are not so tested.
In the Select Committee debate on this, the Government's Chief Medical Officer gave good advice which would be a sensible holding method. He advised that people should not eat raw eggs until we had decided whether raw eggs were dangerous, that eggs should be cooked, and that people who were susceptible to disease, such as the elderly or pregnant women, should be more careful about what they ate. That was all good advice. Yet the Ministry went on to develop a slaughter policy which is expensive, cruel and quite unnecessary because there is no evidence of a reduction in alleged food poisoning by salmonella as a result.
I am asking the Minister in the interests of common sense to go back to the beginning, to carry out some real scientific investigation of eggs and to discover whether they can biologically be contaminated with salmonella at such a level as to threaten human health, which is what the debate is all about. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, I suggest that the biological knowledge that his Ministry officials are giving him in their briefings is