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Column 823extremely suspect. If it is not suspect and he really believes that eggs can be dangerous in that way, why has he not banned foreign imports?
The implication of the Minister's policy, carried to its logical conclusion, is that eggs will become a luxury item in this country, that they will be an expensive food to produce and that people will have to move on to other foodstuffs, while small farmers have to move into other forms of food production.
We had been eating eggs and chickens for centuries before this scare became part of our national folklore. I believe that the scare was a media hype to which the Government over-reacted. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider the evidence and, most particularly and in the short term, to think seriously about what he is doing to our domestic poultry industry by the enactment of the Zoonoses order.
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry) : I find it one of the ironic facts of political life that a few months ago we were being ferociously attacked because we had not taken enough action, whereas now we are being ferociously attacked because we have taken too much action. The action we are taking is correct. We shall continue to take it and continue to have public health as the foremost of our priorities at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Zoonoses order came into effect in March 1989. It gave us power to slaughter poultry infected with salmonella and to pay compensation. So far--and I am sure that the House will be interested in the statistics--64 flocks have been slaughtered because we found either salmonella enteritidis or salmonella typhimurium. Getting those two words out at 2.30 am is no mean achievement for an historian, as opposed to a biologist. We have found it in those flocks and about 700,000 birds have been slaughtered. We have paid about £530,000 in compensation. We intend to extend compulsory slaughter soon to the breeding flocks, layers and broilers, to take the battle against infection higher up the chain, especially into grandparent and layer breeders.
The Zoonoses order complements other legislation that requires the testing of flocks and the control of feed. The extension of testing to hatcheries and the requirement to register the flocks comes into force tomorrow. I took the precaution of writing "tomorrow" in the expectation that this would be a late debate, and I fear that I may have the same problem tomorrow when I deal with Scottish haddock in an Adjournment debate.
We have brought the typical costs for the testing for a small flock down from about £110 plus value added tax to £24 plus VAT. We have been attentive to the problems of the small producers. We have recognised the difficulty that they have faced, but we have done our best to ensure that the necessary burden that we impose is not intolerable to them. Nothing would destroy the industry more than any reputation that it gained- -merited or not--that it was producing a product that the consumer did not think was safe.
There are 2,000-plus types of salmonella. We require slaughter only when an invasive salmonella--enteritidis
Column 824and typhimurium--is found. These can penetrate the egg in two principal ways, and here, I am afraid, we have a dispute about the biology of the process : by contamination through the eggshell by faeces, and by transovarian infection, which causes the hen to lay infected eggs. We are confident that our evidence for that is solid. When this is found, the whole of the unit--whether it is a hen house or a whole flock--must go. It is simply not feasible to test every bird and to remove those infected.
We take the most meticulous steps to verify and identify the infection. It is worth remembering that the owner is already required to do his or her own testing. In the first instance, an investigation is conducted by the local centre of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to isolate the salmonella organism. That isolate is forwarded to the central veterinary laboratory at Weybridge for a second opinion and confirmation of the serial type. Then the public health laboratory at Colindale in north London is required to identify the exact type of salmonella by phage typing of enteritidis and typhimurium. In other words, there is a tri-level confirmation on top of the owner's own checks.
My hon. Friend mentioned the recent case in Daventry. I am delighted to see here my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), for Fylde (Mr. Jack), for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice). That constitutes quite a large audience for an Adjournment debate. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry on the extremely constructive and helpful way in which he dealt with a case that occurred in his constituency. It was clearly a difficult case, as it was conducted in the glare of publicity.
I am sure that my hon. Friend knows the sequence of events. Two families were taken ill after eating a baked Alaska. The doctor was called in. The environmental health officer for Nuneaton traced the eggs which were used back to the nunnery. The Ministry laboratories in Cambridge identified the salmonella. That was confirmed by the central veterinary laboratory. The public health laboratory identified salmonella typhimurium phage type 49a. It was the exact type that was found in the humans and in the chickens through the chain of the baked Alaska, down to the last decimal point. It is also worth spelling out how we test. In this case, 59 birds were taken. This was done according to a scale that shows the number of birds to be taken. A figure is not just dreamed up as officials arrive. The material is grouped into batches constituting batches from five birds. They are tested for three things : infection in the gut, infection in the reproductive tract, and infection in the lung and liver. This method--I defer to the statistical superiority of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) in these matters--gives a 95 per cent. probability of picking up one infected bird if the level of infection in the flock is about 5 per cent. In this case, we found the infection in the intestines.
Even if--this is a vital point--there had been no outbreak of food poisoning and if the nuns had tested the flock, as they were required by law to do, it is likely that they would have found an infection. When an infection is found, we are obliged in the interests of public health to deal with that flock, whether at that point the link can be traced back irrevocably to a food poisoning case or not. I must emphasise that our behaviour in this case towards the nuns, whose concern and passion we understood, was characterised by restraint, courtesy, consideration and, if I
Column 825may say so in the case of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, a certain religious empathy. I want to place it on the record that the nuns' flock had not been tested as the law required. During the height of the dispute, frozen shelled-eggs from an infected house had been sold. No harm was caused and we regarded the mistake as genuine and, fortunately, the consignment was intercepted and its products destroyed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay asked about compensation. I recognise that that is a difficult issue. We are bound by the Animal Health Act 1981 to pay the market value for birds at the time of slaughter. That clearly depends on the age of the flock and its laying cycle and it is subject to arbitration. At the time that that occurred in the case of the nuns' flock, the flock had been put into forced moult to generate a second laying cycle. We are examining the question of compensation for older flocks.
My hon. Friend asked me to comment on two specific points. First, she asked why we require birds which lay eggs that are deemed to be infected--she would dispute whether they were actually infected--to be slaughtered when we do not require the chickens which might have salmonella to be slaughtered. The answer is that the Government have targeted eggs as the main health risk because they are eaten raw and part-cooked while it is generally accepted and understood that thorough cooking kills salmonella in chickens. As I have said, we are planning to extend slaughter policy to broiler breeding flocks in a phased fashion to ensure that there is no major market disruption. My hon. Friend also asked about imports. The situation is not so apocalyptical as she suggested. Imports are not flooding in and we still supply 97 per cent. of our own market for eggs. My latest figures indicate that 500,000 boxes of eggs have been imported against 420,000 over the same period last year. We have doubled the export of our eggs over the same period, from 420,000 to 850,000 boxes. It is also worth noting that we cannot draw a direct arithmetical line between our action and the impact on public health. However, we have had a long hot summer when there was a genuine anticipation that there would be a significant increase in the incidence of illnesses of this kind. There was no big increase, and the number of cases is running at roughly last year's level. Of course there is a problem with imports. We cannot hold the imports while we conduct the tests because the tests take too long to
Column 826carry out. Under Community regulations, we cannot ban imports and I must state that, at the height of our crisis, none of our Community partners banned the import of eggs from the United Kingdom. A significant number of eggs were exported from the United Kingdom to the continent at that time.
If there is a problem with imports, we take up the issue immediately with the member state from where the production originated, and we are seeking European Community controls up to the standard of the controls that we have now imposed in the United Kingdom.
At a time when we are going in to bat in the Community, to maintain the high status that we enjoy in animal health in the context of the 1992 negotiations, it is absolutely essential that we show that we are willing to take the measures required to maintain that status in the United Kingdom, otherwise it will be increasingly difficult to argue with our negotiators on the continent that we have a special case and that we should not go to a Community system which we fear would not have the rigour of the systems that we would want for the United Kingdom.
Of course testing 60 eggs per consignment is not as effective as testing the birds themselves. However, we are doing as much as we can to control the level of infection in imports. We are pursuing that with the greatest vigour in the European Community, and those health issues figured on the agenda of the Luxembourg Council--not eggs in this case, but veterinary checks in general--from where I returned today to reply to this debate.
I do not believe that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is required to start from the drawing board again. We are constantly looking to ensure that our actions are effective and appropriate. We will never turn our backs on evidence presented to us which suggests a better way. We will constantly ensure that we are acting in the best interests of public health.
I must make it absolutely clear that our prime interest lies in public health. There must be no exceptions, qualifications or evasions when it comes to public health. That is our fundamental obligation. We will honour that obligation in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I am confident that that is an obligation in the pursuance of which we will have the full backing of the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Three o'clock.
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