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The Minister for Food (Mrs. Angela Browning) indicated dissent.

Mr. Hinchliffe: The Minister shakes her head. I shall be interested to hear her comments.

As a parent of two school-age children, I also urge the Government to take urgent and significant steps to reduce the risk to children, especially pre-school children.

I recognise that the Minister does not have a specific health brief, but will she, with her colleagues in the Department of Health, listen to the concerns of the CJD support network, an organisation set up last year by families who have cared for relatives with CJD with the backing of the Alzheimer's Disease Society? Specifically,

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I understand that the support network is pressing for CJD to be made a notifiable disease, for the establishment of an independent inquiry into the causes of it and for a much greater consideration of the practical help and support needed by those caring for sufferers. I endorse in full its concerns.

I am conscious of the need to give the Minister time to reply in some detail, but in the context of the question mark over BSE, may I press the Minister to recognise the serious lack of public confidence stemming directly from the Government's failure to separate ministerial responsibility for the production of food from the responsibility for consumer interest? I hope that she will understand that, regardless of one's views on BSE, there is a clear public perception that her Government are always rather more concerned with protecting the business interests of food producers than with the health of food consumers.

12.47 pm

The Minister for Food (Mrs. Angela Browning): Although I very much welcome the opportunity taken by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) to bring this very important subject to the Floor of the House, I somewhat regret the tone in which he has presented his case. First, there has been no reduction in research into BSE. In fact, as a result of the Budget, an extra £1 million will be going into research into BSE. Of course the Government rely on the spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee to advise us on areas in which it feels additional research would be beneficial--whether it concerns BSE or CJD. We obviously listen very carefully to its advice.

The hon. Member for Wakefield raised particularly cases in Yorkshire and cited specific companies involved in the purchase of animals which he says act as a collecting point for BSE cattle. A total of 915 BSE-positive cattle have been reported by Messrs Thompson since 1988, of which 76 per cent. have been traced to the original owners. We take very seriously the question whether people--perhaps--on occasions try to circumvent the system in order to keep the BSE-free status on their holding through the offloading of animals as the hon. Gentleman described. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if he has further examples and writes to me, I shall ensure that officials do those tracings. If problems are found, obviously we will encourage trading standards officers to take out prosecutions. Prosecutions have been brought in cases in which we have found such circumventions.

The Government's position on BSE and CJD is based on listening to the experts and following the advice of the independent advisory committees, which are made up of leading experts. The opinion of the overwhelming majority of those experts working on BSE and CJD, not only in the United Kingdom but in the European Union and elsewhere, is that the Government's actions are not only prudent but sufficient to protect the safety of people who eat beef and bovine products. I must say that we have always taken the advice of the SEAC and put it into the public domain as quickly as possible.

The Government have a responsibility to protect the health of the individual by removing products that could present a risk from the food chain. But we also have a responsibility to take a balanced view and to avoid responding to unfounded fears by banning material that is perfectly safe.

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It is wrong to suggest that the Government have been in any way reckless in relation to BSE and CJD. We have taken expert advice and worked on the precautionary principle that BSE theoretically could be a risk to humans. We have based our controls on that hypothesis even though there is no evidence that BSE can be transmitted to humans and despite good evidence gained from several centuries of experience that the similar disease of scrapie in sheep is not linked to CJD in humans. We have assumed that BSE could, in theory, be a risk. We have therefore taken proportionate action to ensure that the risk is removed should there ever be evidence that that scientific link is made.

On that basis, suspect cattle are destroyed--whether on the farm, in the market, at a dealer's premises or at the slaughterhouse--and their owners are compensated. It was also on that basis that the specified bovine offal ban was introduced. Again on the recommendation of the SEAC, we have tightened up the administration of the SBO ban in cases in which the order was not being complied with in accordance with the committee's advice. We have recently, for example, taken action to ensure that specified bovine offal is properly stained, separated and disposed of quite separately from materials which might enter either the human food chain or animal feed. Those important measures are designed to protect human health and have ensured that the only tissues in which BSE infectivity has ever been detected, either experimentally or in clinical cases, have been completely removed from both the human and the animal food chains.

The SBO ban applies to all cattle, other than calves under the age of six months, which are slaughtered for human consumption. As a result of experimental findings in 1994, the ban was extended to cover the intestine and the thymus of calves, which is a precaution because infectivity has not been detected in the thymus.

The Government's policy is a cautious, belt and braces approach. The "belt" is taking all cattle which show symptoms of the clinical disease out of the system and destroying them and the "braces" are removing the SBOs from all healthy cattle at slaughter. That ensures that they do not enter either the human or the animal food chains. The "braces" are required because we recognise that the "belt" cannot detect animals which are incubating the disease before the clinical signs develop.

The hon. Member for Wakefield raised the issue of animals going to market and then being sold on. He might be interested to know that animals often show no clinical signs of the disease on the farm, but that the clinical symptoms are accentuated because of the stress placed on the animal by the transit and the offloading at market. Animals are sometimes picked up at market which have been incubating BSE, but it is the transit which has exacerbated the clinical symptoms.

Much has been made in the media recently about the fact that we cannot identify infected cattle which show no signs of the disease. Some mischievous journalists have presented this as a new finding. The press notice issued in June 1989, however, when the SBO ban was proposed, made it clear that the ban was being introduced precisely because we recognised the fact that pre-clinical cases could enter the food chain. The ban was designed, and all the subsequent scientific evidence has shown that it was

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correctly designed, to remove all the tissues that could harbour the agent. The Government do not argue that BSE in cattle could not be a risk to human health if no preventive measures were taken.

The Government have taken an ultra-precautionary line, and the overwhelming view of international experts is that we have acted correctly. Unfortunately, that does not make a good story in the press, which has tried to whip the issue up into a frenzy of public alarm when there is simply no cause.

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that it is most regrettable that the media choose to interview scientists and people who are eminent in their own specialty, particularly of medicine, but who have not been involved in the day-to-day research and information collected on the subject. They have been paraded as advisers to the Government, but the media have then not agreed to interview the very people who advise the Government. That poses the question whether the media, lacking other news stories, particularly in the pre-Christmas period, were rather unprincipled in the way in which they went about reporting the subject.

Many eminent scientists, including the chairman of the SEAC, and the chief medical officer advise the Government. The chief medical officer, not the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is responsible for human health. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the separation of responsibilities. Obviously MAFF Ministers must answer questions about the animal food chain and how it interfaces with the human food chain, but the chief medical officer has responsibility for human health. He has made it clear that if he felt there was a need to warn the public of a threat to human health it would be his duty to do so regardless of what was said by other Ministries and other people. I am quite sure that he would carry out that duty and obligation to the country.

Mr. Gill: The debate is about serious matters and I think that the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) was in danger of confusing the animal health issue with the human health issue. As he knows, there is no direct proof of any connection between the two. He was able to make such a speech because no scientist worth his salt--I am sure that the Minister would agree that this is the problem from her point of view--will stand up in public or publish his findings stating categorically that there can be no link between BSE and CJD or between any other animal disease and any other human disease. That is the problem. The fact that scientists cannot give that categorical assurance does not license the hon. Member or the press to continue to make allegations without any basis of truth or science behind them.


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