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Madam Speaker: We return now to Question 1.

The Minister was asked--

Beef on the Bone

1. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): What plans he has to lift the ban on beef on the bone following the report from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee; and if he will make a statement. [67796]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown): The chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, submitted advice to me and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health on 18 January. His advice follows the latest scientific assessment of the public health risk from beef bones by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, which was published on 30 November 1998. SEAC concluded that the risk from infectivity in bone marrow

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and dorsal root ganglia is now less than it was 12 months ago. That assessment reflected the continued decline in the number of bovine spongiform encephalopathy cases.

The CMO has concluded that a public health intervention now to lift the Beef Bones Regulations 1997 would allow that element of the food hazard that was originally eliminated--albeit reduced in magnitude--to pose a renewed, though very small, risk. He therefore recommends that, in line with the Government's risk reduction strategy on BSE, the existing controls in the regulations should continue for the time being.

Given the anticipated further decline in the number of BSE-infected cattle during 1999, the chief medical officer has recommended that the controls should be reviewed six months on from 1 February 1999, with particular attention paid to a number of points that he has specified in his advice. He has also asked that, during 1999, a full analysis of the age structure of new cases of BSE be conducted, the success of control measures be audited and new predictions of the incidence of the disease be made. He has also made commitments to continue work on providing estimates of risk in terms that will allow greater public understanding of the level of risk compared with other potential hazards and to ensure that new cases of new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease continue to be carefully monitored.

The Government welcome the CMO's memorandum. We accept all his recommendations. As we have made clear throughout, the beef bones controls were put in place to protect public health from the risk of nvCJD, and will be lifted only in the light of scientific and medical advice. It is encouraging that the CMO sees grounds for hoping that the situation will improve. If we can, consistent with a further assessment of the medical and scientific evidence, we will lift the ban after the review recommended by the CMO in six months.

I acknowledge that the delay in lifting the controls will greatly disappoint many in the food and farming industry and many would-be consumers, but the need to protect public health and retain confidence in beef and beef products remains the Government's paramount concern. My colleagues and I continue to expect that the beef bones regulations will be complied with fully and enforced. Copies of the CMO's memorandum and recommendations are being placed in the Libraries of the House and made widely available, including on the Ministry's internet site.

Mr. Chapman: I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Does he agree that while there is concern among consumers and, of course, beef farmers, the way forward must be to seek the complete eradication of BSE? Where doubt exists, positive and firm action must be taken. Does he agree that had it not been for the inactivity, secrecy and negligence of the previous Government, we would not face this dilemma? Does he further agree that our first priority is the protection of the consumer, in this instance and in the publication of the Food Standards Agency Bill? That is all in stark contrast to the attitude of the Conservative party.

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is right. The protection of the public must come first in these matters. He is also right to remind the House of the attitudes that got us into this mess in the first place.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): Is the Minister aware that there will be huge disappointment at this

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announcement not only among beef farmers who are already struggling but among consumers who continue to be denied the chance to choose their own menus? This is a big setback for an industry that is fighting to regain market confidence. Does he realise that it is also a setback for him personally after all the hints that he has dropped in the past few weeks about lifting the ban? After a six-month struggle to prove that he is different from his unlamented predecessor, he has failed the first real test.

Only this morning, the House was told that the Government are willing to ignore the warnings of English Nature about the environmental risks that may be associated with the hasty large-scale commercial release of genetically modified crops. Why will the Government not publish the CMO's advice and allow consumers to decide for themselves whether to eat beef on the bone? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House the statistical risk of dying from eating beef on the bone and say how it compares with the risks of smoking, an activity where some individual choice is still permitted?

Mr. Brown: The risk is very small, but it is nevertheless there. The chief medical officer's advice is very clear indeed. The hon. Gentleman mentioned consumer choice, but there would be no consumer choice in a restaurant where beef on the bone had been used in the preparation of stew, gravy, or food of that sort. English Nature is not the chief medical officer. It would be wrong to set the science and the medical advice to one side and make a political decision rather than one based on professional advice. Of course I want to lift the ban as soon as I can properly do so, but the chief medical officer has made it absolutely clear to me--in words that brook no misunderstanding whatsoever--that that time is not now.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): How many people have died from new variant CJD? Does the Minister agree that it is a deadly disease and that the Government are right to be safe rather than sorry? One of my constituents died from CJD and I had to face the family of that constituent. We must ensure that this Government do not get the same reputation as the previous one, who protected the farmers but forgot to protect the public. I am sorry that the ban cannot be lifted yet, but it is better for the consumer and for the farmer to ensure that beef on the bone is safe before the ban is lifted.

Mr. Brown: Like every other member of the Government, I am determined that we will not get the same reputation as the previous one. I understand that 35 people have now died from the new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but I am afraid that it is a statistical certainty that more will follow. We are not yet sure of the profile of the disease, so it is absolutely right to err--if err we do--on the precautionary side.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Will the Minister concede that he and the agriculture and wider food industries are today the victims of some premature and unfortunate spinning that occurred on his behalf and in his name only last weekend? There is a crisis in morale in British agriculture, which was given something of a fillip by the suggestion that the Minister would be able to make a positive statement today rather than announcing a six-month delay. The down side in terms of morale will thus be all the more acute.

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Given that we have always disagreed about the ban on beef on the bone, does not the rather unhappy position in which the Minister finds himself today underscore the lack of wisdom shown by his predecessor in not taking the other option that SEAC offered: to publish the quantifiable risk--which is statistically minute--treat the citizens of this country like adults, and allow them to make their own mature decisions as to the risks? Should the Minister not revisit that option as a matter of urgency?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also address the issue of the over-30-months scheme, as today's statement has another worrying implication? As from this month, there should be nothing in the food chain in this country that represents a quantifiable risk. However, if the chief medical officer is offering this advice--which the Government feel compelled to accept--what implications does that have for the credibility of the OTMS?

Mr. Brown: The hon. Gentleman has the last point wrong. The issue is not the over-30-months scheme but maternal transmission and the very small--but still present--risk that that could cause infectivity in the bone element and in the material clinging to the bone. The hon. Gentleman asked about my desire to lift the ban as soon as I can. As soon as it is the responsible thing to do, I will lift the ban on beef on the bone. However, the advice that I have received from the chief medical officer brooks no misunderstanding whatsoever. In advice to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and me, the chief medical officer said:

The hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members invite me to reject that advice, but I feel that I cannot do so.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): I respect the eating habits of the large majority of British people, but, as a matter of interest, will my right hon. Friend tell me whether any food that vegetarians eat has ever caused anything like the problem that now confronts him and has confronted previous Ministers?

Mr. Brown: Not so far as I am aware.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): May I invite the Minister to be less coy? My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) asked him to tell us the quantifiable risk, and he answered that that risk was very small--but what is it? Is it one in however many millions, or does the Minister not know?

Mr. Brown: The CMO and SEAC have not quantified the risk in mathematical terms. The phrase they have used is "very small".

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): However great the disappointment at the further delay to the lifting of the ban is, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on today's decision. May I refer him to another

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recommendation made by SEAC in November in respect of concern about operations in rendering plants? Will he review current legislation so that the practice of spreading liquid condensate on grazing pasture can be prevented and the substance classified, not as a fertiliser, but as a special waste?

Mr. Brown: Local authorities already have powers to act in that respect.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): Does the right hon. Gentleman not recall that the previous advice was based on a statistical figure of approximately one in a billion? Has he not told the House today that the advice he has now received says that the risk is less now than it was then? Does he not appreciate that, if he waits for the CMO to tell him that there is no risk whatsoever before lifting the ban, he will wait in vain, because the CMO can never give such advice? The issue requires ministerial leadership. The House was encouraged by the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to understand that he would give that leadership as the new Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Does he realise what a serious setback today's decision is, both for the industry, and for consumers?

Mr. Brown: No, I do not accept that. The real setback for the industry would be if I were to ignore the advice of the CMO and create uncertainty about the safety of beef products in restaurants and in the retail marketplace. That would be an irresponsible thing to do. I accept the right hon. Gentleman's remarks about the SEAC report, but the CMO did not phrase his advice to me in a way that defines a mathematical average--

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): He did.

Mr. Brown: The right hon. Gentleman should keep quiet and listen instead of chirping away from the Back Benches.

I accept what has been said about the SEAC report, but the CMO has not framed his advice in the form sought by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), which is a mathematical formula that has "acceptable" at one end and "unacceptable" at the other. The CMO has said starkly that the risk is very small but that he is not able to recommend a lifting of the regulations now. That advice is not ambiguous: he does not recommend a lifting of the regulations now, but believes that it would be proper to return to the matter in six months' time.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): My right hon. Friend will know that he will face some disappointed farmers on his visit to my constituency tomorrow. However, does he agree that the worst possible advice to give the industry is that it should follow the lead of the Conservatives, who appear to want put political argument ahead of public safety? This sector is but a small financial proportion of the entire industry, but there is a considerable danger that farming as a whole will become associated with disregarding safety for financial gain. The worst possible action is to urge the Minister to overturn clear medical advice.

Mr. Brown: I am looking forward to my return visit to Norfolk tomorrow. I am willing to discuss those matters

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with farmers, but by far and away the worst thing that I could do for the beef market would be to create new uncertainty about whether the product is safe. By the time we have come through the BSE crisis our country will have spent over £4 billion of taxpayers' money, supplemented to a small degree by resources from the European Union, to ensure the safety of the public. It would be wrong of me, as a Minister of the Crown, to undermine public protection. Public safety must come first.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Since this is a Government who say that they believe in joined-up thinking, how do they reconcile the continued ban on beef on the bone with their continued promotion of the sale of duty-free cigarettes?

Mr. Brown: It is perfectly possible to exercise choice over the consumption of cigarettes, and the chief medical officer's warnings about cigarettes are printed on the packet. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Brown: I wish that Conservative Members would listen. I have just read to the House the chief medical officer's advice, which makes it absolutely clear that it is not certain in all circumstances that consumers of beef products would be able to exercise that choice. Reintroduction of uncertainty is one of the points that the chief medical officer properly warns against. Whatever the arguments about smoking, the fact is that nvCJD is invariably fatal.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will my right hon. Friend assure me that research continues into the possible infectivity of bone marrow? We already know of the problems with the dorsal root ganglia, but there has been no assurance yet about bone marrow. That needs to be worked out before any change in policy is made.

Mr. Brown: My hon. Friend is on to a good point. A substantial research programme into precisely that matter is now under way.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone): Does the Minister agree that the unfortunate and regrettable decision announced today will give our European partners a further excuse to delay the lifting of the beef ban and the introduction of the date-based scheme?

Mr. Brown: I hope that it will not, for two reasons. First, our European partners are reassured by the public protection measures in this country. It would be irresponsible of me to start dismantling them, particularly against the advice of the chief medical officer. Secondly, the date-based export scheme is for deboned beef, so the issue of bones in beef is not bound up with the resumption of exports from the rest of the United Kingdom; and the same is true for the certified herd scheme in Northern Ireland. I say again to the hon. Gentleman that I very much enjoyed the Irish beef that I ate in Bologna recently when I met the Italian Minister.

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