Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 69 - 79)




  69. Minister, you keep turning up in front of this Committee. That is because we invite you. We are very pleased to see you again and as all ministers in the Lords you are required to have multifaceted talents ranged over the work of the Department and this time it is badgers. Thank you for coming. If we can start with a rather obvious question about the reason for the trial and the rest of the programme which we have been hearing about from Professor Bourne, what are the latest figures on the herd breakdowns and has the rate of infection and geographical spread continued to increase since we made our report in 1999, for example—a sort of epidemiological update.

  (Baroness Hayman) In 1999, there were 879 confirmed new TB incidents in cattle herds and that compares with 740 in 1998, so that is an increase of nearly 20 per cent. That is against an increase of around 44 per cent the year before. The number of cattle slaughtered as TB reactors or contacts rose by 13 per cent from 6,083 to 6,890. As far as the year 2000 figures are concerned, from January to July, the provisional breakdowns are 633 and the number of cattle compulsorily slaughtered, 5,064, so very serious figures. In terms of spread and geographical spread, the tendency is for it to be in areas that are already subject to high infectivity rather than spread to areas of the country that have never seen bovine TB before, so predominantly it is in the traditional strongholds of the south-west, south-west Wales and the Midlands. That is the overall picture: a continuing increase and a continuing serious picture.

Mr Drew

  70. If I can start with the potential risk of TB spreading into human beings, this was raised in the debate on the Select Committee's report on TB. What is your latest evidence about people getting TB and where possibly they could get it from?
  (Baroness Hayman) Part of the five point strategy that the government has is the protection of human health in the context of M bovis and there is joint working with the Department of Health in this area. There are two possible routes of transmission. One is the food borne route. All the evidence in terms of the incidence of M bovis, rather than human tuberculosis in the human population, is that it is not increasing. It is stable at around 40 cases a year. As I understand it, the mainstream view is that, because most of those cases are in older people, it is reactivation of disease that was contracted before pasteurisation of the milk. Obviously, we have to keep a watchful eye on that. The FSA has now the responsibility in terms of food safety and I know that they are looking at this issue and looking at further independent research on that. There is no evidence of risk of food borne contamination increasing. I think that is probably accepted. Equally, in terms of the occupational risk, if I can put it that way—farmers, veterinarians, slaughter house workers—obviously that has to be kept under review. It is kept under review both at national level between the Department of Health and MAFF and at local level between the local directors of public health and local SVS, State Veterinary Service, officials. Equally, we try and give advice to those workers. Recently we have sent out, on the basis of advice from the Health and Safety Executive, advice to workers in slaughter houses about procedures to protect from contact with animals.

  71. Can you take me through the process of how infected animals can get into the food chain? The Government pays farmers 100 per cent compensation when they have a TB breakdown. The Ministry then comes along and takes these animals and does what with them? The Ministry is picking up the animals. That is the responsibility of the Ministry. Where you have infected cases, what happens to these animals?
  (Mr Hathaway) The animals identified as reactors to the tuberculin test are sent to abattoirs where they are closely examined by Meat Hygiene Service officers. Where there is any visible evidence of TB, either the whole carcass or the affected parts of the carcass are removed and destroyed and do not enter the food chain. As you are also aware, any animals which are over 30 months of age do not enter the food chain anyway. We estimate that two-thirds of TB reactors are aged over 30 months. The remaining parts of carcasses or carcasses where there is no visible sign of TB may enter the food chain. It is held that cooking destroys the tuberculosis organism.

  72. But we are talking about £1.5 million. The Government has to find the money from somewhere but, given the time and effort to find out whether the animals have any evidence of TB, why are we messing around with it? Why do we not just get rid of the animals?
  (Baroness Hayman) The view has always been that we should work within the EU framework which is set out for dealing with these animals, taking regular checks that there are no safety hazards, both in terms of the inspection processes which are careful, but also in terms of double checking with those responsible for public health. The FSA is commissioning, as I understand it, taking over some work that we have already looked at, a risk assessment of selling TB reactor carcasses to go into the food chain. If there is a reason not to do it, it would stop being done but at the moment that proposition has not gone without test, either at a European or a national level, and it is continuously under scrutiny.

  73. If the FSA comes back and says, "This is daft. This is just too risky", you would have to abide by that recommendation?
  (Baroness Hayman) We would want to. It would not be a matter of them forcing that upon us. That piece of work had its genesis when we had responsibility for this, so it is not a rift between the two.

  74. Can I move on to the husbandry issue? You have had this report commissioned about which we asked some questions of Professor Bourne and colleagues. I would make two observations. This was a hurried study, largely literature based, and yet husbandry, everyone says, is an important contributing factor—it may not be the cause—to our understanding of what is going on. Is it your intention to revisit that, both in terms of the recommendation or the response of Professor Bourne but also what one would assume is something that MAFF is particularly interested in, to revisit that and do a full-blown study of husbandry and what is going on out there?
  (Baroness Hayman) I am tempted to say if it was hurried it was done to the select committee's timetable, who wanted it done within three months. We took that seriously and did it. It went slightly over three months, I have to admit, but not much. I do not think we want to revisit it in terms of a full blown, enormously long piece of research. We have put the report into the public arena immediately. We asked the Independent Scientific Group for their reactions. We have asked for reactions from anyone else who is interested and TB Forum in particular because they do bring together veterinary interests, farming interests and others. We are pooling those responses together with the report. If there is action that is recommended that is different from or supplementary to what already goes out—and there is advice to farmers that already goes out—then we will certainly act on that. One of the interesting issues is how you get people to act on advice that is available. That is a recurrent problem in this area.

  75. The NFU are adamant that farmers are reacting; they are taking seriously, as they should be, the threat of TB, but there does not seem to be any research evidence proving one way or the other whether that is real. Is this not surely something which needs immediate and very careful attention?
  (Baroness Hayman) It is quite a difficult research project to frame. Just as there are those who I am absolutely certain take advice very seriously and implement it in full, you can also be shown examples—if you go to Woodchester Park, you see some fascinating videos—of people who do not take some of the advice and ways in which biosecurity is not protected. It is quite difficult to randomise and control a trial of those who are acting in a particular way and those who are not. It would be very nice if you could have that and have some effects out of it that were isolated, to know exactly what people should be investing in, in terms of husbandry.

  76. One thing you could do is considerably strengthen the movement of animals and look very carefully at where animals are going to, to see what incidents come on the back of that in terms of breakdowns in other parts of the country. This was not the main point that the Husbandry Panel was looking at, but it certainly did come up.
  (Baroness Hayman) Absolutely, and I think in terms of movement regimes, testing regimes, the information that comes out of TB99, there is a lot to be done there. I thought you were rather along the line of how you actually saw what individual farmers did on their individual farms.

  77. In a sense, it is what farmers do on their farms. I do not know which is worse: if they take no notice of that or think, "I am just going to ship my animals wherever and that is not my problem." Both come to the same conclusion, that we ought to be treating this extremely seriously. In a sense, it is much easier to control the movement of animals than it is what individual farmers do on their farms.
  (Baroness Hayman) Yes. Growing awareness between buyers and sellers of animals about the TB status and the possibilities of different sorts of movement controls when animals come on to farms are things that we could usefully pursue and are looking at.

Mr Öpik

  78. I want to ask about the delays in some of the procedures. Why did it take so long to set up the auditing procedures for surveying and despatch of badgers?
  (Baroness Hayman) I am aware of a time lag in the auditing procedures for the statistical audit because it was quite difficult to recruit the person to do it. I was not aware of a great delay in terms of setting out the audit regarding the humane nature of the trials, and as you know that has been published with the government's response.
  (Mr Hathaway) It is true that the welfare auditor started work in the early part of 1999 rather than in the latter part of 1998. This is to do with the selection process of finding someone both willing and qualified to do it. His report covered the period from the early part of 1999 right round to the middle part of the current year and the culling operations that took place during that time span. Then his report was considered both by the Independent Scientific Group and then both his report and the government response were published side by side. What is important to note is that, during that year in which he was carrying out his audit of welfare, lessons were arising continuously, and MAFF would then incorporate those lessons immediately into procedures rather than waiting until he published the report and then amending the procedure in the way he suggested.

  79. You are saying that there was an iterative process?
  (Mr Hathaway) Very much so, yes.

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