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European Standing Committee A Debates

Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

European Standing Committee A

Wednesday 14 February 2001

[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]

Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

10.30 am

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): I welcome the opportunity to discuss a policy that is of great importance to public as well as to animal health. The topic has caused significant and justified media and political interest.

Hon. Members will know that we are dealing with a fast-moving situation, as a number of different proposals have emanated from the European Commission and several discussions have taken place in the Agriculture and Health Councils. That fast-moving situation also reflects the fact that many countries in the European Union that formerly thought that they had no cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy have discovered that they do and want to respond to them in different ways. The situation poses a challenge for the scrutiny Committees and—I appeal for sympathy from Committee members here—for Ministers. We must cope with the different European Commission and European Union proposals and ensure that we continue to consult our own industry and interest groups.

Hon. Members will be aware that political agreement on the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy proposal was reached before Christmas in the Agriculture Council. In exceptional circumstances, my right hon. Friend the Minister agreed to a common position before the proposal was discussed by the Committee. I apologise for that situation, but hon. Members know that the United Kingdom secured points of crucial national interest during the negotiations.

Certain provisions, particularly the alternative ones in the proposal, were especially significant for the UK industry and recognised the importance and effectiveness of the controls that have already been put in place in the UK. My right hon. Friend felt that he risked losing those points if he was unable fully to support the policy on 19 December.

We believe, therefore, that the circumstances were exceptional and I hope that the Committee understands the need for an exceptional change in procedure. In such fast-moving situations, the Government often need to judge whether proposals offer the UK a special benefit or are in our overriding interest. That is how my right hon. Friend interpreted the situation in the Council meeting on 19 December.

That situation is complicated by the fact that, as well as the TSE proposal under consideration today, the Committee was sent information about some of the proposed wider feed measures only in the past few days. The Committee is also due to consider the animal waste directive, which has a bearing on the issue. Many proposals are complex and require consideration. The Government are therefore willing to appear again before the Committee, if it so wishes, to examine those and related measures.

The TSE regulation is lengthy and complex, so I shall outline the main areas that it covers. It aims to control and eradicate all transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, concentrating particularly on BSE and scrapie. It sets out controls and procedures for animals suspected of being infected with a TSE and for those confirmed as being infected. Suspected and confirmed cases must be notified to the authorities. If a BSE case is confirmed, animals at risk must be restricted and the whole herd destroyed.

The UK, however, does not expect to have to slaughter the whole herd following a confirmed case. We expect to be able to use—we have had reassurance about this—the alternative option provision, which I referred to as a factor that enabled my right hon. Friend to approve the regulation in December. That recognises that we already have in place measures equivalent to those in the proposal, including culling cattle over 30 months old and, since 1996, an effective feed ban. The international animal health organisation, the OIE, has already judged the UK's measures to be equivalent to whole-herd slaughter. As hon. Members will understand, the alternative option that we were able to secure is a crucial provision for the UK and has been a key point for the Government in discussions on the proposal.

The proposals on feed affect ruminants, farmed animals and mammals, depending on the measure. Specified risk material from ruminants is defined and the disposal and movement of it is subject to controls. The trading of live animals, embryos and ova is regulated. The production and trading of certain animal products is restricted and, in some cases, prohibited. There is also a requirement for those involved in keeping, handling and caring for animals to be properly educated in the clinical signs of TSEs. That is important.

The distinction between scrapie and BSE is made clear throughout the proposal. However, there are requirements that would have to be followed if BSE were to be discovered in sheep or goats. That is a precautionary measure, which would be implemented only if a test detected BSE in sheep.

Member states will be required to report TSE cases to the Commission and to carry out compulsory BSE monitoring and testing programmes, which will be used to categorise countries and to provide information to the Commission annually. Hon. Members will know that the UK submits regular BSE reports to the Commission and the measure will ensure that all other member states also test for, monitor and report BSE cases.

The proposal will introduce a system of categorisation that is compulsory for all member states and optional for third countries, all of which are asked to submit an application to the Commission. The application must contain the results of risk analyses and BSE test results, as set out in the regulation. The Commission will categorise each country according to its BSE status and its risk of BSE. A country with high BSE status will have to implement the most stringent controls in the proposal. One with low BSE status will be exempt from certain measures or required to implement them to a lesser degree.

The Government welcome the proposal because a member state's BSE status will be judged both on test results and on implemented control measures. The control measures that will be examined include feed production and waste disposal. We believe that that is an appropriate way to ensure that measures to counteract TSEs are effective. It will not allow countries with no perceived BSE to water down effective proposals. The measures will be proportional to the disease situation in an individual country while risk assessment measures will mean that member states will have to prove their BSE status to the Commission.

The fundamental gain for the UK from the proposal and related measures will be that important steps will be taken to protect human and animal health in all EU countries and will create a more level playing field for UK industry regarding terms of trade that have existed in the EU for some time. That is why, despite some reservations about details in the proposal, there has been strong support for action at EU level, such as the introduction of a feed ban, banning mammalian meat and bonemeal from animal feed, which has operated in the UK for several years.

Sectors of UK agriculture have complained about uneven competition in the EU that has arisen from the disaster of BSE and the necessary controls that were introduced in our country. For example, although BSE does not exist in pigs, pig producers complained that they were subject to stricter feed controls than those in other EU countries. The regulation will make competition fairer for such producers, although its main purpose is the protection of human and animal health, and we support it on that basis.

I commend the Government's action to ensure that the regulation recognises the measures that we have implemented, whose success is increasingly being recognised in the EU. Ministers must be guided by scientific and expert advice in introducing the measures. None the less, we are encouraged by a year-on-year reduction in BSE cases, which shows that those measures are having an effect.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. We have until 11.30 am for questions. I ask hon. Members to be brief and to ask questions one at a time.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): On a point of order, Mr. Cummings. EU document No. 5196/99 appears to contain a printing error. Page two lapses into French, to which I do not object, but page three has been completely omitted. I do not know whether that page is crucial to understanding the document, but, if it is available, hon. Members should be provided with it. Could that be considered?

The Chairman: That is regrettable. The Minister may wish to offer an explanation, because Departments are responsible for the distribution of papers.

Ms Quin: I regret that I cannot offer an instant explanation for the missing page or the page in French. I shall make inquiries in my Department about how that has occurred and whether it can be quickly rectified.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that essential to progress in tackling BSE is a good screening test? It is easy to find the prion in animals that have the disease; the problem is finding it in those that have pre-clinical symptoms, or those that have yet to develop symptoms. We need to determine the extent of the problem.

Work going on in Europe to detect animals that are incubating the disease is essential. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the tests being carried out—the so-called diagnostic tests—to find the extent of incubation of the prion in European herds is not validated as a sure-fire indicator? Much effort is being invested, but we need to hasten research to find a test. There will be a big problem if the disease turns up in our national flock of 40 million sheep.

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend is right in his two points about tests. It is important to continue research into the efficacy of tests and, particularly, to find a test that will work properly on live animals, and that is more capable of diagnosing incubation and the early stages of the disease. The research being carried out by Departments and elsewhere in the EU is essential. There must be a collaborative effort to avoid duplication.

My hon. Friend's point about the theoretical possibility of BSE in sheep is important. We are undertaking research on that and examining what contingency measures would be necessary should it occur. I stress that a lot of work has been done, but so far it has not revealed BSE in sheep. I say that not to sound complacent, or to suggest that we are not pursuing the programme, but to give reassurance.


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