Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

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Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): The Minister talked about feed regulations. Fishmeal for cattle and sheep is an excellent feed, and provides a useful market for a byproduct of the fishing industry. There are no medical reasons why it should not be used as feed, and I see no scientific basis for the ban. What are the Government doing to try to reverse the ban so that we have a sensible use for that economic product?

Ms Quin: I understand that the Committee may want to consider that issue, which is covered in the explanatory memorandum, but I endorse the hon. Gentleman's general comments.

At the Agriculture Council in December, we managed to obtain an alteration to the proposals to allow fishmeal to be given to non-ruminants. That was a useful concession, which was welcomed by, for example, the poultry sector. There will be opportunities for further discussion on all issues. On some points, we are discussing temporary measures to tide us over until July, and will consider further measures later.

The cases of BSE that have been discovered in various European countries have caused some alarm. Those countries, and the European Commission, are examining a range of measures quickly, and such speed does not always create the best climate in which to make long-term decisions. The UK has a responsibility to explain what seems to have worked in the UK, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is being done. However, I remind him that we must not lose sight of the wider goal: the adoption of measures at European level to tackle Europe's emergent BSE problem and to improve terms and conditions for our producers.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I apologise to you, Mr. Cummings, and to the Minister, for my late arrival.

Will the Minister confirm whether it is mandatory to report instances of scrapie or any TSE in sheep, and whether those sheep are then tested for BSE in the same way that cattle would be? Will she also give us her appraisal, or her Department's appraisal, of the efficacy of the diagnostic tests that have been alluded to this morning and in the memorandum?

Ms Quin: The arrangements for reporting scrapie in sheep are similar to those for reporting BSE. We are worried about the under-reporting of scrapie, which has been a problem in the UK and other countries. The TSE regulation attempts to redress that, and aims to show the importance of building up a proper picture of the incidence of scrapie in all European Union countries—scrapie exists in a number of them. The measures specified in the regulation are obligatory.

I am not sure that I have an immediate response to the hon. Gentleman's question about testing for scrapie. Inspiration might strike me later in the sitting, but I would not want to make pronouncements about the accuracy of the test that could misinform him. In the UK, however, our testing means that we have longer experience and a more detailed knowledge of the matter than do other countries, and we have a duty to share that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will my right hon. Friend clarify the position on the feeding of meat and bonemeal material to dogs? Under paragraph 1.13 of the 31st report of the European Scrutiny Committee, it would seem that that is allowed, but other statements suggest that it is banned from being fed to any animal.

Ms Quin: I struggle to answer my hon. Friend, because I, too, have seen different suggestions about the matter. There are rules about what can be put into pet food, and I understand that they are separate from the TSE regulation. If that is incorrect, I will amend my response.

Pet food has separate rules under the Animal By-Products Order 1992. As the Committee has asked for a separate session on the animal waste and by-products regulations, we can come back to the matter then. The Pet Food Manufacturers Association recommends that certain products should be excluded from pet food, and material from diseased animals—including those suspected of having a TSE—is not used in pet food at all, which is reassuring.

There are no known cases of dogs becoming TSE cases, and the scientific information suggests that it is not possible. If that is incorrect, I shall inform my hon. Friend and the Committee.

Mr. Heath: My questions concern the details of specified risk material, and the right hon. Lady might require notice to answer them. The spinal cord is a specified risk material. How is it defined in European terms? Does the definition include dorsal root ganglia, and if so, is a distinction drawn between it and other ganglionic material and material from the sympathetic nervous system? Such material can be part of the same cell as a dorsal root ganglion, and yet it appears that it does not count as SRM. Scientifically, that is illogical.

Ms Quin: My information is that dorsal root ganglia count as specified risk material, along with the brain, the spinal cord, and the trigeminal ganglia. The hon. Gentleman may understand that.

Mr. Heath: Sadly, I do.

Mr. Moss: Does the Minister?

Ms Quin: I think that I do, but, as with many technical matters, after it has been explained, it is hard to retain all the details. The distal ileum, which is part of the gut, is also included as a specified risk material. I shall examine my reply, and if I have not dealt with every detail, I shall inform the Committee.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): Has my right hon. Friend been able to get a feeling about the response of our European partners to the Phillips inquiry? If so, is that reflected in the documents that we are discussing today?

Ms Quin: Yes. Some of the measures in the TSE regulation have a lot in common with the measures that were taken in the UK in response to BSE.

There is a great deal of interest across the European Union in the Phillips inquiry and in its subsequent report, which is widely available and has been much read throughout the EU. I feel strongly that the UK must fully explain the measures that it has taken. There has been ill-informed press comment about the matter both in the UK and in other EU countries. The in-depth nature of the Phillips report and the concern that is now felt throughout Europe about BSE mean that we have a responsibility to explain what we have done. We should also explain which controls seem to work, both to obtain an understanding of any alternative provisions that we might wish to pursue, which have been recognised in the TSE regulation, and to give advice, support and help to our partners in dealing with the problems that we face.

This is a delicate area. BSE was seen as a British issue. On occasion, wild comments have been made about our history regarding animal feed exports. We must show ourselves willing to join other European Union countries in applying the most effective controls possible, but, at the same time, we can make a positive contribution in sharing our experience and working with our partners.

Mr. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): Protecting the public always involves a cost. Does the Minister think that we have the right balance between public protection and the cost to industry?

Ms Quin: That is a good question and one that we must keep in mind when we examine the European Commission's proposals. We might want to return to the explanatory memorandum about the proposed feed ban measures that was recently sent to the Committee. We must assess proposals carefully in terms of the cost to industry and in light of the advice given to us by the Food Standards Agency and by our scientific experts.

Overall, the Government strongly believe that the balance is advantageous for us, both in protecting human and animal health and in helping our industry to survive under better and fairer conditions of competition than has been the case.

Sir Robert Smith: As the Minister knows, north-east Scotland was a producer of premium quality beef for the export market before the BSE crisis. Does she see anything in the regulations that will improve the date-based export scheme by moving away from designated places that do not meet the quality requirement to designated days in places that meet the requirements of the export market, which still wants the product?

Ms Quin: Not immediately. However, the measures are part of an important effort to rebuild consumer confidence across Europe. Because they apply to all countries and the strength of our controls is increasingly recognised, the measures will prepare the ground so that we can export under less onerous terms in future. However, we must proceed cautiously. We certainly do not want to send a message that we are relaxing our controls or that we are arguing for changes that would jeopardise animal or public health and food safety.

There is a good case for changing certain aspects of the date-based export scheme that make it difficult for our producers to export. The general move towards stronger measures across Europe is in our interests, so we will be able to make a good case. However, I do not want to raise false hopes that that will happen immediately. The political climate is not adequately favourable, but a more even playing field will be to our advantage in making those arguments in the future.

Dr. Gibson: I am a member of the Standing Committee considering the Hunting Bill. Every time I look across at the Opposition Benches in that Committee, I see the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who stuffed a hamburger into his daughter's mouth. I suspect that that image is still in the mind of the public. Would my right hon. Friend comment on how the work of the Food Standards Agency and Sir John Krebs has eroded that image?

Ms Quin: The creation of the Food Standards Agency has been an essential step in rebuilding public confidence in the safety of food. It also removed a perceived clash of interest in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food acting on behalf of producers and consumers. That separation was important. The FSA advises us on those matters, and we accept its advice. My hon. Friend's question gives me the opportunity to say that the Ministry and the FSA take the same approach to TSE regulation and some of the other recent proposals from Brussels. We have been guided by the FSA's approach on animal feed and consumer safety.

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