Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

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Mr. Moss: Will the Minister confirm the number of BSE cases that we still experience in the UK? I understand that it is more than the rest of the EU countries put together. Will she share with the Committee her views on why we are still experiencing such a high incidence of cases? Despite all the measures that the Ministry has taken over the past 10 years and more, does she feel that the measures before us will dramatically reduce that level of incidence?

Ms Quin: I shall deal with the last point first. I do not believe that any of the measures before us are capable of having a dramatic effect on the incidence of BSE in the UK—other than those measures that we are already taking.

I am happy to provide the Committee with the total. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the number of animals affected is precisely recorded. In 2000, we saw a 40 per cent. reduction in incidence on the previous year, and in 1999 we saw a reduction of a similar order of magnitude on the previous year. Last year, there were between 1,000 and 2,000 cases; there were between 2,000 and 3,000 cases the year before. I shall get the exact figures for the hon. Gentleman.

Dr. Gibson: It was 1,337.

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend says it was 1,337. I am glad that what I said has not been disproved.

The figures provide some comfort, but the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) was right to say that we have more cases than other member states. I stress that that the number of cases in the UK is declining, and that the number of cases in some other European countries seems to be rising. We have a good story to tell about control.

Ministers are always nervous about giving reassurances; no one wants to give false information. An examination of the statistical evidence shows not only a year-on-year fall but, as I said in response to a previous question, the average age of infected animals is continually increasing. The hon. Gentleman knows that a certain number of cases were forecast even after the feed ban was thought to be totally effective. In fact, the number of confirmed cases is much lower than scientists predicted, which is reassuring. Although the overall number of cases in the UK was far higher than in other member states, it is recognised in Europe that the year-on-year fall in the number of cases and the fall in the ages of the infected animals are points in our favour.

Mr. Drew: Given the changes that resulted from the criticisms made in the Phillips report of renderers, slaughterhouses, knackers' yards and hunt kennels, is the new TSE regulation likely to toughen controls further in those areas?

Ms Quin: It will involve some changes to controls, which are laid out in the legislation. The changes that will have the greatest effect on the industry generally are the animal feed temporary measures, about which the Committee has just been informed. The effect of those measures on the industry needs to be studied.

The regulation is likely to have a minimal effect on the industries that my hon. Friend mentioned, given that the changes to which he referred have already come into force. However, he also reminded me of the importance of implementation of the measures. As he pointed out, there have been failures in the past in the relevant sectors, and therefore Governments have a responsibility to ensure that the measures are known about and fully implemented by the services in question.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 5196/99, a draft regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down the rules for the prevention and control of certain transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, and a draft directive of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Council Directive 91/68/EEC; and supports the Government's objective of achieving Community-wide measures against transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, especially in the light of recent findings that BSE is more widespread in Europe than had previously been acknowledged.—[Ms Quin.]

11.31 am

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Twice in one week we are debating TSEs, and, in particular, BSE. The Government's response to the Phillips report will be debated on Thursday. All the measures that we are considering are important, but, as the Minister has confirmed, many of the key measures that she and her Ministry consider vital to the elimination of BSE have already been carried out by the Ministry in the past decade.

I want to raise several worries with the Minister, beginning with the recent German beef imports in which specified risk material was discovered in some carcases. Will the Minister reassure the Committee that the Government have now established appropriate checks so that the regulations incorporated in the memorandum about the removal of the relevant material—in particular, spinal column —are followed to the standards that we require of abattoirs in this country? That should apply not just to German imports but imports from the rest of Europe.

It is illegal in this country to sell meat from animals more than 30 months old. Will the Minister confirm that it is still possible for animals over that age to be killed and butchered on the continent and processed into meat products that are legally imported? Apparently we are happy to import meat products that may include meat from animals older than 30 months. Will the measures proposed in the memorandum, for all-herd culling when an instance of BSE is discovered, help to eradicate that problem? I understand that a 30-month rule is not to be introduced on the continent, but will culling all animals in a cohort or a farm help to overcome that?

This country has been dealing with the problem that we are considering for many more years than our European counterparts. They are on the upward part of the curve with respect to incidence of the disease, and no one knows where that is going. I do not know whether the Minister, her Ministry, or her counterparts in the European Commission, have considered possible scenarios—cases A, B, C and so on—as to how quickly the Commission and the various nation states could get on top of the problem, which has serious implications for the common agricultural policy budget. Have any studies been made of the possibilities of huge pressure on it in forthcoming years, depending on assessments of how serious the problem is likely to be?

Our farmers have been concerned about unexplained situations, such as that in the Swiss Jura that was alluded to this morning. Perhaps because Swiss farmers receive full value for the animal, they have reported a high incidence of BSE over the years, but not one case has been reported a few miles across the border in the French Jura. The Minister avoided answering the question about that directly, as it could open a can of worms that we do not want to open. Our farmers believe that there has been under-reporting on the continent, especially in France. The current incidence may be low in relation to the real incidence that has not been reported in the past. Assessments must be made so that we can arrive at some sensible figure of the pressure on the budget.

I asked the Minister for her Ministry's assessment of the efficacy of the diagnostic test mentioned in the memorandum, which is supposedly used in Europe to test for BSE. She admitted that she did not have all the details at the time, and no doubt she will give me more information in her response today or in writing. It is no problem to slaughter an animal and inspect its brain, but we are now talking about determining whether a live animal shows early signs of BSE. It is my understanding that there is no valid test for that, but such a test is being bandied around in the memorandum as though it were real and could be used. Will the Minister reassure the Committee that the diagnostic tests are worth the paper on which they are written?

I have done some research and spoken to various people in the past year, and I came across a scientist who claimed that he could test for BSE using a cow's urine. He cannot get anywhere with the Ministry, which will not even carry out a simple test to see whether he is right. I should have thought that any scientist claiming that he or she has an early test for BSE should be taken seriously. It would not take a great deal of time, effort or money to establish whether that claim were true. The implications of an early BSE test for animals are enormous in terms of the risk to human health and the impact on an industry that has suffered terribly during the past decade.

The Minister also avoided, or perhaps forgot to answer, my specific question on sheep. I asked whether it was mandatory for farmers who detect or suspect scrapie in their flock to report that to the authorities, and whether an animal, once it has been taken in by the authorities, is tested for BSE as well as scrapie. Scrapie is a type of TSE. We have been happily eating scrapie-infected sheep for centuries, so it may not be as transmissible as BSE. There is no direct link, but some people with senile dementia may have picked up encephalopathy as a result of eating such meat. However, no one has proved that yet. It will be important to determine whether the BSE prion, rather than being found only in cattle, may be found in sheep and other animals in a variant form. After all, it is now said that there is scientific proof of a connection between BSE and variant CJD—that they are pretty well one and the same thing. It surprises me that it should not affect other mammals, particularly sheep and other ruminants that may well have come into contact with it.

I have written to Professor Prusener, whose prion theory seems to be accepted as the explanation for all this, but, with due respect to him, he does not really understand how this has happened. I am puzzled as to how the prion, which has no DNA, can replicate itself. How does it grow if it has no DNA? That has not been explained by anyone. Although people say that that is the most likely answer, even the cause is still not understood. We still do not know where BSE came from, and we still do not understand where it is going.

It is important that we accept the measures, and I am pleased that the Government negotiated a derogation on herd culling. However, it may well be that BSE is present in young animals under 30 months of age. The 30-month time limit seems arbitrary. It may have been based on vets saying that, at 30 months, certain teeth appear, so that an animal's age can be accurately pinpointed at that stage. No doubt the Minister will confirm that 30 months is an arbitrary time limit, not based on any science.

Presumably, cattle have manifested BSE under the age of 30 months, just as they have over that age. However, the Minister is right to say that the imposition of the limit has led to a diminution in the annual incidence of cases. She did not say that, on that basis, the disease will be eliminated in five years or 10 years—we simply do not know that. It is said that taking an arbitrary figure such as that is similar to claiming that one is eliminating Parkinson's disease by killing people over 50. If one eliminates the population at a certain stage, the disease will not manifest itself. We do not know whether 30 months is a critical time or not. There are many unanswered questions on BSE, and it is important for the Minister to assure the Committee that her Department is still putting money into the necessary research, not just for proper diagnostic testing, which is important, but to get to the heart of the problem, so that in the end the Government will be able to declare that eating beef and meat of all kinds is perfectly safe. We say that eating beef is safe, but, under scrutiny, no one can prove that BSE prions are not present in younger animals.

We have had a good discussion. The questions have been pertinent to the document before the Committee. The matters should be addressed on a Europe-wide basis, but it is also important that there is a level playing field for our producers. I refer back to the problem of beef imports, and to the processed meat issue.

11.44 am

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