Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

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Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and his general analysis. I just wish to reinforce some of the points that emerged from the statement.

We are dealing both with a major tragedy for the human victims of new variant CJD and with an economic crisis for our farmers and associated industries. Therefore, anything that the regulations can do to address that will be welcome, as will any measures that the Minister believes will level the playing field.

I share my hon. Friend's concern about categorisation and derogation. The lesson to be learned from this country is that the disease must be tackled early and fundamentally—from the bottom up. If the EU wishes to learn only part of that lesson, implement that part, and learn more later, the problem will not be tackled quickly enough finally to put the lid back on the bottle, to eradicate the crisis of BSE from EU stock, and avoid exporting BSE to the rest of the world and importing it back from the rest of the world.

I reiterate the absurdity of the fishmeal ban. Given the stringent regime that already exists concerning feed products given to our animals, I urge the Minister to do everything possible, if not now, from July onwards, to put across logical arguments that will secure derogation for this country. Our fishing industry has its own crisis and it will be hit with a double whammy if it cannot get rid of one of its by-products. Fishmeal is made from parts of a fish that are cut off before human consumption. If the fish is good enough for humans, we should question why it is not good enough for animals that have been fed on it for many years. It is not a new regime; fish protein has been part of animal husbandry for a considerable time.

I come from the north-east of Scotland, which had a reputation as an exporter of premium quality beef. There is still a demand for such a quality product among European consumers, rather than a fear of it. The quality of the product has not met European expectations when such demand has been met under the new regime of designated places for slaughter and butchery. That has nothing to do with safety or fear. Traditionally, the north-east exporters managed the cattle from the field—through slaughtering, hanging and butchery—to the end-product. That cannot be done if the cattle have to go to through a designated process. If designated days were permitted in the exporters' establishments, they would be allowed to manage the entire process and provide confidence that there would be no cross-contamination.

The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) raised the issue of the confidence that has been created by the Food Standards Agency. I welcome the creation of the FSA and acknowledge the need for independence, I think that it is too soon for that body to have established a major change in the way that the wider country responds to a crisis. The rest of the EU seems to need more public reassurance, as our public have been more mature in their response to the crisis than the markets in the EU, which seemed to collapse more dramatically as soon as the crisis hit. Therefore, I welcome a common standard across the EU to rebuild consumer confidence.

Public concern about imports from the EU has been alluded to. Current advice from the Food Standards Agency is that we should not worry about or refuse such imports. However, it will have to reassure the public about what controls are in place.

Mr. Heath: Does my hon. Friend agree that the advice of the Food Standards Agency is entirely flaccid? We need a clearer statement of risks and the measures that are being taken. The FSA would do well to proffer clearer advice to the Government and the people of this country.

Sir Robert Smith: I agree with my hon. Friend. If the Food Standards Agency is to establish its new, independent role of giving confidence to the market, it must give a clear and concise explanation as to why it is advising the Government that those imports are acceptable.

I recognise again the fast-moving situation that the Government have to deal with. I urge them to use this country's experience to ensure that the European Union moves along the learning curve more quickly so that we can knock this disease on the head.

12.10 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Ms Joyce Quin): I thank the Committee for its broad welcome for the fact that measures are being put in place at European level and that they will have the effects that I mentioned earlier of increasing public protection and helping our producers to compete in fairer competitive conditions. I am grateful for the Committee's comments and endorse the views that have been expressed.

At the same time, I understand the reservations that hon. Members expressed regarding what may or may not be agreed as the total package of measures, and the need to scrutinise closely the likely costs to our industry and to resist measures that are unjustifiable or that do not take full account of the controls that we already have in place. I welcome the support for some of the concessions that the Government have won, but I also accept the Committee's urging that the Government keep a close eye on the issues to ensure that the effect on our own industry is as benign as possible. Obviously, we must be prepared to introduce measures that are justified on the grounds of science or public and animal health.

Some of the issues that were raised are relevant to the full-day debate on the Phillips report tomorrow. I noted some of those comments, and that debate will allow an opportunity for a wider airing of those important issues.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire discussed the difficulties that we have encountered in importing meat from Germany. Some meat had spinal column attached. That is a specified risk material that should have been excluded at the place of slaughter. I assure him that, as a result of those findings, the Food Standards Agency now checks 100 per cent. of the meat imported from Germany. He also mentioned processed products. All animals in Germany aged over 30 months are now tested. Whether meat is imported in processed or fresh form, it will meet the higher safety standards.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the current regulations. They are from the period when the Conservative Government were in office, and I understand the difficulties that that Government had in controlling processed products. They are difficult to control, but we feel that the controls are now satisfactory because all animals aged over 30 months will be tested. Therefore, there should no longer be concern about the meat of animals aged over 30 months entering the food chain in processed form.

The Government referred those cases to the Food Standards Agency, which advised us about the risks. We accepted its recommendations, while stressing to it the importance of vigilance. The FSA is increasing surveillance of German meat to 100 per cent., and we applaud that.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether whole herd culling would help in terms of controls on processed meat. The fact that all animals aged over 30 months are now being tested provides a better safeguard than would whole herd culling. Indeed, one of the strange characteristics of BSE has been the frequency with which it has occurred in just one animal in a herd. Our experience is that the over-30-months rule is a more effective way of controlling the disease.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister confirm that, in Germany, the testing of cattle aged over 30 months is not a pre-slaughter test? Are the tests being conducted after the cattle have been slaughtered?

Ms Quin: Yes, that is what is happening. I was going to address that, as it was another point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Sir Robert Smith: The Minister mentioned that the over-30-months scheme is much more emphatic and reliable than whole herd culling. That is correct. Might the European Union consider the same scheme for cattle on the continent?

Ms Quin: That is an interesting question. The EU might consider that, but I cannot make a firm prediction. There is a lot of interest on the continent in the way that our over-30-months scheme operates. The answer will be influenced by the extent to which consumer confidence in the beef market is restored by the measures that are being taken across Europe. If consumer confidence is not restored, countries will look at other options, such as our over-30-months scheme.

The answers to many questions, particularly in relation to cost, depend to a certain extent on what will happen to the beef market in the immediate future. For example, if consumer confidence is restored, large-scale intervention buying and other support measures will not need to be taken to anything like the costly extent that some people fear.

It is hard to envisage the budgetary consequences of the current situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred to that matter. Much will depend on the re-establishment of confidence, and on how many further cases emerge from the testing programme that is now taking place across the EU. Obviously, if the more intensive testing does not result in the emergence of many more cases, consumer confidence is more likely to be restored than if a sizeable number of new cases emerge.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to the difference between the Swiss Jura and the French Jura, which was subsequently mentioned by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. One can think of possible explanations for the difference, such as the amount of testing that is being conducted in Switzerland, but there are other possible explanations, such as the animal feed that was used. It is often the case that animals on one farm may have different animal feed from animals on a neighbouring farm. Various explanations can be given. The increased amount of testing that is now being done in France will make clear whether the figures were the result of under-reporting and under-diagnosis or whether French feeding practices are less likely to spread BSE than the animal feed used in Switzerland. A number of different factors have to be taken into consideration.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire said that someone, I am not sure whether it was a constituent, had approached him about work that he had done on a BSE test. It is difficult for me to respond to that query now, but the hon. Gentleman may, if he wishes, write to me—or, more appropriately, to my noble Friend Baroness Hayman—we shall be happy to look into the matter.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that a number of scientific uncertainties exist. In many ways, it is a difficult subject because we are not always dealing with scientific matters. I took comfort from the fact that the number of cases in the UK had decreased, which seemed to indicate that many of the measures that we took were effective, but I do not rule out the importance of continuing, on-going and purposeful research to try to elucidate some of the remaining scientific uncertainties. Indeed, in response to a question earlier this morning, I made it clear that our frustration at the lack of a valid live test was relevant also to the lack of knowledge about BSE.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire also asked about the reporting of scrapie. Yes, it must be reported. Cases of scrapie are tested for BSE, but I am advised that it takes two years for the test to be valid. It seems extraordinary, but I have no reason to dispute it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about beef being safe. I believe that the controls that we have introduced are important. I emphasise that I say beef is safe only because I am so advised by the Food Standards Agency. Ministers are keen that the role of the FSA should be highlighted and reinforced. Although the FSA was established by Parliament, it will take time for it to acquire a public perception. However, we are determined that its role should be publicly recognised and that people should know why Parliament thought it important to set up an independent authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud mentioned the European dimension and the European Food Authority. Given the existence of the common agricultural policy and the single market, it is an important move that we are determined to support. We want the European Food Authority to have credibility and status, but we also want effective liaison between it and the national authorities. My hon. Friend also mentioned collaboration, which is extremely important. Our financial contribution to European research programmes into BSE is similar to our contribution to research programmes generally; it is in the order of 10 per cent. Our expertise has also involved us in contributing to other BSE research programmes. In some cases we match fund European efforts. I am sure that we can make information available to my hon. Friend and Committee members if they would like it.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire and others mentioned aspects of the 30-month scheme. There has not been a case of BSE in an animal younger than 30 months in the United Kingdom since 1996. That provides a reasonable safety margin. Animals that enter the food chain now are aged 30 months or less, and that provides a buffer of nearly 18 months. I do not think that the period of 30 months was entirely arbitrary. It is half the average BSE incubation period and was part of the precautionary approach that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud talked about earlier. The intention was to create as great a safety margin as possible, while also, with respect to younger animals, applying regulations on offspring cull and controls on possible maternal transmission routes.

All those factors together form pretty strict controls. I have now received a helpful note that states that the 30-month period was adopted on advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee because it was half the average incubation rate. I know that the Food Standards Agency recently endorsed the 30-month limit and the other aspects of our controls in its recent review of BSE and specified risk material controls.

The Phillips report considers the origin of BSE and concludes that the most likely cause was a spontaneous mutation. Committee members made one or two comments about that. Those issues are probably best dealt with in the debate on the Phillips report, but it might be worth mentioning that my right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Health have jointly commissioned an independent assessment of current scientific understanding of the origins of the BSE epidemic. The results will be considered in due course by SEAC and will be published. The Government intend to publish the information that they obtain by way of scientific advice on the issue in question. We know that there is wide public interest.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome posed an interesting question about whether the European proposals are ahead of scientific advice. In some respects they are. The hon. Gentleman is right to remind us of the importance of following scientific advice. We make that point in European deliberations. Given our history in this matter, we must always be—and seen to be—in favour of strict controls. At the same time, we stress the importance of taking scientific advice.

Matters can be complicated if Ministers think that it would be appropriate for their countries to take action beyond what is recommended by the Scientific Steering Committee. A further complication is the fact that the relevant issues are all decided by qualified majority voting in the Council. I believe that that works more in our favour than against us. We all know that complex regulations such as this, with a number of different and specific elements, sometimes produce results that are not entirely in accordance with the advice that the Government are given—in this case, by the Food Standards Agency. However, the FSA supports the TSE regulations on blood, one of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. I freely admit that it is difficult to keep in mind all aspects of the debate when seeking to respond, and I shall look again at what the hon. Gentleman said. If I have not fully answered him, I shall write to him and send copies of the letter to all members of the Committee.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine raised a number of points similar to those raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. He reiterated the point about fishmeal and made some important observations that we shall certainly keep in mind. I am glad that we have managed to keep the derogation that I referred to earlier; that was welcomed by the poultry industry and others. We shall continue to examine what is proposed.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on one point. He said that such animal husbandry measures have been around for a long time. It is true that mammalian meat and bone meal have been used as animal feed since the 1920s, yet once the mutation occurred—if that is what happened—it allowed a transmission route. That could not have been foreseen when the practice first began, but just because something has been happening for a long time does not necessarily validate it for all time.

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