Animal By-Products

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Mr. Gill: In her opening remarks, the Minister said that the regulations would not come into effect until February 2003. Does she not think that that should be postponed until the European Union has decided on the method of disposal for the future, and how people will be recompensed if it is thought that some financial arrangement should be made to deal with the vexed question of fallen stock?

Ms Quin: The time scale allows us to address the issues fully, as I said earlier. Consideration of this matter should not be postponed unnecessarily, because the regulations streamline and simplify many existing controls. Given the fact that the European Union is considering the feed ban and the TSE regulations, it makes sense for us to consider those matters in tandem. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will press the Commission for its study into the disposal of fallen stock.

Mr. Paice: May I turn the Minister's attention to the impact assessment of the proposals and, in particular, the costs issues? I was surprised that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food estimated the cost of on-farm burial at £50 to £80. Will the Minister explain the basis for that assessment, which most farmers find surprising? I ask that because, if the estimate is to be used as a comparator with the cost of other methods such as the knacker's yard or rendering, we must ensure that the figures are accurate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow gave some figures earlier that suggested that those for burial were of the same magnitude as those for other means of disposal. I would be surprised if that were the case.

The cost of installing pressure cookers would be a significant cost for anyone who wanted to continue swill feeding. Does the Minister believe that that could herald the death knell of swill feeding as a system?

Ms Quin: It is too soon to tell what the finalised regulation will have to say about the matter of pig swill. If I had to make a guess, although the Commission has proposed a higher standard for temperatures produced by new pressure cookers, given the balance of opinion among member states, the new standards could be based on current UK standards. I may be slightly contradicting what I said earlier in describing the Commission's view. In terms of the overall balance of opinion among member states, however, our present standards are broadly acceptable. It is too soon to predict the actual standards on swill.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire broadened the debate by asking whether swill had a future as a general system. The debate on that is gathering momentum for obvious reasons, but it does not affect the regulations that we are considering. I am unsure whether more pressure will be applied in later stages of the debate over the regulations. I would welcome hearing hon. Members' views on the subject. As for on-farm burial, the hon. Gentleman referred to part of the explanatory memorandum that deals with the cost of alternatives.

Mr. Quinn: May I take the Minister back to the previous occasion on which the Scrutiny Committee met? We expressed concern about proposals for fish by-products and how they might affect the fishing industry, which is already hard pressed. Has the Minister examined the issue further? If so, will she tell the Committee what she found? Will the Government press for derogation for fish by-products?

Ms Quin: We intend to press for derogation on the basis of our scientific advice. I am aware of my hon. Friend's interest and that of the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith), who raised the matter at a previous sitting. We have not changed our minds. We understand the concern, but it relates less to the safety of fish meal than the possibility of cross-contamination. In view of overall controls and provisions for separate treatment of these problems, we believe that it is possible and desirable to exclude fish meal from the permanent feed-ban proposals.

Mr. Gill: When implemented, the proposals will add to the bureaucratic and cost burdens of the industry. Will the Minister tell us whether imports into the European Union from other parts of the world comply with the criteria in the EU proposals?

Ms Quin: The Commission envisages that similar provisions will have to apply to imports. It already inspects and receives reports about control systems in other countries. It would continue to do so to ensure that trade, jobs and livelihoods in the European Union are not undercut by lower standards elsewhere. We can do so when considerations of human and animal health are relevant. It is more difficult to take action against imports in respect of different methods of production that do not pose a risk to human or animal health.

The Commission is likely to remain vigilant about the issues raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire in respect of the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease. We are all conscious of the importance of controls of suspect imported material; it is certainly exercising our colleagues in the European Union and we shall try to ensure the best controls possible.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Documents Nos. 12648/00, a draft Council Regulation laying down the health rules concerning animal by-products not intended for human consumption, and 12646/00, a draft Council Directive amending Council Directives 90/425/EEC and 92/118/EEC as regards health requirements for animal by-products; and supports the Government's objective of achieving a revised Regulation to protect animal and public health whilst ensuring that controls are proportionate to the risk they are designed to address.-[Ms Quin.]

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Mr. Paice: I shall not detain the Committee, as we have already covered much of the ground. The Minister said that there was a long way to go in discussions on the proposals; she mentioned May, June or July, and by then she and I may have changed places and there will be different issues to consider. The Minister may wish to refer to what I say now in a few months' time.

In her introductory remarks, the Minister referred to the simplification of the proposals. It may be a simplification in European terms, but it is a tremendously complicated issue. I understand that this is not the right hon. Lady's usual field of operation and that she may not have all the answers to hand, but some of what she said is not acceptable—most importantly on the issue of scientific evidence. Any discussion of the regulations must be based on what scientific evidence is available and how it is replicated in the proposals. As I said, we are worried about the pathogens or organisms, including transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, about which so little is known, and the impact of various disposal systems upon them. I refer especially to TSEs because they are the most serious, although foot and mouth, classical swine fever and others are also serious.

If burial is not a satisfactory disposal for an animal that has died of a TSE because the path of the TSE prion, or whatever the organism is, can survive burial—I understand that that is why we do not bury cattle that have died of BSE—why should it be permissible to bury a cat that has died of TSE? In reply to my question, the Minister said, ``Well there are other disposal routes for category 1'', which is true, but it is not compulsory to use them. According to the definition of category 1, someone could bury a cat that had died of TSE. If people have to adopt another disposal route, that is fine, but it is not acceptable to bury an animal that has died of TSE when, for understandable reasons, we do not bury cattle.

Ms Quin: I have seen the figures for TSE in cats and no case has been discovered for some years. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that if there were a higher incidence we would quickly have to ensure that another disposal route was taken. The lack of cases of TSE in cats and the fact that strict feed controls are in place will prevent the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Mr. Paice: I sincerely hope that it will. It is possible that the reason why TSE in cats has disappeared for the time being is that other BSE controls stop specified risk material from going into pet foods. We shall never know for certain whether that is the reason, but it is a probability. However, the simple fact remains that we need to know whether the different diseases are destroyed by burial. If they are not and there is a risk of that organism emerging by leaching, for example, to potentially reinfect either humans or animals, burial should be banned regardless of whether it is in respect of a pet or a farm animal. I do not understand the distinction. I am not advocating such action. In principle, I am in favour in farmers of being able to bury whatever they want as it is by far the cheapest option, but I am also worried about the animal and the human health implications. If the science says that burial is not a satisfactory way in which to dispose of an animal that died of a particular disease, burial should be banned in respect of all animals.

Dr. Gibson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that BSE and the prion are an absolute problem? No one has find a way to inactivate the protein, whereas there are well-known methods such as heat or chemicals to get rid of viruses and bacteria. Prion is a real problem. It has not been seen in cats because cats probably do not live as long as the incubation period of the prion. It takes a long time for the effects of the prion to manifest, so the cats die of some other illness. There is no diagnostic test for BSE yet. BSE is an anomaly. It is different, and to accentuate the problem of getting rid of bacteria and viruses is probably wrong. BSE must be handled separately from other organisms.

Mr. Paice: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's scientific knowledge vastly exceeds mine. I would not dispute the fact that TSE and the prion seem to be a unique phenomenon. I am not sure whether I agree with his conclusions about cats because they live longer than cattle. Most cattle are killed for various reasons before they are 10-years-old, whereas most cats will live well into their teens if not into their 20s. I am not sure that I share his conclusions about the incubation period, but it is an issue about which so little is known.

Even with viruses, bacteria and anthrax, we do not have—at least in the Committee—the scientific information on which to conclude whether the different forms of disposal are appropriate. I come back to my fundamental point about consistency. If it is acceptable to bury a pet animal that has died of a certain disease, why is it not acceptable to bury a farm animal? That is the fundamental inconsistency.

I shall move on beyond that aspect of burial because I want to touch on the issue of remote areas to which some hon. Members have referred. I strongly hope that the Minister will seek a wider derogation than islands. Although the Isle of Wight is an obvious exception, islands are generally remote areas. However, being an island is not a necessary factor is becoming a remote area, especially in parts of the north of England. I have visited remote farms in the constituency of the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby and there is an even greater number of them in Scotland. There must be as much exemption as possible for remote areas, as long as it is consistent with the fundamental point of safety and of whether burial is a safe disposal for whatever organism it is that has caused the death of a particular animal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow and others have referred to the major issue of fallen stock. I understand the Minister's attitude that we have plenty of time to think about such matters before a hunting ban come into effect. Farmers throughout the country are worried about how fallen stock will be disposed of if that happens, a matter that was supported by all MAFF Ministers. Incidentally, I am not as pessimistic as my hon. Friend about the likelihood of such a ban, but should a hunting ban materialise, what means of disposal would be used for fallen stock if burying them on the farm is not allowed?

I return to the point about swill. The Minister is correct that only a tiny number of farmers feed swill to pigs. The number used to be much higher, but regulations under various Governments have considerably tightened the requirements in relation to heat treatment of swill for feeding. However, it appears—I shall say no more than that—that the current foot and mouth outbreak was caused by a breakdown in that control system. On the one hand, we must consider whether pressure cooking treatment can be effectively controlled and policed to allow swill feeders to continue, while, on the other, we must consider whether swill feeders can accept the cost implications. Clearly, I do not want any farmer driven out of business. However, like everything else, farming practice must be guided by scientific evidence. If the European Commission's proposals for pressure cooking criteria are necessary, the costs to be borne by swill feeders will be immense. I suspect that many of them will decide that they are not prepared to make such an investment. If, as the Minister suggested, the general opinion of member states is that the UK standards are adequate, that will relieve swill feeders of what would be a significant investment. I am sure that swill feeders will be anxious to know the answer to that proposal.

Overall, I welcome simplification, the bringing into line of European and British regulations on disposal of animal by-products and the health implications. However, this morning's debate has lacked the science that is necessary to inform our consideration of the measures. I hope that the Minister will convince me that that science is available to her or her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who will carry out the negotiations in Europe until 3 May, and that it will be available to whoever follows them. The foundation of these proposals is in science, and, following that, in the practicalities of the disposal methods that are being advocated and that would be permitted. I reiterate my belief that there is an inconsistency in the proposals that needs to be removed.

11.42 am

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