Previous SectionIndexHome Page

BSE in Sheep (Research)

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I begin by apologising most sincerely to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and his team. I know that he can barely have had the statement for more than a few moments, and I can tell him now that he will find it shorter than the text that he has in his hand, but he has been given some acquaintance with what I propose to say, through a letter that I sent to him at the end of last week. None the less, I sincerely apologise and assure him that on future occasions I would hope to give him much more notice of any statement that I need to make.

I am grateful for the opportunity to put hon. Members in the picture about research into scrapie and the theoretical possibility that it might mask BSE in sheep. The work is being undertaken through a variety of different research projects at different institutes of excellence. I want also to address the significance of the experiment undertaken at the Institute for Animal Health on the so-called 1990 scrapie brain pool, which was due to be reported to the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee last Friday.

The United Kingdom and, indeed, my Department are at the forefront of European research into understanding the incidence of scrapie in the national sheep flock and whether the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep is a real one. The IAH research is merely one of a number of projects. There are many who consider that those on more recent brains are more important, and so far BSE has not been found, but more work needs to be done, and that is why, a couple of weeks ago, we took steps to ensure that more brains are offered for testing. It is important, however, to keep the issue in its proper perspective.

We have known since the experiments began that there were some doubts about whether the brains, which were collected a long time ago for a completely different experiment, were cross-contaminated with bovine BSE material. As results began to emerge from the experiments, it became critical that we resolve the issue of cross-contamination with as much clarity as possible.

That is why my Department, in consultation with SEAC and others, commissioned the DNA testing work at the laboratory of the Government chemist. The results were presented to DEFRA by the LGC last Wednesday afternoon, 17 October. The finding that there was no sheep material in the sample sent to the DNA lab was a totally unforeseen development.

The Government's responsibility in these circumstances is twofold: first, we must establish the facts as quickly as possible; and secondly, we must share those emerging findings with the public. The most obvious question that sprang to mind was whether the material analysed by the LGC was actually the same as that used in the experiments: to put it rather brutally, would the sample that should have been sent to the LGC be discovered at the back of the fridge in some dark corner of the Institute for Animal Health? We needed to establish the facts.

I immediately asked for an independent risk assessment company to perform a detailed audit of the IAH experiment, including an examination of how the

22 Oct 2001 : Column 20

homogenised samples were stored and handled. As the company is already familiar with the IAH project, it aims to report its findings within a week or so, and I hope that it will be able to do so.

We have also asked the UK Accreditation Service—UKAS—to undertake to a longer time scale a vigorous assessment of the chain of custody arrangements for the IAH experiment. Only at around 6 pm on Wednesday did we receive information suggesting that the sample sent to the DNA lab was indeed thought to be representative of the brain pool—but we still do not know this for certain. We will not know the full facts until the audit team has reported.

Let me emphasise that at that stage the only question was not whether we should make this public, but how and when. It was already clear that the SEAC meeting—[Laughter.] This is a serious issue, of grave concern for public health—[Interruption.] I am talking about the underlying disease; how the issue has been used is another matter.

It was already clear that the SEAC meeting planned for Friday could not now take place, as this was the only item on the agenda, and the chairman took the decision to cancel it.

I took the decision, against the advice of my press office, that rather than wait to have a properly staged press briefing the following morning, we should make a statement as soon as possible about what we knew for certain. I will tell the House bluntly that I was convinced the information would leak, and I did not want the slightest hint of any cover-up. In fact, I looked unsuccessfully for the Chair of the Select Committee that evening, in order to update him and correct information I had given him, in good faith, earlier that day.

A press notice was duly sent to the Press Association after we had observed the ordinary courtesies of consulting those involved and those who might be asked to comment on it, including SEAC and the Food Standards Agency. In other words, a statement was made the same day and within a few hours of Ministers being told what was thought to have occurred.

Let me say one other thing about the suggestion that we were seeking to suppress the information. We are all mature politicians, and I invite the House to consider what I was supposed to need to suppress. The research was commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; it was not carried out by that Department. The cross-check that revealed the problems was also commissioned by my Department, as a "belt and braces" measure. Of course there was embarrassment and dismay among those involved with this work, but there was no embarrassment or dismay for the Government, only a very real concern as to where we would go from here, and a real anxiety to treat carefully and seriously an issue of enormous sensitivity.

I understand that the phraseology of one part of the press release—which, by the way, I wrote—is thought to have been obscure. At the time it was drafted, we knew the results of the cross-contamination check, and had been told it was thought that it came from the same material as that used in the experiment, but I could not feel confident about what weight I should give to this piece of advice, given the very short time for checks to be made.

This entire issue rests on the handling of samples and the keeping of records. In consequence it seemed to me right to say, as we did, simply that the validity of the

22 Oct 2001 : Column 21

sample had been called into question. There was, and is, absolutely no intention to conceal or mislead. A press pack, which gave all the information to any of the media that were interested, was issued at a separate press conference held the following day.

What is more important is what this experiment could mean or could have meant. It will not give us a definitive answer as to whether BSE is in sheep today. Indeed, there are scientists who are not yet convinced that it would even have told us whether BSE was present in sheep in the early 1990s. All that the work could have done was reduce some of the uncertainties and add to the little that we currently know.

On scrapie generally, my Department is working closely with the FSA to introduce, early next year, an abattoir survey to test for scrapie approximately 20,000 sheep aged over 18 months annually. This will cost the UK about £5 million and be part of an EU-wide programme designed to give information on the incidence of scrapie in the European Union. This week the Agriculture Council in Brussels will review that programme, which, for both cattle and sheep testing, will cost the UK more than £50 million next year.

Although we hope that the sheep abattoir survey will be useful, I must warn the House that its results may not prove conclusive. A similar survey commissioned by the Government two to three years ago on nearly 3,000 abattoir sheep brains identified no scrapie cases at all. I would certainly be prepared to examine carefully the case for doing an even larger survey.

Around 500 to 600 scrapie cases are reported annually in Great Britain each year. My Department is funding a great deal of work to look for BSE in those cases, but it is difficult work at the forefront of science, and scientists do not always agree on particular aspects or methods. In about 180 cases, using the same techniques used at the Institute for Animal Health but on brains from the current flock, the experiments have reached the first point at which, if any of those scrapie cases were BSE, that might have become evident. It has not done so. However, it is too soon to draw firm conclusions from those on-going experiments that can last several years.

I must emphasise again that all that work is at the very forefront of science, conducted at the leading edge of scientific experimentation. We are not talking about research that can give us simple yes and no answers. I have asked for the most thorough review of the range of scientific studies presently being undertaken into that complex and difficult area, and once it is available I will make it available to the House.

The national scrapie plan is a long-term, voluntary programme to breed genetic resistance to scrapie and to BSE into the national sheep flock. Over the summer, my Department has prepared a Bill which, among other things, would allow the Government to take powers to ensure that we can remove from the flock the genotypes of sheep susceptible to scrapie. Of course the House will wish to give the Bill, including that section, proper scrutiny and I hope that it will have an opportunity to do so in the near future.

Throughout—I speak of the period before I had responsibility for the Department as well as now—we have been open and transparent on all our research into BSE, which is overseen by the independent Food Standards Agency and our advisory committee, SEAC.

22 Oct 2001 : Column 22

I stress that the FSA's advice remains unchanged. That advice, from the independent body responsible for food safety, is that there is no reason why consumers should not eat sheepmeat. We will continue actively to promote research to reduce risk, theoretical or not, and to put all our research in the public domain.

Next Section

IndexHome Page