Animal Health Bill

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Mr. Breed: The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who has considerable experience of ministerial office and life in general, has raised some very important issues.

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Mrs. Browning: Having accused me of tabling the senior amendment, the hon. Gentleman makes a further reference to my age. Although I am flattered to be told that I have a wide experience of life, I am beginning to be reminded of the poem ''You are Old, Father William''. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough not to refer to my age or other such matters again.

Mr. Breed: I shall be only too pleased to do as the hon. Lady asks, although it should be noted that today she has reached an age that I shall reach in a few months' time.

We are all in broad agreement on scrapie. However, on consulting the DEFRA website when it was first established, I noted that one of DEFRA's aims was the eradication of scrapie. I wondered then whether that aim was established by the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the light of BSE or some other problem that had been hanging around, or by DEFRA in the light of another event. That is an important issue. Scrapie has been with us for some time without causing major problems, so it is important to ask why this decision has been taken now.

I take the hon. Lady's point about uncompetitiveness. I held the perhaps somewhat naive view that eradicating the disease might persuade consumers that our produce had been improved and was worthy of commanding a premium. However, perhaps the cost of eradication would outweigh any potential premium. We have seen as much in organics, where additional costs are not necessarily reflected in the premium—

Mrs. Ann Winterton: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, in that by making food even purer and more reassuring, one might command a premium price. However, is it not true that, as with organics, many consumers merely pay lip service to that principle? On buying products, they generally turn to the cheapest on the supermarket shelf, and if we adopted such a policy we might price ourselves out of the market.

11.30 am

Mr. Breed: I agree absolutely that that danger exists. We saw how rapidly public opinion on vaccination moved during the foot and mouth crisis. The fear was that supermarkets would not stock vaccinated meat because their consumers would not want to eat it. Consumers sometimes think in irrational ways. Indeed, it is perhaps irrational to be prepared to eat meat from animals that might be infected with scrapie, although consumers have probably done as much for most of their lives. Nevertheless, there is sometimes a sea-change in public perceptions of food safety, and such a change can prove an important factor. The Minister should explain why now is the right time to accelerate progress of the existing voluntary arrangement, because progress is already being made, although perhaps not as quickly as expected.

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A couple of other points were raised on Second Reading, the first of which concerns the loss of specific breeds' potentially beneficial gene pools. If we want to eradicate scrapie, what do we do with the remaining flocks? Is there an argument for living with scrapie on the ground that UK flocks have gene pools that might prove valuable in future? To eradicate those pools through eradicating scrapie might stack up potential problems. We need to strike a balance.

The second point, to which reference has been made, is the question of traceability. We need to push identification and traceability as hard as eradication, if not harder. This is an important issue, and although it would seem prima facie sensible to eradicate scrapie from UK flocks, we need to take a step back and ensure that the time is right. We must be certain that accelerating the eradication process is the sensible way forward, that it will prove economically beneficial, and that we will not lose potentially valuable gene pools.

Mrs. Winterton: I had not realised that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton is celebrating her birthday today. It is appropriate that the Committee mark the event, but I would not dream of initiating a discussion on how long she has been on this earth, except to say that she has been here for a much shorter time than me. In offering my congratulations, I should also say that hers was a tremendous introduction to the issue of scrapie. She has longstanding experience of these matters, and a great interest in them from a constituency point of view.

My hon. Friend rightly said that decisions must be based on sound science, and Ben Gill, leader of the NFU, agrees. In suggesting that it was unnecessary for Britain to adopt the tough measures to control scrapie in sheep that France has proposed, he said:

    ''We have done far more research than the French.''

Although there was the terrible debacle concerning sheep brains and cow brains, every single test so far for BSE in newer sheep brains has proved negative. It is difficult to prove a negative, but I wish the press would stop hinting that there may be problems with sheep meat. The evidence is not there, and the public are confident of the product's quality.

Although scrapie has been with us for hundreds of years, I accept that the Government want to move on and are consequently introducing a statutory scheme to replace the existing voluntary arrangement. The National Sheep Association has expressed its concerns that the Bill is precipitate:

    ''The removal of TSE susceptible genes should only be undertaken once an acceptable level of resistance has been bred in.''

That is a sensible view. It suggests that that

    ''should only be considered when the main part of the breed has reached a figure of 75 per cent. resistance (subject to scientific advice and approval).''

What is the great hurry? The voluntary scheme might be working too slowly, but there may be ways in which we could hurry it up without introducing a statutory scheme.

The National Sheep Association also states that

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    ''The current goodwill in the industry towards scrapie eradication needs to be fostered. The genotyping technology is new and has received good support. A great deal will be achieved by the adoption of persuasive as opposed to coercive policies. They only need to be in place as a backstop and for final clearance . . . experience of the coercive approach in other countries has not been successful and a careful approach would be more effective. Timing is of the essence.''

Why is there such a huge push on this issue? Is it because the Bill provides an opportunity to introduce new measures on scrapie, or is there a hidden agenda at which we can only guess?

The National Sheep Association makes the point that

    ''During the recent outbreak a number of flocks, which were already highly resistant to these diseases, were slaughtered. While foot and mouth disease would have passed through the sheep with very little direct problems the loss of quality, high health status genetics will take a long time to get back and in many cases might be irreplaceable. For that reason we would strongly recommend seeking alternative acceptable systems which might allow such stock to be removed from potential danger or maybe encouragement given to storage of semen or embryo and also possibly research done to see if foot and mouth disease is actually carried in such semen or embryos and . . . if it can be cleansed (this can be done for some diseases).''

It would like to see

    ''scientists and breeders working together to reduce to a minimum the potential loss of important genes in the future and to work together to focus on an optimal level solution for the benefit of all concerned.''

As I said earlier, the Minister is a great supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is concerned about the timing of the measures in clause 5. It supports the identification of sheep that are genetically susceptible to scrapie because the disease is endemic in many parts of the national flock and results in poor health and welfare for animals. It also believes that

    ''The section in the Bill that puts''

scrapie eradication

    ''on a more formal footing''

is not subject to a

    ''time indication in the Bill.''

Will the Minister say a few words on that subject? Will the programme be phased in over several years? Will there be sufficient time for both sides of the argument to work together to ensure that the programme's benefits, rather than its costs, are felt?

The RSPCA states:

    ''It would be impractical to test every single sheep in the UK within say a year''.

Obviously, that would be extremely difficult and

    ''the effects of testing and then culling every animal that proved positive would be devastating for the lamb industry.''

Given the tremendous numbers of animals that have already been lost, this would be a devastating and perhaps unnecessary blow.

    ''The RSPCA would like to see this testing programme phased in over a period of time . . . test all breeding rams and the year's lambs one year and then focus on a third or fourth group over the next years.''

Those are valid points, and I hope that the Minister will have something to say about them.

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Mr. Morley: At this stage in the Committee I cannot deliver a lengthy lecture on the history of scrapie and transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. However, because it is the birthday of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, I should be happy to send her a letter updating her on what other countries are doing on the issue. I am sure that she will find such a letter interesting, and she can take it as a birthday present from the Committee.

The French are proposing measures in relation to their sheep flock that are similar to those proposed in the Bill. As the hon. Member for Congleton rightly said, the French have gone further than us in relation to specified risk material controls on sheep carcasses, which we are not convinced is justified in the light of current scientific knowledge. That demonstrates, however, that the concern is not solely held by the UK, but is an international issue. It would benefit our national flock if it were scrapie free, and there would be commercial advantages, which justifies moving quickly. I must emphasise that the sheep industry has co-operated excellently and has worked with us closely because it shares our aim of eradicating scrapie.

There is nothing that we cannot take into account in the quotes from the National Sheep Association that were read out by the hon. Member for Congleton. I remind the Committee that the national scrapie plan was consulted in detail before the Bill. As part of the consultation, we made it clear that at some stage we intended to make the plan compulsory, which was something that was not in dispute during the consultation period. We propose that this will be a backstop measure. We have already discussed the proposal with the sheep industry, and we know that scrapie eradication must take place over several years.

We must discuss an appropriate time scale with the industry because the current voluntary timetable is estimated at 10 or 15 years, which we consider to be too long—to be fair to the sheep industry, it also thinks that that is too long. We want to move the plan forward by discussing a realistic time scale. Indeed, we shall begin the process on the basis of voluntary agreements, and the measures may be implemented down the road when we reach a certain percentage. The majority in the sheep industry is keen to co-operate with the eradication programme because it is in its interests and those of consumers.

As far as the science is concerned, the request to accelerate the programme came from the Food Standards Agency, which we set up as an independent body to advise us on consumer issues, and we take its opinion seriously. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has also recommended the eradication programme. I accept the view of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton that the risks are theoretical, but we are in a post-BSE environment and we must learn the lessons of that.

Talking of disasters, there has been no bigger disaster for the agricultural sector than BSE. It has touched just about every sector of farming, and the costs have been absolutely horrendous. I was disappointed to hear today arguments similar to the ones that were put previously, such as that there is no

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absolute proof and that there are economic consequences. We have to follow the recommendations of the Phillips report that we must not rule out the worst-case scenarios and that we must think ahead and not rule anything out.

We know that scrapie is transmitted throughout the sheep's body, in a different way from BSE. It is found in the lymph nodes for example, which means that it is present throughout the meat, and therefore will get into the milk. That is why the FSA has concerns about that and why the implications are really quite severe.


I repeat again that there is no evidence of BSE in the national flock, and the advice of the Food Standards Agency is that there is no reason why people should stop eating sheep meat —and I have made that point every time I have been interviewed on this issue. Nevertheless, there is a theoretical risk that we must take seriously not only that scrapie might be masking BSE within the national flock, but that BSE is believed to be some form of mutated protein prion. There is always the risk of mutations in relation to existing TSEs. So, it would be to everybody's benefit if we had a scrapie-free flock and a TSE-resistant flock. That is the objective of the Government and the sheep industry, so there is no disagreement between us. We will discuss with industry representatives the most realistic and appropriate time scale for achieving this.

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