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Session 2002 - 03
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Avian Influenza and Newcastle Disease

Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 7 July 2003

[Mr. James Cran in the Chair]

Draft Avian Influenza and Newcastle Disease (England and Wales) Order 2003

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I beg to move

    That the Committee has considered the draft Avian Influenza and Newcastle Disease (England and Wales) Order 2003.

The Government are introducing the order to extend to avian influenza and Newcastle disease some of the powers introduced in respect of foot and mouth disease by the Animal Health Act 2002. Both the diseases named in the order are highly infectious in poultry, and are most often spread through contact with migrating wild birds—particularly with their faeces and through contamination of equipment and feeders.

I am sure that I do not need to remind anyone of the events of 2001, when we were hit hard by foot and mouth disease. However, we learned lessons—we must be properly prepared for any future outbreak, whether of foot and mouth or another exotic disease of animals. We introduced the 2002 Act to bolster the tools in our armoury to fight and eradicate any such future outbreak. Parliament decided, during the passage of that Act, that some of the new powers should not apply automatically to diseases other than foot and mouth, but that they could be extended to other diseases by an order approved by a resolution of both Houses of Parliament. That is why we are considering this draft order.

Committee members may be aware of this year's outbreak of avian influenza on the continent. The majority of the 250 confirmed cases occurred in the Netherlands, and more than 31 million birds were slaughtered. Concerns in the UK were heightened because that outbreak occurred close to Britain and spread to Belgium and Germany. The Dutch authorities presented a seminar to EU state vets so that they could share their experience. It is thought that the start of the Dutch outbreak may have been due to a low pathogenic strain of virus being introduced to domestic fowl from wildfowl and mutating to a high pathogenic form. The Dutch believe that some 20 premises were already infected when avian influenza was first suspected—that echoes our experience of foot and mouth in 2001. Early detection of disease has an important bearing on the size of an outbreak. The Dutch outbreak was spread mainly by people, vehicles and other things contaminated by bird faeces containing the virus.

The Dutch authorities introduced preventive culls to get on top of the disease and stop it spreading. There were preventive culls in commercial holdings within a 3 km radius of infected farms. In the main affected area, the Gelderse Vallei, all commercial

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poultry was slaughtered within a 10 km radius of infected farms. There was a similar story in Belgium and Germany, where 3 km culls were also undertaken.

We have considered the need for, and the possibility of, a preventive cull in the UK, should an outbreak occur. In the affected area in the Netherlands, there was a high density of poultry holdings on small farms with shared labour. Our industry tends to be more concentrated, with more birds in fewer locations. My veterinary advice is that the need for a preventive cull is unlikely. Nevertheless, it is not completely ruled out and the powers to order such culls would be an addition to our armoury. One of the most important lessons of foot and mouth is that we must be as prepared as possible.

We would not be doing our duty if we were not prepared. We cannot wait until there is an outbreak to review whether we need the powers. We would need to act quickly, were we ever to reach a stage where those powers were needed to control the spread of an outbreak. The legislative process takes time and such things cannot be done during the recess, so it is correct that we should make those powers available now. There are concerns about the possibility of an outbreak of avian influenza, and the 2002 Act allows powers to be extended for that purpose.

Given the technologies currently available, vaccination is not considered practical for avian influenza. The only vaccines available for that disease are inactivated, which means that birds must be dosed individually by injection. It can take some three weeks for birds to develop protective immunity after vaccination and some poultry require two doses. However, vaccination does not prevent birds from becoming infected and passing on the virus, so we do not regard vaccination as an effective tool.

Before a preventive cull could be used, we would need to have, and consult upon, a disease control protocol, which would set out the purpose, factors and procedures of a preventive cull. We have one for foot and mouth disease, which is incorporated in the foot and mouth disease contingency plan. We would produce a separate one specifically for avian flu and Newcastle disease, which we would consult on and publish. The 2002 Act allows two further measures to be introduced by affirmative order—the provision to slaughter vaccinated animals, and the power of entry for testing and sampling.

I have already said that it is unlikely that we would vaccinate against avian influenza. That is based on current technologies, but that could change. It also assumes that there are no disposal problems. As well as allowing us to slaughter poultry, the power would enable us to pay compensation to the owners. We do, of course, compensate owners of non-vaccinated poultry that are compulsorily slaughtered. Extending this power at the same time seems a reasonable and sensible thing to do.

Powers of entry for the purposes of slaughter or vaccination already apply automatically under the 2002 Act. It is only powers of entry for the purposes of testing and sampling that need to be extended by affirmative order. In the event of an outbreak, speed of

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action is essential if disease is to be controlled and eradicated quickly. Delays in our ability to test poultry for a virus or disease could lead to the spread of the disease and the prolongation of an outbreak. It is right that we should be properly prepared and that this power is included in the order. Veterinary advice is that we are at as much risk of an outbreak of Newcastle disease as we are of avian flu. Our action would be deficient if we prepared for an outbreak of avian flu but not of Newcastle disease. Both diseases require amendment to the same pieces of legislation, so doing both together is sensible.

In conclusion, I reiterate that this order has been laid as a contingency measure so that we can be properly prepared, should an outbreak occur. That does not mean that we would necessarily use the measures in it, but they are a useful and necessary addition to our armoury.

4.37 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I welcome the Minister to his post. This is the first time that we have had the opportunity to debate with one another in these new circumstances. He has delivered his brief today with clarity and style, and I look forward to that being the spirit in which our exchanges are carried on in future.

The proposal is relatively uncontentious—we all recognise the need to be vigilant about the dangers posed by avian influenza and Newcastle disease. Following the foot and mouth disaster, which the Minister rightly referred to, there is much greater awareness of the need for vigilance on these matters: that is true of the industry, the Government and all concerned. There is also greater anxiety about these matters. Anxiety is not a happy thing, but it may be healthy, as some of the things that were once regarded as desirable are now viewed as essential by the Government and the industry.

The measure provides the Government with greater licence to slaughter poultry if the Secretary of State thinks that that is necessary to prevent the spread of avian influenza or Newcastle disease. The order covers both diseases—that was clear from the Minister's words and the documents before us—and that is unsurprising, given their similarity. I hope that my remarks will be pithy and brief—I do not wish to detain the Committee inordinately on these interesting subjects, vital though they are to poultry procedures.

The order applies only to England and Wales, and understandably so. When the Minister responds, I would be grateful if he clarified the approach of the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly to the subject. Given the movements between different countries, it would be undesirable if we felt that we were doing something that was inconsistent, particularly with regard to the Scottish and English dimension.

I wish to make three points. First, the approach to this matter must be based on a risk assessment that takes account of a number of factors: biosecurity, of course; production systems; local knowledge; and clear interpretation. The Minister quite properly spoke about a disease protocol equivalent to that provided

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after the foot and mouth outbreak. He will agree that it is essential that such a protocol is developed in partnership with the industry and takes account of those factors.

Secondly, the situation in the Netherlands and the low countries is quite different from that in the United Kingdom because of the proximity of farms—the Minister was right about that. Given that dissimilarity, what differences would there be in the implementation of the firebreak policy that he outlined? Such a policy seems essential in a country in which farms are densely packed, because there is concern about the speed at which the disease can travel. However, that might not be the case for all parts of the United Kingdom. What assessment has he made of the differences between those areas, the likely effect of the policy, and the need to put one in place? Although I accept that the powers would be a useful tool in the armoury, it is important, in light of those difficulties, to explore the point a little more fully.

My third point is about insuring against risk. The Minister will know that the industry is concerned about that issue, and that there is great difficulty in insuring against risk. I take this opportunity to raise the issues of the rapid valuation of stocks and compensation procedures for mass slaughter. The Minister rightly said that the typical policy would be to wipe out a whole flock, which is the most appropriate way to deal with both avian influenza and Newcastle disease. However, there would be serious repercussions for a poultry producer in those circumstances, and we should like reassurance on exactly how stock would be valued and how the issue of compensation would be dealt with. It seems unreasonable to lay all responsibility on the industry, particularly given the likely cause of such diseases.

That brings me to the happy point in my peroration at which I say a little about Newcastle disease, as some members of the Committee—not you, of course, Mr. Cran; you know a great deal about all these matters—will be less than clear about it. I thought that it would be useful to put a little about the disease on record. It is, of course, a serious poultry disease. It first came to light in 1926, when a ship from the far east docked at Newcastle upon Tyne. Rubbish from the ship containing chicken carcases was fed to local chickens, which all died from the deadly new disease.

The disease was first reported in Java, as I know you are aware, Mr. Cran. Outbreaks were soon reported from places as far apart as Newcastle, Ranikhet in India and Colombo in Sri Lanka. The disease soon spread, either naturally or as a result of being transported between countries in refrigerated meat, and now has worldwide distribution. Newcastle disease can easily be confused with fowl plague, which is caused by the avian influenza virus. It has been given many names over the years, including fowl pest, pseudo-fowl pest, Ranikhet disease and avian pneumoencephalitis.

The Committee will find those facts interesting, not only because they are of intrinsic interest, but for the following reasons. First, they show that the disease was caused by imported products. Secondly, they show that it is not only faeces but carcases and their

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introduction into the food chain in an unacceptable way which should be an important factor in the Committee's considerations. Thirdly, there is an issue, as I suggested, with refrigerated meat, which takes us back to the way in which we deal with imported products.

Farmers will properly say that the Government should take a serious look at the issue, given its importance, and will accept the need to put in place the best possible kind of preventive biosecurity measures. However, they will be intolerant if, while that is being done, the Minister cannot reassure them today in the strongest and most definitive terms that imported products are meeting the same kind of standards. If, heaven forbid, domestic producers are expected to jump through a series of hoops while those producing imported meat are not, and the risk of those deadly diseases therefore grows, farmers would look upon the Government, this House and, indeed, this Committee with derision, and I do not want to be derided by anyone. For that reason, I highlight these matters on behalf of the industry and my constituents. I hope that Committee members will all agree that the Minister needs to ask some searching questions before we break for tea and chicken sandwiches.

4.45 pm

 
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