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7 Nov 2006 : Column 239WH—continued

The FVO returned to inspect Bowland in September, but it did not consider that enough had been done to bring the premises up to the required standard. On 6 October, the Commission used emergency powers to ban the sale of curd cheese from Bowland, effectively shutting the business down. On 16 October, the
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Commission sent a letter of formal notice initiating infraction proceedings against the UK for failure to implement food safety legislation, and announced that an FVO mission would be sent to inspect the UK dairy industry in November.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs maintains close contact with the FSA on the matter because it is important that the dairy industry does not suffer as a result. The United Kingdom has a dairy industry to be proud of; it is a matter for congratulation that the processing sector sets itself higher standards than those required by legislation and voluntarily uses rapid screening tests to check for antibiotic residues.

The FVO mission made a number of allegations, some of which are still disputed. I hope, Mr. Martlew, that you will understand that there are certain elements into which I may not go for fear of prejudicing legal proceedings. However, we need to be clear about what is and is not acceptable. None of us would support the use of milk contaminated with substances such as detergents or dyes. None of us could endorse the use of out-of-date milk collected from retail establishments to be reprocessed into dairy products. I am sure that my hon. Friend would not support the use of mouldy and contaminated cheese, including floor waste, being vacuum-packed for sale.

In my view, it is also important to acknowledge that the majority of the UK dairy industry consistently applies much higher standards of food hygiene practices—ones that often exceed the requirements previously set out by the FSA. The industry is to be congratulated on such rigorous self-vetting. However, it is clear that in future the whole industry needs to be certain about what is and is not acceptable, and that must be reinforced by guidance from the FSA.

The Government responded to the infraction letter by agreeing to implement the Commission's interpretive guidance on milk that fails a rapid antibiotic residue screening test. The FSA supported that approach and issued revised guidance to local authorities and the dairy industry on 20 October. At the meeting of the European Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health on 18 October, the Commission agreed to bring together all the parties concerned in order to enable discussion of the outstanding scientific issues on antibiotic testing. That is a welcome development. In the long term, it should resolve the scientific questions at issue.

The FSA, working with local authorities and the dairy industry, needs to ensure that there is no confusion over its revised guidelines and that the UK dairy sector knows exactly what is needed to pass this month's audit with a clean bill of health.

Mrs. Dunwoody: The Minister may like to know that at no point has the Commission carried out any product testing, nor does it have any direct evidence of the risk from Bowland’s products, and it talks about things being “on the floor”, but it was cheese that had fallen from vats. There is considerable doubt about the accuracy of what the Commission says.

Barry Gardiner: As I indicated earlier, Mr. Martlew, I do not wish to get involved in aspects of the case that may lead me into prejudicing further proceedings on
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the matter. I would not wish to be drawn by my hon. Friend into the specifics of what was or was not found at Bowland.

The FSA, DEFRA and the dairy industry take the matter seriously. Revised guidance has been issued, and the dairy trade body, Dairy UK, has held seminars to prepare the industry for inspection. DEFRA has actively participated with the FSA in explaining the animal by-products regulations that deal with the disposal of milk containing antibiotic residues and the disposal of pre-packaged milk.

Mr. Curry: Does the Minister agree that the job being done by Bowland has to be done in any country with a significant dairy industry? Does he further agree that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations and discussions, it is important that the rules ultimately agreed run across the whole of the European Community? Will he make it one of the Government’s priorities to ensure that the levels of enforcement are equal and that the rules being enforced are equal?

Barry Gardiner: The right hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there should be equal treatment of the companies and industries across the European Union. I confirm that that is of paramount importance to the Government.

Bowland is not the whole story: a debate has been called on the future of the UK dairy industry, and I want to say something about the future as it appears to the Government. I realise that the immediate future will be challenging for the dairy sector. Pressure on farm-gate prices will remain, and it is important that the sector is realistic about the prospects, as prices are unlikely to return to historic levels. There will be no return to managed markets, with the Government setting the price of milk; those days are over. Prices are a private commercial matter, and the Government cannot and should not become involved.

Given the significant cost pressures on the sector, it would appear that some restructuring of the industry is inevitable at all levels. The good news is that there are signs that the industry is addressing its problems. It is important, for example, that each part of the chain recognises the pressures on other parts. Indeed, my hon. Friend alluded to that in her customary fashion. The industry must continue working together: it must maintain a dialogue.

The dairy supply chain forum, chaired by Lord Rooker, has played an important role in bringing the industry
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together to discuss issues where collaboration can benefit all. The forum has worked hard to try to drive forward work that could ultimately ensure better rewards for all. That includes work on supply contracts, and ensuring that producers supply an attractive and valuable product—for example, by considering the barriers to innovation in the dairy sector.

DEFRA has provided more than £200,000 over the past three years to help to improve the evidence base for the dairy sector, partly through the dairy supply chain forum. For example, the Department provided funding to analyse the impact of CAP reform on the dairy sector, the prospects for the dairy sector in a more liberalised world market, barriers to innovation and skills and training in the sector. Again, skills and training were raised by my hon. Friend, particularly in relation to animal husbandry and welfare. That analysis has helped to inform the industry’s debate on future prospects, and it has dispelled some myths and challenged and changed people’s thinking. That is where the Government can add value—by bringing all parts of the supply chain together. However, the dairy industry must take ownership of the challenge to find solutions.

Given the impact of price pressures on profitability, it is important for the whole supply chain to consider how to strip out unnecessary costs and to achieve efficiency gains. DEFRA has invested £1.3 million through the agriculture development scheme to help the whole dairy sector to address issues of efficiency.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Is the Minister going to tell us about the audit that has been ordered by the Commission of the entire dairy industry—on extremely spurious grounds? How do the Government intend reacting to that?

Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend will note that I have already said that the Department is working closely with the industry to enable it to prepare for that audit, and explaining how best to ensure that it passes the audit with flying colours.

It is interesting to note that not everyone is gloomy about the prospects of the dairy farming sector. A survey of farmers at the dairy event in September revealed that of those producing between 350,000 and 1.5 million litres a year, nearly two thirds would raise production.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. It is time for the next debate.

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Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy Regulations

1 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The debate has a rather long-winded title on the Order Paper which was necessary to comply with our friends in the Table Office. It is about the future of Harriet the cow. She is a pet cow owned by my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Price, who live near Newent. Harriet is a nine-year-old Jersey cow, who was born on a farm in Oxfordshire and is not kept for diary or meat production, but is actually a family pet. Her future is threatened by the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy regulations and the way that they are being implemented by the Department.

The essential point is rather straightforward. Harriet was born on a farm in Oxfordshire as a winter calf and earlier that year another calf was born on the same farm which later became infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Under European and national regulations, all cohort animals must be slaughtered and, at the moment, the Department is including Harriet within that description. She has been valued at £1,049 and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wants to have her slaughtered by the end of the month.

TSE regulations are sensible and appropriate for animals that are intended to enter the food chain. There is no disagreement about that as the link with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is well established and there is a clear need to ensure that bovine spongiform encephalopathy-infected meat does not enter the food chain for human health reasons and for the sake of our farming industry. I am not arguing that any suspect animal should have the opportunity to enter the food chain. However, the European regulations concerned clearly state:

They go on specifically to state that the regulations should not

As Harriet is a pet cow, it is clearly the case that she is not intended for any of those purposes. Indeed, her owners wish her to live out her natural life on their farm, in a field near Newent. The cohort regulations identify a cohort as

There are two parts to that definition. Regarding the first part, Harriet has been identified as a cohort animal because she has the same holding number as the cow that was infected with BSE, and that is because they were owned by the same farmer. However, the farmer kept the two herds separately: they were managed in a completely separate way and in different buildings that were a mile apart, although on the same farm. The second part of the cohort definition refers to
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rearing and feeding regimes, and it relates to whether Harriet has consumed the same feed as that which the infected animal consumed during the first year of its life.

The original breeder of Harriet and the vet have, to be fair to the Department, relatively recently confirmed some details and put together documentary evidence to be supplied to the Department, which I know it has been considering. A letter I have received from Harriet’s breeder confirms that she had “completely different feed” from the animal with BSE, that food was bought in small batches and that as the cows were born a considerable distance apart, they did not share the same feed and, indeed, were separated at either end of the farm by about a mile. The owner confirms that

The vet who looked after Harriet and the farm has confirmed that they were managed as completely separate groups with different feeding regimes and in different buildings. He also confirmed that calf food was purchased in small batches, so the batch eaten by the older summer-born calf—the infected calf—would not have been consumed by Harriet the younger winter-born calf. The vet also confirmed the facts stated by the owner.

My contention is that Harriet does not fall within the definition of a cohort as set out by the regulations.

Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): The debate is very specific and I want to offer the hon. Gentleman my full support in his quest to ensure that the Government give way in favour of his constituents and Harriet. Will he acknowledge that there is potentially a further threat to owners of animals such as Harriet and, indeed, farmers of all kinds, in my constituency and his, from the Government’s current consultation on the funding of clean-up and compensation costs after animal disease outbreaks such as BSE or foot and mouth?

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is out of order.

Mr. Harper: Thank you, Mr. Martlew, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

I have explained at some length why I do not think that Harriet falls within the cohort definition required by the European regulations. A further, more general point—it would be helpful for the Minister to respond to this—is that my contention and the contention of the Prices is that Harriet does not pose any threat to human health. For her to do so, she would have to enter the food chain. My contention is that this will never happen. First, her owners have no intention of selling her or doing anything other than keeping her as a pet. Secondly and, from the Department’s point of view, most importantly, DEFRA hold her passport so she cannot legally be moved or slaughtered, and even if that were to occur, she would have to be tested for BSE post-slaughter. My contention is that the risk to human health from Harriet is non-existent.

In the letters I have written to the Minister, I have repeatedly asked him to explain how Harriet poses a threat to human health, and that is one of the key points that has never been satisfactorily answered. I
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would be grateful if the Minister could explain in his response, without reference to bureaucratic regulations and in plain English, how Harriet continuing to live poses a threat to human health. I cannot work that out.

In the Minister’s reply to me of 13 June, he correctly points out in paragraph 4 that currently

That is one reason why animals have to be slaughtered and tested post-mortem. There are two examples of companies working on live tests for BSE—one in Canada and one in the United States. They are currently at the final stages of tests before clinical trials within the EU. Those tests are expected to be available before the end of 2007 and will analyse DNA strands in the blood of the animal in question, pick up on any signs of disease and detect the disease well in advance of any symptoms. If the Minister is unable to accept that Harriet is captured by those regulations, and if Harriet’s owners were to agree to further controls over her movements, one possible avenue open to him might be to give Harriet a stay of execution until a live BSE test is available, when she could be tested to check whether she is free of infection.

I know that Ministers and officials are very keen on precedents, so I would like to give two examples of where they were sufficiently flexible to exempt animals in cases such as this. A short time ago in March, it was reported that Larry the lamb, which despite that name was female, entered a slaughter house but was not slaughtered because abattoir workers realised there was a new-born lamb among the sheep and made an exception. However, official rules said that no animal born in a slaughterhouse could leave it alive, and they were ordered to kill the lamb, which they named Larry, and its mother. They had to go as far as employing a barrister to argue their case against DEFRA, the Department represented by the Minister, which made the point that disease control legislation was unequivocal and rules were rules. However, after a day’s intensive lobbying, a high-ranking civil servant in London finally relented and gave permission for a special licence allowing Larry to live on a local farm, showing that officials can be sufficiently flexible if necessary.

Of course, the best known example, which many people, certainly in my constituency, can remember, takes us back to the days when we were suffering because of foot and mouth disease. The famous Phoenix the calf was found on a pile of dead animals and should have been killed under the requirements of the rules at the time, which we know were applied relentlessly throughout the country. However, Phoenix was allowed to live under a “policy refinement”—I think that was the official way it was described at the time.

This is my plea to the Minister. Will he consider the evidence about how Harriet was reared and fed, which shows that she was not part of the cohort and therefore is not required to be slaughtered under the regulations? If he does not find that evidence convincing, I plead with him to allow Harriet a stay of execution at least until a live BSE test is available. I am sure that the Prices would comply with any further restrictions that the Department wanted to invoke, to assure themselves that there was no risk of her being moved or entering
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the food chain. Finally, I ask the Minister to think about the other examples in which flexibility was shown. If he were able to do that, he would have the gratitude not only of the Prices and the many people in my constituency who are supporting them and Harriet, but of many people who have contacted me from around the world about the case. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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