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Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): I understand that the virus will not survive outside a living organism for more than six hours. If that is the case, it automatically rules out transmission by meat products from Hungary, probably transmission by lorry and almost undoubtedly transmission on shoes. Is my right hon. Friend convinced that no live birds have been imported from Hungary that could have carried the live virus?
David Miliband: My scientific advisers are clear that the virus can live for longer than the six hours that my hon. Friend mentioned. I am happy to write to her with the details of our scientific knowledge in that area, but no such limitation has been explained to me. In respect of the imports from Hungary, there has been no evidence of imports from within the restricted areas, which would have been illegal and extremely serious.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Will the Minister accept my support for his comments about the way in which the various authorities have co-operated on the site, especially the connection between the police, the local authorities and the Government? I also thank him for the way in which he and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare have kept us all well informed and in touch with what is happening.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one notable difference between this and previous occasions is that we have been able to carry on reasonably normally our trade with the rest of the European Union, which would not have been possible had it not been both for our membership and our continued association with the way in which the system works? Does not that also mean that we will have to consider carefully some of the concerns that people have raised about the way in which the rules work? In other words, I wonder whether public acceptability should be considered as well as the wisdom and legality. Sometimes some of the decisions that we make that are safe may not seem so to the public and it might be worth being more stringent so that the public universally feel that we have their interests in mind.
Finally, my constituents are of course the most affected by these events. As the Secretary of State knows, there are many other poultry producers in the area. Will he ensure that all of them continue to be kept in touch, because they feel isolated by the effects on their businesses? If they are kept fully informed at all times, it will help to continue their strong support for his measures.
David Miliband: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the work of staff and I will ensure that it is conveyed. In respect of stringency, we have extremely stringent rules and we apply them very stringently. It is important that we have had consistency of message in this case, and that has come from the Food Standards Agency and it has been repeated by Ministers and, to be fair, it has been repeated by Opposition spokespeople and other hon. Members. That consistent message has been about the safety of properly cooked poultry meat.
The point about keeping in touch with local poultry owners gives me the chance to reiterate the importance of the British poultry register, about which the right hon. Gentleman will know. If people are on the
register, it is easy to remain in contact with them. Although 95 per cent. of the flock is covered by the register, that does not mean that 95 per cent. of owners are on it. Anything that any hon. Member can do to encourage registrationwhich is compulsory for flocks of more than 50 birdswould help us to stay in touch.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about learning lessons. The important point is that this has so far been a unique case in the European Union. There is no previous case in which wild birds have not been the carriers. After any case one has to learn lessons, but after a unique case it is especially important to consider whether the regulations are right.
No European country has taken retaliation against the United Kingdom in the past two and a half weeks. Although there have been calls that we should do things that are not legal, I remind the House that last year one swan was found dead in Cellardyke and that did not lead to retaliation either. It is enormously in the interests of public safety and confidence, and the poultry industry, that that remains the case. As I said two weeks ago, the right hon. Gentlemans continuing desire to point out to his colleagues the importance of the European Union for the future of this country is very welcome.
May I pick up on something that the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) asked? The Secretary of State said clearly that he had been informed later in the week about the extent of the Hungarian trade. We now know that 5 per cent. of all the turkey meat processed at the plant came from Hungary. When exactly did the Secretary of State become aware of that? Was it due to the finding of the wrapper in the Holton plant? It is important to clear that up.
The evidence of irresponsible biosecurity lapses at Holton, including gulls feeding on uncovered waste meat, is now compelling. The DEFRA summary report states that pest control reports in January made that clear and that
similar comments had been made following previous visits of the pest control company in 2006.
In the light of that findingin other words, of repeated problems of the same sort that could infect the wild fowl populationhow can the other report, from the FSA, DEFRA and the Health Protection Agency, assert that
verbal advice about deficiencies and non-compliance was given. In each case the deficiency was addressed and no further enforcement action was taken.
The Secretary of State says that he is assured that waste products on the site are currently being dealt with in a satisfactory way, but given the evident dangers, and the contradictions in the two reports he has presented, can he assure the House that there is now no risk of contamination of wild fowl? How does he know? When specifically did the Meat Hygiene
Service last inspect the premises? How frequently does it attend to make such inspections?
Given the potential dangers were the virus to mutate into a form contagious between humans, does the Secretary of State agree that human health must be the first and foremost consideration in this case and that there must be no compromise in undertaking every possible measure necessary to guarantee it? If so, why did the FSA not test the imports of poultry meat from Hungary, as it tested the poultry in the shed after the discovery, so that we can rely on more than a mere paper trial to ensure that the meat did not come from the affected area around the H5N1-afflicted goose farm in Hungary?
David Miliband: In respect of the now infamous wrapper, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that obviously the figure that just over 5 per cent. of the meat processed was from Hungary did not come from the wrapper. That figure came from investigation of all the shipments. If not quite deriding our reliance on the shipments, he at least cast doubt on whether we should rely on themI think he called them a paper trail. However, it is important to look at the shipments. There has been no suggestion either from the European Commission or anyone else that they are not a reliable record. Indeed, the EC carries out investigations and inspections to make sure that such records are undertaken on a serious basis. Obviously, the full extent of the shipments emerged only when the transport logs were handed over, which was Wednesday 7 February or Thursday 8 February. They were then investigated in some detail, which yielded the 5 per cent. figure published last Friday.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman rightly asked about the previous lapses and the advice that had been given. Our clear evidence from the work of the MHS and others is that the advice was acted on, but clearly if the problems recurred there would be an issue. The report says clearly that the premises were placed in the second highest category by the Meat Hygiene Service. That means that they are inspected once every five months. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that someone is on the site of a slaughterhouse whenever slaughter takes place; however, the rest of the premises were on a five-monthly schedule. The regime for any premises placed in the highest category is for an inspection to take place once every eight months. Given the events, the Meat Hygiene Service will no doubt want to consider the frequency of the inspection regime in the light of the most recent evidence.
I have it in my head that the last inspections of the slaughterhouse and the processing plant were in December and January respectively, but I shall confirm that just in case it was the other way round and the last inspection of the processing plant was in December and that of the slaughterhouse was in January. However, the last inspections took place in the months of December and January.
I want to finish on one point. The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the danger to human health. I am sure, or at least hope, that it was inadvertent, but this morning he talked on the radio about the further infection of humans. One has to be very careful in using such language; he has used it again in the House. Although tough and probing questions should be asked, it is very important that one should not in any way allow the impression to get abroad that somehow a human catastrophe is already under way. It is very important that we should be vigilant and that we never say that there is no risk. There is an ongoing risk of bird flu, but it is incumbent on us to choose our words very carefully when talking about transmission to humans.
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his staff on the prompt and thorough response to the outbreak. I welcome the fact that efforts to find its precise cause have not yet been abandoned.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on reports that, after the outbreak, a number of lorry loads of raw turkey meat continued to go from the Bernard Matthews plant to Hungary, and that that was a source of considerable irritation to the chief vet in Hungary?
David Miliband: My right hon. Friend speaks with authority on these matters. I think that I can assure him that there have been no complaints from the Hungarian side about what he mentioned. There are clear European rules about the transmission of birds reared in, and poultry meat processed in, a restricted area. Those rules have been carefully followed, and I assure him that there has been no complaint from the Hungarians in that regard.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I apologise to the Secretary of State for having missed the first minute of his statement. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) have been very careful with their use of language when talking about possible breaches of biosecurity at the plant. Is the Secretary of State yet able to say whether, in the opinion of his experts, there have been breaches of biosecurity there? If, at the end of the day, the audit trail proves that there was no breach of biosecurity and that that Bernard Matthews plant was not responsible for the outbreak, what conclusion will he be able to draw?
David Miliband: Let me choose my words carefully. I do not think that there is any doubt that there have been biosecurity breaches; that is evident from the report about the treatment of the waste products. However, we always have to say a possible route of transmission in respect of how the disease got into the turkey sheds. The reports published last week established a possible route of transmission. We cannot now say that we have evidence of a transmission; what we have is a possible route of transmission.
That is one reason why our investigations are continuing. Only when they are concluded can we come to a calculation or assessment of the right steps forward. I should like to draw a distinction between breaches or lapses on the one hand, and routes of transmission on the other.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will know that Hungarys prowess in science far exceeds the size of the nation. Will he assure the House that everything possible is being done to share the genetic data that have emerged with our colleagues in Hungary and, indeed, with other countries that are involved in tracking down this very interesting and complex trail?
David Miliband: Interesting is a good word to use to describe the last two weeks. My hon. Friend makes an important point. I did not go into detail in my statement about my discussions with the Hungarian ambassador when she came to see me, or with my Hungarian opposite number. It is obviously important to take every opportunity to explain and set out on record the fact that the Hungarian commitment to the containment and eradication of bird flu is very strong. Its scientific commitment is well known and there is no evidence that Hungary has not followed the rules with the same rigour that we have.
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): The continuation of the wider restriction zone into the second week in March, which I believe is a requirement under the agreed EU procedures, is causing some difficulties for poultry farmersregardless of what is happening to retail sales. Will my right hon. Friend make clear what possible help might be available to such farmers? Secondly, will he say a little more about reports of open containers of turkey waste material? Were they lapses, or is that regular practice at the factory? What is the view of the Meat Hygiene Service, the Food Standards Agency and the Health Protection Agency on that particular practice?
David Miliband: In respect of organic and free-range status, I am happy to confirm that the rules that I set out two weeks ago remain in force and that those producers should keep that status, which is obviously valued. It certainly should not be described as regular practice to have waste open to the elements or open to wild birds or anything else. There are very clear rules about that, which is one reason the advice was given and, we were told, followed. It is very important that we learn the lesson from this outbreak that although the chances of transmission may be small, as long as they exist, real efforts must be made to reduce them to as close to zero as possible. That is the responsibility of every poultry owner, large or small.
Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My main concern is human health in the event of the virus mutating to threaten a human pandemic. We know that we cannot design a specific vaccine until we can analyse the virus that has mutated, but we also know that we can now put in place the production capacity to ensure that when the vaccine has been designedit would only take a few weekswe can go ahead with the massive production of the new specific vaccines that will be needed to protect human health and life. What are the Government doing to provide such production capacity and make it ready now?
That is a very large question, making it difficult for me to summarise an answer. The hon. Gentleman will know that, in co-ordination with the
Department of Health, extensive preparations are being made. He summarised the difficulty of the vaccine issue in that any pandemic would result from a mutation between human flu on the one hand and bird flu on the other. That causes particular difficulties when it comes to vaccination. What I can say is that all appropriate and scientifically robust preparations are being made, including in respect of vaccine stocks. I would be happy to send the hon. Gentleman the detailed contingency plan.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Given that the virus cameor may have comefrom Hungary and that, according to the Secretary of State, there has been no breach of the regulations by the Hungarian authorities, does that not suggest that there is a gap in the precautions afforded by the regulations? If that is the case, what is the Secretary of State doing with regard to the European Community, officials, the Council and, indeed, the Hungarian authorities to explore the nature of that gap in precautions and to guard against it?
David Miliband: The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important issue, which has been touched on by hon. Members, and it may help if I try to encapsulate two aspects of what I have said. First, there is something of a mystery still to be solved, and it is important that no one is under any illusion about that. The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) raised two hypotheses. They must be investigated. Those hon. Members who have read the reports published on Friday will have seen the reference to the fact that turkeys can have the disease before it shows. The turkeys in three of the sheds that were discovered to have the virus did not show any outward sign of that virus. So there is a line of inquiry that must be pursued in that respect.
Secondly, the very important word that the right hon. and learned Gentleman used was if. If any gaps are found, we must close them as soon as possible. I have repeatedly referred to the work that we are doing both domestically and with European colleagues. That work is designed precisely to find out whether there is a gap. If there is a gap, I can assure him that it will be shown up and published, and intensive measures will be taken to close that gap. Obviously, we cannot allow our defences to have those sorts of weaknesses in them if they are shown to exist.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, a few years ago, under the auspices of the predecessor Departmentthe Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foodstudies were carried out to show the potential spread of avian pathogens in poultry sheds and that they demonstrated very clearly that droplets applied to unrelated stuff were quickly transmitted to poultry sheds via their ventilation systems? If so, was any further advice on the biosecurity of ventilation systems issued to poultry farmers? Has that route of transmission been fully investigated?
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