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Lord Carter: My Lords, will the Minister give way, since we have plenty of time? I expressed extremely clearly the Labour Party's policy. We believe in clear information but we do not believe in releasing information without thinking first about contingency planning on what is likely to happen and the panic that is likely to result from an ill-considered ministerial announcement.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, as I put clearly, we knew exactly what the results of releasing the information would be. We released it at the point when we had held as much internal discussion as we could without the information leaking.
The difficult problems surrounding BSE have required positive and effective government action on a number of fronts. First, and most important, is the protection of public health from any risk from BSE. The measures we have in place are endorsed fully by our own scientific advisers on the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and by the World Health Organisation.
I consider the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, to be extraordinary. The idea that if we were told by our scientific advisers that we should destroy the entire cattle and dairy business in this country we would not do so, that we would risk consumers catching a dreadful disease in large numbers merely for the commercial interests of our farming community, is extraordinary. How could a government put forward that order of priority? It gives the lie to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, in a frankly ridiculous speech.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord. However, the Minister gave that answer to a question put to him by a television interviewer, without any thought or consultation with the industry, the Treasury, the Cabinet or anyone else. It was an extraordinary gaffe to make.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, it was not. It was a basic, obvious policy for an honest and straightforward government to have. It was one which puts the interests of the consumer first. Does the noble Lord suggest that a Labour government should deliberately poison thousands or possibly hundreds of thousands of consumers?
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the noble Lord misunderstands what I said. I said that the Minister gave that reply to a question on a television programme. I contend that when one decides to destroy the whole of one's cattle herd one does not just say: "If our advisers tell us to do so then we will do it", without having properly considered the matter with one's colleagues, the industry, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Cabinet and anyone else who has an interest.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, some principles are so obvious that they do not need restating. Our second priority is the need to put an end to the BSE epidemic and we have taken steps to protect animal health and eliminate BSE completely. Our third priority is the restoration of consumer confidence in British beef and we have gone even beyond the scientific advice in introducing new measures further to reassure consumers of the safety of British beef. Finally, the Government fully recognise the major economic impact that this crisis has had on many in the beef industry. We have put in place a number of measures to help the industry get back on its feet again. I should emphasise that this support is to preserve the industry and not to compensate for individual losses.
I turn first to the protection of public health. The event which precipitated the crisis was the discovery of a distinct new variant of the human disease CJD, found in 10 people. It was not the old form of CJD which is
That is an important point. Before 1989 it was possible that those tissues we now know are able to carry BSE infectivity--the brain and spinal cord--might well have gone into some meat products. These high-risk tissues are the most likely source of any new infection from BSE.
The evolution of our policy has always been based on the assumption that BSE was a danger to humans. In the face of scientific evidence we have always gone further than we needed to. And when there is a step change, as there has recently been, in the scientific evidence, we have gone further again. We have made sure that all the tissues that might be infected are now to be excluded completely from any human or animal food chain. We have made sure that all animals that might be infected at the end of their lives are kept out of the human food chain. We are instituting separate lines in slaughterhouses so that there can be no mixing up of animals that might be infected with those that we are sure are not. We have imposed a complete ban on meat and bonemeal use, so that there can be no further cases of cross-contamination, which I quite agree have occurred in the past, as my noble friend Lord Burton said. We have acted on the precautionary principle advocated by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and we are policing properly the controls that we are putting in place.
The SEAC statement is careful not to refer to eating beef. Beef is meat from the muscles of cattle. No BSE infectivity has ever been found in such tissue, even from animals clinically suffering from the disease. Samples of meat--that is, muscle tissue--tested for that infectivity included peripheral nervous tissue and blood vessels. It is not possible to exclude them. I hope that that gives some comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Rea.
It is not yet proven that there is any link between BSE and CJD. We shall, I suspect, have that evidence one way or the other in due course, perhaps through mouse tests and in a year or two. We have no quicker way of obtaining that. The SEAC conclusion was that it was the most likely explanation--not "a" likely explanation, but "the most" likely explanation.
There is much evidence against BSE being infectious to humans, as my noble friend Lord Soulsby reminded us. One can say that there is perhaps a bushelful of evidence that it cannot and a grain or to, now, that it can. My noble friend Lord Onslow pointed out the various points made by Dr. Richard North. Indeed, I shall be replying to him on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, pointed out that the science is still in a very early stage and that there is a great deal that we do not know about this disease. It appears that a prion certainly has something to do with it; but the prion hypothesis does not in itself explain how different types can occur in the same animal. The chromosome which the PRP protein is on is not the same as that which causes the genetic predisposition.
We are, I think, looking at a deeper, more fundamental level of the operation of cells and the brain to discover what is going on. There, the importance of basic research, emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Porter, is something with which we completely agree. We have been putting a lot of money into that. When we look at the state of research now, I do not believe that we could have arrived earlier at where we are now. We are right at the fringes of the understanding of cell biology. We very much hope that we shall be able to make progress, but we are not looking at a narrow field of endeavour; we are relying on advances made in the whole field of cell biology to be able to understand this disease.
The noble Lord, Lord Winston, also asked about epidemiology. It is extremely difficult to run statistically valid epidemiology on a disease with an incidence of one in a million. That has been the problem to date.
The total eradication of BSE is the Government's aim. It is not a simple task. It is made more difficult by the fact that the incubation period of BSE, from infection to the appearance of clinical signs, is between four and five years on average. A slaughter policy, as advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Richard, would not be useful. We cannot tell which animals have the disease. We have no diagnosis. A general slaughter policy would kill many, many more animals without the disease than have it.
BSE is a notifiable disease. Farmers must report all animals they suspect to be suffering from it. Diagnosis is difficult, even for experienced veterinary surgeons, so they must always err on the side of caution. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about random sampling. As he said, that is effective only a few weeks before death. Once a vet suspects an animal of having the disease, then it is present in the brain, if in fact it has BSE. The symptoms are obvious only a short while before death. In the earlier period, when the disease is asymptomatic, it is likely to be asymptomatic in the brain also. So sampling would tell us very little extra.
What we need is a live test. There are encouraging signs that a practical test for BSE in the live animal is possible, but it is unlikely to be available for widescale use for some time, and probably not for years. There have been recent media reports of work by an American group on a live test that may be promising. We welcome that, and we are in contact with those workers. We have provided them with material on which to develop their tests. I hope that that gives some comfort to my noble friends Lord Middleton and Lord Cochrane of Cults. If we were able to find a test like that, we should be dancing in the streets. It would solve so many problems that we face with this epidemic. We should be able to kill the animals that have the disease; we should know the animals that did not have it; and the whole matter would be much easier. We have been putting a lot of effort into this. We have the smell of it in our nostrils. We think we shall get there. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and others know, science is an uncertain business. There is nothing yet that we can promise.
We have even been in correspondence with Dr. Narang, a gentleman who has been characterised, as least so far as the Ministry of Agriculture is concerned, if not the media, by silence and refusal to communicate. He has now asked us to supply him with samples under an experimental protocol, and we are doing so. If his test turns out to be the one that works, we shall be delighted.
We know from our extensive studies that the cause of BSE was cattle eating contaminated feed. Other potential causes, such as OPs, have been investigated in depth, and just do not stack up. My noble friend Lord Gage said that we now list the ingredients in feed. Indeed, we do. It is an improvement, and perhaps it will help us avoid similar problems in the future.
We are comforted, in that all the current evidence is that there is no horizontal or vertical transmission within cattle. As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, there is an experiment going on, a "blind" study in 600 cattle, to test the maternal transmission hypothesis. We have a broad view from our studies in cattle as a whole that there is very little evidence of maternal transmission. The importance of that particular study is that it will provide us with a finer degree of resolution. We do not want to break it now, just a year before it finishes and when it will provide us with very little more evidence than we have at the moment.
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