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Earl Howe: My Lords, let me at the outset declare my interest as a dairy farmer and thus as someone who approaches this debate with a certain bias. The debate centres around two issues: first, the extent to which a perceived risk should be regarded as significant; and, secondly, the manner in which government--responsible government--should react to that risk.
My noble friends Lord Kimball and Lord Willoughby de Broke and many other noble Lords have argued, with considerable persuasiveness, that these regulations are not a measured response to the advice given by SEAC, but rather an unthinking response--unthinking, in that it rests on an unbalanced two-legged stool, one leg of which says that if there is a risk to the public from eating a particular food, no matter how small that risk may be, it is the duty of government to eliminate it, while the other leg of the stool says that consumer confidence must be protected at all costs. In this case, the Government have banned the sale of beef on the bone not only, as they maintain, to protect the public, but also to ensure that there is absolutely no obstacle to the lifting of the European ban on British beef exports.
I believe that the Government's action is misconceived on both counts. The SEAC advice defines quite clearly what the risk is from dorsal root ganglia in beef entering the food chain in 1998; namely, that there is a 95 per cent. chance of no cases of new variant CJD and a 5 per cent. chance of one case arising as a result of such exposure. That is the risk from which the Government are seeking to protect us. Examples have been given throughout the debate of other risks that we encounter in our daily lives, but this poses less of a risk than selling paracetamol freely over the counter and far less of a risk than allowing unpasteurised "green top" milk to be sold to the public. These are risks about which the public expect to make up their own mind. The advice given to the Government by SEAC was to inform the public of the extent of the risk, such as it is, and to let the public decide. However, the Government felt compelled to regulate--and at very great cost to British industry.
One argument in defence of the Government, which the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, prayed in aid during last week's agriculture debate, was that the last government went beyond the advice given by SEAC in 1994. That is perfectly true. We did--and I own up to being one of the Ministers in MAFF at the time. But what was that decision in 1994 all about? It was about whether or not to include within the scope of the ban on the sale of specific bovine offals certain organs of calves under six months of age. We decided to adopt a cautious approach and to ban those organs. That was, indeed, a more restrictive policy than the wait-and-see approach favoured by SEAC.
The present situation is not like that at all. The risk--if one can call it that--of BSE entering the food chain is known to be infinitesimal. There is no question of Ministers getting it wrong in the same sense as they might have got it wrong in 1994. If consumers are informed of the facts, they are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what action they wish to take in response.
Further, one has to question whether the regulations will have any effect whatever on the attitude adopted by the European Commission and other member states. As the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, said, the regulations look suspiciously like a diplomatic ploy--and a fruitless one at that. I do not believe that they will make any difference at all to the export ban. I cannot help recalling that, before that ban, much of the British beef consumed on the continent was deboned in any case. With other noble Lords, I regard the regulations as being of the worst possible kind: ill founded, extremely difficult to enforce, and held in contempt by the general public. I do not believe that they are worthy of support.
Lord Rowallan: My Lords, I too must declare an interest, being a dairy farmer, a beef farmer and a sheep farmer in Scotland. We have had many food safety scares over the years. In Scotland particularly, Professor Hugh Pennington has been involved in many, mostly relating to E.coli (which unfortunately killed an awful lot of people) and to BSE and CJD. When I was young we were told that butter was bad for us, so everybody changed to margarine. We now learn that margarine is worse for you than butter. When I was a little older we had troubles with salmonella in chickens, and eggs with salmonella. There was the case of milk being terribly good for you, and then, suddenly, it was not so good for you. It is peculiar that in Scotland unpasteurised milk is now completely banned and yet in England it is still allowed. Now, of course, we have moved on to consider the situation relating to bones.
In his speech in the agricultural debate the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said that, if we had not taken the action that we did to demonstrate that our beef is completely safe, there would be no prospect of getting the beef ban lifted. I find myself continually asking why it is that this country suffers all the time from its efficiency, whereas the rest the Europe seems to manage to run roughshod over us through its own inefficiency.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, came up with an interesting fact in his speech: he said that the Cheshire farmers are happy. If they are, they must be the only ones in the country who are happy because, for the first time in my lifetime, which is now 51 years, I have seen
In a further answer to the Starred Question of the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay of Paddington, said, first, that less than one gram of infected meat may be fatal; secondly, eating in a restaurant or preparing in one's kitchen one's own stew or sauce out of bones might be a source of the infection; and, thirdly, if we are successful in eliminating BSE . . . Those are all "ifs", "mights" and "maybes".
Diseases, according to Professor Pennington, are mostly found not at the stage when farmers are in control but at the slaughterhouse, at the butcher's shop and in the kitchen. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, informed the House on 14th January that it is not known how these new prions are transmitted or in which part of the dorsal ganglia they are found. It is still to be proved that CJD has any connection with BSE, let alone that it is the human version. There is only a one in 20 chance of one person catching, not dying, from BSE and a one in 600 million chance of dying as a result of eating meat on the bone. Yet we find ourselves unable to make a choice about what we eat.
We are controlling diseases that we do not know enough about, but are allowing activities whose dangers we recognise. Many noble Lords have mentioned this: we know that smoking is extremely dangerous. It also increases one's chances of suffering systemic heart disease as a result of passive smoking by 25 per cent. In fact, there is more likelihood of winning the lottery twice than of catching anything from eating beef on the bone. As everybody knows, winning the lottery is not the easiest thing in the world, hard as I try each week.
The whole case, surely, is flawed. We are told that the ban might be removed if the situation can be proved to be satisfactory after further tests. We are told that it might increase confidence in British beef in the EU, but we, the consumers, in Britain, are not being given much choice. We only have one chance at this life. Sometimes we make very bad decisions, but they are as a result of our choice. We have human rights, freedom of choice, freedom of the individual. Those are all planks that this Government hold very dear. Then we have data protection, food safety agencies, etc.--or do we? In this case we certainly do not seem to have them. We are not told the reason for all this; it is just a hunch that there might be a connection. It is a minuscule possibility, but it is not a probability. There is a big difference.
Also, the regulations are not enforceable. Beef under six months of age is exempt. Is the Minister going to tell me that the average housewife in the country can tell whether a slab of meat is six months old? She cannot. Does the butcher know? He will probably have an inkling if he knows his job, purely from the size of the carcass. Does the restaurateur know? It depends on how the meat is packaged when it arrives at his restaurant. All every butcher has to do is claim that he is selling meat under the age of six months. Yes, he will
Some say that all laws are made to be broken. But if the law is being made into an ass, if it is openly being flouted, it has to be a bad law, a very poor piece of legislation. I beg that we scrap it and save face. Return the decision to the people. If they are capable of voting a new government in every five years or so, then surely they are capable of deciding whether they want to eat meat on the bone or whether they do not. It tastes better, has a better flavour and also makes good side products, such as soup. It also keeps man's best friend, the dog, happy. Let us scrap this ban today. It was a knee-jerk reaction, in any event.
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