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5.48 p.m.

Lord Harlech: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, for initiating discussion on the legitimacy of these regulations and whether they may or may not hold water. It is not a coincidence that in less than five days of parliamentary time we have had three debates closely associated with this matter.

Under the present Government's standards, one in five slaughter houses fail the current standards required by Brussels. What they are going to do about that and whether the public purse will initiate the payment of their upgrading it will be very interesting to know. This, however, says nothing of meat imported, the inspection of it and the system that then comes into effect. About 28 per cent. of our meat input is from overseas producers who have different standards, as we know. Of course, by the time it is frozen and has spent three weeks at sea, there is a very different form of inspection than occurs in an abattoir. I sense some double standards here.

A serious risk to health? While it is within the Government's gift of administration, and it is, it is an administration of proportionality. In other words, are the Government representing the first of the three devices on which they took advice? Yes, they had three. And they took one of the three, the scientific one. The scientific one said that it was dangerous. There was a possible chance that it was dangerous. So, from the three, they chose one. Again, I refer to proportionality.

Is this a populist decision, or is this a decision by government for the majority against the minority? One should be very wary when one defeats the minority. To make an educational association, educating people from a very young age as to how they prepare food, how they buy food, how they judge food and how they cook food is a critical part of how one explains to those who will be adults tomorrow what it is that one buys from a shop. Simply giving a diktat as a result of a populist rather than a political opinion is very important.

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I am not sure that there is legal certainty behind the regulations.

One does not just cripple British beef producers but everybody. It affects people who make diesel engines or tyres; it affects women whose daughters have just left school working all night in a cheese-packing factory. One must be very careful about the 3 per cent. of the voting public who are farmers. This is not just an issue concerning farmers.

As to the link with CJD, we have heard that so far only 20 people have died. I believe that I take a higher risk walking out of this House to catch a tube train. I may get a knife in my back. Tests have been referred to. Supermarkets have announced that if 5p per kilo is added to the price of meat tests can be carried out to determine whether or not it is safe from BSE or CJD. That will add to the cost to the shopper.

Since December local authorities have charged a high street butcher between £60 and £170 per week to collect his bones. This means that people are disfranchised and put out of work because they must regularise their business by selling meat only off the bone and paying the environmental health authority to take away the bones. I should be delighted to hear the Government Front Bench explain where those bones go. Is the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, aware of what happens to the bones collected from every butcher up and down the land? What happens to them when they are processed?

My noble friend Lord Ferrers made an interesting speech in the debate last week. I noted that when my noble friend Lord Jopling, who was Minister of Agriculture for some time, had a similar problem on his hands in relation to TB in milk the advice was that all dairy cows might be affected. A survey was carried out to see whether it was possible for the Exchequer to pay for the elimination of that risk. It was not possible. The risk was so low that milk continued to flow and the public continued to buy it because they accepted that risk.

A £2 million campaign has been announced today. We hope that that will support farmers. It will have a minute effect. Are we to pay farmers to be gardeners? We may as well pay them to be gardeners and buy postcards. This is unrealistic. If this is populist politics and damage to millions is created by an attitude that is not well thought out--if, as my noble friend Lord Howe said, there is a vacuum of real knowledge--the regulations are not worthy of support. I do not support them.

5.54 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, we all share the common aim of protecting human health and reassuring consumers as to the safety and quality of the food that they purchase. In this context BSE has caused governments a great dilemma. It is natural to have sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in dealing with this dilemma. However, the Government have acted with caution in the extreme over the beef-on-the-bone ban, bearing in mind that the chance of a person catching CJD from eating beef on the bone is 600 million to one, even though there is no positive

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proof that new-variant CJD is caused by BSE. I could give many more statistics, as have many other noble Lords, but it is now late and I shall not go down that route, but I shall proceed to ask questions similar to those raised by other noble Lords. For example, why have the Government treated beef food products so harshly when many other foodstuffs that regularly create health hazards are not treated in the same way?

There are some oddities. We are not allowed to use bones from British beef in our foodstuffs for human consumption but we are allowed to import bones from other European countries that have BSE. Why are their bones free from risk whereas ours are not? One also questions the speed with which these regulations have been brought forward. They came into force on 16th December 1997. Surely, more time could have been given to considering the matter before a decision was taken so that the opinion of the general public could be measured. As my noble friend Lord Kimball said, Europe has taken nearly a year to conform to the requirement to take out specific risk material. They have taken the time to think through these difficult matters. Why could we not have taken more time? Europe appears to be a law unto itself, with the bizarre situation that Germany claims to be in a BSE-free zone and thus should not be required to comply with the regulations, even though BSE has been identified in that country.

If the banning of beef bones had resulted in the dropping of the UK beef export ban one suspects that there would have been more sympathy for it, but we have heard little to suggest that the beef on the bone regulations have had any effect. Surely, it comes down to choice. Should the consumer be given the choice or should he be nannied by the state? The best government is the one that governs the least. Surely, a bone in beef is pretty obvious and a consumer should have little difficulty in making his or her own choice.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Lowry: My Lords, I must first declare that I am very fond of oxtail. Further, my wife is very good at cooking it. Those two facts by themselves do not constitute an overwhelming argument for revoking these regulations. However, when noble Lords take those matters in conjunction with the facts and arguments in this debate, I believe they will agree that they make a very strong case. The risk to consumers is so minute that I can scarcely imagine any rational person taking that risk as being the inspiration for these regulations. Perhaps understandably, I am not able to say what inspired the regulations, but if the object was to impress governments on mainland Europe, as has been suggested, it is difficult to entertain the idea that preventing people in this country from buying and eating beef on the bone is likely to diminish or eliminate BSE in herds of cattle in this country. I support the Motion.

6 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I intervene to raise one general question about our meat hygiene regulations which has not been mentioned. There has been a thread of consensus running through the debate

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to the effect that the bulk of our meat hygiene regulations are a good thing; that, on the whole, they protect the public from food poisoning of one kind or another. Only the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, has taken the opposite view, to the effect that he would ban the meat inspectors instead because their poor standards of hygiene are now known to cause much of the food poisoning that they are supposed to prevent. Many of us would agree, not least because so many of the smaller slaughter houses have been forced to close with the result that animals have to travel much further to slaughter in larger and more slipshod premises.

My intervention is inspired by something said at a conference on venison in Scotland five years ago. A leading regional environmental health officer--no names, no pack-drill--publicly announced that food poisoning from meat had gone up by 47 per cent. in his region since the meat hygiene regulations had been introduced. He concluded that it was the regulations which had caused the poisoning. He said that the new hygiene regime was preventing the ancient organisms with which our digestive systems are familiar from entering and developing in the meat. Instead, other, more virulent organisms were doing so, against which our digestive systems had no defence, with the result that food poisoning was increasing sharply.

I hope that that is the kind of professional opinion which the new foods standards agency and Lord Justice Phillips's inquiry will examine carefully. If so, we may come nearer to knowing what the risks are in the way we treat and eat our meat instead of being forced to put up with such mind-boggling, idiotic and destructive regulations as those before us this evening.

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