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6.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, I feel that I have been here before. I, too, thank the noble Lords, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Kimball, for so entertainingly and pungently opening the debate. They have given us all the opportunity to raise questions, and they have given me the opportunity to answer them, on an issue which, we all know, has excited some interest, as reflected by the exhausting list of speakers today. It shows how well represented some interests are in this House, although perhaps concentrated on one side. I welcome that because it makes my life so interesting.

The issue goes much wider than Sunday lunch. Many speakers touched on the broader BSE crisis and its terrible cost, including specifics ranging from the scientific basis and the BSE/CJD link to the tragic number of farming suicides. I cannot respond to all the points made. However, looking back over a long debate, I believe that it is possible to condense my reply into half a dozen main areas of concern. Among them are the nature of the scientific advice on BSE/CJD; the nature of the health risk to consumers; the decision to ban (I shall begin with that); the so-called "nanny state" and whether the consumer decides; and enforcement. Several misunderstandings have been revealed and I shall try to deal with the main issues together with some other points that have been raised.

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The first issue is the recurring suggestion that the decision was rushed and ill-considered. That is denied by the facts. The suggestion was made by the noble Lords, Lord Willoughby de Broke and Lord Rotherwick. It was as long ago as 1st July that the Minister was advised of the initial SEAC results. By the autumn, the preliminary results were confirmed to Ministers. In late November Ministers from MAFF and the Department of Health met to consider the likely recommendations and our reaction to them. On 1st December, Dr. Cunningham reported SEAC's findings to the Prime Minister and discussed what we had been considering--that beef should be boned out. He received the Prime Minister's full support. On 3rd December, Dr. Cunningham received the final recommendations. The ministerial position had already been well considered and the Minister made his Statement to Parliament. Therefore, there was no rushed decision.

Your Lordships will be aware that SEAC reported the results from its ongoing research; that BSE infectivity had been found in the dorsal root ganglia of bovine animals and that there were indications, still being evaluated, that infectivity may also be found in bone marrow. SEAC advised that consumers should be warned of the risk and that the research findings should be published. That was done immediately. SEAC also recommended that if the Government decided that further action was necessary in order to reduce the small risk further--and the Government did so decide--either no beef with the bone should be sold from cattle over six months old or a more complex alternative should be adopted, which we rejected.

As regards the further action of de-boning, I point out that, ever since the introduction in 1989 of the ban on specified bovine offal, governments--that is we and our Conservative predecessors--have always excluded from the human food chain any tissue in which BSE infectivity has been identified. I appreciated the points made about that by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas.

The only way to ensure that that was done in the light of the new SEAC findings was to prevent bone in beef from cattle more than six months old being sold to consumers. That was one of the options SEAC recommended. We did not take the other option.

In deciding to take that further action, consistent with the actions of the previous government, we were particularly and properly influenced by the views of the Chief Medical Officer responsible for public health. I believe that the noble Viscount, Lord Addison, confused the advice of the CMO with that of SEAC. His advice was:

    "We have a responsibility to take into account new information which emerges from research, especially when it has a direct bearing on public health. This must apply even when any risk involved is very small. That is why, in our efforts to protect public health, all tissues"--

I repeat "all tissues"--

    "in which BSE infectivity has been detected have been excluded from the human food chain. Infectivity has now been detected in the dorsal root ganglia, a tissue which is not currently covered by the Specified Bovine Materials Regulations. It is, therefore, right that this tissue should be excluded as well. I would be very concerned if any tissues that have been shown to transmit BSE were knowingly allowed to remain in the human food chain".

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Therefore, our action was fully in line with previous practice and with the firm views of the Chief Medical Officer. It has always been our policy, and that of our predecessors, to act to remove tissues where infection is detected.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, the Chief Medical Officer's comments are relevant, but, surely, the number of beasts in which BSE will be present should have influenced the Government.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, that fact was clearly taken into account.

To reply to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, we are applying the principles of deep caution which she rightly asks us to apply in respect of pesticides. I fully support her in that.

Many experts on the theory of risk probability have emerged in this House. I should also tell the noble Countess that I have known of two people who have been killed by lightning--

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the noble Lord says that he supports me. Why does he not show that support by action in respect of pesticides? The Government do one thing for one problem and something else for another.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, as the noble Countess knows, I say, "Give us time".

I acknowledge important points made in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. It is true that all of us--those of us who buy lottery tickets and those of us in government--take decisions according to an assessment of risk, which is often erratic. I agree with the noble Lord that often there is no uniformity in the way in which we apply risk. Sometimes there is an insufficient statistical basis. Governments and their advisers could well read that and think about it. However, on this issue, sadly, I must disappoint noble Lords opposite by informing them that a risk analysis was carried out. An assessment of risk from possible BSE infectivity in dorsal root ganglia was carried out by an independent autonomous foundation called Det Norske Veritas. The assessment was commissioned by MAFF at SEAC's request and has been published by the company. SEAC considered the report before formulating its advice.

As regards the risks, it struck me that, in general, noble Lords opposite seemed more optimistic than Members on this side of the House. I recall the famous Hungarian saying, which my noble friend Lord Parry quoted, that the only difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist is usually better informed. We admit that the risk to consumers is small; the numbers have been pointed out. However, our scientific advice was clear. It was expanded on by my noble friend Lord Rea, who is a distinguished practising doctor. I point out to the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, that no one has recovered from CJD. We believe that risky infective tissue should be removed. Do noble Lords opposite seriously believe and advise that this

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Government, unlike our predecessors, should ignore the advice of both SEAC and the Chief Medical Officer? I cannot believe that. What confidence would the public then have in our food and in the Government's responsibility as regards protecting public health?

To fully protect public health, all material which may be BSE infective must be removed from the human food chain. That applies to dorsal root ganglia and bone marrow and thus affects all beef bones from animals over six months old. A key point is that, with BSE, the risk is hidden; and that is the answer to a number of questions.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, perhaps I may return to a point that I made in my speech. Does what the Minister has just said mean logically that if infectivity, at however low a level, were discovered in muscle--however few cattle still had BSE and were likely to enter the food chain--this Government would ban all beef from United Kingdom origins?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, that is clearly a hypothetical question and so far no infectivity has been discovered in muscle or blood. But all beef meat or bone looks exactly the same whether or not it is BSE infective. It would be impossible to identify reliably meat and meat products from BSE-free herds, whether of UK origin or imports, once it has entered the human food chain.

The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, asked why we do not exclude BSE-free herds. The food uses to which meat and bones are put are diverse. Sometimes there is no way in which consumers can know whether a food ingredient contains something which originates from beef; for example, food served in restaurants and beef origin substances included in composite ingredients used in manufactured foods. It is not possible to identify bones from one herd as opposed to another. That is very different from the Government not seeking further regulation in other areas of consumption where the risks are well known and where the risky activity or substance is clear so that individuals are able to choose whether or not to accept that risk; for example, as mentioned at Question Time, whether or not to smoke. People will know when they light up a Woodbine. But one cannot always recognise the presence or origins of beef and bones in, for example, manufactured foods. That is why we cannot leave the matter to the consumer.

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