Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

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Mr. Moss: Did the Ministry oppose the proposed ban on pithing during negotiations in Brussels? Has the Ministry assessed the impact that the ban will have on the smaller UK abattoirs, which may be pushed over the edge? The ban will exacerbate the current closure programme.

Ms Quin: The pithing ban was part of a wider decision; although we thought that the ban was not justified, we believed that the overall balance of the regulation should be supported. That takes me back to a previous question on cost. Although some of the measures will impose a cost on the industry, we believe that the industry will benefit from a more level playing field; it more than counteracts the cost. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the industry was consulted on pithing. The implementation of the ban was delayed, with the support of the FSA, in order to allow some of the changes that need to be made in order to reduce stun-to-stick time.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the extra support that we have given small and medium-sized abattoirs as a result of the implementation of the Maclean report recommendations. It was certainly welcomed by the industry. The FSA's view is that alternatives to pithing are available to small abattoirs at a reasonable cost. I know that the Meat Hygiene Service and the FSA are discussing them with the small abattoirs.

Mr. Drew: I draw the Minister's attention to risk assessment. On whose advise is the categorisation from 1 to 5 chosen? Will those categories be based on historical evidence—for example, about the amount of BSE or scrapie? Will they take account of new policies—for example, the pithing ban or a ban on mechanically recovered meat?

Ms Quin: The assessment of the risk status of member states was carried out according to a methodology established by the Scientific Steering Committee in Brussels, which has been published on the internet. It explains how the various categories were arrived at. It links in to the work of the OIE—for the benefit of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), that is the Organisation Internationale des pizooties. The OIE's work has been accepted by EU member states and third countries. Member states provided dossiers of information about testing and the incidence of BSE, which were examined by a panel of independent experts from EU and non-EU countries. The Scientific Steering Committee examined information that we provided on exports of bovine material when it made its assessment of geographic risk.

We accept that the categories that have been decided on as a result of the process are fair. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) makes an important point about ensuring that new developments be fully reflected in categorisation. I understand that the Scientific Steering Committee conducts continuous monitoring to make its categorisation as up-to-date and accurate as possible.

Mr. Heath: I want to ask about dealings with countries that are not members of the European Union. One of the remarkable features of the early stages of the BSE epidemic was that a significant number of cases were reported in the Swiss Jura, yet none, apparently, in the French Jura where the cattle populations and husbandry methods are almost identical. After the establishment of a common public health regime for the European Union, is work being done on extending it by agreement to other European countries that are not members, so that we can extend the zone of confidence in Europe? I am particularly interested in including Switzerland in that, because it has a significant history of reported cases of BSE. I imagine that it would want to make common cause with the European Union as far as possible.

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The relationship with third countries varies. Countries in the European Economic Area are directly included in discussions. Switzerland is not in the European Economic Area and is therefore somewhat separate, but I know that it is keen to engage in discussions with us about the relevant issues. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, many people in Switzerland would like to be part of the wider trading arrangement.

The Swiss Government tend to follow EU measures closely, because they need to do that to facilitate trade, even though Switzerland is not in the EEA. It has similar public health protection to ours and an active surveillance and testing programme. Indeed, the figures that the hon. Gentleman quoted about the Jura reflect that. Clearly, much more testing is now being done in France than previously and more cases have been reported as a result.

The action that the hon. Gentleman is interested in is part of the role of the OIE, not the EU. That is the forum for exchange of information. Work in the OIE plays an important part in determining the attitude of the Commission and its scientific committees.

Mr. Quinn: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is worrying that the Committee has not been graced by the presence of important members of the official Opposition? Will not farmers be puzzled by their failure to participate fully in the Committee's proceedings?

Ms Quin: My hon. Friend makes a useful point. We are considering issues that are extremely important to British consumers and to our farming community, which has undergone a traumatic experience. That community expects all right hon. and hon. Members to take a keen interest in such issues.

Dr. Gibson: Has my right hon. Friend assessed other infection routes, such as vaccines using bovine material? In some cases, it is claimed that variant CJD may occur in those. Will our position in Europe cover such infection routes or only the feed of cattle?

Ms Quin: My Ministry does not cover all the issues to which my hon. Friend referred. The Health Council has considered some of them, but I have not followed them all closely. However, they are the subject of work by the Government—under the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency—and the European Commission.

Sir Robert Smith: The Minister said that the optimistic side was the levelling of the playing field. Yesterday's Financial Times contained a story about Brussels planning to reform beef subsidies in the light of the cost of the BSE crisis. What is her position on the down side, which is that we are likely to be beaten with a big stick for having been seen to initiate the BSE crisis? Will there be any levelling of the playing field, given that we met much of the costs to our industry and our country from our own coffers? Will that apply to other countries in the European Union, or will they benefit from European Union support?

Ms Quin: There are two aspects to that question. The EU supported us financially through the BSE crisis. Even with the costs mentioned by the Commission, the UK contribution would be less than what we received in support for our anti-BSE measures. I know that the industry has expressed concern about support for tackling BSE in other countries, and I understand those concerns. However, we received support from the EU. There was a national contribution, as there is or will be in other countries for some measures proposed at European level. The financial contribution into the UK is greater than the likely one from the UK. In a single market, and with a common agricultural policy, it makes sense for us to regard BSE as a European problem, and to be prepared to play our full part financially. We are seen in that light.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the measures that the Commission proposed yesterday. That is so recent that we have not yet been able to evaluate all their implications, and we want to discuss with the industry its reaction to those proposals. My initial reaction is to be reluctant to adopt measures that disadvantage our producers compared with those of other countries. The Government must always aim not to disadvantage their own economy and producers unfairly in European negotiations.

I also have reservations about alterations to schemes, for two reasons. First, they could cause producers further problems at a difficult time for the agricultural industry. That is the most powerful reason. Secondly, such alterations involve a lot of administrative work for Government Departments. Given the range of proposals that we must respond to, the hon. Gentleman will understand that my Department is under a lot of pressure. Substantial changes to schemes and programmes also involve changing IT systems and so on, so they should not be embarked upon lightly.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): The penultimate question was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) and was a medical one. The Minister's answer was interesting, but perhaps slightly evasive. Will she tell the Committee about the parameters for discussion of BSE at a national and international level? When the BSE is on the agenda, does the discussion include the possibility of alternatives? If it does not, are we not wrong about that? The last question was on financial matters, which are not entirely within the control of the Minister's Department. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) received a lengthy answer, and there was no holding back. However, the medical question, which is important, was rather shoved aside.

Ms Quin: I accept my hon. Friend's comment. The question is complex, and I hesitated over it because I felt that I could not do justice to it by replying off the top of my head. My hon. Friend asked about infection routes. Much work has been done on the routes of infectivity in cattle, because of the BSE situation, and there are, on that at least, many generally accepted views. The main route is considered to be through infected animal feed, which is why the measures taken at a European level focus on animal feed controls. What can be put into animal feed is controlled, and attempts are made to prevent any possible cross-contamination. That is why industries such as the UK pig industry were subject to controls even though there was no BSE in pigs. There was concern about cross-contamination on farms, and that somehow the contamination could lead to wider problems.

Work has also been done on the possibility of maternal transmission. Our offspring cull and offspring control measures, which are part of the over-30-months scheme in the UK, are geared at eliminating that possibility. Some of the fears of large-scale maternal transmission seem to have been allayed by the fact that there are very few cases of BSE in younger animals. The disease generally affects older animals. Each year, the average age of BSE suspects is increasing, which seems to suggest that we are eliminating the disease gradually, year on year.

A considerable amount of work has been done on infection routes. However, there are various theories about transmission, which need to be tested in research programmes. In my original answer, I told my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North that the research programmes sometimes go wider than my Ministry. However, I do not want to convey the impression that we are not interested in the results of those research programmes. Far from it.

 
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Prepared 14 February 2001