Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies

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Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I welcome the opportunity to engage in this important debate, coming as it does on the cusp on an even more important debate on the Phillips report and the Government's reaction to that. I wish to make four key points on which I hope the Minister will comment. My remarks will not necessarily differ from the line of questioning of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire.

I will start with what the eminently common-sense proposition that the measures are important because they embody the precautionary principle. The Government have made it clear that that is one of their guiding principles and that is why we set up the independent Food Standards Agency. I hope that we are now examining how we could apply that principle, with the help of other member states, to a European food standards agency. Greater collaboration is required to produce policy.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the great cost associated with the growing problem of BSE on the continent. That will put a strain on the CAP budget. I am not interested only in how we compensate farmers—although that is important—but how we find moneys to extend and enhance scientific investigation. I am interested in the four categories identified by TSE research: diagnostic, epidemiological, pathogenesis and transmission. Will the Minister say how research budgets here, and in Europe as a whole, might be used, and say what is going to be spent where? We must arrive at an understanding of what we want to achieve through TSE and BSE research.

We may be entering a black hole in speculating how much this will all cost. However, I should like to know how much we are putting into the pot of money for the budget that will be used for collaborative research with our European colleagues and other member states to provide greater clarity on the causes of BSE and possible solutions to end this horrible disease.

Perceptions of whether science is the cause of the problem, or whether it will be our salvation, are also important. What do the regulations say about our attitudes to intensive farming? They may be one more way in which we are questioning intensive farming, which, many of us feel, has gone too far in the wrong direction. They may give us a clear steer about what to expect back from scientific investigation. The results of such investigation will not be purely theoretical and may suggest what we should expect from our farmers, and all concerned in the food chain, in the production of food.

What about the legalities of the issue? We have talked about how we can try to understand, control and eliminate the disease, but is there a smoking gun somewhere? Something or someone must have caused the disease. That may have implications, and not only for our nation, where people can always go to court and claim that they were innocent bystanders. We are talking about the European theatre, and some will try to lay the blame for the problem. I hope that it will not be placed on us alone because the cost implications would be colossal. We must be seen to be cleaner than clean and that is why I ask whether our procedures are correct. We do not want regulation for the sake of it, but we need better regulation—which should be less for our farmers than it is now—and to ensure that all loopholes are closed. Otherwise, it is a question of trying to protect ourselves from potential legal action over not only past events, but what happens today and even in the future.

11.50 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): This is an important debate, as well as an important prelude to tomorrow's debate. Some will simply lapse into schadenfreude about BSE in Europe. That is a deeply misplaced view, not only because of the tragedy in human, veterinary and economic terms, but because we must be aware that what happens in Europe has serious implications for our industry and what happens in this country.

Although we can issue reassuring noises in terms of the epidemiology, and the number of incidents of both BSE and new variant CJD, they are predicated on the scientific community's being right about what may be the causative agent, about the transmissibility and about the latency. If any of those factors proves to be wrong in the long term, we may be misleading both ourselves and the general public.

The same qualifications apply to the remarks of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire about testing. One can test either for the causative agent or for pre-clinical signs of the condition. Those are the only things that effectively give pre-warning of infectivity. Again, if we do not get that right, it will be difficult to establish an effective test, which means that we must maintain our vigilance on a wide front—certainly in looking for new ovine or caprine encephalopathies. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's view that scrapie might still be involved. The evidence suggested that it was not. It is dangerous to put into the public mind that scrapie might be the causative agent when all the evidence so far is to the contrary.

However, we must be aware that there may be a circular transmissibility. That brings us back to the sheep or goat population with a new encephalopathy that is related to BSE.

Mr. Moss: I did not mean to imply that scrapie was the causative agent. If that was what I seemed to say, I retract it. It is a related TSE. I meant that we are faced with a TSE in sheep. We have all been eating scrapie-infected sheep for a long time, and that has not led to humans contracting some form of TSE disease. However, BSE is now claimed to have a direct link. We need to ensure that it has not reached the sheep population.

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I had not understood the point that he was making. In fact, we are at one on the matter.

The moves to establish common standards across the European Union on the matter are desperately important. I congratulate the Ministers and those involved in the discussions on having at least reached stage 1 of a common protocol for the whole EU area. That does not mean that I am entirely satisfied with what is on the table— it could be that Ministers are not entirely satisfied with what they have achieved. The test of any public health measure is in the level of enforcement. As the hon. Gentleman said, we cannot accept a nominal adherence to protocols on the removal of specified risk material, because we may find that such material is present in imported meat. We must, therefore, be confident of the testing in home countries as well as of the procedures that we have in place to test imported meat.

I have some concerns about the proposal to categorise member states in terms of their BSE status, which the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned in an earlier intervention. Are historical patterns to be the basis for categorisation? There are doubts about some member states' assiduity in identifying and reporting encephalopathies at an early stage. I would be concerned if categorisation were based on historical information rather than on current testing regimes.

I do not understand why a lower incidence of BSE should necessarily mean a lower level of public health protection or fewer measures. I note, for example, the

    ``prohibition on the use of ruminant skull and vertebral column in the production of mechanically-recovered meat, except in those countries in the lowest category of risk.''

If we were applying the precautionary principle, we would not make that derogation. The Phillips report identified that where there is an aggregation of meat products—through meat and bonemeal or through mechanically recovered meat—just one infected animal can produce widespread infectivity. The Government accepted that as a matter of policy. The number of identified cases in a country is therefore irrelevant. One infected animal in the vat could result in widespread infection. A common level of protection throughout the European Union, irrespective of identified risk, would be better.

Mr. Drew: It would be crazy to have different categorisations in, for example, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, because many farmers farm on both sides of the border. Tracking would be impossible.

Mr. Heath: That is a case in point, and I agree. I suspect that, in the Council of Ministers, countries such as Sweden, where husbandry is very different from the intensive husbandry practised in many parts of the European Union, and where there has been little or no incidence of encephalopathies, asked, quite reasonably, why they should undertake public health measures to combat a risk that had not yet been identified. However, it is still important to maintain public confidence across the European Union, and there is a strong argument that that requires uniform measures.

I have some technical questions. What is the scientific basis for the proposals on ruminant fat and bovine blood? I am not aware that current British veterinary thinking has identified either as a centre of infectivity. If there is new evidence, we should be made aware of it.

In some areas, the Commission and the Council of Ministers seem to be moving ahead of scientific advice. That can be necessary to maintain public confidence, as the document before us suggests, but it is dangerous to substitute advice from sources outside the scientific establishment. Will the Minister explain the sentence, in the French part of page 2, that suggests that scientific advice can be insufficiently probing or exhaustive? Areas where the Commission has been tempted to replace scientific advice with its own opinion should be clearly labelled. More importantly, more scientific research should be commissioned in those subject areas.

To underlay the suggested measures, we need better co-ordination of veterinary and epidemiological advice across the European Union. In the Government's response to the Phillips report, they claim that the Veterinary Laboratories Agency has the highest number of veterinary epidemiologists working in one place anywhere in the world. If that is true, it suggests that there is not an equivalent body acting on a Europe-wide basis.

The Organisation Internationale des Epizooties, which the Minister mentioned earlier, might fulfil such a function. If so, it would be helpful to know how it does that, whether it commissions its own reports on matters of concern, and whether it collects epidemiological evidence, both veterinary and human, across the EU and in other countries where incidents of encephalopathies are believed to have occurred. We should know, for example, whether it examines matters such as the potential—because the theory is still unproved—potentiation by organophosphates, and whether that is a means of increasing the likelihood of infection, rather than being a causative agent. There should be a co-ordinated research programme across Europe on those subjects, and I am not convinced that one is in place.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith) mentioned the potential difficulties of the feed regulations. We might be able to speak about that later, but, as I said last week, there might be a financial disbenefit to our industry if an unnecessary ban on fishmeal is introduced to provide for non-cross-contamination with meat and bonemeal. There is no such cross-contamination in the UK, because of the bans that are already in place. We must work on the basis of the precautionary measures that we have already taken, rather than on an unjustifiable illusion of public safety.

I hope that we can extend the regime to other countries where there are incidents of encephalopathies and that we can have friendly relationships with them to extend the comfort zone. I would include Switzerland in that, as well as some of the applicant countries to the EU that have cross-border trade in animals and meat products. It would be reassuring to know that similar precautions were being taken in those countries.

This is an essential first step, but there are serious concerns that the package that is emerging will be expensive for British taxpayers and farmers. There is the view that we have paid for the BSE catastrophe once and do not need to do so again. I do not agree with that entirely, because it is important to have common public health measures across the EU. However, I am concerned about the effects on the EU beef regime, which is a subject for another day, and the fact that domestic consumption across Europe is dropping dramatically. International consumption of EU products is likely to follow the same path and, if so, there is a limit on how much beef can be brought into the intervention programme and how much we can extend the purchase with extraction schemes within existing budgets. I do not believe that the British farmer should pay twice for eradicating BSE on the European continent. Those are arguments for another day, but I wanted to make the point because it is desperately important for many beef farmers in this country.

12.5 pm

 
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