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BSE (Health)

4.23 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, with the leave of the House I should like to repeat the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health in another place. Before doing so I should like to declare an interest. My husband

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manages a dairy and beef producing farm. There have been cases of BSE, but we have no share in the farm's assets. The Statement is as follows:

    "With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about the latest advice which the Government have received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee. The House will be aware that this committee which is chaired by Professor John Pattison was established in 1990 to bring together leading experts in neurology, epidemiology and microbiology to provide scientifically based advice on the implications for animal and human health of different forms of spongiform encephalopathy.

    "The committee provides independent advice to government. Its members are not government scientists; they are leading practitioners in their field and the purpose of the committee is to provide advice not simply to government, but to the whole community on the scientific questions which arise in its field. The Government have always made it clear that it is our policy to base our decisions on the scientific advice provided by the advisory committee. The committee has today agreed new advice about the implications for animal and human health of the latest scientific evidence. Copies of the committee's advice, together with a statement from the Chief Medical Officer, which is based on that advice, have been placed in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

    "The committee has considered the work being done by the Government surveillance unit in Edinburgh which specialises in Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. This work, which relates to the 10 cases of CJD which have been identified in people aged under 42, has led the committee to conclude that the unit has identified a previously unrecognised and consistent disease pattern. A review of patients' medical histories, genetic analysis, and consideration of other possible causes has failed to explain these cases adequately. There remains no scientific proof that BSE can be transmitted to man by beef, but the committee has concluded that the most likely explanation at present is that these cases are linked to exposure to BSE before the introduction of the specified bovine offal ban in 1989. Against the background of this new finding the committee has today agreed the series of recommendations which the Government are making public this afternoon.

    "The committee's recommendations fall into two parts. First, it recommends a series of measures further to reduce the risk to human and animal health associated with BSE. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be making a Statement about those measures which fall within his department's responsibilities immediately after questions on this Statement have been concluded.

    "In addition, the committee recommended that there should be urgent consideration of what further research is needed in this area and that the Health and Safety Executive and the Advisory Committee on

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    Dangerous Pathogens should urgently review their advice. The Government intend to accept all the recommendations of the advisory committee in full; they will be put into effect as soon as possible.

    "The second group of recommendations from the committee offers advice about food safety on the assumption that the further measures recommended by the committee are implemented. On that basis the committee has concluded that the risk from eating beef is now likely to be extremely small and there is no need for it to revise its advice on the safety of milk.

    "The Chief Medical Officer will be writing today to all doctors to ensure that the latest scientific evidence is drawn to their attention. In the statement by the Chief Medical Officer, which we have placed in the Vote Office, Sir Kenneth Calman poses to himself the question whether he will continue to eat beef. I quote his answer. 'I will do so as part of a varied and balanced diet. The new measures and effective enforcement of existing measures will continue to ensure that the likely risk of developing CJD is extremely small'.

    "A particular question has arisen about the possibility that children are more at risk of contracting CJD. There is at present no evidence for age sensitivity and the scientific evidence for the risks of developing CJD in those eating meat in childhood has not changed as a result of these new findings. However, parents will be concerned about implications for their children and I have asked the advisory committee to provide specific advice on this issue following its next meeting.

    "Any further measures that the committee recommends will be given the most urgent consideration. As the Government have repeatedly made clear, new scientific evidence will be communicated to the public as soon as it becomes available".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.29 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that disturbing Statement. It is an indication of the seriousness with which the Government now take the situation that there are to be two Statements this afternoon--one from the Department of Health, and one on agricultural matters to which my noble friend Lord Carter will respond.

It is unfortunate that the Government have now to tell Parliament that the possibility of a link between BSE and strains of CJD cannot be ruled out. That is after a decade of what one might describe as confident, sometimes almost dismissive, denials of all connections. I imagine that all noble Lords will remember the picture of the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Mr. Gummer, feeding hamburgers to his daughter. I wonder whether he would do that so cheerfully today.

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that at the end of February this year there were 158,277 confirmed cases of BSE in Great Britain and there are suspicions that many more have not been reported. By comparison,

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the number of cases of CJD is extremely small but the numbers have doubled in the past decade. Even someone with the most rudimentary understanding of medical statistics and epidemiology, such as myself, recognises that that kind of trend must be taken seriously. After all, cross species infection is not a figment of science fiction imagination. It is familiar and clearly recognised in conditions such as rabies contracted from infected dogs and the plague contracted from infected rats. I remind your Lordships that only last year there was a major outbreak of plague in India. Nearer to home, every year there are cases of bruscillosis caused by contact with cows who have undulant fever. The examples closest to BSE and CJD must be the human disease kuru and scrapie in infected animals. In those conditions, a serious viral illness develops slowly after exposure to infected products. Concern about the BSE/CJD link is obviously compounded by the very long incubation period before acute symptoms of human disease (CJD) may become apparent. I understand that the latent period of disease can be 10 years or more so that there may already be a large pool of people infected but not yet showing the symptoms of terminal disease.

As the Minister said in the Statement, it is only since 1989 that abattoirs have destroyed the parts of animals such as spinal cords and brains which were thought to be where the virus was most likely to be virulent if it entered the human food chain. At the end of November last year it was reported that the Minister would legislate to prevent the use of bovine vertebral column in the production of mechanically recovered meat.

Today the public needs information and reassurance. So far the BSE/CJD saga has been a public relations confusion and disaster. Facts have leaked out, scare stories have been spread, there have been scientific and medical challenges and too rapid political denials. Clear, authoritative, consistent information is important to enable people to understand and assess their own risks. It would be most helpful if the Minister could start by giving your Lordships answers to some specific questions today. If that is not possible perhaps she will give us an assurance that they will be rapidly forthcoming.

First, the Secretary of State said in the Statement which the Minister repeated that:

    "There remains no scientific proof that BSE can be transmitted to man by beef, but the Committee has concluded that the most likely explanation at present is that those cases [of CJD in younger people] are linked to exposure to BSE before the introduction of the specified bovine offal ban in 1989".
Can the Government now give specific guidance on which offal products should be avoided today? Are they soups, sausages, pies and hamburgers? Are there any food manufacturers which the Government believe are particularly risky or are there any methods of preparing food which cause additional risk?

I am glad that the Government say that specific problems related to children will be the subject of specific advice later. We obviously welcome that because the Government are aware that there is grave concern about school meals and matters of that kind.

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Secondly, given the very long incubation period of CJD, can the Government give specific information on the potential risks to people who ate the products containing offal or similar products between 1986 when BSE was diagnosed and 1989 when the abattoir regulations came into force? While we welcome the Government, through the Chief Medical Officer, today sending scientific evidence to doctors, will they also make sure that specific guidance is given to the medical profession and local health authorities about identifying the early symptoms of CJD, including professional advice on early diagnosis?

Finally, we on these Benches had hoped that the Minister would tell us that there would be an inquiry into the whole affair and that we might all learn why such official complacency has been allowed to develop in the face of reputable scientific questions over a long period. Will the noble Baroness ask her right honourable friend to initiate such an inquiry and to make certain that those findings are reported to your Lordships' House?

The Statement announces a new research initiative and we welcome that. We are glad to hear that it will take place as soon as possible. Obviously, further knowledge in this field is absolutely vital. After all, we have no reason to be complacent about the appearance and spread of new diseases. The most notorious recent example is AIDS caused by the HIV virus. That lethal virus was not even identified until the early 1980s, yet today the Department of Health describes HIV infection as the greatest new threat to public health. Now public health may well be under a new and terrible threat. In spite of the commercial difficulties to the agricultural industry, which I know my noble friend Lord Carter will wish to address, and the political embarrassment to the Government, it is public health which must now be given the highest priority.

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