Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Robson of Kiddington: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place. I agree with everything that was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, about the problem now facing us. I find most disconcerting the fact that the committee, when it considered the research work done at Edinburgh by the Government's surveillance unit relating to 10 cases of CJD which have been identified in people under the age of 42, recognises that this is a new strain of the disease and that the causes remain to be explained adequately. The committee states that those cases are likely to have been contracted before the 1989 ban. It states "likely" and there is no justification for that statement.

I, too, wish to ask the Minister some questions. The Minister in reading the Statement stated:


Until one minute before the Minister rose to address your Lordships I was hoping to obtain the Chief Medical Officer's advice. I have not yet been able to do so. Perhaps, therefore, we shall be asking unnecessary questions because we have not had the opportunity to read his suggestions.

20 Mar 1996 : Column 1301

In relation in particular to the investigation in Edinburgh of the 42 cases, I am worried about the statement that those people must have been infected before 1989. That gives me no sense of security. The increase in the number of cases is worrying because in 1994 there were 55 new cases of CJD, which is 13 more than in 1993. The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, pointed out that the incubation period is long. I am told by medical friends that it is even longer than 10 years and can be 20 years.

The other self-satisfying part of the Statement is that the committee offers advice about food safety. On the basis that the new measures it is recommending are implemented, it concludes that the risk from eating beef is likely to be extremely small. The statement, "The risk is extremely small" has continually been made by the Government. It is not a new statement.

The other disturbing question is whether children are at greater risk than adults. They must inevitably be at greater risk when we think about the time lag of incubation. I am pretty old. If I ate some infected beef today, the odds are that I would be dead before I developed CJD. But young children who eat it will have many years before them during which they could run the risk of developing the disease. Surely parents will be most disturbed about the findings when they are reported in the press tomorrow.

I believe that the last part of the Statement is tragic. I refer to the part where the Minister mentioned the implications for children and parents and said that the advisory committee had been asked,


    "to provide specific advice on the issue following its next meeting".
I have no idea when the committee's next meeting will take place. But, in the meantime, parents will be most concerned. In many ways we are discussing an interim report. What will happen in the meantime? Will the Chief Medical Officer, whose advice I have not seen, be making recommendations to local authorities on what to do about schools? Alternatively, are we going to allow local authorities to decide the matter, which means that some of them will serve beef in schools while others will decide not to do so?

Whatever we decide to do, the policy should have universal coverage. Moreover, what about health authorities and hospitals; and, above all, the general public? Many questions are raised in the Statement. It seems to me that, during the interim period before the new advice will be available, the disturbance among the general public will be very great.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, I should like, first, to reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. I really resent the comment that the Government are being complacent on the issue. We have always taken the matter most seriously since the disease was first discovered. The noble Baroness will know that we set up two scientific bodies in 1990 to safeguard public health--namely, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee and the National CJD Surveillance Unit. Both bodies have reported consistently to us; we have published reports; and we have tried to be as open as we possibly can on the issue. Of course, when one is open with the public, there will be some controversy.

20 Mar 1996 : Column 1302

We know that research is not static and that it is always on the road to discovery. As new elements are discovered they are a subject of discussion.

The noble Baroness asked me about particular foods and what was and was not safe to eat. The best that I can do is to quote from the statement made by the Chief Medical Officer. I should like to apologise to your Lordships in that respect, and particularly to the noble Baroness. As she knows, I was in the Printed Paper Office trying to get that particular document released. I shall look into the matter and ascertain why that did not happen.

The message is consistent. There remains no scientific evidence that BSE can be transmitted to man by beef. In his statement, the Chief Medical Officer says that meat or meat products on the shelf or in carcass form do not need to be removed or destroyed. He goes on to say that there is nothing in the committee's advice to change the current advice on the safety of milk. As I quoted when repeating the Statement, perhaps one of the most testing questions is to ask the Chief Medical Officer whether he will continue himself to eat beef. As I quoted, he said that he,


    "will do so as part of a varied and balanced diet".

The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, asked specifically about children. At present there is no evidence for age sensitivity. The scientific evidence for the risks of developing CJD in those eating meat in childhood has not changed as a result of the new findings. However, as the Chief Medical Officer says in his advice to us, parents will be concerned about the implications for their children. That is why the advisory committee has been asked to provide specific advice on the issue.

The noble Baroness also asked when the committee would be meeting and when people would receive the advice. The committee is meeting over the weekend, so we expect that advice to be available very soon. The noble Baroness asked about the incubation period. From the advice that we have, we believe that it is between five and 15 years.

The message is consistent. The noble Baroness seemed disappointed that, again, we are saying that the risks are very small. However, it is a consistent message. The reason for bringing it to your Lordships today is that there has been a discovery in that there are 10 cases which we believe are a different variant of the disease. In our spirit of openness, we wanted to make your Lordships aware of that fact.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to clear up what for me at any rate was not clear from the Statement. Can she say whether, as of now, the Government are advising parents and school caterers not to include beef or any other specific commodity in the diet of those for whom they are responsible? My noble friend indicated that there was an element of doubt, but is she aware that most parents are not prepared to risk doubtful commodities in the diet of their children? I suggest that it is up to the Government to indicate whether they

20 Mar 1996 : Column 1303

would advise responsible parents and responsible headmasters not to include beef or any other article in the diet of those for whom they are responsible?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the Government do not wish to advise the general public in any way differently from the current advice; namely, that we advise schools that they should continue to serve beef for school meals. However, because an element of doubt is creeping in, we have asked the advisory committee to consider the matter. As I said, the committee will be doing so over the weekend. We expect further advice very shortly.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister answer the rest of my question about parents?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, of course I understand the concern of parents. However, it would be totally wrong for the Government to issue some contrary advice--that is, advice that they do not give at present--without the scientific evidence to support it. We are searching for that evidence. As I said, we shall be advised very shortly. That advice will, of course, be given to parents.

Lord Winston: My Lords, with the greatest of respect, I do not want to say that the Government are necessarily being complacent but, for several reasons, this strikes us as being a very complacent Statement. BSE and CJD are both puzzling disorders which are caused by a prion which is a curious particulate protein disorganisation which is not fully understood and, therefore, not easily traced in the usual way by looking, as one would, at other infections caused by viruses or bacteria.

However, one of the crucial questions--in fact, there are a number of questions which I believe are begged in the Statement--is that we need to know much more about the pattern of disease in the 10 cases which have just been reported. The highly significant fact is that they are under the age of 42. I believe that I am right in saying that CJD classically occurs in one or two per million of the population. It occurs mostly in older people, usually over the age of 60. What led us to recognise that the administration of growth hormone carried the disease to young children and what led scientists to recognise that there was a different disease was its sudden presentation between 10 and 20 years later in much younger people in their 30s and 40s.

The real question that we have to ask the Minister is: can she tell us whether or not the pattern of disease that has now been reported in Edinburgh is the pattern of disease seen in classic CJD, or is it the pattern of disease seen after the injection of growth hormone? Alternatively, are we seeing a new pattern of disease with a different kind of presentation and a different onset of dementia? If we are, I can tell your Lordships that we have a real problem. That is the essential issue. The problem is that the Statement does not give us information that we need.

20 Mar 1996 : Column 1304

There are a number of matters that we need to know from the Minister. Have these patients had flu jabs? Have they been exposed to bovine serum albumen? Have they been exposed to hormones such as FSH or other exogenous proteins? We need the publication of the scientific evidence because that is how we shall judge whether or not it is a serious issue or a trivial one completely unconnected with offal or beef.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page