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5.2 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement which was made by his right honourable friend in another place. In responding to it, I should declare an interest. The farming company of which I am a shareholder and director has dairy cattle in its farming. As the Minister said, it is a serious matter. The effect on the cattle industry is obviously grave, but immediately I must agree with the remarks of my noble friend Lady Jay that public health must come first.

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If the Government have changed their view on the possibility of a link between CJD and BSE, it is serious. There must be the fullest and most open publication of all new information that the Government have on the matter. When the Minister replies, perhaps he could tell us whether there is any further information to come.

There are three immediate steps that the Government should take. First, they must ensure that cattle that have BSE are not going into our food chain. That will mean ensuring that no animals displaying the symptoms of BSE are slaughtered for food and making sure that the controls are watertight. It will also mean redoubling their efforts to establish a reliable live test for BSE. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us what is the state of play on research for establishing a live test for BSE. In that way we shall know which animals are carrying the agent before they start to display the symptoms and they can be slaughtered.

Secondly, the Government must make sure that none of the specified bovine offals and other organs that have been identified as being carriers of the BSE agent are getting into our food. The Minister had to accept last year that there had been a failure there and the control regime was tightened up. He must take an urgent look again at the efficacy of the controls.

Thirdly, the Minister must ban from human food the specified offals of calves under the age of six months. Calf brains are still allowed into our food. The House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture recommended six years ago that those offals should be banned. The ban must be brought into force forthwith.

Have the Government considered the likely effects on our beef exports? I repeat the point that I made about the importance of research into a means of identifying BSE in cattle before the symptoms appear. I refer to research mentioned in the previous Statement:

    "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 Dangerous Pathogens should urgently review their advice".
Obviously, we agree with that; but what is the situation with agricultural research and the identification of the agent in live cattle?

The Government bear a direct responsibility for what happened between 1986 and 1989. The Minister will remember that for some considerable time the Government only paid half compensation, half the market value, on the infected animals. That led to a considerable risk of infected animals entering the food chain through farmers deciding that if the animal looked a bit groggy, they would send it to the cattle market and get the full value from the market rather than half compensation from the Government.

When I put down a Question for Written Answer about the saving to public funds of that policy, which was eventually changed, I was told that it was £4 million. That is disgraceful. The Treasury saved £4 million through that policy and undoubtedly the result was that infected animals reached the food chain.

It behoves all of us to do our best not to spread panic and alarm. Equally, the public must have their confidence restored. There are two specific points on the Minister's Statement. First, he said that,

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    "the risk from eating beef is now likely to be extremely small."
I understand that a risk analysis has been carried out. How small is the risk? Can the Minister give us the figure shown by the risk analysis? Secondly, the Statement says:

    "I do not believe that this information should damage consumer confidence and thus the beef market."
If the Minister believes that, he will believe anything. The way the Government have handled the matter today, with the joint Statements and other actions, can only damage consumer confidence and the beef market. I hope that the Minister can assure the House that all government departments involved--health, agriculture and so on--will make the restoration of public confidence paramount, through the fullest and most open publication of the relevant information.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, from these Benches I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said. Public health comes before the financial welfare of the beef industry, and of that there is no question. However, a number of actions could help. The first is that we had the reassuring statement from the committee that there is no need to change its advice on milk. That is useful to the industry.

However, the Statement contains a number of points which worry me. First, there is the fact that the use of mammalian meat and bonemeal will be banned. I thought that much of the use of mammalian meat and bonemeal had been banned. What new bans will be imposed? Certainly, any products resulting from the removal of spinal cords and other parts that are thought to be a possible source of infection should be totally banned and destroyed.

Another matter on which the Minister must respond is this. If the intention is to debone all cattle over 30 months in specially licensed plants, how soon will those plants be set up? How many plants can be set up in the United Kingdom so that cattle do not have to be sent immense distances before they can be treated?

Will the Minister assure the House that the suspicion of infection relates not to the good steaks and roasts of beef that come from our cattle, but to the offal and to certain other parts? Will it be made absolutely certain that those parts cannot enter the food chain? That would reassure people. I find an indication from the Chief Medical Officer that he will continue to eat beef quite reassuring. However, there is a lot more to this matter than his confidence.

Will the Minister tell the House what is the progress of the disease in cattle? I understand that it has been falling, and falling fast. Will he give us the up-to-date figures for the reduction in BSE in the whole cattle stock in the country?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful for the interest and for the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Mackie of Benshie. Questions are being asked about today's developments and it is useful to air them here. I can assure both noble Lords, and especially the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who made this his first point, that the Government have always been,

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and will always be, open about BSE and any concerns that spring from it, such as a possible link to CJD. That has been the case for many years. We have been, and always will be, guided by the experts on this subject. We within government cannot pretend to be scientists. However, we know where the expertise is, and we shall be guided in policy by those experts.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked if there was more information to come. Indeed there is. The SEAC committee will sit very soon to consider whether further measures might be needed. It will report to Ministers as soon as it has come up with those details. In turn, Ministers will place that information in the public domain. The major research programme that is being conducted behind SEAC will also deliver information when it is ready.

Funding for research into these areas is fairly substantial. For research into CJD and BSE together it totals about £9 million; for research into BSE alone it has gone up by nearly 20 per cent., from between £5 million and £6 million to between £6 million and £7 million. Therefore, there is considerable commitment to establishing necessary answers to the questions. There are some promising findings coming forward from that research. But the speed with which they are being developed and proven to the point when they can be incorporated into policy and farming practices is slow. One of the inevitable features of this kind of research is that early findings have to be developed sufficiently before they can be translated into farm practice.

The risk analysis that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, demanded is extremely difficult. The entire SEAC committee of experts has been fielding questions by Ministers and others regarding details of risk analysis. One essential problem lies at the heart of this whole issue. We are still dealing only with theoretical risk. There is still no proven link between BSE and CJD. There is still no evidence that man can get CJD from beef. Therefore, all that the scientists have to work with is theory. It is because they see the theoretical possibility of a link that they asked us to take this action, and we are taking it. If there was evidence of a proven link, risk analysis would be very much easier.

As my noble friend Lady O'Cathain mentioned, the SBO regulations led to much tighter practices within slaughterhouses and other meat processing plants. Those came into force in 1989. Some failings have been identified, many of which were of a fairly minor kind. For instance, if all offal has to be stained, the rule is that it is stained on all sides. It was not always the case, for instance, that every side of all the offal was properly stained. However, those regulations and practices have been progressively tightened. They will be tightened considerably further after today's announcements. I remind noble Lords that the Meat Hygiene Service has the major obligation to ensure compliance. The State Veterinary Service ensures that the Meat Hygiene Service is fulfilling that obligation.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, complained about the fact that initially we offered only 50 per cent. compensation to farmers who had BSE-infected cattle.

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In fact, we have been offering them 100 per cent. for over six years now. In retrospect, we possibly unwittingly allowed a temptation to which some farmers may have succumbed. Since February 1990, that avenue has been closed to them. We pay farmers full market value compensation for BSE-infected cattle that have to be destroyed. It is also against the law for farmers not to report a BSE-infected cow to either MAFF in England or the Scottish Office in Scotland. So, quite apart from receiving full compensation, they are breaking the law if they fail to do so.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, said that the House of Commons Select Committee called for a ban on access to the brains of calves under the age of six months. I point out that if SEAC, the committee of experts, tells us that that is what we should be doing, we will do it. I am absolutely certain that the committee will continue to examine this point. It has access to the research that has been done in this respect. Calves that have been deliberately infected with BSE, even when they reach the age of 18 months, still show no infection in the brain. Therefore, by allowing the sale of calf brains up to six months, there is a 12-month safety margin. If SEAC experts tell us that the use of brains of calves under six months should also be banned and destroyed, we will act on that advice immediately.

I turn quickly to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. Public health is paramount. I hope that there is no suggestion that we have ever put the beef industry and its livelihood ahead of public health. If anyone suspects that, it is a misunderstanding. I confirm that the safety of milk is absolutely undoubted. The SEAC committee has always said that milk is safe, and today it reiterated that advice to the nation.

On the point about meat and bonemeal, since 1988 it has been banned from being fed to ruminants. The pig and poultry world was, however, still able to gain access to meat and bonemeal. Today's announcement in effect bans even its supply to the poultry and pig markets. It therefore prevents any confusion on farms where, for instance, there are different animals being tended, and prevents meat and bonemeal supplies being fed to the wrong animals.

I hope I have answered most of the questions from the two spokesmen opposite. It is important to stress that in this matter we will always be guided by the scientists. Records show that the 1989 specified bovine offal order has produced a dramatic fall in recent years in the number of BSE cases being confirmed. There are now about 250 new suspected cases across the UK being confirmed each week. That is a dramatic fall from the very high figures of 1992-93. In Scotland, the figure has dropped to less than one a day. So the measures put in place in 1989 have begun to take effect. The measures that we have added today should speed up the total elimination of BSE.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, in his original Statement, the Minister indicated what was being done

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in the case of beef created by slaughter in this country. Can the noble Earl say what steps are taken in respect of imported beef and offal?

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