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Lord Moran: My Lords, how soon will the measures to which the Government are now committed be brought in? The Minister of Agriculture said over the weekend that some of them would require under statute a period of consultation. It would be helpful to know how long it will be before those measures are in force.
I think that all noble Lords will have welcomed the immense thoroughness with which SEAC, and those it brought in for consultation, have addressed the problem. They will have paid particular attention to the conclusion that those experts did not believe that additional measures are justified at this stage. If it is decided at any future period that we need to go further and to have a slaughter policy, will the Government be clear that that slaughter policy should apply only to herds which have BSE and should not be, as has been suggested, indiscriminate, applying to herds which have never had BSE and cattle fed entirely on grass, hay and silage?
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the noble Lord asks how soon the new measures will be introduced. As I believe I said to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, we shall consult immediately; we shall consult briefly. The industry has a vested interest in seeing these measures installed as fast as possible. As soon as the necessary legislation can be brought before the House at the end of the short consultation, it will become law. I would guess--everyone involved hopes--that we are talking of a matter of weeks and no longer.
If and when a wider slaughter policy becomes necessary--as I said, the experts in this area see absolutely no justification for that at present--we would be guided by the evidence behind such a recommendation on how that slaughter policy should operate. I cannot speculate on that point at the moment.
Lord Rea: My Lords, will the noble Earl confirm or deny a report in a newspaper on Saturday that a microbiologist, Dr. Narash Harang, who is an expert on spongiform encephalopathies, working with the public health laboratory service in Newcastle, was in the process in the early 1990s of developing a test which could detect BSE in infected cattle before the disease manifested itself, and that his research was not further funded? The speculation is that the discovery of such a test would have been awkward. It would have been expensive to have slaughtered and incinerated all the cases, and potential cases, of BSE that the test would have detected.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am familiar with the work of Dr. Harang and am aware of the claims that he has made. I am also aware that no details of the tests that he has carried out have been published in peer reviewed scientific journals, which is one of the usual pathways towards validation of such tests.
The SEAC experts are also aware of the work that the doctor is carrying out. They have access to all thinking and researches in the field. MAFF is also working to develop a test to detect BSE in live cattle. There is some promising progress in that area, but it will take time to develop and to put into practice effectively in the field.
Lord Monson: My Lords, as British animal husbandry has been singled out for attack, can the noble Earl say whether we are meant seriously to believe that all beef produced on the continent of Europe is automatically safe for human consumption? As has been mentioned, a number of continental herds have suffered from BSE. Can the noble Earl confirm reports in the weekend press to the effect that one-third of Belgian cattle have been fed or injected with illegal growth hormones which pose a danger to human health?
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I cannot immediately confirm the extent to which hormones are used, legally or illegally. I can confirm that there is BSE in other countries but not to nearly the same extent as we have it in this country. In some of those other countries--for example, France--there are no specified bovine offal restrictions or controls, unlike this country.
All that lends weight to the fact that the experts reckon that beef is safe to eat as long as it has been processed subject to the regulations and controls. The only speculation in which scientists are indulging is on the possible link between offal and human diseases such as CJD, not between beef meat, beef muscle and CJD. Two pieces of common sense came out in the SEAC statement this morning, from the scientists. One was the remark that,
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, will the Minister expand on his statement that there is no evidence or no ground for thinking that failure to pay full compensation from the beginning affected the attitude of farmers? Many people, particularly those of us from areas where hill farmers are struggling to make a living, would find that statement hard to believe. If the Government feel that there is no connection between failure to pay full compensation and the desperation of farmers in those circumstances, is it likely to affect the Government's policy?
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the noble Baroness has raised that important issue again. I repeat that not only did the Select Committee in another place not find any evidence that the 50 per cent. compensation paid between 1988 and 1990 led to under-reporting; but also in retrospect we have no belief that that was the case. It is based largely on the fact that the reported figures rose each year with the 50 per cent. compensation. In February 1990, 100 per cent. compensation was introduced. That was over six years ago. The number of reported cases suddenly levelled off. Then the SBO regulations, brought in in 1989, began to take effect and since then the levels of BSE have been falling.
Lord Hamilton of Dalzell: My Lords, I was grateful for what the Minister said about taking the matter up with the European Commission. It is extremely important for our industry that we should re-establish our export markets and also prevent imports pouring in. They may well include meat which is less safe than ours in this country.
There is general agreement in this shady area that the disease was promoted by feeding animal compounds to cattle. The compounders who put animal products in the feed refused to tell the farming industry that they had done so because of commercial confidentiality in a highly competitive market. I cannot believe that, since we are in such a highly competitive market and the single market, the compounds were only fed to British cattle. Has my noble friend at his fingertips or can he discover how many compounders are international companies and what were the imports and exports of compounds during the relevant period? From that we may establish that British beef is still the best.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I feel certain that British beef is still the best. However, I do not have with me the final batch of statistics which my noble friend Lord Hamilton requested. He raised serious issues but
Baroness Seear: My Lords, can the Minister say what has happened to the price of beef in countries banning our exports? It could be profitable for them to ban our exports. I entirely agree that in normal circumstances and under normal policies it is right that experts advise and Ministers decide. However, in this matter I agree with the Secretary of State who said that the Government rely entirely on what the scientists say. The last thing I wish is for non-scientific, ignorant Ministers to make decisions without scientific backing. That also goes for unscientific, ignorant members of the media.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises two extremely good points on which noble Lords could ponder with merit. The soundbite which the noble Lord, Lord Carter, carefully built into the end of his speech about experts advising and Ministers deciding was erroneous and misleading. In such a complex area of science and knowledge, it is much better that the experts advise Ministers and tell them what they recommend be done. The consequences of erroneous policy making, with political considerations upsetting scientific recommendations, could be dangerous. To an extent, the media made a lamentable effort to look at the calm language of the chief medical officers north and south of the Border and the SEAC statements last week. One or two newspapers saw the real reassurances which came through in the statements, but for most, the opportunity to grab short headlines on a scaremongering basis was regrettable. It will have long-term consequences, unless the media desist soon.
The price of beef in other countries where British beef has been banned is a question which I cannot answer immediately. Last week I promised that I would write to the noble Baroness on a matter which she raised and I will write to her on both questions.
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