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In assessing what went wrong over BSE, and therefore what policies are needed in the future to protect consumers better, one can look, I think, at more than one level. I am concerned with the deeper level which so often gets overlooked, or if not overlooked, remains unstated for fear of being thought unfashionable or--horror of horrors in this modern age--unscientific. A columnist in The Times put it well the other day when he spoke of the importance
Now this is a difficult concept to pin down, I admit. But like many other principles in human life it is no less important for being hard to quantify. When the Soil Association, for example, took the decision in the early 1980s on no account to feed animal remains to organically reared herds, there was little science to support it. Indeed it could have been a classic case for that official, overworked and dangerous phrase, "There is no evidence to show"--in this case that cattle or humans would come to any harm. Rather, it was a decision based on common sense, on a feel for what was right and fitting in the natural order of things. This is the kind of approach that is all too often missing in our national policy-making, under the pressures of the market-place and a certain type of science. It is significant that the Soil Association reports no case of BSE among cattle born and reared organically--a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, with whose arguments I felt myself very much in tune.
Let me give an example from quite another field, but one which I think has relevance. As a reader of the medical press, I have followed some of the recent debate about enabling women to conceive at the age of 60, or even older. Two things struck me. One was the contempt shown by some of the proponents for the reasoning of those who doubted the appropriateness of this. The other was that the argument that this might be against the principles of nature was nowhere to be seen. Whatever you may think of the argument, it was clearly too disreputable to be printed in a scientific journal. And so it risks going by default.
BST is another example: the hormone given to dairy cattle, for no therapeutic reason, to increase yet further their milk. I do not mind how many scientists assure us that "there is no evidence of harm to humans"--although, in fact, they do not all agree on this. It involves to my mind a degree of exploitation of long-suffering animals which goes beyond the bounds of acceptability, and should be resisted if need be on that account alone.
In farming, as in some areas of medicine, have we lost the wisdom in our pursuit of cleverness and profits? If, as I think, we have, then we need to get it back into our policy making pretty quickly, and this will involve a reappraisal of how much scientific evidence can be expected to achieve in an uncertain world.
I ought to add that I am no enemy of science, properly conducted, and that I see no conflict between it and common sense, intuition and morality. As joint chairman of the Parliamentary Group for Alternative and Complementary Medicine, I sometimes find myself begging practitioners to conduct their practice and research in a rational, scientific way. The two approaches should surely complement each other, and we disregard either at our peril.
I believe that the neglect of those basic principles is partly responsible for the distrust which the public feels towards both science and Government. Official assurances, as we know, are no longer believed. There are other strands, of course. One is the manifest conflict of interest in a Ministry with a duty towards both farmers and public. It is hard to see how any advice from MAFF on a subject such as BSE could be seen by a nervous public as other than tainted, especially in view of the secrecy--a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston--that shrouds most official deliberations. While out of deference to time constraints I shall say no more on this, I would add my voice to those who call for an independent food agency as well as stronger consumer representation on committees such as SEAC.
This situation will not improve until the problem is tackled on a deeper level. We need wisdom as well as cleverness, sense as well as science. Only in this way will we get policies which have a real chance of ensuring food safety and protecting the interests of consumers. And in the long run, it will be best for the farming community too.
My noble friend the Minister probably knows more about the subject than I do; he has worked untiringly on BSE over recent weeks. It gives me great pleasure to tell him how much his efforts, and the support he has had from the Secretary of State for Scotland, are appreciated. On behalf of many people, I should like to offer him sincere thanks.
I can only say that I am sorry that the Ministry of Agriculture has not shared in this appreciation. I have heard the Ministry described as being like a big ship without a rudder which has been fortunate to have had various NFUs working together like tugs to keep the ship straight; and the NFUs also deserve great credit for their efforts.
I am sure that more could have been done to enlighten the British public on the real state of affairs. To enlighten the European Union Ministers, who do not want to know, might have been harder. I have spoken with an eminent vet who has been at the heart of things in Brussels. His committee has consistently told its Ministers that there is little risk, little to worry about. I know that one vet from a country which I shall not name here has had a real up and downer with his Minister.
It seems virtually certain that BSE is not transmitted by contact with infected animals. It is not transmitted genetically; indeed, it is caused only by eating infected food. Yet such information is, it seems, widely publicised. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, will take note. That is perhaps an example of how the public is not informed.
Surely it has now been found that animals which have developed the disease are mostly those known to have eaten infected food. One exception was a 27 month-old animal which developed the disease in 1993. But there seems to have been some chance that it ate pig food.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, in an excellent speech, told us that some of his cattle born in 1991 developed BSE. I wonder whether there was any possibility of access to poisoned food or even cross-contamination. If the disease comes from eating infected food only, why were feed pellets other than for cattle not banned until 4th April this year? Recently I bought pheasant feed and fortunately inquired as to what the protein consisted of. I had been supplied with pellets containing some of the meat and bonemeal which has caused so much trouble. Why was I not informed--along, I am sure, with many other buyers--of what was being sold? What would have happened if our cattle had got out and eaten some of the pellets or if we had possibly used the bags when we thought they were empty for transporting other animal feeds, as we did the previous year? We could quite easily have had BSE cross-infection. What the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said was timely.
What steps have been taken to ensure that manufacturers cleaned out their machinery before changing from one type of food to another? The proteins are sticky. Why were the first major outbreaks in 1988? Had it anything to do with the change in processing the feed following the explosion of a boiler in the premises of one manufacturer?
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moran, that food manufacturers have much to answer for. As further evidence of the trouble caused by cattle cake, there was an incident where a farmer changed from meat and bonemeal to fish meal with the result that only those of his cattle which had eaten the meat and bonemeal developed BSE. Those which had eaten fish meal showed no symptoms of mad cow disease.
Another example comes from Cumbria where a farmer died and left his herd to his two sons. The herd was divided, using alternative herd numbers. One half of the herd went to new premises. The brothers used different food mills. One brother's herd developed a bad case of BSE infection while the other had none. If one plays safe and uses 1989 as the cut-off date when meat and bonemeal were banned, then the only dangerous animals should be those of seven years and older which ate the contaminated food at some time during their
Another limitation is that 80 to 90 per cent. of all cases have been dairy animals. If we are to have a cull policy, we will have to be careful that we do not upset the milk supply. Since the ban of 1988 there has been a 70 per cent. reduction in the annual numbers of cases of BSE in the UK. In Scotland, the situation is improving by leaps and bounds, with a steady decline from 2,200 cases in 1993 to only 48 cases in the first three months of this year. There are hopes that by next year Scotland will be almost clear of the scourge. All the affected animals have been taken out of the food chain and many Scottish beef herds have never had BSE. If one has a closed herd where one's animals are all bred on the farm and the poisonous feed has not been used, there is no risk of contamination. One such large herd of Highland cattle is now in trouble as all the cold storage the farmer uses for his animals is full and he cannot move his top class beef.
What can the Government do? They can urge clearing down the intervention and allowing more meat in. They can certify meat from Scottish farm assured livestock farms where there has never been and is never likely to be BSE, such as Orkney, or other closed herds and get meat from those farms moving. Since my time is up, I had better close.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, although I have no direct involvement in the cattle industry, my brother is president-elect of the British Holstein Friesian Society, so I am glad that we are having this debate. However, I feel it is right to point out that the debate was introduced with the benefit of a great deal of hindsight, one of the few commodities that is cheaper than beef at the present time.
My brother returned on Sunday from the Epinal Agricultural Show, a major agricultural exposition which takes place near Strasbourg. There he met French, German and Dutch colleagues and, of course, he has other contacts across the world. It is quite clear that we are not discussing an exclusively British problem. BSE is international.
At Epinal, my brother's contacts were really angry at the way the subject has been handled in this country and they therefore supported the European Commission's action to ban all exports of British beef in the misguided view that that would help to protect the wider continental beef trade. Unfortunately, the Commission's action has given added credence to the possibility of a linkage between BSE and CJD, a linkage which, if there is one, is exclusively based on circumstantial evidence.
Consumer confidence has collapsed across Europe. Indeed, I saw evidence of that myself in France over Easter. Confidence will not be easy to rebuild, but removal of the export ban would certainly make a wide impression and would go some way to restoring the position. Both the Government and the NFU should have our fullest support in their work to that end--a task that ought to have been made marginally easier by the statement of Mr. Franz Fischler.
There is not time to discuss today the mechanics of BSE and CJD. Let us remind ourselves that CJD was first identified early in this century. It was not until 1980 that a Dr. Prusiner in the University of California postulated that CJD developed because of a presence of prions--a sub-viral protein, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, explained. That was regarded as heresy at the time. One point that we all need to think about is this. Science is developing all the time and as our knowledge increases so does our capacity to analyse and diagnose. There are likely to be other similar linkage cases of that type in the future. If they are all to be presented to the public in the hysterical way in which the media have presented this case, I fear for the future of science.
To return to BSE, as the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, said, BSE has probably been around for a long time. With hindsight, older cattlemen whom I know admit that they probably had BSE cases many years ago. The disease was covered by a diagnosis of "grassland staggers" and specific identification and diagnosis was only made in the last decade. Before that, diagnosis was beyond veterinary knowledge and practice. The proper diagnosis happened at about the same time as the consequences of low temperature rendering of carcasses were becoming apparent. Much of the machinery for low temperature rendering, which was in part developed in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, was not of British manufacture. It was exported world-wide. That is not to try to apportion blame elsewhere because clearly other factors come into play. But I make the point to emphasise the international nature of the wider agricultural business.
In his announcement yesterday, the Minister went a long way towards reassuring farmers that their proper concerns will be met. But there remains the wider issue of public confidence in beef. Here, curiously, we probably have an advantage over the rest of Europe. Our veterinary services are sophisticated and knowledgeable and they understand what they are looking for. The reputation of those enforcing the regulations governing procedures in abattoirs is high. I have heard complaints in the past that the reputation stands too high, but we should be grateful for that. The fact is that British beef is today probably safer than beef from any other country in the European Community, where veterinary services are less developed, supervision of abattoirs is less high and reporting by farmers is perhaps less scrupulous. Indeed, in one country BSE is referred to as the "JCB" disease, after the well-known company manufacturing hydraulic diggers.
I must be careful not to minimise our problems which are clearly more severe than those in many other countries. However, they are on the way to being properly controlled and, we hope, finally eliminated. We are in an improving situation. The passage of time is permitting saner counsels to return to this field. I am glad that there is to be no ritual slaughter to appease the wilder flights of fancy that appeared early in the crisis. A controlled slaughter policy, however, might be valid if--and only if--it can be clearly demonstrated that such a policy would reduce dramatically the number of
Lord Rea: My Lords, the House might expect me, as a doctor, also to concentrate on the scientific aspects of BSE. While medical training is based on the scientific method, in fact a doctor (or a vet) follows a vocation that is as much an art or craft as it is a science. Decisions often have to be made when the evidence is incomplete, when a pure scientist, or perhaps a lawyer, would say: "Case not proven". That is certainly true of public health or preventive medicine. BSE is a prime example. (I hope noble Lords will excuse the use of that expression; it fell from my lips before I realised.)
There are some certainties in the scientific knowledge of this disease, and a number of uncertainties; that is, hypotheses with some evidence to back them but which are as yet unproven. Some of them are very likely to be correct and some very unlikely. For example, it is very likely that the 10 cases of atypical CJD--I stress the point that they are atypical both in their age distribution and their histopathology--which sparked off the present crisis were due to the consumption of infected meat products. Noble Lords will please note that I did not say "beef".
However, it is highly unlikely that the disease can be transmitted by eating red muscle, which is what we usually understand as beef, although a hypothesis is held by a minority of microbiologists that it is possible, since muscle has peripheral nerves running through it which might conceivably carry the infective agent. So far as I am aware, no experimental animal has been infected by oral feeding of muscle extract from a BSE-affected animal.
I turn to some of the certainties which many noble Lords have already put forward. The infective agent is not destroyed by normal cooking temperatures and it does not provoke the production of antibodies. It proliferates in the brain and spinal cord of affected animals. Brain, spinal cord and a number of other tissues can carry the infection. It is transmissible to a long list of other mammals, both herbivores and carnivores, including a primate, the squirrel monkey.
The importance of that ability to cross the species barrier has been under-emphasised. Yesterday, for instance, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, who, judging by his remarks, is a cattle owner, did not seem to think that the ability of the disease to cross species was important. But there is the example of at least 70 cats that have developed a spongiform encephalopathy, which they never used to. Presumably, they picked it up from proprietary cat food, which is made from the recovered meat that is under such suspicion.
The disease has a long and variable incubation period: from two to eight years in cattle, probably longer in humans. So far, there is no test that can identify carriers of the disease in the asymptomatic period such as can be found in people who test positive for HIV but have not yet developed AIDS.
It is of critical importance that such a test be developed and followed up as soon as possible if we want to clear British beef stocks of BSE. Without it, there may have to be unnecessary culling of many thousands of healthy animals which may be part of a herd that has a higher than average incidence of BSE. As several noble Lords pointed out, it is good to read that a possible test is now being developed in California.
In this connection, I raise once again the question of Dr. Harash Narang, the very able Indian microbiologist who was working in Newcastle to develop just such a test, having previously worked on a similar test for scrapie with distinguished American scientists. Since being dropped by the Public Health Laboratory service and MAFF, he has published a valuable review article on the origin and implications of BSE. I received it only this afternoon, so have not been able to assess it fully. Is there any chance that this very able man will be able to pick up his work again for MAFF? It could be extremely important in controlling the epidemic.
There are two further hypotheses in relation to BSE which government advisers seem to have regarded, possibly unwisely, as likely and which may have led to a degree of complacency that was not justified. The first is that BSE came from the rendered offal of scrapie-infected sheep only, and that therefore its infectivity would follow the same pattern as that of scrapie. As no case of CJD in humans arising from scrapie has ever been described, as my noble friend Lord Winston pointed out, despite the fact that sheep's head or brain has been an article of human diet for many years, it may have seemed unlikely that cattle scrapie (if that is what BSE was) would prove any different. However, there is now some evidence from the United States that the disease which cattle develop when infected with scrapie is not the same as BSE; and others, including today the noble Lords, Lord Soulsby and Lord Dixon-Smith, have suggested that BSE has been present for many years in cattle at a low prevalence and was greatly augmented when bovine carcasses were recycled and fed to cattle.
Another hypothesis that may have delayed useful government action is the complete belief that vertical transmission from cow to calf was rare or never happened. The scientific answer to that is sitting under our noses at the Central Veterinary Laboratory field station at Malling, where the carefully controlled "blind" experiment awaits unravelling.
I see that I have come to the end of my time. This epidemic has been an expensive disaster and was due to government complacency and poor housekeeping over the whole period following the initial ideology-driven mistake that my noble friend Lord Richard described so well; namely, allowing the tight controls on the rendering of animal protein for cattle feedstuffs which existed until 1980 to lapse.
I agree with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Poole. The announcement that a new form of CJD had been discovered in younger people was bound to cause alarm. I cannot imagine what the reaction of the public would have been if that news had been broken through the press, without a ministerial announcement having been made. That rules out any prospect that a deal could have been patched up in Europe before breaking the news and the noble Lord, Lord Richard, is wrong to suggest that it could have been.
It came as a shock to me, and I suspect to other noble Lords as well as Members of another place, to find that the European Union had the authority to ban the export of British beef. I believe that move encouraged the panic to spread in other countries of the European Union and was therefore totally unproductive and damaging.
The Financial Times reported on 6th April that in Greece sales of beef have fallen by 60 per cent. since the Greek market inspectors seized at least 60 tonnes of British beef during raids on cold storage facilities around Athens. Greece imports only small quantities of beef from Britain but seizures of undeclared beef fuelled concerns about BSE. That has had a profound effect on the Greek economy and put its cost of living up by 0.5 per cent. from 8.3 per cent to 8.9 per cent. Sheep are being smuggled over the frontiers from Albania and Bulgaria in order to make up for the colossal rise in the price of lamb for the Easter celebrations.
It is easy to spread panic about food. We are constantly lectured by doctors, experts and, regrettably, even politicians on what we should and should not eat. We have become a nation prone to hypochondria. One could perhaps describe all the citizens of the European Union, after 50 years of peace, in the same terms as Walpole did the British nation during the long peace over which he presided; that is, as having its soul extinct but stomach well alive. It is a symptom of abundance and overabundance for which the malfunctioning of the CAP must be held responsible.
The CAP is based on the principle that, by a process of providing subsidies coupled with price controls and regulations such as quotas and set-aside, the balance of supply and demand can be controlled by government. The effect is to give European agriculture the nature of a quasi-nationalised industry. No government have ever proved themselves capable of successfully controlling the balance of supply and demand by overruling the market. I hardly need to persuade those on this side of your Lordships' House of that, given the Government's record based on that philosophy over the past 17 years.
We are currently in a phase when agricultural policy is aimed at lowering production to tackle the surpluses created in the past. We afford ourselves the luxury of thinking that the countryside, riddled as it is with experts, self-styled experts and interested bodies, is a potential theme park and the practices of farmers to be generally not in the public interest. Those people have not prevented the outbreak of BSE. It is only in that context that we can contemplate with equanimity the destruction of enormous quantities of food in Europe which scientific opinion declares to be wholesome.
Meanwhile, out of the corner of one's eye, one cannot help noticing that the world price of grain is above the European price and the mountains have all disappeared. The surpluses of yesteryear were not premeditated. Are we about to see another misjudgment? What are our responsibilities to the rest of the world, which does not enjoy the abundances of Europe?
My right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture fought hard for a settlement of this dispute among his European colleagues, and I commend him for that. But I can feel a change coming in the direction of the political wind blowing over this affair--the hurricane of the noble Lord, Lord Richard. The Minister is being forced against his will into compromises by our partners in the European Union. When the dust of battle has cleared, what will be the verdict of the press and public opinion on the Government's reaction to the outcome of a situation of such national importance over which they have had few options and virtually no control?
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I speak tonight on behalf of the consumers that I have represented for the past six years. We are all consumers; we all have a part to play in the long food chain between grower and eater.
Most of us in Britain lead urban lives and are generations away from having grown anything to eat. Most consumers have visited the country and had a picnic in a field, but have never patiently watched a crop grow or seen it fail; we have never seen a crop decimated by disease; we have not struggled through an icy night lambing; we have not seen a fox take a chicken
To feed daily our nation--now at 58 million people--is and will continue to be a risky business; it always has been. There have been famines and plagues, infections and diseases, genetic manipulation, abuse, misuse, manipulation, carelessness, vandalism and now BSE. They have all seized us by the throat in their time. So in that long, complicated food chain, with so many interventions, where do consumers look for reassurance and comfort the next time and the next time, accepting that they too have responsibility to show care, to follow instructions and to accept that life will never be risk-free?
Consumers should be able confidently to look to firm enforcement and monitoring of measures introduced for their protection. I know that their representatives will be seeking to make sure that the enforcement authorities have adequate resources to monitor and enforce both the existing and new regulations. Consumers need information, and not just from the media. The further away consumers move from the growing and preparation of food, the more nervous and panic stricken they will be in delivery of their duty of care in feeding their children and the frail and elderly, let alone themselves.
In 1989, when I was chairman of the NCC, I expressed concern to MAFF that its responsibility for production/industry interests and the balancing of consumer interests was causing anxiety. I am delighted to tell your Lordships of the response I received from the Minister of the time and his team. They have continued to work closely with the consumer, setting up liaison groups and regular meetings, and making sure that Ministers and officials, wherever possible, led the consumer movement to believe that they were sharing as much as they possibly could with them.
It is a difficult area in which to share information, and that we have heard and understand today. But better understanding and earlier consultation may be less sensational and produce less panic. This food show will run and run; we will all continue to eat. With so many organisations involved in the fragile food chain, with their own goals and pressures, I suspect that new initiatives that refocus and bring confidence to the industry and to the consumer will be a good thing to come out of this troubled time. We will then be able to say again with confidence that buying British means buying best.
The Earl of Kintore: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for enabling us to debate this important issue today. I declare an interest as a partner in a farm which has a small fold of pedigree Highland cattle.
I should like to concentrate on where we might go from here in respect of food safety and protecting the interests of consumers. I shall illustrate that by discussing how we rear our pedigree Highland cattle. We operate a closed herd, cow replacements being of our own breeding. We have to buy in our bull, either privately or at one of the society's specialist sales. The transfer of the bull will have to be reported to the Highland Cattle Society, and will be recorded in the herd book, as will any females born each year from which we will subsequently breed. Male calves are usually not recorded in the herd book unless they are of bull quality but are reported to the society at the end of the year and go on a computer record.
We feed our Highlanders on grass, and silage and straw in winter, and have never had a case of BSE. But if we did have one, we could, with the aid of the herd book and the society's computer, trace any animals and take whatever steps were necessary to eradicate a possible source of infection. I wish I could report that there had been no case of BSE in pedigree Highland cattle, but it is thought that there have been 15 cases in pure-bred and three cases in cross-bred cattle, which represents in the total herd one-tenth of 1 per cent. or 0.01 per cent. Some of the BSE infections are thought to have occurred following the feeding of infected feed to orphan calves. Highland beef is being marketed under a "guaranteed pure" label. I am sure that other pure beef breed societies will have similar schemes. The consumers of the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, have only to look at the label.
Highland cattle are slow maturing. A recent Scottish Office approved marketing development scheme produced data to indicate that of a sample of 425 pure Highland steers the average slaughter age was 36¼ months. Pure Highland cattle will therefore need exemption from the 30-month rule as, without it, the taxpayers' money will be unnecessarily spent, producers will lose about 50 per cent. of their output and the consumer will be deprived of totally wholesome beef produced specifically off grass by very high standards of husbandry. No exemption will mean a waste of money and a waste of food which I find totally abhorrent. I beg the Government to obtain exemptions.
Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for putting down this subject for debate. I declare an interest. I am an ex-dairy farmer. I sold my dairy herd a year-and-a-half ago. It was BSE free. I retained my quota, which is now untradable, so that was a very neat double and I shall not be applying for Successful Investor of 1996. I am slightly better off than many other farmers because at least I have some arable crops to grow and, I hope, live off. However, the wreckage from the BSE debacle is spread over a wide area, beyond simply the farmers themselves. There are the transport drivers, machinery dealers, vets, meat packers and feed merchants and there is also the trickle-down effect into rural communities which is quite serious.
I warmly welcome the measures announced yesterday by my noble friend Lord Lindsay. They will be equally warmly welcomed by everyone in farming and allied trades and will go a long way to reduce the difficulties of everyone who has been sucked into this rather ghastly and damaging crisis. But the fact remains that due to the so far unspecified requirements of our "partners" in Europe--here I part company from my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith--there is an element of ritual sacrifice because hundreds of thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible meat will be destroyed (in a world which still is hungry) and millions and millions of pounds of compensation will be paid by the taxpayer, by someone. It is waste piled upon waste. We still do not know whether what we are doing will be enough to satisfy our European partners. We are acting irrationally to appease irrationality without any idea of how much more irrationality will be required. Those are not my words but those of Simon Jenkins in The Times today.
The Council of Ministers has made much of the fact that the European Union will contribute 70 per cent. of the cost of the slaughter programme. When he replies, can my noble friend Lord Lucas confirm that after deducting our rebate, which is what we are told will happen, and our regular contribution to the EU budget, it is the UK which will pick up 80 per cent. of the cost of slaughter and that the 70 per cent. figure peddled by Brussels is just propaganda?
The President of the Commission and the Commissioner for Agriculture have both admitted that the ban on British beef was imposed for reasons other than that of public health and safety. The ban on our beef exports is unjustified and probably illegal, as the noble Lord, Lord Richard, was good enough to point out. I strongly support the Government's and the NFU's challenge in the courts to get the ban lifted as soon as possible.
It gives me no pleasure to put inverted commas around our "partners" in Europe. I was at school in Switzerland for many years. I studied in France and in Spain. It is not the people of Europe who are causing such resentment in this country; it is the policies. It is the policies that are being forced on us, the drive from the top to a central, monolithic Europe, which are so damaging. Many of us want something very different--a Europe which is peaceful and prosperous and has a relationship between nation states.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I have an interest to declare and I declared it yesterday. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for giving us the opportunity for the debate today. It is not surprising, after what I can only regard as the irresponsible opening remarks made by him, that we have got ourselves into a fine old pickle over what can only be described as a potential hazard which is unquantifiable and is therefore, by definition, no risk to human health.
As my noble friend Lord Lucas is aware, I sent to him a letter, which I hope he has received, containing questions of which he had prior and detailed knowledge. They were prepared by Dr. Richard North,
There is a growing belief that the epidemic of BSE--which has inexplicably struck British cattle but curiously not continental cattle, even though BSE has long been endemic in both places, and all have been fed on the same cake, with similar bonemeal--has been around for much longer than was originally assumed. Mr. Eddy, a vet from Wiltshire, drew attention to this in a letter to the Veterinary Record in 1990 and again in December of last year. Of the 13 replies he had from fellow clinicians to his original letter, 11 claimed to have recognised BSE before 1985.
As I have said, BSE, or bovine staggers, as it sometimes used to be called, has been endemic in this country for several hundred years. It jumped from endemic to epidemic in 1985, or, according to Eddy--and I believe MAFF is now sympathetic to this view--substantially earlier. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, tells me that in his youth he would refer to cattle which could be classed as having resistant manganese deficiency. But he would now recognise that as probably being BSE. Dr. North received reports of a BSE-like disease in Cumbria in the late 1970s. He has interviewed 100 vets, knackermen, farmers and similar people all over the United Kingdom, all of whom report BSE-like symptoms before 1982.
If that hypothesis is right--and it bears the hallmark of common sense--we should have seen a visible CJD epidemic by now if there had been any connection between BSE and CJD. Even if the epidemic started in 1985, and if the incubation periods are accurate--the Lancet suggests that the incubation period for the new form of CJD (if it is CJD) is five to 10 years, and that for kuru is four to five years--and there had been a spongiform encephalopathy transmittability to man, we should now be at the height of an epidemic. Even if there had not been a pre-1985 epidemic, there would still be a visible CJD epidemic now: after all, 1985 was 11 years ago. In the past six years, during which 3 million people have died, only about 300 have been CJD victims--hardly an incidence of Black Death!
Coopers & Lybrand, the Government's own accountants, has estimated that there will be 28,000 redundancies as a result of this scare. According to American research, for every 27 redundancies there will be one premature death, so by my reckoning this scare will have killed 1,000 people, more than 20 years'-worth of CJD victims.
Among the causes of the BSE epidemic seems to be cow cake residues, not necessarily sheep to cow residues, as cows provide much the greater proportion of bonemeal additive to cow cake. Incidentally, bonemeal is also present in fishmeal. But why, when the continentals fed the cow cake to their cattle has there not been a similar epidemic there; and why, if the US fed scrapie-based sheep bonemeal to their cattle, do they have no BSE? Does this not, as postulated by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, indicate a genetic predisposition of some of our cattle to BSE or some other factors?
These facts show that there may be a minute theoretical and unquantifiable hazard and thus no risk. From no risk we have seen cynical Common Market Ministers banning with protectionist zeal our meat from their tables, while at the same time subsidising poisonous tobacco exports to Albania. Her Majesty's Government's response should have been much more robust. They should have been prepared, if the EEC came up with extra legal methods of protectionism, to respond in kind. The economic consequences for great swathes of business, be they small butchers, farmers, hauliers, banks, slaughtermen and a myriad of others, has been catastrophic, this catastrophe being the consequence of behaviour reminiscent of nothing short of medieval religious hysteria. Only with a robust, commonsense rebuttal of the rubbish now being promulgated will the spectre of the hecatomb be removed and the prospect of the smoke of sacrifice rising from the Pantheon be dissipated.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Richard for tabling this Motion at this time and for his excellent speech. Over the past four years this Government have alienated most of their natural supporters. But, generally speaking, the farming community has stayed pretty loyal. I doubt that any longer. Anyone meeting some of the farmers who were here today will know how disappointed they are. That is understandable: the Government's behaviour over beef has undoubtedly undermined the confidence not only of farmers but of the people in the associated trades and professions. Can one wonder at it?
From the most tenuous of propositions, hedged around by a host of qualifications, the Government raised fears about the safety of British beef which were totally unreal and in contradiction of epidemiological evidence which apparently showed the number of cases of CJD declining when it should be rising if its cause was related to BSE. To pile disaster on calamity, we had the spectacle of Mr. Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, the weekend following the original statement, informing the nation and the farming industry that if his scientific experts recommended that all 11 million--11 million, mind you--of our cattle should be destroyed, then the Government would do it.
When I heard that, I, like many other people, was aghast. My heart went out to the farmers, their families, and all those other people who would be affected in their pockets, their businesses and their jobs. No wonder there was hysteria and panic. Such a step would not only destroy the beef industry, but the dairy industry as well and all the other industries associated with beef and milk. Ministers must learn that their job is not to be slaves to their experts but to evaluate the advice and to act for the good of the nation, taking all considerations into account. I hope that in future, bearing in mind the enormous damage that has been done on this occasion, they will resist snap answers to catch questions. Ministers should be capable of far better than that.
The measures announced yesterday were certainly useful as far as they go. The assurance that there will be no mass slaughter must be welcome. I wish to ask one or two questions about the role of the European Community. Some have been asked already and I want to elaborate on them. My noble friend Lord Richard, after some consultation with my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington, mentioned directives 1989/662 and 1990/925, which deal with intra-Community trade. It seems that the Commission has gone beyond its powers. If it has, then the ban on beef should be lifted immediately. I hope that the Government will see that it is.
As regards the advice given to the Commission, was it on the lines spelled out by the agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, that British beef was safe but that it must be banned to protect the Continental beef trade? Was that the advice given to the Commission before it made its decision? If so, would the Minister care to comment on why the two British Commissioners voted for the ban, which was not necessary on any medical, health or safety grounds, but which was likely to devastate the British beef industry and associated industries? We expect better than that from the British-nominated Commissioners. Will the Minister also confirm--this matter was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke--that the agreement by the EC to pay 70 per cent. of the compensation cost is chimerical since 75 per cent. of that sum will be deducted from the British rebate, with the other 25 per cent. coming from the remaining EU budget to which Britain contributes a net £3.5 billion a year? Will he also confirm that that means that it is the British taxpayers who will pay 85 per cent. of the total bill, not just the 30 per cent. which Ministers would have us believe?
Finally, as a result of this catastrophe, will the Government now make an urgent evaluation of the huge powers that have been handed over to the European Union and which, as we have seen, can cause such havoc to our great industries? The noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, in an opening speech which he made in a very spirited manner, said that the Government would not be bullied. Let him match his words by deeds.
Viscount Mountgarret: My Lords, several noble Lords this afternoon, not least my noble friend Lord Onslow, have commented with varying degrees of force on the way in which this matter has been handled by the Government. Indeed, it must be said that it has been handled very badly indeed. But recrimination for the
We have witnessed a rather unedifying state of affairs since my right honourable friend Stephen Dorrell uttered those magical 24 words a fortnight ago, before we all went on holiday, which caused utter panic and despair not only throughout this country but also in the European Union. We saw politicians from all sides running around like headless chickens issuing one edict after another. Every little puff fanned the flames of panic. The press has been blamed for hyping up the whole matter. To some extent--I hear the words "hear, hear"--it has to be said that the manner in which the press was fed gave it plenty of ammunition. If the whole matter had been approached in a more pragmatic and rational way, the press would not have been given the opportunity to hype it all up.
Moreover, it had to be obvious that, whatever the outcome of the discovery, it would create a national crisis which would be most important to this country, apart from any other countries. Therefore, the right approach may well have been for the Government to have invited the other parties to come together in the first instance, so that a joint approach might have been made in the interests of all--in the same way as happens in war-time, when there is a joint approach. We could have stood four square to--I do not know what to call them--the people across the Channel. That may have been done. If it was not done, then it should have been done. If it was done, then the Opposition parties are not in a very good position to criticise the Government. However, I suspect that it was not done.
One welcomes many of the aspects of the measures which were announced yesterday. But I have some concern about the payment of compensation. It must be acknowledged, whether it is fair or unfair, that many taxpayers will feel that the farming industry is already extremely well looked after. The fact that I say that does not mean that I subscribe to that view the whole way. But that will be said; make no mistake about it. We must be prepared to answer that point. Therefore, I question whether the amount of compensation being offered or that will be paid should fall entirely upon the taxpayers--the Government--before an inquiry is conducted perhaps into the errors that may have been made, not least in the feed industry itself. I do not know whether or not errors have been made. I just ask whether that point ought to be looked at, so that we can satisfy the taxpayers that we are being fair to them as well as to the farmers.
Yesterday, my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter referred to the ban on the export of beef from this country and said, quite rightly, that it was a most intolerable situation for this country to agree to be dictated to and told to whom we should sell our beef. If other countries do not want to accept our beef, that is their right and prerogative. But why should any other country who chooses to buy our beef--if I may say so, if they so choose, they would be wise--be prevented from having it by people in Brussels, who say to us, "You cannot export it"? That seems to me to be a travesty of justice.
I should like, with permission, to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, who yesterday pointed out that we are investigating--and, I hope, will carry out--an application to the appropriate courts challenging the legality of the ban. He very rightly--I trust that he will forgive me for cribbing his remarks--pointed out that such an application would take months to be heard, adjudicated upon, appealed and anything else that goes with the legal network. He suggested, and I repeat it, that serious consideration should be given to applying for an injunction against the Common Market imposing such a ban and that the matter should be held in limbo until such time as the case is properly heard.
My noble friends Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Willoughby de Broke questioned the level of slaughter. This is a cosmetic approach--cosmetic because there is no scientific evidence--in order to boost the confidence not of ourselves but of those over the Channel. We should be very careful about the indiscriminate slaughter of clean and healthy animals. The farmers will not stand for it. The vets will not stand for it. We must make sure that the slaughter is confined to herds that have cases of BSE. I hope that that will be done.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, coming so late in the batting order, I should like to associate myself with some remarks made and questions raised by several other noble Lords and particularly the speech made by my noble friend Lord Middleton.
The noble Lord, Lord Moran, in an elegant and farsighted speech, asked whether we were sure of the causes of BSE. In that respect I should like to draw the attention of my noble friend the Minister to an article in the Scottish Farmer on 30th March, which suggested that pour-on might be the cause of BSE rather than the result of cattle having eaten scrapie infested food. It seems that the pour-on treatment containing organophosphates was poured on to the backs of cattle to kill warble fly and other problems. I understand that a number of cattle farmers believe that the pattern of BSE in their herds has a correlation with their earlier organophosphate pour-ons.
I particularly associate myself with the question raised by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke as to how much the European Community will contribute to whatever compensation has to be paid. The media seem to have it written into their computers that it is at least 70 per cent. I understand that the figure is rather nearer 15 per cent.
It will come as no surprise to your Lordships if I am among those who see the behaviour of our European competitors as the most significant element of our present misfortune in this as in other matters. Indeed, even the noble Lord, Lord Richard, who is among the staunchest allies of those European competitors, was forced to wonder about the legality of what he called "the directive", which ordered the infamous ban on our beef products worldwide. The legality of this disgraceful move by the Commission must in any case be doubtful when set against the GATT, especially when we now know that Herr Fischler and co. never thought that our
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