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Lord Winston: My Lords, one of the problems to which I drew attention in the debate on 20th March was that it is difficult to assess the situation because of the lack of clinical information. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether she feels that it might be possible to publish the clinical details of the cases assessed so far, so that we in turn can assess the medical risks involved with CJD in this new outbreak.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we have a good record of publishing research through various means, not least through some of the learned journals. Indeed the Lancet in April published detailed information on the CJD cases. We are anxious that everyone should know what is going on. That is why the variant that has come to light was made public as soon as it was known. We are working with our European colleagues to ensure that that information is made known world-wide. The WHO is also co-operating with this country to ensure that all the knowledge that is gained is spread as widely as possible.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, does my noble friend agree with a theory which was produced to me only last week by an American pathologist, that the only direct clinical proof of transfer from offal to humans resulting in CJD originated in a tribe of headhunters in New Guinea?

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Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we are aware of the disease, which is called kuru. Clearly, that is one of the issues which the expert committee set up by the Government to consider BSE and CJD (SEAC) has taken into account. It is keeping a close watch on the progress of the disease because we are anxious to know all about it and that it should be contained.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is it not the case that in this age of instant gratification everybody is looking for a simple cause of the disease and that it looks as though it is extremely complex? A great deal of scientific research and a lot of patience is needed and in the meantime we must take every precaution we can to prevent it spreading. Does the Minister agree that the understanding is that it is not infectious in the terms in which we know it--bacteriological or viral--and that we must simply wait and see what the scientists produce?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, yes, I agree entirely with the noble Countess. People always want the answer and in respect of something as complicated as this it will probably take anything up to 10 years to find some definitive research results.

Lord Hayhoe: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that since the Statements made in March no evidence of any kind has come forward which would in any way modify the views expressed that there was no real risk associated with eating beef or beef products and that that remains the position today?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, my noble friend is correct. Professor Patterson, the chairman of the SEAC, has said that we believe that beef is safe in any common usage of the word and that anybody can eat beef or beef products and be safe. The situation has not changed.

The Earl of Macclesfield: My Lords, is the Minister aware of any evidence to suggest that CJD Mark II has not come from CJD Mark I in any normal way that a disease mutates?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, that is one aspect of the research that is being undertaken. There is a view from the national CJD surveillance unit that the two are similar, but whether there is a direct link is subject to research.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the evidence is that there is possibly--and some people say probably--a common cause? Although it would be correct to say that communication across them has not been proved, a similarity of origin seems to be generally accepted.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, both the variant and the original CJD are being studied by the surveillance unit. Therefore we look to it to see exactly where the links are, if there are any, and what the causes are once they are identified.

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Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, on the basis of the Minister's answers, many of them encouraging, in particular her answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hayhoe, would she say in retrospect that the public health alarm which was created after the Statements in March were somewhat exaggerated?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, yes, I believe that they certainly were exaggerated. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that this is a very rare condition. One in a million people in this country get it. Indeed, other countries which do not have BSE have the same level of incidence of CJD.

Food Safety: Responsibility

2.55 p.m.

Lord Carter asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether public health would be better protected if the safety and quality of the nation's food was the responsibility of an independent agency.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, the Government believe that food safety is of such importance that Ministers should remain directly responsible and accountable to Parliament.

Lord Carter: My Lords, is the Minister aware that his reply perfectly illustrates the Government's complacency as regards food safety? Is he further aware that in a recent survey 49 per cent. of those surveyed believed that government departments were the least trustworthy in giving impartial advice on food safety? There is now increasing support among consumers, farmers and those in the food industry for the Labour Party proposal first made in 1988 for an independent food standards agency. With all that has happened since 20th March, when will the Government accept the need for a radical overhaul of our food policy?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not believe that I recall seeing any details of the Labour Party's policy. I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, has not either and I suspect that they do not exist--

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Lucas: My Lords, what would such an independent agency be except remote from government and unaccountable? In our opinion, that is entirely unacceptable in such an importance part of government and daily life.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the noble Lord's supplementary question contained an awful warning for us all as to what might happen if a Labour Government were returned to Parliament? We would then be festooned with agencies interfering in almost every human activity.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, it is possible to interpret the Labour Party's policy as being either

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extremely dangerous or extremely woolly. If it is extremely dangerous and if applied over the past few years we would have no beef industry, no poultry or egg industry and, I am sorry to tell my noble friend, we would have no blue cheese.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, irrespective of what Labour Party policies may or may not be on this matter, the public perception is that there ought to be a division of responsibility in government for safeguarding the interests of the producers of food and safeguarding the interests of the consumers of food? Will the Government give serious consideration to that aspect?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, there is always an argument about how in practice one should divide things in government. If the noble Lord will look across the pond to the United States, which has an agency which appears in some way to be that separate agency about which the noble Lord is talking, he will see that it takes a great deal of account of the interests of the industry, as it must, because that is in the interests of consumers. For instance, the FDA is taking two years and a lot of consultation before it will ban the use of mammalian protein in ruminant feeds. It may not even come to that end. In practice, there is no difference between the way the FDA operates and the way in which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food operates in this country. We both put public safety and public health first. To our mind, the Ministry does it very well in this country.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, however unreasonable the Minister may believe it to be, is it not the case that public confidence in the present system is not as good as it might be? What do the Government propose to do to restore that confidence in the interests of all the industries concerned in this country?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I believe that the best way to restore public confidence is to act in a way which deserves it. I believe that that is what we are doing. Of course, the public are reasonably sceptical about official advice and that is not something which troubles me. I cannot see that anything which might be in the proposal made by the Labour Party would in any way increase or deserve increased consumer confidence.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, I was not discussing the Labour Party's proposals. I was discussing the present situation which the Government are supposed to be handling.

Lord Carter: My Lords, is the Minister aware that each of the proposals which the Labour Party has made since 1988 were rubbished by the Government at the time and that most of them are now government policy? On 20th March we made eight proposals which were rubbished by the Prime Minister the next day, but most of them are now government policy. Will the Minister tell the House why agencies are regarded as suitable for health and safety and environmental protection, but an agency to protect consumers from unsafe food is not?

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