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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay): My Lords, this may be a convenient moment to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:
"Scrapie, a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) of sheep and goats, has been known for over 200 years. There is no evidence that it is linked to Creutzfeldt Jacob Disease (CJD) in humans. CJD occurs at approximately the same level in countries with and without scrapie.
"I have recently received advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) that BSE could, theoretically, become established in the sheep flock. It notes that in experiments (the results of which have been published) one out of six sheep experimentally challenged orally with BSE brain material succumbed to an encephalopathy; and that when their brain material was tested in mice the same strain type as BSE was found. It notes also the possibility that some sheep could have been exposed to feed contaminated with the BSE agent before the ruminant feed ban was introduced in 1988.
"The committee points out that there is no evidence of BSE occurring naturally in the sheep flock. However, the SEAC concern is, while there is no evidence to this effect, scrapie might be masking BSE in the sheep flock. On the basis of present knowledge SEAC has made three recommendations.
"First, that the Government should consider this issue further with EU partners. We have started that process. We are keeping in close contact with the French Government, whose scientific committee equivalent to SEAC has made certain recommendations on the basis of the laboratory evidence about BSE in sheep, and of concerns about scrapie. At the Agriculture Council on 22nd July Commissioner Fischler announced that the Commission intends to formulate proposals for the removal of certain offals of sheep and goats from the human and animal food chain. These proposals are to be considered initially by the Standing Veterinary Committee in early August, and then by other EU expert committees.
"SEAC's second recommendation was that the Government should give early consideration to removing the brains of sheep, whatever their source, over six months, from the food chain. The agriculture departments are today issuing for consultation a
"We intend to reach a final decision in the light of responses to this consultation and in the light of progress of EU discussion. Action on this issue at EU level would be preferable, but it is desirable that these measures are put in place promptly. There is no direct threat to human health; the action now being proposed is precautionary, to respond to what appears no more than a theoretical risk.
"SEAC's third recommendation is that further research should be done to establish the levels of scrapie occurring naturally in sheep and to investigate further the risks of BSE transmission to the UK sheep flock. We accept this. Some relevant research has already begun.
"I emphasise that these steps are being taken out of an abundance of caution. There is no direct threat to human health. With the exception of the consumption of brains, there is absolutely no reason for anybody to change their eating habits. I repeat: there is no evidence at all that in field conditions BSE has got into the national flock: but as that possibility cannot be wholly excluded we are proposing to take these precautionary measures.
Lord Carter: My Lords, the House is very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place by his right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As always, I should declare an interest as a director and shareholder in a farming company with dairy cattle.
Before we turn to the Statement, it would be helpful to the House if the Minister could bring us up to date with what is happening with the slaughter scheme and the necessary orders both as regards the cull-cow slaughter and the selective slaughter scheme. In the very helpful Ministry BSE newsletter on the 4th July it says:
I understand that orders will not now be laid until we return, presumably in the overspill. Does the timetable still hold that the Prime Minister gave when he made his Statement after the Florence summit, in which he very clearly stated the October, November and various other dates for the slaughter schemes? This is a chance for the Minister, before we rise for the Recess, to bring
What has happened? This information has been available. It was published in the Veterinary Record, I believe, on the 1st June, and it was published by the ministry in May, and then all of a sudden we have a crisis again which is affecting the sheep market substantially.
Could the Minister tell the House why there is this sudden need to produce this information now in the way in which it has been done? It was obvious that it was known in March when the first Statement was made about the BSE in cattle. Why is it now being produced in the way that it is?
Perhaps we can turn to the handling of the announcement itself. It seems that the Commission and the Government have learnt nothing. We understand that on Monday evening this week Commissioner Fischler made a statement in the Agriculture Council in which he called on the Standing Veterinary Committee to recommend that the spleen and the central nervous tissue, brains and spinal chord, be removed from sheep and goats. I emphasise that it was the commissioner who called on the Standing Veterinary Committee to recommend that. The commissioner did not specify any age limits in this regard. These issues will be considered by the Standing Veterinary Committee at the beginning of August and its discussions will include the practical implementation of sheep offal controls as well as the possibility of distinguishing between lambs and older sheep.
So there is that and there is the television news, with the Minister, Mr. Hogg, announcing--I think correctly--that there is no risk in eating sheep meat. The news reader immediately went on to say that it would be a month before the ban would be introduced at the very earliest. So what is happening to sheep that are being killed today? Are the specified offals being removed? We all know the effect on the sheep market
How much notice did the Commission give the Government of its intention to make the announcement? Was it any longer than the 30 minutes that the Government gave the Commission in March? Perhaps I may also take this opportunity to ask the Minister to bring the House up to date on what is happening with tallow, gelatine and semen? What is the news on the ban? Is there any more news? Are we any further in ensuring that the ban should be lifted?
My last point on the Statement is that the Government, correctly, have overruled the scientific advice in which SEAC spoke of removing the brains of sheep, whatever their source, over six months from the human food chain. I believe that we all think that the distinction at six months is quite absurd. How on earth does one know whether a sheep is five months and two weeks old or six months and two weeks old or whatever?
The Government said that they will be issuing for consultation a proposal that the heads of all sheep and goats be removed and destroyed in the same way as the specified bovine material. The assumption is not entirely correct. I believe it is true that the brains of calves under six months old can still enter the human food chain. I ask the Minister whether it is correct for them to go in their present direction and overrule the SEAC advice in the case of sheep's brains. Why does the same point not occur with calves' brains?
Finally, the Government and the Commission are at last working on the precautionary principle. I feel that that is absolutely correct. That is what we have learned from the whole of the BSE debacle--which is what it has been. Only recently the Minister in a public speech said that since the late 1980s the Government had the working assumption that there was no connection between BSE and CJD, and that has now been called into question. They are therefore changing their policy. The possibility of such a link was made known in the 1980s and the Government were working on the wrong working assumption in effect. If they had followed the precautionary principle then, we should not be in the mess that we are in now with cattle. At last, I believe that they are following the correct principle--the precautionary principle--in dealing with this recent matter.
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