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Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, the Statement says that:


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    It seems to me that your Lordships have been experimentally challenged orally this afternoon, in both the previous business and this.

How many years do we have to go without BSE affecting an agricultural sheep in the field before this ban--which has been described by the British Veterinary Association as ludicrous and by the President of the Federation of Vets in Europe as a remedy for a non-existent disease--is reviewed? The Government suggest that this is only a temporary measure while more investigations are made. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that it is wise to adopt a precautionary principle. But there has been no known case of this disease in sheep. How long do we have to continue with these absurd ways of dealing with the food scares that turn up from time to time?

Lastly, perhaps I may ask the noble Earl, when he is wearing another hat, on behalf of your Lordships and all his Scottish colleagues and certainly my wife and myself, whether or not we are allowed now to eat haggis.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, we should take the most important points first. I can assure the noble Lord that haggis remains absolutely safe. It has sustained the Scottish nation over many thousands of years and I suspect that it will continue to do so.

Both the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont and Lord Carter, made some very constructive points, which I welcome. Perhaps I should point out to the House as background that the concern with scrapie and the possible pathway of BSE into sheep is a European problem rather than a problem specific to any one member state. As such, we have been and will continue to be involved with consultation and discussion with our European colleagues, both at member state level--I single out France particularly in that instance--and with the Commission itself.

The precautionary principle was mentioned by those noble Lords and I agree that it is a vital principle and one that we always seek to follow. The recommendations that have come forward from SEAC have always been acted upon by the Government and promptly acted upon. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, touched very pertinently on the fact that an element of common sense is also needed. Otherwise, there is a danger that the precautionary principle will stop us getting out of bed in the morning. So moderation is needed at the same time.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked why suddenly today we have a Statement on the subject when much of the information that is coming forward today has been in the public domain for some time. That latter statement is correct. I should point out that the recommendations from SEAC have just been delivered to us, after it met as a committee on the 19th June. Also, the Dormont Committee in France, which is France's equivalent to SEAC, delivered its recommendations to Fischler at approximately the same time. That led Fischler, also on Monday at the Council of Ministers, to make a statement on the subject and to outline the kind of proposals that he would be bringing forward. So there was sufficient profile for this subject for the House of Commons in particular to

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demand some kind of Statement from my right honourable friend. I believe that it was his intention to deal with the subject in the Adjournment Debate, which has just started in the other place, but other parties there felt that something more formal was needed.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, casts some doubt on whether the commissioner himself should tell the Standing Veterinary Committee what he wanted to hear it conclude. I stress again the extent to which we are all involved in negotiating and discussing the subject. I certainly hope on behalf of the Government that the undoubted pre-eminence of SEAC in this entire field will be an influence on the European discussions.

As regards the handling of sheep today, I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and other noble Lords that almost all sheep's heads are already kept well away from the food chain when sheep go to slaughter. So in a sense we are going out to consultation to implement the SEAC recommendation that sheep's heads should be treated in the same way as specified bovine material. We are merely formalising the existing practice--the status quo.

The noble Lord also mentioned calves. My general observation on that point is that with cattle there is very often better documentation as to the exact date of birth. That is not the case at the moment with the sheep flock.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether there are any public expenditure implications in what he has said today and, if so, what are they?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, that point will become much clearer at the end of the consultation period that starts today. We shall be consulting all relevant parties. They will inform us of any expenditure implications in terms of the private sector. We shall also have to establish to what extent additional enforcement and monitoring might be involved. The pertinent fact is that, as nearly all sheep's heads are already kept out of the food chain, we are simply formalising an existing practice rather than demanding a new one.

Lord Bridges: My Lords, on this question of sheep's heads, can the noble Earl inform the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that the brains of sheep and goats which appear to die from some form of encephalopathy are monitored and analysed? Do we not need to know whether these animals die from BSE or from scrapie?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the noble Lord asks a good question. A considerable and increasing amount of research is being done both on the consequences of the laboratory experiment that proved that BSE could be artificially transmitted to sheep and indeed on the scrapie disease itself. I can reassure the noble Lord that analysis of the results indicates there is no evidence that BSE is present in any of our national sheep flock. The testing of material from sheep with scrapie, a similar disease to BSE, has failed to identify anything other than scrapie itself.

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Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, in view of the circumstantial evidence--or the lack of it--on the transmissibility of BSE to humans, causing CJD, which has resulted in the beef ban, does my noble friend agree that, on the basis of what is new and significant evidence on the transmission of BSE to sheep (even those genetically resistant to scrapie) and to mice, it is a realistic precaution to treat mutton in a similar way to beef? Does he also agree that the primary method of stopping BSE in both cattle and sheep populations in this country is the strict enforcement of the ban on the feeding of meat and bonemeal? Will he ensure that this is done effectively and that the appropriate manpower is provided for it to be so done?

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Soulsby, especially because of the background from which he asks questions on such complex subjects. He referred to the evidence which has come forward as being new and significant. I do not want to disagree wholeheartedly with him but at the same time I stress that there is no evidence of our national sheep flock becoming infected with BSE under its natural circumstances and natural feeding habits. What there is evidence of is experimentally transmitted BSE, so I believe that those riders which I add to my noble friend's remarks are perhaps more significant.

The advice of SEAC has always guided us through the encephalopathy policy areas. Given its undoubted expertise in this whole area, the number of scientists and the amount of research that the committee draws together, and given that it includes vets and veterinary scientists who come from countries other than our own, we are and will always continue to be guided by it on the best recommendations we can bring forward.

My noble friend made a good point about the proper enforcement of MBM. Although there has clearly been some leakage since the 1988 ban on including ruminant protein in ruminant feed, the fact that we largely stopped that practice in 1988 and then closed off all remaining avenues earlier this year will help us to prevent any possible problems within our sheep flock. I would point out that it was only at the end of last year that France, for instance, decided that MBM should not be included in ruminant feed.

Lord Desai: My Lords, one of the things we should have learnt is that the way scientists perceive risks is different to the way people perceive risks. Although scientists may think there is a risk, it is the way we convey that information to the people that determines how people think. It is no good saying there is a one-in-a-million risk of getting CJD because for people who eat beef every day a one-in-a-million chance becomes magnified.

One of the great problems with this particular announcement is that even saying--as the noble Lord said--that we are only formalising the status quo alarms people because they have not been made aware of that. For example, if at the minimum level this had been described as something to do with mutton rather than sheep generically, the lamb market would not have

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suffered the price shock it did. If somebody had invented the mad mutton crisis that would very likely have got lamb off the hook.

However, I am making a serious point. We are not making sufficient distinctions of this kind. More alarm is spread than is strictly necessary. The next time we have a crisis like this, will the Government please take note of the fact that there is a lot of research available on risk perception in human beings, which is different to the way scientists calculate risk? If the noble Lord wishes I can give him many references on the subject because there is an important point to be made there.


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