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27 Jan 1998 : Column 134

5.15 p.m.

Viscount Addison: My Lords, I am somewhat saddened that the Minister is still not in his place and has missed so many speeches. Will the Minister be able to answer my questions, I wonder? I have a few interests to declare. First, I am a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Secondly, as a consumer, there is nothing better than a good joint--of beef, my Lords! Thirdly, I have farmed extensively in arable dairy and beef production in Lincolnshire and have reared many hundreds of calves.

In the 1970s, farmers like me were supported in improving our farming systems with the aid of farm capital grant schemes. With that aid I built up a herd of 250 milking Friesians. On joining the Common Market, we, the farmers of Great Britain, were asked to "produce more food from our own resources". Following Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food advice, I built another dairy unit, and by the late 1970s was milking over 500 cows. Beef were finished at varying ages, with bullocks, late finishers at 12 hundredweight, going down to London for the kosher trade, having been fed on vegetable byproducts such as stock feed potatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, pea haulm, with urea and straw as protein and fibre. Fishmeal, at that time, was going through the roof in price and compounders were looking for cheaper sources of protein. My Lords, we all know the story from there.

In last Wednesday's debate on agriculture, so ably introduced by my noble friend Lord Ferrers, there were many notable remarks made regarding BSE. The noble Lord the Minister, who is now in his place, said:


    "On health grounds it would have been irresponsible for any government to act differently and to ignore the clear advice of its Chief Medical Officer on an important public health issue".--[Official Report, 21/1/98; col. 1579.]

The fact of the matter is that we were not given the opportunity to debate the other options offered by the Chief Medical Officer, one option being to give the public the choice. Like my noble friend Lord Ferrers, I was struck dumb by the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, who said:


    "The BSE issue is not one of risk but one of confidence within Europe about our ability to act sensibly and responsibly and to move forward cautiously. The rigorous approach of the beef-on-the-bone decision was necessitated by the need to build confidence in Europe and not based on the issue of risk".--[Official Report, 21/1/98; col. 1552.]

The Minister, in responding to the debate, made only one reference to his noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone, saying that he particularly wanted to thank her for being uniquely cheerful. By this, do we presume that the noble Baroness was not incorrect in her assumptions?

This morning I pondered a choice of two ties--the one given to me by my younger daughter, emblazoned with dairy cows; or a tie covered with ostriches whose heads were buried in the sand. My Lords, the cows have it!

Returning to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, we exist to scrutinise delegated legislation. The JCSI is the only body which scrutinises all delegated legislation. It is therefore vital that every

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Instrument placed before the committee is considered carefully. We are assisted by the Speaker's Counsel from the Commons and Counsel to the Chairmen of Committees from the Lords. The committee does not have the power to question the principle of an Instrument. The committee may report an Instrument to both Houses if, for example, it is defectively drafted or requires elucidation, or makes an unexpected use of powers contained in the parent Act, or even goes beyond the provisions of the parent Act.

I am therefore grateful to my noble friends Lord Kimball and Lord Willoughby de Broke for highlighting the Beef Bones Regulations 1997 for debate today. I was very much concerned about the drafting of these regulations and would have preferred a different drafting approach. Besides the Beef Bones Regulations, there are the Specified Risk Material Regulations, the Specified Risk Material (Amendment) Regulations and the Specified Risk Material Order, a raft of complexity, all mentioned by my noble friend Lord Kimball.

In Regulation 2 of the Beef Bones Regulations 1997, a "bovine animal" is any bovine animal over six months at slaughter unless the context otherwise requires. Why do not the regulations specify exactly where the definition applies and where it does not? Bones can still be left in calves under six months, such as veal calves. Does that not itself make a mockery of the regulations? Why is it that bone is safe up to six months and then suddenly--mysteriously almost--when removed from a seven month old bovine it has to be regarded as contaminated, with inherent storage and disposal problems? That applies across the board with no exceptions.

As it stands this Instrument is a nonsense. We have all heard of the more likely risks that we face each day of our lives. We all share deep sympathy for those who have lost a loved one through disease or affliction of any kind. When I first saw the letters CJD-BSE together I thought, "Could just die--Buy something else"; "Could just die by sniffing exhausts", and so on. We could just die from so many different causes. But we must look after ourselves and make our own decisions, be democratic in our decision-making and not be nannied by the state.

I have no doubt that there will be other scares equally harshly fuelled. There is a great case for saying that British beef is best, is safe, is healthy to eat, and I support the director-general of the Meat and Livestock Commission in his promotion of British beef. The fact that nearly three-quarters of consumers would prefer to eat British beef rather than imported beef speaks volumes.

For the benefit of the consumer, however, there is a greater need to declare war on misrepresentation within the meats industry and produce clear legislation demanding clear definitions of cuts of meat and ingredients, of processed meats and meat products and their origins.

How many of us noticed the unprecedented amount of Aberdeen Angus steaks being offered during the early days of BSE? Personally, I do not believe that there

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were that many Aberdeen Angus on the hoof to provide so much steak. Then it all became "Scottish beef". How often is lamb really mutton? When is lamb really lamb? Do hamburgers contain only pork? Do beefburgers contain only beef? What is prime beef, as mentioned by certain beefburger manufacturers? It is certainly not first quality cuts of sirloin or rump.

It is vital that Instruments brought before us have been properly thought through. For example, fridges, freezers, washing machines and tumble dryers have to be classified with an energy efficiency rating so that a buyer can ascertain which manufacture and which model will give him the lowest costs in energy consumption. In itself that is fine, but new houses do not have to have double glazing. Think of the long-term waste of energy involved in extra heating bills. Again, legislation must be properly thought through. The Beef Bones Regulations 1997 have not been properly thought through. More time must be given to every aspect of the legislation.

I fear that the Government will not annul the regulations and so I must support my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke.

5.23 p.m.

Lord Grantchester: My Lords, as I have done before, I should like, first, to declare an interest in that I own a dairy herd in Cheshire. The BSE debacle has been like a recurring nightmare to the livestock industry. Each development has sapped at the public's confidence and undermined the industry's prosperity. Finally, the announcements on 20th March 1996 isolated this country's beef products from world markets.

The new Minister and his team should be congratulated on the progress that has been made since the election in restoring confidence in our industry's ability to produce safe and wholesome food. In Europe the Council of Ministers has agreed to apply stringent controls on specified risk materials, to the same standards as apply in the United Kingdom.

The prospect of a relaxation of the beef ban is in sight with the tabling of a revised export certified herds scheme and date-based export scheme. The British cattle movement service is being set up and is on course to begin work in May this year. Hygiene standards in abattoirs are being driven up by the publication of hazard assessment system (HAS) scores. The food standards agency is soon to come into being. McDonalds and Burger King--the UK's biggest burger chains--have been persuaded to return to British beef.

Indeed, farmers have given the supermarket Tesco a clean bill of health following their mission to the Republic of Ireland to check the supermarket's beef supply controls after accusations that British supermarkets were sourcing beef products, which were of an inferior quality and standard to UK produced beef. All these and many other initiatives taken by this Government are helping to bring this nightmare to an end. The focus on health issues is the hallmark of this Government's approach to the food industry. This order to ban the sale of boned beef is consistent with that approach.

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I will not reiterate the full reasoning behind this order. The findings of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) indicate that there is a risk, albeit theoretical, to human health. It was the previous government's failure to recognise that there was a problem and deal with it which put the beef industry in such a parlous state.

I applaud the Minister's bold decision to ban beef on the bone. It would have been ridiculous and irresponsible to issue a health warning about a food product and then just leave it to people to decide whether or not to eat it. Further, the political realities of persuading our European colleagues to lift the beef ban underline that we must be able to demonstrate that all steps have been taken to ensure British food is entirely safe. This is no small point.

The position on the lifting of the beef ban has been summed up best by Professor Philip James. He chairs a Brussels committee which is investigating whether the European Union should import life-saving medicines from the United States which use gelatine or tallow as binding agents. Professor James said he was struck by the almost irrational, political intensity of concern in Europe on BSE. He remarked that in these circumstances, the UK Government faced a series of almost paranoid arguments, in which they would have to prove every step of the way, that each minute detail of control was being implemented. EU inspectors' initial rejection of Northern Ireland's computer-based certified herd scheme is just such a case in point. They seem to be implying that Britain has to prove, well beyond reasonable doubt, that all its anti-BSE measures and controls have been effective.

As regards the precise details of this order, I understand from the Meat and Livestock Commission that there is concern regarding the inclusion of oxtail in the ban. Apparently none of the tissues associated with oxtail has been shown to have the BSE prion and there is no dorsal root ganglia in oxtail. I would be glad if the Minister can explain why it is included in the order. I also understand that soups, broths, stock cubes and gravy granules made from bones from animals reared outside the UK are still allowed to be consumed. I return to the point made last week in your Lordships' House during the debate on agriculture that strict controls must be applied even-handedly. Yes, the element of risk must be eliminated from all food, but BSE is not unknown outside the UK. The UK cannot compete effectively if it alone has to bear higher costs. Until the whole question of bovine material in products for human consumption, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals can be looked at, can the Minister confirm that all food products from bones, whatever their source, will be banned?

It is imperative that the scourge of BSE is eliminated from the national herd. While BSE is still present, food must be demonstrably safe. The plethora of control measures now in place is testament to that imperative. But to restore fully public confidence, we must begin to return to normality. This will, in turn, help us to get the beef ban lifted. In that regard, I should like to raise questions regarding the over thirty months, or OTM,

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scheme. This classifies, at great cost to the taxpayer, all cattle over 30 months old as waste and unfit for consumption.

Your Lordships will remember that fateful day, 20th March 1996, when trade stopped following the then Minister's statement on a link between BSE and new variant CJD. Following consultations with the supermarket trade during the days that followed, it was thought that the market would collapse if an order was to be made allowing only deboned beef to be sold for human consumption. Thus, the suggestion to ban all sales of boned beef was rejected.

Instead, the OTM scheme was born, eliminating all animals over 30 months old from the food chain. Notwithstanding that all heads, spinal columns and other parts that are collectively known as "specified risk material" are removed from all beef already, beef from animals of over 30 months is banned. There is no suggestion that beef itself carries any risk of the BSE agent. Well, we now have that ban on all boned beef. The question arises: why the continuation of the OTM scheme? Where is the risk to human health from older animals when every conceivable and theoretical risk has been eliminated?

The question is particularly relevant, as the total number of cattle killed under the scheme topped 2 million by the time of the 11th January announcement. The total cost of BSE to the nation is around £3.5 billion. Can the Minister state what is the total cost of this scheme, including cold-store storage, slaughtering and rendering, as well as compensation to the farmer? If the compensation cost to the farmer averages £500 per head of cattle--a not unreasonable assumption, since it was only recently that a lower cap was placed on the monetary value--a figure of £1 billion is arrived at for that element alone. What is the annual cost of this scheme? Can the Minister say what is the continuing need for this scheme and when it is going to end?

It is now time to examine the dismantling of the scheme, to signal the return to normality and to rebuild confidence in the United Kingdom's beef among our European neighbours. The process could begin by identifying herds with no history of BSE and which have pedigree records confirming traceability and that particular animals have not been present in any herd affected by BSE. At the very least, the rolling nature of the scheme could be halted by the announcement that animals born after 1st August 1996 will no longer be subject to its provisions. Can the Minister say what are his department's intentions? I fully support the order but does not the Minister agree that the OTM scheme should, as a consequence, be withdrawn?

The debate over this scheme must begin so that consumers can appreciate the full extent of safety procedures and have confidence in this country's livestock. This may seem ambitious, but the industry has been suffering long enough from this scourge and the cost to the Exchequer has been enormous. I have no doubt that the improvements brought about by this Government will continue, that consumers can have confidence that the safety of foodstuffs is paramount,

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and that the future of British agriculture is assured. These regulations are part of the process of restoring confidence in the British livestock industry and I urge the House to oppose the Motion.


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