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The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, both within UK regulations and European regulations there are extremely strict rules applying to all food products imported into this country. Although there is some incidence of BSE in other countries--Ireland, France and Switzerland spring to mind--in fact the extent to which this BSE has taken hold is very small indeed. I can assure my noble friend that the meat and other hygiene conditions which apply to all food products coming into the country are sufficiently tight, and the public buying imported beef can be reassured by that.
Baroness Seear: My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether the bone meal he spoke of is the same as the bonemeal that we throw on the garden to boost our vegetables? If so, could the disease get into them?
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement. Perhaps I may pick up one matter that was raised in the Statement and ask some questions about a point that has not so far been mentioned this afternoon.
The Chief Medical Officer's statement said that he would continue to eat beef. We need to beware of statements from people in what I might call high positions. We remember that the chief executive of Yorkshire Water said that he had not had a bath and it transpired that he had gone over the border and had a bath with friends and relations. That was not available to the population of Bradford. The Chief Medical Officer said that he will eat beef. Is he to continue to eat British beef or will he eat imported beef that may not be available to the rest of the British population?
I have two more serious questions, if I may put it that way. A large number of people in this country derive immense personal reassurance and a degree of assistance in leading their lives from their pets. Cases have been reported in the media of domestic cats that have succumbed to a disease similar to CJD and BSE. At this point, I suddenly remember that I must declare an interest because in my family we have two cats.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, neither the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, nor the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, should feel disturbed by the Chief Medical Officer broadcasting his decision to continue to eat beef. My informal understanding is that members of SEAC, who have been researching this topic in a more expert fashion than any others, are also of the opinion that beef remains a crucial part of a varied and balanced diet. They are very aware that it is only a theoretical risk.
The Chief Medical Officer and others also know that the existing measures have already produced dramatic results in the decline of BSE, that the risk is extremely small and that the new measures, in addition to the existing measures, make an extremely small risk yet smaller.
When people in public life and such positions whose habits are subject to scrutiny decide to eat beef, they do so quite deliberately on the scientific information that is available to them. With regard to pets, the SEAC remit is without any restraint whatever. Wherever BSE exists or any of the concerns that spring from it, SEAC is able to investigate. I know that the pet food industry and pets generally are an area covered by SEAC which it will continue to look into.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, the noble Earl referred to the work of the Meat Hygiene Service. In the Statement of his right honourable friend, there was reference to existing controls being even more vigorously enforced. That is reassuring, except that many of us would have assumed that the controls had been vigorously enforced for a substantial period of time. Can he say what specifically will change as a result of the Statement? Will more staff be employed, for instance, by the Meat Hygiene Service to make quite sure that the existing controls are fully implemented in slaughterhouses.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, instructions have already gone out to the Meat Hygiene Service and the State Veterinary Service today that compliance with every control that has been in place since 1989, including the regulations from 1995, for instance, which tighten the 1989 regulations, must be absolutely and rigorously enforced.
Secondly, more continuous visible inspection is required at crucial moments in the slaughtering process, especially when a carcass is split, which involves the backbone potentially coming into close contact with open meat that could then be sold at a later date. We fully recognise that the Meat Hygiene Service must put in more hours in order to perform that duty. We shall fund the additional workload that we impose upon them.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, I am absolutely convinced that my noble friend the Minister is right and that the risk is only theoretical. Otherwise, why would scientists say that? The effect on public confidence has been huge as has the effect on the standing of our farming in international circles. The epidemic of BSE has been here for 10 years. In 1967 there was a frightful epidemic of foot and mouth disease in our national herd. That was stamped out by burning all the diseased cattle.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I sympathise with the concern and frustration expressed by my noble friend. All BSE infected animals are destroyed and burned in incinerators. There is no chance of parts of such an animal entering the food chain in any way whatever. There is a danger, if we burn animals that do not have confirmed infectivity, that we begin to burn animals which do not suffer from BSE but from some other ailment.
Baroness O'Cathain: My Lords, my point is that, so far as I remember, in 1967 over two million cattle were destroyed because of foot and mouth disease. That got rid of the disease absolutely. We are speaking currently of around 167,000 cattle. I should have thought that the risk of burning animals that were not infected should be set against the advantage of ridding the country of BSE.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I understand the point that my noble friend made. As I said, the farmer who has a BSE-infected animal must report that animal. He will be paid full compensation for it. There is no incentive whatever for the farmer to keep that animal on his farm.
As I said before, the incidence of BSE is dropping quite fast. The total number of cases of BSE, which is just under 160,000, is the total number of cases recorded over a 10-year period. In fact, in 1995 the incidence of BSE was 40 per cent. lower than in 1994 and the numbers in 1994 were significantly lower than in 1993. On the graph, the line is extremely sharp in its downward curve.
My noble friend mentioned the issue of public confidence, which is vital. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, rather mocked me for my hope that public confidence would survive this incident. I know that there was a large and healthy degree of optimism in the Statement from my right honourable friend. However, one would hope that, because we are dealing with a theoretical risk of a connection between bovine offal and CJD where there is still no firm evidence of it, responsible scrutiny within the public domain and responsible reporting by the media will minimise the impact which will undoubtedly be felt. If we can minimise that impact and speed recovery back to normal beef-buying patterns, we will be doing everyone a favour.
Lord Winston: My Lords, I apologise that inexperience led me to be on my feet too long last time and I promise to be brief this time. I accept completely that part of the reason we have this problem is that we have such good public health surveillance and control in this country. That is to the credit of the Government and I want to make that point.
Perhaps the Minister can give me an assurance--nobody wants to damage our excellent beef industry--that there will be a continued search to make certain that no other exogenous proteins are involved in connection with the disease in those patients. For example, in medical research we use bovine serum albumen, derived
The search into all aspects of BSE and its theoretical link to CJD will continue with increasing funds being made available and therefore increasing research projects and jobs. SEAC will remain in a strategic position to gather in research and indicate where the research is needed. SEAC tells us what we must hear; we do not tell SEAC what we do and do not want to hear. I can therefore reassure the noble Lord that all areas, including those he mentioned, will be considered by SEAC as part of the research projects.
The noble Lord mentioned various special uses of bovine materials in the medical profession. I know that vaccines are completely safe and have been for some years. We anticipated that there may have been public anxiety in that regard. Both myself and my noble friend the Minister for Health made sure that we were equipped to reassure people that SEAC is absolutely certain that everything from gelatine and stock cubes to vaccines and cat gut are safe; that safety is not compromised in the making of any of those products. They are all composed from BSE-free sources or, in the case of gelatine, its production is such that any BSE infection is unable to survive.
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