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Lord Stodart of Leaston: My Lords, can my noble friend say whether it is true that, as has been suggested, exemptions could be made on a regional basis? Is there any possibility of that idea being taken up, particularly for the part of the country for which he is personally responsible?
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, despite the obvious incentive for an agriculture Minister from Scotland to seek an exemption for Scotland, there is no basis on which we can logically hope to claim a regional exemption at the moment. Both the farming industry and we ourselves realise, as is confirmed by veterinary scientists, that the incidence and pattern of BSE in Scotland are such that we cannot convincingly defend a regional exemption.
What we can hope to achieve through more specific exemptions, such as those based on specific herds, is that a wide area of Scotland can become exempt. If we approach exemption on those criteria, we can defend it to our critics; we can defend it to those in the media who might perhaps seek to debunk any part of the UK seeking exemption. There is a strong basis on which we can defend such an action. The farming unions have looked very closely at that, and we are as one on the subject.
Lord Monson: My Lords, will the Minister agree that, unlike many on the Continent, British consumers are to be commended for not being hysterical hypochondriacs in this matter, given that beef sales here are only 20 per cent. down as compared with 50 per cent. in many parts of the Continent?
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I commend British consumers for being so resolute in the face of the hysteria that has swept through some areas. Much of our beef market is up to 85 per cent. of pre-crisis levels. We welcome back the Wimpy burger chain--although we do not feel that it should have left in the first place. Its return to buying British beef is a welcome move. As the noble Lord said, there are other domestic markets in Europe which are suffering losses at the moment in excess of 50 per cent. of their usual domestic beef purchase levels.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, we agree with the noble Lord that the labelling of feedstuffs is absolutely vital, as indeed are the constituents. We therefore expect the labelling to indicate to the farmer what is in the product that he purchases for his animals.
Lord Hughes: My Lords, I hope the Government manage to get a speedy decision from the Court, particularly as regards the worldwide ban. On first examination that seems to go far beyond any power that the Union could have. There is much criticism of the action taken by the European Union. However, we must remember that this disease has prevailed for nearly 10 years in large numbers of cattle in this country. We can hardly say that Europe acted terribly precipitately when it put the ban into operation. That does not mean that I differ in any way from the views of the Government in trying to get the ban lifted as soon as possible.
My noble friend Lord Carter spoke about the number of animals that had been born infected during a period when it was assumed that there was no feeding of the wrong material. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, mentioned two possibilities. He suggested that the disease could be passed from mother to calf; he also suggested contagion as a possibility. Do the Government accept those as possibilities? If so, what examination is being undertaken of that aspect of the matter?
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am grateful that the noble Lord, given where he sits in the House, is prepared to condemn the worldwide element of the European ban. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, and myself have now been through six or seven Statements. I keep waiting for the noble Lord, the Opposition spokesman on agriculture in this House, to deplore or condemn the ban in the same way as his noble colleague did.
Lord Carter: My Lords, in a debate in this House on 17th April, my noble friend Lord Richard and I pointed out that, under the directive, the ban was illegal. We pressed the Government to take action. It is no good condemning it. We must take the matter to court because the decision is illegal.
The second point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, related to the possibility of horizontal/vertical transmission, as the two pathways named by scientists, either between mothers and calves or between cattle in the same area. There is no evidence of either pathway. There is no evidence of the genetic transfer of BSE, nor indeed of contagious transfer.
Lord Hughes: My Lords, I do not like, "There is no evidence". After all, it was always said that "there was no evidence" that the disease could be passed from cattle to human beings; yet that is now obviously being
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, we have spent millions of pounds searching for evidence; but it is the consensus of all the scientists involved in the research--through SEAC and the research centres that are employed for BSE research--that that is not the route. They have been able to find no evidence--nor indeed to manufacture any--in their efforts to prove that as a possible pathway. They are all as certain as scientists can be that it is through the feed that BSE has been transmitted and not through genetic or contagious transmission.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a very good point. We know that it is not only the safest beef in the world but probably the best quality beef in the world. We are therefore at a loss to understand why the Europeans, without a shred of evidence, decided that it should be banned, not only from the Continent but from all world markets.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will not mind my asking him why he stated so strongly that there was no evidence of the possibility of genetic transmission or transmission by proximity when a statement from the Scottish Office indicated that "there was no evidence to the contrary". In other words, it could not be ruled out.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I meant exactly what I said. I assure the noble Lord that there is no evidence of vertical transmission of BSE from a mother to a calf. My understanding of the research is that the scientists not only seek to identify evidence where cases are known to be occurring, but also seek to manufacture such a pathway: they see whether they can infect a calf through infecting the mother. There is a very energetic search to eliminate that as a possible pathway. They have been unable to establish any proof that that is the pathway. They have, however, assured themselves that the most likely route, and the most likely explanation, is that BSE is spread through SBOs getting into feed.
Lord Kilbracken: My Lords, will the Minister explain how the particular age of 30 months came to be chosen? Why is it applied to all cattle? Is it not extremely heavy-handed to use the same age, irrespective of the breed, sex and type of the cattle involved?
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, the 30-month definition was chosen because SEAC, which represents the greatest body of expertise on the subject, suggested on 20th March that all beef from cattle over 30 months of age should be deboned. Shortly thereafter the farming unions, different parts of the processing industry and retail groups lobbied as one voice that, were we to take
The Earl of Kintore: My Lords, is the Minister aware how grateful owners of slow maturing cattle will be to hear what he just said and that the Government are consulting on exemptions for slow maturing cattle? I hope that there will be a good scheme up and running as soon as possible.