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Lord Lucas: My Lords, one of the few pleasures of opposition is to be on this side of the House in a BSE debate. I do not envy the Minister his position. I have no interests to declare. I have spent most of my life avoiding farming, which occupied my father, brother and cousins extensively. Presumably that is why I was chosen to have Front Bench responsibility for agriculture, and the Minister will know how that goes.
I share the risk assessment of nvCJD put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Rea. We clearly do not know the mechanisms, but we know enough to make it sensible to act as if there were a link and to base all our policy on the idea that there is a link between BSE and nvCJD. It is imperative that we see an early and conclusive end to the BSE epidemic as it has involved enormous costs for the UK, and farmers in particular. Any action to eliminate the risk of a continuation of the epidemic must be justified, even at low likelihoods of continuing infection.
If the Government were able to say that that is why they are introducing this beef bones ban I should give them my full support, but there is no truth in that at all. There is no way in which beef bones in a butcher shop or in someone's kitchen will get back into the cattle herd and produce continuing infection. That is not a risk.
We are dealing with something that is supposed to exist just to protect consumers, but, as has been said so eloquently by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke, we are dealing with a risk of one in a billion, which does not appear on anyone's scale of ordinary risks to be taken notice of and avoided. We are dealing with a regulation which is just a bit of flannel for the EU. It is a regulation which is unenforceable and which will not be enforced. It is a regulation which is intended not to be enforced. It is a sad day when we look at such legislation: we are, as it were, seeking to beat the Europeans at their own game of failing to enforce regulations. That is not the right way to go.
I return to my first comment. It is important that we ensure that there is no continuation of the epidemic in this country. I noted in the newspaper yesterday that there have been 12 cases of BSE in cattle imported into this country, principally from France and Belgium. That is more cases than those two countries have themselves declared, as I remember. It is extraordinary that we just happened to import the ones that were infected.
The risk for us is that those cattle will bring back BSE into the system when we have reached the point that only three cattle with that disease are likely to reach the human food chain in this country this year. That is an extraordinary improvement on the worst stages of the epidemic. Our tracking system must be in place to ensure that if a cow goes down with BSE, we know whether it has been imported and from where it has come so that we can demonstrate that our national herd
When we were in Government, with this epidemic we regularly found ourselves walking into the slurry pit. Whether that was due to us not noticing that it was there, or whether it was never pointed out to us that it was there, is a question which I shall leave to the Minister. I am sure that he is aware of the danger: we may not have looked at all of the ways in which infection may continue in the national herd.
I have been having a debate with the Minister. I am grateful for his reply yesterday to the effect that calves are still allowed to drink their mother's blood. One is allowed to put cow's blood into milk replacer for calves. We know that calves are much more likely to pick up the infection than adult cows. If there is some material which will come from cows to calves it will be that, because MBM is banned. It is extraordinary that we continue to accept that risk.
We have gone as far as banning all pig products in pig feed, although we have never demonstrated the existence of BSE in those animals. However, we are allowing that element of feedback among cattle. Might not other lacunae exist in our defences? Will it not be ridiculous to discover that one or two animals born this year or last suddenly develop BSE, putting back the whole eradication programme for six years? That would be another six years of slaughtering our old dairy cattle at the cost of £1 billion a year. That is unthinkable. Surely, a proper examination of the remaining risks is required. Would not that be an issue for Lord Justice Phillips to incorporate in his studies?
I turn to the subject of the debate. It is wonderful that we have reduced the risk of contracting nvCJD to one in a billion. Generally, food risks are much higher than that. As the Government have recently stated, fresh meat should generally be treated as though it were infected. Many samples of fresh meat will contain salmonella or E.coli. The Government's arguments about restaurants are ridiculous. The additional risk that would be posed if every restaurant in the land used beef bones is so small in relation to the volume of food poisoning and other risks associated with restaurants as to be insignificant. There is no argument for trying to protect the public against a risk which they do not know exists, even if it were one hundred times the supposed level.
When we discover better methods of detecting the prion proteins which are at the heart of the problem, what will happen when we follow on the work that is already being undertaken into the reproduction of prion protein in muscles? Let us suppose that it is established that there are low levels of prion in ordinary meat and that there is a one in 10 billion chance of contracting nvCJD if you happen to eat a steak. Would that cause the Government to ban the entire beef industry, which would be the only way of avoiding the risk? Would they close down the entire beef industry for a one in 10 billion risk? I hope that they would not. If they would not, why are they trying to avoid this one in a billion risk related to beef on the bone, which is only 5 per cent. of the beef that is eaten? I do not understand the Government's logic in going down that road.
I hope that they will not seek to impose that logic on the food safety standards agency when it is set up. Do they intend to impose the one in a billion risk on all food-related risks? If so, we will see a doubling or trebling of the price of every single meat product. Is that the Government's intention? Do they not believe that the correct way of dealing with such risks is by supplying information and allowing individuals to make their own decisions? If we achieve nothing else from the debate, I shall be delighted to have the Minister's reaffirmation that common sense will prevail when dealing with other risk-related food.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am most grateful for the opportunity to debate the beef bone regulations. I have no interest to declare. My ambition is to cover my farm with combinable crops and I find two dogs and two children quite enough to handle. I admire those who are seriously in the cattle business.
The sorry saga of BSE rolls on. I have yet to find anything creditable in the story. It will be interesting to see what the Government's committee of inquiry under Lord Justice Phillips comes up with. It will find the same problems. What is certain is that the subject continues to inflict damage not only on cattlemen but also on reputations. As others have said and as I have found, no one, except for one or two Members opposite, supports the Government in this matter.
How far the BSE crisis has influenced the suicide rate in farming, which is currently about 50 farmers a year--that is almost one a week--we will probably never know. However, it is likely that suicide as a result of the BSE crisis accounts for more deaths than the new CJD. I accept that the strongly suspected link between BSE and CJD is the reason for the crisis. The question of whether the link can be absolutely proved to exist may continue for a long time. That is because of the long incubation period of the disease and also the long time required for the passing of each generation of both cattle and humans. We cannot accelerate that process.
However, it is certain that if it were not for a suspected link, the handling of the BSE crisis would have been different. It is probable that we would not have had the enormous expenditure on the present cull and the epidemic would have been allowed to run a more natural course. I accept the need for the cattle industry to get rid of the disease, but we do not need the accelerated panic.
With that in mind, it is not unreasonable to suggest that each nvCJD fatality has cost the Exchequer between £160 million and £170 million. That figure is the result of dividing the cost of the BSE eradication programme by the number of nvCJD fatalities. I may be accused of abusing statistics, but, to anyone involved in human health, that is a remarkable figure to play with.
The regulations we are debating prevent the retail sale of beef on the bone because those undertaking research on BSE have discovered the disease in two new parts of the beef carcass. Naturally, given the suspected link, that is cause for anxiety. The relevant committee, having considered matters carefully, duly contacted the
Be that as it may, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke--perhaps I may be forgiven the pun--covered the bones of the report extremely well. We understand that there might be one additional case of nvCJD as a result of recently acquired knowledge. To that can be added the possibility of cases already in incubation for which we will pay the annual cost of the over-30-months slaughter scheme. The life insurance industry and the courts, which are used to assessing the value of a life--it may be grisly, but they are--would be shocked by any suggestion that that is a sensible valuation. In a perverse way, I am pleased that the cost is so high because at least it is a strong indication of the relatively small number of cases of nvCJD.
The standing advisory committee on encephalopathy recommended that its findings, based on risk assessment, be made public. It said that the Government might consider two further actions: a soft option to remove all bones from carcasses of animals slaughtered over the age of 24 months; or, a harder option, to remove all bones from carcasses of those slaughtered over the age of six months. But the wording is instructive:
I raise one separate issue. It is a small but important point of detail. I declare an interest as it affects my culinary wishes. I spoke to a Mr. John Brewster of Smithfield Market, one of the senior market people, who is very puzzled as to why oxtail has been included in the regulations. As all noble Lords will know, oxtail is an extension of the base of the spine but it begins way beyond the point where the spinal cord ceases. Therefore, there is no chance of there being dorsal root ganglia in the tail.
Paradoxically, too, the centre of the oxtail bone does not consist of marrow but of a form of light gristle. So there is no marrow in the oxtail either. We have a situation therefore in which the regulations ban a perfectly palatable aspect of the beef carcass from the market when there is no possibility of there being any infected material in it.
I must assume that the Minister will argue that the new regulations are necessary if the European Community ban on British beef exports is to be lifted. That may or may not be so. But I ask him to bear in mind in his negotiations over the water that the German and continental meat markets were collapsing rapidly before the beef crisis broke. The BSE crisis gave the mainland an excuse, for that is what it was, to ban a large volume of competing meat. The German market has made a less good recovery than ours. It is still in its
There is one final point I should like to introduce which arises from an article I read in the Financial Times today. The European Commission seems to be having to alter its attitude towards the whole question of BSE. It is in trouble with the United States because it has not given meat from that country the same BSE risk assessment--if the matter can be expressed in that way--as it has beef from Australia and New Zealand. If that is so and the European Commission is having to look at the issue in relation to the risk of BSE from other countries, it gives the lie to the fact that it is an exclusively British problem, a fact which farmers and others have tried to make on many occasions but one which falls on singularly deaf ears when one crosses the Channel. I await the outcome of the debate with great interest.
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