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Lord Jopling: My Lords, the noble Lord the Minister has described the action of the Belgian Government and the manufacturer concerned as regrettable. Will he not speak a little more plainly? Would it not be more accurate to say that their behaviour has been outrageous, devious and probably
Returning to the question which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, asked about the levels of dioxin, can the Minister tell the House exactly what testing is being carried out in relation to suspect food in shops, warehouses and catering establishments? Can he also tell us how many of those tests have shown unacceptable levels of dioxins? More important, over the weeks and months ahead, as the tests which he described as taking some time are conducted, will he ensure that, as in previous cases, the results of the tests and the source of the material tested are made fully public? That will ensure that we all know precisely what levels of dioxin have been found in food imported into this country which was originally sourced in Belgium.
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I was happy to accept the noble Lord's description of the Belgian situation, but I felt that it was more appropriate that I did not say it myself. The noble Lord asked about compensation. It is very early days. This has hit us only recently but I can assure the noble Lord that we will do everything we can to protect and compensate the British interest. It would presumably be more appropriate to do that through the European channels. I spent last week in France and I can assure the noble Lord that the French were extremely agitated about this matter. We will not be alone in that.
The noble Lord asked about the tests. I am not aware of us as yet having sufficient tests that would give an indication of unacceptable levels. But I will write to the noble Lord about the test situation and then tell him what the position is on publishing the results. In terms of risk, our advice is that there is very little danger to humans, although there is to animals such as guinea pigs. There is little danger to humans from low-level exposure over a short period. Our evidence is that the danger is from high-level exposure over a long period. Our advice is that it is unlikely that there will be human damage from this incident, given the efforts that have been made and are being made to identify all products sourced from Belgium and to remove them and have them eliminated.
Lord Kennet: My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend two questions. First, what proof, if any, is there in the allegations that we have seen in our own press that the dioxin got into the chicken feed because some manufacturer or salesman of chicken food was putting used machine oil in the mixture? My second question concerns the issue of scientific evidence in these decisions in general. Is this not rather a good example of what happens when a government take the absence of evidence of harm to be the proof of absence of harm? I gather that two Belgian Ministers were involved. The two months of delay seem to have been spent worrying about whether there was sufficient evidence to worry. Does my noble friend not agree that
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, my noble friend asked about the use of machine oil. I have not seen, and I do not know whether there exists at the moment, definitive proof of what was the cause. But we are aware that that is a report of what was the cause. On my noble friend's second point, I agree with him that the absence of evidence of harm does not prove the absence of harm. I think that we do worry at once and that is why we act on the precautionary principle in general. That must be correct. We have of course acted on the precautionary principle in relation to beef on the bone.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, the Minister has told the House this afternoon that two emergency food hazard orders have been issued and that dioxin levels may be up to 100 times greater than that which he would find acceptable. Yet he has also told the House that there is no public health risk. Does he not agree that this will lead to confusion in the minds of many consumers? Would it not be helpful to the House and to the public, learning from experiences with BSE, if all the scientific information which was made available to the department in coming to that conclusion was made public and laid in the Library of your Lordships' House? Does he not further agree that the resignation of the Belgian food Minister, after trying to suppress the details of this scandal for so long, demonstrates yet again the need to separate consumer interests from those of the agricultural industry? Far too often--this is a lesson not just for the Belgian government but for all European governments--the watchdog is too closely identified with the burglar.
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, perhaps I may say in response to the noble Lord that I did not categorically state that there was no public health risk. I said that our advice was that it was unlikely that humans would suffer damage from this incident. But because we act on the precautionary principle, because we cannot be absolutely sure, because public health comes first, we have taken the steps that we have taken just in case it could be worse or more serious. The noble Lord asked about the publication of evidence. I have no reason to believe that that would not be published. If it is not published, no doubt the noble Lord will ask again and I shall do my best to get him the information. Whether the Belgian Minister resigned because, as the noble Lord said, he tried to suppress the evidence, I am not sure. I do not know that that has been proven. He resigned because in the event the delay was clearly unacceptable. But there are times when the evidence is not entirely convincing and the advice and opinions move in different ways. So I do not know that one can say that he resigned because he tried to suppress the evidence.
The noble Lord's final point was about burglars and whether governments are too close to producers and not close enough to the health of consumers. I believe that to have been the case in the past. One of the main endeavours of the new government has been to try to
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, if contaminants from this Belgian animal feed stuff can be passed through to eggs, milk and milk products, could not genetically modified ingredients in animal feed also find their way into eggs, milk and milk products? Might not sustained exposure be potentially damaging to humans over a long period?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I am not aware that there is a meaningful comparison between genetically modified ingredients and these ingredients. There is a difference. Dioxins are proven to damage health. This level in consumed chicken, although I have stated that our advice is that it is not believed to be a serious threat, can be damaging over the long term. It is carcinogenic and may affect other aspects of health. There is as yet no evidence that GM ingredients have any such effect.
Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, the Government have clearly acted with commendable dispatch and will maintain concern for British interests. However, my noble friend will be aware that many British citizens work in Brussels--in the EU, NATO and the WEU. Have the Government taken action on their behalf and have the Belgian administration offered any promises or indemnities in the event of any of those individuals suffering disadvantage or a serious condition?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to express concern for British citizens in Belgium as the Belgian Government now show concern for their own citizens. As to what can be done by way of indemnities and so forth, it is very early days, but I assure my noble friend that we shall do whatever is necessary--as we already have--to protect the interests of British subjects here and in Belgium.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, for myself I am satisfied that the Government have acted both rapidly and correctly to safeguard human health in this country. However, there is a wider dimension to this. The Government have repeatedly told us that the European Union is not a federated state, nor do they intend that it should become so. Quite clearly, the Governments of the United States and Canada have taken action in respect of these products on the basis that the European Union is a federated state and in their eyes we are all tarred with the Belgian brush (if I may put it that way). Therefore, what is the Ministry of Agriculture and, more importantly, the Foreign Office, which has a great part to play in this particular matter, seeking to do to correct this mistaken impression on the part of our allies?
Lord Donoughue: My Lords, first I thank the noble Lord for his generous words about the action taken by the Government. As to others viewing the EU as a federated state, I am not sure that that is precisely so.
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