Agriculture

Part of Motor Trade (Consumer Protection) Bill – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 6th February 1990.

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Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew , Carlisle 7:45 pm, 6th February 1990

I was concerned about being attacked by the Minister as a food fascist. I am sorry that he is not in his place; he must have gone off to savage one or two diplomats. Fascism is much more the creed of the Minister than of myself. When he made his famous speech on food fascism, I wonder if he was referring to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who exterminated 10 per cent. of the laying flock and created the largest food scare that we have ever known.

I might well be accused of being a food fascist, because I am concerned about Government policy on the EEC and on food poisoning. Over the last decade, food poisoning cases have increased from 10,000 to 30,000. It seems that 1990 may be a record year for food poisoning. That is the background to my speech.

There is still a problem with eggs and salmonella. There is much confusion in the industry. People do not believe that the slaughter policy is working. I am not convinced that it is working, and I have been a member of the Select Committee. However, the slaughter policy underpins confidence in British eggs. Hon. Members can say that British eggs are better than Dutch eggs: there is no doubt about that. Already, concern has been expressed about the Government's reluctance to ban the importation of eggs from parts of Europe which are contaminated by salmonella. I am thinking especially about the Dutch. There is a belief that the Government would not ban the importation of rats from Holland even if they had bubonic plague, on the grounds that everything that comes from Holland is irradiated anyway.

The German Government do not take the same attitude. The Germans are saying to us, "We understand that we cannot prove that there is a problem with bovine spongiform encephalopathy but we're not having your beef, and that's the end of it." Our Government cannot do anything about it. The Germans are probably right to take that line. They are losing nothing, but they are protecting their population—something that the British Government fail to do time after time.

It is said that BSE originated from feeding cattle with sheep offal which was contaminated with scrapie, yet we appear to be doing nothing about scrapie. That worries me. The argument is that scrapie has been known about for 200 years and that there is no link between scrapie and humans. I do not accept that. I think that some of the cases of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease could have been caused by scrapie. If BSE is transmitted to man, I think that it will only be in small numbers.

It is said that there are only 50 victims a year of the human form of BSE. That is probably an under-estimate. Some cases may not be diagnosed, but I do not think that BSE or scrapie will create a major epidemic. We should not frighten the public, but we should protect them. I asked the Minister if he would stop contaminated sheep going into the food chain. The written reply that I got today was no.

If a sheep came to the slaughterhouse suspected of having scrapie, the animal would be slaughtered and dressed in the usual way, but it would be processed apart from other animals. If inspection of the offal revealed that there was no other sign of the disease, the head would be removed and condemned but the carcase would be passed fit for human consumption. In other words, where a sheep is known to have scrapie, we cut the head off, stain it and throw it into the bin, and send the other part to the butcher.

I asked the Minister today if he would stop that exercise, and the answer was no. I ask him again to come to the Dispatch Box tonight and change his mind, because it is important that we protect our consumers, even if there is only a very slight risk, and I accept that it is only a very sight risk.

On another point—the Minister should listen to this, because his whole political career may depend upon it—if that sheep I was talking about was made into hotpot and was to be served to the Prime Minister, would the Minister allow her to eat it? I know that I would, but I am riot sympathetic to the Prime Minister. I think he had better be careful what he replies.

Coming to BSE, I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is in his place, because at the Dispatch Box recently he told the House that there was no chance of BSE-contaminated beef getting into the food chain. He said that he had belt and braces, but if my investigation of what goes on with his belt and braces is correct, the Minister's trousers will be round his ankles before much longer.

I went to a local auction mart—the Bordway at Carlisle, which is an excellent one and the largest in the country. Inspection there was carried out by the trading standards officer. It was voluntary; there was no legislation that said it had to be carried out. The county council will soon be in great difficulty because of cuts imposed by the Government, and it may not be able to continue to carry out inspection of that sort.

I looked around the largest auction mart in Britain to see if there were any notices from MAFF saying "Beware of BSE" and telling people about the problems and the penalties, because it is illegal knowingly to send BSE-contaminated cattle to market. There was not one notice in that auction mart. The managing director of the mart had rung MAFF and had been told that there were no notices to be put up in the auction mart. I therefore do not believe the Government are doing the job very well. Furthermore, the instructions that have been given to the environmental health inspectors at the abattoir contradict what is laid down by the Government as to how animals of this sort should be treated.

The thing that I find really strange is that all sorts of people say that only 50 per cent. compensation is being paid. That is not strictly true. If a farmer notifies MAFF that the beef on the farm has BSE, he will get 50 per cent.; and if BSE is found at the auction mart, he will get 50 per cent. But if an animal gets right through the system and is killed at the abattoir, 100 per cent. compensation is paid. In most cases, that 100 per cent. compensation does not go to the farmers—we have had many complaints on their behalf today—but goes to the butchers.

From the puzzled look on the Minister's face, I suspect that he is not aware of this, but it is in MAFF instructions. There is no doubt about that.

In order to protect the industry, we should give 100 per cent. compensation to everybody. We should have a policy of trying to eradicate this generation of cattle from our fields as soon as possible. The sooner we can get rid of cattle that have eaten that contaminated feed, the better. I would go so far as to say that we should have a voluntary slaughter policy. Anybody who wants to get rid of beef of that age should be allowed to do so, and should get 100 per cent. compensation. The sooner we are again able to tell Europe that we have the cleanest herd in the world the better.

There is a certain irony in our dealings with the European Community. Is it not sad that we are today debating a situation in which other countries of Europe are refusing to take our cattle, alive or dead, although it appears from EC regulations that we are to start re-exporting live horses to Europe? That is the anomaly of the EC at the present time.

I hope that Ministers will take the warning from the House tonight and get together with those concerned—farmers, MAFF and the veterinarians—and make sure that our flocks, herds, pigs and poultry are pure and clean and ready to put on the table. That is the problem at the moment: people in Europe do not trust the food produced in this country.