Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:42 pm on 21st May 1990.

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Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party 8:42 pm, 21st May 1990

I should like to make progress, moving away from that incidental issue and commenting on what Ministers should do.

The Government have consistently refused calls by the National Farmers Union and others, including me, to label foodstuffs. They are still refusing, although the European Community may force compliance to some degree by 1992, but even then there is no requirement to state the percentage of ingredients. Given what appears to have happened because of the inclusion of offal, it is understandable that farmers should feel strongly about what they are being given to feed their livestock—feeding stuffs about which they have no knowledge and over which they have no control. In an article in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday, the Gloucestershire trading standards officer said: We probably carry out more tests on feeding stuffs than any other county and we find more errors with them than with anything else we check. We find something wrong in about 1 in 8 samples. On a national scale it indicates a big problem. In one sample of calf food, we found string, buttons from overalls and little lumps of metal. Apart from those farmers who grow food for their cows, farmers could not be sure of what was going into the feeding stuffs. I have received letters however from farmers pointing out that not all had fed this stuff to their animals, and whose livestock are not therefore at risk. While specified offals have been banned from feedstuffs for cows, a problem remains for farmers in respect of other species, such as pigs. The Minister may say that the risk is acceptable but farmers may nevertheless prefer not to take it, and they cannot be altogether sure what they are feeding to their animals.

We tabled an amendment to the Food Safety Bill to require the labelling of animal feedstuffs and the banning of the inclusion of potentially hazardous contents in feedstuffs for all species. That is not unreasonable. I am told that it is perfectly possible to achieve that using modern computer techniques; certainly, the NFU believes that it is possible. I hope that the Minister will use the opportunity presented by the concern over BSE to act on that amendment. I do not understand why he will not. Such an amendment would greatly reassure both consumers and industry, so I hope that he will reconsider.

We must also consider the use of suspect offals at all in feedstuffs for pigs and poultry. The Government say that they have not had scientific advice to the effect that that should be banned. I accept that, but there is no doubt that it would reassure customers and the industry—which has expressed its concern, I am sure, to other hon. Members as well as myself—if those specified offals were banned. That would give us a cast-iron guarantee. The scientific advice is that there is no evidence that there is a risk, but we must remember that we were originally told that the disease could not be transferred to other species such as cats. But that now appears to have happened. Such a move would make sense in terms of the current public concern. If we are to help the industry and protect the consumer, we should try to meet those concerns.

As recently as 14 May, Ministers refused to give a cast-iron guarantee that pigs and poultry could not be affected. In a written answer on 28 March, the Minister listed eight research projects dealing with this very matter. The fact that there are eight research projects does not necessarily point to a definite risk, but it suggests that scientists and the Minister believe that the matter is worthy of further investigation. If that is so, to reassure the public, we should play safe and ban the use of specified offal in feedstuffs for all species.

We must also consider pet food. Two, or perhaps three, cats appear to have been infected with a feline version of the disease. Yet on 29 March the Minister said in the Standing Committee considering the Food Safety Bill that there was no evidence of naturally occurring spongiform encephalopathy in cats and dogs. He therefore proposed to do nothing. In response to the amendment that I had tabled to ban the use of specified offal in pet foods, the Minister said: I do not want to get into the position where I as a politician, go into a crazy panic over pet food, when all the evidence is against there being any risk whatever of the disease jumping species to cats and dogs. I could ban the pet food for no good reason and the scientists could a year later say that I was wrong—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 29 March 1990; c. 125.] That was fair enough. But, unfortunately for the Minister, only a month or two later, people are telling him, "You got it wrong; you should have banned the use of specified offals in pet food." In other words, he would have done better to play safe, as I argued at the time, and that option is still open to him.

Before the present difficulties arose, and while the Food Safety Bill was in Committee, I wrote to the pet food manufacturers to ask whether they were operating the voluntary ban of which we had been told. They responded to the effect that they were. Some 5 per cent. of the pet food manufacturers are not covered by the manufacturers' association, but given that the manufacturers say that they are operating a voluntary ban—indeed, they argued that they were operating it before the present ban was introduced in respect of food for human consumption—why do not the Government close the loophole and make illegal the use of specified offals in pet food? We know that a problem has arisen. Why do we not take the action which manufacturers appear to accept—but which as yet we have no guarantee that they are implementing? The Minister said earlier that the manufacturers had been warned that they should watch developments in respect of cats and dogs. It therefore surprises me that when I raised the matter in Committee the Government said that there was no evidence whatever to suggest that they should take such action. That does not seem to make sense.

We then have to deal with the protection of cattle. The Minister has consistently refused to accept that there is any justification for slaughtering the offspring of BSE-infected cattle. When I asked him about it on 15 March, he replied: We have no plans to do so.—[Official Report, 15 March 1990; Vol. 169, c. 324.] Tonight he has told us why he made that decision. He cited the Tyrrell report. I accept that Tyrrell did not recommend that the offspring of BSE-infected cattle should be slaughtered. But the report said: Infection from cow to calf is a possibility that cannot be excluded at present. On Report, I tabled an amendment to the Food Safety Bill that would ensure that farmers were fully compensated for the slaughter of those calves. I do not necessarily argue that we should go that far. I listened with interest to what the Minister said, and he may be right. I do not claim to have the necessary expertise to say one way or the other, but I know how the public and the industry are reacting and I do not think that they would be dismayed if the Minister took such a course, which might help to resolve the present crisis of confidence in the beef industry. But if the Government are not prepared to do that—and given that Tyrrell specifically said that we could not rule out a potential risk—why do not they ensure that there is at least a comprehensive tagging and registration scheme so that we know what is happening to the offspring? At the moment, we may believe that there is no reason for slaughter but, according to Tyrrell, we cannot rule out the possibility that that need will arise. We heard tonight that the Government's chief veterinary officer had said: It would not surprise me to find that maternal transmission can occur. A minimum requirement to register seems to me eminently sensible.

When the problem first arose, the Minister said: Nobody takes this disease more seriously than I do, but there is no justification for further action. Perhaps there was no justification, but given the present crisis of confidence for industry and consumer, the Minister should be seen to act to close every loophole, and that is one of the loopholes.

Following the progress of food from farm to plate, we go next to the abattoir. The Minister has at last told us the result of his further consultations about abattoir procedures. He will recall that, early this year, environmental health officers expressed serious concerns—expressed first in my constituency and subsequently taken up by their organisation—about the way in which some abattoirs operated. In effect, the abattoirs were, and are, attempting to get round the Minister's regulations banning specified offals. To realise the full value of the heads, they are split open with band saws. Inevitably, some splatter results and there is a risk of cross-contamination.

The heads are split and the broken brain removed so that the full value of the total carcase can be realised. That makes relatively little financial difference to the farmer, but in an abattoir where huge numbers of heads are processed the practice of splitting heads in that way is significant for profit margins. Clearly, that practice avoided the spirit of the Minister's advice. After I met the Minister and discussed the problem with him, he said that he would seek further advice. I was told that he would meet me in two weeks and tell me what advice he had been given. Well, some two months on, the results of the advice were announced today.

If cooking cannot kill the disease, anyone with common sense will appreciate that washing the meat if splatter occurs is no guarantee of safety. Perhaps the most important point is that washing down will not reassure the public if it does not reassure environmental health officers. I am pleased that the Minister has referred that point to the Tyrrell committee. However, I suspect that the committee will say that there is no scientific evidence to justify stopping that head-splitting process. Perhaps that would be an example of advisers advising, but Ministers must decide to ensure that even the most unlikely loophole is stopped. I am referring only to the specified offals and the risk of cross-contamination of what I said at the beginning of my speech is otherwise perfectly good meat.