Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

Part of Schedule 38 – in the House of Commons at 8:21 pm on 28th March 1996.

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Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise , Preston 8:21 pm, 28th March 1996

I may technically have an indirect interest to declare, inasmuch as I am president of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. My overriding interest is in the health of the population and in the interests of all consumers. I do not accept that our prime objective should be the restoration of confidence in the market, because I believe that the objective must be the protection of public health. Furthermore, unless the public are assured that health is the prime objective, whatever we do with the aim of restoring confidence, we shall fail. The perception that what is being done is intended to protect public health is the first prerequisite of any reassurance or any restoration of confidence.

There has been Government ineptitude for some years. The crisis would have been far less likely to arise if there had been firmer action earlier and if there had been more humility in the face of our massive ignorance. People are tired of hearing bland statements that everything is safe and that the risks are extremely small—statements which are clearly born out of ignorance and which have had to be contradicted from time to time, most recently on 20 March.

There has been order after order after order; the chronology of events is long. Each order has made certain progress and has introduced certain regulations, but there has always been a tiny step at a time. That approach is inadequate.

I do not want there to be a panic in that all herds are assumed to be the same. I am sorry that some people feel that because there is such widespread BSE, all our herds are infected. However, I believe that any slaughter policy we institute—I believe that there will have to be such a policy—must differentiate between one herd and another. There are differences which probably result from how cattle have been cared for, reared and fed; there are different practices. That must be acknowledged, because the different practices have led to different results. It should not just be the case that cows over a certain age are slaughtered. If we are to have recognisably BSE-free herds, our objective must be to distinguish between one herd and another.

It has been said that we do not need to rake over the past. However, one person's raking over the past might be another person's learning from the past. We must learn severe lessons from the lack of enforcement of the regulations on abattoirs. Regulations that are not properly implemented and are not enforced are simply a false reassurance; we are now paying the price for all the false reassurance.

It is extraordinary that there has been such complacency about the huge failure to comply with the regulations. How can we be assured that future stronger regulations will be complied with when milder regulations have not been complied with in the past? One important way to ensure compliance would have been to treat the non-compliers with great severity. Why have there been no prosecutions? The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has said that prosecutions would have made it a criminal matter. Exactly. It is a criminal matter not to have complied with regulations imposed on the handling of meat and meat products in the interests of public safety. If people who did not comply had been criminalised and had paid a penalty, there would have been a lot more compliance a lot sooner, and people would have a lot more confidence in future regulations. That is an important matter.

The sheer extent of BSE in the herds has astonished and worried people. The fact that, as at 23 February, there were 158,277 cases is very worrying. As at July 1993, there were 100,000 confirmed cases, which means that in the past two and a half years, and a long time after the ban on feeding ruminant remains to ruminants, there have been almost 60,000 more cases. That is why consumers do not have confidence, and who can blame them?

We need a frank acknowledgement, as some hon. Members have made, of the extent of human ignorance in this matter. We do not know for sure how the disease is transmitted and we do not even know whether it has come from scrapie. We do not know why sheep convey scrapie to lambs, and why cows do not convey BSE to calves. We cannot know whether humans will convey it to babies. It is time that we stopped just saying that everything is safe and that we admitted our great ignorance. Paradoxically, that would help to create confidence. Bland reassurance works for a time, but it then becomes utterly self-defeating. That is what has happened, and that is what is still happening.

One good thing that was not generally known until a recent parliamentary answer to one of my hon. Friends is that vaccine serum from British cattle was discontinued in 1989. The chief medical officer admitted that there was no actual evidence of risk, but he said that it seemed prudent to take that action. He thought that the industry itself would want to eliminate any theoretical risk.

That is a sensible attitude. If we wait for proof, it will be too late. Positive proof in such cases is not the same as negative proof, whereby we could all simply say, "It has all worked out well, has it not?" By the time we have positive proof of all the dangers, it will be too late, and we may face something uncontrollable.

I hope, and I think that I believe, that at this stage the situation is still controllable, and that it would be possible to have a BSE-free herd. I am not a vegetarian; I personally want to be able to have confidence about eating beef. Of course, I would have a lot more confidence in cattle fed on the things on which animals should be fed—those that eat grass and similar natural products. Those are the kind of cattle that we should have, and I think that they are more likely to be found free of BSE.

That is one reason why I do not want to say, "All herds are suspect. Slaughter them all, according to age," or simply, "Slaughter them all." I do not want that, but what I am looking for is respect for nature, which is so often missing from much of the human attitude to animals We are now seeing the consequences of that kind of carelessness—a carelessness about humanity's relationship with nature—and we cannot afford to continue with it.

I repeat my belief that our overriding objective must be the protection of human health. When we achieve that, confidence will be restored in the market—but not until then.