Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

Part of Schedule 38 – in the House of Commons at 8:31 pm on 28th March 1996.

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Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton , Congleton 8:31 pm, 28th March 1996

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in this important debate—a debate that is exceptionally important for our countryside as well as in other ways. I must make it clear that I am attempting the double whammy tonight: I am speaking on behalf not only of myself but of my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). Our constituencies are adjacent and are both rural. Between us, we represent much of the farming community in Cheshire.

I shall begin by puncturing one or two myths propagated by the media. The first is that the interests of consumers, farmers and the meat and food industry are not synonymous. That idea is almost too ridiculous to repeat. Farmers are consumers. They are not in the business, or life style, of agriculture and farming to provide the nation with food that is not fit to eat. They are as concerned as anyone to produce the best quality food. Indeed, in our part of the world, and in our country, they do—and it is about time that somebody said that.

Secondly, I shall puncture the myth that the Ministry of Agriculture, has acted only to defend a large and important industry in this country—the conspiracy theory. That idea, too, needs knocking on the head straight away. The reality is the opposite: Ministers and officials have been open and honourable, and at all times have taken the best and latest scientific advice available in the world, let alone in the United Kingdom. It is always easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight. How many times do we see that happening? Science is moving forward fast, but people must take decisions with the knowledge available to them at the time.

The next myth that needs to be exploded is that food can be pronounced 100 per cent. safe. What rubbish. We all know that that is not possible. All life is a balance of risks. It is safer for me to travel down to Westminster every week by aeroplane, but I do not. I travel by car more often than not. Every day of our lives when we get out of bed we take risks and assess the balance of risks. We must use those common-sense methods to assess the balance of risk with food.

Another myth is that scientists have been denied funding. Scientists have been given adequate and more than adequate funding for their needs. I suspect that if they need more and ask for it they will have it. Many scientists reported in the media have their own axes to grind, and they make all sorts of claims. I say to them, "If you have anything to put forward in the debate, put your ideas, theories and research before Professor Pattison and the other members of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee. Put yourselves forward and be judged by your scientific peers." I am not capable of judging whether there is any value in what such people propose; the best scientists in the country are the people to judge and assess.

The next factor is the role of the media, which has been disgraceful. We have had hype, hysteria and over-reaction, with people being interviewed for the sake of their off-beat views—rent-a-quote, in other words. People are interviewed who are obviously woefully ignorant of the issues and are very concerned. To a certain extent we are a scientifically uneducated and illiterate nation, so people are swept along with the tide and believe what is written in the newspapers, which is based on speculation and scaremongering. That is what has led to the overall crisis of confidence.

Next, blame should also be laid firmly at the feet of the European Union. The view taken by the Commission and the subsequent banning of British beef were breathtaking in their arrogance. We now know what we have always suspected—that Europe acts politically, predominantly to protect its own industry. British beef has been making inroads into European markets. What an opportunity for Europe to put a stop to those valuable exports from this country. Who would ever recommend anyone to eat Belgian beef, which is treated with clenbuterol, cortisone and angel dust? People must be really mad to do that.

The only question that the House needs to answer tonight is how to restore confidence. That is the most vital question of all, and the most difficult to answer. It is vital that the EU is made to reverse its illegal ban as a matter of urgency, and that our other export markets are reassured by the evidence that our beef is entirely wholesome. The EU has caused, aided and abetted market turmoil, and the Government must pull out all the stops to ensure that it is aware of our views.

The briefing paper from the Country Landowners Association says: We put a clear message to Jacques Santer that European policies should similarly be based on the best scientific evidence". The best scientific evidence says that eating our beef is perfectly safe, and that it is perfectly good.

The Cheshire branch of the National Farmers Union brought out its policy before the national organisation of the NFU. I am delighted about that, because we always try to be one step—I was about to say "in front of the herd", but perhaps I had better not, in the circumstances. The Cheshire branch recommends the culling of what I would call the "old girls" in the dairy herd when they come to the end of their productive lives. They would not go into the food chain but would be incinerated.

The scientists who appeared before the joint Select Committees yesterday made it clear that meat from such cows caused no health hazard. Frankly, I believe them, but the whole object is to try to restore public confidence, so if such a policy does that, and is thought a worthwhile thing to do, I would support it.

I remind the House how many people "swing on a cow's tail". I heard that expression last weekend, when my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield and I spoke to many consumers and farmers in our constituencies to discuss these issues. The expression is absolutely true, because not only farmers but feed merchants, slaughterers and people in cattle markets and the leather trade, to name but a few, are affected by the situation. Macclesfield has an excellent abattoir, in which huge investment has been made. It is one of the best in the country, and it has been badly affected by what is happening.

This debate is vital, not only for our countryside and our farming industry but for our economy. It is essential that all political parties and responsible groups stand behind the Government and support the measures that are to be introduced to help confidence. We should give a message to our Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that, when he goes to Brussels to negotiate on behalf of this nation, whatever he does he must fight his corner hard for Britain and for British beef—the best beef in the world.

I have never eaten so much British beef as of late, and I can assure the House that, when four of our six grandsons stay with us over Easter, we shall change from having turkey on Easter Sunday to having the biggest bit of British beef that I can get. My grandsons are aged between one and seven, and I do not have a scintilla of doubt of the wholesomeness of what we shall eat—because, of course, I shall cook it superbly.