Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

Part of Schedule 38 – in the House of Commons at 8:40 pm on 28th March 1996.

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Photo of Mr William Ross Mr William Ross , East Londonderry 8:40 pm, 28th March 1996

I have often heard it said that when one sells a house, the one thing that matters is location, location, location. It has become clear to everyone that when one sells beef, what matters is perception, perception, perception. If we all kept that in mind, perhaps we might have rather more light and less of the heat we have had so far.

I should like to remind hon. Members and those few people who will no doubt read my words that smoking is alleged to be responsible for 110,000 deaths every year and that alcohol is responsible for 40,000 deaths every year. Those figures are broadly agreed and are widely known among the population of the United Kingdom. People are not drinking any less alcohol, and an awfully large number of people—who know the very serious risks they run—are still smoking. Deaths from CJD are minimal, and there is still severe doubt about whether they were caused by eating meat or any meat product, yet there is mass hysteria.

I do not want to go into all the arguments about assigning responsibility for the hysteria to hon. Members or members of the press—people can draw their own conclusions—but I will say that the fear is not at all rational. Fear has arisen in people's minds because, above all things, they fear for their children and they fear brain decay. I think that most of us have had elderly relatives who slowly sank into senile dementia for one reason or another and said, "I hope I never go like that." We have an irrational fear that eating meat might cause such a condition. I do not believe it.

I would be the first to admit that it is almost impossible to prove a negative. Therefore, as many hon. Members have said in this debate, we are not dealing only with scientific evidence, because the situation has gone far beyond that. Essentially, we now need a public relations exercise and—I suggest to Ministers—an education exercise for the public and the consumer. We must repeat the facts again and again. Among the facts are that there are nearly 160,000 confirmed cases of BSE in the United Kingdom. Ministers will no doubt recall that a parliamentary answer given to me at the end of November revealed that 23 of those cattle were what could broadly be described as beef cattle. That number is so small that it is hardly worth noticing.

We must also show the consumer—the urban consumer more than the rural consumer, I think—how our beef is produced and where it comes from. It would be helpful if the Government were to make information available in every home. We could tell people that BSE is a condition of older cows, and mainly of dairy cows. I am sorry for the dairy herd that that is a fact of life, but it is a fact of life that we cannot deny.

We also need to educate the population about what beef cattle eat. The reality is that the average beef cow in this country eats grass all spring, summer and autumn. They eat grass silage all winter or hay with a relatively small amount of barley and practically no concentrate at all. They are fed as cheaply as possible. Exactly the same situation holds true for those animals' offspring that are to be slaughtered. Most of them are fattened on grass, silage and rolled barley. A certain amount of concentrate is presented, but my understanding is that it is almost invariably of vegetable origin; there is certainly no offal or protein now involved.

I believe that the public mind should draw a distinction between produce from beef cattle and from the dairy herd. Unless we create a clear understanding of that difference in the public mind, we are beating our heads against a brick wall. We have to help the public, who want to buy meat, understand exactly how it is produced, where it comes from, how it is fed and why it is safe to eat it.

Although I believe that it will be an unnecessary waste of perfectly good stock, sooner or later we will have to remove older cows and bulls from the meat trade. I say that it is unnecessary, but again it is a matter of perception. The situation is, unfortunately, being exploited, but unless people get over their fear we will have to grasp the nettle. If this fear proves as temporary as the fear of salmonella in eggs, perhaps we can get away without taking such actions. That is why the beef should be not destroyed but stored, although, as I said, the stores are becoming full.

It is an enormous job to destroy carcases on a large scale. There is no easy way to do it, and folk have to understand that. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) drew attention to the behaviour of the feed compounders. who of course wanted to use the offal. They used it, and in the long run that turned out to be the worst decision ever made in British fanning, because that is what led to the current crisis.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned local and regional problems in this debate. I propose to do the same because Northern Ireland has a particular problem, which in some respects is paralleled elsewhere. The good bit is that we can trace our cattle, if not quite from the cradle to the grave, from the cradle to the slaughterhouse. We know where they come from and where they are going. There is a similar system up and running in the Irish Republic.