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BSE

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 8:13 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 8:13 pm, 25th June 1996

As one of the remaining four Labour Members of Parliament who voted with the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) to go into the Community, I could not disagree more with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen). This is an absolutely crazy way to treat our European partners. It is counterproductive and will be extremely costly for our country in years to come.

I want to concentrate simply on the science of the issue and to ask a number of questions.

My first is to repeat that put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) concerning the clustering of CJD in Kent. I understand that an animal waste rendering company defended its methods of treating the carcases of cattle killed in the BSE cull, including its use of waste effluent as fertiliser on nearby land. A director of Canterbury Mills, one of nine rendering plants appointed by the Government, said that he was working to Ministry guidelines. The company was reacting to a warning from a neurologist that the discharge of infected material could be linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Alan Colchester, a consultant at Guy's hospital in London, made an investigation after learning that there had been three suspected cases of CJD in the Ashford area where the plant is based. He said: 'The area should be fenced off. It will take years to see if any part of the land is affected, so no sort of human trespassing should be allowed. Dr. Colchester is working with the East Kent health authority to investigate possible links between the local CJD cases. The company has twice been convicted of effluent discharge offences during the past three years.

I simply want to ask what the Government are doing about Dr. Colchester's findings. He is a serious man and, if he is right, all sorts of consequences flow.

Secondly, on 1 May 1996, in a question to the Minister of Agriculture, I asked: Could we return to the desperately important question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) about the United Kingdom's scientific infrastructure? What is happening with the central veterinary laboratory, the central science laboratory and the neuropathogens laboratory in Edinburgh and the cuts in work that may be vital in identifying the root cause of the problem? The last time that he was at the Dispatch Box, the Minister said very courteously that he would look at the experiments conducted in Ames, Iowa, involving proteins 130 and 131, and the question of prions in sub-heated food. The Minister's answer is a matter of record. He said: we have increased MAFF spending on research by £1 million."— [Official Report, 1 May 1996; Vol. 276, c. 1158–9.] Is it still the opinion of Professor Pattison that enough money and resources are being devoted to research? I asked whether experiments conducted in Ames, Iowa, had been followed up because in a barn in Ames, Iowa, there is a herd of cows that could force epidemiologists to rethink the origin of BSE. The barn is a secure isolation unit and, since 1990, it has housed a series of experiments whereby tissue from the brains of sheep with scrapie, a related disease, has been injected into cattle. The results are consistent. Cows infected with the scrapie agent become sick, but the disease is not recognisable as BSE.

In 1988, two years after BSE was first identified, epidemiologists in Britain working for MAFF announced that the source was probably scrapie. They linked the emergence of BSE with changes in the solvents and temperature used at the rendering plants recovering protein from animal carcases to produce cattle feed. Therefore, I ask whether the Ames, Iowa work has been followed up.

Thirdly, a simple test has been developed in the United States which might soon allow British farmers to identify cattle infected with mad cow disease. By looking in spinal fluid for "indicator" proteins—130 and 131—American researchers have been able to diagnose the closely related human disease, CJD, with more than 98 per cent. accuracy. They say that the technique would work equally well with infected cows. Is that the Department's view?

My fourth question arises from discussions with Professor Peter Wilson, the former head of Bush research campus, who believes from his many contacts that it is highly likely that the source of the trouble could be prions that were not heated to the extent that they used to be.

To cut a long and complicated story short, the renderers, in order to preserve proteins in the food that is produced, are now doing their business at lower temperatures than they used to. It is possible that, when that was done at higher temperatures, many of the potentially disease-carrying organisms were eliminated. If temperature is reduced with the aim of improving the quality of the protein, side-risks may be run. I do not know what the answer is, but what is the latest thinking of the Minister's advisers?

Fifthly, let me again raise a matter that I raised in an intervention on the Minister's speech. I refer to a letter, signed by the Minister—or, rather, by Elizabeth Ratcliffe; I make no complaint about that—to Lord Marlesford, whom many of us knew for years as Mark Schreiber, a distinguished political editor of The Economist. According to the letter, There seems to have been a misunderstanding. The main step to protect animal health was the introduction of the 'ruminant feed ban' in 1988. This prohibited the feeding of cattle with ruminant protein, the source of the BSE infection. This ban has greatly reduced the number of BSE cases that have occurred. Incidentally, I gave a copy of the letter to officials so that the Minister could refer to it.

The letter continues: However, it has unfortunately not been totally effective, probably due to cross-contamination of ruminant feed with meat and bone meal from other animal feeds, both in feed mills and on farms. That letter was written on 4 June. We are now nearing the end of the month. Has it become effective—totally effective—or is there still a problem? The letter goes on to say: 'The Government has, therefore, recently prohibited the use of meat and bone meal in any feed for farmed livestock, including poultry, fish, and horses. This removes the possibility of cattle getting access to any feed containing MBM which may potentially be contaminated. There is not a concern about pigs or poultry and other non-ruminant farm animals contracting BSE from feed, since in experiments feeding them with BSE infected brain has not produced disease in either pigs or poultry. That brings us back to Ames, Iowa. It would be a serious matter if there were cross-contamination. I hope that the Minister will refer to the matter.

Sixthly, let me refer to an article by Andy Coghlan in this week's edition of New Scientist. It mentions work in Holland that has established that scrapie—the sheep equivalent of BSE and CJD—can now be diagnosed before the animals become ill. The Dutch researchers who developed the test hope that it can be used to diagnose CJD in humans before symptoms appear. I do not know whether that is a Department of Health or a MAFF responsibility, and I do not expect the Minister to answer off the top of her head, but I would like to hear some comment on the matter.

Finally, let me return to a point that was made at a conference today that some of us attended upstairs, involving the Royal Society of Chemistry. The point was made by Lord Selborne. He said that there was a desperate need for risk analysis—analysis of the extent of the risk compared to the many other risks that we run. I am delighted to hear that the Select Committee in the House of Lords will devote itself to the problem.