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Hon. Members on both sides of the House fully appreciated the gravity of that statement. Yet on that day the Minister said:
I do not believe that this information should damage consumer confidence and thus the beef market."—[Official Report, 20 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 387.]
The beef industry, the farming industry and our rural communities are still paying a heavy price for that misjudgment.
The announcement was bungled. Hon. Members will understand that since 1986, when BSE was identified, there has always been a possibility of a link between BSE in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. The Government's Southwood report made that clear in 1989. The Tyrrell committee—another committee set up by the Government—advised random testing of the brains of cattle going through our slaughterhouses. The House will know that that recommendation was never implemented.
There was always a possibility that such information could come to the Government, but the statement was bungled. On Wednesday 20 March, we were told about the possibility of the link, but we were also told that we would have to wait over the weekend and that it would be Monday at the earliest before the Secretary of State for Health would come back and tell us whether children or other special groups were particularly at risk. What an impact that had on consumer confidence! What an impact that had on our industry! What an impact that had on markets in Europe! No wonder some countries took unilateral action to halt the movement of our beef and beef supplies—there had been such a collapse in confidence in this country during those few days.
There was no contingency plan and clearly no strategy. Consider, for example, the position of cattle aged over 30 months. Those cattle are important because they are more likely to carry the BSE agent. On 20 March, the Minister told us that all cattle over 30 months would be deboned and that special slaughterhouses would be designated and licensed for that purpose. Eight days later, on 28 March, he told the House of Commons that all beef from cattle over 30 months would be banned. They had not been able to organise the licensing of the slaughterhouses to carry out the deboning. On 3 April he told the House of Commons that the Government had decided that all cattle over 30 months should be slaughtered, destroyed and incinerated. That is a measure of how unprepared the Government were. They had no strategy or contingency plan, but BSE had been in our cattle since 1986 and they knew full well that there was always the possibility of a link between BSE in cattle and CJD in humans.