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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale 5:18 pm, 17th February 1997

My hon. Friend is exactly right. There was a leak and Ministers had no option. They did the right and responsible thing at the time.

I think that this is only the second time that I have spoken in an agriculture debate since I left the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1987. It is necessary to make some points about the crisis and what has happened and deal with what I regard as important. I very much question the myth that has been encouraged by a number of Opposition Members over the past year, and previously—that, by feeding ruminant residues to ruminants, farmers were engaged in a new era of greed and avarice.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and I both have science degrees in agriculture, so he will know perfectly well—I am accusing not him but others—that all agriculture textbooks of the 1940s and 1950s, when I was a student, and all textbooks going back to the last century spoke of the regular, accepted agricultural practice of feeding, let us say, dried blood or bonemeal to animals. It was a standard practice and had been so for decades when I was first a student. That myth therefore ought to be put to bed.

I resent the way in which Opposition Members have also tried to spread the myth that beef is not safe. There is a raft of examples of that on the record. Many farmers have dismissed the myth and done their best to educate the public on the safety of beef by imparting one very simple fact. Scrapie, a kindred disease in sheep, has been known—I believe—for almost 200 years. Again, as a student, I remember learning about scrapie, yet, as far as I know, people have been eating sheepmeat with impunity all that time and, even though it is well known that scrapie was a widespread disease among the national sheep flock, there has never been a suggestion that it is not safe. The logic should therefore surely be that, if sheepmeat has been safe all these years, so is beef.

Perhaps none of us has taken scrapie seriously enough. I do not know whether scrapie has played a part in the BSE epidemic; the facts would suggest that it probably has. I remember, as might my hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs, that, back in the 1960s, a well-known northern livestock dealer from Darlington, Mr. Alan Metcalfe, came to the House of Commons with, I think, members of the National Sheepbreeders Association. He certainly saw the Conservative and Labour Back-Bench agriculture committees. He told us that he believed that scrapie was potentially a very dangerous disease and that MAFF should start an eradication scheme. I guess—I remember the committee's impression distinctly—that he spoke mainly from instinct without too much scientific evidence. It just shows that we should not ignore the countryman's instincts.