Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st December 2000.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:00 am, 21st December 2000

What assessment he has made of the efficacy of testing for evidence of BSE in cattle over 30 months old. [142340]

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

There are three approved tests that can be used for testing cattle aged over 30 months. All were evaluated by the EU last year in trials in which known BSE samples and BSE-free samples from New Zealand cattle were tested blind. All three tests could identify the BSE samples with 100 per cent. accuracy. The BSE samples consisted of brain material from cattle at the clinical stage of disease. We used the prionics test in a survey last year of approximately 4,000 cattle entering the over-30-months scheme.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Is it not true that validation is possible only at the clinical stage, as the Minister said, and not when cattle are asymptomatic? Therefore, has not the European Union chosen a rather insufficient tool on which to establish its entire BSE strategy in the coming year? Does not processed meat derived from over-30-months-old cattle continue to be imported into this country? Do not serious questions now need to be asked about that policy and the future of the EU's strategy to deal with a BSE crisis developing in continental Europe?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

First, the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point when he says that the tests are 100 per cent. accurate only at the clinical stage of BSE. However, he would not be right to say that the whole anti-BSE strategy is based on those tests, because the EU at recent meetings has also made important decisions regarding the elimination of meat and bonemeal from animal feed, which is important in terms of safety, consumer confidence and making a more even playing field in the EU for our producers, who have not been allowed to access such meat and bonemeal for a number of years.

It is important to examine BSE measures in total. I have explained what legislation on processed food provides. None the less, the Food Standards Agency is rightly considering the issue in terms of controls. As for processed products, the signs that we have from manufacturers and retailers are that they use meat that has been deemed safe for human consumption—in other words, not over-30-months beef.

Photo of Angela Smith Angela Smith Labour/Co-operative, Basildon

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is partly because of the Conservative party's actions over BSE that the Food Standards Agency has been warmly welcomed by many people throughout the country and by the House? Part of the reason for the crisis was that decision making came behind scientific evidence, and that that evidence was not taken into account when decisions were made. For that reason, all scientific information should be made available. The public have lost confidence because of the Conservative party's actions.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Labour, Carlisle

The Tories are laughing.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I cannot understand why any amusement should be caused on the Opposition Front Bench in respect of such a serious point. We need to learn lessons from what happened in the past. Obviously hon. Members on both sides of the House are studying the Phillips report. We believe that by establishing a separate food safety authority we have already done a great deal to tackle some of the problems that have been identified. We believe that the distinction between food safety issues and food production issues is an important one to safeguard for the future.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill Conservative, Ludlow

The House will be aware of the rigours of the regime that has been imposed on the beef industry to ensure that British beef is perfectly safe. Will the Minister tell the House why it has been impossible to answer the question that I first tabled on 15 November? I asked what powers Ministers have to regulate the safety of beef imported into the United Kingdom from France. That question was not answered before Parliament prorogued last month, and I had to table it again on 13 December. Earlier this week I received a holding reply that reads: I shall let the hon. Member have a reply as soon as possible. That seems to indicate that the Government have no powers to regulate the importation of meat from France. If they do—I see the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food nodding—why has it taken two months to tell me what these powers are?

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I think that my right hon. Friend was shaking his head, not nodding. I am not familiar with the specific question that the hon. Gentleman has asked. He did not tell me in advance that he was going to raise the matter. It may be that he has tabled the question to the wrong Department and that it is basically a question for the Food Standards Agency. There is still a great deal of confusion—sometimes I believe that it is deliberate confusion—and Members try to get MAFF Ministers to pronounce on issues that are not within our remit. However, I undertake to look into the reply to the hon. Gentleman and to let him know the outcome as quickly as possible.