Beef on the Bone

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:30 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 2:30 pm, 1st December 1999

There will now be a statement on the beef-on-the-bone regulations. The minister will take questions at the end of her statement, and there should be no interventions during it. The minister has 10 minutes.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour 2:37 pm, 1st December 1999

Several members have asked that I make this statement today; I welcome the opportunity to inform the Scottish Parliament directly about the decisions announced yesterday on beef on the bone. I would like both to explain the thinking behind the announcement and to set it in the wider context of food safety policy.

We have consistently said from the earliest days of the partnership Administration that we would lift the ban on beef on the bone as soon as medical advice said that it was safe to do so. We said that in the partnership agreement document; we repeated it in our programme for government. We have adhered to that principle and today the promise is fulfilled.

In my statement on 22 September, I informed members of the Executive's decision to retain in full the ban on sale of beef on the bone, which was introduced in December 1997. September's decision was made on the basis of medical advice that I received at that time from Professor Sir David Carter, chief medical officer for Scotland.

My statement also indicated, however, that while there were a number of uncertainties, in relation to BSE infectivity of certain tissues—dorsal root ganglia and bone marrow—and in relation to the rate of maternal transmission, the position would be kept under regular review. In particular, new evidence, specifically on maternal transmission, would become available in November.

I can confirm that the position has been kept under active scrutiny and also that the updated predictions from Professor Roy Anderson's group in the Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Disease at the University of Oxford have now been made available to the chief medical officers. Shortly after receipt of the updated information, the four UK CMOs met yesterday morning and agreed on joint advice which they issued to ministers in the four UK departments. As has been done before, that advice has now been published and is available to members from the Scottish Parliament information centre.

Having reviewed the most up-to-date information available, the UK CMOs have advised that the current circumstances now allow the beef-on-the-bone ban to be lifted for retail sales, so allowing consumer choice. The advice goes on to indicate that, in view of continuing uncertainty about the infectivity of bone marrow, the retention of the ban on the use of bones for manufactured and processed products would be prudent. Finally, the advice emphasises the need for continued rigorous controls, continued monitoring of the human-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease epidemic and close monitoring of new research results as they become available.

I am pleased to inform members today that the Scottish Executive accepted that advice immediately and has acted swiftly and decisively, in accordance with our stated policy. A consultation document was issued yesterday to approximately 100 interested organisations, proposing a lifting of the bone-in-beef ban on visible cuts of beef sold through retail outlets. Copies of the consultation document are also available from SPICe.

When the ban is lifted, consumers will be able to choose whether to purchase and consume such products. The proposal is also to lift the ban on beef and beef products supplied in restaurants and other catering outlets, where consumers will be able to ask whether the beef or beef products supplied have been prepared from bone-in beef. Restaurant owners and caterers will be encouraged to make that information available.

I stress that I want the matter to be dealt with as soon as possible. Our aim is for a short period of consultation; the consultation document that we have issued includes a copy of the draft regulations to implement the proposals. I intend that the regulations should be laid and implemented quickly, so that the ban will be lifted before the Parliament goes into recess. Scottish consumers will be able to purchase rib roast and T-bone steaks before Christmas.

The ban will be retained on the use of bone-in beef in the production of manufactured beef products, as consumers in such cases will have no easily verifiable information on whether such products have been prepared from bone-in beef. That residual ban will also be lifted as soon as the medical advice indicates that it is safe to do so.

I firmly believe that our approach on this high-profile food safety issue has been the right one. The first priority of the Executive—consistently and clearly—has been the protection of public health. Throughout, our policy has been guided directly by our medical advice. Food safety is not—and should not be—a party political issue. It is exclusively a public health issue.

Of course, a balance has to be struck.

Consumers must be given the opportunity to choose, provided that they are in a position to make informed choices. Again, that is what we propose. Where consumers have sufficient and reliable information to make an informed choice, the proposal is that the ban will be lifted. Where uncertainties remain, and where there are doubts about the public health implications of the use of beef bones in manufactured or processed goods, the ban has been retained.

That is a prudent approach. Consumers can be reassured that we are taking the most responsible approach and that we have—and will continue to—put their health interests above all else. Finally, we have acted swiftly and decisively, once further evidence of medical advice has been received, on the same day as receipt of the advice.

This issue underscores some of the key issues that will guide future policy under the new food standards agency: protection of public health will be paramount; policy will be based on the best scientific and medical advice available to us; responses will be proportionate in the light of the risks involved; and consumers will be able to exercise informed choice.

Such an approach is in both the short-term and the long-term interests of everyone in Scotland: the consumer and the producer. This announcement is good news for consumers and another step forward for the beef industry in this country. In the end, everyone gains from a soundly based food safety policy.

I hope that this statement serves to explain to members the Executive's policy on beef on the bone, set against the key objectives of food safety policy more generally. I will be pleased to answer any questions that members might have.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

The Scottish National party joins the beef industry in welcoming the long-awaited announcement on what today's The Press and Journal called the "beef-on-the-bone farce". It will certainly bring farmers some cheer in time for Christmas, but will the Minister for Health and Community Care detail the changes in scientific evidence and in the statistics that have persuaded the Executive to lift that unnecessary ban?

The minister said that consumers should be given the opportunity to choose—why did she not believe that before today, given that the sale of beef on the bone posed no more risk to human health than many other products on sale? Does she accept that the Government's delay in lifting the ban has inflicted further damage on Scotland's beef industry and that it now deserves maximum support to enable it to get back into its former markets?

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I said clearly in my statement that food safety is not a party political issue, and I insist that it should not be so. I repeat, in case the member was not listening earlier, that the Scottish Executive has said from the outset that our policy would be determined by medical advice. I have been in regular contact with the chief medical officer, Sir David Carter.

In the summer, when Parliament last debated the issue, we were dealing with predictions about predictions. The Oxford evidence has become available only within the past week. CMOs across the UK have quickly considered that evidence and given us their advice. They have assured us of the continuing decline of the BSE epidemic in cattle; the latest Oxford estimate is that the number of BSE-infected cattle under 30 months that could enter the human food chain within 12 months of clinical infection is now only 1.2 cattle for all of Britain in 2000.

On the basis of that advice, we took a decision; the evidence has changed from six months ago. I suggest that members listen to medical advice on the issue in the same way as we have, as that is the basis for sensible decision making.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I am grateful to the minister for ensuring that all of us who are interested in the issue were fully informed before yesterday's announcement. Will she confirm that when the beef-on-the-bone ban is lifted, the position will be similar to an option that was available to Jack Cunningham when the ban was originally imposed? On a slightly different subject, given the evidence to the Rural Affairs Committee on the removal of spinal cord material from new carcases, should we press for a review of that issue, so that the sheep industry can be given a much-needed fillip, such as the beef industry has had today?

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

Of course I recognise the industry's concerns. As I have said consistently, we put public health first, but we recognise the industry's interests alongside that. I believe that the more confidence we can give consumers in beef and beef products, the better that is for the industry. So today there is a win-win situation. On the basis of the medical advice, I do not think that we ought to be loosening some of the other measures that are in place. I quote from the joint statement by the UK CMOs:

"It is important to retain and rigorously enforce other control measures for protecting the human food chain from cattle over 30 months infected with BSE."

There is still a great deal of work to be done in monitoring human-variant CJD. We must continually monitor, learn and take sensible precautions. I believe that we have done so. Recently Ross Finnie and I had a useful meeting with the National Farmers Union of Scotland. We discussed some of the difficulties in striking an appropriate balance. I believe that our policies are sensible, precautionary, appropriate and in the best interests of consumers and the farming industry in Scotland.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

First, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I welcome the minister's statement. The Executive has acted swiftly—on the same day that it received the latest medical advice from Sir David Carter—to lift the ban. That is to be greatly commended.

We also welcome the fact that any future policy under the Scottish arm of the food standards agency will continue to hold that the protection of public health is paramount. I know that the industry backs that view, 100 per cent.

The minister said that she intended that the regulations be laid and implemented quickly, so that the ban would be lifted before Parliament goes into recess and Scottish consumers would be able to purchase T-bone steaks; I look forward to that greatly. A consultation document proposing the lifting of the ban has been issued to 100 organisations. Will the minister clarify the purpose of the consultation exercise? I want to be certain that the ban is actually being lifted.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I welcome Mr Rumbles's comments and share his concern to ensure that when the ban is lifted, it is lifted properly. We are carrying out a consultation exercise because the legislation requires that any change to the ban be subject to consultation. We have asked for responses to the consultation by 7 December. That is a short time, but we think that it is reasonable under the circumstances. I also intend to write to the Presiding Officer and the relevant committee conveners regarding how we will progress the rest of the process of changing the regulations, so that we can—I hope—meet the outlined time scale and do so within the letter and the spirit of the law.

Photo of Richard Simpson Richard Simpson Labour

Along with everyone else, I welcome the lifting of the ban. I congratulate the Executive on the way in which it has handled the issue, which has been entirely appropriate, following medical advice.

What will the Scottish Executive, in partnership with the UK Government, do now to promote beef in the United Kingdom, as well as abroad?

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I thank Dr Simpson for his positive comments and for his many contributions in debates on the issue over previous months.

As I said in reply to Mr Johnstone, of course we recognise the need to support the Scottish—and, more widely, the British—beef industry. As Minister for Health and Community Care, my main area of involvement has been with the health issues. However, I assure the member, on behalf of colleagues, from the First Minister down—or across—to the Minister for Rural Affairs, and all those in between, that a collective effort has been made across the Scottish Executive and, crucially, in co-operation with ministers in other parts of the UK, to ensure that steps are taken in the best interests of our agriculture industry.

A recent aid package of some £40 million—announced back in September—was given to the livestock sector. In addition, I assure members that work continues to ensure that we do all in our power to support the Scottish agriculture sector.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Does the minister agree that, for all of us, public health is paramount? However, does she accept that even now there is no clear-cut, unequivocal scientific evidence of a causal connection between consumption of material infected with BSE and contraction of CJD?

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

Given the way that the issue has been kicked around like a political football in recent months, I wish that I could believe Mr Ewing and his party when they say that public health is paramount. I hope that in future months, in the challenges and issues that we will have to face in relation to food safety, the SNP will join me in putting public health first.

I despair when I hear members talking about clear and unequivocal causal connections in relation to such a matter. The chief medical officer has issued written advice on the matter on many occasions. He has discussed the issue in great detail with the Rural Affairs Committee. In doing so, he has explained the degree of uncertainty that exists, which is why we have had to take a precautionary approach. It is estimated that the number of years for the incubation period of human-variant CJD goes into double figures. Therefore, we do not have the ability to point to the specific causal connection that Mr Ewing is requesting. That is why we have to have sensible, reasoned, informed debate around those issues and why we must listen to our scientific and medical advisers. That is precisely what we have done.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I am very pleased to hear the minister's statement, as will be the beef farmers. Will she answer the second part of Alex Johnstone's question? Will the minister and the Executive turn their attention to the sheep industry, where the new rules requiring slaughterhouses to split carcases have imposed huge extra costs and have resulted in many sheep being shot in the fields?

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I have listened to Ross Finnie speak at some length, in several forums, about the issues facing the sheep industry. I know that he is committed to taking action on that. I will be happy to relay to Mr Finnie the comments that have been made.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Is the minister aware that the case of Jim Sutherland—heroic hotelier of Lauder—is due to be heard in the criminal appeal court next Tuesday, to determine whether he has a case to answer? Does the minister agree that in the changed circumstances following today's announcement, notwithstanding the pending appeal, the Crown should now abandon the case against him simpliciter?

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I can assure the member that I am aware of the case in question, but the fact that it is still being considered in the courts means that I cannot comment on it today.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

That is right. I was about to say that the matter is sub judice.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

I, too, welcome today's decision. It is good to see the Executive following along the lines that the industry has been calling for over the past three years—all such decisions must be taken on the basis of science, not politics, unlike pre-1996. The industry is still concerned about the other measures that were put in place because the pre-1996 regulations were not enforced properly. Can the minister assure us that everything is being done in Europe to ensure that there is a move towards lifting the restrictions relating to European, rather than UK, legislation? Will the Executive do everything possible to ensure that we make progress on lifting some of the BSE regulations in the sheep and beef sectors?

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I assure the member that we will listen carefully to industry concerns. We will always try to achieve the appropriate balance between the public health interest—which is paramount—and the needs of the industry. I mentioned earlier the meeting that Ross Finnie and I had with the NFU Scotland. At that meeting, we discussed how to achieve such a balance. I listened carefully to what was said, and I will consider how to take forward the points raised at the meeting.

Photo of Mary Scanlon Mary Scanlon Conservative

Now that Scottish and British beef will be labelled with its country of origin when on sale in the EU market, why cannot meat produced in Europe be labelled with its country of origin in the UK market? When can we be assured that beef from other EU countries has met the rigorous standards that our own beef must meet?

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

Let me assure members that my primary concern is the interests of consumers in Scotland. The same high standards that we apply to beef and beef products from within the UK, we apply to imported beef products. We will continue to do that in the best interests of Scottish consumers.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

I have a technical point about the minister's statement—can she clarify what is meant by

"a lifting of the bone-in-beef ban on visible cuts of beef sold through retail outlets"?

I presume that we have no plans to sell invisible cuts.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I am struck by the member's wit and overcome with mirth.

It is important that consumers are able to make informed choices. There is still uncertainty about the infectivity of bone marrow and research on that is continuing. Therefore, we believe that that is a suitably precautionary and prudent measure to maintain the ban for processed beef products, such as baby foods, as the consumer cannot know or ask whether beef on the bone has been used in their production. That is why we plan to leave in place the controls in that area.