1. I extend my sympathy to farmer Thomas Jackson and his family and thank the minister and her team for their speedy response and openness to sharing information. I note the farming interests in my entry in the register of members’ interests.
To ask the Scottish Government what assurances it can provide that it has taken all required steps to protect consumers, food safety and the farming industry, following the discovery of BSE on a farm in Aberdeenshire. (S5T-01261)
I thank the member for his opening remarks.
It is extremely disappointing to have a confirmed case of BSE in Scotland, but I can provide full assurances that all required steps have been taken to protect consumers, food safety and the farming and food sectors. We have put in place a co-ordinated response, which has been led by Scotland’s chief veterinary officer and the animal health and welfare team in the Scottish Government. The response has involved the Animal and Plant Health Agency, Food Standards Scotland and Health Protection Scotland. I can provide the following details.
First, I want to be clear that the animal that was positively diagnosed for BSE was not destined for the food chain and that its carcase was disposed of appropriately. Very strict controls are in place to protect consumers from the risk of BSE, including controls on animal feed and the removal of the parts of cattle that are most likely to carry BSE infectivity. Consumers can be reassured that those important protection measures remain in place.
Secondly, animals on the holding were put under movement restrictions to prevent their movement off the holding. A small number of animals on the holding will be culled this week and tested as a precaution, and the Animal and Plant Health Agency will conduct a detailed investigation to seek to identify the source of the disease.
Thirdly, controls to protect animal and public health that were in place before this case remain in place. That includes controls on the content of animal feed and the removal of the parts of cattle that are most likely to carry BSE infectivity.
I assure Mr Burnett that we are taking that issue very seriously and that detailed investigations are under way. We will not see the conclusions of some of those investigations or identify the source or cause of BSE, if it is possible to discover that, for at least a month and perhaps longer.
There have been four cohorts, and one of the offspring of the affected animal will be slaughtered. As I said in my initial answer, the animals will be tested purely as a precautionary measure to help with the very limited investigations that we have been able to do so far. We await the outcome of the further investigations, which I hope will provide some more conclusive information that I will be able to bring to Parliament. We have not identified any particular problem in the feed, but we have been able to undertake only preliminary investigations. As the details become clearer, and as the investigations are completed, I will bring back that information to the member and the chamber.
As devastating as the outbreak has been for not only the farmer involved but the wider industry, because of the shock that the case will have caused, it shows if anything that the surveillance and the measures that we have put in place since the original epidemic in the 1990s are working. We were able to identify the case quickly and, as soon as it was identified, the other precautionary measures were put in place immediately. That shows that the surveillance measures that we have in place are effective and are working. For example, we test around 20,000 fallen stock every year, which shows that our surveillance system is very good. The fact that we were able to identify the case so quickly and react in the way that we did shows that the work and the precautionary measures that we are undertaking are working.
The British Veterinary Association has said that it is
“pleased that the comprehensive and robust veterinary surveillance system was able to quickly and effectively detect this potential risk. Both the farmer and the vet involved deserve praise for their part in identifying this case, allowing the authorities to put in place appropriate precautionary measures.”
What impact might the case have on Scotland’s BSE negligible-risk status?
The recent case means that Scotland loses its negligible-risk status. That means that we have controlled-risk status, which is the same as in the rest of the United Kingdom.
We can reapply for negligible-risk status, but we can do so only after 11 years from the birth of the affected animal. We have seen similar situations in other countries across Europe that have been affected by BSE, such as the Republic of Ireland and France, which, shortly after gaining negligible-risk status, had isolated cases of BSE that meant that they lost that status. We could well be in the tail end of the epidemic that we saw in the 1990s. We can reapply for negligible-risk status, but we now have the same status as the rest of the UK.
As far as we are aware, there will be a negligible risk—that is our determination. Other countries in a similar situation that have lost their negligible-risk status and returned to controlled-risk status have not seen any impact on their trade or on their wider beef sector, so we hope that this will not present too much of a problem for the beef sector in Scotland. We will be keeping a close watch on the matter.
As I have said, the controls and the measures that we have in place have been shown to work by the very fact that we were able to pick up this case so quickly and act on it in such a responsive way. Of course, if the investigations identify any possible areas for improvement, we will look very seriously and closely at that, and potentially take forward improvements, if there are any to be made.
I declare an interest as a farmer. It is important that we all send our support to the farmer concerned, Thomas Jackson. I am reliably told that he is devastated by the case of BSE on his farm, and we must make it clear—it is important to put this on record—that he has done nothing wrong.
Will the minister tell us what extra costs and procedures are involved at slaughter because of our downgrading from negligible-risk status to controlled-risk status?
I completely echo the member’s sentiments about the farmer involved—this is obviously no fault of his. It is understandably devastating for him and his family.
We have seen isolated cases happen elsewhere, and countries have lost their negligible-risk status. We await the outcome of the investigation into the case in this country to see whether we are in a similar situation.
We are working with the farmer, and we will do all that we can to support him.
On the question of the extra costs that could be involved as a result of the loss of negligible-risk status, I will have to look into the matter in order to give the member a detailed response.
I understand that the Animal and Plant Health Agency has been in close contact with the farmer and has passed him details of the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution, which is a charity that offers practical and emotional support for the wellbeing of farmers and their families. NFU Scotland has also been in contact with the farmer, and I understand that it is also providing support and assistance. I know that Mr Burnett is also keen to provide support where that might be relevant and appropriate.
I completely understand the member’s point about the wider concern among the Aberdeenshire farming community. I urge any farmer with concerns to seek immediate veterinary advice. This Friday, I will attend the Thainstone mart, where I will be on hand to discuss any concerns that farmers may want to raise with me directly. If they feel that we could be offering more support or assistance, I will listen to those concerns to see whether there is anything else that the Government can do to help support them.