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Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 11 January 1990

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will review the level of compensation for farmers whose herds are infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

No, Sir. We believe that 50 per cent. of the value of the animal as if it were healthy is fair compensation for an animal which is terminally ill and therefore worthless. Compensation of 100 per cent. is paid on animals that are slaughtered and found not to be infected.

As there are similarities between neurological disease—wasting disease in the human brain—and BSE, and as we know that diseased sheep pass that disease to cows, although we do not know whether it goes to the human brain, will the Minister explain why he is not giving farmers the incentive to expose cows in the early stages of BSE so that they do not go on to the market for sale, as is happening in North Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, with the result that it is going into the food chain, with the beginnings of BSE in the system?

I can help my hon. Friend considerably. What he says is just not the case. We have so many safety belts and braces on this operation it is not true. About 99 per cent. of all animals are caught at the farm stage. We then have the offals ban, which removes all offals which could contain BSE, such as the brain, from all animals. That is the first pair of braces. We also have the state veterinary service, the members of which go to the markets, and we have meat inspectors in slaughterhouses doing spot checks. So because the offals are removed, there is no prospect of meat contaminated with BSE getting into the human food chain.

The Minister gives assurances, but I do not believe that they will reassure either producers or consumers that BSE is being prevented from getting into the human food chain. A row erupted yesterday between environmental health officers from my area and the Department. The officers believe that they are being overruled from taking the necessary action to prevent contaminated offal from getting into the human food chain through meat. I understand that, because the industry lobbied the Ministry to try to get action taken, the Ministry intervened. This is turning into a scandal.

I advise the hon. Gentleman to check his facts. I do not blame farmers for wanting to get 100 per cent. compensation for all animals, but the hon. Gentleman must not pretend that 50 per cent. compensation is somehow leading to infected animals entering the food chain. I am satisfied that my veterinary officers behaved absolutely correctly yesterday. It is irrelevant whether the animal's head was or was not cut off before it entered the slaughterhouse.

Because the relevant offals have been removed from all animals' heads. I advise the hon. Gentleman to check his facts.

I thank the Minister for his prompt and efficient efforts to deal with the problem and in particular for the increased allocation for research into BSE, which is a matter of great concern in my constituency. As and when he is considering financial assistance for farmers affected by this problem, will he also take into account the damage done to farmers affected by the other problem of contaminated meat—lead in feedstuffs that has gone to some of my farmers' cattle?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the extra money that we have made available for food research, and I hope that that will stop Opposition Members from continually suggesting that essential research for food safety has been cut, which is patently not the case.

As for compensation, we believe that the measures that we have taken on BSE are absolutely fair, and that legal channels are open to those who have been affected by lead in feeding stuffs to claim compensation from the appropriate suppliers.

If what the Minister says is true, will he explain why there are regular and consistent reports from county council trading standards departments indicating the identification of BSE-infected cattle at livestock marts and abattoirs? Is it not a fact that the Tyrrell committee, the Minister's own scientific advisers, and the Government's announcement of the new research programme are clear indications that the Government recognise the real danger that exists to human health? Given that, why will the Minister not accept that the only way to prevent BSE-infected products from going into the human food chain is by offering 100 per cent. compensation, thereby stopping the entry at source?

That is absolute nonsense. Neither 100 per cent. compensation nor 50 per cent., compensation is the means to stop any infected offals entering the food chain. That is done by cutting out all the relevant offals. People wrongly call BSE "mad cow disease"; but it is a disease of the cow's brain and central nervous system. Those offals are removed from all cows whether they have BSE or not. There is, therefore, no question of meat being infected by BSE as those offals are removed.