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Shellfish (North-East Coast)

Volume 173: debated on Tuesday 5 June 1990

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4.3 pm

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Health whether he will make a statement about the safety of shellfish caught off the north-east coast in the light of the warnings issued by his Department.

On 26 May, my Department issued a public warning that routine monitoring of the north-east coast of England by Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food scientists had found high levels of a toxin in shellfish. The toxin is concentrated by shellfish from a particular kind of naturally occurring algae which occurs at this time of the year.

My Department advised that consumption of all locally caught shellfish, including crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters, shrimps and prawns could cause illness, and should not be eaten while toxin levels remained high. The warning applied to shellfish taken from the coast between the Humber and Montrose. Local warning notices were issued and posted.

The occurrence of toxins at the levels found recently in shellfish from the north-east have in the past caused serious illness. Further extensive testing of molluscan shellfish—for example, mussels—has shown that the current levels of toxin are such that the public must, for the time being, refrain from consuming them. However, with the exception of crabs, the safety of all crustaceans such as lobsters, prawns and shrimps caught off the north-east coast has now been firmly established. The testing of crabs has revealed small amounts of toxin in the edible meat, and more tests are being made to obtain sufficient reassurance to enable the warning on crabs to be lifted.

The Department of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Scottish Office have worked closely in addressing this problem and clear advice has been given to and acted upon by the public. I should also like to acknowledge the enormous effort put in to the control action and monitoring by the local authorities concerned.

Although it is obviously necessary to issue a warning about mussels and molluscs, as has happened in previous years, why, when there is no evidence of any danger from eating lobsters or prawns, did the Ministry's press release say that all locally caught shellfish, including crustaceans, crabs, lobsters, shrimps and prawns, could cause illness and must not be eaten? What tests had been carried out on lobsters, crabs or prawns when the statement was made? What tests were carried out over the next three days of the bank holiday weekend after the statement had been made? Does the Secretary of State realise what that greatly widened warning has done to the fragile livelihoods of the east-coast fishermen and fish processors?

What is the difference between compensating egg producers when ministerial statements are misleading and cause serious damage, and compensating the fishermen? Why is not the Minister responsible for fisheries, who is sitting beside the right hon. and learned Gentleman, responding favourably to the fishermen's demands for reasonable compensation for the extent to which the warning went beyond what has been shown on the evidence?

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is a dangerous disease. The livelihoods of a great many fishermen would probably have been destroyed if the Department concerned had not taken prompt action and if tragic results had occurred. We had a serious outbreak in 1968, when 78 people were affected. The toxic levels that were found on this occasion were as high as on that occasion. As the hon. Gentleman fairly said, toxic levels were lower in the intervening years, when routine local notices have sufficed.

In the circumstances, it was wise to be prudent and it was necessary to carry out the examinations, which were carried out, on crabs, lobsters, shrimps and prawns which feed as scavengers, to ensure that the toxin levels were safe. Toxin levels were found in lobsters, but in the digestive tract, which is not consumed. Toxin levels are still being found in crabs, the digestive tracts of which are consumed. We are continuing to monitor crabs and we shall give the "all clear" for crabs as soon as possible.

This is a naturally occurring phenomenon and I realise that it causes loss to the fishermen whenever it occurs. Indeed, we have records of it dating back to 1814. The phenomenon is well known in north America and occurs in continental Europe also. The statements given by Ministers—by my Department and others—were not misleading at any stage but were a prudent protection of public health.

I do not believe that there is any case for compensation for the fishermen who collect—they do not rear—these naturally occurring crustaceans and shellfish. Countless farmers are not compensated for naturally occurring disasters. I am not an expert on those matters and this issue is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. As a non-farming Minister, with farming constituents, I do not find that an instant case can be made for compensating the fishermen, although I appreciate that they have suffered an unfortunate blow to their livelihoods from a naturally occurring phenomenon, which they all know perfectly well occurs in the stretch of the coast that they fish.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the way in which his Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have worked together when handling this matter demonstrates the effectiveness of the current arrangements for alerting consumers when there is a possibility of a genuine problem affecting food? Can my right hon. and learned Friend think of any instance in which any other European Community country has been so quick to inform the consumer when there has been a similar problem?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Departments involved sometimes feel that they cannot win. In all these instances, we act promptly on the basis of the scientific and medical evidence. That is what we have done, on this and other occasions. However, I accept that one cannot win whatever one does. If one issues a warning, one is attacked by those whose livelihoods depend on food; if one does not issue a warning, one is attacked by the lobbyists who claim that there is a conspiracy between oneself and the producer—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. David Curry)

It is a hard life.

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. It is a hard life. Nevertheless, our actions on this occasion have received almost universal support. We have taken the only steps possible in the interests of public health. Although I do not have any official confirmation of this, I am led to understand that the French have banned the collection of shellfish in the mouth of the Rhone. I am certain that on all matters of food safety we have the best system in western Europe. I hope that all countries act as promptly as we do on such occasions and on all occasions.

Will the Secretary of State recognise that, although the development of algae is a natural phenomenon, it is aggravated by the pollution problems in the North sea? That is the nub of the problem. I have lived all my life on the north-east coast of England. When I was a young man, it was reasonable to collect mussels and whelks along the coast, although on and off there was a ban. However, bans were not on the scale of the present ban. When will real action be taken to overcome the problem by pressurising the newly privatised water authorities to take serious action on the problem?

I talked about acting on scientific and medical evidence. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, there is not a scrap of evidence to support his assertion that the problem has anything to do with the pollution of the North sea. The hon. Gentleman is not a very old man. He is a little older than me, but he was not alive in 1814, when the first incident was recorded of these algae blooming on that part of the north-east coast. It has been a regular occurrence for more than 100 years off that coast. People have died every now and again over the years from eating shellfish. That is well known by most people. I am glad that, when the hon. Gentleman collected shellfish in his youth, he did not disregard health warnings about the dangers of collecting them in the months of May and June, when in some years the algae bloom in such a way that toxins reach a dangerous level.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, while there are risks from fishing in the North sea and natural events cause difficulties for fishermen, there is a wider problem in the state of the North sea fishing industry in general? Will he pass a message to his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on that point, so that we can have a review of the financial arrangements for our fishermen?

The Minister responsible for fisheries is sitting on the Front Bench at this moment. He and I have discussed the matter already. I am answering the question because it relates to public health, but my hon. Friend is much involved in the problems of fishing in the north-east. He and I regret that the fishermen of the north-east have suffered this misfortune and are having a particularly bad year because of the algae, which for the time being are cutting back part of their livelihood. I take on board the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and I know that my hon. Friend t he Minister will note them carefully, too.

Can the Secretary of State explain why, having issued a serious public health warning on a Saturday about algae off the north-east coast, the Minister responsible for environmental and public health issues and his Department was unavailable for comment to provide clarification until the middle of the following week? That led to maximum confusion and uncertainty about the extent and nature of the threat. Does the Secretary of State accept that such a performance by a Government Department is disgraceful and unacceptable? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that that performance is not repeated in the future?

With the greatest respect, I strongly refute all those allegations. It is becoming the fashion, every time that a warning has to be issued about a food danger, for people to make absurd allegations about the conduct of the Departments. Scientists and experts were working and were available over the weekend. Ministers from all the Departments involved worked closely together. The statements that we issued were perfectly clear and accurate and were a prompt and proper response to protect public safety. It is becoming absurd. Hon. Members search for scandal when prompt action is taken to protect people against a purely natural incident. A particular alga has flowered at this time of the year off a part of our coast, and as a result of our action no one has suffered any injury to health.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend take it from me, as one who is the same age as the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson), was brought up on the north-east coast, lives there now and is a member of the Select Committee on the Environment, that the problem of natural algae has been known in the north-east for a long time? Is it not odd that, in the previous private notice question, everyone was being clever after the event, but my right hon. and learned Friend is now criticised for being clever before the event? The latter is the way that I prefer it.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He and I know that, in 1968, toxin levels were high and there was a serious outbreak of poisoning that led to the illness of 78 people. It is not just a stomach upset, for if people eat the shellfish, they are also prone to a serious paralytic disease.

I agree with my hon. Friend that, had the Departments concerned not worked closely together to issue a prompt warning, we would quite rightly be answering criticisms today about our neglect of our duty and of public health. It is somewhat idiotic for people to scratch about today trying to criticise a prompt response to a worrying problem.

Order. We have a busy day ahead of us. I shall call two more hon. Members from each side; then we must move on to subsequent business.

Is the Minister aware that fishermen in my area believe that the dumping of sewage off the isle of May contributes to the poison that occurs in the estuary of the firth of Forth, which contaminates shellfish and other fish? Obviously that is unacceptable. It is all very well to condemn Lothian region or the city of Edinburgh, but the answer is to provide resources so that, instead of a ship depositing the poison into the sea, a fully fledged sewage works is established to handle the sewage from the city of Edinburgh. Will the Minister and his Scottish colleagues ensure that money is made available for the people of my area?

Obviously I have respect for the fishermen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Attempts have been made to study previous years to see if there is any correlation between the years when the algae bloomed to produce high levels of toxin and those when nutrients, including nutrients from sewage, have existed at a high level in the North sea. [Interruption.] To those algae, sewage is nutrient. There is no correlation between the two. The algae appear to bloom naturally when certain conditions of temperature, tide and so on occur, as have occurred this year. There is no scientific evidence to link that with any sort of pollution.

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks about sewage to the attention of the Minister responsible. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this country has an excellent record of improving systems for the disposal of sewage and of improving our rate of dumping into the sea.

Of course my right hon. and learned Friend is right to give advance warning of problems, but does he accept that such warnings often affect the west coast fisheries, from which supplies are perfectly normal and okay? The public have listened to snippets of information on the radio and read snippets in the newspapers. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it would have been better for one of the three Ministries to make the announcement rather than having one make it and the other two follow it up? If we spoke with one voice, perhaps we would be clearer.

Only one Department made the announcement, but I am grateful if the other two Departments agreed with what we said, as they were involved in the decision. We issued a clear warning, which was clear about the geography as well. It is true that the particular alga has never bloomed south or west of the Humber in our history. Our statement tried to make it clear that the problem existed only between Montrose and the Humber. MAFF has continued to monitor other waters in case, for the first time, the alga blooms in other waters, but there is no evidence that it is occurring outside the affected area.

In spite of his somewhat blustering response to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) the right hon. and learned Gentleman must accept that, between the Saturday and the Wednesday, there was a complete dearth of specific information. Attempts to get more detailed information in the interests of fishermen and other marine users was unsuccessful. That is not an allegation but a fact, and the Secretary of State should accept it.

Does he also accept that the failure to give specific information probably contributed to the blanket ban on shellfish from the north-east of Scotland to the considerable detriment of marginal fishing ports in that area and small-time fishermen who catch shellfish? The heavy-handed approach to this matter has depressed the entire shellfish market in Scotland. It is essential for public opinion to understand that most shellfish coming from the east coast are entirely safe and that all the shellfish caught off the west coast, including mussels, are entirely safe.

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says about the availability of Ministers, officials or information during the time he is describing. Indeed, I am assured that the Minister for Health and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were talking to each other on the telephone on Saturday morning and were available, as were all the experts, and that there was no lack of information in our clear statements.

I am glad to give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance he seeks about shellfish from other parts of our shores. This problem does not exist except on the stretch of coast between Montrose and the Humber. Indeed, it never has occurred west or south of the Humber.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the concerns of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations that the French are apparently, and perhaps typically, trying to get some commercial advantage out of this situation by imposing additional requirements on imports of crab from other parts of the United Kingdom through additional documentation requirements? Are the Government, particularly through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, taking steps to deal with that situation?

I believe that the French have behaved quite disgracefully on the question of beef, but at the moment I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt on shellfish—although I accept, as my hon. Friend says, that apparently there have been difficulties over the export of shellfish to France.

The Minister responsible for fisheries tells me that he has been in touch with the French authorities to try to sort it out. He is able to offer a system of certification to the French giving the source of crabs and other shellfish being supplied to the French market. We are confident that the matter can be sorted out with the active co-operation of the French authorities who, as I said earlier, I believe have had to impose a similar ban on some of their shellfisheries in the estuary of the Rhone.

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the disruption that has occurred in the markets for these market-sensitive products? Will he publish the evidence about which he has been talking and which scientists at Weymouth have been producing? How soon does he expect to lift the warning on crab? When he does that, will he give as much prominence to the fact that it has been lifted as to the adverse publicity it received when the warning went on?

I will of course—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, whose Ministry carries out the tests, will agree with me—publish the evidence on which it is based. But I issue the warning, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will share with me, that, when we publish the evidence, it should not be immediately be seized on by the pseudo-experts trying to claim that the danger extends beyond the point of which we have already warned. That is always a danger whenever my Department or any other tries to issue scientific information about problems of this kind. But I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall issue the evidence and I believe that it will reassure him about the action that we took.

We will publish the evidence as soon as possible; I am not sure why we cannot issue it more or less straight away. MAFF is continuing to monitor crabs. Low levels of toxin are occurring. As soon as it is clear that there is no risk of high levels of toxin occurring in crabs, the warning will immediately be lifted.

We have always said that action must be taken to protect consumers in cases of this kind and that a precautionary principle in matters of food safety must apply in cases of doubt. Having said that, the Minister must be fair and accept that there has been unreasonable delay in dealing with the testing of crabs and in giving out information.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it was impossible to get information out of MAFF until the Wednesday after the bank holiday? Neither I nor the NFFO could obtain information. Does he further accept that crab samples from South Tyneside council were not taken by the Department for processing because it was a bank holiday? One would have thought that, when dealing with a public health matter of this type, some priority would have been given to dealing with such issues.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that independent tests on crabs obtained by fishermen have been ignored? Given all the delays and muddles, will he accept that fishermen deserve an ex gratia payment as compensation for the losses that they have sustained through no fault of their own?

I do not usually face the hon. Gentleman, but the Opposition must decide whether they are shocked by the Government's lack of concern for food safety or by the fact that we take action when there is evidence of danger concerning food. Frankly, Opposition Members are trying to feed a mood of vague public alarm, when we have a perfectly straightforward case of a phenomenon that is familiar in the north-east and over which the Government have acted promptly and thoroughly.

It is not true to say that there was any difficulty in obtaining information. Perhaps in future the hon. Gentleman should consult my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for fisheries about how to communicate on such matters to obtain the information that he requires. We have an effective system for protecting public safety, and it has worked on this occasion. I think that the public are more sensible than either their politicians or the press on such subjects. Most people respect actions of the kind that we have taken, which are based on medical and scientific fact and not on spurious alarms or spurious complaints.