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Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

Volume 175: debated on Thursday 28 June 1990

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many parents of schoolchildren in Cleveland have made representations to him about BSE.

I have received representations about BSE from various organisations and individuals. I am sure that many parents of schoolchildren in Cleveland are unhappy that children compulsorily taught science and scientific values are now compulsorily being denied beef on entirely emotional grounds.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I should be surprised if any parents had written directly to the Ministry. There is no evidence from my postbag of any such representations from Cleveland parents. I have checked with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) and he has not had any either. Yet despite that, the Labour-controlled county council imposed a ban on beef long after most of the other county councils that did, damaging farming interests in the north-east and giving comfort to our competitors on the continent.

One should not judge the matter on the basis of whether this or that interest is damaged. One must judge it on the scientific basis of whether eating beef is safe. The chief medical officer said unequivocally that it is and the scientific advice given to the Government and the EC supported that statement. I find it odd that Cleveland county council considers that its local advice is better than the national advice.

I am sure that the Minister would not wish to mislead the House. Is he aware that good quality lean beef is still on the menu in Cleveland schools? What are not on the menu are products made from beef offal and mechanically recovered beef, and that is completely different. Is the Minister aware that Cleveland county council received advice from Professor Peter Blair of the department of environmental medicine, Newcastle university, and from Dr. Ted Holt at Middlesbrough general hospital, who specialises in BSE and scrapie? Therefore does the Minister accept that the subsequent decision was not alarmist but a sensible response to the representations of school governors, parents and teachers? Was not that a sensible approach when there was near panic on the continent of Europe?

I should have thought that, of all hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman would be careful about taking the medical advice of an individual of one sort or other. He knows how careful one has to be. Therefore, I say quite clearly that the chief medical officer, an independent person, made it clear that, in all the areas that the hon. Gentleman is talking about, beef is safe to eat. The European Community's scientific advice is exactly the same, as is the advice given to the Government. Science cannot be taught, and we cannot expect it to be accepted in our schools, if local education committees refuse to accept scientific advice and proceed on an emotional basis.

It is, Mr. Speaker.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in seeking to reassure the schoolchildren of Cleveland and other British citizens about the purity and safety of British beef, he has been greatly frustrated in his task by a bogus professor and by Opposition Members who make completely unsubstantiated claims, unscientifically based, about the possible dangers, as they see it, of British beef?

I think that my hon. Friend would want me to be clear that my first priority is to protect the health of the nation. I have absolutely no other priority. Great damage has been done by the creation of unnecessary anxiety. Part of that damage is that our ability to warn people where warnings are necessary has been undermined, as we found, for example, on the contamination of seafood. Yes, we must stand firm on the fact that British beef is safe to eat for adults, children and even the most vulnerable. I hope that Cleveland will soon reverse its ban.

Does the Minister appreciate that parents in Cleveland are often also pet owners? Does he realise that many of them, in the same way as pet owners elsewhere, are deeply concerned that four cats have been verified as having died of spongiform encephalopathy and that a further 20 are suspected of having done so? Will the Minister grapple with that problem and take decisive action by banning the use of cattle and sheep offal in all pet food?

I think that hon. Members will agree that we are concerned about the interests of pet owners and pets. But I wonder why the hon. Gentleman has moved the question from the subject of schoolchildren in Cleveland. Is it because he does not agree with Cleveland county council's ban? The hon. Gentleman's figures are completely wrong. Twenty cats were tested and found not to have an encephalopathy. Four cats—and I announced the figures one by one, of course—were found to have one, but there is no evidence that any of them were connected with BSE.