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Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy Regulations

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

The debate has a rather long-winded title on the Order Paper which was necessary to comply with our friends in the Table Office. It is about the future of Harriet the cow. She is a pet cow owned by my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Price, who live near Newent. Harriet is a nine-year-old Jersey cow, who was born on a farm in Oxfordshire and is not kept for diary or meat production, but is actually a family pet. Her future is threatened by the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy regulations and the way that they are being implemented by the Department.

The essential point is rather straightforward. Harriet was born on a farm in Oxfordshire as a winter calf and earlier that year another calf was born on the same farm which later became infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Under European and national regulations, all cohort animals must be slaughtered and, at the moment, the Department is including Harriet within that description. She has been valued at £1,049 and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wants to have her slaughtered by the end of the month.

TSE regulations are sensible and appropriate for animals that are intended to enter the food chain. There is no disagreement about that as the link with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is well established and there is a clear need to ensure that bovine spongiform encephalopathy-infected meat does not enter the food chain for human health reasons and for the sake of our farming industry. I am not arguing that any suspect animal should have the opportunity to enter the food chain. However, the European regulations concerned clearly state:

“These rules should apply to the production and placing on the market of live animals and products of animal origin”.

They go on specifically to state that the regulations should not

“apply to products of animal origin which do not pose a risk to animal or human health since they are intended for purposes other than the production of food, feed or fertiliser”.

As Harriet is a pet cow, it is clearly the case that she is not intended for any of those purposes. Indeed, her owners wish her to live out her natural life on their farm, in a field near Newent. The cohort regulations identify a cohort as

“a group of bovine animals which were either born in the same herd as, and within 12 months preceding or following the birth of, the affected cattle or reared together with the affected animal at any time during the first year of their life and which may have consumed the same feed as that which the affected animal consumed during the first year of its life”.

There are two parts to that definition. Regarding the first part, Harriet has been identified as a cohort animal because she has the same holding number as the cow that was infected with BSE, and that is because they were owned by the same farmer. However, the farmer kept the two herds separately: they were managed in a completely separate way and in different buildings that were a mile apart, although on the same farm. The second part of the cohort definition refers to rearing and feeding regimes, and it relates to whether Harriet has consumed the same feed as that which the infected animal consumed during the first year of its life.

The original breeder of Harriet and the vet have, to be fair to the Department, relatively recently confirmed some details and put together documentary evidence to be supplied to the Department, which I know it has been considering. A letter I have received from Harriet’s breeder confirms that she had “completely different feed” from the animal with BSE, that food was bought in small batches and that as the cows were born a considerable distance apart, they did not share the same feed and, indeed, were separated at either end of the farm by about a mile. The owner confirms that

“these animals would never have been fed from the same silage bales, bought in bagged feed or ruminvite blocks”.

The vet who looked after Harriet and the farm has confirmed that they were managed as completely separate groups with different feeding regimes and in different buildings. He also confirmed that calf food was purchased in small batches, so the batch eaten by the older summer-born calf—the infected calf—would not have been consumed by Harriet the younger winter-born calf. The vet also confirmed the facts stated by the owner.

My contention is that Harriet does not fall within the definition of a cohort as set out by the regulations.

The debate is very specific and I want to offer the hon. Gentleman my full support in his quest to ensure that the Government give way in favour of his constituents and Harriet. Will he acknowledge that there is potentially a further threat to owners of animals such as Harriet and, indeed, farmers of all kinds, in my constituency and his, from the Government’s current consultation on the funding of clean-up and compensation costs after animal disease outbreaks such as BSE or foot and mouth?

Thank you, Mr. Martlew, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

I have explained at some length why I do not think that Harriet falls within the cohort definition required by the European regulations. A further, more general point—it would be helpful for the Minister to respond to this—is that my contention and the contention of the Prices is that Harriet does not pose any threat to human health. For her to do so, she would have to enter the food chain. My contention is that this will never happen. First, her owners have no intention of selling her or doing anything other than keeping her as a pet. Secondly and, from the Department’s point of view, most importantly, DEFRA hold her passport so she cannot legally be moved or slaughtered, and even if that were to occur, she would have to be tested for BSE post-slaughter. My contention is that the risk to human health from Harriet is non-existent.

In the letters I have written to the Minister, I have repeatedly asked him to explain how Harriet poses a threat to human health, and that is one of the key points that has never been satisfactorily answered. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain in his response, without reference to bureaucratic regulations and in plain English, how Harriet continuing to live poses a threat to human health. I cannot work that out.

In the Minister’s reply to me of 13 June, he correctly points out in paragraph 4 that currently

“there is no live test for BSE”.

That is one reason why animals have to be slaughtered and tested post-mortem. There are two examples of companies working on live tests for BSE—one in Canada and one in the United States. They are currently at the final stages of tests before clinical trials within the EU. Those tests are expected to be available before the end of 2007 and will analyse DNA strands in the blood of the animal in question, pick up on any signs of disease and detect the disease well in advance of any symptoms. If the Minister is unable to accept that Harriet is captured by those regulations, and if Harriet’s owners were to agree to further controls over her movements, one possible avenue open to him might be to give Harriet a stay of execution until a live BSE test is available, when she could be tested to check whether she is free of infection.

I know that Ministers and officials are very keen on precedents, so I would like to give two examples of where they were sufficiently flexible to exempt animals in cases such as this. A short time ago in March, it was reported that Larry the lamb, which despite that name was female, entered a slaughter house but was not slaughtered because abattoir workers realised there was a new-born lamb among the sheep and made an exception. However, official rules said that no animal born in a slaughterhouse could leave it alive, and they were ordered to kill the lamb, which they named Larry, and its mother. They had to go as far as employing a barrister to argue their case against DEFRA, the Department represented by the Minister, which made the point that disease control legislation was unequivocal and rules were rules. However, after a day’s intensive lobbying, a high-ranking civil servant in London finally relented and gave permission for a special licence allowing Larry to live on a local farm, showing that officials can be sufficiently flexible if necessary.

Of course, the best known example, which many people, certainly in my constituency, can remember, takes us back to the days when we were suffering because of foot and mouth disease. The famous Phoenix the calf was found on a pile of dead animals and should have been killed under the requirements of the rules at the time, which we know were applied relentlessly throughout the country. However, Phoenix was allowed to live under a “policy refinement”—I think that was the official way it was described at the time.

This is my plea to the Minister. Will he consider the evidence about how Harriet was reared and fed, which shows that she was not part of the cohort and therefore is not required to be slaughtered under the regulations? If he does not find that evidence convincing, I plead with him to allow Harriet a stay of execution at least until a live BSE test is available. I am sure that the Prices would comply with any further restrictions that the Department wanted to invoke, to assure themselves that there was no risk of her being moved or entering the food chain. Finally, I ask the Minister to think about the other examples in which flexibility was shown. If he were able to do that, he would have the gratitude not only of the Prices and the many people in my constituency who are supporting them and Harriet, but of many people who have contacted me from around the world about the case. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) on securing the debate and I commend him for the diligence that he has shown in getting to grips with what is a quite complex and technical issue. I am grateful to him for accepting the importance of our BSE controls, which I shall come to in a moment. On a personal level, I sympathise strongly with him and his constituents: Harriet is obviously a much loved pet. However, as he himself recognised, it is very important, not only for public health but for our beef industry, that our BSE controls are followed rigorously.

You will recall, Mr. Martlew, that variant CJD is a terrible disease that has already cost the lives of more than 150 people in this country. That is why we have stringent BSE controls and why they must be enforced. The economic effects of BSE were also devastating for our livestock industry, for the beef industry in particular and for the taxpayer. In 1995, we exported £500 million-worth of beef. Until the present Government succeeded in persuading the EU to lift the export ban in May this year, the British beef industry had suffered 10 years of lost exports. Lifting the export ban has been a slow, painstaking process and has been achieved by demonstrating to the European Commission, to other EU member states and to our own independent Food Standards Agency that our BSE controls are effective and are being applied rigorously.

Of course, the economic effects have not been confined to exports. Until last November, we had an over-30-months rule, which kept older cattle out of the food chain. As a result, the Government had to establish in 1996 an over-30-months slaughter scheme to dispose of the many thousands of cattle that could not enter the food chain. Under that scheme, more than 8 million cattle were incinerated at a cost to the taxpayer of £3.9 billion.

Once again, it was the strict application of our BSE controls that enabled us to replace the over-30-months rule with a robust system of BSE testing for cattle born after July 1996. Instead of an expensive OTM scheme, we now have a much cheaper and more limited cohort cull and the older cattle disposal scheme, under which cattle born before August 1996 are destroyed. That is better for farmers and for the taxpayer.

Hon. Members should not have any doubt that cohort cattle are at higher risk of developing BSE. We are not just blindly following rules that make no sense. Cohort cattle are those that might have consumed the same feed as a BSE case during the first year of their lives, and feed contaminated with the BSE agent is the most important source of BSE infection for cattle. Experts believe that the majority of BSE cases were infected during the first year of their lives.

BSE was confirmed in six cohort animals culled last year. That is a confirmation rate of 0.2 per cent. In comparison, the confirmation rate in 2005 for normal healthy cattle born after July 1996 was only 0.0007 per cent. That is why EU legislation requires all member states to kill cohorts as soon as possible.

We began the cohort cull in March 2005 in preparation for the replacement of the over-30-months rule. By carrying out the cull, we removed from the national herd all those cattle known to be at a higher risk of being infected with BSE. That is important. Consumer representatives in this country and on the continent have made it clear to us that they do not want there to be any chance of those cattle entering the food chain. To date, we have culled more than 3,500 cohort cattle, some of which have been pets.

Other than for animals kept for the purposes of bona fide research projects on approved premises, there are only two exceptions to the legal requirement to cull cohort cattle. Those are if the animal is a breeding bull at an artificial insemination centre or if there is evidence that the animal did not consume the same feed as the BSE case. Harriet is manifestly not a bull, and in the past her owner has agreed that she shared feed with the BSE case with which she is linked. As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean said, the owner has subsequently submitted further information that, it is claimed, shows that the animal did not in fact share the same feed as the BSE case. I will of course examine that evidence in detail before any final decision is reached.

Let me deal with a couple of the other arguments that the hon. Gentleman and campaigners involved in this case have suggested as reasons why Harriet should not be culled. We are told that she is a pet and therefore the legislation does not apply to her. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no exemption for pet cattle under the law.

May I pick the Minister up on that point? It seems to me that the European regulations do not apply to animals not intended for the food chain. Just so that we are clear, can the Minister confirm whether that is the case, or whether the regulations as implemented in the UK by the Government were widened to apply to all animals? The reason why I focus on the EU point is that it is the concern about the reaction of our partners that is so worrying.

There is no exemption under EU law or domestic law for live cattle, whether or not they are considered to be pets. In fact, the German Government have recently been taken to task for their lax implementation of the cohort rule. We would face exactly the same infraction proceedings were we to follow the position suggested by the hon. Gentleman, although of course it is always open to legal representatives of the family in question to challenge any final decision if they think that we are interpreting provisions more strictly than other EU countries, or if they think that we have got it wrong. That course is always open to anyone who disagrees with something that the Government are doing.

It has also been claimed that Harriet is too old to develop BSE. Again, that is not true. The mean incubation period for BSE in cattle is about five years, but the range is very wide. The oldest reported BSE case in Britain was 22 years of age; the youngest was 20 months. We are told, and the hon. Gentleman has reminded us today, that Harriet cannot enter the food chain because she is padlocked in a field and her passport has been seized. Those measures offer reassurance, although, given the albeit unlikely possibility of cattle rustling, there can be no 100 per cent. guarantee. There remains a legal obligation to cull the animal because she is directly linked to a confirmed BSE case and may have been exposed to the same contaminated feed.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the prospect of a new live test for BSE. We have consulted experts at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, who have advised that that test is neither available nor approved yet and it may be some time until it is. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the guarantee that he seeks that we should simply wait for the possibility of such a live test and not implement the law in the meantime.

On that point, my office spoke to the company in San Jose, California, yesterday, to check the timetable. The company said that in the next few months, probably by the end of this year, it would be ready to apply to the EU for testing. Therefore, the timetable is perhaps more secure than a long one would be. Perhaps the Minister’s officials could research that point, and check whether a short delay is involved, or something more considerable.

I should be very surprised if the company were not as keen as most companies are to get its tests validated as soon as possible. It is in its interest to do that, but that does not necessarily mean that it will happen. I think that I am right in saying that, if the test is validated, that will be the first available live BSE test. There has not been one until now, and it is not a matter that is always straightforward. We shall of course keep the matter under review, but if the hon. Gentleman looks into the issue, he will, I think, find that several stages would remain to be undergone before a live BSE test was accepted. It would have to be accepted as a validated test EU-wide before we could use it as an alternative to our current BSE controls.

For the moment, the EU TSE regulation requires the culling of cohorts as soon as possible. We have a legal obligation. Our BSE controls will be subject to yet another EU veterinary inspection shortly, and any shortcomings that are found could undermine confidence in our beef exports. It has taken a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get on top of the scourge of BSE. We are finally winning that battle. Our domestic over-30- months rule was replaced with a robust testing system in November last year, since when more than 330,000 cattle that would have been incinerated have instead been sold for human consumption. Since the export ban was lifted in May, beef exports have been steadily building, and they are currently running at 1,000 tonnes a week, valued at about £1.5 million. The beef price has risen by about 20 per cent. in just 12 months. Those significant achievements have benefited beef farmers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and elsewhere, and we have achieved them through sound science, proper risk assessment and rigorously enforced BSE controls. All that could be put at risk if our domestic or EU food safety authorities believed that we were acting illegally on BSE.

I shall look again at the correspondence that, Harriet’s owner suggests, shows she did not share the same feed as a BSE case. However, if, when the Government reach a firm and final decision, the Price family disagree, they can, as I have said, challenge it in the courts. However, I hope that both they and the hon. Gentleman will recognise that any Government’s priority must be to protect public health and to promote confidence in our beef industry.

Before the Minister sits down, he has clearly set out the issues affecting the beef industry, but it is still not clear to me, and it would be helpful if he could explain, what risk there is to public health from allowing Harriet to live, given the family’s assurances, and the fact that the passport is under the control of the Department.

I am not a veterinary expert or scientist. I am simply spelling out to the hon. Gentleman the BSE rules and regulations, which are extremely important for the protection of public health, for the prevention of unnecessary deaths of human beings, and crucially—the hon. Gentleman needs to be clear about this with the beef industry in his constituency—for consumer confidence at home and abroad in our beef industry.

Sitting suspended.