With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on developments over the last two weeks in respect of the outbreak of avian influenza, or bird flu, in Suffolk. I reported to the House on 5 February the initial scientific findings and the planned response, and I can now set out developments in three areas: containment and eradication of the disease, investigation of its causes, and public information and public health.
First, containment of the outbreak required the culling and disposal of all turkeys on the site, preventive measures in a wider restricted area of more than 2,000 sq km, and extensive surveillance. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing my gratitude to public servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, other Departments and agencies, local government, the police and health authorities, as well as farmers and business people, for the efficiency, co-ordination and rigour of that operation.
Clinical signs of the infection emerge quickly and I am pleased to report that there have been no further outbreaks. Twenty-five wild bird locations, comprising 73 sites in the area, are regularly being patrolled. Tests have been completed on 12 dead wild birds in the area, as well as on live wild bird droppings from the infected premises. All results are negative. Domestic poultry in the protection zone have been located and clinically inspected by vets for signs of disease, as have the poultry premises considered most at risk in the surveillance zone. Tests have been completed on poultry samples from 21 premises in the protection zone. In all cases there has been no evidence of infection. The experts say that a period of two weeks from an outbreak is the time of greatest risk, but it is vital, as I will say at the end, that we do not in any way relax our guard.
The House will remember that the outbreak took place in one of 22 turkey sheds. Further analysis revealed that, although there had been no visible signs of disease, the virus was present in culled turkeys from three further sheds. Birds from all 22 sheds have been culled and the sheds have undergone preliminary cleansing and disinfection. Restocking can only take place 21 days after completion of secondary cleansing and disinfection, which is yet to take place. The part of the slaughterhouse where the turkeys were culled has been thoroughly cleansed and disinfected. Following assessment by the State Veterinary Service and confirmation by the Meat Hygiene Service that it was ready to slaughter animals intended for human consumption, the slaughterhouse was reinstated and designated on 11 February and reopened on 12 February.
Following scientific advice, restrictions in respect of shooting in the protection and surveillance zones as well as the national gatherings ban were lifted on 16 February. In accordance with the legislation, the earliest we would be able to lift the restriction zones in Suffolk is in the second week in March, provided there are no further outbreaks or suspect cases under investigation in the area.
Our second area of work has been to find the likely cause of the outbreak. I reported to the House on 5 February that the most likely cause involved wild birds, but that all avenues were being explored. That was consistent with the record of all past outbreaks and the scientific advice at the time.
Further genetic analysis took place during the week of 5 February, and on 8 February the deputy chief vet informed Ministers that the UK case came not just from the same family of bird flu as the Hungarian case, but that the genetic match was effectively identical. On 13 February, the Veterinary Laboratories Agency confirmed that the genetic match was 99.96 per cent. These genetic findings were significant because, if wild birds had transmitted the disease, the virus would have mutated and thereby changed its genetic make-up. It is for that reason that, since 8 February, our working hypothesis has been that the spread of the virus was associated with the import of poultry products from Hungary. It is important to emphasise again that that working hypothesis is not being pursued to the exclusion of other possibilities.
We are examining all possible routes of transmission, but our investigation of the cause of the incident has focused on transport links between Hungary and the site in Holton, and on biosecurity at the site. Our current understanding is summarised in two reports, involving the Food Standards Agency, the Health Protection Agency and the Meat Hygiene Service, as well as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, published on 16 February. Copies of those reports are available in the Library of the House and in the Vote Office.
Those reports found that there is no evidence that meat from the restricted areas in Hungary has entered the UK food chain. They also state that the risk to workers at the site was very low indeed. However, they show a number of ways in which infection could have entered the turkey sheds, carried from waste products by birds or rodents, or on footwear or clothing. Those possible pathways for infection make clear the importance of excellent biosecurity practices by all poultry keepers, whether large or small. I am assured that waste products on the site are currently being dealt with in a satisfactory way.
There remain restrictions on trade from restricted areas of the British and Hungarian outbreaks, but outside those zones, intra-Community trade is now normal. It is important that I record my thanks to the Hungarian ambassador to this country and to my Hungarian opposite number for their help and co-operation in the inquiry. Complex cases such as this depend on close international co-operation, and that has been forthcoming. I can also report that, last week, the first of a programme of three-way discussions involving UK and Hungarian vets and the European Commission took place. Tomorrow, I will be in Brussels for the Environment Council and I am seeking a meeting with the commissioner responsible for health and consumer protection.
The third part of our work has focused on public health and public information. In that, we are much helped by the role of the Food Standards Agency, which has been able to provide independent advice from the outset. That advice has been consistent: properly cooked meat poses no risk to consumer safety.
Our response to this serious outbreak is far from over. Preventive measures remain in place and our epidemiological investigation continues. We will have decisions to take about any legal or financial consequences of the investigations currently under way. I am also determined that we try to learn any and all lessons following this outbreak. That includes all aspects of the regulatory regime, domestic and international. Consistent with past practice, work is already being done to learn the lessons of the outbreak, and when it is concluded it will be published for public scrutiny.
The expert advice available to me is that there is a constant low risk of bird flu to the UK and higher risk during migration seasons. There can be no guarantee against further outbreaks; in fact the only guarantee is that there is a continual risk. That is why it is important that I reiterate my appeal to all poultry keepers to register with the poultry register and to maintain the highest standards of biosecurity. I am grateful to the British Poultry Council and other trade associations and professional bodies for their support in promulgating that message.
During the last 18 days, I have stuck to two clear requirements: to be guided by scientific evidence and to enforce and follow carefully established rules. Scientific evidence is important because the only basis for public confidence is that Ministers are guided by expert and—where possible—independent advice. The rules for controlling and stamping out disease are important because they represent the best thinking at international level on what is sensible. I believe that my approach has so far delivered the right results in this case, and I will continue with it in the future.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for giving advance notice of it, and I thank him and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare for having kept the Opposition briefed on unfolding events during the recent brief recess. I also join again with the Secretary of State in congratulating those on the ground in Suffolk who have dealt so professionally with the outbreak since it was discovered.
Does the Secretary of State now regret that he did not take the opportunity provided by his statement of 5 February to draw attention to the regular imports of semi-processed poultry meat from Hungary to Holton? Was he aware at that time that such shipments were taking place and, if he was, why did he not take the opportunity of referring to them? If he was not aware of them, did someone at Bernard Matthews simply fail to mention their existence?
Is the Secretary of State concerned that an impression was given that Ministers have not at all times been in control either of relevant information or of decisions relating to the trade with Hungary? It might have been legal to have continued to permit the trade in turkey products between Holton and Hungary after the discovery of the outbreak, but was it wise, particularly in view of the possible reputational risk to the industry? Do not the relevant European Union rules preclude prohibitions or restrictions on imports, exports or goods in transit when they can be justified on the grounds of protecting the health of humans, animals or plants? Did he discuss that issue with the European Commission?
The Food Standards Agency report states that no turkey meat imported from Hungary came from within the restricted zones. That being the case, does it not give rise to some serious concerns about the adequacy of the EU rules? We are now told that the most likely source of the outbreak was Hungary, yet there is no evidence of a contact with the restricted zones in Hungary. Does that not imply either that the disease might be elsewhere or that the restricted zones are in the wrong place? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the EU and the Hungarian authorities about that? Will he comment on reports that some packaging linked to one of the restricted zones was found at Holton?
Whatever else might emerge as a result of the continuing inquiries, there was clearly a major failure in biosecurity at the Bernard Matthews plant in Holton. I do not expect the Secretary of State to comment on the possibility of legal proceedings, but will the taxpayer have to foot a bill for compensating Bernard Matthews?
The chance that infected material has been spread by birds and rodents is worrying. The Secretary of State said that surveillance of the wild bird population has been stepped up, and rightly so, but what are we to make of reports that no testing of live birds has been undertaken in Suffolk? If that is true, is it not evidence of astonishing complacency? How many live birds have been tested within the restricted zone in East Anglia?
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the FSA report concerns the possible route of infection. Until now, it has been widely stated that the only route of infection is inhalation. We have all been careful to stress that there is no risk of catching avian flu from eating poultry meat, yet the FSA report’s hypothesis implies precisely the opposite. If a bird or rodent either itself ate the infected meat or carried it into the shed where turkeys pecked at it, does that not mean that the disease was transmitted through eating? If it were transmitted through eating, would not the virus have mutated, which we know that it did not? I am sorry if I sound confused about this, but I am, and I am not entirely sure that it is my fault that I am. I urge the Secretary of State to clear up these matters with precision and urgency.
On sales of poultry meat, what are the Government doing to monitor poultry consumption? On 5 February, the Secretary of State completely dodged—no doubt inadvertently—my question about EU compensation. At what point would he consider that the trade had been sufficiently damaged for him to claim compensation?
Finally, what is the thinking behind DEFRA’s advice that the public need only report findings of 10 or more dead birds? Would not the discovery of nine dead birds—or even fewer—that might be exhibiting some symptoms of bird flu warrant a call to the DEFRA helpline?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his keenness to engage with Department in the past two weeks and his remaining in contact, which has not in any way affected his ability to ask probing and serious questions.
On Bernard Matthews’s links with Hungary, when I answered questions in this House on 5 February, I reported, correctly, that the outbreak in Hungary had not taken place at a Bernard Matthews plant. It had a plant some 250 km away, in the north-west of the country, and at that stage we did not know about the Bernard Matthews processing operation outside the restricted zone but none the less close to it; that became clear later in the week.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would be better to be wise, rather than legal, in our approach, but my view is that it is generally wise to be legal in the operations that take place. He rightly referred to EU legislation that says that, in conditions of danger to human or animal health, it is possible to suspend the rules to which we are party. At no stage did I have any such advice. Obviously, if there had been advice about a risk to human or animal health, we would have taken different decisions, but in this case, the absolutely clear advice was that there was no such risk. The matter certainly was discussed—one obviously asks questions about it—and the answer was forthcoming very clearly.
On engagement with the EU, I make two points. First, and as I said in my statement, there were meetings and telephone calls last week on a trilateral basis with the EU and the Hungarian authorities. I will seek a meeting tomorrow, but discussions go on in that context. Secondly, he asked how this happened, and that is precisely what we are discussing; no possibilities are being ruled out. He also asked about packaging, and that issue is addressed in the reports that were published on Friday.
Biosecurity and related compensation is dealt with under the Animal Health Act 1981, which requires that compensation be paid in cases where healthy animals are slaughtered. No compensation has yet been paid in this case and, as I said in my statement, we want to take forward all aspects of our investigation before that question is addressed.
The hon. Gentleman said that he is worried about complacency in the investigation of wild birds close to the area. I will write to him about the number of tests in the immediate area. He asked specifically about Suffolk, but the figures that I gave referred to 73 sites in 25 or 23 locations. As I confirmed at my lunchtime meeting with the deputy chief vet and others, all the scientific advice is that we have one of the most effective surveillance and testing schemes anywhere in Europe.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the confusion that exists. I readily understand that this is a technical area and, if he is at all confused, my offer of a meeting between him and the deputy chief vet or other officials remains open. I am very happy for him to have that technical briefing.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether we are monitoring the purchase and consumption of poultry meat. Such figures have obviously been published, and we are following, rather than monitoring, them. On compensation, he will know that, like previous Governments, we do not compensate for market impacts. We will, however, follow existing rules and legal advice. Advice on what we would like the public to report has been set out extensively on the DEFRA website and elsewhere, and I urge people to follow it.
I understand that the virus will not survive outside a living organism for more than six hours. If that is the case, it automatically rules out transmission by meat products from Hungary, probably transmission by lorry and almost undoubtedly transmission on shoes. Is my right hon. Friend convinced that no live birds have been imported from Hungary that could have carried the live virus?
My scientific advisers are clear that the virus can live for longer than the six hours that my hon. Friend mentioned. I am happy to write to her with the details of our scientific knowledge in that area, but no such limitation has been explained to me. In respect of the imports from Hungary, there has been no evidence of imports from within the restricted areas, which would have been illegal and extremely serious.
Will the Minister accept my support for his comments about the way in which the various authorities have co-operated on the site, especially the connection between the police, the local authorities and the Government? I also thank him for the way in which he and the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare have kept us all well informed and in touch with what is happening.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one notable difference between this and previous occasions is that we have been able to carry on reasonably normally our trade with the rest of the European Union, which would not have been possible had it not been both for our membership and our continued association with the way in which the system works? Does not that also mean that we will have to consider carefully some of the concerns that people have raised about the way in which the rules work? In other words, I wonder whether public acceptability should be considered as well as the “wisdom” and “legality”. Sometimes some of the decisions that we make that are safe may not seem so to the public and it might be worth being more stringent so that the public universally feel that we have their interests in mind.
Finally, my constituents are of course the most affected by these events. As the Secretary of State knows, there are many other poultry producers in the area. Will he ensure that all of them continue to be kept in touch, because they feel isolated by the effects on their businesses? If they are kept fully informed at all times, it will help to continue their strong support for his measures.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for the work of staff and I will ensure that it is conveyed. In respect of stringency, we have extremely stringent rules and we apply them very stringently. It is important that we have had consistency of message in this case, and that has come from the Food Standards Agency and it has been repeated by Ministers and, to be fair, it has been repeated by Opposition spokespeople and other hon. Members. That consistent message has been about the safety of properly cooked poultry meat.
The point about keeping in touch with local poultry owners gives me the chance to reiterate the importance of the British poultry register, about which the right hon. Gentleman will know. If people are on the register, it is easy to remain in contact with them. Although 95 per cent. of the flock is covered by the register, that does not mean that 95 per cent. of owners are on it. Anything that any hon. Member can do to encourage registration—which is compulsory for flocks of more than 50 birds—would help us to stay in touch.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about learning lessons. The important point is that this has so far been a unique case in the European Union. There is no previous case in which wild birds have not been the carriers. After any case one has to learn lessons, but after a unique case it is especially important to consider whether the regulations are right.
No European country has taken retaliation against the United Kingdom in the past two and a half weeks. Although there have been calls that we should do things that are not legal, I remind the House that last year one swan was found dead in Cellardyke and that did not lead to retaliation either. It is enormously in the interests of public safety and confidence, and the poultry industry, that that remains the case. As I said two weeks ago, the right hon. Gentleman’s continuing desire to point out to his colleagues the importance of the European Union for the future of this country is very welcome.
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in letting us have early sight of the statement and for keeping us informed through the recess.
May I pick up on something that the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) asked? The Secretary of State said clearly that he had been informed later in the week about the extent of the Hungarian trade. We now know that 5 per cent. of all the turkey meat processed at the plant came from Hungary. When exactly did the Secretary of State become aware of that? Was it due to the finding of the wrapper in the Holton plant? It is important to clear that up.
The evidence of irresponsible biosecurity lapses at Holton, including gulls feeding on uncovered waste meat, is now compelling. The DEFRA summary report states that pest control reports in January made that clear and that
“similar comments had been made following previous visits of the pest control company in 2006”.
In the light of that finding—in other words, of repeated problems of the same sort that could infect the wild fowl population—how can the other report, from the FSA, DEFRA and the Health Protection Agency, assert that
“verbal advice about deficiencies and non-compliance was given. In each case the deficiency was addressed and no further enforcement action was taken”.
Which is it? Was Bernard Matthews acting on advice or ignoring the problem?
The Secretary of State says that he is assured that waste products on the site are currently being dealt with in a satisfactory way, but given the evident dangers, and the contradictions in the two reports he has presented, can he assure the House that there is now no risk of contamination of wild fowl? How does he know? When specifically did the Meat Hygiene Service last inspect the premises? How frequently does it attend to make such inspections?
Given the potential dangers were the virus to mutate into a form contagious between humans, does the Secretary of State agree that human health must be the first and foremost consideration in this case and that there must be no compromise in undertaking every possible measure necessary to guarantee it? If so, why did the FSA not test the imports of poultry meat from Hungary, as it tested the poultry in the shed after the discovery, so that we can rely on more than a mere paper trial to ensure that the meat did not come from the affected area around the H5N1-afflicted goose farm in Hungary?
In respect of the now infamous wrapper, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that obviously the figure that just over 5 per cent. of the meat processed was from Hungary did not come from the wrapper. That figure came from investigation of all the shipments. If not quite deriding our reliance on the shipments, he at least cast doubt on whether we should rely on them—I think he called them a paper trail. However, it is important to look at the shipments. There has been no suggestion either from the European Commission or anyone else that they are not a reliable record. Indeed, the EC carries out investigations and inspections to make sure that such records are undertaken on a serious basis. Obviously, the full extent of the shipments emerged only when the transport logs were handed over, which was Wednesday 7 February or Thursday 8 February. They were then investigated in some detail, which yielded the 5 per cent. figure published last Friday.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman rightly asked about the previous lapses and the advice that had been given. Our clear evidence from the work of the MHS and others is that the advice was acted on, but clearly if the problems recurred there would be an issue. The report says clearly that the premises were placed in the second highest category by the Meat Hygiene Service. That means that they are inspected once every five months. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that someone is on the site of a slaughterhouse whenever slaughter takes place; however, the rest of the premises were on a five-monthly schedule. The regime for any premises placed in the highest category is for an inspection to take place once every eight months. Given the events, the Meat Hygiene Service will no doubt want to consider the frequency of the inspection regime in the light of the most recent evidence.
I have it in my head that the last inspections of the slaughterhouse and the processing plant were in December and January respectively, but I shall confirm that just in case it was the other way round and the last inspection of the processing plant was in December and that of the slaughterhouse was in January. However, the last inspections took place in the months of December and January.
Subsequent to the outbreak, the inspections are set out in the report. Obviously, a lot of staff are on site at the moment, not least in the slaughterhouse.
I want to finish on one point. The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the danger to human health. I am sure, or at least hope, that it was inadvertent, but this morning he talked on the radio about the further infection of humans. One has to be very careful in using such language; he has used it again in the House. Although tough and probing questions should be asked, it is very important that one should not in any way allow the impression to get abroad that somehow a human catastrophe is already under way. It is very important that we should be vigilant and that we never say that there is no risk. There is an ongoing risk of bird flu, but it is incumbent on us to choose our words very carefully when talking about transmission to humans.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his staff on the prompt and thorough response to the outbreak. I welcome the fact that efforts to find its precise cause have not yet been abandoned.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on reports that, after the outbreak, a number of lorry loads of raw turkey meat continued to go from the Bernard Matthews plant to Hungary, and that that was a source of considerable irritation to the chief vet in Hungary?
My right hon. Friend speaks with authority on these matters. I think that I can assure him that there have been no complaints from the Hungarian side about what he mentioned. There are clear European rules about the transmission of birds reared in, and poultry meat processed in, a restricted area. Those rules have been carefully followed, and I assure him that there has been no complaint from the Hungarians in that regard.
I apologise to the Secretary of State for having missed the first minute of his statement. Both he and my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) have been very careful with their use of language when talking about possible breaches of biosecurity at the plant. Is the Secretary of State yet able to say whether, in the opinion of his experts, there have been breaches of biosecurity there? If, at the end of the day, the audit trail proves that there was no breach of biosecurity and that that Bernard Matthews plant was not responsible for the outbreak, what conclusion will he be able to draw?
Let me choose my words carefully. I do not think that there is any doubt that there have been biosecurity breaches; that is evident from the report about the treatment of the waste products. However, we always have to say “a possible route of transmission” in respect of how the disease got into the turkey sheds. The reports published last week established a possible route of transmission. We cannot now say that we have evidence of a transmission; what we have is a possible route of transmission.
That is one reason why our investigations are continuing. Only when they are concluded can we come to a calculation or assessment of the right steps forward. I should like to draw a distinction between breaches or lapses on the one hand, and routes of transmission on the other.
My right hon. Friend will know that Hungary’s prowess in science far exceeds the size of the nation. Will he assure the House that everything possible is being done to share the genetic data that have emerged with our colleagues in Hungary and, indeed, with other countries that are involved in tracking down this very interesting and complex trail?
“Interesting” is a good word to use to describe the last two weeks. My hon. Friend makes an important point. I did not go into detail in my statement about my discussions with the Hungarian ambassador when she came to see me, or with my Hungarian opposite number. It is obviously important to take every opportunity to explain and set out on record the fact that the Hungarian commitment to the containment and eradication of bird flu is very strong. Its scientific commitment is well known and there is no evidence that Hungary has not followed the rules with the same rigour that we have.
The continuation of the wider restriction zone into the second week in March, which I believe is a requirement under the agreed EU procedures, is causing some difficulties for poultry farmers—regardless of what is happening to retail sales. Will my right hon. Friend make clear what possible help might be available to such farmers? Secondly, will he say a little more about reports of open containers of turkey waste material? Were they lapses, or is that regular practice at the factory? What is the view of the Meat Hygiene Service, the Food Standards Agency and the Health Protection Agency on that particular practice?
In respect of organic and free-range status, I am happy to confirm that the rules that I set out two weeks ago remain in force and that those producers should keep that status, which is obviously valued. It certainly should not be described as regular practice to have waste open to the elements or open to wild birds or anything else. There are very clear rules about that, which is one reason the advice was given and, we were told, followed. It is very important that we learn the lesson from this outbreak that although the chances of transmission may be small, as long as they exist, real efforts must be made to reduce them to as close to zero as possible. That is the responsibility of every poultry owner, large or small.
My main concern is human health in the event of the virus mutating to threaten a human pandemic. We know that we cannot design a specific vaccine until we can analyse the virus that has mutated, but we also know that we can now put in place the production capacity to ensure that when the vaccine has been designed—it would only take a few weeks—we can go ahead with the massive production of the new specific vaccines that will be needed to protect human health and life. What are the Government doing to provide such production capacity and make it ready now?
That is a very large question, making it difficult for me to summarise an answer. The hon. Gentleman will know that, in co-ordination with the Department of Health, extensive preparations are being made. He summarised the difficulty of the vaccine issue in that any pandemic would result from a mutation between human flu on the one hand and bird flu on the other. That causes particular difficulties when it comes to vaccination. What I can say is that all appropriate and scientifically robust preparations are being made, including in respect of vaccine stocks. I would be happy to send the hon. Gentleman the detailed contingency plan.
Given that the virus came—or may have come—from Hungary and that, according to the Secretary of State, there has been no breach of the regulations by the Hungarian authorities, does that not suggest that there is a gap in the precautions afforded by the regulations? If that is the case, what is the Secretary of State doing with regard to the European Community, officials, the Council and, indeed, the Hungarian authorities to explore the nature of that gap in precautions and to guard against it?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman raises an important issue, which has been touched on by hon. Members, and it may help if I try to encapsulate two aspects of what I have said. First, there is something of a mystery still to be solved, and it is important that no one is under any illusion about that. The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) raised two hypotheses. They must be investigated. Those hon. Members who have read the reports published on Friday will have seen the reference to the fact that turkeys can have the disease before it shows. The turkeys in three of the sheds that were discovered to have the virus did not show any outward sign of that virus. So there is a line of inquiry that must be pursued in that respect.
Secondly, the very important word that the right hon. and learned Gentleman used was “if”. If any gaps are found, we must close them as soon as possible. I have repeatedly referred to the work that we are doing both domestically and with European colleagues. That work is designed precisely to find out whether there is a gap. If there is a gap, I can assure him that it will be shown up and published, and intensive measures will be taken to close that gap. Obviously, we cannot allow our defences to have those sorts of weaknesses in them if they are shown to exist.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, a few years ago, under the auspices of the predecessor Department—the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—studies were carried out to show the potential spread of avian pathogens in poultry sheds and that they demonstrated very clearly that droplets applied to unrelated stuff were quickly transmitted to poultry sheds via their ventilation systems? If so, was any further advice on the biosecurity of ventilation systems issued to poultry farmers? Has that route of transmission been fully investigated?
The short answer is no; I do not know whether new evidence about the ventilation issue has been sent. That is not one of the routes of transmission that has been suggested. Under the rules of the House, I am not allowed to look at the civil service bench to see whether officials are nodding or shaking their heads about whether or not ventilation is an issue. [Hon. Members: “They are all nodding.”] Indeed, they are doing so. However, perhaps I can advertise my ignorance to the hon. Gentleman by saying that that ventilation issue—in other words, airborne transmission—has not been raised as a possibility, but I am happy to send him some details about that.
The Secretary of State confirmed in answer to an earlier question that the virus can live for longer than six hours on dead meat. Why therefore were the dead birds transported all the way from Suffolk to Staffordshire, when the lessons that we learned from foot and mouth and BSE outbreaks were that animals or birds, once dead, should be destroyed as close to that point as possible?
There is a very straightforward answer to that; the lessons are that the birds must be killed not just as fast as possible, but as securely and safely as possible. The Staffordshire rendering plant offered the most safe and secure way not just to destroy but to eliminate those carcases. It is worth pointing out that that operation was extremely effective and that there was certainly no question that the transport of those 160,000 dead turkeys posed any risk to anyone on the route of that transit.
The Secretary of State made reference to his meetings with the European Union. Although all hon. Members would recognise that it is right and proper that everything necessary be done to deal with the outbreak, will he give an assurance that if the EU proposes extra and additional burdens beyond those that our scientists and poultry farmers recognise as necessary to deal with the outbreak he will not cave in to its demands and will effectively stand up for the interests of British farmers? I emphasise that we must do whatever is necessary but nothing that the EU wants above that which our scientists recognise as necessary.
The hon. Gentleman speaks as a Member of the House, but I know that he also holds an exalted position as shadow Deputy Leader of the House. His question might be better directed at Members on his own Front Bench, because there seems to be some dispute among them about exactly whose scientific standards we should be—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman holds on, I am happy to answer his question. I would say two things. First, it is important that our scientific advice helps to lead the European debate in this area. That is why our epidemiological work does so. Interestingly enough, the Weybridge laboratory, which does a lot of this work, is recognised around Europe as leading much of it. Secondly, it is not in the interests of British farmers, or anyone else, for there to be any doubts in the public mind that public and animal health is the absolute priority guiding the Department, the Government and all parties in the House. That must be addressed in a way that does not pretend that risk can be eliminated, but that minimises that risk. That is what we will seek to do.