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Animal Diseases/Contaminated Feed

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 15 January 2009

2. What steps his Department plans to take to ensure that cattle in England are protected from animal diseases and contaminated feed in 2009. (247628)

The Government are funding scanning surveillance to detect the emergence of new or exotic diseases in cattle. The diagnosis and disease investigation service is subsidised and offered to farmers through their private vets, and the analysis of samples is delivered by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. There are also projects targeted at specific diseases. DEFRA collaborates with the Food Standards Agency, Animal Health and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency to manage contaminated animal feed incidents.

The Minister’s answer contains some reassurance, but she will be aware of the devastating effect of the feed contamination in Ireland just before Christmas on the whole of that country’s pork meat industry—large amounts of product had to be destroyed. What specific steps have been taken to minimise the risk of such an event in the United Kingdom, and does the Minister agree that what happened emphasises the importance of better product labelling to enable us to enhance traceability if such an incident were to occur here?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I am in active dialogue with my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for public health. We need to learn the lessons from that recent incident to make sure that our procedures are as robust as we believe they are. However, the assurance scheme that protects British-produced pork—bacon, ham and other pig products—has really proved its worth in the past month. Consumers can be assured that when they purchase pork, bacon or ham that bears the British quality standard mark agreed with the British Pig Executive and which applies throughout the whole food chain, they are buying a product derived from animals that have been fed, reared and processed to the highest standards of animal welfare and food safety.

This is not just an issue about the protection of livestock in England; it applies right across the UK. Will the Minister assure the House that she regularly discusses issues such as animal disease and contaminated feed with her colleagues in the devolved Administrations?

Yes, indeed. As my hon. Friend would expect, I am very interested in working collaboratively with the devolved Administrations. The recent report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has made recommendations on the pork industry, referring to the Scottish taskforce for pig products. I want to learn from the Scottish experience, and I will be in touch with ministerial colleagues in the other authorities.

Given that the Government were essentially responsible for the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2007, surely they have an even greater responsibility to farmers, consumers and farmers’ livestock to protect against other animal diseases, including bluetongue? There is a vaccine against bluetongue strain 8, but not against other strains of the disease. Serotype 1 of the disease was discovered in Blackpool less than two months ago and is present elsewhere in western Europe. Given the devastating impact of an outbreak of bluetongue, not only on animal welfare but on farm incomes, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that we are protected against other strains of the disease?

As the hon. Gentleman would expect, we are monitoring the situation very closely. Our veterinary and animal health authorities conduct very strict surveillance. I am not aware of any circulating bluetongue disease found in the UK in 2008. The vaccination uptake previously was high in the south and the east of England, and the Pirbright experts believe that this was effective in controlling the BTV8 outbreak. We are not complacent, however—we know that we must keep all this work under very close review. We are conducting post-import tests for all bluetongue stereotypes. Every type of bluetongue can be detected through routine testing. We are urging the industry to consider the risks and to check the health and vaccination status of animals when sourcing any animals from within the UK or, indeed, from abroad.

Animal feed is one very important part of the food chain, but the focus and function of animals and farms in passing on manure to allotment holders is another vital part of the food chain. I have been contacted by allotment holders in Wakefield who have had farmers selling them manure that is not pure but has been contaminated with chemicals. What has my right hon. Friend’s Department been doing to ensure the minimisation of that and to ensure that people who want to grow their own do not end up with distorted carrots and parsnips?

I am very interested in the case that my hon. Friend has brought to the House, and I would want to have the opportunity to look into it in detail. The Environment Agency will be closely at work on the detail of this matter, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is also following it closely. We are aware that a particular product has been withdrawn. I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend, or if she would care to write to me with the details of the representations that she has received, I will be happy to look into them.

The people at the forefront in combating disease in our animals are the institutes of animal health. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the scientists and other staff who work at the Institute for Animal Health at Compton in my constituency and give them some assurance that the future of the institute in that location will be confirmed?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, no decisions have yet been taken regarding the institute and the other organisations with which it works. I am more than happy to join Members on both sides of the House in paying tribute to the work of those people in his constituency, who do extremely important work. I hope to visit their organisation in the near future to learn about their work.