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Food Safety: Contingency Planning

Volume 572: debated on Thursday 16 May 1996

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3.13 p.m.

What inter-departmental mechanisms exist for contingency planning to deal with major public concern over matters of food safety.

My Lords, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercise their statutory responsibilities in relation to food safety in continuous close co-operation. Inter-departmental planning and action on particular food safety problems is co-ordinated through MAFF's emergency control centre or the Department of Health's food hazards warning system depending on the nature of the incident. For issues of public concern affecting several government departments the Cabinet Office fulfils its normal co-ordinating role.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that food scares can decimate whole sectors of the livestock industry overnight? After the scares relating to salmonella in 1988, listeria in 1990, BSE in the autumn last year and now the current BSE fiasco, it is clear that the Government have learnt nothing. The whole saga reveals a total lack of contingency planning. Do the Government agree that once the dust has settled there is a strong case for a full-scale inquiry into the BSE crisis so that we can learn lessons for the future and set up the mechanisms that we shall need to deal with the next crisis, because there will certainly be one?

My Lords, I am sure that we shall study closely what has happened in the BSE crisis to see whether we can learn lessons from it. I must say to the noble Lord that it is not immediately apparent what lessons are to be learnt. Crises occur because developments occur outside the control of government and the Government then have to deal with them. The process of dealing with them has not been a crisis, nor was the advent of the crisis controllable or containable by government. We just have to deal with what happens.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is great anxiety about infections such as campylobacter and salmonella which are now becoming resistant to treatment by antibiotics?

My Lords, I am well aware that there is such concern. Indeed, I believe that my noble friend Lord McColl recently suffered from campylobacter, and extremely painful he found it.

My Lords, arising from the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, is there not a serious case for considering the establishment of an independent food safety agency? It appears that in dealing with food safety problems the division of labour between a number of ministries can lead to delay and confusion.

My Lords, it is always interesting when someone suggests that the way to deal with the problems of divisions between departments is to create extra divisions by instituting a new department and a whole new range of interfaces. Looking at the way in which MAFF and the Department of Health handled this and previous issues, I believe that the co-operation between them runs extremely deep. Government departments as widespread as the Treasury, the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Defence have been enormously and immediately co-operative in respect of the BSE problem. We see no particular advantage in creating extra barriers to communication.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a serious matter which needs a great deal of attention? Is not half the problem that Ministers, before they have had time properly to assess a situation, make statements which are then understandably whipped up by the press and often misunderstood by those to whom they are addressed? The striking example was in the case of the BSE crisis when the Secretary of State for Health, Mr. Dorrell, said that if he were so advised he would destroy all the cattle in this country? That was not a considered statement. Perhaps that matter could be taken on board if the Government accept my noble friend's good proposal.

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised this matter previously. I must tell him again that it was a considered statement which my right honourable friend would stand by to this day because public safety comes first. What the noble Lord is suggesting implicitly in his question is that he would prefer that Ministers lied rather than told the truth.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while there is a great deal of dissent against believing that the solution to any problem is to create a new, small, weak department to deal with it, there has for some time been a widespread belief that MAFF is excessively producer oriented and that there is a case for having an independent body to represent the consumer in this vital area? Would the Minister care to correct the impression that he gave in an earlier answer, which I am sure he did not intend, that the handling of the crisis during the past two months has been almost perfect and that there are no lessons to be learnt from it, because that will not command widespread support?

My Lords, I am sure that the handling of the issue has not been perfect. Perfection is not what we have aimed for; we have aimed for speed and efficiency and for achieving the necessary measures as quickly as possible. I am sure that in the course of that process some issues could have been made more perfect if given a great deal more time.

As regards the noble Lord's first question, yes, one can always argue whether matters should be dealt with by one ministry or another or how they should be divided. However, it is extremely important that the whole agricultural and food producing industry should have consumer safety at its heart. Having food safety and the producing interests within the same department achieves that effect. That ethos permeates the whole of the Ministry and therefore the whole of the industry for which it is responsible. To the extent that consumers need a separate advocate, they have a most able one in the Department of Health.

My Lords, following an earlier answer to a supplementary question, will the Minister advise the House what contribution the MoD has made to the BSE crisis?

My Lords, the principal help which the Ministry of Defence has given is in storage capacity, both cold storage for carcasses which cannot yet be rendered and storage for meat and bonemeal which cannot yet be incinerated.

My Lords, the Minister assures us that there has been continuous and carefully thought out planning. Can he tell us where we might be as regards the BSE crisis if there had not been the planning that he now describes?

My Lords, with the increase in food poisoning, what guidelines are being put out to the public?

My Lords, I am not aware that there is any specific panic at this moment on food poisoning. However, I shall consult with my colleagues in the Department of Health and, if necessary, write to the noble Baroness.