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Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) Order 1998

Volume 590: debated on Friday 19 June 1998

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1.20 p.m.

rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 2nd June be approved [36th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the draft order standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The order seeks your Lordships' approval for an emergency order made on behalf of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to ban fishing for certain types of shellfish in waters around the Orkney Isles. This emergency order came into force at 20.00 hours on 29th May 1998 and prohibits the fishing of mussels, scallops, cockles and razor clams.

The order was made as a result of a build-up of the naturally occurring paralytic shellfish poisoning toxin, or PSP as it is known. The toxins accumulate in tissues of animals which feed on plankton. PSP has traditionally been associated with naturally occurring plankton blooms in late spring and summer. These algae bloom in the seas around the United Kingdom and are ingested by shellfish.

PSP toxin is a potential health hazard and can cause death if taken in sufficient quantities. PSP in humans develops approximately 30 minutes after ingestion of the toxin. It is characterised by tingling, numbness and dizziness. Paralysis may follow. Gastro-intestinal symptoms may also occur, with diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. Ingestion of large amounts of toxin can cause respiratory paralysis and death within two to 12 hours. It is due to the serious effects of the PSP toxin that emergency action has to be taken to ensure that public health is adequately protected, hence the need for an emergency closure order.

Research is currently being funded by the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department into various aspects of toxic marine algae and related topics. Recent work has included the development of new methods of detecting algal toxins in shellfish and this work is now almost completed. A final report on this work is expected in late 1999. Other research work has included a study of the occurrence of potentially toxic algae in ballast water discharged at Scottish ports. This work has now been completed and fully reported.

In addition, a study of potentially toxic algae in sediments around the Scottish coast in areas where blooms are most frequent has also been undertaken. Further research in this area is being undertaken and will look at the role of bacteria in toxin production. A study of the metabolism of toxins in shellfish has also been commissioned. The Scottish Office has spent approximately £230,000 on research in 1997–98.

Under the Shellfish Hygiene Directive, member states are required to have monitoring programmes in place in relation to algal toxins. These must cover the commercial production areas. This requirement is met in the UK by monitoring the water for potentially toxic algal species and by testing samples of shellfish flesh for the presence of toxins such as PSP and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP). Following changes to the European Union directives, monitoring and testing for amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP) is now included within the routine monitoring programme. The cost of the whole monitoring programme was around £250,000 for 1997–98.

The routine PSP monitoring system carried out by the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen, is based upon testing at 45 fixed sites around the Scottish coast. It is supplemented by additional test locations when rising levels of toxin require more data to establish the extent of a problem.

The decision to make this emergency order was based on test results from the monitoring programme. PSP toxins were first detected in shellfish taken from around the Orkney Islands at the end of April, although below the agreed safe level. By 25th May, PSP toxins were detected in samples of shellfish taken from waters around the Orkney Islands at levels which exceeded the internationally agreed safety limit of 80 microgrammes of toxin per 100 grammes of flesh.

The order was made on 29th May as a result of tests showing elevated levels of PSP toxin in a variety of species of shellfish, including a level of 787 microgrammes of toxin per 100 grammes in mussels taken from within the prohibited area. This is over nine times the agreed safety level. The species affected by the order are mussels, scallops, cockles and razor clams. In Scapa Flow we were able to use data from shore-based sites and from vessels fishing in open water.

Over such a large area we could not be sure if the toxin was spread evenly or, perhaps more likely, occurring at random hot spots which were unpredictable. The scale of the results was too high to ignore. It would have made no real sense to close small areas around the highly affected locations that had been detected because algal blooms are not static. A piecemeal approach would have been inadequate in safeguarding public safety. Accordingly, the area prohibited by this order extends over a considerable stretch of water around the Orkney Isles which takes in the whole of Scapa Flow.

Of course, the closed areas must be monitored. As soon as the order was made, the local authorities, fishermen's and trade organisations and Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency were alerted. The Scottish Fisheries Protection Agency monitors compliance with the ban through marine surveillance operations and at ports of landing. Environmental health officers of the local authority ensure the effect of the order is understood locally and that warning notices are posted in affected areas advising the public not to gather or eat shellfish.

When areas of open sea are closed to fishing the Scottish Office must authorise vessels to go out to take samples from the prohibited species within the banned areas for testing. Results to date still show high levels of the paralytic shellfish poisoning toxins in shellfish in this area. Samples from the closed area continue to be monitored so that we know as soon as it is safe to re-open the fisheries, which I trust will not be too far distant. It must be remembered that the toxin does not kill the shellfish which remain available for fishing when the order is lifted.

Closures should come as no surprise to shellfish fishermen in Orkney since they have been an annual occurrence since 1990. The shellfish industry is kept informed of developments through the respective trade associations and via the Scottish Office telephone hotline. This was introduced in 1995–96 to give fishermen information on PSP and is updated each week throughout the summer period. There is always disappointment among the trade when a closure around the waters of Orkney has been made, but early action protects the good name of Scottish seafood. The trade has been kept informed of the recent continuing rise of levels of toxin in this area. However, based on the high PSP levels which are around Orkney at this time this emergency measure had to be taken in order to safeguard public health and to comply with EC requirements.

The extent of the ban always includes the area where it is known there are high levels of PSP and includes a margin of safety. Whenever a potential closure is considered, great care is taken to try to minimise the effect on the trade in setting the boundaries of the area providing this is compatible with safeguarding public health. Results received to date still show high levels of PSP toxins in shellfish around the Orkney Isles.

I must emphasise that our aim in taking this action is to ensure effective protection of the public from PSP toxin. The order will be revoked as soon as the results of continued sampling and medical and scientific advice indicate that it is safe to do so. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 2nd June be approved [ 36th Report from the Joint Committee].—( Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale.)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her clear explanation of this order to deal with an all too frequent occurrence. She made no mention of compensation. Will any compensation be available to fishermen whose livelihoods have been restricted by this order? I was glad to hear that the industry was kept informed of the changing levels of toxins in the areas concerned. Can one take it that the industry is also kept informed when levels reduce so that it can make preparations to resume fishing?

My other query relates to the trend for the making of such orders. Are they on the increase or at a fairly static level? With that, I again thank the noble Baroness and support the order.

My Lords, I had not come prepared to speak on this matter. However, the noble Baroness has provided a clue to a personal experience that I had in mid-May in this House. I now understand that the probable reason why I was laid low was PSP. It occurred one evening during the debates at Committee stage on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. I had been inclined to blame the Eurosceptics for the algae but I now understand that it was caused by PSP. The effects were devastating. If that was what I was suffering from, certainly no blame could be attached to the kitchens of this House. I began to feel unwell within about half-an-hour of eating a sea-food pasta which had only two mussels in it. Next day I could not move and was laid low for several days by a combination of what felt like flu and rheumatism. I am glad to have survived the experience. However, I am aware that the elderly or frail may not fare so well. I thoroughly support this measure.

I add my support to the question about compensation put by the noble Earl. I feel very sorry for the shellfish fishermen of Orkney. I do not know if the noble Baroness explained whether any knowledge was available about the root cause of this algae poisoning. Is it caused by pollution? If it is a periodic occurrence perhaps it is advisable to explore the root cause.

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness who has just spoken will be good enough to receive the condolences of one of the Eurosceptics to whom presumably she has referred.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and hope that he takes my joke in the spirit intended.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will wish to add its sympathy to the noble Baroness. I did not expect to receive such graphic confirmation of just how deadly ingestion of this kind of poisoned shellfish could be. Whether or not it was caused by PSP, obviously it was something similar. That underlines why it is essential to move quickly and decisively when levels indicate that there are dangers.

I turn to the question of compensation. This is not paid to fishermen. It has never been the policy of governments to compensate producers for consequential losses caused by natural events. In any case, the shellfish are not destroyed; they remain in the sea ready to be harvested when toxin levels go down and the order is removed. There is a loss of trade during the time that the ban is in force. As I have said, it has never been the policy of governments to compensate for losses caused by completely natural events. That takes me to the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. Tremendously intense research is going on into the whole question of these toxins. There is no evidence that pollution or any artificially produced substances create the toxin in the algae. It is completely naturally produced. From the papers that I have read, there is not one answer to the problem; it is due to a combination of factors. Obviously, temperature and other matters play a part in it. If there is a more specific, scientific answer I shall write to the noble Baroness.

The noble Earl asked about the industry being informed or warned about the possible making of an order and the lifting of it. The industry is notified as soon as possible after the order has been made. That is normally done by fax within hours. Similarly, the industry is informed when it is lifted. In addition, the industry is advised on a weekly basis of sample results. It should be able to anticipate the likely placing of an order as it sees levels rising over a period. There is a helpline at the Scottish Office with a dedicated number. That is operated throughout the monitoring season and any interested person can use it.

Finally, the noble Earl asked about the trend of these orders. There was one order in 1992; seven in 1993; three in 1994; six in 1995; and in 1996, 1997 and 1998 there has been one in each year. I do not know what trend can be read from that or whether matters are stabilising; probably not. That is the trend.

On Question, Motion agreed to.