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EU: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their approach to the proposed amendment of European Union regulations relating to the slaughter of animals linked by cohort to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) infection to allow more flexibility in implementation.

My Lords, we welcome the flexibility this amendment would bring. However, the Government would need to consider very carefully whether the UK would want to apply for a derogation to delay the culling of cohorts. It is unlikely that any change would be made before 2008 at the very earliest. Meanwhile, we are required to enforce the legislation that is currently in place and which has created confidence in our beef.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. He is probably aware that I will ask him about Harriet, the Jersey cow. For noble Lords who do not know, Harriet was born about nine years ago on a holding in Oxford where another cow, born six months later, suffered from BSE and has been slaughtered. Harriet never ate any of the food that the previous cow ate. In fact, she never even shared any of the accommodation. Harriet is now a pet cow whose owners have given the department an assurance that she will never go into the food chain. In any case, she would not be able to because Defra holds her passport. Would the Minister consider asking his right honourable friend the Prime Minister to give Harriet the same treatment that he gave Phoenix, the calf who was saved from foot and mouth slaughter?

My Lords, with respect, those cases are not in any way comparable. The question of Harriet the cow has been looked at on several occasions and has been the subject of a special debate in the other place. All the evidence points to the fact that Harriet is a cohort. In the first year of her life, she was involved in eating the feed that a subsequent animal, designated as having BSE, ate. We have protected our beef chain through rigorous enforcement of BSE rules. We are now exporting 1,000 tonnes of beef a week because of that rigorous enforcement and confidence in our beef. That has been part of the process. There is no definition of pet cattle or a pet cow. If Harriet has been designated as a cohort by all the available evidence, which has been looked at on more than one occasion, she will have to go to slaughter.

My Lords, I will not go down the route of Harriet’s slaughter. Our reliance on the country’s abattoirs in the derogation of orders considering BSE is a problem. We need to look also at a derogation for horned cattle otherwise it will soon be difficult, if not almost impossible, to slaughter highland cattle. Is provision being made in abattoirs for slaughtering horned cattle?

My Lords, I have not been briefed on that. Today is the last day of a European Union inspection on the UK’s BSE controls. With respect, it is not the day to start talking about relaxing those controls.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating the Meat Hygiene Service on how it has implemented the changes that thus far it has had to face and how it is facing further changes with great enthusiasm? I declare an interest as deputy chair of the Meat Hygiene Service.

Yes, my Lords, I congratulate everyone involved in the beef chain—the Meat Hygiene Service, farmers, cattle producers, abattoirs and feed merchants—on rigorously enforcing the controls, which have virtually eradicated BSE, from 37,000 cases in 1992 to fewer than 100 cases so far this year. That has involved the slaughter of an enormous number of animals, including the cohorts. I accept the argument that sometimes we have slaughtered too many, but the fact remains that, in 2005, of 3,043 cohorts that were slaughtered, only six had a confirmation rate of BSE, which is 0.2 per cent. But the confirmation rate in normal, healthy cattle born after 1996 was 0.0007 per cent. That is why the rules require the immediate slaughter of cohort cattle when they are identified. It is also why we have the cattle tracing system, so that when a cow with BSE is identified, we can check the other cattle that it was with in the early years of its life. That has protected the beef chain and given enormous confidence in British beef.

My Lords, I, too, should like to reflect the Minister’s comments. Certainly, the return to our export market is enormously important, so I support that. What representation have the UK Government made to the European Commission, if the Minister feels as strongly as he has indicated today? There will be a risk if they move away from the current stance.

My Lords, they have moved away because the amendment was made on 23 November. As I said in my Answer, the UK Government will need to consider very carefully whether this country would want to apply for a derogation. Even if we did, it would not be done until 2008 at the earliest. However, we have no plans to do so.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in acknowledging the great sympathy of many people following the premature death of Mark Purdey, an amazing pioneer scientist in this field? Recognising his very serious work on the origins of BSE and the possible impact of warble-fly dressing and organophosphates, what is the Ministry’s current view on the causes of BSE?

My Lords, I share the sympathies of the noble Lord, Lord King. When I was at MAFF, some nine years ago, I spoke with Mark Purdey and know how committed he was. I was as distressed as others when I saw the obituaries last week. He was very sincere about this. In answer to the question what causes BSE, I suppose that the non-scientific answer is that we don’t know. However, controlling feed had the effect of eradication. Research over the past 10 years in Defra laboratories in Weybridge and Warwickshire, which involved giving contaminated feed to cattle as an experiment, has shown that contamination levels as low as one milligram can cause BSE. All the indications are that BSE was in the feed, but no one can be certain. However, the figures I have given show that it has been virtually eradicated, with fewer than 100 cases this year.