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Avian Flu

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 22 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What steps they are taking to resolve the problem of H5N1 viral transmission to poultry in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, strict biosecurity requirements, wild bird surveillance and import controls are in place to minimise the risk of H5N1 being transmitted to poultry in the UK. With regard to the recent outbreak in Suffolk, we are currently investigating all possible routes of transmission. Defra’s interim epidemiological report into the source of the outbreak is available in the Library of the House.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, and perhaps we can all thank the veterinary services for the way in which they are manfully—and, I hope, womanfully—coping with this serious problem. Further to his Answer, will the noble Lord confirm that the origin of this contamination now appears to be clear and that it was definitely not wild birds? Will he also reassure the House that the Government are coping with the worrying stories that keep coming along of very poor live-poultry care in the East Anglian turkey-processing factories, sloppy hygiene procedures and misleading origin advertising? Are the Government able to deal with those matters satisfactorily as well?

My Lords, because of the investigations being undertaken, I am naturally limited in what I can say. But I can assure the noble Lord and the House that we have done thousands of surveillance operations, reports and investigations. They have been ongoing since the outbreak, as well as during the months beforehand, and they concern wild birds, dead birds and poultry houses across the country, but particularly in East Anglia. No evidence of H5N1 has been found other than in the Bernard Matthews plant at Holton. It appears that this is exclusively a Bernard Matthews Holton problem. There is no evidence of H5N1 anywhere in the wild bird, intensive poultry or free-range poultry populations in this country. I repeat: we have done thousands of surveillance operations, ongoing as I speak, with tests on dead birds, wild birds captured for that purpose and poultry houses. More poultry houses have joined the poultry register since the outbreak occurred; there are now 23,941 premises on the poultry register. There is no evidence at all of H5N1 other than at that one plant at Holton.

My Lords, the Minister might agree that Defra cannot be criticised for lack of assiduity in tracing where the virus has come from. Does he agree that the answer to the question of where it came from is absolutely paramount? We must on no account say that we do not know where it has come from and are not going to look.

My Lords, we are not saying that. It may be that we never pin it down. The work to find that out is going on now. As we know from what we have published so far, the test results from the Veterinary Laboratories Agency at Weybridge identified the strain found in Suffolk as 99.96 per cent identical to the strain found in Hungary. The questions arise of how it got here and of how it got from one poultry house to another shed at Holton. One realises that once the virus was identified at Holton, all the birds were clearly going to be culled. It may therefore be that transmission on the site occurred in that way, but how it got in there in the first place is the subject of ongoing investigations. It is important that we tie down how it got into that shed to start with. Given that the strain is virtually identical to that found in Hungary, we must find out how it got from Hungary, and from where in Hungary. Inquiries are going on now with our Hungarian partners in the European Commission to find out more about the outbreak in Hungary in the first place.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall a previous case when one dead swan was discovered on the coast of Fife? We ended up with ITN and the BBC doing their 10 o’clock and 10.30 news broadcasts fronted by reporters at—appropriately, in view of the name of the noble Lord who asked this Question—Cellardyke. Does the Minister believe that the media sometimes treat these issues with unnecessary alarm?

My Lords, I shall be careful what I say. One only has to read the press reports. The fact is that if people give out the maximum information to the public when these incidents arise, they help to protect public health, their own industry and their brand. The Government have given out the maximum amount of information we are responsible for, to reassure people and the industry. The industry and companies have a responsibility, however, to explain what they are doing. In this case, the press will report what they receive.

My Lords, has this particular strain of H5N1 been shown by research to be sensitive to the anti-viral agent Tamiflu? Tamiflu has been stockpiled in the event of any spread of the virus to the human population. Can the Minister give us any information about progress in producing a vaccine against the H5N1 virus?

My Lords, I regret that I cannot answer those questions, but I shall seek the information and write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, given the Bernard Matthews company’s original claim that there were no links between Hungary and Suffolk when it has now been established that there were regular poultry imports to its plant from Hungary, will the Minister’s department take appropriate action to prosecute it for endangering human and animal health if biosecurity failings are proved there?

My Lords, I can only say that the studies and investigations by the State Veterinary Service, the Meat Hygiene Service and the Food Standards Agency are ongoing. Appropriate action will be taken as a result of the investigations. I cannot go beyond that. There are clearly major issues of public and animal health and other matters. There is quite a lot of regulation in this area, and the regulatory authorities’ investigations are ongoing.

My Lords, will Defra be able to finalise where this disease has come from? At the moment, the Government’s move within the industry is to share the costs of future animal disease outbreaks. If one cannot get to the bottom of how a disease has come in, it is not fair to expect the industry to carry the costs. While on the subject of costs, how is Defra going to continue to fund itself? It was announced yesterday that the department has asked the Treasury to put £305 million on one side to cover the deficit from the fiasco of the single farm payments.

My Lords, I expected that question, but I am glad it has come at the end. One should not believe everything that one reads. The issue relating to contingency from the Treasury is true, but it is not as bad as it appears at first sight, and is certainly not as bad as it was reported on “Farming Today”. We are dealing with a two-year issue, and we know more about it now. As of the end of this week, we will have paid out more than £900 million of £1.5 billion for this year. That is a success by any standards, and is a big improvement on last year.

On the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, we need to find out where the disease came from, if that is possible. It is our intention to do so, but we may never find out. Trying to share the costs of animal health with the industry is ongoing and we are having discussions about it. We should not let this one case drive the policy because it appears to be isolated to one company at one location. It is not widespread across the rest of the industry, and it is in the industry’s interest to ensure that biodiversity issues are taken incredibly seriously. In that way, the rest of the industry is protected. The issues that the noble Baroness raises will be the subject of ongoing discussions because we are in consultation with the industry at the present time.