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Bse (Health)

Volume 571: debated on Monday 29 April 1996

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3.1 p.m.

What is the imminent risk of injury to health which has led to the banning of meat from cattle over 30 months of age from entering the food chain.

My Lords, Section 13(1) of the Food Safety Act 1990 enables the Minister to make an emergency control order if it appears to him that, inter alia, there may be an imminent risk of injury to health.

The SEAC statement of 20th March outlined proposed new measures to counteract just such a potential risk. The SEAC recommended the deboning of all meat from animals over 30 months old and stated that, as long as all their recommendations were in place, the risk from eating beef would be extremely small. As it was not possible to put in place deboning measures immediately, the Government acted expeditiously to remove from the human food chain meat from animals over 30 months old as an interim measure.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. However, is he aware that the Government are widening the original powers that they took under the order? As the Minister said, correctly, Section 13(1) of the Food Safety Act requires an,

"imminent risk of injury to health",
before the emergency control orders can be brought in. Ministers have continually told us over the past five weeks that beef is safe to eat. Where is the imminent risk to health, therefore, as required by the Act?

My Lords, I pointed out the word "may" that appears in the Act. The possible imminent risk to health is that which we avoided by the measures that we have taken.

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that the scope for calm and rational action in this field has been made much more difficult by the unjustified export ban on British beef by Brussels? That confirmed in the public's mind that the linkage between BSE and CJD is not a risk but is a fact. That thereby accelerated and deepened the collapse of the beef market across the whole of the continent of Europe.

My Lords, he who shoots before thinking should make sure that his own foot is not in the way.

My Lords, there has been research in this country on the possibility of a connection between BSE and the human disease CJD, as well as research in the United States and other European countries. Is it not possible, therefore, to produce an internationally agreed statement on what the risk really is?

My Lords, there is widespread scientific understanding of the risk in terms of eating beef, which is negligible. However, there is no political agreement to say that.

My Lords, is there not a sharp contrast between the attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards the risk to health from BSE and the risk to health from the use of organophosphates? The Government require a high level of proof in the case of organophosphates and apparently a low level of proof in the case of BSE and CJD.

My Lords, the level of proof required is that which we can best establish. There is a fundamental difference between a disease which has a definable course and a definable cause and which we know how to avoid and one about which, as in the case of the potential link between CJD and BSE, there is so much that is unknown and uncertain.

My Lords, cannot my noble friend confirm that the definitive political statement on the risk of eating beef has been made? It was made by the European Communities Commissioner for Agriculture who said that beef was safe to eat. Under those circumstances, why do we fly in the face of such an authoritative statement and say that it may not be?

My Lords, we entirely agree with Commissioner Fischler that beef is safe to eat as a result of the measures that we have taken.

My Lords, in light of what has just been said, can the Minister comment on the news that came over the radio at 2 o'clock that all the other 14 European Union Ministers of Agriculture decided this afternoon to refuse to withdraw the ban on the export of British beef?

My Lords, are not the only questions about health in this sorry tale the growing doubts about the mental health of the European Commission?

My Lords, the Minister must still explain why Her Majesty's Government obeyed a Commission decision which was in itself illegal, and everybody knows that it was illegal, including those who issued it. Why do we obey it when it is illegal?

My Lords, we obey the law because it is the right thing to do and it is what we wish other people to do. If we disagree with the decision, as we do, the right action is to challenge it in the courts, as we intend to do.

My Lords, if it is possible to argue that a selective procedure can produce a substantial reduction in the incidence of BSE, as the Government claim, can the Minister tell the House why the scheme was not introduced before?

My Lords, the consequences of the 30-month rule are of great concern to dairy farmers—the isolation of cull animals from the beef market. Bearing that in mind and the fact that several beef breeds are embarrassed by the rule, have the Government given consideration to altering the 30-month rule to a fixed date?

My Lords, we shall give consideration to all such matters when the current interim order comes to be replaced by a permanent regulation under Section 16(1)(f)(ii) of the Food Safety Act 1990.