Extract (Hansard)

I can tell Members today that over the summer my Department has been preparing a Bill which, among other things, will allow Government to take powers compulsory to remove the flock genotypes of sheep susceptible to scrapie.


1. Mr Speaker, I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to put Members in the picture about research into scrapie and the theoretical possibility that scrapie might mask BSE in sheep. This work is being undertaken through a variety of different research projects at different institutes of excellence. I would also like to address the significance of the experiment undertaken at the Institute of Animal Health (IAH) on the so-called 1990 scrapie brain pool, which was due to be reported to the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (SEAC) last Friday.


2. The UK and my Department are at the forefront of European research to understand the incidence of scrapie in the national sheep flock, and whether the theoretical risk of BSE in sheep is a real one. The IAH research is merely one of a number of projects. There are many who consider that those on more recent brains are more important, and so far BSE has not been found. But more work needs to be done, and that is why a couple of weeks ago we took steps to ensure that more brains are offered for testing. We need to keep this issue in its proper perspective.


3. We have known since the experiments began that there were some doubts about whether the brains - which were collected a long time ago for a completely different experiment - were cross-contaminated with bovine BSE material. As results began to emerge from the experiments, it became critical that we resolved the issue of cross-contamination with as much clarity as possible. That is why DEFRA - in consultation with SEAC and others - commissioned the DNA testing work at the Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC).


4. The results were presented to DEFRA by the LGC last Wednesday afternoon (17 October). The finding that there was no sheep material in the sample sent to the DNA lab was a totally unforeseen development. Government's responsibility in these circumstances is two-fold:

- first, to establish the facts as quickly as possible. The most obvious question which sprang to mind was whether the material analysed by the LGC was actually the same as that used in the experiment. To put it somewhat brutally, would the sample which should have been sent to the LGC be discovered at the back of the fridge in some dark corner of the Institute for Animal Health? We needed to establish the facts.

I immediately asked for an independent risk assessment company to perform a detailed audit of the IAH experiment including how these homogenised samples were stored and handled. As the company is already familiar with the IAH project, they are aiming to report their findings within a week or so. We have also asked the UK Accreditation Service, UKAS, to undertake to a longer time scale a vigorous assessment of the chain of custody arrangements for the IAH experiment. Only at around 6pm on the Wednesday evening did we receive information suggesting that the sample sent to the DNA lab was indeed representative of the brain pool. But we still do not know this for certain. We will not know the full facts until the audit team has reported.

- second, to share these emerging findings with the public. Let me emphasise that at that stage the only question was not whether we should make this public, but how and when. It was already clear that the SEAC meeting planned for Friday could not now take place, since this was the only item on the agenda. Accordingly, the Chairman took the decision to cancel it.

I took the decision, against the advice of my Press Office, that rather than wait to have a properly staged press briefing the following morning, we should make a statement as soon as possible about what we knew for certain. I will tell the House bluntly that I was convinced the information would leak, and I did not want the slightest hint of a cover-up. In fact, I looked unsuccessfully for the Chair of the EFRA Select Committee that evening in order to update him and correct information I had given him, in good faith, earlier that day.


5. A Press Notice was duly sent to PA after we had observed the ordinary courtesies of consulting those involved and who might be asked to comment on it, including SEAC and the Food Standards Agency. In other words, Mr Speaker, a statement was made the same day and within a few hours of Ministers being told what was thought to have occurred.


6. Let me say one other thing about the suggestion that we were seeking to suppress this information. We are all mature politicians. I invite the House to consider what in fact I was supposed to need to suppress. This research was commissioned by MAFF. It was not carried out by the Department. The cross-check which revealed these problems was also commissioned by my Department as a "belt and braces" measure. Of course there was embarrassment and dismay among those involved with this work, but there was no embarrassment or dismay for the Government - only a very real concern as to where we would go from here, and a real anxiety to treat carefully and seriously an issue which is of great sensitivity.


7. I understand the phraseology of one part of the Press Release - which I wrote - is thought to have been obscure. But of course at the time it was drafted we knew the results of the cross-contamination check and we had been told it was thought that this came from the same material as that used in the experiment, but I could not feel confident of what weight I should give to each piece of advice given the very short time for checks to be made. This entire issue rests on the handling of samples and the keeping of records. In consequence it seemed to me right to say as we did simply that the validity of the sample had been called into question. There was absolutely no intention to conceal or to mislead. There was little press interest or follow-up afterwards, but then being told than an experiment may be inconclusive does not always excite the media.


8. What is more important is what this experiment could mean or have meant. It is not going to give us a definite answer as to whether or not BSE is in sheep today. Indeed there are other scientists who are not yet convinced that it would have told us even whether BSE was present in sheep in the early 1990s. All that this work could have done was to reduce some of the uncertainties and add to the little we currently know.


9. On scrapie generally, my department is working closely with the FSA to introduce, early next year, an abattoir survey to test for scrapie approximately 20,000 sheep annually aged over 18 months. This will cost the UK around #5 million and be part of an EU-wide programme designed to give information on the incidence of scrapie in the EU. This week's Agriculture Council in Brussels will be reviewing this programme which, for both cattle and sheep testing, will cost the UK over #50 million next year.


10. Although useful, I must warn this House that the results of the sheep abattoir survey may not prove conclusive. A similar survey commissioned by the Government 2-3 years ago on nearly 3,000 abattoir sheep brains identified no scrapie cases at all. I would certainly be prepared to examine carefully the case for doing an even larger survey.


11. Around 500 to 600 scrapie cases are reported annually in Great Britain each year. My department is funding a great deal of work to look for BSE in these cases. It is difficult work at the forefront of science, and scientists do not always agree on particular aspects.

12. In about 180 cases, using the same techniques as the Institute of Animal Health, but on recent sheep brains, experiments have reached the first point at which, if any of these scrapie cases was BSE, this might have become evident. It has not done so. However, it is too soon to draw firm conclusions from these ongoing experiments that can last several years.


13. I must emphasise that all of this work is at the very forefront of science. We are talking about research being conducted at the leading edge of scientific experimentation. We are not talking about research that gives simple "yes" and "no" answers. I have asked for the most thorough review of the range of scientific studies presently being undertaken into this complex and difficult area, and I will make this available to the House.


14. The National Scrapie Plan is a long-term voluntary programme to breed genetic resistance to scrapie and to BSE into the national sheep flock. Moreover the House will already know that the National Scrapie Plan to breed in resistance to scrapie in the anitional flock has been developed and progressed on a voluntary basis. I can tell Members today that over the summer my Department has been preparing a Bill which, among other things, which allow Government to take powers compulsory to remove the flock genotypes of sheep susceptible to scrapie. Of course the House will want to give this proper scrutiny; I hope it will have an opportunity to do so in the very near future.


15. We have been open and transparent in all our research into BSE, overseen by the independent Food Standards Agency and our advisory committee SEAC. FSA advice remains unchanged. There is no reason why consumers should not eat sheepmeat. We will continue actively to promote research to reduce risk, theoretical or not, and to put all our research in the public domain.