Fourth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Wednesday 24 June 1992


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Arnold, Mr. Jacques (Gravesham)

Campbell, Mrs. Anne (Cambridge)

Coe, Mr. Sebastian (Falmouth and Camborne)

Duncan-Smith, Mr. Iain (Chingford)

Evennett, Mr. David (Erith and Crayford)

French, Mr. Douglas (Gloucester)

Hendry, Mr. Charles (High Peak)

Hughes, Mr. Simon (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Jones, Mr. Martyn (Clwyd, South-West)

Kirkhope, Mr. Timothy (Leeds, North-East)

Luff, Mr. Peter (Worcester)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle)

Mills, Mr. Iain (Meriden)

Nicholls, Mr. Patrick (Teignbridge)

Pike, Mr. Peter L. (Burnley)

Soames, Mr. Nicholas (Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Turner, Mr. Dennis (Wolverhampton, South-East)

William, Mr. Alan W. (Carmarthen)

Mr. R. G. James, Committee Clerk


[MR. NORMAN HOGG in the Chair]

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Dioxins) (England) (No. 2) Order 1992

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr Nicholas Soames): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Dioxins) (England) (No. 2) Order 1992 (S.I. 1992, No. 1274). The order maintains certain restrictions on the farm specified in the schedule—restrictions that were imposed in a previous order which lapsed on 2 June. The order prohibits the breeding there of food animals and the movement off the farm of such animals and crops, and of any other food from those animals and crops. The restrictions were introduced as a result of dioxin contamination on the farm, and formalise and extend the voluntary ban on sale of livestock and livestock products, which the farmer has been observing since October last year when preliminary results relating to the farm suggested that the release of those products into the food chain might present a hazard to health. It may be helpful to members of the Committee who are not familiar with the background to the problem if I provide a brief summary of events leading up to the need to place restrictions on the farm. Dioxins are ubiquitous environmental contaminants produced as unwanted by-products in incinerators, other combustion processes and certain industrial processes. Following the publication of a Government report on dioxins in the environment in 1989, my Department embarked on a systematic programme of surveillance for dioxins in a range of foodstuffs as part of the Governments's policy of identifying and reducing potential sources of those undesirable and potentially harmful substances. That programme focused on milk as the major potential route of dietary exposure and a useful monitor of environmental contamination. It involved testing milk from rural and industrial areas throughout England and Wales. Sophisticated analytical techniques had to be developed at our food science laboratory in Norwich, which have made it possible to detect dioxins at the minute levels which occur in food—as low as 10 parts per 1,000 million million. The results were published in full as a food surveillance paper in January this year. They showed that exposure to dioxins in food for the population as a whole was well below international safety limits. However, in June last year, our surveillance programme disclosed that unusually high levels of dioxins were present in supplies of milk from two adjacent farms near Bolsover in Derbyshire, and further testing in the locality disclosed a 4 third farm where levels were higher still. The findings from that work and from the further research that we immediately undertook showed that the problem was limited to these three farms. The first farm was a small dairy holding of some 56 acres with 24 dairy cows. The second farm was a much larger mixed dairy and arable farm of 230 acres with 40 dairy cows. The third farm, which is the subject of the order before the Committee, was a 200-acre holding which had some cereals but was largely a suckler herd business with 40 suckler cows and 75 calves. The clear conclusion from the scientific results was that there could be a risk to human health if milk from those farms was to be consumed continuously over an extended period without being bulked with other supplies. In the case of the first two farms—the dairy and the mixed farm—milk was sold to the milk marketing board and bulked with other supplies from the locality before sale to the public. Our research showed that milk reaching consumers was perfectly safe—a point that I would like to emphasise. However, the milk marketing board's contract with the producers from whom they purchase supplies contains certain quality standards which must be achieved. Since the milk could not meet the standards, the board took immediate steps to ensure that no milk form the two dairy farms could enter the public supply. As I have said, the third farm operated a suckler herd and all the milk produced on that farm was used in the rearing of calves. No milk was sold for public consumption. The Government's overriding concern is to protect the safety of the food supply. So far as the milk was concerned, the problem was limited to the two dairy farms, and the immediate action that was taken by the milk marketing board removed the threat. The milk was collected and safely incinerated. The cows were dried off except for a limited continued production purely for research purposes. Further research was, of course, essential in the light of what our surveillance programme had revealed, and the Department immediately embarked on an extensive programme in the area. That involved, in particular, the testing of further milk samples from a wide range of holdings, together with samples of meat, herbage and soil from the three farms that I have described. During the course of the programme, the farmers involved agreed to take part in the research and to retain livestock on their holdings. Payments have been made to them for their part in the programme and to take account of the disturbance that our research has caused. The findings from that programme were published on 20th March and supplemented by additional results announced on 28th May. What the further research revealed was, first, that there was no problem with any produce from any other farm in the area and, secondly, that although higher-than-normal dioxin levels existed in meat from the animals on the first two farms, meat from those farms would present no risk to public health. Unfortunately, however, the third clear conclusion of the work was that levels of dioxins in the samples of meat from the suckler herd farm were significantly above normal. The advice from the Department of Health was that meat from that farm should not be allowed to enter the public supply. It was in the light of that clear advice that the decision was taken to place the restrictive order on that one farm. 5 Members of the Committee may be interested to learn that, apart from the studies undertaken by my Department, complementary studies have been undertaken by Her Majesty's inspector of pollution, including testing at a nearby industrial plant. Following the emission testing at Coalite Chemicals and Coalite Fuels, the incinerator at Coalite Chemicals was closed down by the company during November 1991 to allow substantial modifications to be made to it. When it has been redesigned it will be regulated by Her Majesty's inspector of pollution under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which requires control on releases to all media. The National Rivers Authority has also tested for possible pollution of local watercourses in the Bolsover area and found dioxins on the River Doe Lea. Although both those studies provided evidence of emissions of dioxins to the environment, no evidence exists to indicate any risk to public health. The results of all the studies both completed and ongoing have and will continue to be made public as soon as they are available. This has been the commitment of Her Majesty's Government since the results of our first surveillance programme which revealed the existence of a problem with dioxins in milk, and we have met our commitment in full. I would like to acknowledge the help and co-operation that we have received from the farmers at the centre of the problem who have faced a period of great disruption and considerable uncertainty. I am sure everyone would wish to see a successful resolution of their problem as soon as possible. Last July, my right hon. Friend the Minister visited the two farmers where the problem was first discovered. Since then, officials have held frequent discussions with them and the third farmer, and my officials have regularly visited the Bolsover area to discuss with them the testing programme that we have undertaken and in particular, to explain the effects of the order. The Agricultural Development Advisory Service has undertaken extensive studies of the future farming options open of the farmers and has provided detailed advice without charge. It has been suggested that the Government should go further than that. We have been pressed to pay compensation to all three farmers as a result of the effect of this contamination on their businesses. We have every sympathy with the farmers in their unenviable situation and we have sought to treat them throughout with sensitivity, consideration and absolute scrupulous fairness throughout the whole regrettable incident. Evidence for that can be seen in the research that we have undertaken into the problem, the payments that we have made for their participation in the work, and in the information and advice that we have placed at their disposal. But there is no justification for the taxpayer to compensate them for pollution which the Government had no hand in causing. The Government's principal duty must always be to protect consumers. In any case I have to remind the Committee that there is no provision for compensation in the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, and when the matter 6 was raised again in the House in 1990 during the passage of the Food Safety Act, the House took a deliberate decision not to support any such provision. Hon. Members may recall that, during the Report stage of the Bill, an amendment was agreed in another place providing for Government compensation where precautionary restrictions were introduced but where food was subsequently found not to have been unsuitable for human consumption. However, the House rejected a compensation provision even in those limited circumstances. The amendment was unacceptable not simply to the Government but also to the Opposition. The House recognised, of course, that in acting to ensure the safety of the consumer it would be quite wrong for Ministers to be distracted by considerations of the financial implications that their decision might have. I am of course aware, as I am sure are hon. Members, that the owner of the industrial plants in the vinicity of the three farms has entered into negotiations with the farmers in the course of the various developments that I have described. The farmers or their advisers will, doubtless, be able to introduce into those discussions the anaylsis that ADAS has made of the businesses as they previously existed and the options now facing them as a result of the contamination that has come to light. To summarise, throughout the incident the Government have acted promptly, honourably and effectively to prevent any possible contamination of the public food supply. The picture that has emerged from all the studies to date is that the contamination is very localised. Only one farm is affected to the extent that it has proved necessary to prohibit the production of livestock or livestock products. That farm is the subject of the order that we are debating today. On the other two farms that I have mentioned contamination is at a level which precludes the milk marketing board from accepting any milk produced on these farms, but the expert scientific and medical advice that we have received is that there is no reason why they should not produce meat. My Department will continue to follow developments in the area and we will take whatever further action is necessary to safeguard the public food supply. The order under consideration will be lifted only when we are certain that there would be no risk to public health in so doing.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): This is a matter of considerable concern to the public in specific areas and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the promptness with which his Department has investigated the matter and the effective action that it is taking.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Dioxins) (England) (No. 2) Order 1992 (S.I. 1992, No. 1274)

Committee rose at seventeen minutes to Eleven o'clock.



Hogg, Mr. Norman (Chairman)

Arnold, Mr. Jacques

Campbell, Mrs. Anne

Coe, Mr.

Duncan-Smith, Mr.

French, Mr.

Hendry, Mr.

Kirkhope, Mr.

Luff, Mr.

Soames, Mr.

Turner, Mr.