France's Consumer Affairs Minister, François PATRIAT came before the House this evening to confirm the adoption of recent measures by the French government to counter the threat of BSE. He confirmed that the French Government had banned the use of bone meal in animal feed for pigs and poultry - a decision that was taken as part of a EU concerted move to strengthen measures to combat BSE. Transparency, he said, would be top of the agenda as far as the French government was concerned in taking appropriate measures to counter the new threat which, he said, would be 'proportionate'. The policy, he emphasised, would be based on concern for public health and respect for the precautionary principle. A new approach, however, was needed following the reporting of new cases of BSE, possibly caused by accidental contamination and the recent report in the UK outlining the difficulties of imposing effective control measures on animal feed. Furthermore, the French Food Agency was carrying out a new assessment of the health risks from animal feed. Following scientific advise, the French government was now banning T-bone steaks and the use of gelatine and tallow, measures which had already been taken in the UK faced with the BSE crisis. France, he added, was also carrying out an extensive testing programme involving 48,000 examinations to be followed by a programme involving strict supervision of the use of blood products and health and safety conditions of workers. He underlined the importance of further research into the disease. France has also requested that the present situation with regard to the beef market be taken up at the Farm Ministers meeting in Brussels on 20-21 November and he was convinced that European Ministers would share his concern. He looked to the EU Veterinary Committee to pursue its investigations into extensive detection procedures with a view to re-establishing consumer confidence in the safety of beef. There would also be an in-depth debate on the Commission's proposals on a new Food Authority and here he underlined the importance of independent scientific research being used as a basis for European action.
For the Commission, David BYRNE agreed that recent events showed that there was no room for complacency, as could be shown by the increase in targeted testing in France. Nevertheless, putting the situation in perspective, he pointed out that the situation in France with 7 cases per million cattle aged over two years fell short of the international criterion of hundred cases per million used to define high incidence countries. He took the view that if existing controls were respected and implemented then the risk to the public would be reduced to a minimum. At the same time he agreed on the need for total transparency to reassure consumers. In this respect he expressed disappointment at the absence of any acknowledgement by Prime Minister Lionel JOSPIN at the 'hugely positive role played by the Community in recent years. Inspired by this Parliament, the Commission has been a driving force in pressing for the adoption of measures to eradicate BSE'. And this was done notwithstanding the frequent 'lack of support in Member States'. He looked for an endorsement from Council of the proposal for the new Food Authority so it could be set-up as quickly as possible. He also felt that the Commission's system of targeted testing had been vindicated. He confirmed that the evidence for the origin of the disease strongly pointed to the use of contaminated meat and bone meal before the introduction of controls in 1996. Moreover, although the introduction of current very strict controls including a ban on feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal to ruminants, he pointed out that numerous inspections by the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office pointed to weaknesses in the implementation and respect for these controls in the Member States. This, he said, was unacceptable. He confirmed, he will be asking the Veterinary Office to carry out a thorough inspection in the Member States to ensure that the ground rules were being enforced. Another measure to be taken concerned animal waste. He looked forward to working with Parliament to getting this proposal on the statute book as soon as possible.
On the question of a total ban on meat and bone meal, the Commissioner said, his only concern was whether or not it would be safe to use in animal feed. He emphasised that there was already an extensive range of controls in place including the obligation to heat animal waste to a very high temperature. The scientific advice, he said, was that meat and bone meal produced under strict controls did not pose a danger, although it is at present banned in the use of feed for cattle. His emphasis, therefore, was on ensuring respect for these controls in the Member States. Commenting on the situation in France, he welcomed Prime Minister Jospin's commitment to substantially strengthening controls on the food chain. He reassured the House, however, by promising to come forward with a proposal to ban the use of meat and bone meal as animal feed for all animals if it was considered a necessary measure to protect public health. A new proposal on animal waste was at present before Parliament.
The question of a total ban on meat and bone meal in animal feed for all animals was a key feature in the debate and supported by MEPs such as Reimer BÖGE (EPP-ED, D) while Dagmar ROTH-BEHRENDT (PES, D) felt it was necessary to evaluate this situation carefully and ensure that strict inspection was being enforced. This, she said, was Council's job. Nigel FARAGE (EDD, South East drew attention to the high cost of slaughterhouses while Phillip WHITEHEAD (PES, East Midlands) pointed out that the use of meat and bone meal in all animals had been banned in the UK. He urged the adoption of the precautionary approach and an extension of testing procedures. More importantly, however, the Council should act as soon as possible, he said. Looking at the British experience, Neil PARISH (EPP-ED, South West) warned the French government not to make the same mistakes as the UK government. Furthermore, he was not convinced of the need for whole scale herd slaughter on the discovery of one case of BSE, which is at present carried out in France. This, he felt, encouraged farmers not to declare cases and he felt the British approach of removing the animal from the herd and paying proper compensation encouraged farmers to comply with the need to take action to counteract the disease. He also took France to task for maintaining what he felt was a hypocritical position with its ban on imports on British beef and in fact called for a ban on exports of French beef. On the question of meat and bone meal, the only satisfactory approach was a complete ban in Europe. His view on meat and bone meal was endorsed by Ian PAISLEY (IND, Northern Ireland) who thought it was important to realise that the farming community was not to blame for the crisis.
Replying to the debate Mr Patriat once again emphasised the importance of the precautionary principle, emphasising that the exact cause of the disease was still not known. Future policy should be based on feasibility, processing, testing, implementation and monitoring which he felt could be better ensured through one piece of legislation applied throughout the EU.
Returning to the question of a ban on meat and bone meal, Commissioner Byrne emphasised that this feedingstuff was not in fact responsible for BSE which has not been detected in pigs and poultry. In fact what such a proposed ban suggested was that the present legislation outlawing its use as cattle feed was not being respected. While he had no evidence as to whether this was the case or not, he appealed for cooperation all round. As to testing, some 170,000 random tests had been carried out across Europe with view to testing levels of infection. The approach now concentrated on new tests and the age of the animal on which such tests should be carried out. It seemed very clear that there would be negative tests on young animals. He would be asking the Veterinary Committee to look at this question and decide on the most suitable age of the animal on which tests should be carried out.