"In August 1996 the previous Government introduced a ban on the consumption of the heads of sheep and goats, following a recommendation from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee which had considered whether BSE could exist naturally in sheep. The Committee had also advised that the Government should continue to consider this issue further with its EU partners and implement a programme of further research.
"Discussions took place during the latter part of 1996 in the European Union. The Commission proposed EU-wide controls on the use of spleen of all sheep and the brain and spinal cord of sheep which were more than about a year old, based on checking the number of permanent incisor teeth of the sheep. Unfortunately, despite support from the United Kingdom and a few other countries, the majority of Member States rejected this proposal.
"I have raised this issue again with Commissioners Fischler and Bonino. The Commission announced on 14 May that it would be making further proposals.
"In the light of this SEAC have reconsidered the question. There is still no scientific evidence indicating that there is any BSE in the national sheep population. But SEAC has recommended that it would be prudent for the Government to take early action if Community-wide measures are not agreed quickly, to extend controls, as proposed by the European Commission, to the spinal cord of sheep more than a year old - which account for around a sixth of annual consumption of sheepmeat in the UK - and to the spleen of all sheep. Similar action has already been taken by the Irish, French and Dutch Governments. This is a precautionary measure, designed to ensure that if BSE has been transmitted to sheep, all reasonable steps are taken to avoid any possible risks to consumers no matter how remote.
"On the basis of the advice from SEAC, which I am placing in the Library of the House, the Government is today opening consultations on legislation which would extend the existing controls on the heads of all sheep and goats to the spleen, and would require the removal of spinal cord of sheep and goats with at least one permanent incisor erupted (the most practical means of ageing sheep over one year old). It would also ban the use of the vertebral column of sheep and goats in the production of mechanically recovered meat.
"The SEAC statement also recommends reinforcing the existing arrangements for scrapie surveillance. The Government's intention is to reinforce the existing legal requirement on farmers to notify all cases of scrapie by providing new powers for the compulsory slaughter of affected animals, with payment of compensation, and by initiating a survey of brains from abattoirs and a postal survey of farms. The results of these surveys will be published. We are today opening consultation on this compulsory slaughter and compensation scheme.
"Research into the epidemiology of the disease in sheep and goats is now under way. The new measures will significantly aid this research by providing further incentives for reporting disease, and additional material for research. In addition sheep are currently being selected from New Zealand, one of the few countries generally accepted as being free of scrapie, for use in a number of key long-term experiments. These sheep will provide a valuable resource for future work on scrapie.
"The SEAC statement also includes advice on imported cattle. SEAC have advised that action should be taken to extend specified bovine material (SBM) controls to imported central nervous system (CNS) tissues or bovine material containing them. At present the legal requirement for the heads, spinal cord and certain other tissues of cattle to be removed from the food and animal feed chain, prohibited for use in pharmaceutical, cosmetic and medical products and disposed of under controlled conditions, applies only to carcasses of bovine animals which have died or been slaughtered in the United Kingdom. The Government is opening consultation on proposals which would mean that the requirement to remove and dispose of specified tissues would apply not only to such carcasses but also to bovine material which has been imported into the UK."