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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 February 2007, 11:44 GMT
Suffolk saga
On Sunday 11 February 2007, Andrew Marr interviewed David Miliband MP

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

David Miliband MP
David Miliband MP

ANDREW MARR: Now staying with bird flu.

Is it now clear that the origins were in Hungary and should the government have moved faster to ban imports?

Is there a danger that turkey products already on supermarket shelves might be affected. David Miliband joins us from our Newcastle studio close to his constituency. Minister, welcome.

Thank you for coming in.

DAVID MILIBAND: Good morning Andrew.

ANDREW MARR: Good morning. Six days ago you suggested that this was caused by an infection in wild birds and said there was no Hungarian connection. Both of those things appear to be untrue.

DAVID MILIBAND: No, that's not right Andrew. It's very, very important that people know that governments are following scientific advice and reporting it to the House of Commons.

Last Saturday we were told and we reported publicly that the strain of the type of avian flu that we had in this country was the Asiatic strain which had also taken place in Hungary and all around Europe over the last couple of years. I reported that to the House of Commons on Monday.

ANDREW MARR: Yes if ... interject.

DAVID MILIBAND: And I also said to the House of Commons on Monday that there was no Hungarian connection ..


DAVID MILIBAND: .. in respect of wild live chicks which I was specifically asked about. I said there was no Hungarian connection of that sort.

ANDREW MARR: Yes you went, you went ..

DAVID MILIBAND: On Thursday ..

ANDREW MARR: .. sorry, you went on if I may say so to say that the fact is the factory involved in the Hungarian outbreak is not a Bernard Matthews factory ..

DAVID MILIBAND: Which was also true Andrew.

ANDREW MARR: Which, which was, which, which was ..

DAVID MILIBAND: Let me just make this point because it's, it's very important that people know that the report I gave to the House of Commons was exactly what the vets had told me and told the public. That is that we knew it was the same family, the Asian family of bird flu but I announced also that we couldn't rule out any possibilities. The most likely possibility was that it had come from wild birds.

That's what had happened in every other European outbreak. But I specifically said we couldn't rule anything out. And that's why on Thursday when the vets reported that in fact it wasn't just the same family of Asian flu that, of avian flu that we had, it wasn't just the Asiatic ..

ANDREW MARR: Well let ..

DAVID MILIBAND: .. family that was, had been an outbreak in this country but that it was pretty much identical to the Hungarian type. In other words it wasn't just the same ..


DAVID MILIBAND: .. family, it was like an identical twin.

ANDREW MARR: But, but nonetheless ..

DAVID MILIBAND: When we learnt that I reported and I, and we published immediately that the probability had changed. That now it was more likely to have come from a poultry source. But equally now we do not rule out any possibilities. We're pursuing all, on all fronts. But it is now less likely to be a wild bird and more likely to have come from a poultry source.

ANDREW MARR: Can I, can I ..

DAVID MILIBAND: At each stage we have ..


DAVID MILIBAND: .. reported that in a transparent way.

ANDREW MARR: Can I ask you directly then whether when you spoke to the Commons you knew the scale or indeed the fact of the, the product and staff, moving between the Hungarian factory and the Bernard Matthews factory or did not know it? Because I can read you what Bernard Matthews told the BBC at the time. They said there had been no staff movement and no products moved between the two, which again appears to be entirely incorrect.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well what I think it's very important to be clear to people, and your introductory piece I think confused this. From within the protected zone, that's a ten kilometre radius, and then the restricted zone, a thirty kilometre radius around the infected Hungarian site, there are very clear European rules that restrict movements.

And we have no evidence of any exports to this country or anywhere else from within that restricted zone. However it does remain the case that outside that restricted zone exports remain legal. And we are currently going through all of the transport dockets and other information that have been supplied by Bernard Matthews to pursue, to track down the origin of this disease. That's what we're doing in a very forensic and careful way, through the vets and the independent scientists that are working on this.

ANDREW MARR: Well the food is still coming, the product is still coming in from areas very close to the infected zone. As soon as you knew that Hungary was involved, should you not have said don't care about the EU rules. We are going to, for public health reasons, stop any more coming in.

DAVID MILIBAND: Well if the vets had told us that for public re.., health reasons that was a sensible thing to do then of course that's what we would have done. But for two reasons we didn't do it. First of all the vets did not say that for public health reasons that was a sensible thing to do.

And secondly there'll be poultry farmers all round Britain who'll be saying well hang on, if there is a outbreak in Suffolk why should I be penalised outside that area, and in the same way I think that to have invited the sort of retaliation from around Europe and elsewhere, for all of the British poultry industry would not have been a sensible thing to do. What we've done, rightly, is to follow the scientific advice and to ensure that EU rules are rigorously im... implemented.

ANDREW MARR: Do you think you've been well advised?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think that the scien.. scientists who are advising me are of the highest calibre. They are in some cases employed by DEFRA, in some cases independent scientists from the Food Standards Agency. One of the important lessons of the foot and mouth crisis five or six years ago, was the vital need for an independent Food Standards Agency - I beg your pardon.

One of the, this came out of the BSE crisis and it was created five or six years ago. The Food Standards Agency has independent vets and scientists of the highest quality. And so I think that if you ask the Chief Scientist of the government he will say we have very high quality scientists and I think it would be, I think actually people on all sides of the political spectrum, including Conservative spokesmen now and John Gummer was speaking about this, a former agriculture ..

ANDREW MARR: Yeah. But ..

DAVID MILIBAND: .. minister. He said it would be quite wrong to have any suggestion that our scientific officials are of anything other than the highest quality.

ANDREW MARR: But given that there was large amounts of turkey being imported only last week after all of this had been first reported, the outbreak had been reported. If you knew now what, if you'd known then what you know now, you wouldn't have done what you've done. You'd have acted faster wouldn't you?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well I think that's a very serious allegation Andrew and it's not really born out ..

ANDREW MARR: It's just a, it's a straight question.

DAVID MILIBAND: .. by the facts. As soon as we knew that the type of bird flu in this country was more or less identical to the Hungarian, we changed the balance of probability, the focus of our enquiry changed so that we focused directly on the possibility of poultry to poultry transfer. We immediately were in touch with the Bernard Matthews plant. They have suspend, they suspended all operations ...

ANDREW MARR: And were they completely frank with you? Do you feel that you got the right information as early as you needed it from Bernard Matthews?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well we've been working with them since the notification of the outbreak of bird flu on Thursday the first of February. I think that we are going through at the moment all of the information that they have provided with us. There's obviously been a lapse in bio security.

Because the poultry has got from Hungary to the UK, to this processing plant. And secondly it's got from the processing plant to the turkey shed.

So there has clearly been a lapse in bio security. Our officials, the DEFRA officials, the Food Standards Agency and the Health Protection Agency are engaged in a very detailed but necessarily complex investigation, including working with the Hungarian authorities ..


DAVID MILIBAND: .. and with the Bernard Matthews company. And we are undergoing that in a very, very detailed way at the moment. And we have to make sure that we find out the origin of this bio security leak because, or lapse.


DAVID MILIBAND: Because the original ..

ANDREW MARR: Okay I mean I just noted, I note that you didn't say that you'd had full information as you needed it from Bernard Matthews. But maybe you have to be careful about that. Can I ask about one other thing which is that turkey product is on the shelves all across the UK. There has been some suggestion that it's been taken off and removed and that shoppers should be a little careful. What is your advice and what's the latest situation?

DAVID MILIBAND: Well more important than my advice, the advice of the independent Food Standards Agency which I'm happy to pass on and which is available through their web site and elsewhere, is that any turkey meat that's properly cooked is quite safe. They have not changed their advice in that respect.

ANDREW MARR: There was a, moving on to another issue. There was a story again in the Times - they come up quite frequently, saying that you haven't completely ruled out standing as the next Labour leader. Can you tell me if, if there's any possibility, any circumstances in which you would take on Gordon Brown?

DAVID MILIBAND: I've been saying the same thing for three years. And no matter how many times I say it there, every now and then in a quiet news day there's a story appears. It's extremely flattering. But I've been saying for three years that we've got an excellent prime minister and an excellent prime minister in waiting in Gordon Brown.

And that I am devoting my energies, obviously in significant part to running my own department. But also to working with colleagues to develop a bold and ambitious Labour programme which I think we'll need to win a fourth election victory ..


DAVID MILIBAND: .. under Gordon Brown.

ANDREW MARR: So a hundred per cent no way?

DAVID MILIBAND: I've been ruling myself out ..


DAVID MILIBAND: .. all the way along for the last ..

ANDREW MARR: All right.

DAVID MILIBAND: .. three years. And I think that while I, as I say it's extremely flattering, what, what I think is my responsibility is obviously to ensure that we deliver the programme that we were elected on. But I do believe that it's absolutely essential in government to keep thinking about how we develop a bold programme for the future. Because the truth is ..

ANDREW MARR: Thank you.

DAVID MILIBAND: .. we will have the virtues of experience on our side ..


DAVID MILIBAND: .. at the next election. But we've got to have the virtue of new ideas as well ..


DAVID MILIBAND: And that's what I and others are dedicating ourselves towards.

ANDREW MARR: All right. Thank you very much indeed David Miliband there from Newcastle.


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy

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