|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 908They should be backed up in the courts. I accept that many Acts exist which, if properly implemented, would improve the quality of the food we eat, but repeated fines of £10 or so mean that people repeatedly contravene the law. That is not the way to improve matters.
Fourthly, we should remove Crown immunity from hospitals and from this place so that they too can be subjected to the same rigorous standards as commercial food outlets. I see no reason why that should not be the case. It would show that we paid more than lip service to the idea of improved food hygiene.
Fifthly, we should act ruthlessly to close down any producers who are shown to have sold a contaminated product until such time as they prove that their premises are free from infection and likely to remain so because of changes in practice.
Sixthly, we should restore the level of research and development, particularly in areas related to food hygiene, which, sadly, have been cut. The Government claim that new market research should be funded by the industry, but if we wait for that, we may have to wait a long time. We also need to take some action on clear labelling. I accept that food is labelled, but to the average person it is by no means clear what they are eating. A much simpler code would be far more effective. We should also urgently consider the role of irradiation to prevent the infection of meat.
During the second world war, the people of Britain ate a healthy, well- balanced diet. That was apparent during the war and after in the number of deaths from heart disease. There is no doubt that we can achieve the same again. The Government have failed to protect the health and well being of our people. They have tried to do so, but they have failed. I hope that the new legislation will be effective. 5.53 pm
Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South) : The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) called for a healthy and balanced diet. One or two of my hon. Friends might observe that he is an ample example of consumer resistance to the best efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
I must declare an interest as an adviser to a trade association and to certain companies which appear in the Register of Members' Interests.
The motion on today's Order Paper is pretty round in its condemnation of the Ministry of Agriculture. I recall what was happening 10 years ago in the Chamber. Probably only one third of my hon. Friends here today were present 10 years ago when we were in the middle of the winter of discontent. The hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) was not right when he said that we had had 40 years of adequate food supplies in Britain. Ten years ago we had statements in the Chamber from the Labour Government on the shortages of sugar, salt, margarine, rice, coffee and lamb. It is pretty arrogant for the Labour party to suggest today that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is failing properly to protect consumers.
Column 909If the Ministry had failed, one yardstick of its failure might be its regular appearance before the Public Accounts Committee, on which I have sat for 10 years. We are used to seeing the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Health and the Department of Transport, but it is rare for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come before that Committee for having failed to meet the objectives laid down ; that should be placed on the record.
I am going to Northampton market on Saturday 18 February. If anybody thinks that Northamptonshire's farmers, be they pig, beef or cereal farmers, will greet with open arms the suggestion that the Ministry of Agriculture is firmly in their pockets, they are wildly wrong. I expect to be given a rough time. I shall enjoy that, but the last thing that any of my farmers believe is that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is in their pockets.
During the summer recess, I took the opportunity to go to the veterinary school at Weybridge. I was thoroughly reassured by the work being done in those laboratories and anyone who has a worry about what is being done in the veterinary world should visit Weybridge. I wonder how many hon. Members have ever done so. They might reasonably spend some time doing that.
I doubt whether any hon. Member who visits large manufacturing companies in the food processing industry either at the weekend or during the recess will find any that are not up to the highest standards, whether in terms of sampling or checking raw materials coming into Britain, or in the processing, testing, packaging or sampling of the products. The way in which the Ministry of Agriculture works with those companies is a safeguard for the consumer.
With the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, I helped to set up the parliamentary Food and Health Forum so that we should have an opportunity to hear from interested outside bodies and colleagues their views on food and health matters. Bodies such as the London Food Commission may be highly critical of the Government, but anyone who does some research into that organisation will know that it is highly critical of western democracies and anything to do with the corporate state, or anything else. But the vast majority of organisations that are associate members of the Food and Health Forum recognise that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has played a major role in communicating with the consumer. They want more, but that is understandable.
My hon. Friend the Minister outlined some of the Ministry's work. There is no doubt that the Food Advisory Committee is a major source of information and research in Britain. Last year, in a review of the use of colour in food, that committee recommended daily allowances based on the most stringent scientific evidence. It is not just Britain that follows those standards ; they are likely to be followed throughout Europe and elsewhere. That is a measure of how the rest of the world recognises the Ministry's work as a reference manual. Adverse comment has been made about the Ministry's inability to communicate with the consumer. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) referred to the publication "Look at the Label" which was issued not last year or 18 months ago but 10 years ago, when the
Column 910Ministry of Agriculture issued well over 1 million copies. I invite hon. Members, after the debate, to buy some packaged food and to look at what is on the label. There is an ingredients list, which is especially important for those who may have a particular susceptibility to an element in the product. The dates of minimum durability and the name and address of the supplier are also displayed. Would that we could find that in other parts of the world, particularly in some of the continental countries, and that the Department of Health was as strict on generic medicines and parallel imports as MAFF is on food products.
Mr. Ron Davies : I would not normally interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but as he is proclaiming MAFF's readiness to open the books, can he explain MAFF's reluctance to inform the public of the source of eggs that have been infected with salmonella?
If there is a problem, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge put his finger on it in the three questions that he asked. He said that certain responsibilities had been transferred to the Department of Health. There are, unfortunately, some grey areas. I believe that the Department of Health should be involved only in those food products that make medical claims and that all other food products should be firmly in the province of MAAF. The Department of Health is the sponsoring Ministry to the pharmaceutical industry and controls it through the Committee on Safety of Medicines. If it can do both, I see no reason why MAFF cannot do two jobs. If there is to be change, it should be done in that way, so that hon. Members and consumers know that any matter to do with food is firmly in MAFF's court. In relation to Europe, as we approach 1992, MAFF is doing a good job in interpreting the needs of British consumers in Europe especially in preserving and ensuring British freedoms in relation, for example to beer and methods of distribution and in opposing nonsensical ideas such as those in the oils and fats tax. MAFF does a good job and should have our support.
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) : I shall confine my remarks to one matter, part of which, I accept at the outset, is not entirely the Minister's responsibility. However, we have established, so far, that there are many overlaps between the responsibilities of the Department of Health and MAFF.
I want to consider cook-chill and listeria for one reason. I became personally involved in the issue as a result of the unfortunate tragedy at Stanley Royd hospital in 1984, in which 19 people died and several others became seriously ill in a salmonellor outbreak. Shortly after that, I became a member of Wakefield health authority which, with no support from me, moved towards a cook-chill system to replace the kitchen at Stanley Royd hospital. At that time, I met Professor Richard Lacey, the microbiologist advising the Wakefield health authority, who was strongly opposed to cook-chill. He is known--and in many instances loved--by many Conservative Members. He has received a great deal of abuse from various sources and has been criticised and treated in a disgraceful way because of
Column 911his views--to which he has stuck--about listeria and cook-chill, but it has been proved, over a number of years, that he is completely right. The Wakefield system is being used as a pilot system for the whole of the Yorkshire region and is seen as a means of enabling the wholesale privatisation of catering in the NHS.
There was deep concern about the dispute over cook-chill in Wakefield, so an expert group was established by the regional health authority. It studiously avoided involving people who were known to be critical of the cook-chill system. I noticed that Arthur Pinegar, a principal microbiologist at the public health laboratory service, was involved in the expert group, and was doing private work on cook-chill for certain interests outside the NHS and the public health laboratory service. That has been confirmed in answers to parliamentary questions that I have tabled.
I was even more concerned by the subsequent inquiry into the management of Wakefield health authority, which recommended the removal of Sir Jack Smart as chairman and suggested that his replacement should have no contact with the health authority or involvement with the issues that resulted in the various problems. His replacement, appointed by the Government, was Brian Hayward, who had been the vice-chair of Yorkshire regional health authority and had chaired the expert group that studied the introduction of cook- chill. His appointment was the clearest evidence yet that the Government's desire to see cook-chill up and running in Wakefield was a prelude to its introduction elsewhere in Yorkshire and subsequently in other parts of the country. It is interesting that Mr. Hayward has chaired two meetings so far, but has refused to accept anyone raising the issue of the cook-chill system, which is being introduced in the health authority in the next few weeks.
What has happened in Yorkshire has shown clearly the extent of the political scandal that surrounds cook-chill and that powerful business interests--which we see represented in this debate--are overriding serious concerns about public health. There has been a scandalous Government cover- up on the real incidence of listeriosis. Over the past few years, there has been a huge increase in food poisoning which has coincided with the recent trend towards less traditional forms of food preservation, such as chilling. If one considers the evidence from abroad, one discovers that 200 people died in France in 1986 as a result of listeriosis. In the same year, 200 people died in the United States as a result of listeriosis. It is interesting that, officially, there have been no deaths from listeriosis in this country. I received a parliamentary answer recently which said that in 1987-88, a total of 546 listeriosis cases were reported to the public health laboratory service, but only three had causes that were known to be related to food. The causes of the other 543 cases were not known. That raises serious questions about the reason behind the incidence of listeriosis.
One of the major problems, as I said in an intervention earlier, is that listeriosis is not a notifiable disease in the United Kingdom, so we do not know the true incidence of it. However, we have a good deal of recent evidence. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) went through some of the evidence. He mentioned the
Column 912"This Week" programme and the Bristol survey. I must mention that it has been proved that the death of a baby in Leeds fairly recently was directly related to the consumption of cook-chill food bought from a supermarket. The Leeds environmental health service found that seven of 12 samples from different retail outlets contained listeriosis. There was also a survey in Peterborough and yesterday, there was evidence from the public health laboratory service that listeriosis can lie dormant for five days if stored at 7.5 deg C. and then reproduction erupts. That is a worrying problem facing the Government.
Professor Lacy has stated that he believes that 150 to 200 people die every year in this country directly as a result of listeria. The questions that he has raised are not being answered by the various Departments that are concerned with the problem. I want to ask several serious questions and I expect detailed answers to them in the Minister's winding-up speech.
First, in view of all the evidence, to which I and other hon. Members have referred, why have the Government not issued a warning about the consumption of cook-chill food especially by, for example, pregnant women and other vulnerable consumers? Secondly, why are the Government continuing to push the use of cook-chill food in hospitals--as they are in Wakefield and Yorkshire--when the risks from listeria to vulnerable groups such as pregnant women and the elderly are so obvious?
Thirdly--and most important in view of the evidence that we now have--why have the Government not acted on the fact that most if not all supermarkets are contravening the Department of Health guidelines on cook-chill food, both in terms of length of storage and temperature? I also want to know-- this is a clear question that should have been answered in written answers- -what is the real reason why the new Government guidelines on cook-chill that we have been expecting for months have not yet appeared? I was told that they would be ready last August. Since then I have been told several times that they are not ready, but I have never been told why.
I have spoken only briefly and would have liked to speak at much greater length but I know that many of my hon. Friends want to take part in the debate. I hope that, having waited so long, they will be able to do so and I shall conclude with a number of serious points. The Government face a huge dilemma over listeria. If the Government tighten standards on, for example, the maximum three-day detention period for cook-chill food, the catering industry, which has huge contracts and investments worth billions of pounds, will face disaster. If the Government tighten up as they should, that will have an incredible impact on the industry, which is so well represented by Conservative Members today--[ Hon. Members :-- "Apologise."] Well, a number of Conservative Members have declared an interest in the catering industry, which is what usually happens from the Tory Benches in such debates. They are directly concerned with and paid by food companies. That point is crucial to our understanding of the Government's position on this issue.
The Government are in deep difficulty in dealing with the retail trade over cook-chill and listeria. They are also in difficulties with their policy on privatising NHS catering. Cook-chill is essential to the wholesale privatisation of catering in the National Health Service. If the Government do nothing and there is a serious listeriosis outbreak, there will rightly be a huge public
Column 913outcry about the fact that the knowledge and the evidence were there, but the Government did absolutely nothing. The Government have, understandably from their point of view, chosen the latter course. The Government are looking after certain friends of the Conservative party in the food industry, and that is no surprise to my hon. Friends. The Government are looking after friends such as Ranks Hovis McDougall plc, which gave £40,000 to the Tory party last year and is directly involved in cook-chill. The Government are looking after friends such as United Biscuits which gave £100,000 to the Conservative party last year and is involved in cook-chill. Indeed, it recently opened a cook- chill division in south Humberside and is ideally placed to move into private catering contracts in the Yorkshire regional health authority area and in health authorities such as my own in Wakefield. The Government are looking after the interests of those such as George Weston Holdings, which includes Associated British Foods, which donated £150,000 to Tory party funds last year.
Those are the real interests that Conservative Members represent and that is why the Government are in such difficulty on this issue. They dare not move because of those huge interests and the investments that are made directly to the Conservative party by companies that are tied up with cook- chill--
Mr. Lord rose --
Mr. Hinchliffe : No, I am about to conclude. Through loyalty to my hon. Friends who have queued up all afternoon and who may not get called, I cannot give way. The Minister will have a chance to respond to those points.
I repeat that there has been a scandalous Government cover-up of the real threat from listeria. The evidence is clearly before our eyes. The cover-up is necessary to protect the interests of the friends of the Conservative party at the expense of the safety of the consumer.
Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : The House will have been saddened to hear most of the remarks of the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe). He has devalued his own argument and soured what up to now has been a constructive debate.
In the past few weeks we have seen a build-up of hysteria about our food-- whipped up by commentators with an eye to a headline, nurtured by the media, which like nothing more than a good scare story, and stirred up not least by the Opposition who are trying to claim that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food cannot be a Food Minister at the same time as being an Agriculture Minister.
In our lifetimes, we have all been used to scaremongering by so-called experts. When I was younger, we were told that children should not eat baked beans. Now we are told that they contain high protein and that children should have more of them. Sugar used to be described as bad for us, but no longer. Milk, eggs and cheese have all had their detractors--and equally their champions--from time to time.
Salmonella enteritidis was the scare story of last month and we all know what happened to the egg industry for a while as a result--
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on his intervention in the middle of that hysteria as it put a floor on the egg market and did much to prevent a scare from becoming a catastrophe.
Mr. Martlew : I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. Does he agree that it is a shame and a crime that the victims of the salmonella outbreaks, the people who have suffered and who on rare occasions have died, have not been compensated at all, while the farmers, who were partly responsible, have been compensated in full?
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) mentioned a tragic episode at a Wakefield hospital. I must advise him that following that incident the Government immediately took action under the National Health Service (Amendment) Act 1949 to remove Crown immunity from the hospital kitchens. That issue was raised earlier by another Labour Member who advocated the removal of something that has already been removed.
This month we have a new villain, listeria. It has been lovingly seized on by the media and carefully nurtured by consumer programmes. It is frightening the life out of vulnerable people who are worried about what they may or may not eat and who until last week had probably never even heard of it. I wonder how many hon. Members, excluding the experts sitting in the Chamber today, had heard of listeria before we broke up for the Christmas recess--not many, I bet.
Mr. Alexander : No, I have already given way many times. These scares need to be put into perspective. Two hundred million eggs are consumed every week. Do we see people dropping like flies in old folks' homes? Are they carted out of hospital because they have contracted that mysterious disease? Do people approach us in the street, telling us tales of the people whom they know who have been suffering from salmonella and asking what the Government are going to do about it? We did have the unfortunate death of a schoolboy last week, but to the best of my knowledge even that case has not been proved to be salmonella enteritidis caused by eating an egg. About 200 million eggs have been consumed each week during the past four, five or six weeks and there is no evidence of the scare stories that we heard a few weeks ago coming true.
Sometimes I think that the nation loses its sense of perspective. We could put the issue into greater perspective by remembering that about 200 people die on our roads each month and that hundreds of thousands of people are maimed on our roads every year. We do not have many debates about that, and Opposition motions such as the one that we are discussing are not tabled about that situation. The answer to the salmonella scare, to the listeria hysteria, is known to everyone who was brought up by
Column 915sensible mothers in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, before the new food processes, the new types of food or the microwave oven came on the scene.
Ms. Gordon rose--
Mr. Alexander : The answer is clear : we should cook our food properly, boil our eggs for at least two minutes, roast frozen chicken properly and never reheat cooked meat that has been allowed to go cold. If we must use microwave ovens, we should make sure that we know how to use them and that they properly grill and roast what we put in them. Most of us learned all that at our mother's knee. We never ate raw eggs, chicken that was not properly roasted or twice-cooked food, yet my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is pilloried because new techniques have made people more careless, especially when they do not fully understand those techniques.
It has been suggested that it would be wise to split the Minister of Agriculture's responsibilities and that he cannot ride two horses that are running in opposite directions. I do not mind if the responsibilities are split, but, on his behalf, I resent the slurs that have been spread, suggesting that he is incapable of looking after the consumer and the producer. Certainly, many of my farming constituents in Nottinghamshire would take great issue with many of the claims that my right hon. Friend is the farmers' pocket. Equally, the consumer groups would find it difficult to recognise some of the farmers' complaints that he is too much under the thumb of consumer pressure groups. He is riding both horses in the same direction very well indeed.
The food process is a continuous one. It is for growing, producing and marketing food. There need be no conflict in those stages and, even if there were a change, the same civil servants would be doing the same job but in two different offices. The change would be much more cosmetic than real. Many other countries have a Minister for agriculture and food. A Transport Minister can deal with roads and safety. A Secretary of State for industry can deal with manufacturing and encouraging production and still deal with consumer safety and protection.
There is, therefore, no great need for change. There is no need to worry that my right hon. Friend cannot protect the consumer. His recent measures in respect of salmonella and listeria have shown that. There is no need for some of the fear that has recently blown up in the minds of many consumers. We do a disservice to the public and to those who work in the farming and service industries if we try to pretend otherwise.
Mr. Martyn Jones (Clywd, South-West) : I am glad that the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) has spoken out against cook-chill. He said that we should never eat meat that has been cooked, allowed to cool and cooked again. We have heard a great deal about salmonella in this debate and it is fair to say that I am probably the only Member of this House who has isolated the organism or seen it under a microscope. Judging by some of the comments that have been made, I suggest that few hon. Members would know it if they tripped over a bucket of it.
Column 916I should like to tell my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) refuses to appear before the Select Committee because she was pontificating on a subject that she knew little or nothing about. It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and, in this case, it was certainly dangerous for egg producers in this country. Instead of putting the blame correctly where it lay--no pun intended--which is at the door of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, she put it at the door of the egg producers. All the real evidence shows that poultry have had a salmonella problem for years, not necessarily phage type 4, but many of the 1,500 species of salmonella that are rife in this country. If she had said that most poultry production was infected with salmonella of one sort or another, she might have had the backing of the evidence and she would have served the nation's health.
The evidence of any special attribute of salmonella enteritidis phage type 4, which makes it much more dangerous in respect of eggs, is extremely tenuous. For some time, transovarian infection of eggs has been shown to occur in septicaemic conditions with all sorts of species of salmonella. The growth of overt cases of salmonella and, incidentally, other types of poisoning--clostridial, staphylococcal and streptococcal--suggests to me that the problem is not one of any "super-bug", but one of food handling. If the rise of chilled and "fast" foods is coupled with the complacency of the Ministry about primary production, we have a recipe for disaster.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food can certainly do something about primary production and it is certain that it is not performing its functions as well as possible. It is probably true that, if a simple, accurate test had been available, we would have had no problem now so far as salmonella is concerned, as other tests have rid the industry of other forms of specific salmonella infection, such as salmonella pullorum and gallinarum during the period 1940-55.
I have dwelt on the subject of salmonella, but there are other grave areas of doubt that need sorting out for the good of the consumer and the producer. They include bovine somatotropin in milk and antibiotics in meat. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), who is no longer in his place, referred to the case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy as a triumph for the Ministry. However, the Ministry compensated farmers only for 50 per cent. of the value of the animals affected which can hardly be considered as an inducement to report such cases.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was a Ministry with a purpose for the consumer when production was necessary for adequate nutrition. Now, with the advent of increasing technology in preservation and production, different criteria are needed for the good of the consumer and, indeed, to protect the producer from the unnecessary ups and downs caused by scares. The vast majority of farmers wish to have real guidance and want only to produce good wholesome food.
The Department of Health should have a clear responsibility to ensure that food is wholesome at the point of use and that enforcement of any necessary measures, if they are required in the area of primary production, should be mandatory on what is, in effect, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food production.
Column 9176.27 pm
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) : I am conscious that the clock is against us and I shall be as brief as I can. I know that this is an Opposition day, but I welcome the debate to highlight what I see as many of the great successes of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food over the years, which the Minister spelled out very well at the beginning of our debate. I should have thought that there was no doubt about its success until very recent days. The Ministry has existed for 34 years, since its amalgamation, and has done an extremely good job. Everyone has been satisfied with it. The Opposition have had opportunities to bring this subject forward for debate before, if they had wanted to do so, but they have not done so.
The Ministry's achievements are numerous. We all know about the eradication of disease that it has organised, such as tuberculosis in the early days and the great improvements in cultivating and breeding plants and animals. There is increased consumer orientation in the way products such as eggs and meat have been tailored towards the needs of the housewife and the detailed labelling of products has increasingly become a feature of our food, as other hon. Members have commented. We have the highest food safety standards in Europe and, if anyone visited one of my chicken processing factory in Suffolk, he would see what care is taken and would be greatly reassured, in view of much of the talk that has been bandied around today.
The national diet is now much healthier. We have heard this evening of people having to eat cotton wool bread--having it stuffed down their throats. I do not see why. All the evidence is that people are looking carefully at their diets and eating more sensibly. They are eating more wholemeal bread, and so on. MAFF greatly encourages that trend.
The achievement has been largely due to MAFF--we have a huge choice of excellent food, properly labelled and reasonably priced. That is a great success story, not only for MAFF and for farming, but for the food industry. It has been a great combined effort. It is true that recently we have had more problems with salmonella and listeria. I do not underrate them, but firm action has been taken and the matters are now in hand. MAFF was right to take steps to underpin the egg industry before Christmas ; they have had the desired result. It was also right to re-emphasise the need that some of my hon. Friends have mentioned to cook food properly. That is crucial. The Minister has also tightened controls on egg production and is pressing forward with research into all these problems which was already in hand. Like my hon. Friends, I deplore the hysteria and ill- informed comment inside and outside the House. The hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) underlined that point and I agree with him, although I do not have his depth of knowledge. Words such as "epidemic" can be all too easily bandied about and have done great harm--
Column 918Such words do great harm. People comment on the differences between free-range and battery hens without understanding those differences, not knowing that free-range eggs have little advantage over battery eggs.
How eggs are cooked is important. Such cases of poisoning as have occurred have been in the larger catering establishments in which more care needs to be taken. There have not been so many in domestic circumstances, in which eggs can be more carefully cooked in the traditional way.
The House will be interested to know that the people of Suffolk have been sensible. A recent poll in one of our newspapers showed that 100 per cent. of the people interviewed and asked about their reaction to the egg story said that they had not changed their egg-eating habits--and people in Suffolk live to grand old ages. MAFF is not alone in its responsibilities. My hon. Friends have explained how other Departments are involved. Local authorities, supermarkets, retailers and consumer bodies all have
responsibilities. As we have also been told, independent consumer committees which are able to scrutinise what is going on continually keep an eye on these matters. No one pretends that there are no difficulties. Modern farming methods, mass catering and modern production techniques mean that there are, but I believe that no Department is better qualified or experienced to keep an eye on these matters than MAFF. Nothing is shabbier than an Opposition looking for a scapegoat : MAFF should not be that scapegoat.
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : There is only one thing shabbier, and that is the spectacle of an hon. Member making an agreement with the Opposition to limit his speech and then breaking it. The House will understand if the Minister's opportunity to reply is shortened by the couple of minutes that were deliberately taken up by the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord).
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern about the health of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am sure the House will unanimously ask the Parliamentary Secretary to convey to him our best wishes and hopes that he will make a speedy return to the House.
The Minister's absence has presented the Parliamentary Secretary with something of a unique opportunity--two chances to speak in one debate. That is indeed a rare opportunity, but judging from his earlier performance he will manage to avoid having greatness thrust upon him by a comfortable margin.
What was particularly noticeable about the Parliamentary Secretary's speech was not what he included in his defence of his Department's handling of public health issues, but what he omitted from it. My hon. Friends this evening have asked the Government to account for the handling of the following problems : contaminated lamb resulting from Chernobyl, listeria, salmonella, campylobacter, BST and BSE, pesticide residues, nitrate pollution of water supplies, the quality of food imports, meat inspection, hormone growth promoters and tenderisers, irradiation, research and development, animal welfare and antibiotics, veterinary services, the environmental health service and the problems of 1992.
We heard nothing about the Government's record on any of those issues. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon) has been in the Chamber all day and is anxious to intervene, so I shall make an exception in her case.
Ms. Gordon : Does my hon. Friend agree that all the issues he has just listed--the dangers of bacteria, hormones, radiation, pesticides and the pollution of water--are of serious concern to the women of this country, who are trying to provide their families with a healthy diet on a limited budget? Is it not most unfortunate that no woman has been included in the list of speakers to present the point of view of housewives?
Mr. Davies : It would be inappropriate for me to criticise the selection of speakers, and I assure my hon. Friend that the subjects she has raised do not concern women exclusively. They are of concern to every man, woman and child in the country--although I accept her point that the problems of eking out a meagre budget fall more heavily on women.
The Minister mentioned the speech of his right hon. Friend at the Oxford conference, from which I too want to quote. He said : "People are--quite rightly--taking more interest than ever before in what they eat and drink. They now take for granted the wide variety of products in our shops. They demand quality and they expect that all their food will be nutritious and safe. It is up to the industry to ensure that these expectations are met".
I agree with those aspirations, but not necessarily with the Minister's conclusion that it is entirely up to the industry to ensure that expectations are met. It is our contention that the Ministry has a responsibility, as well as the industry. If there is a single issue that divides us it is our claim that the responsibility for the enforcement of standards rests with the Ministry, and that it cannot be abdicated in favour of the industry.
The Minister made his speech on 4 January, so it is fair to say that we can take it as representing the up-to-date thinking of the Ministry. The Minister's demands were for variety and quality, and for nutritious and safe food. We believe that those demands are not being met. The most important reason why the Opposition asked for this subject to be debated on this Opposition day is the simple fact that the demands articulated by the Minister are not being met by his Department.
The most obvious and topical area in which the Ministry is failing the consumer is exemplified by the recent crisis of confidence in the egg industry. It is also a fine example of the interdependent interests of producers and consumers, for without the trust of the latter the producers have no market in which to trade their goods. The Ministry's failures during this fiasco were manifold. The incident can be traced back to the change in attitude, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) pointed out, to public health and consumer welfare that was heralded by the arrival of the Conservatives in office in 1979. They changed the rules. There was at that time a serious attempt to tackle the problem of salmonella in poultry by agreeing standards with the protein processing industry that would ensure, as far as possible, that animal feed was not a vector for the spread of infection. We have already heard the comments of the chairman of the Renderers Association, who said that standards had
Column 920changed. I refer to the comment by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body), who entertained us all with his comments in today's debate :
"Health concerns were overruled in drafting the rules". If there is a problem with salmonella, it dates back to the change of attitude that went hand in hand with the change of Government in 1979.
In 1986 and 87, 38 out of 218 tests for salmonella in feed processing plants proved positive, but there was not one prosecution. No action was taken by the Ministry. The Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Mid -Norfolk (Mr. Ryder), described himself as brilliant, and said that his winding up would be brilliant. We thought for a moment that he was reading the Minister's speech inadvertently. In a written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) on 14 December, the Parliamentary Secretary said :
"On re-inspection, all samples of products from these contaminated plants were found to be clear of salmonella contamination and so no prosecutions were brought."
According to a written answer that I received yesterday from the other Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson)-- who is not here--in 19 cases the plants tested were still infected when examined a second time. Unbelievably, in that same written answer, the Parliamentary Secretary said that in six instances the plants were still contaminated when inspected a third time. Is it not a question, therefore, of a cosy arrangement between MAFF and the renderers? MAFF visits plants and says, "There is a bit of a problem here ; you must tidy up there ; a bit of new equipment is needed there ; then everything will be okay, because we will come back in a month's time and give you a certificate."
It was found on the third inspection that 50 per cent. of the plants which were defective on the second inspection were producing contaminated food which was going into the food chain and causing 40, 000 British citizens to be affected by salmonella contamination. There was not one prosecution because of the cosy relationship between MAFF and the renderers. Which of the Parliamentary Secretaries are we to believe?
It is not as if that has been the only problem in the last couple of weeks, because we have heard of the problem of listeria. I welcomed the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who spoke with great knowledge and experience because of the tragic circumstances in his constituency. In spite of the inadequate monitoring of the levels of infection, which exemplify the Government's attitude, what little surveillance has been carried out has revealed the extent of the problem for several years. According to the public health laboratory's communicable health report, the risk has been known for the past eight years. That information has been available, and it is distressing that it has not been acted on by the Ministry. Those matters worry us greatly.
We have had a series of press releases and written answers from MAFF and from the Department of Health, which tell us unequivocally only one thing-- because of cuts, interdepartmental rivalry and neglect, those two great Departments of State can speak with no more authority on the extent of listeria than they did on salmonella. Meanwhile, increasingly, we read of deaths, such as those reported in yeaterday's Independent, which are unequivocally associated with listeriosis.
We have heard about other problems, such as cook-chill foods. Most recently, on 21 December, the