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Mr. Clarke : As we all know, the matter came into the political arena on 3 December 1988 when my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who was then the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, received a great deal of publicity for one of her weekend remarks.
The spokesman for the Social and Liberal Democrats attacked my hon. Friend for undermining confidence in the egg industry and the then spokesman for the Social Democrats compared the risk with the risk of being hit by a meteorite. That was the level of concern then being shown by Opposition Members.
Mr. Wilson rose--
Mr. Foulkes rose--
Mr. Clarke : The idea that the Opposition suddenly now scent the red meat of politics in the subject for an Opposition Supply day, traditionally a somewhat party political occasion, is quite extraordinary. It is two and a half months after all the political fuss, and endless events have taken place since then. They have missed the bus in exploiting the Currie affair.
Mr. Kinnock rose --
Mr. Clarke : I shall give way first to the right hon. Gentleman. I waited to see what would be contributed by the amazing and prestigious speech of the Leader of the Opposition. His contribution was his new style in wit, a very good line in jokes, a rather inadequate understanding of the problems of food poisoning and a theory that it is all caused by the policies of the Government.
Mr. Kinnock : The Secretary of State is absolutely right about my wit. Everything else he has said about the Opposition is a travesty. That is the only reason I have intervened. Over the years, we have repeatedly drawn attention, in all the debates on local government, for example, to the effect that the Government's policies would have on public health. In even more recent times, we dedicated a whole day of the debate on the Queen's Speech to the environment. I, together with two of my hon. Friends in the course of that debate, drew attention from the Front Bench to what the British Medical Association was then calling an "epidemic" of salmonella. There have been many other occasions on which we have taken an effective and vigilant interest in the whole problem of food hygiene. I hope that the Secretary of State will get on with his speech and will stop fooling about with completely false reports.
Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle) : This debate is about water as well as food. Do I take it from the remarks of the Secretary of State that he disagrees with the Secretary of State for the Environment and that speeches and statements made by myself and my hon. Friends over the past three years about drinking water quality have not been scaremongering, of which he accused us?
Mr. Clarke : I have not accused the hon. Gentleman of scaremongering yet, but I shall. The whole point of the debate seems to be to arouse the alarm of the public and then to try to turn that to party political advantage. I shall, in due course, return to the extraordinary proposition that where there are worrying problems about water purity, somehow one is safe with public water but not with private water. That seems to be wholly irrelevant to the Water Bill and is only raised again by the hon. Gentleman because he wants to oppose the privatisation of water for other reasons.
Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : If the Secretary of State is giving us dates and explaining his interest in this subject, can he tell us why it took him from 15 December 1988 to 15 February this year to answer a simple question that I tabled about what was his responsibility for food safety? It took two months to answer a simple question. How many meetings did he have about that question? How many draft answers? How many nights' sleep did he lose? I suggest that that prevarication and delay showed a complete lack of interest or lack of confidence by the Secretary of State.
Mr. Clarke : My duties on food safety have been clear as were those of my predecessor. They are in the published details of the responsibilities of Government Ministers. I apologise, of course, that it took so long to answer the right hon. Gentleman's question. I fear--as is always the position when people first suspect a conspiracy and then think of the alternative--that his question, quite improperly, remained in the bottom drawer of some official over the Christmas recess. [Interruption.] There have certainly not been any changes in my responsibilities for food safety nor in those of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for many years. The present system has been working effectively for the past few months.
Having dealt with the background to this debate and its contents so far, may I suggest that we are all agreed that those who are following the debate from outside the House wish to have clear advice and clear action and to know what is being done about a problem that is causing concern in this and every other developed country in the westerm world? The housewives of this country do not want party political exchanges across the Floor of the House, which are plainly dependent on the opportunist instincts of the Leader of the Opposition. They want to know exactly what advice we are now giving them so that they can protect themselves and their families. They want
Column 865to know the background to the problem and why we are giving such surprising advice and they want to know what is going to be done about the problem. On all those counts, on which the Leader of the Opposition did not spend over-long, we have a duty to be clear and to demonstrate that we have been clear and consistent in the past few months.
I remind all hon. Members of the precise status of the warnings that we have given. We have had to give warnings to certain sections of the public about the way in which they should treat certain foods. If the Opposition are really sincere in their declaration that they wish to be responsible--I shall take that at its face value and in the way in which it was put to me- -they should underline the advice that has been given and agree that it is the crux of the issue. We have been consistent throughout in our advice about eggs. We went to the lengths of publicising the Chief Medical Officer's advice in full-page advertisements in the newspapers. I have a small offprint with me. The extent of that advice, which evolved as the evidence during the autumn, was that for healthy people there is very little risk from eating eggs which are cooked in whatever way one prefers them. For vulnerable people--the elderly, the sick, babies, toddlers and pregnant women--eggs should be thoroughly cooked until the white and the yoke are solid, but everyone should avoid eating raw eggs or uncooked foods made from them.
Mr. Wilson rose --
Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) rose--
That remains our advice on eggs. No one is suggesting that it is wrong or that it should be changed. No one is suggesting that at any stage any Minister has given any advice inconsistent with that which stems from the Chief Medical officer or from the course of public debates.
Mr. Wilson : Before the Secretary of State strays too far from his somewhat sketchy chronological account, is he categorically telling the House that his Department had no warnings of salmonella in the poultry flock before 1988?
Mr. Clarke : Salmonella in the poultry flock is a subject with which everybody who follows this issue has been familiar for many years. The new type of salmonella--salmonella enteritidis phage 4--and the discovery that it could be carried inside the egg, was first suspected and emerged towards the end of last year. To this day, we are still trying to discover exactly why and how it has emerged. We want to increase our scientific knowledge of it so that we can react to it.
Ms. Gordon : Does the Secretary of State agree that what old people, pregnant women and mothers with children require are not warnings about not eating eggs, but safe eggs that they can eat? They want an assurance that the producers have been inspected and they want lists of safe producers and retailers from whom they can buy eggs with confidence. The Government have not provided that.
Column 866the hon. Lady that it now falls to us and the industry to tackle that problem and to reduce the level of infection to the minimum practicable and eliminate it as quickly as possible. However, a new problem has emerged, and we must give warnings. We shall maintain those warnings until we are satisfied that it can be lifted--that is the essence of this subject. [Interruption.] I am explaining how the problem emerged, when we first became aware of its full extent and the warning that we have given.
Mr. Foulkes rose--
The other worrying area is listeria and listeriosis. Again, there is no doubt about the warnings that we have been giving, which were last given in a full public press notice on 10 February 1989 and which received a lot of attention. It was aimed at pregnant women and particularly vulnerable people, especially patients who have had transplants, those on certain drugs that depress the immune system, and those with leukaemia or cancers of the lymphatic tissues. Those people were warned to avoid eating soft cheeses and to follow carefully instructions on how to handle precooked chilled food and precooked ready-to-eat chicken. They were advised to warm it until piping hot.
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) rose --
Before we get back to the political hullabaloo, I want to ensure that the public understand the warnings and get them in proportion. It is not complacent to say that one needs to keep this matter in proportion. Indeed, I think that the public know that.
In supermarkets and kitchens, the public are behaving more sensibly than many politicians and journalists. That is the full extent of the health warnings that we have given. Nobody has said that we should extend them--
Mr. Cook rose --
Mr. Clarke : Well, I shall give a simple example first. Let us take someone like myself who, as far as I am aware, is healthy. It may not be my just deserts for my way of life, but I think that I am healthy--as are most hon. Members. I have not been warned to desist from eating any food on grounds of salmonella or listeria, except raw eggs. If one has an occasional raw egg, one knows that one is running a calculated risk.
Mrs. Gorman rose --
Mr. Clarke : Our advice has been aimed only at vulnerable groups. Average members of the public are not facing a risk that justifies hysteria or over-reaction. However, what it does justify is positive action, research and more scientific information to tackle the problem at its root before it gets any worse.
Mr. Cook rose --
Mr. Clarke I shall give way in a second.
To put this into proportion, during the 1980s deaths from food poisoning averaged about 50 per year. By comparison, deaths from accidents in the home were over 4,800 and for road accidents nearly 4,950. No one is
Column 867complacent about any of those figures, but they do put the comparative risks in context. The average person is nearly 100 times more likely to die from an accident at home or on the road than from food poisoning. Although the risk from food poisoning in this new form should be reduced, it does not justify the amazing alarm expressed about it in some places.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) rose --
Mr. Cook rose --
Mr. Cook : I thank the Secretary of State for giving way after that "second". He said several times that the problem emerged only last year. However, he will be aware that the figures that he has deposited in the Library show that between 1981 and 1987--not last year--the incidence of salmonella enteritidis increased sixfold. Is he aware that in 1987 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food discovered infection in one quarter of the poultry foodstuff processing plants but did not close a single one? Is he further aware that in September last year the Lancet was able to state that there had been an "uncontrolled" epidemic of salmonella poisoning "for about two years" in Britain? If the Lancet knew that in September 1988, why did his Department wake up to the problem only a couple of months earlier?
Mr. Clarke : The big increase in salmonella enteritidis was in 1987. Its connection with the whole egg became clear only in the summer of last year. Nothing that the hon. Gentleman has said has contradicted that. Indeed, I do not believe that it is possible to contradict that.
The big increase in listeria and listeriosis occurred two years ago, but we stil do not know why there has been a big increase in listeriosis. Only four cases have been positively traced back to food. In 1988 the World Health Organisation gave us its opinion of the problem--that probably the bulk of listeriosis was, in some way as yet unknown, foodborne as an illness.
As I shall explain in a moment, we are in the forefront of monitoring systems and research. In the advice that we are giving to the public and the steps that we have taken vis-a-vis the industry we are ahead of most other countries in western Europe and across the Atlantic.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : This debate must be about reassuring the public-- [Interruption.] That is what the public demands of Parliament today. May we have an absolute, unconditional assurance today that all feedstock protein coming from these plants is salmonella-free? If we receive that assurance today, why could not we have had it in August of last year, when it would have meant so much more?
Mr. Clarke : I shall be coming to that in a moment. I shall leave most of the assurances to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I shall touch on the 17 measures that he has taken to check salmonella in our flocks.
Mr. Clarke : We have created the necessary powers to be able to give that assurance. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be able to bring the hon. Gentleman up to date with the enforcement of those powers when he replies. As I shall explain in the appropriate part of my speech, we have taken much action and given ourselves many additional powers to control salmonella in egg-laying flocks.
Mr. Foulkes rose--
Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West) rose--
Mr. Clarke : I shall give way in a second. It is a little rich for an Opposition Member to declare that the purpose of the debate is reassurance when the Opposition have so far spent their time misrepresenting both the date at which the problem first became known and the advice that the Government have given. With no scientific grounds on which to do so, they are challenging the action taken by the Government last year when the nature of the problem first became clear.
Dr. Reid : Does the Secretary of State realise that if anything in today's debate will cause wide public concern, it will be his refusal to give the categorical assurance asked for by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)? Does he think that comparing the statistics of people who died from food poisoning with those of people who died on roads is any consolation to the relatives of those who died from food poisoning?
Does the Secretary of State understand that advertisements in newspapers are no substitute for policy? Will he take the opportunity today to explain to the House and the country why the Government vetoed their own 1984 proposals to subject new food premises to Government regulation and approval? In doing so, did the Government put the health of the nation or the Prime Minister's dogma of deregulation first?
Mr. Clarke : I have already explained that I gave the figures, not to minimise the impact on the individuals affected, but to make it clear to everyone in the Chamber that it is still safer to eat any kind of British food than it is to cross the road. Quite demonstrably, that remains the case.
Mr. Foulkes rose--
Mr. Speaker : Order. As a Front Bench spokesman the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) should be the first to know that if a kMinister, or even an hon. Member, does not give way, he must not persist.
Column 869to a farce. I have given an assurance that the Government have the necessary powers to control the production of protein in this country. As part of the assurance that I shall give about the steps we have taken, I can say that the Government have the necessary powers to monitor the flocks and are checking protein as it comes from the producers.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) is doing what his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition does by calmly changing the subject to talk about a regulation on new food premises that was introduced three years ago. He cannot demonstrate that any case of the food poisoning with which we are concerned this afternoon arose from the Government's decision about that regulation. The Opposition must stop thrashing about trying to find vaguely food-related topics to suggest that the risk is worse than it is or that, somehow, the Government are not tackling the problem.
Sir David Price (Eastleigh) : In order to make some sense of assessing the degree of the problem, will my right hon. and learned Friend deal with the point raised about the alleged under-reporting of salmonella cases? Does he agree that academics who multiply the Department's figure by 100 do not add to our appreciation of the problem? Is he aware that applying that factor of 100 to the basic health figure--the mortality rate- -would mean that all of us in the House and the nation would die 1.2 times every year?
As I have explained several times, we are talking about a new form of salmonella. There are hundreds of different types of salmonella of varying seriousness, but we are dealing with a new type--salmonella enteritidis phage 4. Cases of that particular type associated with poultry and eggs have risen during the 1980s. In 1988, 12,553 cases of phage 4 were reported in this country. The latest score for 1988 of cases directly associated with eggs is 60 outbreaks, involving about 1,600 people.
It is true that all types of food poisoning are under-reported. Many people's symptoms are not severe enough for them to trouble their doctor, or if they do, he does not always submit his results for pathological examination. In America, where I suspect reporting systems are not as good as ours, by convention some academics multiply by 100 the number of reported cases to give a figure closer to the truth. By definition, no one knows exactly how much under-reporting takes place, but those involved in the matter in this country believe that a factor of 10 is more suitable for monitoring the conditions in Britain.
The difficulty about listeria is that it is also a new and insufficiently understood problem. The type of listeria with which we are dealing is an organism that is widely
Column 870distributed in the environment and with which we all come into frequent daily contact. It is present in water, vegetation and soil. For some reason, as yet imperfectly understood, although we are all exposed to it--about one in 20 of us probably carry it in our bodies--it causes ill effects in vulnerable people.
For a few of us the organism causes a disease known as listeriosis, which is fortunately quite rare. Last year there were 287 cases. In the past two years the number has suddenly risen. In healthy adults it can cause a mild flu-like disease but unfortunately, in more serious cases, it can cause meningitis and septicemia. As the Leader of the Opposition said, it presents a particular problem for pregnant women, in whom it may also infect the developing baby and lead to miscarriage, stillbirth or the baby being born with severe illness. The problem is being studied throughout the western world. However, it is only in the 1980s that serious outbreaks have begun to occur. Soft, ripened cheese appears to be a particularly common carrier of listeria. Again, before people rush out to cancel their orders for soft cheese, I shall repeat that healthy adults have probably consumed listeria several times in the past few days without even being aware of it or showing any symptoms. However, pregnant women are at risk if they eat cheese with listeria.
In the 1980s there were outbreaks of listeria, first in Canada, and then a particular cheese, Vacherin Mont D'or, caused deaths in Sunderland-- [Interruption.] --in Switzerland. [Interruption.] --and had to be banned. Then in America they had a serious outbreak involving Mexican soft cheese. Hence, we have given the advice to those consuming soft cheese in this country, although to date we are aware of only four cases directly attributable to food, only two of which concerned soft cheese. It seems to make no difference whether the cheese is pasteurised or unpasteurised. We have given warnings to this carefully selected group of vulnerable people because most of us can eat soft cheese, which has a lot of listeria in it, without knowing that we have it and without suffering adverse effects. That statement produced some momentary silence and even a little less hilarity from the Opposition because it is a factual description of the particular aspects of food poisoning with which we are concerned. Those facts do not lend themselves to party political attacks. They are not facts about which the Opposition are any more scientifically informed than the Government.
Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy) rose --
Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich) rose --
Dr. Moonie : Perhaps I am slightly better informed than the Secretary of State on this subject. He must be well aware that the rise in the number of cases of listeria is exactly paralleled by the rise in the use of cook-chill methods of storing food. He will also be aware that this fact is recognised by major manufacturers such as Marks and Spencer, which have taken action to ensure that this bacterium is eradicated from their food production.
Mr. Clarke : Certainly it is true that, among other things that have happened during the 1980s, there has been an increase in listeria, especially in the past two years. There has been an increase in the use of pre-cooked chilled foods on sale for retail. It is certainly true that listeria is a risk that must be looked out for in pre-cooked chilled food. I shall come to that in a moment. No one has yet established the direct link. We know that the level of listeria should be kept reasonably low and precautions should be taken by those who are particularly vulnerable to the bacterium. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) is a registered medical practitioner who I know therefore has qualifications in his field. The hon. Gentleman claims to know exactly why particular groups get listeriosis from listeria. If he knows exactly what steps must be taken to reverse that, he should be in pursuit of a Nobel prize, and not in pursuit of retaining his seat in the House of Commons. Mr. Tom Clarke rose --
Mr. Clarke : I do not believe that the medical and scientific world is entirely sure yet of the answers to these questions. We will take the hon. Gentleman's advice, and we are taking advice. The Government already have many independent expert committees to rely upon, including doctors and vets within the Government and a wide range of outside expertise, such as the food advisory committee, and the committee on toxicology. Those committees will not be attacked by anybody on either side of the House. We have 10 specialist working parties dealing with all aspects of food hygiene, which contain experts from inside and outside.
I trust that we shall not hear any bizarre attacks upon them as part of some political conspiracy in support of the producer, private industry or whatever is claimed to be at the root of this difficulty. No subject is considered closed by them. We analyse thousands of samples of food each year. We monitor what is going on in this country to a much higher extent than most other countries.
Mr. Clarke : Research has been mentioned. We are financing research on a considerable scale. That case is not undermined by finding one disappointed researcher whose research has been finished--and where the money is being switched to some other aspect--and suggesting that that is incontrovertible proof that we are neglecting research. At present, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is funding 14 research projects, either specifically on listeria or including work on listeria. We are in the forefront of work in this sphere.
Mr. Clarke : Most developed countries, as I keep on saying, are experiencing a similar problem. It is not confined to this country. One thing that arises from our system of monitoring, answering questions and giving advice--indeed, from our system of parliamentary debate--is that we in this country are more aware of the extent of the problem than most members of the public in other countries are aware of the extent of similar problems in those countries.
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North) rose--