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Mr. Clarke : We are taking a considerable amount of action to tackle this. We are taking more action than most of our neighbours. On salmonella in eggs, going back to the question that was raised by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has put in place a package of no fewer than 17 measures. I shall touch on some measures that are especially relevant to the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because the Minister will deal with his own measures.
We have given ourselves new powers to stop the supply of products from protein processing plants where salmonella is found. We have put out notices preventing the sale of eggs from flocks that have been identified as a source of salmonella-infected eggs. Very shortly, an order will be made under section 29 of the Animal Health Act 1981 to provide, where necessary, for the compulsory slaughter of laying flocks in which salmonella has been confirmed. Much interest has arisen, especially since my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South made her remarks about the extent of infection in the flocks. Another order will be made shortly providing for the compulsory bacteriologial monitoring of all laying flocks which will enable us to improve our knowledge of the extent of infection of the flocks.
Mr. Clarke : I shall give way, although I will not give more details at this stage. I know of no country, and I challenge the hon. Gentleman and any of his colleagues to disagree, that has introduced a more comprehensive package of measures to deal with the problem, although we are by no means the only country that faces it.
Mr. Foulkes : The Secretary of State said earlier that we need clarity and not confusion. I think he was trying to accuse us of scaremongering. He will recall that all this confusion started with the statement that he has just mentioned from the former Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). Could the Secretary of State now tell us what he said to the hon. Lady immediately after that statement was made? Did he ask her to correct her statement because it was misleading, or did he ask her to shut up?
Mr. Clarke : The first time that serious interest was taken in this subject by the Opposition was when they joined in the demands to sack my hon. Friend because of her remarks. On the following day, when the hon. Gentleman was probably in the House, I answered a private notice question in which I gave the clear advice of the Government and a clear description of the nature and extent of the problem. To the best of my knowledge, nobody, certainly not so far this afternoon, has challenged anything that I said on that occasion.
The Chief Medical Officer gave widespread interviews on television and to newspapers to give the public health advice. I use the Chief Medical Officer because, although he is a civil servant, he is quite free of any suggestion of being subject to political interference in his medical judgment. He is also best qualified to give medical advice to the public and he did so. What I said to my hon. Friend was that she should decline to give interviews, because the only interviews that she would give was where she would face attacks from people like the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) demanding that she withdraw--
Column 873[Interruption.] Yes, certainly. At that stage, this responsible Opposition put the issue on a par with woolly hats and
Edwina-baiting-- [Interruption.] Yes, of course that was said. Again, the following day, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South repeated her belief in what she had said on the Saturday and added to it the Government's health advice, in exactly the same terms as I and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had given it, as well as the Chief Medical Officer.
Mr. Tom Clarke : I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. While he attempts to reassure the House, will he accept from me that in the past 15 minutes I have received information from the management of D. B. Marshall's chicken factory in my constituency, which has just announced redundancies for 239 people, which is more than half the work force at the factory? The management has told me that recent publicity has much to do with the decision. Does not the Secretary of State agree that the Government will have to get their act together much better than this unless even more jobs are to be lost?
Mr. Clarke : With the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman should take that up with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition-- [Interruption.] A few moments ago I attempted to repeat--and, despite the interruptions, I think I succeeded--the medical advice currently being given to the public about the safe handling of food. It was not greeted with derision, because there is no different advice that the Opposition want us to give, but it was greeted with repeated interruptions, weak jokes and general disbelief that I should compare it with road accidents or anything of that kind.
It is important that the vulnerable groups take the advice that we give, and it is important that other people realise that if they use common sense in handling food they are perfectly safe. It is also important that the Opposition parties stop messing about on this subject and find a subject for debate in respect of which they can make a useful contribution.
Let me go on to the question of cooked, chilled food. We have dealt, so far, with salmonella in eggs and with listeria in soft cheese. Cooked, chilled food is also an important matter. Listeria is carried in soft, ripened cheeses. We are concerned also about the handling of cooked, chilled and ready-cooked food in supermarkets. A recent report, produced by the Government's own public health laboratory service, which appeared in The Lancet, gave what is, so far, the best measurement of the extent of
Column 874listeria infection in some foods found in supermarkets. That report was known about and was fully taken into account by Sir Donald Acheson when, recently, he gave pregnant women and seriously sick people his advice about listeria and the handling of cooked, chilled food.
Nevertheless, we do intend to follow up recent concern about cooked, chilled food, and we now have regulations in draft, under the Food Hygiene Act, to require a maximum temperature for the distribution, storage and sale of pre-cooked, chilled foods. This is an aspect into which the hon. Member for Livingston entered a few days ago, with an essay at his own regulations. I said at the time that he was a little bit like a third-rate Liberal candidate in a county council election, knowing that we were producing regulations and that they were about to come, but demanding their introduction. Nevertheless, what he said was interesting, although, in fact, he lifted our existing guidelines for cook-chill catering in hospitals and applied them to the retail sale of various pre-cooked, chilled foods. They are not quite the same ; the practical problems are different. Nevertheless, we have our regulations in draft, and our experts' conclusions--and plainly we have access to a much wider range of expert advice than he has will come out soon.
The hon. Gentleman was not wholly foolish in choosing as a model our cook- chill guidance to National Health Service hospitals. I am glad to say that it comes out extremely well in all recent surveys. Our National Health Service guidelines have a good record. In the case of cook-chill in hospitals, there is such a short time between cooking at a high temperature, storage at a very low temperature for a very short time and then bringing the food up to piping hot again that the process has a good record and is giving rise to no concern. Contracting-out was said to be about to cause a wave of food poisoning throughout the hospitals. We have gone through a tendering process for well over three quarters of hospital catering, and the rate of salmonella infection in hospitals is dropping, not increasing. [Interruption.] Yet again, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) cannot resist bringing into a debate about food poisoning absolutely irrelevant ideological nonsense about his resistance to private caterers or contracting-out. In fact, since contracting-out started, salmonella infection has dropped. Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) rose
Mr. Clarke : If the hon. Gentleman waits to hear what I have to say about the regulations, I will give way before moving away from them. On the question of cooked, chilled, our experts have now agreed, and we will be laying the necessary hygiene regulations in the very near future. Those regulations will control the maximum temperature throughout the manufacturing and distribution chain, and that is important. We are working on a code of practice to ensure careful handling at every stage, from the preparation of foods to their sale on the shelves. We are also carrying out investigations into the temperatures necessary to kill the organism during heat treatment and into the effectiveness of microwave cooking. The results will be available shortly, and, once more, we shall take action at once.
Column 875area since they issued a consultative document in June 1987. Can the Secretary of State explain to the House why, 20 months later, no action has been taken on that consultative document, despite the growing evidence of listeriosis? If it really is necessary for his Department to take 20 leisurely months to consult over one statutory instrument, could we please have 20 months of consultation on the White Paper before he dismantles the National Health Service?
On the hon. Gentleman's first, and serious, point, let me say that I regret that it has taken 20 months, since we first announced our intention to consult, to produce these regulations. I can give the hon. Gentleman a perfectly straightforward explanation : the experts have taken a long time to come to agreement. [Interruption.] It really is quite absurd that every time we produce anything in an area of this kind Opposition Members insist that there is a party political conspiracy behind it. The fact is that when one is dealing with an area in which the scientific knowledge is far from complete, one brings together the widest body of expert knowledge. But the experts do not always agree. They had pressure put upon them by me and by my right hon. Friend because we needed the regulations. I am glad to say that--without compromising their scientific position, I am sure--they have finally agreed, and that we are about to lay the regulations.
I agree with the Leader of the Opposition that the consumer is entitled to look for the safest food that it is possible to get. It is not the consumers' responsibility in the first place. Nevertheless, consumers have a responsibility to take good care of themselves and of their food in the home, and we shall soon be launching a full-scale health education campaign on food hygiene to explain to people making increasing use of convenience foods in modern kitchens how they can handle that food safely in order to reduce the risk of disease there.
Mr. Robert Hughes : Does the Secretary of State recall Question No. 16 on today's Order Paper concerning the irradiation of food? Contrary to normal practice, the written answer to that question is still not available in the Library, though the other written answers are available. Why is he so coy about his Department's position concerning a proven method of making food safer? Will he say what is his policy towards the irradiation of food?
Mr. Clarke : It is true that all the best evidence we have so far is that irradiation actually kills bacteria and poses no problem for the consumer. But, as the hon. Gentleman, who follows these matters, knows, we are again in the hands of an expert working party, whose report we are considering. It is one of the ironies of the recent controversy about food that a lot of the lobbying is contradictory. Irradiation tends to kill bacteria in food, and there is no evidence that it creates any difficulties.
People talk about the safety of eggs. We hear about battery farming, which is not popular with many people in this country. There is no evidence that free range eggs are any more free of the newer types of salmonela than battery eggs. Infection has been found in both. When we have looked at the infections that come from cheese, we have found nothing to suggest that
Column 876factory-made cheese is safer than the farm gate variety. As someone said, we are consulting all over again on the question of the sale of unpasteurised farm gate milk, which some people like to buy and which undoubtedly also gives rise to a degree of food poisoning. Irradiation is a subject to which we shall certainly have to return, because the process would not actually kill some of the bacteria about which we are talking.
Mrs. Rosie Barnes : I wonder whether the Secretary of State could say something about the use of unpasteurised milk in cheese making. Comments at the weekend before last caused a considerable degree of anxiety about which cheeses were safe and which were not. Some hard cheeses are made from unpasteurised milk, and I know that many small manufacturers of cheeses have been finding their livelihood very hard hit in the days following those remarks.
Mr. Clarke : When questioned on the Jimmy Young programme I gave my understanding of what the newspapers told me my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had been saying on Saturday. At the same time, in Brussels, he was explaining that he had not said it--that we were not contemplating a ban. The position is that we are not contemplating a ban on any kind of cheese. So far as listeriosis is concerned, we cannot detect, from any evidence, any higher risk of disease in unpasteurised cheese than in pasteurised cheese, and there is no case for discriminating between them.
Mr. Shersby : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the point raised by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) is important? Can my right hon. and learned Friend comment on what studies his Department has made on the use of irradiation in other countries such as the Netherlands? Does he share my view that if he intends to legalise irradiation, the Opposition should support that as a valuable measure for dealing with food poisoning?
Mr. Clarke : It will be interesting to see. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may find time to deal with irradiated food when he replies to the debate. There is considerable concern about it and at the moment it is not allowed in this country. Much of the public concern is caused by confusion about the general subject of radioactivity. There are people who do not hesitate to confuse the two things. Again, we shall examine the best, up-to-date scientific information, both from here and abroad, about irradiation.
I cannot have been asked many more questions in any debate than I have been asked this afternoon, but there are limits to the extent of the scientific knowledge that exists about the new strains of salmonella, the worrying increase in listeriosis and other things connected with the subject. No one denies that during the 1980s not, as the Leader of the Opposition says, uniquely in this country because of the political policies of the Government, but throughout the developed world--there has been a worrying increase in particular types of food poisoning. No one knows exactly why. We all know that there have been sociological and technological changes in the production and handling of food. There has been a big increase in the mass production of food, which has had desirable consequences for the consumer, not least in reducing the price. Supermarket sales of food are increasing, and increasingly
Column 877food is of a convenience type, made to be prepared in new inventions like the microwave oven by busy people coming home from work.
All the evidence from this country and abroad gives no cause for panic or hysteria. As we have all said throughout, in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health, the evidence gives rise to serious concern that more infection is getting into the food chain at some point than used to be the case. It needs the most close scientific investigation. For that reason the Government have already announced their intention to appoint a committee on the microbiological safety of food. The committee will contain the widest possible range of expertise. Its members will be able to give advice on every part of the food chain and bring together their various specialities so that we can improve our understanding of why there has been an increase in food poisoning and what we ought to be doing to reverse it.
We have invited Sir Mark Richmond to be the chairman of the committee. Sir Mark is professor of molecular microbiology and vice-chancellor of Manchester university. He is also chairman of the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals. Among his various posts he has been chairman of the British national committee for microbiology, a member of the Lister Institute and a member of the Jarrett committee for university efficiency.
Mr. Clarke : Once again the Opposition have betrayed the full extent of their interest in the subject. The political predilections of the chairman of the committee are more important than his scientific background. I have not a clue whether he is a Tory. The terms of reference of the committee will be :
"To advise the Secretary of State for Health, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on matters remitted to it by Ministers relating to the microbiological safety of food and on such matters as it considers need investigation."
That means that it will be invited to respond to specific issues put to it by Ministers but it can also initiate longer term studies of its own.
The committee will look at the increasing incidence of foodborne illnesses particularly from salmonella, listeria and campylobacter. It will try to establish whether this rise is linked to changes in agriculture and food production, food technology and distribution, retailing, catering and food handling in the home. It will recommend action where appropriate. It is intended that the committee will have an expert membership which will include an epidemiologist, a microbiologist, an environmental health officer, a veterinary surgeon, a farmer, and food scientists with experience in production, distribution and catering. Consumer interests will also be represented on the committee. I hope that it will make some of its early recommendations in time for them to be included in the food legislation which the Government are contemplating.
I have taken a great amount of time, most of it in deference to interventions from all over the House--I have promptly provoked another one.
Column 878Opposition referred to certain vested interests in the food industry. Will my right hon. and learned Friend take the opportunity to reassure the House that the food industry, whether producers, manufacturers, processers, retailers or whatever, has a big vested interest, that is, ensuring that it markets a product that gives total satisfaction? The food industry has as big a vested interest as any individual.
Mr. Clarke : Of course, food producers, retailers and supermarket chains are all anxious, above all, to restore consumer confidence in their product. Within the food industry there is considerable expertise on catering, retailing and the handling of cooked, chilled products. We are working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and the food industry in what we are doing.
We have a record which is second to none of any country in the developed world of careful monitoring, of research, of prompt advice to the public and of action on the threats that are posed to the public by new varieties of food poisoning. We have set up a new independent committee to advise us on the worrying new developments in food poisoning in recent years. The whole subject has been trivialised to some extent this afternoon by the Opposition who made it a Supply day debate and then tried to make cheap political points out of it.
I began by saying that I was astonished that the right hon. Member for Islwyn was here. This is his first major Supply day presence since the election. Was it on defence, on the Health Service or on economic policy? No. He talked about the unity of his party, but his party either has no policy and is listening to various groups before deciding on what it should be, or it is only unified on the question of bad eggs and goat's milk cheese which it sees as its route back to power. The Labour party has made a deliberate attempt to arouse public concern, for party political advantage. On an issue which should be bipartisan the Labour party has tried to fan public concern. I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to treat the Opposition motion with the contempt that it undoubtedly deserves and to vote for the Government amendment.
Mr. Speaker : Before I call Back Benchers to participate in the debate, may I remind them that there will be a 10-minute limit on speeches between 7 o'clock and 9 o'clock. I hope that those who are called before then will set a good example by not taking much longer.
Whatever may be said from the Government Benches, some of us are qualified to speak on the issue. It does not take an expert to know that public confidence in food is at an all-time low, with some justification. In the last few years, a combination of Tory free market dogma and ministerial complacency and bungling has been literally deadly.
I have no wish or right to pre-empt the report of the Select Committee which is investigating salmonella in eggs, but I wish to comment on the evidence which was given in public. When the Secretary of State for Health, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) were interviewed, the ordinary person in the street had to assume that one of two things appertained : that there was a cover-up of evidence by the former Under-Secretary of
Column 879State for Health, who had been ordered to shut up, or that the former Under-Secretary of State had decided to keep quiet for her own personal reasons, literary or egotistical. Neither says much for inter-departmental liaison or the people involved.
Inter-departmental relations between the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were also pretty scrambled, for whether eggs are the cause of the increase in salmonella infection generally or not, it has been known literally for years that there has been a problem with salmonella of all kinds--there are, after all, 2,200 species or so--in poultry meat production, and the kind of action we are now hopefully seeing--the enforcement of zoonosis orders and tightening up of feed regulations and the 15 or so other measures which are to be listed later--are probably years overdue, both for the benefit of the consumers and the producers, who by and large want to produce good, wholesome food, and do not benefit from scares. This is a perfect example of how free market theories cannot work in a modern society. Indeed, they have never worked in health and hygiene matters.
What further delights have we in store in this area? Will the cutback in research funding have an effect? Of course it will. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) mentioned BSE--bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which is quite a mouthful and is a long name for a potential hazard of gigantic proportions, dealing with a very esoteric and long-term pathogenic agent. It is supposedly viral-like, but nobody really knows. It is resistant to heat, capable of causing degenerative brain disease in cattle and is very similar to scrapie in sheep.
That leads to a very interesting question. We have compulsory slaughter for cattle in place now albeit, I believe, with insufficient compensation. If the Ministry believes that the risk from cattle with BSE is enough to insist on the incineration of the bodies, why is there no such order for sheep with scrapie? The carcase of a scrapie sheep still ends up in the butcher's. People in Britain and probably elsewhere have been eating meat from sheep with scrapie for hundreds of years. Any shepherd worth his salt can recognise the first signs of scrapie and would tend to send the sheep to the butcher's before anyone else noticed, which could happen with BSE.
However, there are other knock-on effects of this problem. The disease has frightened off buyers from other countries. Britain's cattle exports are worth about £58 million a year, and 12 months ago Australia and Israel banned the import of British cattle. Australia's ban also includes semen for artificial insemination, although there is no evidence that the scrapie agent can be transmitted via semen. The Ministry will pay compensation, as I said, but it is only for half the average market value for a cow that must be slaughtered. We are fobbed off with the idea that the cattle in that condition are probably worth only that much, but that is not the point. We need to prevent the likelihood of this disease getting into the food chain, because we do not know whether it is transmissible to human beings, and we are not likely to know if we do not research the issue. Kuru is a very esoteric human disease. Microbiologists have this as an example of a very strange pathway, in that it is reckoned that it is passed on because of the cannibalistic instincts of the Fore tribe in New Guinea, who had the unfortunate habit of eating their relatives, which is not widely known in the hills of Wales. But we
Column 880certainly eat beef, and as cows are in the food chain, it is possible that this unusual and basically unknown disease can get into human beings.
Another human disease, which is probably not connected but is a similar sort of organism, is called Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, which shows at least that human beings can be susceptible to this sort of organism.
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the incidence of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease is 30 times higher among Libyan Jewry who treat as a delicacy the consumption of sheep's brains? Is this not a fairly firm indication that there is the possibility of transmission of scrapie via this unknown agent into humans where it is manifest in clincial forms of CJD?
Mr. Jones : I suggest that it is very likely an indication of the possibility of transmission in that way. I understand that there is some evidence that the eating of sheep's eyes can cause a similar problem. On a lighter note, I inform my hon. Friend that mock turtle soup is made from sheep's brains, and it may be something to avoid in future, bearing in mind the possible problems. I certainly do not wish that to be used as an excuse to start killing turtles again, because that would be the wrong inference to draw.
We have an example here of inter-departmental bungling, because we do not know what risk there is of human transmission of BSE and I doubt whether this is near-market research, so I would think that this is a problem of both Government policy and Government intentions. Over the last few years we have seen that free market dogma simply does not work when it is applied to food production and research. In fact, it is tantamount to a licence to kill.
Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (Kincardine and Deeside) : I very much welcome the fact that we have had this debate today, because there has been, as has been acknowledged on all sides, a great deal of confusion over the whole of this issue. To that extent at least I welcome the opportunity.
I enter this debate, I hope as the House recognises, as someone who has had a reasonable amount of practical experience of what is involved in the production and processing of food. Indeed, I was brought up on a family farm which, in the early 1930s in the east of Scotland, was one of the pioneers in producing tuberculin-tested, tuberculin-free milk. The need for proper hygiene and for freedom from disease in food production is one with which I have certainly been concerned for the whole of my life.
I also hope that in speaking in this debate I can speak from a degree of practical experience, because I had responsibility in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for four years, admittedly dealing much more with European matters perhaps than with domestic food matters. None the less, the one thing that did impress me and which was touched on by my right hon. and learned Friend in his speech a few moments ago was that, when we relate our standards in the United Kingdom to standards elsewhere in the western world and in Europe, ours are the highest standards. Yet from what we have heard in recent weeks one would wonder whether that was true. It seems that we could be accused of literally shooting ourselves in the foot over the good record of our industry.
I need no persuasion of the need for the highest possible standards of hygiene and quality in our food industry. To
Column 881maintain such standards requires, as I think my right hon. and learned Friend acknowledged this afternoon, constant vigilance and persistent effort. I hope that there will never, from any quarter in this House or elsewhere, be signs of complacency. For that reason I very much regret the amount of confusion and contradiction there has been. If we are honest with ourselves there has been an element of confusion and contradiction over recent weeks, and this has not helped.
I am particularly grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health for what I believe was a much clearer statement in the House this evening of exactly where we stand on these issues, why we stand where we do, and what action is being taken in the future. I feel reassured, and I hope that the Opposition will acknowledge that as well. I certainly believe people outside the House ought to be reassured as well. I believe that the problems have been identified and, having been identified, must be dealt with. Equally, whilst I regret some of the confusions that have arisen, I deprecate even more the degree of irresponsible scaremongering to which people have been subjected over recent weeks. Consumers have been misled, and the livelihoods of innocent people outside the whole of this controversy have been threatened or at worst destroyed, as was said by the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) a few moments ago in an intervention.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : When the hon. Gentleman said that there had been a good deal of scaremongering, was he referring to the comments made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie)?
Mr. Buchanan-Smith : Scaremongering has come from all quarters. I exclude no one and no political party. Such scaremongering in connection with the nation's food is something that I deprecate, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in doing so.
What worries me is that so much of what has been said is based neither on clear evidence nor on scientific principles. To a great extent, reason has gone out of the window. What I hope that the debate will do, and what I shall certainly try to do, is to keep matters in their proper perspective. Given the way in which people have talked in recent weeks, it is surprising that there are any elderly people in the population. As a journalist said to me today, how frequently--if ever--do we meet someone who has actually suffered from food poisoning?
Over the years the Ministry of Agriculture has had a good record in protecting the quality and standards of the nation's food and promoting healthy food production. Since pre-war days, through the Ministry and the country's agriculture departments, disease after disease has been eradicated from animal food production--foot and mouth being perhaps the most significant, although it is probably less important in relation to human health. Tuberculosis and brucellosis are examples of human diseases on which the initiative has been taken by our agriculture departments. After their eradication effective and careful monitoring has ensured that they have never returned to our livestock population with the subsequent threat to human health.
Column 882The Ministry's record applies to a long list of other diseases : swine fever among pigs ; Aujesky's disease, almost completely eradicated through work supported by the industry, financially as well as in other ways ; and fowlpest among poultry. I hope that the Minister will not be diverted from this course by the events of recent weeks. The Department that he heads has a record to be proud of, and I believe that it will continue to be our best insurance against disease and in support of proper health and food hygiene standards. If we examine it properly and dispassionately, we see that this is the record of an industry and a Ministry that are not irresponsible, but have considerable achievement behind them. Comparison with other countries suggests that we have one of the best records--if not the very best--in the western world. I hope that the Ministry will remain true to its history and will continue to tackle the problems resolutely and unwaveringly.
If the Government and the Ministry are to be effective, they must provide proper resources. That is especially critical in two respects. First, it goes without saying that proper resources must be given to the state veterinary service for the eradication and monitoring of disease. It is important to attract staff with qualities necessary for the task by offering appropriate salaries. Staff numbers are another issue to which, in view of what has happened in recent weeks, renewed attention should be given and, if necessary, additional resources devoted. The veterinary service is in the front line of the battle against disease and in support of hygiene, and I hope that the Government will provide the necessary support.
My second point concerns research. As my right hon. and learned Friend knows, I have serious doubts about the classification of some areas of near market research, the financing of which he wishes to return to the industry. I remind him that we are dealing with an industry with a multiplicity of small, independent units, and that at present it is finding things very difficult financially, for reasons of which he is aware. Some of the research needs to be reviewed to establish whether it should more properly be the Government's responsibility. I am thinking especially of public health and food hygiene. Of course we want support from the industry, but I think that we need more attention from the Ministry as well.
One example is the work on listeria being done at the Moredun research institute in Edinburgh, currently being funded by Government but earmarked as near market research to be funded by the industry. Another--I know that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) will agree--is the work of the Torry research institute in Aberdeen. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health spoke of chilled food and the importance of refrigeration. At that institute, some of the foremost work in Britain is being done on refrigeration techniques and how to improve them. I beg my right hon. and learned Friend to re-examine some of those research programmes, which I think should receive continuing Government support rather than being handed over to the industry--not because the industry is uninterested, but because of the difficulties of providing finance from that source.
As I have said, I welcome the debate. We needed a clear lead from the Government, and I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend has given it today. We need an end to scaremongering, and I hope that the Opposition Front Bench and others will recognise that. Otherwise it
Column 883will be the British consumer who will ultimately suffer through unwarranted uncertainty. It is in the British food
industry--production and processing--that livelihoods will be lost. The only winners will be overseas producers and processors. That will be bad for our balance of payments, and bad for Britain.
Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport) : It is very difficult to assess accurately what is happening to the food and water industries, and the repercussions for the health of the nation, especially at this stage. Excessive secrecy--the dominant feature of the present Government--and a lack of real information have served only to fuel the controversy. The public are utterly confused, and the question "What would you like for dinner?" has taken on unnecessary and nightmarish proportions.
Much of the hysteria of the past few months could have been avoided if the Government had for once approached an issue on the basis that the people have a right to know. If clear and sensible information and guidelines had been issued when the salmonella infection in egg production was first identified, much of the subsequent panic reaction from various Government Departments need not have happened. The response to the issue of soft cheese, unpasteurised milk and the listeria risk was such a reaction, and the issue still needs thorough investigation and clarification.
It is obvious, however, that, in our rush to progress and our haste to produce food more efficiently and profitably in a market-oriented society, certain people and industries have been allowed to cut corners. Consumers' rights have been neglected and the dangers to their health have become much more prevalent.
In the present era of mass production and of scientific and technological advance it is even more important that the public have access to information. Individuals have the right to know what they are eating ; mothers have the right to know what they are feeding their babies and what the effects may be. They should have the right to choose what substances they are consuming. Above all, they have a right not to be used as guinea pigs without their consent. Food should state clearly all contents, and where that is not practicable, the information should be easily available.
An example of the public not being informed or being given little choice as to what they consume is the use of bovine somatotropin treatment in milk production. Milk containing that hormone should be bottled separately and clearly labelled. In addition, the facts and information surrounding the use of BST should be made available to the public now. Are the public aware that in the United States the Food and Drug Administration is not completely happy with BST and there are restrictions on its use in that country. What does the Minister intend to do about the fact that the Veterinary Products Committee has refused to license the use of BST on the ground that not enough work has been conducted into its effects on animals? It is known that there is an increased incidence of mastitis and anaemia and there is concern that it may reduce fertility. Although the possibility of the bovine somatotropin hormone becoming active in humans is very remote, there is some risk. What will be the overall effect on farmers and milk production? This is the first time that a genetically-engineered hormone has been introduced
Column 884into the human food chain, and instead of clouding the issue in secrecy the Government should take the opportunity to set up hard and fast procedures to cover the introduction of other such drugs in future.
Consumers must be given the opportunity and information to make an informed choice. Consumers should also be given more information and more protection from the possible ill effects of cook-chill foods. The expansion of that industry makes it imperative that not only should such food be subject to stringent quality control, but that wherever it is used the individual consumer should be informed. The Department of Health particularly needs to look into its wide use in the Health Service and in local government services such as schools and meals on wheels. The fact that it is cooked and dispatched from one central unit to many hospitals exposes more patients to the possible source of contamination and makes any food poisoning outbreak difficult to control. The recent outbreak of salmonella poisoning at St. Helen's hospital, Mersyside, which was traced to a cook- chill cottage pie, should cause deep concern since it is known that listeria is a much tougher bacteria able to survive at very cold temperatures. Will the Minister consider introducing regulations requiring health authorities, hospitals and other units to inform patients of the use of such food and to offer alternatives to those patients most susceptible, such as those in maternity units, or perhaps even to ban the use of such foods at least in certain units until further investigations have been conducted ?
The report in The Guardian this morning that leaders in the food industry and retailers were being asked to draw up a draft code to help prevent listeria is not good enough. Surely we have passed the stage where the food industry should be allowed to regulate itself. The Government must act now. There is a need for strict legislation, regulations and enforcement.
Mr. Shersby : Has the hon. Gentleman ever heard of the Food Act 1984? Has he read the provisions of that Act and does he not know that there are already very strict regulations governing food production in this country?
Mr. Fearn : I have read the Act and I have seen the regulations, but they are not implemented because there is not enough inspection. The practice exposed in The Sunday Times on 19 February whereby large retailers such as Sainsbury's are allowed to offload surplus rejects or near-to-shelf -date goods, knowing that they will be sold for human consumption, cannot be tolerated. The fact that the wholesalers of such food cannot be prosecuted under the present law is not acceptable. The poorer sections of the community should not be put at risk or sold poor quality food in the interests of large companies cutting their losses.
Mrs. Gorman : I should like the hon. Gentleman to know that I regularly buy such products which have gone past their sell-by dates. I buy a whole tray of yoghurts in my local market for 50p and they are absolutely excellent. Many people who are much less well off than I am find a marvellous source of food in the supply of items which are marked with ridiculous sell-by dates.
Column 885Profit and loss issues lead me neatly to the quality of water now and in future. The reported cases of water pollution incidents in England and Wales between 1980-81 and 1986-87 rose from 12,500 to 21, 095, yet the Government have granted some water authorities new and relaxed effluent standards. At the same time, in the drive towards cost efficiency, the water authorities' capacity to invest in improvements has been curtailed. Lack of investment in the infrastructure means broken and rotten sewers which have contributed to an alarming increase in the rat population with the inherent danger of disease.
We have heard today that people in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire are being advised to boil their drinking water. Claims that the warmer winter may have some bearing on such events should not be allowed to detract from the real problem. Surely we can expect those in control of our water authorities to have expertise and knowledge as to the effects of warm weather and to provide some protection against it. At least 5 million people in the United Kingdom receive tap water that does not meet the legal limits set in the European Community directive. Now the Government are to ask for a time extension. Do we seriously believe that a privatised industry intent on profit will improve matters? Stringent controls will impose greater costs and will be vigorously resisted by water companies.
Everyone is aware of how easy it is to find loopholes in the law or to flout regulations. The consumer, unable to refuse to buy that necessity of life, will be virtually powerless. Once again the Government's obsession with secrecy has led them to refuse to accept freedom of information amendments to the Water Bill in Committee. What makes us so different from the rest of Europe? Are we so immune from bugs and the effects of pollution that the Government think that they have the right to ignore or manipulate EEC regulations and directives?
Once we could boast of some of the purest water in Europe. Now the name, "sick man of Europe" is applied to us, not in terms of our place in the league of powers, but because of our poor standards of environmental pollution, hygiene and so on. Are we proud of that? Are we content that British people are exposed to more possibly harmful substances than people in other countries? Do we accept the line of thought that British people do not have the right to know about things that affect their everyday lives, or that they are incapable of making a sensible, informed choice?
The Government must get their act together. There must be freedom of information for the consumer and increased consumer representation at the decision-taking level. The lines of responsibility within and between various Government Departments need to be clarified. Tougher legislation and regulations are required for food and water production, processing and so on. However, laws and regulations are useless unless they can be enforced. The Government should make available resources for the training, recruitment and retention of environmental health officers and investigate ways to increase their powers.