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Mr. Gill : I should be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's view on how many additional inspectors would be required to make sure that our food was 100 per cent. safe.
Mr. Fearn : No country could boast that its food is 100 per cent. safe. I was asked how many inspectors would be needed. I have looked into the question and I learn that 1,500 inspectors are needed. I hope that the Minister will take to heart the issues that have been raised today. I hope, too, that action will be taken to prevent the chickens from coming home to roost.
Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West) : I accept, as do others, that there is widespread concern about bacteria in food, and the debate has attracted great interest. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health for telling us in such great detail about what his Department is doing. He did his best to reassure both those who have been listening to the debate and those who will read the report of the debate in Hansard and to set the record absolutely straight. The hype and sensationalism that the issue has generated is quite wrong, and it culminated in a few tasteless jokes by the Leader of the Opposition. That hype and sensationalism has misled consumers, jeopardised many businesses and resulted in a severe slap in the face for all those who are involved in the production, distribution and sale of food.
The issue has become a charter for cranks. They have blown it out of all proportion. Dubious professors and assorted nut cases have ached to tell us that virtually everything that we eat is bad for us, or poisonous, or in some way will jeopardise our health. That is fair enough with cigarettes and alcohol. However, when I heard one of the so-called experts tell us on radio that there is a trillion to one chance that we shall be infected if we eat a certain brand of processed food, I knew that the time had come to turn it off. It is hard to achieve a true sense of proportion. When I was in west Gloucestershire last weekend, therefore, I conducted my own research by visiting food manufacturers and retail outlets. I also talked to my friendly local doctor. They know a great deal more about these problems than they are given credit for. They have had in place for many years methods and systems to minimise infection and disease. In the case of responsible firms, the methods and systems that they use are far in excess of what is demanded by local authorities. Voluntary practices should be backed up by local regulations that are enforced by inspectors. It is easy for Opposition Members to say that there should be 1,500 inspectors, but I found that statement about as convincing as the man on the radio who said that he thought that there was a trillion to one chance of people being infected if they ate a certain brand of processed food. The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) made an off-the-cuff remark. He was on the ropes. He had no idea what the answer was, so he just trotted out the first figure that came into his mind.
Hysteria is causing more trouble than listeria. My friendly doctor told me that listeria is an organism that is found in soil, water, vegetation and even grass cuttings. None of us can avoid it. It is present in some soft cheeses and in certain cook-chill foods. However, it can be completely destroyed by thoroughly heating the food. As Sir Donald Acheson said of listeria, the chances of an ordinary person becoming infected are so remote that it is not worth worrying about. Those of us who have met him, or who have heard him talk, know that he is not a man
Column 887who is given to overstatement. I was moved, as I am sure other hon. Members were, by the Leader of the Opposition's story about the lady who lost her baby through listeria infection. I do not, therefore, dismiss the fact that in certain cases listeria can be dangerous. Salmonella is a more serious problem, but it has been grossly overstated ; there has been a great deal of scaremongering by hon. Members. Producers and retailers are well aware of the dangers, but it is ludicrous to use--as some have--the multiplier of 100 to arrive at an estimate of the number of people who have been infected. People have always suffered from upset stomachs. It is wrong to attribute all of them to salmonella. Nevertheless, it is a problem and it should be further investigated. We have heard today that that is precisely what is happening.
I welcome the new programme of microbiological research and the inquiry into food infection that is chaired by the Prime Minister. This Government have never discounted food poisoning scares. They have acted responsibly by finding out the truth. It would be pointless to go into the history, but BST in cattle, radiation from Chernobyl, lead on solder in cans that are used for preserving food and anti-freeze in wine have been dealt with quietly and efficiently by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In 1988, £20 million was spent on ensuring food safety, and 500 people were employed in that work. If the Ministry is guilty of anything, it is guilty of not having blown its own trumpet loud enough. It has not said precisely what has been done.
I welcome the education programme that is to be targeted at consumer practices. I believe that more than 50 per cent. of food poisoning outbreaks start in the home. Cracked eggs that have been stored in the fridge are used by the housewife. I wonder how many people check the fridge temperature when they store frozen food and ensure that it is stored at the right temperature. I wonder, too, how many housewives and cooks check the defrosting instructions and make sure that they cook the food in the right way. As most families shop only once a week, I wonder how many people check the storage instructions on the back of the products that they buy? The industry takes great care to put instructions on their products so that the consumer knows under what conditions frozen or chilled foods should be stored and then cooked. Today's occasional shopping practices and irresponsible cooking play a fair part in causing food poisoning. Guidelines are needed, but we have them already and they should be followed. The cry for more Government legislation and for more restrictions reminds me of the nanny state that we have worked so hard to abolish. Our opponents want more Government control, more regulation, more bureaucrats and less choice, but we should end up with tasteless lunches. We do not want that. We need to find out the facts and to act on them. We need to adopt a prudent and cautious approach. We must also bear in mind that the ever-changing practices and customs when preparing and eating food and the ever-changing practices and customs in its production and distribution are having an effect in the increase in food poisoning.
It is a complicated subject, but plans have been made and advice for the consumer will be forthcoming. The consumer will be given advice on how to look after food products. The Select Committee's report is soon to be published. I hope that it will make interesting reading for all those who are interested in the subject.
Column 888Two key principles underlie the Government's strategy on food safety. First, prompt action should be based on proper and detailed scientific evidence. Secondly, the need to provide consumers with information on food quality and safety is imperative. That is the right spirit and way in which to go forward.
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : Anyone would think from the speeches of Conservative Members that this whole issue had been invented by people other than their own spokespersons. Despite their protestations, any lingering doubts we may have had about the validity, if not the total accuracy, of the remarks made before Christmas by the former junior Minister, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), have been dispelled by subsequent events.
The comical sight of Ministers rushing to defend the indefensible as their friends in the food production and distribution lobby cried "foul"-- contradicting themselves and each other on radio and television over eggs, poultry and cheese--proves that the Prime Minister's first priority must be to make "foot in mouth" disease notifiable, at least for her Ministers.
For once, the media have managed to get it right. There is a justifiable crisis of confidence in our food production which will not be dispelled by the largely cosmetic actions which Ministers have taken so far. There can be no argument about the facts. Food poisoning has increased dramatically in the last 10 years and, according to recent reports, is continuing to rise. To the long-standing problem of salmonella has been added the new fear of listeria, a common enough bacteria the potential for harm of which has only recently been recognised as new methods have enhanced the risk of infection and the medics have recognised how serious the consequences can be.
Let us not forget how serious food poisoning can be.
Gastrointestinal infection can be a major systemic illness, causing high fever, copious diarrhoea, vomiting and pain. Weight loss and dehydration are severe and death in elderly and infirm people is all too common.
Mr. Gill : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that another relevant statistic is that we have the second highest proportion of old people in our population in the world? It follows that that would not be the case if the food industries were providing a substandard product to those people, who are, in any event, the most vulnerable section of society.
Mr. Cook : That is an interesting line of argument. Perhaps they are better cared for than those in the same age group in Third world countries. I was referring not to statistics but to conditions that result from food poisoning, as the hon. Gentleman would have been aware had he been paying attention to what I was saying.
Listeria infection may cause abortion, with all the grief and anguish that such an unforeseen event can bring. When we fully recognise the damage that these conditions can cause, it is right for us to expect effective action to be taken. The problem which we are facing affects the whole food chain-- production, distribution and preparation, either commercial or domestic. I agree that stringent control of practices in the home can reduce the chance of
Column 889eating infected food, but that cannot be the whole answer, unless we adopt in the kitchen the same standards as in operating theatres to prevent cross-infection.
People have a right to expect their food to be clean and substantially free from powerful bacteria or additives before they purchase it. Government have an absolute duty to see that that is so. For Ministers to attempt to blame anyone but themselves for the problem is a gross dereliction of duty on their part.
The Secretary of State was a singularly inappropriate choice to speak first for the Government in this debate. He is not responsible for food production or distribution--the direct source of the problem--but is merely the gatekeeper trying to lock the door after the horse has bolted. Of far greater importance are the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with total responsibility for food production and most distribution, and the Department of the Environment, which is responsible for the upkeep of local standards. The balance between those two areas is critical.
One can argue a reasonable case that food in Britain is over-intensively produced--for example, poultry and eggs, the factory farming of beef and pork and the attempt to extract extra milk from cows by using hormones--and that much of it is over-processed, over-dependent on additives and sold through far too few outlets. Many friends of mine who have lived in Europe testify to the latter, comparing the number of outlets for fresh food in Holland, Germany or Switzerland with the situation in this country. We have mistakenly concentrated on quantity and convenience rather than quality and choice, and we are paying the price for our folly.
Several actions must be taken now to restore public confidence and improve standards. I welcome unreservedly the proposal to ban unpasteurised milk in England and Wales, as is already the case in Switzerland. I am less certain of the need to use only pasteurised milk in cheese production ; the number of producers is small enough for action to be taken to control the process and ensure that harmful contaminants are excluded.
We in Britain must shift the emphasis away from the
producer-oriented Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to a new food standards agency which would make the well-being of the consumer its primary concern. It is no accident that such a plethora of information is coming from major producers and distributors of food. They know that they have been rumbled, that they have forfeited our trust and that they will have a hard job to regain it. A food standards agency would concentrate on quality and have regard to the nutritional and health standards that the Government must set. It could build on much of the excellent work that has been carried out locally on food policy in areas such as Fife, London and elsewhere. The excellent work done by local authorities and health boards compares favourably with achievements in this sphere at central Government level. No wonder Ministers want such bodies to be abolished.
We must strengthen control over food distribution and sale. The whole cook- chill process must be investigated and revised, with more stringent control of temperature
Column 890and sterility. If, hopefully, we reverse the over-centralisation of food production and the over-concentration on huge retail outlets, we shall have to accept an expansion of environmental health departments. Practices such as the improper display or handling of cooked or raw meats must be stamped out.
The Government must not go ahead with cuts proposed in research and development. It is high time that we took a serious look at the CAP and the appalling effects that has had on quality and the price of food in this country. The featherbedding of production at any cost must stop before farmers will concentrate on rearing high quality animals, cereals and vegetables which will command a decent price without the need for the processing tricks at which the manufacturers are so good. On all those aspects, the Government have woefully failed in their duty to the public.
I should hate people to have the wrong impression about the technique of the irradiation of food. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) is right to say that it kills bacteria. However, it fails to remove the toxins that are generated by the bacteria, so it can leave food looking decent and healthy but also retaining toxins which are dangerous. In no way will irradiation improve the standard of food or make it healthier to eat. It succeeds only in prolonging shelf life. It serves no purpose for the consumer, only for the retailer.
For all those reasons, and despite the protestations of the Secretary of State and the whingeing of Conservative Members, the Opposition have been right to choose this subject for today's debate. It highlights the confusion and contradiction that are still clearly evident on the Government Benches. That is why the Government stand condemned for their incompetence and folly and for mismanaging the whole affair.
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) : In concentrating my remarks solely on food matters, I speak as a Member of the House and as a consumer ; and let us not forget that every member of the public is a consumer and therefore has an important role to play. With that in mind, we must bring some realism and clear thinking into the issue of food safety.
Some issues are being taken out of context and exaggerated out of all proportion. We have one of the finest food industries in the world, with reputable farmers and manufacturers attempting to provide us with the best produce. Their record shows that, despite the present furore, they are succeeding. Britain has recently demonstrated that, together with Denmark, it has the highest quality milk in Europe ; they are the first countries to achieve the EEC's new health and hygiene standards. Also, we have our milk delivered daily to our doorsteps, which many of us appreciate.
I challenge any right hon. or hon. Member to deny that we have some of the best-run and cleanest supermarkets in the world, offering the widest choice of foods, and meeting all tastes. Anyone who has shopped outside the United Kingdom will be aware of that. The situation has changed over the past 20 years. We are handling and purchasing food in better condition than ever before, and there is much greater choice. I am not saying there is no need for further change. There is always room for improvements, but they must be introduced in a logical, carefully thought
Column 891out way, and not be panic measures. The Government must be receptive to changes and improvements, but I implore them not to be panicked into taking steps that are likely to damage the food industry, manufacturers, retailers, or consumers.
The question of salmonella in eggs and poultry and of listeria in other products must be addressed as a matter of priority and be resolved. However, we cannot tolerate allowing an eccentric professor at the university of Leeds, who has analysed a few eggs and a few cooked dishes, to draw conclusions that such foods are killing hundreds of people every year. It is not sensible to draw such a conclusion, and our deliberations must not be guided by such a pseudo-scientific approach.
I understand that listeria is a common bacterium that is to be found in soil and in vegetation, in the atmosphere, and in human bodies. It has been shown to be present in many of the raw foods we eat, such as vegetables and salads, yet we do not view those foods as posing a problem to our health. Nevertheless, Professor Lacey at Leeds has found listeria in cook-chill foods, causing total panic and misunderstanding among many consumers. My belief is that he does not know either the level of listeria that he has discovered or the level that is needed to make a person ill. However, he still concludes that many, many people have died from listeria. In my view, his views border on science fiction. I am not saying that nothing should be done, but we should be sensible and keep matters in perspective. As to the quality of farm products, the Government must be given sufficient powers to improve and defend quality where necessary--even if that is to the detriment of producers on some occasions. The Government have long experience of eliminating tuberculosis and brucellosis in cows, and a similar campaign must be mounted to eradicate samonella from the country's poultry flocks, on a region-by-region basis.
The Government must also intensify their efforts to improve the quality of animal foodstuffs. We cannot allow the spread of salmonella through contaminated chicken feed, be it of British or imported origin. We must ban for ever the use of animal or chicken offal as an ingredient in animal foodstuffs. We must never again need to wonder whether the use of sheep offal has spread the widely recognised sheep disease, scrapie, to cows, which, as we have already heard, causes in them the unpronounceable disease known as BSE--sometimes called "mad cow disease"--which currently attacks our herds.
In the best-run factories, exhaustive steps are taken to ensure that all food manufacturing operations are conducted hygienically. There, processing procedures are designed to ensure--as they should be in the home--that unsafe, raw food never comes into direct contact with processed, finished products. That should be a basic rule in anyone's kitchen, and I defy any right hon. or hon. Member to state that it has not been followed by producers, as well as in many homes, for years.
Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : The hon. Lady made a number of sweeping assertions about Professor Lacey--calling him, for example, eccentric. Is she aware that he is professor of microbiology at Leeds university, and is also a consultant of microbiology to Leeds western health authority? Is she aware also that his work has conclusively proved a link between stillborn and premature births and listeriosis? Does the hon. Lady still adhere to her view that Professor Lacey is eccentric?
Mrs. Peacock : I knew of the information that the hon. Lady gives, but I reiterate my remark that Professor Lacey has caused confusion and concern among many consumers.
We must ensure that consumers follow strict codes of practice in preparing and cooking food. The critical process of heat treatment or cooking kills the offending bacteria, and many techniques, such as milk pasteurisation, guarantee that products are not released before they are properly heat treated. However, it is still possible for food to become contaminated during the final assembly and packaging operations, and perhaps those are areas in which the Government should lay down firm but sensible modern guidelines, covering factory standards in respect of buildings, cleaning and sanitation--where, if great care is not taken, problems can often arise.
Such guidelines could best be drawn up by specialists from the food industry sectors concerned, who have the relevant information, and who are already well versed in good practices. They could work closely with specialists from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and from the Department of Health. We do not need to introduce specific legislation for each type of operation, but food factory licensing, linked to adherence to specific industry operational guidelines--monitored by environmental health officers as part of their routine activities--is needed.
I suggest that a separate food regulatory body, as envisaged by some Opposition Members, is not required, because it would soon be at loggerheads with local government. It would lack the local knowledge and contacts necessary properly to perform its duties.
One of the most important points to emerge from this debate is that there must be better control over the temperature at which food is stored. Right hon. and hon. Members may be aware of the leaflets that one well-known store is offering to its customers, and 3 million copies of which have been produced. It serves to remind the housewife how products that have been manufactured and packed under the strictest conditions of hygiene should be treated in the home. There is also a leaflet about the safety chain. Marks and Spencer says that the key elements it has found to have held good for the past 20 years are clean factories, safe cooking, good refrigeration, and short shelf life. With the help of the leaflet laying down guidelines for the housewife to follow, none of the scare stories that have been emerging should come true.
Much has been achieved in the area of better food temperature control by retailers such as Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury, Tesco and Asda, to ensure that companies supplying food to them do so at the right temperature. They recognise equally the importance of maintaining food at the correct temperature in their own display counters. However, experience shows that more must be done, and perhaps controlling legislation is needed. However, one must approach that task sensibly, with retailers working together with the Department of Health in devising guidelines not only for supermarkets but for the corner shop, which is an important form of food outlet in many areas, including my constituency of Batley and Spen. We should also ask housewives to check their fridges. How often do we check that our fridges are not frosted up and are operating at the right temperature to ensure correct product storage? Fridge manufacturers should consider incorporating red warning lights in the event of a
Column 893rise in temperature and we may need to store food at lower temperatures. However, the Government must not remove whole sectors of food from retail display, putting manufacturing jobs at risk and denying many consumers the choice of prepared dishes they have come to expect. I welcome the Government's announcement that they are to sponsor research into the operation and maintenance of domestic fridges. That will be helpful and it is long overdue.
We must not concentrate solely on the food manufacturing and retail sectors. We must look also at standards in catering. Many food poisoning outbreaks stem not from the home but from pubs, hotels, restaurants, residential premises and hospitals. They have a duty to ensure that the food that they are serving is of the highest possible standard, particularly in hospitals where people are extremely vulnerable and may be affected when others in the community are not. If there are hygiene problems in some of the so-called best restaurants in London, what are the standards in some of our more humble establishments? Some guidelines may be helpful in that area. We may need a review of some of our manufacturing practices and better control of food storage at retail level. We also need a general food hygiene drive in all food outlets.
We must not forget the consumer. We can do much to promote food safety until the product reaches the consumer who can then undo everything at one stroke. Conditions in the home cannot be controlled. People set their own standards and conditions in the own kitchens. But we can improve knowledge and understanding of food safety matters and that is important. I look to the Government to mount a domestic food hygiene programme, not just through leaflets but by using television, which reaches many people, radio, particularly local radio, and perhaps an advertising campaign. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science should take steps to improve education in this area in our schools since many young people use microwaves for preparing their suppers.
The Government should review the food industry to dispel the uncertainty about food safety. It would be helpful if all food manufacturers and packing premises were licensed, perhaps by local authorities, to agreed standards of hygiene and construction. The safety and hygiene of all food manufacturing and packing processes should be capable of inspection by local authority environmental health officers. All premises selling or preparing food for human consumption, such as shops, supermarkets, cafes, restaurants and public houses, must be licensed by local authorities and minimum standards of construction and hygiene, particularly in their kitchens, must be clearly defined.
As a further safeguard, there should be written codes of practice, agreed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health, covering all sectors of cook-chill food manufacture and packing industries. The food distribution chain is an important link in food reaching the retail outlets, in retailing and in catering and institutional food preparation. Those guidelines should lay down methods of processing, product temperature control and hygiene. Agreed codes of practice are preferable to legislation and trade associations
Column 894should be able to implement them with the minimum of delay. They should provide a framework for monitoring by environmental health officers.
We need a sensible, systematic approach to the problem. We must not be panicked into taking steps in the House which many of us, including consumers and housewives, would eventually regret. 6.54 pm
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. You may remember that on 24 January, when we had a similar debate, I was unsuccessful in catching your eye. As a result, I had to sit throughout the debate, which I enjoyed. However, I did not enjoy the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who, I am sorry to say, is not in his place. He made a complacent speech which suggested that we had the finest food in the world, that there was no problem about food quality and that it was the wicked Labour party, aided and abetted by irresponsible media, which had made up all the horror stories about food poisoning.
On 14 February, St.Valentine's day, the Prime Minister announced that not only was there a problem with food poisoning but that it was so great that it could not be left to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Secretary of State for Health, but she personally had to take charge. I cannot understand why she is not here to take charge today.
The Prime Minister took charge to save the nation. Where does that leave the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? It leaves him looking rather foolish, and rightly so. If ever there was a speech that did not stand examination in the cold light of day, it was that one. It oozed with complacency and was wrong in tone and content. Even when the hon. Gentleman introduced the great Cumbrian philosopher, Beatrix Potter, referring to the political essay, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit", he got it wrong. Let me remind hon. Members about that story. Peter invaded the garden of a rather dim-witted, grim individual called Mr. McGregor, eating his vegetables and avoiding the ponderous Mr.McGregor on his way home. The point of the story is to be found on page 56, which says :
"I am sorry to say that Peter was not very well during the evening. His mother put him to bed and made some camomile tea and she gave a dose of it to Peter."
Hon. Members will be aware that camomile tea is a traditional cure for food poisoning. Peter Rabbit got food poisoning from eating something out of Mr. McGregor's garden.
That story was written at the turn of the century, but the serious point is that 80 years later people are still getting food poisoning from eating food from Mr. McGregor's garden. Since 1980, reported cases of food poisoning have increased from fewer than 10,000 to more than 30,000, according to official figures, and there is the possibility of under- reporting by a factor of 10 or even 100. Conservative Members have not asked what happened under the previous Labour Government because their record was three times better than the present Government's. The situation in Britain today is so bad that it has reached "epidemic proportions". Those are not my words but the words of the chief medical officer of health to the Select Committee on Agriculture, of which I am a member.
Column 895The Government have presided over a massive reduction in local authority spending. They have reduced the number of environmental health officers in every district at the very time when they should have been increasing them. The Government have taken credit for the number of restaurants, cafes and take-aways that have opened and the new developments in cook-chill methods and microwaves, but at the very time when such developments demand more and more inspections the Government have reduced expenditure, laying the consumer open to more problems.
Worse still, standards have been reduced. In 1970 the medical profession recommended that any food handler who had salmonella poisoning or food poisoning of any kind should be excluded from work and not allowed to return until he or she had had three negative tests. In 1983 the Government changed those regulations. Now people who are still salmonella positive are going back to work in our food factories, shops and restaurants. Only yesterday I was talking to some environmental health officers--I will not name the
constituency--and they told me about a woman who worked in a butcher's shop, serving meat, and was salmonella positive but, because of this Government's regulations, could not be stopped from going back to work. She is back at work serving over the counter. That is a disaster waiting to happen, and it is the same all over the country. If the Minister wishes to investigate, he will find that I am telling the truth. The reason for this is that when people are laid off public money has to be spent on keeping them at home.
The Government have reduced the standards under which we produce food in our factories to those of a Third world country. The standards of a factory which is fulfilling export orders, whether the goods are for export to the United States, Germany, Nigeria or El Salvador, have to be much higher than the standards demanded by the Government here. There are higher standards of packaging and labelling and the buyers insist upon knowing exactly what is in the product, which is not the situation in this country. There are higher standards with regard to food additives. Many of the additives which the Government allow to be put into food are banned abroad. There is a lower bacterial count, and there are more bacterial counts than we demand in this country. Goods for export have a shorter shelf life. I do not want to give the wrong impression. We have some very good food-producing companies in this country. I worked for 20 years for a company with a very good reputation for quality. The United Biscuits factory also has a very high standard, and there is one company, the largest employer in my constituency, Cavaghan and Greys, which has the highest standard in Europe, if not the world. However, this has nothing to do with Government regulations ; it is in spite of Government regulations. It is all to do with the fact that it manufactures for Marks and Spencer. Firms such as Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury demand very high standards--or so they seem, but they are only high standards in comparison with those the Government lay down.
Those firms want to make maximum profits, but they lay down standards that will safeguard the health of their customers. I suggest that it would be better if Marks and Spencer, instead of making thousands of pounds available every year to the Conservative party, gave its members a
Column 896copy of the food hygiene regulations. We should be aiming for the manufacturing standards that Marks and Spencer insists upon.
Mrs. Peacock : The hon. Gentleman, in the early part of his speech, made a scurrilous attack on many of the companies in this country producing food for many stores. He then redeemed it a little by saying that there were companies that supplied Marks and Spencer whose standards were very high, but they were high only because--and so on. Will he admit that there are many food-producing companies in this country that have the highest standards, not because they are exporting but because that is what the consumer and the housewife demand and are willing to pay for?
Mr. Martlew : The hon. Lady misunderstood me. I was not attacking the companies. I was making a vicious attack on the standards laid down by the Government. I will give the hon. Lady an example. In 1986, after the Chernobyl incident, the milk in this country was contaminated by radiation to varying degrees. Milk was transported from one part of the country to another. It was taken out of factories that were making milk products for export because it would not meet their standards and sent to another part of the country to be put into bottles or made into cheese or butter. That is how high the "marvellous" standards in this country are and that is what I am complaining about--not the standards of the food companies but the standards of the Government.
I will give two more examples of the Government having let us down. I refer again to the Chernobyl incident, and the question of irradiated lamb. The Government failed to safeguard the health of the people. Lamb went into the food chain in this country that had a degree of radiation above the safety level. The Select Committee said that.
Green top milk is another example. I have heard one or two hon. Members try to defend it. We know that since 1983, when the Government refused to ban it in England and Wales, there have been 1, 700 recorded cases of food poisoning caused by green top milk. That means that 2 per cent. of the milk on the market has been responsible for 50 per cent. of food poisoning caused by milk. In the Calder Valley, in Yorkshire, in 1984, eight people died through drinking untreated milk. The Government have refused to do anything about it. I asked the Minister on 19 January whether there were any plans to ban green top milk. The answer was no. The hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) asked the Minister on 3 February the same question and the answer was that the Government were entering into immediate consultations on banning it. That shows not only the incompetence but the confusion of the Government.
Those are all examples of the Government failing to protect the consumer.
I do not understand why the Prime Minister is not here today, but I have grave doubts whether any plan put forward to safeguard food in this country will safeguard the consumer. Let me revert to the incident before Christmas when the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) made her famous statement. A Minister who was, I believe, very frustrated made a statement that was exaggerated. There was a great clamour from the farming lobby, the food-producing lobby, the egg producers and the Retail Consortium for the hon. Lady to be sacked.
Column 897There was also a clamour from the Labour party but the right hon. Lady never takes any notice of members of the Labour party so I will not include them.
Did the Prime Minister defend that Minister and refuse to ask for her resignation? No, she did not. Within 11 days she was asking for the hon. Lady's resignation. The right hon. Lady is putty in the hands of those powerful lobbyists, and I do not trust her with the food health of the country.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean) : I remind the House that the 10- minute limit on speeches is now in operation.
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : As in previous debates on the subject, I declare an interest. I worked in the food industry for about 20 years and I am an adviser to a section of the food industry today.
I have listened to the debate with great care. In some ways, I am rather sad because it seemed that it was being used as yet another opportunity for the Opposition to make political mileage out of a situation that is worrying many consumers. I intervened during the speech by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) and made the point sincerely to him that, without wishing to pull his leg, it was the first time in my 16 years in the House that I had heard the Labour party use an Opposition Supply day for a debate on food, except for the debate in January, to which the Opposition drew attention. That is a long time.
I am glad that the Opposition have instigated the debate today because, unlike the Labour party, my party--I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will be kind enough to listen--has a special committee dealing with food and drink industry matters. I know that the Labour party had a food and agriculture committee and when Tom Torney was a Member of Parliament, he was a regular spokesman on those matters and took a great interest. I should like to see the Labour party take more interest in the food and drink industry than it has. I make that suggestion constructively and not in criticism of the way in which the Labour party organises its committees.
Despite the problems to which the Leader of the Opposition referred, we in Britain have a wide choice of healthy food. Our food is among the safest and best in the world. Let us be very careful before we allow criticism of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, of farmers, of the food industry and of our retailers to reach such a level that it suggests that there is a widespread or large-scale risk to human health in Britain today. That is not so. There are some problems, and some are serious, but they must be put in perspective and discussed in a well-informed and moderate manner if we are to deal with them properly. I say to hon. Members, including the Leader of the Opposition, that they should remember that ill- informed criticism of our food could affect our food exports. They were worth £5,575 million to Britain in 1987 and the main markets for them were western Europe, north America and the middle east. Many people in those areas will read what hon. Members have said today.
Today, there is a more varied supply of food than ever before in the history of this country. Consumers must not be misled into believing that there is a major threat to their
Column 898health or that of their children as a result of what the Opposition said or of the media coverage of the problems of salmonella and listeria, serious though they are. Both of them have been known by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health for some considerable time and timely action has been taken. Where further action is appropriate, it has been taken quickly. Let us first consider the question of salmonella enteritidis. It has been a problem in chickens, as has been widely recognised by the British Poultry Federation and by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The phage 4 type is a new and growing problem here and in many other countries. It has not become a problem as a result of inactivity by MAFF or the Department of Health and it has been tackled with vigour at each point along the egg production chain. Some time ago, the British Poultry Federation told me and my fellow members of the food and drink industry committee that it had taken steps to isolate chicken flocks where outbreaks had been detected, and that was well before the comments on salmonella made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). It moved quickly to ensure that poultry feed that might be contaminated was excluded from feed for chicken flocks.
MAFF has now complemented the timely self-policing action by the respected and responsible poultry industry by bringing forward new regulations to avoid contaminated food entering the chain. We have new codes of practice to minimise the risk of infection. A new code has been introduced to require bacteriological monitoring, rodent control, the cleaning of poultry houses and the hygienic handling of eggs. But salmonella enteritidis will not be eliminated by MAFF, by the Department of Health or by the Leader of the Opposition. It is in the environment, but with 17 measures to deal with the problem our approach is among the most comprehensive in the world.
I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he replies, to deal with the interesting point raised by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) about irradiation. Many hon. Members would like to know what Government policy towards that is likely to be. It is an interesting and important matter on which I hope the Government will make a statement.
Mr. Frank Cook : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Shersby : I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I shall not because I have only 10 minutes and Mr. Deputy Speaker has asked us to be brief.
Mr. Cook : I took only nine minutes.
Mr. Shersby : I would like, in the short time available
Mr. Cook : This is an important point.
Mr. Shersby : I remind the House that the food and manufacturing industry in this country has been well ahead of the Government in taking action to inform the consumer about the importance of food hygiene in the kitchen. I have here a publication entitled "Common Sense about Food Care in the Kitchen", which was published in July 1988. It starts by warning the consumer about food poisoning and its causes and it advises consumers how food poisoning can be avoided by common-sense
Column 899measures in the kitchen. It was preceded in September 1986 by another publication called "Common Sense about Food". Those publications have been complemented by a widespread campaign addressed to schools called Foodline, which started in December 1988. It deals with food care and hygiene in the home. I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to launch a campaign from his own Ministry which will be as good and comprehensive as the one that has been run by our own food manufacturing industry and which has been in place for some time. In the nature of things, the amount that the food industry can do is limited. The Government have greater resources at their disposal. I hope that they use them wisely to complement what I regard as an excellent initiative.
We have heard much about listeria in this debate. Listeria was first identified in humans in 1928 and it has been widely distributed in the environment for a long time. For the average healthy person, the risk of becoming ill with listeriosis from eating food is very small. We have been told of the risk with certain soft cheeses, especially for pregnant women, and that has been a matter on which my right hon. Friend has rightly been quick to advise those at risk. One would think that cook-chill food was only invented yesterday from the amount of interest shown and by the number of hon. Members who see it as a major source of listeria. We know that cook -chill foods are safe, convenient and of high quality if they are manufactured, stored and reheated properly. I am glad that MAFF is to introduce new regulations covering the manufacture, storage and reheating of such foods. I have urged my right hon. Friend to do that for some weeks in a series of parliamentary questions and I am glad that he has taken good advice from his expert advisory committees and has not been stampeded into premature action. I look forward to the regulations being approved soon by the House. I hope that my right hon. Friend will give some idea of when the regulations will be published because I am sure that the House is anxious to pass them into law.
There is an urgent need for the consumer to be aware of the need to store cook-chill food properly immediately following purchase. It seems that some consumers buy cook-chill food at lunchtime and keep it in the office for four, five or six hours at room temperature before taking it home and putting it in a domestic refrigerator. Perhaps some consumers do not realise the difficulty that that can cause, or the problems that may arise from leaving cook-chill food in the car on a hot, sunny day. For absolute safety, cook-chill food needs to be stored at 5 deg Centigrade. It may cost a little more to run a refrigerator at that temperature, but at least one has a guarantee that the food is safely stored. I understand that MAFF will run a campaign about food hygiene and food storage and I hope that it will deal with that aspect. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will talk to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and suggest that the manufacturers of domestic refrigerators fit a temperature gauge to their equipment as standard practice. Surely that is not too much to ask and it would aid many people to know that their food was stored at the right temperature. The Government are taking timely action to deal with the problems that we have been debating today. I am glad that we have had another debate on this topic, I hope that
Column 900the Labour party will keep up its interest in food matters and that we shall have the pleasure of hearing its views on other occasions. I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health on his speech. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will complement it when he replies.
Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : Modern food production methods could lead to plentiful cheap food and a higher standard of living if they were properly regulated and controlled. However, with this Government's philosophy, which puts profits before public health, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is inevitably forced into acting first and foremost in the interests of the farmers' lobby.
Even this Government can no longer keep the lid on the fact that things are going dangerously wrong. It is true that in the past most people closed their minds to the hideous concentration camps for animals that modern farms have become, but most people had no idea that chickens were being cannibalised and that a great deal of animal feed was made up of excrement. For many years, while feeling somewhat uneasy about what was happening, most people kept silent because they felt that there was no halting the changes that were being made in the name of progress.
However, the press has now opened up the matter. Indeed, the Government could hardly keep the problem of the increasing incidence of food poisoning out of the papers after the outbreak of food poisoning in this building. People are beginning to realise the dangers to themselves and their families. People who have been campaigning for years in favour of healthy food and who were looked upon as cranks now begin to assume the role of prophets.
Most of the purchasing and preparation of food in this country--as in every other country--is done by women. The work of women who have to manage on a limited budget is made much harder because of the lack of information, conflicting information, and the insufficient details on labels. The Government are allowing information about manufactured food ingredients to be kept a trade secret when it should be available to housewives. That is shocking and must be stopped. As has been said by hon. Members of all parties, women need more information about frozen food. One of my worries is that owners of corner shops, operating on tiny margins, with high rents to pay and who work all hours in the struggle to compete, may be tempted to lower the temperatures in frozen food lockers when they are hit by the coming huge increases in the cost of electricity.
It is the most vulnerable groups in society that are forced to shop at corner shops, such as those who have no transport, or who find it difficult to get about. These vulnerable groups have already been mentioned and include old people, mothers with babies and disabled people. We need an army of inspectors to check frozen food lockers in shops and supermarkets. We need guidelines on temperatures and on the lengths of time for storing frozen products.
The same vulnerable groups are now being forced to eat cook-chill meals in hospitals, day centres for the elderly