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Column 360look at the whole picture--the production, distribution, processing and consumption of food, and its impact on our health.
First, let us examine the direct effects which cause illness. The Minister rightly touched on many of the worrying items. Salmonellosis is still the single largest cause of major food poisoning--at least of notified cases, if not of all cases seen in clinical practice. Other conditions are related to the consumption of milk--brucellosis, tuberculosis and campylobacter are all still major causes of ill health. I deprecate any attempt to retain the sale of unpasteurised milk in England and Wales. Such attempts are shameful. We have not had this problem for many years in Scotland and that is exemplified by the much lower incidence of these conditions there. I hope that the Minister will not listen to the more foolish among his hon. Friends--and among mine--who are trying to persuade him that people should be allowed to consume unpasteurised milk. There is compelling evidence that they should not. I know of no public health authority in this country or in any other that would recommend the drinking of unpasteurised milk, which affects not only the health of the individual consumer but can play a part in a chain of infection leading to the infection of innocent people.
There are other direct causes of illness--the contamination of food, the use of hormones in production, the over-use of antibiotics and the largely unknown and ill-defined effects that they may have on the quality of our food. I know that the Government and the EEC are closely examining additives, although perhaps not in as well co-ordinated a way as they might.
I do not blame only the Minister or this Government. This problem has gone on for a long time and is hardly new. The problem of food poisoning did not begin with the rather warped description of a diseased chicken by a former Under-Secretary of State for Health last year. A succession of Ministers and civil servants have failed to protect public health for a long time.
We must also look into the introduction of more sinister elements to the equation. Growth hormones are being used in meat production, not necessarily in this country, but in others from which meat may be imported to this country. The use of irradiation and of new processes such as cook- chill require close attention to detail. I welcome the fact that the Government are introducing a food Bill in the next Session of Parliament and I look forward with interest to reading it, but I still contend that it will not solve the major problem, which is that there is no co-ordinated food policy in this country. Until we have one, problems will continue to arise and need to be dealt with. I grant that some problems have been dealt with promptly, but they were unforeseen. We should look for problems before they arise and try to prevent them from occurring in the first place. A bad diet indirectly affects people's health. I have mentioned that before and shall go on mentioning it until Ministers of whichever party happens to be in power listen. Bad diet has a sinister, persistent and all-pervasive effect on health. The fat and sugar content of such diets is still far too high. Bad diet can lead to diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer. We tend to forget that poverty leads to the inadequate consumption of calories and to an insufficiently balanced diet, and so to ill health. For all their denials, the Government have introduced
Column 361poverty in full measure to this country over the past few years to an extent that we never thought possible in a civilised society. From the vast range of problems that I have attempted to outline it must be clear that major improvements in health will only follow action to create a proper food policy which has as its primary objective the improvement of our national diet, not the protection of the interests and well-being of food producers. Confusion reigns at present. Many Ministries are involved--the Department of Health, the Department of Social Security, which deals with aspects of the poverty I have mentioned, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment and the Treasury, which ultimately controls what we are allowed to spend. The Minister, with his familiarity with that Department, is only too well aware of the problems that it can create for the best intentioned of schemes. All these Departments have conflicting objectives and lack definition and the co-ordination of a common purpose. We have three choices : we can do nothing ; we can examine the possibility of setting up a food Ministry--with all the difficulties that that would entail--in an attempt to co-ordinate the work of the different Departments ; or we can follow the example that the Government set two years ago when alcohol problems became so manifest. They used the auspices of the Leader of the House to set up a ministerial committee to co-ordinate the efforts of different Departments. That has proved much more successful than I--somewhat sceptical of this type of approach--was at first prepared to admit. Such a committee might be a means of ensuring proper developments.
The Government's record is unsound and is best shown in two areas--first, in their attitude to poverty, of which I shall mention one specific example. Many young pregnant women cannot purchase an adequate diet because they have low incomes. This has been borne out time and again by observers and it is a problem that will not go away. It damages not only the woman's health but the future health of her child. The Government should look into this problem carefully. The second aspect has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). The Institute of Food Research in Bristol is a good example of this. The Minister did not mention it today ; perhaps he merely overlooked it and the Parliamentary Secretary will refer to it later. The Government are pursuing the mirage of near- market research. They believe that, merely because something will clearly benefit the public, it will be picked up by commercial organisations, which will perceive it as being of benefit to themselves.
Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West) : I am anxious to correct the hon. Gentleman because in what appears to be his peroration he is going from one pinnacle to another without bothering to stop to consider a problem and to find proper solutions. In the last point to which he referred he was wrong, as he has been wrong all along. It is not a question of near-market research meaning that when something is of public benefit it will be taken up by commercial companies. The idea of near-market research is that when something is of commercial benefit companies will take it up and pay for
Column 362that research. When it is for the public good and demonstrates no immediate, near commercial benefit, the Government will continue that research.
Dr. Moonie : Unfortunately, what the Government define as near- market research and how companies define it are very different, as can be seen from the number of projects that are dropped by the Government and not taken up by the companies concerned, despite a clearly demonstrated value to public health. Companies are in business to make money, not to care for Members of this House and their constituents. The balance sheet at the end of the day is their objective, and that determines their activities, not any altruistic concern for the public health.
Even so, some companies, particularly the one with which I am involved--but also companies such as Marks and Spencer--have gone out of their way to develop sound practices in the handling of food. I accept that, but they have not gone out of their way to share them with any other companies because, obviously, to do so would not be to their commercial advantage.
Not only near-market research is important. The Government are also attempting to cut back on research which is seen by most people to be of limited value to the market but which is of vital importance to the future well-being of, for example, plant research in Britain. I refer to reports that the Government are cutting back on research at several plant stations, particularly at Wellsbourne, Rosemaun and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) mentioned, Brogdale.
Those stations, Brogdale in particular, contain genetic material which, if not kept, will be lost to the world for ever. This material stretches back to different varieties of fruit and vegetables for centuries, much of which has not been properly explored. Much of it could provide cross-breeding of different varieties of fruit and vegetables which could then be developed for consumption in this country and perhaps improve the quality and variety of food to which we are exposed.
It is shameful that the Government will not maintain research at those plants. The issue has been taken up by the scientific press, in particular recently by the New Scientist. Wellsbourne has been described by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources in Rome as one of the most important temperate vegetable gene banks in the world. Hon. Members will appreciate that it is not simply a matter of my concern. It affects the public generally and it is regrettable that the organisation is not receiving the funds that it needs to keep going.
I have tried to demonstrate how, in a wide variety of areas, the Government have failed to act responsibly. They have failed to perceive that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, particularly the few parts to which the Minister referred today. Until the Government accept that principle, we will not develop the type of food policy that our people deserve.
Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare) : About 10 years ago I found myself with junior ministerial responsibility both for the food industry and for agricultural research. The then Agricultural Research Council was funded equally by the Department of Education and Science and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Column 363I took the opportunity at that time of visiting many research institutes to look at their work. I am not a scientist, but as a practical farmer and having visited university and research institutions over the years, I feel practically qualified--I put it no higher than that--to make a judgment about the quality of work being done in, and of the scientists working at, those institutes 10 years ago.
I found that all was not well. Where the scientists were excellent--and there were many--they were grossly underpaid and were reluctant to stay in the employment of the ARC. They were leaving in large numbers to go to industry and into outside research. Where they were elderly and burnt-out, they were being feather-bedded into retirement by an organisation that was well capable of extracting funds from the Government, whether for basic or practical research. I expressed my concern about that state of affairs over a lengthy period, and although hon. Members will appreciate that two years is too short a time to turn round such a vast ship as a research council, I am sure that those civil servants who were responsible in the Ministry had no doubt of my concern and displeasure. That subsequently was translated by my successor into a welcome change when the ARC became the AFRC, recognising the importance of food and reorganising the way in which it allocated funds for research.
Mr. Marland : During his time as a Minister and while visiting laboratories, did my hon. Friend discover much duplication of research? Did it occur to him that there might be possibilities of saving money because one job was being done in two or three different places?
Mr. Wiggin : That was the case. For example, the ARC ran two fruit research stations. Given the size of the industry, that did not seem necessary, but many matters of that type have been put right. I am referring to the situation 10 years ago. The recent changes in funding, in the first instance, and, more important, the approach of the AFRC in putting out much of its work to universities and outside institutes, as well as in supporting individuals in the work that they are doing, is to be welcomed, and I totally support the action that the Government have taken.
I hope that in dreaming up projects for near-market application, civil servants will not become too imaginative because there have been some examples where there is no possibility of industry being interested. That is where a common-sense approach must be taken. The change is deeply traumatic to those who work in the institutes, and the frustration felt and the insecurity in general has frequently meant that many leading scientists in institutes have left, either leaving research altogether or going to work for private industry. When leading scientists leave an institute, that has a demoralising effect on others, and a damaging cycle begins.
Well-informed though they are in the AFRC, the news of closures and changes spreads rapidly. The morale of many employees has been poor for some time, and nowhere worse than at the food research institute at Langford in my constituency. I have always enjoyed excellent relations with the staff of the institute and I have been a visitor there on many occasions. Although
Column 364forewarned for a considerable time, I was extremely sad to learn last week of the final decision by the AFRC to close the institute in its present form.
Few of the scientists will be offered jobs elsewhere. Some will be, and naturally I am worried about the local employees--the laboratory assistants and staff who work on the farms and in the abattoir--who will not be able to move. But I feel that I am insufficiently informed--as is the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)--to tell the AFRC how to run its business.
That organisation is deliberately at arm's length from Government, and I therefore find the wording of the Opposition motion strange, since it is the responsibility of the AFRC, not of the Government, to administer its funds and to decide to which projects to put its work. Indeed, the Ministry of Agriculture funds its projects through the AFRC as an arm's length operation. I am not qualified to tell that body, in acting with taxpayers' money, how best to operate. But I am keen to assist those who believe that they can save some of the specialist facilities at Langford. There is a unique opportunity for another organisation to take over the institute's facilities and building. I have in mind Bristol university, the veterinary school of which is world famous and which is also sited at Langford.
There is a possibility that with funding from the Ministry of Agriculture-- I hope that the Minister will be in a position to comment positively on this matter--the Meat and Livestock Commission and the AFRC, some of the unique work carried out at the special facilities will be able to continue.
Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) rose--
Mr. Wiggin : I shall not give way to the hon. Lady who last week made no attempt to offer me the most elementary courtesy before she raised in the House the matter of the institute, which is in my constituency. In view of the time, I shall continue.
The obvious merit in being able to carry out this special work is not only that it will continue, but will be conducted in a university atmosphere, which is right and proper. Furthermore, local employees may well be able to find work.
The Opposition's suggestion that there is to be a serious and total change in all food research is patently rubbish. While I accept that some work will cease, who are we as non-scientists and non-experts to decide on this allocation of funds? It is irritating to me that we appoint extremely expert people, indeed we have a fine chairman of the AFRC, but do not then leave them to decide how their funds should be allocated.
I strongly welcome the statement of my right hon. Friend the Minister about the irradiation of food. Much of the original checking of the safety of irradiation was done at Langford and I hope that the expertise will remain within the AFRC. One of our difficulties is that we are approached by scientists whose projects have been terminated and who, naturally, greatly resent that. They have been bound up in the work and believe it to be worthwhile. They resent a committee or outside body saying, "Sorry, it is no longer worth continuing with your research," or "You are not making sufficient progress." Therefore, we sometimes receive a distorted story. Not however in one case, and I particularly want to mention one aspect of the work at Langford refrigeration.
Column 365The House will know that the Low Temperature Research Station was originally set up in Cambridge but moved to Langford, and the expertise contained within that department is very special. I hope that there are plans for continuing work on this facility. If there are, the staff concerned are not aware of them. I hope that the Minister will look with particular care at this aspect. The suggestion that there is nothing further to learn on the subject is patently absurd, and I understand that such work is not being carried out elsewhere.
During the Select Committee's recent inquiry into salmonella in eggs it became clear that, although much is known about food poisoning, the subject is ever changing. The ability of bacteria to change and mutate needs constant vigilance. The dividing line between the responsibility of doctors at the Department of Health, the public health laboratory service and the vets is narrow. It would not be right for me to detain the House by repeating that argument, but those interested may find it worthwhile to study the Committee's report on the subject.
Ensuring the health and cleanliness of our livestock is an expensive business. The poultry industry is counting the cost of recently introduced measures to combat salmonella in eggs. That cost will, unquestionably, be passed on to the consumer. Nevertheless, I believe that the public will be willing to pay. However, it is absurd that other countries in which standards are appreciably lower than ours--this means all other countries because we now lead the world in this matter--can export to this country eggs from flocks which do not meet our health standards. The Government must insist on ending such unfair practices which discriminate against the United Kingdom's egg producers.
Despite all the problems of the past few months, the British public have never enjoyed a wider, more attractive and safer range of foodstuffs than are currently on sale. Some 66 per cent. of all our food is now bought from six main supermarket chains. We have only to see the efforts which they make to confirm the purity of their food to realise that the public is well protected, not just by officials or the Government but by extremely competitive retailers who rely on the quality of their produce to beat the competition down the road. We shall never totally eliminate food poisoning, any more than disease. Recent events have unquestionably had a salutary effect on all involved, but in the long term we shall have had a most beneficial look at the subject, which must be in the interests of all consumers.
Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport) : Much of what I said in this House on 21 February during the debate on food safety and water is relevant today. Despite the Government's attempt to dispel fears and to look as though they are taking action by announcing, for example, the appointment of the Food Safety Committee and the ban on bovine offals for human consumption, the fact remains that the Government's prime motivations behind their policy are profit, economic gain and a reduction in public spending.
The order of the day is a menu that is quicker, cheaper and more efficient. Without the ingredients to ensure quality and safety, it is a recipe for disaster. As I said in the previous debate : "in our rush to progress and our haste to produce food more efficiently and profitably certain people and industries have been allowed to cut corners. Consumers' rights have
Column 366been neglected and the dangers to their health have become much more prevalent."--[ Official Report, 21 February 1989 ; Vol. 147, c, 883.]
Incidences of food poisoning have risen dramatically since that debate. My sources claim that they were investigating at least one and a half times as many cases this spring as last spring. In the second week of May there were 240 reported cases of salmonella poisoning, and everyone is aware that the vast majority of cases of gastric enteritis go unreported. With the prospect of a long hot summer in front of us, as most of us hope, more concerted and organised actions are required from the Government.
At the moment, Government food policy appears to be in a shambles. For example, Ministers cannot make up their minds whether they should ban green top milk. One minute they say that they will and the next that they will not. I welcome the most recent decision that consumers will retain their right of choice to buy untreated milk and I hope that the Government will extend that right to bovine
somatotropin-treated milk by bottling separately milk which has been treated with the genetically engineered hormone, and clearly labelling it as such.
New technologies in agriculture, food production and processing make it important for the Government to be aware of the repercussions on consumers' health and the environment in general. That requires research, quality and hygiene standards, regulations and monitoring services. Instead, the Government have decided to cut public spending on food research by as much as 27 per cent. by 1993-94 and to reduce their commitment to experimental husbandry farming.
The closure of the Institute of Food Research at Langford, near Bristol, is part and parcel of the Government's reorganisation of agricultural research and development. The withdrawal of funds for near-market research projects in the belief that the private sector will pick up the tab is naive in the extreme and an example of what blind faith in the market will do. The Government also ignore the fact that many projects cannot be separated, and their attempts to identify near-market research, and to reduce or withdraw their funding, are having a devastating effect.
The Government's action is symptomatic of their entire policy towards research and development. Scientists are leaving Britain on an unprecedented scale. Only last week, a microbiologist involved in food research at one of our universities said to me :
"I do not see any way forward. Research is now seen as a source of income to the institute. If it is left to the private sector, the only research that is likely to be funded is that which follows the goals and objectives of the specific organisation providing the funds."
British industry is not well known for its investment in research and development, and many of the projects which are funded and founded involve pre-marketing research paid for by the sales and marketing departments. Needless to say, their guidelines are fairly stringent. This could be disastrous for the food safety aspect. What guarantee is there that the findings will ever be published? I note that the large food chains such as Sainsbury's and Tesco's have refused to inform the consumer of the results of their massive testing programmes into chemical contamination of food. Sainsbury's justify this by saying that it considers the information to be confidential to itself and to its suppliers. Surely the consumer, who is the one most likely to be affected, has the right to know what this information is. I
Column 367do not see why, if the retailer is doing a good job and is satisfied that the food being sold is safe, it should not want the consumer to know the results of the tests. The consumer has a right to know what pesticides are used on foods. There is a clear case for labelling to give such information--a factor that the Minister hardly mentioned.
The Government's stated objective is to roll back the state. I do not think they have achieved that. All that they have done is to concentrate power at the centre. However, another topic for debate--something that the Government must not forget and must remember in their pursuit of their objectives, whatever they are--is their responsibility to those whom they govern. The Government are responsible for the protection of public safety, which is threatened not only by outside factors, but by all sorts of other hazards. Where there is a threat to public safety or health that any action by the individual cannot remove, it is the Government's responsibility to find the cause and the means to eliminate the danger. The production of a glossy food hygiene booklet aimed at the housewife, at a cost of £750,000, as a response to the recent outbreaks of food poisoning is a poor effort by the Government to carry out their duty, and in many cases is an insult to the consumer.
The consumer, by using proper cooking methods, can kill whatever bacteria are present in the food, but we have to address the question of how the organism got into the food in the first place, and how to prevent it doing so in the future. Prevention can be achieved only through research, detection and control throughout the food chain. The Government must no longer rely on self regulation by the industry. When demands are moving and changing as fast as they are today, with fads coming and going and competition rife, the industry must not and cannot be expected to regulate itself to an extent that ensures safety in food production, processing and retailing. The Government must introduce more regulations and the means to enforce them. Parliamentary time for whatever legislation is necessary to enable sufficient regulation, monitoring and control to take place must be set aside. Self regulation is not the ideal way to ensure safety in food products.
More rather than less research is required. It is no good the Government trotting out statistics and numbers to back up claims that spending in this sector is higher than it ever has been before, because I do not care whether it is or not. I care about whether the amount being spent is adequate to meet health and safety needs. The answer is quite obviously no.
The Government must give food safety top priority. The decision, announced by the Minister today, to allow irradiated food to be sold in Britain without full knowledge of the long-term effects and without other back-up measures to protect the consumer is an example of other considerations having priority. If irradiation is to remain, then the Government should consider such moves as a ban on fractionalised dosage and the proper funding for environmental officers to inspect premises regularly.
I am also concerned about Government action on bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE. Can the Minister assure the House that the banning of cattle offal for human consumption and the move to have all cattle suspected of having BSE slaughtered and destroyed is
Column 368adequate protection against all aspects of the disease and its human health implications? Can the Government say with confidence that the risk to humans from the disease is remote? Although I am told that the fundamental science on this has not been carried out, can the Minister say that the Government have done all in their power to prevent any such risks? I cannot believe that the Government are so satisfied with the standards of health and animal hygiene that they see their way clear to reducing the complement of veterinary surgeons in the public service. Are the Government content that the standards of hygiene in all abattoirs is safe and something of which we should be proud?
Is the Secretary of State for Health satisfied that the level of environmental officers in post, and even the establishment number, is adequate to do all the follow-up work that is required as a result of the recent outbreaks of food poisoning? Where is the follow-up work that should be done if we wish to ensure that lessons are learnt and mistakes not merely repeated? Does the Secretary of State believe that there are enough officers with enough power to deal with the expansion in the numbers of small manufacturers, retailers and caterers and the many other types of premises that they have to inspect?
The Government must now think in terms of prevention, which is one of the most cost-effective of measures. Food poisoning, other diseases and illness could be avoided with the proper foresight, organisation, co-operation and resources. The cost to the nation as a whole in terms of the costs to the Health Service, to social security and to industry from days off work could easily be avoided. In the debate last February, I called for the lines of responsibility within and between various Government Departments to be clarified. When various Departments are involved, it is too easy to claim non-responsibility, too tempting to fight one's own corner and too difficult to co-ordinate objectives. Therefore, today I issue a challenge to the Prime Minister. When she reshuffles her Cabinet in the near future, she should set up a Ministry of Food to establish a mechanism to make and carry out a coherent policy on food, and to give the safety and interests of the consumer the utmost priority. 5.27 pm
Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) : I must immediately declare an interest as a council member of the Agricultural and Food Research Council. I attended last week's meeting at which the decision to close the Bristol laboratory was taken. In saying that, I put myself forward neither as a lightning conductor for, nor as a clone of, Government policy. No one need think that the decision was taken lightly, or without consideration of the staff situation, which was sensitively touched on by the constituency Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin).
The Opposition motion rests on two fundamental misconceptions. The first and major one is a rehash of the old philosophical confusion about the belief that, because one event follows another, the first must cause the second. For instance, if one believes that night follows day, one ends up believing that day causes night. It is very much the same with food safety. It needs only some accident to happen--accidents in food safety can be extremely unpleasant, as the recent outbreak of botulism has been
Column 369--and for there to be the coincidence of that accident with some development in agricultural research for the two to be inevitably put together by the Opposition. I am not quite sure of their view of the direct causation in this matter. For example, I am not sure whether last week was seen as a Government plot to infect their citizenry with botulism or as a plot by the bacillus to embarrass the Government on the eve of the European election. One way or the other, that is the way they see it.
Sometimes things go wrong with food safety. They have done in the past and they will do in the future. Our interest is in minimising their occurrence. Equally, decisions sometimes need to be taken in food policy and food research. It is inexusable to take those two coincidental happenings and to link them by a chain of causation which does not exist.
My second criticism of the Opposition motion is that for all their efforts, about which we read so much, to modernise and bring themselves up to date for the 1990s, they have not come to terms with the need for restructuring in the wider economy. We would not have made very much progress as a nation in the past 10 years, or even previously, if we had never had to make hard decisions to close a factory or to restructure a business. Anyone with an element of business experience appreciates the central importance of overhead costs. It is a matter of common sense that the number of sites on which an activity takes place, whether it be research or manufacturing, has a close bearing on the level of overhead costs--as, for example, my two district councils found when they consolidated their activities on one site. The larger the number of sites, the higher the overhead costs. That has been a major underlying theme in the decisions that the AFRC has taken to rationalise each of its institutes on one or two sites, and to modernise its operations. I acknowledge the impact of the withdrawal of the MAFF contribution to near-market research. That could build up to a significant element in the total budget for the AFRC and the IFR during the next three years. However, I must stress that not all the work necessarily has to be done at the same location as the central science activities of the IFR. It need not all be carried out under the same organisation or funding umbrella. Much of it can go to other organisations, whether in the public or private sector. Insufficient attention has been paid to the tremendous increase in funding for AFRC institutes on contracts for the private sector. Much of the work might well be carried out elsewhere or under the funding of other bodies. An example of that is the important work on carcass quality--not that it need necessarily move from Langford--which could appropriately be funded by the industry.
On the public good aspect, I would cite the facilities for the welfare of animals at slaughter--a very sensitive issue--which are sited at Bristol. I understand that MAFF is prepared to continue with that as an item of public good, and so it should.
The result of making such difficult decisions will be a somewhat slimmed down IFR on two sites instead of the current three. The concentration will shift from the somewhat old-fashioned commodity-by-commodity approach, because modern developments have overtaken
Column 370that, not just in technology but in consumer taste. For example, a TV dinner is not just meat. A number of different items have to be put together and cooked appropriately. With chicken Kiev, different indgredients are mixed, widening the range of consumer choice and taste.
A multi-disciplinary approach is required, looking at the basic science and applying it to all situations. The new institute will concentrate on the disciplines of central science underlying that--safety ; the early, rapid and effective diagnosis of bacteria, nutrition, consumer acceptability, the avoidance of taint, and bio-technology.
As an example of the way in which that can be done under the new arrangements, Dr. Roberts and the appropriate members of his microbiology team at Bristol will be transferred to Reading. All the relevant work on food safety can and will continue. It is interesting to note that there were 40 MAFF-funded food safety projects within the research system last year, which is a high number. I have every confidence in the leadership of Professor Georgala at the IFR and a chance for a new, modern activity under the new structure. This debate concentrates upon the more general aspects of food safety. If nothing else, the events surrounding egg production earlier this year have highlighted the problem, which in general is still growing. However, it is interesting to note that as a result of Government action the salmonella problem has now stabilised. With respect to the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn), the Government will have to consider a balance of a number of important issues such as consumer safety, consumer confidence and product innovation to meet consumer taste and choice. There is also a need to get the regulatory structure right, as I am confident the Government will do in their forthcoming food legislation.
I call on Ministers to bear three points in mind when preparing this autumn's work. First, they should work actively with their colleagues in the Department of Education and Science to ensure that the necessary funds are available for the full restructuring of the IFR. Secondly, they should ensure that the resources are adequate for the monitoring and regulation of food safety both at national and at environmental health officer level. Thirdly, the campaign for food safety should be applied at all levels so that all the gateways through which bacteria can get in are closed. One that has not been mentioned today, and about which I feel strongly, is food and hygiene training in restaurants.
The bugs that cause food poisoning--which are over, around and within us-- are more varied and ingenious than we could ever imagine. We need to close all the possible pathways into the human food chain. Simple slogans and simple assumptions of priority will not work. To take the necessary action, we need the best possible structure for the basic science. I believe that the Government have acted to secure that structure.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) : Earlier in the debate the Minister would not give way on the question of irradiation of food. It is a pity that he has left the Chamber because he could have put me right. We were given assurances that any irradiated food would be labelled, but what will happen in cafe s and restaurants? Will there be labelling on
Column 371the menu or on the restaurant door? That will not happen. Irradiated food brought into this country will end up on the consumer's plate--
The Government are deliberately misleading the public. If the Minister is prepared to say that irradiated restaurant food will be labelled, I will give way to him.
The Government have shown a great deal of complacency today. During the past century consumers have never had a better chance of suffering from food poisoning. The choice is whether it should be from salmonella or campylobacter. The Government's food policy is unfit for human consumption.
I am glad that the problem of salmonella in eggs is improving. A letter from the British Poultry Federation today says that it has improved considerably since the Select Committee's report. The Select Committee can take credit for that, but the Government cannot take any credit because they have done nothing to stop the import of contaminated foreign eggs.
The Government's own chief officer of health said that the worst area in the European Community was Spain. Yet there is no ban on Spanish eggs coming into this country. Only last week, there was a positive test of salmonella in Dutch eggs. Why are the Government doing nothing about that? Those countries do not have our strict standards. They will now undercut us, the consumer will buy foreign eggs and our poultry industry, which has started to put its house in order, will suffer as a result of unfair competition.
Last year, there were 30,000 cases of food poisoning--or so the Government said. There is a question of reporting and whether the figure might be 10 per cent. or 100 per cent. higher. A further 30, 000 reported cases of food poisoning did not go into the statistics--the cases of campylobacter which were recorded and blamed on food--so there were really 60,000 recorded cases of food poisoning last year. The problem is worse this year. June and July may be the strawberry season, but it is also the campylobacter season. There is an epidemic at present, which did not happen 10 years ago. Fortunately, it is rarely a fatal disease, but it is unpleasant, as anyone who has suffered from it will testify. What are the Government doing about food safety? The answer is that they are doing very little.
To take the fiasco of green-top milk, last January I asked in a written question whether the Minister intended to ban green-top milk. The answer was that there were no plans to do so. In February, the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander) asked the same question and the reply was reported in the west Yorkshire evening press. I am sorry that the junior Agriculture Minister is not here.
Mr. Martlew : Yes, the big one. I refer to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson). The local paper said : "MP backs green top milk ban. Plans to ban the sale of green top milk, which will affect the livelihoods of up to 40 Calderdale farmers, have the backing of junior minister Mr. Donald Thompson. He said the ban was necessary in the interest of public safety. Green top milk"--
[Interruption.] This is a serious matter. We should not joke about the next part!
"Green top milk was blamed for the deaths of five elderly people and a baby in Calderdale in 1984".
In fact the figure was seven adults and one baby. That was the year after the Government banned the sale of green-top milk in Scotland. Had they taken action in England at the same time, those people would have lived. The article was written in February. The Minister continued--
Miss Emma Nicholson : If the hon. Gentleman follows his train of thought logically, would he want to stop people driving and to close all roads on the ground that 300 people die every week on the roads? The public want the choice to drink green-top milk. With proper consumer labelling, they now have that choice in England and Wales, and I am delighted that that is so.
Mr. Martlew : I am sorry that the hon. Lady delights in continuing to advocate a product which has killed people in the past and will kill people in the future. The Government decided that the pressure groups to which the hon. Lady answers--
Miss Nicholson : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it possible for the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that statement? I am answerable to nobody. I assume that the hon. Gentleman means financially answerable, as other Labour Members have made that statement. He is incorrect to say that.
Mr. Martlew : Pressure groups in this country have persuaded the Government to continue to allow the sale of a lethal mixture. I was asked last week whether I would drink green-top milk and I answered that I would not even give it to my cat. It has created terrible problems. The Government are not fit to run a food policy if they do not have the courage to ban green-top milk. The old advertisement said that milk had a lot of bottle. That is certainly more than the Government have.
The Government said that they had no evidence of the irradiation of products. I spoke to local health inspectors who had had a complaint about some prawns which did not smell right. The prawns were sent to the public laboratory in Glasgow, which found there were no bacteria in them, so the only conclusion was that the prawns had been irradiated. The Government have been allowing irradiated food in Britain for years and have
Column 373given only one warning. They are not in a position to put forward creative policies to protect people from food poisoning. They have failed to do so and, as a result, 2 million people will suffer this year. I have no confidence that the legislation that they intend to propose in the autumn will do anything but continue to protect vested interests.