|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) : It falls to me to bring the debate down to earth. We seem to have been groping in Utopia for the past hour or so. I regret the sharp exchange that I had with the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) at the beginning of the debate. It was probably rather uncharacteristic and the hon. Gentleman is far too nice a man for me to treat his remarks with disdain. However, it is important to get the matter into proportion. I ask the hon. Gentleman what is the virtue in not just the duplication but the triplication of scientific procedures which would have resulted if the influence of the Langford institute had remained. I do not wish to dwell on the matter, so I will go on to the important issues facing the consumer. Consumers have not been mentioned much so far. I declare an interest in that I represent many food producers and many food consumers. I also represent the scientific researchers at the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research at Porton Down. Shopping is not just a chore. Perhaps the hon. Member for South Shields will accept the challenge to accompany me to seek out the freshest ingredients, the best value for money and the best food for health. If he came to my home in the Wiltshire countryside, which I would be delighted to put at his disposal, he would find that my chest freezer was empty, that the cupboards tended increasingly to be full of beans and that my garden was full of vegetables and rather too many weeds.
I suggest that we need to address ourselves more to the question of whether we, as consumers, are going down the right path. Is it virtuous to be told that more than 60 per cent. of all food is bought in supermarkets in some sort of processed form? Should we not seek instead to extol the virtues of food in season and the value of natural foods, and should we not look rather more seriously at organic farming?
I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) and I am sorry that he has had to slip out temporarily. I was interested in and impressed by his comments. I should like to expand on one point that has been missed so far--the role of education of the consumer. It is a matter of health education, which is crucial, and also of good, old-fashioned domestic science, or home economics. I hope that it is taught to boys as well as girls, as all the best chefs in the world are men.
Another point raised was the future of the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research. We cannot consider the issue before us today without looking at the institutions concerned. The decision to preserve the former microbiological research establishment at the Ministry of Defence was taken by Parliament in 1979 with the full agreement of all parties in the House. The Labour Government took that decision and the Conservative Opposition agreed with it. The management of the renamed Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research
Column 374--CAMR--was entrusted to the public health laboratory service and became funded on the health Vote. That point is crucial.
In 1985 CAMR's remit was to generate income. Agreements were signed between CAMR and Porton International and the public health laboratory service board covering the marketing of CAMR products and the building of a much- needed new fermentation pilot plant. The question of building a production centre was also raised, but I regret to say that that was something of a fiasco with severe design failures. That fiasco had nothing to do with either PHLS or CAMR. It was sub-contracted work. I hope that the Under- Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), can tell us what is happening about that as there is clearly a role for an expanded CAMR and, indeed, future employment in my constituency could be affected.
There have been many ministerial visits to CAMR in recent years, for which I am grateful. My noble Friend Lord Trefgarne came in 1982 and directed that CAMR should maximise its income generation and aim for economic self- sufficiency, which was the first new trend in research in that area. The second visit was made by my noble Friend Baroness Trumpington in 1987. She gave the centre a new remit. It was to have four corners to its work. The first related to public health laboratory service work, such as AIDS research ; the second was work for the then Department of Health and Social Security, such as the development of new vaccines ; the third, which has not yet been mentioned, was research for the Department of Trade and Industry into multi-company work ; the fourth related to income generation, including money from marketing its scientific expertise.
The present position was outlined both last week and this week in articles in the Financial Times. There is much interest and speculation at the moment. It is widely believed that one option is the complete privatisation of CAMR. That would create considerable difficulties in the present contractural arrangements with Porton International in CAMR's other functions and commercial relationships, such as that with Wellcome, and in its remaining public health responsibilities.
There is also the unwelcome possibility that privatisation could close down the centre's work on AIDS and on food poisoning and lead to the destruction of its unique, important and successful European collection of animal cell cultures, as such things would not be attractive to private sector investment companies.
If we are looking for income generation, and since we are increasingly concerned about the destruction of tropical rain forests, not only because of their climatic importance but also because of the loss of genetic diversity, CAMR could be encouraged to set up a new forest cell culture centre which could be internationally self-financing. There could be a number of roles for CAMR in the future, but a key principle must be its ability to retain and develop its multiple relationships with United Kingdom companies, while in no way seeking to derogate from its contractual relationship with Porton International.
The organisation also has a strategic role which can never be divorced from the role of Government, especially in areas such as AIDS research and food poisoning research. One solution could be for the institution to be allowed to become a free-standing agency as part of the Government's review into all their research institutions.
Column 375As that is feasible, it is possible that CAMR could become financially self-supporting within about five years, so great is its income-generating potential.
Today was supposed to have seen a lobby of Parliament by scientists working in the National Health Service, but it was cancelled because some of their union colleagues decided to have a railway strike instead and the lobby has been rearranged for next month. When talking about food research, we must remember that we are talking not about a few highly qualified specialist expert scientists but about whole teams including everyone from the scientist to the man in the boiler house. I should take this opportunity to point out that there are two completely separate organisations at Porton Down--the chemical defence establishment and the public health laboratory service, CAMR. There are 700 employees at Porton Down, the vast majority of whom provide support services to scientists. This country faces a demographic problem in relation to man and woman power in the coming years. There is a severe problem with the recruitment and retention of staff, especially at that scientific and technical level in the National Health Service.
Several scientists at Porton Down--and, indeed, representatives of other interests there--have drawn my attention to problems to which I draw the attention of Ministers. The first is the problem of retention and recruitment of younger scientific staff. It is caused by a combination of what I acknowledge is relatively low pay in those institutions and by the high price of housing. I can only conclude that the Whitley Council system of national pay bargaining is serving my constituents badly when the national averages are taken into account in determining pay. It would be very much in the interests of my constituents if an agency for local pay bargaining were established.
The second great difficulty--I suspect that it is faced by many similar institutions throughout the country--is that the people who are employed directly by the National Health Service at CAMR often carry out identical jobs or jobs with nearly identical specifications and requiring identical qualifications, but receive lower pay rates than those employed at Porton International, for example. That means that some people working in the same institution, doing almost the same jobs, receive lower rates of pay. On the other side of the road, scientists who do the same or similar jobs for the Ministry of Defence are on different rates of pay because they are not NHS staff but are civil servants. Furthermore, even within that establishment there are differential pay rates between Army personnel and civil servants. All those differences exist on the one site and present an increasing problem.
Porton Down CAMR is dealing with the important fight against infectious diseases. Salmonella has already been mentioned, but there are also legionella, botulism, bovine spongiform encephalopathy and AIDS.
I should like my hon. Friends to spare a thought for the small poultry producers in my constituency who produce eggs from flocks of just over 25 birds. At the moment--rather ludicrously--Ministry vets are rushing around the country sticking swabs up chickens' backsides to see whether there is any salmonella infection. However, severe doubt has been cast on that test because it is possible for
Column 376poultry to lay eggs that are infected but for the infection not to show up on a test of the bird, and it is also possible for the reverse to happen and for an egg to be uninfected when the bird is not free from infection. That discrepancy has never been denied by the Government. They have always been completely honest and have said that internationally no test is foolproof. They are right. However, is it worth all the hassle if our small poultry producers have to face the possibility that if infection is discovered their flock will be destroyed and they will be compensated at only one third or one half the market replacement value of their flocks?
In conclusion, it would be to the advantage of the work force at CAMR, which is crucial to food safety in this country because it was there that scientists discovered the source of the hazelnut yoghurt infection within just three hours, if consideration were given to its future within the whole equation of food safety in this country. 5.59 pm
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : The Minister took 41 minutes to respond to the robust and probing opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). He devoted 25 minutes to a ministerial statement that should have been made in Government time. I shall not be churlish about that because I was pleased to hear it at long last. We have waited long enough for it. He made one or two challenges that I will answer quickly because many of my colleagues want to speak, despite some of the delaying tactics on the Government Benches.
The Minister referred to early-day motion 950 in my name. I want to alert the House to the fact that after I tabled the motion I did an interview with Central Television. That interview was cut, as interviews are. Part of a leading statement by Central Television last week was that I had said that irradiation could cause illness--I will not quibble with that--and even kill. I have never said that about food irradiation and I never would, because it could not be substantiated. What I said was that there is a huge question mark over the technique and its application.
I hope to outline briefly the nature of that question mark. It is not only I who say that, but the Consumers in the European Community Group which, as the House should know, is made up of 29 voluntary and professional organisations in the United Kingdom, with an interest in the impact of European Community legislation on the British consumer. Irradiation is also opposed by the Retail Consortium, by the Institution of Environmental Health Officers and by the Institute of Trading Standards Administration. So it is not a light-weight reservation that we seek to put on the record.
I want to tackle some of the challenges made by the Minister when he referred to the early-day motion. I am surprised that the Minister should make such efforts to challenge my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields about the nature of an early-day motion that refers to a practice that the Minister seeks to legalise. It is topsy turvy that he should expend so much energy on it.
The Minister asked for evidence. The evidence will be made available. I have always found the Minister to be most candid and I have paid tribute to him on more than one occasion. I have found the Under-Secretary of State for Health, who is to reply to the debate, to be the same, so I expect similar treatment from him.
Column 377The investigations that lay behind the early -day motion were set up by people working for a national newspaper. They established a dummy company to import consignments of food that had previously been irradiated--in other words, in contravention of existing legislation. I note that the Minister did not challenge early-day motions 713, 714 and 715 which were tabled in 1986 when we supplied documentary evidence that proved conclusively what was happening, but no action was taken. Further copies of that evidence are available. That explains our lack of confidence in Government action this time. As I said, a national newspaper set up a dummy company. Contacts were made with Gammaster BV and Hank de Bruijne. Gammaster BV provided the information that Allways Transport could get the consignments into this country and distribute them wherever they were needed, without fail. Not only did the company do that, but it undertook to give a guarantee of bona fides to Allways Transport. In other words, it was prepared to say that the dealer was a good Indian who was not likely to sprag the game or squeal on the practice. Hank de Bruijne went further. The daughter of the proprietor said that not only would there be no problem with the consignment but that if the intended trader was worried about discovery by port health authorities because the load was too clean bacterially the company had the answer. Instead of giving the consignment the full dose of irradiation, it would apply only a partial dose, irradiating to only 2 kilogray, thereby killing only some bacteria and leaving some creeping and crawling so that the port authorities would be put off the scent, if scent there was to be--an unfortunate phrase in the context.
I doubt whether people will derive any confidence from the controls that the Minister proposed. If we are to be confronted with traders who are likely to adopt practices and subterfuges such as I have outlined, what confidence can we ask the British consumer to have in the measures that the Government propose? In any case, what good will the Government measures do? Everyone agrees that irradiation will kill some bacteria, but I was pleased to hear the Ministr say that it is not a panacea. He said that three times. I hope that he keeps on saying it. It is far from being a panacea. It cannot be used in isolation. The Minister also said that irradiation would not make bad food good. That is right. But it stops bad food from looking and smelling bad. That is the main point that we should emphasise. I am trying to rush through many points and it is proving difficult. The bacteria that is removed by irradiation will not affect clostridium botulinum because it is not susceptible to irradiation. It is a spore-borne organism which thrives better out of oxygen. That is why the American authorities will not allow irradiation of vacuum-packed meat ; that would be the perfect environment for clostridium botulinum. The Minister earlier, and the Secretary of State in his statement on botulism last week, claimed that we have a better resistance to botulism and that the incidence of botulism in other countries is higher.
The Government are trying to claim credit, but I put this riddle to them. If consignments of food are irradiated, the yeasts and moulds that are in competition with clostridium botulinum are killed and clostridium botulinum is allowed free rein to develop even more virulently. There will be more vigorous toxins which may increase the incidence of botulism. The Government
Column 378cannot have it both ways. They cannot claim better health because of the low incidence of botulism and at the same time seek to introduce a technique which, if used freely, could give botulism free rein.
Consumers want healthy, wholesome food that is produced, prepared, stored, distributed and retailed in healthy and hygienic conditions ; there is no substitute for that.
Mr. Cook : The hon. Gentleman says that that is what they get. The evidence indicates that that is not what they have been getting. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has already made an effective point about catering establishments.
My point is that the consumer has a right--not a choice--to expect healthy and wholesome food. Choice is determined by the amount of money in the pocket and the wherewithal. It is all well and good for Government Ministers to tell us that we can go out and buy the food that we want, but they cannot say that to a person living on social security who has a limited income. It is strange that we should be prepared to invoke penalty on social security miscreants when we are not prepared to invoke penalty on people who have transgressed against the rules of food irradiation.
Choice is not an answer to hygienic standards.
I made some points in a letter to the solicitors who are seeking to have a go at me on the basis of the early-day motion, and perhaps this is the right note on which to finish. I said in that letter : "I note too your unequivocal assertion that your clients have never imported or sold any product which has been subjected to the irradiation process'. Given that there is no reliable method devised as yet to determine whether or not food has been irradiated prior to examination might I counsel the use of the word knowingly' after never' in any further statements.
One must assume from the content and tone of your letter that" --until contacted by the reporter--
"your clients were completely ignorant of the practices identified in my EDM. Is this so?
Had you known of them what would have been your reaction? You will have noted from my interview with Central Television that I act not only for the benefit of the consumer but also at the behest of parties interested in the British food industry who are anxious to ensure that those trading in that sector employ routinely the same proper and effective standards of hygiene as they do themselves in the production, preparation, distribution and retail of healthy and wholesome food for the consumer both in the UK and abroad. I'm sure that if you feel as concerned for these ends as you are for the standing of in the eyes of the consumer, ... you will join with me in pursuing energetically measures to eradicate totally such abuse at the earliest date."
If we expect the consumer to choose between irradiated and non-irradiated food, we must at the same time give them a good reason for irradiating it-- not the end result but the need for irradiating food in the first place-- because at the moment for me there is none.
Column 3796.11 pm
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) : I support the Government's amendment. My right hon. Friend the Minister has outlined the very positive, professional and responsible aspects of this Government's policy in relation to food safety, which is in sharp contrast to the sparseness of the Opposition policy, as expounded by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). The hon. Gentleman spoke about oysters, and I for one found very few pearls in the oysters to which he referred. Regardless of the language and the country of origin, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no known method of salvaging rotten food, nor of making that food good. It is mischievous and irresponsible of him to suggest otherwise. Having worked in the food industry for about 30 years, perhaps I should declare an interest. That interest is the same interest that everyone working in the food industry would declare, which is in seeing safe food products of a consistent quality provided for the consuming public. If we do not provide safe consistent products, we will go out of business.
My right hon. Friend referred to the rapid changes in consumer habits. Over the 30 years in which I have been involved in the industry, we have seen food--far from being the major purchase that it once was--relegated to a fairly insignificant part of the family budget. Meals and meal times are also less structured than they were years ago. Above all, 30 years ago ingredients were almost exclusively fresh. Food was prepared in a domestic kitchen, cooked immediately prior to consumption, and eaten at regular times ; but that is no longer the case.
First, the food that we eat is no longer fresh ; it might be frozen, dehydrated or cooked and chilled. Secondly, less and less food is prepared in a domestic kitchen. More and more of the demand is for convenience food of which there is little or no preparation at home. There has been a dramatic increase in eating out, where the restaurateur or caterer does the preparation and the cooking. All that is quite predictable, having regard to the greater number of housewives and mothers who go out to work, and, indeed, the greater prosperity that people enjoy as a result of 10 years of Conservative government. At this stage I pay tribute to the great British food industry, which has risen to the challenge of satisfying the modern demand for a greater diversity of interesting, wholesome, nutritious, affordable and convenient food.
Thirdly, meals are no longer necessarily cooked immediately prior to consumption. The advent of the microwave and the concept of cook-chill meals means that the cooking process is often remote from the domestic situation. It is remote both in time and place, in the sense that the cooking process has probably taken place in a factory many days or even weeks in advance of consumption.
Fourthly, the notion that meals are taken at regular times is a thing of the past ; so too, regrettably, is the notion that meal times are a significant family occasion. We have become a nation of browsers. We eat irregularly in a completely unstructured manner and we eat whatever appeals to us at the time.
As a consequence of those habits--this is the point I wish to underline--we as a nation have a reduced knowledge of buying, preparing, cooking and presenting food. As a nation, we have less understanding of the properties of food, the nutritional values and, specifically,
Column 380as far as it relates to fresh food, the keeping qualities of food. We have a less than satisfactory understanding of the importance of good hygiene. Indeed, the confidence of consumers in their own ability is so depreciated that in a recent National Consumer Council poll more than half of those interviewed thought that the Government, health education authorities and manufacturers should be
"doing the most to provide clear advice and information to consumers on Food Safety."
Never once, for example, was it mentioned that mothers would be the most important influence in guiding families in how they should produce food for their offspring.
The question is what, if anything, those three groups of people, who have been identified in the National Consumer Council poll, should be doing to redress that situation and, especially, what could and what should the Government be doing. There is always a danger--certainly the Opposition would lead us down this dangerous path--of trying to do too much. There is a danger, as a result of trying to do too much, that we will dilute the responsibility of the consumer. There is a danger, too, of being too prescriptive in our legislation. That holds the hazard of stultifying one of the United Kingdom's most successful and innovative industries and, directly following from that, restricting consumer choice and variety. What should we do? My right hon. Friend the Minister reminded us of the need at all times for constant vigilance--and there is no gainsaying that at all. We must take swift and effective action wherever problems manifest them- selves. I fully endorse the Government's policy that we must act only on the basis of the best scientific information available at the time. We must uphold the law which at the moment states that all food should be safe and that all consumers should not be misled. I for one would be happy at the prospect of the Government and the enforcing authorities throwing the book at those who offend those laws. We should continue to publish and disseminate straightforward, simple-to-read common-sense advice to consumers, and I commend to the House the recent booklet on food safety which satisfies all those criteria in good measure. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), who is no longer in his place, spoke about diet, but we should beware the false prophets. A diet industry is becoming prominent which says that some food is good and other food bad. But there is no such thing as bad food, only a bad diet. A good diet is a balanced and varied one. In the words of the old maxim, one might say moderation in all things.
I know that moderation does not always appeal to Opposition Members, but let me leave them with this thought. If, in their estimation, so many things are wrong in Britain today, why do we have a higher proportion of old people than any other country bar one? As they know, as I know and as the Minister knows, it is the old and the young who are most at risk from food poisoning. There cannot be anything terribly wrong with the British diet when so many live to such a ripe old age.
Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) : The Secretary of State said that the Government act quickly to ensure that people eat safe food, but I hope to explode that myth. I have plenty of evidence to show that the Government do not act quickly and that their approach to the problem of food
Column 381safety is cavalier and irresponsible, particularly on the safety of airline passengers, and, in the next few months, there will be hundreds of those as the holiday traffic increases. It is utterly disgraceful that the Government have not addressed that problem. In February 1989, the three local authorities responsible for environmental health standards at Heathrow completed a report on airline food safety. They discovered that excessive levels of potentially dangerous bacteria have been found in nearly a quarter of all the meals tested at Heathrow airport--a quarter of the meals on the ground, before they even reach the aircraft.
Only last weekend it was reported that
"air travellers are being exposed to the risk of a disastrous outbreak of food poisoning' because of long flight delays and poor hygiene."
The Institution of Environmental Health Officers was reported as saying that
"lack of hygiene training among cabin crew, combined with the rapid increase of bacteria during flight delays, poses a serious threat to passengers' health. It demands new powers to monitor the safety of food on aircraft, which escape controls because the food is given away."
The Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), was reported as saying that
"he would review regulations in the light of the report." He said :
"I am looking forward to being briefed further on this to see what can or should be done."
I want to illustrate how, despite having a report from the environmental health officers responsible for environmental health at Heathrow, the Government have ignored those reports and have refused to take any action.
More than 1,000 separate foods were examined by environmental health officers at Heathrow who found some of the worst contamination in pate , appetisers, main courses of beef and rice puddings. The tests were conducted by the airport's local boroughs on freshly made meals which had not even reached the aircraft. By the time that the meals reached passengers, bacteria levels would often be much higher because of poor temperature control.
Most of the foods were prepared by the cook-chill method, which has been implicated in many of the recent cases of food poisoning, but those particular foods were not tested for listeria, which was not looked on as a problem when the tests were carried out. The three London boroughs are beginning a second survey to try to determine whether listeria is present.
Of the foods tested, 24 per cent. harboured 1 million bacteria per gramme-- 100 times more than the maximum recommended by the Department of Health. E. Coli, the bacteria associated with faecal contamination, was found in 209 separate dishes and salmonella was found in four dishes tested by the environmental health officers.
In case hon. Members think that those are isolated cases, the reported outbreaks of food-borne infections over several years have involved large numbers of people. On one flight from Tokyo to Paris 197 people were affected. On 11 charter flights from Las Palmas, 550 people were affected. In one year on several flights from London 766 people were affected, and on another flight 304 people were affected. This is not a small problem. It is a large problem at the moment and a potentially large problem in the future.
Column 382of the number of people affected. An outbreak of salmonella in my constituency resulted last week in the tragic death of Benjamin Walker, aged two. One of his friends, also aged two, is currently in hospital, and a third child of the same age from an adjoining village has recently been hospitalised. That is the human face of the tragedy behind those figures.
I have heard much talk of responsibility during the debate, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is not responsible for the Government to cut research programmes into salmonella, including the one led by Dr. Meade in Bristol dealing with eradication programmes? That cut was heavily criticised by the Select Committee's report into salmonella, the members of which were unanimous that the Government should undertake more research into salmonella. The Government cannot be held responsible for that child's death, but a Government who do not face up to their responsibilities to undertake such research will have the deaths of other children and people on their hands.
Mrs. Clwyd : I agree with my hon. Friend. It is irresponsible to cut research when, over the past few months, it has been clearly shown that the number of food poisoning cases in Britain is growing rather than decreasing. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Let me return to the Secretary of State's claim that the Government act quickly. In March, the three environmental health officers responsible for Heathrow sent the Secretary of State for Health a copy of their report. In April, I asked him whether he would make a statement and he said :
"I have just received a copy of the report and I will give it due consideration."--[ Official Report, 6 April 1989 ; Vol. 150, c. 290. ]
In May, I asked the same question and the Under-Secre-tary of State said :
"We have recently received a copy of the survey It is still receiving careful consideration within the Department."--[ Official Report, 2 May 1989 ; Vol. 152, c. 100.]
In June I asked the same question, and the Under-Secretary of State said :
"I shall let the hon. Member have a reply as soon as possible." One would think that the Government were studying a massive report, but in fact it is slim and its recommendations are clear. I should not have thought that this urgent problem needed four months' consideration before the Government could make a statement on what they intended to do about it.
Not only that, but as long ago as 1986, at the second world congress of food-borne infections in Berlin, the Government's central public health laboratory service said that the provision of meals on aircraft, particularly on those travelling long distances, posed many food hygiene problems, and that outbreaks of food-borne infections had been reported associated with in-flight meals and had involved a wide range of organisms, including salmonella. It reported the results of that survey at some length. As long ago as that, the Government's own agency had the necessary information, yet the Government refused to take any action.
Heathrow environmental health officers are concerned about the present situation and its potential. The hundreds of thousands of people using Heathrow and other airports throughout Britain are entitled to Government protection. The health officers produced clear reports and suggestions.
Column 383They argue that the aviation catering industry ought to adopt a common standard for meal production, which should be the guidelines on pre-cooked and chilled foods published by the Department of Health in 1980. The Department has since issued new guidelines, but how will it compel caterers to observe them? That should not be the responsibility of EHOs, who are already hard pressed.
Heathrow health officers also published a long list of deviations from the required standards. Guideline 2e, for example, states : "Reheating of the food to be done immediately upon removal from chilled conditions and raised to at least 70 C."
The report comments :
"This raises the question as to whether the food is still in a chilled condition on the aircraft as this depends upon the time of leaving the catering unit, ambient temperature, the length of the flight, any delays There appear to be no international checks on these matters."
Guideline 2g states :
" 10 C is regarded as the critical safety limit for chilled foods."
According to health officers,
"Temperature variances with or without botulism during production, storage and delivery are tremendous."
Recommendation 4 is :
"All raw materials to be of good quality."
The Minister himself stressed the importance of quality control. The deviation noted by health inspectors was :
"Most caterers check out their suppliers, but the degree to which this is done varies enormously. On occasions this is not done at all."
Can the Minister say how the Government will make their new guidelines stick better than the old?
Environmental health officers would like a reply to their report, which the Government have taken so long to consider. The hundreds of thousands of airline passengers who believe that the food they eat is safe should either be advised that fears to the contrary are groundless or that they should take sandwiches for the time being. When the Minister winds up, I hope that he will address himself to the problem of ensuring airline food safety.
Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston) : I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) in her concern about the health hazards posed by airline meals. I have some interest in that subject, as on average I eat two airline meals per week while travelling to and from my constituency. The report to which my hon. Friend drew attention is particularly interesting and provides striking evidence that even in a catering establishment which might be regarded as up-market there is no guarantee that it is free of the health hazards that frequently exist in the food that we buy and eat.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) made a thoughtful and considered speech, as one would expect of one with his background as a community physician. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) made a forceful case for exploring the Government's contradictory attitudes to green-top milk. As to his observation concerning the Government's reversal on that issue, I was struck by the report that the Government backed down on green-top milk after receiving 1,200 objections. We understand from a written answer that the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food received 6,000 objections to food irradiation.
Column 384Unfortunately, it seems that that number of objections--five times the number received in respect of green-top milk--is somehow not so conclusive.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) fluently put a well-informed case for not regarding food irradiation as a total solution and pointed to the paradox that at this moment irradiation is being offered as a solution when the particular incidence of food poisoning that we currently have in mind was caused by botulism, to which irradiation is almost irrelevant. In so far as it is relevant, it is in the sense that irradiation may contribute to an environment in which the botulinum bacterium will thrive. The first comment that I have to make is, very sadly, that I understand that during the course of the debate one of the 26 victims of the botulism outbreak in the north-west has died. It is perhaps regrettable that the Secretary of State referred to that outbreak as being one of only nine this century. That may be so, but as many people were affected by the latest outbreak as by all the previous eight outbreaks put together. That is the gravity of the latest occurrence. We must now try to grapple with the serious problem of combating food health hazards.
Throughout the debate there has been a division between Government and Opposition Members. While my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are undoubtedly exercised by the threat, having listened to most of the speeches made by Conservative Members I am not persuaded that they are seized with the gravity of the crisis.
The first step to finding a solution is to admit that a problem exists. The Government's own figures should alarm them. Formal notifications of food poisoning rose from 10,000 in 1978 to more than 20,000 in 1987. Even more alarming than that doubling of cases in a decade is that since 1987 notifications have doubled again. In the first five months of 1989 there were 16,700 recorded cases, giving an annualised rate of more than 40,000.
Fortunately, we have a way of expressing the cost to society of food poisoning in terms that Conservative Members should find easy to grasp. Bradford university's food policy unit conducted a study which concluded that productivity losses from food poisoning cost employers £350 million and that twice as many working days are lost by it as through strikes. The Government's most visible response to date is a consumer leaflet of which we were informed in February. After being briefed by the Government, the press faithfully reported that the Government want housewives to "cook just like mother". The problem is that the Government are still trying to control the food industry with the same regulations that were around at the time when mother went shopping.
Food hygiene regulations for shops effectively date from 1938, although they have been much consolidated. It is breathtaking that while a revolution in food retailing has taken place, with the conversion to open display and self-service, there are no regulations covering the temperature at which such food is stored. We know that the Department of Health is uneasy about that because it produced a consultative document on food hygiene, the background note to which comments :
"In recent years there has been increasing criticism of the absence of regulations on the temperature control of food in retail shops." The background notes containing that sentence and the consultative document itself were published on 22 June 1987--two years ago tomorrow--but nothing has been