Column 385heard since. No regulations have been laid before the House in those two years, during which there have been 73,000 recorded cases of food poisoning.
Last February, weary of waiting for the Government to produce regulations, we drafted our own regulations on food hygiene. The response of the Secretary of State at the time was that he was "on the point" of introducing regulations. That was on 15 February. Four months later, the Secretary of State is still ambling around the point, although I was advised in a parliamentary answer received this afternoon that I shall now have to wait at least another four months until the autumn for any draft regulations from the Government. Instead, the Government have issued a leaflet to shoppers providing advice on what they should do with products after buying them. It seemed reasonable, therefore, to test how shops themselves followed the advice offered to the consumer. One of the key pieces of advice in the leaflet is
"Make sure the fridge is cold enough--and stays below 5 deg C. buy a fridge thermometer to check."
Yesterday I carried out a survey of shops in north London. They were not major supermarkets, but they were not corner shops either--some were parts of local and regional chains or mini-markets. The results of the temperature tests were appalling. Of the seven shops that we inspected, only one was displaying food at less than 10 deg C. One offered tuna pate at 19 deg and was selling chicken pieces at the same temperature. In another the meat pie freezer was running at a temperature of 17.5 deg. In a third, sausages were on sale at 24 deg and ham at 15 deg.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley observed, the most remarkable feature of such tales is that none of the premises is committing an offence or breaking existing regulations, although, in microbiological terms, the temperatures at which the food is offered for sale are hair-raising. There is no point in spending £750,000 on beautifully drawn leaflets advising consumers to store food at temperatures below 5 deg C. if the food bought from the shop is not safe to be put in the fridge, let alone eaten.
There are obvious ways in which the Government could regulate the food industry to provide the consumer with more confidence and safety. Instead, this afternoon we have heard them reach once again for the technical fix-- in this case, irradiation. It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State should announce that he is introducing that measure to respond to consumer demand for choice when every opinion poll confirms that consumers do not want their food irradiated. The most recent poll carried out by Marplan found 83 per cent. against it.
Moreover, the irradiation proposal is wildly irrelevant to the problem. Irradiation cannot be applied to fatty foods, because it turns them rancid. It cannot be applied to eggs, although they have been the single most obvious source of concern to the public. Nor can it be applied to yoghurt-- if it is, the result is a taste defined by the experts as that of burnt wool. If it is applied to meat of the kind that I found being stored at such high temperatures, the taste is described by the experts as "wet dog smell". It is true that it can be applied to hazelnut pure e, but that will not stop botulism--it may destroy the bacteria, but it will not destroy the toxin which causes food poisoning.
The most profound reason to oppose irradiation, however, is that it does not deal with the root causes of the increased incidence of food poisoning. It does not offer a
Column 386remedy for the results of intensified farming methods and the growing practice--which I, as a layman, find rather bizarre--of recycling one animal's waste as another animal's feedstock. Nor does it address the pressure from the food industry for a longer shelf life, although it is clearly intended as a response to that pressure. It does not address the problem of the varying standards of hygiene in food outlets which have resulted from the explosion in the number of vast fast food chains. It merely provides a technical fix which enables the Government to pretend that it is possible to go on living with all those trends when it is clearly not possible. Food poisoning will continue to increase until we bring in regulations which compel shops to apply the same standards that Ministers are urging on housewives.
We know why the Government dare not do that. It is no accident that they keep putting it off. It is not because the regulations have slipped their mind, or have been put in a file marked "man ana". It is because the present Prime Minister's ideology is flatly opposed to tighter regulations. In her influential intervention in last week's European elections, she denounced what she described as more regulations, more bureaucracy and more state intervention. One of the Ministers present today will have to pluck up courage to explain to the Prime Minister that if the consumer is to be protected adequately from being poisoned by the food on sale in the shops, more regulations will be required, along with more state intervention and-- yes--perhaps even a touch more bureaucracy to ensure that the regulations are enforced. I know that it is demanding a good deal of Ministers to ask them to find the courage to storm Downing street with that message, but I offer them a spur, sharpened by the glorious results of last Thursday : if the present Government persist in their refusal to protect consumers, those consumers will increasingly look for a Government who will protect them.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Roger Freeman) : I shall answer as many questions as I can. If I cannot deal with all of them today, I shall write to hon. Members. The Government's policy on food hygiene is to put the consumer first. Hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that the consumer's interests must be our main priority. The hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) began by referring to botulism, and I shall deal with that first. We have received no reports of any new cases this week ; a total of 26 have been reported. I understand that six patients are still on ventilators, and that five are stable and improving. I join the hon. Gentleman in expressing my regret to the family of the 78-year-old lady who, sadly, died of complications this afternoon, and I am sure that the whole House will wish to join in my hope that the remaining patients will make a complete recovery. My Department is continuing to co-ordinate exhaustive investigations into the outbreak of botulism, in close collaboration with the food industry. The lessons that may be learnt from that investigation will be directly relevant to our review of food legislation. Let me take this opportunity of congratulating all who work in the Health Service, the public health laboratory service, and local authorities which have contributed so magnificently to the investigation and control of the outbreak and the treatment of patients.
Column 387The country's excellent record for rapidly identifying and dealing with food poisoning outbreaks owes much to the work of the public health authority Service and its component bodies. In particular, their pioneering work on the detection and identification of the different kinds of salmonella have formed the scientific foundation that has made it possible for the Government to identify the nature of the problems and introduce the advice and measures necessary to combat the bacteria. The resources available through the laboratory service have increased significantly under the present Government, and this year alone will see a 14 per cent. cash increase. I believe that the service is probably the most efficient and effective of its kind in the world.
The hon. Gentleman went on to deal--by implication--with listeria. New cook -chill and cook-freeze guidelines for catering are to be published tomorrow, 22 June, and copies will be placed in the Library of the House. The guidelines sharpen and clarify existing advice. Copies are also being sent to all health authorities, which are being asked to review their operational procedures to ensure that they conform. We believe that all health authorities conform. We are drawing the publication to the attention of relevant trade organisations, and I hope that all who operate or propose to operate cook-chill or cook-freeze catering systems will follow the principles set out in the guidelines.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the review of the food hygiene regulations. The regulations are statutory, and we are proposing to issue, within two weeks, draft regulations for consultation with the industry and the public. That consultation will take some three months, and we expect to lay regulations before the House in the autumn. The regulations will deal with the temperature controls for food that is required to be kept chilled in the retail distribution system.
We propose to base the legislation on a stratified temperature regime, requiring a maximum of 5 deg C for products where the risk of the growth of pathogenic organisms is high, such as soft cheeses and ready-cooked products intended to be eaten without cooking or reheating, and a maximum of 8 deg C where, although it exists, the risk is lower. In both cases there may need to be a tolerance margin to allow for fluctuations over short periods--for example, during the defrost cycles. We shall need to allow a reasonably brief implementation period to give industry time to re- equip as necessary to meet the new temperature controls. I commend this firm action by the Government as evidence of our determination to protect the consumer, with the co-operation of the food manufacturer, preparer and distributor.
Mr. Andrew Bowden (Brighton, Kemptown) : Will my hon. Friend confirm that when the regulations come into force environmental health officers will have the power to enter shops and ensure that the regulations are being fully implemented?
Mr. Freeman : Perhaps I might just explain to the House that, together with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my Department is consulting local authorities, which are responsible for recruiting and controlling environmental health officers, about a review of whether their staffing is satisfactory, both now and prospectively, for the changes that are to come.
The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) referred to a number of matters. I recognise the importance of the gene banks at Brogdale to which he referred. We are taking steps to protect those resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), whose important position as Chairman of the Select Committee I respect and understand, asked a number of questions about Bristol, as did a number of hon. Members. We are hoping to transfer not six but 70 posts in food research from Bristol to the other two locations. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare in some detail about Bristol.
My hon. Friend also asked me about current arrangements which he thinks are unfair to United Kingdom producers, who are required to meet the cost of rigorous control measures that do not apply to competing importers. It is a very important subject. Our primary and overriding concern must be to protect the consumer against the risk of infection. Over 97 per cent. of the eggs consumed in the United Kingdom are from domestic production.
The most essential point must, therefore, be to ensure that effective measures are taken at every point in the chain from farmer to consumer. That is what we have done. We cannot just ban imports from other member states, as some people have simplistically assumed. We do not have the power to do so. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is tackling any possible risk from imports on two fronts. First, we are systematically sampling imports of eggs and testing them for salmonella infection. We shall take up with the member state concerned any case which is found of contamination with salmonella enteritidis. My right hon. Friend has already done so, on the one occasion that we found an infected sample.
Secondly--this is most important--we are working towards the establishment of effective controls at the point of production in other member states. That is the fundamental safeguard for the medium and longer term, but it can be achieved only by agreement on a Community-wide basis, which inevitably takes time.
The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) asked me about sell-by dates. The Government intend to phase out sell-by dates and to replace them with the use of use-by dates which will be compulsory for highly perishable foods. I hope that the House will welcome the change.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) asked about environmental health officers. I hope that I have already answered his question, but I shall write to him in greater detail. The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) asked about green-top milk. I hope that the House will accept and welcome the Government's decision to permit the sale of green-top milk. That is clearly in accord with the wishes of consumers, but we shall ensure that the milk is properly labelled so that the risks, such as they are, are properly understood.
Column 389My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) asked me a detailed question about the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research. I shall write to him, but may I say to him now that we shall ensure that essential public health and food safety work continues, under Government control. As to the management of the control of the centre, we are still reviewing what to do, but the important point is that we want the centre to continue and to prosper.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) asked about food irradiation and made an interesting contribution, but may I correct him about a point that he made when he intervened during the speech of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Food irradiation is used and has been used within the National Health Service.
The hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) asked about airline meals. There are two aspects to her question. I share her concern, and that of other hon. Members, about airline meals. First, are the existing regulations being complied with? We have a range of regulations covering aircraft on the ground and in United Kingdom air space. We expect aircraft flying in international air space to follow the code of practice of the International Air Transport Association. I should be very pleased to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues, and also environmental health officers, to pursue further her concerns, which I share.
The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) opened the debate. His thesis was that changes in food research have led to an increase in food poisoning. There are three reasons why his thesis is false. It deserves good marks for effort but very low marks for logic. First, food research in this country has not been curtailed. It is running now at twice the level, in real terms, as in 1978-79--at £26 million. We have an excellent record on food research. The difference between the Government and the hon. Gentleman is that we do not share his prejudice towards the near market research that is conducted by the private sector.
Secondly, food poisoning and the increase, which I concede, in the last two years in food poisoning is not unique to the United Kingdom. It is a common factor-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stockton, North may laugh, but it is common to the countries of western Europe and to the United States. What is unique about this Government is the series of tough measures that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has taken to eradicate salmonella. Mr. Robert Hughes rose--
Mr. Freeman : Thirdly, and finally, the hon. Member for South Shields attempted to draw a conclusion from the change in research into botulism at Bristol and the recent incident. There is absolutely no connection between the
Column 390two. The recent outbreak of botulism was due to the lack of heat treatment by the food processor. It had nothing whatsoever to do with research at Bristol.
The Government have taken firm action as regards food safety and food research. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) for recognising that. We have set up the Richmond committee, and we have agreed to review food legislation and that review is well in hand. We have an excellent public health laboratory service which is the envy of the world, and we have increased resources for research. We are working in partnership with the private sector.
I urge the House to support the Government amendment and to throw out the Opposition motion.
Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question :--
The House divided : Ayes 211, Noes 318.
Division No. 256] [6.59 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Beith, A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Duffy, A. E. P.
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Golding, Mrs Llin
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Heffer, Eric S.
Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Home Robertson, John
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Johnston, Sir Russell
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Mo n)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)