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Column 1092chickens being left on the shelf for long periods. The Minister should take the federation's views into account. Poultry farmers have been seriously affected by the Government's policies.
I hope that the Minister will take note of the views that have been expressed during the debate. The voice of the consumer, as well as the views of food manufacturers who are in favour of food irradiation, must be heard in this House.
Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton) : The irradiation of food, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is an emotive subject. [Interruption.] I think I have been corrected, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am a traditionalist. I hope you will not mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I refer to you--
Mrs. Winterton : I take your point, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I had always understood that one addressed the office rather than the holder of the office, irrespective of gender. May I give another example? Many moons ago, in a previous existence, I was a master of foxhounds. Nobody called me a mistress of anything.
Madam Deputy Speaker : Order. I am very interested in the way that the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) seeks to address various people, but while I am in the Chair I am to be addressed as Madam Deputy Speaker.
To return to the subject of the debate, food irradiation is an emotive subject. It will not be easy for hon. Members or their constituents to reach a rational decision as to its possible benefits. Many of us, myself included, do not have the scientific background to enable us to sift the facts from the fiction about food irradiation. Therefore, I was pleased to read recently the very first briefing paper of the newly established Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology which seeks to inform parliamentarians on scientific and technical matters underpinning current issues. Its director, Dr. Michael Norton, has prepared a paper on irradiation that is full of easily digested information, which I heartily recommend to hon. Members.
Many studies have been carried out on the irradiation of food for both animals and humans during the last 40 years, but concern remains about its potential use, despite the views of national and international expert bodies that the process is safe. The recent much publicised increase in the number of cases of food poisoning of one kind or another provide one argument as to how irradiation can play a part--I stress the word "part"-- in providing greater protection for the public.
That brings me to what I consider to be the best marketing opportunity for fresh food for some time. It will not have escaped the notice of hon. Members that one of our most successful retail outlets has built a reputation second to none in its food department for quality,
Column 1093freshness and good hygiene. That reputation is reflected to good effect in its sales and profits. In these more affluent days, people are prepared to pay more for fresh, good-quality products. I believe that, with correct labelling, a fresh chicken, for example, will outsell by far its irradiated counterpart. I suggest that that answers the questions raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells).
The House should also note that the standards of production, processing and distribution of fresh foods in Britain are far higher than in virtually any other country, so I do not believe for a moment that irradiated food will provide any competition whatsoever, although it could prove useful in treating imported herbs and spices, for the reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Minister in his opening speech.
The high capital and running costs of irradiation equipment will be added to the price of the food and might easily outweigh any perceived benefits. However, mandatory labelling, with rigorous checks for the wholesale, retail and catering sectors, is essential to inform the consumer. More will have to be done in education in schools and elsewhere to provide people with the facts so that they can make an informed choice.
Finally, I would not hesitate to eat irradiated food, and I have probably done so abroad on many occasions without knowing it. Surely we shall have the best of both worlds in the United Kingdom as consumers will have available to them, where appropriate, irradiated and non-irradiated food. When they are fully armed with the appropriate information and when internationally recognised standards are introduced and rigorously enforced, there will be no problems whatsoever.
I should like to know who wants irradiated food. The public does not seem to want it. I have seen no great demands for it. The British Medical Association does not want it and nor does the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, but the food industry does.
Mr. Jones : As my hon. Friend said, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, which is one of the largest retailers in the country, does not want it. Why do the others want it? They want it for profit and because it will be easier for them to deal with the food at the end of its production life and because the most disreputable outlets recognise it as a way of disguising poor manufacturing techniques. I am a microbiologist by profession. Many hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members, are being misled.
As a microbiologist, I believe that the only objective test for the quality of food is the detection and enumeration of its bacterial load. If the food is irradiated there is no
Column 1094objective test of its quality. The toxins produced by the organisms in the food will remain and will often be proportional to the original infection of the food. As the Minister said, food infections such as salmonella and listeria will be prevented, but genuine food poisoning will not. As the Minister should know, food poisonings are botulism and staphylococcal food poisoning. Staphylococcal food poisoning is one of the most common food poisonings and will not be prevented by the irradiation of food as staphylococcal food poisoning depends on the production of a toxin by the bacterium during its infective period--during the growth of the bacterium in the food. The Minister did not say anything about the possible long-term effects. Judging by the way that we have discussed irradiation, one would think that it was extremely easy to kill bacteria by irradiating them. It is not. Bacteria are extremely resistant organisms. They are much more resistant than human beings. It takes about 4.5 kilogray to kill the average human being ; it takes considerably more to kill the average bacterium and much more than that to kill the average spore. As the Minister said, we are not talking about spores being killed.
If spores survive and vegatative organisms do not, that means that the spores can germinate and grow after irradiation. Spore-bearing organisms are the most dangerous organisms in causing food poisoning. A dose that will kill a micro-organism does so in a particular way--by cell damage, due to the release of highly reactive radicals. They are basically produced by the splitting of water into its constituent parts. They last fractions of a second, but they react rapidly with other cell constituents. They create small quantities of esoteric chemicals which are not found in nature. No one knows, and none of the Minister's advisers can possibly know, about the long-term effects of exposure to those chemicals.
This does not happen just in the micro-organism. It happens in the main body of the food. Food consists of proteins, fats and carbohydrates in exactly the same way as micro-organisms do. Small amounts of exotic chemicals are being added to the food by dosing it with radiation. I could give a long list, but the ones that are easily detected are peroxidated fatty acids and hydroxlated aromatics.
Mr. Jones : I do not think that they do. Those components are produced in the food and sometimes affect it so much that it becomes inedible--the Minister must know about that. Those compounds are there, organoleptically, by taste, in some foods. They are also in the foods that are not affected by taste. No one knows how they will affect humans if consumed over a long period. If those chemicals were added as a preservative, they would not be allowed.
To say that labelling gives people choice is nonsense. One Conservative Member has said that that is impossible in restaurants. They will choose the cheapest prawns for their curry. They will not bother to say that the prawns have been irradiated. It would certainly put off customers if they did. Labelling is no use without a test that can prove irradiation. Such a test does not exist. If it did, it would be testing for the very chemicals that cause the problem in the long term. If we are talking about choice for consumers, we should not even consider irradiation of food.
Column 109511.13 pm
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) : I support the Government motion and oppose the Opposition amendment. I support the Government because they are being consistent with their policy to make their decisions in the light of the best available scientific evidence. There is an overwhelming weight of scientific evidence in favour of food irradiation. The toxicological, microbiological and nutritional effects of irradiation have been studied extensively and as a result the process has been declared safe by international and United Kingdom scientific committees. It has been tried and tested for decades--for more than 45 years. American astronauts, for example, take irradiated food on missions and in 1991, the first
In 1991, the first Briton in space will eat irradiated food with the cosmonauts aboard the USSR satellite MIR.
Throughout the Opposition's contributions to the debate there is an innuendo about a lack of control and labelling. One fact that they fail to mention, which has not so far been mentioned in the debate, is that the cost of an irradiation plant is between £3 million and £5 million. I venture to suggest that the Government will know exactly where the irradiation plants are. I am persuaded that that is a true statement of fact because I understand that, at present, no such plants are manufactured or available in the United Kingdom and would, therefore, have to be imported, thereby reinforcing my argument that the Government would know exactly where the plants were.
All known processes for preserving food rely on arresting or slowing the natural process of food spoilage. It is inconceivable that irradiation will make unsafe or bad food into good food. The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) made a point about the poultry industry. I agreed when he said that the poultry industry was hard pressed ; most hon. Members would agree with that. However, he failed to appreciate that poultry producers will be able, when the legislation is passed, to choose to irradiate their product to make it safer for the consumer. The consumer, likewise, can then exercise his or her option to buy the irradiated product, which will give greater confidence in that product. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North suggested, that could be a boon to the poultry industry and to poultry consumers. Let us make it clear that the Government are not compelling producers to irradiate their products.
The Opposition amendment refers to "chemical changes in food". Irradiation does not lead to any significant loss of vitamins in food and, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said, it does not make that food radioactive. The Opposition also talk about contaminated food being sold as clean food. If food is of an unacceptable microbiological standard before the process, those same factors will give it away after the process. That is a fact. The Opposition then speak about-- [Interruption.] If Opposition Members listen, they might learn something. The best--
Mr. Gill : I agree with my hon. Friend. The Opposition must agree with the following because they are their words. They talk of "the best ways of solving the current epidemic of food poisoning and ensuring that the consumer has confidence in the safety of food."
What they deliberately omit to say is that 90 per cent. of food-borne illness worldwide is caused by salmonella and campylobacter, according to the World Health Organisation. Surely the Opposition know that listeria, salmonella and campylobacter can all be dealt with effectively by food irradiation.
Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen) : My first point concerns dosages. In his statement in June, the Minister said that the dosages involved were very low--a maximum of 10 kilogray. I took it upon myself as a scientist to look up exactly what that meant. Suppose that, instead of food, one of us were in the conveyor belt going through the irradiating machine ; the 10 kilogray dosage would be lethal. It is equivalent to the exposure that we would receive from 100 million chest X-rays. It would destroy every single cell in our body. Indeed, the purpose of food irradiation is to kill every live cell in food. When we hear talk of low doses of irradiation, we must recognise it as an absolute lie. We are talking about massive doses. It is therefore not surprising that subjecting food to irradiation has a substantial effect on the carbohydrates, fats, proteins and every chemical component. It can also result in a cooked texture or rancid flavours of fats. When exposed, fruits and vegetables become soft because the cellulose molecules are broken down.
What particularly alarms me about the concept of irradiating food is that it produces prodigious quantities of free radicals--that is fragmented molecules--with molecules split in half, carbon-carbon bonds split in half and so on. Free radicals are very reactive and when they combine they form all sorts of mutants or deviants of their original structure. Irradiation will hydroxylate benzene rings and who knows what will be produced out of the food. As a former research chemist, my strong instinct--I have not yet gone into the subject fully--is that many of the products of irradiation will be carcinogenic.
When I examined the evidence for and against food irradiation in preparation for the debate, I found that the quality of the research into food irradiation, carried out 40 years ago and since, is very unsatisfactory. One finds a great deal of falsification of evidence and cheating, and many untrue claims have been published. There is evidence of lower birth rates, lower growth rates, kidney damage, increased incidence of tumours, chromosome defects and a lowering of resistance to disease--of the immune system--in animals fed with irradiated foods. I am most concerned, therefore, about the long-term safety implications for human health of eating large quantities of irradiated foods.
We have heard tonight of various committees making declarations about the safety or otherwise of irradiated food. For me, at any rate, the No. 1 organisation must be the British Medical Association, which has no vested
Column 1097interest in irradiated food. It is interested only in the health of the population. I am sure that the Minister will be well aware that the BMA said in the conclusion to its report :
"The Board believes that the current advice may not sufficiently take account of, still less exclude, possible long-term medical effects on the population."
If the BMA says that, we should listen. The non-scientists among us should bear that advice in mind.
We have heard that 35 countries allow food irradiation--125 do not. Of the 35 that do, only 21 use it, and in a trivial way, on very few foods ; less than 0.1 per cent. of the food eaten in those countries is irradiated. It is no great answer to our salmonella, listeria and botulism problems. On an international scale, food irradiation is trivial.
The Government should listen to what consumers are saying loud and clear. According to every survey, they are saying that they do not believe that food irradiation is safe and that they will choose not to buy irradiated food. The Government have had some green pretensions in the past year or so but, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said the other day, it is a case of talking green but acting dirty. That is happening with irradiated food. 11.24 pm
Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark) : This year there has been an unprecedented upsurge in interest in food matters by the media and others, including the anti-egg lobby, the anti-cook-chill lobby, and the plain sensational lobby. The housewife does not know where she stands. All food is in danger of having bacteria in it. Most food has bacteria in it. All food that is not cooked properly is a danger. We must avoid poisoning from bugs in food. No one in his right mind eats raw food. The Government can exhort the housewife to cook food properly and manufacturers can tell her how best to do it, but, if she ignores those common-sense instructions, there will be food poisoning and people will harm themselves and have tummy upsets to a greater or lesser extent.
Irradiation has the power to eliminate most problems, yet, somehow, people are being made to fear irradiation, even though the Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods has concluded that, subject to correctly applied doses, irradiation can be safe and food can remain wholesome. The House has heard from the Opposition that irradiation can make food look different.
Irradiation cannot make any difference to the look of food ; it just prolongs its useful life. Nor, as the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) claims, will it encourage sloppy standards. People will not say that, because food is irradiated, they need not bother to cook it properly. That is another bad argument against irradiation. Irradiation kills the bacteria and bugs that cause food poisoning, and it also prolongs shelf- life.
It must be stressed time and again that irradiation cannot make bad food good. In a few years, irradiation will be as acceptable as cook-chill is now. [Laughter.] Yes, cook-chill is acceptable, and so is microwave cooking. I am not suggesting that it is compulsory. My right hon. Friend has said that people will be told when food is irradiated and they will be able to make their own consumer choice. The British Poultry Federation, whose briefing has already been mentioned this evening, has made an
Column 1098interesting point. It says, "OK, we have spent a lot of money on improving our produce and on reassuring the consumer that our food is first class. If we are doing all this, why should we then have irradiation on top of it?" That is a fair point, but perhaps the federation will have to live with it. We need the two standards of food production : first, at production level and, secondly, to prolong food life by irradiation, as is now proposed.
My right hon. Friend must take cognisance of hon. Members' concern about the implementation of the EEC proposals. They cannot be implemented until all the safeguards that have rightly been announced are in place.
Those safeguards will be vital in ensuring consumer confidence. Clear labelling and absolute certainty that the levels are safe and are not in any way cumulatively poisonous will be essential. It is vital that the consumer is reassured that there will be no harmful side effects. The experts have let us down so often over the years in food and other matters that the housewife is entitled to that belt and braces reassurance. We need that double assurance, but, once we have it, we would be foolish to turn our back on the technique. The Government have a public relations job to do in that area, and in carrying out that task they will certainly have my support. 11.30 pm
It is important that we consider the views of the consumer who is reluctant to see the irradiation process introduced. I can be brief in giving the three reasons why I do not think that we should accept the directive and why we should not lift the ban. The first and most central one is that there is no way of detecting whether food has been irradiated. There is no way of checking on the process, which means that we cannot maintain effective controls. We do not know how many times food has been processed or whether it has been processed. Labelling is no use at all for consumers in restaurants, canteens or hospitals. How is the consumer at that level to know whether food has been irradiated? How are we in the House of Commons canteen to know? How are people in the Health Service to know, bearing in mind that the Health Service has rushed into cook-chill and accepted a weakening of its standards in that respect? The fact that there is no means of detection is one of the central arguments against accepting the directive.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : Does my hon. Friend agree that the public's perception of this will be that the Minister's cavalier attitude to public health and food hygiene and his slavish support for this directive amounts to the legalised contamination of our food?
My second point bears on that. I am satisfied with what the Minister said about the process being policed in this country, but I am not satisfied that it will be policed as effectively in all the other EEC countries or that the Commission will maintain an effective control. How are we to know what happens in Spain, with its well-known
Column 1099attitude to cooking oil? How are we to know that the process will be policed effectively in Greece or other countries?
My third point--again, it is a central point--is that the process will be used to disguise failure. The way to eliminate problems and to upgrade standards is by continuous improvements in inspection, control, regulations, and in the hygiene with which food is processed and treated. Irradiation is a way of disguising failure in those directions. I have outlined the way to improve things. Irradiation is a cheap and rather nasty alternative. On those grounds, we should support the amendment.
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly) : I begin by raising a procedural point with you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand that, under Standing Order No. 14, you are empowered not to put the Question that we are debating if you consider that the matter has not been properly debated.
We are debating a matter of considerable importance. Although I make no criticism of the three Front Bench spokesmen who made their cases, they took half the time available for the debate. Many hon. Members of all parties have been trying to speak but have been unable to do so. All hon. Members who have spoken have been reasonable and have made speeches of only two or three minutes in an attempt to ensure that the debate covers all the issues. However, most importantly, we have had an admission from the Minister that, whether or not the European Commission approves the document that we are being asked to take note of tonight, the Government intend to act unilaterally by legislation and to lift the ban on food irradiation in this country.
Therefore, I submit to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this is not an ordinary debate. It is not a take-note debate ; it is a major debate on a matter of major national importance. I shall submit to you at the close of my remarks the sincere request to consider not putting the Question that we are debating.
When the Minister opened the debate, he made much of the question of consumer choice. He presented the argument for irradiation as one that would assist consumers in making a choice as to whether they would wish to purchase irradiated food or not. I put it to the Minister that, if the freedom that he wants to extend to consumers is to be meaningful, people who are purchasing food must have the means to know whether that food has been irradiated or not. The central argument concerns the diagnostic test, which the Minister in his 15-minute address did not mention once, but which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). The Opposition would take a different view if we knew that there was a diagnostic test. If it was possible to test whether food had been irradiated or not, consumers would be given a meaningful choice. I put it to the Government that that originally was their view. Two years ago, I asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for his view on labelling : "Is it the Government's view that labelling will have to be introduced but that, to make such labelling effective, there will have to be a system of tests to allow for independent analysis of products which might or might not have been irradiated?"
Column 1100The Parliamentary Secretary replied :
"The hon. Gentleman has summed up all the difficulties that we presently have with regard to irradiation and people's fears of it. As he said, if we are to label products, there must be some way of testing whether irradiation has occurred."--[ Official Report, 22 October, 1987 ; Vol. 120, c. 906-7.]
That was the Government's view two years ago. What has happened since to persuade them to change their mind? Could it have been salmonella, the importation of rotten meat from Ireland, listeria, or the exposure of the deficiencies in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by the former Under-Secretary of State for Health? Something has happened to cause the Government to change their view. We have not heard one mention tonight of labelling. We will get instead a massive propaganda campaign at the public expense to try to persuade the public to accept irradiation.
The Minister and his colleagues may attempt to persuade the public. However, my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) and for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) in their expert
contributions--expert in the proper sense of the word--made it clear that the food industry is not convinced. We have heard that the British Poultry Federation, which represents all sectors of the poultry industry, is not prepared to countenance irradiation. Nor is the shellfish industry--the one industry that we are told is particularly appropriate for the use of irradiation. The campaign against irradiation has, in fact, been led by the prime exponent of modern techniques in preserving shellfish--Mr. Ken Bell from Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the chief executive of a company of international esteem. In 1979, he received the Queen's award for export achievement. His view on irradiation is this :
"Customers in Germany have actually told me that for them our promise never to sell irradiated products is a guarantee of their quality. In countries where food irradiation is legal, buyers and the consumer are unable to be sure whether the food they buy has been irradiated, or to know how it was contaminated in order to make irradiation necessary."
That was precisely the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Sheilds (Dr. Clark), and precisely the point that the Minister and his colleagues failed to address in the debate. We have heard supporting speeches from some of the Minister's friends, and we have heard the argument time and time again that "irradiation cannot make bad food good". That was the Minister's claim, and that was the parrot cry that came from Conservative Members. I have to tell those hon. Members, however, that the technology of irradiation is capable of precisely that. Conservative Members may not have the Indian Express, which is published in Bombay, on their daily list of required reading. I shall hand the Minister a copy of that paper dated 1 February 1989. If Conservative Members listen carefully they might learn something from one of its articles, which said :
"Nuclear proliferation has arrived in India : not through the fabrication of high-profile atomic warheads, but through more subtle means."
It stated that the Indian Government had approved the use of irradiation and the article continued :
"It was believed that the wastes from any town"--
"could meet part of its ruminant feed requirements from sewage sludge which had been suitably disinfected'."
The technology that the Government are prepared to legalise in this country is now being used in the Third
Column 1101world to disinfect human sludge to be recycled as animal feed. That is a case of technology going berserk. Tonight is also a case of the Government ignoring the dangers from BSE-- bovine spongiform encephalopathy--and from the other ways in which food can be contaminated.
The case for irradiation has not been proved. I put it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there is an overwhelming case on which you should rule tonight for this matter to be debated further. 11.40 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder) : Bacterial contamination of food by salmonella, campylobacter and listeria is an international problem. The Labour party's insinuation that it is confined to our shores or is more prevalent in Britain defies logic and merits mockery.
No panacea, no quick fix, to use the description deployed by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and no magic formula can remove the problem altogether. That is why it is imperative to tackle food poisoning through a range of measures used at every stage of the chain--and irradiation must be one weapon in our large armoury. Highly qualified scientists, men and women of great probity and distinction, drawn from the World Health Organisation, and from the Food and Agriculture Organisation firmly believe that food irradiation can help to reduce food poisoning by enhancing safety standards for poultrymeat, some shell fish and herbs and spices. Despite that, Labour Members have tried to argue that food irradiation is untested if not untried and, if not untested, is unsafe. Such claims are nonsense--minor triumphs of obliquity over reason.
There is nothing dangerously new about irradiation. Ionising radiation was first discovered in 1896 and its practical use was first pursued in 1921. Since then its value and safety have been checked and double checked by international scientists. They have confirmed the safety and wholesomeness of irradiated food and they have underlined its benefits to the consumer. The WHO, the FAO, the EC scientific committee on food and our Advisory Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods chaired by Sir Arnold Burgen, the master of Darwin college, Cambridge, have all reached the same conclusions. Their evaluations have already led 35 other countries, including the United States, Japan, Socialist France, Socialist Spain, Socialist Norway and Socialist New Zealand.
Mr. Ryder : All right, perhaps Socialist Cuba will do. Despite overwhelming international approval for irradiation, the dear old Labour party casts aspersions on its safety. It shuns not only the advice of scientists, but its Socialist brethren Governments abroad. I have a sneaking respect for the hon. Member for South Shields, but faced with the choice of accepting scientific advice on food safety from him or from the WHO, I opt for the latter. I fancy that if the Labour party was in power it would do the same.
The truth is that all the main international, reputable health agencies favour irradiation--35 countries permit it.
Column 1102Irradiation may already be used in Britain for hospital patients with suppressed immune systems, but I do not hear the Labour party complain about that.
The process will be strictly controlled by licences and inspections. Irradiated food will be properly labelled. Consumers will have the freedom to buy irradiated food and they will have the freedom not to buy it.
In a bid to embrace as many emotive expressions as possible, the Opposition have cobbled together an amendment which succeeds only in combining ignorance with blinding glimpses of the obvious. The amendment observes that irradiation
"exposes the consumer to chemical changes in food".
So what? Any method of processing food involves chemical changes. Simply heating food causes chemical changes. Does it expose the consumer to risks?
Contrary to what the Opposition appear to believe, chemical changes in food from irradiation are less than in other processes. I can only assume that the Labour party's ignorance on the subject is a voluntary misfortune. If it denies--