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Column 1048offered to distribute our information notes to the small and medium-sized businesses that their officers visit. It will mean that awareness of the problem will become widespread.
We are keeping in close touch with all those contacts so that we can, in the near future, assess the results of the initiative.
Dr. Lynne Jones : Although the efforts by the food industry are commendable, as are the efforts to publicise problems with peanut and other allergies, has the Minister had discussions with the British Medical Association which says categorically there should be mandatory food labelling in this area ?
Mr. Soames : I personally have not had discussions with the BMA, but the Department of Health and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are in constant touch with all the relevant bodies that we consult as a matter of course. I am sure that they have talked to the BMA, but I shall let the hon. Lady know the nature of any substantial discussions we may have had.
As I have said, we shall keep in close touch with all whom we have consulted to ensure that we follow up our initiative. We are also acting on many other matters. We are funding research, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough has already mentioned--particularly that led by Professor Warner. We are producing information for consumers, including an excellent booklet--to be published in April--which will advise people on how to deal with food allergies : it refers to nut allergy in some detail. We are collaborating with allergy experts to produce better information for sufferers, particularly on how they can use food labels to avoid problem products.
We are also issuing updated guidance to general practitioners. That is one of the most important things that have emerged from consultation with families--and one of the most important things impressed on me by David Reading, of the anaphylaxis group, was the vital necessity of ensuring that when doctors see a patient suffering from such a reaction, they can identify it. Thank God, in the case of Jessica Hammond there was a doctor to hand, who knew what he was dealing with.
It is not the doctors' fault that they are expected to know everything about everything. I think that we owe it to them, and to all sufferers, to ensure that the symptoms of anaphylaxis are immediately available to doctors as part of their training and on-going knowledge. I assure the hon. Member for Selly Oak that the Department of Health has taken steps to ensure that doctors have that information at their fingertips, through its excellent system for disseminating such information.
We are issuing guidance to other health professionals as well, to raise their awareness of these allergies and of the appropriate treatment for people who may be at risk from anaphylactic shock. We are consulting the Food Advisory Committee, which advises the Government independently on such matters and which will consider the issue next month. I know that many of the groups that have made representations to the Government have also made submissions to the Food Advisory Committee, and I very much hope that that includes the anaphylaxis group. I saw the group last week, and I know that it was going to make a submission ; I hope that it did so earlier this week.
The complicated issue of labelling is at the heart of the debate. The labelling of pre-packed foodstuffs is already
Column 1049extremely comprehensive : as a general rule, if peanuts are an ingredient they should appear on the label. However, there are one or two exceptions--stemming from the EC directive on food labelling--which might mean that the peanut component is not properly identified. We should like those exemptions to be removed or considerably reduced ; last year, we vigorously argued the case for such action at two meetings with our European Union partners.
I regret to say that we have not made much progress so far, but there are signs that an agreement to list specified food allergens whenever they are added to food--even when they might have qualified for exemption--may be possible. We shall support such a change, but achieving it may take a considerable time. I have warned those who have been to see me ; it is important for hon. Members on both sides of the House not to delude themselves about the time that it may take us to reach a conclusion.
I must consider very carefully how far we should get ahead of the rest of the Community. If we took unilateral action, we would come under pressure not to apply our new rules to imports from other member states. As the origin of pre-packed products is not always stated on labels, there would be a risk of misleading consumers into thinking that all products on the retail shelves were subject to the same rules, whether they were or not-- with potentially disastrous consequences for people in the difficult position that we are discussing. That would be very dangerous and unsatisfactory for some people, which is why better
Column 1050co-ordinated action by the Community is so much more worth while. Indeed, such action is essential, and we shall press for it. So far, I have dealt with pre-packed foods. Let me now deal briefly with foods that are sold loose : for example, cakes and baked products sold in bakers' shops, and foods sold in catering outlets. The hand of labelling legislation falls lightly in those sectors and for good reason. First, intending purchasers can ask for information from shop assistants and waiters. Secondly, imposing full labelling rules on what are often small businesses would place an unproportionately heavy burden on them. Thirdly, there is the simple and practical problem that notices can become separated from the foods to which they apply. We have spoken to experts in the catering sector and their advice has been that, although there is scope for greater awareness and information availability in catering outlets, detailed labelling is simply not practical.
As I have said, the Food Advisory Committee will look at these issues further in April and we shall not hesitate to consider with care, as we always do, the advice that it gives.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough has done a signal service in a measured and dignified way. This is a highly emotive and difficult issue which causes untold anxiety and great worry to rather more people than any of us had any idea about. My hon. Friend has done an important service and I want to assure him that the Government are thoroughly committed to trying to find a sensible, pragmatic and workable way in which we can make life easier for these people.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock.
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