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Confectionery Safety

12.30 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this important issue and to reflect the concerns of medical and safety experts and, not least, the families whose children have suffered because of the intrinsic dangers of sweets containing toys or small objects in component form. In so doing, I pay tribute to all who have campaigned for so long to bring the matter to the attention of the Government, the industry and the general public. In particular, I should like to mention the activities of constituents and others who have drawn the subject to my attention and taken the time and effort to brief me so carefully.

I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) and the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson), who have raised concerns about the implication of the sale of those products. Some of them have direct knowledge of the sad events surrounding the death of their constituents' children. Recently, Lord Colwyn, an eminent physician, has made known his concern. I hope that he will not mind my quoting from his letter to the Secretary of State for Health in which he stated:

I wish to bring to your attention today, Madam Deputy Speaker, the history of choking incidents in this country and elsewhere in Europe, which are well documented and some of which have resulted in fatalities. Feeling is now so strong that some countries in Europe have introduced restrictions on the sale of the sweets and others are considering doing so. They have been banned in the United States on safety grounds for many years. I ask whether we are doing enough in this country to draw attention to the dangers of the sweets, whether we should seek a tougher regulatory framework based on more explicit knowledge of what has transpired, and how we should monitor and record incidents of children who are taken to accident and emergency departments after swallowing embedded objects.

What we are discussing can best be demonstrated by holding up an example of the Kinder Surprise egg, which is on sale in almost every sweet shop, supermarket and garage. Each egg contains a small toy inside a plastic capsule. They are, understandably, very popular

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with young children. Not only is there the natural attraction of the chocolate, but the object within it is equally responsible for their popularity with children and makes the products more attractive than ever. That may not be a problem with older children, but the products are also aimed at very young children who do not know that they should not put the objects in their mouths. Retailers have seen children open the eggs with their teeth. The toy inside most of the products is in very small pieces and easy to swallow and, in the view of the country's leading experts, can easily cause a child to choke. Is this not, both in theory and in practice, very dangerous? If, as I believe, it is dangerous, we as adults should, by adopting a precautionary principle, draw attention to these products and seek to regulate them more carefully, in the hope that they are withdrawn from sale or that much improved alternatives are introduced to replace them.

I am particulary keen, as I said, to highlight the role of the accident and emergency units, as they handled all the heart-rending stories that I want to refer to. I in no way criticise their fine work, but the Department of Trade and Industry has always claimed that the home accident surveillance system, which depends on returns by A and E departments, is as accurate as possible. However, many campaigners feel that cases sometimes go unreported.

The three cases where fatalities occurred have now been well documented and reported. Jennifer Ashton from Birmingham choked on part of a Kinder egg. She was three, and I know her mother is here today. Roddy Breslin from Omagh died after putting the capsule from a Kinder egg in his mouth. He was three. Caren Day from Sheffield died choking on parts of a Chupa Chups egg. She was four. So that you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, how strongly these families feel about the issue, I shall quote from the letter sent to me by Mrs. Ashton. She said:

That is the clearest and starkest evidence of the problems that can be caused by these sweets. Unfortunately, they and similar sweets are still on sale today. To its credit, Nestle withdrew its product following safety concerns, and other manufacturers have either refused to sell such items or have produced better alternatives, as I hope to explain. Clearly, there has been a sustained and vigorous campaign to draw attention to what is wrong by, among others, the Consumers Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

Manufacturers who continue to sell such sweets react by claiming that they warn children by printing safety warnings on the wrapper. However, children as young as two or three will not be able to read, let alone understand, what the wrappers are saying. Indeed, there is an argument that such wrappers fail the Department of Trade and Industry's 1990 guidelines on safety

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labelling. It is claimed that millions of eggs are sold each year, yet there have been only three "incidents" in recent times. I call a death something more than an incident: one is one too many if we can avoid this risk.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): My hon. Friend is to be congratulated on raising this issue again before the House. He refers to RoSPA's interest in the case. I understand that RoSPA believes that the Department of Trade and Industry accident reporting system significantly under-reports such incidents. Will my hon. Friend also comment on the views of Professor David Jenkins, the product safety consultant to RoSPA? He says:

Madam Deputy Speaker : Order, Interventions must be brief.

Mr. Drew : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. As I build the case, I shall concur with his arguments, perhaps using evidence from different people.

I shall go through each of my four arguments quickly, because of the time. First, I want to look at what has been happening in Europe and consider the implications for us in the United Kingdom. It is fair to say that there has been a flurry of activity in recent times. As I have said, such products have long been banned in the United States, where any adulterated food is unacceptable. An interesting aside is the way in which the American authorities reacted to the Nestle product, which was introduced in the early 1990s in the form of a chocolate magic ball with a toy inside it. After the threat of legal action, Nestle withdrew the product from the marketplace in 1997 and subsequently removed it from all European countries, including the UK. Comparisons identify the marked difference in attitude between the United States and Europe, but, as a result of new investigation and re-examination of incident levels, there is now a shift in emphasis here.

Research from Professor Petridou of Athens university suggested that there could be as many as 2,000 choking accidents annually in Europe. I am not alleging that all are serious, let alone fatal. However, that is a staggering and worrying figure. Subsequent research by the Humboldt university in Berlin suggested that the problem was significant. Of 34 serious cases of choking reported in German hospitals or children's clinics, 31 were from these types of egg.

As a result of unease, other European Governments have started to take action. In Greece, the Ministry of Commerce produced a law protecting children as consumers with an article 10, which prevents the placing of an inedible item within foodstuffs. Portugal and

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Belgium are following in train. The French have also launched a major investigation into the safety of foods containing inedibles.

There is a move towards increased control at EU level. I speak in glowing terms of the work of the MEP, Phillip Whitehead, who presented a petition to the European Parliament on behalf of the parents of the children who died. The Commission has now drawn attention to the dangers of these products and invited member states to take appropriate action to restrict their circulation in the interests of safety. There is an obligation under directive 92/59/EEC to take all necessary measures to guarantee that all products put on the market are safe, and there is also directive 88/378/EEC on the safety of toys, including the proscription of certain unsuitable ones for under-threes. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade will be aware of the strong press campaign in this country and abroad to highlight the dangers from these products and to urge Governments to take appropriate action.

May I deal briefly with the accusation that I am over-reacting and advocating a nanny state approach. My response is simple. All the statistics demonstrate that children have choked on coins, pen tops, keys and ring pulls as well as a variety of other objects over recent times, but the difference is that those are accidents, whereas these sweets knowingly encourage children to place the object in their mouth. Obviously I do not allege that manufaturers want children to choke--that would be irresponsible and unfair--but it is pernicious to take risks with children which can and should be avoided. The issue is black and white, and the case for safety is irrefutable.

I wish to deal with the manufacturers' response. In a nutshell, those who continue to sell these items have taken two approaches. First, they refute the dangers, arguing that out of billions of eggs sold over the years, only an infinitesimal number of incidents have occurred. Secondly, where problems did arise, without accepting liability they changed the design and posted clearer warnings. They have nevertheless been rather impervious to the criticisms of those campaigning against the products.

I do not want to dwell on it, but, rather than admitting responsibility, there has been a marked reluctance to accept any blame by some manufacturers. Worse, I have evidence that Ferrero Ltd., the owner of Kinder Surprise eggs, have sought to avoid taking blame by refusing to acknowledge the rights of families, campaigners--and perhaps even the Government--to bring the issues into the public domain. I hope that today's debate will help to overcome that.

A press conference that was to have taken place at the House of Commons in March 1998, sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston--it is good to see her here--and by the hon. Member for West Tyrone was cancelled at the instigation of the Biscuit, Cake, Confectionary and Chocolate Alliance on the promise of objective research being undertaken. Unfortunately, nothing has transpired since that cancellation.

On the positive side, it is pleasing to say that Nestle was not the only manufacturer which chose not to continue with similar products. I have with me a Cadbury's Yowie egg and hon. Members will immediately see the difference: it is a much bigger egg

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and it contains embedded materials in a much safer way--proof that other firms such as Cadbury's, which produces the Yowie egg, can deal with the issue and still keep a market share.

Lastly, there is the role of Government. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not mind if I briefly present what I take to be the Department's current position. I am sure that he will come back to me if I am wrong or if I parody it in any way. The DTI claims that product safety regulations offer adequate protection despite the fact that the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, whose members wanted to get these products suspended after the death of Jennifer Ashton, said that the law is unenforceable. It believes that there is insufficient evidence. Referring to the survey on the home accident surveillance system data, it saw more of a threat from other items that children choke upon, as has already been mentioned, some of which may be passed on by older siblings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) said in an answer to Phillip Whitehead:

I have read the report commissioned by the DTI entitled "Choking Risks to Children". This undertakes a study not just of HASS, but of the leisure accidents surveillance system, and includes evidence from the home accidents deaths database. In downgrading the threat there was none the less recognition that redesigning the cylinders and extending the present regulations would reduce the number of accidents. I hope that my hon. Friend will not mind my saying that there was concern at exactly what was being recorded and analysed. I ask him together with his Department of Health colleagues to re-examine the mechanism for recording to make sure that all results are obtained and in sufficient detail to ensure that we get an accurate picture. I am aware that that puts additional responsibilities on accident and emergency departments, but this is such an important issue that it must be got right.

In conclusion, I ask for five issues to be addressed by the Minister of Trade today. First, will the Government launch a campaign to warn parents about the intrinsic dangers in buying small eggs and similar confectionery products? Larger capsules and one-piece toys are much safer. Secondly, will they require manufacturers to increase the size of the capsule so that it cannot be swallowed? Small parts that fail to meet that requirement should be banned. Thirdly, will they recognise that the precedent was set with the action to deal with the problem of pen tops? This issue requires similar urgent action. Fourthly, will they consider making manufacturers package toys separately so that

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their container does not entice children to put them in their mouths because of the smell of chocolate? Lastly, will they work with EU partners to ensure that action taken can be enforced across the Community, building on existing directives? If that is achieved, further lives will not be lost and we will at least have proved that lessons have been learnt.

12.48 pm

The Minister of State for Trade (Mr. Richard Caborn): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on being selected for this short, private Member's debate. As usual, he has made a thought-provoking speech. I listened carefully to the many important points he made and there were more than I can hope to address in the relatively short period remaining. I therefore want to invite my hon. Friend and those who have campaigned with him to come and sit down with my officials so that the issues can receive proper attention. Quite a lot of information that has been given to the House today deserves further attention.

My hon. Friend also referred to concerns in the European Union and to action proposed and taken by other European countries. These issues have been raised in Europe recently, although the Commission concluded that, on current evidence, there was no concern about the safety of those types of products. Therefore, I would greatly welcome any evidence and statistics that the group could bring to the meeting that I have proposed. I hope that my suggestion will be taken up. After our Department's review of any evidence, we shall ensure that it is passed on to the European Commission.

Before coming to the specific issue of the safety of toys and small objects in confectionery, I will say a few words about toy safety in general. Obviously we are considering the safety of extremely vulnerable consumers--children. What is less obvious and less easy to assess is how best to ensure their safety. Children develop and learn through exploration, and their age and lack of experience makes them fearless when a little fear could do some good. It is the responsibility of adults to ensure that children's environment is such that exploration is as hazard-free as possible, because childhood is not a risk-free experience. It is not easy to draw the line to ensure that children are as safe as possible without putting undue restrictions on their opportunities to explore, learn and have fun. Views on how that line should be drawn differ among parents and carers alike.

We need to consider the issues against the background of small toys in confectionery. As my hon. Friend said, chocolate eggs sometimes contain toys. Indeed they are probably the most well-known example in the United Kingdom of confectionery containing toys. The eggs generally contain a plastic capsule, although in one instance the capsule itself was chocolate-coated. In fact, the capsule is wholly separate--detached--from the chocolate egg. The capsule holds various small plastic pieces which, when assembled, make up the toy. The toy, like all toys sold in the UK, must comply with the stringent requirements of the Toy Safety Regulations 1995. Such toys have small parts, so, in accordance with the regulations, the product is labelled to indicate that is unsuitable for children under three.

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I will give a little more of the background to the regulating of safety in this area. The toy regulations state that toys and their component parts, and any detachable parts of them, must, if intended for use by children under 36 months, be of such dimensions as to prevent their being swallowed or inhaled. Toys and their parts and packaging must not contain a risk of suffocation or strangulation. Toys that might be dangerous to children under the age of 36 months must, unless manifestly unsuitable for small children, bear a warning that they are not suitable for them.

The European toy standard EN71, which is published in the UK as a British standard, contains a cylinder test, as my hon. Friend said. Any toy or detachable part that is in the cylinder could pose a choking hazard for young children, and must not be included in toys for children under three.

In considering the issue during the long time that it has been under discussion, it has struck me that people often begin from the assumption that the way in which the toy is supplied--that is to say, with chocolate--increases the risk to children. Is this so? I question that assumption and suggest that a better approach would be to consider it on a case-by-case basis.

In the United Kingdom, three children have died in the past 15 years in incidents involving chocolate eggs: two two-year-olds choked on small parts in the toy and a four-year-old suffocated on the capsule--three too many deaths. They rightly prompted a searching look at the policy on such toys. In addressing that, we must examine how these tragic events occurred, to enable us to prevent such deaths in future. We must consider to what extent the presence, or absence, of the confectionery was material to the accidents, and whether they would have been avoided if the original packaging had been more conventional.

Some might argue that a child could inadvertently swallow the contents of the egg while eating the edible parts, unaware of the presence of the contents. However, in the case of products such as chocolate eggs, that would be highly unlikely. The popularity of those products lies precisely in the toy surprise content. The cost of the product reflects the additional value over a simple chocolate egg, highlighting the dual purpose of the product at the point of purchase. Children will be aware of, and actively looking for, the contents. And there is no evidence to support the assertion that the smell of chocolate migrates to the toy, so that the child believes that it, too, is chocolate and so puts it in his mouth.

Choking hazards are an important safety consideration and the DTI has undertaken research on choking incidents involving small children. That research provides no evidence to suggest that toys marketed in this way pose a greater risk to children than other toys, a view shared by the European Commission, which looks at the adequacy of safety measures in Europe.

If, as the evidence suggests, safety risks arise from the nature of the toy itself, we must treat the toy--whether

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it comes from a chocolate egg, a cracker or from conventional wrapping--in the same manner. Children will not make the distinction and nor should we. If a toy sold in a chocolate egg presents no greater choking hazard than toys of a similar size sold by toy manufacturers, it should be subject to the same requirements. If there is a problem, it needs to be addressed for all small toys, not just those sold with confectionery.

The younger the child, the greater the risk from choking. Children under three are at greatest risk since their coughing and swallowing reflexes are less well developed. Indeed, the statistics show that choking incidents diminish significantly for the over-threes. The vulnerability of a child under three is exacerbated by the fact that small children are most likely to put things in their mouth. In particular, children under 12 months, when sight and touch is not so well developed, will learn about objects in their environment by "feeling" them in their mouths.

Many small objects, of which small toys are only a tiny category, present a potential choking hazard to small children. Young children will put or attempt to put anything and everything in their mouth. Unfortunately, as I have mentioned, these young children are least able to deal with any items that they may accidentally inhale. Parents and carers in this country are well aware--not least because of the reinforced message required by our regulations--that small children should not be left alone with small objects, whether toys or other items, nearby. Of course, it must be recognised that once small toys and toys with small parts are brought into the home for older children, there is a possibility that they might get into the hands of younger siblings, which must be guarded against.

The brand leader in the UK toy confectionery market has been on the market since 1973. Since 1972, it has sold 19 billion eggs worldwide. In the year to the end of August 1999, total sales in Europe were 1.3 billion. In the UK, 51 million were sold that year. There is no doubt that such products are in demand and are extremely popular. They bring pleasure to many children each year.

The DTI has been aware of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, and has kept the issue under review for some time. It has looked at the circumstances of choking injuries and deaths involving toys and children under four and has considered information published in various papers. Most recently, it has commissioned research on accident data collected by the United Kingdom's home accident surveillance and home accident death databases. The outcome of that research on choking hazards establishes that the main causes of choking in under-threes are sweets, coins and food. The most recent statistics available indicate that around 6 per cent. of non-fatal choking incidents and around 4 per cent. of fatal incidents involve toys. The most common toys that cause choking are small parts from construction kits, games, soft toys and marbles. The European Commission has considered the issue on several occasions and also concluded that there are few data to suggest a problem.

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Although it has been stated in some quarters that such toys sold with confectionery have been involved in seven deaths, inquiries by the DTI have not been able to confirm that figure and it is aware of three deaths. It has been suggested in the past that information on choking incidents had not been collected accurately. I want to be certain about the statistics. We shall go through them again at the meeting. If a responsible organisation such as RoSPA challenges them, I want to ensure that the data are accepted by all parties to the discussion.

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I know that I have not been able to cover all the ground in the short time available. I should like to invite my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and people in the campaign to the Department to sit round the table with my officials, who are more than willing to share all the evidence. We do not want another death, but we must also ensure that we do not inhibit young people from learning and developing their character.

Question put and agreed to.

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