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15 Jan 2003 : Column 794—continued

7.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears): I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Crew and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) for raising this issue. As she has said, we have been in correspondence. It is important that we try to reflect on public health issues, how they are handled and how we get the right balances between openness and transparency while being sensitive to the important issues that she has raised about the local business in her constituency.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has given her deep and genuine support for measures that have been taken to protect public health in this country, and has

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acknowledged how important that process is. She makes the point that the actions of agencies in this sensitive area must be defended and have the consent and support of the public. They are more effective agencies if they have that backing from the community at large.

I hope to be able to address some of my hon. Friend's concerns. I am sure that at the end of what I have to say she will remain disturbed about the effect on the business in her constituency. However, I shall do my best to outline how the Food Standards Agency reached the decision that it did and the balance that it drew between a series of competing interests in this instance.

It is important to remember that this was a serious outbreak of infection. The Public Health Laboratory Service has described as unprecedented the series of outbreaks of salmonella infection that have taken place recently. Many of them have involved unusual strains of the bacterium, and many have shown an association with eggs.

Salmonella is a fairly serious infection. It causes diarrhoea, fever, vomiting and severe stomach pain lasting up to three weeks. In some cases it can cause peritonitis or blood poisoning, and occasionally it can be fatal. Almost 1,000 people have become ill in 18 recent outbreaks, and there have been at least two deaths. This is far above the normal reported levels of salmonella that we would expect.

The first evidence of a real problem emerged towards the end of September, with the reporting of an increased number of cases due to an unusual strain of salmonella, which was enteritidis type 14b. Cases initially occurred mainly in London and the south-east, with a cluster of cases in Basingstoke. However, within about a week, cases were beginning to be reported in the north-west, from the Sandbach area, around my hon. Friend's constituency. Local public health officials investigated that cluster of cases. They went to see the people who had been infected. They had with them a lengthy questionnaire. They asked people where they had recently bought products, what sort of products they had been eating and where they had travelled. They tried to obtain information about where the infections might be originating from.

The local public health officials who were carrying out the investigation identified products from two bakery chains as a common link between the cases. This was subsequently confirmed in a study carried out by the Public Health Laboratory Service.

The bakeries are in different parts of the country—one is in the south-east and the other is in the north-west—so investigations concentrated on what they had in common, which proved to be a common source of supply of eggs. When the bakeries were visited, it was discovered that both were using pasteurised eggs, as recommended, but both were also using ordinary shell eggs. In the bakery in the north-west—the one in my hon. Friend's constituency—fondant icing was being made with raw eggs. So in addition to clear evidence of people who ate products from the bakery becoming sick, there was also a clear risk that salmonella could be present in the fondant icing, because it was made from raw eggs. Advice was immediately given to the bakery that it should stop using raw eggs in this way, which it indeed followed. As my hon. Friend said, it co-operated with the environmental health office officials involved.

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After the bakery acted on that advice, there was a rapid fall in the number of cases occurring in the north-west, with an eventual total of 96 cases and one death owing to the outbreak.

The investigations highlighted a problem in the way in which commercial food businesses such as bakeries were using or handling eggs. They did not seem to be aware of the longstanding advice that raw eggs should not be used in foods that will not be cooked before being eaten, or that there is a risk of cross-contamination in kitchens where eggs are handled. As the investigation proceeded and eggs supplied to the businesses were tested, it became apparent that some of the eggs used had very high rates of salmonella contamination. The vast majority of those eggs, although not all of them, had come from Spain.

In view of my hon. Friend's tremendous personal support for public health issues, I am sure that she will agree that an outbreak such as this does require that action be taken swiftly by the Food Standards Agency. It has a remit to protect public health, and it was clear that public health was being seriously affected by these outbreaks. A picture emerged of a problem with food hygiene practice in the use of eggs, and with Spanish eggs in particular.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Forgive me—I know that I should not interrupt my hon. Friend. Is she about to tell me that the Spanish provider of these eggs has been prosecuted?

Ms Blears: No, and as I understand it, nor has the bakery in my hon. Friend's constituency. It has been given advice by the relevant officials, which it has followed.

The FSA has reiterated its advice to businesses through various press releases. It has raised the concern about Spanish eggs with its counterpart in Spain, and it has reported the matter to the European Commission. The FSA is not the body that would prosecute in these circumstances. It has also issued advice to egg importers and wholesalers that all Spanish eggs should be heat-treated before use. So action has been taken on the Spanish eggs that seem to have caused the problem.

On the naming of this bakery—Chatwins—it is my understanding that it was not in fact named in the press release that was issued by the FSA. I have been supplied with a copy of it, and it states:

It further states:

That is a fact, and the bakery has acknowledged that and has since changed its practice. However, neither bakery was named in that press release. My understanding is that, after the press release was issued, further inquiries were inevitably made by the media to try to find out where the companies were based. It was at that point that the FSA considered this matter carefully,

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and it decided that the interests of the individual businesses did not outweigh the public interest in making that information available to them.

I am told that that decision was not taken in a cavalier fashion, without regard to the interests of the businesses concerned; indeed, those interests were a very relevant consideration for the FSA. However, it does have a code of openness in terms of its operation. If my hon. Friend casts her mind back, she will remember that the FSA was established at a time when public trust in food production, manufacture and sale was almost at an all-time low. People were becoming increasingly concerned that they could not rely on the information that was available about their food. I understand that since the establishment of the Food Standards Agency, which has openness as a key plank of its operation, the proportion of the public who have confidence in information about their food has risen from about 25 per cent. to about 50 per cent. Some 50 per cent. now feel that they can rely on the food information that is provided by the FSA. Public confidence is very important and openness clearly plays a role in that respect. Equally, that needs to be weighed against the interests of businesses and commercial operations and the effect that statements could have on them.

I am informed that those considerations were taken into account at the highest level in the Food Standards Agency and that the decision was reached that the businesses would be named in response to further media inquiries. When they were named, however, the media were made well aware that each had co-operated fully with the Food Standards Agency and local environmental health officers. This was not a case in which a local business was seeking to avoid its responsibility, as was made clear at the time.

My hon. Friend has given us an opportunity to consider afresh some of the issues that she raised and to look at the way in which such decisions are made and the balance between the competing interests of openness and the commercial considerations of the businesses concerned, and I am grateful to her for doing so.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Is the Minister also considering the way in which the Food Standards Agency responded in this case? Will she issue guidelines stating that when a Member of Parliament writes to it about a matter, it should ensure that they get a proper and full response?

Ms Blears: I sign an awful lot of correspondence from the Food Standards Agency and it is certainly my experience that when Members of Parliament contact it, an immediate response is given. That usually happens through me, as I am accountable to Parliament for the agency's actions. In my experience, the issues raised by Members of Parliament are treated with seriousness and are certainly not dismissed. I would be very concerned if any Member of Parliament thought that the agency was not taking the matters that they raised extremely seriously indeed. As my hon. Friend said, Members of Parliament give agencies powers, so it is right that those agencies should respond properly, promptly and in considered detail to the issues that they raise. I shall certainly undertake to monitor that issue in my dealings with the agency.

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One aspect of the way in which the case was dealt with has caused me concern. I understand that the business was not informed by the Food Standards Agency that it could be named in response to the further inquiries. It was not named in the press release, but if there is to be openness for all the parties involved in such a case, people should be informed if that is likely to happen or if there is any such intention so that they are apprised of the full facts. In this case, as I understand it, it was only when the business contacted the FSA that it found out that it had been named. I think that the FSA may have a responsibility to be more proactive in letting people know how a case may pan out. I shall take up that issue with the agency.

My hon. Friend raised another important issue in saying that I had stated in my letter that negative tests do not necessarily show that there is no infection. I stand by that statement. I understand that microbiological samples are often taken some time after the contamination that led to an infection has occurred. If there is a time lapse, the microbiological evidence may well have come and gone by the time that samples are taken, so the fact that there are negative tests does not necessarily mean that a particular location was not the source of the contamination that led to the infection. I ask her to consider that the fact that the tests are negative does not automatically mean that there has been no infection. Certainly, the use of raw eggs at the bakery in products that were not going to be cooked was against longstanding Government advice, and I am delighted that the company has now changed its process.

The FSA has done everything that it can to reiterate its advice to food businesses. It is longstanding advice and it is important that all companies be made aware of it. The agency has produced a leaflet targeted at caterers and has produced 400,000 copies for distribution throughout the country, so it has certainly tried to ensure that it gets the message across in order to protect the public's health. The agency has a responsibility to consider the evidence and act appropriately. In this case, the evidence showed that raw eggs were not always being used or handled properly by caterers, and it may be too easy to forget that a raw egg poses a health risk, which is important particularly for vulnerable members of the community such as the elderly, pregnant women and young children.

In this case it was the genuine intention of the FSA to try to balance the competing interests of openness and transparency and of the business concerned. I understand that the business has followed the advice that was issued and that, happily, the infections have abated considerably. This was an important matter and I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the issue in Parliament in the way that she has. I undertake to consider the points that she has made to see if there is any more general application in this case.

Question put and agreed to.

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