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Session 2002 - 03
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Food Supplements (England) Regulations 2003

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Second Standing Committee

on Delegated Legislation

Thursday 3 July 2003

[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Food Supplements

(England) Regulations 2003

2.30 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. You may be aware that since their original appointment to the Committee, at least two Labour Members have been removed against their wishes because they said that they would support the prayer against the directive. Do you have the ability to make representations through the Chairmen's Panel about the propriety of such action? Do you know of rules that might show the Government that such behaviour is unacceptable, particularly as this issue is of fundamental importance to so many people?

The Chairman: I have heard the hon. Gentleman's point of order, which, technically, probably was not one. There is nothing that I can do about such a situation; such moves are made through the usual channels. The hon. Gentleman has made his point and I can only say that the Minister can discuss it further in the Whips Office, if she so wishes.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Further to that point of order, Mr. Griffiths. I understand fully that you can do nothing formally, but will you express your concern to the Government at their yet again showing another example of their jackboot approach and determination to stamp on this place and parliamentary democracy, if any hon. Members so much as say that they have doubts about the Government's dictatorial attitude? Will you ask the Government to return to a belief in democracy and to behave themselves?

The Chairman: I was out of order myself in allowing a point of order further to a point of order, which I said was not one really. We shall end the debate. The matter has been aired.

Chris Grayling: I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the Food Supplements (England) Regulations 2003 (S.I. 1387, No. 1387).

I welcome you to the Chair this afternoon, Mr. Griffiths. The debate that we are about to have is extremely important. The regulations are being monitored outside this place by thousands of people throughout the country, who have signed petitions and have made seemingly endless representations to hon. Members and Ministers, and whose views, as of today, are not being listened to. Not only that, their views are being treated with complete contempt and disdain by the Government and the Labour party, with some honourable exceptions.

The Committee will recall that, when the matter was brought to the Floor of the House in January through early-day motion 278 , which was signed by 220 hon. Members, not one Labour Member who had signed the early-day motion was willing to back the

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issue when it came to the House. Their words were empty. It is tragic that the directive will have a significant impact on patients, businesses and a significant sector of our society and economy. That should not be allowed to happen.

The directive sets out an officially approved list of nutrients. In future, the European Commission will be allowed to add foodstuffs. It will lead to the harmonisation of vitamin levels in the tablets that we can buy from health food shops and supermarkets. The travesty is that, of the products currently on sale in this country, nearly 300 nutritional sources and nutrients have been excluded from the approved list. That matter, combined with the likely developments over the maximum permitted level for nutrients in vitamin tablets, which is to be decided over the next few months and years, forms the heart of the dispute and the reason for the prayer. It represents one last chance—I emphasise that—for the House to express its will.

We should be sending out a message that we will not accept overbearing, unnecessary regulations from Brussels that force businesses to abandon their products for no good reason and deny our people the freedom of choice that they have a right to expect. Given what has happened to the structure of the Government side of the Committee, however, I fear that that will not be the case.

I accept that the Minister is new to her role and that she has undoubtedly taken over a poisoned chalice from her predecessors. However, she has a responsibility to get things right and not to make the sort of damaging, misleading statements that she made to the House on Tuesday. During Health questions the Minister said:

    ''The point is that we have negotiated the best possible deal with other European member states, and we have a long lead-in for some of the changes. Many issues have yet to be decided, and I think that we all agree that the only reason to ban any supplements is, effectively, that they are unsafe . . . Well, that is the Government's ground for taking action, and on the basis of evidence.''—[Official Report, 1 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 160.]

Let me start by issuing a direct challenge to the Minister. Can she name one item on that list of almost 300 substances that is unsafe? Can she tell us what evidence there is to reinforce that statement and what steps she is taking to remove that substance from the shelves immediately? The hon. Lady is silent.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Miss Melanie Johnson): I am not proposing to advance a coherent argument in response to the hon. Gentleman's position, because it would be far better to have the arguments set out generally before responding in detail to the points that he is making. I have a great deal to say about many of them, not only the last issue. There is no point in selecting individual points to reply to. I will not respond to a challenge thrown down to oblige me to argue a position.

Chris Grayling: My challenge to the Minister remains on the table throughout the debate to name one product on the list for which there is scientific evidence to suggest that it is unsafe and to tell us when it will be taken off the shelves. If unsafe products are

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on the shelves in this country, they should be removed immediately. The Government demonstrated, through their actions over kava-kava, that they can do that. If products are unsafe, we should not be waiting until 2005 or 2009; they should be removed tomorrow.

In reality, the products are not unsafe. The policy is all about harmonisation, not about public health. There is no evidence of a significant health problem in respect of supplements. It remains the case that we are vastly more likely to suffer significant adverse health effects from a conventional regulated, tested, prescribed drug than from a food supplement. I have been reading the legislation that went through Congress, which provided a regulatory framework for supplements in the United States. Its tone is markedly different from ours. It is as deregulatory as possible, and it is encouraging and supportive of the supplements industry. The same cannot be said for what is happening in Europe.

The Minister talks about medical evidence, but if we look at the Government's regulatory impact assessment, it states that there is no UK system for recording adverse reactions to food supplements, so on what evidence are the arguments based? More to the point, when the assessment considers the balance between the benefits that the regulations would deliver and the potential cost of doing so, it states that

    ''In order for this option to break even (and therefore surpass the option of doing nothing) adverse reactions would need to be ten fold greater than those levels currently reported.''

That is ten cases per year—not many, compared with the impact of other drugs on human health. The truth is that patients will not gain from the action; many of them will lose. Nearly 300 supplements are listed, but there have been debates about the number. In January the Minister's predecessor was challenged in a debate on the exact number. There is a question about whether the final number of supplements that will not have a future is 270 or 285 from the list of 300, but that is neither here nor there. The point is that the number of supplements that will disappear from our shelves is getting on for 300.

People swear by those products and use them to treat osteoporosis, myalgic encephalomyelitis, digestive disorders, stress and bronchitis. They will lose the right to buy those products and that makes them furious. I looked through the e-mails that I received on the subject. I received one this morning that says:

    ''PLEASE vote against the food supplements directive being taken into law in the UK. Food supplements have made a huge difference to the health of my family. We no longer need medication for asthma, eczema, migraine, arthritic pain and more. We have saved NHS money by taking control of our own health. Please help us keep this right.''

Particularly poignant was the letter sent to the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) from the director of a small company. Having described some of the business issues in relation to one product, magnesium ascorbate, he says:

    ''My personal reason for highlighting magnesium ascorbate is that just under three years ago, one of my children, 23 year old Edward, was diagnosed as having stage 3 Hodgkins Disease. He commenced a course of chemotherapy, accompanied by a number of complementary regimes (all under medical supervision). He was

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    unfortunately highly sensitised to the chemotherapy, and terminated the treatment on the basis—endorsed by his oncologist—that it was killing him.

    He continued with a number of complementary therapies, a key one being 25 grams a day of magnesium ascorbate which he took daily for several months. For the past year, he has been without detectable disease.''

Such patients will lose as a result of the regulations.

The only way for the products to remain legal is for the manufacturers to submit a complex dossier to a special committee at a cost of many thousands of pounds. The industry says that in most cases it simply cannot afford to do that. The economics do not add up. The Government admitted in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) last year that the initial estimate for the cost of putting together a dossier ranged between £80,000 and £250,000 per product. Even at the lower end of that estimate, we are talking about a cost to the industry of £24 million to register all those products.

There is also the matter of the maximum permitted levels of nutrients, particularly in vitamin tablets. We have tended to take much higher doses of vitamins than those in other countries. For example, the fizzy vitamin C tablet that someone might take in a glass of water during the winter if they had a cold might contain 500 or 1,000 mg of vitamin C, but in Italy the tablets would contain a much lower level—perhaps 100 mg. We can now expect a maximum level to be set by the European Commission and its scientific advisers, and that will be not a safety decision, but a harmonisation decision. There will be one flat level across Europe, under which perhaps 180 mg of vitamin C will be permissible. There is no suggestion that the higher level is not safe; the change will simply ensure that there are harmonised levels across Europe. All the tablets currently on the shelves in the UK will have to be taken off.

I recently went to my local heath store, Holland & Barrett in Epsom town centre. We walked up aisle after aisle of products that will disappear as a result of what is happening today. I have been given a list of them. I could go on endlessly: ABC Plus 100s, ABC Plus 250s, ABC Plus 500s, ABC Plus Senior, Megavitamins for Seniors, Holland & Barrett Radience Multivitamins, Mega Vita Gel, chewable multivitamins—the list goes on and on. All those products will have to be reconstituted and will disappear from the shelves in their current form as a result of the measure.

Of course, the industry will have to meet the cost of that work, even though there is no suggestion that the products are unsafe. Could the Minister tell me which of the vitamin tablets on sale that will have to be reformulated under the measure are unsafe? The Minister is silent again, but I suspect that the answer, when we hear from her later, will be that they are not unsafe.

Why are we allowing laws imposed by the European Commission to take from people in this country the choice that they have freely exercised for years? The Government have persistently put up smokescreens, saying, ''It's not going to have that much impact. It is

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all under control. The dossier is a relatively simple process.'' The reality, however, is that the industry has confirmed that it cannot afford to do the things that the Government expect it to do.

Holland and Barrett sent a letter to the Minister after the previous debate, which said that the

    ''industry is only working on around 15 such dossiers. Originally, we had hoped that 30 would be in preparation by this stage . . . However, several companies working on dossiers have now abandoned the project because the costs are prohibitive, particularly in those cases where clinical trials would need to be commissioned.''

The reality is that nearly 285 ingredients—not 270—will be lost. It continues: ''the cost of reformulation'' and replacing all the multi-vitamin tablets

    ''is not a minor issue as perhaps''

the Minister's

    ''advisers have suggested. It is substantial, particularly when it affects the majority of our product range.''

It is startling that it does affect the majority of products. I do not know whether the Minister has visited a health store and seen the products that will have to be reformulated and will disappear as a result of the regulations. If she has not, I urge her to do that, because it is striking. Those of us who have visited health stores—I am sure that includes Government Members—have seen, to our disbelief, how many legal, safe products that are available to the public today will be removed from the shelves by an ill-thought-out European directive.

It is clear that the Government have not looked after UK interests. They refer in written answers and statements to a best achievable deal. I read a written answer last night that talked about their pressing for an urgent meeting with the European authorities on the issue of the maximum level of nutrients in vitamin tablets. Why are they pressing for an urgent meeting? Why did not those discussions take place months ago? Why have the Government not sorted things out? Why have they not looked after the future interests of our producers and patients—those who choose to buy such products?

 
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