Food Supplements (England) Regulations 2003

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Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): My hon. Friend is putting together an excellent case, of which I was apprised this week when many of my constituents contacted me. The tragedy is that the products will no longer be available in health stores in the UK. People who want to buy them will go on the internet and order them from America. A whole business sector in the UK economy will be lost.

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is correct. That will also expose UK consumers who seek to buy nutrients to the risk of obtaining them from unsafe sources on the internet. That may have a negative, not positive, effect on health.

My view and that of my hon. Friends is that people and businesses in the UK are being sold down the river by the directive. It is surely possible to negotiate a position in which a product that is sold legally in the UK can continue to be sold here. If we need a regulation that we cannot export it overseas—that it is

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for the UK only—so be it. Is it necessary, in order to achieve European harmonisation, to say to producers, ''You may not legally sell the products in future that you are selling safely today, unless you spend thousands of pounds to secure the right to do so''? That is a breach of a fundamental right.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): The hon. Gentleman has obviously studied the matter—I can tell that from reading the debate in the House in which he took part. Has he any thoughts about how the directive came about? Does he think that there may have been pressure from the pharmaceutical industry wanting to limit the market to itself, thus removing an independent, popular sector from the shelves?

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman knows that there are always interest groups involved in processes, and that those have particular perspectives. I am more concerned that the European authorities, and those in the UK, appear to be walking away from the principle of ''innocent until proved guilty''. I assume that the products in question are guilty until proved innocent.

I ask the Minister to withdraw the regulations. She is new to the job and has not had time to get to grips with the issues. There is work to be done to reduce the impact of the directive. It need not happen today. She should take it away for a few months. If we were in another European country, such as France, we would not be rushing the regulations through—not if it were directly against the interests of French companies. We would be doing our damnedest to fight to ensure that the directive did not have that impact and to delay it for as long as possible.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): My hon. Friend makes an important point. If the Government are pressing for an urgent meeting with people across the channel to discuss the matter further, surely it makes logical sense not to implement the directive until the meeting has taken place, discussions have occurred and we know the outcome. Otherwise, why stress the fact that the meeting will take place?

Chris Grayling: I endorse that view. I hope that the Minister will take away with her from the debate the wish of the Committee—I hope that Members on both sides will express this wish—that the Government reopen negotiations with the Commission about ways to add to the permitted list. The Government should insist that maximum permitted levels for nutrients in vitamin tablets are based 100 per cent. on safety, and not on the need to harmonise with other countries. They should explore ways of amending the regulations so that UK products can be sold in the UK subject to the current rules and so that products that are legally and safely on sale today are not excluded from the marketplace.

The Minister needs to be extremely careful what she says about safety because her views are listened to outside the House. She said on Tuesday that the products in question are unsafe. I do not believe that to be the case. She said that the regulations were based on safety and implied that if products were not on the list of 300, it was for reasons of safety. That is not a responsible way in which to portray the issues surrounding the directive.

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The Committee should reject the regulations. Sadly, after a blatant piece of gerrymandering by the Government, I fear that it will not. For one final time, I urge the House, the Committee and the Government to throw the directive out and go back to the drawing board.

Jeremy Corbyn: On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. Clearly the regulations cannot be amended in Committee, but is it within the power of the Committee and the Government simply to withdraw them so that they can be discussed further and submitted in a different form later? I realise that we have a slightly cumbersome procedure that does not allow amendments, which is rather a strange way of running things, but we will leave that on one side.

The Chairman: Obviously the Minister has heard the hon. Gentleman's comments.

2.52 pm

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I am not a member of this Committee and unfortunately do not have a vote, but I feel strongly about the issue. Sadly, I rise to speak in favour of the prayer. I want to make it clear right at the beginning that my comments are not really a criticism of the Government, but of the way in which the European Union behaves in making directives that interfere with strong traditions and culture in one of the member countries. That is what it is doing by trying to impose the regulations on Britain.

As the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) mentioned, it is alleged that the directive is about consumer safety. Indeed, that is the basis on which the Government have been arguing across the water. They say that we should accept products that are safe. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As far as I can see, the European Union is trying to harmonise trade in vitamins and minerals right across its member states. That is strange because the majority of companies in this country—I have been in contact with many of them—are completely against harmonisation when it comes to Britain losing out, as it will if the regulations are implemented.

I remind Members attending the Committee who do have a vote that this is only one of two European directives—the other is the traditional herbal medicinal products directive—that will change the face of the industry in Britain for ever if they are implemented. Together, the two will cost jobs and may even result in the closure of firms, especially the many small firms that are engaged in the industry. I have to admit that I have an interest in that the Health and Diet Company employs a considerable number of my constituents in the Kearsley ward of my constituency.

The other place discussed the regulations last Monday and, according to the Official Report, rejected them. There were 132 votes against and only 79 votes in favour. Many Members have submitted parts of a petition to the House, which altogether totals 1 million signatures. That is one of the biggest petitions presented to the House in recent times. I had the privilege of presenting 350,000 of those signatures in five boxes a few months ago. My point to Members who have a vote is that there are many people out

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there—their constituents and mine—who feel very, very strongly on this issue. It is highly controversial.

On 4 December, I tabled an early-day motion on the food supplements directive, as it was then. As of this morning, when I checked the official record, 220 right hon. and hon. Members across the political parties—that is very significant—had signed it. I have not heard how the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament have decided on the issue, or even whether they have made a decision. However, I ask the Minister to take notice not only of what happens in this House this afternoon but of what happens in the other place, in the Welsh Assembly and in the Scottish Parliament. She should take cognisance of everything that happens, not only in this Room today.

Chris Grayling: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that his colleagues in Scotland, sadly, voted for the directive. It was carried by five votes to four.

Dr. Iddon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information; I was unaware of it.

The regulations and the EU directive that led to them were drawn up on the basis of continental, Napoleonic law, under which everything is forbidden unless expressly permitted, in contrast to British common law under which everything is permitted unless expressly forbidden. That is one of the most important points that I want to make. That is why a positive list of nutrients and nutrient sources is appended to the regulations rather than a negative list of banned ingredients, which I think should have been the case. As already mentioned, that has led to the exclusion of more than 300 such nutrients and nutrient sources that have been used by the UK industry in thousands of products on sale to our constituents, in some cases for a considerable length of time.

The positive list originates from the PARNUTS—foods for particular nutritional purposes—directive, considered to be totally inappropriate by the industry for inclusion in this directive. That has led to some serious anomalies. I could recount several, but I shall give just two examples. First, vitamin C is a well-loved health food supplement in the UK. However, because it is an acid, nutritionists prefer to give it in the form of one of its salts, which is less harmful to the stomach lining. The positive list permits the use of the sodium and calcium salts of ascorbic acid but not its magnesium salt, although, ironically, it permits the use of the caustic alkalies sodium, potassium and calcium hydroxide. Biocare, a company already referred to, based in Kings Norton in Birmingham, prefers to use magnesium ascorbate in its products because it allows the administration of both vitamin C and magnesium, an essential trace metal, in a single ingredient. In future, magnesium ascorbate, fairly harmless in my opinion, will be banned for ever under this Napoleonic law. That is crazy.

The second example is selenium, well known to be important in our diet. The British food supplements industry has used organic forms of selenium, such as selenium yeast and selenomethionine, for the past 30 years. Those are the predominant forms of selenium, found in plants such as broccoli. The industry uses

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those organic forms of selenium because they are better absorbed by the stomach. But the positive list includes only the element selenium, which is hardly absorbed from the stomach at all; the organic compounds of selenium will be banned for ever. That is also crazy. Those are just two examples of what will happen this afternoon if the regulations are accepted. There is not time to give others.

Because of its origin in the PARNUTS directive, the positive list has a strong emphasis on inorganic chemicals rather than on the organic chemicals found in natural products. That, too, is crazy. In the response to the 350,000 signature petition that I presented to Parliament, the Government said about the 300 missing ingredients:

    ''However, these are mostly additional chemical forms of nutrients that are already permitted under the Directive and their absence from the Directive does not mean that these nutrients will not be available to consumers.''

In the debate on 20 January the Government amendment welcomed the Government's:

    ''intention to take advantage of the flexibility, secured by the UK, to permit the use of substances not on the permitted lists where products comply with the existing food safety legislation.''

It is critical to today's debate that the Minister explains further the meaning of those statements.

The Government have implied all along that they have secured a substantial derogation from the regulations that will allow existing products to remain on the market in the United Kingdom. That is not how the industry sees it. The Government have argued that all is not lost for the British industry, because it will be able to continue to sell its products until the end of 2009. However, sales will be permitted only if acceptable—I emphasise that word—safety dossiers are submitted to the European Scientific Committee on the Safety of Food by 12 July 2005.

Apart from being an extremely tight timescale in which to submit those dossiers, the unaffordable cost of preparing them means that it is unlikely that more than about 20 or 30 will be submitted in time. As already stated, that will mean the loss of about 270 of 300 nutrients and nutrient sources that the British industry uses today. The regulations also allow for the setting of maximum permitted levels for the daily consumption of vitamins and minerals.

The second problem that I have with the regulations is that there is no indication of what those levels are likely to be. If the Committee votes through the regulations this afternoon, they will in my opinion be voting for the unknown. It is highly likely that those levels will be set far below the levels now permitted for use in the UK.

I also remind the Committee of the heated discussion on vitamin B6 that we had in the 1997–98 Session of Parliament. Many of our constituents consume up to, and sometimes far more than, 100 mg of that vitamin every day. It is highly likely, if the regulations are voted through today, that the level will be set at less than 10 mg. That is positively daft. I should add that new research has just been published

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on the safety of vitamin B6 in humans that contradicts the recent conclusions of the Food Standards Agency's expert group report—conclusions that were based on work with dogs.

 
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