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The public analysts service has reached a point of crisis. Of concern is the fact that between 2003-04 and 2006-07, local authorities’ sampling activity fell by 16 per cent. across the UK as a whole. Some local authorities carried out no sampling in some of the years. The laboratories are headed by professional chemists, who deal inter alia with not only food but issues relating to fraud, industrial safety, water sampling, contamination of public water supplies following flash flooding and the testing of consumer products referred to them by trading standards officers. They test garden chemicals, poisons under the Poisons Act 1972, cosmetics, samples
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of contaminated land, dust samples, samples that might contain asbestos and so on. Their list of duties is endless.

The Hampton report on the regulation of businesses published in 2005 did not help. It said that because the standard of food was then very high, inspection and sampling of food premises should be reduced and resources more focused. Such recommendations were welcomed by the FSA and incorporated in the national control plan. That was despite the fact that the majority of criminal breaches of food law are detectable only by analysis.

In the past 10 years, local authorities’ expenditure on their public analysts services has decreased from £12 million to £8 million. Ironically, we are spending progressively less on checking the safety of foods at the very time when national health service costs are rising as a result of food-induced disease, caused, for example, by energy-dense foods that lead to gross obesity.

In the 2007-08 annual report, the chief scientist at the FSA flagged up the fact that the incidence of certain types of food-borne illness appears to be rising at the moment. It is clear to me that there is a tension between the newly created FSA, which has a responsibility to ensure that there are sufficient scientific resources to provide public analytical laboratory services in the UK but with limited funds, and the local authorities, which have a statutory duty to appoint public analysts, but which do not have a duty to provide those expensive laboratory facilities.

Only two years ago, the Association of Public Analysts raised concerns with the FSA about the sustainability of its services. As a result, a review group was set up. As of today, we have heard no outcome from that review. I ask my right hon. Friend when the review group might report. Stakeholders from enforcement and consumer groups are concerned that while this delay goes on, the service is disintegrating almost to a point of no return. The RSC has also been concerned about regional variations in food sampling and analysis. It has written without success to the FSA to suggest that minimum standards should be set for local authorities for carrying out their food sampling duties.

The amount spent by the food and drink industry on advertising and promoting its products rose by 19 per cent. between 2003 and 2007, from £704 million to £838 million. A 1 per cent. tax on the 2007 figure would raise £8.38 million, which could be used to support the cost of running public analysts laboratories. There is central funding for regional laboratory networks for the Health Protection Agency, which is the arm of the Department of Health that carries out microbiological testing, for the Environment Agency, which carries out environmental protection work, and for the Forensic Science Service. Why is there not also central funding for the important area of food sampling and analysis?

I conclude my contribution with the following joint remarks of the councils of the RSC and the then Society of Public Analysts and Other Analytical Chemists:

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Those remarks, which are true today, were made in 1923. I look forward to hearing what other right hon. and hon. Members have to say, and in particular to my right hon. Friend the Minister’s reply.

11.17 am

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this important debate and on his dedication to the public analysts service and all issues relating to chemistry and science? He is a great champion for those issues.

I agree with everything my hon. Friend said and I should like to echo and concur with much of the information that he has provided—I do not intend my contribution to be too long. I thank Duncan Campbell of the West Yorkshire Joint Services, which has a public health laboratory in Morley, and Alan Richards, president of the Association Of Public Analysts, for the information that they provided to assist me with my contribution to the debate.

I mention Duncan Campbell because I was lucky enough to visit the WYJS public health laboratory, which is just outside Leeds, a few months ago. I visited because it is the public health laboratory for my local authority. It is approximately 20 miles away, which is an example of the disconnect between local authorities and the laboratories that are available for them to use that my hon. Friend touched on. Local authorities are obliged simply to appoint a public health analyst or public health laboratory; they are not required to maintain or keep one, or to have one within their area.

My hon. Friend has already pointed out that the FSA has responsibilities for food analysis in this country, yet much of the responsibility is delegated to the local authorities. It is clear that the role of the public analyst and the public health laboratory is falling between the two. Taken to a logical conclusion, if we allow the closures to continue at their present rate, we could have a situation in which the 400 or so local authorities in this country are looking around for public health laboratories to appoint but find that there are none left, because nobody has a requirement to maintain them.

My hon. Friend made the argument very well for central funding for food testing, in line with other areas. As he pointed out, in this day and age there is an increasing requirement for chemical analysis of foodstuffs. He mentioned the Sudan 1 contamination of Worcester sauce, which led to a cost of £200 million to industry in recalling foodstuffs contaminated with that colouring. Such was the concern that, as a safety measure, supermarkets took from their shelves practically everything that contained any form of red colouring. Products are adulterated. We have all heard about the trick—one from days gone by—of injecting water into certain products to increase their weight. There is the example of melamine in Chinese milk.

A few years ago, I was concerned to hear about the amount of contaminated meat that was condemned and then recycled into our system—often into our schools—by the criminal fraternity making money from selling cheap meat. My hon. Friend mentioned that. As I recall, some meat that had been condemned was found
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in supermarkets. If that is not a good enough reason to have a public analysts service, I do not know what is. We must protect our food supplies, particularly for our children.

Although it relates to microbiological analysis, another example is E. coli 0157 food poisoning. I remember the outbreak of E. coli 0157 in Scotland over 10 years ago and the report of Professor Pennington. I was lucky enough to chair a meeting in this very room which he addressed with his findings about E. coli 0157. People think that it causes food poisoning or an upset tummy, but many people were killed in that outbreak, including several children, and many individuals became severely ill. E. coli 0157 attacks and disables the kidneys. Many people required kidney transplants as a result of that outbreak, such is the seriousness of that strain of E. coli.

My hon. Friend mentioned that Aberdeen is agonising over whether to maintain its laboratory. Aberdeen Royal infirmary probably had the longest list for kidney transplants in the UK because Scotland was the major country in the world for outbreaks of E. coli 0157. This is such a serious issue and it was on our doorstep. I well recall that presentation by Professor Pennington, so my message to Aberdeen is to retain as many laboratories as it can.

My hon. Friend mentioned the funding issue and the price per head paid by local authorities on sampling and testing for public analysis. I will not continue down that route, but say simply that laboratories are having to increase their incomes by diversifying into other areas. The laboratories that carry out public analysis on behalf of local authorities and Government rely on the commercial funding from analysis for private sector organisations, and there is an argument that they should be completely publicly funded.

Dr. Iddon: Does my hon. Friend agree that the privatisation of more of the service might lead to a clash of interests because private laboratories could also act for the food industry?

Mr. Illsley: My hon. Friend is right that there could be a clash of interests with the food industry. I was going to come to that. The food industry in this country is worth £150 billion a year. It is a major industry in our society. My hon. Friend said that 38 analysts are currently employed. The figure I had was 41, but we will not argue about that. In 1994, there were about 70, and in 1955—some 50-odd years ago—there were 150. New technology and methods of chemical analysis have improved, but in the 1950s, there were no freezers, and we were not aware of any E numbers, additives or colourings, so all our food was provided fresh. In this day and age, there is a whole range of foodstuffs that simply were not about in the 1950s. We had more analysts then, but we need more now because of the plethora of different foodstuffs that we argue about day in, day out. The commercial clout of the food industry has to be borne in mind, and there has to be an independent analytical service that does not depend on commercial interests simply to stay in being. The service not only should, but must, be publicly funded; we have to have it.

Even now, this country and the European Union cannot agree on labelling for foodstuffs. We talk about the traffic light system and whether we should have
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labels showing the salt and fat content. The consumer is usually pretty baffled by all this, simply because the industry will not agree on some of these issues. There is a need for proper analysis of our foodstuffs so that consumers can know exactly what they are eating, and especially so that we can know what we are giving to our children. Obesity is an issue, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, as is the fact that we are eating different foods, which contain more sugar and fat, from those that we were eating in the 1950s and 1960s.

I echo what my hon. Friend said about the FSA wanting to reduce the qualification required for public analysts from a mastership in chemical analysis to a lesser qualification. Why is it that when we are faced with a situation like this, we think that instead of training more people, we will dumb down the qualification a little? If we are short of teachers, should we reduce the teaching qualification and bring in untrained teaching assistants? We probably do that to some extent, but we should not. We should train more people and keep the qualification, especially given what the analysts are dealing with day in and day out—with Sudan 1 and melamine. My hon. Friend is a trained chemist and I am not. I have no idea what melamine would look or taste like, and neither would the average guy in the street. Highly trained individuals are required for that work, and I urge the Government not to allow the FSA to start dumbing down the profession.

As I have mentioned, the funding from the FSA is delegated to local authorities. My hon. Friend has mentioned a 1 per cent. levy on the food industry for food advertising, and I agree fully with that proposal, because it is a huge industry that makes a lot of money. When there is a mistake or problem, as with Sudan 1, it costs the industry a lot of money with recalls and the drop in sales when products are found to be contaminated, so it would be worth the industry’s while to be secure in the knowledge that we had a public analysts system that was funded by that levy. I understand that the levy would raise only £8.5 million, but that would be all the money needed to provide a good, independent public analysts service, so I echo my hon. Friend’s call for that. We must ensure that we have the laboratories when we need them, such as when an outbreak occurs, because we will continue to have outbreaks and scandals such as that with Chinese melamine.

I shall conclude now, but I repeat that I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has said, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I sincerely hope that the Government will consider altering the structure of our public analysts service and will ensure that we still have one in another 20 years’ time.

11.29 am

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Like my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this debate. Broadly, I would also like to congratulate him on all the work that he does in this place in advocating on behalf of scientists and scientific services in this country. Over many years, he has fought for their cause and pointed out how valuable they are to our society. He has played a part in trying to recruit more of our youngsters to a career in science and has highlighted the importance and value to our society of scientific services. Here he is
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again today, reminding us of the importance of a scientific service—the public analysts service, on this occasion—and rightly drawing it to our attention because it is in serious danger of being overlooked to death. He is right to draw attention to its parlous state and to ask us to take action to try to prevent disaster in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned Duncan Campbell of the West Yorkshire analytical services. In preparing for this debate, I came across an article that he wrote for the New Scientist on 15 November 2008 called “Fears for food” in which he states:

That is a description of a worrying situation from an individual analyst, but I have read a briefing provided for us by the Association of Public Analysts which states that that is the situation across what remains of the service. It is a very worrying briefing.

I was not prepared to speak on the basis of just one briefing and so did further research. One of the surviving analysts laboratories is in Stafford, in my constituency. I visited it and met the staff and senior management there. Again, from my own investigations and discussions, I can confirm that there is a worrying situation that needs to be addressed.

The briefing from the APA states:

What we need to do today is to insist that it is addressed adequately, and that steps are taken to reverse the decline.

Basically, we need this vital public service now more than ever, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central made clear earlier. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said, services are not organised in a strategic way. The Food Standards Agency is the competent authority for implementing food safety laws, but local authorities have responsibility for appointing public analysts. Beyond that, apparently no one has the legal duty actually to provide a service. That is a worrying situation. The upshot is that there are now just 41 qualified practising public analysts employed in 21 laboratories throughout the entire United Kingdom.

Let us take the example of the danger from food poisoning, which is one of the serious public health problems that we face and which the service works to protect us from. Food poisoning is believed to be widely under-reported to general practitioners in this country. It is estimated that in 2007 there were 850,000 UK cases of food poisoning, resulting in more than 19,500 hospitalisations and more than 500 deaths. This is a matter of major public concern.

The main hazards in food processes come from contamination; for example, bacteria that cause disease. The vulnerable groups who are most at risk from food poisoning are the elderly, the sick, babies, young children and pregnant women. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned that the UK’s largest outbreak of E. coli 0157, in Scotland in 1996, resulted in the deaths of 17 elderly people. Another major outbreak of the same pathogen in Wales in 2005 led to the death of a school child.

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The FSA is the Government agency set up to protect public health and consumer interests in respect of food, but although policy responsibility for food hygiene rests with the Government and the FSA as its agency, enforcement is primarily at local level by local authorities. In 2007, the Rogers review set national enforcement priorities for local authority regulatory services. It identified hygiene of businesses as one of the top five enforcement priorities for local authorities and gave two reasons for that: the high impact on public health and the potential losses to the economy if things go wrong.

However, because of the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, we see inconsistencies in levels of enforcement by local authorities. For example, in 2006-07, fewer than half of all local authorities—about 46 per cent.—achieved all their high-risk planned inspections. When we consider how much they spend on their inspections and sampling, we find that the average spend per local authority is about 10p per head of population in a year, but some are as low as 2p, which demonstrates how poor it can be. As my hon. Friend said, some local authorities carry out no samplings in an entire year. In 2007-08, for example, eight English local authorities did not carry out a single test.

I have mentioned food poisoning, but challenges are also presented by food fraud and misleading labels. According to the consumer group Which?, food fraud in the UK is estimated to be about 10 per cent. of the total sale of food product—or £7 billion-worth of food products a year.

When Channel 4’s “Dispatches” investigated food labelling, it found that misleading claims over salt and fat content were widespread. One test of six chocolate puddings—I will not embarrass the supermarket that sold them—showed that they contained, on average, 45 per cent. more fat than was stated on the label. One sample exceeded the amount quoted on the label by 64 per cent. From another supermarket, six samples of a chicken curry ready meal were found to be much fattier than the shoppers were led to believe. One had a third more fat, another had 91 per cent. more fat than the label stipulated.

Therefore, whether it is food safety, healthy eating and tackling obesity or protecting lawful businesses from unfair competition, the public analysts service is vital to UK national interests. Yet the sampling activity by local authorities across the UK has fallen sharply and continues to do so. Those involved in the service can only see the decline continuing. In recent times, the service has responded positively, which has been a crucial element in our defence against recent food scares, such as the melamine in milk products of Chinese origin and the dioxin in pork and beef from Ireland. The association’s briefing warns us—the parliamentarians here—that the service at its current levels of staffing and equipment would struggle to react appropriately to any major new food scare in the future. That is a very sobering warning for us to take notice of in this debate today.

In Staffordshire, we have seen this pressure coming for years. The response has been proactively to get away from the terminal decline. We have formed a formal partnership with a service in Leicestershire, which has enabled us to stabilise, cut overheads and costs, take additional work and attract new contract work to maintain
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a sufficient critical mass of work to keep the laboratories in Leicestershire and Staffordshire going. Such a strategy has been successful so far.

For the purpose of this debate, I spoke again to the leaders of the service in Staffordshire, and they told me that they remain of the view—despite all that they have done—that without the FSA taking a strategic position to drive up the future level of food sampling and examination across the country, the service will continue to decline, leading to a complete breakdown of the service in the foreseeable future. That is a very serious warning from my own local authority about the catastrophe that will take place if we do not act. I say to the Minister that we need a better, stronger national strategy that provides firm links between the policy, its implementation and its enforcement. Perhaps we could have a regional structure for properly resourced, independent laboratory services and a realistic amount of inspection and sampling at the local level.

Finally, I say to the Minister, do not allow the service to decline any further. Do not run the risk of it becoming the Achilles heel of the UK’s very valuable food sector and our vital national interests of food security and safety.

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