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Vegetables: Pesticide Residue Limits

2.47 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe): My Lords, the Government operate a substantial annual surveillance programme for pesticide residues in a wide range of foodstuffs, including vegetables. Generally, results are within statutory limits. On the very rare occasions when problems are found, the Government have a range of powers available. We have used these powers where necessary, and will continue to do so.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his reply. In view of the fact that many of the pesticides used are too poisonous to test on humans, how are the maximum residue limits set? Why, in the case of the recent carrot scandal, was the maximum residue limit raised when we should be aiming to lower the residue levels?

Earl Howe: My Lords, it is important to recognise that maximum residue levels are not in themselves safety limits. The maximum residue level that is likely to be left in the crop in question, under the approved method of use of the pesticide, is determined on the basis of experimental trials. A risk assessment is then made to ensure that consumption by a consumer of a sample of the crop with the maximum residue level would not exceed the acceptable daily intake for that compound. That ADI has a substantial margin of safety built into it.

On the advice of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, Ministers agreed last year that the MRL for one particular compound, triazophos, should be set at a higher level in the light of recent data on actual residue levels. Since then, on a purely precautionary basis, the Government have issued new advice to farmers on the application of OP pesticides to carrots. But that did not in itself give rise to any change in the maximum residue limits in carrots for those OP compounds.

Lord Gallacher: My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether the maximum European Community residue levels for fruit and vegetables are observed by non-EC countries which export to the United Kingdom? Can he tell the House what checks are made in the United Kingdom on residue levels generally, particularly those coming from non-European Community countries, including at airports as well as seaports?

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Earl Howe: My Lords, the working party on pesticide residues carries out extensive surveillance monitoring of the UK food supply. Surveillance monitoring involves the analysis of 2,000 to 3,000 samples every year for a wide range of pesticide residues. The number of pesticide/commodity combinations analysed is around 70,000. The surveillance monitoring effort is directed to areas where experience and intelligence show that it is most needed. To answer the noble Lord's question about produce from outside the European Union, enforcement action at ports can be taken, if necessary. Consignments containing residues in excess of MRLs can be seized and disposed of, or indeed refused entry into the United Kingdom.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, in view of the great public concern about this issue, does the noble Earl consider that what he called "annual surveillance" is in fact sufficient? Is he aware that the recent scandal about carrots referred to by the noble Countess was only revealed when the experts stopped inspecting batches and began inspecting individual vegetables? Can he tell the House what further efforts can be made? Is he aware that the Pesticide Trust has suggested that there should be a special task force to look into this matter? Would the Government consider such a body, possibly with an independent chairman such as the noble Countess, Lady Mar?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides has concluded that the elevated residue levels found in a small minority of carrots—I stress that—do not represent a threat to health. The Government have accepted the ACP's advice and restricted the number of organophosphorous insecticide applications that can be applied to carrots. In approving any pesticide, we build in, as I said, substantial margins of safety in determining what are acceptable daily intake levels. Where those margins are at risk of being eroded—I stress that word too rather than "eliminated"—as in the case of OP residues in carrots, it is a prudent precaution to seek to restore those margins. That was the entire raison d'etre for the Government's announcement earlier in the year on OPs in carrots.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley: My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that it is important that doctors should be able to recognise symptoms of pesticide poisoning when they present themselves? Will he perhaps have a word with his colleagues at the Department of Health to ensure that, if possible, all doctors are better trained in dealing with cases of chronic low level toxicity?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Earl will be aware that the Chief Medical Officer has during the past four years circulated GPs with an advisory letter on pesticides and veterinary medicines and the possible hazards arising from their misuse. We keep the need to inform GPs under regular review.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, can the Minister say how the vegetables grown in this country compare with those imported from other European countries as to the content of pesticides?

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Earl Howe: My Lords, it is very difficult to give a general answer to that question because different pesticides are used in different countries. However, our effort in targeting surveillance is based upon experience. We target those consignments and those crops which have proved to be most suspect in the past. I can assure the noble Lord that consignments coming into the UK from abroad receive their due measure of surveillance.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that he has clearly explained the expensive and extensive costs of surveillance, research and monitoring? Will he accept that all those activities are entirely unnecessary in the matter of products provided by organic farming?

Earl Howe: My Lords, my noble friend is a consistent advocate of organic farming. The Government are very much in favour of consumer choice, provided that it is informed choice. Organic produce is grown without the use of pesticides. But the Government would deprecate any implication that anything that was not organically grown was unsafe to eat. The UK has standards of safety in food production that are second to none in the world.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, in view of the immense importance of pesticides to farming and the production of food in this overcrowded world, can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to support research into mechanical methods; namely, producing sprayers which can be effective with smaller globules; producing plants which are resistant to diseases and do not need pesticides; and in general helping forward the spread of knowledge which can make food safe and at the same time ensure the supply of food to the people of this country and the world, which I am afraid that the present level of organic farming will never do?

Earl Howe: My Lords, the Government have an extensive research programme devoted to pesticides which we update on a regular basis. The control of pests on vegetables need not be undertaken purely by chemical means. There are very exciting possibilities in the field of biotechnology also. It is perhaps worth stressing—to balance the message, if I may—that carrots in particular make a useful contribution to a healthy diet. They are a valuable source of vitamins and they are delicious cooked or raw. Government dietary advice is to eat more fruit and vegetables, including carrots. I commend that advice to your Lordships.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, is the Minister aware that if people stop eating carrots, they are bound to go blind?

Earl Howe: Yes, my Lords, but that does not affect the taste.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, in view of the noble Earl's observation that the standards that we apply are the highest in the world, will he give us an assurance that this is a matter which will remain of exclusive national competence? In order to ensure the maintenance of that position, will he consider making official approaches to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, so that she can be incorporated into the supervisory procedure?

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Earl Howe: My Lords, the noble Countess's expertise in these matters is well known to all your Lordships. However, there are certain benefits in harmonising pesticide approvals across the European Union. It is generally to the benefit of business, both in this country and across the Community. I am pleased to say that we are making progress in that field.

Air Pollution

2.58 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are considering further measures to reduce air pollution at times when weather conditions lead to harmful combinations of gases in certain areas.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Viscount Ullswater): My Lords, the Government are currently reviewing the advice provided to the public during episodes. The case for additional measures, including traffic bans, in the event of particularly severe pollution episodes is kept continually under review.

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