HC Deb 18 November 1948 vol 458 cc722-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. R. J. Taylor).

11.27 p.m.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Burslem)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to a matter which has caused some disquiet not only in the Staffordshire Potteries, which several hon. Members have the honour to represent in this House, but elsewhere in the country—namely, the use of cracked and chipped crockery, particularly in catering establishments and in its relation to the spread of infection and disease. The problem is not a new one, but a fresh significance has been given to it by a reply which was given by the Minister of Food on 5th July, to a question put to him by the hon. Member for West Leicester (Mr. Janner).

The hon. Member asked the Minister: Whether in the course of his campaign for cleanliness in catering establishments, he will deal with the problem of cracked crockery, which is not only unclean but spreads infection and disease. The Minister replied: Infection can be spread by any crockery which has not been properly cleaned after use, and my medical advisers take the view that cracks do not materially enhance the danger. It is, of course, of the utmost importance that caterers should protect their customers by thorough cleansing and, where possible, sterilisation."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 5th July, 1948; Vol. 453, c. 10]. There are two points which arise from the reply of the Minister of Food which I want to comment upon—first, that caterers can protect customers by thoroughly cleansing and, where possible, by sterilising utensils; and, secondly, that the danger of infection is not increased by cracked pottery. The cleansing of pottery, as everyone knows, is very imperfectly done in many catering establishments where the service is very rushed. We have all seen this at sports meetings, dance halls and even at railway stations where meals are served quickly. The Minister has commented on the virtue of sterilisation by immersion in boiling water, but that is not a very practicable suggestion, because it cannot often be done. We can, I think, discount the value of that suggestion.

It is the second point—cracked and chipped pottery—with which I want to deal. For scores of years the pottery industry of North Staffordshire, which makes the finest pots in the world, has taken the view that the use of cracked, chipped and crazed ware is undesirable. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross) will be able to give us his views on this, and on the dangers of using cracked, chipped and crazed pottery, as he speaks as a bacteriologist and also as an adviser to the pottery industry on this aspect of the matter. I was very impressed by an article which appeared in the "Pottery Gazette," which summarises quite clearly the views of the industry as to the dangers which come from using cracked and chipped pottery, particularly in catering establishments. From it, we learn that certain experiments were made with damaged and undamaged ware. The experiment showed conclusively that the danger of infection was infinitely less when undamaged pottery was used. After immersion for 15 seconds some germs of a non-virulent nature were left, but in the case of cracked pottery highly virulent germs were left which could spread diphtheria and other diseases.

This point of view is not merely confined to North Staffs, where we think we know a great deal about earthenware and china. It has also been discussed in America where it was said that on patriotic grounds the use of cracked pottery was not to be discouraged. That view was contested from many sides. In Australia there is a law which forbids the use of cracked and crazed ware in public catering establishments.

I hope we may have tonight some sort of refutation by the hon. Lady of what has been previously said, and if she disagrees with her right hon. Friend and his medical advisers I hope she will make that quite clear. If she cannot accept, with her own long knowledge, the evidence of the bacteriologists and the trade interests, and says that they and the people in America and Australia are on the wrong road, we shall weigh the merits of her case. If she does accept our point of view, we hope this will go out to the country because she will recognise that pottery supplies are limited, and that many hotels and catering establishments are inevitably driven to use second-rate and third-rate pieces of ware which they would like to replace.

11.39 p.m.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Hanley)

I think it must be accepted that contamination on a porous surface is very much more likely than on a glazed surface, and that contamination in a crack or fracture in pottery is more likely than on a highly glazed vitreous surface. From what little scientific and bacteriological work has been carried out, it appears that reasonable cleansing with boiling water of an unbroken surface will leave only a few streptococci albus, whereas on cracked crockery there can be found many other types of organism, particularly haemolytic streptococci. Even if that were not accepted by the hon. Lady, I think she would agree with me on first principles that it is more than desirable to avoid, on health as well as aesthetic grounds, the use of this ugly, damaged, broken and obviously surgically dirty ware.

If that be accepted, we see that the problem is a simple one. It is that, even if you have not proved to the hilt that specific diseases are passed from one human being to another by the use of this cracked or chipped pottery, they can be. When we were students we used to hear terrifying stories about the dreadful diseases that could infect the lips from the use of dirty cups by infected people. We know that they were greatly exaggerated, and that that happened very rarely indeed. But trench mouth has been very prevalent during the war. There is more than one cause for thinking that it can arise from cracks or fractures in this type of pottery. That is the only point I want to make at this time, and I hope the hon. Lady will bear it in mind when she answers.

11.42 p.m.

Mr. Janner (Leicester, West)

This is a matter I raised some time ago. I was not satisfied with the answer I was given, nor, after I had submitted the evidence contained in an article by the doctor to whom my hon. Friend referred, with the reply given then. I hope the hon. Lady will realise that there is a considerable amount of serious doubt about this matter, as I have found since I raised the matter here. The doctor who examined the ware came to the conclusion that when the crockery was cracked the bacteria that were left after a test was made were harmful, and he gave a long account of the type of disease that could flow in consequence of the fact that the bacteria were left there. I put this article to the hon. Lady, and I was informed by her: Interesting as is Dr. Lightfoot's article, it does not seem to me to bear directly upon the question whether in the ordinary conditions of catering establishments cracked crockery does materially enhance the danger of infection. The question has been carefully investigated by the Central Public Health Laboratory of the Medical Research Council, and I have been advised that in their experience cracked and chipped cups yield no worse results than whole ones under the usual present day cleansing procedures in canteen and restaurant kitchens". She then referred to the reply given to me when I raised the question.

The whole point of the reply was that if the proper cleansing takes place there is a possibility of there being no greater danger in cracked crockery than otherwise. But the root of the matter is that you cannot rely on proper cleansing taking place, and consequently this matter ought to be dealt with in a different manner. My hon. Friend referred to the fact that in Australia the use of these cracked wares had been prohibited. That is also the case in many of the States of America. I think the same thing should apply here. I do not want to trespass on the territory of my hon. Friends who have spoken. I agree that we produce in this country the best pottery in the world. We ought to be encouraged to produce more and more for home use. In addition, there is the fact that plastic ware could be used—it is made in this country—until such time as full production can be obtained from the potteries themselves.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. John Lewis (Bolton)

One or two points have occurred to me, arising out of what has been said. I am rather inclined to the view that the hon. Gentlemen may be just as interested in the pottery industry in their constituencies as they are in the specific subject before the House tonight. The hon. Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross) is in a better position than I am to know something about the scientific side of the question, but is not the test that is carried out based mainly upon the mechanical action of washing? If two cups are inserted in boiling water for 15 seconds it is the heat that destroys the germs, and the germs in the cracks are also destroyed.

Dr. Stross

As I am asked the question, the answer is that the test referred to showed that they are not.

Mr. Lewis

I shall not accept the result of the test, and I hope the hon. Lady will uphold what I have said.

11.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary-Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summerskill)

I am grateful to the hon. Member who raised this question, because I think I shall be able to give him a satisfactory answer tonight. I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Hanley (Dr. Stross) who, I believe is a specialist in bacteriology, and I must agree that his statement was a moderate one. He indulged in no exaggeration. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Mem- ber for West Leicester (Mr. Janner), who admits that his contribution is that of a layman, that he has not quoted all sorts of horrible diseases, and so frightened the public—

Mr. Janner

It is not my contribution.

Dr. Summerskill

I appreciate that, but in a Debate of this kind there is the danger that a speech might be made which would make the public a little frightened. I agree that a great deal of china, including the china in the House of Commons, is rather cracked and chipped. That is because during the war it was not possible to replace it. I suppose every manager and every catering establishment would like to buy more crockery than is avilable at the moment. On aesthetic grounds alone we should like to see a change take place, but I must quote what I consider the best scientific advice that I can obtain.

It will be agreed that the work done in the laboratories of the Medical Research Council is carried out by men and women who have the highest qualifications, and who, in making a report, are, of course, impartial. They have experimented on china in various stages of delapidation and they say that the viable bacterial count on the "mouth area" of a cup may vary from a few organisms to many thousands. The number which are there are not determined by the cracks or chips, but by the lack of cleanliness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton (Mr. J. Lewis) has already said. They have examined deliberately infected cups and chipped and cracked cups.

Dr. Stross

Has the hon. Lady evidence of the technique used in the determination of the merits or demerits of different types of cups? Were the cups broken open?

Dr. Summerskill

I have made careful inquiries and I have been told that every kind of experiment has been made. Furthermore, the Ministry of Health have no record of any outbreak of serious illness which has been traced to the use of cracked crockery. My hon. Friend will agree that it is difficult to trace that. He has clearly stated that probably the organism which accounts for the most violent attacks of sore throat is a virulent streptococcus, I fully agree with him, and the Ministry of Health bears that out. Apart from sore throat, which can be attributed to streptococci, I am told there has been no trace of any other outbreak.

My hon. Friend behind me said, "Boiling water does the trick." But he should realise that though there may be germs left in those cracks, there must be a heavy dose of organisms, of virulent streptococci before anyone can be infected. There may be one or two minor organisms sliding about, but I am sure he will agree with me that there must be a heavy dose before anyone can be infected. I own that on aesthetic grounds it is not nice to know that there are one or two organisms sliding about, but the fact is that they are not infective. When we hear of cases of food poisoning all over the country, they are not attributable to infected cups, spoons or forks; they are attributable to food which has been cooked and in which in the process of cooling organisms have multiplied rapidly and then infected the unfortunate persons who eat it. I must remind my hon. Friend it is quite impossible for organisms to multiply rapidly in that way in cracked cups.

Dr. Stross

I did not say that.

Dr. Summerskill

No, but I am just telling the hon. Member. Now we come to the real answer.

Cleanliness is the real protection. Whether utensils are made of pottery, plastic, china or any other material, and whether chipped or glazed, the only answer is to ensure that they are properly clean. They are I know, too often, in restaurants throughout the country, rinsed in water which is teeming with bacteria and wiped with cloths containing many thousands of living bacteria to the square inch. We are trying to educate the public to a better service. It will be possible, I think, for the bigger catering establishments to adopt the following practice: to give a preliminary wash in a first sink of water containing a detergent at a temperature of 110 to 115 degrees Farenheit, followed by a rinse in a second sink of water at a temperature of round about 175 degrees Farenheit for at least 30 seconds, and then allowed to drain dry without wiping. The hon. Member said that frequently crockery is left to drain dry. That is much better than wiping it with a filthy cloth covered with bacteria. I hope that hon. Members' appetite for breakfast will not be affected. Crockery treated in this way, though not sterile, will have a low bacterial count and that is what we are trying to achieve.

Let me remind hon. Members that at present any individual can inform upon the manager of a catering establishment who is conducting the establishment in a dirty fashion. The Food and Drugs Act of 1938 does operate and operates very effectively, but only if an individual is public spirited enough to inform the local authority and ask for an inspector to go and inspect a certain establishment. I am sure my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we feel so seriously about this matter that we are setting up a catering trade working party with the following terms of reference: To make recommendations to the Ministers of Food and Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland as to the precautions considered practicable and desirable with a view to securing the observance of sanitary and cleanly conditions in the catering trade. The members of this working party are the following. The Chairman will be Sir William Savage, M.D., D.Ph., a very well known authority on food hygiene. It includes a medical officer of health, a sanitary inspector, the medical adviser and secretary of the Central Council for Health Education, Dr. Sutherland, medical and administrative officers from the Health Departments and the Ministry of Food, directors of the British Tourist and Holiday Board and persons drawn from different sections of the catering trade. The first meeting of the working party will be held on 26th November. I can assure the hon. Member who raised the subject that this working party was not brought into being after the Debate the other night. It was following a question in July.

The other point I want to make, and I am sure my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear it, is that supplies of pottery are improving. Production of cups, beakers and mugs increased from a monthly average of 9.1 million pieces in 1945 to one of 13.7 million pieces in the second quarter of this year, and I am sure that hon. Members representing pottery districts, of whom there seems to be a curious number in this Debate tonight, will be gratified to know that there has been this increase. The Board of Trade tells me that the caterers as a body are purchasing increasing supplies of crockery and are now taking more than ten per cent. of the supplies available for the home market.

I am sorry that my time is limited, but I hope that what I have said will be appreciated, namely that we are taking this matter seriously. But it is essential, at the moment, to increase exports. Therefore, it is impossible for my right hon. Friend to make some statutory provision to prohibit the use of chipped crockery. But I give this undertaking that we are doing everything in our power to stop the nuisance of which complaint has been made tonight.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.