HC Deb 31 October 1949 vol 469 cc167-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

I wish tonight to raise a matter which I regard as being of immense national importance. I refer to the question of food poisoning and food hygiene. I think that the whole country and this House are under an obligation to the "Daily Herald" in respect of the excellent series of articles which they have recently published about this all-important subject. Those articles have undoubtedly focused public opinion on this question, and they have had quite a lot to do, I feel, with the recent activity of the Ministry of Food in issuing to local authorities a series of very good by-laws as a guide to action in their areas.

First, I propose to give the House some figures proving the seriousness of the present position. Then I want to deal with some specific aspects of it, and to make one or two practical suggestions. Lastly, while in one respect praising and in another respect criticising the Ministry of Food, I want to appeal to local authorities, and to individual consumers and handlers of food to live up to the responsibility which is theirs. The incidence of food poisoning in this country is really alarming; 3,270 outbreaks were reported between 1938 and 1947. In 1938, the recorded figure was 156 cases. Last year, it was 964. As one single case can, and very often does, involve several hundred persons, the extreme importance of what I am saying should, I think, be clear to the House.

At one time deaths from food poisoning were very rare. The returns of the Registrar-General during the 10 years 1937–46 record no fewer than 246 actual deaths due to this cause, and there is, I believe, reliable authority for the view that food poisoning generally—comprising both reported and unreported cases—is at least three times what it was before the war. As we all recognise, there has been during and since the war a phenomenal growth in community feeding. I calculate that one-half of the population has at least one meal a day away from home. British Restaurants have been succeeded by Civic Restaurants. Hundreds of factories, as well as Government and other offices, have their own canteens, and mid-day meals are served in our schools to about two-thirds of the total school population of the country. All this obviously means that thousands of people outside their own homes are handling and cooking food and having an influence on the conditions surrounding it, as never before in our history.

Since the war we have had two very hot summers during which certain bacteria have enjoyed themselves as much as some of us have done. During that period many weaknesses on the food front have been exposed.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

Would the hon. Gentleman allow me to ask him a friendly question? Could he give us any comparable figures as to the increase in food poisoning in other countries, or is it confined to a country like this which has a Socialist Government?

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

I am sorry that the noble Lord is attempting to introduce a partisan note into what I had hoped was a subject for which full support was forthcoming on both sides of the House. All I can say is that from my own knowledge the standard is very much higher in the United States than it is here. I have no definite facts to go on in regard to other countries. I do not really believe that the noble Lord's question was altogether friendly.

I was talking about the two hot summers which we have had since the war, and the effect which they have had in exposing the weaknesses on our food front. It is probably true to say that our cool summer precautions, cool summers being the normal thing in this country, will have to be looked at and revised, for I do not think that in the experience that we have been through those precautions are really adequate to deal with what may well be a changing climate and changed conditions.

All this makes the provisions of the Foods and Drugs Act, 1938, all the more important, and I am going to ask my right hon. Friend, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, who is very kindly going to reply to this Debate, whether she is satisfied that in the circumstances, in which the housewife cannot yet fully pick and choose as she once could, the powers of inspection available to her staff and to local authorities under the Foods and Drugs Act are being applied rigorously enough. I personally do not think that they are, any more than is the compulsory provision by employers of readily accessible hot water for hand washing in all food catering establishments.

The law itself is, I believe, quite adequate. Its enforcement in many cases is not adequate. I will admit that it is not possible by law to compel people to cook ducks' eggs for at least eight minutes; nor is it possible to stop butchers wrapping up corned beef next to raw carcase meat. It is possible, however, to set an example in premises under one's own control, and on this point I shall have something to say to my right hon. Friend in a few minutes.

Education can be encouraged in our schools. By persuasion a lot can be done by getting at the individual and teaching him or her where duty lies. Local authorities can be encouraged if not actually pushed into doing something really practical. Refrigeration and cold storage, heat sterilisation, the use of chemical preservatives, are all preventive measures which should be claiming the attention of the Ministry of Food. So also should be the use of suitable advertisements and propaganda, over and above and apart from the excellent material which is put out day by day by the Central Council of Health Education.

"Polio" is a development in our national life which is worrying everyone. Its cause is still a mystery. One theory which I feel may well turn out to be true is that this awful disease is fly-borne. All the more reason, surely, to look at the subject of flies and other conditions surrounding our food. Fly-blown poultry, fish and meat are all too often exposed on open slabs in our shops, later to be wrapped up in newspapers and other unsuitable material before being taken away by their purchasers. Made-up meat dishes and sandwiches are frequently left lying about in conditions which are asking lying trouble. Dogs are allowed into food shops, cats can be seen sunning themselves amongst sweets, sitting on counters or rummaging among vegetables and other eatables and, with it all, customers, sometimes in queues and smoking and breathing over counters and exposed foodstuffs, are served by dirty and unkempt assistants.

The range of places in which slovenly habits can create danger numbers thousands and runs from the ordinary kitchen in a home, on the one hand, to the palatial premises in our luxury hotels on the other hand. The small shop and the big store are equally included; so are canteens, railway restaurant cars, hospitals, travelling fish and chip vans, barrows in the streets, and all the hundred and one types of eating places with which we are familiar. The personnel in all these comprise shop managers, canteen supervisors, waiters and waitresses, shop assistants, nurses and all domestic staff. On them largely depends worth-while results from the model by-laws which have just been issued to local authorities by my right hon. Friend's Ministry. Unless nose picking, bitten and dirty finger nails, finger licking, spitting, unguarded coughing and sneezing, and dirty hands are cut out by all in contact with food, there will not be much improvement.

Frequent hand-washing, and especially after using the water closet, should be enjoined everywhere. British standards of food hygiene—and I admitted to the noble Lord that they are lower than in the United States—are really very bad indeed. I therefore regret that the bylaws which have just been issued do not include among their excellent recommendations any reference whatever to smoking. I have with me a letter about this which I think has some relevance, and I should like to quote from it to the House. The letter says: I have read with interest that you are to raise the subject of clean food in the House of Commons. I want to mention the prevalent dirty habit of smoking over food as it is cut up and handed to customers. This can be seen any day in a butcher's, greengrocer's or fruiterer's shop. It applies equally to barrow boys and ice cream vendors. Practically all of the two latter smoke as they sell their wares. To give one practical example in Piccadilly in the summer I noticed a young man in a very clean white coat, with smoothly brushed hair, with an ice cream cart. He was bending over it and mixing the contents, and, at the same time, smoking a cigarette. Eventually the long ash fell into the mixture. He seemed unaware of this, or, at least, unconcerned, for he continued to mix, and to smoke. A few minutes afterwards some girls came out of an office, and he served them with ice cream off the barrow, and they went away eating it. I was sitting in a bus held up in a traffic block, and so I could do nothing to stop the girls from encouraging this kind of behaviour. That kind of thing is going on all over the place. The preparation, handling, cooking and serving of food just does not mix with smoking.

Despite this omission from the bylaws which have been issued I do want to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the action that has been taken so far. I urge the 1,200 local authorities in the country to adopt and to act on them, and thus to follow the splendid example already set—incidentally, by a Tory council—at Guildford, and also by several other councils in the country; I think Lambeth is doing a very good job among others.

Housewives, I suggest, and women's organisations everywhere, should collaborate with local trade associations to force any reluctant local authorities to make use of these health safeguards. Of course, these safeguards fall short of what is really desirable. One cannot, for instance, insist on the suitable wrapping of bread until more materials for that purpose are available. But in the meanwhile the individual man and woman in the country can do a very great deal. He or she should desert dirty food places. He or she should complain when utensils or personnel are unclean, or their clothing is soiled; when the tablecloths are dirty; when barmaids half wash glasses in one small basin of water; when tea towels are used for washing hands and cutlery and also for wiping table tops; when washing up water in dingy kitchen premises is used over and over again and must be teeming with bacteria as a result; when open displays of food are not properly protected from contamination. I was told the other day that much of the washing up water in cafes, bars and restaurants, if it were tested, would be found to have the bacteriological content of sewage.

Positively the individual should press for the establishment of Clean Food Guilds in each town, and should get to work on this through his locally elected representative. He might also urge the grading of food places according to cleanliness. He can await the report of the Catering Trade Working Party appointed by the Ministry of Food, and, when it reports, can co-operate wherever possible in respect of the report which is put out. Incidentally, perhaps my right hon. Friend will be able to say something about when that party's findings may be expected.

I want to complain to my right hon. Friend about the Ministry of Food slaughterhouses and abattoirs. I am told that there are some hundreds of these and that their conditions, as well as that of those working in them, is very often appalling. In some, at least, dirt and squalor abound, and no proper codes of conduct are insisted on among workers. Carcases are dragged about over dirty floors, and, perhaps most scandalous of all, animals are often slaughtered in full view of the next victims. This really is, I think, deplorable, and, as long as it is allowed to continued, the excellent work and attitude of the Ministry of Food in other admittedly more important directions, will be less effective than it might be.

Let me quote to the House from a report drawn up by doctors about a central slaughterhouse from which a food poisoning outbreak is thought to have come. I believe that the incident occurred in 1947, and it is, of course, fair to add that at all times far more danger comes from cooked rather than uncooked meat, especially from brawns, sausages, and fillings for bread sandwiches, and so on. Nevertheless, the seriousness of the extract which I am now going to give will, I hope, impress the Parliamentary Secretary. It describes the conditions found in this particular slaughterhouse, and runs as follows: At one end was an open pit two feet six inches deep used for collecting blood. Adjoining pens had a concrete floor covered and was heavily contaminated with manure. The walls were lime-washed and were soiled with excreta and dried blood. There was no provision for independent casualties, and from time to time infected beasts were slaughtered with clean ones. The carcases were wiped down with mutton cloths, which were dipped from time to time in a common bucket of water. These cloths were apparently never washed or boiled. In the yard was a common water closet, small in size and containing a brown earthenware sink which still showed splashings of whitewash, suggesting that it had probably never been used. No towel or soap was provided and there was no toilet paper. The slaughtermen's clothes were contaminated with dried blood and faeces. The hands, when washed, were rinsed in the same bucket as was used for washing out the cloth used for wiping down the carcases. There was thus ample opportunity for the spread of infection. I am sure these conditions are not general, but in Ministry of Food premises, I suggest, an example should be set and all grounds for criticism should, as far as possible, be avoided. I hope I can look to my right hon. Friend for support tonight in most of what I have said. I think that on the whole her Department does deserve bouquets, and not brickbats, for the wonderful job it has done since the war, and which it is doing at present. I am pleased, indeed, that the Press of the country today, for a change, should have given the Minister of Food a very proper meed of praise for his excellent work.

10.33 p.m.

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

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter tonight, because it does coincide with the distribution of the model by-laws which, I agree, we all hope progressive local authorities, indeed all local authorities in this country, will adopt. If these by-laws are adopted, and if the provisions made in them are carried out, I think it will be possible to eliminate most of the abuses which have—and I do not think I am speaking too strongly—horrified this House tonight.

The curious thing is that the abuses are things about which we all know. They are things which we see in our daily life, things which we see when we go into any small café. Yet, unfortunately, the public conscience is not sufficiently aroused to demand that there shall be an alteration. I take a keen personal interest in this matter and I devote a great deal of my time to it. We have increasing numbers of outbreaks of food poisoning; yet all of us know that this particular complaint is preventable. Doctors are devoting a great deal of their time to trying to find out how to cure diseases the causes of which remain a mystery, yet here we have food poisoning which is a common complaint in this country and which is quite preventable.

People do not seem to realise that it is for them to demand that there shall be new standards of hygiene established. In fact, the people have the cure in their own hands: I agree with what my hon. Friend has said about the articles in the "Daily Herald." They have focused public attention upon this matter and I agree substantially with what they have said, particularly in their recommendations in the last article. I want to invite caterers all over the country—and the general public—to take a keen personal interest in this question. My hon. Friend rightly says that things have changed since the war started; more people are having meals outside their own homes; more food is eaten in cafés, restaurants and canteens; and further, as a result of the war, both restaurants and housewives are having to exercise economies which they did not have to exercise before. The result is that food which in the past was considered of little value and thrown away, is now stored, re-hashed, and reheated.

It is then that the bacteria mentioned by my hon. Friend are given a new life. Food is eaten which appears to be all right, but once it is ingested, it unfortunately produces symptoms which cause loss of man-hours, reflected finally in our production statistics. Unfortunately, if I may so explain it, this complaint is not spectacular. My hon. Friend mentioned poliomyelitis, which is something that has shaken the world because it is associated with certain symptoms which invite attention and attract sympathy. But the other complaint has symptoms which are manifested as the illness develops, but which are not at all of a spectacular kind; yet they are of very serious import to this country.

However, we must see this in its proper perspective. My hon. Friend quoted certain figures, showing the number of cases since 1938; and that there had been a great rise compared with the years before the war; but I must ask him to remember that until 1938 food poisoning had not become a notifiable disease; and only since then have the public health laboratories supplying data on this subject increased from 12 to more than 50. So the country is more conscious of food poisoning than it was in the days before 1938.

Mr. John Lewis (Bolton)

I do hope that before she sits down, my right hon. Friend will deal with the question of ice cream; that has been raised and there is a need for stringency of control over its manufacture.

Dr. Summerskill

Unfortunately, I have only three minutes left, and I would like to say several things on that point; but I want to be helpful and to emphasise, in the little time left to me, some of the points made by my hon. Friend who opened this Debate which I consider to be important. The most important is that we educate people in this matter. The British Tourist and Holidays Board has done a lot in asking caterers to encourage their employers by all means in their power to wash their hands, and the Central Council for Health Education has, through the local authorities, made an important contribution to the solution of the problem. The women's organisations have realised the importance of this drive for cleanliness, and have done everything in their power.

But I say to the housewives of this country, "Do not tolerate a standard of cleanliness in a catering establishment which you would not tolerate in your own households."

If they see these disgusting conditions described to-night, they must have the moral courage—and I fully appreciate that moral courage is more rare than is physical courage—to protest at the time in the shop and certainly not to go to that shop again; and I ask restaurant proprietors not to under-estimate the intelligence of customers. The public takes notice of dirty floors and slimy tables wiped over with a filthy cloth. I have seen smears on tables and even bread crumbs stuck in the smears. It is revolting. I should like to see not advertisements, "A good cup of tea," or "A good pull-up for carmen," but "We specialise in cleanliness" on caterers' windows, and for the caterer to know that a clean and attractive café stimulates the appetite and digestive juices, whereas a dirty one inhibits the digestive juices. So, Mr. Speaker, cleanliness pays.

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

Adjourned at Eighteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.