HC Deb 25 June 1951 vol 489 cc1141-50

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

10.39 p.m.

Viscount Hinchingbrooke (Dorset. South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. It has been known by hon. Members for some time, and certainly before Question time today, that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross), was proposing to raise upon the Adjournment the subject of chemicals in foodstuffs. He put Question 5 today and, with supplementaries, that occupied a certain amount of time of the House. The question I want to ask you, Sir, is whether the rules against anticipation have been infringed by the hon. Member in giving notice of an Adjournment Debate upon the use of chemicals in food, knowing full well he also had on the Order Paper a Question on that subject?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)

A Question is not a proceeding and, therefore anticipation cannot arise.

10.41 p.m.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I think I am most fortunate that, by coincidence, in the Ballot I am able to pursue a little further a subject on which I tried to gain some information this afternoon. That must be a rarity, and I hope to take a little advantage of it.

May I first say, in asking the House to consider the problem, that the words I used were, "Adulteration of Food." I am using the word "food" in a technical sense in the way described and incorporated in Section 100 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1938. There the term "food" includes anything added, such as colouring matter, or flavouring. By the term "adulteration" in this sense, I mean for the purposes of the Debate any form of treatment or processing and any particular addition of a chemical substance, as a preserver, colouring agent, bleacher, emulsifier, sweetener, or so-called "improver," on condition that any of these may be harmful to those who consume the food afterwards. This afternoon I used the word "additives." I used it in the way that it is normally used in the trade and by scientists because it is a better term, although an ugly word, than any other we know of, and additive means addition to food, whether harmless or harmful.

May I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that I would like him to have in mind, and I am sure that he and his Department do, that even if additives appear not to be harmful in small amounts, we have to consider cumulative effects and that is the problem which always must be before us. We all know food has been processed, preserved and sophisticated from time immemorial, but in recent years the addition of chemicals to food has very greatly increased. The reason is obvious, it is because the chemical industry is a most elaborate and romantic industry, and there is almost nothing it cannot do. A great spate of new substances are becoming available from time to time, and some of them can be used for all sorts of purposes which in the past we never thought possible.

Both here and in America and, of course, in other parts of the world, where chemicals are added to food, we find there have been a number of deaths and very many more cases of serious poisoning. It is fair to say that in every case there has been a lapse of time, sometimes considerable, before physicians and analysts have been able to discover the offending poison, because no one has known that the stuff has been added.

I would remind the House of an outbreak, as long as 50 years ago, the notorious outbreak of arsenical poisoning due to drinking of beer brewed from invert sugar made from iron pyrites grossly contaminated with arsenic. There is an interesting Report in the Library by a Royal Commission which investigated it People died in Manchester, Liverpool, my constituency, and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mr. Edward Davies), and ultimately it was discovered what was the cause. The beer was taken out of circulation and we have not had cases of that kind since.

Another example was in America, in 1937, when it was thought that an elixir could be prepared of sulphonilamide. The manufacturers who prepared it found a solvent. That solvent, unfortunately, was poisonous and more than 100 deaths occurred before it was discovered that death was caused by this solvent. It was rather like an anti-freeze mixture and was used for dissolving the sulphonila- mide. It has, of course, been forbidden ever since then, and I am sure is not used here.

Dr. Hill (Luton)

I do not dispute the historical cases of the hon. Gentleman. but would not he agree that it would be wrong to give the impression that in recent years chemicals as such have been proved the cause, to any widespread extent, of deaths or illnesses?

Dr. Stross

I have just described 100 deaths in 1937 due to one substance alone, and if the hon. Member will listen I shall be interested to know whether he agrees with me or not. I think he will agree with me. I was saying that I was most disturbed by the fact that by the law as it now stands any manufacturer in this country may add any substance without having to prove that that substance is harmless.

The public receives its protection through the Food and Drugs Act, 1938, and I would ask my hon. Friend these three questions: First, is he satisfied that Section 1 (1,a) of the Act gives him sufficient power to act so as to give the public adequate protection? I will not quote it, although I have the exact wording here, because I want to save time. Secondly, is he sure that the defence offered in Section 4 to the manufacturer against whom an accusation is brought is not a defence which can too easily be used?

Thirdly, Section 8, referred to by my right hon. Friend today, gives the power to make regulations to protect the public and to see that none of these substances is added if there be any suspicion. Is this protection fully used? Can he and does he so interpret the Act that the onus of proof today that an added substance is harmless can be put fairly and squarely where it ought to go, and that is on the manufacturer, or producer, or any other who intends to place it in the food? I do not think he can, in view of the answer I received from the Minister today, who said that frequently manufacturers seek advice and adopt the advice of the Ministry; but he added that there was at present no more direct control over the use of substances which are not known to be harmful and which are not open on reasonable grounds to dispute. It is about that that I wish to speak. If the Parliamentary Secretary feels that the powers are not available, I wonder if he would give the House an assurance as to his intentions in the future? I know I cannot go beyond asking that.

I do not think it is a happy situation that, when the Ministry has to bring an action against a manufacturer who is thought to be at fault, the case is heard in a court of law, with conflicting points given by experts before an arbitrator who is himself not an expert. Would not it be better to use the technique followed in America where written evidence is given by experts coolly and quietly, without the tension which is aroused by two opposing views which are—I do not want to be offensive—brought by two opposing sides?

Would my hon. Friend also note that the best qualified food scientists are not only skilled chemists, but are also medically trained? The reason I bring this point forward is that I feel that the technicians should be masters not only in the narrow field of this subject but should cast their eyes towards the wider horizons. I could give many instances where the best medical opinion has been scorned. A hundred years ago, before the days of Pasteur, it was suggested by an eminent doctor that cholera was caused by drinking water from the River Thames polluted drinking sewage from ships moored in the stream. The doctor was almost hounded out of professional life for saying that, but it was found to be right. We should not, therefore, tie the hands of our people too tightly.

May I give a few short examples? One is regarding mineral oils which were used during the war, or used to be used to make cakes, when there was a shortage of fats. They were used sometimes as salad dressings, after treatment with emulsifiers. We know today, that use of these mineral oils prevents the absorption of the vitamins A, D and K, and interferes with the absorption of calcium and phosphates. We know today that in pregnancy this can cause in the new-born child haemorrhagic disease. We know its use is forbidden in America. Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell us whether its use is forbidden as an addition to food in Britain?

We have discussed the subject of bread very often and I quoted today the views of Lord Mellanby, who has now retired from the M.R.C., in which he states that he suspects that peptic ulceration may be due to the use of agene in bread. I think I must leave that simply by saying that we could not convict agene by positive evidence; but we suspect it, and we think that we ought to get rid of it and find a better alternative. Then there are bread softeners, such as monoglycerides which in young creatures tend to slow up growth. Recently we have a suggestion that purified wool fat should be used as a bread softener. Here, again, I think we ought to be very suspicious, and to say that we think that it is a most undesirable practice unless we can get absolute evidence that it is not harmful.

There are sweetening agents like dulcin, which is forbidden in America. Is it forbidden here? Now we know that at dosage levels of 0.1 per cent. it causes liver tumours in animals. Other carcinogenic substances, oil Orange E, are used in margarine, and butter yellow, and possess this property. A related substance naphthylamine phenyl B is used in America as an anti-oxidant, to preserve chewing gum. It is related to these substances, and therefore possibly dangerous

My last word is to ask the Parliamentary Secretary to say something about the danger of insecticides, like D.D.T., in bakeries and dairies, and also on the danger of detergents. We are asking the Parliamentary Secretary to assist food manufacturers by creating some machinery which will put these substances through the mill and test them thoroughly. Then, when we are satisfied that these substances can safely be used, there should be compiled a comprehensive pharmacopoeia, so that a manufacturer can consult it and assure himself that it is all right to use them.

10.54 p.m.

Dr. Hill (Luton)

While appreciating the sincerity of purpose and the chemical accuracy which have prompted the hon. Member to raise this matter, it would be a pity if that long and complicated catalogue of substances were to lead to the conelusion, Or were to give the general impression, that chemicals are responsible for the problems of food poisoning today. I would urge him to re-read the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton), in which he took a prominent part and placed his finger on the biggest problem of all, the problem of the preventable infection of food.

I hope that nothing which the hon. Member has said, though no doubt true in its general application, will give the general impression that chemicals used in food hygiene have as fearful and awful effects as his remarks in the aggregate would seem to suggest.

10.55 p.m.

Dr. Broughton (Batley and Morley)

I intervene in this short debate for a very few minutes. I do so to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) on having raised this subject of food adulteration and to express the hope that the problem is going to receive the careful consideration of the Government. I think that we have listened to an erudite and lucid speech delivered by an hon. Member who, in addition to his knowledge of medicine, has also gained academic distinction in science. He has made the speech interesting and has, I suggest, shown the problem to be one requiring serious thought.

Biology teaches us that food is of the very first importance to all living creatures, and human beings are no exception to that rule. It is right, therefore, that this House should pay attention to all aspects of the nation's food supply. We should not confine our debates on this matter to questions of quantity and variety but also pay close regard to quality. In doing so, we are bound to give earnest thought to this problem of adulteration.

As I understand this problem, about 700 foreign substances are introduced deliberately into our foods to act as preservatives or to make articles of diet more attractive to the consumer. We know that 40 per cent. of these impurities cause no harmful results, but we are eating more than 400 of them in ignorance of any long-term effects they may have on the human body. Nowadays, so many foods are preserved and so many are tampered with to make them more palatable that the public has a right to be protected against possible harmful effects of adulteration.

We can take it for granted that in this country at the present time there is no intention on the part of food manufacturers and others responsible for the preparation and sale of food to render any article of diet harmful to the consumer. Competition in the food industry is so keen that all concerned wish to retain their customers. The moral standards of food manufacturers in our country are sufficiently high to prohibit them from preparing and selling any food if aware that added impurities injure the health of the consumer. It seems to me the danger lies in allowing food to be adulterated with substances, the long-term effects of which are at present unknown. I wish to join my hon. Friend in requesting the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food to inform us of his intentions to safeguard our people from impurities which may be harmful and to ensure wholesome food to the nation.

10.58 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Frederick Willey)

We are all very much obliged to my hon. Friend for raising this subject and it is only a pity that we have not more time to discuss it. The use of chemicals in food manufacture is a complicated, difficult, and important subject. As my hon. Friend said, it is not a new problem but the extent of the use of chemicals has grown considerably over the last few years. We are now long past the point where such great populations can be sustained and fed without the assistance of the chemists. We are not only concerned with the use of chemicals as food ingredients but the use of them in agricultural and horticultural operations, the treatment of stored goods, the destruction of pests, processing of foodstuffs, and, in fact, the steps we feel we ought to take to ensure clean food.

All these rely to a greater or lesser degree nowadays upon chemicals. At the same time, I agree with the hon. Member for Luton (Dr. Hill) that we should not be alarmists about this. The fact is that most cases of food poisoning in this country are due to bacteriological origins, and in answer to the intervention the hon. Member for Luton made, I am not aware that any deaths in this country have resulted from consumption of food to which a toxic chemical has been added deliberately.

People have a very natural and proper feeling that what is new and untried may be dangerous, and it is the duty of all of us to do what we can to allay fears and remove suspicions; but as I have said, the matter is complicated and far from easy. The use of chemicals has become indispensable. We cannot afford to see their use restricted. Again some chemical sub- stances, such as iodine and copper, are essential to life, yet toxic if taken in considerable quantities. It is extraordinarily difficult to establish with any absolute certainty that any of the substances may over a period of time have no undesirable effect. Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, we are doing what we can to solve the problem, and devoting a good deal of attention to it.

We are not without powers in doing this. We have the Food and Drugs Act, 1938, and the Defence (Sale of Food) Regulations of 1943. In fact, we have used the 1943 Regulations to extend some of the powers we had under the Food and Drugs Act. My hon. Friend mentioned Section 4, but we have to remember that all the Sections have to be read together. I think it is not so much a question of powers as of research and knowledge. We are in regular consultation with the Ministry of Health and the Medical Research Council, on whom we have to rely for expert advice. At the Ministry we have the Scientific Advisory division, a group of scientists whose job it is to keep abreast of scientific knowledge and interpret it in food technology terms.

We have close contact with the trade, and I agree with what the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) said about the trade. Of course, no firm having any regard for its goodwill, would knowingly offer for sale any food which might produce a toxic effect. In fact our consultation with the trade is a two-way traffic because we are also trying to gain benefit from the researches carried out by the trade itself.

The question of the use of chemicals in food and food processes is in fact also under examination by several departmental committees. The Food Standards Committee has at present a sub-committee examining metallic contamination, and another examining preservatives, which incidentally will include butter yellow, to which my hon. Friend referred. There is also the working party under the chairmanship of Professor Zuckerman which is inquiring into precautionary measures against toxic chemicals used in agriculture. Hon. Members will remember that during the debate we had on safe food, we made reference to the fact that a subcommittee of the Catering Trade Working Party had inquired specially into detergents.

My hon. Friend put forward an interesting point of view about the question of the onus of proof and the method in which these cases should be determined. Because I am a lawyer, he will not expect me to agree with him in what he says. He will appreciate that his point has very serious objections, but I would agree with him that we should use our research to create a limited field of precise scientific knowledge. If we had that, many of the difficulties about which he is apprehensive would not arise, because the courts could interpret these cases better if they had available more precise scientific knowledge.

My hon. Friend asked me about Section 8, under which we have powers to make regulations. The short answer is that we have made no regulation under that Section, but we have similar powers under the Defence Regulations and under those Regulations we have made the Fluorine in Food Order, which limits the amount of fluorine in acidic phosphates used in food. We have made the Mineral Oil in Food Order, which prohibits, except for very small quantities, the addition of mineral oil to food.

My hon. Friend mentioned agene about which the House has shown particular interest. There, although for the past 30 years it has been used without any evidence of harmful effects on man, we did pay regard to the experiments that were made on animals, and there were subsequent discussions between the Ministry of Food, the Ministry of Health, the Medical Research Council, and the millers, and we decided that the process should be abandoned when practical arrangements could be made to change over to a suitable alternative method, and when we are in a position to decide which is the best alternative method. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that we must take every step to ensure that the alternative method is the best one.

My hon. Friend mentioned also emulsifying agents. In this country the use of these softeners has not reached the same peak as in the United States, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the Ministry is watching the situation carefully. He also mentioned dulcin, and I can assure him that it is not being used in food manufactures in this country, nor is resorcinol being used by the food manufacturers. He mentioned purified wool-fat or lanolin. From my inquiries it seems that this has been tried as a bread softener, when it has been used in minute quantities, but there is no general use and we doubt whether it is in use at all in this country.

My hon. Friend invited me to get into difficulties with the Chair in commenting upon the Food and Drugs Act, 1938. I do not intend to get out of order, but will say to my hon. Friend that we have now had several years' useful experience of working under this Act aided by the Defence Regulations, and the fact that we have continued the Defence Regulations signifies that we do not consider the Act as altogether adequate. These are all matters we will keep under review, and they are matters on which we have to consult the appropriate authorities and the trade, and I can assure my hon. Friend we shall insist on the operation of the law.

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 Nine Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.