HC Deb 22 October 1953 vol 518 cc2283-94

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

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Barnett Janner (Leicester, Northwest)

Although it is only six months since I raised in this House the question of food hygiene, I have no hesitation in returning to the subject again this evening. On the contrary, until this scourge of food poisoning is eradicated altogether, or at least reduced to the smallest dimensions, we should continue to examine its causes and take every possible step to remove them. That it is almost completely avoidable is testified by the medical profession and other authorities in our own and many other lands, and yet, day by day, its ravages increase.

When I spoke here on this subject on 30th April last, I pointed out that there were 1,035 reported cases of food poisoning in the first quarter of 1953. This figure was found to be reducible to 905 cases proved to be due to this cause. In the second quarter ending June, we are informed that the figure of cases so proved is 2,789. This shows an alarming increase by some 1,800 cases in three months.

I submit that the lesson that we have to draw from this is that we should spare no effort, first in educating the food distributors and the public in the methods of preventing the consequence of un-cleanliness in habits and in the handling of food, and, secondly, in enforcing the provision of facilities for cleanliness in all public places, in factories, shops, offices and vehicles—indeed, wherever food is handled, cooked or eaten.

I should like to adduce some further facts in aid of my contention. The House will remember, for example, the food poisoning among 130 children at Camberwell, the illness of 100 children at Richmond and another 100 at Epsom, all these in recent months. In the one week ending 18th June last there were 647 cases. Compared with a similar period last year, the total number of cases rose from 3,403 to 5,660. Within three weeks of one month this year 400 people were poisoned in Scotland, five were in hospital in Blackburn, there were 40 cases at Kidsgrove and there were 48 lying ill at Chester.

Although it is difficult to estimate the extent of food poisoning in this country before it became notifiable under the Food and Drugs Act, 1938, the number of outbreaks reported to the Ministry of Health in recent years increased up to 1950. Sir William Savage and Bruce White, in their Medical Research Council Report, in 1925, were able to publish details of only 86 outbreaks occurring in Great Britain between January, 1921, and October, 1923. The average annual number of outbreaks brought to the notice of the Ministry during the years 1929–1939 was 69. From 1939, when 83 outbreaks were reported, there was a considerable increase until 1950, when there were 922 outbreaks and family outbreaks, and 2,987 sporadic cases were reported.

One of the diseases which is caused by the consumption of unclean food is dysentery. The incidence of the disease is very high. Notifications of dysentery in 1949 were 4,538; in 1950, 17,286; in 1951, 28,590; and in 1952, about 14,500. I understand that the disease is a stomach infection which, it is authoritatively stated, could almost be eliminated if people washed their hands after they had been to the lavatory before handling food. It was generally thought that dysentery was more prevalent in the summer months. That is not the case, for the greater incidence is in the winter months, particularly in the January to March quarter. Dirty hands and nails appear to be the greatest single cause of food infection. Thousands of people do not wash their hands after using the lavatory, and the germs on their hands are conveyed to the food which they eat or which they are preparing for others. The germs increase rapidly in numbers, and food poisoning in one form or another results.

I wish to refer for a moment to processed and made-up meat dishes, which include pies, stews, sausage meat, brawn, pressed beef, reheated meat, rissoles and cold meat. These form the most important vehicle for food poisoning infection, being responsible for 114 —that is, 49 per cent.—of the 233 outbreaks and family outbreaks reported to the Ministry of Health in 1951, where the food known, or thought to have been responsible, was mentioned.

In a recent statement made by Dr. Ross, the Leicester City Deputy Medical Officer of Health, he said that, as a result of outbreaks of food poisoning in the city arising from the consumption of made-up meat products, it was decided to make an investigation of the 20 premises in the city where pressed meat products were prepared. Most of the shops were small family businesses and only three of the butchers were large producers. Not one of the premises was entirely unsuitable, but there were various defects in a few of them such as rough brick walls difficult to keep clean, and dirty floors and ceilings. He found that few butchers sterilised their equipment adequately, and some of the arrangements for storing equipment were unsatisfactory.

In two cases the meat moulds were too large, necessitating too long a time for the meat to cool and several moulds were not satisfactorily covered. In some cases cooked meat was exposed too long before being placed in the moulds and there was undue delay in cooling. Twelve butchers used unsterilised knives to remove the meat from the moulds. But Dr. Ross found that many other conditions of cleanliness were rigorously observed. All the boilers used for cooking the meat were satisfactory and utensils and cutlery clean. In most cases the methods of cleaning the moulds were satisfactory.

Dr. Ross also added that the firms were fully aware of the need for cleanliness and were willing to do what they could to ensure it. Without exception they were fully co-operative and helpful during the visits of the health department officials. Leicester butchers had shown their willingness to co-operate by attending a day's course on food hygiene held at the Leicester Technical College earlier this year. A matter which I hope the House and the country will take note of is the fact that facilities of that description should be utilised to the full. In this and other respects relating to food hygiene Leicester appears to be setting an example under the skilful guidance of her Medical Officer of Health, Dr. E. K. MacDonald.

The latest contribution to the war against food poisoning is a booklet entitled "Safe Food in Leicester." It is produced in an easily readable form with ample illustrations. The introduction given by Dr. MacDonald reads as follows: You may ask why has such a booklet been prepared? The answer is quite simple. Because food poisoning is on the increase and because of this there is a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Prevention is better than cure, as you know, and by the personal habits of each one of us much of this unnecessary suffering can be avoided. In this booklet are hints of how we, whether food handlers in cafes, restaurants, shops or the housewife in her home, can help to reduce the incidence of food poisoning. It is, therefore, with great pleasure and confidence that I commend this booklet to you as a useful guide whose watch-word is 'cleanliness.' Clean hands do mean clean food! It is full of paragraphs which bring home in snappy terms many of the essential methods of avoiding food poisoning. I should like to quote some of these. Under the heading of "Cafes, Restaurants and Staff Canteens" it says: Have you the courage of your own convictions? Do you return dirty crockery, cutlery and glassware, or cracked crockery and glassware? You help the management to obtain better service if you do. Here is another quotation: Is the food on the buffet table protected from dust, dirt and human contamination by a foodcase, and does your waitress use food servers instead of her fingers when handing you cakes, etc. Does you waitress wear a clean apron and cap; are her hands and nails clean and is her hair tidy? Under the heading of "Public houses and Clubs" it says: Does your favourite 'pub' use clean glass cloths, and are the glasses thoroughly washed and dried?". Is the barmaid, or barman, particular about personal hygiene. Do they always wear clean overalls, and are their nails clean and short with no nail polish? Under the caption of "Wet and Fried Fish Shops," it says: Do you buy your fish from a window slab exposed to the sun, dust and dirt, or directly from a refrigerator or ice-box? Are flies allowed to feed on your fish, or does the fishmonger protect the goods on display? Do the knives and cutting boards appear clean and frequently scrubbed? Can you tell from a distance that you are nearing a fish shop? Is the fish-frying range and other equipment kept scrupulously clean?". Many other quotations I would have liked to bring to the notice of the House if there had been time, but I shall only refer to one or two others under the heading "Cleanliness and Catering": Cracked cups, dirty cutlery and dirty glasses may transfer germs to your mouth, causing a septic mouth, lesion, diarrhoea or other form of illness. Ask the waitress to replace such an article. Cracked cups should be destroyed. On many occasions in this House we have had debates on these subjects which have illustrated the importance of the points raised in that booklet. We have also had Questions raised on these matters, but it seems as though the public and the caterers are not yet prepared to learn the many lessons that they should have learned from the various illustrations that have been given in the House and from the numerous deaths which have occurred owing to food poisoning.

It becomes more necessary to deal with the position because, as town dwelling has become and is becoming more prevalent, fewer people eat food which they have prepared themselves, and the more hands food has passed through in its passage from farm to table, the more opportunities there are for contamination. Secondly, larger numbers of people take their food in canteens, cafés, restaurants and hotels, with the result that hundreds of people can be affected by the careless handling of food in one place as against the few who might become ill at home from a similar cause. Then again, food prepared in the kitchens of these places is frequently cooked some considerable time before it is eaten, with the result that the dangerous germs multiply.

In the short time still at my disposal I should like to make brief reference to several matters that occur to me as requiring attention. Few public lavatories are provided with water, soap or towels. Local authorities are as much to blame for this as private firms. In some of the public lavatories provided by local authorities one can pay for the use of towels and soap, but there are no statistics available to show in how many cases they are provided free or for payment. I suggest that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government should make a survey and encourage all local authorities to instal these highly necessary facilities either free or for a very small payment. While education about cleanliness should start in the home, children should be taught and encouraged in cleanliness in the schools as much as possible.

I am not allowed to refer to legislative measures which might help, but the provisions of the Acts which are already on the Statute Book relating to these matters should be enforced as rigidly as possible. There must be constant propaganda on the subject. For example, notices should be pasted at all convenient places in public buildings and on the hoardings in the streets until the public becomes fully aware of the seriousness of the position. I trust that the Minister will be able to assure the House tonight that he will explore every avenue and take every possible step to remedy the serious situation on food hygiene which prevails in our country. I think perhaps he might use as his slogan in this regard, "Some men's meat can be made into the same men's poison."

10.29 p.m.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock (Liverpool, Exchange)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity of raising a matter which has only recently come to the notice of the public generally and which might be a source of slow poisoning, particularly to children. I refer to the comments that have been made recently arising out of an analysis of the ice lollies that are so widely sold and are so well liked by practically every child.

We are indebted to the Medical Officer of Health for Liverpool, who has just had the honour of being made the Professor of Public Health by Liverpool University, and I am sure that when I am able to draw attention to what we found from an analysis of ice lollies in Liverpool, the whole country also will feel indebted to him. As a result of discussions in our Health Committee, we asked the Medical Officer to examine one or two of the matters which might affect the question of food poisoning, and in the course of his observations he investigated the manufacture and sale to children of ice lollies.

Seventy samples were taken in Liverpool. Thirty-nine cases were adversely reported upon. It was found that in four cases there was contamination by lead and copper; one by lead, copper and tin; four by lead and tin; six by lead; two by copper, tin and zinc; one by copper and zinc; one by copper and tin; 14 by copper, and six by tin. All these samples were found to be contaminated by the use of the receptacle in which the ice lolly was made. Of the 39 samples reported upon adversely, 15 contained lead in amounts of 1.5 to 11 parts per million; 23 contained .5 to 11 parts per million of copper; 14 contained tin in amounts of 20 to 70 parts per million, and three contained 4 to 5 parts per million of zinc.

This led to keen discussion in our Health Committee and it was felt that this was a matter that might be analysed throughout the entire country to discover the exact position, because children often buy three or four of these ice lollies in a day. This analysis has taken place only within the last eight weeks, but this contamination and this slow taking of these amounts of lead, zinc and copper may account for some of the poisoning that occurs.

To suggest legislation in an Adjournment debate is out of order, but a standard of content and purity should be laid down nationally for these confections. We do not want to take away the pleasure of the children and the use to which these confections can be put if they are made of pure ingredients and fruit juices and in receptacles which are free from any kind of poisoning. As the Parliamentary Secretary will know, the local health authorities have no powers of inspection and no powers of dealing with this matter, because no national standard of purity and content is laid down.

Although I have a Question down on this matter on Monday, I thought it was of sufficient importance to take five or six minutes in this debate to draw the attention of the public and of the Parliamentary Secretary to this new possible method of food poisoning, and to ask the hon. Gentleman what action his Ministry will take to deal with this very insidious poisoning of children.

10.35 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Charles Hill)

It is always useful to have a debate on this subject because of the importance of arousing public interest and concern in what is a serious matter.

I shall deal, first, with the specific problem raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), for it is an important problem of recent origin. As she said, an excellent piece of research by Dr. Semple, now Professor Semple, has exposed a new danger. The report was published in a language which anyone can understand, for which we are grateful. The danger, as she said, seems to be the contamination of iced flavoured water, which after all is what the lolly is, by the container, the particular danger being lead.

The Food Standards Committee, which has a Metallic Contamination Sub-Committee, has been into this question and expressed the view that the maximum content of lead in foods generally should be two parts per million. The hon. Lady has said that here we have contamination of up to 11 parts per million. Under the Food and Drugs Act, 1938, the local authority is in a position at this moment in cases of such contamination to seek to prosecute, and in so far as there is a recommendation on the subject as to what is safe, the guidance to the magistrates is there.

The hon. Lady posed the question, what about the national standard laid down? The present position is that the Food Standards Committee, following its normal procedure of reaching a conclusion and submitting it for public criticism and protest, is now in the stage of considering comments and protests on its proposed standards and it is open to it as the next step to recommend statutory provision, and there is law available to enforce it. Under the Defence (Sale of Food) Regulations, 1943, it would be possible for national standards to be laid down in this respect. I may assure the hon. Lady of my personal interest in this problem and give my undertaking that I will look and continue to look most carefully into what is a new problem raised by a new sweetmeat which is achieving great popularity.

On the general issue raised by the hon. Member for Leicester, North-West (Mr. Janner) it is difficult to say anything new; the problem has been exposed from time to time. Whatever may be said about the need for new legislation, a subject we cannot discuss here—and I am in sympathy with those who express that view—there are already very real powers. The majority of local authorities are enlightened in this respect and enlightened and energetic local authorities have real power here. It is an offence today, under Section 13 of the 1938 Act, for a food handler to fail to take reasonable precautions. It is an offence to sell or offer to sell something not of the quality, or nature of the substance demanded. The offence has been defined and penalties can be imposed.

I do not think the hon. Member or anyone would suggest that there is no legislative authority and no power or opportunity open to local authorities to proceed against offenders. There is a particular kind of danger in a particular kind of food and typically it is the meat and dairy product which is cooked and left exposed before it is subsequently eaten. But do not let us give anyone the impression that every food is dangerous, let us concentrate our attention on the food where the danger most exists. I am grateful to the hon. Member for his efforts. I want to make it abundantly plain that those suffering from diarrhoea, those who have an infection of the nose and throat, those who have a septic place on the hand—to give but three examples—are a positive danger if they continue to handle food while those conditions persist.

I want to stress this. Knowing the facts, knowing the importance of cleanliness, knowing the importance of washing the hands after going to the w.c., knowing the importance of cleanliness in all stages of food handling, we come to the question of what can be done. Governments have published reports and catering trade working party reports have been published—I could give a long and impressive list, but that is only a part of the story. Many local authorities are doing a great deal by public education, but the individual shopper can also do a great deal. I think we need a new kind of indignation about some of the things that are done under our very noses in the serving of food. I have no time to go into them but there are many examples within our own experience.

It is up to shoppers to choose the clean shop as against the dirty shop, to complain when some obvious misconduct of this kind occurs under their very noses, and to begin themselves by their choice to use the pressure that they as consumers can exert upon shops and food handlers who still seem unenlightened by the propaganda which has been conducted.

I thank the hon. Member for raising this matter. The figures for food poisoning are, I agree, disturbing. I do not think the figures can be taken as revealing a growing danger, but that there is a growing consciousness of the danger and a growing tendency to report incidents and infection. The plain fact remains that a large number of cases of food poisoning are preventible without new legislation and without any new piece of equipment. They are preventible by more sensible conduct on the part of individuals. I do not suggest that this is the only factor, but it is a factor that is close at hand.

I gladly take the opportunity of urging people in their shopping themselves to impose a standard which they expect to be observed, and plainly and bluntly to criticise those who from time to time, almost deliberately, under people's noses, handle food which should not be handled or exhibit a standard of cleanliness which is far below what we can reasonably expect from food handlers.

Adjourned accordingly at Seventeen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.