HC Deb 14 February 1956 vol 548 cc2312-9

10.56 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying the Mineral Oil in Food (Amendment) Regulations, 1955 (S.I., 1955, No. 1901), dated 16th December, 1955, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21st December, be annulled. The Parliamentary Secretary is, of course, aware that the original Order dates back to 1949, and that the Regulations then prohibited the inclusion of mineral oil in the composition or preparation of any article of food, with two exceptions. One was that the amount included in the food should not exceed one-fifth of 1 per cent. by weight. The second exception was that it should be used only for lubricating or greasing surfaces with which the food might of necessity come into contact.

One of the reasons in 1949 for that prohibition was that we had had some experience during the war, when there was a shortage of animal and vegetable fats, and housewives and the baking industry turned to mineral oils as substitutes. We found that that was dangerous, and that the danger was threefold. First, the ingestion or consumption of mineral oil tended to absorb some of the vitamins and thus rob our body tissues of certain vital necessities for health.

Secondly, we know that if large quantities of mineral oil are taken into the body by way of the mouth over a prolonged period there is a tendency—and in some cases it does happen—for liquid paraffin tumours to form in certain parts of the body. Once formed they are not easily, if ever, dissipated without surgical interference.

Thirdly—this is by no means certain though we did suspect it and still do—if paraffin oil, liquid paraffin, particularly when heated, is taken by the mouth constantly, it may—and I put it no further than that—be carcinogenic. That is a suspicion which we must always bear in mind, and I think it is a suspicion which is generally accepted.

In November, 1954, we had the last amending Order before the present Regulations, and that was to allow a thin coating of wax to be applied to citrus fruit imported into this country. We discovered that the Order was laid before the House so that wax might be applied to fruit, and that the application was only one part per thousand parts of the weight of the citrus fruit itself. That was very little indeed. It applied only to citrus fruit, and in some cases to dried fruit.

In the Regulations which we are considering tonight there are, on the face of them, an alarming change. I say "on the face of them", because that is why we pray against these Regulations, in order to obtain information from the Parliamentary Secretary. Here we are allowing into the composition, either as a coating or as an intimate mixing of chewing gum, 12½ parts by weight per 100 parts—that is 12½ per cent.—of a special type of wax called micro-crystalline wax, and we know that that has not been so before. It has been used, however, in industry for sealing tins, I believe, or in the manufacture of special kinds of wax paper.

There are, therefore, three points to note: that we started in 1949 by allowing only one-fifth of 1 per cent. of mineral oil to be mixed with our food; that in November, 1954, we spoke of 1/1000th part in citrus fruit, and that now we speak in terms of 12½ per cent. by weight in gum which is to be chewed, chewing gum. I therefore ask some questions, if I may. First of all, why is it inserted into the body of the substance called chewing gum? Is it to prevent the gum from becoming stale? I suspected, in part at least, that that might be the case, and on Thursday, 9th February, I asked the Minister whether that was so, because I asked what substances he was prescribing for the purpose of preventing the staling of chewing gum, and he said there were none. It may be he was perhaps mistaken, in part, at least.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Harmar Nicholls)indicated dissent.

Dr. Stross

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will enlighten us further in his reply.

There has also been a tendency in the trade to find something which will prevent chewing gum from becoming brittle and stale. At one time we were worried when we found that in another country— I think never in Great Britain—an artificial and chemical substance which had been used to prevent staling was later proved to be quite definitely carciono-genic, because it caused—experimentally —on animals tumours of the liver, and was therefore forbidden in the country to which I am referring. I do not think it was used here at all, and I am certain it would never be permitted to be used here.

There is another question. Why is such a high percentage of mycrocrystalline wax needed? Also, can the Parliamentary Secretary give us a complete assurance—and we should like to have it—that this substance, unlike liquid paraffin, this substance being a wax, and a fairly hard wax, is not absorbed through the gut, or, if it is, in only very tiny amounts, if at all? We should like to have an assurance that, so far as we know, it is not capable of absorption through the gut into the body tissues.

Captain J. A. L. Duncan (South Angus)

As the hon. Gentleman knows so much about chewing gum, I wonder whether I could ask him what chewing gum is, and whether it is a food?

Dr. Stross

It is technically a food now, for this purpose, but, of course, it is not a food at all and has no food value in the sense that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has in mind.

I am not an expert on chewing gum. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater), if she were here, could have told us something about chewing gum in an expert fashion, for she has advised me that when she was a schoolteacher she could smell it being chewed, as it has, apparently, a savour. She used to forbid it in school, and when she married the children from her school sent her a very large parcel of chewing gum, knowing how much she disliked it. I know very little about chewing gum myself, for I do not chew it, and I have not done so since I was about 11 years of age.

Almost my last question, therefore, is to ask whether there is no vegetable oil available that could be used. I have heard—it may not be true—that another well-known firm, and one that manufactures not in this country—I will not mention its name; it would be wrong to do so—vaunts or boasts that it uses a special and mysterious vegetable oil. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary knows of it.

If the purpose of these Regulations is only so that children can blow bubbles with their gum when they chew it, calling it bubble-gum—that it is delectable to add 12½ parts per hundred of this wax— I shall not object, for children seem to enjoy it. All that we are asking tonight is for assurances that it will not do them any harm.

11.1 p.m.

Dr. A. D. D. Broughton (Batley and Morley)

I beg to second the Motion.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross), I seek from the Minister an assurance that the public will not suffer as a result of the Regulations. As my hon. Friend explained, there is strong medical evidence suggesting that mineral oils can have a very injurious effect in the human body. That knowledge has come about partly as a result of experiments and partly as the result of experience gained during the war, when, owing to a shortage of animal and vegetable fats, some housewives used mineral oils in the preparation of certain foodstuffs such as cakes and other forms of confectionery.

It is well known to the Minister that there is this possible danger from the ingestion of mineral oils, and it is because it is known to him and was known to his predecessors that the previous Regulations specified that these mineral substances could be used in food only in the smallest amounts. Now, we are considering Regulations which permit 12.5 parts of a wax of mineral origin to be used per hundred parts of chewing gum. As my hon. Friend said, this seems to be an astonishingly large amount to be permitted, and because it is such a large amount we want an assurance that it will not be harmful to people who enjoy chewing gum.

I would like an assurance from the Minister that this microcrystalline wax is not soluble in saliva. Although chewing gum is used for chewing, there are people who, perhaps by mistake, sometimes swallow it, and I should like an assurance that it is not soluble in gastric juice or in intestinal juice. In other words, I want the Minister to state quite clearly whether any of it can be absorbed into the human body.

If the hon. Gentleman cannot give that assurance, it is likely that this substance may be dangerous. On the other hand, if he can give an assurance that none of it is absorbed at all in any way, I cannot see that there is any harm in having this quantity of this particular wax of mineral origin in chewing gum.

11.5 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr, Harmar Nicholls)

The outstanding question that both the mover and the seconder of this Motion, the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) and Batley and Morley (Dr. Broughton) have put to me comes under the heading of "The dangers that could flow from human absorption of mineral oils from chewing gum." They have asked if I can give the assurance that these Regulations, which permit a higher degree of tolerance as far as chewing gum is concerned, do not involve a greater degree of danger than those which we have already agreed to in relation to citrus fruits and dried fruits.

At once I can assure the hon. Members that there is no such danger, because although the proportion of mineral oil permitted is higher, it is part of the actual base which is not intended to be, and rarely is, swallowed, whereas in relation to citrus fruits, the wax was round the edge, and was actually consumed, and there was a risk that that smaller amount could be absorbed. But that is not so with chewing gum compounds.

The mineral oil, which is a micro-crystalline wax, is not intended to be ingested or swallowed—that is not part of the exercise of chewing gum. I think we all know that the whole purpose of chewing gum is to discard the worn-out residue when one has finished one's chewing, and it is that residue which contains the wax to which reference has been made. I can assure the hon. Members that there is no danger at all from the actual process of chewing.

It is perhaps not generally known that this wax is, as I have said, not a coating, but an actual, integral part of the base itself. And as the melting point of this wax is, owing to its particular physical characteristics, which are known to both hon. Members who have spoken, considerably higher than the normal body temperature, the wax is not liable to absorption either as a result of mastication or if inadvertently it is swallowed and actually goes into the body.

Finally, the point which I should emphasise to satisfy the hon. Members is that the specification of purity which is embodied in these Regulations is very strict in respect of the purity of this particular wax and ensures complete freedom from unsaturated hydrocarbons. It has the effect that if, in chewing, a small particle should be separated from the base and swallowed, there would not be any risk to health. That is one of the assurances which the hon. Gentlemen wanted.

The hon. Members may like to know that reputable manufacturers, who for some years past have been using this wax in chewing compounds, have carried out tests, which show how very rarely these particles are separated from the base. I was told, for example, that one of these firms arranged for samples of their products to be chewed. I was personally very interested when I heard that, and I conjured up visions of groups of people queuing up to apply for the job of professional chewers. I saw them there, with the precision of the cows, really getting on with the job. But the firm went to some trouble to see whether people who really knew how to chew could break off these particles, and it was found that it very rarely happened.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central reminded us of the Question which he put to my right hon. Friend the other day. He appears to think that this wax is added to prevent the gum from going stale. My right hon. Friend was not giving an off-the-cuff Answer in saying that was not correct. He was completely correct. The wax is not included for that purpose at all. Its object is purely technical. It is to increase the plasticity and reduce the tackiness. It is not used to prevent staleness but to make the chewing gum a better chew than it would otherwise be. That is, I think, the best non-technical explanation I have been able to sort out of the long words that have been given to me. We understand that manufacturers in this country do not include any chemical preservative to keep chewing gum from going stale. Either it does not go stale or it just goes stale. That is the position.

It will be gathered from what I have said that the possibility of the dreadful consequences to which both hon. Gentlemen referred does not exist. I want again to stress that the Regulations embody this very strict specification of purity. The specification is very high in that respect. I know that the two hon. Gentlemen who have spoken would be the first to recognise the excellent record that the United States of America and Canada have in protecting consumers against impurities and harmful substances in food. They have really gone to great lengths in those countries to achieve a very high standard indeed.

I learn that in the United States, with its very high standard, no objection has been raised to the incorporation of what are termed there harmless non-nutritive substances in chewing gum. The Americans do know something about chewing gum—it is one of their outstanding national characteristics—and in this respect they can be prayed in aid as experts. As I say, they find no difficulty in allowing this harmless non-nutritive substance which, in their case as in ours, is the microcrystalline wax.

Similarly, in Canada the law expressly exempts chewing compounds from the general legal provisions, and the legal provisions in Canada, as hon. Members will know, are that not more than 0.3 per cent, of mineral oil may be present in any food. The standards there are high in these matters, but in this instance we have gone even further.

In these Regulations we have limited the amount of wax which may be present in chewing compounds—and I hope that I have explained the difference between its forming a coating and being part of the base. When it is a coating, it may be swallowed, but when it is part of the base it almost never is. In addition to limiting the amount, we have insisted upon this very high specification of purity. In certain respects the standard which we have insisted upon here is perhaps stricter than that insisted upon in the British Pharmacopoeia for liquid paraffin for medical purposes, a fact which I am sure will strongly impress itself upon the two hon. Gentlemen, both of whom are members of the medical profession.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central has again shown himself very keenly concerned about food purity, and I admire his tenacity in pursuing what he believes to be a righteous cause. I am glad that on this occasion I find myself in so much agreement with him. I recognise the importance of the points which he has raised, and hope that he will find my explanation sufficient to dispel the doubts that perhaps the wording of the Regulations has left with him.

Dr. Stross

In view of the assurance given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.