HC Deb 11 July 1957 vol 573 cc625-32

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

6.55 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Irving (Dartford)

I acknowledge with appreciation the presence of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The issue I want to raise is that of the methods of disposal by his Ministry of 19,000 tons, or 167 million tins, of full cream, unsweetened milk, declared surplus to requirements after the end of control in March, 1954, and, in particular, the totally inadequate provisions which were adopted to ensure the enforcement of the conditions for the protection of the public which the right hon. Gentleman and his Ministry thought necessary at the time.

This milk was sold under covenant which declared that it should not be sold through the retail trade and that it should be sold only for manufacturing purposes, for animal feeding, or for export. Only too late it was discovered that the covenant was valueless, that it did not run with the goods, and, therefore, could not be passed further than the person with whom the covenant was made. It has been found that perhaps millions of these tins have got into the hands of third parties over whom the Minister has no control.

This has caused considerable embarrassment to the manufacturers concerned and has allowed a flood of this sort of commodity on to the market purporting to be fresh milk. The public has been invited to buy the milk, not realising that some of it may be three or four years old. I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman why it was not foreseen that the covenant would be completely valueless and unenforceable over third parties, where it required to be enforceable, and why the tins were not marked, or the milk not bulked, as was finally necessary with the remainder of the milk, when it was put on the market.

I admit that since I and other hon. Members raised the matter the appalling complexity of the position has been made clear. In a supplementary question on 4th April, I said that a firm, Messrs. George Mence Smith, Ltd., was involved in this sort of transaction. The firm has now told me that it has never purchased from the Ministry of Food or from any other Government Department or any agency stocks of tinned milk of doubtful age or unfit for human consumption, and it has said most emphatically that it would never even contemplate retailing such goods to the public for consumption. I am very happy to have that assurance and glad to pass it on to the House.

However, it is common ground and acknowledged by the right hon. Gentleman that this milk is on the market and at this very moment is on sale to the public and still purporting to be fresh milk when it may be very old. From my constituency have come reports of cases of such milk produced in 1953 on sale as milk which the manufacturers would not regard as fresh milk. Analysis has shown it to be discoloured and the tins etched with rust, a fairly clear indication, apart from the manufacturers' views, of age.

Since the matter was first raised, with all the difficulties of proof, a case has been determined in the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court where Mr. Justice Stable in the case of the United Dairies v. Thomas Robinson, Sons & Co. Ltd. declared that it was a misrepresentation to sell as fresh milk, milk which was older than six months.

In reply to a series of Questions in April the Minister undertook to make inquiries and to consider what action could be taken for the enforcement of the covenants and the protection of the public at that time and in the future. He said that it was possible that some of these firms would be barred from receiving future supplies from his Ministry. I should like to know what steps, if any, the right hon. Gentleman has taken to enforce this covenant in any case, if there are any cases, and what firms have been barred from receiving supplies of this sort, either of milk or of other commodities.

I know that in my constituency, apart from the supplies from the Ministry, there are fairly substantial quantities of defective canned foods available in the shops. Quite recently a local authority in northwest Kent applied to the magistrates for, and got, an order for the destruction of some of those foods. It is suspected by some of those authorities that, although most of these foods are not from the Ministry, some of them are. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman what other foods of this kind have been disposed of to firms under covenants similar to those in respect of the tinned milk to which I have been referring.

It is extremely unfortunate that when this House has spent such a long time discussing pure and clean food the Government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, should allow these quantities of food to be placed on the market and so make it much more difficult for local authorities, at least morally, to enforce the regulations for clean food and the protection of the public.

I would ask the Minister if he has taken any steps to protect the public in this way, and especially if he will notify local authorities of the precise details of all foods which have been supplied and which were defective in this way—not necessarily unfit for human consumption but in any way defective, in the sense that they were at least stale. I should like him particularly to notify local authorities of the makes, the brands and the code numbers of such supplies, so that the public health inspectors may be alerted to the dangers that exist and keep a careful watch upon public protection. It is a very serious matter that this vast quantity of food should be on the market and that the degree of protection of the public to be expected from a Government Department should not be properly provided.

7.2 p.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Derick Heathcoat Amory)

The matter which the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Sydney Irving) has raised is a perfectly legitimate and proper one for examination. I am glad of this opportunity to say a few words about the disposal of this tinned milk, so that I may correct one or two misconceptions which have crept in, and also, perhaps, allay certain of the fears that have been expressed about this milk not being fit for human consumption.

In 1954 the Government decided to free the condensed milk trade and at that time my Department was left with very con- siderable stocks. Since then it has disposed, as the hon. Member said, of 167 million tins. I thought that the hon. Member said "tons" but it is "tins."

Mr. Irving

I said 19,000 tons—or 167 million tins.

Mr. Amory

I misunderstood the hon. Member. That is a very considerable quantity, but I think that we have disposed of it in a sensible and proper manner. The first thing we did at the time of decontrol was to offer this milk back to the original manufacturers, on the ground that we thought that the original manufacturers would be in the best position to dispose of it with the minimum disturbance to the trade, and also, as they would have their pride in the quality of their brand and their label, that that would be the best and most effective way of safeguarding the consumers' interest. More than half the stocks of 167 million tins were disposed of in this way. As far as that part of the condensed milk goes probably everything was all right.

Mr. John Stonehouse (Wednesbury)

Can the Minister give us some indication of the price at which these stocks were disposed of?

Mr. Amory

As I have said before, it has never been the practice to disclose the price at which commercial stocks have been disposed of individually. For commercial reasons, only aggregate figures are given. So I am not in a position to give the precise prices at which the various lots of this milk were disposed of.

The quantity that remained, which was less than half the total quantity, represented entirely condensed milk manufactured between 1952 and 1954, and not the old wartime supplies. At that time the Department told the manufacturers that it proposed to dispose of this milk with as little loss to the taxpayers as possible but that, at the same time, it did not want to do anything to disrupt the trade to such an extent that the interruption would interfere with the trade taking fresh condensed milk made from the surplus milk at the time of the annual spring flush.

It was, therefore, agreed that any sales from the Department's stocks would be subject to a condition excluding sales through retail channels on the home market. So, as the hon. Member has said, these stocks were sold either for export or for use in manufacture, or for stockfeed. In each case my Department required its customers to give an undertaking that the milk would be used in one of those ways.

That was quite a normal and not an exceptional procedure for the disposal of stocks, the quality of which we could not warrant absolutely. We tried stripping the tins of their labels, but we found that this was an extremely costly business, which would be justified only if it were necessary in order to safeguard public health.

It has been said that in spite of these undertakings some of this milk has, in fact, found its way on to the retail market. I have no evidence as to the precise quantities, but I should be extremely surprised if the quantity that has found its way on to the retail market was anything like as considerable as the hon. Member implied, although there is some circumstantial evidence that some may have done.

Mr. Irving

I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if he denies the evidence given in the High Court, which led to a successful application by United Dairies in the case of United Dairies v. Thomas Robinson, Sons & Co. Ltd., which was concerned with the issue of that sort of milk. The evidence is available.

Mr. Amory

I should be glad to look into that point, but my information is that, while there is circumstantial evidence that some of the milk has got on to the market, there is no evidence that the quantity is at all considerable. However, many people, including hon. Members, have been rightly concerned lest the public should buy this tinned milk in the belief that it is freshly made.

When the matter was last raised in the House I gave assurances that I would have inquiries made, and I should like to explain to the House the legal position as revealed by those inquiries. The manufacturers of this milk gave a warranty of six months in respect of sweetened milk and twelve months for unsweetened—evaporated—milk when they sold it to the Ministry. After that they took no responsibility for the condition of the milk. This is not tantamount to saying that the milk is unfit for human consumption after the period of the warranty has expired. It is in fact normally quite wholesome for a number of years—so I am advised—the period depending upon the original type and quality of the milk and how it was stored. After a time, however, it can undoubtedly develop what might be called minor defects.

These minor defects would not, however, render the milk unfit for human consumption. They would render it unattractive by, for example, discolouration. It tends to turn a rather darker colour, and, in the case of sweetened milk, some of the sugar may sink to the bottom of the tin. In some cases small particles of the milk fat can separate and spoil the appearance of the milk. If storage has not been good, the tins show signs of rusting. It would obviously be wrong for the Government to sell milk which may be of that nature for the counter trade, not because of any risk to health, but because of the harm that might unwittingly be done to the good name of the original manufacturer who would normally sell the milk before it reached that condition.

I am advised that a trader who sold milk to the public, despite the undertaking he had entered into, would be acting illegally if the milk proved upon analysis to be unfit for human consumption when it was sold by him, or if the sale could be shown to be to the prejudice of the purchaser because the milk was not of the nature, substance or quality demanded by the purchaser. The latter might be the case if the trader had altered or re-labelled the tins in such a way as to misrepresent the contents. Those are the circumstances in which the breaking of the undertaking would be illegal. Of course, someone believed to have broken his undertaking could be proceeded against by civil action, but in that case damages would have to be proved.

To safeguard the public against danger in the first case we made a practice—this answers the question asked by the hon. Gentleman—of notifying local health and food and drug authorities in all the districts in which sales were made for animal feeding purposes. As a result, many samples were taken from the tins, but in no case that I have heard of was the milk found to be unfit for human consumption. Local authorities have, therefore, found no grounds for proceeding against the sellers on that account. The second offence, that of re-labelling deliberately, leading to misrepresentation, is one of a criminal nature, and the law for dealing with it already exists. Indeed, a prosecution was successfully brought by the police against certain persons found to have forged fascimiles of well-known labels and to have affixed them to tins of milk bought from my Department. The offence consisted not of selling the milk, but of forging the labels.

I believe that in this matter we have proceeded sensibly and reasonably. Though we have taken all the steps open to us to trace deliberate breaking of the undertakings, in the cases that we have investigated we have not found anything that could amount to proof of a deliberate breaking of it. We have gone into this question thoroughly, as indeed we ought to do. So far as we can discover, there has never been any question of danger to public health at all. My Department took what I believe were reasonable steps to ensure that the milk should not be offered for ordinary retail sale, and if, in fact, some tins have found their way into the retail trade, as I think there is circumstantial evidence for believing, they can have amounted to only an extremely small proportion of the very large quantities involved and no risk to public health has resulted.

Mr. Irving

May I ask the Minister whether there have been other foods of this kind issued by his Department in similar circumstances? At what stage were the public health authorities notified about this material being issued from his Department?

Mr. Amory

I have no specific information with me on the first point. I think it likely that there have been, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman and tell him. If he feels that there is any ground for anxiety resulting from the information I send him, no doubt he will raise the matter. I will give him such information as I have regarding his second point about the precise time at which local authorities were notified.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Seven o'clock.