HC Deb 31 January 1961 vol 633 cc933-43

11.1 p.m.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent. South)

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Arsenic in Food (Amendment) Regulations, 1960 (S.I., 1960, No. 2261), dated 7th December 1960, a copy of which was laid before this House on 13th December, be annulled.

I recognise that our time for debate has been shortened as a result of our previous discussion and that I must be expeditious in my remarks in order to give the Parliamentary Secretary time to answer me.

These Regulations seek to amend the Arsenic in Food Regulations, 1959, and, quite narrowly, their purpose is to allow an increase from two parts per million to five parts per million the maximum amount of arsenic permitted to be present in brewers' yeast intended for use by manufacturers in the manufacture of yeast products.

We are, naturally, concerned about any addition, however small, in the amount of arsenic which we, as a population, may have to take into our bodies. There are tiny, minimal amounts of arsenic in our cells, bones and blood, but we have no method of protecting ourselves against arsenic in a way that certain other forms of life have—which I will touch upon in a moment—and no marked tolerance for it, although there is a considerable variation in susceptibility.

I want the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us, first, what are the products mentioned in the Statutory Instrument which are to be made up by manufacturers from brewers' yeast into the yeast products so specified. If we are faced with only a limited number of articles and products, and if those products are such that only small amounts are normally taken into the diet and are not associated with any staple food, we shall feel less nervous and shall have some confidence that there is no serious danger to be faced by the public.

Secondly, why is this exception being made today? It was not thought necessary in 1959, and yet we are making it within one year. If we were asked to accept five parts per million of arsenic in any staple food or drink, such as milk, or if it were present in water, we would not only feel aggrieved; we could not possibly allow it to happen. Nor would it be possible for the Minister and his advisers to bring such Regulations before the House.

The background and history of our hesitations about this go back to about 1900, when we had a massive number of cases of poisoning by arsenic in beer in Staffordshire and Lancashire, and we had a Royal Commission which recommended how the public should be protected. Its conclusions still hold, although they have never been given statutory effect. The courts have held that the maximum amounts of arsenic which the Royal Commission suggested should enter into food or drink are the correct amounts, and judgments have been given upon that basis. Their view at that time, and it still holds in the main, was that one-hundredth of a grain to a gallon in fluid—in those days it was beer—should be the maximum and, for food, one-hundredth of a grain should be the maximum per 1b. of solid food. These limits have been accepted for nearly sixty years.

I note that in a recommendation of 1955 the Food Standards Committee, reporting on arsenic, was quite specific when it said that, by and large, these standards were correct, although it wanted to make certain exceptions; and I will list one or two in a moment. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has brought to my notice a most interesting case which occurred in 1903 and which is worth bringing to the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary. A case was brought before a judge and jury in which a Lancashire man claimed to have been poisoned by arsenic through drinking beer. He was awarded £50 damages.

The allegation of the plaintiff was that the beer contained arsenic and that he suffered from arsenical poisoning. The jury, in answer to a question by the learned judge, said that they were satisfied that the plaintiff's illness was caused by arsenical poisoning due to the defendant's beer, and was contributed to exceedingly by excessive drinking. Nevertheless, on appeal, he won his case and retained his £50. I am not sure whether I have been strictly in order in doing so, but the opportunity to quote such an interesting case, going back to 1903, was beyond my capacity to resist.

I mentioned the Food Standards Committee and its recommendation in 1955. It is interesting that it pointed out that it was very difficult for good commercial practice to handle limits in foodstuffs of the kind in the recommendations of the Royal Commission sixty years ago. I wish to put one or two interesting points to the Parliamentary Secretary. Has he noticed, for example, that in 1955 the Committee suggested that black beer could have five times as much as the normal allowance for ordinary beer, namely, 0.5 parts to the million?

I do not know whether we may be given some information about that, whether we should be at risk, or how much we should have to drink to be at risk. Has he noticed that ice cream and iced lollies and similar frozen confections contain 0.5 parts to the million? I must be careful in case it is argued that brewers' yeast will not go into iced lollies or ice cream. I had better not quote chalk—that would be out of order—but we who nibble away at the cliffs of Dover because of duodenal and gastric ulcers, or add chalk to flour in the making of bread, have to be careful about the cumulative effect of these tiny amounts of arsenic in our diet.

That is why I think that I am in order in mentioning these things. In isolation, they would never worry us. But all these things, taken together, and others which I have not the time to mention, are sources of arsenical poisoning. Other matters which worry us are things like spraying fruit, apples and pears, and sometimes cabbages and celery. We have had trouble in the past over those things and some years ago steps had to be taken to see that the arsenical residue on apple skins was washed off by special treatment. I am happy to know that, although they are susceptible to arsenical poisoning and die from it, bees do not pass arsenic into honey.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

The hon. Member said that he hoped that I should be able to answer certain questions, but, Mr. Speaker, you will allow me to answer only those questions which are in order. The hon. Member is going a little wide of the Regulations, time is short and I hope that he will not lead me too far astray.

Dr. Stross

I will be very careful. We have until 11.30 p.m. for the debate and I am watching the clock. I will allow the hon. Member as much time as I myself take. In fact, these matters are not wide of the Regulations, although if the hon. Member feels that he cannot answer on these matters I shall not object. I am pointing out to him that it is essential to bear the whole situation in mind. Some years ago, for example, there was a wrapping paper which wrapped a certain type of chocolate which was found to contain 5,000 p.p.m. of arsenic.

Mr. Speaker

But that was not made of brewers' yeast.

Dr. Stross

You will observe, Mr. Speaker, that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health is present. We are dealing with something which might cause poisoning in susceptible people. It is connected with arsenic in food, which is the subject dealt with by the Regulations. But I do not want to make heavy weather of it, and I will turn to the subject of fish, which has been discussed ad nauseam all day. Had I the time I should have said—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Not with the permission of the Chair. I must ask the hon. Member to direct his observations to the Regulations.

Dr. Stross

I ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary whether he realises the variations in the susceptibility of different people to tiny amounts of arsenic. We know from the Royal Commission and from experience that enormous amounts are innocuous to some people and that tiny amounts may cause paralysis and other serious symptoms of poisoning in others. It is for such reasons, and not because I have fears about this matter in itself, that I have asked the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to answer some of the queries which I put to him. I regret that I have appeared to give a little information myself, I regret that the time is late and I regret that you, Mr. Speaker, may have felt that sometimes I was going a little wide of the Regulations, but this information is needed, the public are entitled to it, and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will supply it.

11.13 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

We are discussing a very small set of Regulations which are an amendment to Regulations which were passed only a short time ago. It is natural that I have been asked to explain why we find it necessary to introduce the amendment, not least because, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) said, arsenic is dangerous. That is the reason for the very existence of these Regulations.

I ought to make it clear from the start that this is a very small amendment and that it in no way increases the amount of arsenic permitted in any food sold to the public. That is most important. It affects only one product—and that is not bees, or honey, or iced lollies, or shell fish, although the latter contain a certain amount of arsenic, which was not mentioned in the earlier debate today. It affects one product only—brewers' yeast, which is essentially a product for manufacture.

If, as is most unlikely, brewers' yeast were to be sold direct to the consumer, it would not be intended for use by manufacturers in the manufacture of yeast products", which is the limiting sentence in the Regulations, and would, therefore, be subject to the general limit for yeast and yeast products of two parts per million. Therefore, if any part of the yeast were sold to the public as food or food products, it would, unless it conformed to the scale laid down in the general Regulations, be an offence.

The sort of products which are made from the yeast we are discussing are yeast foods—I believe that Marmite is an example—some forms of drugs, and certain yeast pills, but it is not any staple food which any of us is likely to consume in any large quantity. The semi-cumulative effect of arsenic is not through the amending Regulations in any way likely to amount to a hazard to the human race.

Dr. Stross

My attention has been drawn to the fact that some examples of imported brewers' yeast contain as much as seventeen parts per million. If that is so, is it being watched? We are here dealing with a limit of five parts per million.

Mr. Vane

That would be an offence, because it does not matter if it is manufactured in this country or imported. If it is yeast and yeast products intended for manufacture and the amending Regulations are passed, it will be subject to the limit here. Any yeast which is sold in the form of food to the public is subject to the tighter scale in the general Regulations. It is not true to suppose that if yeast of that higher content were imported—I have no evidence showing that it is as high as that—it would be in any way outside these controls.

If the brewers' yeast is subject to further manufacture, and still contains more than two parts per million, an offence will still be committed if it is then sold to the public. We make no change to that provision. Therefore, the protection given to the consumer by the main Regulations of 1959 is in no way diminished by the amendment.

Members ask why we want the amendment at all. It is because, after the main Regulations were made, following the widest consultation, we were approached by the Brewers' Society, which pointed out that brewers' yeast, as it grows in the course of the fermentation of beer, absorbs certain elements, including arsenic from the beer. The amount of arsenic which will be present in the resulting brewers' yeast will depend on the amount of arsenic in the brewer's raw materials and the fuel he uses. This includes anthracite used in malting and hop drying, and in anthracite there are traces of arsenic which become transferred to the yeast through the hops. That is a very long story, but the amount of arsenic is infinitesimal. None the less, it is likely to bring it above the scale in the general Regulations.

I am advised that it is impossible for brewers always to obtain fuel with a very low arsenic content and that the best fuel for the purpose, some anthracite, has an arsenic content. Neither is it possible to reduce the arsenic content of the yeast before it leaves the brewers. Pressed yeast deteriorates rapidly at room temperature and it is. therefore, essential to remove it from the brewers to the manufacturers with the least possible delay. In the process of manufacture it will have to be reduced before it can be sold to the public in any form of yeast or yeast food. The result of this is that probably about one-third of all brewers' yeast contains arsenic in excess of two parts per million.

The further extractory processes used by the yeast food manufacturers remove the arsenic and other trace metals, and therefore the final product sold to the public contains less arsenic than the permitted two parts per million. We are concerned now simply with one stage of the manufacturing process. It seemed to us that this was a case of genuine difficulty during the course of manufacturing processes, and that it was one which could be met without any hazard to the consumer.

I am glad to say that, when we consulted the interested parties, including the enforcement authorities and the other organisations concerned with the administration of the Foods and Drugs Act, all the comments we received were in favour of the making of this amendment. This is only a small amendment. It merely allows arsenic to be removed from brewers' yeast at the most convenient point in the process of making yeast products.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that arsenic can easily become a danger to health, and he also said that the cumulative effect differed from person to person. Those who have read detective stories and a certain sort of literature are probably familiar with many stories based on arsenical poisoning, many of them extremely far-fetched. I cannot help tonight calling to mind one of Dorothy Sayers's stories, in which a namesake of mine called Harriet was engaged in one of these operations. The story was based on the fact that there were two people one of whom was much more susceptible to arsenic than the other. I am told that sound medical opinion does not entirely support Dorothy Sayers.

However, that is by the way. What we are concerned with here is an extremely small amendment dealing with the manufacturing process. It in no way increases the infinitesimal arsenic con- tent in any food which reaches the people. It in no way increases the hazard. Therefore, I hope that the House will appreciate this and will not press the Prayer against the Regulations.

11.21 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

The hon. Gentleman need not be surprised at having a Prayer against these Regulations. This cheerful Instrument was, I think, the Government's last effort by way of Statutory Instrument before Christmas, just as the Human Tissue Bill was their last statutory effort before Christmas—two good Christmas presents for the public. There is one thing that the hon. Gentleman has not explained. He says to us now that it is all right, that we can have five parts per million in brewers' yeast—

Mr. Vane

Yes, for manufacturing.

Mr. Mitchison

Yes, for manufacturing, but I have in mind a particular product—Marmite. I do not wish to say anything against it; it is quite tasty. I often put bits of it on toast. So do various friends of mind.

Mr. Vane

I think the hon. and learned Gentleman misunderstands the Regulations. He will find we are permitting no increase in arsenic in his favourite tasty sandwich spread. The law, so far as Marmite is concerned, remains unchanged.

Mr. Mitchison

Yes, but that does not quite meet the case.

Two parts per million was put in the original Regulations for brewers' yeast intended for use in the manufacture, among other things, of Marmite—

Mr. Vane


Mr. Mitchison:—but it was put in for some reason. Presumably the reason it was put in was because it was thought that was good enough, but it is now being multiplied by two and a half times. I agree that the result will be five parts per million, but the result will be two and a half times what it was originally.

Mr. Vane

No. The hon. and learned Gentleman has got it wrong. Perhaps I did not make it clear. This increase during a certain stage of manufacturing process of yeast pills which he may have an addiction to, or Marmite, or any of the other yeast products, will, in future, be subject to exactly the same limit as before. There is no change at all in the arsenical content permitted in anything which he may have been in the habit of buying in a shop.

Mr. Mitchison

I am perfectly well aware of what the hon. Gentleman has said, not for the first time, but the fact is that the original Regulations provided that brewers' yeast intended for use by the manufacturer in the manufacture of Marmite should not exceed two parts per million. An amendment is now introduced to raise that limit to five parts per million. The hon. Gentleman says that will not make any difference to the Marmite. My answer to that is that it must make some difference to the Marmite, and the hon. Gentleman does not make it any better by telling us where the arsenic comes from. It comes out of the beer. The hon. Gentleman told us so. Arsenic in beer is an old story—older even than Miss Dorothy Sayers. I do not, of course, refer to Miss Sayers' age, but to her sound standing as a novelist.

If the Government consult the Brewers' Society—and we all know about the understanding between the Tory Party and the brewers—and then, just before Christmas, introduce a Regulation that says, in effect, "What we thought was safe before is quite all right and it can now be multiplied by two and a half times" one can only ask the Government "Why did you put the original 2 per cent. in? Upon what basis was that percentage founded?"

When, further, the Parliamentary Secretary tells us that he had a good talk with the enforcement officers, he confirms my suspicion that what was really happening was that the original 2 per cent. Regulation was unenforceable and was being broken wholesale; that, as a result, a new amending Regulation was brought in to give statutory sanction to what, in fact, the brewers had been doing—they are not as virtuous as all that—and that this innocent-looking Regulation really conceals, in the first place, a misjudgment by the Government in the original Regulation and, secondly—and quite obviously—the misdoings of some other people during the period when the original Regulation was in force.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will feel that what has happened has been an act of repentance—I was about to say a timely act of repentance—and of recognition that the law must be enforced and all that, but that it is rather a dangerous one. Timed, as it were, as a Christmas present to the British people, it confirmed all their suspicions about a Government that enable more arsenic to be put in their beer just before Christmas and, at the same time, provides for the disposal of the corpses in a public-spirited fashion.

Dr. Stross

Mr. Speaker, as I recognise that good commercial practice, and enforceable practice, requires this Regulation, and that the end products are unchanged when they are presented to human beings, and, with great respect, that even prawns have in them 170 parts of arsenic per million—but it does no harm because it is in a different form—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.