HC Deb 28 May 1962 vol 660 cc1102-16

10.0 p.m.

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

I beg to move.

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Milk and Dairies (Emulsifiers and Stabilisers) Regulations. 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 721), dated 3rd April, 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th April, be annulled.

I should like to suggest to the House and to yourself, Mr. Speaker, that we should discuss at the same time the other Prayers: That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Emulsifiers and Stabilisers in Food Regulations, 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 720), dated 3rd April, 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th April, be annulled. That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Emulsifiers and Stabilisers in Food (Scotland) Regulations, 1962 (S.I., 1962, No. 779), dated 9th April, 1962, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th April, be annulled.

Mr. Speaker

Certainly, if the House so pleases.

Dr. Stross

I am grateful.

The purpose of the first set of Regulations is simple and straight forward. In effect, it means that no emulsifier or stabiliser shall be added to milk and that no person shall sell milk if it has been so treated. It was as long ago as 1899 that a committee of the Local Government Board was appointed to inquire into the addition of chemical substances and other materials to food. A report was made in 1901 and this was then followed by legislation forbidding the use of formalin or any other preservative in milk.

Formalin had been extensively used and it was known that it could cause irritation of the stomach and the intestines. The milk dealers at the time protested that they could not deliver into the towns and cities "sweet milk" —that is what they termed it—if they were not allowed to add formalin to milk. The Government of the day were adamant, however, and refused to listen to their representations. What happened was that those vendors of milk who were somewhat backward were compelled to take greater care to prevent dirt and filth from contaminating the milk which they sold, and all of us, have gained as a result of that.

In passing, it is interesting to note—and I know that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be aware of this —that later, in 1924, a Committee of the Ministry of Health again examined the whole of the problem. On this occasion it was the purveyors of cream who protested similarly when they were forbidden the use of borates in cream. Again the Government refused to take note of their complaints, and we all know that everyone has benefited from that and that we have been able to get fresher cream in our towns and cities, and that the fears expressed at the time were not well founded. The battle for clean milk has been long and arduous but, judging by these Regulations, it has been completely won. I very much doubt whether we shall be discussing milk again, in this comprehensive way for a long time, if ever, for we now have as clean and wholesome and healthy a kind of milk available to everyone in the country as is available, I suppose, in any advanced country.

Some time ago, certainly in the eighteenth century, milk sold in our towns was horrible and filthy. The popular method of avoiding this sort of contamination and filth, or watering of milk, which was commonplace, was to buy one's milk from cows which were driven around the streets—certainly in the West End of London—and which would stop outside one's door; a milkmaid rang the bell and, if one wanted milk, she milked the cow and delivered the milk. This was a reasonably safe method of procedure, but there was an even better method. In St. James's Park there grazed a herd of cows and the gentlefolk ordered the milk and drank it on the spot when the cow was milked.

I am tempted, in order to show why these procedures were adopted in those days, to read a very short section of what Smollett thought about milk in those days and about the way in which normal people normally got it. He said: But the milk itself should not pass un-analysed, the produce of faded cabbage-leaves. sour draff, lowered with hot water, frothed with bruised snails; carried through the streets in open pails, exposed to foul rinsings discharged from doors and windows, spittle, snot, and tobacco quids, from foot passengers; overflowings from mud carts, spatterings from coach-wheels, dirt and trash chucked into it by roguish boys for the joke's sake; the spewings of infants, who have slabbered in the tin measure, which is thrown back in that condition among the milk, for the benefit of the next customer; and, finally, the vermin that drops from the rags of the nasty drab that vends this precious mixture, under the respectable denomination of milk. I shall now leave the subject of milk, knowing that this will never happen to us again, but I ask one question of the Parliamentary Secretary, especially as I see that his Scottish colleague is sitting with him. We have this protection in respect of England and Wales, but I see no similar Regulations for Scotland. I have no doubt that there is a simple explanation, and it might be worth having it from the Parliamentary Secretary.

I now turn to the other Regulations. There is no difference whatsoever between the Scottish and English Regulations and everything that I say about the English one is true of the Scottish one, with perhaps a slight difference in respect of administration by different types of local authority.

The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith) indicated assent.

Dr. Stross

I see that the Under-Secretary of State agrees with me.

I welcome the Regulations, but I have some reservations about them which I wish to put to the Parliamentary Secretary. It may be that they are not well founded, but I put them in the hope that the hon. Member will give me all the reassurances I require. I note that the Regulations are based upon the Report of the Food Standards Committee, and that its Report was published in July, 1956. First, why has it taken six years for action in this matter? I presume that the recommendations were made after full discussion with the interested parties and after evidence was taken and papers were studied.

We are dealing with a most important subject, which affects every man, woman and child in the country, when we speak about chemicals added to our food. If we make a mistake it is quite possible that serious damage to the health of the community or to some members of it will occur.

The terms of reference given to the sub-committee in January, 1951, about eleven and a half years ago, were as follows: To review the Public Health (Preservatives etc. in Food) Regulations and make any recommendations considered desirable for the amendment of the regulations. These Regulations speak of stabilisers and emulsifiers and give a definition of the term which, very briefly, ought now to be offered to the House. These are substances capable of facilitating the uniform dispersion of oils and fats in aqueous media, or vice versa,and of stabilising such emulsions. This simply means that if we have oil and water they do not mix without an agent added to them enabling them to do so. A stabiliser is a substance that keeps them so emulsified, so that the emulsion does not come out.

These stabilisers and emulsifiers may be used because they possess other properties. For example, they may be and are used for improving the palatability of bread and confectionery, and they do it in a number of ways. They are termed "crumb softeners", or they can prevent the staling of bread. I believe that the French note our addiction to toast, and they accuse us of never having any bread that is not stale, and that is why we like toast so very much, but I have noticed that the toast-making habit is spreading even to France. They can also provide a froth, or, alternatively, can check the making of froth in substances and break it down. They can produce a plastic consistency in the foodstuff, and what is quite interesting and is very widely spread, they can be used for this purpose for adding to fats used for frying, because it reduces spatter, and anyone who cooks for him self knows how very uncomfortable hot spatter can be.

The history of the background to these Regulations is roughly as follows. It was in 1950 that a memorandum was submitted to the Ministers of Food and Health by a joint committee which consisted of the Society of Public Analysts and the Society of the Chemical Industry. This memorandum strongly recommended that the addition of substances of this nature—emulsifiers and stabilisers—should be brought under control. A little later, in 1951, there was a hearing before Congress in the United States on the subject of chemicals in food products. A good deal of evidence was given on this subject, and some of the substances we are discussing were actually mentioned and described. A good many fears were expressed about the use of some of them. It was said that they were poisonous to animals, that they prevented growth and that they caused ulcers in the stomach and so on. At that time, I studied this publication, or some of it, because it runs to about 1,100 pages, and some of it is quite interesting.

We must be quite clear about the fact that in the early days, before the chemical industry became as complex as it is today, substances of the type we are discussing were in use and had been in use from time immemorial, but they were natural substances and certainly could not do any harm. They had never been found to do any harm. Edible gums had been used in the baking trade, and dried egg and albumen were used for making meringues or marshmallows. One substance was used as a crumb softener, or, when added to oil for frying, gave it a delectable brown colour and there could be no harm from using it, because these are natural substances. With the vast complexity of the modern chemical industry, the use of highly complex substances was made available, and these substances could do the job a great deal better than the old-fashioned methods and were also cheaper. A little of them went a very long way.

These are synthetic substances, and fears were first openly expressed, to my knowledge, by the Chief Medical Officer advising the Minister in 1950. I have here an extract from his report, in which he issued a warning about these new synthetic substances, or at least some of them. I will give the reference, if it is worth while; it is page 111 of the 1950 Report on Toxic Substances in Food. He suggested that we should beware of adding to food any chemical or substance which is not found in any animal or plant tissue.

I first raised this matter in 1951 in a number of Questions and debate, and I raised it again in 1952. I think that the last time I spoke on the subject was on 27th November at seven o'clock in the morning, for about three-quarters of an hour. Those were strange days. We do not do that now.

In those days I did not receive much comfort from either side of the House, from the Labour Government when I started or from the Conservative spokesmen later. I kept asking for what I called the pharmacopoeia of substances, to enable a manufacturer to know what he should use and to give advice, and outside of which he must not go. Today it is called a "permitted list". It was then thought not possible. But it is interesting to see that tonight it is found to be possible; and it is a great pleasure for me to be able to stand here and say so and to say how happy we must all be that at long last this has happened and that we can feel we have made great progress.

At that time the manufacturers appeared to feel strongly that they must not be barred from using any or every substance that was not known to be harmful. We took the other view, and the view taken in these Regulations, that, first, a list must be prepared of items of which one can be as sure as possible that they are not harmful, and that the manufacturer be limited to that list. That is a very different matter and there is very much less chance of any damage ever being done to the health of our people by using this technique.

The sub-committee was quite firm in its recommendation and used this phrase control can best be exercised by prescribing the list of permitted substances. A little later in the Report on which the Regulations are now based it stated: We would particularly emphasise the importance of ensuring that new substances are not added to food until their freedom from health hazard has been adequately demonstrated. I now ask two questions of the Parliamentary Secretary. If he will turn to the Regulations and look at the First Schedule, on page 7, he will see that the permitted emulsifiers and the permitted stabilisers number ten. Some of them are in groups but there are ten listed names. Two of these are: Sorbitan esters of fatty acids and their polyoxyethylene derivatives and Sodium carboxymethyl cellulose". These were both mentioned by the medical officer in 1950 as substances he felt we should beware of. Therefore, should like to ask why they have come into this permitted list. I know that what we call them—" Sorbitan esters of fatty acids and their polyoxyethylene derivatives "—were considered dangerous in the evidence given in the United States before the Committee of Congress. I know that in 1953 that was still the view in the United States. But later, very high doses were given to animals and found not to be harmful. A British product called P.O.E.S.—polyoxyethylene stearate —is permitted. This is one which I think was found, in its pure form and free from any impurities, apparently to cause no harm in the animal experiment. The other one is classified "A" by the Committee, meaning that it is free from hazard; but again, the Committee says, in its completely pure form.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell me whether it is that there were impurities which caused the damage when the early tests were made? It could be that. At any rate I should like an explanation why these two substances are in this premitted list. All the others quite obviously are not harmful. I should add that lots more will be used but they are all more or less natural ones. They are not put into the permitted list, because it is taken for granted that they naturally and rightly can be used without damage.

The other question I put to the Parliamentary Secretary is this. In Regulation 2, paragraph 3, it is made apparent that although we forbid anything outside the permitted list for our own people we may for export purposes use other stabilisers and emulsifiers which we do not allow for our own folk. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why that is so? Will he tell us if it is quite fair that we should do this? It might be that other countries demand these things and have no regulations to protect their people in the way that we are protecting our people.

If that be so, I must make a request to the Parliamentary Secretary, which I think should please him and I hope he will comply with it. Will he promise to consider if it would be possible to convene, as soon as it is feasible, an international gathering of people from different countries, certainly those in Western Europe, interested in these matters so that we can see if an international standard as good as ours can be achieved by all? This would take from us the embarrassment of exporting something which we think is not good enough for our own people. I hope that he will take that modest request seriously and not brush it aside.

You will note, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that I have made very few complaints and I have asked only three main questions. There is so much in these Regulations that we have always wanted to find. For example, there may be no emulsifier or stabiliser added to flour under any circumstances. We also find that there are only two—and two which we are pretty sure are safe—not mentioned in this list which may be used in bread making. This takes us a long way on the path we ought to travel.

With your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and the permission of the House, I put it to the Parliamentary Secretary that we should not be discussing these Regulations at this time but for the fact that a former Member of Parliament, who was also a famous medical man and a very great one, Dr. Thomas Wakley, who died 100 years ago, was the first person to bring about legislation of this type in this House—and that was after ten years of agitation.

He is, of course, best known for his maiden speech of two-and-a-half hours. which brought the release of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but his last work in the last ten years of his life was in this field. He founded the Lancetand campaigned strenuously against corruption and so on among his medical colleagues who did not behave as well as he thought they should. He founded the Lancet Analytical Sanitary Commission in 1851. He examined microscopically and by rudimentary methods in those days many forms of foodstuffs to see what additives were put into them and how adulterants were employed. By 1858 it was estimated that adulteration had been reduced to one-tenth as a result of his work.

It is due to him that we have out public analysts. It is because of his work that in 1960 the first Act to control the addition of chemicals to food was passed in this House. As I said, it was the last of his work and perhaps the greatest. I am sure he would have liked to be here tonight to see his work so far advanced.

10.25 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

Before the Parliamentary Secretary replies, I should like to take a moment or two to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) for what I thought was one of the most interesting speeches I have heard in this House. He wears his learning very lightly and very agreeably. He uses it, I believe, in the interests of humanity. We have heard tonight words which were easy to listen to, but which import, I feel, a great knowledge of the subject and a great enthusiasm for the cause of public health in this matter.

I agree respectfully, as one should agree in this case respectfully, with the questions which he put to the Parliamentary Secretary, particularly those directed to the length of time and the very remarkable position which was disclosed about our exports. I hope that if we are to join the Six, we shall not poison them first.

10.26 p.m.

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

I was glad that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) welcomed these Regulations. I always admire the ease with which he appears to travel over this field, which for most of us presents many difficulties, not just because of the length of the words which it is necessary to employ but also because of the general complexity of the problems.

The hon. Member told me that he would make a reference to Dr. Wakley, and I took the opportunity to look him up in the Dictionary of National Biography. The hon. Member has many of the same characteristics as Dr. Wakley—not only a knowledge of medicine, but also a readiness and eagerness to fight injustice, particularly where he finds it allied with power. I only hope that he does not meet one of the unfortunate events which befell Dr. Wakley, who stirred up so many enemies at one point that they burned down his house. 1 sincerely hope that that does not befall him.

These Regulations are one further step forward in the job of protecting the consumer from risks to health. As the hon. Member said, we are here largely concerned with the products of the modern inventive age, with the stimulus given to the use of many of these chemicals, not least in the interests of economy. We try to distinguish here between traditional products, such as the gelatines and gums which are not affected by these regulations—they are specially excepted —and many new substances with ever-longer names and varying properties. As he said, we have now put together a permitted list and, in order to be respectable, it is necessary to earn a place on that permitted list—something for which the hon. Member has pressed for a number of years.

There has been some reference to the length of time which we have taken, but I must say that every few months since I have held this office I seem to have been at this Box defending Regulations dealing with arsenic or lead or colours or anti-oxidants or fluorine in food, and now it is emulsifiers and stabilisers. I promise the hon. Member that it will not be very long before there is another in the same series.

I will try to reply to some of the detailed questions which the hon. Member put to me. In the main, these Regulations are intended to extend the protection already provided for the consumer in respect of chemical additions to food. That is a subject of very great interest, as we know from the letters which we receive from our constituents. It is not just a technical question, but one in which a wide interest is taken. We must admit that regulations in this respect are always difficult and complex. On the one hand, we have the paramount interest, which is the safety of the consumer, but, at the same time, we do not want reasonable technological advances to be unnecessarily hindered. It is because of the need to consider a mass of evidence that regulations in this field often take what seems a very long time in preparation. New evidence is being produced all the time. We are not considering a static subject. It is our aim to try to cover the whole field of chemical additives as quickly as we can.

I turn to the question of time. I refer to the time that has elapsed between the original reference to the Preservatives Sub-Committee and the Report of the Food Standards Committee and the further lapse of time between the presentation of that Report and the appearance of these resulting Regulations. I admit that it has been a long time. I can recall that this same criticism has been voiced when we have debated other Regulations in this series. I should not like to guarantee that there will not be some grounds for repeating it when we discuss the next series. I remind hon. Members that during this time we have not just been considering one narrow field. During this time those responsible technically for these things have been dealing with the entire field. This is just one of the pieces of work with which they have been dealing. They have had to consider a very wide range of additives. Each of them has required a great deal of detailed evidence.

Between the presentation of the Report and the drafting and writing of these Regulations there are virtually the same reasons for delay. There are a great many people and interests. One has to discuss. One has to consult. What we want in the end is Regulations which are generally accepted to be fair and which will not cause great difficulties in enforcement. Because we are concerned with public health, we want something in which there is a general measure of agreement and which will not cause friction, because, if it did, much of the good which we should like to do could so easily be undone.

As I have said, the picture is not static. I could even plead that on the preparation of these Regulations we should ideally have liked even longer, because new evidence is appearing on the scene the whole time. On the other hand, we have to decide the point of balance. We felt that the time had come when it was necessary to bring these Regulations before the House as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend decided not to delay longer, but to make arrangements to review them within a relatively short time, we hope in not more than two years, to see whether any changes are necessary and to see whether we can add something to the permitted list. I think that that is the best procedure vie can follow. Meanwhile, we feel that we have Regulations which provide satisfactory protection for the consumer without unreasonably restricting the food manufacturers' choice of emulsifying and stabilising agents, which are necessary to them.

As to the permitted list, the hon. Gentleman paid us a tribute, for which I am grateful. It is not a Department which receives much praise. We get more kicks than ha'pence. Therefore, we are all the more grateful for this tribute. It is now agreed that the method of regulating these chemicals by specifying a list of permitted substances is probably the best one. I cannot say whether it will appear in all the succeeding Regulations, but in these Regulations we felt that was the best course. Nothing new can now be used unless or until my right hon. Friend lays amending Regulations adding to the permitted list.

The hon. Member referred to the comments in the Chief Medical Officer of Health's Report for 1950 about the use of two of these substances—carboxymethyl and polyoxyethylene cellulose—and asked why these substances appeared in the permitted list in the Regulations when until a short time ago they were both, he said, under suspicion. I will take these chemicals separately. First, carboxymethyl cellulose, which is a stabiliser, although under suspicion in 1950, was later examined by the Pharmacology Panel of the Preservatives Sub-Committee and classified in the Food Standards Committee's Report as not dangerous to health. This is an example, of the change of attitude which has occurred.

Dr. Stross

I presume that the examination would entail, in addition to all other tests, at least three years' work on animals to make sure that they showed no signs of ill-health.

Mr. Vane

I should not like to give the exact detail of what happened, but I can assure the House that after all this time my right hon. Friend would not have allowed anything to be included in the list unless the best advice available to him assured him that it was the right thing to do.

The position on polyoxyethylenes is a little harder for me to explain, although I am sure that the hon. Member can do it with facility. It is true that the Regulations permit the use of polyoxyethylene derivatives of sorbitan esters of fatty acids, but these are quite different substances from the polyoxyethylene derivatives of the fatty acids themselves. That is the crux of the matter. They are two different things. The 1950 Report referred to these latter, which are prohibited by the Regulations.

The derivatives now permitted were, it is true, regarded with suspicion in earlier days, but more recent work, to which the hon. Member has referred, in the United States of America and elsewhere has given a better picture and the substances have now been cleared. Hence their inclusion in these lists.

The hon. Member also mentioned bread. This is a separate point, but the hon. Member has referred to it. Bread as a major staple food needed special attention, which we have given it. The Regulations prohibit all emulsifiers and stabilisers in flour and allow only two named ones in bread. We are concerned not with improvers, but only with emulsifiers and stabilisers.

Mr. Mitchison

Would the hon. Gentleman like to clear up one point for me? He explained that the scientific view of these matters had been altered by "trying it on the dog", as it were. We all know that the President of the Board of Trade has considered it part of his official duty to sample Japanese canned whisky and soda. Has the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tried these emulsifiers himself?

Mr. Vane

I have little doubt that all hon. Members, including the hon. and learned Member, have sampled them all and many others in food, and, no doubt, probably in the Dining Room of the House of Commons, at different times. I have not gone on to any special diet, but if the hon. and learned Member would like to conduct an experiment with me, we might ask for something to be arranged.

Dr. Stross

To be more serious, we are limiting two substances in bread-making, and we are fairly certain that they are safe, but bread is not necessarily confectionery. Will the hon. Gentleman say whether bread includes confectionery? If it does not, does this mean that a fairly wide range of substances may be used in cake-making commercially?

Mr. Vane

The hon. Member is right. There is a distinction between bread and cake-making. The strict limit to which I have referred is bread.

Now comes the question of export. The hon. Member asked why, whereas we were so careful about our own people, we appeared to be careless about others. The position is not as bad as he represented. The principle that we have followed is that we are not dealing with substances of recognised toxicity, like lead or arsenic. The Regulations may differ from one country to another. It is more in the interest of our export trade to allow manufacturers who export to work to the requirements of the countries for which their products are intended—that must be done, because other countries tend to have their own regulations—until the arrival of the day, to which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central looked forward, when we are all working on the same basis.

I am not sure that we have got quite as near to the end of the day as the hon. Member hoped concerning milk. We have got to the end of an important chapter with our tuberculosis eradication scheme. We are quite clear concerning the English Regulations about not being allowed to add emulsifiers or stabilisers to milk.

The hon. Member asked why there was not a Scottish Statutory Instrument. The answer is simply that when the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act, 1956, was being drafted parallel to the English Act, it was decided that to include legislation covering all aspects of milk and milk products would result in a lengthy document. Therefore, unlike the English Bill, which has a separate Section dealing with milk, the intention was to have a separate Bill which would bring up to date all the legislation dealing with milk. In the event, the time has never yet come when that Bill could be introduced. That is why there is no Scottish Regulation.

If the hon. Member looks at the English Act, he will notice that the Section giving my right hon. Friend powers to make Regulations for food generally specifically excludes milk. Milk Regulations have to be dealt with separately under another Section in the Act. It happened that Scotland does not have that chapter in their Act because it was intended, and is intended, to deal with it in another Measure.

I hope that with these explanations the House will accept that these three sets of Regulations are really valuable and that the hon. Gentleman—I am sure he will not—will not press his Prayer.

Dr. Stross

I shall be delighted if the House will give me leave to withdraw my Motion, and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.