HC Deb 13 February 1964 vol 689 cc645-68

7.55 p.m.

Sir Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Meat (Treatment) Regulations 1964 (S.I., 1964, No. 19), dated 10th January 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th January, be annulled.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grimston)

Order. Let us get this clear. There is first on the Order Paper a Prayer in the name of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross): That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Meat (Treatment) (Scotland) Regulations 1964 (S.I., 1964, No. 44), dated 15th January 1964, a copy of which was laid before this House on 23rd January, be annulled. Is that not being moved?

Sir B. Stross

The Prayer which I am moving is to be the first Prayer. I was about to ask your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to move them both together.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member is moving the second Prayer.

Sir B. Stross

May I move the other one formally?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

We can have only one Motion before the House at a time. But if it is agreeable to hon. Members the two Prayers may be discussed together.

Sir B. Stross

Then I will formally move the second one.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member cannot do that. He must move the first Motion first.

Sir B. Stross

I am moving the Motion in my name on the Order Paper—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Order. I will make the position clear. If the hon. Member moves the Motion in his name, the second Prayer on the Order Paper—the Prayer in the name of the hon. Member for Kilmarnock—may be discussed with it, but a vote may be taken only on the second Prayer.

Sir B. Stross

That is quite clear, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I will carry on as I began, for the sake of order.

With your permission, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and for the convenience of the House, I should like to be able to discuss the two Prayers together. I understand that you have given a Ruling that if we wish to vote we can vote only on the Motion which I have moved.

The first thing to be noted is that there is some difference between these two sets of Regulations. They deal with the same topic, the same subject and substances axle the Schedule is the same in both instances. The difference lies in the penalties when an offence is created. We notice, for example, in the one referring to England and Wales the penalty for a breach of the Regulations may be £100 maximum or three months' imprisonment, or both. If there be a continuing offence the fine is £5 per day. North of the Border the figure is again £100, but it is possible for an offender to be sent to prison for six months instead of three months, and if the offence continues the penalty is not £5 per day but £10 per day.

We note, further, that should the offence be an indictable offence on conviction the fine may be as much as £500 and the imprisonment may be for a term not exceeding one year. Both penalties may be incurred. If the offence continues the penalty is £50 for each day. So I come to the first question which I wish to ask of the Parliamentary Secretary. How is it that there is, apparently, much harsher treatment for an offender north of the Border than for an offender in England and Wales? The reason may be that it is not the harshness of the treatment against the offender which has brought this about, but a difference of attitude in Scotland towards these matters connected with the health and safety in health matters for their citizens.

Those hon. Members who served on the Standing Committee which dealt with legislation introduced a few years ago relating to slaughterhouses remember that we had many weeks of arduous and close discussion, and that, again and again, it was necessary to point out to the English Minister how much in advance were Scottish customs compared with those south of the Border. At that time we were urging that there should be fewer slaughterhouses so that there might be better regulation over anything done to meat which might spoil it or bring about a disposition of the citizen and cause illness. We showed that in Scotland this protection was available and that there was closer and better control. I am under the impression, therefore, that here the Scots have introduced the stronger and apparently harsher penalties because they are in line with the determination to do everything possible to protect their citizens.

We see that both these Statutory Instruments are simple enough in nature. They make it an offence to sell, consign or deliver any raw—and this is an important word—any "unprocessed" meat intended for sale for human consumption which contains substances of the kind specified in the Schedule. The Schedule contains a list of very interesting subjects with which I will deal briefly in passing and a little more fully later, if I have time to do so. The first one is ascorbic acid, known more commonly as vitamin C. The next one is erythorbic acid, technically known as isoascorbic acid and similar in appearance to vitamin C, but with little vitamin action.

The third one is nicotinic acid, the heat stable part of the vitamin B complex which functions in the body as a substance called nicotinamide. And we say, for good measure, any possible sales of this substance, to prevent anyone finding their way through the Regulations by using some other similar substance not mentioned.

Why have these Regulations been framed? It must be for a number of reasons. We have had outbreaks of illness affecting quite large numbers of people. There was one at St. Albans, a description of which was given on 12th December, 1963, in the Daily Mail. There, about 70 children and 12 teachers became ill after eating a meal in school. Several families were also affected. About this time, too, there were outbreaks at Deptford and Kensington, and representations were made.

Much earlier, in America it was reported that cases of illness had been noted there. The symptoms that came to light at St. Albans, for example, were that after a meal those who partook of it suffered from flushing, tingling, burning sensations in the neck and face in particular, itching and a feeling of faintness. I do not know whether the Parliamentary Secretary has ever had much nicotinic acid, because, if so, he will know that the feeling inside the skull is rather as though a hammer was beating inside it. I want to make it quite clear that everyone recovered from these epidemics. It was made manifest that the cause of the illness was that they had eaten meat dusted with a powder containing nicotinic acid, ascorbic acid and probably sugar, but it was the nicotinic acid which caused the symptoms to which I am referring.

The practice of making meat look red either by preserving its colour, or bringing in a fresh colour—I will deal with the possibility of a fresh pigment being formed in this way later—has been going on for some time. Questions were asked in the House on 16th and 19th December, and in another place. We know that the preparations being used were three in type, two of them British, one called Evered, one called Primox, and one, Dutch, called Salox Red. All are much the same, but there could be variations. If, instead of nicotinic acid, which caused the illness or the symptoms, nicotinamide had been used, there would have been less likelihood of illness.

Three strengths were offered by the manufacturers to those who bought it, and these were described in the British Medical Journal of 21st December. There was a medium strength for allegedly fresh meat, a double strength for imported meat and a weak strength for sausages. I presume—and I think that it must be true—that sausages are still exempt and, therefore, it is still possible for this substance to be used. I think that the Minister was persuaded that the purpose was not to preserve meat. The use of these substances was actually intended to deceive the public, making meat look fresh and red when, in fact, it was not so.

For these reasons we have these Regulations. I think that the Minister must have persuaded himself or have been persuaded here and by advice outside, that these substances tended to conceal the bad quality of meat and to make old meat look less old.

I would mention that in America there had been some cases. In the American Journal of Public Health for 1962 some outbreaks were reported, and they were described as showing, in some instances, severe cases of anaphylaxis, which means shock. Therefore, rather heavy doses of nicotinic acid must have been involved.

The British Medical Journal of 21st December mentioned the minimal amount of nicotinamide that was required. It is quite small—10 to 12 milligrammes—which is quite enough for our physical bodily requirements. Any good diet contains it. We do not need more. It is an essential vitamin.

A very interesting point is that we are dealing with things essential to life, and yet we have to bring in Regulations to prevent them from being used. The reason is that nicotinic acid, or nicotinamide, which is essential to life, is normally available in a reasonable, balanced diet. It prevents a most distressing condition—which is caused in its absence, or if there is a gross diminution of it in the diet—called pellagro, which is found in Africa and, strangely enough, in the richest continent of the world, North America, and in some of the Southern States, where the diet is grossly deficient in nicotinamide or nicotinic acid, and where skin diseases occur, and melancholia, and out-and-out madness. I am told—and I know that this is true, from my own experience—that double the normal daily dose can cause this severe type of flushing and faintness in some people.

What we object to is that the Ministry ever allowed this substance to be used, for it meant that butchers were dispensing a powerful medicine—an essential drug, but a powerful medicine—for purposes not of the best type. They were dispensing it instead of doctors. With the best will in the world, it is not for the butcher to dispense substances which could conceivably be dangerous, and to dispense them irrespective of the public need.

I know that the manufacturers, once they found out what was happening, sent advice to the butchers, who, in many cases, diminished the strength to one-fifth. I praise them for doing this and for having given careful instructions, but I do not praise them for the motives which made them originally invent this interesting substance. It was not illegal for this to be done. It was assumed that these things were safe and we know that they were effective. Every manufacturer who is interested in the use of additives to food must ask himself three questions. He must say to himself, "Is this stuff really harmless?" Then he must say, "Is it legally permitted?" Thirdly, he must ask. "Is it effective in use?"

When he asks himself whether it is harmless, he sometimes makes a mistake. This, I think, is the fault of the Ministry. "Harmless" is not quite the same as saying that there is no evidence that it has as yet done harm. "Harmless" should mean in the eyes of the Minister and his Department that there is ample evidence that it cannot do harm, whereas, in fact, we know that we have a permitted substance which is essential to life in proper amounts in our diet, but which, through an overdose, can do harm.

This has been quite a tricky business. Colour in meat is due to two closely-related slit stances, one of which is found in the blood which we call hæmoglobin and one in the muscle which we call myoglobin In the first there is an atom of iron attached to the globin part which has a protein molecule. Normally, when an animal is killed the meat will respire and go on discharging carbon monoxide for many days. Even if it is cut up into small pieces respiration will continue, but less so, I am advised, if it is minced into very tiny pieces. If the oxygen is linked fully to the atom of iron, one gets a red colour. If it is lost, or partially lost, we get either a purple colour, or, if there is incomplete oxidisation, the iron will become brown like rusty iron.

Brown colour in fresh meat is not desirable. The chemists found this interesting method of making the meat look red again, as if it were prime meat. They found it convenient for a number of reasons. I think that those reasons were essentially commercial and because the meat was easier to sell.

Before I leave this business of colour I ought to say a word or two about the sausage, which, I believe, is to be exempt from these Regulations. Inside the sausage certain things happen.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

Things usually happen when the sausage is inside someone.

Sir B. Stross

Before it is cooked it still releases oxygen, or can release oxygen. At the same time, the surrounding air can percolate through the skin of the sausage and get to the meat, but that does not happen enough to cause full oxidisation. Therefore, there is a tendency, unless something is done to disguise the sausage, for the meat to look brown, or dark purple. It was discovered that with these substances mentioned in the Schedule, ascorbic acid, nicotine acid, or nicotinamide one can help to colour and preserve the meat. In the use of nicotinic acid a new colour is formed, which is a red pigment, which, together with ascorbic acid, makes it remain red.

That is the way in which the clever chemists have been able to deceive us all. For months, as I passed a butcher's shop in Kensington and saw entrancing sausages and minced meat, all of a wonderful colour, I thought "He must be a wonderful butcher. How fresh and red his meat is!" Having done my homework on these Regulations I have to conclude that he must have dusted his meat with powder containing vitamins and sugar.

I do not want to make too much of this matter. It would be a mistake to do so, because, after all, there is no evidence that anyone can take an overdose of ascorbic acid. An hon. Lady Member of the House laughed at me when I advised her to take for a cold 200 milligrams. She thought it nonsense and took 1,000 milligrams. The normal daily requirement is 30 milligrams. The excess is very quickly excreted and we have no evidence that it does harm. Moreover, erythorbic acid has little or no action, but it helps to produce this deceiving colour. They are plain deceivers.

We know that it was legal, because it was specifically excluded from the preservative and anti-oxident regulations of the Food and Drugs Act. Normally, one could use 1 per cent. and it had to be at a refrigerated temperature. At a higher or lower temperature it does not work and one gets a wrong colour. Erythorbic acid is found in yeast and liver and to a lesser extent in lean meat and some vegetables, such as potatoes. It is part of the vitamin B complex and we must have it to live healthily, but in excess it creates unhappy, miserable symptoms. Some people have been made thoroughly ill by it.

Clinically, it has been used to try to cure chilblains with, I think, little success and with better success it has been used in cases of frostbite. It has been used even for severe headache and migraine, with what success I do not know. It would be a mistake to think of it in terms of a poison, for relatively it is not toxic. It produces these unhappy symptoms, but big doses can create rigors. A catastrophe can occur if someone takes much to big a dose.

I ask four questions in addition to the one I asked about which Scotland is so much more progressive than we are in England. Why was there some serious delay after we had information? I believe that the reports were coming through throughout the autumn as a result of epidemics or attacks of illness. We had the information over a year ago from the United States. Why is it that only raw and unprocessed meat is to be freed from these substances? Does this mean that they or similar substances can be used on cooked meat? There is nothing in these Regulations to prevent cooked meat being so treated, or any compounded substance—that means a sausage and meat so treated that it is substantially changed. The definition of "processed" in these Regulations makes this quite clear and I should like an answer to that question.

Thirdly, why have artificial colours not been included in these Regulations? I cannot make much of this for that would be wrong and probably not in order, but we know that we are demanding and have kept demanding for a long time—certainly I have for many years—that we should have from the Minister a scheduled pharmacopaeia of substances which may be permissibly used. After many years of discussion of these matters we have a form of schedule. There is a permitted list, but I suggest that it is not carefully enough framed.

This example, when we are trying to annul these Regulations, proves that apparently innocent substances can create damage. The sausage can still be treated with these substances and normally, especially if it is a beef sausage, it is treated with a coal tar dye derivative. It is time this sort of thing was looked at again.

I know that some of these things are said to be innocent, because no harm has been proved up to date in the amounts to which we are subjected. That is not a very scientific or proper way of looking at the subject. We have asked that there should be regulations to support these Regulations so that even the sausage shall become an innocent piece of diet in every sense of the term.

We feel that it is a mistake to wait for anyone to fall ill and then threaten those who have, quite innocently, produced something to make a food look attractive. We should have warned people earlier that it would not be possible to do this. Then the chemists, the inventors, the butchers and certainly our citizens would not have been in this situation. We should not wait until we have to punish, or threaten punishment, but should have an admitted list which will, as far as possible, prevent any accidents of this type.

8.21 p.m.

Mr. Cyril Bence (Dunbartonshire, East)

When I studied these Regulations, I noticed some differences and came to this debate with the intention of querying them. After listening to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Sir B. Stross) I am rather sorry that I came, because I now wonder whether it is safe to eat anything. What can be done to unprocessed meat is most frightening.

My hon. Friend mentioned additives which make meat look better. These do not improve the quality of the product. Do what they will, the chemists and the scientists cannot make the meat of an old cow taste as good as that of a maiden heifer. I hope that the Government will take strong action against meat traders who try to deceive the housewives by adding to the product something which does not increase its value as a food but merely alters its appearance.

I am not a medical man. Having listened to my hon. Friend, I am rather glad I am not, because his description of what can happen to one's body rather frightened me. Certainly, his descriptions have reinforced my belief that we should prevent scurrilous forms of advertising and the use of additives whereby people are deceived into thinking that they are buying a superior product which, in fact, has not been improved at all. My hon. Friend says that some dyes are quite harmless, but, nevertheless, it is dishonest to colour a product in order to convince the consumer that it is superior.

I remember an incident years ago. I saw a butcher making sausages. The first to come out of the machine were hung in the window at 8d. per lb. He then manipulated more out of the machine, using the same type of meat, dressed them in a little parsley and placed them on a tray in the window at 1s. a lb. When a customer came in for sausages he asked whether she wanted the best. Naturally, she would say "Yes" The only difference between "best" and the others was that the "best" were dressed with parsley and the others were not.

That sort of thing is deceit of the public and I am glad that the Government have at last taken some action to prevent the use of additives which improve appearance but not quality. Ladies have always used additives to improve their appearance and we males are delighted. But do not let that be done with meat. It is a most dangerous thing to do

One difference I notice between the two sets of Regulations is that, in Scotland, a butcher or purveyor of meat will be liable to a fine of £10 for every day during which he engages in this practice, whereas the fine in England will be only £5 a day. Why the difference? Scottish beef is the finest in the world and anyone who tampers with it should pay the penalty, but I see no reason why a Scottish purveyor of meat should have to pay a fine of £10 while a Sassenach, for committing the same offence, should pay only £5 The Regulations applying to Scotland mention a fine not exceeding £100 or imprisonment for six months, or both. The Regulations applying to England mention imprisonment for only three months. Why the difference?

Scottish beef is sold in London and to tamper with it there is as serious as tampering with it in Glasgow. Legislation passed recently has appeared to discriminate between the two countries and although we in Scotland are hardier, stronger and more virile, I do not see why larger penalties should be applied to Scotland. It is worth remembering that when any money is going we are always at the bottom of the queue; but when penalties are being imposed, harsher standards of punishment are applied to Scotland.

I am not saying that Scottish beef is the only good beef—just that it is about the best in the world. The other day I saw some French beef, from a 12month-old steer of a Charollais-Friesian cross. It was wonderful beef. Why have the Scottish Office allowed the Scottish trader to bear this double punishment compared with his counterpart in England and Wales?

Since speaking I have recovered my confidence in food generally and although I felt at the beginning of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that I would become a vegetarian, I have since decided that I will go on eating meat, just as I have in the past.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

I support my hon. Friends in questioning this Statutory Instrument. The House may recall that it was in answer to a Question of mine last December that these Regulations were imposed. [Hon. Members "Oh."] Perhaps I should say that my Question preceded their imposition. If I do not have a fraternal interest, I may be said to have a step-fraternal interest in them.

We live in a world in which more and more synthetic foods are coming into existence. This trend has been noticeable for more than half a century. Indeed, "Saki" in one of his stories written about 1910 envisaged a state of society in which every Englishman was eating a synthetic breakfast food called "Filboy Sludge", which was so terrible that only an Englishman, with his tremendous sense of duty, could be induced to eat it.

Today the trend is moving further towards synthetic foods. We not only have synthetic breakfast foods, but also what may be described as synthetic meats. We have grown accustomed to broiler fowls which taste like a mixture of blotting paper and octopus—not that I have tasted either. We are more and more coming to lose the flavour and enjoyment of our food. This in itself is bad enough, but now it can have harmful effects.

The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, having considered the question of nicotinic acid, said in December last year: … nicotinic acid is not necessarily bad, when used in small quantities." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th December, 1963; Vol. 686 c. 844.] This is true. In fact, it is the substance which enables us to live; although on that occasion the right hon. Gentleman missed the point. In that case nicotinic acid was used to disguise meat, and that is a different matter. It was not necessarly that the acid made the meat harmful, but that it could disguise stale meat from the purchaser's eye.

For this reason it appears to my hon. Friends that there should be an extension of these Regulations. I am told, for example—and I will no doubt, be corrected if I am wrong—that an injection of hormones into cattle is a means of making them more tender, although it renders the kidneys of the bull inedible in the sense that they are harmful to human digestion. But what are the means of seeing that these kidneys will be destroyed? The butcher should see that they are, but I gather that there are no regulations to prevent them being sold in the butcher's shop. This matter should be looked into.

I agree that this so-called tenderising of beef may be harmful. The Government are endeavouring to recognise this, because they are talking about the labelling of meat. This will be difficult. I am not altogether sure how one could label a single chop, loin or joint and this may create difficulties for the butcher. We are all concerned with health and healthy eating habits and, for these reasons, I hope that the Government will consider extending these Regulations.

8.33 p.m.

Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Sir B. Stross) for his fascinating and learned discourse on the dangers of innocence. People have unsuspectingly been eating meat that they thought was of the best, only to find that it was titivated to be the more readily sold. Since there is danger attaching to this matter, I want to know what the Secretary of State for Scotland was doing between 10th and 15th January.

The Regulations for England and Wales were laid on 10th January. Whether or not the Secretary of State was touring abroad, chasing the deer, shooting the grouse—although I have my doubts about that at that time of year—I do not know, but it was only 15th January that found him signing the Regulations for Scotland. Where was he during those five vital days? Could he not be found? If it was sufficiently important to protect the people of Scotland from the possible ill-effects of this practice, the right hon. Gentleman should have been as speedily on the job as were the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Health in England and Wales. Or could he not make up his mind about the need to take action? The chances are that he could not be found.

The result is that the Regulations came into force in England and Wales on 23rd January, but did not come into force in Scotland until 30th January. Those are very important dates, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Manuel) appreciates how important they are—

Mr. Archie Manuel (Central Ayrshire)

Yes—Burns's birthday.

Mr. Ross

Exactly. I want to know whether the haggis is processed or unprocessed—and I can assure my hon. Friends that the "Rustic, haggis-fed", is someone to make any country proud. I do not want to recite the ode to the haggis tonight, but the fact is that Burns celebrations in Scotland do not all take place in one day—they are spread over about 10 days. During those 10 vital days this year probably more food was eaten than at any other time, apart from the beginning of January—Hogmanay. It was vital that we should have had fairly speedy action by the Secretary of State, and I cannot understand why we should have been a week later than England and Wales. Incidentally, it is no good Welsh hon. Members who sit for Scottish divisions praising Scotland, when the Secretary of State has fallen down on his job.

I already have enough reading to do, what with Bills about agriculture, the police, housing, and all the stuff that is going through the sausage-machine of Parliament, without having to perplex myself about exactly how various things are defined in the Regulations. First, we are told that …'animal' does not include bird or fish … But when we read the Regulations we do not find any mention of "animal" at all. It is only mentioned in terms of another interpretation. In order to find the relevance of "animal" we have to read the interpretation of "meat which, we are told … means the flesh or other part of any animal which is intended for sale for human consumption… It would have satisfied even my simple mind as being adequately defined as the meat of the animal we are talking about, rather than having to be told that …'animal' does not include bird or fish … After the definition of "meat", we have the definition of the word "processed." "Processed", I gather, is reasonably important, because it takes four lines to define it, but when it comes to enforcement and the Regulations dealing with the sale of raw meat, the word "processed" is not used at all. It is, therefore, defined only to provide an easy and unspecific way of defining "unprocessed". The definition reads: 'Processed', in relation to meat, includes curing by smoking"— I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt), who spoke on the Adjournment last night, is not present.

The definition goes on: and any treatment or process resulting in a substantial change in the natural state of the meat but does not include boning, paring, grinding, cutting, cleaning or trimming; and 'unprocessed shall be construed accordingly". Therefore, one starts to work out what "unprocessed" means—what it includes and does not include. This is far too comprehensive a definition of "processed". Therefore, in the unprocessed state, certain things which we might construe as processed are considered unprocessed and vice versa.

Next, there is the question of penalties. There is a difference between Scotland and England not only in the penalties but also in the matter of actual contravention. I notice that in Scotland if any person contravenes or fails to comply with any of the foregoing provisions of these regulations he shall be guilty of an offence under these regulations. I presume that this would mean contravention of an instruction to destroy or an instruction to hand over, but in England and Wales the words are: if any person contravenes the provisions of regulation 3 … which simply states that No raw and unprocessed meat shall contain any added specified substance. and No person shall sell, consign or deliver any raw and unprocessed meat which contains any added specified substance. Is there any subtle difference to account for the fact that certain words are necessary in Scotland and unnecessary in England? Does it mean that the Scots are more careful and are leaving no loophole?

We in Scotland have more experience of this matter. The last Regulations concerned with meat related to slaughterhouses and inspection and destruction of meat. We then discovered that the position in England and Wales is chaotic and will remain so for quite a time. We found that the qualifications of the people who are doing the job in Scotland are and always have been much higher and that our Regulations have been in existence for a great many years.

It might, therefore, be wise to find out what the Scottish Office was doing during the period to which I referred earlier. It may be that having had more experience and attaching more importance to these matters, people at the Scottish Office may have been doing a better job. This may be the reason for the five-day delay. I give them the benefit of the doubt.

There are three matters connected with the penalties. First, there is a Scottish Standing Committee and as a result we have far better legislation and a concentration on the things that matter. What matters here is not penalties on the butcher but the safeguarding of the public. When a butcher knows that he is adding something which adds nothing whatever to the nutriment of meat and he knows that all he is doing is disguising its age or its quality, seeking, in fact, to pass something off on the public, the penalty ought to be pretty severe, bearing in mind the kind of effect we now know these things have. It took us a long time from the discovery of what happened in America, about a year until the Question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), till action was taken by the Government.

In Scotland, the offence can be dealt with not only under summary jurisdiction but on indictment, with the result that we get not just a penalty of £100 or six months—incidentally, the change here stems from the work of the Scottish Grand Committee last year in dealing with criminal justice and the revision of penalties—but a possible penalty of £500 or one year's imprisonment on indictment. Undoubtedly, if matters are dealt with in this way, we shall have no repetition of trouble in Scotland. We value the quality of our food, we value the protection of the public and, indeed, we value the good name of Scotch beef. One of the things I am sorry about is that this has been applied to beef in England and everything has been passed off as prime Scotch beef merely on the basis of colour, with a disadvantage to Scotland, and, from that point of view, the penalties might have been higher, although they will probably be tied by the legislation under which we are moving.

Are the Government looking at this matter seriously from the point of view of the protection of the public? Here is a powder which in itself is harmless and, more than that, is essential to life but which, in the hands of people who do not know its qualities, can become a danger. Butchers and grocers should not think that they are also chemists, and the same applies to manufacturers. As has been said, the modern trend is that of the super-store, with everything packaged, glossy and lovely-looking. In fact, despite all the superficial covering, our food is probably more dangerous than it was when the grocer had his open sacks and mixed teas, coffees and the rest, blending things to suit himself and the customer's particular needs. This being so, a far greater responsibility is thrown on the people who can control the purity of our food—that is, the Minister of Health and the. Secretary of State for Scotland, or the Minister of Agriculture so far as he is here involved. In Scotland, of course, everything devolves upon one person. The Secretary of State is everything. We hope that, one 'day, we shall even have him here with us.

The responsibility is very great indeed and I hope that an answer will be given to the succinct question put by my hon. Friend. Only about a week ago, we had another incident, and action was taken by the Government, after a sudden appreciation of the dangers, to ban certain uses of a particular substance. The difficulty is that we do not always know what will happen until trouble occurs. I hope that the Government will tell us that they are looking into the matter much more carefully and that they will ensure that, quite apart from the use of substances which we do know cause harm, the use of something as an additive, even though it does no harm, will not be allowed so long as it has no active good purpose.

8.50 p.m.

Mr. William Small (Glasgow, Scotstoun)

This problem has been with us for many years. When I was a schoolboy and I ran errands for my mother she used to tell me, "Tell the butcher not to sell me meat containing Madame Rachel".

"Meat" is defined in these Regulations as meaning the flesh or other part of any animal which is intended for sale for human consumption. I can understand how the public health inspector deals with meat which is killed in a slaughterhouse, but how does he deal with venison? Is the deer killed in a slaughterhouse? One type of meat which lays itself open to dressing up if it is stale is venison, because normally only a specialist can tell that it is venison. The sale of venison is not big enough to justify it being called "meat". I am sure that the Minister recognises that it is hard to dispose of the whole animal because there is not a retail market for it.

I should like to know what the position of venison is under these Regulations.

8.52 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

Like, I am sure, the whole House, I have listened with great interest to the points which have been raised, and particularly to the speech of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Sir B. Stross), which was extremely detailed and knowledgeable. I am grateful to him for the way that he put his points forward and for bringing this matter before us, since it gives me the opportunity to explain the position and to answer some of the questions which he and other hon. Members have put.

As hon. Members will know, my right hon. Friend, acting jointly with the Minister of Health, has powers under the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, to make regulations to control, among other things, the addition of substances to food to protect the interest of the consumer. It is obvious from the speeches that protection of the consumer is paramount in hon. Members' thoughts. These are the powers under which the Regulations which we are discussing were made.

It may be necessary either to protect the consumer against the addition of substances of such a kind or in such quantity as would be physically harmful to him; or to prevent him from being misled about what he is buying. There are, therefore, the two considerations—whether something is harmful, and whether something will mislead him. Ministers have made rather more regulations in the first category—for example, the Lead in Food Regulations and the Preservatives Regulations—but the Regulations we are discussing deal principally with things which deceive the public. They aim at preventing the customer from being misled as to the quality of the food that he or she is buying. We already have the Colouring Matter in Food Regulations, 1957, which prohibit the use of dyes and other colouring matters on any meat, game, poultry, fish, fruit or vegetable which is sold raw and unprocessed, and the Colouring Matter in Food Regulations are at present being reviewed by the Food Standards Committee. This, in fact, answers one of the hon. Member's specific questions; under the Regulations one cannot use any of the coal tar derivatives on raw meat.

Sir B. Stross

I appreciate this and we are all grateful that it is so. It makes us wonder why it is allowed for meat which has been processed in such a way that there is a substantial change, namely, sausage meat or mincemeat.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I intended to come to that later in my remarks when dealing with the question of processing, to which the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) also referred.

The substances against which the Meat (Treatment) Regulations are directed are not colouring matters within the terms of the Colouring Regulations. The practice which is the subject of these Regulations is, strictly speaking, not the colouring of meat, but the use of certain proprietary preparations to preserve or to restore the fresh, red appearance of meat.

The active ingredients of these preparations are, as the hon. Member for Stoke on Trent, Central pointed out with great detail and knowledge, nicotinic acid, nicotinamide and ascorbic acid. The effect of their use, principally on minced meat but also on joints of meat, is to prevent the normal colour change in meat after it loses its freshness. Thus, when meat is minced, the fresh red colour gradually degenerates under shop conditions, the reasons for which were also explained by the hon. Member, and it assumes a dull and, perhaps, less attractive appearance after a day or so.

Meat minced with a mixture of nicotinic acid and ascorbic acid assumes a bright pinkish colour, which is maintained without much change for a longer time. I understand, furthermore, that it is also claimed that further additions of these preparations will brighten up the colour again later.

The House will, therefore, readily appreciate the undesirability of this practice. I entirely agree with what hon. Members have said about it. Not only does it deceive the purchaser as to the true condition of the meat which he or she buys, but it can also, by maintaining a fresh appearance to the meat, mask any deterioration of it which may have occurred. That is why the Government have introduced the Regulations.

I turn next to the point about a warning to the trade, which hon. Members opposite have raised. There have always been the general provisions of the Food and Drugs Act against misleading consumers as to the nature, substance or quality of food and against the addition of anything which might be harmful. Therefore, although the Regulations have not been brought forward earlier, the general provisions have covered the position to date.

There is, moreover, the possibility that if any of these preparations which contain nicotinic acid are used in excess to give the maximum effect, as seems to have happened, or if they are not mixed evenly with the meat, nicotinic acid poisoning can result. The word "poisoning" is, perhaps, a rather strong term to use in the context of the product of which we are speaking, but I cannot think of any other word to use instead.

Nicotinic acid poisoning could also be caused by the normal and correct use of the substance if the treated matter is eaten by certain people who are particularly susceptible or allergic to nicotinic acid. This could well happen. Although it is not a dangerous form of poisoning, it is not a risk which anybody should undergo if it can be avoided. Although the prevention of health risk is not the prime purpose of the Regulations, it was the occurrence of one or two cases of illness which first drew my right hon. Friend's attention to the practice.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central and his hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock criticised the Government for not acting sooner in this matter. In August, November and December last year, the Ministry of Health and my Department received reports from medical officers of health of some isolated cases of mild food poisoning attributable to the addition of nicotinic acid to minced meat. These symptoms were as the hon. Member described—a warmth, itching, redness and flushing of the face, neck and extremities. I understand that no diarrhoea or vomiting incurred in any of the cases. The poisoning was short-lived and there were no permanent after-effects. Indeed, I am advised that no lasting damage occurs from this kind of overdose, although it is unpleasant for its recipient. The Ministry discussed the use of the preparations in question with the National Federation of Meat Traders' Associations and, as a result, the Federation recommended its members not to use them.

The reports which had been received were put, at the first opportunity, to the Food Additives Sub-Committee and the Food Standards Committee, which met in November and December respectively. That, happily, coincided with the Question put by the hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin).

The Food Standards Committee recommended that, as the use of these substances on raw and unprocessed meat could deceive the customer and mask deterioration of the meat, it should be stopped. My right hon. Friends accepted this advice and made these Regulations accordingly on 10th January. This was less than one month after it had been referred to the Committee. I do not think that the Government can be accused of acting slowly or laggardly in this matter once their attention was drawn to it.

Meanwhile, the Food Additives Sub-Committee is currently considering these substances in more detail, including their use in processed meat products, and will be advising my right hon. Friends as soon as it can whether there is any need to extend the scope of the Regulations. I can assure the House that everything that has been said in this debate will be noted and I am sure that the Sub-Committee will pay great attention to it.

The point made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central about sausages will also be considered by the Sub-Committee. It has always been understood, however, that the sausage was properly regarded as a processed product, because the form of the meat is substantially changed. It has been so regarded for the purpose of other regulations, such as those on colouring, which I referred to earlier. These considerations are entirely different from the addition of nicotinic acid to flour, which is done—and is required by law to be done—to replace vitamins lost in milling. The Sub-Committee will, naturally, take full account of what has been said in the debate about the substance.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central referred to the article published in the United States in 1962, in which cases of anaphylaxis were mentioned. But the people so affected were under treatment with nicotinic acid administered by injection, not taken orally. No cases of anaphylaxis have occurred as a result of nicotinic acid being taken orally. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is confusing the issue in this instance.

The article was noticed by the Ministry of Health. At the time the information it gave did not suggest that the use of the substances in question called for any action here. No case had been reported and there was no cause for disquiet. The particular point raised by the hon. Gentleman was a different issue altogether. The article was concerned with the medical aspects. I can assure the House that we have moved as fast as we could in this matter and have taken proper and adequate safeguards.

The last suggestion made by the hon. Gentleman was for a general review of additives used in food and he urged us to compile a pharmacopoeia of permitted substances. As he appreciates, that is a formidable task, but it is exactly what we are trying to do, and I hope that he will give us credit for it. The Food Additives Sub-Committee is working through the whole range of food additives and will carry on until it has finished. It would be impossible for this or any other body to do the whole job at once. Nor is it only a matter of compiling a set of lists. The lists must be kept up to date and on top of its other labours the sub-committee is endeavouring to review the Regulations every five years as a matter of routine.

This re-emphasises my point that we are very alive to this situation and to the dangers inherent in it. With all additives to food, whether colourants or others, the maximum safeguards are used, but if something of urgent importance comes up, the Sub-Commitee meets ad hoc to decide what may be necessary. A great deal of work is involved and I do not think that the work done by the Sub-Committee, which is quite considerable, is always sufficiently appreciated by the House or by the public generally.

I was asked about the difference between the Regulations concerning Scotland and those concerning England and Wales. The difference in the penalties arises because the penalties are governed by enabling legislation. For England and Wales this is the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, while for Scotland it is the Food and Drugs (Scotland) Act, 1956. These Acts prescribe different penalties. The maximum penalties in the Scottish Act are higher than those in the English because in Scotland it is the practice to treat several related contraventions as part of a single complaint or charge which attracts a single penalty, Under Scottish law, several contraventions can be taken together and one penalty imposed if that is so decided by the court. In England and Wales, such contraventions are treated as separate charges, each attracting a separate but smaller penalty. The net result is that the different maximum statutory penalties simply even out to produce the same net result in the two countries.

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock referred to the gap between laying the Regulations and bringing them into operation. This is to enable full notice to be given to the interested parties and I am sure that that was the reason for the delay between bringing the English Regulations and the Scottish Regulations into operation.

These Regulations are not a substantial item in our programme of food additives legislation, but the need for them has arisen and I am sure that the House will agree that they are useful. I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central will not press his Prayer, because it is plain that he and his hon. Friends are as much in favour of these Regulations and of stopping the practice which has come to light from the unfortunate incidents last year as are the Government.

Dr. Stross

In view of the full answer which we have received, which has certainly satisfied me in the main, although it has not given me sufficient satisfaction about the possibility of coal tar dyes, which are not covered by the Regulations, and as it is recognised that the House is insistent that this sort of thing should be watched, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.