HC Deb 03 February 1965 vol 705 cc1087-90

4.0 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the labelling of food and toilet preparations, the display of notices in relation to food, and matters connected therewith. During the last few weeks I have been almost completely overwhelmed by telephone calls, personal messages, and letters from members of the public and members of organisations who are concerned about the vast quantity of chemical additives of all kinds that we are consuming in our food today.

What the effect of all this may be on our health we can only guess, but there are some very disturbing happenings and indications. Last year, 250 million working days were lost in this country through sickness, and doctors are very worried about the growing use of food chemicals in this connection. So, too, are most of the womens' organisations, many of whom have sent resolutions on this subject both to the previous Government and to the present Government.

The National Association for Health is collecting considerable evidence of the relation between food additives and ill-health, and a recent report by 12 cancer specialists to the World Health Organisation said: Food additives could be dangerous and none should be allowed on the market unless thoroughly tested. Too many additives are introduced and their number should either be reduced or testing facilities increased. Our legal maxim, "innocent until proved guilty", is lethal when applied to food. "Suspect until proved innocent" should be the watchword of food manufacturers and everyone concerned with the production of food, but, unfortunately, many food manufacturers insist that housewives, who are the main purchasers, want their peas in tins to be coloured emerald green, their strawberry and raspberry jams to be scarlet, and their cakes and sweets to be all colours of the rainbow, and on this basis they add dyes of all kinds to practically every thing which is sold in a packet or a tin. In fact, the consumer is never consulted on this matter, and an increasing number of people are so concerned that they are patronising health food shops and other stores where food without dangerous additives is sold.

Of course, if consumers are offered a choice between two equally wholesome products, only one of which is attractively presented, they will choose the attractive one. But if the attractive package is dangerous to health and this fact is known, there is no parent in this country, and certainly no mother, who would willingly give that product to a child to eat. That is our dilemma today. We just do not know what is contained inside the attractive wrappings or packets of food in the shops.

There is no agreement between the experts on this question of food colouring. In this country we list 30 colourings in food, and most of the colourings that we use are banned in America. On the other hand, the Americans list 15, of which we ban nine. The six colourings which the Food Standards Committee recommended last July should be removed from our permitted list—they are coal-tar based and, therefore, potentially carcinogenic, or cancer producing—have still not been banned. I appreciate that the present Ministry is dealing with this question urgently, but at the same time, this is the fact which we must face.

It is vital that the consumer should be able to see on the label or packet, or on a notice displayed where foods are not wrapped, the actual chemicals which have been added, and I do not believe that it would be any more difficult for a food manufacturer to do this than it is to print on the label, "artificial colouring", or "artificial flavouring", as many of them do today.

Of course, we need preservatives in out food, but what preservatives are being used? What are the anti-oxidants which are used to prevent fats becoming rancid? How dangerous are the emulsifiers which are used to break up fats in cheeses and other spreads to make them spread easily? What is the effect on health of the stabilisers which are used in mayonnaise and other products where creams are prevented from reverting to fat or oils? We do not know, but all are suspect.

We do not know the effect of the artificial sweeteners which are widely used, or the synthetic flavourings which create the wonderful taste and aroma of smoked kippers, fresh raspberries, or tender chickens. They are all synthetic and all potentially dangerous. Above all, we do not know the effect of the combination of all these things both on healthy people and on people with a particular susceptibility. We do not know the effect on the very young who eat so many of the "pretty" foods which are highly coloured, or on the elderly who need to get the maximum nourishment from the limited amount of food that they eat. Intensive research on all this is needed urgently, and no additives should be allowed until they pass the test of safety.

At present, we are playing blind man's buff when we choose food, and the purpose of my Bill would be to remove the bandages from our eyes so that we can see clearly, when we look at the label, what we are eating. I believe that we should soon come to recognise the chemical terms which would have to be used. It is not very long since the terms, "Strontium 90", "fluoride" and "thalidomide" were known only to the experts, but today they are part of everyone's vocabulary.

As hon. Members will have noted,a short time ago a farmer was taken to hospital suffering from an infection contracted from his stock. Antibiotics were useless in his case, because his system had absorbed so many from the food he had eaten, and unfortunately, he died. It is for this reason that the Bill I seek to introduce would break new ground. This is one reason why, among many others, the Bill includes the products of factory farming.

A new world of horror has been opened up for animals and, I believe, human beings alike by this method of farming with its use of antibiotics, synthetic hormones, growth stimulants, and tranquillisers, and we should be able to avoid these things in the shops if we wish to do so.

My Bill would also cover pre-packed toilet preparations, because of the risk of absorbing harmful substances through the skin, or, in the case of lipsticks the risk of dyes, which, in America, were proved cancer-producing in rats, being absorbed into the digestive system. It would also cover the dangers from accelerators and insecticides used on fruit or vegetables. While we await the necessary research and legislation to ensure that only safe additives and colourings are used in food, which may take many years, my Bill, if it were passed, would buy time for us all so that we can choose for ourselves, by looking at the label or notice, those foods with the least health risk.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Butler, Mrs. Braddock, Sir Stephen McAdden, Mr. John Farr, Mr. John Rankin, and Mr. Jeremy Thorpe.