HC Deb 16 May 1973 vol 856 cc1665-76

11.14 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

Protein is so vital to health that any source of protein is obviously tremendously important, and if completely new forms can be developed which are completely safe and palatable they can make a valuable contribution to world health problems and to food problems. However, I am not happy about the bracketing together of all new forms of protein under the heading "novel protein" because to me there is a fundamental difference in the traditional vegetable proteins and the completely new proteins which are derived from growths on petroleum oil or methane gas.

Vegetable proteins such as the soya bean are traditionally a main source of protein in the countries where they are produced and they have been extensively used by vegetarians and welcomed by nutritionists in Western countries for a long time. Their safety is not in question. But with proteins derived from hydrocarbon oils there are inevitably questions which need to be asked and which are now in the public mind.

In an answer to a Question which I asked in the House the Parliamentary Secretary said, The development of protein from an oil base is still in the research and development stage in this and other countries, including France. Testing of the product for safety on animals was initiated in laboratories some years ago and, in the light of the results, experimental trials as an animal feedingstuff are taking place."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th April, 1973; Vol. 854, c. 605.] So far so good, but I was disturbed when I received a letter from her dated 16th April. The statement she made in it is important. She said, Although production capacity for these new forms of proteins is very limited in this country at present and was designed to try out production technology on a pilot scale and to provide enough material for research, I may have given you to believe that none of the products could be used, or was being used, in any way other than for research. In fact there is currently a small quantity available of one of the new forms of protein (BP's Toprina) which is surplus to current research requirements and which is being used by feedingstuff manufacturers as one form of protein which, with others, and many different non-protein products, form the ingredients for compound feedingstuffs. This particular protein is the most advanced in development—the protein is developed on a base of liquid paraffin which is itself of the level of purity required for pharmaceutical use in this country. Work started nine years ago and more than £1 million has been spent on testing—mainly in independent laboratories and on experimental farms in the Netherlands—with the result that the safety of the product as an animal feeding-stuff is fully supported by the available evidence. I was disturbed when I saw the letter because I was not aware, and I am sure that the general public is not aware that petroleum protein-fed animals are coming into the meat market and are being sold for human consumption.

My concern is threefold. In the first place I am concerned because the protein is based on hydrocarbon oil and the danger of contamination from that is well known. We have the necessary regulations to prevent any such contamination. I accept that these proteins are only based on petroleum and that the danger of contamination is minimal for that reason. But if there is no danger of contamination, I wonder why there is emphasis on the fact that the only protein so far in use in this country for animal feeding-stuffs of this kind is based on liquid paraffin of pharmaceutical purity.

While it is obviously important that the base should be right and as pure as possible, it seems that there may be some doubt in the minds of the producers how the base may contaminate the protein. It seems that the stress on the purity of the base may have something like that behind it. I should be glad if the hon. Lady will comment on that.

Secondly, I realise that it is legally permissible to introduce this type of protein for feedingstuffs because the regulations permit it, but it is wrong that it should be done without the public being fully aware of what is happening. Was any public notice given before the protein was introduced for feedingstuffs and have any attempts been made to assess the public reaction to it or the reaction of responsible consumer associations? I should be glad if at the same time the hon. Lady will give some indication as to what are the other petroleum bases of the experimental proteins which are still not in general use. That would be helpful.

Further, will there be some public announcement before the other petroleum based proteins are brought into use as feedingstuffs or will they just be introduced in the same way as that which we already have? At the very least it seems rather important that the public should know when they are buying meat, which meat on sale at the butchers has been produced in this way. Shoppers are entitled to know that, so that they can choose, if they want to do so, whether to buy this meat. It is also important that the meat should be readily identifiable if something goes wrong.

My third worry about this type of protein is that this process of food production is so new that a number of experts take the view that completely new test procedures may have to be evolved adequately to assess its safety. Nine years research and £1 million spent on testing may not mean very much unless we can be sure that the right tests have been applied. The hon. Lady will know that many products which we once thought safe are now considered suspect in the light of new research. With any- thing as novel as these proteins we need to be completely clear in our minds about their safety. We are very much in the hands of the producers to introduce the right test procedures. I should be grateful if the hon. Lady would give any information or assurance on that matter.

Although these proteins are at the moment being used only for animal feed, there will undoubtedly be considerable pressure before long to use them for feeding people. I was relieved that the hon. Lady gave the assurance in her letter that a decision regarding the use of the new proteins in food for human consumption will not be taken for some time. I think that that is right. Will she also give an assurance that public consultation will take place before any step of that kind is taken?

The hon. Lady will know that in Japan, which has had tragic experience of mineral contamination of food, particularly from mercury, two companies have pulled out from the protein-from-oil business because of public protests. Those companies are taking no further action in production until public consent has been obtained. Will the Ministry attempt to seek that kind of public consent before these novel proteins are introduced for human consumption?

I have put a number of questions to the hon. Lady and I hope that she will be able to answer some of them. I am sure she will agree that her Ministry is the watchdog of public health and of the public interest in these matters. People are much concerned not only about the food which they eat but from where it comes, how it is produced and what effect it will have on their health.

11.25 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Joyce Butler) for selecting for discussion, for what I believe is the first time in the House, the important and potentially extremely valuable developments which are taking place in new forms of protein. All of us with responsibility for these matters, who, like the hon. Lady, have a real concern for the wellbeing of consumers, have a duty to approach these developments rationally and calmly and to reach decisions in the light of the best scientific, medical and economic evidence and advice. I should like to think—certainly, it appeared so in her comments—that the hon. Lady accepts that this is the approach which is needed.

The hon. Lady referred to the letter which I sent to her. I should greatly regret making any comment which might have been misleading in this respect. When I saw the OFFICIAL REPORT, I recognised that I had failed to get over in the way I intended a point which seemed directly relevant, namely, that there are currently no plants for the production of protein in this country designed to provide a commercially viable scale of operation. The plants are pilot plants only, designed to try out the technology and to provide protein for testing. I may, however, have given the impression—indeed, it seems clear that I did—that none of this output from production plants was reaching commercial feedingstuffs manufacturers, which in one case was incorrect. I wrote at once to the hon. Lady to explain the position.

One of the difficulties in discussing this subject is that expressions such as "novel proteins" have come into use to describe, as the hon. Lady said, different products with different end uses. We must start by distinguishing clearly the protein foods which are based on vegetable materials and which are now being marketed in this country as meat analogues. There is nothing particularly new about this kind of protein, which in forms such as soya flour have been extensively used in food for some time. The novelty lies in the new technology which is allowing such food to be given a texture and appearance closely resembling meat in various forms.

As the hon. Lady said, there is no new problem of safety for the consumer in this development, but it is important to make sure that these new products are marketed under descriptions and with labelling which give consumers all the information they want and avoid any form of confusion or deception. This subject is under close study by the Food Standards Committee at the present time, and I am looking forward to receiving its recommendations.

However, the hon. Lady has been concerned tonight mainly about the different line of development in which protein is not derived from vegetables but produced in a single-cell microbial form. Expressed in these terms, the product may be represented as a revolutionary innovation which should be viewed with grave suspicion or described by terms such as "synthetic". The point which I wish to emphasise is that human beings have been using microbiai single-cell proteins in their food for several thousand years. We have described these proteins as yeast. Without it, products as familiar as cheese, bread, wine and beer would not exist. Nor are these proteins "synthetic". The product is organic and natural.

What is novel and important about recent developments is not, therefore, the basic nature of the protein being produced, but the fact that, after intensive research, methods have been discovered by which the protein can be produced economically by the development of the yeast on various bases, of which some of the most successful to date involve oil in various forms, including liquid paraffin.

The hon. Lady asked about this process. If the oil base is less pure than liquid paraffin, as in some processes used abroad, the protein is purified after production. That is the difference.

The protein content of these yeasts is about 60 to 70 per cent., the material being produced by a fermentation process in which the micro-organisms are grown under carefully controlled conditions. There would be two possible uses for such yeast, one as a direct ingredient in food for human consumption, and the other as one of the many forms of protein which are an ingredient in animal feeding-stuffs.

I can state categorically tonight that there is no immediate issue or problem over the use of these single-cell microbial proteins as a direct ingredient in food. While it is likely that any Delphic group of distinguished scientists, doctors and economists would, by a large majority, forecast that, by some time in the 1980s, such products would be accepted as safe and economically useful as a direct ingredient in food, all this lies in the long term. There is no intention on the part of those producing these proteins in this country to seek to enter the human food market in the near future.

There is no production capacity available or likely to be available for many years which would make it necessary or sensible to seek such markets. Regulations in this country would in any case rule out such use, whether the proteins were produced in this country or overseas. We shall, therefore, have very adequate time, measured in years, to satisfy ourselves, in the light of the best advice available and the fullest possible evidence, that these proteins are safe for direct consumption before any question of their use will arise.

The immediate issue, and the one on which I would wish to concentrate tonight, is the market for single-cell protein as an animal feedingstuff. This is an extremely important market. The United Kingdom alone uses 18.5 million tons of material for animal feeding annually, of which some two million tons is high-protein material. A high proportion of feedingstuffs is imported. The annual cost to our balance of payments is considerable—up to £200 million annually.

Throughout the world, pressure on the world supplies of feedingstuffs is very severe and, bearing in mind that, on the present levels of meat production in the world, some 4½ million tons of fishmeal are being used annually to feed animals, it is easy to see why some alternative source of protein could be most valuable.

Various forms of new protein are in different stages of development, but the one which is currently being offered in small quantities for commercial use has been subjected to extremely intensive testing and research over a very long period, both to establish the nutritional value of the product and also to make quite certain that it is safe both for the animals and for the humans who consume the meat from the animals.

This particular product, a yeast grown on a liquid paraffin itself of pharmaceutical standards of purity, which is the only one yet being offered commercially in small quantity—less than .01 per cent. of our total feed requirements—has been tested at two independent research establishments in the Netherlands, both of which enjoy a high international reputation for the quality and integrity of their work. At one, CIVO at Zeist, tests, of the kind accepted internationally, have been made since 1964 on animals. The results show nothing to suggest a hazard to health.

Although international standards usually accept three generation studies as valid for materials to be used in human food, the protein has been fed to 15 generations of rats and 25 generations of quail without any ill-effects emerging. At the other establishment, ILOB at Wageningen, in farm rather than laboratory conditions, poultry, calves and pigs have been tested in a programme which has already been in progress for five years. Nutritional results have been encouraging. As regards safety the animals have shown no ill-effects.

The meat from these animals has been subjected to most detailed research and no signs of any effect arising from the protein used in the feed has been detected. There would seem, therefore, no evidence of any possible hazard to human beings. Indeed, I understand that the director of the research farm and his family have been eating this meat with enjoyment and without ill effect for some years.

I do not understand on what scientific or other basis the hon. Member thinks that these periods of testing of 13 years for certain tests and five years for others are too short. The scientific advice available to me is that these periods are not merely adequate but exceptional and that it is difficult to think of any other ingredient in feedingstuffs—or indeed in food—which has been tested so thoroughly for so long. I believe this is a matter where the advice of scientists can be more useful than picking a figure out of the air.

As regards the hon. Member's suggestion that meat from animals which have been fed on new forms of yeast should be specially labelled, this is, I recognise, consistent with her general advocacy of fuller and more informative labelling of food to help consumers. She knows that I support this advocacy in general and I believe that over the years she has contributed to a situation in which we have better labelling now than we had many years ago. We would both agree that there is scope for further improvement. But two basic criteria must be satisfied. The information must be meaningful and it must be practicable to provide it. Neither could be satisfied in the case of labelling meat.

Even meat from animals fed on diets containing a much higher proportion of the new protein yeasts than in practice would ever be present on an ordinary farm is not to be differentiated in its composition from all other meat from animals fed on diets without such proteins. Depending on the precise content of any diet, for example the amount and kind of fish meal used, marginally distinct analytical results can already be found in meat but these are of no significance for safety or nutrition. It is difficult to see therefore how the consumer could be helped, even if it were possible to do so, by providing information about the animals' diet.

It is quite a different situation from one in which a colourant or preservative is present in one variety of a feed and not in others where, in the laboratory, there is some difference, however small, in composition of the products. But in any case, on grounds of practicality, it is clearly impossible for a butcher to identify a particular cut of meat as originating from any particular animal fed on any particular diet. Indeed an animal may well be fed on different diets at different times and a compound feeding-stuff containing new protein yeast might have been part of the diet for no more than a week or two in the life of the animal.

I hope to visit the Wageningen research establishment in the Netherlands with the Ministry's scientific advisers later this summer. If the hon. Lady or any other hon. Member concerned in the agricultural, scientific or consumer aspects of this development, would be interested to accompany the group, I am sure that arrangements can be made.

All the evidence indicates therefore that the decision to start marketing this product and the decision by commercial feedingstuff manufacturers to incorporate the protein with other forms of protein in their products was fully justified by the evidence and was consistent with responsibilities placed on the companies concerned by the general provisions of the Fertilisers and Feedingstuffs Act.

These developments in this country must be seen as part of wider European developments in which this country is contributing valuably to the know-how and technology but where production is proceeding in France and seems likely to start soon in Italy, where there are plans to erect the first commercial scale plant in the United Kingdom in Scotland at Grangemouth. The United Kingdom is certainly not alone in allowing the use of new single-cell proteins in feedingstuffs as some new protein yeast is permitted in animal feed in France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Belgium and Denmark.

The hon. Lady referred to recent Japanese decisions. Naturally we keep ourselves fully informed of developments of this kind all over the world. But we must not allow ourselves to panic and to follow slavishly decisions reached in other countries.

I believe that within the nine countries of the EEC we have scientific and medical expertise of a quality to reach our own decisions rather than to rely on Japanese views. In any case the Japanese Government have not banned the Japanese form of new protein yeasts. All the tests so far have shown no risk to health but further tests at independent research stations are being carried out. Tests of the length and independence of those made in the Netherlands are what the Japanese Government are waiting for before approving the proteins.

The Government are satisfied with the way in which these developments are proceeding at present in this country. They believe that the companies concerned are to be congratulated both on their initiative and in investing in the substantial costs of research needed to develop plant to provide yeast proteins at an economic cost. We believe that developed in a European context these new products can make a small but useful contribution to our total requirements of protein for feedingstuffs, achieve a useful saving in our import bill and at the same time earn us royalties when other countries use production processes which have been tried out successfully in this country.

Looking, however, to the longer term, the Government are reviewing with the aid of the Food Additives and Contaminants Committee the whole system of control over products which are based in some way on mineral hydrocarbons. It may well be that the present combination of provisions relating to the sale of feedingstuffs in the Fertilisers and Feed-ingstuffs Act and Regulations and those in the Mineral Hydro-Carbons in Food Regulations in relation to food needs to be supplemented by other controls. While the few companies which are at present operating in the development of new forms of protein for feedingstuffs are acting with great responsibility and keeping us fully informed, we must make certain that the public would be protected from any future developments especially if they were in less responsible hands.

Our present laws already provide protection for the purchaser of animal feedingstuffs and in particular lay down that any material sold as a feedingstuff should not be deleterious to the animals. We shall shortly be strengthening these laws by bringing into force Part IV of the Agriculture Act 1970 and by making new regulations which will, amongst other things, implement the EEC Directive on Additives in Feedingstuffs.

As I have already indicated, these new protein feedingstuffs are being made and used in other EEC countries and we shall be considering with them and with the EEC Commission whether any special rules about description, labelling or safety of feedingstuffs are required.

The new proteins will, as I have said, not be used in food for a period which I hope even the hon. Lady will find adequately long.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.