HC Deb 05 December 1988 vol 143 cc19-24 3.30 pm
Sir Hal Miller (Bromsgrove)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on salmonella and eggs.

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

My Department issued guidance on 26 August and 21 November concerning salmonella and eggs. I am advised by the Government's chief medical officer that up to the end of October there had been 46 reported outbreaks of salmonella food poisoning in England and Wales, involving about 1,000 cases in which the most likely source of the infection was uncooked or partially cooked eggs. Recent studies show that some sporadic cases of salmonellosis have been caused by eggs. It is likely that these figures underestimate the total number of people affected.

The chief medical officer is today repeating his advice to the public not to eat raw eggs or uncooked foods made from them. He has advised caterers to use pasteurised egg instead of uncooked egg.

Some of the 46 outbreaks were assoicated with the consumption of lightly cooked eggs or foods containing them. Although the risk of harm to any healthy individual from consuming a single egg is small, it is advisable for vulnerable people, such as the elderly, the sick, babies and pregnant women, to consume only eggs that have been cooked until the white and yolk are solid. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is in his place alongside me, is this afternoon publishing details of a voluntary code agreed with the poultry breeding industry to reduce the risk of salmonella infection in poultry breeding flocks.

To put the problem in perspective—30 million eggs are eaten every day—the risk of an individual becoming ill is very small. Nevertheless, there are grounds for concern, and my Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the poultry industry are working closely together to tackle them.

Sir Hal Miller

Will my right hon. and learned Friend reiterate that the 46 outbreaks relate to a consumption this year of 9 billion eggs? Is he aware of the consternation and anger that have been caused by the rather rash statement of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health? Does he realise that there are signs in Birmingham market advertising Dutch eggs that are salmonella-free? The woman at the pub in the Cotswolds at which I stopped for breakfast over-cooked the eggs because of the salmonella scare. Is it not time that something was done to put an end to this uncertainty?

Mr. Clarke

We are all agreed that we must keep this matter in proportion. There is no doubt that there is genuine concern in this country and abroad about the increased incidence of salmonella poisoning from eggs. It is right that particularly vulnerable people such as the frail, the sick, the elderly and young children should be protected from eating raw eggs. I agree with my hon. Friend about the vast consumption of eggs in this country, but the risk of infection to any individual is small, and the risk to a healthy adult is small indeed. This is an international problem, so anyone advertising overseas eggs as being safer than our own is plainly wrong.

I noticed that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health drew attention to this problem this weekend. The House should reflect on the fact that my hon. Friend was talking about a serious matter on which my Department had already issued public health advice twice this autumn. My hon. Friend's words have sought to draw further attention to the problem and, I trust, to warn people who are vulnerable to infection if they eat raw or uncooked eggs. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) that I shall carry on eating eggs, as I am sure he will. The chief medical officer tells me that he had egg sandwiches for lunch. Every healthy individual need not be too worried about an unreasonable scare.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston)

Does the Secretary of State recall that when his Department last issued guidance on eggs and salmonella, on 21 November, it stated: the risk of any individual egg being infected is likely to be very small"? How does the right hon. and learned Gentleman square that with the claim at the weekend by the Under-Secretary of State that most of the egg production in this country is now infected? Which of those two statements reflects the Department's view? Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman content to preside over a Department that issues two totally and utterly contradictory views in the space of two weeks?

Is not the lesson of today that the Government will let the hon. Lady insult pensioners, caricature northerners and threaten child benefit, but that stubbing the toes of the National Farmers Union is going too far? Surely it must now be clear to the Secretary of State that the hon. Lady's embarrassment quotient exceeds her entertainment value? Is it not about time he removed such a major obstacle to our taking his Department seriously?

Mr. Clarke

The Department's position has been consistent throughout. There is a growth risk of salmonella. It is obviously right that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my Department and the industry should tackle it together. The risk of any individual being infected is quite small, but it is right that we should draw the public's attention to the need to be careful in the way that they handle and cook food. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health is an extremely valuable member of the team in this Department and the Government. It may be that many hon. Members are a little envious of her natural gift for obtaining publicity. This is not the first occasion on which she has obtained great publicity on a serious matter and drawn the public's attention to something that might otherwise have passed their notice.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that unsubstantiable remarks by anyone must be denied by Secretaries of State? Will he make it clear to the House that there is no scientific evidence that there is any salmonella in an uncracked egg, one that is still in the shell? Therefore, statements made over the weekend which have a major effect on a large industry in agriculture are to be condemned.

Mr. Clarke

I do not hold myself out as having any scientific expertise. I obviously rely heavily, and with total confidence, on the advice that I receive from the chief medical officer to the Government and his staff. My understanding is not the same as my hon. Friend's. I do not think that it is true that an uncracked egg can be guaranteed to be salmonella-proof. The advice that we are giving is that the public should be careful about how they handle uncracked eggs, that they should cook them thoroughly and use them sensibly. The remains relevant advice until the industry's efforts have reduced the present level of infection.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

Will the Minister acknowledge that the statement of his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has created a tremendous loss of confidence in the egg industry? How will he give more confidence now that that statement has been made? There is no question but that there needs to be an investigation and thorough inquiry into what has gone on. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, if the facts are established and there is a problem, he should discuss with his hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the possibility of a thorough eradication programme, should that prove necessary?

Mr. Clarke

My Department put out information in August advising the public not to eat raw eggs. That advice was followed up in November with advice not to eat raw or lightly cooked eggs, together with a recommendation in caterers to use pasteurised eggs for any food that required raw or lightly cooked eggs. All we are doing is reinforcing that message.

As I have said today, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is putting out a code that has been drawn up with the industry and will be followed by the industry to reduce salmonella infection to acceptable, minimal proportions. At the moment there is a source of anxiety which is being tackled by all concerned. Meanwhile, the public will simply have to be sensible and carry on eating their eggs in a way that ensures that the risk to health is the absolute minimum.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I would hazard the guess that millions of people will be infinitely depressed at the prospect of hard-boiled eggs and no fresh mayonnaise. What practical steps are he and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food taking to investigate the cause of salmonella in poultry and to eliminate it?

Mr. Clarke

I agree that I would miss my mayonnaise, but, personally, I shall probably not desist from eating it. I imagine that that is true of most people in this Chamber who regard themselves as healthy adults and therefore the risk of infection to be acceptable. However, we have a duty to warn the public that salmonella infection is rising and appears to be poultry-based. The Ministry of Agriculture, my Department and the public health laboratory service will all be seeking to find more information about the full extent of the infection and the steps that can be taken to reduce it. We are sure that steps can be taken to get British poultry and eggs back to the high quality that we are accustomed to receiving.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Does the Minister unequivocally and strongly support the statement made by the Under-Secretary of State?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend was quite right to answer a question put to her on another occasion, stressing the concern that we feel about infection in eggs and drawing attention to the advice that the Department had already been giving over the previous few months.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that even the fact that he has come here today and said that there is a very small risk is doing damage? The risk is minuscule, but we have witnessed today, in this House, some embarrassment and laughter, and, outside this House, a fall in consumption of 1 per cent. or more, which may put egg producers out of business. My right hon. and learned Friend must address that matter.

Mr. Clarke

I agree with my hon. Friend that, despite the undertone of hilarity in the House, there is a serious problem. We must steer the proper course between, on the one hand, the ridiculous scares that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sir H. Miller) described after his experiences, and, on the other hand, undue complacency which might leave some of the very elderly and the very young and the sick and frail at risk. All the public have to do is cook their eggs carefully—fry them or boil them properly—and for any frail person to make sure that they are hard boiled. I am sure that the industry and ourselves can tackle the risk together.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

The half-baked, half-boiled irrational statement by the Under-Secretary of State has caused tremendous concern in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that no outbreak of salmonella has been identified in connection with any eggs or poultry products produced in Northern Ireland? Does he also accept that the sweeping allegations, which, from what we hear today, are largely unfounded, threaten egg production in Northern Ireland farms as we are virtually totally dependent on exports? Does he agree that greater attention should be paid to imports of foreign eggs into this country in future? Does he acknowledge the excellent health record of Northern Ireland poultry flocks and of Northern Ireland eggs exported to this country?

Mr. Clarke

I shall take advice on whether any of the cases involve Northern Ireland eggs, but it may not be possible to discover that.

We all realise the concern of egg producers, and I am satisfied that nothing that I have announced today or that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said at the weekend need threaten egg sales or egg consumption in this country. On the other hand, there have been one thousand cases of salmonella connected with eggs. Much as I would wish to give the industry a totally clean bill of health, we cannot suppress the advice of our own chief medical officer and his staff. That advice is sensible and balanced and need not worry any housewife or healthy member of the public and merely warns us all to be prudent until this sudden and worrying upsurge in salmonella is brought back under control.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, according to the public health laboratory service, the majority of cases of salmonella in eggs are due to mishandling by caterers because the eggs are stored in high temperatures? Is he further aware that the British Poultry Federation has carried out a check on eggs throughout the country but has not found one case of salmonella?

Mr. Clarke

I was not aware of my hon. Friend's first point. I know that many poultry producers are making careful checks—and if they continue to do so, they will eventually discover salmonella in poultry flocks. The code is being drawn up with the industry to eliminate that risk. I appreciate the egg industry's concern and I am saying all that I can—it is the right thing to do—to reassure the public that they can continue to buy eggs. However, we cannot ignore the public health advice. There have been 1,000 cases, which is 1,000 too many. A little more care is required in the cooking of eggs to avoid infection. People should be warned not to eat raw or lightly cooked eggs. My hon. Friends should not consume prairie oysters in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Jack Thompson (Wansbeck)

Does not the adverse publicity during the past few days, especially that created by the Under-Secretary, emphasise the lack of co-operation and co-ordination between the right hon. and learned Gentleman's Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Are there not conflicting statements from the two Departments? Is not one reason for the current problem the reduction in research funding?

Mr. Clarke

There has been the closest co-operation between my Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Government's chief medical officer. We all agree on our statements and on our message to the public. Whenever there are minor public health worries, it is inevitable that people will exaggerate. Some of the reactions to my hon. Friend's statement, including all the publicity-seeking stuff this morning about dismissal, rebounded on those making the claims because it has drawn more attention to the problem. I hope that the House will get the matter in proportion and will accept that there is a health problem, which we are tackling, and that the average member of the public is not at risk.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

Does my right hon and learned Friend agree that it is the obligation of any responsible Government to inform and not to alarm? Do not the Under-Secretary's remarks this weekend fall into the latter category?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the next time that we attend a football match together we will have our customary lunch of beer, cigars and a couple of Scotch eggs—none of which our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary approves of?

Mr. Clarke

I accept that it is the Government's duty to inform and not to alarm, and we shall follow that course. The House must accept that we have a duty to inform people that the risk of salmonella is higher than it was and that we are tackling that. I shall continue to consume my customary fare when I attend football matches with my hon. Friend. I am sure that that will alarm a number of hon. Members, but I intend to persist in that habit.

Mrs. Rosie Barnes (Greenwich)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, on available statistics, there is a one in 350 million risk of salmonella poisoning from eggs? Was not the remark made on the radio this morning—that it was as likely as being hit by a meteorite—probably true? Was it not highly irresponsible to put the egg industry at risk and to jeopardise the long-established eating habits of this nation?

Mr. Clarke

As I have already said, I do not have scientific experience in this matter. I shall consult on some of the propositions being made to me. I agree that nothing has been said that should put the egg industry at risk or justifies exaggerated public alarm. There is no point, however, in going too far the other way and exaggerating the minuscule nature of the risk. There have been 46 outbreaks of salmonella and 1,000 reported cases, and there may be others that have gone unreported. That is why we have taken action and made some comments. We do not believe that the public should be put off buying eggs.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

Can the Secretary of State explain to the House why both his statement and that of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food agree, when the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture—which is an agent of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—has made a clear statement that the egg industry in Northern Ireland has a clean bill of health and that there is no poisoning? Does he realise that the Under-Secretary's statement has greatly exacerbated an already difficult position in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister with responsibility for agriculture in Northern Ireland are better informed about the Irish situation than I am. I would certainly rely on their advice on the industry in Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food put out a statement this afternoon, which states: The industry are aware of the need to take effective action. And action is being taken on several other fronts.

The action is in proportion to the risk, which is not too grave. All we are giving is some sensible advice to the general public and, meanwhile, taking steps for the industry to get the situation back to normal.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a private notice question. No doubt the House wil be able to return to this matter when we have health questions next week.

Sir Peter Emery

In view of the entirely unsatisfactory nature of the Minister's reply, I give notice that I will attempt to raise the matter on the Adjournment as soon as humanly possible.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I shall take it afterwards.