HC Deb 29 June 1989 vol 155 cc1099-101
10. Mr. Thurnham

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what recent measures he has taken to improve food safety in the United Kingdom; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. MacGregor

I have recently introduced several measures at all stages in the food chain, from production of animal feed right through to storage and handling of food in the home.

Mr. Thurnham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the major British food firms lead the world in safety standards? Does he also agree that the difference between the Government and the Opposition in this regard is that whereas my right hon. Friend, with his scientific advisers, works closely with those firms to establish new standards and research priorities, the Opposition listen to spurious advice and call for inefficiently used local authority environmental health officers?

Mr. MacGregor

I agree that our food industry has a very good record, in both range and quality of provision and in food safety. I well know how much the industry is investing in new plant and facilities to enable it constantly to improve food safety. After all, unless it does so it will not continue to expand and sell its products, both at home and in the export market, and its export record shows how successful it has been.

I also agree that it is extremely important for Government action to be based on the best available scientific advice. We have many scientists from all disciplines, both independent and in the Ministry, to advise us and maintain constant surveillance. It is on that basis that we are able to act promptly to protect the consumer.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Does the Minister accept that there is a close connection between food hygiene—and food safety—and preparation? Is he aware that in Aberdeen there is great concern at the decision announced yesterday to go ahead with the cut in the research budget at the Torry research station? When the Minister saw a deputation of Members of Parliament the day before, we put it to him that the research being done in collaboration with the EEC was under threat, and he promised to consider the matter. Has he done so, and if so, what decision has he reached?

Mr. MacGregor

It is important to remember that Torry's research, and the research that the Government have said from the outset that they will not continue to fund, is of a commercial nature, close to the development end—near-market research that is appropriate for commercial exploitation if companies wish to take up the opportunity. That is precisely the kind of research which we feel should be funded by the industry. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has had extensive discussions with the industry, and I regret to say that the industry does not wish to fund those particular projects. As for the proposed European Community projects, my hon. Friend is currently considering them and will write to the hon. Gentleman shortly.

Mr. Hill

Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the latest report by health inspectors on food being taken out of the country by air? The report said that one in four aircraft meals was dangerous to passengers. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter? Could not the food be subjected to irradiation? Surely the problem needs more scrutiny. Like many of my colleagues, I travel frequently in aircraft.

Mr. MacGregor

I suspect that at present I travel in aircraft as much as anyone, as I spend so much of my time negotiating beyond these shores. I am aware of some of the recent research reports. Indeed, we debated the subject in the House last Wednesday, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, whose primary responsibility it is, said that he was examining the situation closely to see whether any action was required from him.

If and when the ban on irradiation is lifted—obviously, such action will require parliamentary approval—it will apply only to products for which it is appropriate. It will then be for the industry involved—in this case, the airline —and for consumers themselves to decide whether they wish to make use of irradiated food.

Mr. Ron Davies

Does the Minister realise that the Labour party's policy to create an independent food standards agency has now been endorsed by the National Consumer Council and the Institute of Trading Standards Administration? Given the growing concern that exists about the quality and wholesomeness of food that is available to the British consumer, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this would be an ideal opportunity for him to set to one side his political interests and include our proposal for an independent agency in the food Bill which he is currently considering?

Mr. MacGregor

I have had a quick look at the National Consumer Council report and obviously I shall wish to read it further. From that quick look, it seems to me that there are criticisms, as I know from when I have been to the United States, of the way in which that country organises these matters. There are criticisms of the way in which the Food and Drug Administration has operated, just as there are criticisms in other countries. Every country must decide how it wishes to deal with food safety, and there is no perfect answer. It is interesting to note, however, that the majority of countries, certainly in the European Community, organise these matters in the way that we do. I understand that the paper in question has been produced as a consultative document. I have no doubt that there will be much discussion about the pros and cons, and there are clearly a number of cons listed in the document in that respect.

Mr. Jack

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Ministry will continue to take a strong line in rebutting spurious and unscientifically sponsored claims about food safety, such as the recent comments made about the chemical Alar?

Mr. MacGregor

It is extremely important that scientific advice and evidence, not emotion and scary headlines, are the guide in these matters from the point of view of Government action. It is important for all parties in the House not to respond to immediate pressures from interest groups and scare stories but to consider the evidence and listen to responsible scientists. That is what I do and on that basis we asked our advisory committee recently to look again at the evidence on Alar. The committee made a clear recommendation and we have stuck with that.

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