HC Deb 25 May 1989 vol 153 cc1104-7
4. Mr. Morgan

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether a diagnostic test for irradiated food is yet available.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder)

Work is continuing to develop tests that could be applied to particular categories of produce. Meanwhile, in those countries where food irradiation is already permitted, control of the process is carried out by licensing and documentary checks as recommended by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Mr. Morgan

Can the Minister confirm that with or without the availability of a diagnostic test his Government have decided to authorise the legitimation of the sale of irradiated food? Perhaps that is inevitable. If we believe everything we read in Vanity Fair the Prime Minister herself believes that ionising radiation in the bath will extend her shelf life. Is it not the case that dodgy produce that has passed its sell-by date is as unacceptable to the British consumer as are Prime Ministers who have passed their sell-by date?

Mr. Ryder

The World Health Organisation approves of irradiation. More than 20 countries use irradiation, and more than 30 countries, including the United States and France, permit it despite there being no test available to those countries. Under those circumstances, there is no reason why we should not follow suit.

Mr. Ashby

Does my hon. Friend realise that the consumer finds it unacceptable not to be given the choice of choosing food that is irradiated or not? Until a test is available that can inform the consumer whether food is irradiated it should not be sold in this country.

Mr. Ryder

I ask my hon. Friend to be patient. Next month we shall publish a report by some of our officials who are drawing up a framework for irradiation. I will be greatly surprised if labelling does not feature among their main recommendations.

Dr. David Clark

As no diagnostic test currently exists, does the Minister appreciate that not only consumers but farmers, retailers and the Labour party are against irradiated food? The only people in favour are the Government's big business backers. Will the Government back down and respect the will of the British people not to market irradiated food in this country until a diagnostic test is available?

Mr. Ryder

I have seldom heard such nonsense. The advisory committee on irradiation and novel foods, formerly under the chairmanship of the master of Darwin college, Cambridge, and now under the chairmanship of the vice-chancellor of the university of East Anglia, concluded without doubt that irradiation is safe. All the Government's scientific advisers have shown that it is safe, as has the World Health Organisation. More than 30 countries permit it, so why not Britain?

5. Mr. Sumberg

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received regarding the proposed introduction of food irradiation in the United Kingdom; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. MacGregor

As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said, the Government accept independent scientific advice that food irradiation, properly applied, is safe, and that moreover it offers consumers real health and economic benefits. I have just received the report from officials on the framework of controls that would be necessary if we were to remove the present prohibition. I will announce a decision as soon as consideration of their report has been completed. A number of organisations and individual bodies have drawn attention to specific matters relevant to the controls, and they too will be taken into account in our consideration.

Mr. Sumberg

I hope that my right hon. Friend will move cautiously. There is widespread public concern that irradiation will merely mask unsafe foods. After all, we have lived happily for generations without it, and can do so in the future. There is a danger that 30 years hence we shall all be back here saying that we should not have taken such a step because there has been damage to life and health.

Mr. MacGregor

The advice of scientists from 54 countries, based on their consideration of the matter over a long period, is that they believe irradiation is safe. It is important of course that food is not unfit for consumption before it is irradiated. Irradiation can do nothing for food that has already deteriorated, any more than can pasteurisation.

Provided that there is a proper framework of controls, irradiation will help to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of food, and it has a contribution to make to the reduction of food-borne illnesses. Irradiation has been shown to be effective in significantly reducing the organisms that cause illnesses such as salmonella and listeria. When I present the working party's report on the framework of controls, I hope that we shall then have an informed debate.

Mr. Martyn Jones

Does the Minister accept that, leaving aside the probable dangers of irradiation in terms of the creation of free radicals which may well create chemicals within food which are dangerous to human health, irradiation is dangerous because it is impossible to detect whether the food was unfit before it was irradiated? The only way of detecting whether food is of sufficient quality at present is by examining the bacterial load on that food. We have no means of detecting the original bacterial load before the bacteria have been killed by irradiation.

Mr. MacGregor

The advisory committee on irradiated and novel foods consists of top-level experts specialising in radiological protection, biochemistry, microbiology, toxicology and nutrition. They have thoroughly examined all aspects of the subject and have come to the clear conclusion that it will not prejudice the safety and wholesomeness of food and that it has certain advantages. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clarke) may be correct in what he said about the Labour party, but I can assure him that he is not correct in what he said about the responses of many consumer organisations, farmers, consumers and others outside the industry.

Mr. Greg Knight

Is my right hon. Friend aware that every winter an advertisement on television shows a young boy who eats a bowl of porridge and then starts to emit a red glow? Is he aware that many members of the public feel that a similar result may occur when they eat irradiated food? It is absolutely necessary that there is public confidence in this matter. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will take whatever steps necessary to bring about that confidence?

Mr. McGregor

Yes, indeed. We ave already received a report from the advisory committee on irradiated and novel foods. There have been many conferences in many countries, and as my hon. Friend said, irradiation is practiced in more than 20 countries and is available in more. It is important to have a proper framework of control in general and to deal with the problem of unfit food. Labelling will also be necessary so that consumers can exercise free choice. I hope that when we publish that report we will have a very thorough debate, which I believe will show that irradiation, properly controlled, can play an important part in food safety.

Dr. David Clark

Does the Minister appreciate that a great weakness of the irradiation of food is that it allows unfit food to be dressed up as good food? Is he aware that in this country imported seafood has been found to be unfit for consumption, exported to Holland, irradiated and re-imported to Britain and put on the market?

Mr. MacGregor

Such matters will be an important aspect of the framework of controls that we shall set up. I urge the hon. Gentleman to await the publication of the working party report and the Government's conclusions on it.