HC Deb 10 February 1993 vol 218 cc981-6 3.30 pm
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

(by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the safety of apple juice currently on sale in Great Britain.

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

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has the most comprehensive food surveillance programme in the world. It has been operating for 20 years, and 12 working parties constantly monitor the food supply in a co-ordinated national programme, overseen by the steering group on chemical aspects of food safety, for many hundreds of different contaminants. All the results of the Ministry's surveillance work are routinely published, together with the commentary on any health implications that may have come to light. In all, 34 detailed reports have been placed in the public domain. The report of which this particular survey forms a part is already in the course of being produced. It will be published next month.

Patulin is a naturally occurring toxicant that has been with us since the creation. It is produced by moulds. Apples have always been prone to this particular mould. Therefore, our surveillance programme has of course examined apple juice on several occasions in the past to determine patulin levels. On the last occasion, in June 1992, four samples contained higher levels than were expected on the basis of the previous surveillance. The results were considered by the scientific and medical specialists in the Ministry and the Department of Health, who considered that the levels did not pose an immediate hazard to health but that they should be referred to the Government's independent expert committees and then published in the usual way.

The results were referred to the Committee on Toxicity, the independent expert committee whose membership comprises some of the leading toxicologists in the land. The Government look to these top independent scientists for toxicological advice. The committee did not consider that the patulin results showed a need for any products to be withdrawn from sale, but recommended as a matter of prudence that steps should be taken to reduce the levels to the lowest technologically achievable.

In the light of that entirely independent and expert advice, the Ministry's chief food scientist called in representatives of the industry to explore the options for achieving that. He stressed the need for improved quality control measures to be taken to ensure the lowest possible levels, and various action levels were explored and considered in great detail.

The matter was then put to the independent Food Advisory Committee at its next two meetings. The published agendas of the committee make it clear that this matter was under consideration. The committee recommended that patulin levels should not exceed an action level of 50 parts per billion and that the position should be reviewed in the light of further data.

Following advice from the Food Advisory Committee, I called in the industry in December and explained the advice that we had received. The industry had already started to react to the earlier findings of the Committee on Toxicity. The Ministry's follow-up sampling planned for this spring is deliberately timed so as to look at apple juice made from apples made from last season's crop that have been in store for the maximum period—that is, we are studying the worst case possible.

Whenever the Government have proper, scientifically substantiated evidence that the public is at risk, immediate action is taken, as in the case of dioxins in milk, lead in animal feedingstuffs and milk and the closure of shellfish beds during contamination by algal toxins. This is not the case with patulin, which on the best toxicological advice available to the Government did not constitute an immediate hazard to health. Nevertheless, our prudent action is designed to minimise a natural problem that has been with us since Adam ate the apple and thus made a career decision.

We should not forget that apple juice is a useful source of vitamin C, and no good purpose whatever is served by creating quite unnecessary public alarm and confusion.

Mr. Strang

Is the Minister aware that he has not justified the Government's failure to act last year? I tell Conservative Members who seem to think that this is a laughing matter that the fact that a substance occurs naturally does not mean that it is not toxic or dangerous to human health. The Minister has not denied that patulin can cause cancer and other life-threatening conditions. He has not denied that the tests conducted on behalf of the Ministry last year showed that, in some apple juices, levels were above the safety standards laid down by the World Health Organisation and the Ministry. Does he not realise that, when the test results were known, the Government should immediately have made them public and taken steps to remove all toxic apple juice from the shelves?

Is the Minister trying to discredit the Government's own safety standards in this area? Where is the open government policy now? Does not this show the need for a freedom of information Act and for an independent food standards agency? How can we be sure that the Minister is not showing the same negligence about other food safety standards? Is it not clear from the Minister's failure last year to take apple juice off the shelves and to make the information public that Britain's food is not safe in his hands?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Gentleman cannot be taken seriously. It is not often that one hears such an injudicious blend of malice, ignorance and prejudice. We have acted throughout according to the best scientific advice available in the land. Food safety standards in this country are the highest in the world, and the hon. Gentleman does no service to the consumer or to the food industry by such ridiculous and idiotic scaremongering.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Leicester)

Will my hon. Friend assure the young woman who telephoned my constituency office this morning and who is expecting a baby shortly that she need have no fears for the baby or herself?

Mr. Soames

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am happy to give the absolute assurance that that is the case.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The Minister must not be too defensive about apple juice, but should, like me, be a great advocate of the apple, and of apple juice and tell the House that he will drink it often in the future, even if he has not done so in the past.

There is one important issue. As I understand it, the report of what was a perfectly routine survey was concluded in June and the drinks manufacturers was first told of it in July. Will the Minister consider revising the process so that in future, if such a report might cause concern if it were made known informally, as has happened in this case, it would be best at that time to give the public the facts about what was found together with the reason why they should not be concerned?

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he approaches the issue. It is true that after each incident of this type it is perfectly proper for the Government to consider what has happened in the past and what steps they should take if necessary to restore and improve public confidence in such testing. We shall certainly consider carefully the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

As for the hon. Gentleman's first point, I am a very big drinker of apple juice.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)

Does my hon. Gentleman agree that the Opposition are indulging in scurrilous scaremongering based on gross exaggeration? There are not thousands but millions of people outside the House who will have been greatly reassured by what my hon. Friend has said not only in the Chamber but on Radio 4 this morning, when he explained carefully exactly what patulin is and the effects that it could have if taken in enormous doses. It is a very difficult row to hoe to decide between over-regulation and the appropriate regulation in which his Department should indulge. Over-regulation seems to be something that the Labour party craves—

Madam Speaker

Order. Perhaps I could guide the House: hon. Members should put questions to the Minister, not make statements. If the hon. Gentleman will put a question to the Minister, I shall hear it.

Mr. Marland

Will my hon. Friend accept the congratulations of his colleagues on getting the balance exactly right?

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but the people to whom his congratulations should be directed are the scientists who so skilfully and carefully carry out surveillance across the food chain 365 days a year, which gives us such a high standard of integrity in our food industry. As for regulation, my hon. Friend raises an important issue. No regulation should take place if it is not directly proportionate to the risk involved.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The Minister will be aware that the House does not usually associate him with the feminist cause, but he will no doubt be recognised as having made a contribution to it as he appeared to state that patulin rather than Eve was responsible for the figleaf. Will he assure the House that no contaminated apple juice has been sold in this country in the past few months, because he will recognise that his hon. Friends are far more interested in champagne than in a healthy drink so frequently consumed by my colleagues?

Mr. Soames

In that regard, the hon. Gentleman is an example to us all. I can give him the absolute assurance that he seeks. Since the report of the Committee on Toxicity and the Food Advisory Committee, all batches of apple juice sold have been tested to the limits laid down. Naturally, any batches that exceed those limits are not put into circulation.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Until my hon. Friend spoke today I had no idea that the apple in the garden of Eden was a windfall. Will he confirm that to get anywhere near the dangerous level someone would have to drink 140 litres of apple juice a day? Will my hon. Friend do his best for the fruit processors in my constituency and recommend that people drink one litre a day, which would still leave them 139 litres a day away from any conceivable danger?

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend makes a good point in his own style. He would suffer an excess of more than patulin if he drank that amount of apple juice. Plainly, as in all such cases, the limits depend on very large doses being administered over a long period. That is why the steps that we took—the steps that we always take in connection with such food incidents—represent a reaction entirely in proportion to the risk, and are always in the interests of the consumer and of public health.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Minister not consider that we could have avoided much sensationalism if he had managed to lumber before us six months ago and tell us what was going on? Will he also consider the fact that in Scotland, as I know he is well aware, the Agriculture and Fisheries Department is not responsible for food safety? Does he not consider that, if the rest of the United Kingdom copied that example, it might help to reassure the public that the people responsible for food safety were not also responsible for promoting the interest of agriculture?

Mr. Soames

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have a close and harmonious working relationship with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), who is responsible for the food industry in Scotland. On all such matters we consult and operate in a manner which could be considered a model of co-operation across Whitehall.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Does my hon. Friend accept that I drink apple juice every day of my life, and I do not consider myself toxic—although I may be quite dangerous at times? Is he aware that one of the people stirring up the controversy is a Dr. Tim Lang, the former director of the London Food Commission—a front organisation for the Labour party, funded by the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) to the tune of £1 million—who has now resurfaced in an organization called Parents for Safe Food? And—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady is abusing the time allowed—[Interruption.] Order. If the hon. Lady has a direct question, of course we must hear her. She has something quite valuable to say—most of the time.

Mrs. Gorman

Will my hon. Friend investigate my allegations?

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend is not only a credit to the apple but an adornment to society. I am happy to assure her that we are mindful at all times of the need to balance the paramount requirement of public health and the consumer interest—those are, of course, very important —with the need to have due regard to the manoeuvrings of those whose real interest is to rot the food industry.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As an hon. Member who has something valuable to say all the time, may I express a sense of puzzlement? Is not patulin a carcinogen? How comes it that the World Health Organisation, which consists of careful people and extremely cautious scientists, has said that the level of patulin is above the limit? If the Minister attacks my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), the same attack must be brought home to the WHO, must it not?

Mr. Soames

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the WHO has fixed an advised level of patulin at 50 parts per billion. It is also true that patulin, if taken in very great quantities, can be a carcinogen. The point is that the best advice from the best toxicological scientists in this country was that we should have acted exactly as we did—and we do not do anything unless the advice is both scientific and substantiated.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on listening to scientific advisers rather than the chattering classes on this matter. Is it not the case that a man even of the infinite capacity of my hon. Friend could not drink sufficient apple juice to do himself any damage? As long as the scaremongering—the political fun and games—goes on, the jobs of people in the apple industry who work in apple picking, in caring for the trees, in apple packing and in processing in constituencies such as mine in Kent will be at risk.

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that important point. It is true that a food scare can reduce confidence in a product and can, therefore, have an entirely unnecessary knock-on into the jobs of people who work in an excellent business. My hon. Friend is also right to say that the amount of apple juice that would have to be drunk for any harm to come to anyone is so huge that it is impossible to quantify. Nevertheless, we believe that the steps that we have taken are right and prudent, and that they will command the support of the consumer.

Ms. Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Is the Minister aware that my constituents have not reacted to this morning's announcement with the mirth expressed by him and by his hon. Friends? In the main, the constituents who have expressed their concern to me are mothers of small children. One such constituent is a woman who is pregnant. They are concerned about the amount that might be damaging, not to someone of the size and girth of the Minister, but to a small child. They are also concerned that they were not allowed to make the decision themselves, because the Government did not release the information, about whether they should or should not administer to their children what is, as the Minister said, a valuable source of vitamin C. The Minister denied them the right to make that decision themselves.

Mr. Soames

The hon. Lady is going a little over the top. There is no merriment among Conservative Members. We believe that this is a serious and important matter. The full weight of the Government's scientific advisers and toxicological advisers has been brought to bear on it. All the papers will be published and all the information will be made available. It is pointless to react in a way that is quite disproportionate to the risk. What matters is that people have, despite the best efforts of the hon. Lady and her amusing constituents, trust and belief in the integrity of the food chain in this country.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

Will the Minister join me in condemning the Opposition out of hand for daring to frighten these poor women, who are now terrified and who say that they are afraid to give their children apple juice? Does he agree that it shows the depths to which the Opposition have sunk that they scare these poor women? Next time he is in my constituency —I hope that that will be soon—will he join me in drinking several pints of Inch's cider, which will give him a wonderful result?

Mr. Soames

I look forward to that day with great pleasure. I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that the scares put around by Labour Members are fatuous. The integrity of the food chain is a matter to which we attach the greatest importance. We shall allow nothing to happen which could upset that position.

Several Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We shall now move on. I have an announcement to make before we do so.

Hon. Members may have seen that there has been a little hold-up in the ballot for notices of motions. The ballot will therefore remain open until after the ten-minute rule Bill so that hon. Members are not inconvenienced, provided that the Chair is not inconvenienced by the rush of hon. Members around the Table.