HC Deb 24 June 1999 vol 333 cc1405-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

8.31 pm
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the issue of nut allergies and labelling, which is particularly appropriate given today's debate on food policy.

My attention was first brought to this issue by a constituent, Mrs. Heather Forrester. Her son James has a peanut allergy, and it was due to his story and his mother's concerns about the inadequacies of the current labelling regime that I requested this debate. However, in the short time since this debate was granted, we have witnessed yet another tragedy—the death of the young athlete, Ross Baillie. His funeral today brings added poignancy to tonight's discussion.

I am sure that the Minister will want to join me in sending sincere condolences to the family and friends of Ross Baillie. That talented young man was is in prime physical condition. Last year, he broke the Scottish record for the 100 m hurdles at the Commonwealth games in Kuala Lumpur.

When a fit, gifted young athlete like Ross dies because of a few bites of a chicken sandwich, it is surely our duty to ask whether his death and others like it could have been avoided. We need to ask whether actions that the House has the power to take could help to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Like my constituent, James Forrester, Ross Baillie was aware of his allergy, and was always extremely careful. But, with the seemingly ever-increasing use of nuts in food, even careful, responsible adults can be caught out, sometimes fatally.

I know that the Minister is aware of this issue. He showed his commitment to tackling it by launching the catering awareness campaign in November 1997. He should know that there is much more to be done. Having tried awareness campaigns, it is time to get tough. We must work with manufacturers and retailers, and be realistic about what can work and what will not work. I do not believe that the Minister thinks that enough has been done, and I hope that he will tell us that he intends to go further.

The first and most important issue involves the catering industry—restaurants, cafés and take-aways. At the moment, unpackaged food, most of which is sold by the catering industry, is completely unregulated. As the food is not bought in a package, the labelling regime for pre-packed foods by definition does not apply. There has been little or no attempt to find other ways to provide consumers with the necessary information. The policy problem is clear. How should we convey information about the presence of allergens—nuts and so on—when the food product is unlabelled?

The Government were right to start tackling this problem by raising awareness. Chefs and waiters must understand the severity of the problem. Tiny traces of nuts in a dish can induce life-threatening seizures. Catering staff should be able to inform customers of the ingredients of every menu item. But the question for the Minister is this: does he really think that his awareness campaign has gone far enough? Should we not be doing much more?

I should be fair to the Minister. On 18 May, in a letter to me, he admitted, when assessing the success of his own information campaign, that we know that many recipients effectively ignored the information and that we did not reach some outlets at all". Presumably, the Minister believes that we do need to consider other measures, and I want to suggest a few to him this evening.

At present, there are no regulations, or even codes of practice, governing what menus should say about the contents of different dishes with respect to allergens. A few restaurants voluntarily say on their menus that a meal contains nuts, but they are still the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, more restaurants manage to say whether a meal is suitable for vegetarians or vegans. In the case of allergens such as nuts, informing customers can be a matter of life and death. I do not think that we can rely on voluntary action.

How could a code of practice work? I think that the Government should issue strict rules, under food standards and safety laws. Such a code of practice could cover all severe allergies, not just allergies to nuts. The rules could cover menu information, good practice in the kitchen and staff training. The code of practice could include information about how caterers could find out whether their raw materials contained allergens. I should be grateful if the Minister said whether he was prepared to consider introducing such a code of practice; but can he at least assure me that he will begin consultations with the catering industry?

In his letter of 18 May, the Minister suggested that nut-free menus wold be difficult to introduce, because food could become accidentally contaminated. He argued that requiring nut-free labelling would be very difficult unless there were a complete ban on nuts. I understand the point that he was making, but I do not accept his conclusion. Certainly, a code of practice will need to be drawn up carefully to ensure that it is workable, but I cannot believe that it is impossible to produce an effective and practical code. Indeed, I think that the Minister's Department has an obligation to do so, given the importance of the issue.

Some who object to the idea of a code of practice argue that this is a question of individual responsibility, and that it should be up to allergy sufferers to ask about ingredients. Individual responsibility is important, but that approach alone—which has effectively been Government policy so far—has been shown to have its limitations. Our constituents, when going out for a meal, may check with the waiter whether a meal contains nuts; but, unless the staff have been properly trained, allergy sufferers cannot be confident about the replies that they are given. That is borne out by experience.

The latest newsletter of the Anaphylaxis Campaign cites two cases of allergy sufferers who made specific, careful requests of catering staff in regard to ingredients, received assurances that the meals involved were nut free, and then suffered severe allergic reactions. Both those people have taken legal action, and one has been successful in an out-of-court settlement. A successful action for negligence would, however, have been scant comfort if the reaction had resulted in death.

Surely such cases demonstrate the limitations of placing the emphasis solely on the sufferer, and the limitations of awareness programmes. I believe that they also show that a tough approach would be in the interests of the catering industry. A strong code of practice would force the industry to become more aware of the problem, but it could also save individual caterers thousands of pounds in costs and compensation claims. In this instance, Government intervention would help both the consumer and business.

I note that regulations covering the identification of genetically modified foods in restaurants have been introduced quickly. Surely the same should apply to allergens such as nuts.

The second substantive issue on which I should like to press the Minister is the labelling of packaged foods. He will know that the labelling regime is widely criticised because of its failure to deal appropriately with allergens. Although in practice most manufacturers and retailers now go far beyond the requirements of the labelling regime, I hope that he will agree that the regime still needs changing.

The problem is the so-called 25 per cent. rule, which says that manufacturers do not have to list components of compound ingredients in which a component makes up less than 25 per cent. of the food. That might be reasonable for most component ingredients; but when part of the component is an allergen—such as a peanut—to which people may be hypersensitive, the 25 per cent. rule is clearly wrong.

The Minister will know that the European Commission has been seeking views, in a draft proposal, on amending the European Union directive to remove the 25 per cent. rule for allergens; but he will also know that progress has stopped, and that there is unlikely to be further action by the Commission. Will the Minister therefore raise the issue at the next Council of Ministers, so that fresh life might be breathed into the draft proposal? Will he also undertake to write to Ministers in other EU countries to ask for their support to fast-track the draft proposal?

The third issue that I should like to raise is so-called defensive labelling, which is the practice that some food manufacturers and retailers have adopted to protect themselves—of labelling everything as "may contain nuts". In that way, they seek to give themselves a type of insurance policy in relation to allergy sufferers. Such labelling certainly ensures that people are warned about nut ingredients, but it is completely the wrong approach.

For a start, defensive labelling is itself dangerous, as it devalues labelling information. People also soon realise that it is simply an insurance policy, particularly when the food seems very unlikely to contain nuts, so that they begin to lose faith in the labelling regime. Moreover, such a blanket approach is very unfair to allergy sufferers, as it unnecessarily restricts the choice of food available to them. As I said, I know that the Minister shares my concerns, and I should like to pay tribute to him for the way in which he has worked with the industry to try to curb that practice.

It is right to acknowledge the work that has been done by manufacturers and by their various trade bodies, such as the Food and Drink Federation, which has developed guidance for its members setting out minimum good practice standards for the handling of products containing severe allergens. Although I am told that there has been a reduction in the use of defensive labelling strategies, today the question is whether more could be done, with manufacturers and retailers, to make it possible to label more products as nut free.

I appreciate that there are genuine problems in giving such guarantees; not least is the difficulty of cross-contamination, whereby food production lines are used both for foods containing nuts and for those that are nut free. I am told by the industry that it is not economically viable to have dedicated facilities for nut-free products. Yet I am sure that industry could be encouraged to do more, and could be shown that it is profitable to do so. For example, one company—Kinnerton Confectionary—has already recognised the market opportunity and decided to produce children's products on dedicated nut-free lines.

How could the Government help in that? First, I believe that the Government must continue to spread awareness among manufacturers and press for the complete implementation of industry-designed guidelines. However, there is also a role for the Government in spreading best practice, as various manufacturers will be trying new ways to deal with cleansing production equipment, and other firms will have found ways in which different lines can be dedicated to nut-free products without damaging their wider range. Those experiences could be shared, so that more products are available and labelled as nut free.

I have not had time today to deal with many other aspects of the issue—such as the need for better information for allergy sufferers themselves, perhaps in a Government leaflet. We also need more allergy centres, where sufferers can be properly diagnosed and counselled. There is also a need for Epipens to be more widely available, so that, when people are caught out and suffer an allergic reaction, they can be treated quickly.

I hope that today's debate will have helped to focus attention on the need for major improvements in the provision of information on allergens to consumers. I hope that the experiences of my constituent, and the tragic death of Ross Baillie, will spur the Minister to do more, and to build on his record of action so far.

8.45 pm
The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) on introducing an important subject. I accept that he had obtained tonight's debate before the tragic death of Ross Baillie.

Bearing in mind that this is only a short debate, let me take the unusual step of giving the hon. Gentleman my conclusions before putting some details on the record. I agree with everything he said. There is scope for industry to do more, and I am certainly prepared to consider going beyond guidelines and producing a code of practice.

I take seriously everything that he said about the fact that, with the agreement of the catering industry, we have managed to introduce practical legislation for catering on genetically modified organisms. It will come into force on 19 September, following a couple of rounds of consultation last year and early this year. In my view, if we can legislate for GMOs, we ought to be able to do so for nuts, too. I am not threatening or promising legislation. If it is practical for the industry to inform customers and to train manufacturers to know what ingredients they are using in respect of GMOs, it should be possible in respect of nuts.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the 25 per cent. rule. There is a problem that we are seeking to address through international negotiations; that is an exception that we do not consider should apply to nuts. I also agree with him about defensive labelling. I have criticised defensive labelling, which can be seen in most shops. I should like to put on record, however, the contribution of the industry. Some big confectionery manufacturers are operating nut-free lines because they cannot guarantee the complete separation of one product from another.

Since I became Minister with responsibility for food, I have taken a personal interest in the matter. However, the interest did not start under the present Government. When I met Mr. David Reading, I gave him a commitment that I would treat the matter as seriously as my predecessor, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), rightly did. Therefore, I was able to launch with some commitment the campaign for awareness in the catering sector. Although I was sometimes criticised by people who were ignorant of these matters, I recall that, as I went from studio to studio that morning, two individuals—a broadcaster and a sound technician—told me, "Someone in my family is affected by this. It is more widespread than you think." That is absolutely true and we have to take the matter extremely seriously.

There are too many deaths. There is more of the allergy about. We are checking into whether that is due to people's sensitivity or to the wider use of nuts, and we are funding research into the issue. It is not a matter of banning products, but of raising awareness. I have asked myself whether GM technology could remove the genes that cause the allergy, but it is more complicated than that. Technology has been used to good effect in the far east to deal with allergies to rice.

It is a matter not of looking to ban foods, but of looking for a solution through investigation. The Ministry spends just over £1 million on research. Several projects are under way, and there are bids for some new ones under our food standards and safety programme for next year. A number of groups are involved in addition to the Government and the catering industry, and there is more work to be done.

We have to revisit our expenditure on, and commitment to, the campaign, which involved contacting 200,000 establishments. Obviously, some people took the matter seriously, whereas others put the leaflets and posters in the bin and treated them as junk mail. The issue has to be revisited.

About one in 200 young children may be at risk of developing a life-threatening sensitivity to peanuts and nuts. In our population, that is a substantial number of people, so we cannot afford to be complacent. We need effective and practical labelling provisions and other measures. The Department of Health is taking the matter seriously. A few days ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health laid regulations, which came into effect on 7 June, designating the allergy as a medical speciality in its own right for the first time, which means that consultants can be appointed. A big contribution can be made in that area.

The catering industry is vastly complex. I have referred to the catering awareness campaign, launched in 1997. We sent out 200,000 information packs. At the annual meeting of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health later this year, we shall discuss how the campaign has gone and seek ways to promote a "Be allergy aware" message throughout the industry. Some action is planned, and we shall be doing work with the industry and the enforcement officers at the conference in Bournemouth on getting the message across.

We shall also be meeting the anaphylaxis campaign, and the university and college caterers in July. Bearing in mind recent tragedies, we have to reinforce the message to caterers who deal specifically with young people in the further and higher education sector, and get across to them the seriousness of the issue. We also have meetings planned with representatives of large restaurant chains. With people eating out more than ever, it is in their interests to do everything that they can. We have the example of practical rules for GMO information in non-packaged foods, although the measure is not yet in force.

We have to pursue the issue of defensive labelling, which is an unsatisfactory lawyer's response. The British Retail Consortium has produced guidelines setting out good practice. We shall pursue the issue with the Institute of Grocery Distribution labelling group. We want to minimise the "may contain" tendency. Those words are not acceptable. We have to find imaginative ways to work in harmony with the industry to get the message across. It is not in the industry's interests to be seen to be lackadaisical or thought to be not taking the matter seriously.

There are moves in Brussels to amend the 25 per cent. rule for severe allergens. We have done a lot of work in this country on food intolerance, which we are sharing with our European partners. We are encouraging them to understand the seriousness of the issue. The 25 per cent. rule should go as soon as possible. There are problems with food sold loose, food sold at catering establishments and the 25 per cent. rule. We are tackling each of those systematically, in addition to our contribution to research projects.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's points about getting the message across. I do not want to be over-critical of broadcasters, but they have a role to play. I was interviewed recently when promoting MAFF's research food safety budget for 2000–01, which will be the first year of the Food Standards Agency budget. One of the many projects relates to food intolerance and food allergy. I was criticised by an interviewer on an important daily early-morning food-related programme, who asked why we were spending all that money on an issue that was not serious. I had to point out with care and some force that it is a serious, life-threatening issue and people die. We feel that we can take measures to make the problems avoidable.

The media can help. This is not a food faddist issue, and is not a matter of the nanny state. A serious medical condition has been identified. We do not know all the answers, which is why we are spending money on research. We are not concerned only with nut allergies, although I am dealing with peanuts in particular. There is other food intolerance involving, for example, some dairy products, to which we must attend.

I do not know why such allergies are identified today when they were not 20 or 30 years ago when I was younger. They may have been around, but not been identified. People may have died or suffered serious injury without identification of the cause. With the advantage of biotechnology, we have more knowledge today.

There is no excuse for inadequate labelling where such products are deliberately added. We must ensure that the labelling is clear. I have occasionally made purchases for people with a peanut allergy. One can search shelf after shelf of confectionery, only to find in the small print the words "May contain nuts" or "Contains nuts". Few specialist products are around, so niche markets exist in the food industry.

I freely admit that the resignation of the Commission in Brussels has caused considerable difficulties with regard to the labelling of GM additives and flavourings, GM animal feedstuff labelling and the 25 per cent. rule. Commissioners have reappointed themselves, only to say that they cannot take any major decisions because they are not really the Commission. Now that the European elections are out of the way, we shall be taking action in Brussels via the parliamentary committees to encourage them to put pressure on the Commission. This is not an issue of great moment between parties or political ideologies, and it should not have to await the appointment of the new Commission, which is some months away.

I contacted food manufacturers and retailers after the 1997 food intolerance conference to ask them to improve their quality control procedures, and some have taken action. We want to do more to encourage them to go for nut-free lines, rather than have the present uncertainty about whether lines can be cleaned of all nut traces. Supermarkets should be embarrassed to have on their bread and cake counters—particularly the bread counters—freshly-baked produce from the store which contains no nuts whatever, yet which has labels, usually in scrawly handwriting, saying "May contain nuts". That is slipshod quality control, and it is anti-consumer and anti-choice for the customer; such slipshod supermarkets should be avoided because they are not taking the issue seriously. That is inefficient, anti-consumer, defensive labelling. I deplore that, as I have no doubt does the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Edward Davey

The Minister is being extremely helpful and I thank him for that, but may I press him on one issue on which he touched at the beginning of his remarks? He said that he is not threatening or promising legislation, but does he intend to consult the catering industry on a code of practice and on regulations, and over what timetable?

Mr. Rooker

The short answer is yes. I shall certainly consult on a code of practice and take that forward. Whether that would lead later to regulation, I am not in a position to say. An effective code of practice which will raise awareness, so that the industry takes responsibility, may be sufficient. I can now tell the catering industry and the rest—as I could not in 1997—that we have succeeded in the practical regulation of GMOs, and the industry has gone along with that. We spent a long time consulting on it. The technology means that there is no difference between the tracing and checking of products for GMOs and other products. We shall take the issue forward to see whether a code of practice rather than guidelines would be beneficial and practical, to which we can give impetus.

I am in no way being slipshod or backsliding. I take the matter seriously and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising it. It is important that I am able to say to the industry, "These matters are being raised in Parliament. They are not fads of MAFF Ministers or officials who are seeking further regulation on the industry. Members of Parliament who represent their constituencies and raise issues in the public interest on the Floor of the House of Commons are raising these issues, and they want answers. At some point, I or other Ministers must come back and account for what we are doing."

In that respect, I can assure the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that I will keep him and the others who have raised the issue with me fully informed of what we are doing.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Nine o'clock.