HC Deb 15 January 2003 vol 397 cc791-8

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

7.16 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Outside very large urban areas there are still some small towns that manage to maintain a number of specialist shops. I am rather spoilt in my constituency because we have one or two very good ones, and one of the particular favourites of my constituents is a family firm of bakers called Chatwins, which has in its time done considerable damage to my hips and waistline but is much appreciated by those who enjoy its products. Since it is now, I believe, run by the fourth generation of that family, it has a long tradition of supplying very high quality goods. I therefore was considerably surprised when, in the summer, we were struck by a very upsetting incidence of salmonella and I received a letter from Chatwins, setting out a series of circumstances that I thought rather worrying.

Let me begin by saying that I believe that in this day and age we have very many more manufactured foods than we used to, which frequently contain every known chemical on the face of God's earth, and the circumstances in which food is sold to the public seem to me to be in need of considerable and careful monitoring. I in no way resile from the position that in public health we need not only very high standards but standards that everyone appreciates and accepts. As a very young doctor's wife I knew a senior partner who was then medical officer of health in a Devonian borough where I lived at the time and who once, when I ventured to say that I had seen the kitchens of the local hotel and they left a little bit to be desired, informed me, "Yes, dear, but the food is absolutely marvellous."

We have moved on since those days, but it is very important with any kind of public body that is undertaking the role of a statutory body—which is what the Food Standards Agency is—that it should be not only aware of the impact of what it is doing but absolutely certain that it does it in a manner that can not only be defended to the general public but supported by the general public. I was therefore very concerned when I received a letter, saying that after the recent salmonella outbreak, the business received unfair treatment from the Food Standards Agency. After our name was mentioned in about half the cases, the local Environmental Health Officers carried out tests in our bakery and shops on Tuesday 8th October. We also followed all their recommendations…including only using pasteurised eggs. We had a follow-up meeting with the EHO on Friday llth October where we were informed that all tests carried out…proved to be negative, and that they would try and keep our name out of any press release. On Tuesday 15th October we were informed…of the sad news that one man had died over the weekend. They also faxed us a copy of the press release from the FSA…."— in which the name of the bakery was mentioned, which appeared not only in the local but in the national press— From this point on it appeared to be fair to link Chatwins with the death of the first and also the second gentleman. The front page of"— one of the local papers—

was most damaging…. By saying tests were carried out at the bakery AFTER the second man had died, it implies that we were the cause of death. The facts were that the tests were carried out over a week ago, and from my understanding"— that is, a senior member of the firm— the second man hadn't eaten a Chatwins product. It is important that we consider the series of events that affected Chatwins bakery. First, it was aware of its involvement only when it became clear that there was a problem. Secondly, I wrote directly to the head of the Food Standards Agency, as a constituency Member of Parliament, and as I would do with any transport question to a stand-alone agency, to inquire exactly what had happened, who was taking responsibility and whether the agency was aware of the impact on a particular firm. I think that I had every justification for doing so.

The firm was not trying to shift blame in any way, nor did it run away from its responsibilities at any point, or do anything other than to accept that salmonella is an extremely dangerous disease for many people. Of course, the firm was so concerned that it was not passing on any form of infection to its customers that it undertook to do whatever was necessary.

I received a silly letter back from the Food Standards Agency, which said in effect, "Don't speak to us. We're tremendously important. Speak only to the Under-Secretary". Frankly, it was such a bureaucratic and silly letter that I am sorry to say that I sent rather a nasty reply. I have been known occasionally to express myself with some vigour and in fairly straightforward English. I said: Your inadequate, yet fastidiously bureaucratic response to my letter of 24th October arrived this morning. I think it might be helpful for me to remind you that I am a Member of Parliament, and that I wrote to the Chairman of the Food Standards Agency on behalf of one of my constituents, who felt that his business had suffered due to press releases issued by the Food Standards Agency. Given the foregoing, I expected a courteous and prompt reply from or on behalf of Sir John, ideally explaining how the FSA came to damage my constituent's reputation, perhaps apologising and maybe even offering some kind of amends. What I did not expect, and what I will not accept…is an irrelevant summary of the FSA's internal administrative procedures. Frankly, we must have some sense in this case.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary then sent me a long reply in which she set out what the Department regarded as the official answer. I found that as worrying as some of my original contacts with the agency—for example, the fact that it stated: Turning to the question of lack of evidence, the negative test results from Chatwins are not proof in themselves that the bakery did not supply food contaminated with salmonella. I am from a family that contains five doctors. I have the strange idea that a negative result to a test probably means that there is not infection there. Obviously, that is the view of an outsider.

The letter from the Under-Secretary continued: A detailed case control study undertaken by the Public Health Laboratory Service has provided clear statistical evidence implicating contaminated bakery items". Let us be clear what happened. There was a problem. When the bakery was made aware of the problem, those who ran it said that they were very concerned. They co-operated with the environmental health officers in every possible way and were told that, at that point, because the results had not been obtained, the name of the bakery would not be used—and the next thing they knew was that they were all over the papers. It is not surprising that an announcement to the general public that there may be salmonella in cream buns has some effect on sales. I do not know why it happens—perhaps it shows how unimaginative customers are. Whatever the reason, the announcement had a direct and immediate effect.

What happened then? Did we get any response or explanation from the FSA? Did we get even a gesture of apology—"We're sorry. We had no intention of damaging the business before we had the evidence to back it up."? Not at all. We got only a letter saying, in essence, "Well, tough. This is what we do, this is how we behave, and as far as we're concerned, you'd better get on with it." That is not good enough from a Government agency, not in this day and age and certainly not in the United Kingdom. I notice that today the FSA issued a press notice saying that the consumer would face considerable difficulties because expansion of the European Union will bring in many new countries that do not have the standards of food hygiene that we in the UK have. Perhaps so, but I note that the FSA made no recommendation on what to do about that; nor, as far as I can tell, did it use the same techniques as it used on a poor little baker in Nantwich, so I am not impressed.

I have looked carefully, not only at the FSA's website, but at the vast number of reports it has turned out. Although the agency has been in existence for only a year, like many Government Departments it appears to advocate the turning out of a great deal of paper. Whoever else's friend the FSA is, it certainly is no friend of trees. The report states that the FSA wants to earn people's trust by what we do and how we do it…. Although the FSA is a Government agency, it works at 'arm's length' from Government because it doesn't report to a specific minister"— oh, no? That is not what I was told in its long and boring epistle— and is free to publish any advice it issues. Under the heading "Who is the FSA accountable to?" it declares, "We're accountable to Parliament"—well, that is me. I am Parliament. I am Crewe and Nantwich in this place and I have something to say about the way in which the FSA behaves. The report adds that the FSA is also accountable to the devolved Administrations.

The report contains some interesting facts. I found, much to my astonishment, that the FSA has three parts, but the second biggest, which is almost as big as the part that does the job that the FSA is supposed to do, is the bit that deals with both legal matters and communications. Indeed, that part's budget spending is almost as big as that of the part that monitors health. I am sure that that is a sign of the FSA's efficiency and its desire to spread information around, but that is not what it looks like.

We in this place have a special responsibility. No one representing any constituency in the United Kingdom does anything other than support public health. I have spent my entire life battling against those who want to smoke, insisting on better conditions for people in poor accommodation, and doing what I can to improve public health generally and the quality of life enjoyed by the people of this country. We must remember occasionally that Government Departments exist because the electorate want them to exist, but the powers that we give them in legislation passed in this Chamber must be used responsibly and sensibly. What they must not do—this group of people who, despite having studied them extremely closely, I do not recognise at all—is take unto themselves the powers of economic life and death by failing to understand what they, by making public a set of circumstances before they are absolutely sure of the facts, can achieve without any real thought.

I am concerned about the way in which the Food Standards Agency has behaved in the case I have described. I am concerned because if a firm is at risk, the least it has the right to expect is a responsible attitude on the part of those with whom it is dealing. If it is being open, not making any difficulty for the environmental health officers and seeking to protect its interests, but not doing so in a way that damages the interests of customers, it has the right to expect that a Government agency will at least consult it and talk to it, and not through a sudden blaze of information and openness that might be considered essential but will do something to ruin the business.

It is because the firm is well known that it is beginning to recover. It has a good reputation. The people concerned will continue to be extremely successful bakers and they will give much pleasure to my constitutents. They will do even more damage to my hips in future.

The reality is that the House does not frame legislation for those who are bureaucrats or people who are outwith the economic situation, who are not answerable in real terms to the House. The House does not give them powers to exercise without care and without thought, and with astonishingly little awareness of the impact of their behaviour. These people must learn that they are there because we give them powers and because we want them to exercise control. The next time that they want to say that there is a real responsibility and a real problem in public health such as the expansion of the European Union, which will involve taking in the products of many more firms when we have no evidence that they will comply with our food laws, they should say what they will do and not spend all their time seeking to cause enormous problems for others who have no way of hitting back.

7.31 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Ms Hazel Blears)

Iam genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Crew and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) for raising this issue. As she has said, we have been in correspondence. It is important that we try to reflect on public health issues, how they are handled and how we get the right balances between openness and transparency while being sensitive to the important issues that she has raised about the local business in her constituency.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has given her deep and genuine support for measures that have been taken to protect public health in this country, and has acknowledged how important that process is. She makes the point that the actions of agencies in this sensitive area must be defended and have the consent and support of the public. They are more effective agencies if they have that backing from the community at large.

I hope to be able to address some of my hon. Friend's concerns. I am sure that at the end of what I have to say she will remain disturbed about the effect on the business in her constituency. However, I shall do my best to outline how the Food Standards Agency reached the decision that it did and the balance that it drew between a series of competing interests in this instance.

It is important to remember that this was a serious outbreak of infection. The Public Health Laboratory Service has described as unprecedented the series of outbreaks of salmonella infection that have taken place recently. Many of them have involved unusual strains of the bacterium, and many have shown an association with eggs.

Salmonella is a fairly serious infection. It causes diarrhoea, fever, vomiting and severe stomach pain lasting up to three weeks. In some cases it can cause peritonitis or blood poisoning, and occasionally it can be fatal. Almost 1,000 people have become ill in 18 recent outbreaks, and there have been at least two deaths. This is far above the normal reported levels of salmonella that we would expect.

The first evidence of a real problem emerged towards the end of September, with the reporting of an increased number of cases due to an unusual strain of salmonella, which was enteritidis type 14b. Cases initially occurred mainly in London and the south-east, with a cluster of cases in Basingstoke. However, within about a week, cases were beginning to be reported in the north-west, from the Sandbach area, around my hon. Friend's constituency. Local public health officials investigated that cluster of cases. They went to see the people who had been infected. They had with them a lengthy questionnaire. They asked people where they had recently bought products, what sort of products they had been eating and where they had travelled.. They tried to obtain information about where the infections might be originating from.

The local public health officials who were carrying out the investigation identified products from two bakery chains as a common link between the cases. This was subsequently confirmed in a study carried out by the Public Health Laboratory Service.

The bakeries are in different parts of the country—one is in the south-east and the other is in the north-west—so investigations concentrated on what they had in common, which proved to be a common source of supply of eggs. When the bakeries were visited, it was discovered that both were using pasteurised eggs, as recommended, but both were also using ordinary shell eggs. In the bakery in the north-west— the one in my hon. Friend's constituency—fondant icing was being made with raw eggs. So in addition to clear evidence of people who ate products from the bakery becoming sick, there was also a clear risk that salmonella could be present in the fondant icing, because it was made from raw eggs. Advice was immediately given to the bakery that it should stop using raw eggs in this way, which it indeed followed. As my hon. Friend said, it co-operated with the environmental health office officials involved. After the bakery acted on that advice, there was a rapid fall in the number of cases occurring in the north-west, with an eventual total of 96 cases and one death owing to the outbreak.

The investigations highlighted a problem in the way in which commercial food businesses such as bakeries were using or handling eggs. They did not seem to be aware of the longstanding advice that raw eggs should not be used in foods that will not be cooked before being eaten, or that there is a risk of cross-contamination in kitchens where eggs are handled. As the investigation proceeded and eggs supplied to the businesses were tested, it became apparent that some of the eggs used had very high rates of salmonella contamination. The vast majority of those eggs, although not all of them, had come from Spain.

In view of my hon. Friend's tremendous personal support for public health issues, I am sure that she will agree that an outbreak such as this does require that action be taken swiftly by the Food Standards Agency. It has a remit to protect public health, and it was clear that public health was being seriously affected by these outbreaks. A picture emerged of a problem with food hygiene practice in the use of eggs, and with Spanish eggs in particular.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Forgive me—I know that I should not interrupt my hon. Friend. Is she about to tell me that the Spanish provider of these eggs has been prosecuted?

Ms Blears

No, and as I understand it, nor has the bakery in my hon. Friend's constituency. It has been given advice by the relevant officials, which it has followed.

The FSA has reiterated its advice to businesses through various press releases. It has raised the concern about Spanish eggs with its counterpart in Spain, and it has reported the matter to the European Commission. The FSA is not the body that would prosecute in these circumstances. It has also issued advice to egg importers and wholesalers that all Spanish eggs should be heat-treated before use. So action has been taken on the Spanish eggs that seem to have caused the problem.

On the naming of this bakery—Chatwins—it is my understanding that it was not in fact named in the press release that was issued by the FSA. I have been supplied with a copy of it, and it states: Efforts have been made to identify the source or sources of the outbreaks by local Environmental Health Officers and the Public Health Laboratory Service, centring on London and Cheshire. This work is still underway. A common thread in both outbreaks relates to the use and handling of ordinary eggs by a local food business in each of the outbreak areas. It further states: In Cheshire, a bakery was using ordinary eggs in products that were not cooked. That is a fact, and the bakery has acknowledged that and has since changed its practice. However, neither bakery was named in that press release. My understanding is that, after the press release was issued, further inquiries were inevitably made by the media to try to find out where the companies were based. It was at that point that the FSA considered this matter carefully, and it decided that the interests of the individual businesses did not outweigh the public interest in making that information available to them.

I am told that that decision was not taken in a cavalier fashion, without regard to the interests of the businesses concerned; indeed, those interests were a very relevant consideration for the FSA. However, it does have a code of openness in terms of its operation. If my hon. Friend casts her mind back, she will remember that the FSA was established at a time when public trust in food production, manufacture and sale was almost at an all-time low. People were becoming increasingly concerned that they could not rely on the information that was available about their food. I understand that since the establishment of the Food Standards Agency, which has openness as a key plank of its operation, the proportion of the public who have confidence in information about their food has risen from about 25 per cent. to about 50 per cent. Some 50 per cent. now feel that they can rely on the food information that is provided by the FSA. Public confidence is very important and openness clearly plays a role in that respect. Equally, that needs to be weighed against the interests of businesses and commercial operations and the effect that statements could have on them.

I am informed that those considerations were taken into account at the highest level in the Food Standards Agency and that the decision was reached that the businesses would be named in response to further media inquiries. When they were named, however, the media were made well aware that each had co-operated fully with the Food Standards Agency and local environmental health officers. This was not a case in which a local business was seeking to avoid its responsibility, as was made clear at the time.

My hon. Friend has given us an opportunity to consider afresh some of the issues that she raised and to look at the way in which such decisions are made and the balance between the competing interests of openness and the commercial considerations of the businesses concerned, and I am grateful to her for doing so.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Is the Minister also considering the way in which the Food Standards Agency responded in this case? Will she issue guidelines stating that when a Member of Parliament writes to it about a matter, it should ensure that they get a proper and full response?

Ms Blears

I sign an awful lot of correspondence from the Food Standards Agency and it is certainly my experience that when Members of Parliament contact it, an immediate response is given. That usually happens through me, as I am accountable to Parliament for the agency's actions. In my experience, the issues raised by Members of Parliament are treated with seriousness and are certainly not dismissed. I would be very concerned if any Member of Parliament thought that the agency was not taking the matters that they raised extremely seriously indeed. As my hon. Friend said, Members of Parliament give agencies powers, so it is right that those agencies should respond properly, promptly and in considered detail to the issues that they raise. I shall certainly undertake to monitor that issue in my dealings with the agency.

One aspect of the way in which the case was dealt with has caused me concern. I understand that the business was not informed by the Food Standards Agency that it could be named in response to the further inquiries. It was not named in the press release, but if there is to be openness for all the parties involved in such a case, people should be informed if that is likely to happen or if there is any such intention so that they are apprised of the full facts. In this case, as I understand it, it was only when the business contacted the FSA that it found out that it had been named. I think that the FSA may have a responsibility to be more proactive in letting people know how a case may pan out. I shall take up that issue with the agency.

My hon. Friend raised another important issue in saying that I had stated in my letter that negative tests do not necessarily show that there is no infection. I stand by that statement. I understand that microbiological samples are often taken some time after the contamination that led to an infection has occurred. If there is a time lapse, the microbiological evidence may well have come and gone by the time that samples are taken, so the fact that there are negative tests does not necessarily mean that a particular location was not the source of the contamination that led to the infection. I ask her to consider that the fact that the tests are negative does not automatically mean that there has been no infection. Certainly, the use of raw eggs at the bakery in products that were not going to be cooked was against longstanding Government advice, and I am delighted that the company has now changed its process.

The FSA has done everything that it can to reiterate its advice to food businesses. It is longstanding advice and it is important that all companies be made aware of it. The agency has produced a leaflet targeted at caterers and has produced 400,000 copies for distribution throughout the country, so it has certainly tried to ensure that it gets the message across in order to protect the public's health. The agency has a responsibility to consider the evidence and act appropriately. In this case, the evidence showed that raw eggs were not always being used or handled properly by caterers, and it may be too easy to forget that a raw egg poses a health risk, which is important particularly for vulnerable members of the community such as the elderly, pregnant women and young children.

In this case it was the genuine intention of the FSA to try to balance the competing interests of openness and transparency and of the business concerned. I understand that the business has followed the advice that was issued and that, happily, the infections have abated considerably. This was an important matter and I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the issue in Parliament in the way that she has. I undertake to consider the points that she has made to see if there is any more general application in this case.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Eight o 'clock.