HL Deb 13 May 1947 vol 147 cc665-8

3.10 p.m.

THE EARL OF IDDESLEIGH rose to ask His Majesty's Government what has caused the Minister of Food to lay an Order (S.R. & O. 1947/650) reducing the standard of mustard? The noble Earl said: My Lords, the Order which forms the subject of my question is the Food Standards (Mustard) (No. 2) (Amendment) Order, 1947. As I am raising a somewhat technical matter I may perhaps be allowed to allude briefly to the history of the position. I understand that before the war the pungency of mustard was a matter that concerned only the mustard-buying public and the manufacturers of the product, and that it was not necessary to take up Parliamentary time by raising in this House the question of the standard of mustard. However, in 1943 the Defence (Sale or Food) Regulations were passed, and in 1944 an Order was issued laying down that in mustard the percentage of a chemical called allyl isothiocyanate must not be less than 0.35 per cent. The Order to which I am calling your Lordships' attention has the effect of reducing the proportion of this chemical to 0.28 per cent. On the face of it that sounds a very small matter. I have, however, taken advice from a food chemist, who informs me that this chemical is entirely responsible for the characteristic flavour, odour and pungency of the mustard product, and that the effect of the Order to which I am calling your Lordships' attention is to reduce the pungency and taste of mustard by one-fifth.

As this is a product in common use, and as mustard has a particular significance to-day in enabling us to disguise the taste of a certain amount of the food with which we are favoured. I feel it is eminently proper that your Lordships should give His Majesty's Government an opportunity of explaining why it has been necessary to make this reduction, and what hope we have that in future mustard will he restored to its accustomed pungency. I do not know whether it will be possible for the noble Lord who is to reply to my question to tell us whether it is contemplated that this control of the standard of a condiment shall be a permanent matter. The right honourable gentleman the Minister of Food, who is one of the busiest and most important members of the Cabinet, has surely so many responsibilities upon his shoulders that he might conceivably welcome a suggestion that he should be relieved of responsibility for condiments which, though they have a certain significance, are hardly matters which ought to take up Government time in perpetuity. I cannot, of course, press the noble Lord for a declaration of policy in this respect. I trust, however, that the significance of the situation which compels me to raise in your Lordships' House the question of the standard of a condiment will not wholly escape attention in its wider aspects.


My Lords, I have much pleasure in supporting my noble friend in asking this question. It seems to me to raise a question of principle, because mustard is universally used by every section of the adult population, and it is bought on faith through extensive advertisement. Your Lordships will remember that before the war there was an extensive campaign carried on, presumably by the advertising world, persuading the general public that by buying advertised goods they would always get something which was of a uniform quality. It appears to me that by this Order the Minister of Food is definitely flouting that principle, because so far I have detected no explanation—nothing in his Food Facts, or in any other direction—to let the general public know that in future when they are buying the mustard which their forbears have bought before them, they will no longer be getting something that tastes the same as it did before.

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, did not give me advance notice that he proposed to raise matters which I think are not strictly relevant to the question he has on the Order Paper. Therefore, I say at once that I have no intention of making a declaration of policy; nor do I intend to involve myself in some of the technical phrases to which he has referred. I propose to confine myself to giving an answer to the question which stands in his name. As may be known by noble Lords who take a special interest in mustard, mustard condiment is a mixture of white and brown mustard flour, and its pungency and flavour are derived largely from the essential oil of the brown seed. I am advised that brown mustard seed is not a popular crop with growers, and the United Kingdom acreage declined steadily throughout the war, reaching its lowest level in 1946. This trend was not checked by an increase in the price of brown mustard seed from 70s. to 90s. per cwt. in 1943, and, as I will explain in a moment, this price has since been increased to 130s.

Meanwhile, we have had to import more brown seed, whose essential oil content has proved to be appreciably lower than that of the seed grown in the United Kingdom. The quantity of brown mustard seed which can be imported is limited, and therefore the Minister was faced with a choice between maintaining the existing standard of table mustard, coupled with a limitation of supplies to the public, or lowering the standard but thereby maintaining supplies. The Minister chose the latter alternative, but he has been assured that the effect on the flavour and pungency of the mustard will be very slight. Growers were notified in June, 1946, that for the 1947 crop the price of white mustard seed would be advanced from 70s. to 85s. per cwt., and of brown seed from 90s. to 130s. per cwt. The substantial increase in the price of brown mustard seed appears to have stimulated planting, but it is too early to say how soon supplies will improve to an extent that will permit the restoration of the former standard of mustard. It is, however, the Minister's firm intention to restore the original standard at the earliest opportunity. Having said that, I hope that I have satisfied the curiosity of my noble friend.

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry we have had to lower the standard of another foodstuff, even though it is one that is not of the greatest in nutritional value. I was always surprised, as Minister of Food, to see that we had to import mustard, a commodity we ought to be able to grow in quite sufficient quantity in this country. I am glad that steps have been taken, although somewhat late, to put up the price and so to enable the growers to live. We do not want very much of it in this country. I do not quite follow the reasoning of the noble Lord that the alternative before the Minister was either to decrease the pungency or to limit supplies, because I should have thought—knowing as much about eating mustard as most noble Lords—that if the mustard were less pungent, probably one would take rather more, and so get the same amount of pungency from the extra bit out of the spoon. It does not seem to me that there is much logic in that argument. I am sorry to think, if only as regards one of the lesser items, that one of the standards I laid down has now to be reduced.