HL Deb 22 April 1948 vol 155 cc334-48

4.7 p.m.

VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether, in view of the present relatively large export from South Africa to the United Kingdom of canned fruits, jam and marmalade, and of the enterprise displayed by canners and preserve manufacturers in providing the necessary plant and equipment to serve Britain's needs, they may confidently expect, subject to the quality and prices of their products being acceptable, a continuance of custom on the part of the United Kingdom on an equal or similar scale to that now obtaining; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, as some of your Lordships may be aware, I have daring the last sixteen months been away from this country upon two agricultural good will missions on behalf of the Royal Agricultural Society of England—one last year to Australia and New Zealand, and another this year to South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. On each occasion the Ministry of Food kindly made me acquainted with the contents, the scope and the operative period of their food import contracts and invited me, speaking as a farmer to farmers, to encourage in loco the greater production of those foods which those countries could grow and which Britain most needs.

I think the noble Viscount the Leader of the House will agree with me when I say that there was obviously considerable scope for this augmentation of food output in Australia and New Zealand, particularly as regards cereals, meat and dairy products. The response to my appeals was enthusiastic and most encouraging. The outlook in this connection in the Antipodes is therefore favourable; and all the more so because during the last few months they have had a bumper crop of wheat, I believe quite unprecedented in its size. The picture presented by Southern Africa and its husbandry is markedly different. Indeed, the potential food exports of the kind that we most need from the southern regions of Africa are very limited and, save in respect of fruit, seem likely to be absorbed for the next three years by the needs of the poorly fed, rapidly growing native population, and also by a European population which is being augmented by immigration on an unprecedented scale. In fact, the bulk of South Africa's food exports to Britain consist of fruit—fresh, canned and otherwise preserved—and the derivatives of fruit, chiefly in the form of wines and spirits.

Arising out of the South African Government's loan last year of £80,000,000 worth of gold, our Government agreed to take annually for the next three years £12,000,000 worth of specified foods raised in the Union of South Africa. Those foods consisted, to the extent of £8,800,000 (or over two-thirds of the whole of the food exports) of fruit of all kinds; more than one-half of the remainder consisted of wines and spirits, leaving less than one-sixth of the whole food export contract from South Africa—namely, £1,400,000—to represent canned fish, including crawfish and the much-talked of snoek, eggs and other products like potatoes and pulse. The fresh fruit that is being exported is about one-half citrus, mainly oranges, and one-half deciduous, the latter including, in the order of their respective weights, grapes, pears, plums, apricots, peaches and nectarines. These fresh fruits represent in value £6,000,000 f.o.b. South African ports. The preserved fruit includes canned fruit, dried fruit, fruit pulp, jam, marmalade and fruit juices. These represent in value £2,000,000 f.o.b.

My Motion refers to these latter items, the output of which has grown enormously since pre-war days. The South African Canners' Council, who organise their supply, are displaying some little anxiety regarding the future requirements of Britain in the matter of these fruit preserves, and the extent to which hereafter she will look to the Union of South Africa for their supply at prices which will leave their manufacturers a margin of profit, these products, of course, being up to the required standard of quality. They have asked me, speaking as Chairman of the Empire Canners' Council here in England—a voluntary office which I have held now for about ten years—whether I can obtain from His Majesty's Government some assurance which will set their minds at rest and enable them to go forward confidently with their task. As the noble Viscount opposite knows, when I was in Australia last year I found a similar anxiety among the primary producers in Queensland, and the Government, on my putting a like question to them, gave an assurance in this House which entirely satisfied the Australian farmers.

The main problem is jam and marmalade. Before the last war South Africa shipped about one-third of its canned fruits to Britain, roughly about 8,000,000 lb. in weight; but her pre-war exports of jam and marmalade were negligible. Since 1939 these exports have gone up by leaps and bounds. They weighed 45,000,000 lb. in 1942, 96,000,000 lb. (or more than double) in 1945, and 51,000,000 lb. in 1946. In the current year they will amount to 63,000,000 lb. in weight, representing 8,000,000 lb. of jam and 55,000,000 lb. of marmalade. The present total production of these commodities in the Union is 150,000,000 lb. in weight of jam and marmalade, as well as 55,000,000 lb. of canned fruit. In a normal year South Africa can absorb in home consumption no more than 60,000,000 lb. of jam and marmalade, and 35,000,000 lb. of canned fruit, leaving a surplus of 20,000,000 lb. of canned fruit and no less than 90,000,000 lb. of jam and marmalade for which they have to find a market in other countries. As they have been supplying chiefly Great Britain with fruit and fruit products, they naturally look to this country to absorb as large a quantity of these surpluses as may be found possible.

In regard to the preserves now being exported to Britain, I understand that a measure of decontrol has recently been agreed to by the Ministry of Food. Under this agreement the South African packers can now make direct contracts with firsthand British distributors at prices fixed by our Ministry (and approved, I believe, by their official opposite number in South Africa) on the footing that each jam distributor can receive a pro-rata share based upon his pre-war purchases, not of jam but of canned fruit. This concession, I may say, is greatly appreciated in South Africa. Jam purchases have lately been confined, owing I believe to their cheapness, to melon varieties, which at first were not very popular but which have become increasingly popular, not only in this country but also in Australia, where similar varieties of jam are now appearing on the market. In addition to jam purchases, of course, there have been purchases of marmalade.

No doubt English jam makers will eventually provide the bulk of the jams that we require for our own population, made from English fruits, especially strawberries, raspberries and blackcurrants. Beyond this, however, there will be available large quantities of high-grade South African jams, such as apricot, peach, pineapple, fig and grape, which have the outstanding advantage, apart from their vitamin content, of being processed within a few hours of their being taken from the tree or vine. These jams were not much favoured here before the war, because British canners made their preserves of these fruits out of Bulgarian and Dutch pulp preserved in barrels in sulphur dioxide. The cost of production of what I may call these "sun-kissed" preserves, both in Africa and in Australia, has recently risen, through shorter hours and higher wages, and this, of course, has to be considered in making fresh contracts. But their purchase either from Australia or South Africa involves no outlay of dollars.

What I desire to make clear, on behalf of the Empire canners, is that in both countries there is and will be available for Britain larger quantities of processed as well as fresh fruits of what I call "sun-kissed" character—that is, products from countries where there is greater warmth and greater sunshine than we enjoy here. In submitting this Motion I should like to acknowledge, as I do readily, the very fair and understanding way in which the Fruit and Jam Section of the Ministry of Food has met the overseas canners throughout the war period. I beg to move for Papers.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure you will agree that the noble Viscount has rendered one more service, in addition to the many great acts he has performed on behalf of the Commonwealth, in bringing forward this Motion. I understand that my noble friend the Earl of Huntingdon is to reply. At first I thought he might be speaking as a representative of the Minister of Agriculture, and might not be so entirely sympathetic as he perhaps would be in his other capacity—namely, as a representative of the Ministry of Food. In any case, I hope to show presently that there need be no conflict whatever between the fruit canning, fruit preserving and fruit growing interests in this country and the trade with our fellow member of the Commonwealth, the Union of South Africa. I happen to be the chairman of the London committee of a South African company which is engaged, among other activities, in a very large way in the canning not only of fruit but also of fish, vegetables and other products. Only a few days ago I returned from the Union, to which I had made a flying trip. I went to all the principal canning factories there with which my company are associated, and also had the great privilege of visiting some of the principal fruit growing districts in the Union and of meeting farmers and others engaged in the production of fruit and vegetables out of the soil. I would like very humbly to support everything that the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, has said. I hope that the assurance for which he asks—and which I think is a perfectly reasonable one—will be forthcoming from my noble friend.

The South African canning industry is comparatively new. The way was really led, as your Lordships are aware, by California. Australia and Malaya followed. Then came certain European countries, and South Africa entered the field rather late. But the industry out there is undoubtedly expanding, and I understand that the products are showing progressive improvement. Incidentally, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to mention that I met all sorts and conditions of people in the Union during the course of my investigations, and everywhere I found manifested a most friendly feeling towards this country and a sympathetic regard for our problems. May I, in passing, also mention one particular episode? I went into the former German South-West African Colony—now and, I hope, forever an integral part of the Union—and a farmer presented me with a dried-up shrub called the Resurrection Flower. It was so dry that the leaves crumbled into powder when touched. "Take that home," said the farmer to me, "and put it into water. In twenty-four hours it will turn green and in forty-eight hours it will produce flowers" And that, in fact, was what it did. My farmer friend also said to me: "Look upon that flower as a symbol of your country. You will recover in the same way from your present difficulties." This flower, which grows in the desert of South-West Africa, has these wonderful properties, and it was heartening to hear that agriculturist express his feeling that this country also possesses similar remarkable powers of recovery.

The noble Viscount mentioned that much-discussed fish, snoek. The canning of fish in South Africa is also a growing and a very important industry. Off the West Coast there is a cold current, the Agulhas current, which flows from the Antarctic regions, and the waters there are teeming with fish of all kinds. Indeed, I suppose that South African waters are as prolific in fish as any in the world, and the Government have encouraged the development of the fishing industry on a large scale. Their efforts in that direction have been highly successful. Amongst the fish which they have tinned, as we have heard, is the much-discussed snoek. The product in Britain had a bad start. It got off, so to speak, on the wrong leg—or perhaps I should say, on the wrong fin. In the first place, the name is against this product. Snoek is the Dutch name for this fish, but "snook" in Britain means something quite different, as those of your Lordships who remember your childhood days well know. The name of this fish could have been altered. The Latin name atun might have been used—it would certainly have been better than snoek—or some other name could easily have been devised without any misrepresentation.

This fish is really very fine food. I have eaten it in South Africa. Properly prepared, it is most palatable. Incidentally it is also a fine sporting fish from the angler's point of view. The first consignments of it which came to this country were too salty for British taste. Furthermore, in my view, and I say this with great respect to my noble friend, who of course was not responsible, the Ministry made a mistake in marketing it without any explanation as to how it should be cooked. No recipes were given, and this is essentially a fish that should be prepared in a certain way. So prepared, it is excellent. But to place it in the hands of the British housewife and expect her to deal with it just as she might deal with tinned salmon was to ask for trouble. As I say, snoek is a valuable food fish, and it is widely consumed in the Union. Dried, it is sold in immense quantities in West Africa. In view of its qualities, both from the nutritional and palatable point of view, I think it is a great pity that, with the present world shortage of food, it should lightly be set aside as useless and unsuitable for the British market. I have mentioned that in passing because I think that the spirit of the noble Viscount's Motion should apply to other tinned and canned goods from South Africa besides fruit I think he contends that our trade with South Africa in canned vegetables, fish, fruit and other kinds of food should be maintained after the present loan conditions are over.

And now just a word, if I may, about the industry as I found it. The hygienic conditions under which it is carried on are excellent. The factories are modern and teams of young scientists and analysts are employed continuously to watch the products and, wherever possible, to improve them. For example, every tin as it comes off the final delivery line of the automatic machinery is examined and tested. If the slightest defect is discovered it is set aside, and is not put on the market. The jam, to which the noble Viscount has referred, is made of fruit and sugar only. The one addition ever made is in the case of certain of the soft fruits which will not set; and in that case pectin, produced from apples, is added.


May I interrupt my noble friend for one moment? Pectin is not made only from apples. A most valuable pectin which comes to this country is made from oranges—it is a by-product of the processing of oranges.


I am much interested to hear that, but at the particular factory of which I am speaking a young scientist told me that the only pectin used was made from apples. I quite believe that there is a valuable pectin made from oranges as well. The native labour employed in these establishments appeared to me to be contented, and it is certainly well paid. There is a shortage of labour now in South Africa, owing to the expansion of secondary industries, and wages are better than they used to be. Good employers can obtain labour but bad employers cannot. The result is that the general conditions of labour in South Africa have improved, and that is to the credit of the industry. The noble Viscount spoke of the freshness of canned fruits when they are processed in very quick time after the gathering. I saw that process going on, and it is a remarkable business. Take, for instance, pineapple. This is grown in a district in the Eastern provinces. The fruit is taken on the trucks of a narrow-gauge railway, straight from the farms to sidings alongside the factories; and immediately it arrives it is put through the machines. One machine skins the fruit, another cuts it up, another places it in cans. It is not touched at any point by human hands. The whole process is extremely rapid, right from the time when the fruit is picked to the moment when it is placed into cans and boiled.

I said that I hoped my noble friend would be speaking more in his capacity as a representative of the Ministry of Food than as a representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, though really there is no conflict here. There need be no competition whatever between South African products and our own. The principal fruits which South Africa is now producing for this particular trade are pineapples, peaches, pears, grapes, apricots and, most important, grapefruit. I do not think those compete with the British berries and other products which are canned so successfully in this country. Our principal crops, I believe, are plums, rhubarb, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and so on. There really is no conflict between the South African business and the business of our own fruit growers and farmers.

In addition to the request of the noble Viscount, may I make one other plea to my noble friend; and I hope he will pass it on to the appropriate quarters. I am sure your Lordships must agree that, having benefited from the most generous, loan from the people of South Africa to buy large quantities of earned fruits and other canned products from that country, it would be invidious, when the loan is exhausted in a few years' time, if we did not maintain our purchases, provided that prices, and quality are right. I believe that prices present no difficulty. Quality is a matter of taste, but I believe that most housewives who have tried both South African and American canned peaches—to take one example—will admit that the flavour and firmness of the South African fruit is equal and even superior to any in the world; and certainly much ahead of the famous Californian products. Therefore, there ought to be no difficulty there.

From the point of view of good will, and taking into consideration what a splendid market the whole territory is for our products, it would surely be a farsighted policy to make certain that this trade is continued and expanded. What is needed above all is a long-term policy. In all agricultural activities a long-term policy is required, because it is necessary to plan ahead. That is particularly true of the food preserving industry. They want to know some seasons ahead where they are, so that they can make arrangements with farmers and growers. It would be to the advantage of everyone if, wherever possible, long-term contracts could be made with the Union of South Africa, and with other Dominions, by our Ministry of Food. It would help us in the long run. It certainly would be of great assistance to the industrialists, growers, and agriculturists of these fellow nations of ours in the British Commonwealth. I am very glad to support the Motion of the noble Viscount.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the whole House will join with me when I say that I am glad to see the noble Viscount back from his good will mission which, we know, was so successful. I was also glad to have an authoritative pronunciation of the word snoek, pronounced "snook." In defence of my right honourable friend the Minister of Food, I should like to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, that this fish was introduced by private trade. It was not put on the market by the Ministry of Food, although the Ministry do intend to put a consignment on the market next month. The original consignment which came over in the hands of private trade was found to be too salty, and this is now being made into fish paste. I hope that when the next consignment of fish arrives, and is properly introduced, it will achieve the deserved popularity which my noble friend wishes.


On two legs.


On two fins! I shall certainly bring the question of long-term contracts to the notice of my right honourable friend the Minister of Food. That is more his responsibility than that of my Department.

In considering the Motion before your Lordships, the first question is that of the Loan of £80,000,000 provided by the South African Government. My right honourable friend the Minister of Food has recorded his deep appreciation of the friendly way in which this Loan was negotiated, and I am sure your Lordships would wish to endorse his remarks. Under this agreement, which runs for the three years 1948 to 1950, we undertook to buy each year from South Africa £12,000,000 of certain foodstuffs, and some beverages, provided that we could get supplies at commercial prices. At the time contracts for 1948 were also agreed, but the programme for the two following years was left to be discussed at a later date. For 1948, out of the total of £12,000,000, £2,600,000 has been reserved for processed and dried fruits, including canned fruits, jam and marmalade, in respect of which the noble Viscount has sought an assurance. The actual sums are: for canned fruit, £400,000; and for jam and marmalade, £1,675,000. The only fruit available to us on a large scale at commercial prices is canned grapes, and the Ministry of Food expect to buy about £360,000 worth. Jam and marmalade will be imported by private traders. The prices of all three products will be controlled when they are sold in this country.

We cannot consider these products in isolation. South Africa wishes to help us to continue to provide a market for her fruit growing industry, including canned fruit, jam and marmalade. Incidentally, I may mention that we expect to get £6,000,000 worth of fresh fruit during 1948. But fruits can be processed into many forms. For example, there are wines, brandy and spirits of one kind or another, some of which are required for further manufacture here. This year we expect to take a total under those heads of about £1,800,000. We may also take dried fruits, peels, pulps and juices. Apart from these fruits and wines, there are other products which we want from South Africa—eggs, canned fish, pulses and potatoes. In our present difficulties potatoes are particularly welcome. For the remaining two years of this agreement we must negotiate with the Union for what we want, and see what they can offer at prices reasonably competitive with other sources of supply. After those two years, the extent of our purchases will depend on many factors, chief of which will be whether we have the gold to buy South African products. But for the period of the agreement I can assure the noble Viscount that we hope to take as great a value of canned fruit as now, if varieties and prices are what we want.

I should, perhaps, sound a note of warning about jam and marmalade. The public in this country prefer highly flavoured jams—blackcurrants, raspberries and flavours of that sort—and when the jam industry receive the supplies of sugar they used to have there will undoubtedly be more of these jams on the market. The main items of this kind from South Africa are melon jam and grapefruit marmalade, both of which have not gained the popularity of orange marmalade and the more highly flavoured jams. This trade is in private hands, and it will be for the consumers to decide what sort they want. I have no doubt that there will always be some demand for South African jams, but I would say, as a word of warning, that we cannot assume that the demand will necessarily be on the same scale as it is to-day. I am sorry to be unable to give a fuller assurance to the noble Viscount, but I know he appreciates the complicated factors which enter into agreements and other arrangements of this kind.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to interpolate a few words. I am glad my noble friend behind me has introduced this matter to-day. For myself, I would like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, for the full explanation he has given of the position. We all ought to be grateful to the Government of South Africa for the way they have met us in these negotiations. I can look back to many friendly negotiations and talks which I had with that Government during the time that I was Minister of Food. We were able to help them, as they were able to help us. I remember an occasion when they were short of meat in South Africa (we had not too much here), when I was able to send them two refrigerated ships of meat to help them out of their difficulties. I say that to show that it is not entirely one-sided. It is that kind of give and take between the different parts of our Commonwealth and Empire which makes it so friendly an association of nations. It has always been so, and I hope it will always remain so.

I was glad to hear the noble Earl say that the governing factor in these matters must be the consumer's choice. It is no good our being landed with a lot of foodstuffs that people do not want to buy, and which ultimately the shopkeepers themselves will not take. Under present-day controls there is a method of getting rid of those foodstuffs by putting them off points, when probably somebody will buy them. But that will not last for ever, and it is just as well to realise that people all over the world have got to make what other people wish to consume. That will apply to jams as much as it does to any other commodity.

I am glad to hear (I hope that I am not raising any controversial issue in this debate) that the jam trade is to be left in the hands of the private trader. It seems to me, by and large, that that is the right way to deal with a commodity of that sort. In war time we had great advantages in making these overall contracts between Governments. First of all, we had an effective control of the shipping situation. We could go to some countries—which will be nameless—and say: "We will buy your meat," or whatever else it might be. They might then say: "We do not like your price very much." But eventually they found that we were the only people who had the facilities to ship their goods. From that point of view, when there is much freer trading throughout the world, as there is in the days of peace, these long-term bulk contracts appear in a very different perspective. I do not mean to imply that we ever did anything not to give producers in those countries a fair price, but we were not going to let them make a very large profit due to war time conditions. Had we not resorted to those methods, no doubt in some cases that would have occurred.

There is one other point to which I should like to refer, and that is the question of potatoes. There was a time when we were able to produce all the potatoes which we needed in this country. A potato is not the kind of commodity one wants to ship great distances, because it is heavy for its ultimate worth on the market. It is not the kind of commodity one wants to have to ship from South Africa, or distant places of that sort. I hope that provisions have been made by the Ministry of Agriculture this year to ensure that we shall have enough potatoes. It has to be borne in mind that the South African potatoes come in at a slightly different period from our own. If it is only a question of bringing in potatoes to eke out the end of season reserve, that is one thing. But I do hope that before long we in this country shall get back to a completely self-supporting position in the potato field, if I may use that term. Potatoes are one of the crops which can be grown as well in this country as anywhere else in the world, and I would much sooner see that what cash we have to spend in South Africa and other places is spent on commodities which we cannot grow here, rather than on the humble potato, of which we should be able to supply ourselves with a sufficiency. I think that what the noble Earl has said is as far as a Ministry can go in giving an assurance. We certainly will not do anything to discourage anybody in this new industry in South Africa. They may be assured that, so long as they produce at reasonable prices good quality goods which people in this country want to eat, they will have a ready market here.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to express my gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Huntingdon, for his reception and that of the Ministry of Food of the terms of my Motion, so far as they feel they can reasonably go. I am not going to suggest that the South African canners who include within the ambit of their activities particularly fruit, jams and marmalades will be entirely satisfied. I should like to make one observation in regard to the reference to melons. The truth is that it is in the interests of economy that the melon is being selected as a substance out of which jam can be made. I am certain that if only the Treasury could see their way to expand to some small extent the price they are prepared to pay for South African jams, something much more appetising and, indeed, much more nutritious, could be provided in the form of jams made of other fruits, such as apricots, pineapples and the like. Those are the sort of preserves which we do not produce in this country, and which obviously do something to improve the monotony of diet from which we are suffering so much at the present time. They are also, of course, conducive to the health of the consumer.

I cannot help referring to the subject of potatoes, although it does not come within the actual terms of my Motion. Of course, I entirely endorse what my noble friend Lord Llewellin said about shipping such a bulky product as the potato over a very considerable distance. The potato being, if I may say so, of relatively low nutritive value, such a policy does not, on the face of it, appear to be one of the truest economy. But I am perfectly certain that in parts of South Africa, notably in the Transvaal, far more potatoes can be raised than are being raised to-day. There is the merit there that it is not necessary to pit or clamp the potatoes as we have to do in this country. They can remain for no less than five months in the soil and can be taken out to be marketed whenever the market needs them. That means that potatoes can be raised at a relatively low cost.

I should like to see potatoes and a large amount of the leguminous crops that can be raised in South Africa—and which are to some extent being raised—fed to pigs. If there is one commodity that can be raised to a greater extent, both in the Union of South Africa and in Southern Rhodesia, with a view to the export of bacon to this country, it is pigs. And bacon is a commodity which we badly need. It provides both protein and fat. And pigs are rapidly reproducible. I mention pigs for this reason. The pig is the one animal in the whole southern part of Africa which does not suffer from subtropical diseases. Therefore, so long as proper protection is afforded and the animal is properly fed, there is no reason why they should not multiply their output of pigs exceedingly and, also, their output of bacon. I am glad to say that I initiated on a small scale a campaign in that direction (and I was supported in it by the Agricultural Research Station) both in South Africa and in Southern Rhodesia. There is no better food for pigs than potatoes.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Llewellin that it is no good trying to foist upon the consumers of this country a commodity from overseas which they do not want, or for which they have no particular taste. I may say that I find myself wholly unconvinced by the claims for melon jam—even if it is flavoured with ginger, as it so often is—when there are proper jams such as apricot, pineapple and the like which can be produced in South Africa, and which they are longing to produce.


Is the noble Viscount aware that there has been great success in the growing of Seville oranges in South Africa, and that excellent Seville orange marmalade is being produced?


There are no less than five marmalades of different descriptions being produced to-day, and most of them at least would be far more appetising than melon jam. I am very grateful, both to the Ministry of Food and to the noble Earl, for the way in which this Motion has been received, and I do not propose to press it.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.