HL Deb 04 July 1951 vol 172 cc624-52

5.15 p.m.

LORD DOUGLAS OF BARLOCH rose to call attention to the dangers to national health arising from the increasing use of poisonous chemicals in the growing and preparation of foodstuffs, and to the need for strict control over all processes which may affect the natural quality of food; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, only two or three generations ago, mankind existed upon naturally occurring foods, either eaten raw or prepared by such simple means as roasting or boiling and, in some cases, preserved for further use by smoking or salting. All that is now changed. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find any natural article of food which has not been treated with chemicals, had some part extracted, been exposed to high temperatures or preserved for long periods in cold storage, or otherwise processed or tampered with. I do not say that science can never find means of improving foodstuffs, but I do say that the addition of extraneous matters, and especially of synthetic chemicals, should be looked upon with the gravest suspicion and should not be permitted except under the most strenuous conditions. This subject has hitherto received too little attention in this country, and the steps taken to protect the public have been hesitating, partial and inadequate.

The gravity of the situation has been revealed in the United States by the well-organised and continuing work of the Federal Food and Drug Administration, which has listed no fewer than 842 chemicals used or proposed to he used in food. Some are no longer used because they were definitely found to be poisonous. The majority are still in use, some very extensively; and in many cases it is not clearly established whether they are poisonous or not. The absolute determination of the toxicity of a chemical added to food requires long and very complex investigations. The chemical may not be toxic in itself, but may combine with substances naturally present in the food to form toxic compounds. It may be very slow acting but cumulative in its effects. It may be one of those which are stored in the body, and the ill-effects of which become evident only after certain concentration has been passed. It may be a racial poison which interferes with reproduction or injures the next generation.

Last year a Select Committee of the House of Representatives of the Congress of the United States was set up, with very wide terms of reference, to investigate the use of chemicals in the growing, preparation and handling of food. It has held numerous meetings and taken a large volume of important evidence, but so far as I know has not yet reported. Since this Motion was placed on the Order Paper, Sir Edward Mellanby, who was for some time the distinguished Secretary of the Medical Research Council, has, in a lecture on the chemical manipulation of food, drawn attention to the far-reaching implications of this practice and the need for action. I understand that his paper has now been published.

Let me explain now, with some examples, the nature and the gravity of this matter. There are two principal ways in which chemicals are added to food. One is as an incident of effecting another purpose. This happens when insecticides, fungicides and weed-killers are used in agriculture, and, in some cases, where fumigants or disinfectants are used during process of manufacture, or where detergents are used for washing food or for washing crockery and food containers. The other is where chemicals are introduced with the express intention of altering the nature of the food or of preserv- ing it beyond its normal life. Besides these there are the cases in which the quality of the food is altered by exposure to very high temperatures, causing chemical reactions in its constituents.

I do not propose to deal with the use of artificial fertilisers in agriculture, beyond saying that it is now admitted, even by ardent advocates of them, that unbalanced use of such fertilisers may easily produce a luxuriant plant growth which is also unbalanced: there may be too little protein, and the human being or the animal fed upon it this green stuff suffers injury to health or lowered resistance to disease. It is also of interest to note that lack of proper fertilisation renders the plants themselves more liable to fungus diseases and to attacks by insects or other pests, leading to increased use of insecticides and fungicides. It has long been common to use sprays or washes on fruit trees in order to discourage the attacks of mites or insects. A number of these sprays are probably harmless, although, in this whole matter, we should take nothing for granted. Some are definitely toxic; for example, lead arsenate, which, like other compounds of lead, is accumulated in the body with the possibility of its ultimately reaching a dangerous level.

I shall say no more about the older insecticides. It is the newer ones, and the enormous extent of their use, which give most cause for alarm. The most famous of these is D.D.T. which, since the war, has been applied all over the world without any adequate investigation of its effects upon health. It is highly toxic. Test animals—rats, for example—fed with 1 per cent. carbolic acid lived and did fairly well; those fed with one part per million of D.D.T. perished—and one part per million is equivalent to one teaspoonful in ten tons of food. Not only is D.D.T. highly toxic but it is fat soluble. Consequently, it may accumulate in the body fats, through repeated small doses, until a toxic concentration is reached. Or, if this concentration has been approached and, owing to illness or for other reasons, the body is consuming its store of fat, the concentration then becomes toxic and the patient is attacked at the very time when his resistance is lowered. Not only is D.D.T. exceptionally toxic, but there is no known antidote. It is absorbed by plants and cannot be removed. Hence, all fruits and vegetables which have been exposed to D.D.T. are carriers of it to the consumers. Animals fed on hay or other food exposed to it are affected. Owing to its solubility in fat, milk is especially affected by it. The spraying of D.D.T. in cowsheds has been found sufficient to affect the milk, and in the United States dairy farmers have been officially advised not to do this. Butter sold on the New York market has been found with as much as thirteen parts per million of this dangerous drug. The fact that D.D.T. has such an affinity for milk constitutes a serious danger for infants, and for young children who are encouraged to drink large quantities of milk. Even breast-fed infants are not safe, for mothers' milk has been found containing appreciable quantities of D.D.T. In passing, I may mention that D.D.T. has also been found in cigarettes up to as much as four parts per million—presumably due to the spraying of the tobacco leaf.

Other extremely toxic substances are now being used as insecticides, such as H.E.T.P., T.E.P.C., and parathion. They were invented by the Germans as war gases but not actually used as such. They are so dangerous that those who use them must be covered from head to foot with protective clothing. Already a number of fatal accidents have occurred to farm workers spraying with insecticides. This has engaged the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture, and a working party under the chairmanship of Professor Zuckerman has recently reported this aspect of their use. Unfortunately, little is known of the effect of these chemicals on the foodstuffs to which they are applied or upon the health of the men and women who consume the foodstuffs. There are on record, however, at least two cases in which people have developed illness which appeared to be due to flour containing one part per million of parathion. The illness ceased upon another flour being used in which none of this poison was found.

I may also remind your Lordships that when fruit trees are sprayed about 95 per cent. of the spray falls on the ground; and if this ground should be used for growing other crops, those crops will receive a far higher concentration of the poison than the fruit trees. I do not know what the figures are for this country—perhaps the noble Lord who is to speak for the Government can say—but in the United States in the year 1947 no less than 150,000,000 lb. of insecticides were produced. This is practically one pound per head of the population; and if only a very small fraction of that finds its way into the human body the cumulative results may be catastrophic.

Before I leave the agricultural side of this matter I should like to mention the use of antibiotics and hormones. As a result of treating an inflammation of the udder of one cow with penicillin, it was found that the milk was affected to such an extent that it destroyed the organisms essential for cheese-making. The effect was so powerful that it persisted even when the milk was mixed with that of 200 other cows. I noticed recently a similar case reported from France, where the production of Camembert cheese had been frustrated for the same reason. An indirect result of consuming milk thus infected with penicillin or other antibiotics is that the consumer might perhaps become resistant to this remedy in such fashion that, if it were prescribed for some illness, he would receive no benefit. Another example of these new techniques is the use of a hormone powder called tuberite for the purpose of suppressing the sprouts of potatoes. I do not know whether it is for this or other reasons that in recent years it has become almost impossible to purchase potatoes of good quality in London. Other hormones are used as weed-killers, but it does not follow that, because they have a selective action on weeds, they do not affect other plants and the persons who consume them. It is well known that hormones are extremely potent in very small quantities and may have most dangerous effects.

These agricultural procedures are not confined to one country. Imported food is as liable to be affected as home-grown food. I have heard of oranges being sprayed with D.D.T., the fruit when picked being dyed and then waxed. I should not like to eat marmalade made from fruit so treated. Recently, I noticed that a proposal is under consideration for preventing the spread of swollen shoot disease among the cocoa trees of the Gold Coast. The principle of it is that the sap of the tree should be induced to imbibe a poison that will kill the mealy bug by which the disease is transmitted from tree to tree. The idea is ingenious, but what effect will the poison have upon the cocoa bean, upon the cocoa derived from it, and upon the health of the consumers of cocoa and chocolate in this country and elsewhere? The effects of poisons used in agriculture received some attention at the Second International Conference on Crop Protection held in London in 1949. The Conference was presided over by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, who dealt with this matter at some length in his presidential address. He has authorised me to say that, but for an important and longstanding engagement, he would have been here to-day to take part in this discussion and that, without committing himself to any detail of the argument which I am addressing to your Lordships, he considers that this matter deserves the serious attention of the Government.

Let me now deal with the use of chemicals in the processing of foodstuffs. Flour is the outstanding example of a food subjected to chemical manipulation. Various chemicals are used to bleach the flour, because it is said that the public insist upon having an absolutely white bread. It is somewhat strange that they do not insist upon having many other articles of food bleached also. At any rate, it is clear that the public generally are quite unaware of the means by which this result is brought about, and of the toxicity of the chemicals used. Some chemicals are used for "maturing" flour in the space of a few hours, whereas nature takes weeks to effect this, and also for giving to inferior flour the characteristics of better flour Others are used for the purpose of inducing flour to rise more, in order to produce a loaf which contains more air and water, two substances which may be rather dearly bought in this way.

The most widely used of these so-called "improvers" of flour is nitrogen trichloride, commercially known as agene. After this chemical had been in use for about a quarter of a century, its toxic effects were discovered by Sir Edward Mellanby. The remarkable thing is that this discovery, like many other notable scientific discoveries, was made almost by accident. Professor Mellanby noticed that dogs which were being kept for another experiment were developing nervous disorders, which became progressively more grave and ended in epileptic seizures and death. In a research which is a classic of its kind, he traced the cause of the illness to food made from flour which had been treated with agene. His results were published in December, 1946. They were taken notice of immediately by the Food and Drug Administration of the United States, which caused independent investigations to be undertaken. The results, which confirmed Mellanby's findings, were published on November 22, 1947, in the Journal of the American Medical Association, together with a letter from the Chairman of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council to the Commissioner of Food and Drugs advising him that the treatment of flour with agene should be discontinued.


Before the noble Lord leaves that particular subject, may I ask him whether the results of the researches in America showed that this particular substance was deleterious to the human stomach?


I will come to that point in a moment. The use of agene has been discontinued in the United States. It took several years longer for a decision in principle to be reached in this country, and only a few weeks ago the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food stated that about 90 per cent. of the flour consumed in this country was agenised. By way of excuse, I suppose, for this delay, it has frequently been stated that there is no evidence of injury to human beings arising from the use of agenised flour. There is abundant evidence that it is toxic to dogs and other mammals. Some people may he able to believe that nature by some queer chance has given human beings a special immunity from a poison which, until some thirty years ago, their bodies had never encountered. That notion flatly contradicts the whole principle of evolution and the adaptation of man to his environment.


May I interrupt the noble Lord once more? I think he is taking his argument rather far. It is important that the British people should not believe that 90 per cent. of their bread is poisoned. Salt is quite toxic to the domestic fowl, yet the noble Lord and I can swallow salt. If I swallow sharp bones they will simply kill me, but they do not kill the dog. Surely the noble Lord cannot claim that a dog's interior and that of a human is the same in every respect.


The noble Lord will perhaps remember that the whole basis of medical research is conducted by means of experiments upon animals, and the results of those experiments are not to be disregarded. It is true that in this particular case nobody has identified anybody as having died because of eating agenised food, but the cumulative effects over many years may reveal themselves in quite unexpected forms, and I, for one, at any rate, take care to procure bread made from flour which has not been chemically treated. It has now been discovered that the toxic factor in agenised flour is a compound formed between the agene and the protein in the wheat. This illustrates the important fact that, even if a chemical used in the treatment of food is in itself relatively harmless, it may combine with some of the numerous substances of which food is composed to form a new and extremely toxic product.

I have dealt with this question of agene in some detail because, as the noble Lord says, almost everyone has been exposed to it, because it exemplifies the subtle nature of the perils arising from chemicals in foodstuffs, and because authoritative warnings about its possible danger seem to have been completely disregarded. In 1927 the Departmental Committee on the Treatment of Flour with Chemical Substances reported on the use of chlorine as a bleaching agent. They pointed out that it reacted with various constituents of the flour to form addition products, and that no harm to the body was likely to result from the chlorine itself but that the compounds formed might "act injuriously." They also pointed out that it might "irremediably impair the nutritive qualities of the flour" by affecting the vitamins which are present in small quantities and are very susceptible to mere traces of chemical reagents. The Committee went to to say that these observations applied also to the use of nitrogen trichloride, or agene, which is very highly reactive and on which they had evidence that its action on the protein of flour was probably similar. That was twenty-four years ago.

My Lords, flour deserves our attention because in the form of bread, cakes, biscuits, pastry and otherwise, it is the most important element of our diet, especially of those who are less well off, and also because it is the deliberate intention of the flour millers, with the assent of the Ministry of Food, to substitute other so-called "improvers" in place of agene. Let us hope that after another twenty-five years have elapsed it will not be revealed that the substitute, too, has toxic effects. Flour and its products have been particularly unfortunate in the number of chemicals used upon them. In addition to the bleaching agents and improvers, there is a large class of substances euphemistically known by trade names as emulsifiers, softeners, and fat-extenders, which are used in baking bread and cakes or in the preparation of patent flours and cake mixtures. I could not attempt to enumerate or to describe all these substances without keeping your Lordships here for many hours. Let me take but one example. Certain chemicals called polyoxyethyline stearates are used and sold under the name of bread softeners, upon the plea that they produce a larger loaf and that they displace part of the lard used for shortening. They are known commercially under various trade names, such as S-541, "Sta-soft," and so on. One manufacturer alone in the United States during a period of a little over three years sold more than 7,000,000 lb. of one of these products. But another manufacturer after experimenting upon rats, hamsters, and rabbits, discovered that this substance was highly toxic. It affected the kidneys and caused testicular and gastric troubles. I will only add that the use of bread softeners has been banned in the mental hospitals of New York State. But the health of those outside mental hospitals is also important. The very nomenclature of these things is deceptive. "Fat extenders" are substitutes for fat and reduce the nutritive value. "Anti-staling agents" are food preservatives enabling bread and cakes to be kept longer by the manufacturer or vendor before reaching the consumer, but nevertheless it has not been proved that the food does not deteriorate by keeping.

Then in addition to the kinds of chemicals I have mentioned there are whole classes of sweetening agents used as substitutes for sugar, flavouring agents, colouring matter or dyes. Of the sweeteners I may mention P.4000 and dulcin. These have been found to be definitely toxic, although dulcin at least was in common use for many years.

Among the substances which have been used as colouring matter were a class of Azo dyes which are known now to be toxic and to be a cause of liver tumours in test animals. One of these dyes was long used under the pleasant name of "butter-yellow," but is now known to be carcinogenic. Mineral oils have been used in the preparation of foodstuffs. Not only do they have no nutritive value, but because of their capacity for absorbing and immobilising certain vitamins they actually deprive the body of essential elements in the diet.


When the noble Lord speaks about their being toxic and depriving the body, and so on and so forth, is he referring to the human body or an animal body?


I am referring to the human body. If the vitamins are absorbed by a mineral oil and taken out of your food and rendered useless to you, that is injurious to the whole body. Let me give one illustration of a drink, as distinguished from a foodstuff. Drinks are perhaps not expected to be very nutritious, but we do not expect them to be poisonous. Among the most popular drinks in the United States (and I notice that they are beginning to gain a market here), are the cola drinks. They are composed of phosphoric acid, sugar, caffeine, colouring, and flavouring matter. Although the amount of phosphoric acid may appear to the uninitiated to be small, this acid is so powerful that it rapidly affects the teeth and dissolves the enamel. At the United States Naval Medical Research Institute human teeth were put into a cola beverage, and within a very short time they softened and started to dissolve. They became very soft in forty-eight hours. Experiments upon living teeth in animals showed that the drinking of cola beverages immediately began to erode the teeth, and ultimately they eroded down to the gums.

I will not multiply examples, of which I could give your Lordships many, but let me draw attention to the fact that one article of food may at different stages have chemicals injected into it for various purposes. The wheat or flour may have been affected by D.D.T. used as an insecticide; it has probably been treated with agene or other bleaching agents or improvers. The baker may add to it fat-extenders, emulsifiers or anti-staling agents. A cake-mix may also have added to it, in addition, flavouring or colouring matter. The sum total becomes rather alarming. Moreover, other articles of food consumed by the same person may contain still more chemicals. The manufacturers of these chemicals will say, and, no doubt, honestly, that they have no evidence that the things they are selling are harmful to human beings. We know now that this is not true in the case of many chemical additives to food which have been used for many years, and we have no right to assume, without the most stringent proof, that it is true of the others.

The fact is that man, having a relatively much longer life than animals used in medical research, may in the end suffer serious injury by the continued ingestion of relatively small quantities of these alien substances; and such effects are very difficult to detect. It is, however, significant that there has been an increase in recent years in the incidence of diseases having a neurological component, such as duodenal ulcers, schizophrenia, and disseminated sclerosis. It will be remembered that agene, for example, has a neurological effect upon test animals. Some may believe that men have become less able to cope with strain and worry, but it seems to me reasonable to assume that there are more definite and specific reasons for the increase in such diseases. Another significant fact is that the number of yearly deaths from cancer in this country is more than three times as great as it was fifty years ago. It has been definitely established that certain chemicals which have been widely used in food give rise to cancer of the liver and other organs in animals. In human beings, it is very difficult to establish the actual cause of cancer, but the rise in the number of deaths from this disease in a period in which the use of chemicals in food has increased so rapidly gives ground for reflection, if not for anxiety about the future trend of events.

Let me proceed to draw some conclusions. The first is that the law relating to the sale of food is defective in that, as a general rule, the onus of proving that something injurious has been added is thrown on the consumer or on the authorities responsible for food inspection.

I have pointed out to your Lordships the difficulties of proving this, and the long time which may elapse before such proof is forthcoming: in the interval the poisonous article is put on the market with impunity. I would go further, and say that with few, if any, exceptions the use of chemicals in the preparation of foodstuffs should be prohibited. This principle is well stated in the Report of the Departmental Committee on the Treatment of Flour with Chemical Substances, published in 1927. The Committee said: The object of maintaining inviolate the purity of the flour supply we regard as inspired by sound instinct, and we think that the responsibility for relaxing the principle is a very grave one, particularly at a time when research is beginning to throw new light upon the existence and properties of the more subtle constituents of foodstuffs. They also said: Our view is that flour should be the product of milling wheat without the addition of any foreign substance. These seem to me to be wise words, and applicable to all foodstuffs.

As a corollary, it should be made an offence—if it is not so already by Statute or by Common Law—to use any kind of chemical (such for example as fat-extenders) as a substitute for a natural foodstuff.

Secondly, all food should be labelled with a precise and clear statement of what it contains, and stating the quantity or proportions of each constituent. This is doubly important if the addition or any chemicals is permitted. The third conclusion to be drawn is that this matter should he under the supervision of one strong, well-staffed and well-equipped central department, free from association with any trade influences. It should not be left to the unco-ordinated efforts of sanitary inspectors, medical officers of health and public analysts to try to detect the use of chemicals and their potential dangers. Local authorities have insufficient resources for discharging such complicated and difficult functions. Even if they had adequate resources, to leave such matters to their unaided efforts would result in a wasteful multiplication of effort.

The toxicity or otherwise of these articles can be discovered only by prolonged and expensive experiments, because among the questions to be answered are these. What is the cumulative effect over years, or over a lifetime? Does the chemical affect reproductive capacity? Is it a racial poison? It is beyond the wit of any private organisation or of local health departments to keep pace with the ingenuity of the chemist and the food manufacturer. Many associations of food producers have research organisations, often assisted by Government grants, constantly engaged upon devising new methods of treating foodstuffs for the purpose of increasing the sales and the profits therefrom. What is needed is a central department free from all dependence upon commercial research bodies. The proper Ministry appears to me to be the Ministry of Health. The Ministries of Food and of Agriculture are in a sense concerned, but neither of them deals with the whole field, and both of them have associations which could conceivably be a handicap in undertaking this new task. I am therefore suggesting that the Government should take energetic and immediate steps to set up such an organisation and to pass legislation prohibiting, or at least severely restricting, the use of chemicals in the preparation, and as ingredients, of food, and requiring a full and accurate disclosure of the substances contained in all articles sold as food which do not literally and completely conform to the description by which they are sold. I beg to move for Papers.

6.0 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry that there is not a large attendance of your Lordships to listen to the discussion of this important subject which has been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch. I propose to deal shortly with one or two aspects of the subject, but not in such a technical manner as the noble Lord, who covered a great deal of ground of great importance. I am glad to see that there is one noble Lord representing the medical profession in the Chamber. There were two, but I think the other noble Lord has gone. That is rather a pity, because this is the sort of debate in which the medical profession can be of great help to us. I should like to tell you about an organisation with which I have been in touch for a great many years—namely, the Cheshire Panel of Doctors. Noble Lords who are in the medical profession will know that this organisation deals with what is called live food: that is, food that has not been processed. I remember having a discussion with one of the chiefs of the Cheshire Panel, in which he told me this story. He said he was not a gynæcologist, but often farmers in Cheshire who married girls from the towns came to him after a few years of married life and wanted advice because they had no children. His answer to that was to ask, "What do you eat?" Then he would tell them that, judging by what they ate, it was unlikely that they would have any children. He would add, "Eat live food, then you will have a right to be disappointed if you cannot produce life. You must eat food that has life in it, if you are going to produce live and healthy children."

I am particularly keen on the question of 100 per cent. bread. I have taken part in many debates in this House on the question of extraction. I make my own bread at home. I grind the wheat in my house on a small stone mill and make the bread immediately afterwards. I get 100 per cent. extraction that way. If I put my loaf of 100 per cent. wholemeal bread to bed, so to speak, with a loaf of national bread for one night, my bread is mouldy in the morning. What is the cause of that? There, must be something in the national bread that is definitely poisonous to life. This morning I was finishing a loaf at least a week old and it was perfectly fresh. I would not have had that benefit if it were national bread. I am getting on in years now and have eaten this type of bread for more years than I like to think of, and I have got it to a perfect state. People laugh at me and say, "Old Uncle Wholemeal again!" I should like the noble Lord who is to reply to see, when the matter is next raised, that at school meals 100 per cent. wholemeal bread should be served, if bread is served at all.

I was chairman of a departmental committee on the subject of teeth and dentistry which sat for two and a half years and all the evidence, some of which was given by noble Lords in this House, showed that unquestionably teeth are affected by the bread we eat. The evidence given to the committee also showed the importance of water. The towns of North Shields and South Shields, on either side of the river, have different water supplies, and while the condition of the teeth of the people in both towns is bad, in one town—at this time of day I cannot remember which one—the condition of the teeth is 100 per cent. worse than in the other. It was discovered that this was due to the condition of the water. From what the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, has said, it is clear that fresh food is of the utmost importance. I can remember some years ago attending a lecture by Professor Jack Drummond, in which he said something like this: "When you go into your garden and cut a lettuce, it means you have killed that living plant. The sooner you eat it, the better. It will retain life up to a point, but it will not retain life very long." Yet we see trains laden with vegetables travelling up to London and back into the country again, the vegetables deteriorating in their nutritional value more and more with every hour. I hope some thought will he given to seeing how we can avoid these long journeys for fresh food.

This question of health diet is of enormous importance to us. We all know the effect of wrong nutrition on our animals. They eat something, and quickly it is demonstrated that something has gone wrong with them. They cannot take Maclean's stomach powder; and they have not access to the bar where they can take a good stiff brandy if they have the "tummy-ache." Surely, what applies to the animals applies to us. The noble Lord mentioned cancer, and duodenal ulcer, diseases which are enormously on the increase at the moment. How often to-day do we hear that footballers, cricketers and athletes generally have a tendency to rheumatics; that some fellow has pulled a muscle, or that something else has gone wrong with him. There seems to be a great increase of that sort of thing. Even some of the champions have trouble of that kind. I am certain that it is entirely due to feeding. If your feeding is right, you will be healthy.

The noble Lord has dealt with the production of food, and I will not say anything about that matter. But look at the state of our hospitals! They are groaning with patients, and in many cases they have a waiting list. There must he something wrong and, from the evidence we have, I should say that it is entirely due to feeding. It is not that we do not get enough food, but that we do not get the right type. A friend of mine travelled round the world for three months on business, and when he came back he looked very fit, but had lost a lot of weight. When I asked him if he was all right he said that he was, and the reason why he had lost weight was because, when he was abroad, he could get the food to which he was accustomed and which agreed with him, with the result that he lost some sixteen or eighteen pounds. But he could not get that food here.

There is one other matter which I should like to mention. I raised this question years ago. I gave statistics then, and I have no doubt that they are just as bad now. Just think of the amount of money that is expended on curing or trying to cure people who are ill, not only here but throughout the world—it amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. And then think how much money is expended on trying to prevent people from becoming ill. There is not nearly enough spent on research and investigation into the reasons why people get ill. This is not a political question, and I hope that the Government will go seriously into it and see whether they cannot find money for further investigation into why there is so much sickness in this country and all over the world. I am certain that it will be found to be nothing more nor less than a question of feeding. I thank the noble Lord for having raised this question, and I hope that some good will come from our debate.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, has marshalled such a mass of evidence, and placed it before us so clearly, that he has left very little for his supporters to say. I have brought with me a copy of Sir Edward Mellanby's lecture on the chemical manipulation of food, to which the noble Lord referred, and I had intended to give a summary of it. However, as the noble Lord went through his speech I checked Sir Edward Mellanby's points, and substantially the noble Lord has made most of them. Therefore, your Lordships will be glad to hear that I am discarding my notes, and I will merely say a few words, sometimes bringing out Sir Edward Mellanby's points. I think it is clear, after the two speeches to which we have listened, that the Government are bound to take this matter seriously, and to have a full inquiry of some kind into it. I wish to ask the noble Earl who is to reply whether he will bring to the notice of the Government, when any such inquiry is under consideration, the following Resolution which was agreed to by this House on October 24, 1945, after a discussion on bread: That the health of the population should be the guiding principle to govern the nutritional policy of the Government, and that in applying that principle to the case of bread, the health of the consumer should be the primary factor, and milling and other interests should he developed in harmony with this policy. It is most important that the health of the population and not these secondary points that are so often made, should be the guiding principle.

There have been a few points on which the noble Lord's opinions have been queried, and on these I will try to give your Lordships the views of Sir Edward Mellanby. I suppose that Sir Edward Mellanby is the greatest authority in the world on this question. Since his retirement a year or two ago he has been in constant demand all over the world. He has been to America, to Canada and, this year, to India and a few days ago he left for Australia. On the eve of his departure he sent me a copy of his lecture, which was being printed, and gave me discretion to make such use of it as I thought fit in this debate. One of the points of difference—perhaps the most important—is whether what applies to animals applies also to man. Sir Edward Mellanby dealt with that point to some extent In his lecture. On the point of agene he says: No species of animal yet tested has failed to show severe toxic symptoms of the central nervous system to the active principle—methionine-sulphoximine—when these tests have been systematically made, and it would be remarkable if man were an exception, especially if the dosage were raised. The fact is that animals show different amounts of resistance to these things, but it is evidently his view—at least he has a suspicion—that man is liable to these dangers. Speaking in particular of the chronic effects of agene, which, after all, has been in use for thirty years, he says: We certainly have enough chronic degenerative diseases of the nervous system of unknown etiology to suggest that the matter is worthy of consideration. The present apparent official complacency to the ingestion of agenised flour in this country is disturbing not only in itself but because it indicates a reluctance to consider seriously the wider problem of chemical manipulation of food and its relation to health aril disease. If agene has these extraordinary effects on the nervous system of dogs, and of all animals on which it has been tried, are we really prepared to assume that it will have none on mankind? It is during recent years that such strange developments have taken place. For my part, I have long felt that this question of agene might be connected with these sudden unofficial strikes and unrest which occur among the poorer section of the population who are great consumers of bread. If they are large consumers of bread, and that bread is agenised, it gives one something to think about.

My noble friend Lord Teviot referred to the report on teeth, which certainly brought out the effect of bread upon teeth. Mellanby says in his lecture that these questions are constantly cropping up. What Jo I see in to-day's Press? It is reported rather fully in the Daily Telegraph, and to a certain extent in The Times, that the new President of the Dental Association has said: If all sweet shops were prohibited by law, no doubt an impossible Utopia, then the dental surgeon's work with children would largely disappear. He went on to emphasise that glucose, which is easily fermentable into acid, was a greater danger than ordinary sugar. Some of the chemicals mentioned by the noble Lord concerned sugar. One of them is 4,000 times sweeter than the equivalent quantity of cane sugar; it was mentioned by Mellanby as one of the articles which should be prohibited. I am not sure that it has not been prohibited—in fact, I rather think that it has been. Returning once more to the reported speech of the President of the Dental Association, the report quotes him in the following words: Dental disease was a disease of civilisation, and the most prevalent of all diseases of practically every civilised race. In the late war, 97 per cent. of the recruits requited dental treatment. If that problem can be tackled by improving our food, surely the Government ought to go into this with the utmost care. It has been stated for so long. One can go back a very long way to what the Medical Research Council has said on this subject.

I can give one example, on which I may say that I have modelled my whole life, which I have practised for seventeen years, and upon which my whole health has depended. This was a report produced by the Medical Research Council in 1937-38, of which Mellanby was the Secretary and the life and soul. That report says: A much greater consumption of milk and other products, of eggs, of vegetables, including potatoes"— eaten, of course, with their skins, unless they have been subjected to some of the processes which the noble Lord mentioned— of fruits, and of fat fish, at the expense of bread, sugar and sweets… It sounds too simple. If the Government would have the courage to adopt the proposals of the noble Lord who moved the Motion and the proposals of Sir Edward Mellanby in his lecture—which is now printed—and would spread among the people the simple precepts which I have quoted, and tell them how to apply them, as they and their predecessors have done in the case of infants and young children, for which they deserve the utmost credit, they would do more to improve the positive health, physique and resistance to disease of the nation than all the miles and miles of hospitals, still inadequate, which have been provided and the costly niagara of medicines which are pouring down the throats of the people. Mann ist Wass er isst as the punning German proverb says—" Man is what he eats." I absolutely agree with every word which the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has said on that subject.

Now is the time for the Government to act. Defence must have first priority in expenditure, and I am not suggesting that the Government can do anything else. Nevertheless, I submit that this is the time to tackle the health measures: it will cost nothing, except the price of the same sort of continuous propaganda by which the Government put over the question of cod liver oil, orange juice and so on for children. As for the adults, you can get their teeth right; you can get the soldiers' teeth right, if only you can get over to them that it is a matter of good bread and of these other simple formulae of the Medical Research Council. Moreover, not only can you get health, but you can get economy. Another passage from the same prophetic report of the Medical Research Council says: Only by improving the general health and eliminating disease can it be hoped to reduce the present tendency of ever-increasing medical services "— that was seventeen years or so ago— and the annual expenditure of between £200,000,000 and £300,000,000 which such services necessitate.

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all glad that the noble Lord, Lord Douglas, has raised this novel and important subject this afternoon. It is indeed a novel subject; the problem is one which has arisen only during the last twenty or thirty years. It is important because it affects all the inhabitants of this country, except possibly breast-fed infants—though Lord Douglas cast doubts even on that small section. By way of reply to the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, I can give him the assurance that he asked for in the first part of his speech. The guiding principle of food policy is the health of the population, and I hope that in my subsequent remarks I shall show how this policy is being applied. I noticed that the noble Lord quoted from the philosopher Feuerbach the saying that: Man is what he eats. The noble Lord will remember that Feuerbach, who was a colleague of Marx, was trying to discredit Hegel, and perhaps it should be said from this side that the noble Lord was presumably not using that remark of the German philosopher in order to defend materialism, whether of the Marxian or any other variety.

Noble Lords will agree that we must keep a sense of proportion about this matter. We want people to exercise reasonable care about what they eat. On the other hand, we do not want them to feel unreasonably alarmed or that they are being slowly poisoned by the food that they have eaten for the last twenty or thirty years—with enjoyment until they read Lord Douglas's speech in Hansard. If I might criticise what, if I may say so, was certainly an interesting and well-informed speech, I thought it was slightly alarmist in tone. It is important that the public should not be unduly frightened or alarmed about what they eat.

I should like now to reply to one or two points made by Lord Douglas. I think he tended to exaggerate the toxicity of D.D.T. There is no record of death or illness in this country from the use of this insecticide; and, of course, it is an extremely important means of killing insects harmful to crops, including the malarial mosquito. Then the sweetening agents to which he referred—P4000 and dulcin—are not used in this country, so I hope I can remove that fear from the noble Lord's mind and from the minds of those who will read his remarks. There is no evidence at all that the chemical fertilisers at our disposal, even when used in large quantities, are harmful to human beings. There are no cases of illness due to eating some plant which has been grown by means of a particular chemical fertiliser. Incidentally, I know well the views of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, on this subject.

I think Lord Douglas would agree that many of the statements he made were based on statements made in the United States of America. Those statements may or may not be correct, but I think that we cannot accept them as being accurate statements until we have proved them for ourselves and are certain of their validity under conditions in this country—which are obviously different from conditions in America. Lord Douglas was not primarily concerned with the effect of poisonous chemicals on their users. Nevertheless, I should like to refer to it because it is a matter of considerable public interest. I am sure your Lordships will agree that all our industry, including agriculture, must produce more if we are to maintain our present standard of living. One of the most important ways of doing this in agriculture is to reduce the losses due to disease, weeds and pests. The chemical attack on pests and diseases is only one method of control. The traditional practice of crop rotation and the breeding and use of resistant strains are also of the utmost value in conserving our crops. But these traditional methods are not sufficient by themselves.

Poisonous substances of one kind and another have been safely used in agriculture for a long time. But the increasing use of chemicals and the appearance on the market of new chemical substances make it essential to provide against any new dangers which may arise from their application. Some of the most effective of all the new chemicals are those used for weed killing, and the powerful new insecticides. The use of these is highly dangerous to the workers handling them and there has been a small number of fatal accidents. The existence of these dangers has caused the Government to set up a Working Party, as the noble Lord has already stated, under the chairmanship of Professor Zuckerman. The Working Party did an excellent job in a very short time, and made a number of useful recommendations. Their Report has now been published. Some of the proposals would require legislation, and we are now considering that matter. But, as the spraying season starts at the end of March, the Minister of Agriculture decided that agreement about the use of protective measures for the men who handle these sprays was desirable in advance of legislation. At a conference in February, agreement was reached about necessary measures for the protection of the men working in the field or in the orchard.

Following other recommendations of the Working Party, all doctors have been informed about spraying areas and seasons, and have been supplied, through the B.M.A., with the information available on the possible ill effects of these sprays and their treatment. We are also taking other measures to put into effect the recommendations about instruction and research. We shall not relax our efforts until we have made this work as safe as possible for the men who use these poisonous weed-killers and insecticides. Professor Zuckerman has now been asked—I think this information will be interesting to your Lordships—to continue his investigations to cover the risk to consumers which may follow the use of poisonous chemicals on growing crops and in the storage of food. These inquiries are at an early stage, but the reconstituted Working Party held its second meeting yesterday and it will complete its work as quickly as possible.

Insecticides are not used only on, growing crops. A great many are used on crops and food after they have been stored, and here we have to take the greatest care. In fumigation by the use of powerful gases, gases are chosen which, if they are used with proper care and in the right quantities, do not leave traces on the food or crops which are stored. The wise use of the proper gas or insecticide for this purpose depends on the technical competence of the people who do the disinfestation. My Department, together with the City and Guilds Institute of Technology, are arranging to provide education in the practice of pest control. We hope eventually that only workers with certificates of competence will be permitted to use the more poisonous chemicals, although, of course, the work has to be done until people are fully qualified. The matters with which I have been dealing up to now fall within they responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries and not within the responsibility of the Ministry of Food. I hope it will be noticed as I go along how closely the Government Departments concerned work together, because I think that that is the real answer to the objection of the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, to our present administrative set-up. Apparently, he desires an entirely new organisation on the lines of the American Food and Drugs Administration. I hope that what I say will show that our present system works satisfactorily.

The noble Lord, Lord Douglas, referred to my Department's responsibility for seeing that milk is safe as well as clean. I will mention briefly the use of chemicals for cleansing milking equipment, and the precautions which are taken for preventing those chemicals from contaminating milk. Various detergents are used for the cleaning of utensils and equipment, but those normally used cannot be regarded as poisonous chemicals. They are quite harmless. In any case, under the Milk and Dairies Regulations, any equipment so cleaned must be afterwards rinsed with clean water and finally sterilised by steam, boiling water or approved hypochlorite. If hypochlorites are used, all traces must be removed before the vessel or appliance again comes into contact with milk. That is important because most of the population drink milk. It is, therefore, essential to see that these safeguards are applied.

I shall now turn to the far more difficult question, raised by the noble Lord and by other noble Lords, of the danger to health arising from the use of chemicals in the processing or storage of foodstuffs. But we must be quite clear about the meaning of this word "poisonous," because, while I do not think there is any misunderstanding here, a misunderstanding is possible elsewhere. It is obvious that a substance is poisonous in the ordinary sense of the word if death or suffering takes place soon after it has been eaten. This kind of poisoning can easily be tested by experiments, and therefore there is very little risk of that type of thing happening in connection with any foodstuffs. The long-term effects of small quantities of substances which are harmless in themselves are much more difficult to determine. What we really want to know is whether some of the substances now being used may have toxic effects if taken in small amounts over a long period of time. That is the question to which we are asking the scientists to address their minds.

It is quite clear, as I am sure noble Lords will recognise, that we cannot forbid the use of chemicals and say that no chemical shall be used in connection with food. These chemical aids are necessary in the storage, processing, packing and distribution of much of the food needed in modern conditions, particularly in large towns. They are essential to the feeding of our large urban populations; they would go short of food if those chemical aids were not available. Food chemistry has an essential part to play in feeding this country (an obvious instance is that we could not do without margarine), and its practical application should not be restricted if restrictions can be avoided. At the same time, everyone agrees with the noble Lord the mover of the motion, and other speakers who have supported him, that there are risks in the use of these new chemical substances, or substances put to new uses in connection with food. I should say here and now that the Government are very much alive to these risks, and to the paramount importance of doing everything possible to safeguard the public.

I should like also to tell the House what we are already doing or propose to do. Existing legislation, particularly the Food and Drugs Act of 1938, provides considerable safeguards, and the Orders made under that Act and under later Defence Regulations are also means of protecting the public from the use of harmful substances. The manufacturers and distributors of food have considerable responsibilities under the Food and Drugs Act for the quality of the food they supply, and the Ministers of Health and Food have power to make Regulations jointly. But we are not certain—I should like to emphasise this—that existing powers are adequate. We are therefore considering at this moment the amendment of the Food and Drugs Act, with a view to giving the responsible Ministers wider powers than they now possess.

In order to show that we have been active recently in one of the directions which I think the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, mentioned when he spoke of mineral oils, perhaps I may draw attention to two Orders that were made, one in 1947 and one in 1949. The Fluorine in Food Order, 1947, fixes the maximum amount of a particular chemical substance which can be legally used in food without danger to health. The Mineral Oil in Food Order, 1949, prohibits altogether the admixture of mineral oils. The noble Lord, Lord Douglas, described their harmful effects. Another example of Executive action is the Preservatives Regulations. These Regulations provide that no preservative, other than those which are declared to be safe on the best medical and scientific advice, may be used in food. The preservatives which can be used are defined, as are the quantities in which they may be used and the foods in which they can be included. A Committee is now considering how these Regulations can be brought up to date, and also whether regulations on similar lines should be applied to groups of substances used for other purposes, such as anti-oxidents, which are used to prevent fats from going rancid, and colouring matters. We want to see whether these Regulations can be applied to this wide field of foodstuffs in which anti-oxidents and colouring matters are used.

The real difficulties, as I have already pointed out, are not of an administrative kind. Our main difficulty is lack of scientific knowledge about the effect of the chemicals added to food, or used in its preparation, and lack of the scientific personnel required for the long process of experiments and research. Science and technology are advancing quickly. New substances and new methods are continually being offered to food manufacturers, and the real problem is how to establish that there is, in the long run, no risk of ill effects upon the health from the employment of these substances. An example which has been given by several speakers this afternoon is the use of agene in the preparation of flour for the baker. This process has been used for the last thirty years without any evidence of harmful effects on man. I think that fact ought to be made absolutely clear, because we do not want people to feel that they are being slowly poisoned by their bread. As the noble Lords have pointed out, experimental work has shown that agene-treated flour is harmful to dogs and to sonic other animals. And although there is no evidence that this chemical, when mixed with flour, is harmful to human beings, we do not want to take any risks, and we have achieved agreement with the flour millers to give up entirely the use of this substance. They have agreed to that step; that decision has been taken. But, of course, there are practical difficulties in discontinuing a technical process which has been used for a long time, and these are causing delay in giving effect to the decision which has been taken. I think it is obvious that we want to arrive at the best possible alternative, and that adaptations have to be made in plans, and so on and so forth, before the alternative chosen can be used in flour.

The noble Lord, Lord Douglas took the view that all responsibility in this matter should rest with one Department, the Ministry of Health. We are satisfied, however, that the existing administrative arrangements between Departments concerned, to which I have already alluded, work smoothly and efficiently. There is no confusion of function or wasteful overlapping. We feel that there is no need for any change, because the present arrangements work so well. Let me just mention briefly the functions of the different Departments in relation to this matter. The Ministry of Agriculture is clearly the Department best equipped to take responsibility for agricultural and horticultural operations. The Ministry of Food, in the course of its day-to-day activities, is in very close contact with the food trades. It is in a position to advise when called upon, and is in fact frequently asked for advice. I should like to say, in passing, that the relations between the Ministry of Food and the food trade are excellent, and that the Ministry of Food is getting constant information from the trade, and is obtaining useful medical and scientific advice, which the manufacturers require in relation to new substances that they desire to put into use. The Ministry of Food consults with the Health Departments and with the Medical Research Council, and of course with the food manufacturers' research associations, on all matters within their competence.

In my view it is quite right and proper that the Minister of Food should bear the main responsibility for the nature and quality of the food we eat. The Ministry of Food co-operates very closely with the Health Departments, both by contact between officials and through Standing Committees, and the Health Departments, in turn, are the arbiters on matters relating exclusively to health. Another example of the way the Food and Health Departments work together is the joint responsibility of the two organisations for the administration of the Food and Drugs Act. The Medical Research Council, which is of course an extremely important institution, is a completely independent source of authoritative scientific advice. All these bodies have worked together very happily and so far, I think, with complete success. Therefore, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Douglas, that there is any advantage in gathering all these responsibilities into one Department. I am sure that any big change would impair efficiency, and equally I am sure that it would be a mistake to try and follow the American pattern, because the system there has grown up under entirely different conditions from our system here. We cannot prohibit the use of all chemical substances except those which we can prove to be safe. There is a very wide range of substances which are at present untested but which are absolutely essential for the processing or preservation of foodstuffs. We must use our limited resources of scientific personnel to inquire into the most urgent problems, and we should clearly achieve nothing if we tried to tackle at the same time a very large number of problems.

In this connection I should like to inform the House about an important new development. The Advisory Council on Scientific Policy reported last year that they had appointed a Committee on Toxic Substances in Consumer Goods, under the chairmanship of Professor Zuckerman. This Committee were asked to advise on the need for better control of the use of ingredients or processes potentially injurious to health used in the preparation of foods and a wide range of other consumer goods. The Committee's conclusions and recommendations have now been examined by the Medical Research Council and by the Government Departments concerned and the advice of the former, on the medical aspects, and of the latter, on the administrative and legal implications, has been considered by the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy. The Council are now about to submit their recommendations to the Lord President, who is the responsible Minister in these matters. Reference will be made to the recommendations in the Advisory Council's Annual Report which will appear by the end of this month. I should like to emphasise this because it means that very important decisions of policy are now before the Minister who is responsible for these matters in the present Government. I do hope that what I have said has satisfied your Lordships. The Government is well aware of the urgency of this problem. We are doing our utmost to safeguard the public in the light of existing scientific and medical knowledge, and we are trying to obtain the further knowledge that is needed before we can decide whether further action is desirable.

6.56 p.m.


My Lords, I will not detain you for more than a few moments. In the first place, I should like to thank my noble friends Lord Hankey and Lord Teviot for the support that they have given me. I should also like to thank my noble friend who has spoken on behalf of the Government, although I am not completely satisfied with his reply. He has said that the Government cannot forbid the use of chemicals, although we do not know whether those chemicals are harmless or otherwise. That is a position which I accept only with very great hesitation. Somehow or other, it seems to be assumed that this country would be unable to feed itself if the use of such chemicals were prohibited. I wonder how this country was able to feed itself a couple of generations ago, before the ingenuity of the chemists got to work upon this subject. Certainly we suffered from some greater inequality in the distribution of wealth, but I do not think there were any insuperable difficulties about supplying us with sufficient food.

The noble Earl has admitted that insufficient research has been devoted to this matter in this country. He has said that various researches have been conducted in the United States, and for that matter elsewhere, but that we cannot accept the results of those researches until we are able to prove the statements by fresh researches here. If that is the position, then it is high time that we were making more rapid progress. It may be that the present system of administration in this country works well. I do not doubt that for a single moment. But it does not cover all the ground which requires to be covered. That is the point which I wanted to make. I am very glad to see, from what the noble Earl has said, that the Government are taking an active interest in this matter, and that steps are being taken to provide a larger and better measure of protection to the public in regard to the foodstuffs which are being consumed. That being so, I am content for the moment to thank the noble Earl for the reply which he has given on behalf of the Government, and to beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at seven o'clock.