HL Deb 29 January 1952 vol 174 cc921-46

4.25 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, at the time when the noble Marquess intervened to make his important Statement, I was suggesting to your Lordships that there is so much evidence that this agenisation of bread is harmful that a jury in a court of law would have no hesitation in finding a verdict against the defendant. That evidence is based largely on experiments with animals, and I was reminding your Lordships that it was Sir Edward Mellanby's more or less accidental observations in connection with dogs, and the way they developed hysterical symptoms after being fed with agenised bread, that first brought the matter prominently into the light of day. It has, of course, been suggested that dogs are not like human beings, and it does not necessarily follow that because dogs develop hysterical symptoms there will be anything the matter with human beings who eat agenised bread. Incidentally, I understand that some of the dogs not only developed hysterical symptoms but actually died. But the effects are not confined to dogs. A number of animals have been experimented with. It is interesting to note that a ferret given a largish dose was ill at once, but when given small doses took ten days to develop symptoms.

In answer to the noble Lord's question, I should like to quote a passage which I believe is the most useful passage for this purpose in the whole of this long address, in which Sir Edward Mellanby mentions the fact that a monkey takes about one hundred times as long as a dog to develop symptoms. That might well explain why in human beings it may be a long time before symptoms develop, and symptoms which are not necessarily clearly due to agenised bread. This is what Sir Edward Mellanby says on page 866—and I must apologise to your Lordships for quoting all these long extracts: Those who favour the retention of the agene process or think that there is no need to hurry its ban from the milling industry point to the absence of evidence that agene-treated flour has a toxic action on man. It is quite certain that different species of animals differ greatly in their susceptibility to agenised flour, but it is equally true that no species of animal yet tested with the active principle"— and then lie gives the technical name— has failed to show severe toxic symptoms of the central nervous system when these tests have been systematically made; and it would be remarkable if man were an exception, especially if the dosage were raised. That is a very strong statement, in my submission, coming from such an eminent authority. He goes on: Monkeys are said to have about 100 times the resistance of dogs … and it is possible that man has a similar resistance as regards acute reaction to this substance. Nothing is known of the chronic toxic effects of agenised flour, and it may well be a matter of some importance to individuals who have been living on bread made from agenised flour over periods up to twenty-five years. We certainly have enough chronic degenerative diseases of the nervous system of unknown aetiology to suggest that this 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 and disease. I think that is all I need quote in order to show quite clearly that Sir Edward Mellanby is very disturbed about the position which exists at the present time. It is within the knowledge of all of us that these nervous disorders—some of them really bordering on insanity, like schizophrenia—have become much more common of recent years, and it may well be that it is because of this chemical processing of bread and other foods. There is a good deal of evidence, I understand, that schizophrenia is of metabolic origin, and, if that is so, it may well be that that is one of the elements in the increase which has taken place in this ailment over the last years.

Is it not significant that the American Government have been sufficiently satisfied that the case against this agenisation of flour has been made out to bring it to an end? I understand that the American Government is not the only Government which has taken that action. I should like the Minister who As replying to this debate to tell me whether it is not true that many, if not most, other European States have taken the same action. It is quite obvious that our own Government are rather worried about it because, as my noble friend Lord Listowel said in the debate on July 4 last, they have come to an agreement with the trade that as soon as an improver which is harmless can be put on to the market, this agenisation will cease. In reading the noble Earl's reply in the debate, I had the impression that we had only just achieved agreement with the flour mills to give up entirely the use of this substance. It rather suggested to me that that agreement had just been reached, but I understand from other sources that the agreement was reached some years ago. I should be obliged if the Minister who is to reply would indicate when, in fact, that agreement was reached.


I do not wish to interrupt my noble friend, but on the occasion to which he has referred I spoke for the Ministry of Food, and I certainly did not intend to imply that the agreement had not been reached some time ago. The reason why it had not been implemented was because the millers were looking around for a substitute. That is the position, and I hope the noble Lord will take that as what I intended to convey.


I think that that is very disturbing indeed. Here we are, six months later, and still nothing has been done. Surely we ought not to take these risks in respect of this matter. The present Minister of Health, in answering questions in another place before the Recess, made a statement to the effect that there is no danger at all. Now I submit, to use a very mild expression, that it is a most unfortunate statement to say that there is no danger at all, when an authority like Sir Edward Mellanby obviously thinks there is, and when great countries all over the world are stopping the use of agene. It is not fair to the public to tell them that there is no danger at all, and I hope the Minister this afternoon will say that that statement was made inadvertently. I can well imagine the expressions to which the father of the Minister of Food might have given vent on a statement like that being made so light-heartedly in respect of a matter which is of such great importance.

In the rest of this lecture Sir Edward Mellanby goes on to discuss other processing to which our bread is subjected, and I should like to quote one final passage from his lecture in which he summarises the whole of this argument. He says: Summing up all these effects of flour treatment on the ultimate constitution of the loaf, we see that improvers used by millers might be expected to reduce the total energy value per unit volume of loaf by about 15 per cent. to 20 per cent., and the baker's use of anti-staling agents by 9 per cent. up to 20 per cent. In addition there is the possibility, just discussed, of substituting for fat in many foods the new emulsifiers. To this might be added the 10 per cent. reduction in protein value of flour by the proposed lowering of the extraction rate from 85 per cent. to 72 per cent., together with the loss of mineral elements and of vitamins and probably many other unknown essential food factors. Many of these effects are additive and will undoubtedly result in products which are lighter, whiter, and more easily masticated, but of considerably reduced food value. A worker in this field recently suggested that the ultimate goal of this general trend would probably be reached when a bread substitute made up primarily of starch, air, water, polyoxyethylene stearate, and a little saccharin, was found acceptable to the general consumer. I suggest to your Lordships, and to His Majesty's Government, that that reveals a situation which should give rise to grave anxiety on their part, as, indeed, it is beginning to give rise more and more in the general public. Your Lordships who watch the Press will see that correspondence is going on about this problem in many newspapers. In my submission, it is quite clear that the public is getting very worried about it, and it is high time that the Government took action.

I am not blaming the present Government. All Governments of recent years carry a heavy responsibility in their failure to take action in respect of this matter. It is difficult to see to what this is due. It may be that they feel it would be unpopular with the public to get a bread which was not so white or which was not so easily masticated, but surely we should take no risks in respect of this matter. We should take no risks and we should establish it beyond peradventure that the food of the public is safe. If there is any fear of Party advantage being derived from one side or the other, I suggest that the two Parties should get together and have a common policy upon this matter. I finish where I started, by saying that the problem of public health is one of the greatest problems which we in this country and the whole of Western Europe have to face at the present time, and I earnestly beseech His Majesty's Government to take prompt and resolute action.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, I agree fully with the last words of the previous speaker, and I agree very strongly with what was said by the mover of the Motion. The Motion seems to me to be well timed. If I am rightly informed, debates are to take place this week in another place which, according to common expectation, are to result in large austerities. I hold that you must always try to draw good out of what seems evil, and I believe that great good is to be drawn from austerity if only we can take it in the right spirit and if we can get a decent philosophy on it—a philosophy on the lines of John Bunyan's: "He who would stalwart be…"; the philosophy that we must all work for what we can give and not for what we can get. It seems to me that austerity provides a great opportunity to get rid of some of the evils, including the evils about which we have been told to-day, that have grown up during the long era of luxury.

That era of luxury culminated rather late in the conception of the Welfare State. I have no objection to that term, but I have a strong objection to the way in which some people interpret it. It has come to be regarded as involving the maintenance of what is called the "standard of living." I think the present standard of living is a false one, with many defects. It is a cocktail, over-smoking, cosmetical standard of living, a standard of living in which everyone wants to travel on wheels—people have almost lost the use of their legs. It is a standard of living in which the luxuries of the past have become the necessities of the present and of the future. It seems to me that we could derive considerable advantage from our present situation of forced austerity.

In the course of the years the teeth of the nation have been destroyed; millions of pounds have been spent on providing artificial dentures. Moreover, the diseases of our people have resulted in prodigious expenditure on hospitals and costly medical services. There has been a Niagara of drugs which, even if they sometimes cure, have done nothing to prevent disease. Is not this really an opportunity to get away from that intolerable situation and to build up a system of prevention of disease? As I think has already been mentioned by more than one speaker, such a system would be much less expensive than the system of curing disease—though the two would have to run together for some time.

Now the means of building up positive health, as it has been called in this debate, have been brought to the notice of successive Governments, to my own knowledge and within my own experience, for about twenty years. The first of many speeches which I have made on this subject was made in July, 1939. I chose that subject then because I felt that it was necessary for a new member of your Lordships' House to show that he could talk on an unpopular as well as on a popular subject. On that occasion I brought out the warnings of the Medical Research Council. I read extracts from their Reports arid I urged strongly then that their simple precepts which, they said, would prevent enor- mous expenditure (expenditure which has since been incurred, and to a far greater extent than they then thought), should be adopted. These quotations will bear further repetition—reiteration is the secret of conviction—and with your Lordships' permission I shall quote some of those words again. Here they are: A much greater consumption of milk"— the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, did pretty well in that matter during the war— and other dairy products, of eggs, of vegetables including potatoes"—; I wish they had added "in their skins"—


Hear, hear!—


of fruit, and of fat fish, at the expense of bread, biscuits, sugar and sweets, especially in early life, is an urgent national requirement. It will not only improve the physique of the people, but will reduce the amount of dental decay and greatly raise the standard of health. An increase of breast-feeding will still further reduce the high mortality rate of infants from gastro-intestinal trouble and broncho-pneumonia. Whatever advances in medical knowledge may come, until these simple precepts are adopted there will still remain a great deal of preventable disease in this country. In the various experiments which have been made, the noble Lord, Lord Wool-ton has given a great deal of assistance. But the experiments were, I think, intended more for infants than for adults, and adults have suffered to some extent. The noble Lord raised the extraction rate of flour to, I think, 85 per cent. He was, however, careful to defend it on shipping grounds. I remember that both the noble Lord, Lord Horder, and I told him that posterity would pay a tribute to him for the benefit that his step would bring to the health of the people. I wish to repeat my congratulations to the late Government on having stuck firmly to that rate of 85 per cent. I do not like it myself and always eat bread of higher extraction flour. Nevertheless 85 per cent, flour is far better than what we had before the war.

People need guidance in these matters. I have very much sympathy with those who would ask, How are we to achieve this? It is difficult for me as a non-technical man to answer that. I can only tell how I live myself, and that I have succeeded in maintaining a high standard of health—or, rather, that those who look after me have done so for me—by applying these methods. Something should be done at once to start a better system of health. The Government have enormous resources at their disposal nowadays. There is this great Health Service, into which the whole of the medical profession is incorporated. There are the hospitals, and especially the schools where the doctors are trained. There are the doctors widespread in the health services. There are the Fighting Services. There are, I believe, a great many clinics of various kinds, and it is now possible to get at the whole of the catering industry, which should be harnessed into trying to help teach people how to live more healthily. Like the noble Lord who moved the Motion, I am all against trying to raise the extraction rate of bread higher than the people will stand. I think the Labour Government did extraordinarily well in maintaining it, as I have already said. I hope that the present Government will do like-wise.

I entirely agree with my noble friend on that point, but if people could be made to understand what an important element food is in their health, there would soon be a demand for raising the extraction rate, or at least a demand for a higher extraction flour, which would become so great that that higher extraction would automatically become the standard. Unfortunately, a large number of people who have already seen the light cannot get what they want. It is very difficult nowadays to obtain a supply of good whole-meal bread. I do not know why, but bakers try to "palm you off" with what they call brown bread, which is not the real thing at all. If it is difficult for the real converts to get the sort of bread that has been produced during previous debates in this House, imagine how much more difficult it is for those who stand trembling on the brink and fear to launch into wholemeal bread. I feel the Government ought to make a real effort to put this right, and that those who want the wholemeal bread should be able to get it.

We were told in one of the debates that propaganda on the lines for which I am asking was undertaken in Scandinavia (I think it was in Norway) but that it took about ten years. I believe that something could be done here in less time than that, because the means at the disposal of the Government are so great. In fact, I believe it is going on all the time. As the editor of one of the great medical papers, who is a complete stranger to me, was kind enough to write after our last debate on this subject, the debates in this House have had a considerable effect in the country and have contributed to the movement for reform. Of course, the Government can do nothing unless they get the country behind them. A thing that always greatly disturbs me is that although those from whom, unfortunately, this country has become parted, by what seems to be for the moment an irreconcilable gulf, those against whom we have to prepare for the worst eventualities, have made a great many mistakes, they have not made the fatal mistake of debasing their bread. I believe it to be necessary for us to get this whole food question—it concerns not only bread, of course, but a great many other things, such as vegetables, as I have mentioned—right if we are to be able to stand up to those formidable people.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, I do not propose to take long in making the few points that are left to me. The debate has gone on for some time, and I shall try to condense what I have to say. The subject of the common health is so important that in this House your Lordships' contributions to it have from time to time, as my noble friend Lord Hankey has made clear, influenced a good many people. Therefore, it is important that any views expressed by your Lordships should be very well considered and thoroughly matured, and should not carry gloom and despondency unless that attitude is really justified.

First of all, in regard to the Peckham Health Centre experiment, as I was privileged to be the President of that Centre for some years, may I at once endorse the opinion and accept the tribute which the noble Lord, Lord Douglas, gave in regard to the good work done there? As most of your Lordships know, the credit goes entirely to the genius and pertinacity of two people, Dr. Scott Williamson, and Dr. Innes Pearce, who conceived the idea and carried it through up to the time at which, unfortunately, from want of financial support, it ceased to exist. It was a voluntary effort, akin to many good efforts, fraught with equally good results, that take place in this country. Therefore, I suggest there is no blame attaching to any section of the administration that the Peckham Health Centre closed its doors. It made its contribution to positive health, to preventive medicine. The standard of health some of us did not quite accept: it was perhaps a little too high, as witness the fact that certain children were found suffering from quite minor ailments which we know come and go. They are transient; they are not necessarily to be categorised as serious illnesses. However, as I say, the Peckham health experiment was a great British effort. As the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, has reminded us, it attained to international prestige.

In the matter of the main arguments submitted to your Lordships by the noble Lord, Lord Douglas, I cannot help feeling that there is a little confusion as between two positions. I do not think that the day-to-day incidence of sickness and disability is necessarily indicative of the basic state of health of the nation. I hope I have made that clear. I think the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, asked the noble Lord, Lord Douglas, whether the common cold was included in the survey of illnesses. I thought the answer was a little equivocal, but it illustrates the point I am trying to make. Relatively speaking, a wave of incidence of a fairly mild virus infection, such as the common cold, will keep a very large number of people away from their jobs and will be registered as sickness. That, of course, is true. But no Administration, still less any particular Government, is to be blamed for what in other parlance we call an act of God. We know very little about the common cold, but we have considerable reason for regarding it as a virus infection, and, as your Lordships know, our knowledge of virus infection is in its infancy. But coming to the basic state of the national health, I think that it is good. I was struck with the admission made by Lord Douglas that we are living longer, but, curiously, he seemed to attribute our living longer to a series of sicknesses and disabilities.


Will the noble Lord forgive me? I said nothing whatever of that kind. I am within the recollection of the House.


Then, my Lords, I submit that Lord Douglas said two things, and I will not connect them. He said, first, that the survey of the sickness disability incidence was very disturbing and, secondly, that we are living a good deal longer than we did formerly. I will not connect them, but in some way I still think they were slightly confused. It is perhaps reminiscent of Alexander Pope's last illness. His doctor had called in the morning and, as doctors will sometimes when a patient is very depressed, he had told the patient that in a number of respects he was better than he had been. In the afternoon a friend called in and asked, "How are you?" and the poet said, "I am dying of a number of small but good points."

My Lords, we cannot go on living longer and longer and, at the same time, be faced with illnesses and sickness disability and, if I may use the vernacular, "what have you?" Not only are we living longer, but our children are taller, heavier and sturdier than they were. What happens to the children is a good criterion of what is happening, and what will happen, to the national health in the basic sense in which. I am using the term. Lord Douglas allowed several of these things, and therefore I will not connect them with his major premise, which was rather gloomy; but we are assured by the latest figures from the Ministry of Health that infant mortality was never so low as today. A very learned American professor, Dr. Sydenstricker, came over here just after the war. He is a great expert in the technology of deficiency diseases. As with many experts in medical science, he can, by various experiments, by looking at the back of the eye and by certain blood examinations, detect the early stages of deficiency in essential nutrients in our body. He was over here for perhaps three months, beginning in London. He was disappointed in London and he went to the provinces. He was disappointed in the provinces, and somebody said, "If you find deficiency disease anywhere, you should find it in Glasgow." He went to Glasgow but could find no signs of deficiency disease—not even rickets. He went home a disappointed man. Therefore, I take the view that things are not so bad.

There seems to me to be a good deal of what I might call non sequitur in some of the arguments used. There are certain diseases that have increased during the last two decades. Cancer has increased. We do not know the cause of cancer. It was referred to in a debate to which other speakers have made reference—namely, the debate in your Lordships' House on July 4 last, when Lord Douglas said: 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. Of course, it gives ground for reflection. What is the result of the reflection? Two results emerge: first, that at present there is no evidence whatever that the use of chemicals in food is a causative factor in the increased incidence of cancer; second, that the only known means we have of finding the cause of cancer is by observation and experiment. We do not say—or do we?—that because chromium has been used in motor car manufacture for the last twenty years, therefore the increase in road accidents is due to chromium. But again and again, it seems to me, this fallacy in elementary logic comes into these arguments, and I think it is a great pity that we should spend so much time over that particular fallacy.

I felt sure the subject of agene would come within the ambit of to-day's debate again. In the debate of July last agene was given quite a good run. What is the agene story—condensed, as I hope to give it to your Lordships? For nearly thirty years this country has been eating bread, improved, as the technical expression goes, by the use of a very simple chemical, and not as Lord Chorley said, by a very complicated chemical. Nitrogen trichloride, NCI3, is a very simple formula, and until quite recently no one has ever charged agene with being responsible for sickness or disability or disease. Sir Edward Mellanby recently made some quite epochal experiments which showed that if dogs are fed with large quantities of agenised bread over a short time they develop what veterinary surgeons call canine hysteria. Ferrets, we have heard, also develop such symptoms after a somewhat longer interval. Monkeys develop some mild symptoms after still longer intervals—intervals of a hundred days or so. Well, one who has read Jevons' Primer of Logic with effect, might say that it is not unreasonable to pose that in the case of a man, he might live for a hundred years and develop no syruptoms at all. But I do not make any such statement. I am satisfied that we cannot trace any nervous complaint now prevalent in this country to the use of agene as an improver in the making of bread.

If Lord Chorley will forgive my saying so, I think he was confusing this matter somewhat. That is why Lord Woolton and I wanted a quotation. I think that Lord Chorley was confusing the danger that might derive from the use of agene in the case of man and the danger indicated by what can be produced experimentally in dogs. Agene has been discredited because, as Lord Chorley has said, Sir Edward Mellanby, who is a great scientist, has by a series of experiments established definitely the fact that if you give enough agenised bread to a susceptible animal you can produce certain nervous results. He has not gone further than that. I would still challenge Lord Chorley to find in Sir Edward Mellanby's lecture, or anywhere in the record of his experiments, any statement in which he says that this substance is dangerous to man. Sir Edward Mellanby says—I use the vernacular again—"Listen! Look! See what this does to dogs! Ought you not to be vigilant? Ought you not to watch? Ought you not to experiment to see if there be not some equivalent in the human being of the canine hysteria produced by agenised bread in dogs?" Sir Edward Mellanby is a scientist. His thinking, therefore, is presumably scientific, and if it be scientific his thought should not have taken him further than that.

But, as Lord Chorley has reminded your Lordships, the Government during the past year have given a pledge that as soon as some substitute can be found, concerning which there have been no experiments—


Does the noble Lord agree that the United States have in fact substituted for agene another improver, which, as Sir Edward Mellanby points out, has been shown not to have any deleterious effect on any animal? Why should we not substitute for agene that improver which is clearly not so deleterious as the one we are using?


I am afraid that the answer is again one based on elementary logic. You cannot prove the negative. When Lord Chorley asks, "Why not substitute something concerning which you have not proved that it is noxious," I say: "How do we know that it is not?" May it not be that it is a case of "Better the devil you know than the devil you do not know"? In America, agene has been discarded by law. But why? Americans are very sensitive. American administrators are very sensitive. They already had at hand an alternative improver. We have not at hand any alternative improver. If and when we have one concerning which even the negative statement can be made that we know of no ill-effects, no doubt the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Food will advise the Government to substitute that for agene.


Will the noble Lord explain why we should not use the improver which the Americans use. We know what it is, do we not?


Americans change very readily. They will discard something and later go back to it again. They do not always tell you when they go back to something which they have discarded, or why they have given up something for the time being.


My Lords, may I, knowing nothing about these matters, be allowed just to raise this point? Why must we have an improver?


Why should I. be interrupted by people who do not know anything about the subject? May I just finish what I was saying about alternatives to agene, and then I will come back to the question of why we have an improver? There are other alternatives under consideration. It would be an ideal thing if, by some physical method rather than by a chemical method, we could improve bread so as to make it acceptable and palatable. A great deal of experiment is being undertaken at the present moment to see whether something of that kind cannot be done. Your Lordships may not be aware of the fact, but if you keep flour long enough, it will attain the improved condition after a long time—the same improved condition that can be obtained in a very short time by the use of agene. But it is not practicable to keep flour so long that by the mere physical action of oxygen it becomes improved. It may be possible to add to flour something which would give great pleasure to noble Lords who have already spoken, and that is a vitamin. It is possible that by the addition of ascorbic acid to flour a very good improving effect may be produced. That may be an expensive method, perhaps, but still it should be practicable. Your vitamin advocate would say: "This is fine." But is it fine?

I do not like using these technical terms more often than is necessary—and we have had a good many this afternoon—but there is such a thing as hypervitaminiosis. You can have too much of a vitamin, and suffer in consequence. So, as I have said, may it not well be better to have the devil you have known for thirty years than the devil you do not know? I hope your Lordships will see that there is some sanity in that contention. I plead for time and patience. Nature is not the only thing that never leaps. Science—that is, really good science, really sound science—does not leap either. Sound science, adding to our wisdom rather than to our knowledge is a slow process, and I plead for patience with the Ministries concerned. May I remind your Lordships that the Ministries of Health, Food and Agriculture have a Joint Committee in constant session—the Jameson Committee, named after Sir Wilson Jameson, its first Chairman? The Medical Research Council are constantly advising this Committee on all these questions of nutrition, vitamins, the preservation of food and the chemicalisation of food; so that if anyone thinks nothing is being done, it means that he is badly informed.

There is the question of why we want an improver. We need not have an improver. Have you eaten bread that has not been improved and looked enviously at the man who is eating improved bread? Do you like bread, or bread which the afflatus of an idea makes you like? I am sure your Lordships follow what I mean. We cannot have both. We can have a sodden, sunken, dull loaf and enjoy it, if we say with sufficient frequency, "This is doing me good," and we can digest it better if we believe it is doing us good. We know all about that. But the 50,000,000 people, in this country are not built that way. That is not the bread they want and the object of those who advise the Ministry of Food, of the millers who produce the flour and of the bakers who bake the bread, is to produce a loaf which has two basic desiderata—namely, it must be nutritious up to the light of modern science in respect of what is termed a balanced diet, and it must be acceptable to the consumer, because it is a staple article of food of the majority of people in this country, of the workers both of a manual and of a mental kind. We cannot get away from that. Some people will have 100 per cent. bread and enjoy it and try to foist it on their neighbours. Their neighbours do not want to give offence and will accept the bread—but they will give it to the chickens or the pig. They want bread which pleases their eyes, their palates and their noses and is digestible, and they do not really care much about the matters we have been discussing. They leave it to those who guard the national health—namely, the Ministries of Health and Food, aided by one of the best informed and most highly placed scientific bodies in the world, our Medical Research Council.

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join with the noble Lords who have spoken in this debate in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, in raising this matter, the importance of which cannot be exaggerated. Having been privileged to participate in several debates on this subject in your Lordships' House, I speak with a keenness of feeling born of experience. When the noble Lord addressed your Lordships on a similar matter last year, I happened to be working in South Africa, but I was made fully aware the next day of all that had been said in your Lordships' House through the columns of the English and Afrikaans Press in the Union of South Africa. South African housewives suffer, as do the British housewives, from that harmful and tasteless product that masquerades as bread. More women in South Africa are now making their own bread, and some, especially wise and with young children, have never been known to buy a loaf.

At this time last year the Minister of Health of the Union of South Africa, speaking in the House of Representatives in Cape Town, pointed out in clear language that good bread was the product of wholemeal flour and was in all ways more desirable. He also said that those who wanted white bread would not be prevented from obtaining it, but that, since it was a luxury, they must pay more. But here we do the reverse. I should like to try to persuade the noble Lord, Lord Woolton, who is so greatly admired by the housewives—and justly so—for the splendid services he rendered them during the war, to get on the B.B.C. and make such an address. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, and other noble Lords, have spoken of Sir Edward Mellanby, whose work on the Medical Research Council is well known. With others in the medical field—and one of the most distinguished has just sat down—he has done much. Extremely interesting investigations have been carried out by a number of general medical practitioners. I will mention two—Dr. Badenoeh, of Edinburgh, and Dr. Coghlan, of Hull, both of whom have shown the evils of the agenising of flour. Dr. Coghlan also shows that since agene was introduced into flour in 1921 deaths from heart disease have risen rapidly. From 1914 to 1921 they remained around 66,000 a year. By 1926 the number had risen to 87,000, by 1931 to 125,000, by 1941 to 136,000, and by 1947 to 167,000; and I believe the figure is still rising.

Not long ago there was a debate in your Lordships' House on the question of crapping rabbits, and it was said that if the public were aware of the horror of the gin trap, they would immediately have it banned. I think that if the housewives were aware of what is happening with regard to their food, a similar outcry would be raised. How are we to get good, pure food, from which nothing has been removed, and free from unnatural additives masquerading as improvers and the like? I suggest that a Royal Commission be set up to go into the matter, and I hope that the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government will give consideration to this suggestion. We have had numerous debates on this question in your Lordships' House, always hoping that a little progress would be made, but to those of us who are interested the progress seems to be very slow. Could not a Royal Commission be set up, and might we not borrow from our American friends the technique of linking up the evidence given before the Royal Commission with the wireless and television, so that everyone could be aware of the matters under discussion? I beg to leave that suggestion in the hands of His Majesty's Government.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, we have had an interesting and informative debate, and I hope that the noble Earl who is to reply will make clear some of the obscurities which may have arisen. For my part, I am particularly interested in this debate, because nearly twenty years ago Dr. Scott Williamson and Dr. Innes Pearce came to see me, in my capacity as secretary of a research fund, with a view to getting a grant-in-aid for the work which they were then proposing to do—a small amount of preliminary work had already been done. Therefore, I have known about this work for a long period of time. I may say that the fund with which I was concerned was unable to make a grant. For one thing, it was thought that the work would carry on for a long time, and that in the way projected it would be very costly. Indeed, it was costly, and I believe the great cost was the reason why, unfortunately, it had to close down a few years after the war. But this Peckham experiment has been most interesting and valuable. I believe it was the first time (in considering research, of course, one has to take into account that what has not happened in this country may have happened somewhere else) that family groups of people were considered together. The influence of families on each other, and of groups of families coming to a health centre and making it an institution, is something which has to be considered. That was useful research.

In the discussion we have had to-day some important things have been omitted. For instance, so far as I remember—and I have heard nearly all the debate, although I had to go out for a few minutes on one occasion—there has been no mention of the work done by the school medical departments of the London County Council and all the other educational authorities throughout the country which carry out health examinations. I carried out this work myself as a school doctor. I was one of the first school doctors appointed in London, a long time ago, and I examined children with the idea of finding out all about them, and not merely the things about which they complained. The examina tion was to find out how they were growing, how their teeth were, how their tonsils were, what their chests were like, and so on. That work has been done over a long period of years and has been of immense help in improving the health of the country.

There is no doubt that the health of the children in this country, particularly over the last twenty-five years, has greatly improved; and I think it is a fact that at present the young children who are now growing up and are in their teens are better developed, on the whole, and better balanced, than children often were in the past. I look hack to the time when the medical examination of schoolchildren was first introduced. I was then working in London, and the slum conditions were shocking, the home conditions were awful, the lack of food was very bad—a great many people did not have enough food to eat because they had not the money to pay for it—and the infectious diseases of one kind and another were much more serious than they are now. As has been mentioned, to-day the infant mortality rates have gone down. And it should also be mentioned that the length of life is increasing.

I must say that when my noble friend Lord Douglas was referring to India, I felt that he should, at least, have mentioned the fact that one of the great differences between that sub-continent and this land is that we have much better food in this country than they have in India, and that a large number of the people there are continuously underfed. Not only that, but they suffer from serious diseases. I do not know the exact position, but I suppose that the Indian who lives to fifty years of age is the exception rather than the rule, whereas there is a large number of people over fifty in this country. What the infant mortality rate is in India, I hesitate to think—I have not the figures, and they would not be appropriate to this debate, in any case. However, the general conditions in the two countries are not comparable, and the conditions of feeding are certainly much better in this country. I notice that some of the observations that are now being made under the official survey of sickness begin with so many people per month—I think the number of 4,000 was mentioned today—at the age of sixteen. One of the reasons why the survey begins with persons of the age of sixteen is because we have ample information about children of school age.

In this country at present improved diet goes with improved income. In order to refresh my memory about the Peckham experiment and the mental atmosphere of those engaged in it, I read a book, which is to be found in the Library of this House, entitled Health the Unknown, by John Comerford. The book is now, I regret to say, out of print. On page 34 it says: The prime difference, then, between the Peckham health overhaul"— that is, the complete examination of the family as a whole, from the standpoint of its health— and the traditional medical examination"— that is, by a private practitioner— is that the health overhaul sets out to discover and inform you about the whole story of your health, the good with the bad. Curiously enough, in this book dealing with the Peckham experiment I have been unable to discover a single word about the medical examination of children in schools. It seems to me rather out of focus in considering this matter. There is no doubt that when children at Peckham were found to be ill, the doctors helped them to be treated for their teeth, and so forth, in the same way as children at schools are sent by county council doctors for dental treatment.

I feel that we have had an interesting debate, but that the dangers which are supposed to be lurking for us at the present time have been rather over-stated. For my part, I should say—and I know something about this matter, having been for a lifetime a school doctor, and having been closely associated in work with the Ministry of Health in more recent periods—that probably there never was a time in the history of this country when the health of the people, and particularly of the children, was better than it is to-day. It is true that there are diseases, and that there are a number of defects to be found when people are examined, as was done in the Peckham experiment. A great many things can then be found, but they are minor rather than major defects. The tendency is for a gradual improvement in health, going on and on and up and up.

I do not want to refer to the controversy about agene. I do not know why, but it seems to be a rather acrimonious controversy. It is not a matter which so far has entered emotionally into my life at all, and I do not see why there should be so much acrimony about it. Perhaps the noble Earl who is to reply will tell us something about that. If it is possible, I should like him to say definitely, one way or the other, whether agene is dangerous or not. My information is that it is not dangerous, but shall be glad to have the noble Earl's opinion. On the whole I say—and I say it with the authority of the medical profession behind me—that the general health of the people of this country is better now than it has ever been. The general health of the children is very good; our life is longer; our diseases are being more controlled, and while we should certainly be willing to take advantage of all the improvements we can make at the present time, I do not think it can be said that we are in any state in which we need to commiserate on our present conditions.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, it has been a long debate and one which has travelled over a wide field. At one moment it looked as though it was more a debate on food than upon health. I will do my best to answer questions raised by noble Lords, and I trust that I shall be treated with the accustomed indulgence of the House to those unfortunate enough to speak from this Box for the first time. Of course, the health of the people is an absolutely non-Party affair and above Party politics, and politics come in only where we disagree with methods of dealing with the subject. It seems to me that agene is one of them. It is interesting to note that for the six years noble Lords, now on this side of the House, when they sat on the Opposition Benches, were making suggestions about food, while members now sitting opposite, then sitting here, told us that we were fed better than we ever had been before. It is amusing that two months after changing round, noble Lords on that side of the House are saying that we are not very well nourished. But I will pass on from that aspect.

Several noble Lords dealt with the question of agene, and perhaps the House would like me to clear up that point as best I can. So far as I am advised, there is no harm known to be done to human beings by agene. It is true that experiments have been carried out in which dogs have had hysteria through being fed large quantities of agene-treated bread. I might suggest that if you fed human beings on large quantities of dog biscuits it would have some equally unfortunate results. But, as stated in another place by the present Minister, the matter is being looked into and will be dealt with when another satisfactory improver can be found. Psychologically, I thought it was a little unwise to raise this scare about agene and make people feel that they are being fed with poisonous bread, when there is no evidence that it is poisonous. The noble Lord, Lord Sempill, for instance, hinted that heart disease and like diseases had increased since 1921 when agene was first introduced. It is perfectly true that the figures for heart disease have gone up during that period, but it is equally true that in New Zealand, where agene is illegal, heart disease figures have risen progressively and are higher than our own. That fact emphasises that it is unlikely that agene has a real effect upon this particular disease.

The noble Lord, Lord Douglas, raised the question of the high rate of disability per hundred persons in the survey of sickness. That includes every form of disability which has occurred to one of those people during the month—a little cut on the finger, a cold, an industrial accident or anything like that. When you take away that sort of sickness, you will see that the real rate is much lower. There are also the trivial ailments, as well as the serious ones. While I am on that point, I may say that there are many ailments in that survey which have almost disappeared. For instance, we hardly ever hear of smallpox now, and since the immunisation scheme introduced in 1942 the incidence of diphtheria has gradually gone down. That is a sign of improvement, rather than otherwise, in our health, and I think that all Parties and all Governments can share in the credit for that improvement which has gone on in the last few years.

Several noble Lords took the line that too much trouble was taken over medicines to cure diseases rather than prevention. The high standard of health which I consider we enjoy—and certainly my views are backed up both by the noble Lord, Lord Horder, and by the noble Lord, Lord Haden-Guest—is largely due to the preventive measures which have gradually been produced in this country over the years and to the work done by the local health authorities. Ante-natal clinics and measures taken against venereal disease have helped, and so also have the clothing and teaching of mothers in up-bringing of children and the choice of nutritious foods. I think we might also take into account the system of school meals and free milk, and the special foods for expectant mothers and small children which can be obtained at the clinics.

The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, mentioned the deterioration of teeth, and suggested that it may be due to this bread. Again, that is a case of prevention rather than of cure, and there is a Dentists Bill coming along which does in some form seek to help in the care of children's teeth, particularly in schools. That measure should go a long way in helping on the improvement of teeth. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley—I am sorry that he is not here at the moment—laid stress on the fact that tinned and preserved foods are bad for us all. All I can say is that during the war 90 per cent. of the food of the Forces was tinned food, and digestive troubles were very slight indeed. In fact, in the early days in the North African campaign the staple ration every day was the same—bully beef, biscuits, tinned milk, sugar and tea, and a little water. People existed for months on that, and I know for a fact that there were practically no stomach complaints. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, also raised the question of research. At the present moment the Medical Research Council is spending £1,626,000 on its running expenses, and its expenditure on building and special apparatus amounts to an additional £276,000. I think we can rest assured that quite a lot of money is being spent on research, and I was instructed by the Lord President of the Council that he is personally in charge of this research and has his finger on it.

The question was raised of what is being done by other countries in regard to an improver. Of European countries, some use it and some do not. There is a good reason why many do not, and that is because their bread is chiefly rye bread, which does not need the same treatment. It has been pointed out in the medical survey, which has not been mentioned before, that in 1951 there were practically no cases of malnutrition among children. The few cases that were found were largely due not to any fault in the rations but to the fault of parents who, either through inexperience or through laziness, did not take proper care of the child. I think I have covered all the points which noble Lords have put before me, and I hope that I have satisfied the noble Lords concerned.

5.52 p.m.


replying to the debate, said: My Lords, it was not my intention to press this Motion to a vote, nor did I raise this matter in any partisan spirit. I raised it because I thought it was something which deserved the serious attention of your Lordships. Some noble Lords, I think, have misunderstood the point of my speech. I began it by saying clearly and distinctly that the length of life in this country had increased very greatly during the last hundred years and, in particular, that far fewer people were dying in the first few weeks and years of life. I do not deny the progress which has been made, or that our conditions of living and the general economic standard have improved a great deal. The point I was trying to make was quite a different one. It concerned the enormous amount of sickness and invalidity suffered by people during their longer lives, and whether a considerable proportion of it is not preventable.

I had some difficulty in following the point which the noble Lord, Lord Horder, was trying to make. It seemed to me that his speech breathed a spirit of fatalism: that there was nothing which we could do and that we ought to be content with the position we have reached at present. That is not an outlook which I share. On the contrary, I am certain—and I have given good reasons for the belief—that we can make a very great improvement yet in the standard of health of the people of this country. Take, for example, the question which has undergone a considerable amount of discussion this afternoon, that of the agenisation of bread. The noble Lord, Lord Woolton showed a great reluctance to interfere in this matter, and so did Lord Horder, who based his argument, as I understood it, on the thesis that it is essential to have a so-called improver to treat flour and that it may be as well to use the one we have as to experiment with another

The noble Earl who replied for the Government is perhaps too young to know it, but those of us who are old enough to remember will know that before the 1914 war—that is, before agene was introduced—one was able to purchase commercially produced bread which was of considerably better quality than that which is normally procurable at the present time. It had a better flavour and texture, and it kept longer. Everybody knows that the ordinary white bread of commerce at the present time does not keep, that it gets stale and hard with astonishing rapidity, and soon gets mouldy. It is quite incorrect to suggest that it is impossible to make a good bread out of wholemeal flour. On the contrary, there are many noble Lords who are doing it at present, and there are many firms who are doing it commercially as a regular thing. Some of us are buying it, and find that it has none of the faults which it is supposed to have. We find that it will keep for a week and remain perfectly fresh, whereas the white bread, which is said to have been so much improved, has none of these qualities. I am, therefore, completely at a loss to understand why there is such an attachment to the use of agene.

It is now known definitely, as a result of the researches begun by Sir Edward Mellanby and carried on later under the auspices of the Medical Research Council, that agene is a simple chemical which, taken as such in small quantities, would probably do no one any harm but which, combined with the protein of bread, can make a highly complex toxic substance. Experiments on dogs and other animals have proved it to have toxic effects. If that effect had been known before agene was introduced as a so-called improver of bread, I do not believe that anybody in this country would ever have approved of its being used for that purpose. What is now being done was entered upon without any knowledge of the consequences of using agene. I suppose it was used on the principle that it is necessary to use something, and nobody knows of a substitute which is any safer. This is not an attitude of mind which will appeal to the man in the street in this country, and I beg the Government to take account of the effects of the use of agene. It has been banned in some countries, in the United States in particular. Within a year or so of the publication of Sir Edward Mellanby's researches it was decided by the Federal Food and Drug Administration, after further researches had been made by eminent medical research workers in that country, that its use ought to be discontinued.

There is one more thing I should like to say. I agree that it is perfectly true, as the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, has said, that soldiers were able to live upon bully beef, biscuits, tea and condensed milk. Those men, however, were the pick of our race, highly trained and in the best of health. I do not think that the noble Earl would advocate that as a regular diet for the mass of the population of this country, men, women and children. What I am concerned about is that, by well-known tests, the general diet at the present time is obviously not properly balanced, and has various deficiencies. If the Government are going to ask the people of this country for more effort and more sacrifices, it is necessary that they should attend to this matter, in order that the people should have the health and stamina to stand up to the Government's demands. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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