HL Deb 07 June 1956 vol 197 cc793-837

4.20 p.m.

LORD HANKEY rose to call attention to a Written Answer by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on December 21, 1954, on the subject of flour "improvers" (agene); to ask what is the present position on the four permitted "improving processes", and any other developments affecting the supply of bread to the nation, including the report of the Panel on Composition and Nutritive Value of Flour (Cmd. 9757); and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in introducing the Motion in my name, I must explain that the delay in bringing this question up is due to the fact that on making inquiries earlier in the year as to a convenient date for the debate I was told that the Report of the Cohen Panel on Bread would be forthcoming shortly, and I agreed to delay until its publication. Actually, the Cohen Report was signed on January 10 of this year, but it did not appear in the Printed Paper Office until May 17, more than four months later. If your Lordships turn to the covering note of the Chairman, you will find that the major work of the Committee occupied less than four months; that is to say, less time than was taken by Her Majesty's Government to deal with it.

And I am not surprised, for in the last paragraph of the Report it is revealed that the Panel's conclusions differ from those presented in their evidence by the Government's medical and scientific advisers and by the Medical Research Council. Therefore, in approving the Report, Her Majesty's Government have overruled their own experts, who have been working on these questions for years and probably know more about them than anybody in the world; and that includes the famous Medical Research Council, which has prestige throughout the world. The result is not a health loaf; it is a whitewashed political loaf. More than that, it is a caricature of a loaf, denatured, shorn of its bran, with its precious store of nature's best replaced by three synthetic products of a chemical factory. It is a loaf that cannot be produced without improvers—probably chemical improvers—saturated with dangerous, gaseous chemicals, bleachers to make it as white as bone dust; a loaf which is calculated, in my opinion, to bring us fewer teeth and more dentures, brittler bones for our athletes, more constipation (all history points to that), more aperients, more minor ailments and skin troubles, more major disease, more antibiotics, more operations, more hospitals and bigger ones, more "mentals" and mental homes, more work for the undertaker and more expenditure. In short, it is an accentuation of all the evils which white bread, in spite of the adaptability of the human body, has contributed to make our Welfare Sate a chemist's dream and a doctor's nightmare.

Now I have to prove that. At this point, with your Lordships' permission, I will recall a governing principle established by unanimous decision of this House on October 24, 1945 [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 137, col. 448], and since reaffirmed: That the health of the population should be the guiding principle lo 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 be developed in harmony with this policy. Observance of that principle by the officials in their evidence, in so far as it appears in the Report, is very marked; but the Panel and Her Majesty's Government have put milling and other interests first. Both the Panel and the Government have ignored also the principle insisted on by the medical and scientific advisers: namely, that … if there is any uncertainty about a nutritional policy it is better to err on the side of caution. They believe nothing is gained in terms of health of the population by providing flour of lower extraction, even if enriched with the three token nutrients in the place of well-made flour of 80 per cent. extraction, and that something may even be lost. The Government, in the face of that statement by their own technical advisers, cannot argue that there is no uncertainty; and the Panel itself frankly admit that their recommendations are made in spite of weighty opinions to the contrary. I ask Her Majesty's Government, with insistence, that in the reply they will tell the House whether they accept or reject the two principles I have quoted: namely, "health of the population as the guiding principle"; and "in case of uncertainty erring on the side of caution". If they do not accept them and apply them I say that they are gambling with the health of the nation in the most important article of out food.

These two principles apply very much to the question of "improvers", to which my speech will be mainly devoted. "Improvers" are not even mentioned in the Panel's Report, presumably because the terms of reference were so restricted and so narrowly construed that this pivotal subject was ignored. Nevertheless, "improvers" are a vital factor, because if, as I shall show, they are deeply suspect of being dangerous to health, they will provide the dominating factor on the composition of the bread. After the agene fiasco we cannot sanction a bread that cannot be made without an "improver" that is suspect of being a danger to health and perhaps even a slow poison.

In examining "improvers" the Panel give us no hope; but we are not entirely without modern expert guidance. For, although it is a deep regret for everyone in this House that we no longer have with us Lord Horder, the champion of high extraction bread in the Second World War, he bequeathed us a standard book entitled Bread, of which he was joint author with two eminent experts, Professor Sir Charles Dodds and Dr. Moran, the Director of Research at the Research Flour Mills, St. Albans. As official advisers to the British industry on nutritional matters, their opinions may not always be accepted by those whose approach is different, but their knowledge was unrivalled and their book throws a flood of light on aspects of flour and bread. With your Lordships' permission I shall quote from that book at intervals as well as from strong up-to-date American literature and our own medical Press.

Horder, Dodds and Moran recall a historical episode that bears on our debate: namely, that agene was one of three so-called "improvers"; chlorine, nitrogen-trichloride—that is agene—and benzoyl peroxide, that were banned by the famous Ministry of Health Committee of 1927, which sat for three years and of which Professor Gowland Hopkins was a member. That is important, because the authors of Bread rightly describe that Report as: A classic in scientific insight and prescience"— and they speak of the premonition of the Committee with regard to the work on nitrogen-trichloride twenty years later"; and they describe it as "astonishing." They also record that no action was taken on the Report by the Government of the day. That negligence places a heavy responsibility on that Government. But subsequent Governments which allowed the use of agene for so long cannot be entirely absolved. In fact, Governments were warned three times to avoid agene: by the classic 1927 Report; by Sir Edward Mellanby's experiments with dogs in 1946; and again in 1950, when agene was banned by the United States of America and Canada. Yet it was not until January 1 this year that its use became illegal—twenty-nine years after the original banning by the 1927 Committee.


May I interrupt the noble Lord? Did he say that the use of agene was illegal? It is not, in fact, illegal. It is not being used, but there is no law against the use of it.


I have here the actual text of the agreement, and it makes it perfectly clear that it was not to be used.


Yes; by agreement, but not by law.


It says: The Government are of opinion that though no effects in man due to the use of agenised flour have been established, effect should now be given to the decision taken in 1950 to discontinue agene. It is a Government decision. I will withdraw the word "illegal." That is a distinction of which I was not aware. That brings me to the Written Answer of December 21, 1954, mentioned in the Motion. The big point was, of course, the announcement of the Government's intention to abolish agene, which I have just read. The Answer repeated the inexact statement that no ill effects in man due to the use of agenised flour have been established. It contained no adequate excuse for the interminable delays which I have just mentioned. No wonder that it was made furtively, just before the Christmas Recess, at the fag end of the Autumn Session, in a Written Answer to a Written Question, printed only in the House of Commons Hansard, and with the minimum of publicity! No communication was made to the House of Lords, which had played a decisive part in the controversy; nor even to the late Sir Edward Mellanby, who had done the spade work. Sir Edward's reply to a copy I sent him as a Christmas card, included the following passage, which I quote with his permission: I have often felt that if I had brought the agene film to our distinguished legislators, and really shocked them and made them realise the importance of the facts, action would have been taken much earlier. Even then a further sabbatical year was given to the industries concerned to reorganise before the decision came into effect. What a shabby story of official indecision and procrastination! It is an example which no Government can afford to follow, and one of the objects of my Motion is to avoid its repetition in the case of chlorine dioxide, to which I shall now turn. En banning agene, the announcement allowed the use of four other "improvers"—namely, chlorine dioxide, potassium bromate, ascorbic acid and an aeration process. The last is, I believe, less suspect than the chemical "improvers", and was favoured in principle by the 1927 Committee, by the late Lord Horder and, incidentally, by myself. I ascertained two days ago that it can be applied in either large or small scale plants Potassium bromate and ascorbic acid, being solids, did not appeal to the industry, so for the most part the industry adopted the chlorine dioxide. That was a strange choice for the industry, and a stranger one for the Government to sanction, because chlorine dioxide has few merits—none from the health point of view—and was becoming increasingly suspect.

Taking merits first, Horder, Dodds and Moran say of chlorine dioxide that "it is a satisfactory improver and bleacher," but add that the optimum addition to flour is about half that of agene. In these words they overlook the highly praised 1927 Report which, in dealing with a similar claim on behalf of chlorine as an improver, described it as "a very dangerous argument," for the following reasons: We know that foodstuffs contain substances which may be present in very small amounts, but are of the highest importance for proper nutrition. We know that these substances are very susceptible to mere traces of chemical reagents which may alter or destroy them and so irremedially impair the nutritive value of the food which contains them.… And more to the same effect. I think they must have overlooked that in another chapter of Bread, they themselves mention that there is a host of such substances in bread awaiting identification and assessment. The fact is that there is a very great deal about bread that we still do not know. In reading this book Bread I counted over thirty examples of such uncertainties, and several more are to be found in the Report of the Panel. For instance, pyro-doxine, pantothenic acid, biotin and folic acid. I believe they are all considered important, and they have only just been added to the list. It shows how we are gaining knowledge slowly. No one knows what effects the presence or absence of sonic of these things in the human body may have. An American writer has commented that chlorine dioxide is twice as powerful as agene. For that reason, perhaps it is twice as dangerous.

I now leave the threadbare merits and pass to the uncertainties, doubts and suspicions. Some of these existed before chlorine dioxide was adopted. For example, your Lordships may remember that in the agene debate on June 10, 1953, I myself mentioned certain experiments by Dr. Sheldon and Dr. Yorke, in the case of a patient afflicted with skin and mental disorders, in which their inescapable conclusion was that agene was the cause. They added: Chlorine dioxide was found to produce the same symptoms. It is true that Lord Horder suggested that it might be a rare case of an allergy, but he added: That case is still sub judice, if you like. I said, "Under suspicion", and he said, "sub judice." The agene experiments have since been repeated, and even a case of epilepsy has been cured by the exclusion of agene from the diet, and reported to the medical world. But chlorine dioxide remains sub judice and not free from suspicion.

On that occasion, Lord Horder inadvertently brought chlorine dioxide under suspicion on another count, for in defending agene against my suggestion that it might be a cause of coronary thrombosis he said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 182, col. 826]: Agene was given up by America rather more than two years ago, and there coronary thrombosis has increased still further during the two years in which agene has not been used. But what he forgot was that chlorine dioxide had been used. When I tried to interrupt he brushed me aside, so he failed to clear agene and incriminated chlorine dioxide. The statistics, by the way, that I have here (I have brought them up to date, but I am not going to give them in detail because they are rather tiresome)show that there has been a steady annual rise in the death rate all these years that chlorine dioxide has been used in the United States of America. And the rise is not only steady; it is uncomfortably large. In our country we have no statistics for the period chlorine dioxide has been used, but the figures for the period that agene was used showed the same steady increase as in America.

I now come to the uncertainties arising out of work in recent years on Vitamin E, which is not even mentioned in the Report of the Panel—another serious omission. In the words of Horder, Dodds and Moran: Bread made from flour treated with a powerful oxidising agent such as agene, chlorine dioxide or benzoyl-peroxide contains much less Vitamin E. In fact, that is rather a conservative statement, I am told, because what little escapes the gaseous improver is destroyed by the heat of baking. The main sources of supply of Vitamin E are wheat, and especially the wheat germ, which accounts for 25 per cent. of our supply in untreated flour; but it does not occur in white bread for the reason I have just given. Can we, or do we, get enough Vitamin E for our needs? I have here a list of thirty-four substances which produce a certain amount of Vitamin E. They include meats, poultry, liver, fish, vegetables and fruits, but the amounts in all these again are absolutely minute, and in most cases would be reduced further by cooking. Apart from the wheat germ, the only sources worth mentioning are corn oil, cotton seed oil, vegetable margarine, peanuts and soya bean oil. How many people ever eat those fruits? As an American writer puts it: Having destroyed our best source of Vitamin E in the germ of the grain which we throw away in milling, how can we be sure that any of us is getting enought Vitamin E to keep us healthy from day to day? That raises a crucial point: what is the importance of Vitamin E to human health? What happens to us if it is deficient? That is one of the many subjects connected with bread to which I have already referred and to which, in the present state of our ignorance, a short answer cannot yet be given. All I can do is to give your Lordships the results of researches I have made among published sources of information which bring it under strong suspicion. I will deal with them under two headings: first, genetics, which has not, I think, been mentioned in our debates, and, secondly, coronary thrombosis, which has.

The importance to genetics has long been known. Black's Medical Dictionary, the 1948 edition, states that Vitamin E which is found in the wheat germ is necessary for reproduction, and its deficiency is apt to lead to sterility and abortion. The matter first came to my notice in a long report in English by a Swedish savant, which was published in the high grade Danish scientific Journal Acta Endo-Crinalogica, dated September—December, 1951. I will refrain from shocking your Lordships by describing in detail the very plain-spoken effects of Vitamin E deficiency on both sexes of the rats and guinea pigs on which these long experiments were made, but, with your Lordships' permission, I will quote three lines from the summary: The fertility is impaired. All these changes are prevented by an adequate supply of Vitamin E and fertility returns to normal. Horder, Dodds and Moran are cautious on this subject, but they say that the importance in human nutrition is "not clear" and that extensive experiments on animals, sponsored by the Medical Research Council, are now in progress to ascertain whether the treatment of flour with chlorine dioxide and other improvers has any effect on reproduction. I trust that, if possible, the noble Earl who is to reply will give us any information he has about progress in those researches. Considering that Vitamin E has been known since 1922, and that the Swedish experiments were published in 1951, it seems to me rather extraordinary that chlorine dioxide was permitted as an "improver" in 1954, before the doubts on the genetic side had been cleared up.

That brings me to coronary artery disease. When, in the debate of 1953, with some hesitation, as a layman, I ventured to suggest a possible connection between agene and the increase of coronary thrombosis, I was not aware of the work that was going on in connection with Vitamin E. Later, however, I read in the Practitioner a whole number of doctors' case histories in this country bearing on the use of Vitamin E in coronary thrombosis—cases which were impressive to a layman. There is a huge literature in the United States and Canada on the subject, into which I have dipped, but I have not time to read it in full. But that the subject is very much alive in medical researches here is shown by recent correspondence in the medical Press. With your Lordships' permission, I will draw attention to a remarkable letter published in the Lancet of December 24, 1955, from Dr. L. Schmidt. After interesting comments on another current theory, that coronary artery disease derives from an excess of animal fat in the diet, the doctor produced evidence leading to the following two general conclusions. The first is That a high caloric diet, coupled with low Vitamin E consumption brings about through the medium of cholesterol (a fatty substance) a high incidence of heart disease. The second is: That a low caloric diet and large consumption of Vitamin E-containing food gives virtually complete protection against ischaemic heart disease"— that is to say, coronary thrombosis. I saw no adverse comment in later letters, though there were suggestions that there were other probable causes of coronary artery trouble—for example, from a very distinguished group of researchers in Cape Town. I express the hope that, if there is any information available, the House will be told of any further research or experiments that have taken place on this subject.

My Lords, I am sorry to say that that is not the end of the suspicions, and I must now turn to the case of essential fatty acids which was raised in a masterly six-column letter in the Lancet of April 7 last from Dr. Hugh Sinclair, Reader in Human Nutrition, University of Oxford, and Vice-President of Magdalen College. To describe so long and scientific a disquisition within the limits of a speech would be beyond my powers and is unnecessary for my purpose, but shall give a summary of his thesis. His thesis is that in recent decades a very important change has come over the dietaries of the more civilised countries, which has received scant attention by the medical profession and food administrators, with the result that our food has become increasingly defective in certain essential fatty acids, described as polyethenoid fatty acids, which, in the presence of Vitamin B.6 (of which there are three times as much in wholemeal as in 70 per cent. extraction flour), forms a substance called arachidonic acid, which exerts a vital defensive action in the human body. Sinclair therefore regards this substance as an essential protective vitamin: for example, a deficiency in it may increase a tendency for the blood to clot, and, produce thickening deposits in blood-vessel walls—both of which may be factors associated with coronary thrombosis.

The essential fatty acids and the Vitamin B.6 occur in wheat germ which, as your Lordships are aware, is retained in the high-extraction flour, but survives only to a small extent in 70 per cent. flour (and, indeed, only is part in 80 per cent. flour), owing to the use of the so-called "improvers". This deficiency in our diet, which Dr. Sinclair describes as "a disastrous change", has been aggravated by the increasing prevalence of the saturation of these essential fatty acids contained in animal fats and vegetable oils which is a manufacturing process of hardening. Norwegians and Eskimos eat far more oils and fats than we do, and do not suffer ill effects—they take them in their natural form; that is to say, without the process of hardening. But that does not concern us directly to-day. What does concern us is that this "disastrous change" occurs partly from the use of low-extraction flour "improved" with agents like agene and chlorine dioxide, which also saturate the essential fatty acids in wheat germ, like the hardening process does to animal fats and vegetable oils, and also at the same time destroys the Vitamin E. There resides in wheat a beneficial trinity: namely, essential fatty acids, their ally Vitamin B.6, and their protector Vitamin E. This trinity is destroyed partly by low-extraction flour and partly by the use of the so-called chemical "improvers".

Sinclair also points out that the causes of death that have increased most in recent years are lung cancer and coronary thrombosis and leukaemia, and he believes that in all these groups deficiency of essential fatty acids is important. A curious point is that the requirement of essential fatty acids is greater for males than for females, so that the consequence of its restriction is more serious for the former than for the latter. Your Lordships will recall that coronary thrombosis is far more common in males than in females, as is shown by the statistics which I got out the other day in the office of the Registrar General.

The last sentence of this remarkable letter also deserves our attention: Bread and flour of high extraction without added oxidising agents, and margarine and shortening made with less hardening of fats, would be important factors in decreasing some very serious diseases of civilisation. This new factor has aroused great interest in the medical and nutrition world, and the Lancet has published many most interesting letters from different points of view that one would have liked to quote, but on the whole they are all friendly. All agree with Professor Sinclair that more research is necessary. I have only time to quote one short extract from the Lancet's leading article on April 28, which after advocating more research continues as follows: And in the present state of our ignorance it is surely rash to commit most of our population to consuming bread made from flour about whose nutritive properties we know so little and have so many doubts. I earnestly commend that to Her Majesty's Government.

My Lords, that is a new indictment of low-extraction bread and "improvers" to add to my list of suspect chemical improvers and to the criticisms of the official advisers, and others that you are likely to hear during this debate. All these criticisms combine to show that the well co-ordinated system of protection against ill-health which a bounteous nature has provided in the grain, most of which survives in wholemeal bread, is being whittled away to meet a carefully-fostered craving for pure white bread, and that the synthetic substances proposed for the 70 per cent. bread will not make good the loss, even if the industries concerned can be relied on to supply them, on which the Report throws some doubt.

I strongly urge Her Majesty's Government to think again. Let the people know the truth: that there is only one form of flour and bread that is practically free from uncertainty—nature's own bread, wholemeal bread. It is the standard used in all the books, and it is at the head of all the tables for comparing the value of the ingredients in the different forms of bread on which you are spending such a lot of scientific effort and money. In wholemeal bread, too, the ingredients are all included in proper proportion: calories, proteins, starches, vitamins, minerals, including, the newly-discovered elements—yes, and the substances of which Horder, Dodds and Moran say there is a host in bread awaiting identification and assessment. They are all there.

Wholemeal should be the target and the Government should have the courage to let it be known. I realise the difficulties of carrying, it out immediately; it would be impossible. But it should be the starting point in a new policy for promoting positive health, to prevent disease and to reduce the appalling waste of effort and money on hospitals, mental homes and asylums, to cure diseases that could he prevented by a less-misconceived standard of living. That would take time and a campaign of education, of course; but in the meantime I strongly urge Her Majesty's Government to accept the advice of their own experts and stand firm on 80 per cent. bread, but this time without chemical "improvers." But it is also indispensable to ensure, for those who need it, a sufficient supply of 95 per cent. or 100 per cent. wholemeal bread in place of the miserable substitutes that are being foisted on the public. I hope that other noble Lords will speak upon that subject. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.1 p.m.


My Lords, the subject which we are considering this afternoon is one of profound importance for the health and well-being of the population, and I am very glad to have the opportunity of supporting the case which my noble friend Lord Hankey has laid before the House. Bread is the most important of all foods. It is, or should be, something which is beyond reproach. It is especially important to those in the community who are less well off and who are not able to afford more expensive foods. Bread could be one of the best, as well as one of the cheapest, sources of nourishment; but it is not so to-day.

A few years ago, in an article in The American Journal of Digestive Disease, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Orr, pointed out that during the Napoleonic wars, men from the North of England and the South of Scotland who lived on a diet of plenty of whole wheat, milk, eggs and vegetables, were big, powerful, energetic men, who made the best infantry soldiers in Europe. The late Sir Jack Drummond, whom we all recognised as a very great authority on these questions, emphasised that on such diets labourers in the eighteenth century were "excellently nourished." He added: If you wart, more obvious proof … look at the physique of those peasant peoples throughout the world whose daily diets are based on these types of food: wholemeal cereals, mixed vegetables and dairy produce. South-Eastern Europe provides many striking examples. Little meat is eaten but the staple diet is coarse whole-grain bread, thick vegetable stews and goat's milk cheese. These people are strong and hardy. Their children are rosy cheeked, sturdy of leg and have fine firm teeth. These observations have been made by many other eminent observers, among them Sir Robert McCarrison.

What has gone wrong with our bread? Why is it so tasteless and unpalatable? Why does it get hard and mouldy within a few hours, and why is it that the dustbins of London and everywhere else are full of it—a sheer waste of what ought to have been valuable nutritive matter? The first calamity which overtook bread was in the invention of the roller mill. Stone-ground flour is entirely different, because the stones cut up the wheat grain, whereas the roller mill separates the bran and extrudes the germ, so that it is very easy to sieve both of those important elements of wheat and to leave behind a flour little more than starch. What is the reason for using this process? It is because the millers are able to find a profitable market for these so-called "offals". They are sold for feeding pigs and other animals or, alternatively, they are sold to manufacturers who produce supplements to the diet for the purpose of combating the lack of bran and wheat germ in the loaf as it is sold to-day. So people buy back, in a very expensive form, the processed by-products of milling, in order to try to remedy the defects in their health and nutrition which have arisen on that account.

The second calamity which overtook bread and other flour products was the introduction some thirty years ago of bleaching agents. What was the object of that? Previously, millers held their flour for a certain time before distributing it to the bakers, because it was considered to produce better bread if it had been matured by storage. In order to save the expense of storage, bleaching agents were introduced so that the flour could be distributed straight away to the bakers. But, more than that, an incidental advantage arose to the bakers, because flour which has been treated with agene or other bleaching agents is capable of taking up more water and containing more air; therefore, a larger loaf is obtained with a smaller amount of flour—flour which has been depleted of its most valuable elements. Those are the commercial reasons why we have reached the present state of affairs. I know that it is said from time to time that white flour is produced because consumers ask for it, but sieving it order to get a finer and whiter flour has been known at least since the time of the Greeks and the Romans. Because of the then process of milling, they were unable to sieve out all the valuable properties of the flour, and in any case they did not deceive themselves. They knew perfectly well that the more refined flour was less nutritious. It was used, and it has continued to be used, for making pastry and fancy goods; but it is not of the same value as a staple article of diet.

I dare say that today the average consumer is still affected to a certain extent by the snobbish notions associated with white flour and the more expensive kinds of pastry and other products which can be made with it. But the average consumer to-day has never tasted a well-made wholemeal loaf. He has not the faintest idea that it is far more appetising than the white bread which he is throwing in such enormous quantities into the dustbin. If he asks at a shop for a wholemeal loaf, in all probability he is fobbed off by someone who says: "Here is a national wholemeal loaf". That is a deception which is really quite fraudulent. A persistent endeavour is being made to pretend that starchy flour is equal to or better than wholemeal.

The latest experiment which it is endeavoured to pray in aid in this argument is that which was conducted some time ago in two German orphanages. Incidentally, I should like to point out that although they used flours of various kinds, from wholemeal downwards, none of those flours had been treated with any bleaching agent, and therefore the experiment was made with something entirely unlike the diet of the ordinary Englishman to-day. In any case, it is clear to anyone who reads the Report—and indeed it is admitted—that the results prove absolutely nothing except that if you take a number of children who have been under-nourished and feed them with anything they will make fairly rapid progress in weight and height. That is not a discovery of any very great significance. In any case these experiments, and others similar to them, do not answer the fundamental question which requires to be answered—that is, what is the effect of consuming bleached and de-natured bread and other flour products, not over the space of a year but over the space of a life-time? That is the important question, because, as a result of medical research, it is now realised more and more that very small quantities of substances ingested day after day can produce most profound effects upon the human body, and that the ingestion of irritant substances, for example, though in the most minute quantities, which produce no immediate visible effect, can be, and is, the most usual cause of cancer.

Now let me turn for a moment to the Report of the Cohen Panel. They were not asked the question to which I have referred just now. They were asked something much more limited—to compare the effects of the difference between national flour, flour of less extraction rate than national flour and flour of less extraction rate to which the substances known as the three token nutrients have been added. But, in fact, the Cohen Panel limited their terms of reference even further. They confined themselves to a comparison between so-called 80 per cent. extraction flour and so-called 70 per cent. extraction flour; and therefore the conclusion to which they came, in defiance of all the evidence which was provided by the Medical Research Council and by the Government's own experts, has no real importance or significance for policy whatsoever.

A few years ago there was published in the American paper Physiological Reviews a survey of this problem of bread, written by Mr. Lepkovsky, in which, among other things, he lists sixteen points (and this was in 1944: we now know much more about it even than we did then) in which wholemeal flour is superior both to white flour and to white flour "enriched" with various synthetic vitamins or other substances. And let me point out, in passing, how deceitful are these terms "enrichment" and "fortification" and so on, concealing as they do, the fact that a great deal has been taken out of the flour and that only "token substances"—to use the technical phrase—have been put back.

A few years ago a Committee of the House of Representatives of the United States made an investigation into chemicals in foodstuffs. Among those who gave evidence was Dr. A. J. Carlson, who was for many years Professor of Physiology in the University of Chicago, and a very great authority upon problems of diet and nutrition. This is what he said: It is a tragedy to me, as I know food, nutrition and starvation all over the world, that we mill the best of the ingredients out of our grain and that the best part is fed to hogs and cattle and we eat the poorest part of the grain.… We throw away the germ and the vitamins and a great deal of the valuable proteins and retain essentially the starch. We mill out or throw away 20 per cent. of the good food. We do put back some of the iron, some of the vitamin, and we call that bread or flour enriched when as a matter of fact it is still impoverished. The Cohen Panel, incidentally, appeared to adopt the view that it does not matter much whether or not the bread is impoverished because out of other elements of their diet people will get sufficient variety and what is needed for human nutrition. But that is not at all true. It is especially untrue in the case of those who are less well off and have less money to spend on supplementing their diet. In any case, it is not true because the rest of the diet is steadily being impoverished by processing and other treatments which it is receiving. This Panel paid no attention, as my noble friend Lord Hankey said, to the question of the bleaching of flour, which produces such profound changes in it. I agree that that was outs-de their terms of reference—and deliberately so, I suppose.

I want to add one word about Vitamin E. The importance of Vitamin E was discovered sonic years before the war and was recorded in a remarkable document produced by the Cheshire Panel Committee of doctors, whose secretary was the late Dr. Lionel Picton. They pointed out how important Vitamin E was to human fertility and in order that the embryo should thrive in the womb. They actually introduced to their patients bread which had the whole wheat germ in it, in order to ensure that their patients were safeguarded against conditions which arise owing to lack of Vitamin E. That contribution to medical knowledge appears to have been forgotten.

I see that the Cohen Panel ignore the fact that more and more foodstuffs are being subjected to processes and chemical treatments of the most dangerous nature, which are depriving the diet of the elements which ought to be in it. In the case of the baking industry alone this is going to extraordinary lengths. Nobody, I think, has worked out all the details for this country, but what is being done in the United States has been revealed, and I expect that what is being done there is done here. To an increasing extent polyoxyethylene derivatives are used as emulsifiers. They were recently banned in the United States but are still legally permissible here. Phosphates are used as leavening agents in cakes, biscuits, and other flour products. Bromates, iodates and calcium peroxide are used as yeast foods or dough conditioners. More than that, some of these substances are found in other foods. The phosphates, for example, are used as emulsifying agents in processed cheese, and phosphoric acid is found in cola drinks. When all these chemical effects are taken into account, it is doubly serious that our bread should be depreciated as it is.

I am not here advocating that people should be compelled to eat wholemeal bread—or compelled to eat anything at all. On the contrary, I am opposed to compulsion. I am opposed to the policy which the Government have adopted of having the compulsory addition of chalk to flour and iron and nicotinic acid and other things to flour—except happily, wholemeal bread, which has been exempted from these regulations. It is not true that "the gentlemen in Whitehall" necessarily know best; it is certainly not true that the millers and bakers know what is best for us to consume. The whole tenor of what has been happening, the neglect of the advice which was given by the Medical Research Council and by the Government's own experts, both in the Report of the Conference on the Post-War Loaf and the recent Report of the Cohen Panel, is extraordinarily serious. All that I ask is that there should be a prohibition upon the addition of poisons to food, or the addition to food of anything of a synthetic or artificial character the full results and potency of which are unknown and uninvestigated and, therefore, presumably extremely dangerous.

What I want to see is that the people should be told the truth about these things. If it is desired to go on producing flour which has been bleached, let it be labelled, "Bleached with chlorine dioxide". If it is desired to produce flour from which the germ and many other nutritives have been extracted, let it be so labelled; and let the bread be labelled, too, so that people will know exactly what they are buying. It it is desired to use polyoxyethylene derivatives or bromates or other things in cakes and bread, let them be labelled to show that these things have been put in. When the people know the truth about this matter and know how their food is being impoverished, they will be able to make up their own minds about what is best for them.

5.22 p.m.


My Lords, as your Lordships are aware, this is not the first time I have ventured to address your Lordships on this, to me, all-important question. There is one word at the beginning of the Cohen Panel Report which I think is perfectly dreadful. It writes of "commercial bread." What is "commercial bread"?—bread you can sell and make money out of, and nobody knows what on earth it is. Why not use some word like "health" bread, which will justify the housewife and other people who wish to enjoy life with good health—and good health means happiness—in buying the bread? After all, bread forms the third in importance of the foods we eat.

I have listened to the last two speeches and I am not going to embark on an attempt to pronounce some of the names of the chemicals used in treating flour. To begin with, I do not think I could pronounce them correctly, and I do not quite know what they all mean. So I will deal generally with the situation as I see it. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, mentioned the Cheshire Panel. I have known some of them and knew Dr. Picton. I met him some years before he died, and he impressed me a great deal, particularly with regard to Vitamin E. Very often we find a girl from Manchester or Liverpool marrying a farmer, and after three or four years she finds there is no baby. Worried about this, she will go and see one of the members of the Cheshire Panel. The first question they ask is: "What do you eat"? And in nearly every case it is the ordinary white bread—"pure white bread", they call it—and the rest is more or less the contents of tins—at any rate, processed food. Dr. Picton used to say to them: "How can you expect to produce life if you do not eat it?" There is truth in that.

Vitamin E is most valuable. When the noble Earl who is to reply to this debate finds that certain valuable animals on his farm do not have calves or foals, what does he give them? He gives them the wheat germ, Vitamin E, to encourage the reproductive elements in their bodies. That is a simple thing to understand. The whole of this question of bread, particularly in regard to the nourishment of the people of this country, is in a chaotic condition, and that is strongly demonstrated in the Cohen Report. I was glad to read the interesting article in the Lancet of April 7 by Dr. Sinclair. He makes statements there of great importance in regard to bread, amongst other things. I only wish that my now some years departed great friend Lord Geddes was alive, because he was a great authority on this subject. He had a highly scientific mind and he was fully acquainted with the medical side of the life of people. I must look up some of the speeches that he made in your Lordships' House and refresh my mind as to what he said. Lord Geddes was most wise on this subject and also quite forcible in his ideas.

Another great danger with regard to bread has just come into the picture. Some of your Lordships may have noticed that large combines of bakers have been built up, and they are already buying up various small bakeries. It is a curious thing that most of the really high-class, 100 per cent. wholemeal bread is to be bought at these, I will not call them small bakers, but ordinary sized bakers. I can remember in the last century going to one by the name of Hill, close to the Army and Navy Stores, and getting the finest wholemeal bread. That business has gone now; it has been absorbed in some great bread-making combine. When we were young we should have gone straight into the milling business. They reduce this valuable grain, with all its great qualities and all the nutrition in it, to 70 to 72 per cent., and they take out all the value in the grain, the wheat germ, the "Bemax," the wheat flakes, and all these other things, and sell them at a grand profit. It is a veritable gold mine.

I know that I am not popular on this subject, and after our last debate, when I spoke as forcibly as I am speaking now, I got an urgent invitation to luncheon at one of the best restaurants in London to discuss the matter with two of the biggest millers in the country. They do not like us. We who stand up for the health of the people in regard to bread and the wheat grain are not popular with these people. We have a tremendous vested interest against us; and, on top of that, there is the vested interest of the people who make the medicines to cure the evil that these other people have done—Maclean's Stomach Powder and that sort of thing. I am saying this because everybody knows that it is true. Why is it necessary? It is because this most valuable grain is being interfered with. It is clear from the Cohen Report (and I am going to read a little from that Report in a moment or two, although I do not intend to address your Lordships for long) that any extraction flour which through the low extraction has lost its qualities, and has been treated with what the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, referred to as "improvers" in the shape of synthetic chemicals pumped back into it, is detrimental to the health of the people, and, further, never stands up to the quality that is found in the high-extraction flours. That is brought out in the Cohen Report. On page 4 it says: …and consider that the addition of synthetic nutrients to lower extraction should be prohibited. That is the sort of language that has been used by people who understand the importance of this question in relation to the health of the people.

This is not a frivolous matter, and I greatly regret that this debate has not been attended by more Members of your Lordships' House. Think of what it means to your children and grandchildren and their teeth. I was the Departmental Chairman of the Ministry of Health Committee that sat for two and a half years (I was much chaffed about it, of course) on the subject of teeth and dentistry, and there we had evidence after evidence of the importance of feeding, and particularly of wholemeal bread, in regard to he teeth and the bones of children. Think what it means, and look at this practically empty House; and If am afraid that we shall get very little publicity for this debate. It is of the utmost importance to the young people that this matter should be gone into as strongly and surely as any investigation that has ever been made into the health of the people of this country.

Why do we import flour? In war, of course, we could not help it, because we were short of shipping; but new there is no shortage, and we can go into the markets of the world and buy wheat. Why should we not buy the wheat and grind it properly here? It is quite simple to do that. The Government could do it. As the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, said, you cannot do these things in five minutes, but let us aim at something of that nature. Then, not only should we have special flours for other purposes than just making bread, but we should have the offals that come from any residue after the making of cakes, biscuits and other things. I should like to see that done, and I see no difficulty at all in doing it. I am sure that at the back of the minds of that eminent Panel they are very unhappy about the situation. I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, read one sentence on the last page, which is: The conclusions reached by the Panel differ from those presented in their evidence by the Government's medical and scientific advisers and by the Medical Research Council. These advisers have been admirably zealous and eminently successful in guarding the nutritional well-being of all sections of the population and their scientific arguments have not been disproved. That is a tremendous admission from this most eminent Panel, and that to me shows how it is our bounden duty—those of us who understand, or think we understand, and have personal experience of it—to raise this question and do everything in our power to see that the matter is dealt with immediately, on the most serious lines, by the Government.

I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has any suggestions to make in regard to an investigation such as I speak of, but here is a situation which is not getting any better: in fact, it is getting worse. How are we to control these great new combines? I have seen one of them, and I have suggested that they should make available to those people who used to buy their wholemeal bread al certain bakeries which they are taking over the 100 per cent. wholemeal bread.

I will not go on speaking about this subject. The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has covered the question of Dr. Mellanby and his investigations. There was Sir John Macarrison and all those people who studied the nutrition of various races of the world. There is no question whatever that this is a most important subject, and is something which I feel that the House of Lords, where we have facilities for debating questions of this sort, should never leave alone until we have got something done about improving the present situation and what has been going on for years.


My Lords, may I just say, with regard to having in mind a suggestion, that I have one, but I will keep it until the end of the debate after the Government speaker has replied.


My Lords, I desire only to say how glad I am that my noble friend Lord Teviot quoted the final paragraph of this Report referring to the differing opinion of the Medical Resarch Council. I wish my name to be included with those who are critical of this decision of the Government, because as a former Chairman of the Medical Research Council I regret more deeply, perhaps, than anyone that the Government should disregard the opinions of their scientific advisers.

5.45 p.m.


My Lords, I propose to confine myself in the present debate to some observations as to what is known about the effects of flour improvers—in particular chlorine dioxide, which has been mentioned frequently—on nutritive substances in flour, and whether such substances as may be destroyed are in fact necessary to human health. In so doing, I may perhaps go some way to meeting some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, and the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch. There is some justification for the view that a debate on the present Motion is somewhat premature, as some experiments that have been carried out to study these questions have not yet been published and others have not yet been completed. Nevertheless, I think it is profitable to attempt to assess the evidence that is at present available, bearing upon the subject.

Some may feel, using the argument employed in the brown versus white bread controversy, that since no one knows all the good things that may be lost in the milling of white flour, no one can guarantee to put them all back, and that by the same token nothing should be done that might possibly destroy them. Such a line of argument is the negation of the scientific approach and cannot be accepted by those whose one aim is to ascertain facts and to base their policy accordingly.


My Lords, may I interrupt for one moment? Did the noble Lord say that what had been taken from the grain had been replaced?


No, I merely said that that argument might be used against employing anything that might conceivably destroy what was in the flour. This point raises the question as to whether flour improvers really are necessary, and though this may mean covering a little of the ground which the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, has covered, I want to consider this point briefly. If flour is stored for a prolonged period under suitable conditions, it matures—that is, it undergoes physical changes as a result of oxidation, which materially improve its baking qualities. It also becomes whiter, which is a factor of the greatest importance for the baker and in turn for the customer, whatever nutritionists may say. That fact, of course, was emphasised in the Cohen Report. It is commercially impracticable for merchants and bakers in this country, or in any other country for that matter, to provide the extensive storage facilities which would be required for improving flour by prolonged storage. I understand that this would take from six to nine months. For this reason, improvers have to be used to step up this process of maturation. The question of providing flour with suitable baking qualities and an acceptable colour is a major one for millers in this country in competing with imported flour which has been treated in the country of origin and which has the additional advantage of maturing during transit.

It is relevant to mention the views of the Committee set up by the Government in 1949–50 to investigate the question of agene and flour improvers generally, or the need for improvers. This Committee was headed by the then Chief Medical Officer of Health, Sir Wilson Jameson, and included leading medical and scientific experts from the Medical Research Council, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Food. They reported as follows: The Committee was however satisfied that if a loaf acceptable to the general public is to be produced in this country, some form of 'improver' must continue to be used to safeguard its baking qualities. This Committee was specifically concerned to investigate the use of agene, which has been mentioned in the terms of the Motion. But since the use of this improver was discontinued some six months ago, as the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has mentioned, it hardly seems necessary to devote any time to renewing a discussion as to its possible harmful effects on man.

In my view, the position is clearly set out in the Written Answer mentioned in the present Motion. Of the four improvers at present sanctioned, potassium bromate and chlorine dioxide are by far the most widely used. Potassium bromate has been used for many years. It produces no symptoms when administered to animals in treated flour, apart from having possibly a slight sedative effect. This might even be considered to be a point in favour of its use in view of the stress of modern day life, except in the case of noble Lords attending your Lordships' House. But it has certain definite disadvantages; namely, as has been mentioned, that of being a powder and producing no whitening of the flour—factors which, as the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has said, do not commend it to the milling and baking industries in general. Chlorine dioxide does not suffer from these disadvantages and, in common with the other improvers, results in no harmful effects in animals under any conditions.

Now, it is being suggested that, while chlorine dioxide is free from toxicity, it destroys substances of importance in human nutrition, and that the nation's health is likely to be affected if bread made from flour treated in this way is used in the diet. How much truth is there in this suggestion? The following points, I feel, should he considered in attempting to answer this question. In the first place, extensive experiments carried out at the Cereals Research Station to determine whether chlorine dioxide had any destructive action on flour showed that no factors were affected except Vitamin E, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has said, is very largely destroyed. No other significant change was detected except some oxidation of the unsaturated fatty acids which the noble Lord has also mentioned. These facts were known to the committee of the Medical Research Council when they sanctioned the use of chlorine dioxide.

Taking first the possible significance to human health of the reduction in content of unsaturated fatty acids brought about by chlorine dioxide, I should point out that in any case this would take place on prolonged storage in air, without the addition of any chemical improver. Furthermore, such oxidation is unlikely to be of practical importance since bread contributes only a fraction of the total essential fatty acids in our diet. With regard to the claims recently put forward by Dr. Sinclair, who has been mentioned, that deficiency of essential fatty acids may be responsible for a variety of human ailments, about which we have heard, they are, of course, quite unproven, and I think most experts would agree that much more experimental work and clinical observation are required before they can be regarded as anything other than speculation. I may mention that such authorities as Professor Yudkin maintain that such a deficiency rarely, if ever, occurs in man.

Turning now to the significance of the loss of Vitamin E, the position is very much, the same. Even on prolonged storage of flour which would be required if no improver were used, there is also a considerable reduction in Vitamin E; and in arty case, as has been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, about 50 per cent. is destroyed during baking. There is, however, admittedly, as the noble Lord has sail, a much smaller amount of Vitamin E in bread made from chlorine dioxide "improved" flour than when it is not so treated. But, just as bread is by no means our only source of essential fatty acids, it is also far from being our only source of Vitamin E. I would entirely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, on this point. According to my sources of information, foodstuffs such as milk, meat, eggs, vegetables, and margarine, in particular, contain considerable quantities; and it has been calculated that in an average mixed diet bread made from untreated flour would supply only about 20 per cent. of our intake of Vitamin E.

It is well known that, so far as vitamin requirements are concerned, "enough is as good as a feast," and that intake over and above a certain level produces no beneficial effect. Indeed, in some animal experiments it has been shown that an excessive intake of certain vitamins may be positively harmful, in that it may disturb a proper balance in the body between these substances, which is necessary for health. The trouble is, of course, that we do not know the minimum requirements of Vitamin E for health, or, indeed, whether it is necessary for human beings at all. It is known to be essential to the health of rats and certain other animals, as the noble Lord, Lord Hankey has said. Deficiency of the vitamin in the diet of these animals results, as has been mentioned, in sterility, resorption of litters, accompanied by changes in the reproductive organs, and may also cause muscular weakness and wasting. In view of these facts, it has been claimed that certain conditions in human beings, such as sterility, habitual abortion in women, muscular weakness and wasting—or dystrophy, as it is called—are due to deficiency of this vitamin.

There is, however, very little evidence that treatment of these conditions with Vitamin E is beneficial. Treatment of habitual abortion in women by Vitamin E medication had a great vogue some years ago, as I think has been mentioned, and very successful results were claimed by Dr. Vogt Moller and others. But this method of treatment has not withstood the test of time, and the fact that it is not nearly so widely used for this condition nowadays, I think, speaks for itself. Its use in the treatment of muscular dystrophy has also been frankly disappointing.

Treatment of coronary thrombosis and angina pectoris by Vitamin E was enthusiastically advocated some years ago by two Canadian doctors, Drs. E. and W. Shute. In view of the publicity which their claims received in many quarters, I should perhaps discuss briefly how far they are justified. It may be categorically stated that they have never been supported by any well-known reputable worker in this field. The general opinion on the subject can be gauged by the fact that not one of the current editions of twenty-two text books of medicine and cardiology recommends Vitamin E for the treatment of cardiac disease. Sixteen do not mention it; the others state that its use is unjustified or its value unproven. Further evidence that coronary disease is not due to Vitamin E deficiency is afforded by the fact that the level of Vitamin E in the blood of cardiac and non-cardiac cases of the same age is the same. Also, the average daily intake of Vitamin E in this country has been calculated to be some two or three times less than in the United States—I think the figures are 4–8 milligrammes in this country, as against 14 milligrammes in the United States—but the incidence of coronary disease is no higher in this country.

To summarise these observations: first, if the treatment of flour with chlorine dioxide does result in a reduction in the intake of Vitamin E and essential fatty acids, it is most unlikely that it will result in a deficiency, in view of the presence of these substances in many other common foodstuffs. Secondly, deficiency of Vitamin E and unsaturated fatty acids has yet to be associated definitely with impaired health in human beings. There seems, therefore, to be no case for condemning the use of chlorine dioxide as a flour improver on these grounds. That is not to say, however— and I emphasise this—that it can be regarded as completely satisfactory; and the search must continue for a method which is above all criticism and which is acceptable on all sides.

In conclusion, I feel that in introducing this Motion, the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has performed a most valuable service. Previous debates in this House regarding the position of agene as a flour improver have done much to focus attention on the need for the most rigorous tests of these substances. As a result, I think it is true to say that no substance added to food has ever received such a complete "vetting" as chlorine dioxide, both in this country and in the United States. I feel sure that the present debate will provide a further stimulus to the study of flour improvers in general.


May I ask the noble Lord what he means by "baking qualities"?


Making the bread into dough. I understand that unless it is preserved or "improved" in this way, the bakers cannot provide such a good loaf.


It does not swell up so much or take so much water.


May I ask the noble Lord whether, in spite of all he has said in favour of chlorine dioxide, there is not still a considerable element of doubt? Part of my point was to quote the principle of the officials who said that in case of doubt we should, in effect, play for safety—I am not quoting the exact words. Would not the noble Lord admit that there are elements of doubt, and that it is a matter of opinion how important they are?


I should have said that many of the points the noble Lord has made have no basis at all. I agree that there might be some possibility that in the future the point regarding chlorine dioxide might be proved to be of importance, but at the present time I do not think the evidence justifies it.

6.3 p.m.


My Lords, may I join with your Lordships who have spoken in this debate in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, upon initiating it and upon a most informative speech? May I also say that not only your Lordships' House but the country also owes the noble Lord a great debt of gratitude for the never-flagging interest he has shown in drawing attention to the serious danger to our national health by the chemical manipulation of food—something of which we have beer warned, not only by 11:m but by other noble Lords who have spoken in your Lordships' House and previously warned by leading bio-chemists of world reputation, like the late Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins and Sir Edward Mellanby, and now their successors to-day.

I hope that, when the noble Earl comes to reply for Her Majesty's Government, we shall perhaps learn, as Lord Hankey has asked, why it took so long to issue the Cohen Report, and why the Government have seen fit to go against the advice of their own experts of so many years standing. I fully agree with the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, that the Report of the Committee of the Ministry of Health, a most remarkable Report, published in 1927, should be republished. I know that many copies were burned in the war, but I think one copy exists, and it would be useful if it could he republished, so that we might be fully aware of the good advice which was given nearly thirty years ago but which has been taken only in the last few months. I hope, too, that the noble Earl will give your Lordships some figures, which I am sure he will have, on the annual death rate from coronary thrombosis and other arterial complaints. I believe that these have never ceased to rise since the introduction of agene. I think in 1921, when they stood at about 40,000 a year. Now, as has been pointed out by many people in the medical profession, and notably by Dr. Coghlan, of Hull, they are many times the figure of 1921. If, as has already been said by the noble Lord, Lord Stamp, who has just sat down, we are to repeat the experiences of the United States of America, then surely the introduction here of chlorine dioxide will be likely to cause a further rise per year in those figures.

The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, referred to the research work being done at Oxford by one of the authorities on dietetics, Dr. Hugh Sinclair, of Magdalen College, and he rightly commented at some length on a remarkable series of letters that have been appearing in the Lancet. Dr. Sinclair shows convincingly the importance of the essential fatty acids and Vitamin B.6, present in wheat germs, and remaining only partly in 80 per cent. extraction flour but to the whole extent in the whole wheat product. Dr. Sinclair also shows that the saturation of the fatty acids is as disastrous as the hardening process which takes place to-day, in animal fats and vegetable oils. He calls the essential fatty acids, together with Vitamin B.6. and Vitamin E., "the beneficial trinity", and holds that these are destroyed in low extraction flour and by chemical "improvers", and hails this action dietetically as a "disastrous change". Those are his words.

My Lords, surely none of our food has been so manipulated as our daily bread. The original simple mixture of flour, water, yeast and salt is now vitaminised, fortified, improved, aerated and Heaven knows what else, before it reaches the table.

LORD MATHERS: Paralysed!


The big bakeries are filled with the latest machinery in the automation field, and yet I understand that bread sales are falling. A recent advertisement which your Lordships will have seen in the daily Press, put out by the Flour Advisory Bureau, starts with these words: So good to smell; tasty; tantalising! So good to see; golden-crusted! Give children fresh bread and they will finish up the last white crumb. Fresh bread is full of wholesome wheaty goodness. When I started to read that, I said to myself, "Well, goodness me, this is 'the real Mackay': they are going to sell real wheat bread. But when I saw the next words saying that it was "snowy-hearted", my heart fell to my boots, and I thought: God keep my children from having anything of that sort. The whole wheat product makes the only form of real bread. Of course, as your Lordships will know, there are other whole grain breads, like rye, that are equally good, and, as Lord Hankey said, these are in fact nature's own bread. The whole wheat is the standard quoted in all the textbooks and is at the head of the tables for compiling the different values of different kinds of bread—that is, bread of different extraction rates. The bread made from low extraction wheat flour in its un-restored state is, as has been emphasised by the Cohen Committee, an inferior food, lacking in important nutrients, which, as your Lordships have said, are removed during the milling process.

I should like to ask the noble Earl who is to reply whether the flour recommended by the Cohen Committee is not inferior to wholemeal in several respects. Should I not be correct in assuming that it is short of certain important ingredients present in the whole wheat flour—for example, pyridoxine, pantothenic acid, biotin and folic acid, and also lacks the necessary roughage so important to our full health? I apologise to the noble Earl for not having sent him notice of this particular question, and if he is not prepared to deal with it in detail when he replies in a few minutes' time, perhaps he will take steps to let me know in some other way.

No doubt some of your Lordships will have read in the Lancet the letter of Dr. Sinclair to which the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, referred, and will remember that the Lancet editorial, after discussing in some detail all the points raised by Dr. Sinclair, ended with these words: It is surely rash to commit more of our population to consuming bread about whose nutritive properties we know so little, and have so many genuine doubts. Though, as your Lordships know, bread is sold by weight, the millers and big bakers are very impressed by the idea of size and of course the way to get a loaf of good size is to blow it up with bubbles. The more bubbles, the merrier the baker; and every extra bubble gives the customer the happy idea that he is getting more for his money. In pursuit of size, millers decry the soft wheats grown on our farms here and demand hard wheats that come from the dollar area. But I would suggest that the technique in the big bakeries has reached its zenith in the production of the sliced, wrapped loaf, ideal pap for the toothless. It is never really fresh and never really stale, and its texture could well be likened to that of high-grade cotton wool. That is my view of the bread we normally buy to-day.

To-day, much of it, as your Lordships are aware, is boiled in colossal steam ovens, rather than baked, the steam ensuring that the bread will not be so crusty as to blunt the knives of the slicing machines. It is becoming increasingly difficult to get whole wheat bread, as previous speakers have said, and in the last period of months several of the shops that used to sell it, and from which I used to buy it, when I was in London and unable to make it, have come under the control of one big group or another and have told their customers (the noble Lord. Lord Hankey, among them, I believe) that they will no longer be able to supply real bread, the real Staff of Life which is everything that the standard loaf is not, being tasty, unimproved and refreshingly free from bubbles.

There can be no question that the triumph of medical science in the prevention and control of diseases in the present century has been and continues to be most impressive, but it is important that we should be well aware, as the noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, has mentioned, that new habits of living have become standardised which may well lead to permanent ill-health. Such errors in living, as has been pointed out by the Medical Research Council, and notably by the late Sir Edward Mellanby, are serious and should surely be studied and controlled. Surely it is the duty of medical science to find out their relative disease-producing importance. This has often been done, and in no country has better advice been given—and less attention paid to it—than in our own. It was the Medical Research Council who warned us of the danger of the agene process in the treatment of flour, a recommendation which has only in recent months been given practical effect to. The advice of the Medical Research Council, as noble Lords will remember, was almost instantaneously adopted by the United States of America many years ago.

Surely, to bring about the right results the machinery of official inquiry into these matters needs strengthening. I should like the noble Earl who is to reply to consider the establishment of a counterpart of the Food and Drug Administration of the United States to see whether something akin to it could not be set up here. This surely should be under the Ministry of Health, since the questions involved are fundamentally medical. Would your Lordships not agree that no new chemicals should be allowed in food processing and production before they have been adequately tested for their toxic effects? No use of chemicals based on æsthetic, or even practical, advantages should be countenanced if they have harmful effects on animals. That is one of the fundamental recommendations of the Medical Research Council.

A short time ago a friend gave me a note showing that even in the days of the great Alfred Tennyson they had difficulties of a kindred nature to our own. The lines from Tennyson's Maud, verse x, are: While chalk and alum and plaster are sold to the poor for bread, And the spirit of murder works in the very means of life. That was what the great poet thought, but the situation is not as bad to-day. None the less, I hope that the noble Earl who is now to reply will give careful thought to the suggestions put by the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, who introduced this Motion and that Her Majesty's Government will think again. And if the noble Earl would take the situation in his own hands, and wants to make sure that there is no need for any further debates on the technology of bread" let him give us whole wheat bread and the debates would stop as from that moment.

6.18 p.m.


My Lords, I am afraid I cannot agree with some speakers who have been addressing your Lordships this evening, for they take a view of medical conditions in this country which is completely out of perspective. My medical memories in London go back quite a long time. I remember that I had the honour of doing the pioneer experiment in child feeding. At that time the death rate among children was very high and illnesses from which children suffered were numerous. The reason was the tremendous poverty of the people. Bread was then no better and may have been worse. It certainly had no particularly exotic attractions. Once school feeding was started in London and followed in the rest of the country, I he health of children began to improve greatly; and the House has to realise that in the last thirty or forty years there has been a great improvement in social conditions in this country and that some of the things of which noble Lords have to-Jay com plained are the effects of bad social conditions which, fortunately for ourselves, no longer exist.

Do noble Lords realise that it is only a comparatively few years since medical inspection of school children was started in London? Conditions then were extremely bad. Experiments in school feeding were supported by large City companies who provided the funds. They could not at first believe what I told them of conditions in the Southwark area just across the river. When they did realise they subscribed handsomely and effectively and did a good job of work in allowing a demonstration to be made of the remarkable fact that if you feed children properly they grow and do very well. I believe that noble Lords are exaggerating the effects of this one particular factor—bread—on the general situation. I do not believe that the situation is so tragic that there must be a great change in our physical conditions; the physical conditions of the population are better now than they have ever been. There is a lower infantile mortality rate and better opportunities for children to grow and develop.

I am not quarrelling with the Medical Research Council, and I am not quarrelling with the high medical authorities who have been quoted to-day on this matter, but I am sure that they, and anyone who knows anything at all about the past, would agree with me that we are now reaping the fruits of the great efforts and great improvements that have been made. I think it is unwise to exaggerate the difficulties which confront us at the present time, because in fact they are much less than those which we faced in the past. And we are overcoming these difficulties.

I do not believe that the ordinary bread sold in the ordinary baker's shop is an unhealthy product. Of one thing I am quite certain. A number of noble Lords have said that they think it would be much better from a public health point of view if all the people ate brown or wholemeal bread. I am quite certain that a large proportion of the people of this country would refuse to eat wholemeal bread. They do not like it. You would not be able to get them to eat it. I often eat wholemeal bread myself because I happen to like it. But, as I say, a large proportion of the total population do not like it, and we have to provide them with other foods. I do not think that the whole question is to be summed up in the criticism made by some Members of your Lordships' House to-day.

We are no doubt faced with difficulties. There are the difficulties with large trade organisations who may want to do certain things of which we disapprove. But they can be controlled, and, in fact, they are being controlled. I think—and I hope that the Minister when he replies will say that he agrees with me—that there has been a great deal of exaggeration in statements that have been made to-day about conditions and about the effects on the population of the consumption of white bread, as though white bread were in itself a poisonous thing. I suppose that most of us in this House have eaten more white bread than any other kind.


And look at the results!


Yes, look at the results! They are terrible, absolutely terrible! One looks round and is really staggered at what one sees. But, seriously, if one looks back to the time when medical inspection of school-children was begun in London, one is staggered by what has been achieved since then. I and two other doctors were appointed by Dr. Kerr who was then chief medical officer of health of the London County Council, to make a preliminary survey of the situation in London, and it was on our report that the system was sot up. In view of that experience I think I may claim to know something concrete about the people of London at that period and the condition of their homes. I visited thousands of homes, poor homes, and saw patients in those poor homes. They were not the kind of houses that you and I and other people live in. I repeat that I think there has been a great deal of exaggeration in some of the remarks made tonight. I think it is unfortunate that there should be an attempt to make out that there is great danger in much of the bread which is supplied to the people of London. I just do not believe it for a moment. I think it is worth while to speak bluntly on this matter. It is not unscientific to speak bluntly, and what I am saying is based on experience extending over something like forty years.

6.24 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that no one would wish to dispute the importance of the subject which the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has raised this afternoon. I realise that he and several other noble Lords feel very strongly about it, and naturally I greatly respect their views. Indeed, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for putting his Motion down at such a convenient time. As the House knows, Her Majesty's Government are proposing to make some changes affecting bread, and this is the first opportunity that we have had to debate them.

Perhaps I should start by dealing with the main subject of the noble Lord's speech, the so-called "improvers" used in making bread. I think that at the outset we should be quite clear in our own minds about the purpose which these improvers serve. They are used by the millers and bakers to make flour whiter and to get uniformity in baking quality. That is their only purpose and function, and the millers and bakers are convinced that they are necessary to the process of supplying bread of the kind which the public require. I should also like to emphasise that the Government do not require the use of these improvers; we do not even advise that they should be used; we merely refrain from preventing their use. The only question for me to deal with here is whether there are good grounds to justify action by the Government to prevent their use.

One of them, agene, which has been mentioned several times this afternoon, has been discussed in this House many times before, and there is not much that I can usefully add to what has been said already. The present position is that the milling industry has ceased to use agene. I take it that that meets with the noble Lord's approval.


Oh, yes.


I do not accept that the Government made any mistake in this matter. It would, I am sure, have been quite wrong to use statutory powers to rush the millers into giving up this process without allowing them time to make other arrangements. It remains true that no one has yet succeeded in demonstrating that flour treated with agene does any harm to human beings.


May I, with deference, refute that statement? I gave one instance but I think that another one, my own case, affords a much better example in support of my contention. I suffered for years from the disease called psoriasis. I was told that I could not be cured. The illness could be suppressed for years, I learned, but for a long time I was not cured. Then I gave up using agenised bread. This process had to be carried out with great precision. Pepper and all kinds of things into which that flour entered had to be avoided. I had to be very careful. The last place in which I found that I was still getting a little of the agenised product, I am sorry to say, was in the refreshment room of your Lordships' House. After I gave up those things completely the trouble from which I suffered cleared up and disappeared. I could have said that in 1953, because that was when it came to an end. But I have had another three years' experience now, and I think I can safely say that my psoriasis has gone and will not return so long as I avoid these very powerful oxidisers.


In the case which the noble Lord quoted it was suggested—and I do not think he seriously disputed it—that it was a case of someone who was allergic to agene:. Many of us are allergic to various things. Some of us are allergic to quite nice things like strawberries.


Surely one person here and another person there may be allergic to certain things. In the case that I quoted the patient suffered from epilepsy, and was cured of it. These cases have been reported. One can, possibly, say that these cases were cases of people who were allergic to something. They may be rare cases of allergy, or they may be very common but one cannot say that they were simply cases of allergy and nothing else.


The only evidence, as I understand it, which cast any doubt upon the advisability of using this process was to the effect that large quantities of flour treated with agene gave rise to hysteria in dogs and other animals.

No such evidence has been brought against any the other improvers in use. The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, brought two main charges against certain of these other improvers: that they destroy Vitamin E and that they may partially destroy some of the so-called essential fatty acids. In this connection, I should like to point out that almost any process to which food is subjected affects one or other of its many different constituents. Even the process of baking—which can hardly be avoided in making bread—partially destroys Vitamin E. The question is whether that is a serious thing. I do not think it is, and these are my reasons. I understand that, although Vitamin E was discovered more than thirty years ago, the experts on nutrition are not yet at all clear about the part it plays and its importance in the human diet. This much, however, is clear: bread is by no means the only source of Vitamin E, and although flour treated with improvers has been eaten in large quantities for many years, there is plenty of evidence to show that Vitamin E is present in large amounts in the blood of the inhabitants of this country. Moreover, no one has yet succeeded in demonstrating that a lack of this vitamin causes any known illness.

It may well be that some improvers destroy essential fatty acids, but again bread is not by any means the only source of these. They are also contained, for example, in milk, eggs, meat, margarine, cooking fats and edible oils. In this connection the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, and other noble Lords, have mentioned a recent letter in the Lancet from Dr. Sinclair, of Magdalen College, Oxford. In that letter Dr. Sinclair suggests that there might he a deficiency, or a relative deficiency, of these fatty acids in the British diet and that this deficiency might have some relationship to the increasing incidence of what I believe are known as the degenerative diseases of civilisation. I would certainly not presume to suggest that Dr. Sinclair's letter is anything but sensible and reasonable. The point is that he is not putting forward firm conclusions which are demonstrably correct; he is making some interesting and important suggestions on which more research will have to be done before the answers are known. Such suggestions do not provide—and I do not think they are intended to provide—a firm enough foundation on which to base Government action; but we will keep in close touch with developments on this subject. In the meantime, I ought perhaps to mention that calculations made in my Department suggest that the amount of essential fatty acid in the British diet is now 40 per cent. more than it was before the First World War.

So my answer to the noble Lord's questions about the improvers still in use is that, in the present state of scientific knowledge, there is no evidence which would justify our prohibiting their use. But we are continuing to keep the various methods of improvement under close scrutiny.


My Lords, could the noble Lord tell the House whether anything has been done about the aeration process, which at one time was thought very promising?


It is in use to a certain extent, but it involves expensive machinery and I am afraid that at the moment I could not tell the noble Lord the exact extent to which it is used.

I now come to the general question of the composition of flour and the strong preference which the noble Lords have for wholemeal bread. Here again the Government is not requiring people to eat the whiter bread made from low-extraction flour. The great majority seem to prefer this kind of bread and we merely refrain from denying it to them. When flour is milled to a low extraction rate certain of the nutrients are partially lost. Because bread plays such an important part in our diet, successive Governments have concerned themselves with this matter and made various regulations to ensure that bread supplies generally continue to contain a large proportion of the important nutrients which are present in wheat. The present position is that bread made from National flour—that is, flour of 80 per cent. extraction or its equivalent or over—is sold at a controlled price but brings the baker a subsidy. The bakers are free to produce whiter bread from flour of lower extraction, provided that after milling there are put back the three more important nutrients—the so-called "token" nutrients, Vitamin B,, nicotinic acid and iron—which have been partially lost; and there is no subsidy or price control on this type of bread.

The Government are now proposing to make some changes in these arrangements. We are going to take the subsidy off bread and in future the bakers will be free to produce whatever bread they like—or rather, whatever bread the consumers like—at a free market price. We will, however, lay before your Lordships' House regulations under the Food and Drugs Act, 1955, requiring that all flour should contain not less Vitamin B1, nicotinic acid and iron than we at present require to be restored to the whiter flour. I will explain the reasons why we have decided to make these changes. We find that for technical reasons the minimum extraction rate of 80 per cent. for subsidised flour is very difficult to enforce. It is not possible to prove by analysis whether bread has been made from flour which conforms to this minimum. There is a keen demand for the whitest available National bread and this has led competitive traders to take advantage of the difficulties of enforcement. The result is that, in practice, the flour being used for subsidised National bread contains less of the token nutrients than the flour used for unsubsidised bread.

When this became known, we considered what could be done about it, and it became apparent that the assumption on which the present regulations were based—that National flour properly made is significantly better, nutritionally, than the whiter flour to which the token nutrients have been restored—was not generally accepted. We therefore thought it best to have a completely independent and authoritative review of all the scientific evidence on this question. We asked the noble Lord, Lord Adrian, as President of the Royal Society, to nominate members for a Panel to undertake this task. The Panel was appointed a year ago, with Professor Sir Henry Cohen in the chair, and their Report has now been published. I only wish that the distinguished Chairman's well deserved Peerage could have been bestowed on him in time for him to make what I am certain would have been a most valuable contribution to this debate. I am sure we are all greatly looking forward to welcoming him as a Member of this House. His Panel's Report is on an extremely involved subject which I cannot pretend to understand fully, and I do not mind admitting that I could have done with some help.

However, two things at least are quite clear to me. First, the members of the Panel were eminently well qualified to give an opinion on this question. The Government are most grateful to them for giving up so much of their time to this task and for the careful attention which they have obviously paid to the subject. Secondly, their main conclusion is unambiguous and inescapable. It is contained in Section 10, paragraph 11, of the Report and reads as follows: Taking into account all the circumstances and bearing in mind particularly the needs of vulnerable groups of the population, the Panel therefore concluded that the available evidence does not reveal any ascertainable difference between National flour as defined in the Flour Order, 1953, and flours of extraction rate less than National flour, to which vitamin B1, nicotine acid and iron have been restored in the amounts specified in the Flour Order, 1953, which would significantly affect the health of the population in any foreseeable circumstances. They believe, however, fiat differences between low extraction flour enriched as specified and low extraction flour not so enriched are significant. The noble Lord, Lord Sempill, asked me about the difference between wholemeal bread and bread made from flour of lower extraction. I am not suggesting for a moment that the lower extraction flour has got some of the things that wholemeal flour has, but, as the Cohen Report says, it is a question of the significance which is to be attached to that. Their advice, which we accept, is that it is not sufficiently significant to affect the health of the population.


If I may interrupt the noble Earl, I do not think the Cohen Panel made any comparison between wholemeal bread or flour and other breads or flours.


Strictly speaking, I suppose the noble Lord is right. They did not compare the 100 per cent. wholemeal bread with the lower extraction bread in the Report, but I think one can safely assume from their statement that the difference is unimportant.


Would it not be true that the Panel practically spurned wholemeal bread because, on page 13, paragraph 71, they say this: The Panel is spared by its terms of reference from discussing various dietetic creeds which have been brought to its notice based on the alleged superiority of such breads as wholemeal and pure white.


Those are two extremes: one at one end, and one at the other—but I do not think we can go into that now. As I say, the Government have decided to accept this recommendation as a basis for action in the present circumstances. As several noble Lords have said, this conclusion is not in agreement with the evidence submitted to the Panel by the Medical Research Council. The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, has chided the Government, as have other noble Lords, for not accepting the advice of their own experts. But we are not so much rejecting advice as finding outselves confronted with conflicting advice. On the one hand, the Panel, which was specifically appointed to advise on this question, says that the differences between these two kinds of flour are quite unimportant. On the other hand, in the light of the same scientific evidence, the Medical Research Council say that, although the differences are not apparently material, there is an element of risk which they think ought not to be taken. Into the balance between these two scientific points of view the responsible Ministers have thrown two other considerations which are not the concerti of scientists, as such. First, there is a political view, that by and large it is undesirable to require people to eat one thing when obviously they prefer another. Secondly, there is the administrative view, that of the difficulty of enforcing regulations prescribing a minimum extraction rate for flour.

The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, asked me whether the Government would accept the principle that if there is any uncertainty about a nutritional policy it is better to err on the side of caution. I think we agree with the spirit, if not with the letter, of that statement. We certainly think that in matters of nutritional policy we should proceed with extreme caution. The difference of opinion between the Panel and the Medical Research Council turns on an assessment of the risk involved. The Panel thinks it is so slight as to be insignificant. The Medical Research Council prefer to err on the side of caution. Unfortunately, practically everything in this world is more or less uncertain, but we accept the Panel's assessment of the risk. That is why we have decided that, as matters stand at present, we should do best to act on the advice of the Panel. For the long term, we shall await the advice of the Food Standards Committee, who will be asked to consider whether, in addition to the requirements about the token nutrients, more extensive regulations governing the composition of flour and bread are needed to protect consumers. All the interests concerned will have ample opportunity to make representations to the Food Standards Committee on these matters.

My noble friend Lord Teviot raised some matters about the small baker. I think the only thing that I need say in that regard is that we shall be doing one thing which should help him: we are abolishing the price control. One of the disadvantages of the subsidy, as we have had it, has been that it has restricted the baker's freedom to produce particular kinds of bread. If he wants the subsidy he must use national flour and conform to the regulations. In future, he will be free to use his skill to produce special kinds of bread which the mass producers do not provide. It may well be that the small baker's future lies in that direction. If, for example, enough people share my noble friend's preference for 100 per cent. wholemeal bread, the small bakers who produce it best will, I am sure, survive. The noble Lord, Lord Sempill, asked me several questions involving figures. Frankly, I cannot answer them at the moment, but I will write to him about them in due course.

Finally, I should like to emphasise what I think is the general theme running through all the aspects of the supply of bread which have been discussed this afternoon. All the criticisms of the Government policy have amounted, in effect, to pleas for interference by the Government where things are being done of which certain noble Lords do not approve. We are urged to interfere on behalf of the wholemeal loaf, to interfere to stop the use of improvers and so on. I realise that freedom must have its limits, and we do, in fact, interfere where we think that the evidence is strongly in favour of doing so. We shall, as I have said, require bread to contain the token nutrients in the right quantity, and we shall continue to require creta to be added to bread. There are good and strong reasons why these things should be done in the interests of the national health. We have also stopped the use of agene. But so far as scientific knowledge on these complex subjects goes at present, we feel strongly that no more interference can be justified. I do not think that this view in any way conflicts with the terms of the Resolution to which the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, referred, and which was passed in this House in 1945. I hope that what I have said has shown that our policy has not been framed without a careful review of all the evidence.

6.50 p.m.


My Lords, I shall not be expected at this comparatively late hour to review the whole debate, but I will begin by warmly thanking the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, for his statement. The whole debate has been most interesting, though I am sorry to say that it leaves me profoundly depressed. I do not like to think that the people of this country should, as a result of this debate, become aware that the Government allow their staple food to be treated with chemicals like chlorine dioxide, which, in spite of the defence of my noble friend Lord Stamp, for whom I have the highest regard, having worked with him for many years, is under grave suspicion among the high authorities who have been mentioned in this debate. I do not like to think that the people of this country should get to know that that is the policy of the Government, and that they have taken the decision to lower the extraction rate of bread to a point which is opposed to the advice of their own medical and scientific advisors, including the Medical Research Council, with its world-wide prestige. That I deeply regret.

I did not come to this debate intending to divide the House. My Motion was not drawn from that point of view, but I suppose I could ask to divide on the ground of asking for Papers, because we have not had much information—not nearly as much as I had hoped for. But I do not at this late hour, and with such a small House, propose to divide. It would bring into too great prominence the deplorable fact that in this debate, on what I suppose is the most important question there could possibly be—the food of the whole of the British people: man, woman, and child for years to come—there should be such a poor attendance.

I should like to put forward the plea which my noble friend Lord Teviot made, that there should be some further inquiry. I do not think it would be fair to ask the Government to give a definite reply on that point now, but perhaps we could raise it later. There is one thing which I think might be done which would be a little help. I noticed in the Government's announcement about their policy that they mentioned that they had decided to Invite the Food Standards Committee to consider whether in addition to requirements as to the content in flour of Vitamin B" nicotinic acid and iron, more extensive Regulations governing the composition of flour and bread are needed to protect the consumer. I thought the Government might perhaps be willing to extend the terms of reference to cover the case of flour improvers and the various suggestions that have been made in this debate. I do not know whether the noble Earl could give me an answer to that or whether he would have, so to speak, to refer it back.


I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord a specific answer, but I will look into it and write to him.


Then I shall not cover any more of the ground; and, with the permission of the House, I will withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.