HL Deb 02 May 1986 vol 474 cc507-10

11.13 a.m.

The Earl of Kinnoull

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what safeguards were made to protect the consumer following the recent deaths caused by poisoned Italian wine.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, the public have been warned through a publicity campaign not to drink any Italian wine unless it has been tested. Restaurateurs and grocers have been similarly warned. The wine trade have been testing their stocks and imports are being sampled and tested by port health authorities. No contamination has been discovered in stocks of wine on sale or in distribution.

The Earl of Kinoull

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that informative Answer. Is my noble friend able to say under what label this deadly wine was sold? Will she say whether or not any of the wine has been imported in bulk to Britain or has been discovered in other countries outside Italy? What tests are applied to imported wine to this country.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, a list compiled by the Italian authorities of bottlers whose products have been implicated in Italy was published by MAFF. We have not been supplied by the Italians with a list of individual brand names, no doubt because different bottlers frequently supply the same brand name. In order to identify the wines of those bottlers involved with contamination it is necessary therefore to identify the bottler's name rather than the brand name.

Following numerous tests by the wine trade and enforcement authorities, only one contaminated consignment of wine has been found in the United Kingdom. This was a bulk consignment of Italian vermouth which was tested on arrival and found to contain methanol at a fairly low level.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, on an issue of this magnitude surely the Government or the department responsible should not be concerned with brand names or labels stuck on bottles, but should just say that the whole lot is banned. Firm action should be taken as regards any consignments that arrived in this country before the outbreak came to light in Italy. Simply to look for brand names would seem to ordinary people to be an absurdity. The Government should say that no one here should sell or drink Italian wine until they say so. That is the only safe way to behave.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I have always believed that a little of what you fancy does you good. An Italian decree came into force on 28th March 1986 banning the export of all wines unless accompanied by a certificate of freedom from contamination with methanol above the levels permitted under Italian wine law.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, what advice have the Government for British tourists going to Italy?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, visitors to Italy are in rather the same position as the Italian population generally. The Italian authorities have taken vigorous action to deal with the recent problem. Nevertheless, visitors would I think be well advised to buy wine from reputable sources only.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that those engaged in the off-licence business have been worried and concerned? They know all about the jokes that a little of what you fancy does you good and that it will not do any harm to have a little drop of anti-freeze. But from what they have said and written to me, it is a different matter when those who make the jokes discover that somebody belonging to them has died.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, local authority environmental health officers have been kept informed of the situation by the DHSS and are monitoring any retail premises—for instance, small grocers and restaurants—where private importations ma), be on sale.

Lord Marshall of Leeds

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister as gratified as I am to be able to say that the majority of the whole House have suffered no permanent damage or impairment?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am delighted.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for the very satisfactory answers that she has given. Certainly, so far as I am concerned, I would not accept the advice given by my noble friend Lord Molloy. However, is the noble Baroness absolutely satisfied that the trade in Britain has been widely circulated with the names of the firms and bottlers which have been guilty of what is a very serious crime? Is she able to give an assurance that people who sell the wines all know the danger spots or the danger bottles?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, yes.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, will the Government say whether it is the case that a little of what you fancy when it is poisoned does you less harm than a lot? In other words, did those who died from drinking wine containing methanol die because they had drunk a great deal of it, or would it have damaged them anyhow?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the House may be interested to hear that the latest reports are that in Italy at least 23 people have died and more than 50 are seriously ill as a result of drinking contaminated wine. There have been no reports of any illness in the United Kingdom. As regards the health risks, small quantities of methanol, about 0.2 per cent., are present in wines from the natural constituents of grapes. Methanol is highly toxic and it can be lethal if a little as 20 ml is consumed, although more usually the lethal intake is 100 to 250 ml. Sub-lethal doses can cause blindness.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, do not the circumstances point to the necessity for those who like to consume alcohol in moderate quantities to concentrate for the time being on that produced in the United Kingdom, particularly that which comes from North of the Border?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the question of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, is a little wide of the original Question on the Order Paper. However, I thoroughly approve of his salesmanship.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us exactly how the consumer is supposed to know whether a bottle has been tested or not, as in the case of some Italian wines it might be difficult to do so simply by tasting?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the indications from Italy are that the contamination is likely to have started at the beginning of this year. The first illness in Italy was reported on 2nd March. With regard to the period over which any wines recently brought back from Italy should be regarded as suspect, the answer is any wines brought back since the beginning of this year.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, why has the noble Earl concentrated on Italy? Did not all this start in Austria?

Baroness Trumpington

No, my Lords. The Australian problem was different. That was antifreeze. That is less harmful to health, I am assured.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, without wishing to over correct the noble Baroness, is she not aware that in fact diethelyne glycol is very rarely used in anti-freeze? Ethylene glycol is used in anti-freeze, and that is in fact much more toxic than diethelyne glycol, and probably equally toxic with methanol.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the contaminant is certain Austrian wines—I have now found the place in my notes—was not methyl alcohol but diethelyne glycol, and the health risk associated with the Austrian problem was very much less. Some German and other foreign wines that had been blended with Austrian wines were also contaminated with diethelyne glycol.