HL Deb 23 March 1989 vol 505 cc822-4

11.11 a.m.

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are aware of a health risk from brown bread and other cereal products, as reported on BBC Radio 4 on 13th March.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

No, my Lords.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I can understand that perhaps the noble Baroness did not hear the report on the BBC that has given grave concern to millions of families. I hope that the noble Baroness will take note of that. It was a report from the Ministry of Agriculture which stated that brown bread, crisps and many other items were affected by a pesticide in which the toxic chemicals were above the limit. The Ministry is concerned about that. This subject was taken up by numerous newspapers. The Ministry's working party said that there is no serious or grave danger, but it is something that we should take note of. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Radio 4 programme to which the noble Lord refers was picking up points made in a Guardian article as regards bran residues in grain. That was also inaccurate. The programme was broadcast before our report went out. The report of the working party on pesticide residues which was published on 13th March shows that residue levels in food in the United Kingdom are within safe limits in almost every instance.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us where brought up to believe that white bread was not very beneficial to health but that wholemeal bread was the best? Is that a view that is accepted by her department?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, all kinds of bread are entirely safe. Residue levels in the bran tend to be higher than in the rest of the grain. Therefore, it can be expected that residue levels in wholemeal bread and flour may be higher than those in white bread and flour. However, residue levels in wholemeal products were found to be below the MRLs.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, is the Minister aware that her Answer was very refreshing because it was so different from the replies of Mrs. Edwina Currie? The noble Baroness had the courage to say "No". In other words, she said that food is all right. I am sure that I speak for most housewives when I say that we are ever so grateful.

Baroness Trumpington

I have referred to myself as the poor man's Edwina.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, may I ask a staight question? Is it safe for us to continue eating brown bread?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it is indeed. We are talking about maximum residue levels known as MRLs. They are widely misunderstood. They are not safety limits. Their primary aim is to ensure that good agricultural practice in the use of pesticides is being followed. Just because an MRL is occasionally exceeded does not necessarily mean there is a risk to the consumer.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, is there not a case for the Ministry of Agriculture asking the media to take a more balanced approach when commenting on food matters? One sometimes finds within the same newspaper advice to do and not to do, and within the same broadcasts similar information is coming across. Is this not confusing and bewildering to consumers? Would it not be appropriate for both the Minsitry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture to use their best endeavours to ask the media to be more balanced in their comments?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, but it is a free press, as everybody knows. However, it is a reason why the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food continually publish leaflets which endeavour to give a balanced and correct view of the safety of food and indeed of all matters pertaining to those two departments.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, am I right in thinking that white bread no longer contains agene which drives dogs mad and possibly noble Lords as well? Is my noble friend aware that, while I believe in eating and drinking everything in moderation, there is a good deal of public anxiety about this subject? Will the Government consider publishing a White Paper setting out what can be drunk or eaten with comparative safety? It would not take more than one paragraph, would it?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I take note of all my noble friend's remarks.

Lord Bottomely

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that today is the birthday of my noble friend Lord Jay?

Noble Lords

Hear, hear.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, is she further aware that for more than three score years both he and I have consumed brown bread? I do not think that we look as though we have been harmed by doing so. I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend Lord Molloy.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I should like to congratulate both noble Lords on their extremely healthy appearances.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her later replies. This concern arises from a report by the Ministry of Agriculture. I submit that it is a serious report. One can be jocular about things but when alarm is caused the jocularity has to stop and seriousness must take over. Is the noble Baroness aware that there is also a report from the Home Grown Cereals Authority on the interaction between pesticides and cereal grains? Will she see to it that both these reports, which are of great importance to the country, are examined? Could not some of the scaremongering be stopped by quoting from those offical reports?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Government regularly monitor bread and cereal products as well as a wide range of other foods. The results of that monitoring were published. The report gives no evidence to suggest that there is any risk to consumers. Indeed, it finds that residue levels in food in the United Kingdom are generally low.