HL Deb 15 July 1998 vol 592 cc254-8

2.47 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider labelling all food products which have been exposed to pesticide sprays with a warning similar to that required for raw milk.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, pesticide residues in food are controlled by a system of maximum residue levels, which are set in accordance with current scientific advice. Several thousand samples of foodstuffs are tested each year for a wide range of pesticides and the full results of that monitoring are published annually. Pesticides are not approved if their correct use, according to the conditions of their approval, would result in residues which were unsafe for consumers. It is therefore not necessary to label foods which have been exposed to pesticides. On the other hand, advice from the Chief Medical Officer is that the consumption of raw milk presents a degree of public health risk and the Government therefore require it to carry a warning to that effect.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that as a raw milk producer, I am required to put on my label in large letters "raw milk" which indicates that it has not been treated and then to put on another warning saying, "This milk has not been heat treated and may therefore contain organisms harmful to health"; that I have to test my milk frequently; and that the Environmental Health Department also tests my milk?

Is he also aware that the tests for pesticide residues are absolutely minimal when one considers the tonnes and tonnes of fruit, vegetables and bread which are eaten every year by the UK population? There is no way of knowing, particularly in relation to bread and lettuces, in which all kinds of pesticide residues have been found, whether they contain excessive quantities of pesticides. Therefore, will the Minister consider very simple labelling of all foods which have been sprayed so that consumers can make their own risk assessment and decide whether or not they wish to eat food which has been sprayed with chemicals?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, there is a clear distinction between raw milk and pesticides. Indeed, pesticides are only approved for use if they are used in the proper way. Only then are they considered not to be a risk. Raw milk, which is a more variable product, is not tested in that way. The Chief Medical Officer has pronounced that it may contain organisms which are damaging to health. Therefore, there is a clear difference.

As regards the labelling, I am sympathetic to what the noble Countess has said about some form of general labelling of warning, but I am not sure that it would achieve very much. The rules on labelling are subject to the European Union. To make any change, we would have to gain Commission permission and any such permission would only be given for the United Kingdom. Therefore, it would not cover imports from other countries. If the noble Countess thinks about it, the range of products involved is enormous, especially as regards loose products. I do not know whether it is being suggested that every carrot, tomato or loaf of bread, and so on, should be labelled, but it would be an enormous and very expensive operation. I am not sure that such action is justified in a situation where pesticides have already been approved for safe use.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I have some sympathy with the noble Countess, but I feel that she has perhaps gone a little too far in this case. Can the Minister tell the House whether any significant levels of such residues have been found as a result of the many tests that are being carried out on the thousands of tonnes of pesticides used in this country?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, of the tests that we carry out, roughly two thirds of them show no sign of a residue level at all, about one third show some sign and less than 1 per cent. show a sign at a level which we would consider to be a matter of concern; but, within the safety margin, that means eroding the margin but not actually posing a risk. There have been cases, especially in relation to carrots and apples during the 1995–96 testing, where there was a jump in danger levels. We have taken action in that respect to restrict application use and we did ban one pesticide; namely, Phorate. It appears that such residues are returning to an acceptable level.

I must tell the House and the noble Countess that this is a matter of genuine concern to the Government. I am quite happy for Members of the House to raise such issues and for us to continue to consider them.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, even if the residues in individual foods are at a safe level, is there evidence to show that there is a build-up of such residues in the human body that, ultimately, could be dangerous to people?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not know the answer to that question. A number of studies are under way. In particular, there is one being carried out in Edinburgh from which we expect results next year. However, I am not sure whether that will provide an answer for the noble Lord.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that there is available to him and to his ministry the kind of independent scientific and medical advice that is always readily available to the manufacturers of pesticides?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we have a very impressive web of advisory scientific committees which are independent. After a while, I discovered that that means independent of government. However, as far as we know, we have the best available scientific advice. The change that we have made to our advisory committees is to introduce into each one of them a consumer element to ensure that they publish their results. For example, the Working Party on Pesticide Residues publishes all its findings in its annual report. It is also on the Website. We have done what we can to open up the advisory network and publish its findings. I am not sure whether, in the end, that will be adequate. Nevertheless, we do the best that we can.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the problems as regards toxicology is that these things are tested in isolation whereas we actually consume them as a cocktail, together with preservatives, colourings and goodness knows what else?

Lord Donoughue

Yes, my Lords; I am sure that that is a problem.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, where the tests show excessive residues, can the Minister say whether the sources are capable of being readily identified thus enabling rapid action to be taken to prevent a recurrence?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, much of this falls within the health department area. However, as far as I am aware, it is possible—indeed, every effort is made—to trace the source of any threatening residue.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, at my age, I am probably absolutely stuffed full of residues? Therefore, does the noble Lord agree that scaremongering can cause great damage to growers of, for example, apples, who are very hard pressed at present?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I would agree with that view. Indeed, the apple and other fruit markets are very pressed. It is quite unfair to have scaremongering. Apples are very safe. If the noble Baroness is the product of all the residues in her, I can only say that they must be a very good thing.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has advised the House that pesticides are safe if properly applied and used. However, can my noble friend confirm that the Government are ensuring that agricultural and horticultural workers receive adequate training in that respect? Can my noble friend also confirm that the introduction of the national minimum wage will provide an incentive for the employers of such workers to ensure that they are so trained?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I support the introduction of the national minimum wage. The question of training in the use of OPs in general has been a major concern of ours since we took office. We have done what we could; for example, we introduced certificates of competence, training schemes and monitoring. We believe that we have done what can be done in that area. As we all know, in real life, if users choose in the end to ignore all of that, there is not much that we can do for them.

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, as the labelling of organic milk in the way that it is carried out at present is labelling the minority product, to try to label the majority product of agricultural produce treated with pesticide spray would be lunatic? It is the minority product which must have the special labelling, and surely that is the organic product which is not so treated. Perhaps the Minister may care to heed my views because I was the person who, in the beginning, successfully proposed that raw milk should be labelled in this way.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on that. I agree with what she said about the labelling of minority products. I believe that this is an occasion when I should stress again that the great advantage of organic products is that they are free from most of the threats which we are discussing today.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have no intention of being a scaremongerer? Indeed, it is only through very hard experience that I have learned what organophosphates can do. In view of the fact that the Department of Health is asking people to eat five pieces of fruit and vegetables every day and there is no limit to the quantity that it is suggested they eat, will the Minister accept that I am particularly concerned for children whose immune and central nervous systems are not fully developed? Indeed, small doses of such residues apparently affect them very much more than is the case with adults on whom such things are tested.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I wholly agree with the noble Countess. I would never use the word "scaremongering" in relation to the noble Countess. If I may say so, I welcome every effort that she makes to put pressure on people in this area, because that actually assists Ministers in applying pressure elsewhere to secure some action. I believe that we welcome exactly what the noble Countess said. Moreover, what she has said about children is clearly true; we are aware of that fact. At present, the regulations in relation to children are being reviewed.