HL Deb 16 February 1999 vol 597 cc571-80
The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer which has been given by my right honourable friend to a Private Notice Question in the other place on genetically modified foods. The Answer is as follows:

"The Government are fully committed to ensuring the safety of food.

"All genetically modified foods and food ingredients go through a process of very thorough scrutiny by a committee of experts, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, which advises Government and whose remit is to examine all novel foods. They are also scrutinised by equivalent bodies in all other member states, to ensure that no food comes onto the market unless it is safe.

"This committee, which was established in 1988, has members from universities and research institutes who are experts in their fields and are fully up to date with the latest scientific thinking. There are also two lay members whose respective roles are to advise on ethical issues and see that the experts pay attention to the concerns of the wider public. Since May 1997, it has been taking steps to become increasingly open and now publishes all its agendas, minutes and a note of the outcome of each meeting.

"The products which have been authorised have all been through this rigorous process.

"We are also committed to the principle of consumer choice. The Government are determined that all foods containing GM material should be clearly labelled. We are leading the way in Europe in this area by also requiring the provision of information in catering establishments. We are taking steps to ensure that local authorities have all the necessary powers to enforce these requirements.

"In addition, we are pressing the European Union Commission to bring forward proposals for the labelling of animal feeds as quickly as possible. But choice also means having access to alternatives. That is why we have published a list of 59 companies from which food manufacturers can obtain non-genetically modified soya. We believe that all this adds up to a system in which consumers can have confidence.

"Much of the recent debate has unhelpfully confused the two issues of safety of food and protection of the environment; and there have been many attempts to generalise from findings in laboratories at the experimental stages.

"GM is a development which has huge potential to benefit society in a variety of ways and scientists should be allowed to pursue experimental work. It is however important that end products are only put on the market after the most careful scrutiny of their effects on human health.

"We believe that we have a robust and open system for ensuring that the consumer is fully protected, but that those who wish can choose whether or not to purchase these products.

"Above all, it is the Government's first priority to ensure that the safety of consumers is fully protected and that will remain the case".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement on GM food, a subject which has caused such concern to the public. We realise that this is not an easy matter and there are certainly no easy answers, but I wish to ask the Minister two main questions.

Is he aware that apart from the comforting Statement which he has just read, the public's confidence in the safety of food which contains genetically modified ingredients is being damaged day-by-day by the Government's mishandling of the issue and that they have a clear duty to give unequivocal guidance to manufacturers, retailers and consumers alike? Will he say what the Government are doing in respect of the fears about the use of antibiotic resistant marker genes?

Finally, does the Minister share our view that the only way to restore confidence in the safety of food and the technology which may well be very beneficial is to recognise the environmental risks; to continue with and to continue to publish all the research; to monitor progress; to inform the public of all official contacts with commercial interests; and to ensure that all are dealt with in an open and transparent way?

4.47 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in another place and for giving us the current status on genetically modified foods. We on these Benches accept that there are great dangers in playing politics with the issue of food safety. However, we believe that there are legitimate questions about the Government's handling of GM foods.

Environment and food safety are linked in the public's mind, and there are concerns about matters such as scientific research being carried out as regards crop cultivation and its impact on surrounding food crops; ingredients in food; labelling; and the pressure of huge American companies being brought to bear on this Government, the EU and the US Government. We join with consumer and environmental groups and others such as the British Retail Consortium in asking a number of pertinent questions. In particular, will the Government take a clear and precautionary line on GM foods? Will they agree on a five-year freeze on the commercial planting of GM food crops? Will they also ensure that the remit of the Food Standards Agency will cover GM foods? Will they bring forward the EU proposals into UK law earlier than is proposed in the EU as a whole in respect of additives and foodstuffs and in particular in the use of GM foods in processing?

We fully accept the principle of consumer choice, but without adequate labelling it is impossible for the consumer to make an informed choice. Some supermarkets are already taking good steps with their own brands, but without adequate legislation across the board on labelling we do not believe that consumers will be well served. Does the Minister agree?

Will the Minister review the evidence to the BSE inquiry, in particular the statements made by former chief medical officers about the definition of "safe"? What definition of "safe" is being used by the committee referred to in the Statement?

As regards the segregation of GM foods from other foods, will the Government press the US Government at the highest level to ensure that segregation takes place? As a result of the welter of comments made by current and former chairmen of supermarkets, does the Minister agree with the statement made by Malcolm Walker, the Iceland Group Chairman, who asked why there is such a rush to foist these products on the public when their long-term effects on health and the environment are unknown? Will the Minster reaffirm that the Government fully adopt a precautionary principle as regards the use of GM foods?

4.50 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, perhaps I may deal with one or two of the deluge of questions. To the noble Baroness opposite I have to say that it takes some chutzpah to accuse this Government of any damage to confidence by mishandling this issue. The Government have done much to secure confidence in order to repair the enormous gap left by the previous administration who did virtually nothing.

We have introduced transparency in the relevant committees. We have appointed lay members to represent the consumer interest and we have required the publication of agendas and minutes. We have introduced labelling for the two main genetically modified foods which are on sale. All the genetically modified foods which are on sale and which are causing some of the fuss now were approved under the previous government. But they did not allow any proper labelling of them. They, alone in Brussels, opposed that labelling. Despite pressure in Brussels, we have managed to secure the proper and clear labelling of those foods. That restores confidence. What went on before damaged it. We are even seeking to extend the labelling to catering. Therefore, the suggestion that we are in any sense responsible really takes my breath away.

There is the issue of animal feed which may contain GM products. We are about to announce the setting up of a committee to look into that and we shall pursue that matter in Brussels. But when the previous government were advised in 1991 to deal with the issue of GMs in animal feed, they refused. In 1992, they announced that they would do so and then did nothing. Therefore, that is not a subject on which the Opposition should speak as loudly as they have done recently.

Some of the damage to confidence comes from scaremongering. We need to take and continue to take a balanced and measured approach to what is a most serious issue. Where there is genuine public concern, we need to make sure that we have adequate and rigorous methods of assessment and the provision of the maximum information to the public. That is what we are attempting to do.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that we take a precautionary line. We put the public health and the safety of the environment at the very top of our priorities. The noble Lord referred to the food standards agency. It is clear from the published Bill that that will be responsible for GM foods and it will be advised by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes which deals with that area.

The noble Lord referred to labelling. I agree that that is a central issue. We must deal with it through the European Union. But we are very much ahead of the game there in pressing for the maximum labelling possible. The noble Lord mentioned additives and flavouring. That is very important. We are attempting to achieve European Union action in that regard.

The definition of safety follows the principle of equivalence which the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes applies.

Segregation is an extremely frustrating issue. We cannot achieve segregation of GM and non-GM foods in our imports, especially from the United States. I should point out that when this first became a matter of concern, as I understand it, the previous government did not press the United States' government to do something about that. When we came into power, we looked into that matter but it is too late. We cannot do anything now without risking problems with the World Trade Organisation. We should not be permitted to make that a condition of refusing entry because safety is the only reason permitted in that regard. I hope that that deals with many of the points that were raised.

4.53 p.m.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, is the Minister aware that he is quite right when he says that there has been too much scaremongering on this issue? Is he aware also that many of the matters which he covered in his Statement were repetitions of what appeared in the Select Committee report of your Lordships' House which was published a few weeks ago? In particular, I am thinking of the Select Committee's recommendations about better labelling and segregation.

Will the Minister go a little further than the Statement and recall that the Select Committee report took up and supported a recommendation of the Royal Society that there are shortcomings with regards to testing and monitoring GM foods and that there is a need for an over-arching body to be set up to monitor testing and monitoring and to ensure that it is carried out more efficiently? It would be most helpful if the Government would support that recommendation, which I believe would put a stop to much of the misunderstanding and misrepresentation that there has been.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that extremely helpful contribution. Of course, he speaks with considerable experience. We have received the Select Committee report which is extremely serious and helpful. We are considering our response and there will be a response within the due time. My initial reaction—although it is not yet the Government's formal reaction—is that the suggestion of an over-arching independent body is one of great interest.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Would the Minister tell the House why Dr. Pusztai of the Rowett research institute in Aberdeen was sacked following his claim that his research showed that rats fed with genetically modified—I wanted to say manipulated—potatoes had their immunity destroyed? Could he say whether the British Government had any part in that sacking and whether the treatment of this eminent researcher is to be reconsidered in view of the fact that 20 eminent researchers have since vindicated the analysis of his research?

Finally, does the Minister agree that there will be no confidence in anything that either the Government or any major vested interest, like Monsanto, say in reassurance if there is to be any suggestion that adverse findings are to be suppressed?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the Government have played no role in suppressing any research. Whatever took place was a matter for the Rowett Institute. We would encourage the person carrying out the research to publish his conclusions. We would also encourage the publication of the claimed support from 20 other colleagues. We are in the curious position of that research being leaked to the press, but it was not made available to us or to our advisory committee. As far as possible we would encourage them all to publish. Our wish is to receive the maximum respectable scientific advice in this area so that we can take what are difficult and complex decisions.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, any rational person who has read the excellent report of the Select Committee of this House and the powerful evidence given to the committee, such as that of Dr. Bainbridge and Professor Mark Williamson, must come to the conclusion that broadly speaking the Government's attitude on this subject is right. Does the Minister agree that while it is important that there should be strict monitoring and regulation of new products, the likelihood is that the potential benefits of genetically modified food will outweigh the potential risks? Will the Government continue to resist the rather anti-science overtones of the hysteria that has been whipped up by certain sections of the press—with the honourable exception of the Daily Telegraph—and by certain politicians who seem eager to jump on a populist bandwagon without proper research into the evidence?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for suggesting that we may be broadly right, as I believe to be the case, in taking a measured and balanced view. We do not wish to be an obstacle to scientific development. I entirely agree with him in speaking against the hysterical attitude of some of our tabloid journalism. It is regrettable that some politicians—I think in another place—have tried to climb on that very wobbly bandwagon. We wish to encourage science, but not at any risk to public health or to the environment. We have to preserve that delicate balance and that is why we try to put in place the maximum regulatory and assessment procedures possible without bringing science to a halt. We need to be convinced that any genetically modified food products that come on to the market have passed the maximum tests and have scientific approval.

Lord Hughes of Woodside

My Lords, is it not the case that much of the recent concern is over some perhaps informed and some perhaps ill-informed comments on work done by the Rowett Institute on genetically modified potatoes? In order to try to clear up the confusion, will my noble friend say whether the potatoes used in the experiment were genetically modified potatoes that were due to be put on the market for human consumption, or were they specially genetically modified by the researcher concerned to test the effects of some lectins on rats? It is important to know whether that was an experiment, simply as an experiment, or a check on a genetically modified food available for public consumption, or a food that is to be made available for public consumption. If a report is not published, on either side, people are free to speculate as to what research material exists and what it says. If there is a report in the hands of the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, would it not be prudent to publish that as soon as possible and to go further and make funding available so that those experiments could be openly re-checked?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, my noble friend has put his finger on the heart of the issue. The potatoes being tested were not genetically modified potatoes. They were not potatoes that were being considered for submission to the novel foods committee or for marketing. They were potatoes of a particular kind, as I understand it—it was not government research—and they were considered appropriate to certain aspects of that research. It would help us all if those involved published the research so that it can be judged by peer groups and other scientists and so that other tests can be done in the normal scientific way. I am not aware of whether the Scottish Office has any report. I shall ask my noble friend.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, given the importance of the project, is the Minister not being rather complacent as far as Dr. Pusztai's work is concerned? Would it not be sensible to ask Dr. Pusztai and his colleagues to appear before the advisory committee? Unless they do, it will be impossible for any of us to reach a considered conclusion about the importance of that work. Will the Minister also accept that as 22 of the 33 boroughs in London, 14 county councils in England and even the restaurants in another place have banned genetically modified food this is not just scaremongering? There is widespread public unease and the Government will be out of step with that unease if they do not allow proper, open, transparent debate and accept the advice given to them earlier. There may well be, in the light of the previous difficulties over the BSE crisis, a reason to have a moratorium for at least a limited period while the issue can be properly considered.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we have no complacency on this issue whatsoever. As I have said, on the Rowett situation we have urged publication by all sides. If the advisory committee wishes to summon any of those witnesses that is its choice. It is an independent advisory committee. We do not control it. I accept that there is unease. It is totally understandable that in something as profound as this members of the public should be concerned. The activities of some scaremongerers are less responsible. They are stirring up the issue and attempting to frighten people. That is outrageous. I agree that we need transparency and, as I have said, the Government have made enormous progress towards introducing transparency in this research area.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point about reassurance. If he were able to offer reassurance on a particular point, that would go a long way to diminish some of the anxiety in the community. This morning on Radio 5, the Chief Scientific Officer was unable to give reassurance on a question posed by a lady from Ely in Cambridgeshire. The questioner asked what scientific work has been done and what database is available to reassure pregnant women and nursing mothers that there is no danger whatsoever from eating genetically modified foods.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I have some difficulty commenting on that because I did not hear the programme and I have riot heard what the Chief Scientific Officer said. The question, "Is there absolutely no danger?", is the question, "Is it absolutely and totally safe?". There are serious problems in saying with total confidence that anything is totally safe. However, the criteria that we use—

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, what work is done?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I shall have to write to the noble Baroness on what work is done because, frankly, I do not know.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, following the intervention from the noble Baroness opposite, I thank the Government for the Statement. I also thank the Government's Chief Scientific Officer for the discussion on the "Today" programme this morning. It seemed to me that he at last had brought some clarity into the discussion, whereas, as the noble Lord has already said, there has been considerable confusion and some scaremongering. In order to ensure that the debate continues in a sensible way, may I urge the Government to respond as soon as possible—clearly, this Statement is not the time to do it—to the report from the Select Committee so that we can have a full debate on it because I believe that that will assist in clarifying matters further?

Can the Minister confirm or deny the information that I have received that the active material that was used by Dr. Pusztai was of the order of 5, 000 times the normal level in potatoes? Can the Minister also confirm that the Select Committee report points out that if potatoes were introduced today, they would not be allowed through the normal screening process?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Lord and all his colleagues on that Select Committee. In my observation, all such reports bring great credit to this House. I have already discussed that report with the noble Lord and I found it particularly good. I can promise the noble Lord that we shall respond within the due time. The question of a debate is for the usual channels. With regard to Dr. Pusztai, it is the case that the level of active materials used was impressively high and it could therefore be argued that it was not of practical relevance.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, first, does the Minister accept that logic and information from the advisory committee will provide reassurance about our own foods, or should do so? To what extent do equivalent advisory committees exist in other countries where such foods are produced; such as the United States or other European countries? After all, food whether raw or processed now crosses boundaries.

Secondly, there is a possibility of some genetically modified fish, for example—except that that has not yet been done—getting out into the wild. Such foods could be produced by countries which have no or very few controls. Is pressure being brought to bear to try to bring into line countries without such regulations?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we are aware that the quality of our advisory committees is as high as anywhere—and is higher than in many other countries. We are not in a position to determine the quality of advisory committees in other countries. However, these matters are dealt with on a pan-European basis within the European Union. With regard to other countries, the same question arises. To a great extent, we can influence what happens within the European Union, but outside the European Union it is a question of applying the rules of the World Trade Organisation. If any other points will be helpful to the noble Lord, I shall certainly write to him about them.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, although it is clear that the Government have demonstrated a clear, continuing and much improved approach to food safety, would my noble friend care to consider the fact that a number of well informed conservationists have certain anxieties about the ecological consequences? The noble Lord, Lord Taverne, may not have noticed that in one newspaper report six of the 20 scientists quoted appeared to be offering cautionary comments, some about the ecological effects. I support the call for a debate on the matter in this House, but does my noble friend understand that the British countryside and British ecology have suffered grievous damage over recent decades as a result of agricultural changes and that assurances are needed, not least with regard to the transfer of genetic material from a commercial species to a wild one?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, my noble friend makes some important points. We are very aware of the danger of transference from the commercial to the wild. The trial plantings due to take place will be geared in that direction. The broader environmental and ecological aspects are not my responsibility but rest with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. However, the two departments work closely together on these issues.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the reassurance of the public, where that is appropriate, is more easily achieved if the scientific research on which we must perforce rely is funded without strings from public funds than if it is sponsored by those who might have a commercial interest in its outcome?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, that is a very deep issue. The reality is that a great deal of the research that is carried out has received major contributions from private interests, some of which—or many of which—could be said to have an interest in the outcome. That is why we have in place various regulatory procedures and assessment committees to consider the conclusions and much peer assessment by other scientists. Those involved must declare their interests, which have to be registered and are published. We put in place whatever process we can to ensure an independent outcome. In the end, we are dependent on the integrity of our scientists conducting this research. I do not believe that there is great evidence that they lack that integrity.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, we have now reached the time when we must move on.

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