HL Deb 11 May 1999 vol 600 cc1080-2

2.42 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to prevent unnecessary deaths of people suffering from nut allergies.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the Government recognise the serious nature of nut allergies and we have taken action on a number of fronts, including the provision of guidance to patients and to GPs and other health professionals. We shall continue to work with the health professions, the Anaphylaxis Campaign and all others with an interest to increase awareness and understanding of nut allergies, their prevention and treatment.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, those steps are welcome. Allergies of all kinds, and nut allergies in particular, are common and have serious effects on nearly 1 million people. Does my noble friend agree that every death from a nut allergy is unnecessary and avoidable as customers are entitled to know what they are eating but they do not; that nut allergy clinics should be in every region but they are not; and that GPs should be aware of the problems of nut allergies but they are not? Can the Government intensify their efforts to make speedy progress on a matter which affects the health, and in some cases the lives, of many people?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend's question. He raises an important set of issues in relation to properly treating this problem. I very much agree that we need to continue to raise awareness among general practitioners about the advice to be given to patients who may be suffering from allergies. We need to look carefully at the provision of allergy clinics and certainly need to ensure that food labelling is strengthened so that the public are aware of what is contained in the food they purchase.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, much more advice from the department needs to be given in educating caterers and restaurateurs about the dangers of food contamination. Is not improvement of labelling in order to ensure that nuts are not contained within products urgently needed to avoid the kind of fatalities we have seen in recent weeks?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that catering awareness is very important. It is worth pointing out that in November 1997 MAFF undertook a catering awareness campaign aimed precisely at the point he mentions; that is, raising the awareness among caterers of severe allergies, and 200,000 information packs were sent out. I believe that that has had a beneficial effect.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that prevention is better than cure and that the labelling of products is important? It is all very well advising doctors and specialists on how to treat the problem, but the public want to see labelling more clearly defined that nuts are contained within a product.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Yes, my Lords. I agree with the noble Viscount. That is why we are committed to ensuring that food labelling provides information needed by sufferers. Much of the legislation regarding this matter is harmonised at EU level. The UK has recently managed to task, under the EU Scientific Co-operation Scheme, to provide a better basis for amendment to legislation. My understanding is that the EC is now in the process of drafting a proposal following that work.

Lord Onslow of Woking

My Lords, no doubt the Minister will recall that last August the Government's Chief Medical Officer again advised GPs that anybody suspected of suffering from peanut allergy should be referred to an allergy clinic. Is he aware, however, that there is a severe shortage of allergy clinics around the country and a severe shortage of trained staff? Although bodies such as the Anaphylaxis Campaign can do a great deal to help the Government by raising public awareness, the Government have to help the public by putting in some money.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, first, I agree with the noble Lord that the Anaphylaxis Campaign has done sterling work in this area, and I should like to pay tribute to it. As regards the number of allergy clinics in the country, the estimate is that there are well over 100 in England, and up to 120 or so in the UK overall, but their provision is patchy. In particular, areas in the north and the south-west lack clinics as compared to other parts of the country. Because issues concerning the provision of appropriate treatment are raising some concerns, officials from the Department of Health will be meeting professional and patient interest groups later this week to discuss future provision of services and to pick up many of the points made by the noble Lord.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the noble Lord realise that the introduction of the word "estimated" into his statement about the number of allergy clinics in the country sends a little shiver of doubt down one's spine as to the level of the Government's commitment to this issue? Should there not be an accurate register of places where these swiftly life-threatening incidences can be advised upon and coped with?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, the estimate was given because I could not find my note at the time. The figures I have state that there are 120 NHS clinics in the UK and the number has been growing. That has reflected the growing identification of the problem.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, is the Minister aware of recent reports in scientific literature suggesting that it may in future he possible to grow peanuts lacking the specific allergen that has been the cause of the problem? Does he know of any research that has been carried out on this topic in the UK which may ultimately prevent the condition from occurring at all?.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I was not aware of that but I would be happy to take the information given by the noble Lord back to the department.

Earl Howe

My Lords, is it more dangerous to eat nuts or beef on the bone?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, all I can recommend is that the public should follow the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, can the Minister remind me in any case whether food labelling is devolved to the Scottish Parliament?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, that is a good question. I shall ensure that the noble Baroness receives a proper response to it.

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