HL Deb 27 June 1991 vol 530 cc45-7WA
Lord Gainford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What studies are being carried out on the levels of dioxins in milk.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

Over the last year my department has been carrying out a general surveillance programme for dioxins in food in a range of urban and rural areas. The results, which relate to milk collected at farms, wholesale and retail stages, will be presented to the Study Group on the Chemical Aspects of Food Surveillance later this year and scrutinised by independent expert committees. They will then be published in the usual way together with the committees' recommendations.

Sophisticated techniques which have been developed recently in the department's food science laboratory at Norwich have for the last year made it possible to detect dioxins at minute levels. As milk tends to show up airborne contaminants, it is a particularly useful and sensitive product to test in a programme designed to protect the public. Dioxins are of course widespread in the environment, and as could be expected, traces of them have been found in all the samples tested. Last year an international meeting under the auspices of the World Health Organisation European Region recommended a tolerable daily intake for dioxins of 0.01 nanogrammes per kilogramme body weight per day. From this, scientific and medical experts in this department and the Department of Health have calculated a maximum tolerable concentration of 0.7 nanogrammes per kilogramme of milk, if the tolerable daily intake is not to be exceeded. Their advice is that action should be taken to prevent the direct consumption of milk if it contains a higher concentration of dioxins.

Samples have been taken at three stages, at the retail outlets, at the dairies, and on the farm. At the retail stage, no sample contained more than the normal background levels of dioxin and there is no risk to consumers. At the dairy stage the same applies: this provides further reassurance. Similarly, most of the samples taken on farms do not reveal anything unusual.

However, on two farms in the Bolsover area of Derbyshire the levels were greater than the threshold set by this department and the Department of Health. An extended survey has however indicated lower levels on all the other dairy farms in the vicinity. We are making the results available in both Libraries. As to these two farms, milk sold is bulked with other milk in the milk tanker and at the dairy. Tests on milk from the dairy have shown normal background levels. Nevertheless it is best that milk from these farms not be mixed with other milk.

Our officials yesterday visited the farmers concerned and we have told them and the Milk Marketing Board about these results. The Milk Marketing Board has concluded that the milk does not meet the conditions in its standard terms of sale for producers and it will not accept the milk into the food supply. We welcome this prompt action, which shows that the board is determined to uphold the highest quality standards.

At the same time we cannot ignore the farmers whose livelihood has been milk production. There is no reason to think that they are in any way at fault and we have every sympathy with their predicament. Our staff will give advice on the business and husbandry options that are open to them.

This department will continue to carry out surveillance in the area and will undertake further detailed studies to learn more about the mechanism for the transmission of dioxins. We are determined that through our surveillance of the food supply we should ensure the fullest possible protection of the public.