Food (Consumer Protection)

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:33 pm on 24th January 1989.

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Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly 6:33 pm, 24th January 1989

It would be inappropriate for me to criticise the selection of speakers, and I assure my hon. Friend that the subjects she has raised do not concern women exclusively. They are of concern to every man, woman and child in the country—although I accept her point that the problems of eking out a meagre budget fall more heavily on women.

The Minister mentioned the speech of his right hon. Friend at the Oxford conference, from which I too want to quote. He said: People are—quite rightly—taking more interest than ever before in what they eat and drink. They now take for granted the wide variety of products in our shops. They demand quality and they expect that all their food will be nutritious and safe. It is up to the industry to ensure that these expectations are met". I agree with those aspirations, but not necessarily with the Minister's conclusion that it is entirely up to the industry to ensure that expectations are met. It is our contention that the Ministry has a responsibility, as well as the industry. If there is a single issue that divides us it is our claim that the responsibility for the enforcement of standards rests with the Ministry, and that it cannot be abdicated in favour of the industry.

The Minister made his speech on 4 January, so it is fair to say that we can take it as representing the up-to-date thinking of the Ministry. The Minister's demands were for variety and quality, and for nutritious and safe food. We believe that those demands are not being met. The most important reason why the Opposition asked for this subject to be debated on this Opposition day is the simple fact that the demands articulated by the Minister are not being met by his Department.

The most obvious and topical area in which the Ministry is failing the consumer is exemplified by the recent crisis of confidence in the egg industry. It is also a fine example of the interdependent interests of producers and consumers, for without the trust of the latter the producers have no market in which to trade their goods.

The Ministry's failures during this fiasco were manifold. The incident can be traced back to the change in attitude, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) pointed out, to public health and consumer welfare that was heralded by the arrival of the Conservatives in office in 1979. They changed the rules. There was at that time a serious attempt to tackle the problem of salmonella in poultry by agreeing standards with the protein processing industry that would ensure, as far as possible, that animal feed was not a vector for the spread of infection.

We have already heard the comments of the chairman of the Renderers Association, who said that standards had changed. I refer to the comment by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body), who entertained us all with his comments in today's debate: Health concerns were overruled in drafting the rules". If there is a problem with salmonella, it dates back to the change of attitude that went hand in hand with the change of Government in 1979.

In 1986 and 87, 38 out of 218 tests for salmonella in feed processing plants proved positive, but there was not one prosecution. No action was taken by the Ministry. The Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder), described himself as brilliant, and said that his winding up would be brilliant. We thought for a moment that he was reading the Minister's speech inadvertently. In a written reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) on 14 December, the Parliamentary Secretary said: On re-inspection, all samples of products from these contaminated plants were found to be clear of salmonella contamination and so no prosecutions were brought. According to a written answer that I received yesterday from the other Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Mr. Thompson)—who is not here—in 19 cases the plants tested were still infected when examined a second time. Unbelievably, in that same written answer, the Parliamentary Secretary said that in six instances the plants were still contaminated when inspected a third time. Is it not a question, therefore, of a cosy arrangement between MAFF and the renderers? MAFF visits plants and says, "There is a bit of a problem here; you must tidy up there; a hit of new equipment is needed there; then everything will be okay, because we will come back in a month's time and give you a certificate."

It was found on the third inspection that 50 per cent. of the plants which were defective on the second inspection were producing contaminated food which was going into the food chain and causing 40,000 British citizens to be affected by salmonella contamination. There was not one prosecution because of the cosy relationship between MAFF and the renderers. Which of the Parliamentary Secretaries are we to believe?

It is not as if that has been the only problem in the last couple of weeks, because we have heard of the problem of listeria. I welcomed the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), who spoke with great knowledge and experience because of the tragic circumstances in his constituency. In spite of the inadequate monitoring of the levels of infection, which exemplify the Government's attitude, what little surveillance has been carried out has revealed the extent of the problem for several years. According to the public health laboratory's communicable health report, the risk has been known for the past eight years. That information has been available, and it is distressing that it has not been acted on by the Ministry. Those matters worry us greatly.

We have had a series of press releases and written answers from MAFF and from the Department of Health, which tell us unequivocally only one thing—because of cuts, interdepartmental rivalry and neglect, those two great Departments of State can speak with no more authority on the extent of listeria than they did on salmonella. Meanwhile, increasingly, we read of deaths, such as those reported in yeaterday's Independent, which are unequivocally associated with listeriosis.

We have heard about other problems, such as cook-chill foods. Most recently, on 21 December, the Minister was forced to come to the Dispatch Box to answer the complaints about contaminated food supplies in Mid-Cornwall Meat Packers in the constituency of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor). I give the hon. Gentleman full credit for his private notice question.

The Ministry was notified in September 1988 that supplies of meat were arriving at Mid-Cornwall Meat Packers, which were contaminated with faecal matter and which were in an advanced state of decomposition. The Ministry was notified of that in September, but the first notification by the Ministry to the air and sea port health authorities was in mid-December after the hon. Member for Truro had raised that matter. During that three months, 30 consignments went through the port of Fishguard alone, each consignment consisting of 20 tonnes of beef from the Republic of Ireland, possibly contaminated—certainly much of that for Cornwall was contaminated.

That meat was entering the food chain in this country, and not one warning or notice was given to either the port health authorities or to the scores of authorities whose environmental health officers are desperately trying to ensure adequate and wholesome supplies of food for the people of this country. We owe the environmental health officers a debt of gratitude.