Food and Water (Safety)

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 6:19 pm on 21st February 1989.

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Photo of Mr Paul Marland Mr Paul Marland , Gloucestershire West 6:19 pm, 21st February 1989

I accept, as do others, that there is widespread concern about bacteria in food, and the debate has attracted great interest. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health for telling us in such great detail about what his Department is doing. He did his best to reassure both those who have been listening to the debate and those who will read the report of the debate in Hansard and to set the record absolutely straight. The hype and sensationalism that the issue has generated is quite wrong, and it culminated in a few tasteless jokes by the Leader of the Opposition. That hype and sensationalism has misled consumers, jeopardised many businesses and resulted in a severe slap in the face for all those who are involved in the production, distribution and sale of food.

The issue has become a charter for cranks. They have blown it out of all proportion. Dubious professors and assorted nut cases have ached to tell us that virtually everything that we eat is bad for us, or poisonous, or in some way will jeopardise our health. That is fair enough with cigarettes and alcohol. However, when I heard one of the so-called experts tell us on radio that there is a trillion to one chance that we shall be infected if we eat a certain brand of processed food, I knew that the time had come to turn it off.

It is hard to achieve a true sense of proportion. When I was in west Gloucestershire last weekend, therefore, I conducted my own research by visiting food manufacturers and retail outlets. I also talked to my friendly local doctor. They know a great deal more about these problems than they are given credit for. They have had in place for many years methods and systems to minimise infection and disease. In the case of responsible firms, the methods and systems that they use are far in excess of what is demanded by local authorities.

Voluntary practices should be backed up by local regulations that are enforced by inspectors. It is easy for Opposition Members to say that there should be 1,500 inspectors, but I found that statement about as convincing as the man on the radio who said that he thought that there was a trillion to one chance of people being infected if they ate a certain brand of processed food. The hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn) made an off-the-cuff remark. He was on the ropes. He had no idea what the answer was, so he just trotted out the first figure that came into his mind.

Hysteria is causing more trouble than listeria. My friendly doctor told me that listeria is an organism that is found in soil, water, vegetation and even grass cuttings. None of us can avoid it. It is present in some soft cheeses and in certain cook-chill foods. However, it can be completely destroyed by thoroughly heating the food. As Sir Donald Acheson said of listeria, the chances of an ordinary person becoming infected are so remote that it is not worth worrying about. Those of us who have met him, or who have heard him talk, know that he is not a man who is given to overstatement. I was moved, as I am sure other hon. Members were, by the Leader of the Opposition's story about the lady who lost her baby through listeria infection. I do not, therefore, dismiss the fact that in certain cases listeria can be dangerous.

Salmonella is a more serious problem, but it has been grossly overstated; there has been a great deal of scaremongering by hon. Members. Producers and retailers are well aware of the dangers, but it is ludicrous to use—as some have—the multiplier of 100 to arrive at an estimate of the number of people who have been infected. People have always suffered from upset stomachs. It is wrong to attribute all of them to salmonella. Nevertheless, it is a problem and it should be further investigated. We have heard today that that is precisely what is happening.

I welcome the new programme of microbiological research and the inquiry into food infection that is chaired by the Prime Minister. This Government have never discounted food poisoning scares. They have acted responsibly by finding out the truth. It would be pointless to go into the history, but BST in cattle, radiation from Chernobyl, lead on solder in cans that are used for preserving food and anti-freeze in wine have been dealt with quietly and efficiently by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In 1988, £20 million was spent on ensuring food safety, and 500 people were employed in that work. If the Ministry is guilty of anything, it is guilty of not having blown its own trumpet loud enough. It has not said precisely what has been done.

I welcome the education programme that is to be targeted at consumer practices. I believe that more than 50 per cent. of food poisoning outbreaks start in the home. Cracked eggs that have been stored in the fridge are used by the housewife. I wonder how many people check the fridge temperature when they store frozen food and ensure that it is stored at the right temperature. I wonder, too, how many housewives and cooks check the defrosting instructions and make sure that they cook the food in the right way. As most families shop only once a week, I wonder how many people check the storage instructions on the back of the products that they buy? The industry takes great care to put instructions on their products so that the consumer knows under what conditions frozen or chilled foods should be stored and then cooked. Today's occasional shopping practices and irresponsible cooking play a fair part in causing food poisoning.

Guidelines are needed, but we have them already and they should be followed. The cry for more Government legislation and for more restrictions reminds me of the nanny state that we have worked so hard to abolish. Our opponents want more Government control, more regulation, more bureaucrats and less choice, but we should end up with tasteless lunches. We do not want that. We need to find out the facts and to act on them. We need to adopt a prudent and cautious approach. We must also bear in mind that the ever-changing practices and customs when preparing and eating food and the ever-changing practices and customs in its production and distribution are having an effect in the increase in food poisoning.

It is a complicated subject, but plans have been made and advice for the consumer will be forthcoming. The consumer will be given advice on how to look after food products. The Select Committee's report is soon to be published. I hope that it will make interesting reading for all those who are interested in the subject.

Two key principles underlie the Government's strategy on food safety. First, prompt action should be based on proper and detailed scientific evidence. Secondly, the need to provide consumers with information on food quality and safety is imperative. That is the right spirit and way in which to go forward.