Irradiation of Food

– in the House of Commons at 9:47 pm on 12th July 1989.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food 10:15 pm, 12th July 1989

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 10377/88, relating to irradiation of foodstuffs; and supports the Government's intention to seek to ensure that a directive is adopted that will allow the use of the process under conditions that will fully safeguard the interests of the consumer. I announced in the House on 21 June that the Government intended to provide for the irradiation of some foods in this country. I made it clear then that we regarded this process as a useful additional weapon in our large armoury of measures and activities aimed at ensuring food safety—I stress, only one of many.

That takes me straight to the flaw in the second half of the Opposition's amendment, stating that they believe that improving regulations and monitoring along the food chain are the best ways of solving the current epidemic of food poisoning". We monitor constantly. We regularly improve regulations whenever necessary. That happens anyway, but irradiation adds one further benefit—one further improvement in regulations and systems—which is why it is right that we should now make it available.

I said on 21 June that our approach was to extend consumers' freedom of choice by making available for those foods for which it is suitable this extension to the range of preservation processes that can be used to keep food safe.

I emphasised that I was well aware that it is only suitable for some foods and should he available only for them, and that no one in Government had ever claimed or would claim that it could be used across the whole range of food to deal with all forms of microbial contamination. Above all, I underlined that it will be a matter of freedom of choice for the consumer, because there will be full and clear labelling of foods that have received this treatment. No one, whether primary producer, manufacturer, retailer or consumer, will have to use irradiation or eat irradiated food if they do not wish to.

Our whole approach in making available this additional option to the consumer and to the food industry is based fundamentally on food safety and consumer grounds. Tonight we are debating the European Commission's proposals for harmonising the laws on food irradiation across the whole Community—and here again consumer considerations are well to the forefront.

Just as in the United Kingdom, we adopted a cautious attitude to food irradiation, setting up our own independent expert scientific assessment of the process, rather than simply acting on the basis of the international work carried out for the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. So too did the European Commission. The considerable data on this subject were re-evaluated by the European Community Scientific Committee for Food before this proposal was put forward.

Like the international committees and the United Kingdom's own independent committee, the European Community committee was entirely satisfied as to the safety and wholesomeness of irradiated food up to the overall average dose of 10 kilogray. The one difference of approach favoured by the European Community Committee has been that it recommended restriction to a particular list of foodstuffs for which a technological need had been demonstrated. Essentially, that meant that it recommended restrictions to those foodstuffs already accepted by one or other of the member states. Our preferred approach—like that of the World Health Organisation—has been to argue that the licence issued to a particular firm should set out the particular foodstuffs and the treatments that could be applied to them. This approach is slightly different from that recommended by the European Community Scientific Committee for Food, but essentially would involve the same degree of official control.

The heart of the directive is in four articles—5 to 8—which contain the essential control conditions. Article 5 makes labelling mandatory. This is an absolute must and we shall see to it in our discussions with our partners that clear and precise requirements are laid down.

Article 6 requires member states to provide for prior approval of applications to use the process and subsequent monitoring of compliance with the conditions by a competent authority. As the House will be aware, we are proposing to exercise this control within central Government. Article 6 also stipulates that approval shall be given only if the plant meets the requirements of the relevant Codex recommended international code of practice, which covers detailed design and operational aspects of the irradiation plant and premises. We have no difficulty with that—we would recommend the same.

Photo of Mr Ivor Stanbrook Mr Ivor Stanbrook , Orpington

How will a customer in a restaurant know whether the food that is served has been irradiated?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

As I made clear in exchanges in the House the other day, we shall have to include that point when we come to the detailed regulations to ensure that the customer does know.

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

In view of the shortness of the debate, it would be better if I did not give way again because I know that many hon. Members wish to speak and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Ryder) will answer their points when he replies to the debate.

Article 7 lays down detailed documentation requirements and article 8 provides for imports to be permitted only from countries that can demonstrate to the Community that they comply with equivalent conditions and achieve equal standards. The article envisages inspection of irradiation plants in third countries and the listing of officially approved establishments there.

These are the core conditions of the draft directive and, as the House will readily appreciate, they are in line with our recommendations for a control framework for this country and so they clearly form an acceptable basis for the detailed discussions that will be necessary. We shall, of course, examine closely just how the provisions should be applied in practice. I can assure the House therefore that we shall be taking a close look at the criteria to be applied by approving authorities; at the conditions that will be laid down when approvals are granted; at the matters to be examined during official inspections; and at the circumstances in which approvals will be withdrawn or modified if conditions are found on inspection not to be fully met. We shall also need to look carefully at the record-keeping requirements and at details of the labelling provisions. For imports, we shall need to scrutinise with particular care the Commission's proposals for measuring the equivalence of the controls and the standards of third countries.

In short, we are concerned to get all the arrangements right to ensure that the essential aim of consumer protection is fully met and that there is uniform application of conditions across the whole Community.

Some people no doubt will attempt to argue that consumers have said that they do not want irradiated food on the market. Such market research as has been done so far and which I have seen—it is far from complete—does, indeed, suggest that many consumers will not want to use irradiated food at least in the early stages. That is fair enough; no one has ever suggested they should have to. On the other hand, a sizeable number have also said that they would like the opportunity and wish to make use of it. This is entirely in accord with the Government's approach. Given the proper controls, we see no reason why they should now be denied that opportunity.

Moreover, it is worth remembering what consumer bodies such as the National Consumer Council are saying. The NCC has explicitly accepted the safety of food irradiation properly applied and monitored—as we shall ensure that it is. It has pointed to the need for nutritional monitoring. We have already said that we shall build this into the on-going "food-watch" that we maintain. The NCC statement stresses also that irradiation must form simply one part of a comprehensive approach to the safety of food and must never be regarded as a substitute for good manufacturing practice. My statement in the House last month has already made clear that this is also the firm position of the Government.

I turn now in what is inevitably a short debate to what I regard as the misconceptions and myths which are being raised both about the process itself and about what it can do. It appears that some people still fear that food irradiation will make food radioactive. They are, however, confusing irradiation with fall out of radioactive substances—which is entirely different. Moreover, they overlook the fact that radioactivity is actually present anyway—in the environment, in food, and, indeed, in all of us.

The most graphic rebuttal of the radioactivity argument that I have seen is in the report of the European Community's Scientific Committee for Food to which I referred earlier. The committee referred to studies carried out to show how much radioactivity could be induced by that process. Those studies, which relate to the energy and dose levels that would apply to food irradiation, showed that the amount of radioactivity produced—and I quote from the report— is below the detection threshold". Indeed, that infinitesimal extra amount of radioactivity is, according to the committee, approximately 100,000-fold smaller than the level that occurs naturally in fresh foods. That puts the subject properly in its context and needs to be emphasised time and time again—it is 100,000-fold smaller.

Some comments currently being reported seem also to be based on the mistaken assumption that the process can disguise sub-standard food. Let me emphasise once again that food irradiation cannot reverse the natural ageing processes of food. If the food is sub-standard, it will remain so. Irradiation cannot disguise the natural signs that food has gone off. It will not improve appearance; it will not cover up unpleasant odours; and it cannot take away a nasty taste. The process, in other words, cannot make good food which is bad in those ways.

In any case, the Government are quite clear that food irradiation shall be applied only to food in normal, sound condition. We propose to build into our controls a requirement for checks to be made on the food before it is treated.

Some people claim that irradiation cannot make any contribution to the avoidance of botulism. I simply do not know why that point is being raised, because no one has ever claimed that it could. What we have said is that it had a useful contribution to make by killing large numbers of salmonella, campylobacter and listeria bacteria. That is where the particular effectiveness of food irradiation has been demonstrated, and that is the benefit that we want to make available to consumers. It is also, of course, one of the prime food safety concerns in certain foods. So let us concentrate on the real targets, which are very important ones, and not on false targets for which irradiation is not appropriate in the first place.

There is another aspect, too, on which I want to set the record straight. I have seen several newspaper reports which say that food irradiation will not prove effective in reducing the threat posed by salmonella and campylobacter. In some accounts, that is said to be because the bacteria will leave behind toxins and that those will do the damage. In other accounts, it is stated that those bacteria will produce spores that the process cannot touch and that further bacteria will grow from the spores. I am advised that, quite simply, that is scientific nonsense. Salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria are non-sporing bacteria and they do not excrete toxins into food. The illness that is caused results directly from consuming the bacteria themselves. If the bacteria are killed off, the threat that they pose is eliminated. Helping deal with that, which irradiation does, undoubtedly makes a very worthwhile contribution to the reduction of food-borne illness.

Another odd argument is that the process will not achieve much because it cannot be used to protect eggs. Again no one ever said that it could. But what it can do through its effectiveness in killing bacteria is to enhance safety standards in poultry meat, in some shell-fish and in herbs and spices. Of course, it cannot be used for all foods, but that is no argument for failing to take advantage of it where it can be useful.

Photo of Mr Michael Shersby Mr Michael Shersby , Uxbridge

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

No, I had better move on, because several hon. Members wish to speak.

On the subject of herbs and spices, there is of course a particular advantage to the public in the use of that process. At the moment the decontamination needed by those products—because of the conditions in which they have to be stored in the countries of origin—is by fumigation with ethylene oxide gas. It is essential to replace the use of that chemical because of its possible adverse effects. Its use will be banned within the European Community from the end of 1990. The only effective alternative for the treatment of herbs and spices is irradiation. Irradiation of herbs and spices thus involves the replacement of a treatment that is causing concern.

Another fallacious objection is that it is wrong to be thinking of introducing the process now, when research has so far not come up with a detection test. I have to say that the heavy weight of informed opinion takes the opposite view. The World Health Organisation, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the United States Food and Drug Administration—indeed, the Governments of 35 different countries—have concluded, after detailed scientific consideration, that adequate control can be achieved over the use of the process through a strict system of licensing and official inspections of operations and of records. The view of our own independent scientific inquiry by the Advisory Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods was that a detection test could provide a useful supplement to the control mechanism, but satisfactory controls could be maintained without this. The Government have accepted this conclusion—though we shall, of course, continue to pursue the research that we are funding with the aim of producing suitable tests.

Import controls are a matter of particular importance in the overall control regime for food irradiation. I can assure the House that we shall support the imposition of strict, Community-wide controls, with detailed documentation and labelling requirements, to give the necessary reassurance to the consumer on the quality of irradiated foodstuffs whether treated here or at approved, officially controlled premises overseas.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North

That has not worked thus far.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I invited the hon. Gentleman to provide me with his evidence on this and I am going through it. He knows that I am doing precisely that. I do not believe that his evidence adds up to the charge that he has just made, but it is up to him to give further evidence, if he thinks that he can find it.

When we have the ban on irradiation lifted in this country, to which I hope the House will agree, and we have suitable controls for certain products and it is Community-wide, the imposition of strict Community-wide controls will be important.

I have spoken of the benefits for consumers in making available the option of food irradiation as an additional measure to protect the safety of those foods for which the process is suitable. I have drawn particular attention to the effectiveness that the process has demonstrated in relation to salmonella, campylobacter, and listeria—those bacteria cause the vast majority of food-borne illness. In the case of salmonella and campylobacter the process could have particular value in being applied to poultrymeat.

I have mentioned also the benefit that consumers would gain from the irradiation of herbs and spices, in relation to which the process would provide a much safer way of achieving insect and bacterial decontamination than the present chemical fumigation methods which will, in any case, shortly no longer be available for use.

There is, of course, further benefit in fruits whose season is longer and which will keep for longer in the home. Extension of shelf-life is usually referred to as a benefit for the retail trade. So it is, no doubt, but we must not forget that larders and kitchens have shelves also. If goods last longer, then this clearly helps the consumer as well. But that is an additional benefit. It is not among my reasons for proposing the lifting of the ban, which are based solely on food safety and consumer choice grounds.

For all those reasons, the Government welcome the Commission's initiative in proposing harmonised rules for food irradiation. As I have stated, the draft directive's proposals for a control system are very largely compatible with the proposals that we had ourselves outlined. Clearly, we shall need to examine in detail the implications and the precise application of the draft. The general framework—relying as it does on the Codex code of practice—is clearly fundamentally correct and should provide a firm basis for detailed control conditions that will fully safeguard the interests of the consumer. I assure the House that the Government will be both diligent and vigilant in ensuring that this essential requirement is met. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:33 pm, 12th July 1989

I beg to move, to leave out from "foodstuffs" to the end of the Question and add instead thereof: `opposes the Government's intention to introduce irradiated food for import and sale in the United Kingdom; notes that irradiation exposes the consumer to chemical changes in food and that microbiologically contaminated food could be sold as clean; and believes that improving regulations and monitoring along the food chain are the best ways of solving the current epidemic of food poisoning and ensuring that the consumer has confidence in the safety of food.'. It is sheer effrontery for the Government to bring this debate forward in such a restricted form when so many hon. Members want to participate. We know that when another Minister spoke on this subject a couple of weeks ago he assured the House that there would be ample opportunity for a good, long discussion on it. This is not the appropriate time at which to do it, but it exposes one of the Government's intentions, which is to try to minimise reporting of their proposed action.

What is the Minister proposing? Is he proposing to lift the ban regardless of what happens with the EEC? Will he lift the ban before the Community takes a decision? That part of his speech was a little confused.

The Minister started strongly, but he set up all manner of aunt Sallies that I have never heard before and then attempted to knock them down. I thought that he was disingenuous from the beginning. It has been the Government's policy not to update regulations, to reduce the number of public servants involved in monitoring food and to cut essential research into food safety. As a result, we have a food poisoning epidemic. There is no doubt about that.

The Government are contemplating cuts in the veterinary colleges when we are importing veterinary surgeons at a rate of one a day. They have reduced the number of personnel in the state veterinary service by 25 per cent. during the past 10 years. They have cut the training of environmental health officers so that we are now 400 short. They have cut vital research into salmonella and botulism. After 10 years of this Government, public health is at its worst for years.

For the Government, irradiation is a technological quick fix but, like so many other quick fixes, the long-term effect will be additional and fundamental problems. Before I pursue that, I shall take up one of the Minister's aunt Sallies. He mentioned radioactive food. He said that the Opposition always argue that the food is radioactive. I have never argued that, and I have never heard any other Labour Member argue it.

Irradiated food is not radioactive. It is irradiated by a radioactive process. We should get that clearly on the record. It is done by using gamma rays. The easiest and best comparison is to radiotherapy for cancer. We all know that the use of a radioactive process poses a potential threat. The Minister is right—radioactivity is in the environment, but we must not expose people to extra radioactivity.

I am not suggesting that the consumer is affected, but I want the Minister to consider whether we can justify exposing people who work in food processing irradiation plants to extra radiation. The Minister shakes his head. I am just asking whether he thinks that that is justified. He is aware of the point because it was in the paper that he produced for his previous speech.

The key weakness in the Minister's speech was his acknowledgement of the fact that there is no adequate testing procedure. He advanced that argument two months ago. He said that there is no simple diagnostic test. It appeared from recent press reports that such a test had been devised but, on investigation, it seems that such claims are hollow. In a submission to Sub-Committee D in the other place, the Ministry said this morning: There still seems little prospect that a single test will ever be applicable to all foods, and no guarantee even that tests for individual foods or food classes will be developed in the foreseeable future for every food likely to be treated by irradiation. That is the Minister's view, and it is my view.

It is difficult to devise a proper monitoring and control system when it is not even possible to test whether food is irradiated. Even the Minister's own experts say that to guarantee public safety, irradiation levels must be below certain dosages. The Minister himself made that point tonight. The EEC document sets special dosage levels for separate products. As no diagnostic test is available, how can the Minister give an assurance about irradiation levels?

Further, how can food be tested to determine whether it has been re-irradiated? As the Minister knows, the kilogray levels are cumulative, and if food is irradiated at the maximum of 10 kilogray twice, it will have received a dosage of 20 kilogray, which exceeds the Government's safety level. In the absence of a diagnostic test, there is no way that irradiated food can be properly monitored.

The Minister and the EEC document both make the point that irradiated food must be labelled as such. It is widely predicted—the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) made this point again tonight—that most irradiated food will be used in the catering trade. I have put this question to the Minister before, and right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House await his answer: how can he ensure that the customer in a restaurant or cafe will be made aware that some of the food available there is irradiated? Will he give the House a guarantee that where irradiated food is used in a restaurant or cafe it will be identified as such on every menu? Unless the Minister gives such a guarantee, he cannot claim that the consumer will be offered a choice.

The argument extends from diagnostics and labelling to the process itself. As the Minister knows from previous debates, not all bacteria are harmful and some perform a benign function. However, when a product is irradiated, all bacteria—good and bad—are killed, so irradiated food could still be contaminated by new bacteria. Furthermore, simply because food has been irradiated, it may be handled less hygienically than otherwise would be the case.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill , Ludlow

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

No, because the Minister gave way only once, and then not to an Opposition Member.

If the bacteria load is only reduced, the bacteria remaining after irradiation can, unless the food is kept under appropriate conditions, multiply. It is our belief, and that of many food scientists, that many people will regard irradiation as an alternative to proper food hygiene. The public will be lulled into a sense of false security, and therein lies the danger.

Irradiation produces chemical changes in food—[Interruption.]Conservative Members may not be aware of this point—certainly the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Stewart) is not. Irradiation's ability to cause chemical changes is known to cause a reduction in vitamins A, B, C and E. It is also known to produce highly reactive molecules called free radicals—although they are not political agents. There is evidence to suggest that free radicals can cause cell damage, including that of chromosones, increase the aging process and reduce immunity. The Minister scoffs, but I challenge him to say that the scientists who produced the evidence that I have cited do not know what they are talking about. Some of those scientists are advisers to the Government.

I know that the Minister's advisers have told him about one aspect of the content of food treated with pesticides, which is that that process often leaves residues. The Minister's own research consultative committee residues sub-group has expressed concern about the effect of irradiation on residues. The committee's minutes stated: One area of concern was the irradiation of commodities which contained pesticide residues and associated inert substances and the possibility of these residues being transformed into more toxic radiolytic products. The Minister must answer the point made by his consultative committee.

The Minister must also answer our charge—which he has denied—that irradiation could be used to make bad food appear to be good. Let us take the example of prawns, which are often imported from Asia and can be contaminated with all sorts of micro-organisms. If prawns are infected with hepatitis A, which is not uncommon in some of the waters in the far east, we do not know whether irradiation will kill the virus. All the evidence is that it will not, but we do not have sufficient information about it. That food could appear to be quite harmless and be eaten, although it might contain a high bacterial load.

I shall not discuss the case cited by the Minister and my hon Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), but the Minister is aware of a case in 1965—

Photo of Dr David Clark Dr David Clark Shadow Secretary of State, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I apologise. The Minister knows the case as well as I do.

Youngs Sea Foods—[Interruption.] It is rather worrying that, although the Minister is aware of the case, he is not prepared to face the consequences of it. In 1985 Youngs imported some Malaysian warm water prawns. A month later they were retested, when it was discovered that they did not meet the company's standards. Those prawns were sent to Holland, where the Dutch firm Gammaster irradiated them, and they were then returned to this country and sold as clean food, mainly to caterers. That is an acknowledged case. The Minister is aware of it because he has seen the files. It was proven that food was irradiated and then sold as clean food.

Our prime objection to the Government's proposal for irradiation is that they consider it to be an alternative to cleaning up the food chain. That will lull the industry into a false sense of security. To illustrate my point I shall quote the British Poultry Federation, which is relevant because the Minister cited poultry towards the end of his speech. It said: Following food poisoning scares, the industry was devoting considerable resources, time, skill and money to ensuring hygienic practice at every level of production and processing. BPF believed that this was right, and therefore not only did poultry not need to be irradiated, but its use might give the impression that these health measures had not been successful. If, as the Minister told the House on 21 June, and repeated tonight, his reason for introducing irradiation is not to extend the shelf life, why do it? Far from making food safer, we believe that the Government's objective is simply to allow, on occasions, bad food to be sold as good —[Interruption.] Let me finish with this thought for the Minister. If the Government deny the charge, can they answer a simple, straightforward question? If food is in good condition in the first place, why is it necessary to irradiate it?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate 10:49 pm, 12th July 1989

One of the first rules that Oppositions learn if they refresh their memories with the book "How to be a Minister", by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), is that they must abuse the Government's case. That is precisely what happened for the first seven minutes of the speech by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark); the rest showed very clearly that no one had been listening to what my right hon. Friend the Minister had said.

I came here with two or three questions to ask my right hon. Friend, because I had been worried by some of the scare stories that I had heard from both the Opposition and that self-seeking publicity organisation the London Food Commission. My right hon. Friend has made a variety of things very clear, the most important being that the consumer is to know whether an item has been irradiated. I am grateful to my right hon Friend for following the line that he took with those of us who were concerned about green-top milk.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

No; this is a short debate.

My right hon. Friend felt that if people were to have the choice whether to buy green-top milk they should at least know that there might be problems if they drank it. As long as we know, I do not believe that there is a problem.

My right hon. Friend went on to deal with another of my anxieties: if I went into the Members' Tea Room or the Harcourt Room, would I be certain of knowing whether a particular food had been irradiated? He made it clear that that would be taken care of when the details were worked out. It is perfectly simple: all that will be needed is a small asterisk against the name of an item that has been irradiated, and anyone who suggests that it is more complicated than that is looking for difficulties. My right hon. Friend also made the important point that it is impossible to say that every kind of food will be irradiated: it is horses for courses.

The hon. Member for South Shields made much of the shortage of environmental health officers. This is not the first time that we have heard about that; those of us who have served for many years in local government first knew of them as sanitary inspectors, and there was a shortage of sanitary inspectors under various Governments. It is far too simplistic to say that the blame lies with the present Government.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate

No. With the greatest respect, I have already said that I will not give way. If I do so, the hon. Lady will deprive some of her colleagues and mine of a chance to speak.

It is not correct to say that a shortage of environmental health officers is due to actions taken by the present Government. That shortage is due to the fact that the job may not be as popular as it used to be, or as it should be. It is not an easy job; under an inefficient council the environmental health officer may do a very good job of work and then find the council's legal department so incompetent that cases cannot even be taken. That will knock the stuffing out of a good, reliable EHO.

Having come here with two or three questions that have been worrying my constituents, I find that the Opposition have no case. My right hon. Friend has clarified the facts for the ordinary, sensible man and woman on the Clapham omnibus, and dealt with any worries that I may have had.

Photo of Mr Geraint Howells Mr Geraint Howells , Ceredigion and Pembroke North 10:54 pm, 12th July 1989

On this occasion the Minister has failed to convince the public and hon. Members that there is a need to have irradiated foodstuffs on the shelves in our shops. It is well known to us all that the proposal is opposed by just about everyone apart from food manufacturers. That does not speak highly of the directive.

There is no detection test to establish whether foods have been irradiated. The Institution of Environmental Health Officers stated: Until adequate tests are available, several of the Directive's articles will be difficult if not impossible to enforce … consumer needs should be paramount and should take precedence over economic and technical needs. It has been said that irradiation will be used to camouflage sub-standard batches of food, and it is for the Minister to clarify the issue when he replies. It is well known that the long-term effects of irradiation are unknown, as are the effects of other chemicals, such as pesticides, that may be present. I am told that tests have taken place on animals and that these may be unreliable. It is admitted in article 13 that there is a possibility that some health problems will occur in future.

The accepted dosage of 10 kilogray has been challenged by the British Medical Association's board of science. As long as the average of the batch is 10 kilogray, individual readings of up to 15 kilogray will be permitted. That is another issue that the Minister should clarify when he replies.

As there is no simple test for irradiation, the Government propose to introduce controls through the registration of premises and inspections. This will probably be done by environmental health officers, and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg) has told us that we cannot blame the Government if there are not enough EHOs. The Government have been in office for 10 years and if the problem cannot be solved over that period, there is something radically wrong with the Government. I urge them to provide extra financial aid to ensure that we have more EHOs in the next two years. If there is a will, there is a way for the Government to do exactly that. We shall see whether we have more or fewer EHOs in 12 months time. The challenge is there for the Government to accept, and it will be interesting to see whether they do so.

We have been told that irradiated food from the Third world will be allowed into Britain. How do the Government propose to check the kilogray level or the quality of irradiated food from the Third world? Food that has been exposed to irradiation will not be labelled. It will be possible to sell such food to the public if it has been irradiated for checking purposes and the level of irradiation is under 5 kilogray. That blows a hole in the Government's case that consumers will be able to exercise their choice.

The real reason for the Government's move to accept irradiation is that some countries are irradiating food already. The Government want standardisation for 1992. The directive and the Government's move are designed to ensure that by 1992 we try to have everything in order in Britain. Perhaps the Government will regret their decision before 1992.

According to annex V of the directive, approval can be given for irradiation if there is a reasonable technological need". The health of the consumer is mentioned, but at a later stage. If irradiation is allowed, we should press for a ban on fractionalised dosage, a ban on any individual item having an irradiation level of more that 10 kilogray, proper funding for EHOs to enable them regularly to inspect premises, and proper labelling of irradiated food instead of the symbol that has been proposed by the EEC. The Minister must clarify that point. When he opened the debate he said that all food would be labelled, but according to the Community directive there is to be a symbol only. There is a big difference between a symbol and a label.

Food containing raw materials that have been irradiated should be labelled. The Government will say that 20 countries use irradiation, that 30 permit it, that there are no obvious health hazards, that it reduces the danger of salmonella and listeria poisoning and that food manufacturers are anxious to take advantage of the technology. I suppose they are, but the Minister should take note of the views of the British Poultry Federation. During the last six months, that sector of agriculture has been clobbered. If any sector of the industry needs help, it does.

According to the paper published by the British Poultry Federation, it is not very happy about irradiation, with chickens being left on the shelf for long periods. The Minister should take the federation's views into account. Poultry farmers have been seriously affected by the Government's policies.

I hope that the Minister will take note of the views that have been expressed during the debate. The voice of the consumer, as well as the views of food manufacturers who are in favour of food irradiation, must be heard in this House.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton , Congleton 11:01 pm, 12th July 1989

The irradiation of food, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is an emotive subject. [Interruption.] I think I have been corrected, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am a traditionalist. I hope you will not mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I refer to you—

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton , Congleton

I take your point, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I had always understood that one addressed the office rather than the holder of the office, irrespective of gender. May I give another example? Many moons ago, in a previous existence, I was a master of foxhounds. Nobody called me a mistress of anything.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am very interested in the way that the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) seeks to address various people, but while I am in the Chair I am to be addressed as Madam Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton , Congleton

I am delighted so to address you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I bow to your command.

To return to the subject of the debate, food irradiation is an emotive subject. It will not be easy for hon. Members or their constituents to reach a rational decision as to its possible benefits. Many of us, myself included, do not have the scientific background to enable us to sift the facts from the fiction about food irradiation. Therefore, I was pleased to read recently the very first briefing paper of the newly established Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology which seeks to inform parliamentarians on scientific and technical matters underpinning current issues. Its director, Dr. Michael Norton, has prepared a paper on irradiation that is full of easily digested information, which I heartily recommend to hon. Members.

Many studies have been carried out on the irradiation of food for both animals and humans during the last 40 years, but concern remains about its potential use, despite the views of national and international expert bodies that the process is safe. The recent much publicised increase in the number of cases of food poisoning of one kind or another provide one argument as to how irradiation can play a part—I stress the word "part"—in providing greater protection for the public.

That brings me to what I consider to be the best marketing opportunity for fresh food for some time. It will not have escaped the notice of hon. Members that one of our most successful retail outlets has built a reputation second to none in its food department for quality, freshness and good hygiene. That reputation is reflected to good effect in its sales and profits. In these more affluent days, people are prepared to pay more for fresh, good-quality products. I believe that, with correct labelling, a fresh chicken, for example, will outsell by far its irradiated counterpart. I suggest that that answers the questions raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells).

The House should also note that the standards of production, processing and distribution of fresh foods in Britain are far higher than in virtually any other country, so I do not believe for a moment that irradiated food will provide any competition whatsoever, although it could prove useful in treating imported herbs and spices, for the reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Minister in his opening speech.

The high capital and running costs of irradiation equipment will be added to the price of the food and might easily outweigh any perceived benefits. However, mandatory labelling, with rigorous checks for the wholesale, retail and catering sectors, is essential to inform the consumer. More will have to be done in education in schools and elsewhere to provide people with the facts so that they can make an informed choice.

Finally, I would not hesitate to eat irradiated food, and I have probably done so abroad on many occasions without knowing it. Surely we shall have the best of both worlds in the United Kingdom as consumers will have available to them, where appropriate, irradiated and non-irradiated food. When they are fully armed with the appropriate information and when internationally recognised standards are introduced and rigorously enforced, there will be no problems whatsoever.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones , Clwyd South West 11:06 pm, 12th July 1989

I shall be brief as there is so little time for this important debate. Far more time should have been devoted to it.

I should like to know who wants irradiated food. The public does not seem to want it. I have seen no great demands for it. The British Medical Association does not want it and nor does the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, but the food industry does.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

Not all the food industry wants it. The Co-op does not want it.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones , Clwyd South West

As my hon. Friend said, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, which is one of the largest retailers in the country, does not want it. Why do the others want it? They want it for profit and because it will be easier for them to deal with the food at the end of its production life and because the most disreputable outlets recognise it as a way of disguising poor manufacturing techniques.

I am a microbiologist by profession. Many hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members, are being misled.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones , Clwyd South West

As my hon. Friend said, they are being misled by the nose and possibly by other parts of their anatomy. They do not seem to know what they are talking about.

As a microbiologist, I believe that the only objective test for the quality of food is the detection and enumeration of its bacterial load. If the food is irradiated there is no objective test of its quality. The toxins produced by the organisms in the food will remain and will often be proportional to the original infection of the food. As the Minister said, food infections such as salmonella and listeria will be prevented, but genuine food poisoning will not. As the Minister should know, food poisonings are botulism and staphylococcal food poisoning. Staphylococcal food poisoning is one of the most common food poisonings and will not be prevented by the irradiation of food as staphylococcal food poisoning depends on the production of a toxin by the bacterium during its infective period—during the growth of the bacterium in the food.

The Minister did not say anything about the possible long-term effects. Judging by the way that we have discussed irradiation, one would think that it was extremely easy to kill bacteria by irradiating them. It is not. Bacteria are extremely resistant organisms. They are much more resistant than human beings. It takes about 4·5 kilogray to kill the average human being; it takes considerably more to kill the average bacterium and much more than that to kill the average spore. As the Minister said, we are not talking about spores being killed.

If spores survive and vegatative organisms do not, that means that the spores can germinate and grow after irradiation. Spore-bearing organisms are the most dangerous organisms in causing food poisoning. A dose that will kill a micro-organism does so in a particular way—by cell damage, due to the release of highly reactive radicals. They are basically produced by the splitting of water into its constituent parts. They last fractions of a second, but they react rapidly with other cell constituents. They create small quantities of esoteric chemicals which are not found in nature. No one knows, and none of the Minister's advisers can possibly know, about the long-term effects of exposure to those chemicals.

This does not happen just in the micro-organism. It happens in the main body of the food. Food consists of proteins, fats and carbohydrates in exactly the same way as micro-organisms do. Small amounts of exotic chemicals are being added to the food by dosing it with radiation. I could give a long list, but the ones that are easily detected are peroxidated fatty acids and hydroxlated aromatics.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook , Stockton North

Do Ministers follow that?

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones , Clwyd South West

I do not think that they do. Those components are produced in the food and sometimes affect it so much that it becomes inedible—the Minister must know about that. Those compounds are there, organoleptically, by taste, in some foods. They are also in the foods that are not affected by taste. No one knows how they will affect humans if consumed over a long period. If those chemicals were added as a preservative, they would not be allowed.

To say that labelling gives people choice is nonsense. One Conservative Member has said that that is impossible in restaurants. They will choose the cheapest prawns for their curry. They will not bother to say that the prawns have been irradiated. It would certainly put off customers if they did. Labelling is no use without a test that can prove irradiation. Such a test does not exist. If it did, it would be testing for the very chemicals that cause the problem in the long term. If we are talking about choice for consumers, we should not even consider irradiation of food.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill , Ludlow 11:13 pm, 12th July 1989

I support the Government motion and oppose the Opposition amendment. I support the Government because they are being consistent with their policy to make their decisions in the light of the best available scientific evidence. There is an overwhelming weight of scientific evidence in favour of food irradiation. The toxicological, microbiological and nutritional effects of irradiation have been studied extensively and as a result the process has been declared safe by international and United Kingdom scientific committees. It has been tried and tested for decades—for more than 45 years. American astronauts, for example, take irradiated food on missions and in 1991, the first—

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill , Ludlow

No, because I am conscious of the fact that some of my hon. Friends and a few Opposition Members wish to speak.

In 1991, the first Briton in space will eat irradiated food with the cosmonauts aboard the USSR satellite MIR.

Throughout the Opposition's contributions to the debate there is an innuendo about a lack of control and labelling. One fact that they fail to mention, which has not so far been mentioned in the debate, is that the cost of an irradiation plant is between £3 million and £5 million. I venture to suggest that the Government will know exactly where the irradiation plants are. I am persuaded that that is a true statement of fact because I understand that, at present, no such plants are manufactured or available in the United Kingdom and would, therefore, have to be imported, thereby reinforcing my argument that the Government would know exactly where the plants were.

All known processes for preserving food rely on arresting or slowing the natural process of food spoilage. It is inconceivable that irradiation will make unsafe or bad food into good food.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) made a point about the poultry industry. I agreed when he said that the poultry industry was hard pressed; most hon. Members would agree with that. However, he failed to appreciate that poultry producers will be able, when the legislation is passed, to choose to irradiate their product to make it safer for the consumer. The consumer, likewise, can then exercise his or her option to buy the irradiated product, which will give greater confidence in that product. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North suggested, that could be a boon to the poultry industry and to poultry consumers. Let us make it clear that the Government are not compelling producers to irradiate their products.

The Opposition amendment refers to "chemical changes in food". Irradiation does not lead to any significant loss of vitamins in food and, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said, it does not make that food radioactive. The Opposition also talk about contaminated food being sold as clean food. If food is of an unacceptable microbiological standard before the process, those same factors will give it away after the process. That is a fact. The Opposition then speak about—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members listen, they might learn something. The best—

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack , Fylde

Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill , Ludlow

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Opposition must agree with the following because they are their words. They talk of the best ways of solving the current epidemic of food poisoning and ensuring that the consumer has confidence in the safety of food. What they deliberately omit to say is that 90 per cent. of food-borne illness worldwide is caused by salmonella and campylobacter, according to the World Health Organisation. Surely the Opposition know that listeria, salmonella and campylobacter can all be dealt with effectively by food irradiation.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen 11:19 pm, 12th July 1989

My first point concerns dosages. In his statement in June, the Minister said that the dosages involved were very low—a maximum of 10 kilogray. I took it upon myself as a scientist to look up exactly what that meant. Suppose that, instead of food, one of us were in the conveyor belt going through the irradiating machine; the 10 kilogray dosage would be lethal. It is equivalent to the exposure that we would receive from 100 million chest X-rays. It would destroy every single cell in our body. Indeed, the purpose of food irradiation is to kill every live cell in food. When we hear talk of low doses of irradiation, we must recognise it as an absolute lie. We are talking about massive doses.

It is therefore not surprising that subjecting food to irradiation has a substantial effect on the carbohydrates, fats, proteins and every chemical component. It can also result in a cooked texture or rancid flavours of fats. When exposed, fruits and vegetables become soft because the cellulose molecules are broken down.

What particularly alarms me about the concept of irradiating food is that it produces prodigious quantities of free radicals—that is fragmented molecules—with molecules split in half, carbon-carbon bonds split in half and so on. Free radicals are very reactive and when they combine they form all sorts of mutants or deviants of their original structure. Irradiation will hydroxylate benzene rings and who knows what will be produced out of the food. As a former research chemist, my strong instinct—I have not yet gone into the subject fully—is that many of the products of irradiation will be carcinogenic.

When I examined the evidence for and against food irradiation in preparation for the debate, I found that the quality of the research into food irradiation, carried out 40 years ago and since, is very unsatisfactory. One finds a great deal of falsification of evidence and cheating, and many untrue claims have been published. There is evidence of lower birth rates, lower growth rates, kidney damage, increased incidence of tumours, chromosome defects and a lowering of resistance to disease—of the immune system —in animals fed with irradiated foods. I am most concerned, therefore, about the long-term safety implications for human health of eating large quantities of irradiated foods.

We have heard tonight of various committees making declarations about the safety or otherwise of irradiated food. For me, at any rate, the No. 1 organisation must be the British Medical Association, which has no vested interest in irradiated food. It is interested only in the health of the population. I am sure that the Minister will be well aware that the BMA said in the conclusion to its report: The Board believes that the current advice may not sufficiently take account of, still less exclude, possible long-term medical effects on the population. If the BMA says that, we should listen. The non-scientists among us should bear that advice in mind.

We have heard that 35 countries allow food irradiation—125 do not. Of the 35 that do, only 21 use it, and in a trivial way, on very few foods; less than 0—1 per cent. of the food eaten in those countries is irradiated. It is no great answer to our salmonella, listeria and botulism problems. On an international scale, food irradiation is trivial.

The Government should listen to what consumers are saying loud and clear. According to every survey, they are saying that they do not believe that food irradiation is safe and that they will choose not to buy irradiated food. The Government have had some green pretensions in the past year or so but, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said the other day, it is a case of talking green but acting dirty. That is happening with irradiated food.

Photo of Mr Richard Alexander Mr Richard Alexander , Newark 11:24 pm, 12th July 1989

This year there has been an unprecedented upsurge in interest in food matters by the media and others, including the anti-egg lobby, the anti-cook-chill lobby, and the plain sensational lobby. The housewife does not know where she stands. All food is in danger of having bacteria in it. Most food has bacteria in it. All food that is not cooked properly is a danger. We must avoid poisoning from bugs in food. No one in his right mind eats raw food. The Government can exhort the housewife to cook food properly and manufacturers can tell her how best to do it, but, if she ignores those common-sense instructions, there will be food poisoning and people will harm themselves and have tummy upsets to a greater or lesser extent.

Irradiation has the power to eliminate most problems, yet, somehow, people are being made to fear irradiation, even though the Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods has concluded that, subject to correctly applied doses, irradiation can be safe and food can remain wholesome. The House has heard from the Opposition that irradiation can make food look different.

Photo of Mr Richard Alexander Mr Richard Alexander , Newark

I am sorry, I will not give way. I am short of time.

Irradiation cannot make any difference to the look of food; it just prolongs its useful life. Nor, as the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) claims, will it encourage sloppy standards. People will not say that, because food is irradiated, they need not bother to cook it properly. That is another bad argument against irradiation. Irradiation kills the bacteria and bugs that cause food poisoning, and it also prolongs shelf-life.

It must be stressed time and again that irradiation cannot make bad food good. In a few years, irradiation will be as acceptable as cook-chill is now. [Laughter.] Yes, cook-chill is acceptable, and so is microwave cooking. I am not suggesting that it is compulsory. My right hon. Friend has said that people will be told when food is irradiated and they will be able to make their own consumer choice.

The British Poultry Federation, whose briefing has already been mentioned this evening, has made an interesting point. It says, "OK, we have spent a lot of money on improving our produce and on reassuring the consumer that our food is first class. If we are doing all this, why should we then have irradiation on top of it?" That is a fair point, but perhaps the federation will have to live with it. We need the two standards of food production: first, at production level and, secondly, to prolong food life by irradiation, as is now proposed.

My right hon. Friend must take cognisance of hon. Members' concern about the implementation of the EEC proposals. They cannot be implemented until all the safeguards that have rightly been announced are in place.

Those safeguards will be vital in ensuring consumer confidence. Clear labelling and absolute certainty that the levels are safe and are not in any way cumulatively poisonous will be essential. It is vital that the consumer is reassured that there will be no harmful side effects. The experts have let us down so often over the years in food and other matters that the housewife is entitled to that belt and braces reassurance. We need that double assurance, but, once we have it, we would be foolish to turn our back on the technique. The Government have a public relations job to do in that area, and in carrying out that task they will certainly have my support.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell , Great Grimsby 11:30 pm, 12th July 1989

Grimsby is Europe's food town with the biggest concentration of food production and expertise in Europe.

It is important that we consider the views of the consumer who is reluctant to see the irradiation process introduced. I can be brief in giving the three reasons why I do not think that we should accept the directive and why we should not lift the ban. The first and most central one is that there is no way of detecting whether food has been irradiated. There is no way of checking on the process, which means that we cannot maintain effective controls. We do not know how many times food has been processed or whether it has been processed. Labelling is no use at all for consumers in restaurants, canteens or hospitals. How is the consumer at that level to know whether food has been irradiated? How are we in the House of Commons canteen to know? How are people in the Health Service to know, bearing in mind that the Health Service has rushed into cook-chill and accepted a weakening of its standards in that respect? The fact that there is no means of detection is one of the central arguments against accepting the directive.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz , Leicester East

Does my hon. Friend agree that the public's perception of this will be that the Minister's cavalier attitude to public health and food hygiene and his slavish support for this directive amounts to the legalised contamination of our food?

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell , Great Grimsby

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The public's fear of this process will not be allayed by the way in which it is being rushed through.

My second point bears on that. I am satisfied with what the Minister said about the process being policed in this country, but I am not satisfied that it will be policed as effectively in all the other EEC countries or that the Commission will maintain an effective control. How are we to know what happens in Spain, with its well-known attitude to cooking oil? How are we to know that the process will be policed effectively in Greece or other countries?

My third point—again, it is a central point—is that the process will be used to disguise failure. The way to eliminate problems and to upgrade standards is by continuous improvements in inspection, control, regulations, and in the hygiene with which food is processed and treated. Irradiation is a way of disguising failure in those directions. I have outlined the way to improve things. Irradiation is a cheap and rather nasty alternative. On those grounds, we should support the amendment.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly 11:32 pm, 12th July 1989

I begin by raising a procedural point with you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand that, under Standing Order No. 14, you are empowered not to put the Question that we are debating if you consider that the matter has not been properly debated.

We are debating a matter of considerable importance. Although I make no criticism of the three Front Bench spokesmen who made their cases, they took half the time available for the debate. Many hon. Members of all parties have been trying to speak but have been unable to do so. All hon. Members who have spoken have been reasonable and have made speeches of only two or three minutes in an attempt to ensure that the debate covers all the issues. However, most importantly, we have had an admission from the Minister that, whether or not the European Commission approves the document that we are being asked to take note of tonight, the Government intend to act unilaterally by legislation and to lift the ban on food irradiation in this country.

Therefore, I submit to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this is not an ordinary debate. It is not a take-note debate; it is a major debate on a matter of major national importance. I shall submit to you at the close of my remarks the sincere request to consider not putting the Question that we are debating.

When the Minister opened the debate, he made much of the question of consumer choice. He presented the argument for irradiation as one that would assist consumers in making a choice as to whether they would wish to purchase irradiated food or not. I put it to the Minister that, if the freedom that he wants to extend to consumers is to be meaningful, people who are purchasing food must have the means to know whether that food has been irradiated or not. The central argument concerns the diagnostic test, which the Minister in his 15-minute address did not mention once, but which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). The Opposition would take a different view if we knew that there was a diagnostic test. If it was possible to test whether food had been irradiated or not, consumers would be given a meaningful choice.

I put it to the Government that that originally was their view. Two years ago, I asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for his view on labelling: Is it the Government's view that labelling will have to be introduced but that, to make such labelling effective, there will have to be a system of tests to allow for independent analysis of products which might or might not have been irradiated? The Parliamentary Secretary replied: The hon. Gentleman has summed up all the difficulties that we presently have with regard to irradiation and people's fears of it. As he said, if we are to label products, there must be some way of testing whether irradiation has occurred." —[Official Report, 22 October, 1987; Vol. 120, c. 906–7.] That was the Government's view two years ago. What has happened since to persuade them to change their mind? Could it have been salmonella, the importation of rotten meat from Ireland, listeria, or the exposure of the deficiencies in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food by the former Under-Secretary of State for Health? Something has happened to cause the Government to change their view. We have not heard one mention tonight of labelling. We will get instead a massive propaganda campaign at the public expense to try to persuade the public to accept irradiation.

The Minister and his colleagues may attempt to persuade the public. However, my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) and for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) in their expert contributions—expert in the proper sense of the word—made it clear that the food industry is not convinced. We have heard that the British Poultry Federation, which represents all sectors of the poultry industry, is not prepared to countenance irradiation.

Nor is the shellfish industry—the one industry that we are told is particularly appropriate for the use of irradiation. The campaign against irradiation has, in fact, been led by the prime exponent of modern techniques in preserving shellfish—Mr. Ken Bell from Newcastle upon Tyne. He is the chief executive of a company of international esteem. In 1979, he received the Queen's award for export achievement. His view on irradiation is this: Customers in Germany have actually told me that for them our promise never to sell irradiated products is a guarantee of their quality. In countries where food irradiation is legal, buyers and the consumer are unable to be sure whether the food they buy has been irradiated, or to know how it was contaminated in order to make irradiation necessary. That was precisely the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Sheilds (Dr. Clark), and precisely the point that the Minister and his colleagues failed to address in the debate.

We have heard supporting speeches from some of the Minister's friends, and we have heard the argument time and time again that "irradiation cannot make bad food good". That was the Minister's claim, and that was the parrot cry that came from Conservative Members. I have to tell those hon. Members, however, that the technology of irradiation is capable of precisely that. Conservative Members may not have the Indian Express, which is published in Bombay, on their daily list of required reading. I shall hand the Minister a copy of that paper dated 1 February 1989. If Conservative Members listen carefully they might learn something from one of its articles, which said: Nuclear proliferation has arrived in India: not through the fabrication of high-profile atomic warheads, but through more subtle means. It stated that the Indian Government had approved the use of irradiation and the article continued: It was believed that the wastes from any town"— human sewage— could meet part of its ruminant feed requirements from sewage sludge which had been 'suitably disinfected'. The technology that the Government are prepared to legalise in this country is now being used in the Third world to disinfect human sludge to be recycled as animal feed. That is a case of technology going berserk. Tonight is also a case of the Government ignoring the dangers from BSE—bovine spongiform encephalopathy—and from the other ways in which food can be contaminated.

The case for irradiation has not been proved. I put it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that there is an overwhelming case on which you should rule tonight for this matter to be debated further.

Photo of Mr Richard Ryder Mr Richard Ryder , Mid Norfolk 11:40 pm, 12th July 1989

Bacterial contamination of food by salmonella, campylobacter and listeria is an international problem. The Labour party's insinuation that it is confined to our shores or is more prevalent in Britain defies logic and merits mockery.

No panacea, no quick fix, to use the description deployed by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and no magic formula can remove the problem altogether. That is why it is imperative to tackle food poisoning through a range of measures used at every stage of the chain—and irradiation must be one weapon in our large armoury.

Highly qualified scientists, men and women of great probity and distinction, drawn from the World Health Organisation, and from the Food and Agriculture Organisation firmly believe that food irradiation can help to reduce food poisoning by enhancing safety standards for poultrymeat, some shell fish and herbs and spices. Despite that, Labour Members have tried to argue that food irradiation is untested if not untried and, if not untested, is unsafe. Such claims are nonsense—minor triumphs of obliquity over reason.

There is nothing dangerously new about irradiation. Ionising radiation was first discovered in 1896 and its practical use was first pursued in 1921. Since then its value and safety have been checked and double checked by international scientists. They have confirmed the safety and wholesomeness of irradiated food and they have underlined its benefits to the consumer. The WHO, the FAO, the EC scientific committee on food and our Advisory Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods chaired by Sir Arnold Burgen, the master of Darwin college, Cambridge, have all reached the same conclusions. Their evaluations have already led 35 other countries, including the United States, Japan, Socialist France, Socialist Spain, Socialist Norway and Socialist New Zealand.

Photo of Mr Richard Ryder Mr Richard Ryder , Mid Norfolk

All right, perhaps Socialist Cuba will do. Despite overwhelming international approval for irradiation, the dear old Labour party casts aspersions on its safety. It shuns not only the advice of scientists, but its Socialist brethren Governments abroad.

I have a sneaking respect for the hon. Member for South Shields, but faced with the choice of accepting scientific advice on food safety from him or from the WHO, I opt for the latter. I fancy that if the Labour party was in power it would do the same.

The truth is that all the main international, reputable health agencies favour irradiation—35 countries permit it. Irradiation may already be used in Britain for hospital patients with suppressed immune systems, but I do not hear the Labour party complain about that.

The process will be strictly controlled by licences and inspections. Irradiated food will be properly labelled. Consumers will have the freedom to buy irradiated food and they will have the freedom not to buy it.

In a bid to embrace as many emotive expressions as possible, the Opposition have cobbled together an amendment which succeeds only in combining ignorance with blinding glimpses of the obvious. The amendment observes that irradiation exposes the consumer to chemical changes in food". So what? Any method of processing food involves chemical changes. Simply heating food causes chemical changes. Does it expose the consumer to risks?

Contrary to what the Opposition appear to believe, chemical changes in food from irradiation are less than in other processes. I can only assume that the Labour party's ignorance on the subject is a voluntary misfortune. If it denies—

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I have listened very carefully to the comments of the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) as, indeed, I have listened to this entire debate. I am also aware of the powers given to the Chair under the Standing Order. I believe that there has been adequate time for this debate and I must now put the Question.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand your ruling, but can I ask you to reconsider? I am sure that the number of hon. Members who have been in the Chamber throughout the debate must be clear evidence that the House has not had sufficient opportunity to debate the issue. We need further debate. There are points of view that have not been expressed.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. As I have made clear, I have listened to this entire debate. I have heard every hon. Member who has spoken. I am aware of the seriousness of the matter, but I have a duty to perform, and that duty now is to put the Question.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 127, Noes 182.

Division No. 297][11.46 pm
AYES
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyClark, Dr David (S Shields)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Clay, Bob
Berth, A. J.Clelland, David
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Bermingham, GeraldCohen, Harry
Blair, TonyCook, Frank (Stockton N)
Boyes, RolandCook, Robin (Livingston)
Bradley, KeithCousins, Jim
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)Cox, Tom
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)Cryer, Bob
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)Cummings, John
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)Cunliffe, Lawrence
Buckley, George J.Dalyell, Tam
Caborn, RichardDarling, Alistair
Callaghan, JimDavies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'I)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)Dewar, Donald
Campbell-Savours, D. N.Doran, Frank
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)Dunnachie, Jimmy
Eadie, AlexanderMichie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)
Eastham, KenMitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Fearn, RonaldMorgan, Rhodri
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)Morley, Elliott
Fisher, MarkMurphy, Paul
Foster, DerekO'Brien, William
Fyfe, MariaParry, Robert
Galbraith, SamPatchett, Terry
Godman, Dr Norman A.Pendry, Tom
Gordon, MildredPike, Peter L.
Graham, ThomasPowell, Ray (Ogmore)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Primarolo, Dawn
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)Quin, Ms Joyce
Hardy, PeterRedmond, Martin
Haynes, FrankReid, Dr John
Hinchliffe, DavidRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
Home Robertson, JohnRuddock, Joan
Howells, GeraintShort, Clare
Hoyle, DougSkinner, Dennis
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Illsley, EricSmith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Ingram, AdamSoley, Clive
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Spearing, Nigel
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)Stanbrook, Ivor
Lamond, JamesSteel, Rt Hon David
Leadbitter, TedSteinberg, Gerry
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)Strang, Gavin
Livsey, RichardTaylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Lofthouse, GeoffreyTurner, Dennis
Loyden, EddieVaz, Keith
McAllion, JohnWall, Pat
McAvoy, ThomasWallace, James
Macdonald, Calum A.Walley, Joan
McFall, JohnWareing, Robert N.
McKelvey, WilliamWatson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
McLeish, HenryWelsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Madden, MaxWilliams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Mahon, Mrs AliceWilson, Brian
Marek, Or JohnWise, Mrs Audrey
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Worthington, Tony
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)Tellers for the Ayes:
Meale, AlanMrs. Llin Golding and
Michael, AlunMr. Allen McKay.
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley}
NOES
Alexander, RichardBurt, Alistair
Alison, Rt Hon MichaelButcher, John
Amess, DavidButterfill, John
Amos, AlanCarrington, Matthew
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Cash, William
Ashby, DavidChalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Chapman, Sydney
Baldry, TonyChope, Christopher
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)
Batiste, SpencerConway, Derek
Bellingham, HenryCoombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Bevan, David GilroyCouchman, James
Blackburn, Dr John G.Cran, James
Boscawen, Hon RobertCurrie, Mrs Edwina
Boswell, TimDavies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaDavis, David (Boothferry)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Day, Stephen
Bowis, JohnDevlin, Tim
Brandon-Bravo, MartinDorrell, Stephen
Brazier, JulianDouglas-Hamilton, Lord James
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterDurant, Tony
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)Dykes, Hugh
Buck, Sir AntonyEggar, Tim
Burns, SimonEvans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)
Evennett, DavidMarshall, John (Hendon S)
Fallon, MichaelMartin, David (Portsmouth S)
Favell, TonyMaude, Hon Francis
Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Finsberg, Sir GeoffreyMay hew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Fishburn, John DudleyMellor, David
Forman, NigelMiller, Sir Hal
Forth, EricMills, Iain
Fowler, Rt Hon NormanMitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Franks, CecilMitchell, Sir David
Freeman, RogerMorris, M (N'hampton S)
French, DouglasMorrison, Sir Charles
Gale, RogerMoss, Malcolm
Garel-Jones, TristanMudd, David
Gill, ChristopherNeedham, Richard
Goodson-Wickes, Dr CharlesNelson, Anthony
Gow, IanNeubert, Michael
Greenway, John (Ryedale)Nicholls, Patrick
Gregory, ConalNicholson, David (Taunton)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)
Gummer, Rt Hon John SelwynNorris, Steve
Hague, WilliamOnslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Hampson, Dr KeithOppenheim, Phillip
Hannam, JohnPaice, James
Harris, DavidPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Hawkins, ChristopherPorter, David (Waveney)
Hayes, JerryPowell, William (Corby)
Hayward, RobertRaffan, Keith
Heathcoat-Amory, DavidRaison, Rt Hon Timothy
Heddle, JohnRedwood, John
Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)Riddick, Graham
Hind, KennethRidley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Hordern, Sir PeterRoberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Howard, MichaelRowe, Andrew
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)Ryder, Richard
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)Sackville, Hon Tom
Hunt, David (Wirral W)Sayeed, Jonathan
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)Shaw, David (Dover)
Hurd, Rt Hon DouglasShephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Irvine, MichaelShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Jack, MichaelShersby, Michael
Janman, TimSkeet, Sir Trevor
Jessel, TobySmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Soames, Hon Nicholas
Jones, Robert B (Herts W)Speller, Tony
Jopling, Rt Hon MichaelSpicer, Michael (S Worcs)
King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Knapman, RogerSteen, Anthony
Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)Stern, Michael
Knowles, MichaelStevens, Lewis
Knox, DavidStewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Lawrence, IvanStewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Lennox-Boyd, Hon MarkStradling Thomas, Sir John
Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)Summerson, Hugo
Lightbown, DavidTaylor, Ian (Esher)
Lilley, PeterTebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Lord, MichaelTrippier, David
Lyell, Sir NicholasWaddington, Rt Hon David
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnWatts, John
MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)Wheeler, John
Maclean, DavidWiddecombe, Ann
McLoughlin, PatrickWinterton, Mrs Ann
McNair-Wilson, Sir MichaelWinterton, Nicholas
McNair-Wilson, Sir Patrick
Malins, HumfreyTellers for the Noes:
Mans, KeithMr. John M. Taylor and
Maples, JohnMr. Kenneth Carlisle.

Question accordingly negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 10377/88, relating to irradiation of foodstuffs; and supports the Government's intention to seek to ensure that a directive is adopted that will allow the use of the process under conditions that will fully safeguard the interests of the consumer.