Food Irradiation Commission

Orders of the Day — Food Safety Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 4:36 pm on 7th June 1990.

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'.—(1) There shall be established a body to be called the Food Irradiation Commission ("the Commission") to perform the functions assigned to the Commission by or under this section.

(2) The members of the Commission, of whom there shall be not less than ten, shall be appointed by the Minister after consultation with such persons and organisations as he considers appropriate, and shall include at least one representative each from a consumers' organisation and from a food enforcement authority.

(3) The Commission shall give advice to the Minister on matters relating to the implementation of this section or the exercise of any power conferred by it, or otherwise relating to food irradiation, where the Commission consider it expedient, or they are requested by the Minister to do so.

(4) The Commission shall have a duty to examine all matters relating to food irradiation and shall draw up a plan to do so.

(5) The plan established under subsection (4) above shall include—

  1. (a) measures to establish the effects of irradiation on pesticide residues and other toxins in food;
  2. (b) measures to establish the effects of irradiation on vitamin content and nutritional value of food;
  3. (c) measures to establish the effects of irradiation on food additives and food packaging material;
  4. (d) measures to establish a diagnostic test to determine whether food has been subject to irradiation;

(6) No regulations under this Act authorising the irradiation of food shall be made before the results of the plan established under subsection (4) above have been published and such plan has been subject to scrutiny by both Houses of Parliament.'.

Dr. Clark:

We are discussing the Bill at a most appropriate time, when the entire country's attention is focused on food safety as a result of bovine spongiform encephalopathy—the mad cow scare—and the Minister's efforts in Brussels, to which we shall refer later this evening.

If we had not had the BSE scare, probably one of the most contentious issues relating to food safety would have been food irradiation. As Opposition Members have made clear, we welcomed the Government's intention and efforts in bringing forward the Bill. We did not vote against it on Second Reading, although we generally felt that it did not go far or fast enough; we had a useful and constructive Committee stage, in which we made progress. However, the one issue that deeply divided the two sides of the House was food irradiation.

Food irradiation is a technology looking for a use. For the past 50 years, it has been hawked around the world as a panacea for food poisoning. The British Government have sacked thousands of scientists in food and agricultural research; have cut the number of vets employed by the state by 27 per cent.; have allowed the shortage of environmental health officers to amount to more than 420; have closed research stations; and have weakened regulations. That has resulted in an inevitable food poisoning epidemic. In their desperation, the Government have jumped on the irradiation bandwagon. They see it as the easiest route out of their self-created problem. It is their magic quick fix. However, their actions are wrong, for a number of reasons.

It is ironic that, as the rest of the world begins to turn its back on irradiation, our hard-pressed and desperate Government have seized on the technology as a drowning man clutches at a straw.

It is interesting that even in Europe, where tentative steps have been taken towards Europeanwide legislation that is the only sensible approach in the long term—there have been difficulties. The European Commission put forward limited proposals for irradiation—much more limited than those that the Government are proposing. The European Parliament rejected them. The Commission has now put forward even more limited proposals. It is rather strange that our Government, alone in Europe, appear to be rushing headlong into adopting legislation.

When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope that he will tell us why the Government have announced their intention to proceed with legislation on food irradiation even before the draft directive has been agreed in Europe. It is nonsensical. Why jump the gun? Why do the Government want private investors to invest in very expensive irradiation plants when the European Community may make the process illegal? I draw the Minister's attention to the House of Lords Select Committee report published on 12 December 1989. There is a weakness in the Government's case that highlights their desperation to find a way out of their problems with food poisoning.

The Opposition have fundamental objections to irradiation and we oppose it for a number of reasons, many of which we have outlined previously in the House and in Committee. The first and possibly the greatest weakness in the case for irradiation is the fact that there is no test. It is illogical to allow a scientific process that even the Government and the European Community accept can be dangerous if too high levels of irradiation are used. If it cannot be told whether a product has been irradiated, the extent of the irradiation cannot be measured. That is a basic weakness which makes the whole process potentially dangerous.

Re-irradiation is even more dangerous. The kilograys are cumulative. If food is irradiated at 10 kilograys—the maximum permitted by the EEC—and then it is done again, that makes 20 kilograys, which is above the safety level. There is no way to test whether the food has been irradiated. That is the most basic weakness in the case for irradiation.

We are constantly told that irradiation is a well-known, well-established science, although I believe that much of the information relating to it is rather sketchy at times and selective. Much of the science of irradiation was carried out many years ago and much of the new information coming on stream casts doubt on the process. For example, we do not know sufficient about the effects of food irradiation on pesticides, food additives or food packaging. There are more and more complicated chemical cocktails in our pesticides. We hope that they are more effective and, indeed, more environmentally friendly. Certainly, we should be trying to achieve that. However, many of the pesticides leave persistent residues on the skin of the food. We do not know the effect of irradiation on the chemical cocktails that make up those pesticides. We may know the effect of irradiation in isolation, but not in a mixture.

4.45 pm

That view is held by the Department's scientists. 'We often hear Ministers saying that they always take the advice of their scientists. We know that that is not the case—they are most selective and take advice only when it suits them and saves them money. The Department's research consultative committee's residues sub-group expressed concern about 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. I hope that the Minister will think again about that aspect of irradiation and, for once, listen to his scientists. If he has better scientific advice than that, perhaps he can tell us what it is.

Another basic objection to irradiation involves the argument that it can be used to clean up contaminated food. Conservative Members who are in favour of the technology say that that is impossible. Not only can we challenge that argument but we can give chapter and verse of food that was presented as good food when previously it had been condemned as unfit. I do not want to bore the House, but it is important to put it on the record because we are having some difficulty in persuading Conservative Members that it happened. Bad food can be dressed up as good food.

I shall cite an example that has been proven in the courts of law in this country. In 1986 Young's found that prawns that it had imported did not match its public health standards. It sent the prawns to Gammaster's in Holland for a quick fix—they were irradiated—and they were then re-imported. They passed the bacteriological tests and were sold for human consumption. That is a proven case.

There are many other examples that have not yet been proved. Indeed, I informed the Minister's predecessor of a number of specific cases. I accept that it is difficult to get the cases to stand up in a court of law. However, it is a widespread technique that is known in the trade as "Dutching". If that sort of abuse happens when irradiation is illegal, I find it hard to believe that it would not continue if irradiation were legal. Irradiation will become the charter for the food cowboys. It is for that reason that most of the reputable food processors and food retailers in Britain will not touch irradiation with a bargepole. They reject it because not only do they believe that their food is safe, but they know that their consumers will reject it.

The other argument is that if we accept irradiation there will be no incentive for the food processors to follow the good and proper hygiene practices that are so necessary and that we intend to espouse if the Bill is enacted—for example, training, handling, and ensuring that the whole food chain is subject to good hygiene practices. Irradiation will lull people into a sense of false security. There is no alternative to properly organised and structured hygiene standards.

To make matters even worse, none of the recent incidents of food poisoning could have been prevented by irradiation. I use the word "incidents" as opposed to "scares" because "scares" implies that nothing happened. In these incidents people have tragically died. That is not media hype; it is fact. Therefore, let us consider some of the incidents and see whether irradiation could have tackled the problem.

The first great incident happened just 18 months ago when the then Under-Secretary of State for Health made her famous—or infamous—statement about eggs. That was the salmonella incident when we had the whole debate about chickens. The truth is that irradiation would not have helped one iota. Eggs cannot be irradiated. The Government took the right approach by tackling the disease at source and in that they had the Opposition's support. We are pleased that they took that approach. Equally, it is difficult to irradiate chickens. The European Commission has dropped the concept of irradiating chickens. Sliced chickens can be irradiated, but not whole chickens without exceeding the safety levels of kilograys.

Of late, we have also heard a great deal about cheeses. About 15 months ago the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food threatened to ban soft cheeses from France because they carried listeria. The French Minister of Agriculture put pressure on him and our Minister caved in to that French pressure. History has repeated itself today.

What did we hear on Friday? Did the Minister intend to retaliate and ban French cheeses? No. He told the Tory Euro Members of Parliament, "We are not quite sure." But the newspapers had the story that we would take action against potentially dangerous French cheeses. The argument was—there is a certain logic in it—that many French cheeses are made from unpasteurised milk and there is some evidence that they could carry listeria. The matter is so serious that the American Government will not allow any soft French cheeses to enter America unless they are certified to be made from pasteurised milk. According to the American Government scientist, there is a safety risk, but irradiation would not help that one iota because cheese cannot be irradiated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) was very involved in the environmental health officers' discovery of contaminated pate from Belgium on sale in a supermarket in his constituency. But pate cannot be irradiated, so that would not have helped.

I could go on. We know that irradiation can kill bacteria, but it does not remove the toxins that are left behind in the food and in some cases it may not kill the spores that they form. There is an argument that killing the bacteria and leaving a sterile environment creates the conditions for new bacteria to breed in greater confusion. That argument applies if food has too long a shelf life.

There was the case of botulism in hazelnut yogurt. But that was due to toxins, not in the yogurt but in the purée, so irradiation could not have been used in that case where, tragically, two people died.

In the last 10 days my constituency has been affected by the shellfish issue. As the Minister knows, there has been a little controversy about that. When it was drawn to the Department of Health's attention that mussels off my constituency, which usually have a safety level of 400, were found to have a level of 20,000, it rightly issued warnings about their safety and urged people not to sell them. However, the Ministry did not excel itself, because it took seven days to publish the result of tests on other shellfish, crabs, lobsters and prawns, during which time the livelihood of many fishermen was put at risk.

But the point is that if any of those shellfish had been irradiated, even if they had been just above the safety level, they would not have been made safe because the contamination is the result not of bacteria but of toxins, and irradiation cannot kill toxins. The significance of that is that it is often argued that the real benefit of irradiation would be in the shellfish industry. Yes, it would kill the bacteria, but it would not kill the toxins which, by and large, are the fatal element in shellfish poisoning. That is why a major shellfish retailer, Mr. Ken Bell, in Newcastle has launched, at considerable expense, a long campaign against irradiation. When I asked why, he said that his shellfish were clean and good and that he could guarantee them. He did not believe that he needed to irradiate them in order to sell them. He believes that irradiation would diffuse the shellfish market because some cowboys would bring in shellfish which appeared to be clean but which were not, as happened in the 1986 Young's case—a proven case which no one can challenge.

Let me make one obvious point which must be made because some people are under an illusion. Irradiation would do nothing to kill the BSE agent causing mad cow disease.

As we press ahead with the move towards irradiation, other countries are turning their backs on it. Australia, which used to have irradiation, now has a three-year moratorium on it. Numerous states in the United States of America are now banning irradiation. It is often alleged that irradiation is widespread in the United States of America, but in most states it is illegal and most people do not realise that it is licensed for only two ranges of products—spices and tropical fruit. Irradiation is not used for any other products in the United States. Recently, Sweden has also announced a ban on the process. Tragically, as the rest of the world moves in one direction, the British Government move in the opposite direction—the wrong direction. The Government have taken that action because it is more palatable than the situation in which they now find themselves.

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

I have listened patiently, as have other right hon. and hon. Members, to the hon. Gentleman, who has been quick to make assertions but—surprisingly, in view of the length of notice of this debate—whose speech has been sadly lacking in detail. If he agrees that 50 to 60 per cent. of all food poisoning cases reported involve poultry, can he counter the comment made by no less a distinguished person than Professor Bevan Moseley, head of Reading food research institute, that the number of food poisoning cases in the United Kingdom could fall to 60 per cent. of the present number if irradiation is introduced? On the findings of which scientists do the Opposition base their arguments?

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Dr. Clark:

Obviously the hon. Gentleman will try to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have not given precise details because on Second Reading, in previous debates in the House, and in the Standing Committee on the Bill on 27 March, I quoted a number of scientists. I did not wish to labour that particular point again today. I have my doubts about the information that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) gave. It is generally alleged that most food poisoning incidents of late were related to eggs. I also repeat that even the European Commission now says that whole chickens cannot be irradiated because the bone interferes with the process. One can irradiate sliced chicken, but that is only a partial answer. The real answer is a proper hygiene code.

The Government are obsessed with irradiation because they cannot face up to the alternative of a complete U-turn. They will have to increase the number of state vets, whose numbers have been cut by 27 per cent. since the Government came to office in 1979. The Government will have to do something about training and finance for the environmental health service, which is currently 420 officers under strength. They will also have to do something about trading standards officers, who are currently 300 under strength. The Government will have to do something about bringing together new groups and teams of research scientists, so that problems can be tackled at the root, and about introducing tough new regulations to protect public health. The Government are not prepared to make a U-turn because that will cost them money—even though they know that they are putting the health of the public at risk by neglecting to make that U-turn. They turn instead to irradiation.

Irradiation is the only option that the Government will entertain. They view it as a cheap option, but it is one which nobody wants. Many reputable organisations oppose irradiation. The list goes on and on. They include the Institution of Environmental Health Officers, the British Medical Association, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the Consumer Association, most food retailers, and even the National Farmers Union.

I conclude with the most telling point of all, made by the technical executive of Marks and Spencer, Dr. Tom Clayton, who encapsulated the argument against irradiation best when he said: If food is already safe, as we believe it is, in our shops, there is no need for this extra process of irradiation. And he is absolutely right.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

Throughout the progress of the Food Safety Bill, irradiation is the topic that has most taken up the time of right hon. and hon. Members in expressing their concern, yet the Government have consistently shrugged off those concerns and clung to their own starting point—the argument that irradiation is not only safe but to be welcomed.

By doing so, the Government are flying in the face of the British Medical Association, public opinion, and evidence of the practice in other countries. It is hard to understand why they are taking such a hard line when there is no need to hurry. They are pushing through the introduction of a process that has not been fully researched, for which scientific evidence is not complete, and for which no diagnostic test has been developed for ascertaining whether the process is being abused by those with access to it.

Throughout our debates, I and other hon. Members have tabled amendments to meet the Government half way. We tried to place restrictions on the use of irradiation and to ensure that it is not introduced short of the introduction of techniques that will reassure the public that it is safe. The Government have resisted them all throughout. I tabled an amendment requiring novel food processes to be subject to affirmative resolution by both Houses. Another sought to list specific areas of concern that needed to be identified before irradiation is allowed and in which there remains some doubt. I refer to the lack of a diagnostic test, the effect of irradiation on pesticide residues and other toxins, food additives and food packaging materials, and vitamins. Another amendment would have delayed the introduction of regulations until the European Community had agreed a common position.

I support Labour's new clause I, and I have tabled one of my own that is intended to achieve the same effect, although in a different form. No doubt the Minister will argue that the new clauses would serve no useful purpose and that plenty of evidence is already available. We have already heard from the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that many questions hang over existing evidence and over other matters that the Government prefer to brush aside. The Minister must accept that other countries and many scientific bodies believe that the available evidence is still open to doubt or is against him, and that there is no pressing, urgent case for the early introduction of irradiation. The Minister may feel that the balance of opinion is the other way and that there are advantages in pressing ahead, but he cannot deny that there is a case to be made against doing so. Why should not the proposed new clauses be acceptable?

Throughout the progress of the Bill, the Government have quoted the evidence of the World Health Organisation in supporting their determination to force through legislation on food irradiation, while conveniently ignoring experts who urge caution. I draw the Minister's attention to what the European Parliament had to say on the matter, and to the publisher's note on the book "Food Irradiation Now", which appeared at the request of the WHO. It said: But WHO expressly stated that the Committee of Experts had not considered the general safety aspects of the food irradiation process nor had it claimed that food irradiation was safe or that it had no harmful effects on human health or could be applied without any health risks. After a general survey, however, the Committee of Experts have come to certain conclusions on the toxicological, microbiological and physiological acceptability of food irradiated with a total dose of up to 10 kGy. That is not wholehearted endorsement. The WHO is drawing attention to the fact that it was anything but a wholehearted endorsement—that the committee was satisfied only in respect of certain criteria relating to some aspects of irradiation that it had been asked to examine. That is not sufficiently reassuring to embark on the kind of changes now envisaged.

The European Parliament has expressed many concerns regarding irradiation. It said that, despite decades of research, it was not possible to prove that food irradiation caused no harm to health. It pointed out that practically all scientific studies admit a considerable degree of uncertainty as regards effects on human health, and that, it is not possible to prove that food has been irradiated, because there is no technical means of checking. It pointed out that, as a method of conservation, irradiation is no better or cheaper than other methods. Technological improvements to certain foods are of interest to manufacturers but not to consumers.

The Parliament also pointed out that the use of the technology involved is potentially more dangerous than other types of conservation, at least to employees exposed to risk in the plants, especially in the Third world. Incidentally, irradiation encourages the spread of nuclear technology outside the states that currently make use of it. It pointed out that irradiation can be used to deceive consumers about the freshness or ripeness of food. The microbicidal effect of irradiation varies considerably, and may lead to an increase in germs. It pointed out that the desired objectives of food irradiation can be achieved by other methods, and that it does not provide greater protection for consumers against spoiled food.

If that list of objections is not enough, I shall add another, which should be on the Minister's plate: recently the European Parliament voted by 263 votes to 66 against irradiation. As an EC country, Britain is not allowed to introduce legislation on a subject on which there is a directive pending or when the EC has said that it will legislate, so the Government would be breaking the spirit of that rule by pushing through legislation now.

I cannot understand how, in the face of the bulk of that evidence and of evidence from the British Medical Association, from environmental health officers, trading standards officers and the National Farmers Union, the Minister can still say that he believes that irradiation is proven to be absolutely safe. Until it is, the House should not pass legislation to allow irradiation to go ahead. The old adage, "If in doubt, don't", should apply.

I am glad that hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed those doubts and I hope that they will do so again tonight, if the Minister pushes the new clauses to a vote and does not accept the case that is being made. I hope that hon. Members will show that what they have said outside this place applies when it comes to a vote inside the House.

I hope that the Minister, at the last minute, will recognise that none of that is necessary. He simply has to swallow his pride and do something to respect and respond to the concerns of consumers, most of the scientific bodies and many people in the industry.

Photo of Mr Gordon Oakes Mr Gordon Oakes , Halton

I support new clause 1 and the new clause tabled by the Liberal Democratic party, which goes into somewhat more detail. Both are a step in the right direction.

Like the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), I am amazed at the obsessive determination of the Government, who have an almost evangelical zeal for irradiation. We have heard it from the Secretary of State and from the Parliamentary Secretary. My hon. Friend said that perhaps it is a panacea for the Government; because we do not have enough environmental health officers or Ministry vets, they may see irradiation as the answer. However, it seems to go beyond that because they argue the case for irradiation with passionate concern.

In a press release the Parliamentary Secretary, speaking on 1 March at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's food science laboratory in Norwich, used these words: A torrent of pseudo-science … science fiction … myth from publicity conscious activists in the media and elsewhere who are anxious to foist a particular viewpoint on to the public". That is dramatic language when talking about something like food irradiation.

Who are the people to whom the Parliamentary Secretary is referring? The Consumers Association—I know that the Government do not particularly like that association but it is vocal on behalf of consumers. Who else? The National Federation of Meat Traders, and who knows more about meat than that federation? It is opposed to irradiation. The British Medical Association is opposed to it, and what organisation knows more about the health of the nation than the BMA? The environmental health officers—as my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields said—are opposed and they are the watchdogs whose duty it is to protect public health and to protect people from bad food. They are violently opposed to irradiation. Who else? The National Federation of Women's Institutes—that revolutionary body of pseudo-scientists—opposes irradiation. It is not only the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats; as the Minister knows, many people are seriously concerned that the Government are trying to foist food irradiation upon an unwilling public.

I hope that the Minister will think again about new clause 1 and that some Conservative Members will come into the Lobby and vote for the clause—I am sure that many of them will. This is hardly a party political matter. The Government have made it that, not the Opposition. I am certain that many Conservative Members feel let down by their Front Bench spokesmen because of the Government's evangelical zeal for irradiation.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields listed many of the faults of irradiation. We are worried because it is uncertain and not sufficiently tried, tested and proven. Perhaps at some future date experiments will be done to make it safe, but we do not know whether it is safe at the moment.

5.15 pm

My main worry is the lack of detection for irradiation. The Government must admit that food irradiation can mask bad food, although the food may look all right. At present the housewife or purchaser can look at the food and say, "That looks off to me and I am not going to buy it". However, irradiated food looks in pristine health and consumers buy it as a result. If bad money can drive out good, bad food can drive out good food if irradiation is allowed.

I know that the Minister will say that irradiated food must be labelled by the shopkeeper. However, I have not had an answer to the point I raised on Second Reading about cafés and restaurants. If irradiated food is cheaper, the proprietors will buy it and they will not have two separate lists saying that this food is irradiated while that food is not. They will not tell their customers. Therefore, the consumer in the café will not know what he is eating and whether it is irradiated.

There will be no test whereby public health inspectors can detect whether food is irradiated. Nobody can tell how many times food has been irradiated. No one can tell the dosage of radiation. Before one allows irradiated food, it is essential that we know all those things. There must be a detection test, or we will be wholly dependent on the honesty and good will of the retailer, trader or café

The hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) mentioned food poisoning and quoted an eminent scientist who said that the number of cases would be halved with irradiation. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields answered that point. I did not know, and I do not think many hon. Members knew, that the only foods allowed to be irradiated in the United States of America are spices and tropical fruits. Can the Minister tell us how many cases of food poisoning and how many deaths have arisen because people have eaten spices or tropical fruit? They are not the causes of the trouble—it is such food as chicken, eggs and cheese, which cannot be irradiated. That is where the mischief is—not in spices and tropical fruit. If necessary, spices could have irradiation treatment. I understand that at the end of 1990 the present methods of making spices safe, using ethlyene oxide, will cease. Irradiation may be the answer, but it is not the only answer. I understand that the recent discovery and adoption by market leaders of a new steam pasteurisation process eliminates the use of ethylene oxide.

Even at this late stage, I ask the Government to listen to public opinion outside and to responsible organisations. They are not wild men but responsible organisations such as the National Federation of Meat Traders, the British Medical Association, the Consumers Association and the National Federation of Women's Institutes. If the Government will not listen to Opposition Members, they should listen to those organisations, and if they will not listen to them, will they please look behind them and listen to the voices that no doubt will be raised in the debate bitterly opposed to the foisting of irradiation on consumers and food in Britain?

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

This evening we are having an important debate on irradiation, but the speeches from Opposition Members have not been of the substance and quality that one might expect. We have heard a great deal of assertion and have seen a Luddite attitude which will come over clearly to those who follow our debates. However, if we introduce some common sense and scientific thought rather than allegation, we shall put the subject in its rightful context.

The first point on which I support my hon. Friend the Minister is that we are discussing an enabling piece of legislation. It is not forcing irradiation on anyone. Quite clearly, my hon. Friend is looking to those in the industry to introduce adequate tests. I share the concern of right hon. and hon. Members throughout the House about the inadequacy of tests at present and would not wish regulations to be put before the House until trading standards officers and environmental health officers, whom we rightly expect to implement the law passed in this country, should have the ability to check whether food has been irradiated. My hon. Friend has said in the House and in Committee that irradiated food will be labelled. The absence of such a label means that food has not been through that process.

The right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) referred obliquely to his concern about restaurants. A restaurateur would be required to identify those items on the menu that had been irradiated. Irradiation has been shown to be extremely useful in dealing with bacteria, particularly salmonella and listeria. Bacteria is all around us and irradiation is useful in killing or greatly reducing micro-organisms in poultry meat and some shellfish.

I imagine that a number of right hon. and hon. Members are old enough to remember the argument used against the pasteurisation of milk—that it would lead to a relaxation in efforts to reduce cattle disease. But the 3 per cent. of milk that remained unpasteurised was responsible for some 90 per cent. of milk-borne disease. Personally, I would rather herbs and spices were irradiated than put through the present procedures, although industry is looking carefully at that, and I should also feel happier about poultry products that had been irradiated. However, the shopper and the customer in the restaurant will have the choice; we are not forcing irradiation upon them.

Toxicological, microbiological and nutritional effects of irradiation have been studied extensively, and references have been made to a number of United Kingdom scientific committees. The World Health Organisation, the Food and Drugs Administration, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes show that irradiation has been tried and tested for decades. So we are not talking about a development that has occurred in the past few years; one has to go back to the 1920s when the process was invented. I understand that the 1991 mission into space—the Anglo-Soviet Juno flight—will carry irradiated food because the scientists advising those astronauts consider it the safest form of food.

I share the concern of those who expressed reservations about vitamin loss through irradiation, but clearly the process is favourable, in that it extends storage time. Many of us may have purchased food which, even within its storage life, has not lasted long. Had it been irradiated, those difficulties would not have occurred. Quite clearly, irradiation cannot improve the appearance of food, disguise taste or mask unpleasant odours. In all those respects, food manufacturers, retailers and restaurateurs will be careful before utilising the process.

In conclusion, we are talking about enabling legislation and we should get some common sense into our debate. I am quite sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will not put regulations before the House until adequate tests are in place. It is the right way forward to encourage industry to develop those tests and to ensure that trading standards officers and environmental health officers can enforce them. We should not adopt a Luddite attitude by putting our heads in the sand and saying that we shall throw out irradiation and join the extremely small group of countries that will not permit the procedure.

Photo of Alan Williams Alan Williams , Swansea West

I apologise to my namesake, my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams), for jumping in ahead of him. I also apologise to hon. Members who have participated in debates in Committee and throughout the proceedings on the Bill for intervening at such a late stage, but as a former consumer protection Minister, I cannot allow the Bill to complete its proceedings without intervening briefly to raise a couple of points.

I was most impressed by the speeches by my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) and by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) who introduced the new clauses. Contrary to what the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) said, I thought that all three hon. Gentlemen spoke with great moderation. There is no doubt about the sincerity of the points they raised, and they expressed them with great moderation and no attempt at scaremongering. The hon. Member for York and I have debated consumer affairs for many years, and we are often on the same side. I hope that he will not be offended when I say that the speech that he has just made does him the least justice of any I have heard him make.

The hon. Member accused my hon. Friends of being Luddite and then adopted their arguments. He said that it is Luddite not to permit irradiation, but that we should not introduce regulations until we can monitor them properly. I am sure that he was listening to my hon. Friends, but my understanding was that they were making exactly that point time and again. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields said that monitoring was essential. If the hon. Member for York adopts the criterion that we should not introduce irradiation until it can be monitored, he should agree that that cannot be undertaken while there is a shortage of 400 environmental health officers and 300 trading standards officers. When those services have been working to full establishment, they are overstretched in the range of their responsibilities. Even on his own basic criterion, the hon. Member for York has been making the same case that we have been trying to make—it is impossible to monitor irradiation.

It is bad enough when something unimportant is impossible to monitor. There are many rules and regulations that we should like to see enforced, but we recognise that they are not of fundamental importance. But in this case we are dealing with health, even with life and death. When public health is genuinely at risk, the benefit of the doubt must always be given to the consumer and to the public. Again, my hon. Friends have been trying to make that point. The Minister has argued at various stages that it is a matter of choice and that people will have a choice because irradiated food will be labelled.

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Good firms will label food but, as my hon. Friends have said, such firms will probably not need to use irradiated food. However, there is no choice if people do not know whether food has been irradiated, and there can be no knowledge where there is no monitoring and no way of testing. How can one have monitoring, for which the hon. Member for York called, if one cannot test? If he and I were to go to a restaurant after the debate to discuss our differences amicably, we could eat a meal of irradiated food and yet be utterly unaware of what we were consuming.

That in itself should be sufficient to cause any serious Minister to step back and to say, "Have we got it wrong?" Other people are willing to admit that they are wrong, so I hope that even at this stage—the consequences of getting it wrong are so serious—the Minister will be willing to recognise that he, rather than hon. Members who have been criticising him, is the one who is out of step.

Other countries are turning back, or saying that they must go no further and should have a moratorium. Other hon. Members have pointed out the severe limitation on the extent of irradiation in the United States, the most open market in the world. That should lead the Minister to realise that there is sufficient doubt about the scientific validity of irradiation for him to say that we should put irradiation aside.

We must think of the dangers implicit in going ahead. We are on the verge of 1992, with its acceleration of uniform rules, regulations and standards. Anyone investing in those processes who saw a 4:1 vote against irradiation in the European Parliament, who saw the European Commission watering down its proposals at each successive stage as it got cold feet, and who realised that the proposal for irradiation would not get through would know that he had to make a rate of return quickly. It may happen that, despite the Minister, Europe will declare irradiation illegal after 1992 and, after all, there is already a draft directive. In a few years, decisions will be made by a majority vote, and Ministers will no longer have a veto. That will be an incitement to those who invest in the equipment and processes necessary for irradiation to ensure that they get a return as quickly as they can.

In the food industry, as in any other, there are many good people, but there are also some villains. Those villains could poison people and could cause enormous damage to public health. The food industry is competitive and the aim is to operate at minimum cost, especially at the quick food end, which has a consumer body of youngsters and children. The quick food industry caters for the most vulnerable and those who have the least experience on which to judge what is safe, yet it is the area most likely to be persuaded to use cheaper, irradiated products. There is danger to the public here, which the Minister appears to be utterly unwilling to address.

New clause 7 proposes a commission. I want to make a rather technical point which is relevant to the proposal. Whether such a commission makes sense depends on the Government machinery within which it operates. As a result of food poisoning and the various scares over the past couple of years, there has been talk of a Ministry of Food as opposed to a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. That is a misguided approach—and I go further. What is needed is a separate Ministry of Consumer Interests and Affairs.

I do not say that because I am a former Minister in the Department of Prices and Consumer Protection. The Ministry in which I served lasted for six years and then ceased to exist for a reason that would apply to a Ministry of Food. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members do not seem to want to listen. I was describing my experience of operating within a Department and trying to achieve some of the benefits that we all want for our constituents. The Department was too narrowly based to be viable in the long term and there was not sufficient work load to sustain it. It did not have responsibility for food, as I should have liked. The same would happen to a Ministry of Food.

I gladly support the commission to deal with irradiation, as proposed in new clause 7. New clause 6 also suggests a monitoring organisation. By the time such organisations had been established, there would be limited work for a Ministry to carry out. However, the paradox is that, if those organisations are to be effective, they need a Minister at Cabinet level able to argue the consumers' case on an equal footing with the sponsoring Ministers arguing the industry's case. Although I support as a step the proposal for the commission and for the monitoring organisation, I ask Opposition Members, when considering the framework of Government that they would like to see, and I ask Conservative Members, to consider the possibility that what is needed is not a narrowly based and probably non-viable Ministry of Food, but a more widely based Ministry of Consumer Protection, with far wider interests.

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire

To some extent, I agree with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) about the idea of a watchdog and protector of consumer affairs who is concerned not only with food, but with consumer affairs in the widest sense. This country lacks a Ralph Nader. He was uncomfortable to many and caused many problems, but he did a good job in America. However, that is an argument for another place, for another time and, perhaps, on another Bill.

We have seen many scare tactics and misunderstandings about irradiation and about the purpose of the Bill. To understand irradiation and what it entails, we should consider the title of the Bill. Clause 7 creates an offence of rendering food "injurious to health" and refers to Any person who renders any food injurious to health by means of any of the following operations". They arc set out fully, and they include abstracting any constituent from the food; and subjecting food to any other process or treatment. That is apart from other substances. That matter is at the heart of the Bill.

As my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Gregory) rightly said, food irradiation is an old process. It started in the 1920s—it has been around a long time. It is part of many processes to make food good and wholesome, and it must be considered as a process alongside all the other processes. No doubt, if we went back to the early days of food canning—we may have to go back to Mrs. Beeton's days—I am sure that people would say, "We shall get food poisoning. It will not last. People will be very ill." I have not looked at the relevant Hansard, but I am sure that such a thought must have prevailed. We also have vacuum-packaging processes and gas treatments such as flushing. Some fruits are kept in inert gases such as nitrogen to preserve them. There are many processes, and irradiation is just another process.

Why are we so worried? We are told that irradiation does not deal with toxins, for example. If we were to can food that contained toxins, it would not make it any better. Even after the treatments that I have discussed, toxins would still remain in bad food. Why single out irradiation because it does not deal with toxins?

Irradiation does not make bad food good. It is an expensive way of dealing with bad food. The discerning housewife or restaurateur will not buy bad food because he or she demands food of high quality. However, irradiation may make bad food safe. That is another matter. By destroying biological processes, irradiation may destroy salmonella and various other things and render food safe, but it probably will not render it palatable. It will not make it the sort of food that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or I would wish to eat, but it will make it safe.

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew , Carlisle

Is the hon. Gentleman advocating that food that is going bad should be irradiated and sold''

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire

Of course I am not. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my argument he would know that. That remark is typical of the silly remarks that Opposition Members make. It is a red herring—I suppose it is an irradiated red herring.

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire

As the hon. Gentleman says, a pinkish herring. It makes nonsense of the argument that it creates good food—it does not. Bad food does not become good food as a result of irradiation, but it could become safe food. It is perfectly clear to me and to most sensible people that the housewife and the restaurateur will not buy food that is not of a high standard. Why should they pay a high price because food has gone through that process? It just will not stand the market.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), I fail to see the subtlety of the argument of the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby). He is saying that irradiation does not make bad food good, but it makes bad food safe. This is one of our concerns. Is not there a danger that poor-quality food will be irradiated and returned to the market?

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire 5:45 pm, 7th June 1990

The hon. Gentleman should listen to me. used the word "may", not "would". I enjoy cooking. I invite the hon. Gentleman to one of my gourmet meals over the weekend, when he may sample something that is cooked with good-quality food. You are invited also, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The good housewife—even the reasonable housewife—and the good Member of Parliament understand good-quality food and know that it will produce certain results. They will not tolerate bad-quality food. That is why the argument that bad-quality food will be irradiated is not sound. The market will not take it.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) referred to some prawns that were exported to Holland for irradiation and were re-imported into the United Kingdom. How would a housewife know whether prawns had been irradiated?

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire

The hon. Gentleman has obviously never been shopping for prawns. If he had, he would know jolly well what a good prawn looks like and what a bad prawn looks like. I suspect that a bad prawn is good only for a rather bad curry, rather than for a good prawn cocktail. I go shopping, so I have my feet on the ground in that respect.

This is an enabling provision. Irradiation will be subject to careful regulation and monitoring, and it will take place in proper premises that have been built for the purpose. Any food that is to be irradiated will be subject to instant inspection. I return to the tinned food analogy. How can we be certain about the quality of meat or any other item that is going into tinned food? We are satisfied with the quality of that food because food inspectors regularly inspect premises, processes and food. One can imagine the devastation that would be caused by a factory using bad food or a bad process. Several years ago, we had problems with poor meat from a canning factory in Argentina. I well remember the cases of salmonella that occurred as a result of that problem about 10 or 15 years ago. Such poisoning problems are as evident with canning as with any other process. However, irradiation will ensure that there is no salmonella poisoning. That is the one sort of poison that irradiation will eradicate.

Photo of Matthew Taylor Matthew Taylor Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Education), Chair of Communications, Liberal Democrat Party

The hon. Gentleman is laying a little too much stress on the example of tinning as a new process that has so far been successful. After all, many new things that are introduced are not successful. Over time, lead in petrol and chlorofluorocarbons have turned out to have bad consequences that were not envisaged at the time of their introduction. The fact that something is new does not necessarily make it right.

If the hon. Gentleman thinks that he can do so, will he publicly examine two prawns and tell us which has been irradiated and which has not? If he were to do so publicly, does he really think that he would get it right?

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire

I could not tell which prawn was irradiated and which was not—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."]—but I can tell which is a good prawn and which is a bad prawn——

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

The hon. Gentleman is truly a veritable gourmet.

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire

I would choose the prawn of the best quality. I would reject a bad-quality prawn that had been irradiated and thus rendered safe from bacteria because I should be able to tell that it was of bad quality even though it had been irradiated and was safe to eat. That is my point.

Not only will irradiation be monitored and subject to careful regulations, but irradiated food will also be subject to labelling. We must also bear in mind that there is consumer choice. The housewife—and, indeed, anyone else—has the right to choose the food she buys. That also means that she is choosing the system of food production. Labelling will give the housewife that choice. Nobody is pushing irradiated food down the throats of the public. People will be able to choose whether they wish to purchase irradiated food. Many retail stores around the country have already decided not to stock irradiated food. That is their choice and it will be a matter for the housewife's choice. In due course, the housewife may well demand that certain foods are irradiated. The decision of those retail stores may then be reversed. This is all part of consumer choice and free trade.

I am looking forward to the irradiation of food because it will improve the quality of some foods. Certain foods cannot be irradiated. The Opposition have referred to salmonella in eggs. Eggs cannot be irradiated, but the process can be applied to a whole host of other items.

I look forward to the day when I shall be able to choose tropical fruits that have been irradiated. I was born in a tropical country and have always enjoyed tropical fruits. At the moment most of the tropical fruits that I eat over here have been picked green and do not have the taste of the sun that I remember so well from my childhood. I am looking forward to eating fruits that have been picked much closer to the eating date, which have been ripened in the sun and irradiated so that I can eat them in this country with the full taste that I remember from my childhood. I am very much looking forward to that and to exercising my consumer choice.

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire

Yes. I am looking forward to irradiated mangoes, especially the small sweet ones.

The food industry in this country is run largely on the basis of trust, although there is regulation and inspection. The Opposition treat the food industry as though it was based on a conspiracy, but everything that we eat is produced largely on the basis of trust. The food industry is, and has shown itself to be, a trustworthy industry. Spot checks by health officials have shown that in the overwhelming majority of cases that trust has been kept by the food industry. I cannot believe that it will break that trust. I cannot believe that the retail chains will put their good names at risk or risk their livelihoods or the loyalty of their shareholders by putting into the food chain bad quality food which has been irradiated.

The Opposition are engaged in scare tactics. No scientific body can show that the proper irradiation of food is dangerous to health. Indeed, committees all over the world maintain that irradiation is a good system. It is one of many systems, which means that there will be choice. Consumers will not be forced to eat irradiated food which will be carefully labelled. I have no doubt that in due course irradiation will prove to be a popular system. I, for one, certainly look forward to it.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

When I heard the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) describe how he was looking forward to eating irradiated tropical fruits—and irradiated this and irradiated that—it reminded me of the enthusiasm for beefburgers of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and of how the right hon. Gentleman was willing to volunteer his little girl to test the safety of British beef. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for irradiation and his appetite for irradiated tropical fruits do not convince me that the process is safe.

Both the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory) have tried to label those who oppose radiation as Luddites and have said that they are somehow anti-progress and that they would have been anti-tin can if they had been born in that age. I must advise the hon. Gentlemen that the British Medical Association is among the opponents of irradiation. The BMA can hardly be described as Luddite because all the medical progress of the 20th century and the improvements in medical care have depended on the rapid implementation of all technical advances, including the use of irradiation. As we know, radiotherapy is part of cancer treatment. The BMA can see the benefits of radiotherapy, but it is discriminating enough to be concerned about the widescale application of irradiation to food for human consumption.

I am no Luddite. My professional training was as a scientist—as a chemist and a research worker in chemistry. I have examined the idea of food irradiation off and on for the past 15 years.

Photo of Mr David Ashby Mr David Ashby , North West Leicestershire

Will the hon. Gentleman explain why only irradiated food is given to people who have had transplants?

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

They need sterile food which contains no micro-organisms.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

I shall not give way again. Irradiation is one of the chief ways of sterilising medical equipment and, in the case of certain illnesses and transplants, food. That is for medical reasons.

6 pm

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

There is no comparison. One cannot conclude that irradiation is safe simply from the fact that someone who has had a heart transplant must eat sterile food. We shall come to some of the dangers of irradiation shortly.

As a chemist I have examined the idea of irradiating food from time to time over the past 15 years. From a naive view, it seems impressive that one can stop potatoes sprouting—that one can interfere so dramatically with a natural process. But, in chemical terms, irradiation fragments living molecules. It fragments proteins and nucleic acids in a random way. It takes a sledgehammer into the food. In every cell perhaps 1 million molecules are split apart randomly. When they recombine they produce a pattern like a jigsaw that has been broken up and thrown together again at random. We have no idea what some of the products of that combination might be. When water molecules are split up hydroxyl radicals and hydrogen atoms are produced. When they recombine the chemical composition has been changed.

As a one-time research chemist in the biological sciences, I am certain in my mind that the materials that are produced from irradiation will include radiolytic products which will be carcinogenic. Establishing that carcinogenicity is as difficult as establishing whether BSE is a hazard to human health. It is extremely difficult to establish because it is impossible to find a test population that is willing, like the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West, to eat 100 per cent. irradiated food. Perhaps, if he is willing to volunteer to eat such food for the next 20 years, we shall have a better idea at the end of that time. But there is no way of demonstrating the absolute safety of the process.

Much of the research work that has been done and used by eminent scientific committees which advise on safety is incredibly suspect and involves cheating. Much of it is dishonest science. We know that irradiation produces off flavours in food. Fats go rancid and vitamins are destroyed. We do not know what will be the effect of irradiation on food additives and pesticides. Pesticides are already incredibly toxic, but they get into our food and our water supplies. We have no idea what will happen when we irradiate pesticides. We are conducting macro experiments on the human population, and we have no right to do that. There are strong grounds to believe that irradiation may damage food, modify the structure of pesticides and produce even more toxic material.

The dosages involved in irradiation of food are equivalent to about 10 million chest X-rays. Let us imagine a conveyor belt carrying our poultry through the irradiation machine, which is the Government's vision. If a human being was on that conveyor belt, irradiation at that dosage would not only kill the person instantly but kill every single cell in his body. That is the dosage needed to kill every single micro-organism and every cell of every micro-organism must be killed. We are dealing with prolific doses of irradiation.

Let us consider the international use of irradiation. Of the 140 countries in the world, only 39 allow irradiation of food and those only for a narrow range of foods. Less than 0·1 per cent. of food is irradiated internationally. The amount of irradiation is trivial compared with salting, adding sugar, refrigeration, canning, bottling, fermentation, pickling and so on. Yet the Government have it in mind that irradiation of food is one of the key answers to salmonella. The Government have presided over an epidemic of salmonella and now about half the poultry that we buy is infected with it. I am extremely disturbed that the Government regard irradiation as part of the answer. If they have their way, in five or 10 years' time most of the chicken that we buy, whether from a restaurant or supermarket, will be irradiated.

Of the 39 countries that allow irradiation, only 11 allow the irradiation of poultry. We are lining ourselves up with a tiny minority of countries, none of which allows irradiation on a significant scale.

Photo of Mr Conal Gregory Mr Conal Gregory , City of York

The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about how we may be in a minority. Will he reveal to the House at what stage the Labour party moved away from its wisdom of the 1974–79 era when it did not ban irradiation but was a party to it? Then the Labour party saw irradiation as a sensible means of dealing with food products. At what stage did it move away from that position to the crass stupidity of the Luddite view that the hon. Gentleman now puts forward?

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen

I shall disregard the hon. Gentleman's last remark as not worthy of him. In the past 20 years, the general public, which is much more important than just the Labour party, has woken up to the dangers of science. As the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) said, processes using CFCs and other technologies have gone wrong. The number one technology that has gone wrong is the nuclear industry. The 1974–79 Labour Government supported nuclear energy to some extent, although they did not order any new nuclear power stations. The Labour party is much wiser these days. We determinedly oppose nuclear power, as do the general public. The same goes for all nuclear technologies, including irradiation of food.

I wish to throw back the remark of the hon. Member for York about crass stupidity. The people who stand in the way of the opinion of 90 per cent. of the general public on irradiation are guilty of crass stupidity.

No test is available to detect irradiated food. Several other speakers have already made that point. There is no way in which one can say whether a prawn is irradiated and, if it is irradiated, whether it was irradiated once, twice of three times or whether it received five or 10 times the legal dose. Irradiation is a cowboy's charter because regulating it and proving whether food has been irradiated will be impossible. It is wide open to abuse.

The hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West tacitly implied that there is a danger that bad food will be made, as he put it, safe, but in any case marketable. Internationally, companies will adopt the technology and buy cheap cargoes that could not be sold in France, Germany and the rest of the European Community. They will bring the food here, irradiate it and sell it on our supermarket shelves. There will be no way in which environmental health officers or anyone else could rule out such an abuse.

The Government should listen to public opinion. Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who is a former Minister responsible for consumer affairs, talked about the consumers' interests. Before the debate this evening I read the latest brief from the Consumers Association. It is implacably opposed to food irradiation. I have also received a letter from my local authority asking me to vote against it. That opposition is shared by the National Farmers Union, the National Federation of Women's Institutes and the big supermarket chains. We should follow the lead of the European Parliament, which voted 4:1 against irradiation.

The Government have demonstrated that their green credentials, such as they are, are in tatters. They support nuclear power and the nuclear industry right through to the irradiation of food.

In Brussels today the Secretary of State for the Environment has gone against the rest of Europe, which wants to control CO2 emissions by 2000. We have done nothing about flue gas desulphurisation or acid rain—not one of our power stations has been cleaned up. During the Whitsun recess we heard the scares about the beaches at Blackpool and elsewhere because of sewage pollution. Thanks to the Government, another product of our times is toxic algae. Above all, the Tories have given us the disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy—[Interruption.] It is a Tory disease because it was caused by the changes to the rendering industry introduced by the Government.

If the Government proceed with the introduction of irradiated food, frankly it will be just another nail in their coffin.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme

Nobody disputes that it is the right of the consumer to have access to safe, wholesome food, but the housewife already has a terrible battle finding such food for her family.

The problems with beef have already been rehearsed in respect of BSE and potential problems arising from the outfall of radiation from Chernobyl. There are also potential dangers from scrapie in lamb. The shellfish off our north-east coast cannot be consumed now because of toxic algae, and fish from the North sea are increasingly diseased. Eggs are subject to salmonella. Fruit and vegetables are increasingly sprayed with toxins and preservatives. Many of them are applied outside this country, so the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has no control over their use. The housewife is left in absolute ignorance as to their use and their effect. Those problems will be added to by the introduction of the process of irradiation, which has not been proved safe when used on food for human consumption.

The public are also entitled to clear labelling, and I welcome the Government's commitment to introduce such labelling for irradiated foodstuffs. In the absence of any tests to establish whether food has been irradiated at all, or more than once, it makes it almost impossible to monitor shops and restaurants to ensure that they honour the Government's labelling code.

There is no demand from any significant section of the population for the introduction of irradiated food. Many responsible national bodies have expressed their opposition to it, including the Consumers Association, the British Medical Association, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the Institution of Environmental Health Officers and the National Federation of Meat Traders.

The Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary have made it clear that it is their opinion, based on the authority of their experts, that there is no evidence of any harmful effects from irradiated food. I absolutely and unequivocally accept that, but I am sure that they will concede that that is far from stating that irradiated food is safe for human consumption. Might one not have said exactly the same two or three years ago about the possibility of a scrapie-like disease being passed on to beef cattle and other species which had been fed the ground bones of animals, including diseased sheep? Is it not those very same experts, on whom Ministers now rely for their expert advice, who bear responsibility for the present situation? Until about three years ago they believed that it was perfectly safe and acceptable for the ground bones of diseased animals to be fed to herbivores, such as beef cattle. That has led us to the present disaster; a blight has been put on the entire British beef industry. Are not those experts the same ones who are now advising MAFF on irradiated food? That should give us cause not to fall too deeply into the hands of experts, but to approach the matter with a healthy degree of caution.

6.15 pm

I am suggesting not that it is unsafe for humans to consume irradiated foodstuffs, but merely that no one knows for sure one way or the other. My right hon. Friend has been unable to advance any proof of safety. The scientific community is sharply divided on this issue and some suspect that it may prove harmful. The fact is that no one knows. Surely the path of caution is the only sensible course for the Government to take.

Little is known about the chemical changes and consequent potential effect of irradiating food treated with modern pesticides, hormones, chemicals and other food additives—let alone about the effect on the packaging that surrounds those foods. Little is known about the effect of irradiation on the nutritional value of food and the vitamins that it contains.

Photo of Mr Nicholas Bennett Mr Nicholas Bennett , Pembroke

My hon. Friend has said that science is divided on this, but as far as I am aware 35 countries have approved the irradiation of food as well as the World Health Organisation, the United States Food and Drugs Administration and our Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. Can my hon. Friend tell me about those scientists who are against irradiation?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme

Several countries have refused to endorse the irradiation of food. Australia, after a two-year in-depth study, imposed a three-year moratorium on the importation, sale or production of irradiated foodstuffs. Many other countries and many states in the United States have imposed such bans.

The way in which some of the evidence is used by those who want to ram irradiated food down our throats is especially disturbing. Some of the evidence is based on a misrepresentation of the facts. One such example is the data summary produced by the joint expert committee of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organisation. That summary appears, either accidentally or deliberately, to misrepresent the conclusion arrived at by the international food irradiation project conducted in Karlsruhe in West Germany. It stated that, apart from the general effect of including spices in the diet of animals, no other treatment-related findings were observed and no differences between irradiated spice or non-irradiated spice-fed animals were seen in any of the findings. That piece of evidence which the committee called in aid arrived at a totally different conclusion. The interim report published in the international food irradiation project series by the Karlsruhe group showed that rats fared less well on a diet which included spices than on a diet without spices, but that it was possible to feed a high-spiced diet as the basis of investigating toxicological problems with irradiated spices.

The final, unpublished report covers the comparison of animals fed diets including irradiated and non-irradiated spices and says in its conclusion: Irradiation of spices by 1·5 Mrad shows an increased effect in reducing food intake and body weight. This means that irradiation causes a change in chemical composition of spices which has an influence on animals even at the 2 per cent. level. In other words, there is an observable effect associated with the irradiation of spices, even at the lowest level at which spices were included in the diet of rats—the 2 per cent. level.

In view of the weight attached by the Government to the World Health Organisation report, one is bound to wonder whether the whole question of the database on which it was founded needs re-examining, for there was a specific case of either oversight or misrepresentation.

The irradiation of food is clearly no panacea. As has been pointed out, it cannot deal effectively with salmonella in eggs or with the problem of listeria in paté and it cannot destroy toxins such as botulism. What, then, is the purpose of introducing regulations that will allow the irradiation of food? What foods need to be irradiated, anyway? There are two answers: first, food that is of dubious hygiene; and, secondly, to extend the shelf life of food which otherwise within a matter of days would become unfit for human consumption.

Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill , Ludlow

Will my hon. Friend concede that in the case of spices, where the chemical process will no longer be available—it will be illegal—irradiation is the only alternative?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme

No, because the principal importers of spices have pioneered and developed an alternative means of providing for the hygiene of spices involving a process of steam pasteurisation. They claim that that is preferable to, and as satisfactory as, irradiation. Indeed, the Government have time and again cited the irradiation of spices as being the prime reason for introducing legislation—to enable spices to be rendered hygienic without going through the present process involving chemicals that are carcinogenic to those who apply them. That is an added reason why there is neither urgency nor need for the proposed regulations.

I endorse the view of the Marks and Spencer technical executive who said: If food is already safe, as we believe it is, in our shops, there is no need for this extra process. Food irradiation will be seized on by those at the bottom end of the food industry—the cowboys of the market—to make saleable otherwise unsaleable food. I am amazed that the Government should wish to go along with such a process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), who is no longer in his place, said he could tell a good prawn from a bad one. He cited the great cost of the process of irradiation. I draw attention to the 1986 case involving Young's prawns, questions about which the Minister did not answer satisfactorily in Committee or at an earlier stage.

The Young's prawns were unmarketable in this country and were sent back to Holland to be irradiated. Those involved in that scandal were obviously not bothered about the cost of irradiation because they knew that the consignment they had on their hands was valueless as it stood and that it was well worth paying for irradiation so that the goods could be brought back and marketed in the United Kingdom. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Leicestershire, North-West would have been able, with his undoubtedly sensitive nose, to detect the quality of those prawns, particularly if they had been frozen or wrapped in other packaging.

The case for irradiated foodstuffs has not been made out, at any rate not for food for human consumption, and the Government are taking unnecessary risks with public health. It will give me no pleasure to vote against the Government. I shall have no choice but to do so unless the Minister gives an undertaking to defer introducing the regulations until the European Community has reached a judgment on the matter. If he gives that undertaking, I shall with pleasure join him in the Division Lobby.

Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton

I give credit to the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) for urging the Goverment time and again to tread the path of caution on this issue. But I fear that his warning will go unheeded today, as it has until now, because it would be inconvenient for the Government to take his advice. They need to pretend to the public that they are tackling the multiple food problems that have arisen since the Conservatives took power. Irradiation is that step, their excuse, when they should be taking proper action.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said, irradiation will do nothing to counter the problems of botulism, listeria, BSE, salmonella and the toxins that account for much food poisoning. It will not clean up contaminated food. It will simply dangerously disguise that contamination.

I fear that Ministers, supporters of irradiation and those who are trying to sell certain produce will fool people into believing that irradiation is a worthwhile process from the health point of view. Nothing of the sort has been proved. In any event, it is being introduced not for health reasons but for profit reasons.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said in a speech on 1 March, repeated in a MAFF press release, that opposition to irradiation was a torrent of pseudo-science. With that statement he discounted all the opposition that had come from the Consumers Association, the National Federation of Women's Institutes, the BMA, food producers and retailers, the National Federation of Meat Traders and from public health organisations such as the Farm and Food Society, the London Food Commission and the Institution of Environmental Health Officers. He discounted the findings of the Cantox committee of the Canadian Parliament which said that there were some unresolved questions. His own Advisory Committee on Irradiated and Novel Foods said that further research was needed in many areas. But the Minister said that that was all a torrent of pseudo-science.

6.30 pm

What science have we had from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? It has presented no proof that irradiation is safe and has carried out no work. What research has been carried out into thermo-luminescence? The Ministry has not even waited for conclusions, but is presenting to Parliament a measure that will allow food to be irradiated without restriction. Allowing such as measure to go ahead is what I would call pseudo-science.

The Ministry has not carried out any checks on the effects of packaging. Few packaging materials have been tested and some people have said that some packaging materials might migrate to the food or that the food itself might undergo changes and become carcinogenic. There have been no tests on the effects of irradiation or pesticides on food additives. There is a great deal of confusion about labelling. The EEC proposes two labels. One would say that the food was irradiated and the other would say that it was treated by ionising radiation. That is a recipe for confusion and the public will not know where they are.

There is no test to determine whether a product has been irradiated and there is certainly no control on the extent of irradiation that takes place. That will not appear on labels. Unscrupulous people in the food industry will not affix a label even if the food is irradiated. It will not be possible to check such action and therefore it will go unpunished. That is the real response to the argument about choice. What choice is there for the consumer in such cases?

My last point is in many ways about class. The worst foods go to the poorest people in Britain who end up paying higher prices than they should. Irradiated food will be cheaper than fresh, untarnished and non-irradiated food, but people can buy only what they can afford and will buy food that is at the end of its shelf life and is bacteriologically unsound. Irradiation kills the nutrients and vitamins that are crucial to people's diet. It will worsen the diet. The Tories are trail-blazers for worst practice in the food industry and irradiation is another example. It will lead to a serious slackening in food hygiene and a poorer diet.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

We have heard another powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). It was one in a series of such speeches from the Opposition which have shown unanimous and forceful opposition to irradiation. The Opposition are under no illusion. If the new clause is accepted, it will mean that the Government will not be able to introduce measures approving of irradiation. If the clause is defeated, it will be tantamount to a vote in favour of irradiation.

All the arguments that have been presented about the rights of the consumer, the possible weakening of the confidence of the consumer in the British food industry and the protection of public health will be swept to one side if the new clause is defeated. There is no doubt that the public are greatly concerned, as are manufacturers, food producers and retailers, about the consequences of irradiation. Serious questions are being asked about the scope and validity of the scientific verification of irradiation. That has been recognised by most hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) made an honest and courageous speech in which he considered all the arguments, just as he did on Second Reading. I applaud his integrity in saying that he intends to join us in the Lobby, but I am disappointed that such integrity is not shared by some of his hon. Friends who have considerable reservations about irradiation. On Second Reading they demonstrated those reservations. The hon. Member for York (Mr. Gregory), who I am sure will shortly be back in his place, intervened on Second Reading. He said: My right hon. Friend says that there is no distinction between a product that is pasteurised and one that is irradiated. I fully take his point about labelling and the importance of that, but scientists are able to undertake a test to show that a product has been pasteurised. How can he, with hand on heart, promote irradiated foods when, in the event of a court case, there will be no test to show whether the product has been irradiated? That invalidates the fundamentals of his argument"—[Official Report, 8 March 1990; Vol. 168, c. 1029.] Those are strong words. The hon. Gentleman did not say that the balance of judgment was one way or the other but spoke about the fundamentals of the argument being invalidated. The hon. Gentleman has undergone something of a conversion because he now says that we must question the reliability of the tests. He knows, and I am sure that the Minister will confirm, that it is not a question of testing the validity of the tests or their reliability; there is no test. The way in which the hon. Member for York destroyed the Minister's argument on 8 March holds true today.

The hon. Member for York was not alone on Second Reading, because the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) said that people should know what they are eating. The hon. Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) was forceful in her condemnation. I remind the House that the hon. Lady is a former Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and has certainly canvassed the arguments. She said: There is still public concern about what we accept as the evidence of the experts and the qualified scientists. That point was made by the hon. Member for Davyhulme. The hon. Lady went on: My right hon. Friend will have to take account of the public perception. It may be an erroneous perception, but we still have to deal with it; we cannot bulldoze it."—[Official Report, 8 March 1990; Vol. 168, c.1041.] Those are wise words and I should have thought that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, after its bruising experiences in the last couple of weeks when it realised that it had lost public confidence on the matter of scientific judgments, would have learnt that lesson. Unfortunately it has not. It says that the scientists have said that it is all right. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has said, the Ministry is discriminating about how it accepts scientific advice. If it fits the Ministry's preconditions it is infallible, but if it does not fit those preconditions or the political agenda the Ministry chooses to ignore it. I shall develop that point later.

The House must address several key arguments. First, the case for irradiation has not been put. I hope that the Minister will put it. It was not put on Second Reading and the need for irradiation has not been established. As many of my hon. Friends have said, if food is wholesome, properly stored and handled and consumed within the appropriate time irradiation is not needed.

If there are problems in our food industry they will not be remedied by a quick fix at the end of the process. We must make sure that the food production and handling processes are themselves remedied. I compliment the Government on some parts of the Bill which address that problem. Irradiation will not clean up the food chain, but will allow a quick fix for a contaminated product at the end of a faulty chain. That is the crux of the argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) is an authority on safety. I know that he has followed the debate closely, and doubtless he will be reading my comments in Hansard tomorrow, as he is not here. There are major questions about the safety of the process and the impact that it has on irradiated food. We know that there are toxic residues. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields said that no research has been done into the impact of the process of irradiation on the pesticides residues that might he in some processed food that are then wrapped in cellophane, or other, new, products.

Photo of Mr Ron Davies Mr Ron Davies , Caerphilly

No. The hon. Gentleman made a long speech and I do not have time to give way.

We know that irradiation does not provide immunity to listeria and that there are inherent dangers in creating a vacuum. The destruction of the microbiological life creates a vacuum and, if a product is then subjected to secondary contamination, such secondary contamination will grow at a pace that we cannot comprehend, making the product even more dangerous than it would have been had it not been irradiated.

The Minister's response to all this is that we must rely on the scientists. They will have it right, they have done their tests and they are always infallible. That amuses me when I consider the Minister in charge of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I presume that his philosophy is that scientists are always infallible except on Sundays, because on Sundays there is a higher authority. It seems that we have to rely on the Bible when making choices about eating habits, and it tells us that vegetarianism is an unnatural practice. I have heard some unscientific statements but that takes the unirradiated biscuit.

Let us have a look at the Government's record in accepting scientific advice. They were told that the proposal for a ban on the sale of green top milk—untreated milk—was supported by the enforcement authorities, scientists and a number of other expert organisations, particularly those concerned with public health. What was the Government's response? For political reasons, they decided to ignore the scientists' advice.

Among other things, the Tyrrell committee recommended a survey of the brains of cattle sent to slaughter, to monitor the incidence of unrecognised infection by BSE, and the examination of the relative susceptibility of calves to BSE. The Government had gathered together qualified scientifists under the chairmanship of Tyrrell to give them recommendations on research priorities, but, because it was politically inconvenient to accept those recommendations, they were pushed to one side. The same thing happened with the Richmond committee which made a great many recommendations about microbiological contamination which the Government rejected.

The Farm Animal Welfare Council is composed of experts. They are qualified people—vets, and people concerned with public health and animal welfare. They are all handpicked by the Government for their expertise, scientific qualifications and experience in their chosen field. Of its 51 scientific recommendations, only 18 are to be implemented, while the rest are sacrificed because they do not fit the Government's political agenda.

6.45 pm

This is all a bit rich when consumers are increasingly suspecting the Government's honesty in their handling of these matters. Well-verified surveys show that 65 per cent. of the public believe that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food cannot be relied on to tell them the truth about food safety. It is no wonder that they suspect the Ministry or that, with that track record, they do not want irradiation.

There is no consumer pressure for irradiation and retailers such as Asda, Budgen, the Co-op, Gateway, Iceland Frozen Foods, Littlewoods, Londis, Marks and Spencer, Spar, Tesco and Waitrose are all opposed to it. The National Farmers Union is also opposed to it, as is the National Federation of Women's Institutes. Why are the Government hellbent on driving this legislation through, against all informed opinion and against the abundant reservations felt by Tory Back Benchers? It defies logic. There is no pressure from Europe, and the European Parliament has voted to oppose irradiation. Increasingly, all the pressure is to reduce the amount of irradiation allowed. There have been many powerful arguments against the proposal.

The Government's defence is that the public will have a choice, but that argument was destroyed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). There can be no choice, because there is no diagnostic test, and without such a test the Government and the public health authorities cannot monitor or check whether food has been irradiated. Even if they could check, they would not be able to bring any prosecutions because there would be no evidence without a diagnostic test. If one cannot enforce legislation or prosecute, how can the Minister say that there will be a choice for consumers?

Fortunately, the new clause offers the House a choice. I hope that those Tory Members who share our view will exercise their choice and vote for the new clause.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

It was a shame that the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) went a bit over the top and spoiled a rather interesting debate. He continued to say what has been said by Labour Members many times, and gave us the same old myth that the Government regard this as a panacea or as a silly quick fix, or that they are in a terrible hurry to introduce irradiation. This must be one of the slowest quick fixes in history. The food irradiation process was invented in 1902, but only in 1982 did the British Government begin to consider it, setting up an independent expert advisory committee to examine the matter.

The committee took five years to study the process, although the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Americans and the EC had been looking into the matter. Hundreds of expert committees had examined it. In 1987, the committee reported. The Government did not automatically accept its view. They had some queries, and sent the report back, and it was not until last year that the committee again reported. That is why we have felt it perfectly reasonable to bring in the necessary changes that will allow us, after consultation and after formal regulations have been made, to go ahead with irradiation in certain cases.

We have heard an awful lot of what irradiation cannot do, as if that was something fatal in its character. We heard that it cannot remove toxins in the food. We know that is true. It cannot remove botulism, it cannot make the coffee and it cannot hoover the carpet, but none of us has suggested that it could do all these wonderful things. We have merely said that it has a small useful part to play if consumers and the industry want to use it, along with the deep freezing techniques, the techniques for canning peas and drying mashed potato and other food processing techniques. We think that this process should be made available if people want to use it, because we believe that it is safe, and all the expert evidence from around the world believes that it is safe.

The ridiculous statement has been made that, if one irradiates something and kills off bugs, thereby creating a vacuum, the bugs grow more prolifically in the vacuum. That is unscientific gobbledegook. Irradiation is not like pulling a few thistles out of a garden and leaving more room for the weeds to grow; bacteriologically it does not work in that way, and it is nonsense to suggest it.

The hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor) cast doubts on the World Health Organisation, and quoted others for his purpose. He should quote the World Health Organisation itself, and listen to what its director general has said. He said: WHO is satisfied regarding the safety of irradiating any food commodity up to an overall average dose of 10 kilograys. It would be difficult to find a blunter statement than that. Golden rule number one of the World Health Organisation's "Golden Rules for Safe Food Preparation" says: if you have the choice, select fresh or frozen poultry treated with ionising radiation. We have not heard much about that tonight.

The hon. Member for Truro quoted the European Parliament as if it were an expert on the matter. However, he did not quote expert advisory committees from around the world, or even the independent committee advising the British Government. It is unworthy of him to come to the House and pretend that the opinions of politicians—in any part of the world—are equal to the opinions of expert scientific committees.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

No. I have little time, as the Opposition want me to finish by 7 o'clock.

I have great respect for the views of environmental health officers, trading standards officers and the National Farmers Union. However, I do not think that anyone would suggest that they are among the world's experts on the techniques of ionising radiation.

Tonight we have heard what Opposition Members consider to be the most damning indictment of irradiation—their erroneous allegation that all around the world other countries are backtracking. Australia was quoted. The Australian Government have announced a moratorium, but it was not based on the views of an expert scientific committee of leading microbiologists, toxicologists and experts on radiation, physics and nutrition who all agreed that irradiation was safe. My hon. Friends may be interested to hear that the moratorium was prompted by the recommendations of the House of Representatives' Standing Committee on the Environment, Recreation and the Arts. That is the Les Patterson approach to Government policy; we shall base our policy on firmer grounds.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Davyhulme

Does my hon. Friend accept that that committee, which conducted an in-depth survey over two years, took a good deal of evidence from many highly qualified scientific expert advisers?

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

I accept that. Any political committee in any House of Commons or House of Representatives throughout the world would do the same. However, it was essentially a political decision, made for political reasons and not based on science or safety.

The main point that I wish to make concerns the question whether the Americans are backing down on irradiation. The right hon. Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes) said that, in the United States, herbs and spices were irradiated, but not chicken. Therefore, he asked, what was the point of it? In his view, that was proof that irradiation was dangerous. He is slightly out of date. On I May this year, the United States Food and Drug Administration—which is highly respected, and whose lead we are urged to follow—in many areas—after careful evaluation of toxicity studies, reports on microbiological considerations and nutritional studies, authorised the irradiation of fresh and frozen poultry meat in addition to the other products for which the process is permitted. The pressure came not from industry or from capitalists who wanted to irradiate chickens, but from the food safety and inspection service of the United States Government. It thought that that would constitute an important public health benefit. It is noteworthy that food irradiation in the United States has the support of not only the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture, but the American Medical Association, the Council of Agricultural Science and Technology, the American Council on Science and Health and others.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), like some of my hon. Friends, was concerned about monitoring. The regulatory controls that we plan to introduce will amount to the close and detailed control that the public will expect to be imposed if we go ahead. Our proposals for controls are based on EC discussions, and on a study of the regulations in more than 20 countries that already operate controls.

First, no one will be able to undertake irradiation in Britain without a full and detailed prior inspection by highly trained experts, capable of assessing ability to carry out the process correctly. Secondly, those who undertake it will be subject to detailed conditions on all aspects of their business, which will be set out in a formal licence. Thirdly, they will be restricted to treating the foods stipulated in the licence and to the doses specified therein for the irradiation objectives for which they have received official approval. Fourthly, they will be required to keep detailed records of all aspects of their business. Fifthly, they will be subject to inspection at any time. Sixthly, they will be subject to microbiological testing to confirm suitability for treatment. Finally—as we have said many times—there will be comprehensive labelling, which will apply to restaurants as well. The controls that the Government have planned are in line with those recommended by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and are included in EC proposals in the draft directive.

Some hon. Members were concerned about enforcement. Specialist inspectors within central Government are already familiar with the work involved in inspecting irradiation premises, and local authority officers have great experience in the enforcement of food hygiene provisions. We are well placed to police the systems effectively.

Mention has been made tonight of the Dutching technique. The impression was given that every day loads of prawns or other illegal consignments were going around the world. There is only one example of that—Young's, in 1985. It was contrary to the rules, and we condemn anyone who breaks the rules, but it is not right for the Opposition to give the impression that there is a Dutching industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) asked about a test. Of course, no viable test has yet been devised anywhere in the world. However, both the WHO and the Codex Alimentarius Commission are satisfied that adequate controls can be imposed on the basis of documentary checks. An adequate detection test is not regarded as essential to a rigorous and adequate control system.

I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme—to whose contribution I listened with great interest and respect—that irradiation is not the only food process for which there is no detection test. Documentation is relied on for verification in the case of food produced by organic methods, meat derived from animal slaughter by ritual procedures and date stamps on products; there are no magic detection tests in those instances. We believe that they are not necessary in the case of irradiated food either, although they will be a worthwhile bonus when they come along.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) ruined his case by being ridiculous and trying to scare us. He is a scientist, but he told the House that irradiation was so dangerous that if a human being was put on an irradiation conveyor belt and shoved through the irradiation plant it would destroy all the genes in his body. I bet it would. If we shoved people on the pea-canning conveyor that would destroy all the genes in their body as well; if they were stuck in an Aga for two hours that would also kill them. That is the ridiculous level to which the hon. Member for Carmarthen and others have sunk.

My hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme asked for the database to be checked. I assure him that the database is checked constantly. No subject has been examined more exhaustively than irradiation, and it will continue to be examined. I fear that he misquoted me, so I must put the matter right. I do not think that there is no evidence that irradiation is unsafe: all the evidence is that it is safe. That is positive. I refer my hon. Friend to the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities, which said in the first of the conclusions in its summary: The overwhelming weight of evidence is that irradiation of food, on the limited basis proposed by the Commission, is safe. 7 pm

We have consistently maintained that irradiation is but one of the processes that we think have a beneficial use in food processing techniques. It is certainly not a panacea, and my right hon. and hon. Friends do not suggest that it is. There will be full and comprehensive labelling and monitoring to ensure compliance with the rules. Irradiation is backed as a safe process by all the expert committees in the world that have considered the matter. The scientific community is not divided. We have the backing of the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Food and Drug Administration, the EC expert committee and the British Government's independent committee.

I give the House the assurance that it is not the end of the matter—irradiation will not be introduced when we vote against the Opposition's new clause. Irradiation can be brought in only when the Government come before the House with detailed regulations, having had a period of consultation. Then, and only then, will the House make a final decision.

If all the irradiation plants in the world were uprooted tomorrow and brought to England, they would only irradiate a maximum capacity of less than 2 per cent. of our food. It is nonsense for the Opposition to suggest that we will be swamped with irradiated food. We are entitled to give the same choice to the 5, 10, 15 or 20 per cent. of our population as the French housewife has at this very moment. She can buy irradiated food in supermarkets in France. If it is good enough for the French housewife, British housewives should have the same right in the choice of food. I urge the House to reject the new clause.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 177, Noes 223.

Division No. 227][7.02 pm
Abbott, Ms DianeColeman, Donald
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Allen, GrahamCorbett, Robin
Anderson, DonaldCorbyn, Jeremy
Archer, Rt Hon PeterCousins, Jim
Armstrong, HilaryCrowther, Stan
Ashley, Rt Hon JackCryer, Bob
Ashton, JoeCummings, John
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)Cunliffe, Lawrence
Barron, KevinCunningham, Dr John
Beckett, MargaretDarling, Alistair
Beith, A. J.Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Bell, StuartDavies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Benn, Rt Hon TonyDavis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)Dewar, Donald
Bermingham, GeraldDixon, Don
Bidwell, SydneyDobson, Frank
Blair, TonyDoran, Frank
Blunkett, DavidDuffy, A. E. P.
Boateng, PaulDunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Boyes, RolandEadie, Alexander
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Buckley, George J.Faulds, Andrew
Callaghan, JimField, Frank (Birkenhead)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.Fisher, Mark
Canavan, DennisFlannery, Martin
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)Flynn, Paul
Carr, MichaelFoot, Rt Hon Michael
Churchill, MrFoster, Derek
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Fraser, John
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)Galloway, George
Clay, BobGarrett, John (Norwich South)
Clelland, DavidGeorge, Bruce
Cohen, HarryGilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.Mowlam, Marjorie
Gordon, MildredMullin, Chris
Gould, BryanMurphy, Paul
Graham, ThomasNellist, Dave
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)O'Brien, William
Grocott, BrucePatchett, Terry
Harman, Ms HarrietPendry, Tom
Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyPike, Peter L.
Heal, Mrs SylviaPowell, Ray (Ogmore)
Healey, Rt Hon DenisPrescott, John
Henderson, DougPrimarolo, Dawn
Hinchliffe, DavidQuin, Ms Joyce
Hoey, Ms Kate (Vauxhall)Radice, Giles
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Randall, Stuart
Howells, GeraintRedmond, Martin
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Hoyle, DougRichardson, Jo
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)Robertson, George
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Robinson, Geoffrey
Illsley, EricRowlands, Ted
Ingram, AdamRuddock, Joan
Janner, GrevilleSedgemore, Brian
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Kennedy, CharlesSkinner, Dennis
Leadbitter, TedSmith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Lewis, TerrySmith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Litherland, RobertSmith, J. P. (Vale of Glam)
Livingstone, KenSnape, Peter
Livsey, RichardSoley, Clive
Lofthouse, GeoffreySpearing, Nigel
Loyden, EddieSteinberg, Gerry
McAllion, JohnStraw, Jack
McAvoy, ThomasTaylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
McCartney, IanTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Macdonald, Calum A.Thomas, Dr Dafydd Elis
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)Turner, Dennis
McLeish, HenryVaz, Keith
Maclennan, RobertWallace, James
McWilliam, JohnWalley, Joan
Madden, MaxWardell, Gareth (Gower)
Mahon, Mrs AliceWatson, Mike (Glasgow, C)
Marek, Dr JohnWelsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Martlew, EricWilliams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Maxton, JohnWilson, Brian
Meacher, MichaelWinnick, David
Meale, AlanWorthington, Tony
Michael, AlunWray, Jimmy
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)Tellers for the Ayes:
Morley, ElliotMr. Robert N. Wareing and Mrs. Llin Golding.
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Adley, RobertBowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Aitken, JonathanBowis, John
Alexander, RichardBoyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Amess, DavidBraine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Amos, AlanBrandon-Bravo, Martin
Arbuthnot, JamesBrazier, Julian
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)Bright, Graham
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Ashby, DavidBruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Baldry, TonyBuck, Sir Antony
Batiste, SpencerBudgen, Nicholas
Beggs, RoyBurns, Simon
Bellingham, HenryBurt, Alistair
Bendall, VivianButterfill, John
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Benyon, W.Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir PeterCarrington, Matthew
Body, Sir RichardCarttiss, Michael
Bonsor, Sir NicholasChannon, Rt Hon Paul
Boscawen, Hon RobertChope, Christopher
Boswell, TimClark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)
Bottomley, Mrs VirginiaClark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Lawrence, Ivan
Colvin, MichaelLightbown, David
Conway, DerekLilley, Peter
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest)Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Cope, Rt Hon JohnLyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Cormack, PatrickMaclean, David
Couchman, JamesMans, Keith
Cran, JamesMawhinney, Dr Brian
Critchley, JulianMaxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick
Davis, David (Boothferry)Miller, Sir Hal
Day, StephenMiscampbell, Norman
Devlin, TimMitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Dickens, GeoffreyMitchell, Sir David
Dicks, TerryMolyneaux, Rt Hon James
Dorrell, StephenMonro, Sir Hector
Dover, DenMorrison, Sir Charles
Dunn, BobMoss, Malcolm
Durant, TonyMoynihan, Hon Colin
Dykes, HughNeedham, Richard
Eggar, TimNelson, Anthony
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)Neubert, Michael
Evennett, DavidNewton, Rt Hon Tony
Fallon, MichaelNicholls, Patrick
Fishburn, John DudleyNicholson, David (Taunton)
Fookes, Dame JanetNorris, Steve
Forth, EricOnslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir NormanOppenheim, Phillip
Fox, Sir MarcusPage, Richard
Franks, CecilPaice, James
Freeman, RogerPatnick, Irvine
Gale, RogerPatten, Rt Hon John
Garel-Jones, TristanPattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Gill, ChristopherPawsey, James
Glyn, Dr Sir AlanPeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Goodlad, AlastairPorter, Barry (Wirral S)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr CharlesPorter, David (Waveney)
Gorman, Mrs TeresaPortillo, Michael
Gorst, JohnPowell, William (Corby)
Gow, IanPrice, Sir David
Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)Raffan, Keith
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Greenway, John (Ryedale)Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Gregory, ConalRidley, Rt Hon Nicholas
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Ground, PatrickRost, Peter
Hague, WilliamRowe, Andrew
Hampson, Dr KeithRyder, Richard
Hanley, JeremySackville, Hon Tom
Hannam,JohnShaw, David (Dover)
Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Harris, DavidShephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Haselhurst, AlanShepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Hawkins, ChristopherShepherd, Richard (Aldridge)
Hayes, JerrySkeet, Sir Trevor
Hayward, RobertSmith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)Soames, Hon Nicholas
Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)Speller, Tony
Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.Squire, Robin
Hind, KennethStanbrook, Ivor
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)Steen, Anthony
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)Stern, Michael
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)Stevens, Lewis
Hunt, David (Wirral W)Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Hunter, AndrewStewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Irvine, MichaelStewart, Rt Hon Ian (Herts N)
Irving, Sir CharlesStradling Thomas, Sir John
Jack, MichaelSummerson, Hugo
Jackson, RobertTapsell, Sir Peter
Janman, TimTaylor, Ian (Esher)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Jones, Robert B (Herts W)Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Kellett-Bowman, Dame ElaineTebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Key, RobertTemple-Morris, Peter
Kilfedder, JamesThompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Kirkhope, TimothyThompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Knapman, RogerThornton, Malcolm
Lamont, Rt Hon NormanThurnham, Peter
Townend, John (Bridlington)Widdecombe, Ann
Tracey, RichardWiggin, Jerry
Tredinnick, DavidWilshire, David
Trotter, NevilleWolfson, Mark
Twinn, Dr IanWood, Timothy
Vaughan, Sir GerardWoodcock, Dr. Mike
Viggers, PeterYoung, Sir George (Acton)
Waldegrave, Rt Hon William
Wardle, Charles (Bexhlll)Tellers for the Noes:
Wells, BowenMr. Nicholas Baker and Mr. Sydney Chapman.
Wheeler, Sir John
Whitney, Ray

Question accordingly negatived.