Food Supplements (European Directive)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:52 pm on 5th March 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent 4:53 pm, 5th March 2003

I thank the people who have been campaigning against this measure for a considerable time and regret the fact that it has taken many of us some time to catch up with what was being done in our names. We could not quite believe the stupidity of it. Although tonight's debate cannot, of itself, change the Westminster Government's policy—far less the misguided thinking of the European Commission, whence came this assault on consumer choice, individual responsibility and the general well-being of people who, like me, have safely purchased and used vitamin and mineral food supplements for years—it can alert most people in Scotland who are unaware of the seriousness of the measure that is being proposed.

The debate and the number of members who support the terms of my motion to oppose the European directive, which will remove tried and tested food supplements that are sold in specialist health food shops for no better stated reason than to harmonise the market throughout Europe, can alert the Scottish Executive to the support that the health ministers in the Parliament will have if they oppose the full implementation of directive 2002/46/EC, as it stands at present, by August 2005. The timetable for implementing the directive starts on 31 July, so time is very short for the Minister for Health and Community Care to prevent the loss of up to 300 currently available safe nutrients that are purchased every day by hundreds of thousands of satisfied customers.

I should say at this point that I refer particularly to nutrients that can be purchased in specialist health food shops. I am not necessarily referring to nutrients of a lower standard of efficacy that can be bought in supermarkets and other mass retail outlets. I am sure that members who take part in the debate will explain the difference between the two types of nutrients.

The Scottish Parliament's subordinate legislation on the matter has gone through, which is thanks to the magnificent Subordinate Legislation Committee. The minister is empowered to bring the order into effect. There was nothing technically wrong with the order, but everything was wrong with the substance of it. As members will know, the superb Subordinate Legislation Committee can do nothing to alter the substance of instruments.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I will give way to a superb member of said superb committee.

Photo of Ian Jenkins Ian Jenkins Liberal Democrat

The magnificence of the Subordinate Legislation Committee is almost wholly due to the magnificence of its convener, Margo MacDonald. I did not intend to speak in the debate and I am doing so only because business is running early, but I must leave soon. I support not only Margo MacDonald's convenership, but the substance of her motion.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I thank Ian Jenkins. I will call him to speak a lot at next week's meeting of the Subordinate Legislation Committee.

There is a chance, before August 2005, for the United Kingdom Government to ask for a new law on the issue. If, after debate, we decide that a new law would be the best way forward, we could ask for a new law that would allow national Governments to decide what would be suitable for their different circumstances. As I said, the point of the directive, which was sold on the basis of its raising of safety standards, is harmonisation. Anyone who reads the directive will see in the first two lines that that is the case. It is obvious that we all aspire to harmony, but in this case harmony is not a good idea, because we are all different—as I will explain.

It is not impossible to make a bad law good. However it is done, Scotland must have some sort of derogation from the directive. I suggested to the minister that the UK Government might be prevailed on to think about having a new law on the issue that reflected national circumstances and needs. However, there is an absolute requirement for that in Scotland because lower levels of essential nutrients exist in Scottish soil than exist in soil all over Europe, whence the directive came. As members will know, there is a great difference between Scotland's agricultural methods and those of other areas of Europe.

If the soil from which we obtain our food does not provide sufficient nutrients, we must obtain them in another way. That is where the idea of food supplements, consisting of essential minerals and vitamins, comes in. However, under the directive, the combination of echinacea and vitamin C, for example, would be forbidden. At the moment, we can buy that combined food supplement, which is used without problems by hundreds of thousands of people to prevent colds and influenza. I suppose that it is trendy to take echinacea, which can certainly be taken in conjunction with vitamin C.

The directive will prevent echinacea and vitamin C from being sold in combination because echinacea is regarded as an herbal remedy and vitamin C is regarded as a food supplement. However, there is no justification for not being able to self-medicate or look after ourselves by using those substances together. No contraindications of such use have been noted. There is no history of anyone falling ill because of using the combination or of anyone abusing it and falling foul of it. Therefore, why on earth is it necessary to ban the combined use of echinacea and vitamin C?

It could be argued that echinacea and vitamin C can be bought and taken separately. However, there is no recommended dosage for vitamin C. The recommended level for vitamin C is still being discussed by the European Commission and European food safety organisations. However, we can be certain that the level of vitamin C that will be allowed will be far lower than the level that we are used to taking in this country. That will perhaps be because many of the people who are helping to make the policy come from countries that have lovely sunshine. We have a fantastic sunshine record in Scotland and folk in Leith, for example, will probably never have to bother about what I am saying. However, there are areas in Scotland—in the north-east perhaps—where those who are getting on a bit and who are suffering from colds and flu might feel the need for echinacea and vitamin C taken together. As I said, the chances are that they have been taking them together for a while with no ill effects.

My motion seeks to persuade the Scottish Executive to oppose the directive in whichever ways are constitutional and feasible. That would allow somebody who needs to purchase a remedy or a preventive product that they have been buying for years to continue to do so.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

Margo MacDonald might be familiar with the concept of subsidiarity. Would she agree that the matter that we are discussing is a clear example of an area in which subsidiarity should apply and that, instead of this being decided by—[ Interruption. ]

Meeting suspended.

Meeting resumed in committee room 1.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:29 pm, 5th March 2003

Before we resume business, I ask Alex Johnstone to move a motion without notice on behalf of the Parliamentary Bureau. I am minded to accept the motion.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament agrees under Rule 2.7.2 of Standing Orders, that for the purposes of completing Members' Business on Wednesday 5 March 2003, the Meeting of the Parliament shall be held in Committee Room 1, Committee Chambers.—[Alex Johnstone.]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

The recording of the debate for the Official Report was lost during Murdo Fraser's intervention, so I ask him to repeat his intervention, to which Margo MacDonald will reply, after which she will close her speech. I hope that that will happen quickly.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative

I am terrified to open my mouth. Does Margo MacDonald agree that the principle of subsidiarity should apply to the measure and that it should be up to member states rather than Europe to decide what action to take on food supplements?

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I agree with Murdo Fraser. The matter is a prima facie case for subsidiarity, because it is obvious that the different cultures and cuisines that are to be found in the UK, Finland and France suggest that we need different systems for food supplements and different potencies. However, I should also say—it might not find much favour with Murdo Fraser—that one reason for harmonising products is that the big pharmaceutical companies would like standardisation throughout Europe. They want to standardise potency downwards, not upwards.

We must deal with what might be done with the directive. The directive contains a list that is not comprehensive. It misses out essential minerals such as boron, which is important for bones and is in nearly all the osteoporosis preparations—osteoporosis is a key concern in the Government's health plan; sulphur, which is in a substance called methylsulphonylmethane and which people use increasingly for joint problems; and silica, which is used in formulations to improve hair and nail quality. Such substances are used by people who want to make themselves as well as they can be. That is supposed to be a Government objective.

For the reasons I have given and many others that, unfortunately, I do not have time to go into but which I hope other members will deal with, I commend the motion to the minister.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Thirteen members had wanted to speak, but I think that we have managed to lose a couple on the way down the road. I ask members to restrict their comments to three minutes. The minister has agreed to an extension to the debate and a motion to allow for the extension will be put at an appropriate point.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour 5:32 pm, 5th March 2003

John McAllion said that history might be in the making and that we might be forming the largest meeting of MSPs outside the chamber—who knows? I am glad that we can continue this important debate.

I supported Margo MacDonald's motion and I have supported the debate on the directive since I cast eyes on the motion, not only because I was concerned about the impact of European regulations and how they might affect our constituents, but because the directive could affect our constituents' businesses and our law. I give all credit to Margo MacDonald for raising awareness about the directive among MSPs and others who might have been unaware of its impact.

I have some concerns about the objectives of such standardising by the European Union. Countries such as the UK and Holland have more liberal regimes on the dosage and content of vitamin and food supplements and I do not understand why we should be forced to conform to the lowest common denominator. People with chronic conditions and others who believe that supplements and vitamins can improve their well-being or health will be puzzled by the directive. It is important that we should be seen to challenge it.

The European Union should not legislate to deny our constituents choice. If the UK deems the nutrients and vitamins safe, that should be good enough for the EU. We have adopted a worrying principle. If the aim is free trade, I am concerned that that principle seems to override the choices that should be available to the individuals whom we represent.

The directive has been advertised in that popular and well-read publication, the Official Journal of the European Union. I do not think that that suffices to ensure an engagement in the type of consultation that should have taken place with the people who will be affected by the directive. Perhaps we will make people more aware of the directive as a result of today's debate. Unfortunately, if we do not get a resolution to the problem, too many people will discover too late that some of the vitamins and supplements that Margo MacDonald mentioned will simply no longer be available.

It is quite incredible that we are to have an imposition of upper limits on dosages, a possible loss of products and a reduction in the potency of many products, as that seems far in excess of the aims and objectives of the European Union directive. I am keen to listen to what the minister has to say in winding up and hope that she will offer a solution to the problem. I also hope that the Scottish Executive will do all that it can to ensure that we get relief from the regulations and that it will use the scope that might be available to it.

My biggest concern is about the regulations that deal with herbal treatments, which I think the Parliament is about to deal with. Many of us believe in alternative medicine. Many people who have chronic conditions believe that herbal treatments are vital to their well-being. The debate gives the Executive the opportunity to be alerted well in advance of the regulations coming before the Parliament. We need to act now. People need to be aware of the issue. Let us use the scope that is available to us to derogate from the regulations.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 5:36 pm, 5th March 2003

I welcome tonight's important debate. I thank Helen McDade and John McKee from the save our supplements campaign for the very useful information that they provided and for making their campaign one that has made MSPs sit up and take note of the issue.

As other members have said, the debate on the food supplements directive is not about consumer safety but about harmonisation. Scotland has strict food safety laws at the moment, under which any nutrients that are found to be unsafe can be banned. A range of consumer protection legislation applies in this area and current legislation should be adequate to guarantee consumer protection. I am concerned about the thinking behind the directive. I am concerned that there was no nutritionist on the expert group from which the directive emanated. That speaks volumes about the directive.

There will be a danger to consumer safety if people who have traditionally bought these products at reputable high-street retailers or health food shops begin to purchase products of dubious quality from overseas. Forty per cent of adults use these types of food supplement: they take them because they believe that the products help to relieve the symptoms of their chronic conditions. There is no evidence to prove them wrong and I know that many of my constituents use them to good effect. The directive has worried people who think that they could be denied access to supplements because 300 nutrients that are currently in use are not on the positive list.

Margo MacDonald mentioned the mineral deficiencies of the soil in which our food is grown, which raises issues about Scotland's poor health record. It may be that this EU directive will exacerbate the situation.

Selenium has been mentioned. It is interesting to note that, in the United States of America, the Food and Drug Administration has just approved selenium. The FDA has given it a qualified positive labelling, saying that it may reduce the likelihood of some types of cancer.

Silica and boron, both of which help with osteoporosis, are not yet on the positive list, whereas caustic soda and sodium are on it. Hazel Blears, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health at Westminster, has applauded the fact that six forms of sodium are on the list, but that flies in the face of the health advice that the Scottish ministers give out in the guidance issued by the Scottish Executive health department.

I want to end with some questions for the minister. The issue of derogation is important to the debate and I will be interested to hear what she has to say about it. The Channel Islands have a derogation, which means that people who live there will be able to continue to buy these products. Will the minister argue for a negative list? It makes sense that any list should contain only products that are deemed unsafe rather than those for which there is no evidence of any safety concerns.

Will the minister also comment on whether she feels that the thinking behind the directive is rather old-fashioned—and indeed cuts across some of the very good health promotion policies that her department has introduced? If so, is she concerned about that?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 5:40 pm, 5th March 2003

The legislation in question is said to be about food safety, but as Shona Robison has pointed out, the products are already fully regulated under current food safety laws, which is a far more stringent approach than the pharmaceutical-style regulations that are being introduced. It is statistically proven that someone is far more likely to be struck by lightning than they are to die from taking food supplements—unless we are talking about Murdo Fraser, in which case the lightning probably goes out.

We should contrast that situation with that of pharmaceutical drugs, which result in a multitude of deaths and serious reactions in the UK. Indeed, those serious reactions put a weight on the NHS. Given that, I find the arguments pretty hard to follow. If the arguments are that the supplements are not safe, why has the EU and the Government allowed them to continue to be sold to somewhere between 2005 and 2009?

If the argument is not about food safety, we should try to find out what it is about. Margo MacDonald hit the nail on the head when she mentioned the word "harmonisation". Harmonisation within the EU will essentially bring the more liberal market in the UK and Holland down to a level playing field in line with other EU countries that have very different traditions, diets and health problems.

We should also consider who would benefit from the legislation. It seems to me that the biggest beneficiaries will be large multinational companies that supply lowest common denominator, low-level products through the mass market. The pharmaceutical companies, which have already been mentioned, will also benefit. They are already losing market share and are suffering from declining consumer confidence in some of their products.

Not only do we need to consider who would benefit, we should also think about who would lose out. First, there are the small specialist retailers that sell low-volume tailored products to a well-informed customer base with a specific health requirement. Secondly, professional nutritionists would lose their livelihood. Thirdly—and most important of all—the sick, the elderly and women would lose out. After all, 47 per cent of women use food supplements. That statistic is borne out even by the Food Standards Agency.

As a result, the issue becomes one of freedom of choice and therefore one of basic human rights. People have the right to choose cigarettes and alcohol, but after 2005 they will not have the right to choose positively for what they see as their own health requirements.

Many chronically ill people who have conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, and parents of children with conditions such as autism, attention deficit disorder and—from personal experience—myalgic encephalomyelitis, believe that such products are vital to them. Frankly, it does not matter whether the medical profession, politicians or ill people believe that: the real question is whether the products are safe. The answer is an unequivocal yes, which leaves us with the question that I hope the minister can answer—why on earth is this being done?

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 5:43 pm, 5th March 2003

It is excellent that Margo MacDonald has secured this debate and I particularly appreciated Alex Fergusson's speech.

I want to make a few separate points. First, the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament lodged a number of amendments to the legislation. Some were carried, others were not, and in the end they voted against it. That shows that we are doing what we can.

One of the faults in Britain's treatment of the EU is that it takes it all far too seriously. I am very keen on the EU, but on occasions it goes daft and produces silly regulations. Unfortunately, our civil servants are so conscientious, officious and competent that they write endless reams of regulations on the regulations and try to impose all this rubbish on us. In other countries, if the regulation is silly people just quietly ignore it. I think that that is what we should do in this case.

We can reasonably claim that, because the Scots are such an unhealthy bunch, which is sad, we need all the assistance we can get to try to keep ourselves healthy. As Margo MacDonald said, our ground does not produce some of the things that it should produce—things that are produced in other countries. We have a good case for going our own way.

From what I understand in the paper produced by the Food Standards Agency Scotland, there is quite a lot of time left in which we can try to make changes. I hope that the Executive, for example, will help organisations to introduce new proposals—which they can do until 2005—for items that have been left off the list and to not impose the requirement on small businesses.

Small, specialist firms are being sat on by large, multinational chemical firms, as Alex Fergusson said. We should strongly support our local industries and local people who eat and benefit from food supplements.

Photo of Irene Oldfather Irene Oldfather Labour 5:46 pm, 5th March 2003

I am grateful to Margo MacDonald for raising the debate in Parliament. The European Committee is currently considering the matter and Helen Eadie will present a report to the next meeting of the committee in three weeks' time. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the committee's views, but in the discussions so far we are generally sympathetic to the type of points Margo MacDonald has raised. We welcome any input to the committee over the next few weeks.

Next week, Helen Eadie and I are meeting the petitioner to the Scottish Parliament on the matter. We will listen carefully to the views that members raise tonight.

It is important that the people's voice is heard on the directive. We should use the Parliament and its committees to do that. Other members have spoken about the effects the directive would have on consumers, patients and retailers. I will not go over that. We have also mentioned the robustness of current food safety legislation.

I address my remarks briefly to the process. The European Committee has had concerns for some time that, by the time pen is put to paper in the drafting of legislation in Europe, it is already too late and the process is difficult to change. Therefore, we must consider how to address that problem.

We have made some recommendations. The first—which has already been agreed by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body—is to set up a presence in Brussels to act as an early warning system in the legislative process. Many members will agree that a Europe of 500 million—after enlargement next year—cannot be governed from the centre.

We would like more framework legislation. Members have talked about differences between the soils of various countries and Margo MacDonald highlighted it. We have certainly tried to draw attention to the need to agree the broad principles in Europe. We need to put the flesh on the legislation in the member states and in the regions. The committee is very supportive of that approach.

We have also asked for greater ex ante scrutiny, which means being involved with the Commission in the early legislative phases and taking evidence at that stage in much the same way as our committees do in the Scottish Parliament. If we put into place those instruments, we can ensure that the Parliament and the citizens are better connected to Europe and that they do not feel that Europe is inflexible and remote, as appears to be the case with the directive we are discussing tonight.

I shall end on a positive note. We now have a Parliament to articulate such concerns and it is important that its committees respond to the concerns of ordinary citizens. The European Committee will do that in the next few weeks and we will try to be as helpful as we possibly can.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party 5:49 pm, 5th March 2003

I declare an interest as convener of the cross-party group on autism and as a member of the European Committee. I will confine my remarks principally to people with autism and their parents and carers.

Many developing therapies that are based primarily on vitamin and mineral supplements are being used to deal with autistic adults and children. As autism was clearly identified only in the early 1980s and as there has been little or no investigation of its causes and treatments, many parents have been driven to seek treatments and therapies of their own. I know that many people—some of whom are in this room—make use of several mineral and vitamin supplements that mitigate the problems caused by the disorder. They can assist autism sufferers to live a more fulfilling life.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

As Mr Quinan said, there are "developing" remedies. I wonder whether he is aware that the directive is defective in that it is so structured as to militate against the companies that are currently developing remedies, because of the expense involved in testing them and reaching European standards of proof. Frankly, that is not required.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

I whole-heartedly agree with what Margo just said—in fact it saves my saying it. Little research has been done in this field, particularly for the purposes of those suffering from autism and Asperger's syndrome.

This directive has been framed very clearly. I will not labour the point, but I am concerned about health needs and conscious that there are superior standards of health in other European countries. Finland, Sweden and Denmark include supplements—both mineral and vitamin—in cattle and poultry feed. In those countries, nutrients, vitamins and minerals are also added to the soil where vegetable and cereal production takes place, so there is a constant reassertion of those vitamins and minerals in the food chain. That is something that we have not had, particularly with selenium, since we ceased to source our grain from the selenium-rich prairies of Canada.

I ask the minister to make use of this positive opportunity to have the Parliament seen to be having an element of power. That power is the power to represent people's genuine desires, which are based on fears created by the directive. I ask her straightforwardly and plainly, on behalf of those who require mineral and vitamin supplements, to seek the derogations that we require and to leave us the space to develop the therapies and treatments that will assist people who will otherwise not be able to achieve the full potential of their lives.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 5:53 pm, 5th March 2003

I commend Margo MacDonald for lodging the motion for this debate. I know that it is customary to say that at members' business, but I say it quite sincerely and not just as a courtesy. The debate is on a vital subject, and I have received a number of pieces of correspondence from constituents on the matter, as I am sure other members have. Other members have made many excellent points throughout the debate, and I do not want to rehash them, as I agree with everything that has been said. In particular, I agree with what Lloyd Quinan said about the use of food supplements in trying to treat children with autism.

I want to raise two important points of principle. The first is the question of freedom. We are dealing not with children or with simple people, but with responsible, intelligent adults. Many people who opt for food supplements do so deliberately, fully aware of issues of diet and of the use of preservatives in food production. They make a conscious choice to go for food supplements, fully aware of all the nutritional issues that surround them. To say that those people should be treated as children and that they are incapable of making up their own minds about whether they should purchase and use food supplements is quite the wrong approach. I am a great defender of personal liberty, and I think that people should have the right to do more or less what they will, as long as they do not harm others. Indeed, I echo what my colleague Alex Fergusson said. If we allow people the right to buy alcohol and tobacco, which are poisons, why on earth are we seeking to ban beneficial items such as food supplements?

The second point that I wish to raise relates to Europe. Pauline McNeill referred to that august journal, the Official Journal of the European Union, to which I subscribe. I am sure that she understands that perhaps my views accord a little more with the editorial line of that journal than hers do. There is an important principle here. People want subsidiarity, which is why I raised the issue earlier. Regulations are passed down from a European level and people in this country feel that they do not have politicians in Europe to represent their views, as those in Europe who make such regulations are not directly elected. Having decisions taken for the whole of Europe without a proper democratic process means that citizens in this country inevitably get upset and disgruntled, and ultimately end up being anti-Europe. Contrary to popular belief, I am not anti-European Union, although I am anti-euro. It is no wonder that the EU gets a bad press when we see such things happening. There should be subsidiarity, and decisions should be taken at member-state level rather than at European level. I hope that the minister will take those comments back to her colleagues in Westminster and ask them to consider the issues seriously.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

We are making good progress, but I am minded to accept a motion without notice to extend the meeting by 15 minutes, which should comfortably allow members to speak. Is it agreed that a motion without notice be moved?

Members:

indicated agreement

.

Motion moved,

That Parliament agrees that Members' Business on 5 March 2003 be extended by 15 minutes.—[Ms Margo MacDonald.]

Motion agreed to.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour 5:57 pm, 5th March 2003

I, too, congratulate Margo MacDonald not just on being a wonderful convener of the wonderful Subordinate Legislation Committee, but on securing this important debate. Every MSP has received massive correspondence on the issue, which shows its importance.

In introducing the debate, Margo MacDonald twice described the directive as "stupid". I have received a letter from one of my constituents, Sandy Constable, who runs a health store in Dundee. He described the directive as

"so lacking in common sense as to be laughable."

However, there is more to despair about than to laugh about in the directive.

Sandy Constable pointed out:

"Over 3000 people in Britain die of prescribed drugs each year."

Millions of others suffer serious side effects from powerful drugs that are legitimately available over the counter or through general practitioners. We are free to drink ourselves to death using legal alcohol and to smoke ourselves to death using legal tobacco. We are free to inflict passive smoking on innocent bystanders by smoking legal tobacco and to pollute our environment and damage our health in any number of ways that the market defines as consumer friendly. However, under the directive, we are not to be allowed to buy vitamins, food supplements and herbal remedies that age-long usage has shown not only to be good for us, but to improve our health. Like Murdo Fraser, I think that the issue makes a laughing stock of the EU.

Sandy Constable also pointed out that it is important to place the debate in its historical context. The health food movement has contributed to improving public health in this country for more than a century. The Vegetarian Society was formed in the 1860s, the food reform movement was formed in the 1880s and the first health food store opened in Birmingham in 1898. In fact, it could be argued that the health food movement was contemporaneous with the trade union and labour movement, during which I have lived all my life. It is surviving better than the labour and trade union movement has done.

One of the great achievements of the labour movement was the establishment of the national health service in 1948. However, the tragedy of the NHS is that it has become dominated by the big pharmaceutical industry, which forces powerful drugs on to people in this country. The health food movement provides an essential alternative to such dominance.

I want to make two final points. I do not know whether the minister can quietly ignore the directive or whether she intends to oppose it—if she does not do so, she should. Secondly, I do not often agree with Murdo Fraser—in fact, I never agree with him—but I am prepared to back what he said about subsidiarity. Subsidiarity means that decisions should be taken as close as possible to the people. The Scottish Parliament should take a decision and the directive should be vetoed and not accepted in this country.

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party 6:00 pm, 5th March 2003

It has been said that the legislation is all about consumer safety, but members who have spoken in the debate do not seem to accept that.

There is no evidence that the vitamins and minerals covered by the directive, or the doses at which they are taken, are harmful. To follow up John McAllion's comments, there have been no reports of death or serious injury from the intake of supplements. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Extensive research and study have taken place into the benefits of vitamin and mineral supplementation. The side effects of vitamins and minerals are known; they are not harmful and they can be easily prevented. The same cannot be said for many prescription drugs.

The current recommended limits placed on these products were set more than 100 years ago. They expressed the minimum amounts necessary to keep diseases at bay—diseases from which we no longer suffer. Recommended daily allowances do not indicate a danger level above which it is not safe to consume the products; indeed, during the first world war they were set to express the absolute minimum requirement of vitamins and minerals necessary to keep soldiers alive.

As has been said, most vitamins and minerals have a long history of use and success. Nobody can deny the recent findings and the abundance of accounts based on personal experience that supplementation has provided relief from, if not a cure for, some physical and mental disorders, which modern prescription drugs have failed to deliver—in some cases prescription drugs have exacerbated the condition.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

Irene McGugan refers to the cures that such products provide. Does she accept that, if the directive were to be implemented in full and the products were to be withdrawn from the market, we would put an even greater burden on the already overstretched national health service?

Photo of Irene McGugan Irene McGugan Scottish National Party

That is without doubt the case.

Alex Fergusson mentioned some illnesses for which relief or a cure has been provided. Children's behavioural difficulties are another relevant condition. For some children, the simple addition of omega 3 and omega 6 fish oils into the diet has meant the possibility of coming off Ritalin, which is a major concern for many of us.

We are all responsible for our own health. The directive means that we would be unable to make free choices and free decisions about the best way to take care of our own health. I have a copy of some comments that were made by members of the European Parliament when the directive was debated in March last year. One of them said:

"this directive is an unacceptable assault on the right of citizens to choose how they look after their health and well-being."

We cannot rely on our food to provide optimum nutrition. Modern farming practices strip out the nutrients and can contaminate meat and produce with chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. Supermarket processing also makes it difficult to find products that have not been subject to chemical alteration. The irony is that none of those processes has to be identified explicity on labels so that people know about them.

My final point, which only Shona Robison has mentioned and which is worth repeating, is that there is a fear that safety will be further compromised by the lack of choice, because people will look elsewhere for alternative sources of their preferred supplement. Such sources might well be outwith the UK, and the products might not conform to the high standards and quality that we have here.

It is incredible that in a country where disease and obesity continue to affect our population the vitamin and mineral market is not being opened up more rather than being closed off. A much closer link must be acknowledged between health and diet. More use of alternative natural supplements would be a good thing. I add my voice to the call for a total derogation from the legislation.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative 6:04 pm, 5th March 2003

When John McAllion and Murdo Fraser agree on something, it must be important.

When speaking late in a debate, even in tonight's unusual circumstances, one inevitably comes to the conclusion that most of the things that one wanted to say have been said. I commend Margo MacDonald for securing a debate on the issue. It is clear from the correspondence that all MSPs have received from members of the public that it must be taken seriously.

I recently had the opportunity—indeed, the pleasure—to visit Sheena Dunlop's health food store in Dumfries. That allowed me to see two things. The first was the range of what anybody would regard as ordinary products that would be banned under the directive. The substances that are under threat are not unusual or chemically produced and do not contain a range of E numbers—they are natural. The products on the shelves in that shop and thousands of other shops in the United Kingdom would be decimated under the directive. The second thing I noticed was that the people who came into the health food shop were not aging hippies who take such products as a fad. I must add that I have never been a hippy—aging or otherwise. The people who came into the shop were—

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative

Indeed they were. They were pursuing concerns about their or their family's health. Such people want to live a healthier life and to tackle some of the issues that we have heard about. They regard the available products as mainstream, and as a lot more mainstream than some of the products that the pharmaceutical industry produces.

The directive will strike at the heart of products and services that ordinary people use. On the basis of everything that we have heard this evening, the directive must be resisted.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I would not normally do this, but as I do not have the screen to rely on, I ask any member whom I might have missed to catch my eye while Jackie Baillie is speaking. Otherwise, she will be the final speaker before the minister.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 6:07 pm, 5th March 2003

Everything has already been said, but, like others, I congratulate Margo MacDonald on securing the debate. I strike a note of warning for John McAllion, who got it wrong: Margo is not the wonderful convener of the Subordinate Legislation Committee—she is the magnificent convener of the Subordinate Legislation Committee.

The debate is important because thousands of people in Scotland rely on extra minerals and vitamins to stay healthy. In light of the directive, perhaps it is time to stock up because, as Margo MacDonald rightly said, products such as high-dose vitamin C to ward off colds, easily absorbable zinc to get rid of mouth ulcers and boron to protect against osteoporosis are under threat. It is worth remembering that such remedies have been around for decades and that, although they are not new, there has not been a murmur of a safety scandal.

Food supplements now come under the remit of the Food Standards Agency and conform to food safety legislation but despite that, some 300 safe, established supplements that are available in the UK market will be put out of the reach of consumers. In fact, it will be illegal to sell them. There is a hugely bureaucratic and expensive process to go through to include a supplement on the list of so-called safe supplements, which is nonsense when one considers that the years of use and compliance with the Food Standards Agency adequately speak for consumer safety. As we have heard, not only would the directive rule out certain supplements, it would also reduce the legal vitamin or mineral dose levels in supplements so severely that their effectiveness would be undermined.

The directive is bad news for consumers and bad news for the food supplements industry, which would end up becoming much more generic. A reduction in the potency of supplements to beneath effective levels would risk undermining the credibility of the sector as a whole. Millions of people in Britain use high-dosage mineral and vitamin supplements regularly and many rely on them. I agree with Shona Robison that, far from promoting safety, the new regulations might have the opposite effect.

Alex Fergusson asked why the directive has been produced. There is no secret to that—the directive is not about consumer protection but about trade liberalisation. The standardisation of laws on vitamin supplements throughout Europe, while undoubtedly allowing large supplement companies to sell throughout Europe, will in effect bring laws to the lowest common denominator in terms of consumer choice.

A degree of consensus is emerging on the question of derogation and I am interested in the minister's response to that. We must encourage the UK Government to adopt the most liberal interpretation of the legislation possible and to use a little common sense, because choice and safety are not mutually exclusive.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour 6:10 pm, 5th March 2003

I had intended to intervene on the minister; however, I am taking the opportunity to speak in a little more depth. Members, including Jackie Baillie, have spoken eloquently about what we might lose through a rigid interpretation of the directive. The European legislation has gone beyond being a proposed directive and is now a directive; the issue now is how it is implemented throughout the European Union. We were all sent a briefing from the Food Standards Agency, which says that it is intended that the implementation of the directive, through regulations that the Scottish Parliament will make, will be flexible.

I have two specific questions for the minister. First, I would like her to clarify how she intends to draft the regulations. Can she confirm the cost of compliance—the cost of the production of the dossiers that must be produced before substances can be used? It has been suggested to me that a problem exists because, even when a product has been used safely for years, the costs of the regulatory process will be prohibitive for the producer of that food supplement. The issue is not that the supplements are dangerous or that they have not been used for years, but that the cost of their going through the system might be too expensive. Can the minister confirm what the cost of that process might be?

Secondly, members have talked about derogation. Members of the European Committee, such as Helen Eadie and me, have to read through the derogation process all the time. It is very important that any application for derogation meets the terms and criteria that are set out in the derogation. I wonder whether the minister can tell us how she intends to ensure that that happens. Nearly all members have mentioned the need for that. Soil composition has been mentioned as an issue that is unique to us in Scotland, which, in another subject, would allow us a derogation. I wonder whether the minister has any advice yet on that issue.

If the minister cannot answer those detailed questions tonight, it would be helpful if she could answer them before the European Committee debates the issue in three weeks' time. Tonight is not the end of the process. We are late on in the process, but it would be helpful if members of the Parliament were able to work with the minister, the European Committee and, potentially, our colleagues in the European Parliament and Westminster to get a co-ordinated approach.

I am glad that we have had the opportunity to hold this debate. The real challenge for us is to get into the difficult, nitty-gritty issues of where we go next in relation to the derogation process and the whole issue of how the regulations might be drafted and implemented. I presume that they will come back to us for discussion and debate. I hope that the minister will be able to answer my questions—if not now, within the next three weeks.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour 6:13 pm, 5th March 2003

I, too, congratulate Margo MacDonald, as every other member has. I do not want to add anything to what other members have said. They have spoken for many of my constituents this evening and I join with them.

A number of questions spring to mind. Sarah Boyack is absolutely right: we are talking about a done deal in Europe. We now have to think about how we can best reflect the views of people in Scotland. From the investigations that I have been carrying out, there certainly seems to be strong opinion throughout Scotland that there is a serious problem here that we need to address. We need to ask the minister, other colleagues and anyone who has any knowledge in these matters how we can minimise the impact of directives on people.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat

I want to raise a point that no one else has raised. I understand that there are two directives.

Photo of Nora Radcliffe Nora Radcliffe Liberal Democrat

We are looking for derogation with one; however, the other is not agreed yet, so we have some opportunity to get into it.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour

That is right. I think that the herbal medicine directive is the one that we are still waiting on. We can have some impact on that directive and can help to influence the decision. That is important.

Another two points come to mind. We are all able to operate commercially on the internet. I regularly buy things from America through the internet, which are delivered by post. As Shona Robison said, food supplements can easily be purchased in America. What will be the mechanism for controlling the purchase of supplements from America? Will there be any controls or will the public be able to disregard what is happening in the UK? That would make a nonsense of the regulations. People could regard the law as an ass and simply buy from America, which would impact on businesses in our country.

Another point arises from my reading—I have always read a lot about health foods, supplements, minerals and herbal medicine. Scotland has one of the highest incidences of heart disease in the world. A test was carried out in China, which also has a problem with heart disease, on the taking of selenium. About 5,000 young people who had a heart problem were involved in the test. Half of the group was given selenium and the other half was given a placebo. The half who took the placebo continued to have the heart problem, but the symptoms of those who took the selenium began to disappear over time.

I flag up that information because it is important in the context of the argument that we need to include free radicals in our diet. However, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, selenium is found in this country only in Essex, whereas in other parts of the world, selenium is predominantly found in mountainous areas from where it is washed down into valleys. I add that additional information about the internet purchasing of food supplements and the use of selenium because I think that it is important. I will produce a report on 25 March and I hope that it will help to reflect the views that have been expressed in the debate.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I am obliged to the minister for agreeing, in these unusual circumstances, to extend the debate to a later time than would normally be the case. I also express my appreciation to her burdened staff, who have also had to wait behind.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour 6:17 pm, 5th March 2003

I was going to say that we have had a full and interesting debate, but that was before I knew what was going to happen. However, I think that the debate has been a well-informed one and I hope that all those who have joined us in committee room 1 have appreciated the contribution of each member.

The debate served to confirm, again, that many members and their constituents feel strongly that the public should have the right to have continuing access to a wide range of food supplements. Just to pick up on that point, which Helen Eadie and Nora Radcliffe raised, the directive is on food supplements and vitamins. The issue of traditional herbal medicines is to be discussed further. My comments will be on food supplements and vitamins.

I stress that we share the concerns of the public and members that access to food supplements and vitamins should be as wide as possible. The Food Standards Agency represented the UK Government at the negotiations in Brussels on the food supplements directive. Those were difficult negotiations, which were carried out with great vigour and in full consultation with all interested parties. However, the directive was adopted as EU law on 30 May 2002, but the text included a number of hard-won concessions, including the derogations in articles 4 and 15.

Article 4 contains a derogation that allows member states to permit in their territory the continued use of vitamins and minerals that are not on the positive list until 31 December 2009. That use is subject to three conditions. The first condition is that the substance was already used in supplements that were on the EU market when the directive came into force. I refer back to Margo MacDonald's example of echinacea. That is a herbal substance and so is not affected by the directive. Margo MacDonald also referred to vitamin C, but that is on the positive list. Therefore, certain combinations will still be permitted.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

I accept what the minister is saying about the extension to 2009. However, if the supplements are not safe, why have they been given that extension?

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

I will come to the question of safety shortly, if Alex Fergusson will bear with me.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I am not at all sure that, after 2009, it will be possible to buy the supplements in combination. I was making a point not about safety but about the existence of a further, unnecessary restriction.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

I believe that the situation in that regard will depend on the directive on herbal medicines.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

That is why some people touched on the issue of the directives that are still to come. It is a related issue.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

I recognise that.

The second condition to be met is the submission of a dossier to the Commission by 12 July 2005 supporting the use of the supplement. Sarah Boyack asked how much that was likely to cost. The indications that we have are that the submission of a dossier would cost between £80,000 and £250,000. We recognise that that might be a burden, but there are opportunities for people in the industry to join together to share some of that burden. The dossier would have to be produced for one supplement, rather than the whole range, so there are some savings to be made.

The third condition is that the European FSA has not given an unfavourable opinion in respect of the use of the substance or its proposed source.

Article 15 of the directive requires member states to bring into force laws, regulations and administrative provisions necessary to prohibit trade in products that do not comply with the directive, from 1 August 2005 at the latest.

We intend to make the fullest use of the flexibilities.

The negotiations are finished and the food supplements directive is a fact of life. The Government's priority now is to fulfil its European Community obligations. I am sorry that Donald Gorrie has not stayed for this part of the debate because I was a little surprised to hear him talk about whether we opt in or opt out of the European Community's decisions. We have to take a serious view and recognise our obligations, but I acknowledge that we also want to represent our population. Therefore, we will seek to implement the provisions of the directive with the appropriate transitional arrangements.

There are a number of important elements in the directive that we particularly welcome, such as the additional labelling provisions that will contribute to the Government's commitment to promote honest and informed labelling in order to facilitate informed consumer choice.

On Helen Eadie's point about the internet, we recognise that people will still have opportunities to purchase outwith the European Community. We cannot restrict that and we would not seek to do so.

Photo of Lloyd Quinan Lloyd Quinan Scottish National Party

The minister referred to the element of the directive that informs the Executive that it must make law to ban these substances. In that case, there would surely be a responsibility on the Executive to interrupt internet commerce.

Photo of Mary Mulligan Mary Mulligan Labour

We will not be in a position to oversee everyone's access to the internet. We will provide the information that people need to make informed decisions as to whether they use food supplements or not. It would be unrealistic of me to say otherwise.

The fact is, that this harmonising measure will expand the market for UK businesses in other EU states.

We remain committed to the view that, in the interests of consumer choice, the law should allow food supplements that are safe and properly labelled to be freely marketed. At the moment, we have no formal system of identifying adverse reactions to food supplements. Therefore, no accurate figures are available. Although none of us in this room might know of examples of difficulties, those who are involved in this issue every day tell us that there have been examples of the use of supplements being detrimental to people who use them. We need to keep an open mind on that and be aware that there may be safety issues.

I emphasise that the directive will not immediately outlaw any products that are already on the UK market. The Government intends, when it implements the directive, to take advantage of the flexibility that the directive allows to permit the continuation of consumer choice. The priority now is to implement the directive with appropriate transitional arrangements and, in particular, to press the case for maximum limits to be based on thorough scientific risk assessments. We welcome industry's efforts to collaborate to ensure efficient and effective submission of safety dossiers.

I reassure Jackie Baillie, as she urged me to do, that I will as ever show common sense. The Food Standards Agency will continue to press for maximum levels to be set at levels that protect public health but that neither unnecessarily limit consumer choice nor unduly restrict trade.

It is important to remember that most consumers should be encouraged to eat a good balanced diet that ensures that they meet their daily vitamin and mineral needs. However, we do not want to prevent access to safe and well-labelled supplements.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Order. Before I conclude today's business, I express my sincere thanks to all the parliamentary staff who reacted to this afternoon's circumstances with great efficiency and professionalism.

Meeting closed at 18:26.