Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Wednesday 24 May 1989



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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Michael Latham

Baldry, Mr. Tony (Banbury)

Batiste, Mr. Spencer (Elmet)

Buchanan-Smith, Mr. Alick (Kincardine and Deeside)

Douglas, Mr. Dick (Dunfermline West)

Dunnachie, Mr. Jimmy (Glasgow, Pollok)

Forsyth, Mr Michael (Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)

Howell, Mr. Ralph (Norfolk, North)

Jessel, Mr. Toby (Twickenham)

Knight, Dame Jill (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Lambie, Mr. David (Cunninghame, South)

Lawrence, Mr. Ivan (Burton)

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

McKelvey, Mr. William (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

Maclean, Mr. David (Penrith and The Border)

Monro, Sir Hector (Dumfries)

Shelton, Sir William (Streatham)

Welsh, Mr. Andrew (Angus, East)

Wilson, Mr. Brian (Cunninghame, North)

Ms. E. C. Samson, Committee Clerk

3 Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 24 May 1989

[MR. MICHAEL LATHAM in the Chair]

Preservatives in Food (Scotland) Regulations 1989

10.30 am

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Preservatives in Food (Scotland) regulations 1989. We broadly welcome these proposals. However, the issue arouses much public concern and it would not be proper to allow the regulations to go through without discussion. We welcome the proposals which enact into Scottish law a number of EEC regulations concerning the approximation across the countries of the Community of the rules governing permitted preservatives and their use, as well as labelling. Given that this is a European initiative, I had half expected that we might discover that we were all on the same side this morning and had decided to fight the foreigners and the continentals on the beaches over food additives, in addition to cigarette labelling and the terrible threat of people having to learn foreign languages. Although we broadly welcome the proposals, we have reservations about the number of additives still permitted, and I would ask the Minister for an explanation of one or two points. It is no surprise that the directives originate from the EEC. While the Government seem to be intent on hiding from the public details of food content and on cutting food research—many research institutes in Scotland are affected by cuts—the EEC has been at the forefront of moves to heighten public awareness of the dangers of additives. It was the EEC which first required additives to be declared on food labels, and which devised the useful E number classification. The new European emphasis on labelling has come at a time when additives of one type or another have greatly increased. About 3,800 additives such as preservatives, bleaches, solvents and emulsifiers are used in food processing for around 100 different functions. The EEC initiatives have greatly increased public awareness of the artificial content of much of our food and have increased the desire to avoid much of our food. Many shoppers now look for the E numbers on products and avoid them if they find too many, irrespective of what the additive is. The fact that the E numbers are all too often incomprehensible to the average shopper does not stop people being wary of them. In short, labelling has increased the public desire for natural and healthier foods. Manufacturers are certainly responding to this new market. How much more often are we now bombarded with products which proclaim, "Additive free", or "No artificial 4 colour", or "Natural ingredients only". The move away from dependence upon artificial additives must be a good thing. However, it is a shame that the Government, on their own initiative, seem unable to do anything to further the process unless they are directed to do so by the EEC. In the context of recent public discussion on the beneficial aspects of EEC membership, if we did not have EEC initiatives on labelling, we would have a much less rigorous and healthy approach to what food manufacturers —the giant food processing industry—could sell to people without labelling or warning. Under the healthier eating regime, manufacturers have often found that artificial ingredients can easily be replaced by natural ones, to the benefit of all. That is to be encouraged. For example, colours and flavours in yoghurt have largely been replaced by real fruit. It does not automatically follow that natural products are always better than artificial additives. Some so-called natural ingredients are extracted from things that one would not normally eat, while others could cause health problems themselves. The law governing their use could do with tightening up. Something also needs to be said about the largest group of additives—flavourings—which are not controlled by Government approved lists and do not have to be named on food labels. That is a major loophole in the law. I understand that systematic testing is now under way in the EEC, but a Government initiative would be welcome. Why cannot the British Government act on their own initiative in those matters, instead of waiting and following what the EEC tells them to do? Undoubtedly, the fewer artificial flavourings and colourings permitted, the better. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why any are permitted; perhaps the Minister will deal with that point. The regulations deal with the group of additives known as preservatives which, unlike flavourings or colourings, are important in increasing shelf life. We are used to a minimum storage time for certain products, and if preservatives were removed, the consequences could be harmful. However, preservatives can be removed in some cases and we should like some movement in that direction. For example, when preservatives are used to slow down the growth of micro-organisms or a deterioration of rancid fats, they are necessary, but when they simply replace superior methods of processing, such as greater hygiene in the factory, they should not be tolerated. Preservatives should not be an easy option for the food manufacturing industry. It should also be remembered that the presence of preservatives does not guarantee food from bacterial contamination. Is the Minister satisfied that the preservatives permitted in the regulations satisfy these criteria? Do they all genuinely increase shelf life, or could they be eliminated without too much difficulty? Can other means be used to lengthen shelf life without using artificial preservatives? Attention should be drawn to allergies and intolerant reactions. Many listed preservatives have been connected with complaints. Many people suffer 5 from the effects of benzoates, E 10 to 19, and sulphites, E220 to 227, which have been connected to asthma. Sulphites have also been identified as destroying vitamin Bl. Nitrates—E249 to 252—reduce the ability of the blood to carry oxygen and are a possible cause of cancer. All those preservatives are permitted in the regulations, but in the light of their possible side-effects, and bearing in mind the Minister's health role, is their inclusion justified? Little is known about the effect of some additives or how they react together. It is not unknown for two additives which are harmless on their own to become toxic when combined. Such lack of knowledge and its inherent danger should militate in favour of reducing the number of permitted additives. The Labour party intends to set up a food standards agency to monitor such matters, but until then, the list of permitted substances should be as short as possible. Although we welcome European Community initiatives such as these regulations—we have much for which to be grateful to the EC, for generating public debate and legislation—it is far from clear that the list follows the guidelines that we should like. We should be doing much more to improve healthy eating.

10.37 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth): I am slightly puzzled by the speech made by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), as he described the regulations as an EEC initiative. I do not know whether he has studied them carefully, but I understand that the provisions authorising preservatives in prawns and shrimps in brine follow advice that prohibiting imports in which such preservatives are used could be challenged in the European Court of Justice. The import of the hon. Gentleman's speech was that the European Community was taking action to control the use of those preservatives, but it is as a result of representations within the Community that a certain preservative is being used in prawns and shrimps in brine. Furthermore, the regulations will permit the use of potassium bisulphate—E228—in wine. This implements EC directives 85/585 and 86/604. If the hon. Gentleman's argument is that we must limit the number of substances used in this way, while praising the EC, I must point out that the EC's involvement in the regulations is to increase the use of such substances. However, EC involvement is a minor part of the regulations.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East): The Minister said that the EEC had authorised the use of permitted preservatives in prawns and shrimps in brine. What effect does the Minister expect this change to have on the Scottish fish processing industry? Are these preservatives already in use elsewhere? Can he assure us that tests have given these preservatives a clean bill of health?

Mr. Forsyth: To answer the hon. Gentleman's point and to pick up a point made by the hon. 6 Member for Cunninghame, North, we were advised that these preservatives were not necessary, and that was also our view. However, the Danes were concerned that the fact that it was not permissible to use these preservatives was acting to the disadvantage of their domestic production. The effect will be to increase competition, but I am sure that the Scottish fishing and processing industry will be able to respond to that competition. The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) makes a fair point and helps to undermine the substance of the speech made by the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North. These regulations are identical to the Preservatives in Food regulations 1989 which came into force in England and Wales on 27 April. Their most significant feature is that they consolidate a number of previous regulations which have been introduced since the Preservatives in Food (Scotland) regulations 1979. Schedule 7 of the regulations shows the range of regulations that have been summarised. That will help those who use them in their work, as they have brought together in a single document. The regulations clarify and extend the list of preservatives permitted in certain categories of fruits or plants. That was recommended by the Food Advisory Committee, not by the EEC. They also clarify the use of sorbic acid in the various fats spreads, and that too has been cleared with the committee. Lastly, they clarify the circumstances in which the use of ethylene oxide is permissible. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North sought various assurances. Two bodies advise the Government on this matter. The first is the Food Advisory Committee, which advises us on the composition, labelling and advertising of food, and on additives, contaminants and other substances which are or may be present in food or used in its preparation. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that body carefully examines all substances, to establish that they are absolutely necessary, before approving them. Only when it has established that they are absolutely necessary, and there is doubt about their safety, would the committee on toxicity of chemicals in food, consumer products and the environment be asked to review it. Public health and safety considerations are paramount. There is no evidence to suggest that these bodies do other than a splendid job. They are extremely discriminating and careful in the way that they carry out their work. It is really rather irresponsible of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that dangers to public health may arise from the failure of these bodies, in which we have every confidence.

Mr. Wilson: How many members of the Food Advisory Committee also have interests in the food processing industry?

Mr. Forsyth: The hon. Gentleman will be able to get the membership of the committee from the Library. The chairman of the committee is Dr. Page, who is the vice-Chancellor of Reading university. Other members include people who have a background in the industry and also people such as 7 Mr. Roger Manley who is the director of trading standards of Cheshire county council; Mrs. Anne Stamper, who is the chair of education of the National Federation of Women's Institutes and a lecturer in biology at Lewes technical college; Professor Paul Turner, who is the professor of clinical pharmacology at St. Bartholomew's hospital; and Dr. Roger Whithead, the director of the Medical Research Council's Dunn nutrition unit. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to imply that the Food Advisory Committee is anything other than a highly expert body which seeks to promote the interests of public health. It would be irresponsible to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is wrong to suggest that people with a background in the food processing industry who serve on the committee are anything other than committed to the imposition of satisfactory standards? The industry depends on that commitment for its integrity and for public confidence in its products.

Mr. Forsyth: My hon. Friend is right. The food industry has shown its realisation of the benefits of ensuring that public health is preserved. It has no interest in doing anything to the contrary. Implicit in the question from the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North is the suggestion that the committee is dominated by groups from the food processing industry. It is not.

Mr. Andrew Welsh: The Minister pointed out that the additive in fish was put in at the behest of the Danes to solve a problem that they had. The Minister has the benefit of the might of the Civil Service, so will he explain what E228, potassium bisulphite, is? Is it normally put into EEC wine? What additives do non-EEC wines contain that EEC wines do not, and how is that monitored by the EEC? What controls are there over what is put into wine, and are additives put in at the behest of the EEC? Will the Minister explain what E228 does? That is a fair question; the public need assurances on food safety.

Mr. Forsyth: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Potassium bisulphite is a preservative. EEC directive 64/65 lists the preservatives which may be used in food. EEC directive 65/66 lays down criteria for purity facilities. The directives were amended by EEC directive 85/585 and EEC directive 86/604 to permit the use of potassium bisulphite in wine. It is a preservative, and there is a requirement to list the preservatives that are used. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Andrew Welsh: I understand that these are technical matters and I do not wish to embarrass the Minister—but what does potassium bisulphite do, and why is it added?

Mr. Forsyth: To give the hon. Gentleman a non-technical answer, it kills bugs in wine and 8 prevents the deterioration of the product. If the hon. Gentleman so wishes, I shall write to him with a full, technical exposition. I am sure that the Committee do not wish to be detained by one this morning. I hope that I have explained the background to the issue and responded to the specific points raised. The regulations will put Scottish consumers, manufacturers, importers and retailers on the same footing as their counterparts south of the border. They will allow us to implement the two EEC obligations that I have mentioned, and I commend them to the Committee.

10.47 am

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries): Although anyone can make out a case for discussing statutory instruments or legislation ad infinitum, it is astonishing that the Opposition should pray against these regulations, which ensure that we have good food in Scotland—yet only one of them turns up to argue the matter. But perhaps Labour Members have gone to Glasgow, Central to try to retain a seat in which they have a majority of 17,000. They may have abandoned the House entirely. The Minister has assured us that all the good food produced in Scotland, whether on farms, in factories or in processing units, is of first class quality. We are proud of that, and I am happy to note that the regulations do not affect the splendid ice cream that is made in Langholm in my constituency. None of the difficulties created by the EEC prevents the best ice cream being produced under excellent conditions. I wholly support the regulations and wonder why the Opposition prayed against them.

10.49 am

Mr. Wilson: The regulations deal not only with food produced in Scotland but with food imported into Scotland. There is no slight to Scottish food production which, I agree with the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir. H. Munro), is generally of high quality. The reason why we prayed against the order, and why these matters are worthy of debate and specific answers are called for, is that the public are concerned about the food that they are eating, with good reason. There are many numbers and technical names for preservatives in the schedules, so it is small wonder that people are confused. People need clearer information, and above all assurance that independent bodies acting in the best interests of the consumer, not the producer, are taking these decisions. Being in favour of good food is like being in favour of good weather, but the necessary steps must be taken to ensure good food. The mere existence of regulations is no guarantee that they achieve their objective.

Mr. Michael Forsyth: I shall briefly answer the hon. Gentleman's point about people not being aware of food additives and E numbers. The excellent booklet "Food Additives: The Balanced Approach" includes a list of the E numbers and explains them. It is available to the public. Another booklet "Look at the Label", also sets them out. I 9 shall arrange for copies to be sent to the hon. Gentleman. The Government have published a booklet this week on food safety, which shows that they are well aware of the need to inform the public on those matters. It is widely available and should be universally welcomed by the Committe and the public.


Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Preservatives in Food (Scotland) regulations 1989.

Committee rose at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Latham, Mr. Michael (Chairman)

Batiste, Mr.

Forsyth, Mr. Michael

Knight, Dame Jill

Maclean, Mr.

Monro, Sir H.

Welsh, Mr. Andrew

Wilson, Mr.