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Margarine (Standards)

Volume 529: debated on Monday 21 June 1954

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10.40 p.m.

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Food Standards (Margarine) Order. 1954 (S.I., 1954, No. 613), dated 12th May, 1954, a copy of which was laid before, this House on 14th May, be annulled.
As far as I understand it—which is a necessarily cautionary premise—the purpose of this Order is desirable, and as we on this side always seek to meet the convenience of the House, may I say that I do not expect that my hon. and right hon. Friends will wish to call a Division unless it happens that the Parliamentary Secretary explains the Order in such a way that we find it does not meet the purpose as we understand it.

The purpose of the Order is to provide enforceable standards for the vitamisation of margarine. We support this Order, as far as we understand it, because its purpose, as we conceive it, is a desirable one. But, on the face of it—and I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will at once agree—this is a most remarkable Order. It is the first Statutory Instrument, I believe, which has been illustrated, and I think there ought to be some recognition of the artist. It is anonymous, and I do not know whether it is the work of the Parliamentary Secretary. I think that this is a welcome innovation which should be followed in other Orders.

The Second Schedule to the Order is, I think, the most amazing Schedule which has ever been attached to any Statutory Instrument. That is why I am very surprised that the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) is not here. He has always proudly boasted that he has read all the Statutory Instruments, and since the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) has become an Independent, the vigilance has become blunted. I should have thought that this was the sort of Order to which he would have thought it his duty to call the attention of the House.

Margarine is an alternative to butter, but it lacks Vitamins A and D, and the purpose of the Order is to see that these nutrients are provided as they were before the war in domestic margarine at a higher standard than during the period of control. This is not only desirable, but is supported by the manufacturers themselves. The Food Standards Committee, which made the recommendation upon which this Order is based, said that there ought to be a master mix. Although I have read this Order, I cannot find anything about a master mix, and I would like to know why there is no reference to it, and, in fact, why there is no reference at all to enforceability as far as Vitamin A is concerned.

Will the hon. Gentleman explain what "master mix" is, as we do not all know?

I will leave that to the Parliamentary Secretary. After all, we are now discussing this under the new procedure, and I do not want to trespass too much on his time. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) has spent a great deal of time in attempting to master this Order, and I want him to put his many points to the Parliamentary Secretary.

The second point is that there was a recommendation that the wrappers should indicate the vitamin content. It may be inappropriate to this Order, but the Parliamentary Secretary might deal with that when he replies. This amazing Schedule to the Order is intended, as far as I can understand it, to provide for an approved method of analysis. I shall only raise a few points about it, because I have not had the opportunity to devote the time and energy to this Order which my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West has been able to devote to it.

So far as I can see the procedure is rather conspiratorial. It is expressly laid down that the operation shall be carried out in subdued lighting conditions. Is this necessary? After all, this concerns the public analyst. The language does not seem to be very scientific. I notice, for instance, the instruction to
"Transfer the ethereal solution in suitable aliquots quantitively …."
That seems to be a remarkable thing to do. Anyway, why not just say "transfer"? I only mention this as an illustration of the things which puzzle me about the Schedule. Then, at the end, I see it is stated,
"If this is not so the whole determination must be repeated."
If the person to whom the Second Schedule is directed is so minded, does he go on repeating until the margarine is exhausted? What is the purpose of such a direction?

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with the many points which I know that one of my hon. Friends is going to raise, and deal with them seriously. After all, this Order provides for prosecutions without the consent of the Minister. Yet the Minister has interfered. He has, in fact, sent out advice, or instructions, to local authorities that they must not prosecute because there is a lot of margarine about which does not conform to the Order. I think that is undesirable.

If the Order is capable of explanation, I think it is something which is desirable and is acceptable to manufacturers; but it ought not to be brought into effect while local authorities are not to prosecute for failure to comply with it. It would be dangerous to bring the Order into operation before stocks of margarine not conforming to its standards are exhausted.

10.49 p.m.

I bee to second the Motion.

I agree with the poet who said,
"Life would be an easy matter
If we didn't have to eat.
If we never had to utter
Won't you pass the bread and butter;
Likewise, push along that platter
Full of meat."
But we do, and today it is an expensive occupation, particularly in the House of Commons. The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that another place has given us a warning, which I think he has in mind,
"In these days of indigestion
It is oftentimes a question
As to what to eat and what to leave alone;
For each and every bacillus
Has a different way to kill us,
And in time they always claim us for their own."
So far as the Order is intended to improve margarine, I am in favour of it, because few of Her Majesty's subjects can afford to buy butter. Therefore it will undoubtedly perform a useful service. I do suggest, however, that it is unfortunate that a Statutory Instrument should have been written by a Beachcomber and illustrated by a Heath Robinson.

The Parliamentary Secretary will remember that Bertrand Russell in his "History of Western Philosophy" talked of the difficulty of approaching philosophic subjects in scientific language, and there seems to be something of the same difficulty in approaching legal subjects in scientific language. This Order, which introduces a new principle in law, means that manufacturers will have to go to a police court or a petty sessional court and say, "I have done all these things. I am an expert and I have applied all these tests, and I have now produced the right kind of vitamins. Having applied these tests in a whole variety of ways I still have not 940 International Units; indeed, I have less than 760." Then I bring an expert to say, "I stuck my thumb in it and it was really margarine." If I were the judge I should not know what to say. It seems to be a doubtful proposition, to say the least.

There is also some uncertainty about paragraph 2, which begins:
"any reference to margarine shall be construed as including a reference to any food, whether mixed with butter or not, which resembles butter …"
What is that? I should say it was soap. The Parliamentary Secretary would no doubt say that soap is not a food, but it is well within the knowledge of Members of this House that the type of cheese we are importing now is quite indistinguishable from soap, as regards texture, substance and taste. The only difference is one of price. It therefore seems that cheese would come within the purview of this Order, and probably would not react correctly to the tests.

As far as scientific matters are concerned, I speak with rather more reserve. The First Schedule provides that:
"The vitamin A content shall be calculated as the sum of the vitamin A present as such or as its esters plus 0·8 times the beta-carotene equivalent of any carotenes present; any alpha-carotene being considered as equivalent in potency to half its weight of beta-carotene; and when red palm oil …"—
which seems to be rather a hangover from the television debate—
"is used as a source of carotenes, the beta-carotene equivalent shall be taken as 53·5 per cent. of the total carotenes …"
Why it should be 53·5 per cent., I do not know. We are getting into some rather difficult mathematics on this question.

I would remind the Parliamentary Secretary that when we go to court we often say, "If the word is not in the Interpretation Act you have to look in the Oxford Dictionary." But the word "carotene" is not in the Oxford Dictionary; nor is it in the Encyclopædia Britannica. It is apparently something to do with chlorophyll. The best definition I have been able to obtain says that it is:
"An orange-yellow pigment with a chemical formula C40H56. This compound is of considerable importance as it is the precursor of vitamin A, one molecule of Beta Carotene being split into two molecules of vitamin A by simple hydrolitic reaction."
The definition goes on to say that it is not only associated with the chlorophylls but may also occur in chloroplests. It may be that there is a possibility of a dispute with regard to the First Schedule.

I have no time to go fully into the Second Schedule, but there are one or two questions which really want answering. How does one boil a thing under reflux for 20 minutes—and what happens when one does? My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. F. Willey) asked why one has to transfer quantitatively when one is asked to do it in 40 ml. quantities, which seem to be quantitative anyhow. The next sentence contains the most surprising proposition. We have been dealing with ether and we are then told to transfer the ethereal solution—which I understood was either nectar or ambrosia, and certainly nothing to do with ether. This will present some confusion to any court which is called upon to adjudicate in the matter.

Carotene has to be eluted, and then we have to deal with the eluate, and we have to deal with it in a manner in which I. personally, should not like to deal with anything. I have tried to follow the instructions clearly. At one stage we have to extract the unsaponifiable matter, but no one tells us what to do with it when it is extracted. We should be told that. I have not yet said a word about the illustration, which seems to have been taken from H. G. Wells's "War of the Worlds." I have not found out the difference between a pipette, a buvette, a burette, and a retort. No doubt we shall have the retort courteous from the Parliamentary Secretary. My difficulties are exaggerated by the fact that one of my school colleagues got mixed in his examination paper over brunette and burette and this did not endear him to the examiners.

But to return to the Order, I then find that the question of the esters is somewhat superficial. Esters constitute a matter of some complexity, for in relation to the vegetable oils we are told that they include glyceryl stearate, palmitate, oleate—which is an olefin acid—linoleate—a diolefin acid—linolenate, which is a trioefin acid, and ricinoleate a hydroxyolefin acid. All these are essential things in vegetable oils, and should be present in normal margarine; but what happens if we get abnormal margarine? If we try to deal with it as simply as possible, I think I should say before I conclude that I am reminded of Swin burne's "The Higher Pantheism"—
"Doubt is faith in the main,
But faith on the whole is doubt
We cannot believe by proof;
But could we believe without."
For my part, I am still open to question, and I find that there is very real doubt about the concluding sentences of the Second Schedule:
"The validity of the test is assessed from the optical density measurements at (λ max. minus 15 mμ.) and (λ max. plus 10 mλ.). The ratio of the optical density at each of these wavelengths to the optical density at λmax. (normally 324 mμ.) should fall within the range of 0·86 ± 0·02. If this is not so the whole determination must be repeated."
At that stage, at least, I think the whole thing is clear to us. If that happens, then the whole process is complete, and while one does not expect the scientist to jump from his bath crying "Eureka," he may be entitled to run three times round the lavatory shouting "It really is margarine." If this is not so, then the whole determination must be repeated; but I cannot understand why, if it does not happen once, it should be expected to happen a second time. For how long is the wretched man to go on repeating it? At what stage in the proceedings is he entitled to conclude that it really is margarine?

In this supremely complex matter I would conclude by observing that the proposition starts off with vitamin A and vitamin D; but from a perusal of the Second Schedule it would seem that "D" is forgotten. I cannot there find out what it is, nor what test is applied to establish that it is present. At least I am glad that the whole matter is in such capable hands. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell the House in a few words how we, in our kitchens throughout the country, can find out from now on whether the margarine which we have there is good margarine or not.

11.0 p.m.

The hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) has made the thing almost crystal clear, but I should like a little further explanation of the Order. This is the type of Order which, when I was in Opposition, which was not so very long ago, I delighted in deriding. In other words, it is completely inexplicable to the ordinary human being. There is an Explanatory Note, which, we are told, is not part of the Order, but is intended to "indicate its general purport." It consists of five lines of the document:

"This Order, which should be read with the Food Standards (General Provisions) Order, 1944"—
with which, of course, we are all well acquainted—
"as amended, prescribes a standard for margarine as respects vitamin A and vitamin D to be contained therein. The standard applies on sale by retail (as defined) only and applies alike to imported and home-produced margarine."
If we are to have Orders of this kind the Explanatory Notes should explain them. I cannot think this Explanatory Note explains this Order, which is, to me, completely inexplicable. It really says nothing at all. I am sure my hon. Friend will be able to explain the Order even more clearly than the hon. Member for Oldham, West, but all the same the Explanatory Note should explain what is contained in this complicated Order if only for the sake of those who have to operate it. For all the explaining this Note does it might have been left out. Is it not possible to have Explanatory Notes to Orders such as this that truly explain them, or, better still, Orders in language ordinary people can understand?

11.2 p.m.

This Order is very funny, and the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) has extracted almost all the fun out of it. I have no objection to that, because I enjoyed listening to him. He missed one sentence, however, on page 4:

"Make sure that no trace of alcohol remains, as otherwise the chromatogram will not develop properly."
In Northern Ireland and England proceedings for infringements of this Order can be brought without the consent of the Minister. What happens in Scotland? Are we to have no vitaminised margarine in Scotland? Or are we so well provided for in Scotland with highly vitaminised margarine that we do not have to take any steps to ensure we get it?

The Order is made under the emergency laws, but it is not stated at the head of the Order what law. The Order says:
"The Minister of Food, in pursuance of the powers conferred upon him by Regulation two of the Defence Regulations …"
Surely it ought to say under what Act this Order is being made? It is important that we should know under what Act it is made. I ask my hon. Friend, how long will the emergency last? It is 10 years or more since the original Regulations were made. Is the emergency still on? Are we to get rid of this amazing Order very soon? What is to happen? I do not think we ought to operate for ever under emergency laws even to preserve vitaminised margarine for our people. I hope my hon. Friend will give us satisfactory answers to both these questions.

The only other question I should like to ask is whether this will be understood by the ordinary sanitary inspector who. I suppose, will have to order the analysis. Public analysts I presume will understand, and may even have one of these astonishing machines with cotton wool stuffed in various parts, but the ordinary sanitary inspector will be completely in the dark about this extremely complicated apparatus, and the extremely complicated language in the Second Schedule —in two if not three languages—ancient Greek, Latin and English. May I join in the appeal of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Colonel Gomme-Duncan) that, in the interests of the ordinary official of the local authority who has to operate this Order, at least the Schedule should be in language he can understand.

11.6 p.m.

The mover of this Prayer will feel he has been justified, if only for the pleasure of hearing the scientific scrutiny of this Order by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale). I agree that it does demand an explanation, and I am grateful in this respect to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) for raising this question.

To deal first with the background, it is true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that this Order imposes a requirement under the only legal provision which exists at this moment for the purpose of the addition of vitamins A and D to margaine, roughly in the strength in which they are found in butter. The standard for vitamin D is higher than the standard which has hitherto obtained, and it is thought now that this is being put on this firm basis, and knowing that vitamin A is available in sufficient quantities, we should achieve the same standard for margarine in vitamins A and D as for butter.

The hon. Member did not attack the motives behind the Order. Before the war about three-quarters of the margarine was vitaminised and this probably represented all the margarine which went into domestic consumption. Here I am not certain whose advice to accept. The hon. Member for Sunderland, North asked me to take this seriously and the hon. Member for Oldham, West, by implication, suggested that there was a lighter approach to this problem. Vitamin A is found in butter, for example, as vitamin A. It is found in other foods and substances which come under the heading of carotene, a substance which to a large extent becomes vitamin A inside the human body. Therefore a not unimportant source of vitamin A is this group of substances known as carotene.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to explain the 53½ per cent. There are two kinds of carotene. One, carotene beta is rich in vitamin A. Indeed four-fifths of the beta-carotene can be taken as vitamin A. In the case of the other carotene, only half of it can be taken as vitamin A. It is when you are using red palm oil, and you know the amount of alpha and beta in it, and you apply the two proportions I have given—one half to the alpha-carotene, and four-fifths to the beta-carotene, that you come to the percentage of 53½.

Why the Second Schedule? I am going to take this seriously, for it is a most unusual step to include so much scientific material in an Order. I saw the name of the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) on the Order Paper. When I recall that he is, I believe, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments, when I recall the power of that Committee to report to the House Orders that are unusual or difficult to elucidate, when I recall that, in fact, this Order was not so reported, I assume that, when he first read it, he understood it and it was only on second reading that he understood so little of it as to warrant attaching his name to the Motion on the Order Paper.

Hitherto the test that has been applied in estimating the amount of Vitamin A in margarine, as in every substance, has been the Carr-Price test, which has proved unreliable. It is a colour test. It is affected by substances other than Vitamin A and has been demonstrated by experiment—applying the same test to the same sample—to give different results.

Therefore, if one is making a requirement of a particular strength of Vitamin A, it is clearly desirable to make absolutely certain that the test that is used in its estimation is a reliable test, is one that yields satisfactory results, and one that will not lead to confusion, which would otherwise be caused as between analysts appearing for the prosecution and analysts for the defence, by the continued use of the Carr-Price test.

I ask the House to accept that this method of estimating Vitamin A is the only reliable method known today. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to make it known to those whose responsibility it is to add this vitamin, and ensure use by the analysts of the one scientific method of estimation which is known to be reliable. What is more important, it should be known in those countries from which we import margarine, not only the percentage of vitamin addition which is required, but also the method by which it is assessed.

Having reached that position, we can ask ourselves whether the Order should contain the words in prescribing the test, "Such as the Government may determine" or refer to some other and more scientific publication. On balance, it was thought that, in this case, it would be wise to take the unusual step of embodying the details in a Schedule to the Order. It is not the first time that has been done. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, North will recall, a similar process was followed in the Milk, Special Designations, Pasteurised and Sterilised Milk Regulations, 1949. But he is right in saying it is the first time an illustration has been used.

Now, I hope, for some explanatory comments on the process used. It will be appreciated that this material is to be understood and used by public analysts. It is intended for them, and I think it is reasonable to assume that they understand language which is unintelligible to those who have not a similar scientific training. I do not pretend that the language here is easy to understand.

Let me describe the process very simply and, in so doing, answer the questions put by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. First, the margarine is saponified. That is the soap-making process. It is mixed with potassium hydroxide in order to separate off the materials that saponify, as the hon. Member so accurately said, the fatty acids which he named, and the materials which do not saponify, and they include vitamin A and carotene. So far so good. Having saponified, we then separate off—here I admit the ugliness of the word—the unsaponifiable material. Then we pass to the next phase of our process. There is a particular interest in this.

We have to separate off to measure accurately the vitamin A and the carotene. It is known that if one places such a mixture in contact with alumina which has been prepared for the purpose, the alumina clings more vigorously to one than it does to the other.

Then to come to the eluate. Having treated this combined solution with the alumina, there comes the task of applying to the alumina a fluid—light petroleum in this case—which, as it washes through the alumina, removes first the carotene, the red material. The elimination of red material by this method is something which might be recommended to the party opposite. The carotene or red material is thus the first to be eliminated, and the eluate is the fluid that flows away.

I cannot expect that everyone will understand it, but I am just responding to the questions which have been put. In other words, as one washes away these two substances from the alumina, one obtains two solutions, one containing vitamin A and the other the carotene.

The next task is, by examination of those fluids, to judge the strength of vitamin A and the strength of carotene, and that is done, as the hon. Gentleman so clearly demonstrated in his speech, by a spectral method, for each substance has its own capacity for occluding the spectrum.

I am not going into further details unless the hon. Member for Oldham, West, wishes me to.

It is very clear. I was only thinking that, on the whole, would it not be easier to reduce the price of butter?

The hon. Gentleman must not deter me from my final point, the point which he raised about what happens at the end. It is here possible by the application of a test to discover whether one's work has been well and truly done, and if at the end it is found not to have been well and truly done, then the advice offered here is the simple and old-fashioned advice of doing it again.

That is my modest and, I am afraid, inadequate explanation of the procedure followed. I cannot, perhaps, be expected to make it any clearer than I have done, but that, in short, is the process followed.

Why the sketch? The hon. Gentleman welcomed the sketch. The advice used to be given when I was a boy: Never make a drawing unless you are absolutely certain that your answer is right. In this case the sketch is needed for it is important to assemble the apparatus in this way and in these dimensions if the test is to be accurate.

Now, if I may turn to the specific questions of the hon. Member for Sunderland North, the master mix is a mixture of the two vitamins in oil in a concentrated form that can be added to the main mass of margarine. There is no legal power to require the use of a master mix. In the case of the wrapping requirement, it is inappropriate in this Order, I agree, and in any case manufacturers are now proceeding to do it voluntarily. The concealed lighting is necessary not for any dedicate purpose except that in these optical examinations it is easier to be more accurate in that light. Why there should be aliquots instead of portions I do not pretend to understand, except that there is an occasional preference in the scientific world for the complicated rather than the simple.

As for local authorities, I appreciate the strength of the hon. Gentleman's point. I would remind him that to make an Order on a certain day is to put oneself in the position that at that day there is on the shelves of the grocer a quantity of margarine made under the old standard and so, whenever one makes the Order one finds oneself in that position. That position was explained to local authorities. It was a short-lived position for a few days following the introduction of the Order, and has now disappeared.

I think I have answered the main questions asked on this scientific part by the hon. Member for Oldham, West. I do not know what it was that aroused the hon. Gentleman. I am sure it was not the use of the term "red palm oil" and any fear that there was any concealed suggestion of corruption. I am sure it was not the intention of "flat-bottom flask" that aroused any particular interest in him. The hon. Members for Oldham, West and Sunderland, North are both members of the legal profession. Perhaps an occasion will one day arise when one can scrutinise legal language in search of its meaning with the same searching precision as the hon. Gentleman has examined this scientific test. For it is a scientific test, not for use by the ordinary public but for use by public analysts.

I agree that it was a matter of doubt whether it was wise to include it in the Order or not, but on balance I think it was, for that is one way of ensuring that the only reliable test is used, and so the various enforcement steps can, where necessary, be properly taken without the kind of disputation that would inevitably result by the use of any other scientific test for the purpose.

11.24 p.m.

I desire to ask a question which I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will seek an opportunity of answering, not on the scientific matter about which most of the debate has been so far, but on the much simpler text of the Order itself. I am puzzled by what appears to me to be an omission from the Order. It seems to me that there must have been in the original draft something which has since been left out.

First I call attention to paragraph 4 of the Order, which says that the standard prescribed shall apply only as respects sales by retail. It is quite clear that some sales would have to be excluded from the Order—for example, the sales of unprocessed margarine from one person to another for the purpose of processing. Nevertheless, the restriction to retail sale leaves open the question of margarine which is sold by wholesale for direct consumption. For example, I should imagine, though I do not pretend to know at first hand, that most large catering establishments buy margarine on a wholesale basis and then proceed to pass it over for the consumption of their customers in exactly the same way as it is consumed in the home.

I guess, and I shall adduce my evidence in a moment, that it was originally intended in the Order to make it apply to sales by retail and to sales by wholesale to catering establishments. If hon. Members will look at the first paragraph of paragraph (b) of Article 2 they will see there is a long definition of "catering business" and a shorter definition of "caterer." But "catering business does not appear anywhere in the Order.

May I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House, now that he is finished with the science, and if he will get on to the law, why the definition Clause in the Order includes the definition of a term which is not contained in the Order? Is the answer that which quite ignorantly I am only guessing at, that originally there was an intention to make the provisions for sales to catering establishments, and that subsequently that was dropped out and it was forgotten to drop out the definition Clause? Or is there some other explanation?

I shall be glad, as I am sure the whole House will be glad, to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary on that matter. It is no use providing the protection to give a standard for margarine, and I am sure it is a good standard, to be eaten in our homes if we are to be fobbed off with rubbish each time we eat in a catering establishment.

If I thought as the hon. Gentleman does I should share his apprehension, but if he will examine the definition Article he will see in paragraph 2 (b) it states:

"sale by retail" means a sale to a person otherwise than for the purpose of re-sale and includes a sale of margarine as such by a caterer in the course of his catering business.

Occasionally a definition of a definition is unavoidable. I agree it might have been possible with other drafting to have compounded this and put it into a more complicated paragraph which might have had the effect of diverting the hon. Gentleman's attention.

I am sure, Mr. Speaker, you will agree it would be unfair to expect the House to come to any judgment on this matter without reading the speech of the Parliamentary Secretary. We are obliged to him for the explanation he has given. I am satisfied that the Order is seeking to pursue what I had hoped it would, and for that reason I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.