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Lead In Food

Volume 650: debated on Thursday 30 November 1961

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9.57 p.m.

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Lead in Food Regulations (S.I., 1961, No. 1931), dated 9th October 1961, a copy of which was laid before this House on 16th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.
Would it meet with your approval, Mr. Speaker, if these Regulations were discussed with those affecting Scotland?
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Lead in Food (Scotland) Regulations (S.I., 1961, No. 1942), dated 10th October 1961, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17th October, in the last Session of Parliament, be annulled.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I have the permission of my Scottish colleagues—they have done me an unusual honour.

The Instruments against which we pray are both based upon the revised recommendations of the Food Standards Committee. The original Committee was appointed in 1947 and the Metallic Contamination Sub-Committee in 1948. The first Report of the Sub-Committee was presented in October, 1951, ten years ago. Then in the usual way representations were received from trade and other interests throughout the country so that the Minister could be advised. This advice was ultimately given to him seven years ago in July, 1954, and recommendations were made and detailed which I have here and which I have perused.

After these seven years we have these Regulations. Only a very small change has occurred throughout the seven years as between the original detailed recommendations and these Regulations. There is only one matter of substance, and this is a matter on which I cannot congratulate the Minister. It refers to canned meat. Seven years ago the Sub-Committee reported that South American and Australian packers of canned corned beef had advised the War Office, their largest customer, that they had for some years accepted a specification limit of 7 parts per million. At that time the Committee advising the Minister believed that the lowest practicable limit which should be set was 5 parts per million.

Therefore, I ask this question. Why is it that in Part II of the Schedule to the Regulations we find a limit, as from April, 1962, to April, 1964, which is set at 10 parts per million, and why is it that only after 1964 is it to be set at 5 parts per million, when we have evidence that so long ago assurances were given that 7 parts per million was quite practicable? I want to ask for a reassurance and an answer on this point—why seven years have had to go by before the Regulations have been brought before us?

We are dealing with a most dangerous and deadly poison, one which is not needed in the human body, the physiology or economy of the human system. It is found in minute quantities virtually everywhere and in almost everything, but which can be stored and is stored in the human tissues, particularly in the long bones. It is, in certain circumstances, released rapidly especially in acute illnesses and fevers, bringing about poisoning. I admit at once that to expect our food to be entirely free from lead and this dangerous poison is impossible, because it is secreted in tiny quantities in the milk of a mother when nursing a child, it is found in virgin soil, in the air, in the coral rocks in the South Sea Islands, in vegetation, and in the roots, the bark and in the leaves of trees. It is found in all the seas and oceans, and, therefore, inevitably, in the fish that swim and live there.

I believe that so polluted is the Thames Estuary that it reaches 1 part per million—1 milligramme per litre— and it is understandable why some types of crustaceans living round our shores have fairly large amounts of lead in them. We understand why they are exempted specifically in these regulations, because it is natural to them.

It is very probable that oysters can be found with 80 parts per million in them in very polluted water, but as oysters are no longer the food of the poor, and as my constituents, therefore, who support me, are not as directly interested as they were before, I will not make too much of that, except to warn those who are not my constituents and those who do not support me.

We accept that we cannot avoid some lead in the intake of the air we breathe, the food we eat and the drink we take into our systems.

These Regulations are brought before us ostensibly to protect the public from excessive intake of lead. I wonder whether we should not at once make this claim, whether we have a right to make this claim or this demand, from a Ministry which was once the greatest protector of the public health in the country, not many years ago, but which now, having got rid of many of its expert advisers, on grounds of economy, falls down and is so ignorant that it makes gross mistakes.

We have a right to say that whatever is natural and unavoidable shall not be added to by our own gross mistakes in the manufacture and handling of food, and that we should avoid the use of lead or lead alloys in food. Surely we can do that. We ought to look very carefully at the use of lead pipes for conveying water, beer or cider, and at the use of lead sprays—arsenate of lead—on fruit such as apples, pears and grapes, and should consider what we are doing.

It has not always been accepted by any means by advisers to the Ministry of Health, that this type of regulation, which indicates by figures the amount of lead allowable, is the right way. Indeed, in 1938, in the first document advising the Minister of Health of that time on the contamination of food by lead, the then Chief Medical Officer specifically said that it was a mistake to have Regulations, and to bring forward Statutory Instruments of this kind.

That Chief Medical Officer first made clear that we did not know what quantity of lead might be considered negligible. He inferred that it was reasonable to say that the harmful effects of continued small doses started from the moment the lead was absorbed, and so on. He spoke of the ultimate chronic end result when saturation point was reached and then used these words:
"For this reason it would seem inadvisable to set up standards by specific legislation which, by fixing permissible limits of contamination, would inevitably impede efforts to secure the reduction of lead in food to the lowest possible amounts. Our object must be to reduce the amount of any toxic substance in food to the smallest that can be achieved in practice, and this in many cases may be attained more effectively by administrative action than by the prescription of specific standards."
The Chief Medical Officer then gave an interesting example of lead in sardines. It was found in the early 1930s and because of the way in which sardines were processed—that is to say, they were cooked on grills containing alloys with lead in them—they tended to get as much as 80 parts per million in their flesh by the time they were offered for eating. At that time, therefore, the Chief Medical Officer pointed out that, because of the need to get changes in processing, 20 parts per million were allowable.

He went on to say that shortly afterwards, at a second meeting, it was discovered that so successful had this advice been that the manufacturers had brought the lead content down to 5 parts per million—from the 20 parts per million that had been allowed them only a very few years before. He finished with this sentence:
"It is intended ultimately to reduce the provisional limit still further, and to require that sardines shall be free from lead or contain only negligible traces."
Why, then, do we find—as I shall show in a moment—that there has been no advance in all these years, and that the Ministry still will not accept 5 parts per million for all canned fish? Obviously, the promise made by the Chief Medical Officer, advising the Minister of Health, has not been kept by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

I want to ask a question about water. Why is no limit placed on the amount of lead in our drinking water? Those of us who drink beer may be drinking it knowing that we are at risk. Those of use who drink wine are obviously warned, when we look at these Regulations, that we are at risk—especially if we drink vintage ports, which are left out of the Regulations for reasons, perhaps, that I shall mention later.

The Americans think that one-tenth of 1 part per million of lead is as much as should be allowed in drinking water. I think that I am right in saying that in this country we have, on average, three-tenths of 1 part per million in our drinking waiter. Why is that? If it is true that some of the water we drink has lead-solvent properties, why do we not take action? It can be done, and at not very great expense. There are metals other than lead that can be used to conduct water to us. I thought that we were living in the plastic age; by using copper or plastics for conveying our drinking water, we could got greater protection.

We know that beer can be very heavily contaminated if lead pipes are used. The best public houses would, of course, not dream of using them. Cider and perry are even more dangerous, because they can be, and are, contaminated in three ways—by one of the three ways or all three ways. One is by the fact that the fruit is sprayed with arsenate of lead, another is by further contamination in manufacture, and the third is— heaven forbid—if a lead pipe is used in a barrel to bring the cider up for consumption.

I should like briefly to offer two sets of facts which will, I am sure, be of interest to the House. It has been thought in Britain that the daily average intake of lead by human beings is 0·4 milligrams. That is what the Subcommittee thought when it reported. This figure is probably higher than the true one; at least, I hope it is. The most careful work has been done over a lifetime by a group of people led by Dr. Robert Kehoe, of Cincinnati University. I have been studying three lectures—the three Harben Lectures, as they were called—which he gave this year to the Royal Institute of Public Health and Hygiene. His view was that, certainly for the United States, the average is 0·15 to 0·35 milligrams per day, which is rather lower than has been thought to be our own intake. That is only from food, but one must add what we get from water and what we get from inhalation. People who frequently walk down Oxford Street get a very considerable amount by inhalation.

If this is our intake, what is dangerous to us? As a result of recent research, we are on surer ground here. An average daily intake of 1¼ milligrams will give poisoning—that means chronic lead intoxication—in ten years or less; an average of 2⅓ milligrams per day will bring about poisoning in about four years; it was found that an average of 3¼ milligrams will give lead poisoning in eight months; and two cases which were examined had a daily intake of 5 to 10 milligrams and acute intoxication—that is, acute lead poisoning— occurred within one month.

The Parliamentary Secretary may take it from me—I have very great experience of lead poisoning as medical adviser of the Pottery Workers' Association of Great Britain, having seen some hundreds of cases and examined them for lead—that lead poisoning can be both acute and chronic. It is possible to be ill without knowing why one is ill, and to spend years of illness, from time to time, as the lead which one has stored is released from one's tissues and bones, falling into fatigue, chronic illness, lassitude and sleepiness—all the things about which the Front Benches on both sides of the House complain from time to time. It is, of course, partly to protect the two Front Benches that I am now speaking.

There is intake and there is excretion. We excrete lead as well as take it in, but if intake is greater than excretion, sooner or later one gets chronic intoxication.

As I do not wish to be too long, I would refer the Parliamentary Secretary to the Schedule. I have already mentioned canned meat. It is outrageous that we cannot have our techniques so improved that we can prevent solder getting into the meat. That is where I said that there are 10 parts per million.

Then there is wine. Why should wines at 1 part per million still be allowed, but vintage port left out? As long ago as 1954, the Sub-Committee said about wine that they had bandied it over and discussed it with the wine trade and vintners generally and felt that they had better allow 1 part per million but that quite soon it ought to be half that. In these Regulations there is no suggestion at all about when, if ever, wine is to become safe to drink.

Now, what sort of wines, and why is wine so effected? I think that we now know the reason. There are good wines which contain lead. Although there is great tensile strength in lead, when wine is fermented the lead tends to come out and is left behind when the wine is drawn off into bottles. Thus we have new wine without lead. But then comes the unhappy business of the lead cap over the cork of the bottle, and the bottles are put on their sides for storage. The under side of the lead cap is attacked by the solvent properties of the wine and by auxiliary attraction it goes back that is why good claret contains more lead than cheap raw wine, and why, I suppose, the Ministry has left vintage port out.

The Home Secretary needs special protection. He has talked about vintage port. Why should he and his friends not have protection? Therefore, I put forward seriously the practical suggestion that if we give the trade some time—and the Ministry can check up on what I have said, for I am only repeating research recently done—we may find that we could use plastic covers instead of lead. Even aluminium would be safer. It is sheer nonsense to go on with this. I urge the Minister to help us to take action, otherwise I shall almost be compelled to avoid a decent bottle of claret.

The regulations governing bottles of beer, in this day and age say that 1 part of a million will be allowed. That is neither safe nor desirable. I have spoken of canned fish, which is still at 5 parts of a million. It is wrong that we cannot do better than this. As was said in 1951, it should now be negligible. Pectin liquid is allowed 10 parts of a million. Is this not the basis of jam making? Why add lead to jam? There is no need to if we take care. I know that at one time it was higher. Samples of fifty years ago had 13 parts per million. That was very bad, but are we any better now?

The Regulations are not reassuring. We know well that an intake of approximately 2 milligrammes per day of lead will, certainly in most people—and more in women than in men—ultimately give rise to chronic lead intoxication. If a man eats 8 ounces of canned meat per day he gets 2 milligrammes; two ounces of sardines, one third of a milligramme; two pints of beer, roughly another milligramme. With the water he may drink and the air he breathes he has 4 milligrammes in that daily intake.

That is grossly unsafe and poisonous. We are at risk and the Ministry has shown no sense of urgency. By its complacency it has shown that it seems to be entirely ignorant of the needs of the nation.

10.19 p.m.

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) for giving us once again the benefit of his wide and exceptional knowledge of health hazards in our methods of food handling. He has asked the Parliamentary Secretary several pertinent questions and there are only one or two further points I want to put. I hope that, even if the Parliamentary Secretary cannot answer tonight the technical points raised by my hon. Friend, they will be looked into by his Department.

The point which I myself intended to mention, and which I therefore back as strongly as I can, is why we cannot, in the planning and design of new premises which will have pipes carrying liquids—public houses, restaurants and so on—ensure that no lead pipes are used. As my hon. Friend said, plastic or polythene piping should be used wherever possible.

However, this issue goes much further than that. I am not sure that enough research is being undertaken into the use of food containers. I am not satisfied that we need have lead anywhere near food, but I am not an expert on this matter and there may be technical reasons why lead should still be used. However, I am sure that there should be more research into the use of containers for processed foods.

The use of insecticides is another issue which I want to raise. I know that the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research is concerned and I understand that a joint committee of the people engaged in the trade and the D.S.I.R. has been set up to see what can be done to eliminate not only the risk of the use of lead, but other risks which might be found by research to be present in certain types of insecticides. From time to time we should like to be told what that Committee is doing. I understand that it still has to set up a research organisation and will not be starting work until next year. However, next year is not now far off and this is something of tremendous importance these days.

In the definitions of fish and flavouring of food and food colouring and fruit juices and so on, the Regulations have given us, perhaps unwittingly, something for which we have been asking for some time. One of the complaints of many of us who are interested in what is now called consumer protection has been that manufacturers, particularly soft drink manufacturers, have described their soft drinks in their advertising as fruit juices. For the first time the Regulations have defined a soft drink as something which is not a fruit juice. I am glad that that is the case as we all know that there is very little fruit juice in most of the soft drinks which are advertised as fruit juices. Having at last got this definition clear, I assure the Parliamentary Secretary that the matter will be raised from time to time.

In view of Section 6 of the Food and Drugs Act, which allows him to take action in respect of any label or advertisement which is misleading to the public, on the basis of the Regulations will the Minister now proceed to take action, first warning people—we do not want to take legal action without the trade having had the chance to put things right—against manufacturers of soft drinks who advertise their soft drinks quite misleadingly, as fruit juices? That is quite important.

The whole purpose of the administration of these and similar Regulations is to persuade the trade to reach high standards of health and hygiene in food handling. We require legal sanctions only as a law of last resort to deal with people who do not conform to the good practices of the trade. In this law of last resort we must set high standards, and I sincerely hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us that the food trades concerned are themselves doing all they can to ensure that none of the hazards mentioned by my hon. Friend will be inflicted upon the food consumers of the country.

10.24 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) gave us the benefit of his very great knowledge and experience in this matter and left some of us wondering how it was that we were still alive, bearing in mind the dangers—

—half alive—which appeared to have faced us and our forefathers through generations.

It is true that lead ingested with our food is extremely injurious to health, and what we are trying to do in these Regulations is to achieve the same object as I believe he and other hon. Gentlemen would like to achieve, the elimination as far as possible—but of course complete elimination is impracticable—of the lead content in our food.

I think I should say at the beginning that the general trend is to drop proceses in manufacturing which have been shown, by the standard of these Regulations, to leave a high lead content in food, and to adopt in substitution plastic pipes instead of lead, and so on. I assure the House that the general trend throughout the food processsing trade is to do this, and there is a clear realisation, as there ought to be, of the need to produce our food with the minimum practical lead contamination.

That is our aim in publishing these Regulations. They have taken us some time to produce. The hon. Gentleman referred to the time lag, and I am not going to pretend that this has all happened very quickly. On the other hand, the whole trend has been moving the way we want it to go. There has been no case for what might be called "crash action", and therefore there was a lot to be gained by producing Regulations which set standards which have been known during the negotiations, and are published with the good will and cooperation of all those concerned.

I do not want to harry or pursue the hon. Gentleman, but he is not conversant with the facts. The truth is that, almost word for word, these Regulations are the same as the Report of 1954. The recommendations were made in 1954—seven years ago—and at that time discussions with the trade had been completed. The only change between then and now is that he has made the position worse as regards the amount of lead in canned food.

The House will appreciate that I was not taking credit for speed. There were representations from the trade, which were referred several times to the Sub-Committee, and although in the end the Regulations have come out with small modifications from the original recommendations, there has been a good deal of negotiation in the interval.

In general, it must be admitted that the Regulations represent a big step forward in protecting the consumer from risks to his health. We have made Regulations governing arsenic—I think a year ago we discussed the Arsenic in Food (Amendment) Regulations—colours, antioxidants, fluorine in food, and I hope that they will soon be joined by Regulations on emulsifiers and stabilisers, and revised Regulations on preservatives. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will realise that a good deal of work is going on both in the Department and in contact with experts outside to try to make our food as safe as is humanly possible.

I cannot claim the technical knowledge of the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure that he would not expect me to give technical answers off the cuff to all his technical questions, but I underline what he said about lead being a serious cumulative poison. I am sure that the House will agree that it is important to keep the amount of lead as low as possible, because, unlike some poisons, lead remains stored in the body. As the hon. Gentleman said, and I think all laymen can understand, whereas when we are healthy we may not notice much serious defect from lead poisoning, the fact is that a time might come when we are in poor health, or suffering from various fevers, and the lead in our bodies can be released suddenly and have serious effects.

Ideally, the solution would be to have no lead, but as there is lead in the atmosphere and almost everywhere, it is not possible to achieve this. Therefore, we have to ensure that the lead in our food is reduced to the practical minimum. As the hon. Gentleman said, organisms like shellfish and Crustacea—which, I seem to remember, contain a good deal of arsenic—also absorb lead compounds which are present in sea water. Unfortunately, lead is always present in the atmosphere. The hon. Gentleman referred to Oxford Street, but I do not think that it is limited to Oxford Street. It can be contacted elsewhere.

In case anyone makes a mistake about Oxford Street, may I say that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is places where the traffic is heaviest and where lead alloys are used.

I am not quite certain whether the steam emitted from railway steam engines would be declared to be entirely free from lead.

The lead enters the food through the use of lead, lead alloys and lead compounds in food processing plants and in the piping by which water and other fluids are conveyed. Water is not food within the meaning of the Food and Drugs Acts, which answers one point. These Regulations are based on a report received from the Food Standards Committee and they follow closely the recommendations of the Committee. Hon. Members will appreciate that various trading interests concerned were entitled to make representations because in the process of transferring from one process, it may be an old-fashioned process, to another, one does not want to disrupt a business more than is necessary. Were there danger to health that would be another matter. But if there is not, one does not want to disrupt a perfectly legitimate business.

It was thought proper to have a limit of 2 parts per million, but that lower limits should be specified for most drinks, since it is highly probable that lead is more readily absorbed from liquid than from solid food. I understand that the first pint in the old-fashioned type of public house where lead piping is still used would be a case in point, although the hon. Member would have to drink the first pint every time the public house opened for a long time before he felt any ill effects. I say that because I do not want to frighten anyone unnecessarily.

In the main the recommendations of the Committee have been implemented. But a number of minor amendments have been made as the result of representations which have been received, and after further advice from the Committee on some of them. In particular, we have provided for some foods and drinks—mostly drinks—that the lower limits will apply two years from the date on which the Regulations come into force. This will ensure a smooth transition from an old-fashioned process to a newer process in the case of food. These lower limits are desirable, and there is no doubt that they can be attained. But some revision of industrial processes will be necessary. It is, therefore, only reasonable to give industry sufficient time to revise methods.

I should like to say that the food manufacturers have throughout realised that they have a larger duty to the consumer than merely ensuring that their products conform to these Regulations. Where they could do better they have tried to do better. They have an obligation to take positive steps wherever possible to minimise lead contamination by improvements in the technique of food processing and in the types of food containers and by the elimination of packing and wrapping materials that contain lead.

We have in general related the duty to the permitted standard rather than tried to define processes which may or may not be allowed. Throughout we have aimed at the purety of the final article of food as the practical test. For the reasons which have been given, it will never be possible to eliminate lead entirely from food. Our aim is to work towards lower tolerances and make it impossible for high lead contents to occur in food even under the worst conditions, or even if unusual circumstances arise in the course of manufacture and processing.

The hon. Gentleman asked about meat. I have evidence available after the summary recommendation of the Report, and in general it showed that the figure suggested was virtually impossible to attain in every case. I gather that lead contamination in certain of the smaller soldered containers which are rapidly going out does vary and that for the short period it was practicable to have a higher limit to enable the transfer to the modern type of cans with a much lower limit, which, I think, the House will agree, is acceptable. There is nothing sinister about the higher limit for the short term for certain tinned meats.

I have spoken about lead pipes and I have spoken about processing. I cannot give an answer "off the cuff" to the story about some unfortunate sardines which were mentioned. Water, as I have said, is not a food within the meaning of the Food and Drugs Acts. Port is a rather special case, and it is excluded from the Schedule, but it does, none the less, come under the general regulation of the limit of 2 parts per million.

Hon. Gentlemen should bear in mind that the consumer has been protected in the past under the general provisions of the Act. He will have greater protection from these Regulations. They will also, of course, be easier to enforce. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) asked, were we encouraging design so that modern, safer appliances were put into new buildings and being substituted for older ones. Of course, we are doing that. I hope that it will have the support of everyone. There is no evidence that, as it is shown that old-fashioned equip- ment is perhaps less desirable than modern substitutes, anyone is persisting therewith.

There certainly is research into this question of insecticides and we have had a study group in the Department dealing with this. The hon. Gentleman may find something of interest in a report which we may put out in the not-too-distant future. I agree that that is another field which, up to the present, we know far too little about—residues. There is no reason to be alarmist, but we still have not enough information about residues which may be found in certain foods.

Lead capsules on wine bottles. I am afraid I cannot give an answer, though I think it possible that in many cellars sealing wax is found just as good.

Is this not a matter which might reasonably be taken up with the wine trade?

I take the hon. and learned Gentleman's point, and I will see that the representations are made, but, as I have said, we have not concerned ourselves here with particular appliances; we concern ourselves with the end product.

With regard to fruit juices, of course local authorities enforce labelling and description under the Act already. I know there is a feeling in many quarters that drinks containing fruit juice often have a very small proportion of real, genuine fruit juice in them. A good deal of thought has been given to the subject recently. We encourage high standards wherever it is within our powers to do so, and manufacturers, I know, are thinking on exactly the same lines as we all are.

I think it should be something that we can all take satisfaction in, that with modern technical progress it has been possible for us to provide Regulations which might well not have been possible not so very long ago, because different means alone, which were then not available, are now. These Regulations have admittedly been the subject of lengthy discussions. They are, I would claim, a big step forward. The benefit to the consumer is obvious. I cannot believe any hon. Member, whatever his criticisms may be, could be averse to or could oppose their aim which is the protection of public health. And so I hope the House will not accept this Prayer.

In view of the kindly way in which the Parliamentary Secretary always deals with me, some of my indignation has evaporated and I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave withdrawn.

I understand that the hon. Member does not desire to move the second Prayer.