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Food Safety Directorate

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 11 January 1990

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2.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about the operation of his food safety directorate.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. David Maclean)

The food and safety directorate brings together all the divisions of my Department that have responsibilities for matters relating to the safe production and handling of foodstuffs, and other consumer protection matters concerned with food. My right hon. Friend the Minister will therefore receive official advice as Minister responsible for food, which is separate from that given to him on the economic aspects of agriculture, food production or fishing as Minister responsible for agriculture and fisheries.

When he set up the consumer panel, the Minister said that it would be an advisory forum for him. In view of the excessive secrecy that he enforces on all his other advisory committees, will he assure the House that members of the consumer panel will not be gagged, and that they will have access to all the information that they require to carry out their duties in the public interest?

The hon. Gentleman is utterly wrong to imply that excessive secrecy is imposed on all the members of the independent advisory committees who advise this Department. None of the eminent scientists who advise us would be willing to serve on such committees if they were unfairly gagged in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I can assure him that the consumers and advisers who will serve on the consumer panel will want to serve only if they have access to all the relevant information.

This is a simple question. Will my hon. Friend confirm that food safety is the priority in his Department?

Food safety always has been, always is and always will be the prime priority of this Department.

Does the Minister recall an answer that he gave me shortly before Christmas? I asked how many of the turkeys and chickens that were being sold were likely to be infected by salmonella. His answer was that the last time that an examination had been carried out on a sample of a mere 100 chickens, it was found that 64 were contaminated with salmonella. I have had no answer on the number of contaminated turkeys. The Minister also said that if cooking was carried out properly, the problem would be solved. As the last investigation was carried out two years ago, will he institute a proper investigation and give further information to the public on the correct cooking of turkeys and chickens?

I have 700 experts and scientists in my Department. Between them, they know practically all that there is to know about food safety. In view of the marvellous Christmas that we have all had, there is no question of me, or any of my experts, telling 25 million British housewives how to cook the Christmas turkey.

Does the Minister not understand that while he is slashing research into food safety, sacking scientists by the thousand and delaying the introduction of vital regulations, the general public will have little confidence in a food safety directorate within his Department that is responsible directly to him? Why does he not show that he takes the issue seriously by establishing a food standards agency, independent of the Government, as advocated by the Labour party and many other information organisations?

During the past few days we have announced a massive amount of research expenditure on bovine spongiform encephalopathy. That was followed by the announcement yesterday of further research expenditure into BSE. I was even asked on radio why we were spending so much on research. The Department is spending more money on research into essential food safety measures. All the staff who work in my Department are not paid or funded by any outside organisation—neither a trade union, nor a commercial interest, nor any other media or vested interest.