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Food Safety

Volume 172: debated on Thursday 17 May 1990

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To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has had with regard to the accuracy of statements in the book entitled, "Parents Guide to Safe Food".

I understand that the book has yet to be published. However, references that I have seen in the press suggest that some of the subjects are treated in a misleading and alarmist manner. If that is correct, the publication will be of little help to consumers in reaching a balanced judgment about the food available to them. I hope that it will be more accurate than recent allegations made by Parents for Safe Food regarding residues of pesticides in food.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we suffer from an over-supply of experts on food quality and that it is high time that sensible observations were made about the high quality of British food? We could do with fewer reports based on spurious science and inaccurate information peddled by people masquerading as experts. In most people's eyes an expert on this subject is "ex", a has been, and "spert", a person under pressure.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As we are always urged to be as safe as the Americans with regard to pesticides such as Alar, I should tell hon. Members that the American Agriculture Secretary said:

"unlike us, the British have decided not to ban EBDCs, because they found there was really no health risk involved. British science is at least as sophisticated as ours. Our government has banned products of significant value to mankind in recent years on the basis of what I consider unpersuasive evidence. We ought not to be doing that."
I agree.

As the Minister has mentioned pesticides, will he comment on the recent case of the consumer who thought that he had bought organically grown potatoes but found that they had been treated with tecnazine? Consumers surely have a right to know whether the food products that they buy have been treated with pesticides.

The hon. Lady raises two very good points. First, any pesticides used on crops in this country are safe. If they were not, they would not be authorised. Secondly—[Interruption.]

Order. I appeal to hon. Members seated below the Gangway, as it seems that I have to do every day lately, not to barrack other right hon. and hon. Members from a sedentary position.

Secondly, of course the consumer has a right not to be conned. If a person thinks that he is buying organic produce, he has a right to be certain that it has been organically grown. We have established the United Kingdom register of organic food producers, and we want to ensure that throughout the EEC, organic labels mean exactly what they say and that there is no cheating. That matter is for the enforcement authorities.

Will my hon. Friend confirm his readiness to consider any objective and scientific evidence that is offered by scare campaigns? Will he equally criticise and treat on their merits any claims unsubstantiated by evidence, or supported by evidence that is unscientific and inadequate?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have an open-door policy, whereby people can come to us with their evidence and views. It is interesting that in the past few weeks, on several occasions when I have called for evidence from the so-called experts who crop up in the media, that evidence has been very slow in coming. In most cases, it has not been presented at all.

Has the Minister seen today's opinion polls, which show, contrary to his assertions, that the majority of British people do not believe that the Government can be trusted "to tell the truth" about food issues? Is not that a scandalous state of affairs? Will the Minister consider abolishing the old-fashioned Agriculture Ministry and replacing it with a modern Ministry of Agriculture and Food, backed up by an independent food standards agency?

It is interesting that the only reform that the hon. Gentleman can suggest is to turn the title of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food into the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries. If that is the substance of his policies, no wonder he has proved that Labour, just like its leader, is unfit for government.