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Public Analysts Service

Volume 493: debated on Tuesday 2 June 2009

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Olner, and I hope that you enjoy this debate too. There is certainly plenty of food in your constituency!

Food security is high on the political agenda at the moment. Population increases, and the consequent increases in prosperity and demand for food and energy, pose a huge problem in a world faced with climate change and global warming. However, we must not take our eye off the safety of our increasingly global food supplies. A succession of food scares before this Government came to power in 1997 led to the establishment, in 2000, of the Food Standards Agency, which is now the competent authority for the implementation and monitoring of food and feed law in this country. In practice, the FSA delegates many of its responsibilities. European regulation 882/2004 on food and feed controls requires adequate laboratory provision for the testing of food and animal feedstuffs throughout its member states.

In this debate, however, I want to examine the role of public analysts, who play a vital role in maintaining the safety of our food, and their relationship with the newly created FSA. Although food law is enforced by local authority trading standards and environmental health officers, the FSA monitors the performance of so-called food authorities across the UK under the Food Safety Act 1990, which draws a distinction between “analysis”, which means chemical analysis, and “examination”, which means microbiological examination. The latter is carried out, in England and Wales, by the Public Health Laboratory Service, which is funded by the Department of Health, and by public analysts in the case of food safety. In England and Wales, 460 food authorities, including 50 port authorities, also have responsibilities under the Food Safety Act.

Formal samples are divided into three parts: one for the sampling officer, one for the food owner and another for the food authority. The third part may be sent to the laboratory of the Government chemist, which acts as a referee in cases of dispute. Furthermore, the Agriculture Act 1970 requires local authorities to appoint an agricultural analyst to control the composition, labelling, sampling and analysis of fertilisers and animal feedstuffs, including pet foods. In England and Wales, the food authorities that carry out food standards enforcement are generally the same as those that carry out those fertiliser and animal feed duties. Public analysts are suitably qualified to carry out duties under the Agriculture Act.

Food, of course, is big business. It is estimated to be worth £150 billion annually, but only £8 million is spent on ensuring food safety through routine sampling and food analysis. The average amount spent in England and Wales, excluding London, on food analysis by public analysts is 10p per person per year, but the figure is as little as 2p per person in some areas and compares very unfavourably with the rest of Europe. For example, the Republic of Ireland spends 46p per person per annum. On average, one in five food samples tested attracts an adverse report owing to labelling or compositional faults. However, there is no centrally co-ordinated, strategic direction or funding of the UK’s official food control laboratories, and there are no nationally agreed guideline budgets for sampling and analysis or targets for risk-based sampling levels to support essential food control work.

In the 19th century, there was a major problem with food adulteration, which often led to death or ill health. From 1860 onwards, there were several Acts of Parliament aimed at reducing or eliminating the problems and at improving nutrition. The first public analysts, originally employed by private organisations, were appointed in 1860. Previously, they had been deploying a range of analytical skills to the products of the chemical industry, and they extended their skills, which were limited to examination by microscope and simple chemical tests, to measuring and identifying the various contaminants of food samples.

Large-scale food adulteration, whether deliberate or accidental, remains with us today. The presence of dioxin in pork and lamb of Irish origin is a recent example. In 2008, Chinese milk distributors discovered that they could water down their milk without altering the protein content analysed by a nitrogen assay by adding a chemical called melamine, of which there had been a glut on the Chinese market. Consequently, its price had dropped significantly. According to the World Health Organisation, six children died and 50,000 people became ill as a result of that adulteration. The factory manager in China was, of course, sentenced to death. Scientists have now devised new tests for the presence of melamine in milk and foods containing milk, such as chocolate. However, at the end of 2008, one large UK port authority had to contact laboratories throughout the UK in order to find just one that could carry out, in a timely manner, analysis for melamine in foodstuffs imported from China.

The cost to UK industry, in 2003, of recalling the 600 different products containing Worcester sauce—not to be confused with Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce—contaminated with the Sudan 1 red food dye in imported chilli powder was between £100 million and £200 million. Noteworthy is the fact that the contamination was actually discovered in Italy, not Rochdale, where the sauce is manufactured.

When food science became big business, public analysts began aiding, as expert witnesses, the prosecution of offenders in court. In 1898, a new qualification was introduced by the Royal Institute of Chemistry to examine the competence of our public analysts. The mastership in chemical analysis—the MChemA—which has existed in its present form since 2000, is today a professional qualification of the Royal Society of Chemistry. I must declare an interest: I am a fellow of the RSC, a chartered chemist and one of the RSC’s parliamentary advisers—unpaid, I hasten to add. The Institute of Food Science and Technology regards the MChemA as the essential and mandatory qualification for public analysts, as does the Food Safety (Sampling and Qualifications) Regulations 1990. However, the FSA believes that this postgraduate qualification, and the difficulty of acquiring it, is causing difficulties in the recruitment of public analysts, and the Government believe that the requirement for a food analyst is too restrictive under present EU legislation.

On 11 February, in a letter to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith), my right hon. Friend the Minister, who I am very pleased to see in the ministerial chair this morning, wrote:

“The proposed changes to The Food Safety (Sampling and Qualifications) Regulations 1990 will enable suitably qualified people to become official food analysts. This will help address the decline in the current number of existing analysts and ensure that the capacity and skills for analysis of food is maintained and enhanced. This will widen the market for analytical services, increasing capacity and providing improved access to a broader base of analytical services to ensure sufficient levels of control and consumer protection”.

That is a worrying statement and suggests an end to the highly professional and highly trained public analysts as we have known them since 1860. It also indicates the possibility of more privatisation of the food analysis service. Will the Minister say whence these proposals have come, how much consultation there has been, how highly trained she expects analysts to be in the future and whether they will be adequately trained to represent themselves in the courts of law?

By contrast, the Association of Public Analysts believes that the MChemA and its holders demonstrate unique competencies in the application of analytical chemistry in the ever-changing context of food law and, more importantly, that they are able to present their findings in criminal courts. Furthermore, removing the need for this qualification and allowing official samples to be sent to other types of laboratory will not prevent the continued decline in food sampling and analysis.

Sadly, over the past 50 years, financial constraints imposed on local authorities, which hold responsibility for the majority of services, including maintenance of the ever more costly laboratory services, have led to such a decline in services that only 38 officially appointed public analysts are employed across the United Kingdom. In the past 15 years alone, the number of public analysts has been reduced by almost 50 per cent. Another problem is that 27 of the remaining public analysts are over the age of 50, and the omens are not good for recruitment. The lack of a career pathway in the public analysts service may lead to the loss of the MChemA, the professional qualification organised by the RSC.

In 1959, 150 public analysts worked out of 45 laboratories. In 1997, there were 32 laboratories. Today, only 21 laboratories remain and five of those form part of one private sector organisation. The remaining laboratories suffer from a lack of investment, and it is inevitable that more will close in the near future. Some of the instruments that have to be provided for the public analysts service today are extremely expensive indeed.

The most recent closure was a private sector facility in Birkenhead, with the redundancy of two public analysts. Also, recently, Aberdeen city council has agonised over the potential closure of its laboratory, but has decided, at least for the time being, to keep it open.

The public analysts service has reached a point of crisis. Of concern is the fact that between 2003-04 and 2006-07, local authorities’ sampling activity fell by 16 per cent. across the UK as a whole. Some local authorities carried out no sampling in some of the years. The laboratories are headed by professional chemists, who deal inter alia with not only food but issues relating to fraud, industrial safety, water sampling, contamination of public water supplies following flash flooding and the testing of consumer products referred to them by trading standards officers. They test garden chemicals, poisons under the Poisons Act 1972, cosmetics, samples of contaminated land, dust samples, samples that might contain asbestos and so on. Their list of duties is endless.

The Hampton report on the regulation of businesses published in 2005 did not help. It said that because the standard of food was then very high, inspection and sampling of food premises should be reduced and resources more focused. Such recommendations were welcomed by the FSA and incorporated in the national control plan. That was despite the fact that the majority of criminal breaches of food law are detectable only by analysis.

In the past 10 years, local authorities’ expenditure on their public analysts services has decreased from £12 million to £8 million. Ironically, we are spending progressively less on checking the safety of foods at the very time when national health service costs are rising as a result of food-induced disease, caused, for example, by energy-dense foods that lead to gross obesity.

In the 2007-08 annual report, the chief scientist at the FSA flagged up the fact that the incidence of certain types of food-borne illness appears to be rising at the moment. It is clear to me that there is a tension between the newly created FSA, which has a responsibility to ensure that there are sufficient scientific resources to provide public analytical laboratory services in the UK but with limited funds, and the local authorities, which have a statutory duty to appoint public analysts, but which do not have a duty to provide those expensive laboratory facilities.

Only two years ago, the Association of Public Analysts raised concerns with the FSA about the sustainability of its services. As a result, a review group was set up. As of today, we have heard no outcome from that review. I ask my right hon. Friend when the review group might report. Stakeholders from enforcement and consumer groups are concerned that while this delay goes on, the service is disintegrating almost to a point of no return. The RSC has also been concerned about regional variations in food sampling and analysis. It has written without success to the FSA to suggest that minimum standards should be set for local authorities for carrying out their food sampling duties.

The amount spent by the food and drink industry on advertising and promoting its products rose by 19 per cent. between 2003 and 2007, from £704 million to £838 million. A 1 per cent. tax on the 2007 figure would raise £8.38 million, which could be used to support the cost of running public analysts laboratories. There is central funding for regional laboratory networks for the Health Protection Agency, which is the arm of the Department of Health that carries out microbiological testing, for the Environment Agency, which carries out environmental protection work, and for the Forensic Science Service. Why is there not also central funding for the important area of food sampling and analysis?

I conclude my contribution with the following joint remarks of the councils of the RSC and the then Society of Public Analysts and Other Analytical Chemists:

“The duties of the Public Analyst are daily increasing in complexity and difficulty. Higher qualifications than formerly are required of him, owing not only to the general advance in science as applied to the analysis of food, but also the exacting character of the numerous regulations of government departments concerned”.

Those remarks, which are true today, were made in 1923. I look forward to hearing what other right hon. and hon. Members have to say, and in particular to my right hon. Friend the Minister’s reply.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this important debate and on his dedication to the public analysts service and all issues relating to chemistry and science? He is a great champion for those issues.

I agree with everything my hon. Friend said and I should like to echo and concur with much of the information that he has provided—I do not intend my contribution to be too long. I thank Duncan Campbell of the West Yorkshire Joint Services, which has a public health laboratory in Morley, and Alan Richards, president of the Association Of Public Analysts, for the information that they provided to assist me with my contribution to the debate.

I mention Duncan Campbell because I was lucky enough to visit the WYJS public health laboratory, which is just outside Leeds, a few months ago. I visited because it is the public health laboratory for my local authority. It is approximately 20 miles away, which is an example of the disconnect between local authorities and the laboratories that are available for them to use that my hon. Friend touched on. Local authorities are obliged simply to appoint a public health analyst or public health laboratory; they are not required to maintain or keep one, or to have one within their area.

My hon. Friend has already pointed out that the FSA has responsibilities for food analysis in this country, yet much of the responsibility is delegated to the local authorities. It is clear that the role of the public analyst and the public health laboratory is falling between the two. Taken to a logical conclusion, if we allow the closures to continue at their present rate, we could have a situation in which the 400 or so local authorities in this country are looking around for public health laboratories to appoint but find that there are none left, because nobody has a requirement to maintain them.

My hon. Friend made the argument very well for central funding for food testing, in line with other areas. As he pointed out, in this day and age there is an increasing requirement for chemical analysis of foodstuffs. He mentioned the Sudan 1 contamination of Worcester sauce, which led to a cost of £200 million to industry in recalling foodstuffs contaminated with that colouring. Such was the concern that, as a safety measure, supermarkets took from their shelves practically everything that contained any form of red colouring. Products are adulterated. We have all heard about the trick—one from days gone by—of injecting water into certain products to increase their weight. There is the example of melamine in Chinese milk.

A few years ago, I was concerned to hear about the amount of contaminated meat that was condemned and then recycled into our system—often into our schools—by the criminal fraternity making money from selling cheap meat. My hon. Friend mentioned that. As I recall, some meat that had been condemned was found in supermarkets. If that is not a good enough reason to have a public analysts service, I do not know what is. We must protect our food supplies, particularly for our children.

Although it relates to microbiological analysis, another example is E. coli 0157 food poisoning. I remember the outbreak of E. coli 0157 in Scotland over 10 years ago and the report of Professor Pennington. I was lucky enough to chair a meeting in this very room which he addressed with his findings about E. coli 0157. People think that it causes food poisoning or an upset tummy, but many people were killed in that outbreak, including several children, and many individuals became severely ill. E. coli 0157 attacks and disables the kidneys. Many people required kidney transplants as a result of that outbreak, such is the seriousness of that strain of E. coli.

My hon. Friend mentioned that Aberdeen is agonising over whether to maintain its laboratory. Aberdeen Royal infirmary probably had the longest list for kidney transplants in the UK because Scotland was the major country in the world for outbreaks of E. coli 0157. This is such a serious issue and it was on our doorstep. I well recall that presentation by Professor Pennington, so my message to Aberdeen is to retain as many laboratories as it can.

My hon. Friend mentioned the funding issue and the price per head paid by local authorities on sampling and testing for public analysis. I will not continue down that route, but say simply that laboratories are having to increase their incomes by diversifying into other areas. The laboratories that carry out public analysis on behalf of local authorities and Government rely on the commercial funding from analysis for private sector organisations, and there is an argument that they should be completely publicly funded.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the privatisation of more of the service might lead to a clash of interests because private laboratories could also act for the food industry?

My hon. Friend is right that there could be a clash of interests with the food industry. I was going to come to that. The food industry in this country is worth £150 billion a year. It is a major industry in our society. My hon. Friend said that 38 analysts are currently employed. The figure I had was 41, but we will not argue about that. In 1994, there were about 70, and in 1955—some 50-odd years ago—there were 150. New technology and methods of chemical analysis have improved, but in the 1950s, there were no freezers, and we were not aware of any E numbers, additives or colourings, so all our food was provided fresh. In this day and age, there is a whole range of foodstuffs that simply were not about in the 1950s. We had more analysts then, but we need more now because of the plethora of different foodstuffs that we argue about day in, day out. The commercial clout of the food industry has to be borne in mind, and there has to be an independent analytical service that does not depend on commercial interests simply to stay in being. The service not only should, but must, be publicly funded; we have to have it.

Even now, this country and the European Union cannot agree on labelling for foodstuffs. We talk about the traffic light system and whether we should have labels showing the salt and fat content. The consumer is usually pretty baffled by all this, simply because the industry will not agree on some of these issues. There is a need for proper analysis of our foodstuffs so that consumers can know exactly what they are eating, and especially so that we can know what we are giving to our children. Obesity is an issue, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, as is the fact that we are eating different foods, which contain more sugar and fat, from those that we were eating in the 1950s and 1960s.

I echo what my hon. Friend said about the FSA wanting to reduce the qualification required for public analysts from a mastership in chemical analysis to a lesser qualification. Why is it that when we are faced with a situation like this, we think that instead of training more people, we will dumb down the qualification a little? If we are short of teachers, should we reduce the teaching qualification and bring in untrained teaching assistants? We probably do that to some extent, but we should not. We should train more people and keep the qualification, especially given what the analysts are dealing with day in and day out—with Sudan 1 and melamine. My hon. Friend is a trained chemist and I am not. I have no idea what melamine would look or taste like, and neither would the average guy in the street. Highly trained individuals are required for that work, and I urge the Government not to allow the FSA to start dumbing down the profession.

As I have mentioned, the funding from the FSA is delegated to local authorities. My hon. Friend has mentioned a 1 per cent. levy on the food industry for food advertising, and I agree fully with that proposal, because it is a huge industry that makes a lot of money. When there is a mistake or problem, as with Sudan 1, it costs the industry a lot of money with recalls and the drop in sales when products are found to be contaminated, so it would be worth the industry’s while to be secure in the knowledge that we had a public analysts system that was funded by that levy. I understand that the levy would raise only £8.5 million, but that would be all the money needed to provide a good, independent public analysts service, so I echo my hon. Friend’s call for that. We must ensure that we have the laboratories when we need them, such as when an outbreak occurs, because we will continue to have outbreaks and scandals such as that with Chinese melamine.

I shall conclude now, but I repeat that I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend has said, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. I sincerely hope that the Government will consider altering the structure of our public analysts service and will ensure that we still have one in another 20 years’ time.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this debate. Broadly, I would also like to congratulate him on all the work that he does in this place in advocating on behalf of scientists and scientific services in this country. Over many years, he has fought for their cause and pointed out how valuable they are to our society. He has played a part in trying to recruit more of our youngsters to a career in science and has highlighted the importance and value to our society of scientific services. Here he is again today, reminding us of the importance of a scientific service—the public analysts service, on this occasion—and rightly drawing it to our attention because it is in serious danger of being overlooked to death. He is right to draw attention to its parlous state and to ask us to take action to try to prevent disaster in the future.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned Duncan Campbell of the West Yorkshire analytical services. In preparing for this debate, I came across an article that he wrote for the New Scientist on 15 November 2008 called “Fears for food” in which he states:

“The few of us that remain are very busy, but I'm not sure for how much longer. Every year the local authorities that take samples for enforcement purposes spend less on having food analysed.”

That is a description of a worrying situation from an individual analyst, but I have read a briefing provided for us by the Association of Public Analysts which states that that is the situation across what remains of the service. It is a very worrying briefing.

I was not prepared to speak on the basis of just one briefing and so did further research. One of the surviving analysts laboratories is in Stafford, in my constituency. I visited it and met the staff and senior management there. Again, from my own investigations and discussions, I can confirm that there is a worrying situation that needs to be addressed.

The briefing from the APA states:

“The uncontrolled and potentially terminal decline in the Public Analyst Service is not being addressed adequately.”

What we need to do today is to insist that it is addressed adequately, and that steps are taken to reverse the decline.

Basically, we need this vital public service now more than ever, for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central made clear earlier. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East said, services are not organised in a strategic way. The Food Standards Agency is the competent authority for implementing food safety laws, but local authorities have responsibility for appointing public analysts. Beyond that, apparently no one has the legal duty actually to provide a service. That is a worrying situation. The upshot is that there are now just 41 qualified practising public analysts employed in 21 laboratories throughout the entire United Kingdom.

Let us take the example of the danger from food poisoning, which is one of the serious public health problems that we face and which the service works to protect us from. Food poisoning is believed to be widely under-reported to general practitioners in this country. It is estimated that in 2007 there were 850,000 UK cases of food poisoning, resulting in more than 19,500 hospitalisations and more than 500 deaths. This is a matter of major public concern.

The main hazards in food processes come from contamination; for example, bacteria that cause disease. The vulnerable groups who are most at risk from food poisoning are the elderly, the sick, babies, young children and pregnant women. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central mentioned that the UK’s largest outbreak of E. coli 0157, in Scotland in 1996, resulted in the deaths of 17 elderly people. Another major outbreak of the same pathogen in Wales in 2005 led to the death of a school child.

The FSA is the Government agency set up to protect public health and consumer interests in respect of food, but although policy responsibility for food hygiene rests with the Government and the FSA as its agency, enforcement is primarily at local level by local authorities. In 2007, the Rogers review set national enforcement priorities for local authority regulatory services. It identified hygiene of businesses as one of the top five enforcement priorities for local authorities and gave two reasons for that: the high impact on public health and the potential losses to the economy if things go wrong.

However, because of the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East, we see inconsistencies in levels of enforcement by local authorities. For example, in 2006-07, fewer than half of all local authorities—about 46 per cent.—achieved all their high-risk planned inspections. When we consider how much they spend on their inspections and sampling, we find that the average spend per local authority is about 10p per head of population in a year, but some are as low as 2p, which demonstrates how poor it can be. As my hon. Friend said, some local authorities carry out no samplings in an entire year. In 2007-08, for example, eight English local authorities did not carry out a single test.

I have mentioned food poisoning, but challenges are also presented by food fraud and misleading labels. According to the consumer group Which?, food fraud in the UK is estimated to be about 10 per cent. of the total sale of food product—or £7 billion-worth of food products a year.

When Channel 4’s “Dispatches” investigated food labelling, it found that misleading claims over salt and fat content were widespread. One test of six chocolate puddings—I will not embarrass the supermarket that sold them—showed that they contained, on average, 45 per cent. more fat than was stated on the label. One sample exceeded the amount quoted on the label by 64 per cent. From another supermarket, six samples of a chicken curry ready meal were found to be much fattier than the shoppers were led to believe. One had a third more fat, another had 91 per cent. more fat than the label stipulated.

Therefore, whether it is food safety, healthy eating and tackling obesity or protecting lawful businesses from unfair competition, the public analysts service is vital to UK national interests. Yet the sampling activity by local authorities across the UK has fallen sharply and continues to do so. Those involved in the service can only see the decline continuing. In recent times, the service has responded positively, which has been a crucial element in our defence against recent food scares, such as the melamine in milk products of Chinese origin and the dioxin in pork and beef from Ireland. The association’s briefing warns us—the parliamentarians here—that the service at its current levels of staffing and equipment would struggle to react appropriately to any major new food scare in the future. That is a very sobering warning for us to take notice of in this debate today.

In Staffordshire, we have seen this pressure coming for years. The response has been proactively to get away from the terminal decline. We have formed a formal partnership with a service in Leicestershire, which has enabled us to stabilise, cut overheads and costs, take additional work and attract new contract work to maintain a sufficient critical mass of work to keep the laboratories in Leicestershire and Staffordshire going. Such a strategy has been successful so far.

For the purpose of this debate, I spoke again to the leaders of the service in Staffordshire, and they told me that they remain of the view—despite all that they have done—that without the FSA taking a strategic position to drive up the future level of food sampling and examination across the country, the service will continue to decline, leading to a complete breakdown of the service in the foreseeable future. That is a very serious warning from my own local authority about the catastrophe that will take place if we do not act. I say to the Minister that we need a better, stronger national strategy that provides firm links between the policy, its implementation and its enforcement. Perhaps we could have a regional structure for properly resourced, independent laboratory services and a realistic amount of inspection and sampling at the local level.

Finally, I say to the Minister, do not allow the service to decline any further. Do not run the risk of it becoming the Achilles heel of the UK’s very valuable food sector and our vital national interests of food security and safety.

I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing this debate. The great value of such a debate is that it sheds light on an area of policy and practice that all too often gets ignored at a national level. It forces all of us to focus for a while on something that is clearly not in a fit condition and that needs a thorough reassessment by Government. It is important that the hon. Gentleman secured this debate and I congratulate him on it. I also join in the thanks to Duncan Campbell, who has clearly been very busy briefing hon. Members for this debate. He is the vice-president of the Association of Public Analysts and his passion for, and the central importance of, his work is clear.

As the hon. Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) pointed out, we are talking about threats to life as a result of a range of constantly present food scares. The main purpose of my contribution is to call for the Government to undertake a thorough reassessment of the current statutory framework and of the way in which the service is provided across the country, so that we ensure that it is fit for purpose and that it meets the risks and threats on which other hon. Members have commented. As part of that reassessment, it would be worth while for the Minister to agree to meet representatives of the APA, perhaps with an all-party delegation, to continue the discussion that has been initiated in this valuable debate. I would be extremely grateful if the Minister responded to that request.

I should like briefly to touch on the existing legal framework. The FSA, which was established under the Food Standards Act 1999, has a legal responsibility to carry out its functions

“to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food (including risks caused by the way in which it is produced or supplied) and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food”.

That is the FSA’s legal function and duty. However, as other hon. Members have said, the responsibility for carrying out those functions is delegated to local authorities. The FSA therefore has the legal duty and responsibility, but not the means by which to ensure that it meets it.

Responsibility is delegated to local authorities in two ways. When there is a two-tier structure, district councils are responsible through their environmental health departments for food safety. I am familiar with that policy because in a former life, I was a solicitor for a local authority and I prosecuted food hygiene cases—there were some wonderful cases—including one in which an Indian restaurant was charged with using a cricket bat to stir the curry. Anyone involved in the service will know of horrific examples of breaches of the most basic food hygiene standards, and I pay tribute to the work of those professionals. From my experience—I worked for Norwich city council—I can say that they are a highly dedicated group who provided an independent service for the safety of the public in the city. As I understand it from Duncan Campbell, samples that are acquired through district councils’ work are sent to the Health Protection Agency laboratories at no cost to the district council, so there is no constraint on ensuring that sufficient sampling is undertaken to protect the public.

Separate from the work of environmental health departments is the work undertaken by county councils in two-tier structures or by unitary authorities, which involves food standards, labelling, contamination and so forth. Where such bodies require sampling to be done, they have to pay the public analysts to do it, and therein lies the problem. With local authorities under increasing financial constraints, the temptation is to reduce the amount of sampling, as the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East graphically demonstrated. The horror is that many local authorities undertake literally no sampling, with public safety and valuable sampling work subject to a postcode lottery and dependent on whether local authorities have the necessary financial capacity or political interest.

Superficially, this is an easy area in which to make cuts if a local authority is under pressure. The crisis comes when there is a massive challenge to food hygiene and food safety, but then it is too late. The headlines in the national press will ask “Where are the analysts?”, and the answer will be that they have all gone because of financial cutbacks. This debate is therefore important because it gives us the chance to highlight a decline that has been under way for a considerable time and which must surely now be addressed.

Public analysts undertake vital work, and we have heard about the scare about melamine in milk from China, but when we talk to someone such as Duncan Campbell, we hear about the other, more proactive work that analysts undertake. Diet is a big issue, and the FSA is doing important work on reducing the salt content of food. It is also looking at other ingredients in food to ensure that our diet improves, particularly to address the growing crisis of obesity that exists in the whole of the western world.

Duncan Campbell talked to me about the work that he and his colleagues were doing with bakers in their area—in Barnsley, I think—to reduce the salt content of bread. That is good, proactive, local work, which is making a real difference to the diets of people who are often in quite impoverished communities. However, if the analysts are not there, the work is not done, and the effects will be seen in public health.

Duncan Campbell also talked about looking at food colourings in Indian takeaways. He said that the colouring added to chicken tikka takeaways can have a massive effect on hyperactivity in children. Again, that is an important public health issue, and he and his colleagues are working on it.

As other contributors to the debate have said, the decline in the service has been under way for a considerable time. There have been problems with recruitment, and there was the threat to the laboratory in Aberdeen. The number of public analysts is down to 38 across the country, and their age profile is also an issue. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East talked about a point of crisis, with sampling activity down by 16 per cent. across the country and several local authorities undertaking no sampling work at all.

What do we do about this? I have no ready prescriptions to offer. Like other speakers, I am conscious of the fact that the food industry’s value in the UK is enormous— £150 billion—and that a remarkably small amount is spent on food safety and independent analysis. One option that has been suggested is a 1 per cent. levy on food advertising. Another is to ensure that public funds are made available from taxation for this vital work. Whatever conclusion is reached, we can all agree that this work must be protected.

I conclude, therefore, by repeating my plea for a thorough audit of what is happening around the country, where, as we have discovered today, enormous and unjustified variations in practice exist. Once that audit has been completed, we need a thorough reassessment of the statutory framework, and of this arbitrary divide between district and county councils and between the work done by public laboratories at no cost to local authorities and that which incurs a charge and therefore places a constraint on financially hard-pressed local authorities. That arbitrary divide is open to question and must form part of a thorough reassessment to protect both the food analysts service and the public with regard to the food that they eat.

It is a pleasure to respond to this very important debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing it. Clearly he is an expert in this field. I also congratulate the Association of Public Analysts on briefing nearly everyone in the Chamber—apart from me! I shall not take it personally, however; it made me do a little more homework last night.

I did not have to dig too far into my memory bank to remember working with public analysts, not least around December 2005, following the Buncefield explosions—there were three of them—in my constituency, which severely contaminated my constituency, especially the public drinking water. Furthermore, as a former firefighter—back in very different times—I remember how, when damping down and finishing off, very often guys in different sorts of hard hats would come in and take samples, especially if there were problems related to asbestos or lead poisoning.

I pay tribute to the work done by the analysts. When I started looking into the reasons for this debate, I was surprised by the decline or crisis, referred to earlier, in the skills that these scientists bring to the public sector. I had to delve quite deeply into the reasons for this current situation. We heard from other hon. Members about the work that analysts do, but we must indicate that this is not just about food, although clearly, as others have said, their work with food is vital, given that food is becoming ever more complicated and prepared food ever more common—people seem to have a taste for it, which is why the supermarkets and producers are selling and making more of it.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) referred to two supermarkets whose products were tested; it was frightening to discover how much what was in them differed from what the packaging said. Well, I am not frightened to name them: the pies were from Waitrose and the second supermarket was Sainsbury’s. I do not want anyone thinking that these were tiny companies or small back-shop organisations; these are major companies that produce and retail their own products. It is important, not to name and shame them, but that the public do not think that only small companies are likely to do these sorts of things.

Analysts have other duties, however. I alluded to their work in testing public water supplies and testing for asbestos, but they also test other things that we use on a day-to-day basis, such as local swimming pools, lead fumes, industrial insolvents, children’s toys for lead content, household and industrial cleaning materials and—believe it or not—even pet food. They regularly test not just food, but many different things in our environment—or at least I thought that they were being tested regularly, until this debate, but it is now clear that there is a postcode lottery with regard to the availability of analysts in specific areas, and clearly in some areas they are not available at all. How does that fall within the legislation? If some areas are not testing at all, how are they fulfilling their requirements under the legislation, or are we turning a blind eye?

In addition, why has the decision been made to downgrade the qualification required for those scientists? The service was set up so that they would be highly qualified scientists, with a master’s degree. I am not a scientist, but I understand that that is where we are. They are scientists who wanted to specialise in this field. I wonder whether the decision has to do with the shortage of scientists not just in this area, but across the board. I declare an interest. My daughter is doing a science degree, and I cannot believe the interest that she has had from different organisations around the country and abroad simply because she is doing a science degree. She is very flattered, but I have to ask why we are so desperate for scientists in a country that has a history of producing some of the greatest scientists in the world. Perhaps the Minister will address the issue of why we have such a problem with regard to scientists.

The decline in the number of analysts is happening today. When I put my speech together earlier on, I understood that we had 41; by the time I had walked into the room and sat down, we had 38. I am not nit-picking about the numbers, but we obviously have a crisis, which the Minister needs to address.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said that we should have an immediate review. I tend to agree until I consider the fact that Alan Turner, OBE, conducted a review of the service 10 years ago. Mr. Turner made a series of recommendations to the Government, none of which has been implemented. Two years ago, the Food Standards Agency started a review at the request, I think, of the Association of Public Analysts. Where is it? Can the Minister tell us when it is likely to be published? It is very important that it is published as soon as possible, before we get into a situation of terminal decline and we do not physically have anything to review. I am thinking of what will happen if the decline carries on at its present speed and there is more delay in publishing the review. Whether or not the Government accept the review when it is published—it is being done at arm’s length, by the Food Standards Agency—it is important that the country knows, and the scientists know, exactly what the Government’s position is with regard to how we are moving forward.

[David Taylor in the Chair]

It is also very important that the public have confidence that the Government understand what is occurring, and have confidence in their services locally. The most disturbing thing that I have heard this morning is the extent of the postcode lottery. People in one part of the country could be relatively safe with regard to what they are eating, consuming, breathing or drinking, but in other parts of the country people may not be. I do not want to scare anyone—I do not want to scaremonger at all—but it is crucial that in the 21st century the public have full confidence that the Government of the day are protecting them. That is the duty; it is what the legislation was put in place for, and it is imperative that it is being done.

I am not being critical of the Food Standards Agency behind its back—the agency knows that I have spoken to it before—in saying that I think it needs to concentrate on its core activities. It has only a limited capacity and a limited number of things that it can physically do. Therefore, the message that I have given the agency privately and which I am giving it publicly today is this: please concentrate on your core activity, which is the public safety of food, so that the public can have confidence in that. I know that the agency would love to do many other things; it would love to tinker with other things and put its fingers in lots of different pies. However, I ask it to come back to its core activity. Its job is to protect the public. That is the job of the Government as well. I would be very interested to know how we got into the current position, when the review will be published and whether the Government are likely to implement in the near future the recommendations that were made to them 10 years ago.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) on securing the debate. He is very knowledgeable about the subject. He appreciates the complexity and range of the issues involved in protecting the public. He understands which issues fall into the remit of the Health Protection Agency, environmental health, local authorities or food protection. I agree with him about the importance of the work of public analysts in protecting consumers and preserving public health. The FSA is addressing that with the future career structures and qualifications for the service. I will come back to that because he raised a number of questions on that, as did my other hon. Friends.

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the Royal Society of Chemistry, which is responsible for validating the MChemA, will be consulted? My understanding is that, as of today, it has not been consulted.

I give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance on that. If he will allow me, I will deliver my speech in two parts. I will first discuss the importance of public analysis and the work that is going on, look forward to what else the service could do and consider the types of qualifications we would need. The second half will deal specifically with the role of the pre-eminent qualification, which will remain pre-eminent, and the consultation that needs to take place. I will also pick up on comments made by other hon. Members.

As has been mentioned, there are currently about 900,000 cases a year of food-borne disease in the UK. Every year, about 500 people die because of what they have eaten. As my hon. Friend said, new challenges over food safety have developed over the past few decades. As production methods, supply chains and food technologies have evolved, the response required has become much more complex. The approaches needed to reduce health risks from contamination or adulteration and to protect consumers are becoming increasingly specialised. We must ensure that the claims made by food producers are subject to robust scientific scrutiny. The contributions of all hon. Members have focused on how we can take that forward and ensure that it continues.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, European law states that the FSA must designate official control laboratories to carry out analysis of official control samples. It is true that we have seen a significant reduction in laboratory numbers since the mid-1950s. It is also true that the volume of work commissioned by local authorities has fallen considerably. The FSA has investigated and continues to investigate those matters. It advises me that the current level of laboratory provision is adequate. I think my hon. Friend will agree with the caveat that comparing the services of the 1950s and today is not comparing like with like. There are several reasons for that because the service has evolved in recent years.

First and foremost, the UK has moved from a scatter-gun approach to sampling to a more targeted and risk-based approach. As my hon. Friend is aware, in the past local authorities traditionally operated independently of each other. They selected a shopping basket of products for sampling based on local concerns. That meant that authorities in adjoining areas could have run tests on products from exactly the same source. As a crude example, several local authorities could conceivably have sampled food coming from the same warehouse at the same time and using the same manufacturing process. What happens now is that local authorities co-ordinate their efforts through the food liaison group run by the Local Authorities Co-ordinators of Regulatory Services, which established a national sampling programme and shares evidence. That reduces duplication between councils. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) described with reference to his constituency, that has led in some areas to an amalgamation of laboratories to give critical mass and make it possible to take the work forward.

Does my right hon. Friend accept the statistic that some local authorities carried out no sampling at all in an entire year, and is she prepared to say that that means there was no risk in those areas?

I am saying that with the mechanism for areas to share information—my hon. Friend gave examples about the combination of authorities—information can be shared for the purpose of prevention. I do not underestimate the importance of sampling, but I am trying to describe a system of information-sharing and an approach that ensures information is shared.

May I just finish my point, as I want to make sure that I answer the important points that were raised about how to take things forward? There are still misunderstandings about what is intended, and I want to put those to rest so that we can proceed with exactly the type of agenda that my hon. Friend set out.

My right hon. Friend referred to a national sampling programme, and what she said is an argument for a national system, in which the work is taken away from the local authorities and given to a national body, which would co-ordinate sampling throughout the country.

That may be so, but under the current law local authorities have dealt with the matter, and they want to keep the power. The analysts are not public sector analysts—I believe there are four or five and the rest are in the private sector. They are independent of those requesting the sample and those for whom the sampling is done. There are important reasons for that independence, and we need to think carefully about how it works. As to their future role, I want to give examples in a moment of additional qualifications that might be suitable; that may offer a way forward. As well as boosting efficiency, the organisation, through the co-ordination of local authorities, can reduce work load.

The Minister is being generous in giving way.

I accept that we do not want duplication, and that, if a manufacturer is producing something that will go to different areas, co-ordination is perfectly right for that. However, that does not address the role of local authorities in relation to small restaurants in their jurisdiction. It is not applicable. In areas where there are no inspections at all, it is not a question of doing things in a co-ordinated way; it is a question of nothing at all happening in relation to smaller cases. As the hon. Member for Stafford asked, how can places be safe, if they are not being tested?

The hon. Gentleman raises a separate question about the food protection role across all local authority and central Government functions. I am trying to give an answer about something that I think is very important—I want to answer the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East asked, specifically about the role and qualifications of analysts and how the Government see those developing.

I will give way once more, and then I shall try to make some progress. I am trying to be delicate in ensuring that hon. Members know what we are, and are not, talking about.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Much of what she says about co-ordination between local authorities, the sharing of resources and so forth makes sense. However, the Association of Public Analysts believes that judgments about sampling are not always based on an assessment of risk but based on financial constraints. Given that those concerns are being raised by the professional body, is she prepared to consider further its fear that judgments are not based on risk alone but that financial issues are involved, and would she pick up on my suggestion of a meeting?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that many people seek to advise Ministers. They do so from their particular perspective, and the Minister has to put all those views on the table. I rely on the advice of the Food Standards Agency. Hon. Members are asking whether there is a risk to public health and whether we have the facilities necessary to ensure that all arrangements are discharged. On that point, the FSA is in regular contact. I shall deal later with the consultation and the future, as many other important points have been made in that connection, but it seems to me that that is the proper place for such discussions to take place and for proposals to be made to me as Minister. That is my clear steer to the FSA, and I shall say what it is and how I see it going forward in answer to the points raised by hon. Members.

Another thing has changed dramatically: developments have put the onus on food business operators to ensure that they discharge their obligations. Inevitably, that will result in other requirements. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East knows, manufacturers are required by law to identify situations where food safety issues may arise and to establish measures to address them. They must keep records to confirm that suitable monitoring has taken place, and they have a legal responsibility to notify the FSA about actual or suspected threats to the safety or quality of food.

My hon. Friend said that dioxin had recently been found in pork. He will know that the food producers and the retail system enabled us, in partnership with the FSA, to identify immediately where their products come from, whether or not there was a problem, and take them off the shelf. That happened very speedily. At the heart of it was the protection of the consumer. As a result, local authorities have a far more exacting way in which to target sampling. They need the flexibility to decide for themselves how to invest, but we must ensure that everything fits together to give an enforcement service that delivers exactly what we need, regardless of whether we have national sampling or protection laws.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) spoke of testing, but I want to give an example when national testing would completely take over. He mentioned the E. coli bug. All the necessary work was done by public health bodies, not public analysts, and the microbiology was funded by the Department of Health. As I said, calling them public analysts is a bit of a red herring; it does not necessarily mean that they are public. Four or five of them are from local authorities, and the rest are commercial private sector bodies.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the bottom line is that local authorities are responsible in law for ensuring that all food for sale in their area is fit for consumption, and the FSA audits local authorities to assess their implementation and enforcement of food law. The agency advises me that it has found no evidence of local authorities failing in their statutory duty. Obviously, if it found a failing, it would take action against the local authorities. If my hon. Friends fear that there are, or if they know of, examples in their area, I invite them to make representations to me so that I can double-check that they have been investigated fully.

I should like to reassure my hon. Friends that the FSA is monitoring the decline in the number of laboratories, and there is an open door to take action if it finds evidence that standards are slipping and that food safety is compromised. However, the agency advises me that all the evidence suggests that a local market-based approach is working.

I shall now turn to the important points that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East made on recruitment and standards in the service, as I said I would. I think he agrees that we face a considerable recruitment challenge and, as he pointed out, two thirds of practising analysts are over the age of 50. It is therefore extremely important that we encourage more people to go into the service, particularly gifted young scientists and graduates. The FSA is working to try to have a clear career path in place for prospective and new entrants. That is why it is working with the APA to improve, for example, the information that is available on its website on the types of jobs available. The agency is also making a funding contribution to the APA’s training programme. However, as I think we all agree, we need more radical solutions. We need to get fresh blood into the profession, but we also need to look at the challenges that we expect the service to face, which have been mentioned.

As my hon. Friend stated, the European regulation states that food analysis must be carried out by a suitably qualified and experienced member of staff, which is far less prescriptive than the Food Safety Act 1990. That led the FSA to think about whether it needed to change the law in the UK to bring it in line with Europe.

I want to explain how that might be taken forward, but at the outset I wish to make absolutely crystal clear the immense respect for the masters of chemical analysis qualification. It is not my place to comment on whether the degree should be upgraded to a doctorate—as my hon. Friend said, that is for the RSC to advise on—but I am happy to put it on the record that I believe that the MChemA should remain the pre-eminent qualification. At the moment, the FSA is exploring whether it should be the only viable qualification. It is not about downgrading a qualification. We need not only to respond to the decline in numbers and to attract fresh blood, but to consider other comparable qualifications that could be appropriate, and whether we need to develop a tiered approach, by which the MChemA remains the top-ranking qualification but other qualifications would allow a person to take a significantly different role in the service. Let me give an example. The university of Stirling is the world leader on irradiated food, which people are concerned about, but it does not offer the MChemA qualification, so it cannot be within the service.

In the consultation with the Royal Society and others, we need to consider the type of analytical outcomes and sampling programmes that we want, and whether it might be possible to appoint others for testing to specific standards. We must also consider what type of proposals would help laboratories to develop expertise in set areas and would open up the potential for guaranteed work in specific areas of food testing, possibly encouraging others to come into that area. That is what we are concentrating on, and that is what I expect the FSA to concentrate on.

We are considering options and putting them on the table, and the FSA is looking into them. I agree with my hon. Friend that consultation is crucial, and not just with the APA, but with the Royal Society as well. I am more than happy to set up for him, and other hon. Members who are interested, a direct meeting with those in the FSA leading the review. That would be as well as, not instead of, the consultation with other organisations that will go ahead as is right and proper. The next step needs to be to look closely at that, and at the proposals, and to ensure that we have a clear way forward. My hon. Friend may also be interested to know that following a recent food law enforcement practitioners meeting, it was agreed that these matters would be considered and taken forward. Again, I am more than happy to ensure that he has the details on that in order to engage in that discussion.

I want to make it clear to every hon. Member present that we feel it is absolutely imperative to maintain the highest standard of food control, but there are challenges ahead. Of course, we should not downgrade the pre-eminent qualification in this science, but we need to consider whether others could bring skills into the service. We also need to consider how the service will be co-ordinated, going forward, for all the reasons that my hon. Friends have identified. At the same time, we must make sure, as I will be doing after the debate, that the FSA keeps a very close eye on the work that is going on in local authorities and nationally to give the assurance that all hon. Members have sought that food safety is of the highest priority, and that legal obligations to protect the consumer and ensure that food is fit for human consumption will continue to be enforced with great rigour. In that way, we can take the service forward. I do not accept that it is in a state of crisis, but I do accept that we need to act quickly to secure its continued work and commitment in this area. I hope that, with those assurances, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East will take some comfort from today’s debate. The matter is not closed, and it certainly is not about doing down a qualification.

Will my right hon. Friend say something about the review group that met two years ago and has still not reported its findings? That was also an issue that concerned other hon. Members.

The reporting by the review group will be brought together with the current consultations about the service. I accept the point that my hon. Friend and others have made. It would certainly help those in the field if there were a clearer statement of intent from the Food Standards Agency and Ministers. I accept that many of the questions that have been asked, and fears that have been raised, are because of a lack of information and a clear road map going forward. I will certainly take the matter away and ensure that it is dealt with. That could be part of the discussion that my hon. Friend has with his colleagues when I facilitate the meeting that I promised.

Will the Minister explain why none of the recommendations of the review, which took place 10 years ago, has been implemented? Not a single one! How can we have any confidence going forward if the Government have not implemented the recommendations from the last review?

As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, the last review was conducted 10 years ago, before the formation of the Food Standards Agency. When the FSA was formed, it was recognised as an enormous step forward in the protection of the consumer and in ensuring food safety. Many of those issues would have been to do with that process. Although this is a matter that I was not familiar with at the time—I was in another Department—I speculate that in setting up the FSA itself, the focus on the review and some of the issues that were around before the FSA’s existence were ones that were not actively taken forward at that time. The crucial issue is that the FSA continually discharges its duties with regard to the protection of the consumer.

Rather than speculate, will the Minister be kind enough to write to me and let me know what was and was not implemented?

I am more than happy to do that. I was trying to avoid the catch-all phrase, “I will write to the hon. Gentleman.” I think that I am not too far wide of the mark in my suggestion to him, but I am happy to write to him.

In conclusion, this has been a very helpful debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and all the hon. Members who have spoken. It is crucial that our constituents have confidence in food safety and the food that they purchase as citizens. As science and skills develop and as the production of food evolves, we need to ensure that we have the very best structures and qualified service to continue to protect our citizens. That is certainly the brief that I have given to the FSA.