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Liquid Nitrogen Drinks

Volume 554: debated on Friday 30 November 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Syms.)

I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak on the important issue of banning liquid nitrogen as an ingredient in cocktails and other drinks. It is important from the outset that I make it clear that I do not propose to prevent the usage of liquid nitrogen in food preparation and production. In my view, using liquid nitrogen to chill foods and drinks is acceptable, but to put it in drinks is extremely dangerous and must be stopped, not least because nitrogen boils at minus 196° centigrade, making it very dangerous in liquid form. The idea that someone could drink a cocktail that contains an ingredient that is minus 196° centigrade is obviously dangerous and must stop.

As a little background, I should say that this issue first came to my attention as a result of the serious injuries sustained by Gaby Scanlon from Heysham in my constituency. On her 18th birthday she went to a bar in Lancaster and drank two “nitro Jagermeister” cocktails costing £8.95. These drinks look very appealing because the nitrogen boils in the glass and creates a smoke effect. I can understand fully why Miss Scanlon wanted to try these drinks and I believe her actions on the night were those of a normal 18 year old. When she bought the drinks, she had a reasonable assumption that something she bought in a licensed bar was safe to drink. Sadly, however, the complete opposite proved to be true. What followed is really horrific. The liquid nitrogen froze her stomach and, as it boiled her stomach, it began to rupture, leaving her in the sort of agony that is hard to imagine. Clinicians at the Royal Lancaster infirmary took the decision to remove her stomach in emergency surgery. They say that she may have died without this procedure.

This is the only case of serious injury of this kind that has been reported in the media across the world, and to think that it happened here in the UK is shocking. We must take action before this problem becomes more widespread. As we know, there are lots of laws and regulations on the food and drink we consume, and it is illegal to serve anything that is injurious to health, but how many people know of the dangers of liquid nitrogen used in this fashion? Gaby Scanlon did not know, and, had I been in that bar at the time, I would not have known. Bars and restaurants across the country do not know either, yet they serve this cocktail daily.

Tonight, young people across the country will be served these drinks by staff at bars that do not know the dangers. No one believes that the bar that served Gaby Scanlon wanted to hurt her; it simply did not know the dangers. That lack of knowledge cannot continue. I appreciate the work of the Food Standards Agency in issuing advice to environmental health officers, but in response 80% of EHOs have said that there must be an outright ban on liquid nitrogen being used in this fashion and that it should not be used as an ingredient under any circumstances. I agree with them.

I do not support greater vigilance; I support an outright ban. In consultation with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Health can issue an emergency control order banning the use of any ingredient. It happens regularly when an ingredient is found to be unsafe but still in widespread use. The issuing of these orders is comparatively easy and does not require any sort of primary legislation, because the powers already exist. I hope that the Minister will update the House on what discussions have taken place between DEFRA and the Department for Health, and that he will say whether any other cases of this sort have been reported. Furthermore, what discussions has his Department had with relevant professionals and local authorities?

The last thing I want to do is play the blame game. Too few people know about the dangers of liquid nitrogen drinks, but that is starting to change. I am delighted that this debate has been covered by Radio 1’s “Newsbeat”, listeners to which are in the age group most at risk. I hope that coverage of this debate will warn even more young people of the dangers of these drinks. My message to all young people is that liquid nitrogen drinks are not worth the risk.

I call on Health Ministers to support an outright ban on the use of liquid nitrogen as an ingredient. If we take this opportunity now, we will prevent other young people from going through the shock, pain and disruption that Gaby Scanlon did. When someone walks into a bar or restaurant in this country, they have a right to know that what is being served is safe, and the House has a duty to enforce that right.

In closing, I want to wish Miss Scanlon well. She is slowly but surely returning to health, and the whole House will want to offer its good wishes to her and her family.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing this debate and on his continuing strong advocacy for his constituents. I know that he has been a diligent and hard-working constituency MP since he was elected, and I pay tribute to his work in bringing forward this issue. As a doctor, I was sad to hear of the ordeal that Gaby Scanlon endured when she went out to celebrate her 18th birthday, and of the distress caused not only to her but to her family and friends. I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s determination, therefore, in following up on the serious injury suffered by his constituent.

As my hon. Friend rightly outlined, the incident on 2 October has attracted considerable media attention. Tonight being a Friday night, I am sure that many young people will be going out into bars and clubs in the places they live or perhaps further afield. This debate has also attracted attention in Australia and New Zealand. As we know, this is the first time that the Food Standards Agency has been made aware of a food incident involving the use of liquid nitrogen. I say “a food incident”. The FSA, a national body working in close partnership with local licensing authorities, has responsibility to ensure that food and drink in our restaurants, bars and clubs and elsewhere is served responsibly and safely. When it became aware of the incident, the FSA immediately issued a warning to raise consumers’ awareness of the dangers of consuming drinks containing liquid nitrogen. The FSA also encouraged all environmental health officers to be vigilant about the use of liquid nitrogen in food or drink when carrying out their routine inspections of food and hospitality premises.

I hope my hon. Friend will be reassured to hear about the controls that are already in place. Food law prohibits the sale of harmful foods and drinks in the UK. Manufacturers, retailers and businesses in the UK have a legal obligation to ensure that the food and drink they serve to the public is fit for human consumption. There are industry safety and handling guidelines around the use and storage of liquid nitrogen. Business owners are responsible for training their staff, making them aware of the potential risks of using liquid nitrogen and having appropriate safety measures in place to protect staff and consumers. Existing legislation prohibits the sale of food and drink that is unsafe. Enforcement of both health and safety measures and food safety legislation is the responsibility of the relevant local authority—in this case Lancaster city council. Businesses selling alcohol that are convicted of food safety offences can have their alcohol licences withdrawn by the local licensing authority.

It is worth touching on the wider point about the glamorisation of alcohol—sometimes by the food and drink industry, but particularly by wider sectors of the media. As I have said, tonight many young people will go out to bars, clubs and other settings in town centres and elsewhere, including the village and market town pubs in my constituency, to enjoy an evening out with friends. On the whole, things will pass successfully and without any adverse incident. However, we know that there has been a problem in parts of the country where certain bars and clubs have been irresponsible in their marketing of alcohol. It is the responsibility of licensing authorities to ensure good practice in the performance of their local bars and clubs and to ensure that they are run responsibly. With regard to the premises in question, that is something that I know the local council will look at seriously in the ongoing investigation in this case.

We expect those who sell and promote alcohol to do so responsibly. The alcohol industry in general has made a core commitment, through the public health responsibility deal, to foster a better culture of responsible drinking. We are grateful for the national recognition of the importance of the issue by the alcohol industry, but the Government’s alcohol strategy goes further in fostering responsible drinking, aiming to cut the number of people drinking to harmful levels. It addresses both health and social harms, describing co-ordinated actions across Government, and includes a commitment to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol to tackle the sale of heavily discounted alcohol, with further action to ensure that local authorities have the licensing powers they need to protect local communities. The strategy will deal not just with binge drinking, but with all activities to do with responsible drinking, promoting safe places for people, young or old, to go out in town centres in the evenings. On 28 November, the Government launched a consultation on a number of areas set out in the strategy, including a recommended price of 45p per unit of alcohol. We are taking that action to ensure a sensible price for drinks that cause harm.

What is the local authority doing in this case? Lancaster city council is rightly investigating the events that led to Gaby’s very serious injury. The full details of what happened in this incident are not yet publicly available, because of the ongoing review and investigation of the case by the city council. However, I can reassure my hon. Friend that once they have concluded, government departments such as the Food Standards Agency will consider whether further guidance is necessary. As I outlined earlier, initial action has been taken to warn consumers of the risks of consuming drinks containing liquid nitrogen and to ensure that local authorities are vigilant in their inspection of food businesses with regard to the sale of this product. We do not yet have all the information about what happened in the bar in Lancaster, so we need to wait for the conclusion of the investigation by the council. However, I reassure my hon. Friend that we will take the results of that investigation seriously and the FSA will consider them. We must ensure that what happened to Gaby does not happen again to other young people.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.