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20 Jan 2003 : Column 101continued
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Late on Thursday, I become the latest Member of the House to present a petition, and this time it was on behalf of 437 of my constituents who have expressed a great deal of concern about the two directives. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the views of the hundreds and thousands of people who have been represented in the many petitions that have been presented to the House are being taken into careful account in all the work that she is doing on this issue?
Ms Blears: I certainly can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The allegation has been made that the Government have failed to use their influence on this important issue. I absolutely reject that. The Government have been able to exercise considerable influence on the food supplements directive and on the herbals directive. I will come to the details of that, because we are absolutely determined to engage actively in putting forward the interests of the people of this country. We will not abdicate our responsibility.
As I said, it is important to get the balance right between protecting public health and promoting honest and informative labelling so that people can make informed choices. It is for consumers to choose what to eat. We are not in the business of the nanny statewhether it is a British nanny state or a European one. We know that consumers welcome a wide range of choice and we are determined to make sure that that is
Our current position on the food supplements directive is the one that we took in the negotiations. They were difficult negotiations. It was not a case of our not engaging; we were in there arguing the case for our position. The negotiations were carried forward with great vigour and in full consultation with all interested parties. The negotiations are now over and the supplements directive is a fact of life, but the Government were positively engaged in achieving the flexibility that enables us to have transitional provisions from 2005 to 2009 and in securing a commitment in the directive that the maximum permitted limits, which is the crucial issue for most consumers, will consider not just nutritional need, which was the view taken by most other members states, but safety, which was the view taken by the Government, and dietary intakes. We achieved in the negotiations a broader base of factors to be taken into account in setting maximum permitted limits than we would otherwise have done had we taken the view of the hon. Member for Woodspring and opted out of the negotiations.
Mrs. Browning: If I heard the Minister correctly, she said a few minutes ago something about safety, which suggested that she believes that some products on the market contain dangerous components or ingredients. She mentioned a Westminster Hall debate on one of them. Before statutory instruments appear before the Standing Committees of the House, will she place in the Library a list of all products on the market in this country that she believes contain dangerous ingredients or components? If she has the medical and scientific evidence to show that dangerous products are on the market, the House deserves to know what they are and why they are dangerous.
Ms Blears: That is exactly why, following the debate in Westminster Hall, we did just that. We placed in the Library a dossier compiled from reports from all around the world about substances that had given rise to health concerns. If any further items have given rise to concern since the dossier was placed in the Library, I shall gladly include them on it.
I have already referred to aristolochia. In addition, digitalis causes serious irregular heart rhythms. That was reported in the United States following the accidental substitution of harmless plantain with digitalis. Synthetic drugs have been adulterated. For example, fenfluramine, a prescription-only medicine, was banned globally on health grounds in 1997, but has been identified in traditional Chinese weight-loss remedies. Steroids have been found in skin creams, and there are herb and drug interactions with St. John's wort.
There have also been quality issues. Analysis has been carried out on echinacea, and lots of leaf and ash have been found in the product even though it should be made from the root if people are to obtain the benefits that they think they are buying. A lot of information is available and the dossier is in the Library. If further
Ms Blears: Herbal products are only just starting to be regulated. That is why it is important to support the directive. We need a proper regulatory framework for the herbal sector as well as our framework for traditional medicines. Herbal medicines are becoming more accepted in different medical environments, and the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) has been pressing their case for a long time. As they become more widely used and demanded, the requirement for them to be properly regulated becomes even more intense.
We have taken a robust position in the negotiations. The directive establishes the positive list that defines the range and form of vitamins and minerals that can be used in food supplements. It sets the principles for defining the maximum permitted limits; it does not go into specific limits but sets a framework. It also provides for mandatory labelling on nutrition information, warnings about keeping the product out of the reach of children and a statement making it clear that supplements are not a substitute for a balanced diet. We welcome those provisions.
Dr. Tonge : I thank the hon. Lady for her generosity in giving way. I have not seen the dossier in the LibraryI have been concentrating on other dossiers recentlybut what is the directive's position on qat, which is classified by the Government as a herbal substance and is chewed mainly by people in the north African community? It is a great concern to the elders of that community, who have been to see me, because it is a powerful tranquilliser, then stimulant, causing young people in particular to do nothing with their lives. Can the Minister advise us whether the directive will cover that substance?
Ms Blears: I am not in a position to do so at the moment, but I undertake to look into the matter. I shall get back to the hon. Lady about the important matter of where that substance falls in the regulatory framework.
The directive contains a provision enabling member states to require notification of new products when they are developed. We will not activate that provision because it will involve unnecessary regulation. We are anxious to keep regulation to a minimum, but commensurate with the protection of public healthwe
The directive must be implemented by 31 July this year. Draft regulations have been prepared and are out for consultation. The first effect of the directive, on labelling, bites on 1 August 2005. Reports of the imminent withdrawal of swathes of products are misleading. I am concerned that, in the motion, the Opposition talk about 300 products being taken off the shelves[Interruption.] Well, they talk about 300 but mention 270 later in the motion. I am not sure whether they know which figure is correctperhaps it depends on which briefing they are citing.
The food supplements directive contains two positive lists. The first deals with vitamins and minerals that can be included in food supplements, and lists all the vitamins currently used in food supplements and all but six minerals in those supplements. The controversy arises in relation to the second positive list, which deals with sources of nutrients, not nutrients themselves. The distinction is important. This is not about taking products off the shelves, but about the fact that 270 sources of vitamins are not included in the positive lists. Both lists remain open for amendmentthey will not be closedand new sources can be added to them.
The second positive list in the food supplements directive includes 32 sources of vitamins, nine of calcium, 11 of magnesium, 11 of iron, eight of zinc, eight of sodium and nine of potassium. A range of nutrient sources are included in the positive list, so consumers have been caused unnecessary alarm. It is simply not the case that the products on which they rely will be withdrawn.