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Lord Turnberg: My Lords, I find myself in the unhappy position of disagreeing almost entirely with the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. Along with many other noble Lords no doubt, I have received letters, largely from a variety of organisations involved in the manufacture or sale of food supplements but also from individuals, expressing horror that a range of so-called natural substances, vitamins and minerals will no longer be available to the public. The basis of the concern lies largelynot entirelyin the difficulties and expense that the industry would have in complying with the directive. Furthermore, they question the need for regulation given that the supplements have been used safely for many yearsor so it seems.
There are very cogent reasons for adopting greater regulationby that I mean some regulationin an area of public safety that stands out because of the almost complete absence of regulation governing it.
Lord Turnberg: My Lords, what we do not have is information. I shall develop that theme in my argument. The public are not completely aware of potential dangers, safety limits and so on. That information is not available. Quite rightly, we have very stringent regulation for pharmaceutical drugs but not for so-called natural products. Do the public not deserve to be informed about what they are eating? Should they not have available information to give them some idea of whether additives and supplements are safe, in what dose, and whether there is any evidence that they will do what they are claimed to do.
It is suggested that vitamins are essential for life. That is absolutely true, but it is far from the truth to suggest that they are all safe in whatever dose they are given and no matter for how long. The fact that they are essential for life does not mean that taking several times the daily dose makes you a healthier person. Indeed, the opposite may be the case. Noble Lords have mentioned boron, silicon and tin as beneficial. But what is the evidence that taking any extra than that which you gain in your normal diet does you any good?
The noble Earl mentioned that iron chelates are better absorbed than iron sulphate. That is perfectly correct. Several years ago, when I was a physician, I wrote up a patient who had been taking an extra iron pill a day simply because she felt that it would do her gooda not unreasonable assumption. But I saw her because she had developed haemochromatosis, a rather nasty liver disease. Iron itself is potentially dangerous. Vitamins A and D are marvellous if you are among the unusual subjects who are deficient in either. It is also possible that minute dosesI stress minutetaken over long periods will protect against deficiencies. But large or even modest doses of either are dangerous and cause all sorts of well-recognised ill health.
Folic acid, which is in the vitamin B group, is excellent in small doses in pregnancy. But taken in the same doseabout 5 milligrams a dayit could unbalance others with undiagnosed pernicious anaemia, of which there are quite a number in the population, and precipitate the condition of subacute combined deficiency of the spinal cord causing paralysis. Indeed, many such cases are described. A dose of 400 microgramsless than half a milligramseems safe and may well be worthwhile to the population since there is now increasing evidence that it may prevent heart attacks. But greater doses lead to potential dangers.
I use those examples to point out that, although a little bit of what does you good may be fine, a lot more seemingly harmless supplements are certainly not fine. The directive is necessary because at present the public do not have much information on the composition of many additivestheir purity, dosage, the evidence on which claims are made about what they can do, and their safety. Regulation seems entirely appropriate.
I support the noble Earl's wish to secure simplified, less bureaucratic dossiers to be submitted. I particularly support his desire to ensure that maximum permitted levels of vitamins and minerals are based on sound science. How could I not support that? However, I am concerned that the proposal to revoke the regulations would leave us with too little to ensure the safety of the public. I am therefore unable to support the proposal.
Lord Turnberg: My Lords, my interests are solely those of an ex-physician. I am involved in the Academy of Medical Sciences and I give scientific advice to the Association of Medical Research Charities. Noble Lords can make of that what they like.
Lord Alexander of Weedon: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him two questions. I accept totally his impartiality in this area, but why is his point that we need to have safe use not sufficiently covered by paragraphs 2 and 3 in the Motion moved by the noble Earl, Lord Howe? Also, why does he think that the issues that he so genuinely raises could not be better dealt with on the basis of subsidiarity in this country?
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I was not sure whether I would speak in this debate, so I must declare an interest as a member of the board of the Food Standards Agency. I feel a bit like Daniel in the lion's den after the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.
I want to correct some issues about the agency. Although we sympathise with the Consumers for Health Choice and the industry about the scope of the positives lists, it seems unlikely that the Commission will consider reopening discussions. I will return to that matter later, so perhaps noble Lords should wait until the end of my speech before standing up.
The Food Standards Agency's focus is on pressing for a maximum limit to be based on safety rather than on restrictive nutritional need. However, when the report that was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, by the UK's Expert Group on Vitamins and Minerals was published, the Food Standards Agency pointed out that a good balanced diet would meet all one's requirements. However, we appreciate that people may wish to exercise their own choice as consumers about certain vitamins and
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness would answer my question on that point. After the semi-hysterical outbursts of the FSA about vitamins and many other matters, how can the agency and the noble Baroness possibly support the directive, particularly when she knows that, year after year after year, Europe has held up the nutritional food labelling in this country for which the FSA has fought without any success whatsoever?
Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I should remind the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, that we are not responsible for the way in which the media reproduce information. Our officials fought hard to make sure that the list was not as restrictive as it is. In fact, the list was hard-fought and hard-won in terms of some of its content.
It was because we believed that consumers should have a choice that we negotiated forcefully in the EU for the law to allow food supplements that are safe and properly labelled to be freely marketed, and for any restriction in the range of products to be justified on public health grounds. The criteria of safety and consumer choice underpin the FSA's approach to all food legislation.
We were concerned at the time of the negotiations, when there was a change in the presidency, that, had the negotiations been reopened at that stage, the directive would have become more restrictive. I was in discussion with our officials during that time. The compromise was, as I said, hard fought for, and the concessions finally supported were the best that could be achieved at the time.
I am simply trying to put the record straight about the position of the Food Standards Agency. There will be considerable difficulties in renegotiating with the EU. That is a position for the Government to take. We will continue to make sure that the nation has as much information as possible in labelling, choicewhere choice means that food is safe and healthyand information about a good and balanced diet, which is the best way to get vitamins and minerals.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, following upon what the noble Baroness said, I want to ask the Minister one simple question: what is the status of this beautiful example of the benefits of our membership of the European Union? In other words, what is the status of the directive in the European Union? Is it subject to qualified majority voting? If so, have we been outvoted, or would we have been outvoted if we had put it to a vote? Is there anything that we can do about it? Is the amending directive proposed by my noble friend on the Front Bench a possibility, or, as usual, have we had it?
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