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McColl: Moderation and the promotion of healthy eating

Speech in the House of Lords on food and nutrition

I thank very much the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for introducing this debate. I wish also to say how much I am looking forward to the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

I shall confine my remarks to some of the problems of food poisoning and how best to promote a healthy diet. In fairness to the Government, however much the authorities try to ensure that food is wholesome there will always be some people who upset the system and create small-scale, or even large-scale, havoc; such is human nature.

Some time ago a dinner of over 100 people took place in London. Half of them developed hepatitis as a result. Investigations revealed that the hepatitis virus was present in the raspberries which were served. That confused the investigators until they visited those up north who were picking the raspberries. They found that the workers were putting the raspberries into waterproof polythene bags. They were then weighed and the workers were paid according to the weight. They found that some of the workers were artificially increasing the weight of those polythene bags by attending to the usual necessities of nature. Although most people passed sterile urine, one of the raspberry pickers unfortunately was secreting the hepatitis virus in his urine. Human nature can be extraordinarily perverse.

Other problems arise through pure ignorance. Some patients were found to have a particularly nasty type of food poisoning known as Campylobacter, which is Greek for a curved bacterium. At first it seemed that the infection was coming through chickens. I suppose that in one sense that was correct. An investigation into the way the chickens were prepared found that they were electrocuted upside down on a conveyor belt. Electrocution inevitably caused contraction of all the chicken's muscles. That encouraged the gut to disgorge its contents which then ran down to cover the chicken from head to toe--or perhaps we should say from toe to head. The chickens were then put in a giant vat which produced a kind of bacterial soup. After that the chickens were cut up and packaged.

When the packages were opened the chickens were chopped up on a wooden board, either in a restaurant or at home. The pieces of chicken were then sterilised by cooking. That is fine; the organism was killed. Unfortunately, the same board was often used to chop up salad and so contamination spread through the salad to the patient who became quite ill. When these unfortunate practices come to light, publicity goes some way to eliminating them. But so long as human beings are involved, such is human nature that new hazards will constantly arise. No amount of legislation will prevent that.

As to promoting a healthy diet, one of the most extraordinary and effective experiments ever carried out was in 1939 at the beginning of the war. At that time, one-third of British and one-third of American people were either underfed or ill fed. The introduction of food rationing changed that situation overnight. The ration book contained the coupons which provided people with exactly the right amount and the right kind of food every week--not too little, not too much. It was impossible to become fat unless one was on the black market. As children in those days, we used to point the finger at fat people because they were on the black market. The rationed food contained all the right vitamins, proteins, carbohydrates and fat and, better still, provided a high roughage diet in the form of the national loaf.

Although this ideal diet produced a population which was much healthier than it had been in the past, there were certain problems. There were huge rows in another place with objections being raised to the 100 per cent wholemeal national loaf. I should explain that in wholemeal flour the bran contains phytic acid which binds on to calcium and prevents its absorption. Calcium absorption at the best of times is not very good--only one-third of it is actually absorbed. If one's nutrition is fairly critical, as in times of warfare, there is a real danger that people might become deficient in calcium. So the Government legislated to have calcium put in the flour. Unfortunately, many MPs objected. They thought that it was an infringement of liberty. Fortunately for the people, their objections were not listened to.

Of course, one cannot act in that way in peacetime. However, in the United States it is a different matter. There they simply override objections to altering the food. It was discovered, for instance, that spina bifida could be prevented if a pregnant lady has enough of the vitamin folic acid in her body at the time of conception. But it is rather difficult to arrange that. So the American Government simply said that all flour must contain folic acid.

Why is a high roughage diet so desirable? It has been known to be desirable for thousands of years. As the Bishops' Bench will well know, the first mention of it is in the Book of Daniel. The young teenager and his companions refused to eat the food in the royal palace. When it was pointed out to them that they might be put to death for refusing the food, Daniel requested a ten-day trial of a high roughage diet. It was compared with the rich diet from the king's table. We could say that this was the first clinical trial of its kind. Noble Lords will remember that those on the high roughage diet did better.

It was Denis Birkett who, in the 1960s and 1970s, drew attention to the problem of a low roughage diet. In Nigeria, for instance, those on a sensible diet out in the country do not have all the problems that civilisation does. But the moment people start moving into Lagos they develop appendicitis, haemorrhoids, Diverticular Disease and so on. The other advantage of a high roughage diet is that it prevents people becoming too obese.

During recent years it has become clear that anti-oxidants, vitamin E, and so on, are important constituents of diet in preventing disease. The good news is that anti-oxidants are prevalent in good wine--both red and white.

I have tried to draw attention to the fact that however hard governments try to minimise food poisoning, so long as there are human beings around one will have trouble. As to the promotion of healthy eating, perhaps one of the greatest needs is to concentrate, as already mentioned, on trying to reduce obesity. Perhaps the best advice of all was given in this House some years ago--moderation in all things and not too much of that either.

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