Food Container Safety

The House of Lords, 6th May 2003, 2:53pm. (Hansard)

Lord Harrison asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether, in the light of the De­part­ment of Trade and Industry’s 23rd annual report of the home and leisure ac­ci­dent sur­veil­lance system en­ti­tled Working for a Safer World, they will en­cour­age the food and pack­ag­ing in­dus­tries to re­design food con­tain­ers and cans, for example those con­tain­ing corned beef.

The Par­lia­men­tary Under-Secretary of State, De­part­ment of Trade and In­dus­try (Lord Sains­bury of Turville): My Lords, my de­part­ment has not taken any spe­cific actions with the pack­ag­ing in­dus­try as a result of the 23rd HASS report. However, based on in­for­ma­tion from earlier edi­tions of the report, during the 1990s my de­part­ment pub­lished a number of re­search reports aimed at helping man­u­fac­tur­ers improve the design of cans and make them easier for con­sumers to open safely. Sta­tis­tics show that the number of ac­ci­dents from corned beef cans has been de­clin­ing and they are not a major cause of ac­ci­dents now. Packaging, as with many products, is covered by the pro­vi­sions of the general product safety directive, which imposes a general safety duty on it.

Lord Harrison: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but does he un­der­stand that many of us still believe corned beef tins and, indeed, other va­ri­eties of pull-top cans, to be in­her­ently unsafe? Will he ensure that his de­part­ment pursues its in­ter­est in helping to have those re­designed by the food and pack­ag­ing industry? Will he also note that the report shows that some 6 million of us each year attend ac­ci­dent and emer­gency units in hospital, and that some 90 chil­dren under the age of five die as a result of ac­ci­dents at home? Is he sat­is­fied that the Government’s ac­ci­dent task­force has suf­fi­cient re­sources and powers to reduce the in­ci­dence of these ac­ci­dents at home?

Lord Sains­bury of Turville: My Lords, I am de­lighted that the noble Lord has asked me a Ques­tion about corned beef cans. I have been an­swer­ing ques­tions about them all my life and I regard them as one of my real areas of expertise.

There is a real problem about corned beef cans. They have a trape­zoidal shape and a key kind of ring. The DTI has done much work on this issue in giving further in­struc­tions and also special coat­ings for the cans which enable the corned beef to be ex­tracted more easily. There has in fact been a re­mark­able drop in ac­ci­dents with corned beef cans. They have fallen from 8,720 per year out of 26,000 ac­ci­dents caused by all tins to 3,091 out of 19,000. I should point out that the really dra­matic de­crease came after 1997.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether ring-pull cans are safer than or­di­nary cans which are opened with a tin-opener? Which is safest?

Lord Sains­bury of Turville: My Lords, I am not sure that I can give exact details between the dif­fer­ent kinds of can, but the one which is used for corned beef is par­tic­u­larly dis­liked by people, mainly because they lose the keys and then attack the corned beef can with what­ever is at hand. If the noble Baroness would like to pursue this point, I can prob­a­bly find her some de­tailed statistics.

Lord Razzall: My Lords, will the Min­is­ter allow me to rescue him from his world­wide ex­per­tise on the topic of corned beef and ask a slightly wider question? Does he agree that, taking the nub of the ques­tion of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison—working for a safer world—a re­duc­tion in the use of prod­ucts which have an impact on the en­vi­ron­ment would be highly desirable? What steps are the Gov­ern­ment taking to ensure that clear, ver­i­fied in­for­ma­tion is avail­able to con­sumers on the en­vi­ron­men­tal impact of such products?

Lord Sains­bury of Turville: My Lords, that goes wider than my knowl­edge of corned beef; it strays into a com­pletely dif­fer­ent de­part­ment and area—the impact on the environment. This report is very specif­i­cally about record­ing ac­ci­dents which take place in ac­ci­dent and emer­gency de­part­ments of hospitals. The impact on the en­vi­ron­ment is a totally dif­fer­ent question.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, is the Min­is­ter aware that if, having taken off one end of the corned beef can with the twisty thing provided—assuming that you have not lost it—you then take a common, ordinary, house­hold tin-opener and take off the other end, it is very easy to push the corned beef out of the tin without any danger to yourself?

Lord Sains­bury of Turville: Yes, my Lords, I was aware of that, and I am very glad that that es­sen­tial piece of in­for­ma­tion is passed round for the benefit of this House.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, does the Min­is­ter agree, as the noble Baroness has demonstrated, that most home ac­ci­dents are avoidable, arising out of carelessness, and that there­fore paying at­ten­tion is one of the best cures?

Lord Sains­bury of Turville: My Lords, I totally agree. These sta­tis­tics on ac­ci­dents are ex­tremely fascinating; they prove that the British public can use prac­ti­cally any­thing in this world to hurt them­selves with. It is un­der­stand­able that there are an es­ti­mated 55 ac­ci­dents a year from putty, while tooth­paste ac­counts for 73. However, it is rather bizarre that 823 ac­ci­dents are es­ti­mated to be the result of letters and envelopes. It is dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand how they can be the cause of such serious plight. I agree with the noble Baroness that it would be helpful if people paid careful attention.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, does the Min­is­ter agree that sardine tins and anchovy tins are also very dif­fi­cult to open with their tin-openers?

Lord Sains­bury of Turville: My Lords, I think I will just agree with the noble Baroness on that question.