Yesterday, the House of Lords apparently had nothing better to do than hold a lengthy, extraordinarily silly debate about the best way to open a tin of corned beef.

The (unelected) Science and Innovation Minister, Lord [David] Sainsbury of Turville (he of the supermarkets and the £1.5billion fortune), was questioned at length about whether the Government would “encourage the food and packaging industries to redesign food containers and cans, for example those containing corned beef.”

The question derived from the fact that the DTI announced this week that it will no longer be collecting statistics on “the nature and causes of home and leisure accidents. The last installment of the “Home Accident Surveillance System” is an endlessly-amusing document that tabulates the causes of injuries reported in accident and emergency departments by (frequently-unlikely) implements involved (PDF). On page 73 we see that an estimated 3,091 domestic injuries per year are attributed to corned beef tins, leading to the debate in the Lords about “Food Containers – Safety”.

The result was this Pythonesque exchange. Quoth the noble peers:

Lord Sainsbury: 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: 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: 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.


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: 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. </blockquote>

Meanwhile, in the other place, Debra Shipley MP introduced a private members bill to ban advertising of junk food on children’s television. The bill “is unlikely to become law due to a lack of parliamentary time.”