Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


Health promotion, nutrition and labelling

25. The main aim of the Agency as laid out in Clause 1, subsection (2), of the draft Bill is to protect the public health "from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food." The Government intends that the phrase "other interests of consumers in relation to food" which occurs throughout the Bill (Clauses 9, 12, 18) will cover food standards, in particular composition and labelling.[35] Two key issues arose from the evidence we took in relation to this phrase.

26. Firstly, with regard to the Agency's role in relation to nutrition, the Government has not accepted in full the James report recommendation that the Agency should have a major role in developing policy on the nutritional quality of diets and their impact on health.[36] The White Paper made clear that the Agency will monitor, and provide factual information on, the nutrient content of food and "provide advice on the diet as a whole",[37] but went little further than this. This has been carried forward into the legislative proposals, and there was concern among some witnesses that nutrition "is very much underplayed in the draft Bill"[38]: some called for the phrases "nutrition and diet" and "food standards" to be specifically included in the text of the Bill.[39]

27. Dr Mike Rayner of the British Heart Foundation in evidence before us stressed the importance of nutrition on the public's health. He pointed out that whereas "cases of food poisoning [deaths per year] are in the hundreds or less than hundreds" there are "around 30,000 premature deaths from cardiovascular disease due to poor diet in this country"[40] and there are roughly the same number again of deaths from cancer, which can also be due—at least in part—to poor diet. We agree that if the Agency is to protect the public's health, it is vital that it has a remit in nutrition and dietary advice. We believe that the Agency should be the body responsible for setting the nutritional and dietary standards to be applied by health departments and health promotion agencies.[41]

28. The Agency's role in health promotion was the second area of concern which arose during questioning. The Government is proposing that the Agency's role in nutrition is limited to the provision of advice on the nutritional content of food and on the components of a balanced diet. There was some dispute as to whether this constituted health promotion. The Minister for Public Health made clear that she saw the Agency's function as being "principally health protection rather than health promotion".[42] The health education bodies stated that the Agency's role in health education was to provide them with a "reliable scientific basis on which to proceed".[43] They did not anticipate that its establishment would affect their role and statutory position and were happy that there was a proliferation of bodies with responsibility for health promotion. Professor Tannahill, Chief Executive of the Health Education Board for Scotland, commented:

"The promotion of health ... is something that involves a wide, multi-agency, multi-sectoral effort. ... We are all involved in the business of promoting the health of the public and we all have parts to play."[44]

29. Although health promotion is not specifically mentioned in the Bill it is intended that the Agency will provide advice on nutrition, on the handling of food and on the safety of food. As it is not possible to separate the promotion of healthy diets from the promotion of other areas of a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise, there is clearly an overlap with some of the current health promotion responsibilities of the Department of Health and of the health education bodies in particular. We are concerned that the responsibility for an overall, consistent food-related health promotion message is unclear. We also consider that the impact in this area of the establishment of the Agency does not appear to have been as well thought through as it should have been. We recommend that the Government clarifies its intention as to which bodies will be responsible and accountable for each aspect of health promotion. We also recommend that more strategic thinking is done on the impact that the Agency will have on the various bodies which have responsibility for health promotion.

30. The draft Bill does clearly state that "other interests of consumers in relation to food" includes the Agency's remit with regard to labelling.[45] The clear labelling of ingredients and of the nutritional value of food is vital to enable the consumer to choose a healthy diet and it goes hand in hand with dietary advice. Indeed we welcome the Minister for Public Health's hope that "the Agency would act to make the information about the nutrient content of food more consumer friendly".[46] However the current legislation governing labelling of course emanates largely from the EU, and Mike Rayner expressed the opinion of many when in evidence before us he stated that the EU Labelling Directive "is now out-of-date" and "needs a lot of work done on it to bring it into the 21st century".[47] We will later touch upon the Agency's European and other international remits and activities, but it should clearly be an important priority for the Agency in its first few years to attempt to bring clarify to the confused legislative situation vis à vis labelling.

31. Much work is also being done on voluntary codes of practice relating to the labelling of food. The National Food Alliance, the Food and Drink Federation and the Local Authorities Co-ordinating Body on Food and Trading Standards (LACOTS) are for example taking forward a proposal for such a code with regard to health claims on food.[48] This is clearly something which the current Government should be encouraging—if not instigating—and which must become another priority for the Agency. Such codes in the field of labelling will only become more important, until the legislative framework is updated satisfactorily after negotiations in Brussels, especially upon account of the increasing use of health claims for food, the proliferation of functional foods and the introduction of novel foods, such as those containing GMOs, in the market.[49]

32. There is also a potential hole in the remit of the Agency in this area. As Jeanette Longfield of the National Food Alliance pointed out to us in evidence, "the word 'advertising' [is not] mentioned in the draft Bill anywhere".[50] It does not appear to be mentioned in the explanatory notes for the Bill, the introduction to the draft Bill, nor indeed in the White Paper. We would like the Government to explain what role in food advertising the Agency will have. We recommend that the role should be one of providing expert advice to the Advertising Standards Authority and other relevant bodies.

Enforcement and monitoring

33. It is perhaps in the field of enforcement of food law, particularly with regard to the monitoring of local enforcement of food safety and standards legislation, that the Agency—on a practical level—is most expected to make a real difference. The James report made a number of recommendations in this regard:[51] that the Agency should be responsible for co-ordinating, monitoring and enforcing local government enforcement activities, that it should have statutory powers to require local authorities to carry out certain work; and that it should also have reserve powers to take enforcement action itself, as well as to direct enforcement activities in certain areas. The response to these recommendations was generally warm, and the Government set out in its White Paper the way in which it would be taking these recommendations, and some other matters, forward in its proposals for legislation.[52]

34. Clauses 14 and 15 of the draft Bill express the central legislative aim of the Government in this area. Clause 14 empowers the Agency to monitor, set standards for and audit the performance of enforcement authorities, while Clause 15 gives the Agency specific powers to assist it in carrying out these activities. The vast majority of memoranda received by the Government and by us is broadly supportive of the content of these Clauses. This support was particularly strong from enforcement authorities themselves.[53] A spokesman for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health said before the Committee that "the one thing..[they]..would like to see come out of the... Agency is an increase in central guidance, to equalise standards and to aid consistency of enforcement".[54] A representative of the Institute of Trading Standards pointed to the "lack of auditing or scrutiny by MAFF and the Department of Health"[55] in expectation that the Agency would introduce that necessary element of audit to the enforcement process. Local authorities and in particular its co-ordinating body, LACOTS, were a little more reserved. The Local Government Association (LGA) representative who gave evidence before us said that his organisation would "like to see the ...Agency in terms of its surveillance, observation, monitoring and being very much a backstop".[56] The LACOTS representative added that already "a great deal has been done to promote consistency and advice",[57] but that the Agency could obviously add to this and assist LACOTS in its current work in this area.

35. There is inevitably a difference between how practitioners in the fields of food safety and standards and those who manage and fund their activities feel about the Agency and its remit in enforcement. Local authorities are anxious lest the powers proposed to be given to the Agency in the Bill are taken as a sign of general local authority insufficiency in enforcement work. Enforcement practitioners would welcome the proposed powers more openly as giving them the guidance and consistency they have often asked for and as drawing attention to the importance of their work in food safety with the possibility of a consequent increase in resources.[58] We are impressed however at the way in which both sides in this question are obviously keen to see the Agency work effectively and in mutual co-operation with existing bodies.

36. There were however some caveats expressed in evidence to us concerning these proposed powers of the Agency, as well as a number of detailed suggestions as to where the Agency most needs to look to assist it in encouraging high standards of enforcement. These standards of enforcement to be issued by the Agency should not be seen as over-prescriptive and should take account of the diversity of the industry, and the disproportionate burden on smaller businesses, without in any way compromising those standards.[59] Enforcement techniques can also vary from authority to authority without those techniques and the standards they uphold not therefore being uniformly high. Indeed the Agency will no doubt be strongly advised by its advisory committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to uphold the principle of reasonable regional variation. The LGA for example expressed to us a desire to "see the maximum amount of partnership trying to draw up agreed standards".[60] Certainly the Agency should view local authorities and their enforcement teams as a valuable resource in assessing best practice and the proper standards for enforcement.[61] Many local authorities already manage their enforcement resources well and deliver a very high quality enforcement service; it would obviously be foolish for the Agency not to consider the experiences of such authorities in drawing up such standards. The spokesmen for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) suggested that it might even be helpful for local authority staff to be seconded for short periods on to the staff of the Agency:[62] this clearly seems a good idea. We consider this secondment would benefit both local authority and Agency personnel alike, and recommend the Government give some thought as to how such secondment might operate.

37. The Association of Public Analysts expressed some concern that the Agency in setting standards might consider procedures to be a significantly more important matter for examination than personnel when—in its opinion—the proper training of enforcement staff is as vital to high quality enforcement as the rigour of the procedures they follow.[63] We recommend that the Agency should have a role in setting standards for training. This point of personnel and training was touched upon again in oral evidence in two other respects. The LGA raised the issue of the differing approaches a local authority could take to the use and therefore training of its environmental health officers.[64] Some authorities train all officers to a standard that will allow them to cover the whole field of environmental health—which of course goes much wider than food safety and standards to embrace such issues as noise pollution—while others develop a more specialised approach, which has the obvious merit of allowing inspectors to have for example a better knowledge of food safety requirements than would otherwise be the case. There is merit in both systems: the approach taken by a local authority is often dictated by resources and by the balance of environmental health challenges within its area of operation. The Agency must obviously take such differences into consideration.

38. Another anxiety of local authorities concerns resources: this is a matter that we shall touch upon later when dealing with the funding of the Agency and the proposals for the levy. There has been some concern that higher standards across the board, set by the Agency and enforced by it, will result in extra costs which many local authorities will not be able to meet.[65] The resultant failure might in fact lead to a driving down of standards rather than a driving up.[66] The extent to which local authorities might be able to benefit from the levy in being able to retain a proportion of the sums collected for enforcement activity will vary and must be fairly calculated.[67] The principle is obviously welcomed by local authorities and by enforcement practitioners. One hope of the practitioners is that the standards set by the Agency will be sufficiently clear and carry sufficient authority to force the hand of local authorities into putting extra resources into enforcement.

39. This leads to perhaps the ultimate power of the Agency set out in the Bill—to remove food safety enforcement from a local authority that has failed to meet the required standards. As the Minister for Food Safety stated in evidence before us: the "Agency has got the powers in this Bill to withdraw from that local authority the power to carry out that function [of enforcement]. It has got the power to say to another local authority: 'Would you like to subcontract and do the job for this authority down the road that is not up to the job'".[68] This "ultimate sanction"[69] will obviously play its part in ensuring that local authorities are sufficiently mindful of their requirement in this regard. Local authorities are of course anxious that such powers are not used lightly—that they are indeed seen as powers of "last resort".[70] Moreover there is some concern that this power is going to be used by the Agency rather than by the appropriate minister upon the advice of the Agency. As the LGA spokesman pointed out to the Committee, "if a function is to be removed from a democratically elected local authority...then it seems to...[be]...something that the Minister obviously on advice ought to do directly".[71] This power is of course something that the Secretary of State can currently do under the Food Safety Act 1990: it is simply transferred to the Agency under Part I of Schedule 2 to the draft Bill. We recommend, however, that the final decision to invoke this power should remain with the Secretary of State having received advice from the Agency.

40. It will be the auditing and monitoring activity of the Agency that will determine whether or not the ultimate sanction described above has to be taken. As we have seen, Clauses 14 and 15 provide the context and specific powers for these activities. The Agency will be able to request papers and records, enter and inspect premises in connection with audit or monitoring activities. The Agency will be able to issue guidance to particular authorities specifying action that could be taken by an authority to improve its enforcement performance, and may direct an authority to publish information relating to that guidance and to notify the Agency of action taken a result of that guidance. In practice, it is expected that reasonable time will be given to local authorities to respond to the results of any audit made known to it by the Agency, before such directions are considered. [72]

41. The prime concern that local authorities have with regard to this audit and monitoring activity is that the targets against which such activities will take place—and which will also inform the standards set by the Agency—shall not be unreasonably high and will be appropriate to the aims of both the Agency and enforcement authorities. The LGA expressed a desire for a "basket of performance indicators" to be taken into account "which measure different things in different ways, so that you can get an overall aggregate feel for the quality of the service"[73] concerned. There is a general feeling that concentrating too much on any given target will distort performance and indeed distort the target.[74] For example, it is possible that statutory notification of laboratory results would make the apparent incidence of food poisoning higher (fewer than one in a 100 cases of food poisoning are currently notified). It is certainly clear that the indicators used should not be only mechanistic, procedural ones—the number of inspections, for example: neither should they be entirely related to the outputs, to reported cases of food poisoning, as another example. It is evident that only multi-disciplinary indicators, based on best practice and developed by the Agency in conjunction with local authorities, will be suitable for use by the Agency in monitoring local authority enforcement sufficiently accurately to justify some of the steps that it might have to take if an authority is rightly singled out as repeatedly failing to meet the reasonable standards set.

35  Draft legislation p.14. Back
36  Food Standards Agency: an interim proposal by Professor Philip James, 30 April 1997-Part II, 5a. Back
37  WP para 5.11. Back
38  Q.805. Back
39  Q.804; Ev. (Vol. II) p.37, para. 5. Back
40  Q.214. Back
41  The Food Standards Agency: consultation on draft legislation, Cm 4249, January 1999-note on Clause 1. Back
42  Q.613. Back
43  Q.199. Back
44  Q.210. Back
45  Draft legislation p.14. Back
46  Q.35. Back
47  Q.225. Back
48  Q.221. Back
49  Q.240-1. Back
50  Q.232. Back
51  Food Standards Agency: an interim proposal by Professor Philip James, 30 April 1997-Part II, 5(l). Back
52  The Food Standards Agency: a force for change, Cm 3830, January 1998-paras 3.43-7. Back
53  See, for example, the written memoranda submitted to the Committee by the Local Government Association, by the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, by the Association of Public Analysts and by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health. Back
54  Q.846. Back
55  ibidBack
56  Q.848. Back
57  Q.846. Back
58  Q.863. Back
59  Q.859. Back
60  ibidBack
61  ibidBack
62  Q.849. Back
63  Q.847. Back
64  Q.856. Back
65  Q.863. Back
66  QQ. 865 and 899. Back
67  Q.868. Back
68  Q.49. Back
69  ibidBack
70  Q.859. Back
71  ibidBack
72  The Food Standards Agency: consultation on draft legislation, Cm 4249, January 1999-note on Clause 14. Back
73  Q.878. Back
74  ibidBack

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