Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


MEMORANDUM 4

Submitted by the Association of Public Analysts

1. BACKGROUND

  The Food Standards Committee has agreed to examine and comment on the adequacy, effectiveness and the practicability of proposals contained in the draft Food Standards Bill published in January, 1999.

2. PUBLIC ANALYSTS

  Public Analysts are statutory analytical scientists required to be appointed by Local Authorities in the United Kingdom for the purpose of undertaking the official chemical analysis and the examination of foodstuffs. To be appointed, the Public Analyst must possess the post graduate qualification of Mastership in Chemical Analysis awarded by the Royal Society of Chemistry after searching examination. This qualification is prescribed by, or by subordinate legislation made under, the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Agriculture Act 1970.

  There are 31 Public Analysts' Laboratories throughout the United Kingdom employing a total of about 600 staff. Public Analysts are represented professionally by both the Royal Society of Chemistry and by the Association of Public Analysts.

  The training of Public Analysts includes food analysis and food science, food technology, microbiology, law, agricultural matters and the interpretation of data obtained during analysis and examination. It is in the capacity of representing the views of official enforcement scientists that the Association makes these comments.

3. PREVIOUS EVIDENCE

  The Association of Public Analysts has already presented evidence, both written and verbal, to the Agriculture Committee of the House of Commons in December, 1997, and this evidence was concerned with Food Safety. The evidence also dealt with proposals for the establishment of a Food Standards Agency.

4. THE DRAFT BILL

  The Association warmly supports the establishment of an independent Food Standards Agency as described in the draft Bill and notes that the draft Bill is designed to interact with the Food Safety Act 1990 and the Agriculture Act 1970 and to provide as a function of the Agency a mechanism for monitoring the enforcement activities of Local Authorities to ensure that their work is appropriate to risk and to need. This is important.

  It is the experience of the Association that throughout the United Kingdom the levels of enforcement, including the analysis of examination of official samples, varies from less than 0.1 sample per thousand head of population to up to three or more samples per thousand head of population. A minimum level of activity must be established and this must be enforced by the Agency in order to maintain public confidence and indeed the competence of those enforcing food law. Practice it must be said makes perfect, whilst lack of practice is debilitating. So too are the precipitate reductions of sampling programmes which result from some Local Authorities seeking to "balance the books" when shortage of revenue results in some functions having to be reduced dramatically. Familiarity with the work entailed, and especially in the cases of continuing and developing work skills breeds expertise. It is such expertise which must be the backbone of the skill base necessary for enforcement.

  Other proposed functions of the Agency, such as developing policy, providing advice acquiring information and making observations on food and agricultural matters, are important in making sure that the Agency is able to operate from a position of knowledge and ability.

  The Association is concerned that the provisions of the draft Bill affording the powers to enter and inspect any laboratories appear, by the phrasing of the clause further to distance the Official Laboratories from the Local Authorities by subordinating them and their roles. The Association is recommending in response to the consultation on the draft Bill that the words "laboratory or similar" are deleted from clause 15, (5) (b), also at the end of the clause the word "and", and that after adding to the end of clause 15 (5) (c) the word "and" a further clause be added to clause 15 (5) namely "(d) any Official Laboratory".

  By so amending the draft Bill the roles of the Official Laboratories are not further subordinated to the enforcement Authorities but are clearly seen for what they have to be, an independent primary function essential for the effective protection of consumers and the responsible food industry serving the needs of the United Kingdom.

  The general principles of clauses 14 and 15 are strongly supported by the Association.

5. SCIENCE, OFFICIAL SCIENTISTS AND THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY

  We have previously commented to the Agriculture Committee that during the Official Inspections of food producing and handling premises the official scientists, that is the Public Analysts and the Food Examiners all too often are never involved and remain confined to their laboratories. Scientific input and involvement at the place of inspection often is necessary to ensure both better interpretation of those aspects of risk assessment revealed by the inspection and requiring a scientific input and also enlightening the scientists involved, who then are the better able to guide samples through the laboratory to ensure the relevance of the analyses made.

  We support clause 12 of the draft Bill and note that nutrition, which has long-term effects on the health of consumers, is listed in this clause as dietary behaviour.

  Science must not be confined to laboratories!

6. FUNDING OF PUBLIC ANALYSTS

  Unlike the funding of the Food Examiners, who mainly are based in the Public Health Laboratory Service and so are able to provide a service which appears to be "free" to Local Authorities, the funding of Public Analysts comes via a variety of mechanisms, depending on the relationship of the Public Analyst with her or his particular Local Authority. This results in enormous variations in the levels of service provision which is available throughout the United Kingdom.

  At one extreme annually one Local Authority submits less than 0.1 sample per thousand head of population to their appointed Public Analyst, whereas other Local Authorities take and submit in excess of three samples per thousand head of population. Such discrepancies and the extreme variations in public protection that result are in need of the proposed overview and positive direction that the Agency promises.

  The experiences of many fee paid Public Analysts leads them to conclude that some Local Authorities consider the roles of Public Analysts not to be a core activity to be seriously and responsibly funded. Such remunerations are viewed merely as "windfalls" adding some funds and work to laboratories otherwise fully funded and able to trade freely and quite unrestricted by any Statutory limitations aimed at preventing conflicts of interest. Such limitations do exist. The fact that Public Analyst functions are the core activity of these laboratories needs to be recognised. Funding must be responsibly deployed. Funding must not be subjected to simple minded cost comparisons made in the belief that price alone for fragmented service assures that "best value" is and is shown to be being achieved, whilst all the ancillary functions of the laboratory and the very real costs of maintenance of Accreditation are ignored.

7. PROPOSALS FOR A LEVY SCHEME

  Proposals for a scheme for a levy to support the funding of the Agency have been made. Food retailers and caterers will be charged a levy presently suggested to be about £90. The Association believes that this charge is modest and having supported the Agency it will leave for the Local Authorities collecting the levy at most a few pounds per premise, collectively quite insufficient to pay for an inspector able to inspect the premises at intervals of less than at least three years.

  In comparison, Public Analysts' laboratories have to fund the costs of Accreditation wholly unsupported by any grants from Central Government and in addition have to maintain Accreditation, facing the charges levied by the Accreditation Bodies. Annually these charges are typically about £4,000. In addition, Public Analysts have to pay for performance assessment schemes costing of the order of £2,500 a year plus, of course, the very much greater laboratory bench time costs involved in demonstrating competence, all this whether or not Local Authorities do take and submit samples.

8. CONCLUSIONS

  The Association would refer the Committee to our previous evidence to the Agriculture Committee and enclosed are copies of the Annual Report and Statistics[1] for the Year ending 1997.

March 1999

  The report for 1998 is still in preparation and copies will be submitted as soon as completed.

  The Association emphasises the scope of work undertaken by Public Analysts and the evidence of the still declining use being made of Public Analysts by Local Authorities unguided by effective Central Government direction.

  Public Analysts are qualified and are able to provide competent and necessary advice and services in a wide range of food and agricultural matters. This broad role is essential if official scientists are to continue to cope with not only the predictable but also the unexpected. Science must adapt to the problems being faced. It is inappropriate to think that the problems can be adapted to the solutions capable of being provided. The continuing development in the 31 laboratories of available analytical techniques and expertise in an appallingly under-funded and often unfairly and inappropriately under used service says much about the professional responsibility of Public Analysts and their dedication to supporting the Public weal.

  Should the Committee so wish, representatives of the Association would be very pleased to attend before the Committee to explain and develop any of the matters mentioned above and to deal with any other germane matters by way of oral evidence.

  The Association is grateful for the opportunity to assist the Committee.

1. CLAUSE 15 OF THE DRAFT BILL

  The concept of public analysts and the PHLS laboratories being simply subordinate "on tap" scientific services for the non-scientific enforcement officers to use if and when they may feel it necessary has been promoted by some officials in enforcement-supported and encouraged by the continuing lack of any effective guidance from MAFF. To continue down this road would be to fatally weaken the knowledge and skill base of local authority food enforcement and hence its effectiveness. Despite assertions from some of their members, even the most experienced EHOs and TSOs do not have all the training and all of the knowledge needed to run enforcement alone. This is recognised by many who take a "corporate" view, but a minority with narrow professional viewpoints have some support. The Public Analyst and his qualifications, coupled with the comprehensive quality assurance regimes placed upon official laboratories, are creatures of the Food Safety Act and its predecessors. This is for a reason. They exist to supply expertise, knowledge and a reliability that is not available from others in the enforcement system, others who have different and also essential skills. All PA laboratories meet the EC requirements for official laboratories. This must be positively recognised, identified and supported as such. The official laboratories are not at present properly recognised. As a result of the Byzantine process by which they receive funding, and the jealousies that exist, they are undermined financially, both in terms of investment and day to day use. Furthermore, training initiatives of the profession are wholly ignored by local government.

  Against this background, we strongly recommend one vital change to the drafting of the bill.

  In clause 15, (5)(b), delete the words "laboratory or similar" and the word "and" from the end of the clause, and after adding the word "and" to the end of clause 15(5)(c), add a new clause 15(5)(d) "any Official Laboratory". This will categorise the Official Laboratories as the special service providers they are, and the vehicles through which Public Analysts and Food Examiners can deliver their expertise.

2. FINANCING BRITAIN'S NEEDS FOR PUBLIC ANALYST SERVICES

  Mr Martyn Jones MP has tabled questions in the House, some of which relate to the amount of money channelled by local authorities firstly to their food enforcement work and within that to their food analysis duties. We believe that answers given will show how very little of the monies in the system actually reach their intended target. We do not believe that it is in the public interest for funding to be so insecure and variable as our profession finds it to be. We have urged that the PA Service should, like the PHLS, be funded centrally so that local authorities' financial vagaries should no longer have the year on year effects leading to the unrestrained attrition the service has seen in recent years. Almost without exception, those authorities which use an external PA laboratory (whether provided by another local authority or privately) have cut their spending over the last decade. It is quite clear that this is an easier budget head to trim than those that involve internal staff, salaries and premises which are the direct responsibility of the local authorities.

3. THE OFFICIAL REFEREE ROLE

  The Laboratory of the Government Chemist functioning as Official Referee has expertise that is inherent in the LGC. But the complexities of the modern food industry reflected in the skills and interpretational skills in the food industry and its research associations extend beyond the scope and function even of an organisation as large and well endowed as the LGC.

  There is no doubt that LGC has many state of the art analytical facilities, and the associated interpretational skills. However there are other areas where it is unreasonable to expect the LGC to maintain comprehensive interpretational skills across all aspects of an arena as complex and diverse as food production and supply which in the UK alone is a £75,000 million per year industry.

  Therefore the suggestion has been made, in order to protect the position and integrity of the LGC, that the Government Chemist function should be supported by an official committee established to draw upon expertise from the Food Standards Agency, food industry research associations, enforcement analysts, academe and the LGC. This would allow identification of those areas where the appropriate expertise necessary for the referee function lies within LGC and its staff, and because the law provides that the Government Chemist can pass the referee functions to another, to identify when that needs to be done, and to whom such a function may in specific instances be devolved.

  The net effect of this proposal is to reinforce the status of the Government Chemist where the function is discharged by the Government Chemist, and to safeguard the Government Chemist against criticism should the function be passed to another.

  The official referee committee would need to be aware of the commercial interests served by the LGC and by being aware would identify those areas where conflict of interest might be thought to exist, as well as establishing those areas where interests coincide but do not result in conflicts. The same considerations would apply with respect to those individuals and organisations to whom the official function would be passed when found to be necessary.

  When the LGC was a government owned laboratory, it was above the risks of conflicts of interest arising because its role was as chemist to the government. Now, the function of Government Chemist is one part of a large commercial organisation (50 per cent larger in the past year, due mainly to commercial acquisitions). As such the independence of the LGC in discharging the function of the official referee needs to be demonstrated because it can no longer be taken for granted merely because the role is established by statute. This will be facilitated by the guidance and advice which would be delivered by the official referee committee. It would not matter that some members of the committee might have commercial interests, because these would be known and recognised in reaching decisions.

  There may even be a case for re-considering the economics of the official referee function. The cost to the Nation of maintaining this function to deal with about 30 to 40 cases a year is considerable. The figures passed to the Turner committee by the LGC show that typical costs of the Government Chemist analysis in referee cases are 20 and more times the costs of the Public Analysis. Some of this expense must be involved in maintaining infrequently used skills as well as establishing necessary skills when confronted with novel demands. If of course, the facilities are also being used for commercial work, then perhaps such overheads are shared between commercial client and taxpayer, but then potential conflict of interest arises and the need for the protection of the statutory duty by the proposed official referee committee becomes apparent.

4. FLEP

  Last Monday it became clear that this body was not previously known at least to some of the members of the committee. FLEP is an acronym for Food Law Enforcement Practitioners, and is a Europe wide body set up about 10 years ago by leading enforcement scientists in Europe. From its inception, the UK has been represented by Mr A J Harrison OBE, a former member of the food advisory committee and until his recent retirement Public Analyst for the County of Avon and Bristol. Other UK representatives have since joined, nevertheless it is important to maintain scientific representation by scientists with direct experience of the scientific requirements of enforcement. This accords with the scientific involvements of representatives from other member states. Its recommendations on Official Food Enforcement Laboratories are enclosed for your consideration.

March 1999


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