Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


Submitted by CWS (The Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd)


  We consider that health issues relating to food, and particularly advice on diet and nutrition should be placed clearly within the remit of the Agency and should be spelled out in the Bill as one of its core responsibilities.


  CWS (The Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd.) employs more than 35,000 people, and its annual sales of £3 billion make it the world's largest consumer co-operative. As a co-operative, we operate within a set of values based on openness, honesty and social responsibility.

  Although perhaps thought of primarily in terms of food retailing, our activities are wide ranging, from funerals (we are the biggest UK-owned undertaker), to finance (through our two subsidiary businesses, The Co-operative bank and CIS, the Co-operative Insurance Society). Our food involvement stretches from plough to plate, as we are Britain's leading farmer, farming over 80,000 acres, while as food retailers we operate in 600 stores ranging in size from convenience stores and village shops to out of town superstores.

  As well as being food retailers in our own right, we carry out a buying, marketing and distribution role for the UK Co-operative Movement as a whole, comprising some 40 independent societies operating over 2,000 food stores and collectively accounting for around 6 per cent of the UK grocery trade.


  3.1 As long ago as 1988, the Co-op called for the establishment of an independent Agency, responsible to a Minister for Food Safety, and with a broad remit extending from ensuring consistency of enforcement, through to addressing consumer education on food issues.

  3.2 In July 1996, we presented our views to the then Shadow Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and these views were later expanded into our submission to Professor James in March 1997 (see page 44 of the James Report), emphasising that the Agency should have a broad but well defined remit, including "health issues".

  3.3 Following publication of the report, and in advance of the White Paper, Bill Shannon, CWS Head of Corporate Affairs, spoke in favour of a wide remit for the Agency on a number of occasions, including a Labour Party Conference Fringe meeting in October 1997, and at an Agra Europe conference in London in November 1997, where the keynote speakers were Jeff Rooker and Tessa Jowell.

  3.4 In August 1998, there were increasing references in the media to an "unholy alliance" of food manufacturers and retailers to narrow the Agency's remit to food safety alone, and to exclude nutrition, labelling and other issues. We made our views clear in a letter to Dr. David Clark on 13 August, pressing for the Agency to embrace all aspects of food policy from microbiological and chemical safety, to environmental impact, and in particular covering nutrition.


  The CWS feels justified in making these points to the Select Committee because of its proven track record in providing consumers with full and usable information with which to make healthy choices.

  4.1 CWS began the voluntary labelling of nutritional information (initially Energy, protein, Carbohydrate and Fat) in 1985. From the start, in the belief that there was no point in supplying information without interpretation, we added qualitative statements (High-Medium-Low) to the figures on the label.

  4.2 In 1993 we sponsored a Nutrition Labelling Forum of consumer and education bodies, as we felt that the Nutrition labelling Directive had lost sight of consumers' needs.

  4.3 The following year we called for more "consumer friendly" labelling, with calories and fat per serving, and a benchmark to allow consumers to monitor their fat intake, in the same way as many people monitor calories.

  4.1 We began introducing this information on our own label products in 1995 and have subsequently announced a wide range of initiatives, from labelling salt content (as well as sodium), to the recent introduction of ingredients labelling on our own brand wines (as well as alcohol units per glass, on which we also led the way).


  5.1 Health issues relating to food, and particularly advice on diet and nutrition, should be placed clearly within the remit of the Agency and should be one of its core responsibilities.

  The FSA should have the duty of meeting the need of consumers for clear, consistent and independent advice on diet and health, and for a food policy aimed at promoting better diet and health. This would fit well with the core function of the Agency, which is to protect public health from risks arising in connection with consumption of food, and in particular to provide advice, information and assistance to the general public in this area.

  It also makes good use of the FSA's status as a body separate from both government and industry, and capable of offering advice without fear or favour.

  5.2 We propose amendments as follows:

  Clause 1(2)

    "and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food and to provide information and advice in relation to diet and health".

  Clause 9(1)(a)

    "or other interests of consumers in relations to food, nutrition and diet".

  Clause 10(1)(a)

    "or other interests of consumer in relation to food, nutrition and diet".

  At present Clauses 9 and 10 give the Agency only one explicit duty—that of developing policy and advice on matters relating to food safety . All other issues fall into the general duty "or other interests of consumers in relation to food". The Notes to Clause 10 (page 18) do not mention diet and health.

  5.3 It is in our opinion not enough to depend on the general duty nor on an assurance in the Introduction to the consultation document (paragraph 23, page 7) that the Agency's functions "will allow it to exercise the role which the White Paper envisaged for it in nutrition policy". Furthermore, this paragraph in the Introduction provides too weak a description of what the Agency's role should be in this area.

  5.4 The Agency should be given explicit duties in this area because Government advice, whether provided by MAFF or by the Department of Health, and however good, has not always been seen as independent and dispassionate. Consumers have, particularly since BSE, been increasingly inclined to regard Government advice as partisan, and therefore have sometimes discounted it.

  5.5 This situation has been made worse by the view often put forward that the scientific evidence on nutrition matters is conflicting. Consumers as a result are confused about what advice they are being offered and how dependable it is and therefore conclude that there is no point in changing their behaviour.

  5.6 In this connection, it is worth recalling that advice from COMA, the Government's most prestigious advisory committee, has sometimes in the past been undermined. An independent FSA would, we believe, be more able to speak out in support of COMA.

  We therefore believe that the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food (COMA) should report to the Agency, which should take over sole responsibility for providing its secretariat, and the agreements laid out in the Notes, Clause 6, pages 16-17 should be rewritten to reflect this, rather than merely giving shared responsibility.


6.1 Enforcement

  We support the Agency being able to monitor, set standards for and audit the performance of, local authority food law enforcement while retaining day-to-day enforcement at local level. However, we do not think this goes far enough if the objective to achieve a more effective and consistent enforcement regime is to be realised.

  The White Paper also indicated that the Government, through discussion with interested parties, would look further at the Home Authority Principle and the role of LACOTS. However, in the Draft Bill there is no reference to the Home Authority Principle nor to the provision of central advice that would play a role in achieving consistency of enforcement.

6.2 Surveillance

  We note the draft Bill allows the Agency to publish information arising from its surveillance programmes. Although the consultation document (page 21) infers it would be ensured such information was not "false, incomplete of misleading", there is no mention of this in the Bill. This needs to be remedied.

  The Bill also needs to make provision for a redress procedure for those who may be wrongly "named and shamed".

6.3 Devolution

  We welcome the Agency being a UK body. However, we note that it will be accountable to the devolved authorities who under the devolution legislation will have responsibility for food safety and standards. We note also that as the devolution legislation is still new and the arrangements in the draft bill require approval from the devolved authorities, the current drafting of the Bill is subject to further review and so may change. It must be ensured that the final legislation still reflects the Agency being a UK-wide body so as there is a consistent approach throughout the UK with no regional difference and/or duplication.

6.4 Wide Remit

  There are a number of other issues we consider should also fall within the remit of the Agency to help ensure that all aspects having a bearing on food safety and standards would be covered. These include issues currently dealt with by the DTI, e.g., Weights and Measures legislation. We also believe the Agency should take responsibility for the environmental impact of food policy, as well as safety and nutrition, and for areas that go further back to the farm, including the impact of animal nutrition on food safety, modern methods of agriculture (including biotechnology), and responsibility for pesticides and veterinary medicines, allowing for evaluations on the basis of need as well as taking into account animal welfare and environmental aspects.


  7.1 We believe the cost of the Agency should be borne by Government, particularly if the consumer is to have full confidence in the Agency's transparency, which would not be the case if the food industry were involved in its financing.

  7.2 It is unfair that only food retailers should pay a levy when others in the food chain, such as food manufacturers are exempt.

  7.3 If the levy is to proceed, setting a flat rate for all food retail premises regardless of size is not fair and will cost the Co-op sector, with its large number of small stores, significantly more than multiples. On the current basis, the proposals will cost the Co-op Movement in the region of £250,000 compared to around £50,000 for the large supermarket groups. The Government's assertion that the costs to a "typical" business is expected to be negligible is ill-founded.

  7.4 In considering the earlier White Paper, we stated that, if there had to be a levy, we preferred a graduated payment although we did not specify whether this should be determined by size, or risk, or some other factor. The Government view is that graduated payments would be too complex and costly to handle, and we agree with this. We therefore believe the only alternative which is both simple and fair is of the cost to be borne by government.

  7.5 We are particularly concerned that there appears to be no "cap" on the levy. The Bill allows for the levy to meet "some or all" of the Agency's costs as well as those for enforcement authorities and so could rise to a much higher level than its initial rate (Clause 23 (2)). Indeed in the explanatory notes to the Bill it is clearly stated that the Government intends, over time, to raise more of the costs of food safety work by levy so this is more than a possibility.

  We therefore wish to argue strongly for a limit to be put on expenditure under clauses 23(2)(a) and (b), and for Clause 23(2)(c) to be deleted.

March 1999

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