Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


Submitted by Dr Richard A E North


  1. The Bill sets the agency objectives it cannot achieve. It may thus be faced with dilemmas similar to those which have confronted Ministers, where it is forced on to the defensive, seeking to explain why it has not acted—or acted effectively (2.02-2.03).

  2. There should be included in the Bill a statutory duty for the Agency to consult with interested parties (which should include food producers) in the formulation of policy, and to involve food producers where necessary (2.04).

  3. The Bill fails to recognise that, in assisting the producer in key areas, it would also improve the lot of the consumer (4.02-4.11). The Quality of information produced by the Agency is paramount. To that effect, a central part of the Agency needs to be an independent, multi-disciplinary review body, charged with the sole function of quality assessment (4.12-4.13).

  4. It will be essential that the Agency consults with industry when offering advice and embodies in its procedures provision for reviewing and amending advice in the light of technical and scientific developments. There should also be provision for a formal challenge of advice given with a statutory right for interested parties to be heard (4.14).

  5. The absorption of the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) will compromise the independence of the Agency. It cannot set its own standards and then monitor its own performance in achieving them. Nor can it monitor other agencies without inviting suspicions that it is seeking to expand its own enforcement activities (5.03-5.07).

  6. There are other agencies responsible for monitoring local authorities. The Agency cannot assume such a role without first clarifying the roles of other bodies (5.07-5.08).

  7. It is essential to review not only quantitative aspects of any enforcement activities, but also qualitative performance. This will require a strong field presence by experienced officials, for which no provision seems to have been made (5.09-5.10).

  8. There is a serious constitutional question in relation to local authority enforcement activities in that unelected members of the Agency may interfere with the decisions of elected public representatives. Directions must be reserved for the minister (5.11-5.12).

  9. There is an urgent need to reform the structure of expert advisory bodies. In the Agency, the opportunity exists to set out statutory requirements for the selection, recruitment of members, their methods of working and other matters relating to their functioning (6.01-6.12).

  10. The effect of the charging regime will be to reduce consumer choice, increase prices and reduce food safety. If the agency is required to improve public health, then the public should pay for it . . . through general taxation (7.01-7.06).


  1.1 This author is a qualified environmental health officer with over 25 years of practical experience of food safety issues, covering all aspects of food production from the farm to the plate. After a local authority appointment as a senior environmental health officer specialising in food hygiene and safety, I worked nationally as an independent food hygiene consultant advising hotel and catering groups on hygiene standards.

  1.2 Additionally, I developed a specialist contract cleaning operation, and took an active role in developing industrial cleaning techniques in food premises, culminating in my writing what is the only current book on cleaning professional kitchens.

  1.3 I have worked in a consultancy role for a commercial company developing disinfectants for food premises, for a chemical manufacturer producing cleaning products for the food industry, and for an equipment manufacturer producing machines for food premises cleaning.

  1.4 In the 1980s, I joined a project management group designing and developing major cook-chill operations, mainly for the NHS, including the development of operational and hygiene strategies. From there, I moved on to work for the egg industry during its troubles in the post-Edwina Currie era and then undertook a five year research project culminating in the award of a PhD following submission of a thesis on the "Quality of Public Sector Food Poisoning Surveillance".

  1.5 Concurrently, and subsequently, I worked for two groups of small abattoir owners, and for specialist cheese makers, representing them on legal and technical issues.

  1.6 I am a registered food hygiene examiner with the Royal Institute of Public Health and Hygiene, and am a frequent lecturer on advanced food hygiene courses. I teach post-graduate students on food safety matters and have recently completed a book for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health on food premises inspection techniques. I am frequently employed as an expert witness in court proceedings and gave evidence to the Fatal Accident Inquiry on the Lanarkshire E. coli outbreak.

  1.7 Currently, I am working on a major (private sector funded) research project on "the management perspective of food-poisoning causation".

  1.8 It should be made clear that I am fundamentally opposed to the concept of a food standards agency. However, since it is clearly the Government's intention to proceed with this venture, this submission is offered with a view to ensuring, as far as is possible, that the agency will be of some value.

  1.9 An analysis of the key provisions of the Bill, and related issues, forms the basis of this submission. Specific issues addressed are: (1) the agency objectives; (2) development of policy; (3) the acquisition and provision of information; (4) setting standards and the monitoring of enforcement action; (5) the role of advisory bodies; and (6) charging.


  2.1 Effectively, the main objectives of the Agency are expressed in Clause 1(2) of the draft Bill, which is as follows:

    The main objective of the Agency in carrying out its functions is to protect public health from risks which arise in connection with the consumption of food (including risks caused by the way in which it is produced and supplied) and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food.

  2.2 There appears to be a fundamental problem in the phrasing of this Clause, in that it sets the agency objectives it cannot achieve. The problem is that the primary responsibility for the production of safe, wholesome food rests with the producers, processors, manufacturers, distributors, etc., of that food. No agency can reach out into the factories, farms and kitchens of the food "industry" to ensure that safe food is produced. At best, external agencies can only create a climate (inter alia through regulation, enforcement and the provision of information) which will encourage the "industry" to produce safe food—and punish its members when they fail to do so.

  2.3 In framing the Agency's objectives thus, the government is in danger of turning the Agency into a hostage to fortune, as it cannot "protect the public health from risks . . . etc., ". With such a broad remit, the Agency may be seen as (and, in fact, will be) assuming responsibility for something which it cannot achieve. When or if failures occur, it may wrongly be criticised for failure to act in matters over which it has no control. Without the power to contain risks, the Agency may then be faced with dilemmas similar to those which have confronted ministers, where it is forced on to the defensive, seeking to explain why it has not acted—or acted effectively—with the attendant loss of credibility.

  2.4 Without in any way seeking to weaken the remit of the Agency, therefore, this author suggests that the Clause might be better framed in terms of encouraging and promoting the production of safe food. And rather than "protecting" the interests of consumers in relation to food, it might best address consumer needs by representing their interests, notwithstanding that the true representatives of the "consumers" are their elected Members of Parliament.


  3.1 It is axiomatic that the development of (good) policy with regard to food safety will require accurate, timely and complete (or as complete as possible) information, especially if policy initiatives result in legislation or other control models which require industry participation or compliance.

  3.2 Policy development should be regarded as a free-flowing process in that the result of any such development should represent that which is both necessary and practicable. To that effect, the Committee is enjoined to take note of the comments of the 1989 House of Commons Agriculture Committee (Salmonella in Eggs) and, in particular page xxi (paragraph 73) the relevant part of which read:

    "Whatever legislation is passed by Parliament, a problem as complex as salmonella will only be solved if there is a co-operative approach on the ground: the Government cannot simply lay down rules and punish people for breaking them".

  3.3 The essence of co-operation is extensive (and meaningful) consultation with all affected organisations, including producers of food. This is not a matter of favouring the producer over and above the interests of the consumer but a pragmatic, intelligent strategy for enhancing consumer safety.

  3.4 However, in the consultation document, there is a paucity of reference to any relationships with food producers. Yet without the active involvement (and support) of food producers, it is unlikely that policy initiatives can be successful. Therefore, there should be included in the Bill a statutory duty for the Agency to consult with interested parties (which should include food producers) in the formulation of policy, and to involve food producers where necessary.


  4.1 In pursuit of it's objectives, it is clear from the draft Bill that the major thrust of the Agency's activities is focused on the provision of information, assistance and advice. Nevertheless, the emphasis is very much on the provision of information to government and public authorities, and to the public. Provision of information and advice to the producers of food is not specifically mentioned except in terms of conveying "information and developments in food science . . .".

  4.2 However, in relation to microbiological hazards, the food industry is faced with constantly changing threats. New pathogens—or variations on existing pathogens—are constantly emerging, and changes and developments in processes constantly involve the new risks. Therefore, it is essential that the "industry" is fully appraised of developments in the epidemiology of food-borne disease, comprising accurate, well-presented and timely information, with which to develop and refine control models. Of particular value are accurate data on food poisoning causation, drawn from food poisoning investigations.

  4.3 Moreover, if such information is conveyed to the food industry, most responsible food producers will respond positively.

  4.4 This much was put by this author to the House of Commons Agriculture Committee in oral evidence on 15 December 1993 (Report, page 144) when, as a representative of the egg industry, I told members:

    ". . . We continually ask for information. We continually put a lot of money and time and effort into trying to analyse that information fairly and we find over the years—and it is a progression over the years—that the availability of information now is less by a substantial degree that it ever was . . .. There is so little information now compared with a few years ago that it is valueless. So in fact the authorities, far from actually increasing our sum of the information, are actually closing down all our avenues of information and we are less informed than we ever have been, so that in response we try, but we find this glass wall, this brick wall, preventing us getting near the information.

    If we get good informtion and we know what to do, we will direct our members to whatever is appropriate, reasonable and scientific in terms of control. What we cannot tolerate is being fed spoonfuls of information which may or may not be correct based on data which almost certainly is skewed by authorities we do not trust. That is the situation we are in".

  4.5 Six years on, the situation is hardly different and it is in the provision of information useful to the industry that the Agency could make the difference. However, in my PhD thesis (1995), I carried out an assessment of the "Quality of Public Sector Food Poisoning Surveillance in England and Wales". In this I referred to work by US researchers Bryan, Bartleson, Cook, et al (1991), who had written that surveillance is needed:

    . . . to identify relevant public health issues, new hazards, information on risk assessment and factors which had contributed to outbreaks. Its purpose is to inform the scientific community, the public, homemakers, and the food industries, enabling all those involved in the production of food, whether directly or indirectly, to better formulate and implement food safety precautions and strategies (my italics).

  4.6 Crucially, their view (which this author endorses) was that the provision of (surveillance) information to "those involved in the production of food" is an essential part of the surveillance function. However, the central finding of my PhD study was that the surveillance agencies failed to provide that information, mainly because they did not recognise that food producers were legitimate "consumers" of the information they produced. Essentially, the agencies were inwards-looking, servicing their own needs, without reference to the needs of the industry.

  4.7 In this, it has to be said that no responsible food producers will knowingly produce food which is harmful to health; nor would they profit from so doing. To a very great extent, the interests of producers and consumers coincide. In order to "protect the consumer" therefore, it is essential that surveillance information, in a useable form, is provided to industry.

  4.8 Here, there are serious problems with the framing of the Agency objectives and functions. The Bill formalises and institutionalises the largely artificial split between producers and consumer, "siding" with the consumer against the producer. It fails to recognise that, in assisting the producer in key areas, it woud also improve the lot of the consumer.

  4.9 That is not to say that the agency should be pro-producer—in the way that MAFF is so often (wrongly) accused of being. But it should be pro public health, distributing information to all those who have need of it, with a view to improving public health generally. Food producers are essential recipients of that information, and it should be a central part of the Agency's remit to ensure the industry is properly serviced.

  4.10 This presages another problem in that—as far as the routine provision of information is concerned—the Agency will not be the primary generator, but simply the recipient of information produced by others. In terms of food-poisoning epidemiological data, the primary producers are local authorities (environmental health departments) and the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS), over which the Agency will have no direct control.

  4.11 Yet, in my PhD work, I found that the inadequacies of information provision was compounded by serious and multiple inadequacies in the conduct of food-poisoning investigations, arising at least in part from the lack of training and relative inexperience of investigators, the whole conditioned by interdisciplinary rivalry between the professional groups staffing the different agencies. In addition, there was a failure to exploit or develop epidemiological technologies, which affected the ability of investigators to resolve uncertainties identified.

  4.12 Therefore, not only is the provision of information important. The quality of information is paramount. Neither government, public authorities, the public nor producers of food are best served by low grade or inaccurate information. So important is it to the public health interest that good quality information is provided that it should be a central function of the Agency to assess, on a continual basis, the quality of information provided by itself and public sector agencies, and to promote the acquisition and delivery of high quality information.

  4.13 To that effect, a central part of the Agency needs to be an independent, multi-disciplinary review body, charged with the sole function of quality assessment. The Agency needs to take a pro-active stance, actively fostering improvements in the quality of information and should not fall into the trap of accepting, uncritically, that which information-gathering agencies chose to supply. It should dictate (and have power to dictate) the nature of the information supplied. In short, the Agency must address the quality issue, and improve the quality of information provided. Within the structure of the draft Bill, it is not clear as to how it can do this.

  4.14 As regards the provision of advice, it will be essential that the Agency avoids the temptation to offer dogmatic, unrealistic or impractical advice. To that effect, it is essential that it consults with industry and embodies in its procedures provision for reviewing and amending advice in the light of technical and scientific developments. There should also be provision for a formal challenge of advice given, with a statutory right for interested parties to be heard.


  5.1 There can be no question that the independent monitoring of enforcement activities could form a valuable and constructive role for an independent agency, a role which neither the Department of Health nor the MAFF have been able to perform satisfactorily.

  5.2 However, it is understood that the Agency will absorb the staff and functions of the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS)—which is a major enforcement enterprise. Therefore, a significant function of the Agency will be enforcement (within the meat industry). From the outset, therefore, the independence of the Agency will be compromised as it will combine the roles of an enforcement agency and a monitor of enforcement standards.

  5.3 It offends against the very principle of independence that any organisation should be able to set its own standards and then monitor its own performance in achieving them. This means that another body must set the standards and monitor the performance of the Agency in respect of its MHS operations.

  5.4 Then, at the very least—if there is any question as to the performance of the MHS—authorities subject to agency monitoring may well question the moral authority of the Agency to review their performance when its own activities may be substandard. This in turn will create considerable pressure on the Agency to conceal any shortcomings in its own activities, for fear of prejudicing its authority to criticise other authorities.

  5.5 Basically, the relationship between the MHS and the Agency has not been thought through. Either the Agency is to be a monitoring agency or it is to be an enforcement agency—it cannot perform both tasks adequately.

  5.6 If, in the case of the MHS, the MAFF veterinary service is to continue its auditing, there will then be a situation where an operational arm of the independent Agency is to be "independently" checked by staff of the very ministry which it is replacing, because that ministry itself is not to be trusted with food safety matters. Then, if the veterinary service continues to have responsibility for public health matters—such as TB in cattle—which fall within the remit of the Agency, we could then have a situation where the agency is auditing the service which in turn is auditing the Agency. Clearly, this could be a problematical arrangement.

  5.7 As regards the Agency monitoring local authority enforcement, this too is problematical. In the first instance, there abounds amongst local authority officers a strong (and well-founded) suspicion that the Agency—with its absorption of the MHS—is an embryonic national hygiene service, planning to take over functions from local authorities on similar lines to the Health and Safety Executive. On this basis, as long as the MHS is part of the Agency, there will be a suspicion that any findings or criticisms of local authority activities by the agency will simply reflect its "hidden agenda". The Agency will not be seen as an independent arbiter.

  5.8 Assurances by the Minister as to the continuance of local authority services are of little value. Ministers come and go, and policies change. What one Minister might promise, another Minister can change. Unless there are statutory limitations on the enlargement of agency functions, its motivations will always be suspect.

  5.9 Furthermore, there are already two agencies which have some responsibility for monitoring local authority enforcement—LACOTS (the local authority co-ordinating body) and the Audit Commission. The Agency therefore will enter into an already crowded field where there is scope for disagreement and discontinuity. Rather than improve matters, therefore, the Agency may well create disruption and confusion, adding yet another voice to the cacophony. The Agency cannot assume such a role without first clarifying the roles of other bodies.

  5.10 As to the detail of any monitoring, it is essential to review not only quantitative aspects of any activities, but also qualitative performance. This cannot be a paperwork exercise, and will require a strong field presence by experienced officials, who are able to assess performance on the ground. This will require a cadre of experienced and senior enforcement officials, for which no provision seems to have been made.

  5.11 Unless plans are made to that effect, the Agency will be in the position of assuming a responsibility for which it has no means of delivering.

  5.12 Furthermore, there is a serious constitutional question to address in relation to local authority enforcement activities. In that these are carried out by multi-functional departments' the effort and resource devoted to food safety is often a local political decision made by elected authorities. Local elected bodies, for instance, may determine that housing or other aspects of public health may have greater priority than the issues concerning the Agency.

  5.13 The members of the Agency, however, are to be unelected and the situation may therefore arise where unelected officials are interfering with the decisions of elected public representatives. This is constitutionally unsound. Therefore, any directions which may impact on the policy decisions of elected authorities cannot be made by the Agency. To maintain constitutional boundaries, any such directions must be reserved for the Minister.


  6.01 On the basis of Clause 6, it appears that the Agency will take over and rely upon the existing structure of expert advisory committees upon which Ministers currently rely. If the agency relies on the current structure, it will be a mistake and a lost opportunity. There is an urgent need to reform the structure of expert advisory bodies.

  6.1 As it stands, members of advisory bodies tend to be appointed officials (either or both from the Department of Health of MAFF). Lists of eligible persons are not declared, the selection process is secret and the results are not open to challenge. Furthermore, the posts are often unpaid, effectively excluding persons who are not already remunerated from other sources.

  6.3 Inasmuch as Ministers are heavily reliant on advice from their expert committees, and the agency will similarly be reliant—on what will be the same people—any expectations of a new approach from the Agency may well be unfulfilled.

  6.4 The importance of the need for change can be demonstrated by Mr Blair's statement on Saturday 20 February in The Daily Telegraph, when he claimed that he could not ban GM foods ". . . that our independent scientific advisors tell us are safe . . . ".

  6.5 Clearly, he was acting on advice from his experts in the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, but he cannot have been aware that, in 1998, the EU published a formal recommendation on the procedures to be adopted in assessing novel foods (97/618/EC). It observed that: "Conventional toxicological evaluation methods cannot be applied to foods, because foods present particular difficulties not encountered with the testing of food additives and contaminants in vivo and in vitro". It considered that "the ultimate strategy . . . will extend from initial tests in vitro and in vivo studies in animal models to studies in humans if needed" (my italics).

  6.6 Therefore, presumably on advice from his experts (or in the absence of complete advice), Mr Blair failed to tell us that there are no known methods of testing certain GM foods to determine whether they are safe. Crucially, the traditional toxicological protocols—applicable to drugs and pesticides—have no validity when assessing novel foods and it is, therefore, impossible to confirm that any are actually safe.

  6.7 The EU document then goes on to say that "to compensate for the inability of employing reasonably adequate safety factors any subchronic or chronic animal feeding studies require supplementation by absorption and metabolism studies in animals and eventually in humans (my italics again). It adds that the "appropriate information should be derived by combined nutritional and safety post-market surveillance".

  6.8 What this is saying is that, given the inability to carry out initial safety testing, the only way safety can in fact be assessed is to release the product for general sale and then monitor the population to see if anyone gets ill. In other words, as far as GM foods go, the human population is definitely the guinea-pig. Testing on the consumers is part of the official experimental design—that is what is meant by "post-market surveillance". This means testing hundreds, if not thousands of people, for several decades, before the all-clear can be given.

  6.9 The interesting thing about the ACNFP is that one of its sub-groups has already conducted two meetings on this issue—in March and December of last year—to determine the nature of any post-marketing surveillance. But, from the published minutes, there is no way the reader could gain any impression that this process is in fact an essential part of the safety testing.

  6.10 Instead, the group—chaired by Professor Bainbridge—"considered it particularly important to try to identify any potential health effects from data submitted for the pre-market approval . . .". As to post-market surveillance, it considered that its role was only to ". . . offer additional reassurance that unexpected or unpredictable adverse effects could be picked up". According to the EU, however, this is not true. Post-market surveillance is an essential part of the long-term safety clearance."

  6.11 Yet it is Professor Bainbridge and her colleagues who are saying—if we are to believe Mr Blair—that GM foods are safe. Mr Blair has not told us that they cannot be tested for safety without being fed to the population at large and, as Professor Bainbridge is telling us that post-marketing surveillance is simply for "additional reassurance", it is not surprising that Mr Blair seems to have missed this vital point.

  6.12 This is but one example of where the system of advisory committees does not seem to be functioning effectively. Given the vital role of the advisory committees, it is essential that the Government takes the opportunity to set out statutory requirements for the selection, recruitment of members, their methods of working and other matters relating to their functioning, to be administered by the Agency.


  7.1 The Committee will already be aware that a significant part of the Agency's income will be derived from fees charged by the Meat Hygiene Service—eventually amounting to some £80 million a year. It would seem that the meat industry alone is to subsidise a significant part of the Agency's operations.

  7.2 Notwithstanding the EU requirement for charging—and the proposals for imposing license fees on butchers—the levying of fees fundamentally changes the relationship between regulatory authorities and those they regulate. Necessarily, where the regulators are reliant on the regulated for their income, they cannot be insensitive to the needs and demands of those who pay their bills.

  7.3 This relationship is more subtle than is generally recognised. Power will be exerted most by those who pay most, and by those who have the ability to withdraw funds (by moving abroad or other means) or to take (or defend) legal action taken by the authority.

  7.4 However, an even more subtle relationship is also at play. Larger operations are aware that the most economic way of increasing market share (compared with, say, television advertising) is by regulation—the effects of which are always disproportionately felt by smaller operations.

  7.5 In this, the larger operations have common cause with the regulators which—in being paid for the amount they regulate—are incentivised to maximise the amount of regulation. Together this "nexus" will tend to present "improved" regulation as in the interest of the public health but, in fact, it is more often in the interest of the "players". Otherwise, the call may be for a "level playing field" although as Alan Duncan MP observed[7].

    "When a business man calls on government to create a "level playing field" through tax or regulatory changes, it is a sure sign that he is looking to the State to castrate his competitors".

  7.6 Through diverse and subtle mechanisms, therefore, the net effect of a charging regime will be to increase the concentration of the food industry, driving out small producers and other small businesses. The effect of this will be to reduce consumer choice, increase prices and, inasmuch as the spread of contamination is a function of the size of an operation, reduce food safety. It cannot be a valid function of the Agency to bring this about. If the Agency is required to improve public health, then the public should pay for it . . . through general taxation.


  8.1 The role of the Agency is variously cited as being to improve food safety or to restore public confidence in the safety of food. These two roles are not necessarily mutually inclusive. It is possible to achieve one without the other or to achieve one despite the other.

  8.2 In relation to improving food safety, it is germane to note that the figures for salmonelloses in man for 1998 represented a ten-year low, at just over 23,000 cases compared with around 30,000 a year for the last nine years. Advocates of the Agency privately admit that the fall has come two years too soon. They would have preferred the fall to have come after the establishment of the Agency, thus justifying its formation.

  8.3 Neither is the fall in salmonella food poisoning difficult to explain. The summer of 1998 was very poor and there has long been established a relationship between hot summers and high food poisoning—and vice versa.

  8.4 Furthermore, post-BSE, there has been a substantial recovery of beef sales—and a corresponding decrease in poultry meat sales. Additionally, the poultry industry is getting to grips with zoonotic salmonellas, and is reporting record falls in the incidence of salmonellae in live poultry. Since salmonelloses in man are most often associated with poultry products (and less so with beef), it is not surprising that there should have been such a substantial fall in this type of food poisoning. Incidentally, owing to the activities of a Delia Smith, eggs sales staged a remarkable recovery in 1998. For the first time in 10 years, consumption did not fall.

  8.5 Nevertheless, advocates of the Agency have been remarkably muted about the good news and tend to refer to the 100,000 annual cases of food poisoning which, it is often claimed, is increasing. The Committee should be aware, however, that this figure relates to gastroenteritis reported by doctors as suspected food-poisoning, without laboratory confirmation. The bulk of these cases is campylobacter enteritis and it has never been demonstrated that sporadic campylobacter enteritis (which forms the larger part of the notifications) is in fact food-borne.

  8.6 All of this suggests that the Agency may have limited room for manoeuvre in reducing food-borne disease, to which effect it may be a bureaucratic white elephant.

  8.7 As regards BSE, some care should be taken before this epidemic is used as a justification for the Agency. The Government has invested a considerable amount in a wide-ranging inquiry on the circumstances of the epidemic, and it seems premature to pursue the idea of an agency when the findings of the inquiry have yet to be prepared and which may well influence its development and remit.

February 1999

7   Alan Duncan and Dominic Hobson (1995) Saturn's Children. London: Sinclair Stevenson. Back

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