Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


MEMORANDUM 35

Submitted by J Sainsbury plc

1. GROUP PROFILE

  1.1 J Sainsbury plc is one of the world's leading retailers. Its UK food retail subsidiaries—Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd and Savacentre—operate 411 supermarkets and 13 hypermarkets, respectively. The Sainsbury Group also owns Shaw's which operates 121 supermarkets and Star Markets which comprises 53 stores in the USA.

  1.2 Sainsbury's Supermarkets Ltd is the largest part of J Sainsbury plc. Last year it sold about 9 billion food and non-food items. It works with over 2,000 suppliers who provide some 12,000 food lines and 9,000 non-food lines for sale to the 9 million customers who shop in Sainsbury's supermarket each week.

  1.3 All the 117,000 staff working in Sainsbury's supermarkets and depots are trained, at the company's expense, to handle food products safely. Of the 12,000 food lines sold by Sainsbury's over 3,000 are chilled, about 1,000 are frozen and the remainder are ambient. Only a limited number of the delicatessen, bakery and meat counter lines involve direct handling by members of staff who receive a high level of externally accredited food safety and hygiene training. Sainsbury's has a long history of putting food safety at the heart of its business. In 1998 we played a leading role in the production of the Department of Health's Retail Industry Guide to Food Hygiene. We believe it will make a significant contribution to ensuring retail food safety.

2. THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY

Clause 1

  2.1 We welcome the draft Bill's clear articulation of the principles to which the Agency will operate. We particularly welcome its emphasis that the Agency's main concern is food safety and that it must act in a proportionate manner taking account of risks, costs, benefits and the advice of the advisory committees.

  2.2 We note that clauses 18 and 19 provide for the Agency to carry out its functions in accordance with a statement of objectives drawn up by the agency and approved by Ministers. It is essential that this statement adheres as closely as possible to the principles, first set out in the White Paper, which so significantly influence the content of the draft Bill.

  2.3 Clause I also defines the main food standards objectives of the Agency. We welcome its recognition that a UK-wide approach to food standards is required. A UK-wide approach should also be taken to nutrition issues.

  2.4 From paragraph 2.3 of the consultation document it is clear that the detailed working arrangement for nutritional issues will be covered by administrative concordats between the Department of Health and the Agency. It is essential that clarification is provided on the role of the Agency in nutrition issues prior to its establishment. We ask that the proposed concordats on nutrition be made available for public consultation as soon as possible.

3. APPOINTMENT OF MEMBERS, CHIEF EXECUTIVE AND DIRECTORS

Clauses 2-3

  3.1 We support the Bill's requirement for the Agency's membership to have a reasonable balance of relevant skills and experience'. We believe it is essential that members should have practical knowledge of the food industry and not rely simply on theory. The Agency should include people with a proven track record and experience of food safety issues which arise in modern food production and food retailing. The Agency must recruit staff with proper food technology and nutrition qualifications and food industry experience. Such experience is essential if the Agency is to advise government and the public effectively, and if it is to carry out its `duty to keep itself properly informed[8]. For those members of staff who do not have experience of the modern food industry, the Agency should encourage them to be seconded to work in the industry as part of their development.

  3.2 We support the provision under paragraph 9 of Schedule I, obliging the Agency to establish a register of private interests. However, this should not be used as a mechanism for excluding individual with practical experience of working in the food industry from sitting as Agency commissioners.

  3.3 The Agency's commission must have some knowledge of the practical management of food safety issues as well as an understanding and appreciation of the food industry. We entirely accept that it would be inappropriate for members to be chosen as representatives of particular sectors. However, it would be shortsighted if previous experience of the food industry was to be regarded as a disqualification from serving.

  3.4 Subsection 4 of Clause 3 recognises that particular arrangements will be required for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We appreciate that because of devolution, separate arrangements have to be made for these parts of the United Kingdom. We are keen that these arrangements will ensure a unified approach throughout the United Kingdom. Food safety, food standards and nutrition issues do not fit neatly into regional compartments. It is unnecessary for policy and practice in these areas to develop regional divergence for its own sake.

4. ADVISORY COMMITTEES

Clauses 4-7

  4.1 We note the relationship that the Agency will have with the advisory committees, but are concerned about the power which it has under clause 6 to `wind them up as it chooses.' As with its powers to establish new committees, we hope that such action will only be taken after consultation with the Department of Health and other interested parties.

5. THE FUNCTIONS OF THE AGENCY

Clauses 9-12 Advice, information and assistance

  5.1 As the primary source of policy advice to government and information to the general public in relation to food safety, it is essential the Agency ensures that any advice or information which is offers is based on the soundest scientific evidence available. Recent decisions on beef-on-the bone and contradictory scientific advice with regard to the safety of genetically modified foods highlight the fact that often the first casualty, when food safety issues are discussed in public, is objective and dispassionate science. The necessity for the Agency to operate on the soundest scientific evidence available is of particular importance in view of the powers given to it under clause 11 to make public any of its advice to ministers.

  5.2 Clause 10 sets out the extensive nature of the Agency's communication role. In our response to the White Paper, we said that the Government had not given enough recognition of the importance of this role to the success of the Agency. We reiterate that it is necessary for the Agency to engage in a strong communications programme if it is to play an effective part in restoring consumer confidence in the food we eat. The agency must employ experienced communications professionals capable of establishing effective plans and procedures for dealing with food safety and nutrition issues of both a long term and short term nature. Without such plans and procedures, the Agency will fail in its duty to provide advice and information on food safety and nutrition issues without "raising unjustified alarm".[9]

  5.3 Through public education and information, specifically on food hygiene, the Agency has an important role to play in raising awareness amongst the general public of their own responsibility for food safety and nutrition. In addition, the Bill should stress the importance of the Agency's role as an independent source of information to improve consumer understanding of new food technologies, processes and products.

  5.4 In developing its communication strategy the Agency should take into consideration the important role that the major supermarkets continue to play in providing information to customers on issues of food safety, new food processes and nutrition.

6. MONITORING AND ENFORCEMENT

Clauses 13-17

  6.1 This part of the draft Bill goes some way to providing a national framework within which local authority food law enforcement can operate in a more consistent and professional manner than at present. The Agency's power to monitor the quality of enforcement practice is an important first step in improving the current enforcement of food law. The provision under clause 14 allowing the Agency to "name and shame" local authorities and the power given to Ministers under clause 15, to "set performance targets in relation to enforcement", are particularly welcome. We are convinced that the efforts which the agency will make to improve the quality and consistency of food law enforcement will do more than any other single activity to restore the public's confidence in the safety of the food it eats.

  6.2 The powers set out at clauses 14 and 15 are significant. It is essential that both the Agency and Ministers use them to full effect. It would be negligent of both if they were as little used as those set out in section 41 of the Food Safety Act 1990—enabling Ministers to "require reports and returns" from local authorities with regard to enforcement practice.

  6.3 While welcoming the new powers to monitor enforcement, we are disappointed that the draft Bill does not take a more radical approach to improving enforcement. Ever since the publication of "The James Report" there has been little or no serious discussion as to the effectiveness, efficiency and value for money of the present food law enforcement arrangements.

  6.4 We pointed out in our response to the White Paper that the present arrangements are unnecessarily inconsistent and ill-resourced. Historically, local authorities have been reluctant to give food law enforcement the priority it deserves. In 1998 this was highlighted by a leaked report from Westminster Council. The report admitted that the council did not even know how many food premises it had under its supervision. Without such basic information, it is unsurprising that food law is often ineffectively enforced.

  6.5 Many local authorities only have small environmental health departments. While environmental health officers (EHOs) are trained to a high academic standard, many holding MSc, their training does not adequately prepare them for dealing with industry. Their study includes a year of "practical training"—this tends to be with a local authority rather than a placement with a food business. This is one of the main reasons why upon qualification EHOs lack a practical understanding of how modern food businesses implement best food safety practice.

  6.6 Once qualified, EHOs are not able to devote their full time and attention to food law enforcement. With many calls on their time, few EHOs receive adequate on the job training in the latest food safety techniques. Without adequate training many are unable to competently advise the wide range of food businesses under their supervision on the best way to implement the latest food safety techniques. Without better trained and more focused EHOs, the Agency's efforts to restore public confidence in the food we eat will be significantly diminished. We would like to see amendments to the draft Bill to enable the agency to address these shortcomings.

  6.7 In addition, we are disappointed that the draft bill does nothing to address the disproportionate burden of enforcement which falls on some local authorities. This burden is one of the reasons why the Home Authority concept has not been as successful in practice as had been hoped. The creation of a national agency provides an opportunity for change. We would like to see amendments made to the draft Bill transferring to the Agency the Home Authority function for large, multi-site organisations, such as the country's leading supermarkets and food processing businesses. Such an innovation would greatly assist local authority enforcement departments and would simplify Sainsbury's own dealings with the 300 local authorities we currently work with to ensure the practical implementation of food law.

7. LEVY ON FOOD PREMISES

Clause 23 and the consultation document's "proposed scheme for recovering food safety costs from the food industry"

  7.1 Sainsbury's, along with other food businesses; the Institute of Trading Standards; the Local Government Association; the Consumers' Association; the Commons Agriculture Select Committee; and the Government's Better Regulation Task Force oppose the Government's desire to make parts of the food industry pay for the setting up and running of the Food Standards Agency. As Peter Luff MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture, has said, "To make the industry pay would go against all the evidence. . . . It would end up meaning the consumer paid, and that would be a tax falling unfairly on the poor, because they spend more of their budget on food."

  7.2 Consumer bodies are also concerned that making the food industry pay would amount to sponsorship of the Agency. This would make a mockery of the Government's commitment to establishing a truly independent Agency.

  7.3 As the Agency is to be set up by statute as a public body, it should be funded from the public purse. This has long been deemed the most appropriate manner by which to fund public bodies. We can see no reason to alter this principle. The Health and Safety Executive—which is seen as an appropriate model for the agency to follow—is publicly funded. This is also true of the Food and Drug Administration in the USA.

  7.4 It is disingenuous of the Government to present the proposed levy as a way in which food retailers can contribute to ensuring food safety. Sainsbury's is responsible for its own operating costs and complying with and exceeding existing legal obligations to provide safe food is core to our business. We ensure the safety of the food we sell by investing in quality assurance systems from plough to plate.

  7.5 Our suppliers work to standards set out in our pioneering farm assurance schemes; our 140 strong Technical Division carry out regular supplier and processor visits; our 800 lorries provide a safe environment which guarantees chilled, frozen and ambient product arrives safely in store. Once in store, refrigerated and chill cabinets, and the high standard to training for all staff in correct food handling means that our customers can be sure that the food they buy is safe. We invest in educating our customers in how to prepare food safely by publishing a wide range of leaflets dealing with food safety issues. Our customer services department, which takes over 8,000 calls each week, is on hand to advise our nine million customers on the safest way to store and cook food. In addition to all this, we contribute to the cost of food law enforcement through corporation tax and local business rates.

  7.6 At no point do either clause 23 or the levy document state an intention by the Government to maintain its existing level of expenditure on food safety. This committee should try to obtain a commitment from ministers to this effect. While discussing this omission with officials, we have been given the impression that the Government does not know how much public money is spent on ensuring food safety. Nor does it have any method of calculating how effectively this public money is spent. The Government should require the agency—as one of its first acts—to establish the current cost food safety enforcement and how effectively this public money is being spent. This analysis should be completed before the Government asks private businesses for any additional funds.

THE SCOPE OF THE LEVY

  7.7 As drafted the Bill imposes the levy solely on some food retailers. It is both illogical and unfair to exempt other parts of the food production chain—farmers, manufacturers, processors, and distributors—all play an important part in providing the public with safe food. The agency has a responsibility for food safety from plough to plate. It is only equitable that the whole food chain should contribute to its costs.

  7.8 Nor does the proposed levy cover all registered or licensed food premises. For example there is no mention of places providing institutional meals such as schools, hospitals, prisons and residential homes. Such premises should be included in the scope of the levy.

  7.9 If the scope of the levy was broadened as suggested then the Government would be in a position to reduce the proposed £90 per annum charge. This would ensure that it had even less impact than currently expected on small businesses.

March 1999


8   This duty is set out in clause 12 of the draft Bill. Back

9   This duty is set out in the Agency's fourth guiding principle. Back


 
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