Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


Submitted by The Soil Association


  The Soil Association has not responded in detail to the draft legislation on the Food Standards Agency. This is partly a question of time and resources, and partly because we are aware that other organisations have more detailed expertise on the regulatory aspects.

  Our overview and critique of the Agency is that the rationale for its creation is flawed in that it has been designed to treat symptoms not causes. As such it will have only limited ability to prevent the development of new food safety problems which generally arise through weaknesses in agricultural policy, over which the Agency will have no control.

  We believe that the largely regulatory approach of the Food Standards Agency will unfairly and unjustifiably burden many small and medium scale food producers with costs and red tape which will not recognise the greatly reduced risks associated with small scale and less intensive production methods and as a result will make these businesses unviable.

  Our primary concerns with the proposed legislation relate to the Government's refusal to bring the regulation of veterinary medicines and pesticides under the Food Standards Agency. If Ministers are still not prepared to do this we feel they must at the very least give the Food Standards Agency the over-arching role of co-ordinating action across all relevant departments and non-government organisations against the growing problem of resistance to therapeutic agents used in food production.

  We are happy to be involved with and represented on the various agency committees, since we recognise that even if our perceptions about the structural flaws of the design of the Agency are accurate, its development is now a reality and it will be important to make it work as well as possible.

  Inherent problems with the concept of the Food Standards Agency.

  Our presumption is that the Agency has been established in direct response to growing public concerns arising from a wide range of food safety scares which have occurred over the last few years.

  The Government's response to these events has been to presume that they have been caused by a combination of a failure to separate vested interest groups from consumer interests and poor policing of food hygiene, safety and quality.

  Consistent with this analysis, the design of the Agency therefore reflects:

    separation of those responsible for agricultural practice and policy from those with a consumer interest in food and farming; and

    an increase in pre- and post-farmgate food quality and safety scrutiny, with particular emphasis given to hygiene.

  The problem with this approach is that:

    the Agency will have to deal with the consequences of flawed and inherently unsustainable production practices which have, we believe, been responsible for every one of the recent food quality and safety scares;

    as a direct consequence of the structure of the Agency excluding those with an agricultural interest and excluding the Agency from any significant role in the development of broader agricultural policy, those involved with the Agency will be either unqualified or unable to correct the current deficiencies in agricultural practice and so will be straddled with the increasingly onerous and demanding task of undertaking a quality control function for an industry which is designed to deliver defective products;

    nothing within the remit of the Food Standards Agency will be able to bring about a overall reduction in the use of pesticides, ammonium-based fertilisers, antimicrobial feed additives, or any of the vast number of other agricultural inputs which contribute both to food safety problems directly through environmental pollution, food contamination and the development of resistance to therapeutic agents and indirectly by making possible the most intensive and often dangerous aspects of modern food production.

  The Soil Association would therefore have preferred to see the substantial effort currently going into the establishment of the Food Standards Agency used to restructure and OEgreen1 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, so that food safety problems could have been addressed in an integrated and fundamental way through changes in agricultural policy which encouraged a move away from damaging chemical inputs and towards a more systems-oriented approach. Had this happened we believed it would then not have been necessary to bring about the artificial, inappropriate and in the long term unworkable separation of food and agricultural policy which is enshrined in the draft Food Standards Agency legislation.

  As this has not happened we believe there is a real risk that the Agency will have a higher workload than anticipated, since current agricultural practice is likely to continue generating new food safety problems. If this happens the Agency will appear to have justified its existence, however, the reality will be that it has been constructed in such a way that it can only react to food safety problems. If it is well run it may be able to react more promptly and effectively once problems arise, but it will have very little ability to prevent them from occurring.

  The only major exception to this relates to the proposal to bring the new committee on animal feedingstuffs under the umbrella of the Agency. Compared with the rest of the Agency's role this appears something of an anachronism and has come about only because of the BSE crisis and the fact that leaving such a committee within MAFF would be politically unacceptable.


  A higher level of activity than planned and any major new food safety crisis could lead to substantial increase in running costs. Were these to be recouped through an increase in the proposed flat rate levy this could have a devastating effect on small and even medium-sized producers. This is one reason why we oppose the flat rate levy. We also oppose it because if and when something goes wrong the risks associated with a small business are proportionately lower than those associated with a large one.

Consequences of the regulatory approach on small businesses

  Tackling food safety through increased regulation rather than through agricultural policy has the potential to undermine the financial viability of the very systems of agriculture which could and should be promoted and developed as an alternative to those which are currently causing most food safety problems. A good example of this would be the proposed new charges for the enforcement of hygiene standards on small abattoirs and meat processors. The requirements are in themselves so draconian that many small operators will find them impossible to meet. They are also already forcing the closure of small abattoirs with exemplary hygiene records. Those that can afford to make the structural changes will then face a level of charges per tonne so much greater than the higher throughput operators that the majority of them could be put out of business. It has, for example, been estimated that inspection charges will be about £1 per tonne in large abattoirs, but for small abattoirs this could be as high as £186 per tonne. Virtually all organic meat businesses are currently operating through decentralised small abattoir and processing units. Not only will such increased charges threaten the viability of many organic producer-retailers, but they will also force the closure of yet more small abattoirs and kill off the burgeoning development of local food initiatives which, in the case of meat, require local slaughtering for welfare and environmental reasons.

Specific concerns with the proposed legislation on Veterinary Medicines

  While we would have been happy to see all safety evaluation and regulation of agricultural inputs stay with a reformed MAFF we are deeply concerned that the regulation of veterinary medicines and pesticides are to stay within MAFF under the proposed arrangements.

  The regulation of veterinary medicines on farms is a more complex matter than most people might suppose with at least eight separate bodies having a statutory involvement and several other having an important role. Failures here have so far not led to a major food safety crisis, but there are a number of problems just beneath the surface any one of which could suddenly develop as a full blown crisis with which the Agency would have to deal. Professor James originally proposed that responsibility for evaluating the safety of veterinary medicines should pass to the Food Standards Agency, but government rejected this as a result of the many representations it received from the pharmaceuticals and intensive livestock farming industries.

  The basic argument was that this should stay with MAFF because of its knowledge of production systems and expertise in assessing the efficacy of products. The clear concern from the industry being that a Food Standards Agency, driven by consumer concerns about food safety would move rapidly to ban a large number of products suspected, but not proved to be dangerous, on which the intensive farming industry depends. This issue more than any other symbolises the conflict that exists between OEefficacy1 and OEsafety1 on a wide range of input-related issues and is an example of where government Ministers may have to arbitrate in the future between conflicting advice from MAFF and the Food Standards Agency.

  On animal feed government has given the advantage to the Agency, with veterinary medicines and pesticides it has left this with MAFF and given the Agency only a seat on the relevant committees and the right to be consulted on policy aspects. In practice this will give the Agency no ability to set the agenda and in order to be in a position to use the veto it has been given it would need access to the same information as MAFF and would also need to duplicate its evaluation work. This is both impractical and extravagant. It is also not clear that the Food Standards Agency will have access to all relevant information or even that the Food Standards Agency representative on the Veterinary Products Committee will be free to circulate normally confidential committee papers within the Agency.

Critical need for an Agency with over-arching responsibility

  However, there is a more fundamental reason still why we believe the Agency should have an increased role in regulating veterinary medicines. The example of the problem of antibiotic resistance passing from animals to the human population in zoonotic infections shows why there is a desperate need for a single body with a food safety remit to take overall responsibility for co-ordinating action throughout all government departments, agencies and non-governmental organisations with a responsibility in this area. Since 1968 setting policy on farm antibiotics has been the joint responsibility of Agriculture and Health Ministers and both MAFF and the DoH have departments dedicated to this issue. Increasingly policy is, however, being set at a European level and Britain is being dragged reluctantly to adopt a more precautionary approach. However, there is a bewildering array of other bodies with a responsibility in this area too and no effective co-ordination of their work. This is both inefficient and means that issues such as antibiotic resistance are being tackled in a haphazard and ineffective way.

  Licensing of veterinary medicines and residue testing is undertaken by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD), but controlling the problem of antibiotic resistance is not in the VMD's mission statement. Resistance in farm pathogens is not routinely monitored, but some work carried out by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) resistance in gram negative human pathogens of farm animal origin is monitored by the Public Health Laboratory Service, but there is no routine monitoring of the more dangerous gram positive pathogens and the use of medicated feed is prescribed by veterinary surgeons and monitored, along with the unprescribed of antibiotic zootechnical feed additives, by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.

  Use of other therapeutic antibiotics on farms is also prescribed by veterinary surgeons, but monitored by the State Veterinary Service, Trading Standards Officers and practising veterinary surgeons, safety of veterinary medicines on farms is policed by the Health and Safety Executive.

  Education of vets over prescribing practice and changes in veterinary medicines legislation is the responsibility of the Veterinary Colleges and the British Veterinary Association disciplining of vets caught breaking prescribing guidelines is carried out by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

  While formal statistics do not exist there is little doubt that a significant number of people are dying in the UK each year from drug resistant infections of farm animal origin. The rise in deaths from multi-drug resistant gram positive infections being most alarming. The problem of antibiotic resistance is widely recognised as one of the greatest threats to face mankind, yet we have no co-ordinated action to deal with it and we have no agreement between the different bodies with statutory responsibility on how serious the problem is or how it should be addressed. The UK Government, for example has been forced to agree to a ban on a number of growth promoting antibiotics due to pressure within Europe from Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Without this pressure no action would have been taken. However, since farmers are free to change to alternative antibiotics the problem has not yet been resolved in any long term way.

Lack of co-ordinated action

  An example of the critical need for a co-ordinating agency on veterinary medicines is the total lack of dialogue between the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and the Public Health Laboratory Service. The VMD is a quasi-commercial executive agency of MAFF. Since 1990 it has been entirely responsible for its own funding most of which comes from the business of licensing veterinary medicines, a business for which it will increasingly have to compete at a European level. The PHLS is an agency of the Department of Health funded by a direct annual government grant of about £50 million. The PHLS monitors the level of drug resistant infections in the human population and therefore sees the consequences of veterinary medicines licensing and prescribing policy. It also undertakes detailed research in this area and publishes figures on trends. However, despite this it has no input into veterinary medicines policy and no formal liaison with the VMD to discuss these issues. This is in marked contrast to the routine liaison between the VMD and the pharmaceuticals industry.

The Veterinary Products Committee

  Special mention must be made of the Veterinary Products Committee (VPC). The VPC is an independent advisory committee which takes decisions about the licensing of veterinary medicines and gives advice to Ministers on veterinary medicines policy. It comes under the secretariat provided by the VMD and has long been perceived as being too heavily stacked with industry representatives and of putting the commercial interests of both industry and the VMD before its requirements in relation to public safety. For example, for over 20 years, and despite the efforts of a few individual committee members, the VPC has done everything in its power to prevent the banning of antibiotic growth promoters used in the feed of all classes of farm animals.

  In 1976 the VPC extended the use of the growth promoting antibiotic avoparcin to adult and breeding cattle, against the recommendations of the Swann Committee and without any published work on the theoretically probable effect this would have of increasing levels of salmonella and E. coli in cattle.

  In 1981 the VPC would not agree to allow an independent committee of microbiologists which advised it to review the use of existing growth promoting antibiotics. Enraged the committee, chaired by former head of the PHLS, Sir James Howie went direct to Ministers who refused to discuss the issue and sacked the advisory committee.

  In 1986 the VPC sidestepped moves to ban antibiotic growth promoters along with hormone growth promoters as happened in Sweden.

  In 1993 the VPC against advice, licensed several fluroquinlone antibiotics including enrofloxacin for animal usage (effectively the same antibiotic as ciprofloxacin used in human medicine) and did nothing to prevent its widespread prophylactic and therefore additionally, growth promoting use, by pig and poultry producers. By 1994 the PHLS found ciprofloxacin resistant strains in six per cent of some types of food poisoning bacteria isolated from human sufferers. Levels have increased annually since that time.

  In 1996 the VPC advised British government representatives to vote against an EU initiative to ban avoparcin the most widely used growth promoting antibiotic, closely related to vancomycin the most important drug of last resort in human medicine. Britain was the only Member State to oppose the ban and avoparcin now banned worldwide since evidence that it was causing cross-resistance with vancomycin has become too strong to ignore.

  In 1997 the VPC decided there was no need to act on Finnish evidence which showed that the use of the growth promoting antibiotic tylosin phosphate (the most widely used growth promoter in pig production) was causing resistance to the related antibiotic erythromycin. Tylosin phosphate is now to be banned throughout EU from July 1999.

  The VPC has recently endorsed the fait accompli European decision to ban six growth promoting antibiotic feed additives, but failed to recommend a ban on four others including avilamycin which is now seeing increased usage, despite being aware of the build up of avilamycin resistant enterococci in the human population which will be resistant to a new related life-saving antibiotic currently under development.

  The fundamental problem here is not with the individual members of the VPC, but with Ministers and civil servants who maintain the OEbalance1 of the committee and with the VMD which is itself far too heavily influenced by industry.

  If Ministers are not prepared to bring the VMD under the control of the Food Standards Agency we feel they must firstly give the Agency the over-arching role of co-ordinating action against resistance to all therapeutic agents used in food production and processing and separately act to change the culture within the VMD and the VPC, by redefining their terms of reference and removing the commercial necessity from the VMD.

March 1999

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