Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


Submitted by Tesco

  Tesco is the largest retailer in the United Kingdom, with over 600 stores. We also have stores in the Republic of Ireland, Eastern Europe and Thailand. We see over 40,000 food products, approximately half of which are branded, and half are our own brand. Typically, we introduce about 2,000 own label new products each year. As well as our Value lines, which offer our customers, good, basic foods at the lowest possible prices, we provide the Tesco Healthy Eating Range—of naturally health foods, and a range of organic products to maximise choice for our customers.

  Food safety and standards are of paramount importance to our business. Tesco welcomes any measures which would reinforce consumer confidence in the safety of food. We support any moves to provide and strengthen the current system.

  We are pleased to offer support in principle to the draft Bill. The creation of a Food Standards Agency is a proposal we have supported, ever since the discussions which led to the James Report. Indeed, we have always said that the sooner it was established, the better. However, there are points of detail in the draft Bill which we would seek to change. Our principle concerns are set out below. We will be happy to submit further points in the light of the committee's discussions.


  As proposed in the draft Bill, specific provision is made for members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but none from the food industry itself or from any section of it. Indeed, clause 2 goes so far as to state that anyone with an interest in the food industry might be disqualified from being a member of the Agency. We believe that it is important that a Food Standards Agency maintains the proper degree of independence, but that its operation must not be hampered by any lack of knowledge or experience on the part of those forming its controlling body. It is therefore extremely important that expertise is not excluded simply on the grounds of employment within a food business.


  The Bill as currently drafted provides not only for Agency members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but also for regional advisory committees for those areas (and, potentially, for regions of England as well) and for regional executive offices. This appears to be an extremely top-heavy and expensive structure to deal with an issue which affects all UK citizens equally. Whilst we appreciate that devolution necessitates reporting to and through the devolved bodies, it seems unnecessary to create quite such a complex infrastructure for the Agency.


  We believe that one of the Agency's chief aims should be to improve food law enforcement in the UK and promote best practice. There are a number of ways in which this can be achieved which would result in improved efficiency and effectiveness. The White Paper made reference to the Home Authority Principle and proposed to make it mandatory. We support the objectives of the Principle. Consistent and co-ordinated enforcement concentrated on areas of greatest risk brings the greatest benefit to citizens. More work is needed to build on the current system.

  Tesco has already demonstrated with its own Home Authority, that by applying a "systems health check" and selective audits to a business rather than relying solely on old-fashioned inspection methods, considerable resource savings would be achieved which could then be applied where they are most needed. For example, it has been stated that nearly half of all food poisoning outbreaks are associated with catering businesses, whereas retail food businesses account for only around 6 per cent. Furthermore, most of the food incidents causing major public concern have arisen at small manufacturers. Yet retailers remain the focus of enforcement activity despite presenting a much smaller risk—and those retailers who adopt a responsible, partnership approach with enforcement agencies would present only a fraction of that.

  We look for assurances that the Agency will immediately start work on the creation of an improved Home Authority enforcement regime. We know that LACOTS is also looking at possible ways to improve enforcement along these lines, so it is important that the Agency works closely with local government to co-ordinate this activity. It needs to be clear in the bill that efficiency and effectiveness of enforcement are an Agency priority.


  It is not clear from the draft bill how much responsibility the Agency is intended to take for the provision of nutritional and dietary advice. In our opinion, the Agency should be responsible only for those aspects of diet and nutrition which relate directly to food labelling. The collection of statistics and publication of reports and advice on the nation's diet and nutritional requirements should remain the responsibility of the Department of Health because this is an essential part of their work on the health of the nation. If these functions were to be allocated to the Agency, they would inevitably dilute its effectiveness in ensuring food safety. We wish to see an Agency with its focus on food standards and safety and it should not be deflected from this by the need to carry out dietary research within already limited resource.


  It seems to us that the Bill does not clearly tackle question of cost effectiveness of the Agency. On the one hand, clause 18 requires a statement of objectives and clause 19 requires it to take costs and benefits into account when exercising its powers but, on the other, it is envisaged that it will have a complex and costly infrastructure with regional executive offices and advisory committees. It is for Parliament to ensure the cost effectiveness of the Agency itself and to look at the overall expense and benefits to the public at large.

  Indeed, it is the whole UK citizenry which will benefit from the creation of the Agency. We all have a stake in food safety and standards and any benefit it brings will accrue to all of us.

  We are, therefore, firmly of the opinion that:

    (a)  the Agency must be cost-effective by bringing efficiencies into its own structure and into food law enforcement throughout the UK;

    (b)  whatever costs which remain to be found after those efficiencies are realised should be met from the public purse because it is the whole of the public which will benefit.

  If the potential efficiencies described above were realised, we believe that most, if not all of the extra costs of the Agency would be met.

  Drawing funds solely from all or part of the food industry by way of levy will inevitably compromise the Agency's much needed independence. The Agency must command public confidence; only such an Agency can deal with the big public issues. Also, it needs to be appreciated that responsible food businesses already expend considerable resources on food safety and consumer protection, in addition to business rate and corporation tax.

  We are also concerned that the current proposals for funding the Agency are too open-ended. The potential for extensive revisions through secondary legislation is considerable. Such secondary legislation would at least need to set out the formula by which such charges were to be calculated.


  Much in this draft Bill is to be welcomed. However, we believe it needs more focus on the problems it seeks to address. The key elements need to be independence from government, expertise, efficiency and enforcement effectiveness, whereas the draft Bill concentrates on structure, resources and powers. It may be that the "statement of objectives" needs to be drafted into the Bill itself, thereby giving the Agency clear statutory direction and a duty to observe and pursue those objectives.

March 1999

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 12 April 1999