Examination of Witnesses(Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 24 FEBRUARY 1999
and THE RT
20. What information would it give about
the impact, for example, of green top milk which is banned in
half the United Kingdom and permitted in the other half of the
(Tessa Jowell) As is the position now. The position
that the Agency would take would be very much on the basis of
receiving the advice from the expert advisory committee, reaching
a view about the conclusions of the advisory committee and providing
advice to ministers on the strength of that.
21. If ministers took different viewpoints
so that it was banned in Scotland and not banned in England, for
example, what conclusions would you draw about the effectiveness
of the Agency or the responsibility for ministerial response?
(Tessa Jowell) One would draw the conclusion that
there have been different practices in Scotland and England that
have extended over many years. Green top milk, as you know, has
been banned in Scotland for many years. The fact that it was banned
in Scotland was clearly an issue that ministers considered in
making the decision about whether or not, in light of the ACMS
inquiry, it should be banned in England. The conclusion was that
it should not but that labelling of green top milk should be much
more rigorous with very clear warnings for vulnerable groups,
particularly pregnant women and elderly people.
22. This information that you want to give
to the public in a way that they can readily understand, whether
it is on green top milk or nutritional elements, balanced diet
or GMOs, how do you see yourself giving this information to the
public? Is it going to be a sort of bulletin and health warning
about what is good for you or is it going to be public information
and things on the telly a la Harry Enfield? How are you hoping
to put it over?
(Tessa Jowell) The point is it is not going to
be us that is doing it. It will be the Agency that will be developing
23. How is the Agency going to give the
information to the public?
(Tessa Jowell) To a very great extent, that is
a matter for them. The test will be whether it is publicly convincing
and publicly credible, going back to the earlier point about how
we begin to judge the success of the Agency. The agency must win
popular public support and public confidence. Therefore, the way
that it approaches the dissemination of information about a balanced
diet, about green top milk, about GMOs, will be a very important
test of the extent to which it does win public confidence.
24. Do you not expect that, if the Agency
were set up now, they may be inundated with telephone calls from
the public about novelty foods and GMOs?
(Tessa Jowell) They probably will be, yes.
25. You would expect the Agency to set up
hot lines to answer these sorts of concerns as they sweep through
from time to time?
(Mr Rooker) They are not novelty foods but novel
foods, which is a slight distinction. I know it sounds like jargon
but it is not just GMOs. Novel foods are any foods or processes
that have not normally been historically used in the European
Union. It may come as a shock to you but inside MAFF at Ergon
House there is a consumer helpline. There is the phone number.
People are ringing it on a daily basis. It has been blind tested
as a first class consumer helpline. All that work will transfer
to the Agency. The publication of scientific literature, the publication
of leaflets maybe at the supermarket checkout, advertisements,
general campaigning at shows, at places where people accumulate
in great numbers, in different areas of society, the Agency can
do all that and, to a modest amount, that work carries on now.
The great tragedy of everything is that that work that is already
taking place with MAFF nobody knows about simply because in the
past everyone has just thought of us as the farmers' ministry,
sponsored by the food industry, dealing with E-coli, salmonella
and BSE; yet all this work of policing and information was contained
there. We want to expand that role. The Agency will carry that
work through. We set out on page 18 of the document you have on
the draft Bill a series of things the Agency could do, some of
which I have just mentioned. Another one is certainly give advice
to people with food allergies, which we do now but the Agency
will almost certainly be involved in that.
26. You would hope that the Agency would
be far more successful than MAFF is at present with information?
(Mr Rooker) It will be more specific with its
eye on the main ball. Part of the extra money is for that function.
The £41 million is basically 12 million start-up and 29 million
running. The 29 is broadly for the three new functions that I
have explained, one of which is education and information, so
resources for education and information on food will be vastly
increased over those which are spent at the present time.
27. What is the budget roughly for the information
on food going to be within the Agency?
(Mr Rooker) Of the 29 million, it is probably
about 12. There are two 12s there. 12 is also part of the start-up
costs over a three year period, but the 29 is for running costs,
to do extra work over that which is done now: on farm surveillance,
education and information and the setting of standards and monitoring
and enforcement of local authorities.
28. I am somewhat sceptical about this section
of the Agency's responsibility because the people who are probably
most in need of the information are not necessarily people who
read government pamphlets. You mentioned £12 million which
roughly works out at 20p per individual. We have a multi-billion
pound industry with magazines on newsagents' shelves telling people
what they should eat and what they should not eat. Why do you
think the Agency is going to be any more successful than they
(Tessa Jowell) That is a very important point.
It is a point which touches right across the whole field of health
promotion, obviously way beyond just concern with food. It has
always been my view that health promotion in this area and public
information has to be seen as more than just leaflets in places
where, as you rightly say, many of the people who most need the
information may not go. I hope the Agency will explore imaginative
and effective ways of getting this information out to parts of
communities that may find this information inaccessible if they
have to rely on helplines or going to large supermarkets. This
is an area where we are all learning and I would expect the Agency
to learn as well. Secondly, I think it is extremely important
that the effectiveness of the money which is spent on informing
the public is very carefully monitored in terms of its intelligibility,
whether it has meant anything, whether it has been useful to people,
because I think in the past far too much money has simply been
thrown at this kind of public information without any assessment
of whether it has made any difference to people at all.
29. Would that health promotion be something
you would be looking at within the national curriculum in schools?
(Tessa Jowell) As you know, we have a healthy
schools programme which is being run between the Department of
Health and the Department of Education and Employment. We are
looking at a whole range of areas in which we can work together
to improve the health of children but also to engage children
from quite a young age in understanding what they can do to improve
and safeguard their own health. It is very much part of cross-departmental
collaboration but I think this is an area where there will be
a lot of exchange between the Agency and the Department within
the clear demarcation in relation to responsibility for nutrition
which is set out in the White Paper.
30. Still on nutrition, you said, Minister,
that what the public does with the information is of course a
matter for them. To an extent that is true but it is not the complete
truth, is it? You have indicated yourself that the policies of
other departments can impact on people's nutrition. You have instanced
schools, for instance, and work being done there. That is not
the only department whose policies impact on people's access to
food. Affordability is a very, very important feature. In my own
area it has been found that the poorest people have the least
access to better diets at reasonable prices. There is all that
sort of thing. To what extent will the Agency be able to give
advice directly to other departments of government or will it
have to be filtered through your two departments? To what extent,
if any, will other departments be expected or able to approach
the Agency direct? If I can give one example, the question of
nutrition in pregnancy is of great importance and is very affected
by the affordability question in many cases and in many areas
and can have an impact lifelong on the forthcoming baby. I have
found over many years it is impossible to get any sense at all
from the DSS about how they view the need for sufficient money
in the benefit system. Will the DSS be able to ask advice about
what constitutes a healthy diet and so on and then cost it? Will
you do that? How will we know that that kind of thing is being
(Tessa Jowell) That is a very important question.
The major part of the work on the issues that you have identified
will be done as part of the Department of Health's broad public
health function which, as you will be aware, involves us now working
very closely with other departments. We recently commissioned
the former Chief Medical Officer, Sir Donald Atchison, to provide
us with advice on health inequality and he made some very important
recommendations in relation to the importance of safeguarding
nutrition in pregnancy in order to improve health of the mother,
health of the baby and also linking the evidence that ill health
or malnourishment in infancy has long term effects. We are at
the moment looking at the ways in which we will act on that. I
think the issue about the extent to which the Agency will exist
to provide advice to other departmentsthe formal route
for the Agency will be that its advice will be provided to the
Secretary of State. Its advice on any matter at all will be provided
to the Secretary of State for Health. There is then a cross-departmental
structure which will engage other Secretaries of State in addressing
particular issues of concern that may involve a cross-departmental
response. That would be the formal position but I think it would
be inconceivable that if a minister from the Department of Social
Security or DETR contacted the Agency for some information they
would be denied it.
31. Where will genetically modified foods
fit into the work of the Agency?
(Mr Rooker) Exactly the same place as now. Before
I answer that, when I said to Diana about the information budget,
that is in addition. What goes on now is part of the budget that
gets transferred into the Agency. The new money that comes in
is to provide extra services. We can provide a more detailed paper
on that, if you like. We are not going to stop what we are doing
and then say, "You have this money; you have got to do it
now". We are transferring over the existing resources. GMOs
will fit in exactly where they are now in relation to food. The
Agency will become the UK regulatory authority, as you heard in
the presentation. There is no change in that respect. Of course,
there is the distinction, as you saw also earlier, in respect
of releases into the environment which the Agency will be consulted
on, but it will not have a regulatory role. In this case, so far
as food is concerned, it will take over the existing powers exercised
by MAFF ministers which are in effect to sign off, having received
advice and the necessary research back-up, any novel foods, including
GMOs, which come on to the market. It is not our job to promote
GMOs; it is not the Agency's job to promote GMOs. It is our job
to regulate what comes on to the market in respect of food. It
will be the Agency that does that. MAFF will have no role in that
whatsoever. That is to be exclusively an Agency issue.
32. What about GM veterinary products?
(Mr Rooker) The Veterinary Medicines Directorate
will remain a MAFF agency, as indeed the Pesticides Safety Directorate
will. They both have statutory advisory committees. The two committees
that advise ministers on that are statutory, not voluntary. There
was pressure to put these two agencies in the Food Standards Agency.
We are not trying to create a mini MAFF. What we have put in the
mechanism is, in shorthand, the Food Standards Agency will have
a veto on any pesticide, whether for a GMO crop or not; in shorthand,
the Food Standards Agency will also have a veto on any veterinary
medicine because the health ministers are part of the licensing
process for medicines. While the Veterinary Products Committee
will still advise ministers and carry out their statutory duties,
the licensing authority is withheld because the Medicines Act
governs what we do in respect of veterinary medicines, as indeed
in respect of human medicines. The GMO element will be covered
by that, so there is no escape. The Agency will have a key role.
Likewise, animal feedstuffs. Animal feedstuffs will be dealt with
by the Agency. Aspects of GMOs in animal foodstuffs will be dealt
with and regulated by the Agency.
33. I have a slightly malicious question,
I am afraid. Why is it right to ban the sale of beef on the bone,
which carries an infinitesimal and unquantifiable health risk,
and right to authorise the sale of green top milk, which carries
a very obviously quantifiable health risk?
(Mr Rooker) That is a very good analogy. I would
not describe the question myself as in any way malicious. On beef
on the bone, I hope the position is absolutely clear. The present
situation is we are following the Chief Medical Officer of Health's
advice. I do not just accept the advice of the Chief Medical Officer;
I happen to agree with it. The known risk of BSE at the moment
is through maternal transmission. Taking 30 months from August
1996, because nothing over 30 months goes into the food chain,
it takes nine months to create a calf and one can well see when
the risk of maternal transmission should have disappeared. However,
by taking beef on the bone out of the food chain, we have made
sure that we are not knowingly putting any BSE infectivity into
the food chain at whatever level. Removing that, as the Chief
Medical Officer said in his advice at the present time, would
be to put back knowingly a very, very tiny risk. The analysis
between putting the ban on and lifting the ban off is not the
same. It is not two sides of the same coin. Regretfully, people
have died. People are dying and I can assure you we know more
people will die of BSE. That decision was taken on those grounds
and I hope the more this gets debated the more people will accept
it. More British people, by the way, are eating more British beef
today, since the beef on the bone ban was placed on, than ever
before. Consumption has gone dramatically up by British people
of British beef. It has made a tremendous impact. I take that
as part of their confidence in the fact that we have been very,
very precautionary. On green top milk, I would not touch it myself.
My colleague, Jack Cunningham, once described it to me as slime
top milk. The evidence we had from the surveys showed some 60
per cent level of contamination, not all of it E-coli, and it
was quite devastating from the Advisory Committee on Microbiological
Safety of Food. We are at the position where it is very restrictive
in any event. There is no use for catering. There is no retail
in the sense of being distributed around shops. There are on farm
and farm shops. The nature of it is, from a geographical point
of view, restrictive. We have the issue of the ban in Scotland.
It is open to Scottish ministers, any time they wish, to lift
the ban in Scotland. They have shown no signs of wishing to do
that. We have gone rather more towards increasing the labelling.
We have doubled the amount of inspections that will take place
by the Dairy Service and the industry is going to have to pay
for this as well. I do not see why the taxpayer should pay for
it. The inspection tests in the dairy and the microbiological
tests have been increased as well. We need a bit of legislation
to do some of this but we forecast that when the decision was
announced in January. The labelling of the bottles and cartons
will be vastly improved in line with the Chief Medical Officer's
new advice. There will have to be distinctive labelling, not hidden
away in tiny print as it is in some areas now. Quite clearly,
giving this milk to children, elderly people or people who are
infirmI almost said it should be criminal but, by definition,
the government has not taken that viewshould not happen.
All that being said, if people wish to drink this milk as adults,
knowing the risks, then they are free to do so in England.
34. The Minister has just referred to labelling
and I was going to go back to the Health Minister on that because
I understand it is part of the remit of the Food Standards Agency.
Will there be guidance given, in modern printing style and size?
For example, if there is genetically modified food in the food
chain, will it be clearly marked so that people who have concerns
about it can identify it very easily, rather than those with poor
eyesight, like myself at times, wondering what is said?
(Mr Rooker) We hope next week to publish the regulations
for labelling. I cannot say we will and the reason for that is
the consultation process we are in now does not end until the
28th of this month. If I say we will, there will be a barrack
room lawyer out there who will be off to a judge to say that the
government has jumped the gun. That is the reality. It is no good
sugar coating it. Unless we find anything that we have not already
had our attention drawn towe are in the second consultation;
this has not just been four weeks. We did three months in the
autumn of last yearwe will publish the regulations, which
will include the catering industry. The requirement for GMO labelling
is the print shall not be any less than that for the ingredients.
It will not be, for example, like the tomato paste where it is
half inch high lettering on the front of the tin. That is voluntary
by the producer, by the manufacturer, by the retailer. We are
not intending to force that but for the ingredients labelling,
for the statutory requirements, we are going to make sure they
cannot use print that is any smaller than the ingredients list.
I do take Martin Smyth's point. Sometimes that print is quite
35. I hope the regulation is going to mean
that when I go into a food store and buy something the actual
percentage of fat is a percentage of fat in the quantity that
I pick up off the shelf and not something that I have to make
a consultation about myself as a consumer.
(Tessa Jowell) Can I pick up that point and perhaps
answer the second part of Martin Smyth's question because, as
the Committee will be aware, the regulations in relation to labelling
are regulations which are determined in Europe, but we are very
concerned to create greater lucidity in the way in which food
is labelled. That will be achieved both by lobbying with other
Member States in order to try to improve lucidity, but also this
may well be the kind of area, going back to Diana Organ's earlier
question, in which the Agency will choose to invest money in developing
leaflets which actually explain what a gram of saturated fat means
as part of a balanced diet. The position at the moment is not
satisfactory in that it does not give people information which
is terribly useful to them and we would certainly hope that the
Agency would act to make the information about the nutrient content
of food more consumer friendly. Can I take the opportunity to
go back to Mrs Wise's point? I just wanted to clarify that clause
nine of the draft Bill does actually make clear that the Agency's
advice is available to other departments, although the normal
conduit is through the Secretary of State.
36. Could I say to the Minister of State
for the Department of Agriculture that his comments about green
top milk just illustrate to me how food policy ought not to be
made in this country? If he really thinks that this should be
described as "slime top"
(Mr Rooker) I said a colleague.
37. Whoever said that, you have reported
it in public in this Committee. If you believe that, this milk
should be banned. If you do not think the milk should be banned,
you have no business making that sort of description of it. That
is a thoroughly silly way of making policy, if I may say so, and
it illustrates the contradiction of it being banned in half the
country and not banned in the other half of the country. I do
not know whether Scottish intestines are different to English
intestines, but it simply does not make sense. Could I ask you
a question about beef on the bone? The guiding principles in your
own document state that the Agency will make decisions and take
action on the basis that, one, the Agency's decisions and actions
should be proportionate to the risk, pay due regard to costs as
well as to benefits to those affected by them and avoid over-regulation.
How would you describe banning beef on the bone and the risks
which have been listed by Lewis Moonie as fulfilling the criteria
of proportionality which you yourself have written into this proposed
(Mr Rooker) Can I answer the question by just
giving a point of information? It is a fact that, per head of
population, known reported food poisoning cases in Scotland are
twice that in England. That kind of information has to figure
in making decisions about different products that might cause
a problem. That might be the reason why Scottish ministers have
not lifted the ban on green top milk. This has to be a factor.
We have big, regional differences in number of reported cases.
I make no apology because we are not making policy. We are actually
improving the scrutiny, the labelling, the enforcement of this
particular product which is sold in extremely small quantities.
On beef on the bone, as I tried to say, we have here a new disease.
In the history of diseases, even ten years of a disease is a very,
very small period of time to know about a disease. We do not know
the incubation period of new variant CJD, number one. We have
no evidence whatsoever for that information. We have a position
where the only known source of infectivity is thought possibly
to be through maternal transmission. Nobody can say with certainty
what the cause of BSE was. I am counselled each time, if I go
to refer to the feed, to say it is thought to have been the feed.
Only the inquiry is going to give us that. There are scientists
who have other views about what the causes were. It is quite clear,
since the feed regime was changed, that the numbers have come
down in practice in proportion to what was predicted, so it looks
likethe chances areit was the feed. It is a very
small risk, as was said in December 1997. The risk today is known
therefore to be even smaller. We accept that. The Chief Medical
Officer's advice was quite clear and explicit on that. What he
did say wasand I think this is not an unimportant pointthat
when the ban was placed on we completely removed all known infectivity
from a food chain of a disease whose incubation period we do not
know. Taking the ban off before we had got to the point where
the only known source of infectivity, i.e., maternal transmission,
had not been fully eradicated means you are knowingly putting
back into the food chain, at whatever tiny level, this infectivity.
The Chief Medical Officer of Health was quite clearly not prepared
to advise ministers to do that. It is time limited in a sense.
We will visit it in another six months. In terms of measuring
the proportionality for a disease whose incubation period we do
not know, I say no statistician or expert can be certain about
this. We do not know. More people are going to die. That we do
know for certain. We do not know the numbers and therefore we
have taken this precautionary role for this reason, for this particular
product. Given the increase in consumption by British people of
British beef during calendar year 1998, it shot up at the expense
of exports because they knew that government had been ultra-precautionary
in this, for which frankly I make no apology whatsoever.
38. But you have taken that decision. You
are now entrusting this to the Food Standards Agency and you are
going to ask the Food Standards Agency to behave according to
criteria and proportionality is one of the criteria. Would you
be surprised if, in pursuing the mandate you give it, it were
to conclude that the odds against illness ensuing from the consumption
of beef on the bone would be so small in comparison with smoking,
for example, which the government is promoting by trying to protect
duty free, that it should lift the ban on beef on the bone?
(Mr Rooker) I am not playing with words but we
are dealing with a new disease that we do not know enough about.
There is that degree of uncertainty. You are quite right. We took
the decision and we are responsible for it, not the officials
or the Chief Medical Officer of Health. Ministers took the decision
and I am sitting here defending it. I will defend it on the basis
of what I know and what we do not know about the incubation period
of this disease.
39. But you are handing over the decision.
(Mr Rooker) We are not handing over the decision,
with respect, because a decision like that would in the end be
made by Parliament. I was the one who came to the House and presented
the Statutory Instrument late one night. Parliament will make
the decision. Ministers will have to be accountable to Parliament.
If ministers do not agree with the Food Standards Agency advice,
everyone will know about it because the Food Standards Agency
advice will be in the public domain and if ministers choose to
take a different approach, which may be in some cases even more
precautionary, then it is the ministers' job to go to the floor
of the House of Commons and defend their position.
could I thank you for that very comprehensive answer? We are not
looking at issues as such but in the end there you said exactly
how the government envisage the Food Standards Agency will work.
It will make recommendations; it will publish those recommendations
and ministers will take decisions. I would ask the Committee to
keep that in mind. We are looking at this issue about whether
the government, in doing that, wanted to set up a Food Standards
Agency working in that way and we have the right piece of draft
legislation in front of us this morning.