Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses(Questions 20 - 39)

WEDNESDAY 24 FEBRUARY 1999

MR JEFF ROOKER, MP and THE RT HON TESSA JOWELL, MP

  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 United Kingdom?
  (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.

Mrs Organ

  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 this.

  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.

Mr Walter

  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 are?
  (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.

Chairman

  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.

Audrey Wise

  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 done?
  (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 departments—the 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.

Dr Moonie

  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 infirm—I almost said it should be criminal but, by definition, the government has not taken that view—should 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.

Rev Smyth

  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 to—we are in the second consultation; this has not just been four weeks. We did three months in the autumn of last year—we 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 small.

Chairman

  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.

Mr Curry

  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 legislation?
  (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 like—the chances are—it 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 was—and I think this is not an unimportant point—that 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.

Chairman:  Minister, 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.


 
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