Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 40 - 59)



Ms Keeble

  40.  In terms of improving food safety in particular, to a certain extent, the success of the FSA will depend partly on its enforcement powers and its ability to improve standards. It is well known that there is a lot of difference between local authorities and the way they approach food safety, the resources they allocate to it and their competence. How do you expect the FSA to be able to deal with that?
  (Mr Rooker)  Both our departments currently deal with these issues. You are quite right. There are several hundred enforcement authorities in the country and positions do vary. Different local authorities give the issue a different degree of importance in their budgets. Nevertheless, there is a variety of cooperation that has surprised me in the last two years, particularly in parts of the Midlands where two or three counties actually share the environmental expertise that each of them has to make sure areas are covered that they have not necessarily got themselves. I think that is very important and I am sure the Agency would encourage that. One of the key areas is to ensure that each authority knows where all the registered food premises are in their area. There will be an incentive for them to do that because they will get, if you like, a cut of the levy. We know, because of the famous case published last year, that the authority where we are physically situated at the moment did not know of 1,700 catering establishments. I fear for the people eating in those because clearly nobody was inspecting them. That area has to be looked at. There is a monitoring role to first of all see what they are doing, not just numbers of inspections, by the way, because numbers of inspections would not be the yardstick. I do not think that would be a fair way. It is the quality of the inspections that take place. Are the staff properly trained? Is there ongoing training as well as the hygiene conditions that they personally conduct for themselves, as well as within the premises? It is not just a question of, "I have done lots of visits to that place". They may have only been four or five minutes each without a proper checklist, without looking at who owns the premises, the part-time workers who might come in the middle of the night and that kind of thing; it is the quality of the inspection. It is to audit that kind of role that I think the Agency will have a key role in and then it will set enforcement standards by which the authorities will be monitored. If they fall down on the job, that will be publicly known and action can be taken.

  41.  I agree with the point about the quality of inspections but if you take, for example, the big outbreak of E-coli in Scotland I understand that the butcher's shop had actually been inspected by Environmental Health Officers. What I am concerned about is there is quite likely to be an outbreak of food-borne illness after the FSA is set up. That is bound to happen but if it then transpires that the premises were inspected by Environmental Health Officers and people say, "Why did not the FSA prevent this?" and the reply then comes back that it is not actually the FSA's job to do that; it is down to the Environmental Health Officers, the same as it always was, is not there going to be a real crisis of public confidence because they think things are going to be qualitatively different? I suspect that includes that they think that the inspections and the enforcement will be different as well.
  (Mr Rooker)  There will be an improvement I hope in enforcement inspections because the local authorities will actually gain some extra resources from the levy. We have not got a figure at the moment, obviously we are still consulting on the principle of the levy and the figures but the intention is that part of what they collect, because they will be the collection agency, will cover the cost of collection plus an additional amount they will retain as extra resources over and above that which they receive. They will not have that lot withdrawn from their Standard Spending Assessment from the Department of the Environment.

  42.  They do not have currently have an SSA for this function? Is there going to be some recognition by the Department of the Environment of the SSA for this very important function?
  (Mr Rooker)  We were at one time under pressure to ring fence the money. We were under pressure at one time to remove all this from local authorities, a bit like the Meat Hygiene Service had been done, if you like. The enforcement processes in many local authorities are absolutely excellent and first class, they are a model to the rest of the country. They will be a model on which the Agency could build for the rest of the country so it does not make sense for us to destroy what is good. As I say, we do not want to take our eye off the ball as to why we are setting up the Agency by destroying and having massive turmoil in the existing system, that will cause a loss of public confidence. The intention is, it is true, to raise standards of enforcement and inspection. That will not happen day one, by definition that will not happen day one but that is the intention and the Agency will be proactive—proactive—in dealing with this issue. The local authorities, from our discussions with them, fully endorse this and embrace this. Obviously they always talk about resources, as they always do in every area, and I understand the reason why. As a Ministry we talk about resources as well when we are having discussions with our colleagues in the Treasury.

  43.  I take that point that there is some good practice. I just wonder if you could say something about the timescale that you expect the FSA to be able to improve the standards by? For example, looking at areas like the split between the Environmental Health Office and Trading Standards which in some areas means it will have different local authorities responsible for inspecting different bits of the FSA key functions. Also dealing with the fact that some EHOs are superb, but with the best will in the world they also have to deal with Christmas toys and fireworks and things like that and also when the beef on the bone rules came out there was less than overwhelming enthusiasm for enforcing those rules. It might well be the FSA has to contend with some Environmental Health Officers who are not overwhelmed with the idea of new duties. What kind of timescale? How much will they use carrot and how much will they use stick?
  (Mr Rooker)  I cannot really put a time on that with respect, Chairman. We are not trying to second guess, as Ministers at the moment, about how the FSA will work through its priorities and timetable within the guiding principles and the new powers that it is going to have. It would not make sense for us to try and do that, we do not have the legal authority to do it by the way which is why we need the legislation in this draft Bill for the Agency to be able to do this. I cannot really put a timescale on that and it would be quite ridiculous. I suspect by the time, if you like, when the Bill is going through the House we might have more of an idea but it is the Agency's function to do this. We are not trying to second guess it as a Government now, we know the job needs doing which is why we are giving the Agency this role and taking, with the approval of the House, the necessary legislative power to make sure it has got that power. So far as how it works between Trading Standards Officers and Environmental Health Officers that would be, I would imagine, a pretty early matter on its agenda because that will be a test for the future. Obviously changing policy and practice in this area is not going to be done overnight, it will be something the Agency wants to start up. As I have said it is one of the three new areas of work that does not take place at the present time, therefore I would imagine it would be fairly high on the priorities for the Agency.

  44.  You mentioned that you had been under some pressure to set up a dedicated team of inspectors, perhaps along the lines of the Meat Hygiene Service or the Food and Drug Administration in the States. Could you say a bit more about why you turned that down and why you opted for this rather than a contractual model as the Agriculture Select Committee suggested? You opted for using some enforcement means which we have currently and frankly we have a fairly patchy record.
  (Mr Rooker)  At the risk of repeating myself, we did not see the justification for a Meat Hygiene Service type operation. We did not see the justification for removing from elected local government this key enforcement role. These are the food police at the sharp end. There is a tremendous amount of expertise and goodwill out there. I agree performance is patchy which is why we want that issue addressed. We did not see a justification for making a massive change, which it would be, in terms of the power structure between central and local government, at the same time as setting up an Agency to operate at arms' length from Ministers. Frankly, we would not get the Agency up and running quickly if we overloaded—and I am not using that as an excuse because I did not think it would be the right thing to do anyway—the Agency with lots and lots of new functions and powers over that which is needed to do the main function. We are trying got keep to that narrow limit to make it a success so that when it starts it becomes seamless, no big bang on the first day because of the culture change of the two Ministries in the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group, the way we operate now, but to make sure it actually works which is why we do not want to have lots of add-ons to it but deal with the areas where we do know attention needs to be given.
  (Tessa Jowell)  Could I just add very briefly to that because I think that Jeff has set out the purpose and the nature of the relationship between the Agency and local authorities very clearly indeed. The aim is to drive up standards and to achieve much greater consistency of standards across local authorities. I think your question also touches on another major challenge for the Agency. Your point about if there is another outbreak will this not simply lead to a collapse of public confidence in the Agency? One of the very important jobs that the Agency will have to do is first of all to manage reasonable expectation because these changes will take place over time but secondly, there is a multitude of causes that create the kind of outbreak which puts people's health and well being in jeopardy and at the moment there is far too little public understanding of the range of factors that contribute to an outbreak of E.coli or salmonella. It is a very clear balance between clearly a role for Government and getting the legislative framework right, proper enforcement and surveillance at a local level, in relation to local authorities, but also the health authority has a role and I hope that the much closer working relationships between health and local authorities will be a way of reinforcing this link. But so too do we want a better level of individual public understanding about what people can do themselves in the privacy of their own homes to minimise the risk of infection.

Mr Paterson

  45.  Can I just come in. Will there be an increase in the number of people inspecting on the ground and will they be qualified? I have had considerable reports of officials coming in with no experience of food processing. We hear of vets employed by the Meat Hygiene Service who have never been to an abattoir who are supposed to be controlling slaughtering. What influence will the Food Standards Agency have on the number of people employed and their qualifications?
  (Mr Rooker)  When you say employed, I am assuming therefore you are talking about first of all people employed by local authorities. They will not necessarily have an influence on the numbers employed by local authorities. Because of its role in setting standards for enforcement by local authorities and then monitoring and altering those and if there is a failure taking action, quite clearly the Food Agency will have certainly good and constructive discussions with local authorities to make sure those standards are enforced. By definition, that is going to have to take account of the qualifications and quality and training of enforcement officers, not necessarily numbers. This is a question of resource allocation in the best area. You mentioned, of course, the Meat Hygiene Service which is slightly different because the Meat Hygiene Service exists as an Executive Agency of MAFF. It will report into the Food Standards Agency. Obviously it employs vets and other officials. There is a shortage of vets, the way they train vets in the European Union is somewhat different from the way we train vets in this country. Certainly you can be a trained vet without ever having been near a large animal I understand in some countries in the European Union. This causes—how can I say—distress in our abattoirs when confronted with vets who are now registered here because of the system in the European Union but have not actually seen some of the practices they are employed to inspect. I understand the distress of quality people working in the meat industry when this situation arises. Hopefully it is short term until we can get more people trained in this country because we have been under-implementing and therefore under training staff, there is a shortage. We are required to operate those European Union Directives and because we were found not to be doing so it puts at risk the lifting of the beef export ban and that is why we have taken the steps we have within the Meat Hygiene Service to get more people. We have to recruit from the European Union. Like you I would want everyone to be better qualified and at least up to level standards across Europe and that is a matter we have had ongoing discussions with the Royal College about since I have been in the Ministry.

  46.  What you are admitting then is it is tokenism, we have got vets standing by in abattoirs who are quite unqualified.
  (Mr Rooker)  They are not qualified the same as our vets would be qualified but they are qualified.

  47.  I take that point but they are not qualified to control the process of slaughtering and cutting up animals. They may be qualified in looking after cats or small dogs I quite agree. Surely it is tokenism, we are following a Directive, we are imposing a huge cost—£6 million a year on the meat industry to employ these people—and they bring no added value or any safety knowledge at all?
  (Mr Rooker)  I think that is a very stark way of putting what is the situation you describe. I cannot go beyond saying I share the distress of some people who work in the abattoirs that these situations arise. Nevertheless we are required, we are audited ourselves do not forget, the Meat Hygiene Service is audited by the State Veterinary Service and subject to spot-checks by European Union auditors as well. Nobody has said and claimed that what we are doing in terms of inspection in the abattoirs and cutting plants is not in conformity with the regulations. Indeed, because of the extra costs and because of extra enforcement, we are now enforcing the regulations, albeit with staff who might not be up to the same training standards as our own but we are now enforcing to a much greater extent than we were two years ago. That has got to be good for consumer confidence, even though there is an extra cost to the industry.

  48.  This is the absolute nub of the whole subject, surely. There is a danger that we are going to build a Potemkin Palace. We will go through the motions of having better control. We will have this huge new organisation, a huge new budget, £50 million resources or whatever, but unless we have thoroughly qualified people on the ground who understand the mechanics of slaughtering and food production there will be no health gain whatever. We will fulfil all the requirements of this Act and we will fulfil the requirements of the EU Directives but there will be no health gain. It is pointless employing these people if they do not understand the food processing.
  (Mr Rooker)  I do not accept it is tokenism. What we have said—and I have made this clear in letters to colleagues who have raised this issue with me so it is a matter of public record—we will concentrate the extra resources, ie. the extra vets and inspectors, in those areas of the meat industry where they are needed, i.e. where there is a continual low HAS score. In other words, it is not the intention to overdo those who are scoring high anyway, we will concentrate where we need to with greater more frequent inspections for the low scorers in order to raise standards. In some areas of the meat industry we still need to raise standards. We are taking extra powers in the near future to have extra powers in respect of where there is fault on hygiene on the physical part of the premises so that we can close quicker than we can at the moment. We will make sure these resources, these vets who are not trained in the way that our vets are but they are trained in conformity with the European Union regulations are put in the areas where we think standards need raising. By definition: low scoring cutting plants and abattoirs.

Chairman:  Could I thank you for that Minister and could I move on to Stephen Ladyman.

Dr Ladyman

  49.  For my sins I am still the vice chairman of finance on my local district council. I have to tell you that when the revenue support grant gets increased my mind does not turn immediately to employing more environmental health officers, it is not high on the political agenda in the district. How are you going to force me to put whatever money that you or FSA makes available through the levy that comes to my district, how are you going to force me to spend that in these areas you want me to spend it?
  (Mr Rooker)  Well, it is not a question of forcing but if the local authorities with the new resources and the new standards once they have been set are not found to be delivering those standards consistently, the Food Standards Agency has got the powers in this Bill to withdraw from that local authority the power to carry out that function. It has got the power to say to another local authority: "Would you like to subcontract and do the job for this authority down the road that is not up to the job". That I think is a very powerful sanction for local government to take the issue seriously. It is not just a question of us forcing them to spend money, it is a question of the Foods Standard Agency forcing them to raise standards and doing it in this way. The ultimate sanction, they will lose that role. This will be known to their electorate, do not forget. This will all be published. There will be pressure from below as well as pressure from above.

  50.  Say you took that up, I had this money in this area and you took that view, the FSA took that view that they wanted to get somebody else to subcontract, there would be a removal from my Council's budget of some part of its settlement or the levy that it was receiving in order to pay for that subcontracting. The Food Standards Agency would effectively be making an estimate, looking for a benchmark about what is reasonable for a particular district of a particular size to be spending in this area. Is there any intention it will do that on a general basis and indicate to districts for your population you ought to be spending about this amount of money?
  (Mr Rooker)  No, I think that is for the Agency to make this assessment. If you go back to the White Paper, when we are trying to put together what the existing expenditure in this country on food standards and safety it is very difficult to get a global figure. Some of it is spent by central Government, my Department, Tessa's Department and then of course local government. The estimate in the White Paper for Local Government I think was a figure between £150 and 180 million, we did not know. We did not know simply because of a couple of hundred different policies, different priorities, people like you, hard nosed finance people looking at accounts, not thinking of the reality of the service. Not being personal but you understand what I mean.

  51.  Yes.
  (Mr Rooker)  It is the way I judge treasurers and finance people. It is not a question I think of saying: "This is what you should spend in terms of money" but "This is the service you should deliver. These are the standards we expect for food standards and safety". Obviously over a period of time, when you have a national Agency doing this—no-one is doing this at present, there is no authority to do it—it will build up some benchmarks. It is inevitable that is bound to be the case, in isolated area, rural areas, depopulated areas, different from inner city. Inner city have still got some battery slaughter houses. It is an area we are concentrating on where it is sold cheap. Why is it sold cheap because they are cutting corners, maybe, on health and safety. That has to stop. We have to deal with that. I do not think it is possible for us to say: "This is what you should spend" but over a period of time there may be some benchmarks, the test will not be what you spend, it will be the service you deliver as food standards and safety for your local population.

Ms Keeble

  52.  I just want to ask two more questions. One is about the Food Standards Agency surveillance. In the proposals it will be able to conduct surveillance work over and above that which is done for the PSD, VMD and for MAFF. Why does not the Food Standards Agency simply take responsibility for all of the surveillance work? Will the people who do this be the same people who do the monitoring of local authority surveillance work?
  (Mr Rooker)  It is an interesting question. I accept that this is where we have not accepted the recommendation of the Agriculture Select Committee of course but we have in the light of the Select Committee's report on surveillance programmes on pesticides and veterinary medicines gone back to square one in the many months since it was published. I have to say of all the debates on the Food Standards Agency since I have been in MAFF, since day one, we have had bigger debates about veterinary medicines and pesticides in or out of the Agency than we ever did on nutrition. Nutrition was always the headline issue, the one the big row was about. We did not have rows, the nutrition thing was settled amicably in the White Paper and we have kept to that. We had bigger divisions about, as Phillip James said, do we take the directorates and the agencies into the Agency and we said no. Then it became from the Select Committee's point of view "What about the surveillance programme". Well, we have had a look at this and we have tried to say what is the role of the surveillance programme. Veterinary medicines, there are something like I think about 40,000 samples a year of different tests on different meats, we have a programme. It is all contracted out, by the way, it is contracted out, different laboratories, different purchasing arrangements to check the products around the country. That is done independently in the laboratories. The results we are going to publish by brand name of the veterinary medicines and the pesticides as well. The Pesticide Directorate similarly, we have a Pesticide Residues Working Party which oversees this and does an annual report, they will become the Pesticides Residues Committee. There is another advisory group on veterinary medicines which will become the Veterinary Residues Committee and that will have an independent chairman. At the moment it is chaired by the director of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate so there will be an independent chairman on that. We are making changes. The surveillance programmes they conduct will be in conjunction with maybe FSA requirements. What we do not want to do is have the FSA trying to mirror image and become a micro mini-MAFF in the early days. That is not to say this is closed off for all time. We have had a big debate about how we should do this now for the start up. We have extensive pesticide residue programmes in all kinds of products by the way and we prosecute people as well, you know in areas where they are over and above. We find one per cent above the levels only. We find residues in about 30 per cent, 70 per cent of what we check no residues whatsoever. It is very extensive, it runs to tens of thousands of samples of produce for pesticide residues. That will continue. Of course, they will be talking to the Agency, the Agency as I said in terms of pesticide regulation and approval will have a veto on pesticides as they come through the system.

  53.  The final question is I think you have set out very clearly what the proposals are for dealing with food premises which come under the normal local authority remit. It is the extension beyond there. I saw after the presentation we had previously that indeed the powers do go on to the farm but they are only for observation. I wonder whether they will be for entering the premises and seizing samples. I have visions of the person from the FSA marching on to the farm and trying to seize some samples, I do not know whether that is how it will happen? Secondly, whether they will be able to trace that past the import? One of the examples we had on a visit to the States was when some strawberries were traced back to Guatemala and it was found that the farmers had soiled boots, they had boots with manure on and the result was that over a thousand school kids got poisoned. Will they also trace back to see what happens abroad? There are huge fears about imported foods.
  (Mr Rooker)  I think that particular contamination was something rather different from farm boots but I will not go into the details of how those strawberries got contaminated.

  54.  It is obviously the same story.
  (Mr Rooker)  Some probably angry low paid aggrieved workers probably get their own back on American children. The point you raised, there will be no no-go areas in the food chain for the Food Standards Agency, let us make that clear.

  55.  They can do anything? They can take samples as well?
  (Mr Rooker)  There will be no no-go areas in the food chain. I use the term food chain, I was reading an essay a couple of weeks ago, the food chain is a very simplistic way of describing it. It was described in what I was reading as almost like a tangled plate of spaghetti because of the way foods are processed today and trying to untangle bits of it. It is not a chain in a single line looking at it. The job of looking at food as a whole is much more difficult than what might be the simplistic way of describing it as a chain. The fact is there will not be any areas where the Food Agency cannot go but it will go to a greater or lesser extent as to where it perceives the problems are. Now if it perceives there are problems on the farm, either in husbandry practices, the way food is collected, the way it is cropped, the way it is stored in the grain stores, and draws that to the attention of the existing regulatory authorities for that and then does not get any action, and does not get satisfaction then the powers in this Bill give the Food Standards Agency the power to make sure that things happen. It can make things happen. Initially it would only go for information. I have to say the powers in the one clause—I think it is 13—can read as quite onerous, they are not intended to be. The Food Standards Agency police over the farm gate, into the farm every day of the year, that is not the intention. We would be failing though if in bringing this legislation forward, and saying that there is no part of the food chain where the Agency cannot go, if we do not provide the primary legislation to make sure if a problem is perceived it can be dealt with. Now that has been in place for the whole of the food industry. Obviously we are consulting at the moment but that was always our intention, it was what was set out in the White Paper. The National Farmers Union is 100 per cent behind the Food Standards Agency because they see the big increase in consumer confidence. Also they see us dealing with imported foods. It is very important the Agency, although we do not discriminate against home production because of the way we collect the levy at the retail end, it will have an interest I am sure in the food chain, even for imported foods, as we have to do now within the European Union. Some foods are coming to this country, they are on the shelves, they are consumed within a couple of days. We import horticultural produce from 60 different countries. Now that kind of information has got to be of interest to anyone concerned with food standards and safety. Where was it grown? Were the workers well paid so they did not try and contaminate the food as it left? What pesticides were used? How is it transported? How is it stored? Now I know now our big supermarkets ask those kind of questions and have got their own traceability through the food chain, that does not always happen of course with the smaller areas. The Food Agency will have a role throughout the whole of the food chain to ensure that the gaps are filled and information is available.

  56.  How would you deal, for example, with EU and world trade organisations if you start putting pressure on overseas producers to improve their standards? I do think food standards in this country are very superior often, certainly to what we saw in the States on the Select Committee visit and large part of Europe as well.
  (Mr Rooker)  I would say with great difficulty if they go for a lesser degree of standards than we do. Our intention is obviously to work within the European Union. Most of our food policies are agreed within the European Union and then we are subject, of course, to the world trading organisation. We are talking here about the roles of individual——Nobody has a policy, by the way, for providing unsafe food in the world trade organisations, to the best of my knowledge.

  57.  They still manage to do it.
  (Mr Rooker)  Well they might be managing to do it but therefore we have to block that off. Now I do not see anybody arguing against that. We are setting up a process in this country, others are looking at what we are doing by the way, we are not inventing the wheel but we are trying a new way of conducting food policy in respect of food standards. I realise food policy is a much wider issue than food standards and safety, it goes beyond that. What we are seeking to do is to set up a new organisation that has the benefits that we have touched on this morning throughout the food chain. Where problems are highlighted, whether it is labelling, surveillance, use of pesticides in some countries that we do not allow in this country, it may be that they have to allow them in a third world or different countries because the nature of the pests is different, we have to take account of that. We are in a global market, we cannot abrogate and erect false import barriers, that would not be the intention. The Food Standards Agency is not going down that road. It will have a role and other organisations want to have a role throughout the whole of the food chain and where we see problems to get these discussed and agreed at international level. I realise we cannot always get our own way by the way in the United Kingdom, even in the European Union and I think that is a good example. Here is a good example, yes I almost had a fatwa put on me for pistachio nuts a year ago. We had an order prohibiting the importation into Britain of pistachios which originated or were consigned from Iran. The ban followed high frequencies of contamination, high levels of aflatoxin found in pistachios imported from Iran. We did that in September 1997. That encouraged the Iranians to do a lot of work in their own country. In other words, that was done on that basis because once we had done that they had got a problem within the European Union. As I say, no-one has got an intent—whatever we may think—to supply into this country foods which are going to cause people damage. The system does need policing, I accept that. The Food Agency can have a role in that with other authorities, it will not be doing that all on its own.

Dr Moonie

  58.  You have mentioned the veto twice, will they have the power and the resources to commission their own research?
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes. They will take over MAFF's research budget. Our total Departmental budget is about £130 million. What we have identified so far—there is other work going on on this because it is a moving target in the sense of being an annual figure—that between MAFF and the Department of Health the budget that relates to food standard safety is around about £25 million, the figure we have put in the White Paper, that is give or take a modest amount. That budget will be transferred over, as indeed will all the projects that are currently under way on vesting day. At any one time in my Department we have got 2,000 projects we are funding across MAFF. We receive something like 800 research papers a year, that is roughly three a day, in terms of all of our policy, that includes animal health, fishing and food. Our policy is based upon the research, the research is led by the policy people. We do not have a research programme per se. The research projects are all designed to effect the policy. The Food Agency, I presume they will operate on the same basis, they will have the money transferred over to them certainly.

Dr Brand

  59.  Brilliant illustration of the Minister's grasp of the incredibly complex current situation on food safety. I have just been counting up: we have the world trade organisations, European Union, United Kingdom, other countries of the United Kingdom, counties and districts, all with a mixture of statutory powers and advisory duties. The new Bill suggests we will have concordats in addition to that. Are you happy that the framework you have created will actually allow something to evolve which clearly needs to make the world a bit more easily accountable place? At the moment I think certainly the consumer is very confused as to who is responsible for what activity.
  (Mr Rooker)  I would imagine once the Agency is up and running, the interface with the public between this Agency and other agencies of Government I think will be quite high. We will have to look for some quality people, a chief executive and chair for this Agency. There will be a big interface I think with the public. It is all about really eating safely in what is a dirty world, that is what it is about. I think at different parts of the chain one needs to have, if you like, more precision, more regulation than in other parts of the chain. The job of the Agency is to make sure there are no bits that we do not know about.

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