Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 89 - 99)




  89.  Professor Pennington, first of all, can I welcome you here this afternoon. I am very sorry indeed that we have started late. As you can imagine it is a tight timetable for everybody, including Members of the Committee and we are trying to juggle our diaries around, as I am sure you have been juggling your's to get down here this afternoon. We are very pleased that you are able to come. Could I mention also in passing, for everybody's benefit, certainly Members of the Committee, we have effectively sitting with us now a Committee of the Joint Food Safety and Standards Group who have been working on this issue within the different Government departments now for the last two years and they are here to give evidence as well. I do not think they will be calling you into question, Professor Pennington, but they are here to assist the Committee if we have any small details we need clearing up without having to write to Ministers or necessarily getting the Ministers back in again. I am sure you are aware of the situation. You are, in a sense, one of our star witnesses, given the role that you have played in recent years over the issue of food safety in Lanarkshire in Scotland. Really our remit is to look at this proposed Bill, this draft legislation, to see whether it does what the Government would want this Bill to do, to give us an Agency which is independent and can give consumer confidence and public confidence in the food chain in the UK. I just wonder, as an opener, if you believe that the draft legislation can do that?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes. I think in principle, yes, I think it can. Can I just thank the Committee very much for asking me down. I am very pleased that the draft Bill has come out at last. The openness, I think that is implicit in it, and the desire to get public confidence back, I think are very, very important. I think the draft Bill, as I have read it so far, and I am not a Parliamentary draftsman, looks to me as though it will achieve that aim if we get the right people running it and it has a meed of luck.

Dr Stoate

  90.  You say an element of luck, what we are more concerned about is not what the principle of the draft Bill is like, I think we all agree the principle is right, what we are much more concerned about in the Committee is the detail. You say an element of luck, but what do you mean by that?
  (Professor Pennington)  Last year when I was giving evidence to the Agriculture Committee I pointed out that the Food Agency could have a hard time starting if there was a big food scare very early after it had been set up but before it had got itself fully established. I do not believe that it will be able to get public confidence back just by virtue of existing and just by virtue of some good legislation. It will obviously have to earn public confidence and that could be a very difficult task if there is a food scare on the way in. It will obviously have to work very quickly and that is really why I was thinking it will need some luck or it would be very nice if it had some luck so that it did not have to face a challenge right from the beginning, although I fear there are some challenges there which have not gone away. For example, the recent GMO story is something that is not going to go away and will be a challenge for the Food Standards Agency.

  91.  Just to follow on from that. You are saying we do need an element of luck to get the thing off the ground, do you see any obvious glaring gaps in the legislation, the bits that have not been included perhaps that you think might strengthen its hand?
  (Professor Pennington)  There is one general principle which I think would bear examination and that is how far the remit of the Food Agency stretches into the farm. I am coming at this from a microbiological standpoint. I see an organism like, for example, E.coli which we do know something about, it does not present a problem to farmers, it does not cause disease in animals, it only causes disease in people but essentially it resides in farm animals. I think because at the moment we would leave a good bit of the control of that with existing authorities, the Food Standards Agency would in a sense have to pick up some of the pieces and do its best to influence, for example, the control of that particular organism in animals through cross membership of committees and that kind of thing. I think the stronger the mechanisms that are available to it the quicker it will solve that particular problem.

Mr Curry

  92.  What I have not quite understood is how would you influence E.coli on the farm? When you say you ought to go to a farmer, what would you envisage? May I ask a question I always ask. Nine o'clock on a Monday morning, somebody sits up and says: "Okay, I am a bit bothered about this", what does he do?
  (Professor Pennington)  That is a very good question because at the moment we cannot give a farmer any advice at all as to what he should do about E.coli because we do not know how to control it. That is a task for researchers to get on with very, very quickly. There are some straws in the wind as to what measures might become available to reduce the carriage of the organism by altering the feeds of animals, for example. There might be technical fixes like vaccines and so on. Those are issues which require urgent attention because the human health problem is caused by this organism residing in cattle. I am not talking about an immediate practical response to an outbreak, I am talking about a strategic attack on the organism over a period of a few years.

  93.  When you talk about problems on the farm, in a sense you are not talking about the management of the farm, you are talking about the sort of feed he uses, the husbandry matters, you are not talking about the mistakes the farmer makes on the farm or where he puts his wellington boots.
  (Professor Pennington)  There are one or two issues there. I was rung up by a slaughterman yesterday about the issue of the clipping of cattle as the solution to the problem of dirty animals being presented at abattoirs which became an issue during my expert group's deliberations. The issue that is being raised now is that more people are being injured during the process of clipping than are being prevented from falling ill because dirty animals are going to the abattoir. That is an issue where it is very much down to the farm and handling that issue is obviously one which involves a wide range of people but needs a joined up solution to it.

  94.  Could I take you to the other end then from the farm to the final point of sale. Where do you think a sensible line of exemption lies on this? In private I am talking of the fact that when my children are at university they seem to live off the kebab van. I am not quite sure what the correlation between illness and that is. Where do you think the sensible line for exemption actually lies?
  (Professor Pennington)  You are talking here about exemption from the sort of licensing arrangement or registration element?

  95.  Yes, not from supervision.
  (Professor Pennington)  That is right. It is really very difficult to give an actual quantitative cut off point here. Kebab vans can be very dangerous. Just because the business is small does not mean to say it is safe. Really one wants to drive it down to the smallest reasonable size of business. It depends. If somebody is cooking food, for example, in a small enterprise there is no way they should be exempt from any health regulations

  96.  The little cafe you see up the A1 or the M1 with the union jack on it——
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes, if they are selling pre-prepared, pre-wrapped foods and there is no cooking element, that is a fairly straight forward issue. As soon as they start cooking and handling food you then get into safety problems. I would not expect anybody who did that to be exempt.

Rev Smyth

  97.  I may have missed something there. You did say it is time for some researchers to get on. Bearing on mind that people will be reading the evidence, what have you in mind because some of us would have thought that some research had already been started?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes, you are right, research has been started on that. I think it might be fair to say that it was slower starting because of this problem of who does it because there is a boundary issue, is it an agricultural issue or a human health issue? Research is being done at the moment to find out whether there are any ways of changing farm practice to reduce the carriage of this organism. They will be slow because the research is expensive. I think the real issue there is how high a priority do people have on this in terms of how much money do you spend on it.

  98.  Has it been started by the Department of Agriculture?
  (Professor Pennington)  Funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, yes, and by the Scottish equivalent and there is obviously research going on in the United States as well upon similar lines.

Audrey Wise

  99.  You mentioned cooking. Could I just ask what you mean by that? Does that include what you might call assembling, making sandwiches, which is not really cooking, but my understanding is that sandwiches can be extremely dangerous items of food, so it is cooking, assembling and preparing?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes, the handling of raw and unwrapped food essentially.

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