Examination of Witnesses (Questions 89
WEDNESDAY 24 FEBRUARY 1999
PROFESSOR T H PENNINGTON
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
(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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
(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
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.