Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100.  Not necessarily applying heat?
  (Professor Pennington)  No.

  101.  And do you have any views about increasing the number of problems which are notifiable, diseases which are notifiable? The Minister did indicate that they had in mind to do this. Do you think that would be a fruitful, early extension that the Food Standards Agency could pursue?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes. I have been keen for a long time, but I am speaking as a microbiologist, remember, that data that is generated by microbiological laboratories should be in a sense notifiable. At the moment the data that is collected is essentially sent on to those who collate the data in a voluntary way. There are problems with the notification system as it exists at the moment done by clinicians because very often that data is based on clinical diagnosis rather than laboratory diagnosis and I would regard that as softer data. I think if we had the statutory reporting of laboratory-recorded data, I think we could be more certain that the statistics that we work from are good statistics.

  102.  So it is what is meant by notification as well as extra notification in the sense of more problems?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  103.  You mentioned that you think that this Agency can work if you get the right people running it. Would you like to elaborate on how you think that could be brought about? Particularly I have in mind clause 2 which outlines the sorts of people who should be composing the Agency, the not less than ten and not more than 14 members. Were you thinking partly of them or only of the chief executive and so on?
  (Professor Pennington)  I was thinking of both. I think there are two issues here. One is clearly I would think the Agency would have a much greater chance of success if it was vigorous and proactive and aggressive from time to time in following up problems. That is not to say that existing authorities have not done that, but clearly the Food Standards Agency will have to do that if it is going to be successful. On the other hand, it will be staffed largely by existing civil servants and so on and there has been talk of the need for a culture change and so on in some of those. I do not want to get into that in any great detail, but clearly it will be a slightly different kind of body and the openness, I think, will contrast perhaps with some of the traditional ways of working, for example, and make it more difficult in some ways too.

  104.  Do you welcome the notions of openness which were very strongly emphasised to us this morning by Ministers? Do you welcome that? Do you think it would be helpful? Do you think that there might be clashes around the issue of commercial confidentiality? How do you think that should be solved?
  (Professor Pennington)  Well, I welcome the openness. I do not think it will work without being as open as is reasonably possible. Commercial confidentiality is always an issue and my familiarity with it is, for example, when the laboratory data is generated, that really should go at least into the semi-public domain so that the experts know what is wrong with a situation, but the firm may not want that to happen, so I think one has to strike a bargain there as to what sort of data one wants to be in the public domain in terms of, say, the level of infection and the damage that might do to a commercial concern. I do not think there is a hard-and-fast way of handling that. I think there is a way of negotiating through that problem to get the sort of data that one needs for public health purposes.

  105.  Do you think that the provisions in the draft Bill are sufficient to achieve the degree of openness that is needed?
  (Professor Pennington)  As far as I can tell, yes, I think they are.

Mr Curry

  106.  Can I just ask a supplementary on the right people. Do you believe that the right people would be, as it were, twelve men or women, good men and true, in other words, people who have got common sense, a bit of experience, know their way around the world, but are not necessarily experts, or would you think that the commissioners, or whatever they are eventually called, ought to be people who represent parts of industry? In other words, should they be people who are sensible, sane people who can command the expertise or should they themselves have that individually at their command?
  (Professor Pennington)  I do not think that they should be representing a particular interest. Clearly to get credibility, they will have to have expertise, but they do not necessarily have to be experts, if you see what I mean. They certainly will have to be people with bags of common sense.

  107.  Common sense is what comes first, is it?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes, I think so, and the ability for the majority of them to get to the heart of the scientific problem without necessarily knowing the details of the science.

Mr Moonie

  108.  Professor Pennington, one of the things that struck us today was the multiplicity of organisations involved in this field, and the FSA will produce some rationalisation. Do you think there is scope for further rationalisation of management structures now that we have another organisation? In other words, should its managerial remit, if you like, be extended?
  (Professor Pennington)  I am reasonably happy with the level that has been proposed in fact in terms of, for example, its relationship to enforcers. I think that is about the right sort of balance where it is essentially monitoring what goes on and raising standards, but not actually doing a lot of enforcement itself. I am happy about that and the way that the mechanism has been proposed, for example.

  109.  Do you think then as presently constituted that the Food Standards Agency might have prevented a large outbreak such as that in Lanarkshire?
  (Professor Pennington)  If it had been running for a while, yes. With the E.coli test, would it help to solve that problem? I think if it was working as it is hoped that it will work, it might well have prevented that particular outbreak, yes.

  110.  Could I switch tack slightly and looking at zoonoses, there has been a marked switch in the pattern of cases last year of Salmonella and Campylobacter. Do you think there is room here again for extending the role of the Agency or would you like to see it in terms of further research in this area?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes, I think the practical issue here is that we do not understand what is going on with Campylobacter. Essentially it is out of control and it has gone up 15 or 16 per cent in the last year, whereas at least we are within sight of getting a real grip on Salmonella, and the E.coli cases did fall very substantially in Scotland last year, so in a sense the last two of those are a present to the FSA in that if those statistics can be rolled on, they can take the credit for that and that would be a good start. Campylobacter is entirely a different problem and clearly there is a need, I think, to spend more on research to find out what the actual problem is, where this organism is coming from and I would think that is all well within the remit of the FSA as laid out for it to commission research on that particular problem. It may turn out that a good bit of the Campylobacter that we are suffering from is not actually food-borne, that there may be other sources of it, but I do not think that is a problem that the FSA should get hung up on.

Dr Stoate

  111.  I would like just to go back to something you said earlier about notification and you were saying that you thought that notification ought to be associated with microbiological diagnosis through a lab, but surely that is not the way things work in this country and, speaking as someone who has been a GP for a long time, food poisoning is almost never diagnosed microbiologically, but GPs diagnose food poisoning several times a week, if not more frequently, and if you sent it all off to the lab, surely that would be very difficult.
  (Professor Pennington)  No, I would not be saying that every sample of diarrhoea should have a laboratory test performed on it. At the end of the day one has to have an element of judgment in what is required for the management of the patient and one has to use one's resources in an appropriate manner and doing a vast number of laboratory tests just to get the data is not a very profitable way of spending money. On the other hand, there is a study about to be reported, I understand, the IID study for England and Wales, which will give us a multiplier factor where we can take the laboratory data that we have at the moment—we know it is a gross underestimate of what is actually happening out there—and this study, we will be able to use it for a few years yet to say, "Yes, for every sample that the laboratory picks up of, say, Campylobacter, there will be another ten human cases that go unreported or undiagnosed by laboratory tests", so I am quite relaxed about the fact that the laboratory data itself will be incomplete and it will just be a sample of what is happening out there. It annoys me when I know that people are doing laboratory tests and getting positive results and nobody is finding out about it. That data is not being publicly recorded and I think that is a waste of public resource.

  112.  Can I just change tack slightly. I want to talk about the boundary issues of Governments. What I want to know is the liaisons between the different functions of MAFF— pesticides, veterinary medicines, etc.—do you think those will be strengthened by the new structure or not?
  (Professor Pennington)  I think they could be, if there again there was the right dynamic and the right bodies that were liaising between each other. I was concerned about the veterinary medicine side, for example, but that was pretty well left—obviously with additional mechanisms—to MAFF to sort that out. I have a particular bee in my bonnet about antibiotic resistance which I see as a major health problem and one that we really need to get a very, very firm control on. I am not pointing the finger at any particular group of practitioners—whether they are vets or medics or the patients pressing for the antibiotics—but there is an overuse of antibiotics in my view which is leading to this particular problem being made much worse. I saw the FSA as being a very powerful mechanism for getting a grip on the use of antibiotics, say for example in growth promotion where there is a greater weight of antibiotic being used for that than for the treatment of disease and I think that is a scandal myself. There are alternatives and one would not be proposing that everything should be stopped immediately. That is an issue I think which typifies the boundary problems that we have. It does come into food issues at the end of the day but it is also relevant to the prime interest of Ministry of Agriculture, the use of veterinary products. Myself, I would have been happier if the FSA had a stronger role than the one that has been proposed.

  113.  What you are saying reassures me to some extent but also leaves me feeling quite uneasy and that is because what we continually come back to is with luck, if the right practices are in place, if it works as it is supposed to work then, yes, we will achieve what we are hoping it will achieve. That is precisely what this Committee is constituted to look at.
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  114.  We keep leaving that door open, the "if, if, if". Okay if the right people are in there, what if they are not? Are the structures right in the Bill because that is what we must concern ourselves with? Will the powers be there, will the enforcement powers be there, will the monitoring powers be there to ensure it happens? I do not want in five years' time to see another major food scare simply because it did not quite work as we wanted it to work. That will not do.
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  115.  I want to ensure that the regulations and the powers and the enforcement and the monitoring are such that it is very much less likely to happen again, if at all. I really want to see that because otherwise we will not get the public confidence that we need on food safety because after all it is about public confidence, it is about assuring the public and reassuring them that the food they eat is safe, sound and secure. I do not want to keep hearing "if, if, if". What can we do to ensure the structures are right so that it is much more watertight than that?
  (Professor Pennington)  My view is that I think Phillip James had it right in his Green Paper on the veterinary products side. From my perspective, from the antibiotic perspective, I felt that was a very good move because the FSA, as a new body coming in with this openness and so on, would be in a better position to sort this problem out than all the bodies up to now which have not sorted it out particularly well, I will have to be frank about that. We have a major problem with antibiotic resistance, a lot of people have spent a lot of time doing things about it which do not seem to have very much effect. It is embarrassing to me as a medic that many of my colleagues dish these out like smarties. That is an exaggeration, but there is a major problem there and I think we need stronger structures to sort that problem out.

Dr Moonie

  116.  Can I rephrase that question slightly. What do you see as the main weaknesses in the present structure as proposed?
  (Professor Pennington)  If I can come back to these boundary issues, this is one that I have just been discussing. I mentioned zoonoses where I would like to see the FSA having a role right back to the cow's gut as it were in terms of sorting out zoonoses. Even if zoonoses are an animal health problem as well as a human health problem most of the animals that we worry about from the zoonotic point of view are animals that people will eat. Even if it is an animal health problem indirectly it is a human health problem. That is an issue which I feel quite strongly about. Again, as a microbiologist I have been able to work on veterinary problems and human problems being an academic without worrying about boundaries, and I can see the importance of having that kind of approach where you do not make a boundary just because it is MAFF or FSA, try and move the boundary so it disappears altogether in terms of zoonoses.

Mrs Organ

  117.  You said at the beginning with a bit of luck if we do not have a food scare in the early months then we are well away and in answer to Lewis's question you felt that in relation to the E.coli breakout in Scotland, if we had had the FSA set up it would have helped solve the problem. Can I just ask if you think that maybe there should be a benchmarking for the number of food scares we get in the next five years or are we actually trying to achieve the impossible, we are trying to measure the success of the FSA against something that is totally impossible because we are trying to produce food in a dirty world?
  (Professor Pennington)  There is something in what you say but I think, say for Salmonella, we should be aiming to do what, for example, the Scandinavians have done and get Salmonella levels in animals down to very, very low figures indeed, virtually zero for all practical purposes, and reduce the human infections with Salmonella very substantially. There is no rocket science needed there, it is clear what has to be done. It will take time and it is being done in this country, the figures are coming down and I think everybody involved can be quite pleased that things are going well. Contrast that with Campylobacter where the problem is there but, however, you can rest assured that you will not get food scare issues with Campylobacter because it hardly ever causes outbreaks. It does not cause the kind of media frenzy type of situation just by the nature of the way it infects people. On E.coli I think the figures may have come down in terms of the number of human cases very substantially but I do not think that means at all that there is not going to be an outbreak. I think it is right that the FSA should set itself quite hard targets on things that it knows it can achieve by existing methods. I think for Salmonella it would be very, very wrong if it did not set itself targets that it would beat in terms of reducing the number of cases.

  118.  If we had a massive epidemic of diarrhoea in the nation because they have all been eating kebabs would they say that the FSA had failed?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  119.  I can understand on E.coli and Salmonella but just general food poisoning, somebody who takes a couple of days off work, and the whole structure, or do you think we are not doing it in the Bill?
  (Professor Pennington)  I think the opportunity is there in the Bill. The FSA is going to have to say what it is going to do. It has got the opportunity to set itself more precise targets and I would hope that it would do that for things where in a sense the science is there. It is a question of driving that forward on the basis of rational methods which you know are going to work, and if you cannot get those implemented then you have failed. As you are saying, there will be times when nature takes over and a new bug comes in from the side which one cannot predict and one has a problem. I think perhaps one dramatic way of saying that is would the FSA have stopped BSE, for example? I do not think the FSA, if it had been in existence and working well, would necessarily have stopped BSE arising in the first place. It might have meant that it would have been handled differently later but I think BSE would have arisen as in a sense an accident of nature and I do not think we can ever prevent new organisms evolving out there because they are evolving out there and new organisms or organisms are being imported into the country from other places.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 12 April 1999