Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120.  What about the fact that we would agree that the majority of outbreaks of minor food poisonings are caused as a result of actually what goes on in the home.
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  121.  In the preparation of food at home. Generally I think we have talked in the Agriculture Select Committee about the fact that older members of the general public know what you should do and do it but younger members do not necessarily either know or take out basic hygiene rules in the handling of food in the home. Do you think there is a big gap in this Bill and the FSA? We are looking at the food chain but it stops at the point where the consumer takes it into their house.
  (Professor Pennington)  I think there is a long list of things which the FSA can do, such as putting out brochures and pamphlets and so on which I think many of us would have a slight degree of scepticism about solving that particular problem. I do not think there is anything to stop it taking a more vigorous approach towards education as far as I can see it in the Bill.

  122.  Is it enough? That is the biggest area of food poisoning in the home.
  (Professor Pennington)  I do not know whether it would have enough clout to affect, for example, what the Department of Education is doing in terms of the national curriculum and all that kind of thing. I do not want to get into the details but——

  123.  Should the FSA be directing the Education Department to put in place bits in the national curriculum to address this?
  (Professor Pennington)  I would hope that it would have the influence that it could do that in a way that meant that its advice could not be ignored. It could give advice to ministers and publish it. If I am correct that is the principle, that it would be able to publish its advice and it would be up to the minister to say why he is not going to take it. I would see that as an important way of influencing departments of education to take on board from sort of primary one, which I think is the really important area of education, getting these basic rules into the psyche, as it were.

  124.  Lastly, to do with nutritional issues, the Bill seems to be rather weak on nutritional issues, so do you think it actually should have taken a more proactive role and in fact even be formulating on behalf of government a national food policy?
  (Professor Pennington)  I am a microbiologist, so I come at it from a food poisoning standpoint and I am reasonably happy about the balance between nutrition and food safety that is in the actual proposals.

Rev Smyth

  125.  You did say that it might need a change of culture. It seems a long time since the Health Select Committee did a report on Salmonella and it took Delia Smith to actually help it along recently. In the guidance at the moment the suggestion is that there should be regional representatives. How far do you believe other representatives should, as it were, come with some experience in science or in food processing or should they be absolutely divorced from it and relying upon the other committees that are already there and scientifically trained to deal with it and would a change of culture actually require a change of drafting from civil servants to bringing others into the field or are we going to draft in people who have been doing this work in the past and one wonders with what degree of success?
  (Professor Pennington)  That is a very difficult question because it also touches on the relationship with industry as well and clearly if the FSA ignores the enormous amount of knowledge that is out there in successful businesses, large supermarkets, for example, it will do that at its peril because they have been very successful in protecting their businesses against food scares—which drives them forward. However, on the other hand, I think to get the public confidence, there is a suspicion that large business is bad just because it is large, so there is going to be a very difficult tightrope to walk there, I think, getting in a sense the technical information one wants and the technical advice about what is feasible and what the best way forward to address a problem is without being seen to be in the pockets of vested interests, and I think that is where I will leave it.

  126.  In a sense in an earlier answer you did refer to the fact of confidentiality and it was confidentiality of the successful business and the life and health of people. We had the problem of BSE where we covered it up for a long time and in the end we did suffer, so where is the dividing line?
  (Professor Pennington)  Well, it boils down to judgment at the end of the day, I think, and clearly one wants to push the issue of confidentiality as far as one can and one wants to get as much data out into the public domain as possible, but clearly one can do enormous damage to a business by publishing data about it. At the end of the day I think the public health is right there in the first paragraph of what the FSA is supposed to be about, so in the end the public health has to win.

Audrey Wise

  127.  Taking up Diana's point about in the home, it often seems to be thought that dealing with that is mainly a matter of exhortation or perhaps, more kindly expressed, education and sometimes abuse of those in the home, usually women, who are held to be responsible for anything that is bad, but it seems to me there might be other sorts of issues which arise. For instance, it is, I suppose, about six years ago now that the Health Committee did an inquiry into listeria when there was a lot of anxiety about listeriosis, and one of the recommendations we made was that the Government should ensure that all domestic fridges had an integral thermometer and we thought that was a very modest, sensible thing. I think if you are saying to people, "Keep your fridge below five degrees", then it is handy if they can see it, and you do not have to remember to buy it and all that, but we had a tremendous problem and we could not get the Government to agree to it. Now, is that the kind of thing which you would think it was sensible for the FSA to dip its toe into because that of course affects another department because it affects the Department of Trade and Industry, and would you see that as being well within the FSA remit or interfering with trade and industry?
  (Professor Pennington)  I would be very happy to interfere with trade and industry on that particular issue because that is a public health issue which people have been talking about for a long time, and temperature control is very important, so it would be quite wrong for the FSA not to take a very deep interest in that and push that as far as possible.

  128.  And thinking about this question of boundaries, and there are different kinds of boundaries, that was one, but the boundary of whether this is actually a food issue or whether it is a something else kind of issue, a general health issue or an agricultural one, which you can see with half an eye is going to be quite delicate, do you think that there could be a way of building into the Bill that the benefit of the doubt goes that if it might be a food issue, then it is a food issue?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes. I think that is in a sense applying the sort of bastard version of the precautionary principle, if you like, that you are bringing in anything that might be a food issue and we know that some of the issues we have been talking about are actually only partly food issues, like, for example, E.coli is only partly a food issue because you can also contract it by direct contact with animals. We should not get too hung up about that fact but have one body looking at it, so it has this co-ordinated way of doing it, I think if any doubt should arise that it is not entirely food or it might be food, the FSA should take the lead on it.

  129.  And it should be able to say, "Yes, this is food"?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  130.  "If we say it's food, it's food", and that has got to be written into the Bill?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  131.  So when you said that the Agency should have a stronger role, and I think you then went on to talk about growth promotion and antibiotics and all of that, is that the kind of stronger provision you would like to see or did you have anything additional in your mind?
  (Professor Pennington)  No, as I said before, I am not a parliamentary draftsman and I do not know how one would approach that, but I am just raising this as a general principle.

Mr Curry

  132.  Professor Pennington, I would like to refer you to the guiding principles on page 5 of that document and ask you two questions which arise from it. Paragraph 3 requires of the Agency that its actions should be proportionate to the risk, that there should be proportionality. If you were asked by the new chairman to define a practical definition of that which his members could understand and follow, how would you do it?
  (Professor Pennington)  I would hope to be absent on that occasion! I think that is a very difficult thing to pin down.

  133.  But somebody has got to do it.
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes, and I think it might well be that you would have to look at the issue you were looking at on that particular day and do a balancing act between the risk of not doing something and the cost of doing it and so on. It is a matter of judgment at the end of the day.

  134.  I will illustrate it. I am afraid these are two inevitable matters I will raise, but we have the beef on the bone issue where by common consent the risk is far smaller than any other food issue we face, certainly much smaller than smoking, and then we have the green-top milk issue and the Government has taken different attitudes to the two issues. Now, how would you evaluate it, not if you are the Government, but if you are the Food Standards Agency and you have to operate under this guideline, what sort of advice would represent a proportional response in those cases?
  (Professor Pennington)  Clearly one would take into account the actual risk which has been measured, certainly for the beef on the bone we have published figures and one can certainly do the same for consuming green top milk. To come back to your starting point, clearly you have to take other factors into account, and clearly they have been taken into account, such as public perception, for example, this is particularly important with GMO foods. One would have then to put all these into a formula and come out with one's decision. Speaking personally it would not necessarily be the same as the ones which exist at the moment for me.

  135.  If one may extrapolate from that, in both cases you may have taken the opposite decision from that which has been taken?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes. There might be some labelling involved.

  136.  I appreciate that. We may come back to your point about having to take public perceptions into account and how you evaluate that, that is quite an important issue. Perhaps I could just ask you about the other point to follow what I have said. Point two: it says it has got to be the best available scientific advice.
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  137.  Now one of the problems which the Government of the day faced in BSE was they were dealing with it as a new subject so it was difficult to find experts and then when the criticism was levelled: "Why do you not have their work reviewed by peer groups", the answer was "There is not any peer group. We have everybody we can find who knows anything about this". When you are dealing with that sort of issue how you are helping to evaluate that scientific advice and how do you subject that advice and help to some sort of analysis? This is because, as you say, GM and the research at the Rowett Institute has not brought this into focus?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes. I think it has been appreciated that there is nothing wrong with what is said here. It has to be appreciated that most of the science is provisional in the sense that the science has not been completed and there will be probably conflicting views as well. Again—and I keep on coming back to using this word judgment which is not a very satisfactory way out—at the end of the day there will be quite a big onus, for example, on the commissioners to try and get to grips with the science and make sure that they are, in a sense, picking the most appropriate science for that particular issue and interpreting it well. There are problems with interpretation. There are scientific enthusiasts who will push opposing views, for example. One cannot in fact at the end of the day just say: "Well, we will follow the science" because in most issues the science is not there. If I could contrast, say, Salmonella and E.coli, with Salmonella the science is much better developed and we know probably enough to get to grips with the problem, with E.coli we have still got a long way to go to tackle the problem.

  138.  The public's inclination, and I suppose the politicians' inclination, is to be able to give people the absolute assurance whereas of course the scientist tells us that the word absolute cannot exist in any of these things.
  (Professor Pennington)  No scientist will ever say absolute or give an assurance.

  139.  The minute you say you cannot give an absolute assurance they say: "Ah, ha, you know something which we do not".
  (Professor Pennington)  I think that is going to be one of the difficult acts for the FSA to play that, yes, it will not be able to give these absolute assurances. It has to persuade the public that what it is saying is actually sound advice and advice it should take even if they cannot give an absolute guarantee that there is no risk, which nobody can give.

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