Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 24 FEBRUARY 1999
PROFESSOR T H PENNINGTON
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
123. Should the FSA be directing the Education
Department to put in place bits in the national curriculum to
(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
(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.
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 scareswhich
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.
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.
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
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
(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
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
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
(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. Againand I
keep on coming back to using this word judgment which is not a
very satisfactory way outat 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.