Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



Dr Moonie

  140.  Surely the main problem with CJD is that we still do not know what the incubation period is for the new variant so you cannot make a decision?
  (Professor Pennington)  That is true. All you can say is perhaps you can give an estimate as to how long you have to wait before you can start talking about it, yes.

  141.  Can I come back to one of the earlier points we were making. I think we are in danger of missing something. We were talking about merits of registration versus non registration. I think we have to accept that a very large number of food outlets are not registered and therefore outwith the system at present. If you construct a hypothesis that they are responsible for a significant proportion of food poisoning outbreaks, which would seem reasonable, Joe's greasy kebab stall at the end of the street when the discotheque is coming out, and add to that the fact that since their contact with the general population is probably relatively randomised compared with the kind of outbreaks that we study and therefore the cases which develop and go individually to the GPs will receive a nostrum and no bacteriological testing. Do you see what I am getting at?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  142.  We are setting up an expensive system of monitoring to monitor parts of the system which carry the least risk to public health whereas we are not doing anything to monitor the part that is.
  (Professor Pennington)  I think it is open to local authorities to go and chase these people and prosecute them if they are contravening the Food Safety Act, even if they are not registered. Okay, it makes it more difficult to know that they exist but I think any competent enforcement authority should know what is happening in their patch, as it were, and be able to do something about it.

  143.  Would it not be helpful if registration was made the norm and everybody who sells food to people has to be registered?
  (Professor Pennington)  That really answers my point about them not knowing who they have got in their patch.

Audrey Wise:  You mean sells on a regular basis?

Dr Moonie:  No licence on the thing—they pay £90 a year to give them a licence to stick on their cart—no licence, no sell.

Audrey Wise:  If they are selling on a regular basis.

Dr Moonie:  Automatically, yes.

Dr Brand

  144.  I am sorry I was late, I was at the DTI, not discussing food. Do we have any epidemiological evidence on whether the problems occur within the food industry or in Lewis's greasy spoon or Diana's home and mine? We are actually putting a lot of effort into the industrialised pathway and not so much at the other end.
  (Professor Pennington)  A lot of the evidence we have comes from looking at outbreaks. It has to come from looking at outbreaks because the individual sporadic cases very rarely get tracked back to their sources. Very often outbreaks will stem from a larger rather than smaller enterprise just by virtue of the fact that they have more people passing through and they are serving more people at any one time. If they do have a contamination incident it will affect more people. Maybe there is a bias towards the knowledge we have pointing the finger at, say, restaurants, which is certainly the case, when it would be surprising if it were not restaurants that were in the frame because of the way they operate. A very small business will obviously affect fewer people.

  145.  It would be reasonable to have a different level of regulation for industrial producers or commercial producers as opposed to domestic type productions, I am thinking about Women's Institutes and cricket teas, that sort of thing?
  (Professor Pennington)  There comes a problem of where do you stop, how often do these people cook food and so on? That is an issue. If amateurs are cooking food they are obviously hazarding the public but if they are only doing it once a year how can you run a registration system for that? There is a difficulty at that end of the system. The very large enterprises I would see as less of a problem for the FSA, or they should be a smaller problem, because they will be already regulating themselves, inspecting themselves, they have the resources to train their staff properly and so on. There is obviously an onus on a local authority to make sure they are doing it properly. It is the medium and smaller businesses I think where there is more of a problem because they have less resource to do training which would be deemed to be adequate. There is perhaps less at stake for them in the sense of some guy who is setting up restaurants on a regular basis on a small scale, if he has a food scare which damages his business he just goes off and sets another business up somewhere else. A large company has much more at stake.

  146.  This is your common sense interpretation of what we all think is the case but that is not the evidence you have got which comes out.
  (Professor Pennington)  The evidence does not say that the very large businesses are causing a lot more problems than the smaller businesses. The evidence is that, for example, restaurants and institutions are sources of outbreaks of food poisoning but that is partly due to the fact that they are catering for large numbers of people using a single food source. We did have a problem in interpreting that in terms of who are the real villains of the piece. I think they are all villains of the piece in fact.


  147.  Professor Pennington, is it not true that the major problem for the FSA as constituted in this Bill is that it will not have the powers of enforcement, effectively it is still left at local authority level? Do you think that is a problem?
  (Professor Pennington)  I do not think that should be a problem, no. If the FSA does its work properly in terms of making sure that local authority enforcement standards are as high as those of the best, which is clearly one of its functions, how well that will be done is difficult to say because that is not going to be a very easy task. The FSA will obviously have to develop ways of doing that and establishing a machinery for doing that to raise the standards for local authorities that are not doing as well. How they will find that out is not going to be particularly easy because this is all a very dynamic process. I think that is going to be a very difficult task for it to do, but I agreed with the idea that basically it should leave this to the local authorities rather than take over the whole business itself, rather like the Meat Hygiene Service, the way that was in a sense taken over from local authorities.

Dr Stoate

  148.  I am very concerned that you are talking about only concentrating on the outbreaks of food poisoning rather than the sporadic cases. Are you saying that we do not know which proportionally are the biggest problem?
  (Professor Pennington)  I think the problem about the sporadic cases is that very often one cannot do any epidemiology on them just because they are sporadic cases and it is difficult to track them back, except one can use microbiological methods to track them back, for example, so, generally speaking, a lot of what we know does actually track back to outbreaks where one can look at the factors that were important in letting the organism through into the food, for example.

  149.  But the point about outbreaks is that they are relatively infrequent and although they might be high-profile when they crop up, they do not happen very often and Salmonella might be a slightly different case, but things like E.coli, they are tiny in numbers.
  (Professor Pennington)  The overwhelming majority of cases of food poisoning are sporadic.

  150.  So in that case I want to come back to David's point which I was going to pick up earlier about guiding principle number three. If indeed the FSA is supposed to act proportionate to the risk, then the risk of sporadic outbreaks is far greater than the risk of genuine outbreaks, so surely they should be spending more effort on sporadic problems rather than the outbreaks?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes, the difficulty is what you do about the sporadic cases and Campylobacter is a case in point where the vast majority of cases are sporadic and the vast majority of cases are never tracked back to a food source, and it may be that only half of them are a food source, or it may be that 90 per cent are a food source and I do not think anybody can say at this time. All we can say is that if you go into a supermarket and test the chickens in the supermarket, you will find that 30 per cent of the carcases have Campylobacter on them, and we do not even know whether those Campylobacters on the chickens are the ones that cause food poisoning in people because at the moment we are in this very unsatisfactory state of having some of the data to whet the appetite really for more data and at the end of the day we will begin to dissect this out, but at the moment it does not look as though we are going to get quick, easy answers to where Campylobacter is coming from, for example.

  151.  But clearly if the greater risk is of the sporadic cases, then is it not, therefore, far more important that the Food Standards Agency concentrates far more on that and gets some of these questions answered? I am a bit concerned that that is not going to happen.
  (Professor Pennington)  I feel that, on the one hand, it will find out more about Campylobacter because it will be able to commission research about that. On the other hand, by essentially making sure that the Food Safety Act is applied properly through its role on the enforcement side and its general measures that it will take, it will address these sporadic cases because one hopes that the incidence will fall when, for example, enforcement is done properly, and by that I mean enforcement that addresses, for example, hazard analysis, that we get hazard analysis running in food businesses to a much greater degree than we are at the moment, which is thought to be the practical solution to food safety problems.

  152.  But how do you enforce something if you do not even know what it is you want to enforce because so far you have said that you cannot track back these sporadic cases, so how can you enforce?
  (Professor Pennington)  What we are looking at is applying general principles of food safety, so rather than saying, "We have a lot of sporadic cases of X, let's look at where they are coming from", what one would say is, "If you cook food properly and you do not get cross-contamination, you will get rid of these sporadic cases".

  153.  I am still coming back to this rather worrying aspect that if it looks a bit difficult, it might get aborted, whereas the big, high-profile outbreaks, you do something about it in case The Sun finds out about them, whereas, on the other hand, the much larger problem of food hygiene at home, we are not even taking it on.
  (Professor Pennington)  I think the food hygiene issue at home is a very difficult one. It is far easier in a sense to have an approach like HACCP. One can make people in business apply it and one can make sure it is applied properly at the end of the day, but you cannot make housewives apply HACCP in the kitchen.

Mrs Organ

  154.  Or WITs.
  (Professor Pennington)  That is right.

Audrey Wise

  155.  Or househusbands.
  (Professor Pennington)  So there is a real issue there and I do not know how you do that. How do you persuade people to change their behaviour? That is essentially what we are asking about here. I think I have talked about this before in other places, that hand-washing, for example, is a key critical control point for not getting cross-contamination and the worst offenders of people who do not wash their hands and should are doctors and nurses and they have had extensive microbiological training and that is one of the reasons why we have so much infection in hospitals, that the staff are too busy in between cases to wash their hands. So there is a major problem here about how one changes human behaviour and preferably in a subtle sort of way with this aim in view.

Dr Stoate

  156.  But I am still rather hung up on this idea that it all looks a bit difficult, so let's not do it and I am still left with that rather nagging feeling that if we are not careful, we will end up with an Agency that does things it can do and pretends that the other things do not exist.
  (Professor Pennington)  Well, this is why I said at the beginning that it has in a sense to have a crusading kind of zeal about it and be proactive and aggressive—I think I used the word "aggressive"—because if it does not do that, it does not have a hope in hell.

Mrs Organ

  157.  And it is very important that we have public confidence in this and yet because we are not attacking at all the issues where there is a major outbreak and it is widespread, people will then say, "Well, we have got this Food Standards Agency, it is costing us millions and we are having to pay a 90 quid levy for it and it does not make an ounce of difference, so it has failed".
  (Professor Pennington)  I have concerns, for example, about some of the enforcement that is done. I am wearing a tie from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, so I am on their side, but a lot of the enforcement that is done is still the traditional sort where the premises are inspected rather than the people who are working in them, for example, as to what they are doing there and I see the FSA's role as being crucial there. The culture change is probably going to have to be greater there than with any of the other staff that I ungraciously mentioned earlier, but there is a traditional way of doing enforcement which is wrong and wastes public money and there are ways of doing enforcement which are focusing on these critical control points in food processing and cooking and so on which will make a real difference.

  158.  Do you think there are structures in this Bill that will actually move that shift from looking at premises to looking at personnel and househusbands and all the rest of it?
  (Professor Pennington)  I think there are structures there which would allow that to happen. They will not make it happen, but they will allow it to happen because the Agency has got this role in monitoring the enforcement and I do not think that is just saying, "Yes, they are doing it well", or "They are doing it badly", but you will have to be much more interactive with the enforcers to get them to do the enforcement that actually produces results rather than just ticking a list of performance indicators.

  159.  And you think the structures in the Bill in the way the Agency has been set up are robust enough for that?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

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