Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160 - 168)



Audrey Wise

  160.  Going back to the sporadic outbreaks first of all, you quite rightly said, Professor Pennington, in response to Howard Stoate earlier that you were not proposing that everybody who reports to the doctor with a food poisoning episode should have a sample of diarrhoea sent off to the laboratory and I think GPs would agree with you that that is no use and impossible and not a good use of resources. However, do you think it would be possible, do you think if this is the sort of thing that the FSA should do and could do within its remit, to, for instance, design a study taking perhaps two areas, I do not know, to get it randomised and controlled where for a given time, cases which present would have a sample sent and perhaps alternate ones or in neighbouring areas or something of this nature, and perhaps alternate ones would be the thing in a given area, so as to increase the stock of knowledge so that then that advice could be given which then could be more generalised? Do you think that is the sort of thing?
  (Professor Pennington)  It is just the sort of thing where the FSA would probably commission people to do this kind of study. It may choose to do it on a regular basis to follow trends, but if we had the case I was talking about earlier, that would probably be sufficient in itself to do that and then every now and then. One would do this kind of study to find out what the true level, as it were, of infection was rather than just the number of laboratory-reported cases which, as we know, is a gross underestimate.

  161.  So, in other words, the choice is not between we cannot do anything because obviously sporadic things are difficult because they are sporadic and you cannot chase everything, or we will chase everything which is impossible, and the choice is not really between those two things, is it?
  (Professor Pennington)  No.

  162.  Could I come back to risks and benefits. In clause 19 there is talk about taking account of the nature and magnitude of any risks to public health and also the likely costs and benefits of the exercise of any function. It strikes me that risks and costs and benefits, an evaluation of those could depend very greatly on both views and viewpoints.
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  163.  I have written in the margin here "whose: whose risks, whose costs, whose benefits". Do you think that the structures and guidance within the FSA would come down more or where do you think it should come down? It is not just a question of magnitude, is it, it is a question of whose ideas of magnitude?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes.

  164.  Will there be tensions? Will they be resolvable?
  (Professor Pennington)  I think there will be tensions because everybody has their own pet problem, as it were, which they see as being of particular importance in terms of public health. They will press their case very hard and they will have data to support it. You can cost an outbreak of food poisoning and it comes out usually at really a rather large cost because if you take in the time off work and loss to the Exchequer and that kind of thing, the cost mounts up very quickly. I have a doubt as to how good those estimates are, they are often very large. As soon as you move away from the cost of the laboratory media and the GP's time you move into extrapolations and estimates which can be very difficult. Nevertheless it is possible to do costings and justify cases but I would hope that this is not something which is going to dominate the thinking behind the FSA. I think what should dominate the thinking is the protection of the public health in a reasonable sort of way so that we are preventing the common problems with the highest priority, we are also preventing the severe infections which perhaps are less common with also high priority. It will obviously have to prioritise the way it works but it will use the public health, the protection of the public health, essentially as its first line of thinking and obviously if costs are going to be incurred which are very great then you would start looking to see what you are going to prevent by doing whatever you are proposing.

  165.  On the question of risks, we have a couple of examples talked about quite a lot, the green top milk and the beef on the bone. I think that it should be possible to make a distinction in practice between risks which are individual risks—if I go and I choose to drink green top milk and it is properly labelled, that is something which affects me—and the difference it seems to me between that and individual informed choice and something which I do not have control over. I do not have control over if the BSE stuff is in the food chain and so that is where I have to look to other people to protect me. The same, of course, can be said with genetically modified foods. Do you think there is a valid distinction there and that it is reasonable to allow more choice when it can be put on an individual basis but have more regulation and more precautions when it is something which would affect people widely and over which they have no control?
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes. I think there are two issues there. One is that I think people perceive a risk to be very great if it is an involuntary one. They put a magnifier on the actual risk and say "If it is an involuntary risk, to me that is a serious problem". Even if the actual risk of dying is very low they will magnify that up. I think that is the issue with the GM foods, one does not know whether one is eating it and so, therefore, one has a perception of risk which may be unjustified in terms of the actual numbers which come through. The other issue is that I think one has to take into account the fact that if one is going to prohibit something it will not necessarily just be to the individual, I think the green top milk could be an example here where it could be fed to children, for example, who in a sense will then be receiving it involuntarily even though it has been bought by deliberate choice by the parents. I think there is a wider public health issue there about protecting people particularly at risk from some of the pathogens that could well be in green top milk. I think it is a slightly broader issue than just looking at the individual, you have to look at the general public health issues that are raised by a particular problem. I think each problem will probably have almost unique facets to it. Each one has to be taken on its merits. I think, for example, that fancy cheeses and listeria can cope very well by labelling and advice to high risk groups because most of the public are not particularly at risk from that. There are one or two people who are and that problem can be resolved through that choice route but taking into account the full public health considerations.

  166.  It seems to me not unreasonable that people resent more deeply risks over which they have no control because you cannot make your own choice.
  (Professor Pennington)  Yes, it is a given fact that is the way people behave I think.

  167.  The other thing where they might leave it to somebody else, and you could say because you should not now eat raw eggs that since a mother might, as I was able to do with my children, give them raw eggs and milk if they could not eat anything you cannot do that now, but nobody would say that because I might still do that with my grandchildren, therefore we ban the sale of eggs.
  (Professor Pennington)  No. I think you try and influence the TV chefs to run a programme about how to cook eggs properly, that is the way forward with that particular issue.

Audrey Wise:  Yes.


  168.  Finally, could I ask you, Professor Pennington, what you think as an individual the priorities for attention ought to be in the early days of the Food Standards Agency?
  (Professor Pennington)  Well, clearly it has got to think of how it is going to get public confidence back in a government department that is responsible for food safety, and I think it has to be seen to be doing things which are in the public interest. I think from the technical side, there are some issues that it could address very early which are going well already, and I think that would help, like, for example, the issue of Salmonella. The Salmonella contamination of chickens is coming down very fast. So if it got on to that particular bandwagon and helped all those people who are involved in that, that would be a relatively easy technical task for it to get involved in where it would have a good news story to tell, without being cynical about it, but it would obviously have to address the issue of how to have a dialogue with the public, as it were, for example, over this issue of perception of risk, so it is not going to be an organisation, I would hope, that would be driven purely by technical issues about the microbiological safety of food, but it would have to take into account some sociological aspects as well as to how it could have this dialogue with the public and at the same time showing that it was aggressively going out and making sure that, for example, the enforcement of food law was being done properly and appropriately, helping the local authorities there, not coming down hard on them, but helping local authorities to do that. So it would have a range of tasks which it would have to get on with very quickly in order to get public confidence back, which would take quite a long time, I think.

Chairman:  Could I thank you very much indeed for appearing in front of us this afternoon.

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