Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 169 - 179)




  169.  Good afternoon. Could I welcome the witnesses here on behalf of the Committee and also formally welcome the officials from the Joint Food Safety and Standards Group who are sitting with the Committee as well in order to answer any queries that we may have in this particular area. I wonder if I could ask you, please, if you would introduce yourselves for the record.
  (Professor Tannahill)  I am Andrew Tannahill, Chief Executive of the Health Education Board for Scotland.
  (Mr Lincoln)  Paul Lincoln, a Director of the Health Education Authority for England.
  (Dr Kemm)  John Kemm, Director of Public Health for Health Promotion Wales.

Chairman:  Thank you very much indeed.

Dr Stoate

  170.  Mr Lincoln, do you think the Government has diluted the potential effects of the proposed Food Standards Agency by emphasising the role in the area of food safety rather than nutrition?
  (Mr Lincoln)  I think there is a need to be very clear about the terms and definitions used in the draft Bill, particularly the term health protection, the scope of what we understand by food safety and the relationship of nutrition to food policy. We think that health protection needs defining in terms of a health promoting perspective, there may be an interpretation of the term, which is a safety orientated interpretation and health could be neglected in those considerations or interpretations. So we feel that clarification of that would be extremely useful, otherwise it may lead to a fairly defensive and cautionary approach. I think there are some examples in other parts of the world where a similar agency has been established but where there have been challenges at a later stage in terms of their actions as to whether they are over-stepping their remits and taking a more precautionary approach as opposed to a health promoting approach to health protection. Clearly nutrition policy should be a factor used in determining food policy and looking at health promoting food policy is a good opportunity to deal with that from a health protection perspective but with a health promotion dimension to that, especially given the burden of nutrition related disease. We think the scope of the terms food safety and food standards need clarification because it could be subject to some challenge at a later stage in terms of actions for the reasons that I have mentioned. Some of that may be subject to interpretation in concordats and general objectives and practices as we read them. Some of that may be clarified, for example, when the public health White Paper is published entitled Our Healthier Nation in terms of clarification of the roles and responsibilities for food and nutrition for specific action, but we think the Bill should enable the broader scope and that is the view of the public interest groups and that clarity is required because we feel that interests may challenge actions at a future stage.

  171.  You say that clarity is required. We are looking at the proposed legislation. Do you think that the proposed legislation as it stands will provide that clarity to allow the Food Standards Agency to do what you have suggested, which is to put equal emphasis on food safety and food nutrition? Do you think that the current structures as proposed will allow that to happen?
  (Mr Lincoln)  I think there is some ambiguity in the wording of the current Bill and it could be interpreted in a number of ways which could be unhelpful in the future for the reasons that I have suggested. We were invited at short notice and we are still having on-going discussions about this so this is not necessarily the corporate position at the moment. That is definitely the sort of discussions we have had with professional colleagues at officer level within the HEA and the various public interest groups.

  172.  Does the HEA have a view on the relative importance of food safety verses nutrition policy?
  (Mr Lincoln)  Yes, we do. Clearly we would like a rational approach to the priorities and resource allocation in terms of, for example, the burden of disease. Clearly cardiovascular disease and cancer epidemics are rampant in this country, e.g. we are talking about 150,000 deaths from coronary heart disease a year and nutrition is a major determinant of that, whereas with food poisoning in terms of food safety you are dealing with 74 deaths a year. So in terms of relative priorities, clearly we see that as being the nutrition related epidemics where their determinant is clearly a priority area for public health.

  173.  Would you like to see the Food Standards Agency have a much more emphatic role on nutrition rather than just an equal role? Would you rather see a much greater role even than food safety?
  (Mr Lincoln)  I think that is a shared responsibility across the wider Department of Health with the Food Standards Agency, with the Ministry of Agriculture and other bodies at national and local level, such as the UK Health Education and Health Promotion Agencies, local authorities and health authorities and it is a question of decisions made in terms of the allocation of those responsibilities.

  174.  That is the point I wanted to go on to because responsibility will be divided between bodies such as the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health and other bodies as well. Do you think that that division of responsibility will really act in the best interests of the consumer?
  (Mr Lincoln)  We welcome the setting up of the Food Standards Agency because of the primary requirement to establish the confidence of the public in the food supply and in terms of protecting their health and consumer interests. The way in which it is suggested the Agency will operate we feel will go a long way towards that.

  175.  Dr Kemm, do you have anything to add to that along those lines?
  (Dr Kemm)  Yes. I would agree with everything which Paul has said. I think we are dealing with two rather different problems in that the food safety aspects normally cover toxicological and microbiological things where we are looking at rapid effects and effects which cause a great deal of unhappiness but, fortunately, kill very few. When we are talking about nutritional balance and nutritional quality then we are talking about effects which may take ten or 20 years to manifest themselves, so they are both important problems but they are rather different. I would strongly welcome the Agency taking an interest in both problems, though in many ways the headline raising problems are going to be of a food safety type, whereas maybe the ones which are going to have the greatest impact on the health of the nation are more on the nutritional side.

  176.  Just one final question to Professor Tannahill. Obviously Scotland is the heart disease capital of the world. Do you believe there should be much more emphasis on nutritional policy in this country than we currently have?
  (Professor Tannahill)  Can I backtrack a little to the Bill to pick up some of the points that have been made? The Health Education Board for Scotland certainly welcomes the setting up of the Food Standards Agency and believes that it should have within its remit nutritional aspects. I was heartened when I saw the consultation document with the draft Bill which made it clear that the main aim of protecting public health was seen as encompassing the responsibilities for nutrition and subsequently it was pointed out that the Agency's functions would allow it to exercise the role which the White Paper envisaged for it in nutrition policy. I think there may well be a semantic issue here because in the White Paper a distinction was made between food safety, food standards and nutrition. In the draft Bill there is reference to protecting the public health. The notes that said, therefore food safety is the main remit, but there is also reference to other consumer interests and that is equated to food standards. I might take from that and would certainly wish to take from that that the issue of nutrition is being taken under a broad use of the term food safety and, indeed, in submissions on Professor James's Report and the White Paper the Health Education Board for Scotland argued that it would be sensible to have due regard to safety in the broader sense of eating for good health which would include nutritional aspects.

Ms Keeble

  177.  I wanted to ask for a bit of clarity as to how you envisage the Agency could or should deal with issues of nutrition and whether it is just about providing advice or whether that is also looking very closely at the content of food and if you think that the powers are sufficient for ensuring that the contents are what they say they are. I will give a very practical example. My local trading standards office is prosecuting a very large manufacturer for turkey burgers which are described as "choice turkey" and which, in fact, are 50 per cent skin, which presumably would have quite a dramatic effect on someone who has got coronary heart disease who might be on a low fat diet. They are having profound difficulties because the procedures for prosecuting are so protracted. What powers do you think the Food Standards Agency should have to deal with an issue like that and how should it go about dealing with the nutritional side of that, and is that nutrition or standards or what?
  (Dr Kemm)  I think the key issue is informed choice. If someone wishes to buy a burger made up of turkey skin I do not see why they should not be allowed to do it. The problem clearly arises when they think they are buying one thing and they are actually buying another. I would have seen the solution to that sort of problem being through the complexities of labelling regulations and I realise that we get into all sorts of European capacities there. I would hope that the Agency would be able to strengthen and inform those regulations and then ensure that they were enforced. I think that is probably as far as it can go.
  (Mr Lincoln)  The purpose from the point of view of health promotion is to make healthy choices the easy choices. Therefore, it is very important that it is informed choice, that there are supportive environments, that the labelling on food is consumer friendly and absolutely accurate and it is regulated in that way and that it is actually enforced and, therefore, it is to do with the nutritional content, the role of the Agency in defining a healthy diet and enforcement of those standards and to convey to the public the fact that the experts do agree on those sorts of issues as well.
  (Professor Tannahill)  I think within this broad remit area of nutrition an important role will be informing the work of the health promotion agencies who can then incorporate nutrition education into comprehensive programmes of work in a range of settings and using mass media, and they can also ensure appropriate co-ordination and integration of the healthy eating messages with related aspects of the public's health in setting healthy eating messages, for example, into work on coronary heart disease, cancer and stroke and so on.

  178.  The stuff is in the supermarkets and people buy very quickly, they do not always stop unless something has "choice cuts" or something like that on it. Do you think that extra powers are needed for the Food Standards Agency? Should the Food Standards Agency have a role in taking prosecutions and should the present timescales be shortened, because I understand there are great problems with getting the foodstuffs properly analysed currently? Is it satisfactory to leave things as they are and say the Food Standards Agency will provide advice and general feel good and have some remit over labelling? Is that enough?
  (Professor Tannahill)  This is not my specialist area and the Health Education Board for Scotland does not have a corporate view in this area, it has not discussed it specifically, but my personal view would be that there are currently mechanisms in place for dealing with the situations you describe and my reading is that the Agency will have within its remit the making of advice for any further regulations that may be required. I could envisage, again speaking personally, a potential tension between the Agency having a role in the way you describe and the need for the Agency to work in partnership with a wide range of interests.

Dr Moonie

  179.  Would it not improve the situation if the Food Standards Agency had the power to make directions to trading standards to take action on something which they discovered was an obvious abuse as opposed to the power of giving advice? You can give advice until the cows come home, but you are not necessarily going to have it taken, are you?
  (Dr Kemm)  Again that question has not been put to us corporately, but a personal response would be yes, I could see advantages in your suggestion.

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