Examination of Witnesses (Questions 169
WEDNESDAY 3 MARCH 1999
and DR JOHN
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
(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.
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
(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
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
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.
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
(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.
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.