Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)



Rev Smyth

  180.  We have already discovered there is some ambiguity in the whole situation. I would suspect, for example, that potato skins might have more nutritional value than turkey skin. It has come out twice that there has been no corporate decision. Should this not have been an area which the health promotion bodies should have been actively looking at and considering? I am wondering whether the Food Standards Agency should be given targets and how robust should targets should be. Have you any thoughts on that matter?
  (Professor Tannahill)  In Scotland we have a set of nutrition targets set out in the Diet Action Plan for Scotland, so there are targets in place and there is a strategy that has been set out that can have action across a broad front. The Food Standards Agency can certainly play a very important part with other partners in that strategy. As regards targets for its work, I would certainly be interested in the Agency considering process targets for its business in the early stages, to consider what sort of pieces of advice it might be giving over its initial period, what sort of working relationships it should be establishing with the other players in the field. I think that we have outcome targets in place for food. The Food Standards Agency can play a part in achieving these, but, more importantly, we need to be looking specifically at what the Food Standards Agency's business targets might reasonably be expected to be in the first instance.

  181.  Would you like to illustrate that? What sort of process are you thinking of might need a target?
  (Professor Tannahill)  I could only speak broad-brush having been posed the question in this way, but looking at what the Agency would like to achieve in terms of the giving of advice in the areas of food safety, food standards and nutrition and looking at the other players in the field and identifying mechanisms for good communication and collaboration and perhaps targets within that for identified pieces of joint work. I do not feel I can be more specific than that at present.

Dr Brand

  182.  I would love to go back to the turkey burgers. I agree with Dr Kemm that people should have information to be able to exercise choice. Clearly a requirement could be put on the label saying that they are turkey skins or they contain so much fat. That in itself would not be terribly helpful unless the result there was some communication as to whether that was a healthy thing to do or it was not. Are we suggesting that the manufacturers or the labellers get advice from two different agencies, one through Food Standards saying that this has so much fat and comes from turkey skins and another one from an organisation such as yourselves saying that this is also for your heart and that is not? Do you really believe that this draft Bill before us will help the sort of joined-up thinking that we all think we ought to have?
  (Dr Kemm)  I think there are two aspects of the problem. One is clearly the labelling of the food which is a question for legislation and for the manufacturers. The second is the informed public which is clearly the responsibility of the Agency and of agencies such as ours.

  183.  Sorry, whose main responsibility is it? I really want to know who is the head honcho in these matters because at the moment we seem to have a proliferation of agencies all saying wonderful things. On the whole they say the same things but occasionally they give varying advice and then the whole edifice just collapses.
  (Dr Kemm)  I think the final deliverer is usually going to be one of the health promotion agencies or something else, but at the same time I think the Food Safety Agency has got a very important task to do in ensuring that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

  184.  Sorry, you have just used the term Food Safety Agency instead of Food Standards Agency and this is really the nub of the whole debate, whether we are dealing with food safety and it may well be that if you are talking about the safety of your turkey burger having a high concentration of fat and a high concentration of salt that may make it a safer food from a bacteriological point of view because it will go off less quickly, but it certainly will not be more healthy for you. Clearly someone has got to take responsibility for that. I am not clear, either from reading the draft Bill or its surroundings or the evidence we have heard, as to who will be responsible for this.
  (Dr Kemm)  I apologise for my freudian slip.

  185.  It is a very telling one.
  (Mr Lincoln)  I think it is important to understand the roles and responsibilities of the Health Education and Health Promotion Agencies. They take their advice from expert committees, such as the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food which has a responsibility for nutrition policy and it suggests this is a joint responsibility in the future between the FSA and the Department of Health in terms of the secretariat to that group. So the nutrition policy goals are proposed there and the Department of Health advised accordingly.

  186.  But you are making the assumption that the setting up of this Agency will not affect the role and the statutory position of anything that currently exists such as yourself, are you not?
  (Mr Lincoln)  Indeed, yes. That is a fair point.


  187.  Could I ask Jill Wordley if she could clarify these issues?
  (Ms Wordley)  Thank you, Chairman. I thought it might be helpful to the Committee to clarify the position on labelling because the first important point to make is that labelling is subject to the EU Labelling Directive and, therefore, it is a matter for EU competence. The lead responsibility on labelling matters does lie at the moment with MAFF and will lie with the Agency in future. Clearly in developing policy on labelling it will need to take advice from others with expertise who it feels it needs to consult, including in the field of nutrition labelling which is part of the overall labelling picture. The labelling responsibility lies principally with the Agency. There is then an issue at the next stage in relation to consumer understanding of labelling requirements where there is clearly a role for the health promotion bodies and, indeed, there has been collaboration in the past between MAFF and the HEO over the production of literature and so on on helping consumers to understand the requirements of labelling. I would just like to go back to a point that Ms Keeble made about prosecutions which is just to mention that there is an existing power in the Food Safety Act for Ministers to take over the conduct of particular prosecutions where they are particularly big or complex prosecutions, for instance. Those powers are transferred under the Bill to the Secretary of State for Health and there is a power there for the Agency to be directed to take that function, so there is provision in the Bill which covers that points.

Ms Keeble

  188.  Under the powers and the transfer of powers will the Food Standards Agency be able to streamline the methods needed to bring prosecutions, which I understand is particularly difficult when it comes to analysis of content, for example?
  (Mrs Wordley)  That is certainly an area in which the Agency could operate. Already, for instance, research is undertaken on methods of analysis which then can be used by local enforcement officers, so that is an area where in co-operation with local authorities it might be able to help them to improve their procedures.

Dr Ladyman

  189.  This might be something that it is not for these witnesses to answer but perhaps they can help. I think what I have heard is that the Food Standards Agency is going to be responsible for the labelling of food, the health promotion agencies are going to have a responsibility for making sure the public are educated to be able to choose food wisely, based on the labelling of the information that the Food Standards Agency has made sure people have got. Am I right in saying that we do not perceive within the Bill at the moment a power for the Food Standards Agency to say to manufacturers of food that the processes they are using are not optimal to ensure public health? In other words, if somebody is processing vegetables in such a way that all the vitamins are removed, at the moment all we are going to do is make sure there is a vegetable on the shelf that does not record the presence of any vitamins, we are not actually going to say to the manufacturers, "Do it a different way, boil it for less time and the vitamins will still be in there"?
  (Professor Tannahill)  As I understand it, the Food Standards Agency will be able to give advice not just to ministers but to the public and to other parties, and it is expected to develop relationships and consult with the food industry and so on. As I understand it, these communication opportunities and requirements are set within the context of the whole food chain at any stage, so my non-expert reading of this aspect of the Bill would be that the Food Standards Agency would indeed be able to advise industry if it considered that practices in the food chain were not optimal.

  190.  But it would only be advice? Clearly if a manufacturer is using a process which produces unsafe food, it would actually be able to order them to change the process, but if they are just producing food which is no better for you than eating blotting paper it would only be able to advise them to stop doing it. Is that fair?
  (Mr Lincoln)  I think the point is probably well drawn out in the issue of fortification in terms of vitamins and minerals where the issue is raised. I referred earlier to a situation in New Zealand, and I think I am correct in saying that when a similar authority was set up in New Zealand it was arguing for the addition of vitamins and minerals to certain food substances which was then contested by various interests at a later stage because of the interpretation of overstepping its defined, narrow, safety-orientated role in health protection. Because there was not a health promoting dimension to its health protection role—the Agency was constrained for safety factors considerations. So I think that is a very good example.
  (Dr Kemm)  I recognise the problem that you are raising and it is an important one. I think clearly advice is one line, the next line is that it has the power to offer that advice publicly, and I can see in an extreme case that might be a very useful line. How far you would want to get to the point where it was running the processing factory is I think a difficult area. Could I slightly expand that because, as I said, I see the important principle throughout the whole thing as being informed choice. We have talked about the information a lot but there is also the choice aspect and you have raised the situation in which it may well be that choice is not being provided, and my bet is that when this product is produced you will find it in the corner shops where the less wealthy shop and when you go to one of the plusher supermarkets you will find that product is not stocked there. So I would hope that not only is it giving advice but it is also keeping a very important eye on the policy aspects to make sure the sort of problem which I have just raised is controlled.

Rev Smyth

  191.  Going back to targets, since we are talking about co-operation and partnership, are there any targets from your own understanding and from what you have been doing that you believe the Food Standards Agency should take over?
  (Professor Tannahill)  The existing targets in the Scottish context are targets to be achieved through a concerted effort of a great many agencies and the Food Standards Agency will be an important player. But one crucial issue here is to recognise the very important multi-agency aspect of public health efforts.

  192.  I understand your answer but I specifically asked are there any targets in your own field that you have already set that the Food Standards Agency should be looking at and taking over?
  (Professor Tannahill)  If you mean taking over in the sense of adopting and signing up to, then the Scottish Diet Action Plan targets would be ones which the Food Standards Agency could look at early in its existence, and I would suggest would wish to set out how exactly within its remit it could make a very important contribution to these targets.
  (Mr Lincoln)  We would like to see targets in relation to consumer friendly food labelling which are ubiquitously applied, and also the confidence the public has in the work of the Agency in terms of food safety and food standards. A proper measure of that which agencies like ourselves look at as well as the credibility we have with the public as a messenger is extremely important.
  (Dr Kemm)  In terms of taking over targets, there are also Welsh indicators that relate to food, but certainly I would hope that the Food Standards Agency would sign up to them and endorse them so in that sense certainly take them over. In the sense of being grounds for disciplining the chief executive if they are not achieved, I would have preferred those targets to be process out targets rather than the more distant targets that we have been discussing.

Mr Jones

  193.  Dr Kemm, does your organisation think that the proposed relationship between the Food Standards Agency and the Welsh Assembly is going to further the cause of health promotion within Wales? Do you think it is the correct balance?
  (Dr Kemm)  There has obviously been a lot of discussion on that issue but clearly the Welsh Assembly is not with us yet and when it comes it will doubtless wish to decide for itself precisely how it relates to it. We have not foreseen a difficulty but would it be appropriate for my colleague from the Welsh Office to give you a fuller answer?

  194.  Of course.
  (Dr Blamire)  The National Assembly through its Health Improvement Directorate will have the role of liaison with the Food Standards Agency. The Assembly will be the sponsor in terms of grant-in-aid. We envisage with the other devolved authorities that we will play a part in defining the work programme in the UK Agency, but most definitely the Assembly will concern itself with the Agency's activities in and for Wales and there will be a relationship through concordats and other agreements to ensure that. Not all members of the Committee will be aware that the Assembly is taking on the Health Promotion Agency for Wales, it will be part of the Assembly from its inception, so the special health authority which the Agency currently is will be abolished on 31st March and the functions and staff of the Health Promotion Agency will transfer into the Assembly. So it will be a body corporate and there will be a national health promotion and health improvement strategy for Wales and both the elements that will be within the Food Standards Agency and other aspects, such as the communicable disease strategy for Wales, will be brought together within the Assembly. So I think it will be enormously beneficial to have the Agency on the ground in Wales able to relate to the industry and to local government which is, as you will know, very closely involved with the National Assembly and will be through the Partnership Council in the future. We have not tested these arrangements yet but the planning should make it collaborative and establish close working relationships.

  195.  So fingers crossed that the specific health needs of Wales, which are different, as Scotland has different needs, will be met because of those arrangements which have been made. That is how you see it at the moment?
  (Dr Blamire)  Yes. The Green Paper for Wales, Better Health Better Wales takes a very broad view of health improvement in Wales and includes a Food Standards Agency in that planning.

Mr Paterson

  196.  I have seen figures that 80 to 85 per cent of food poisoning cases occur because of poor storage of food and poor preparation of food in private homes. As this is much the largest cause of food poisoning, how do you think the Food Standards Agency will improve public health?
  (Dr Kemm)  Clearly when there is a food poisoning event there has been a whole chain leading up to the consumption of that food and correct action at any point along that chain could probably have averted the event. At the producer end of the chain, that is clearly going to be very much the responsibility of the Agency. At the other end, where all sorts of infections take place due to bad practice in domestic kitchens, clearly that is an educational role where the health promotion agencies will have a major part to play in getting those messages across.

  197.  We are creating this very large organisation at considerable public expense and trouble and we are addressing possibly 15 to 20 per cent of the problem, surely the biggest problem is what is going on in the home, which is the sort of area that your organisations could be actively involved in possibly at much less public expense and far more public benefit?
  (Professor Tannahill)  The Food Standards Agency will be able to be of great assistance in stimulating action in this area across a broad front at all points at which it can make a difference, and in advising us, the Health Education Board for Scotland, on incorporating work as we have been doing on handling food with considerations of microbiological dangers. One of the great benefits I can foresee in the Food Standards Agency, not least in its early days, is to stimulate a whole public climate of thought and where appropriate concern about what we eat and how we prepare food and how food is processed and so on across all of its remits. Within that, I would see as an early priority for the Food Standards Agency being to encourage the deployment of the mechanisms at its disposal to reduce the risk of microbiological problems and to stimulate public interest in this area, public awareness, and encourage the public to recognise that there is much that they can do. But that would be something which is being done within the broader context of also trying to safeguard the public against the matters which are outwith their direct control.

Dr Moonie

  198.  Very briefly just to follow up on that question to Dr Kemm, in the field of health promotion what impact do you think the FSA will have on your future role, Professor Tannahill?
  (Professor Tannahill)  Our position within the Health Education Board for Scotland is that we would wish to continue to be the lead body for education for healthy eating in Scotland. The reasons I touched on earlier include the fact that we have the infrastructures through our programmes, reaching the general public through mass media, schools, communities, the work-place and so on; we have the infrastructures in place to incorporate healthy eating messages and healthy eating encouragement and skills development through our programmes. We also are able crucially to integrate the education and broader health promotion measures on food with some wider public health issues. We therefore see that the Food Standards Agency can help us in two ways. One, by tackling aspects of protection of the public health which are not within the remit of the Health Education Board for Scotland and, two, by helping to inform our work, so we can take authoritative information and we are the body who have national responsibility in Scotland for assimilating that information into health education messages and wider health promotion approaches.

  199.  A slightly leading question to get to the point of what I am trying to find out, do you see their role then as setting objective standards and your role as implementing them?
  (Professor Tannahill)  I would put it slightly differently from that. Their role, insofar as we are talking about health education messages, is to help us by providing a reliable scientific basis on which to proceed. I think that if you were to say that they set out objectives and we implement them, that perhaps runs the risk of assuming that the Agency would frame the health education message and we would simply deliver it. An important part of the specialist role of a national health education and health promotion body is actually to devise messages based on scientific information. There is expertise required in that area because scientific information needs to be processed, as it were, in a way that is understandable, accessible and co-ordinated with wider health promotion efforts.
  (Mr Lincoln)  We would see the role of the Agency as clearly from the expert point of view defining a healthy diet, helping to set the priorities, to provide a supportive environment to the work the HEA would take forward. We would see ourselves working in a public partnership arrangement with the FSA and other key players in this area. We have the machinery in place for the implementation of the health promotion programmes which there is quite a science to, it is not just a matter of producing leaflets and posters, it is about proper assessment of need, targeting of groups, being clear about messages which are acceptable, dealing with myths about food, pre-testing communication, getting the right effect via media channels, ensuring an alliance is built with workers at national and local level to support that, and very much the FSA provides the backdrop and supportive environment to that.

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