Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)



  200.  If their role is to produce information on what constitutes a healthy diet then the corollary to that is you should have a role in what constitutes an unhealthy diet. Would you agree?
  (Professor Tannahill)  They have a role in the protection of health——

  201.  There is an awful tendency to concentrate on what is healthy, surely that means they have to say what is unhealthy? If they are going to define one part of the compartment as healthy, surely they have to define the other part as unhealthy?
  (Professor Tannahill)  I think one of the important opportunities for the Agency actually is to start working on what is healthy because if we constantly use as a frame of reference individual diseases, then you can get mixed messages. There would be great value in my view to addressing it in health terms by setting out what does constitute the sort of balance of eating that gives the best opportunity of good health. So I think we do need to look at both sides, the promotion of good health across a broad front and the prevention of particular illnesses.

  202.  What about the education of children? Should it, in some way, form part of the National Curriculum? Is there a role in influencing what goes into school lunch?
  (Mr Lincoln)  Clearly, I think, everything we have said would strongly support that. Certainly in terms of setting standards, in terms of healthy eating and healthy food. It would seem entirely logical it should be a function of the Food Standards Agency.
  (Professor Tannahill)  There is no, as such, National Curriculum for Scotland, as I am sure you are aware, but there is guidance.

  203.  It is defined somewhat loosely.
  (Professor Tannahill)  There is curricular guidance. We, in the Health Education Board for Scotland, have a schools programme, and we are trying to stimulate the implementation of the health promoting school concept in Scotland. So the information and advice produced by the Food Standards Agency would no doubt be of help to us in looking at the healthy eating aspects of health in schools.

  204.  Can you think of any targets that the Agency could usefully adopt to allow its work in the field of health promotion to be measurable? If you would rather do this in the form of a note, because I am going to ask you for some other information, I would be quite happy.
  (Professor Tannahill)  I would be happy to mention again the targets set out in the Scottish Diet Action Plan. I have indicated that I would hope that the Food Standards Agency would consider these at an early point. I have already indicated, though, that in terms of eating for health and education related to that, the position of the Health Education Board for Scotland is that it believes that that should remain with the Health Education Board for Scotland. So that would not be, in our view, the principal role of the Food Standards Agency. Returning to the issue of Scottish targets, they are targets for the whole of Scotland to achieve by concerted effort, and all of us who are involved in trying to achieve them can then look at targets for the particular roles we have to play within that.

  205.  On the subject of foods for which health benefits are claimed, some often spuriously, do you think there is a role here for the FSA?
  (Dr Kemm)  Again, this is clearly a matter which is subject to legislation and regulation. I entirely agree with your underlying problem; certainly most of the claims are spurious and one sees people spending money most ill-advisedly. I would welcome a strong lead from the FSA to ensure that that sort of practice was discouraged.

Mr Moonie:  Thank you.

Mr Brand

  206.  Do you think that the Food Standards Agency will make your job easier or will your activity make the job of the Standards Agency easier?
  (Dr Kemm)  I think one of the main difficulties that we have to overcome in this field is that there is a perception that the experts all disagree, and that there is no understanding. That is clearly a false perception, but the presence of a trusted source of information so that we could then work to transmit those messages would make life a lot easier. Therefore, I think, in the field of nutrition, the key achievement will be destroying that myth that nothing is known about food and getting across that, in fact, we have a very good idea of how one should eat in order to improve your chances of health.

  207.  So you see the Food Standards Agency as the lead agency, and you promulgate messages?
  (Dr Kemm)  Yes. We have touched on this already, but if——

  208.  But I am not clear about what your answer is.
  (Dr Kemm)  I am sorry.

  209.  It is to do with this multiplicity of advice; it may be consistent advice, but if I need three leaflets before I buy my turkey burger, I am not going to get it right.
  (Dr Kemm)  The message is at two levels. One is the scientific level, which clearly tends to use rather complex language and is covered with caveats and reservations and all those sorts of things. That is the proper message for communicating to scientific and technical audiences. That is, I think, what we need to have clearly agreed. Then they have to be translated into the sort of messages which are easily transmitted and helpful to guide the man and woman in the street. It is that translation and transmission which, I think, is the key job of agencies such as the HPW and our fellow agencies.

Mr Brand:  Indeed, but the original message is the responsibility of the Standards Agency. I would be surprised if it allowed you to translate it and take on a role of its own in what you do. I am trying to get some clarity on who is actually going to be accountable for the end product. We have had lots of questions on targets, and they ought to be common targets, but somebody ought to be accountable. It is no good the Head of the Food Standards Agency saying "Well, we gave them the scientific advice, it is just because it was translated in tabloidese by the Health Education Authority that it has lost its impact". We have had two bits of evidence from Ministers which have been very interesting: Jeff Rooker was saying "No change, all we are doing is hiving off a bit from MAFF and setting it up as a separate agency". Mrs Jowell seemed to imply that there was a wider aspect to it, although she was not prepared to go very far. A lot of us in favour of the Food Standards Agency are only in favour because it is an opportunity to actually sort out some of the incredible complexities and relationships as to who does what and, perhaps, reduce some of the national and international conferences for all the agencies before they draw up their nice piece of paper that I may eventually see in my supermarket.


  210.  Can I just say, adding to the point, that the debate we have had, Peter, has been on this issue about whether the Food Standards Agency should be food protection as opposed to promotion. Do I gather that what you are saying is, in effect, that promotion is an issue for other bodies and not for the Food Standards Agency? Would all three of you comment on that?
  (Professor Tannahill)  The promotion of health, as far as I am concerned, is something that involves a wide, multi-agency, multi-sectoral effort and by the public itself—action at all levels. I do not think, therefore, that it would be ideal to say that health promotion is just that organisation's role and such-and-such a thing is just that other organisation's role; we are all involved in the business of promoting the health of the public and we all have parts to play. My reading of the Food Standards Agency is that there is a real potential for the Food Standards Agency and the national health education and promotion agencies to have complementary roles, thereby making life better for each other, but, above all, contributing effectively to the promotion of the health of the public. Within that we can all evaluate and monitor the performance of our individual projects and our own overall performance towards our strategic objectives that reflect our own roles in these areas.

  211.  Do you agree with that, Mr Lincoln?
  (Mr Lincoln)  Yes, we do think it is a complementary role. We do think the Agency has a role in promoting health and protecting health, and I go back to the points I made at the start of the meeting: it is the promotion of health through the particular interpretation of health protection which is very complementary to the role of the wider Department of Health and the United Kingdom health promotion agencies. That clarity is required, otherwise I think it will get challenged through the very nature of the work of the Agency. It may well be a lost opportunity not to clarify that. Otherwise it may just be safety considerations only. I think the provisions of the broader scope should be entertained at this stage.

  212.  Dr Kemm?
  (Dr Kemm)  Yes, certainly I would be very sad if my remarks were interpreted as meaning that I did not want them to be heavily involved in the promotion of health. I think the slight difference may arise around communication, where I think that there are skills and opportunities available to the agencies which it would not be helpful to duplicate. I am sure that there is a very productive and co-operative relationship to be had there, rather than overlap.

Chairman:  Could I thank you all very much for giving evidence to this Committee? Hopefully, when our report comes out, which will not be too long now, some of the things you have said today will be reflected in our views about the proposed legislation. Thank you very much indeed.


Examination of Witnesses

DR MIKE RAYNER, Head, British Heart Foundation, Health Promotion Research Group, JEANETTE LONGFIELD, Co-ordinator, National Food Alliance, were examined.



  213.  Good afternoon. Can I welcome you both to the Committee? I wonder if I could ask you, just as a matter of record, to introduce yourselves, please?
  (Dr Rayner)  I am Mike Rayner, I am Head of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group, which is based in the Department of Public Health at the University of Oxford. I am heading a small research group. Our primary interest is in the prevention of cardiovascular disease and devising effective methods for preventing cardiovascular disease. I am also, I should say, a trustee of the National Heart Forum and of the National Food Alliance, of which Jeanette Longfield is the co-ordinator. I am here today speaking in my own capacity, I am not representing any other body, I am saying what I think, myself, personally. So we may disagree!
  (Ms Longfield)  I shall kick you under the table if you do that! I am Jeanette Longfield. I am co-ordinator, currently, of the National Food Alliance, which is about to change its name because we have just merged with our sister alliance, the Sustainable Agriculture Food and Environment Alliance, and we are going to be called "Sustain: the Alliance for Better Food and Farming". We will have about 90 or so national member organisations when we finally do the count. There are about 70 organisations in the National Food Alliance membership and about 40 in the SAFE Alliance membership, but there is some overlapping membership, so we have not worked out how many members we have got yet, but it will be about 90. They are all non-profit-distributing, non-governmental, non-commercial organisations. I am sorry that is a bit of a mouthful, but there is not a very easy way to explain what the sector is—it can be called a voluntary sector, public interest sector or civil society sector. I think you may get the gist.

  214.  Thank you. Could I just ask you, for a start: would you think the Government has diluted the potential effectiveness of the proposed Agency by emphasising its role in food safety rather than nutrition?
  (Ms Longfield)  I have not heard a single member organisation, either of SAFE Alliance or the National Food Alliance, say that they wanted the new body's remit to be restricted to food safety. In fact, the whole point of our being an alliance, as we are, is to try and take a holistic and integrated view of the food chain, from stable to table, seed to supermarket, or the various ways you can use to describe it. I think that all of them are very keen for the Agency to take that very broad and holistic view and not to focus on food safety, even though all of them do recognise that food safety is very important. So nutrition would be included, but, also, issues to do with environmental sustainability, ethics—the whole range of issues that people are concerned about with food.
  (Dr Rayner)  As I said, my principal interest is in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. I am very concerned that the Agency takes a broad view of food safety and food standards, so that it takes an interest in the prevention of chronic disease in general. I think some figures here are important. If you look at the number of cases of New Variant CJD each year, it is still less than around 10. Cases of food poisoning are in the hundreds or less than hundreds, but we are talking about around 30,000 premature deaths from cardiovascular disease due to poor diet in this country. So we are talking about a huge problem in relation to poor diet, and cardiovascular disease in particular. Actually, if you add on the cancer deaths, we are talking about roughly the same numbers of cancer deaths in this country due to poor diet. So we are talking about 60,000 deaths a year due to poor diet, from cardiovascular disease and cancer in this country. I really want the Agency to not just focus on food-borne diseases but also on chronic diseases and poor diets.

  215.  It is envisaged that that is, effectively, going to be a joint responsibility and that the Department of Health will have the responsibility in those areas. Do you think that is the right way of doing it?
  (Dr Rayner)  I understand that, obviously, the responsibility for nutrition will still be somewhat split between the Department of Health and the Agency. So be it, really. I still think the Agency should take a leading role in trying to reduce the numbers of premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in this country.
  (Ms Longfield)  One of the things that people have criticised our organisation for is saying that we want the Agency to take a very broad view of it, and they have said "Don't be ridiculous. The Agency cannot possibly do everything." However, I do not think the Agency has to do everything; I think it must take that very broad and holistic view but then to say "This Agency or that Government Department should be doing the work on it". Just because it can see the broad picture it does not mean it has to do everything in that picture. Some agency, and from our perception the Food Agency is it, has to take that broad view, because otherwise you get gaps opening up in food policy where nobody is doing anything because everybody thinks that somebody else is doing it, or overlaps or conflicts. That has been going on for far too long, and I think now is an ideal time for the Agency to take that broad view and make sure that those gaps are filled, but not necessarily by itself.

Mr Brand

  216.  If I understand you correctly, you see the Agency as having the lead responsibility in both your field and Dr Rayner's field. Were you in when the Health Education Authorities were giving evidence?
  (Ms Longfield)  I just caught the end.
  (Dr Rayner)  I heard some of it.

  217.  Clearly they take a different view. I would very much like both of your opinions as to what, with the present proposals, as the legislation stands, we are adding to what is currently happening? We have a lead agency, which is the Health Education Authority. What will a Food Standards authority add to the issues that you are concerned with?
  (Dr Rayner)  The Health Education Authority, to my mind, is the Health Education Authority; it is about health education; it is about providing people with advice and, sometimes, information about how to make healthier food choices. It has not really, up till now at least, been particularly involved in health promotion, which is creating a better environment in which people can make healthier food choices. So it has not done much at all on issues regarding food labelling, food advertising, food standards—in terms of standards for school meals, for example—and it has not done anything in terms of much broader issues like taxation on food and agricultural policy. It has had to concentrate, as its name suggests, on health education, which is, primarily, about providing advice and information to the public. I am hoping the Agency will take a broader view of what is required in terms of improving people's diets and in terms of nutrition by looking at some of these issues, like food labelling, which the Health Education Authority has not done much work on.

  218.  If I understand you, Mr Rooker's interpretation of what is proposed, which is hiving off MAFF activity, giving it independence and, therefore, capability, really does not add a lot to the programme you would like to see carried out.
  (Ms Longfield)  I think it would. For example, there have been occasions in the past where sections of MAFF and sections of the Department of Health have produced information leaflets on the same subject. What the Agency could do is take the view about what information needs to be provided and decide which is the best Agency to do it.

  219.  I am sorry, the Health Education Authority could be doing the same thing quite independently.
  (Dr Rayner)  It is not powerful enough.
  (Ms Longfield)  It is not powerful enough, I think you are right, but also, insofar as co-ordination between the different departments is supposed to work, maybe it was not working well enough and it needed somebody to bang heads together, and maybe the Agency could do that. Or it might decide that, actually, the production of particular kinds of leaflets was something that neither of them should do, and something else completely different should be done. So I think that we would want the Agency to try to stop that duplication of effort which has certainly happened in the past, and, possibly, even to say "Look, some of these activities are not all that helpful for anybody to do. Could you stop, please, and do something else? That would be the value, I suppose, that it would add.

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