Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220
WEDNESDAY 3 MARCH 1999
and DR JOHN
220. There are three sort of points in this
question, primarily for Dr Rayner. I do not know if you were in
the room when I asked about turkey burgers?
(Dr Rayner) Yes.
221. I would be interested to know what
you think the Food Standards Agency should do about itin
particular, would it need extra powers? Secondly, at what stage,
or what level of certainty, would you expect the FSA to require
before acting? For example, you mentioned the implications of
cancer, and we had the red meat and cancer incident not so very
long ago. What level of proof do you think the FSA should need
before it takes action and issues warnings, bearing in mind that
if the FSA gets it wrong it has profound implications for the
industry and, also, implications for the FSA's own credibility;
if it mishandles one of these issues it will be completely blown
out of the waternot to mention what will happen to the
Government. Thirdly, you made an interesting aside there when
you were asked about the Health Education Authority and you said
that it is not powerful enough. One of the things I am concerned
about is that the FSA is more powerful, and I wonder what your
views are on that, and what powers you think it might need. So
one is the turkey burgers and one is about the level of proofbecause
you, or the Alliance, would be one of the first critics if the
FSA does not do anything about what you perceive to be a nutritional
issue that affects people's health. The third thing is about powers.
(Dr Rayner) Turkey burgers first. Food labelling
regulation, food labelling codes of practice and food labelling
law is in a mess in the United Kingdom. Largely, that is because
it is now mostly under the control of Brussels in terms of legislation,
so, effectively, the United Kingdom Government has not much power
left to produce new laws on food labelling. It could take a stronger
voice in Brussels, obviously, and represent a clearer position
there. However, I still think it has a lot of scope for voluntary
codes of practice in the United Kingdom on food labelling, which
would tidy things up and make things much better. To take a case
in point, the National Food Alliance and the Food and Drink Federation
and LACOTS recently got together to produce a joint Health Claims
Initiative, which is a code of practice on health claims. They
had to do this because the United Kingdom Government was not,
in my view, actually taking its responsibilities for food labelling
seriously, and producing its own code of practice on health claims.
By health claims I mean such things as "Good for your heart"
or "Helps lower cholesterol"such things that
you find on packets quite frequently these days. This is something
which, I think, the Agency should be doing; it should be setting
up committees, where all are representedthe industry, consumers,
the enforcement bodiesto come up with clear codes of practice
on food labelling. These would not, obviously, be law because
that is for the EU now, but they would have the force of law,
as I understand it, because any manufacturer breaking this code
could be liable to prosecution for having not taken account of
due diligence. I understand from my colleagues in LACOTS that
if we had clearer codes of practice then they could be used in
courts of law for prosecutions on food labelling cases. Here is
something the Agency could do in its first few years: set up a
set of committees to look at codes of practice on food labelling.
They would be on such things as health claims"Helps
lower cholesterol" and so forthand it would be on
nutrition claims. There are no good rules on nutrition claims,
so even "Low fat" at the moment is completely undefined.
It would be on areas such as your turkey burgers, where you could
have quality standards for aspects of food. You could have a code
of practice on how much turkey there needs to be in a turkey burger
in order to call it a turkey burger. That sort of code of practice
could be worked out quite easily within the Agency, and we have
not got those codes of practice at the moment.
222. You think that is better than enforcement?
(Dr Rayner) I think one obviously needs enforcement
as well, but the problem, at the moment, is that we have not got
the rules to play by, in many instances.
223. How about the red meat and cancer scare?
The level of proof that you think the FSA should act upon? Should
it take the lead?
(Dr Rayner) I think it should take the lead on
food scares, and I would actually rather Jeanette answered that.
I would take a precautionary principle line myself. Thirdly, your
third question in terms of power. I have said that certainly the
Health Education Authority has not had the power in the past,
but that is because it has been, effectively, an agency of the
Department of Health for the last few years. So of course it cannot
do the sort of thing that Jeanette is arguing for, which is better
co-ordination in the area of provision of information about healthy
eating. We have had MAFF, the Department of Health and the Health
Education Authority squabbling over who was the lead agency producing
this information. I think the Food Standards Agency could bang
heads together and ensure that clear, consistent messages come
out from Government about healthy eating.
224. So you think the powers are sufficient?
(Dr Rayner) I think they are, because I think,
at the end of the day, I see the Agency as merely an advisory
body, but at arm's length from Government. It has still got to
be the Government itself which decides on whether to take action
on particular issues. I am hoping that the Agency will provide
clear advice to Government and that advice will be made public
so that everybody can see where the Government is taking action
or not taking action on food scares, for example.
225. Can we assume from that, Dr Rayner,
that you do not have much confidence in the current European Directive
under which this Government has to label food?
(Dr Rayner) The 1979 Food Labelling Directive,
I think, is now out-of-date, and it needs a lot of work done on
it to bring it into the 21st Century.
226. We were told last week that we are
likely to get draft regulations this week published by the Government
in relation to food labelling. Are you likely to be looking at
(Dr Rayner) Yes.
Chairman: If you look
at it during the next seven days I wonder if you could drop a
note to the Committee about your views on the regulations that
are about to be published. I think that would be interesting.
227. You gave us graphic figures on the
number of unnecessary deaths from heart disease. If you were given
£40 million a year for ten years with a specific remit to
reduce deaths from heart disease, how would you spend that money?
(Dr Rayner) I would spend more money on issues
such as food labelling; looking at improving codes of practice
on food labelling so that claims on food packets, such as "Helps
lower cholesterol" are actually true. At the moment you are
finding them on some packets where the claim is true, in regard
to, say, foods low in saturated fat, and you find them on other
packets where it is not true, in terms of things like bio-yoghurts.
Sometimes you can trust a claim and sometimes you cannot. I would
spend a lot more energy on improving food labelling in this country,
but that is partly because I am interested in it. I think, obviously,
health education still has a role to play. There is a whole range
of things that you need to do. Because I am personally interested
in labelling I would spend a lot more on it. There is nobody,
as we speak, for example, doing any research in this country on
food labelling and how to make that clearer for consumers to understand.
Everybody says food labelling is important, and you have mentioned
it a lot today, but there is no research going on. For example,
a colleague and I did some research about five years back on looking
at making the nutrition labelling panel clearer for people to
understandthe bit on the packet which says how much fat
there is a food. When it says 6g per 100g fat, nobody really knows
whether that is a high fat, a low fat or a medium fat food. We
did some research for MAFF which showed which formats would help
consumers make better sense of that sort of information.
It is clearalthough it seems obvious to you but we proved
itthat if you put the level of fat in words rather than
in numbers it is much easier for people to understand. So, for
example, if you said on your packet of crisps that they are high
in fat then you do not need to make sense of the numbers. That
research has now been forgotten about and nobody is doing any
more research in that area. It was, of course, disputed by the
food industry, so it probably needs to be done again and reconfirmed
seven years later, but nobody is really doing any work on food
labelling, apart from the sporadic initiatives which I was talking
228. If food was labelled to your satisfaction
(Dr Rayner) I think it would help people.
229. How many deaths would be saved per
(Dr Rayner) I do not know. I am not guessing.
The figures on the numbers of deaths which are preventable, I
think, are quite robust, but when you actually get to working
out the proportion of deaths which could be prevented by an initiative
on food labelling, say, or an initiative on improving school meals,
or an initiative on food advertising, or an initiative on improving
health education about diet in the United Kingdom, I do not think
it is possible to say, really.
230. So would it be worthwhile at all?
(Dr Rayner) Of course it would be worthwhile,
because all of these things add up. If you did all these things
properly then you would be able to prevent 30,000 deaths from
cardiovascular disease each year.
231. Dr Rayner, is it not the case that
it is not just an issue of deaths; we are talking about the quality
of life that people will suffer from?
(Dr Rayner) Yes, that is true. That is why I was
careful to talk about premature deaths. These are deaths before
the age of 75. Of course, everybody has to die of something but
in terms of cardiovascular disease these are deaths before the
age of 75. I was careful to give my numbers in terms of premature
232. The more that I listen to the evidence
todaynot just from yourselves but, also, the previous witnessesthe
more I become convinced that labelling is not the answer, despite
the fact that all witnesses have been telling us it is. It does
seem to me that if the food was properly labelled, if people understood
the labelling, if people understood what constituted a healthy
diet and then used that information to construct a healthy diet,
then we would reduce all these premature deaths. However, those
are an awful lot of "if"s. I am far from convinced they
would ever happen. I just wonder, should the Food Standards Agency
in the Bill have more pro-active powers to say to food manufacturers
"That packet of burgers contains too much fat. Take it off
the market. You can make a packet of beefburgers which tastes
as good and does not have that much fat in it. I am not going
to allow you to sell it"? Would that be more effective?
(Ms Longfield) I think that labelling is necessary
but not sufficient. It absolutely has to be of the highest standard
possible; it has to be compulsoryall products have to have
it; it has to be comprehensive; it has to have everything on it
that people want to knownot just the bits that manufacturers
want to tell you; and it has to be comprehensiblepeople
need to be able to understand itand it is none of those
things at the moment. However, you are right: even if you had
all of those things it would not be magic, it would not work.
I was thinking what I would spend the £40 million on, and
I have got ideas, but you are right, that would not be enough.
So we would want the Agency to get into negotiations, however
they would be conducted, about reducing the fat content of food,
about reducing the salt content of food and about reducing the
sugar content of food. This is anecdotal, this is not proper scienceI
am sorrybut we have just instituted a new thing in our
office, which is the office fruit basket. Out of the normal pot
of money that we would get our tea and milk out of we have now
decided to go to the market round the corner and get a big basket
of fruit. All of us know we are supposed to eat five portions
of fruit and vegetables a day, at least, and all of us look kind
of shifty when anybody asks us whether or not we do. All we have
to do to, probably, double the fruit consumption of everybody
in the office is put a great big basket on the desk which people
just eat as they walk past. It is to do with availability, it
is to do with normalising behaviour, it is to do with feeling
like it is free even though we are paying for it, really. So it
is very low in cost, it is at the market round the corner, and
it is also to do with trying to control the anti-health messages
as well. So labelling and advertising regulation usually go together
in legislative terms but I do not think I have seen the word "advertising"
mentioned in the draft Bill anywhere, and I think it would be
an enormous mistake for the Agency not to have a role in trying
to regulate food advertising in some way because if the Agency
is, as we hope, going to take a whole view about how the food
chain works and about what is produced and what is consumed and
how it is processed and all these things and it tries to promote
accurate and balanced and fair information, that is going to pale
into insignificance even if it has got £40 million if there
are other parts of the industry spending £500 million promoting
exactly the opposite. It is not going to work.
233. May I put it to you, then, that it
follows from what you have just said about advertising that the
Agency really ought to have powers over food marketing, which
is more than just advertising, it is also the lay-out of the stores?
(Ms Longfield) Yes, absolutely.
234. One of the previous witnesses said
to us that if there is unhealthy food on the market, you can bet
it is going to be mostly available in the places where people
with lower incomes do their shopping. So would you suggest that
if we extend this to say the Food Standards Agency ought to have
powers over marketing, when food inspectors are going out inspecting
food premises they should not be just checking for bacteriological
problems but they should also be saying, "Put alongside that
packet of beefburgers this other packet of beefburgers which is
healthy," or, "Take away that display of fatty foods
and put this"? Would you see them having that sort of power
to advise them?
(Ms Longfield) I do not know that it would be
as direct as that, that it would be the person who goes round
to do the hygiene inspection doing that same thing, but certainly
I would want the Agency to take a broad view of the food chain
and think, how are we going to influence the range of products
that are in any one shop, how are we going to influence the price,
and that might mean getting into negotiations about Common Agricultural
Policy reform, it might mean getting into discussions about advertising
regulation, it might mean getting into discussion about which
foods do and do not have fat in them, it might be making recommendations
to planning guidelines about the circumstances under which certain
retail outlets are allowed to operate in certain areas, all kinds
of different things that have an effect on people's access to
healthy foods or not. So I am not sure that it would necessarily
be right for the environmental health officers or the trading
standards officers to have that job. It would be, I think you
are right, a job for the Agency to look at how those desirable
effects might come about and encourage different parts of the
government machinery to do their bit to make sure that that happens.
(Dr Rayner) There is a freedom of choice argument.
In terms of the turkey burgers I think it would be helpful for
your turkey burgers to be labelled clearly if they were high-fat
rather than that they had X per cent. of fat on them, so that
people could actually see that these were a high-fat product.
Also, there would be some codes of practice saying what you can
say when you say this is a quality turkey burger. You cannot have
50 per cent. skin. So I would restrict people's freedom of choice
in some circumstances. Children are a clear case in point, where
it seems legitimate to restrict people's freedom of choice, but
given the current circumstances and people's obsession with this
whole notion of freedom of choice, I think you have to take account
of that. But I do think labelling would go a long way to helping
people to make better choices if the information on the food packets
was clearer and actually true.
(Ms Longfield) My colleague has reminded me of
something. One of the things in their proposal about the performance
of the Agency is that shops which only sell wrapped confectionery
and fizzy drinks and crisps should be exempt from the charge and
that sends completely the wrong nutritional message. It says,
"Eat these foods, they are safe." So at the very minimum
I think that we will be wanting to be arguing in the consultation
over charging and exemptions from charging that at the very least
if you are going to exempt basically sweet shops and tobacconists
from the charge they should also be exempted if they have uncut
fruit or uncut fruit and vegetables also on sale, because it is
an incentive for all those shops that currently sell sweets and
crisps and fizzy drinks who currently also sell a little bit of
fruit in the basket and a few sandwiches to stop selling them.
So you go into the shop and you have no choice. It is sweets and
crisps and fizzy drinks or nothing. So at the very least they
could be exempted if they sell fruit and maybe vegetables as well,
or maybe even exempt greengrocers, because, heaven knows, if we
need to double fruit and vegetable consumption in this country
then we are going to have to do something structural to support
fruit and vegetable consumption, and saying that it is better
to eat crisps and chocolate and fizzy drinks is just bonkers.
235. But if we adopted the model that you
just suggested, are you saying the local Sainsbury's superstore
does not have to pay anything because they have a vegetable counter?
(Ms Longfield) No, greengrocers only, only fruit
and vegetables, the traditional greengrocer who has been forced
out of business by other things.
236. Could I come back to one final question.
We have talked about these turkey skins quite considerably. I
just want to come back to this safe and unsafe foods and the idea
that you can achieve everything by labelling. It would seem to
me that it is perfectly possible to build a healthy diet around
turkey skins. If you happen to love turkey skins and you just
have one portion of turkey skins a week and the rest of your diet
is fruit and vegetables, it is probably perfectly healthy.
(Dr Rayner) No.
237. Unfortunately, I do not see people
being able to make those sorts of sophisticated choices no matter
how much we improve labelling. Do you really believe that
(Dr Rayner) No, I do not think labelling is the
solution to everything; of course not. I just think so little
has been done on improving the comprehensibility of food labelling
in the last 20 years that a lot more can be done and that would
be helpful. I am not saying it is going to solve everything and
there will always be some people who disregard the high-fat message
on the turkey burger.
(Ms Longfield) And, of course, the people who
sell food know how to do so. They know how to design a label to
make it attractive; they know how to design an advertising campaign
to make it attractive; they know how to market things and where
to put them in the shop to make them attractive. If we could only
harness all that for the good stuff instead of for the not-very-good
stuff, then we would be getting somewhere.
238. I am very tempted to ask you, having
a message on a packet of cigarettes that says, "Smoking kills",
what you do about that when there are 300 citizens each day dying
in this country from smoking and it has been clearly labelled
under public health measures for many years. Presumably these
people addicted take no notice?
(Ms Longfield) I do have a concern that some of
the food and drink products that are on the market might be slightly
addictive when I have seen how many people consume them. I am
sure they are not really. Obviously there is a problem of addiction
with smoking which makes it a slightly different kettle of fish
239. But the labelling is quite clear and
stark in terms of what this can do to the individual?
(Ms Longfield) But there are issues to do with
advertising, as you know, to do with promotion, to do with marketing,
to do with money-off coupons, to do with sponsorship, which is
linked to sports events and racing and so on and so forthall
kinds of things in the marketing mix. Marketing is price, place
and productand promotion. There is another `P'. Anyway,
there are lots of `Ps' in the marketing mix apparently that the
food industry are very well aware of and labelling is only one
of those bits of the mix. As I say, it is necessary but it is
not sufficient. I do not think it is magic, but if you do not
get it right, then lots of other things do not go right either.
(Dr Rayner) And you do not know what would have
happened to smoking consumption had they not had those labels
on the packets.
(Ms Longfield) It could be worse.
(Dr Rayner) It could be worse, yes. It is difficult
to disentangle the impact that labelling has on other things,
which I said earlier, but I still think it is important and it
is such a mess at the moment.
1 Black A, Rayner M (1992) Just Read the Label.
Understanding nutrition information in numeric, verbal and graphic
formats, HMSO: London. Back