Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 250)



Mr Ladyman

  240.  Could I come back on that. What I think I am trying to get you to say (if I may put it to you like that so that we can get this on the record) is that labelling is very important, that the role of the Food Standards Agency in ensuring labelling is going to be very important, but that it is possible that the Agency needs to have powers beyond labelling to start differentiating safe and unsafe foods and forcing unsafe ones off the market or forcing them to be marketed in a way which effectively means people do not buy them?
  (Dr Rayner)  I think I would agree with you in the case of schools, that it should have powers to prevent children from eating unhealthy food and encourage children to eat healthy foods, but I do not think I would go as far as that in terms of adults because I think adults at the end of the day are rational beings and, provided they have the right information, will make rational choices. I just do not think they get the right information.
  (Ms Longfield)  I think I agree with you more vigorously than Mike does because what I think would happen if the Agency could do that is that there would still be a huge range of food products on the market at various prices, but what happens now is that normal "food" is the stuff that is high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, heavily promoted, cheap price, completely ubiquitous, available everywhere, and that if you want to eat more healthily you have to do extra things. You have to read labels carefully, you have to shop in certain shops, you have to go to certain places. What the Agency might be able to do in the long term, doing all the things you suggest, is reverse that, so that the normal food, the normal thing that you stick out your arm and get off the shelf and put in your basket, is the stuff that is lower in fat, higher in vitamins and minerals, higher in fibre, and if you want to eat rubbish, fine, you can buy that, too, but you have to go out of your way to get it, as you have to go out of your way to get healthy stuff now, so that it reverses what is normal.

  241.  If they choose that, would the £40 million a year for ten years be well spent?
  (Ms Longfield)  Yes.
  (Dr Rayner)  Also, I think what we have got at the moment is possibly the beginning of a very important growth in the market for functional foods and these are new foods which are targeted specifically at certain consumers who are concerned about particular aspects of their health. We are about to have on the market a new margarine, or spread rather, from Flora called Flora Pro-Active, which has these things called added phytosterols that help, or are claimed to help, reduce cholesterol levels. I think the Agency, if it was up and running, should be really looking at this new product because even I am confused about it. I have a high cholesterol level and I am still wavering on this. Is this really a safe product? Is it actually going to reduce my cholesterol levels? I know there are concerns about its having an effect on the absorption of vitamins but who at the moment is really looking at this new area of functional foods, and this margarine in particular, and saying, "Is this going to be worth eating?" for people like me. I am an expert, or supposed to be. I want to know whether I should go out to Sainsbury's when it is on the shelf and buy it because I have high cholesterol levels. I do not know. What is the person in the street going to be doing when Flora Pro-Active hits the market, and the Agency should be really looking at that, or should be in the future looking at that sort of issue. These new functional foods under some predictions could take up to 20 or 30 per cent. of the market. They are growing. The earlier versions of these functional foods did not achieve any market share but the new foods are quite good and quite likely to do so and the Joint Health Claims Initiative, which I referred to earlier, is an attempt to produce a code of practice about what people can claim on their food packets and in their advertising about functional foods, and that is not the job really of the National Food Alliance and the Food and Drink Federation. It is the job of the government to do that, to produce those codes of practice.

Ms Keeble

  242.  May I ask a bit about the independence of the Food Standards Agency when it comes to assessing the standards of food and providing advice, because the nearest I have got to this is the suggestion that the food industry have disputed some of your work and yet right the way through all the evidence we have had so far it has been seen very clearly that the Food Standards Agency will have to work collaboratively with people, including the food industry, and that that will affect, for example, things like labelling and codes of practice and so on. Are you satisfied that the Food Standards Agency will have enough independence so that when it comes to assessing, for example, whether the Flora stuff is good or bad for you or red meat is good or bad for you, it will be in a position to provide what is seen to be independent advice?
  (Ms Longfield)  There was a split in the NFA's membership about this issue. There was a group of members who were absolutely clear that if the Agency was going to be seen to be the consumers' champion and, as we hope, to promote public health rather than merely protect it, then the only way that that would be believed would be if there were no members of the food industry or anybody allied to the food or agricultural industry allowed on to its governing body and that would be clear and that would be publicly stated and that would guarantee that people would believe it when it said something. There was another group of members who said, "Well, we all have to work in partnerships now and the area of the agri-food business has expertise that we would want to draw on," and so long as they were in the minority on the governing body then it would probably be all right. So that was our position. We did not really have one. On the one hand, people said they thought they did not want anybody from the food industry on the governing body and I understand that that is the case in the Irish Agency, which is the parallel Agency.

  243.  That it has not got any?
  (Ms Longfield)  It does not have any. That is what I understand. I think there was a feeling that some people were very sympathetic with that view but thought that we would not win and so were willing to make the compromise because they thought that they would have to anyway, but it felt like a compromise and certainly they were clear about people who represent the public interest, broadly speaking, having to be in the majority on the Agency's governing body. I think in terms of whether or not it would be independent enough and, going back to some previous discussion, whether or not it would be powerful enough, people are going to be watching who the chairman of that governing body is going to be and who the members of that governing body are going to be really closely because that would send a signal to the world, if you like, about the character and the nature of it. I think probably what people will start describing the Food Agency as, and I hope they do, is the watchdog for food and people will only believe that the watchdog has teeth and that it is actually willing to bite people if they can see that there are people on the governing body with a record of biting people when they need to.

  244.  How about this bit in the draft Bill which says that action taken should be proportional, amongst other things, to cost, which obviously takes into account the effect of any advice it might give on what is a very important industry?
  (Ms Longfield)  Our view was that what should happen is that the government should take account of the cost, government as a whole, that the Agency should not. The Agency should say clearly and unequivocally, "This is what is best for health," and that government should then weigh up in the way of checks and balances what the risks and benefits and costs might be and say, "That is very interesting but we consider the costs of whatever to outweigh the information that you have given us, the recommendation that you, the Agency, have given us, and so our response to your recommendation is X." What worries me about the Agency itself having to take those costs into account is that it is going to be put in the position of weighing up public health against costs to industry or something, and that was where we got in the mess before, I think. So we would not want the Agency to be doing that. We agree that obviously costs have to be taken into account but I think that has to be done in the context of government as a whole.
  (Dr Rayner)  On that I do slightly disagree. I see economics as a branch of science and I think it is possible to come up with cost-benefit analyses which are independent, which take into account all the costs, not just the costs to industry but the costs to the health service, the costs to people in terms of morbidity, and come up with a cost-benefit analysis for measures that the government could then proceed to take if they wanted to do so. I am very keen that the Agency should have economists within its staff and people who can do proper cost-benefit analyses.
  (Ms Longfield)  I would just like to say slightly more about that because the calculations might come out that it would be much better if we all died at 65 and a half.


  245.  You have not got that off the Chancellor of the Exchequer, by the way, that last comment? Could I ask you, when you talked about the issue of membership of the Agency and you said you had had this debate inside your organisation and you had felt that really it ought to be people who had the public interest, what exactly do you mean by "public interest"?
  (Ms Longfield)  I think what people commonly mean is people who do not have a financial interest in the outcome of the discussions. I saw "All the President's Men" on the television again the other night and it was one of the bits where "Deep Throat" was in the garage trying to help the journalists through the story and he said, "Follow the money," and I think that is what people do. They follow the money. Is anybody making any money out of this, and if they are, then I think it interests them. I think with public interest organisations, consumer organisations, environmental organisations, the reason why people trust them is because they do not stand to make any money out of it. I was accused by someone in the food industry who was saying, "You do not make any money from it or get any fame or kudos," and such kind of stuff, and I said, "But actually I want to be a dancing teacher. I would rather do something else." There is nothing in it for us to make trouble. We want to make it better. We would rather go away and do something else.

  246.  If you were to get 12 shoppers from a Tesco's supermarket in and people can see that they are completely independent, they are consumers and they are doing an additional job other than at the Food Standards Agency, then they are the public and, therefore, they would look at public interest and know nothing about the food industry or anything else?
  (Ms Longfield)  There are two ways of looking at consumer representation. One is consumer research, going out to people on the street and focus groups, and all that is extremely important because it gives you a very useful snapshot of what people are thinking and the concerns they have and their reaction to events. An additional way of getting your consumer or public interest opinion is to have specialist organisations like the NFA. They are organisations that do just that and they are just as expert in their approach and the way they approach the subject as the professionals from government and from private industry. They are all professionals unions, they are organised labour. Generally speaking, they are organised in favour of the consumer interest and that is not the same as the person in the street or the MORI poll or the focus group. The best example I can think of is that a good couple of years ago we were having discussions with a supermarket chain about where we stand on genetically modified food and they were saying to us, "This is all very interesting" and we were very concerned about it and labelling, and they said, "But we do not get very many letters and phone calls about that" and we said, "No, but you did not get very many phone calls about BSE before, did you?" and I have to confess to feeling rather smug now because we were thinking a long time ago that this would be a big issue and now it is. So it is our job to see those things coming.

  247.  Could I move you on a little bit and talk about the interaction of the Food Standards Agency, if it is brought into position, with other European organisations and with other international bodies on labelling. Do you think there is likely to be any discussion in relation to areas such as nurtition, food standards and labelling?
  (Dr Rayner)  Yes. I think that food standards are in a sense moving out of the control of national governments and in a sense even out of European Union institutions towards World Trade Organisation standard-setting by such things as the Codex Alimentarius Commission, and the new Food Standards Agency should be aware of that, that the Codex is becoming more important in setting standards at world level which impact upon the standards we can have in the United Kingdom and the Agency will need to take a very proactive role in the Codex Alimentarius and World Trade Organisation negotiations to ensure that we have these good standards in the United Kingdom.
  (Ms Longfield)  I am not entirely sure whether I would want the Agency to play a role. Certainly it must have one because, as Mike says, we have long since passed the point where food is a domestic issue. So it is going to be integrated in European and international institutions but some of the members have expressed some slight concern about the Agency officials being the official government representation in European and international fora, because if it was the case—and it may very well be—that the Agency gave advice publicly and openly to government on subject X and the government, for whatever reason, took account of the costs and implications for government policy and actually did not want to accept that advice or wanted to modify it, then the Agency officials would be going into a meeting to propose a policy and it would be a government policy they did not believe in because they had recommended something else and it would put them in a difficult position. So I think they ought not to be the people representing the government, that government policy should be represented by government ministers and the relevant civil servants and not by the Agency.

  248.  May I briefly touch on one area in which I think we all have an interest in terms of public health and that is the issue of promotion. People always say it is better done locally in terms of COMA and food is left as something that should concern us individually anyway. Is that wholly true, looking at what the government are doing in other areas like Health Improvement Plans and Health Action Zones as far as my own constituency is concerned, where they are looking at the fuller health picture and whether or not the FSA and the standards laid down through health promotion organisations could be knitted in at that level so that the issue about your vegetables and groceries is an issue with teeth and not something coming from a national body, independent or otherwise?
  (Ms Longfield)  My understanding is you have to evaluate particular projects. If you look at local projects on their own, they have some value and they have achieved some benefits for the people involved in them. If you look at national campaigns, media campaigns and so on, they have some value in terms of attitudes and knowledge and change and so on, but what really works is if you have a national campaign which allows for local initiatives within it so that they have the local initiatives and feel like they are part of the bigger picture and integrated and join up sensibly from the one to the other. So the one without the other tends to work least well. So you are right, there is no value in trying to impose a uniform away of doing things in every part of the country. Obviously people do have unique and individual ways they want to do things but within an overall national picture into which they fit and feel that they fit and that it has a past and a future. Looking at broader issues, then I think it works very well. So yes, I think both local, specific and innovative but within a national picture that people can see.
  (Dr Rayner)  I very much agree that some things are best done at local level and some at national level. In terms of turkey burgers, the problem of enforcement of food labelling is that local enforcers have been fighting multinational companies on labelling issues and this is where the Agency can take an important national role in enforcement of some of these standards, but still I agree that some enforcement on things like food labelling and so forth has to be done at a local level. It is a very important balance to strike between what is best done locally and what is best done nationally and I would argue for some national enforcement with food labelling regulation.

Ms Keeble

  249.  Just on a technical point, are street market stalls subject to the labelling and should they be because they are one of the places that has been the mainstay of providing low-cost fruit and vegetables to people in particular on low incomes?
  (Ms Wordley)  They are covered by the existing registration legislation. It is the registration legislation on which it is proposed the levy will be based. I will not try without a bit of paper with the figures in front of me to give you the precise details on how market stalls are covered by the registration legislation but I could give you a note on that.


  250.  Are you going to be looking at areas like Health Action Zones and Health Improvement Programmes as being the areas that the Agency should influence in years to come?
  (Ms Wordley)  The Health Action Zones and Health Improvement Programmes are part of overall Department of Health policy in relation to public health and the Department of Health will be in the lead on that. However, I think what we hope to do—and the plan is that the Agency will do—is establish very close working relationships with the Department of Health. Essential to that is good co-ordination so that where the Agency is, for instance, doing some of the promotional-type activity through some kind of campaign on both safety and nutrition, it will link in as necessary through the Department of Health with work that is going on in particular on Health Action Zones. So it is really about good communication, which is key to the Agency's role.

Chairman:  May I thank all the witnesses for this session. I hope our report will be with the printers by the end of the month and hopefully some of the evidence you have given here this afternoon will be influencing what we have to say. Thank you for attending.

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