Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300
MONDAY 8 MARCH 1999
JAMES and MS
300. How would it be independent if it is
setting its own standards and monitoring those standards?
(Professor James) Well, there are two different
issues about the operation of the Meat Hygiene Service. It would
be the responsibility of the chief executive of the executive
branch of the Agency to make sure that the Meat Hygiene Service
is in fact operating effectively. If you look in detail as to
how the Meat Hygiene Service was running into trouble, and there
are a whole series of changes that needed to be instituted, that
would be the responsibility of the Food Standards Agency to ensure
the component of its Agency actually operates. In our original
report I indicated that we have to be very careful about this
issue of self-audit. We propose that the whole Agency be audited
externally every four years, the Agency itself, and then the Agency
will have to ensure that the Meat Hygiene Service performs its
301. You are happy that it is effectively
poacher and gamekeeper of its own operations?
(Professor James) I think that there is a danger
in being both poacher and gamekeeper. I think the top group in
the Agency will have to think about that very carefully so that
it is not endlessly finding that they are getting these wonderful
rapturous accounts of the marvellous work of this Agency. How
does one ensure that it is operating properly? I think there is
an analysis and a schematic process which this Agency will have
to institute so it is not, as it were, conned by its own subordinates.
If you run an institute, as I do, you soon discover that you need
both external and other mechanistic checks.
302. As a monitoring agency and an enforcement
agency you said earlier that it could fall flat on its face in
two years. There is very likely to be another meat scareand
it might be the famous turkey burgerand in this case the
end responsibility will be the chief of the Food Standards Agency.
So immediately the blame will bypass the Meat Hygiene Service
and go straight to the top of this new organisation which will
be compromised, I suggest, in the eyes of the British public.
This set-up has a major inherent flaw in it.
(Professor James) I am not quite sure how you
get round that. Let me take the Meat Hygiene Service. I am not
sure whether my own Institute's book on E.Coli 157 has
been published yet but I think it is fair to say if you look at
the E.Coli 157 problem, it is an absolute disaster waiting
to happen for very important biological reasons and that is that
five to ten per cent of the cattle herd certainly in Scotlandand
we have no idea what it is in Englandare infected with
intermittent E.Coli 157 excretion and the ability to work
out how to cope with E.Coli 157 has not begun. You are
asking a very proper question on audit monitoring and so forth
but I am operating on a different basis. I am saying hang on a
minute, we have not begun to think in a coherent way about some
of these big issues that relate to Mr David Curry's worry about
food safety. We are going to have some quite novel approaches
to cope with the E.Coli 157 problem. That is why I am slightly
surprised that the research component does not come through very
powerfully. Actually when you look at the nature of this food
chain we have got there are huge issues that we have not confronted
yet and the business of going across the whole food chain means
that we have got to take a novel approach. So the Meat Hygiene
Service, I can almost guarantee, is going to get flack over the
next two years. It may not be its "fault" but a much
broader issue that we have not yet started to confront.
303. The point I make to you is that the
flack will go straight past the Meat Hygiene Service on to the
top because the Meat Hygiene Service will be reporting to the
Food Standards Agency.
(Professor James) The response to that is I have
just said that I think it is unlikely that the Meat Hygiene Service
is actually responsible. What you are saying to me is it might
be better if the Meat Hygiene Service was out there so the Food
Standards Agency could finger the Meat Hygiene Service and to
say, "Yah, it's your fault", when in practice it is
not. I think we have got to get away from the blaming process
and have an integrated, intelligent approach to the debate in
public which we have not had recently on GMOs. It would be the
responsibility of the Food Standards Agency to open up those issues
and how we do it given the marvellous capacity of the media in
its new mode to go into mass hysteria is one of the big challenges
for this Agency. I do not think by diffusing and putting responsibility
somewhere else you necessarily get round that problem.
304. No, I am suggesting a division but
some clear understanding that it is either an enforcement agency
or a monitoring agency. As both it is fatally compromised.
(Professor James) I think I would have to look
at that in detail. We did look at it a couple of years ago and
came to the conclusion that one would have to have a mechanism
for monitoring the effectiveness of the enforcement and the effectiveness
of the monitoring and that is what I have been replying. If you
say actually the monitoring has got to be completely separate
from the enforcement, I am putting in a safety check on the monitoring
to try to overcome your objection.
305. So who audits the monitors?
(Professor James) You carry on going on that forever.
306. Exactly. If we are going to get the
Food Standards Agency set in the public mind as starting a whole
new world, as you have outlined earlier on, it should retain real
(Professor James) I have not viewed it that way.
It seems to me that if the Meat Hygiene Service is not operating
effectively there is a whole host of bodies in Britain that can
be brought in to look at it in a much more professional way and
scrutinise it. I do not see that separating it off necessarily
achieves much, I have to confess.
307. Could I ask a specific question. Salmonella
cases last year tumbled to a ten-year low without the Food Standards
Agency. Why was that?
(Professor James) I have not a clue. I would like
to see the figures. The figures are usually dreadful on most issues
relating to infection. Only 3 per cent. of all gastro-intestinal
infections are even reported; 97 per cent. are not, in fact, looked
at, and we actually have not a clue what we are doing. If you
talk to Georgala on the Medical Microbiology Committee, he will
show that, in fact, you have a problem with salmonella with the
normal standard processing, the mass throughput of poultry, for
example, disseminating infection in a wonderfully systematic way.
So I think it is rather remarkable if we can get the rates dropping
to one-tenth. One has to be very cynical (1) about that observation,
and (2) it would be very nice to know what the basis of it is
because that would be a powerful new level of understanding which
none of us has as yet.
308. Presumably that would be the duty of
the Food Standards Agency if it came into being?
(Professor James) Precisely.
309. I want to talk about research but before
we do that I want to go right back to the beginning. We have had
a bit of discussion this afternoon about the element of nutrition
and what is happening on food safety and, of course, it is not
the Food Safety Agency, it is the Food Standards Agency. You mentioned
earlier the names of the members of the executive committee not
being very sexy and I wondered if you would like to give us some
views about whether you think it ought to be called just the Food
Agency, which will possibly reflect more what you would hope to
see coming from it, bearing in mind, of course, that it might
get confused in the minds of some people, admittedly a small minority,
with the Financial Services Agency, which is also the FSA?
(Professor James) The second question is easier
to cope with. I had noticed there was that confusion. On the issue
of standards, again in Britain we are very antiquated in that
we automatically assume that "standards" immediately
implies an enormous regulatory, cast-iron process that limits
opportunity and so on. So this business of the Deregulation Unit
and the Better Regulation Unit and so on is all tied up with this
cultural confusion that we have about what the appropriate level
of responsibility at different levels of society is. If you would
like to rename it the Food Agency I do not think there would be
a particular problem. I think it would be a big mistake simply
to label it the Food Safety Agency because that simply displays
wonderfully the lack of understanding of the relationship between
food and health.
310. I wanted really to come on to ask you
a few questions about research. In the light of the fact that,
as you said, it should be an evolutionary Agency and that there
will be odd crises by which its successes will be measured with
public opinion and it has two roles, the nutritional role and
the food safety role, what sort of research should the FSA be
conducting, as far as you are concerned? What are the principal
areas of research it should be involved in?
(Professor James) We identified four areas of
intense concern. One was microbiological, the other was chemical,
the other was nutrition and the fourth was novel foods and processes.
If you look at those it is really quite fascinating because you
can delve into any one of those and I, having spent the last two
years in agony in Brussels, could unravel, I guess, many of the
experts in any one of those areas on particular areas, simply
because nobody has thought in a coherent way. So we are currently
in a mess on antibiotics in agriculture and health. I sit on a
committee in Brussels where we are looking at that in a very novel
way and we believe that actually on a European basis we are going
to have to have a radical new look at the use of antibiotics.
On microbiology, I have already talked about E. Coli, where
we have no idea how to cope with the E. Coli story. The
issue of salmonella is totally fascinating when you look at the
Scandinavian experience, the huge debate about Swedish practice
and what its implications are in terms of the food chain. It needs
a complete re-think. The whole concept of novel approaches to
trying to cope with bacteria by new immunological techniques is
just emerging and has not been thought of proactively. In a few
minutes I will be talking about genetic modification of foods
and Dr Chessman and I believe that we are going to have to seek
a different view to try to enhance our approach to safety and
to match the European neurosis about GMOs with novel approaches,
and that is what we shall be talking about shortly. And so it
goes on. I really think that we have taken a rather ponderous
approach to the research issues in the past. It is not that I
love research, of course, which I do, but if you are saying, "What
are the problems?" and you actually ask the questions correctly,
you suddenly unravel all the standard explanations for why we
have the problem. We have a completely different food chain now
from what we had 20 or 30 years ago, and people, the experts,
have not understood the fundamental importance of the sheer flows
of food, the need now to have food being kept much longer, the
fact that we have simply low-temperature preservation of food.
The whole scheme is completely different and we have not actually
gone through the technical understanding and novel linkages to
look at where the particular hazards occur. It is time we took
a fresh look at that and I think that that is what the Food Standards
Agency should be doing.
311. Given that answer, do you have any
concerns, then, about funding for research, about whether it will
come, when it is set up, with its hands tied in that it will be
finishing off the contracts that MAFF might have been doing before
and it has to be left, and will it have laboratories of its own?
And would you like to make a comment about what is happening with
the closure of the Norwich lab and the merger into York, and do
you think that the York lab should be made available to the FSA
or that the Norwich lab should be kept open and made available?
You might like to make some comments about the funding and the
laboratories that will be available to the FSA?
(Professor James) To deal first with the question
of the size of the budget for research, I have no idea. Geoffrey
Podger would know infinitely more. I have not been made party
to any information on the development of the Food Standards Agency.
312. I wonder if we could actually ask MAFF
for the budgets for the research and the FSA proposed budgets
(Professor James) Could I help them out by saying
that one of the interesting things is that I do not think you
will have any idea of the dimensions of need until there is an
FSA up in existence with a novel commission and perhaps a re-thinking
of the advisory groups, who will then actually be saying, "Why
do we have so much salmonella? We can predict that there are going
to be a whole host of E. Coli 0157 outbreaks. We can guarantee
that. What are we going to do about it? How are we going to tackle
it?" and then it is going to come up with a new agenda for
research, and the cost implications of that I do not think have
remotely been worked out.
313. It might be interesting to see what
governments lay down for the projected budget for the FSA. That
would be interesting, for the first three years.
(Mr Podger) Could I respond to that. The intention
is to separate outand it is essentially from MAFF, which
is by far the largest funder of food safety research and related
research, including nutrition researchall the money which,
as it were, would fall to the FSA's new responsibilities rather
than the residual MAFF responsibilities. We gave an early estimate
of this amounting to a research budget of some £25 million.
We are engaged at the moment in detailed discussions with all
parties within government who currently spend money in this area,
so that should not be regarded as the final figure and, indeed,
if anything it may be slightly less. But we will produce a definitive
figure. We are engaged in discussions to do so at the moment.
314. Maybe you would like to make a comment
about Norwich and York and the laboratories?
(Professor James) Yes. I was lobbied by the authorities
in both Norwich and York and it is natural that they should seek
to have delineated the laboratories which have particular responsibility
for engaging in Food Standards Agency work. It became clear as
we looked at this before the electionand I do not think
I have changed my mind sincethat if you are going to have
to develop a new set of agendas for what the problems are. So
it might be a difficulty to have the Agency, as it were, lumbered
with a specified particular block of buildings or particular staff.
We were strongly advised by people who have been through this
process not actually to propose that the Agency has its own facilities,
but in the Response to the White Paper we did see that it is quite
often unhelpful simply to put up a portfolio of activities and
ask people to bid. I think that we have got too naive in our funding
mechanisms in Britain over the last ten years believing that the
total free market is the best way of dealing with it. The Medical
Research Council learned years ago that you can get superb research
by picking on one group and realising that these are outstanding
individuals in this area and then you fund them for a five or
ten year period with reviews but you do not put them through the
frenzy of having to apply on a yearly basis. It is probably in
that context from the food chain point of view that you are going
to have to produce quite novel inter-disciplinary inter-sectoral
research. I think it is in that dimension that flexibility for
the Agency will be more appropriate. I am sorry not to bid for
Norwich or York on behalf of the Agency but I think it is sensible
that it be seen in that light. It may be in due course over ten
years it becomes quite obvious that Manchester or Exeter, or think
of another city, should be the centre of a facility for the Agency
but I do not think it should start off having to cope with that
in addition to everything else.
315. We have heard that the projected budget
for research coming for the FSA is £25 million for the three
years. Do you think the Agency will be able to thrive with this
budget? Is there a sufficient enough budget for it to commission
research that will make it have a radical difference? Do you think
it is enough or are we being a bit penny-pinching on the major
part of what the Food Standards Agency can do that will make a
(Professor James) Geoffrey Podger has presented
with his usual precise choice of words a specification of what
the transfer of funds will be. That is simply "the residue"
from MAFF's funding having been under attack for many years. What
he is trying to do, I would guess, in charging the food standards
group is ensuring that the proper allocation of those funds proceeds.
If you ask me as an outsider without having considered this in
detail because I have not been involved, it would seem to me that
£25 million is quite a modest sum for coping with some of
these challenges. What we are coming up with in a while on GMO
needs really novel approaches and the E.Coli work that
we see that is necessary would require quite substantial funds.
We are not going to make progress unless those funds do emerge
somehow. It need not necessarily be just the Agency, I suppose.
That may be another business which we come up with in relation
to our response to the White PaperMedical Research Council
concordats and so onbut there needs to be coherence and
there has not been in this field.
316. Talking about modest sums, the Government
is proposing in comparison to everything else that the modest
sum of £50 million should be raised from a levy. This is
a little bit beyond your normal areas of interest but do you have
a view about the principle of a levy? Do you think it is appropriate
that we should be raising the levy from retailers or food suppliers
rather than it all being funded from Government? Given that there
is to be a levy, how do you feel about the manner in which it
is proposed to be raised?
(Professor James) I did not think much about the
funding in our original report other than to specify that people
had got the wrong idea about the costs of Food Standards Agency.
These involved modest sums of money compared with the catastrophes
that you can have if you do not look after the BSEs and so on.
When it came to the levy I was surprised when the Government came
out with joint funding. I am sorry to disappoint some people but
I thought it was a terrific idea. Why? Because my experience of
issues like safety is if you do not have a GMO crisis or a BSE
crisis the Chancellor of the Exchequer looks to other priority
areas when every year he is coming up with his Budget. If there
was a mechanism that could be devised that did not involve the
standard incantation of the public sector borrowing requirement
and which could be of long-term benefit to the Agency, I would
be rather pleased. Some alternative mechanism might be needed
on a long-term basis to help to establish this Agency which might
come in for political flack in future governments long-term. When
it comes to the actual levyI know that this is one for
heated debate and I should not even get into itit is a
very small sum of money and I was a little surprised it was a
flat rate and also surprised that there was not some clever device
whereby one could make use of pre-existing monitoring processes
of the business size or turnover or profits or rateable value
which could immediately be triggered with the wonders of modern
computing and analysis seen everywhere these days. In the Food
Standards Bill if they specified that that method of funding has
to be flat-rated I think that that would be unwise. If you talk
about having a mechanism of levy involving local authorities and
there is flexibility there on the basis of experience to modify
or develop something, then I think that is a more appropriate
thing to have in the Bill. That is as far as I think I should
317. Lastly, just a very short question.
How realistic do you think it will be that we will be able deliver
a new culture in the Food Standards Agency given that we are moving
so many existing MAFF officials into it?
(Professor James) We looked at that and it was
not simply MAFF officials. When we looked at the Environment Agency
and other Agencies I think people are offended if you say there
is a need for a big change in culture and one has to be sensitive
to that. But if you look at the way in which the Ministry of Agriculture
has operated since the Election there is already a change in culture
under way and I think the Agency's task will be to accelerate
that. Under our proposals it was clear that we need an infusion
of new people. If we are trying to help cope with this Agency
and change the culture there needs to be an infusion of new people.
I know nothing about the financing and current structure compared
with the projected structure, but it seems to me that it is absolutely
critical that new individuals come in, for example in business
terms to run executives and new talent in the scientific domain
to nurture these committees and to think through what is actually
required in research terms and so on and so forth. That does not
mean to say there are not extraordinarily powerful individuals
with amazing knowledge within the Agency group at present. That
is not my point. It is just that when one is tackling big new
problems it is jolly good to have some fresh ideas too.
318. Professor James, further on the question
of research, the funding of research is often driven by business
requirements, is it not, and so we have very large amounts of
money being able to be expended by very large companies and I
wonder how you think the Food Standards Agency can compete with
this level of push. What I have in mind, of course, is that there
are some lines of research which would not make any money for
anybody. They might save all sorts of people from having to spend
money rather than make any money for anyone. Some of the work
of the Food Standards Agency might be of this kind and so run
counter to the general thrust of research endeavour. How do you
think that we can ensure that there is in fact sufficient funding?
You have described the proposed funding as rather modest. How
can we get it bolder?
(Professor James) I am very used to these sorts
of questions and problems having lived through turbulent times
in terms of research funding but the distinction is important.
If one is looking, for example, at salmonella, E.Coli or
what have you, you might find that the Meat and Livestock Commission
would want to contribute to try to sort out the salmonella and
E.Coli 157 problems. I think the problem for the Agency
would behow do you ensure that a sufficient proportion
of public interest money is actually spent on those issues that
you depict, in other words where there is no commercial benefit?
I think this Agency will be judged on the basis that it will need
to be doing highly effective research in the public interest even
if it does not bring any particular commercial benefit. It has
to operate in the public interest first and if it can recruit
commercial interests to amplify its portfolio of activities, then
I think that is a bonus, as long as the Agency is not diverted
by that link.
319. Do you think that discussion of this
kind of funding and possibly funding in general should also be
an area which is subject to transparency and openness in public
(Professor James) Completely. I agree.