Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)



  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 job properly.

  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 scare—and it might be the famous turkey burger—and 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 Scotland—and we have no idea what it is in England—are 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 independence?
  (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.

Mrs Organ

  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 for research?
  (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 out—and it is essentially from MAFF, which is by far the largest funder of food safety research and related research, including nutrition research—all 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 election—and I do not think I have changed my mind since—that 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 difference?
  (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 Paper—Medical Research Council concordats and so on—but 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 levy—I know that this is one for heated debate and I should not even get into it—it 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 go.

  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.

Audrey Wise

  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 be—how 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 debate?
  (Professor James)  Completely. I agree.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 12 April 1999