Examination of Witnesses (Questions 328
TUESDAY 9 MARCH 1999
and MS JANET
328. Good morning. Thank you very much for
coming along. Could I ask you first of all as a matter of record
to introduce yourselves?
(Ms Stack) I am Freda Stack. I am the Deputy Parliamentary
Secretary of the Co-Operative Union and that represents the 35
Co-operative Societies across the United Kingdom who have commercial
interests but are owned directly by the nine million consumer
(Ms Nunn) I am Janet Nunn, the Director of Food
and Drink at the British Retail Consortium, whose members are
all retailers, but obviously I interface with the food retailers,
large ones and collections of small ones.
(Mr Longworth) My name is John Longworth. I am
the Trading Law and Technical Director for Tesco.
329. Thanks very much for coming along this
morning. The Committee is looking at a draft bill as it were as
opposed to a lot of the issues in and around food. What we have
been told by Ministers who have given evidence to the Committee
is that one of the prime aims of the Food Standards Agency is
to re-establish public confidence in the safety of food. I wonder
if I could have your views on whether you individually think whether
or not the Government's proposals do that and how believe that
the Agency would do things differently from what is being done
at the moment by other organisations.
(Ms Nunn) Taking the food industry sector of MAFF
as it were and having food safety dealt with separately from the
farming promotion side, it is a very good move and it is fully
supported by retailers. However, itself it will not necessarily
deliver improvements in food safety and that is where a thorough
review of food safety enforcement is needed.
(Ms Stack) I will support that. We have been campaigning
for an agency for 10 years and our clear view is that it should
not just be food safety; it should be other issues as well. I
know that food standards are addressed in the White Paper but
we have a very clear view, as you can tell from our evidence,
that diet and nutrition should be included specifically within
the duties of the Agency.
(Mr Longworth) We have supported the establishment
of a food agency for a very long time. We believe that food safety
is paramount. Our business believes that food safety standards
are paramount. It is extremely important that there is public
confidence in the agencies of Government, and that the Agency
is both competent and has public confidence and is seen to be
330. We have already spoken about food safety.
We have been reminded that it is food standards. I am wondering
what is your view. Has the Government actually diminished its
role by stressing particularly the potential ineffectiveness of
the proposed FSA by emphasising its role in the area of food safety
rather than nutrition?
(Ms Nunn) No, I do not think so, because the standards
would cover all aspects of law and that would include the law
making policy on nutrition. That is important too for the longer
term. It is simply that in stressing food safety there is an immediate
job to be got on with, where the results ought to be visible sooner
than perhaps with nutrition which is a longer term thing. I do
not think at all that the way that it has been proposed would
necessarily undermine the impact on nutrition.
331. Does anybody else wish to add anything?
(Ms Stack) All I would add is that food safety
is very clearly in the remit of the Bill. It says that several
times, and then it refers to a number of other matters; I cannot
remember the exact ones. The number of other matters are very
varied. I know that the reason for that is that we do not want
to say, "You may only do this and you may not do that".
The trouble is that even in the explanation of the Bill there
is no advice on diet and nutrition and we do regard that as very
important. The Agency should be able to give advice on diet and
nutrition; not to promote it, because that is an entirely separate
thing, but it seems illogical not to be able to give advice on
diet and nutrition. This has been an issue of some difficulty,
given the controversial recent history of the Agency, and since
it is an area where I know that current Ministers, particularly
the Minister of Health, Tessa Jowell, has given assurances with
regard to diet and health, but Tessa Jowell is not always going
to be the Minister. We would like it to be written into the Bill,
and we have made some very concrete suggestions for amendments,
as you know.
332. It is interesting that you have mentioned
the controversial recent history of the agency. This I understand
is a new Agency, so really you are dealing there with food safety.
Is it not a fact that while it may be that we have only touched
the tip of the iceberg on food safety, the harsh reality is that
there are fewer than 100 deaths a year as a result of food poisoning,
but at the same time we are having thousands of deaths a year
as a result of improper nutritional treatment and a community
not really taking seriously the dietary aspects of their lives.
(Ms Nunn) You have to die of something, of course.
We all have to die ultimately. The retailers are fully committed
to putting information out to consumers on what constitutes a
good diet, in offering wholesome and nutritious food, and often
that means as well low fat ranges or low salt ranges and low sugar
ranges for those who have a particular dietary need. There is
full support for Government also looking at nutrition. It is just
that we feel that food safety is the more immediate challenge
facing the Agency because of the number of pathogens coming from
farms potentially down through the food chain.
(Mr Longworth) The issue is one of balance. Food
standards and safety we consider includes an element of nutrition
and diet, but the most immediate issue is that relating to food
safety. It is extremely important to focus on food safety and
that basic standards are not lost, and that the Agency is not
distracted from this. While you were making the point about the
number of deaths in relation to nutrition, there are many factors
that influence people's health. Food safety issues, however, are
not a matter of choice. Consumers cannot choose whether to have
food poisoning or not. It is more immediate. It is more acute,
and it is therefore something that impacts on the public more
strongly, I think, certainly more immediately, than nutrition
333. In a sense do you think that that would
lead to a separation if the public health takes the lead? Should
they be promoting nutrition or should it be, as one of the Ministers
said, charged with protection of food standards? That is the important
thing. Is that what you are saying.
(Mr Longworth) There is an important role for
the Agency in food standards, and food standards should include
things like dietary labelling, for example. Nutrition and diet
are an important role for the Food Standards Agency, but the Agency
needs to concentrate in the first instance on that area of activity
that is the most immediate, and that is food safety.
334. It has been suggested, for example
by the CWS, that there should be an amendment to protect the interests
of consumers in relation to food and to provide information and
advice in relation to dietary help. Do you believe that would
be an acceptable amendment in order to keep a balance, because
it does seem, to some of us at least, that there may be an imbalance
where we speak simply of food safety?
(Mr Longworth) I think it is a matter for Government
principally to determine that. Tessa Jowell has already said,
as we have heard, that nutrition and health will be part of the
Food Standards Agency's role, so I suppose it is a question really
for the Government to decide the best way in which to do that,
for example whether it is written into the Bill.
335. If it is a matter for the Government
we are really wasting our time because we are hear to take evidence
that we might feed into advise the Government what is the best
way forward. Are you not absolving yourself of responsibility
by saying that is the Government's job? Surely those who work
in the food industry have an input as well to give guidanceand
that is what we are taking evidence onand help us inform
our minds as to what guidance we can give the Government?
(Mr Longworth) Yes indeed you are.
336. Forgive me if I am a little bit sceptical
here. I think the role of the Agency, the effectiveness of the
Agency, in terms of its regulatory role in food safety, is relatively
clear and we see that in the Bill. With regard to this suggestion
that the Agency's role should be to provide information and advice
in relation to diet and health, I am concerned about the effectiveness
of this. Who are they providing the advice to? The question arises
because probably those who are most in need of advice on nutrition
and diet, health and so on, are probably those least likely to
read government pamphlets. They are the sort of people that you
would be in the front line for talking to. They are the sort of
people who might pick up a magazine in the newsagents, of which
there are literally hundreds, providing advice on what one should
be eating, what is healthy to eat, what you should be feeding
your children and what you should be eating if you want to lose
weight and so on. Why do you think that the Food Standards Agency
should have any greater effectiveness in this than you perhaps
as retailers? Do you not think you have the responsibility to
provide healthy food which is good for people's diet rather than
relying on a government agency to tell you what you should be
(Mr Longworth) I wholly agree. I think we have
a level of responsibility to do that and in fact we do provide
that information. It is a real challenge to be able to provide
good information for consumers. We have a nutrition helpline which
any consumer can ring. We have literature which consumers can
ask for which is comprehensive. We have availability of things
like "free from" lists which provide information for
the sorts of foods that are free from certain allergies, and we
provide additional labelling information. We often provide information
to stores on specific issues that are a matter of public concern.
There are a whole host of things that we can do and do do to help
consumers understand diet and health. We also provide a choice
of products in our stores. We have a very wide range of healthy
eating products in our stores, for example, and we also have intrinsically
healthy products, fresh products and so on, which consumers are
advised on through our literature.
337. Are not your healthy eating products
usually more expensive than the others?
(Mr Longworth) Not necessarily.
(Ms Stack) Since it is our amendment I will take
this on the chin. I will explain exactly what we mean. We do not
mean that the Agency should be in the business of promoting a
healthy diet. That is a Government policy. I know that Professor
James was talking about what they did in Finland. That required
every single actor in the food chain to work together to promote
a healthy diet. Promoting a healthy diet is a very difficult thing.
We play our role, as John said. We do all the same things as Tesco
do. We have to base that on something. We do not invent health
food advice. We have to have health advice from somewhere. Bill
Shannon makes two points in the CWS evidence about the advice
so far. The difficulty is at the moment that Government advice,
whether it is provided by MAFF or the Department of Health, is
very often seen as not independent and not dispassionate. The
whole point about the Agency is that it is going to be independent
and, one hopes, dispassionate, about food safety and it can be
in this area too, which is one of the reasons why we think it
is a very logical place to put diet and nutrition advicebecause
the Agency is independent and dispassionate. The second thing,
and we have to recognise this, is that even where the Government
has had very independent advice from COMA, the Committee on the
Medical Aspects of Food Policy, that COMA advice has been, not
to put too fine a point on it, rubbished. That is as independent
advice as we have got so far. Can I make it absolutely clear.
We think the Agency would be the source of independent advice
on for example the level of fat, the level of salt, and then we
would take it and work it into our leaflets. I am talking about
the advice on what constitutes a healthy diet, not on promoting
338. You are presupposing that the Agency
has a monopoly on knowledge. The example of red wine has been
quoted here. One set of advice says that it is good for you and
another set of advice says that it is not good for you. Salt could
be another example. If you are going to rely simply on one government
agency as the fount of all knowledge do you not think that that
may be the wrong way to go?
(Ms Stack) That would be true for food safety
too. The Agency as I understand it would send out these kinds
of problems to its scientific committees, as MAFF does. The scientific
committees will weigh up the scientific evidence and in the end,
with scientific evidence, as I understand it, you weigh up the
balance of probabilities. It is perfectly true that in nutrition,
as in food safety, scientific advice changes because the scientific
evidence moves on. I take your point, but nevertheless one of
the problems has been that to consumersand I know this
because I work for a consumer organisation, and we are members
of a consumer organisationthe worst thing you can say is,
"Well, of course, the scientists themselves are confused."
What happens? People do not do anything. They say, "The scientist
does not know. Why should I change my diet?" I take your
point but at any one point in time the Agency has a role to put
it out to their scientific committees and get the best scientific
advice at that moment.
(Ms Nunn) By giving advice on diet and nutrition
the Agency has then got an input to Government's policy formulation
elsewhere, as John touched on. It is not just a matter of what
you eat but how you live, whether you take exercise, your genetic
background and so on. It is rather more complex than just what
339. I am looking forward to seeing a healthy
lifestyle label put on red wine in Tesco stores. Mr Longworth,
I have observed your labelling and the advisory stuff you put
in stores and it is all extremely good. Where do you get your
advice from to give advice to your customers at the moment?
(Mr Longworth) We source information from a variety
of places. We have internal experts in the business, we have a
team of nutritionists, we have a team of scientists in the business
and so on. We generate an amount of it from within. We are also,
of course, relying ourselves on the advice from government advisory
committees. We are reflecting the views of Government scientists
in the same way that the Government do.