Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 328 - 339)




  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 members.
  (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 competent.

Rev Smyth

  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 issues would.

  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 guidance—and that is what we are taking evidence on—and help us inform our minds as to what guidance we can give the Government?
  (Mr Longworth)  Yes indeed you are.

Mr Walter

  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 doing?
  (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 advice—because 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 it.

  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 consumers—and I know this because I work for a consumer organisation, and we are members of a consumer organisation—the 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 you eat.

Dr Brand

  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.

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