Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 359)



  340.  So would it not be a tremendous help to you if we had the model as proposed by Ms Stack to have an authoritative source of advice on which you can base your promotion to your customers?
  (Mr Longworth)  It is extremely important for us.

  341.  But you seem to be reluctant to give this role to this Food Standards Agency.
  (Mr Longworth)  It is difficult for us to see necessarily the best way in which to provide it. For example, it is not clear at the moment where the advisory committees will sit. It is very clear, of course, that the advisory committees should report to where it is that makes the policy on issues relating to nutrition, safety or whatever.

  342.  So you are not against the principle of an overarching remit for the Food Standards Agency, but you are not clear whether the draft legislation will give you an accountability path that is clearly enough for you to be confident?
  (Mr Longworth)  It is not clear at the moment, about the structure that is being proposed, frankly. The matter of nutrition is something in the White Paper which is not very clearly defined.

  343.  If it were made clearer and if you could see an accountability pathway and you knew who at the end of the day was responsible for a policy that we would all like to promote, you would find that a useful innovation as far as this new legislation was concerned?
  (Mr Longworth)  What we want is to have a body which is able to provide advice on all these issues, that is both independent and competent, and is seen to be independent and competent, so that it has public support and public confidence. Where that lies is not clear at the moment in the legislation, but it needs to be independent and competent.

  344.  But do you think that that body could be the Food Standards Agency?
  (Mr Longworth)  The body has to be the Food Standards Agency. What is not clear is what the remit of the Agency is in those areas. It is not clearly defined where the boundaries are at the moment.
  (Ms Nunn)  If I may make one point on the advisory committees, the Bill says that they can be wound up at will by the Food Standards Agency, and that is a point with which retailers are uncomfortable in that it seems there should be an overarching responsibility perhaps to feed back to the Department of Health and make sure that they are not just doing something that perhaps goes against the longer term policy views of the Department of Health.

  345.  Of course the Agency is accountable at the moment and will be accountable to the Department of Health, so presumably that means it will be there.
  (Ms Nunn)  We presume so.

  346.  Well, let us hope.
  (Mr Longworth)  As a build on that, in terms of the inter-relationships, it was mentioned earlier that there is a whole range of things that influence people's health, including lifestyles, exercise and so on, it is very difficult to see at the moment in the way that the Bill is constructed, how you can get that comprehensive advice within the Agency. Clearly quite a bit of information would have to come from the Department of Health, whatever happens. Trying to interrelate those two things is quite important. Where you draw the boundary makes that rather difficult.

  347.  But presumably your responsibility is the food retailing with a predominance in nutrition. There are other players in the wider field of health promotion, such as the GP, but it would be nice to start somewhere.
  (Mr Longworth)  I agree with that. You cannot decouple nutrition from lifestyle, whereas, for example, it is a fairly clear thing to say that the Agency would deal with the regulatory and legislative areas, such as labelling and information on nutrition, which is a regulatory matter, and links very nicely with standards in food safety. You can see the neatness of that in terms of the regulatory regime.

Mrs Wise

  348.  What do you think is covered by the term "food safety"?
  (Mr Longworth)  Food safety would clearly for us and traditionally in terms of the regulatory regime, deal with all those matters where there may be some sort of ill effect on an individual from consuming a food product, so it would range from things such as micrological food poisoning through to chemical toxicity. It has not traditionally and in the regulatory framework included things such as nutrition.

  349.  Anybody else?
  (Ms Nunn)  That is a complete answer.

  350.  Chemical toxicity: that is adulteration in some way, accidental or otherwise?
  (Mr Longworth)  It may be adulteration, accidental or otherwise, so it may be contamination of food from some source.
  (Ms Nunn)  It could be naturally present. There are toxins in the environment, such as molluscs where you have mercury occurring naturally. All these things need to be monitored and checked. That is a role for the food industry and indeed then for Government to enforce.

  351.  In the draft Bill it says that the main objective of the Agency is to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food. That seems wider than simply saying food safety. At least it seems to me wider. Yet in notes on clauses that is rewritten as though it says food safety. I wondered whether you read anything in wider in "to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food".
  (Mr Longworth)  We have always considered the Bill to relate to food safety and standards. I do not think the definition of food safety in any way changes within that context. There is another element which is food standards, which I touched on before, relating to things like labelling for example, which may not have any safety impact at all.

  352.  Making sure that people know what they are buying?
  (Mr Longworth)  Clear and honest information.

Mr Paterson

  353.  Surely you are in the business of selling healthy food? There cannot be any food business that wants to sell poisonous food. Why do you need a large Government quango to tell you how to run your own business?
  (Mr Longworth)  That is a very good question. Yes, we are in the business of selling safe and healthy food. I am not sure that we do need a large Government quango—your words—to tell us how to do that. But there is a wide world out there and people do need advice.

  354.  But as 80 to 85 per cent of food poisoning is caused by either incompetent storing of food or incompetent cooking in people's private homes, do you not think this is a large sledgehammer to crack the wrong nut?
  (Mr Longworth)  I am not sure about the statistics. We have some information from Parliament's own scientific office.
  (Ms Nunn)  The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology published a report in October 1997 which highlighted that the incidence of outbreaks was mainly from the kinds of institutions such as residential homes and hospitals. It is about the whole food chain. We must also bear in mind that people generally in their lives are eating out more, so catering is becoming increasingly important. It is not just about food retailing. It cuts across the whole range.
  (Mr Longworth)  I think that is what we are suggesting, that it is in the whole range.

  355.  It is not retail?
  (Mr Longworth)  No, it is not retail.

  356.  I do not think retailers are deliberately purveying poisonous food.
  (Mr Longworth)  Quite. The information in the Office of Science and Technology report indicates that 44 per cent of food poisoning arises from catering establishments, 17 per cent from the home, a very small percentage—six per cent—from retailers. There is a whole host of other sources of course, including manufacturing.

  357.  To get back to my original question, why do you need an Agency when most of the food safety problems are not coming from you?
  (Mr Longworth)  Going back to my original answer, I do not think we as Tesco need an agency, but there is a wide world out there and a lot of people need advice.
  (Ms Nunn)  I think the British public needs an agency. It is about taking the food policy and the standards and safety away from the farm end of things. A number of food scares, not least BSE, did undermine confidence in government and scientists speaking out about issues affecting the food industry. By divorcing the potential public health aspect from the farming promotion, food industry promotion, side, there ought to be that extra element of independence which we would welcome.

  358.  Do you think food is healthy at the moment?
  (Ms Nunn)  Oh yes.
  (Mr Longworth)  Yes. I think food in the United Kingdom is very safe.

Dr Brand

  359.  That is not the same as healthy.
  (Ms Nunn)  There are no bad foods, actually, only bad diets. Yes, generally food is healthy and essential to life.

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