Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340
TUESDAY 9 MARCH 1999
and MS JANET
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
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
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
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
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
(Mr Longworth) Clear and honest information.
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 quangoyour
wordsto 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 percentagesix per centfrom
retailers. There is a whole host of other sources of course, including
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
(Ms Nunn) Oh yes.
(Mr Longworth) Yes. I think food in the United
Kingdom is very safe.
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.