Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 410 - 419)




  410.  Good morning. Could I welcome you to the Committee, Mr Robertson? I am sure you are aware that we are in the position of taking evidence in a very short period of time but I wonder if I could ask you first of all, for the record, to announce yourself?
  (Mr Robertson)  Thank you. Please excuse my broken hearing aid. I have a hearing problem and only one ear that works. If I flip briefly through the proposals, one that does concern us is we should maybe refer to the European Union on occasion because much of this is also covered by European legislation and proposals. One of the first things that worries me on page six, as a businessman, is the cost of the initial set-up. I believe a new building is proposed and we would like to suggest that we look at some of the existing buildings such as the old Ministry of Agriculture, which is very convenient for here. I am sure we know that something like £1 million was spent moving to the new Ministry offices and we now have some very good buildings left that perhaps the Agency should consider.

Chairman:  We have not gone into detail yet about that. What we are trying to do here is to look at the draft Bill as it stands. Obviously, your position in the Federation of Small Businesses is that you are quite interested in how some of the issues, particularly two of them, do affect small businesses in this country. I wonder if I could ask Martin Smyth to open up one of the areas that we would like to question you on this morning?

Rev Smyth

  411.  You will be aware that in emphasising the role of the FSA in the area of food safety rather than nutrition it has raised problems in some minds. Do you believe that the government has diluted the possible effectiveness of the FSA by making that emphasis?
  (Mr Robertson)  No, not particularly. One thing that concerns me a great deal is the intrusion into industry, particular for farmers who have never had this before. I think it may affect them seriously. We are getting a very high level of inspection. Okay, it is to assure the consumer of food safety, but I think this is much more than will happen in the rest of Europe. We are a little worried about gold plating, particularly in this context. Speaking for small farmers, I am very worried about the level of farmer suicides at the moment. It is approximately two a week. We have a study from the University of Edinburgh that puts this down to government legislation as the first reason. There is a very complex raft of legislation involved in this Agency which I think will come down very heavily on farming, amongst other industries. I am obviously more concerned with farming than the other industries in this context.

  412.  It is interesting in that context that the Irish Food Agency which has been set up has not had anybody from the food industry on it. They think that is marvellous, bearing in mind that the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland depend a large amount on their agricultural industry. Have you had any reactions at that level?
  (Mr Robertson)  I have not had any particular Irish response but in talking about the evidence of reasons for farm suicides I am talking about a Scottish paper produced by Professor Ian Deerie of the University of Edinburgh.

  413.  I thought it was your emphasis on the European model and that the Republic of Ireland as a separate entity within Europe might have been in your mind as well.
  (Mr Robertson)  Yes. I am also relating to larger farming groups such as the French, who I do not think will perhaps adopt the same approach as we will.

  414.  You are not suggesting that, because countries in Europe have lower standards, we should be lowering ours to meet their standards or, as we are aware in the Italian aspect of European legislation, they legislate but do not enforce.
  (Mr Robertson)  I think I am more concerned that we should raise our standards to the effect that we disadvantage British farmers competitively. This is very important. We have to bear in mind the competition provisions of the Treaty of Rome and not make our farmers in such a bad position that they cannot compete fairly.

  415.  Is there any possibility that, when you speak of the problems in Scotland, it is because they have no balanced nutrition and therefore they are not able to face the pressures upon them?
  (Mr Robertson)  Could you repeat that?

  416.  You are talking about the suicide rate in Scotland.
  (Mr Robertson)  No; I am talking about the United Kingdom.

  417.  All right; say the United Kingdom as a whole. Could it be that farmers maybe are not getting enough advice on nutritional values and therefore they are not equipped to deal with these added pressures?
  (Mr Robertson)  I suppose it is an argument.


  418.  One of the guiding principles of the proposed Food Standards Agency is that it re-establishes public confidence in our food chain. Would it not be to the benefit of farmers if that happened, in view of the reaction we have had to food chain issues like BSE and its reaction to your members?
  (Mr Robertson)  I think it would if it was not so costly to them. We have to recognise that there are many farm assurance schemes which are also addressing that problem at the moment in other products. These have a mixed reception, mainly again because I think they are not applicable in the rest of Europe. We should ask ourselves perhaps why we are so concerned about this particular aspect. We know we had BSE but that was unique. That had to be approached in a totally separate way. We wonder why we are so concerned whereas no one else in Europe seems to be. Is this particularly a British problem? Should we not be addressing it a little less?

  419.  As far as the regimes to rid our livestock of BSE, they are now in place and would not be affected by this proposed Agency. I wonder if you think there is any cost, other than a possibly levy on retail outlets, that would affect farmers and small businesses particularly that you represent? Is there a likelihood that any new charges for the Food Standards Agency would affect the people that you represent?
  (Mr Robertson)  Obviously, it will affect all food businesses so far as the cost is concerned. In this context, if there is to be a charge, it should be dependent on size. We recognise it will cost more to implement but we believe fairness is more important in that context. Small businesses may cost more to inspect but they are on a much slower turnover so we are concerned on that particular aspect.

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