Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 428 - 439)




  428.  Could I welcome you all to this morning's evidence taking session? I wonder if I could ask you to briefly introduce yourselves for the record?
  (Ms Sheppard)  I am Julie Sheppard. I am a Senior Public Affairs Officer at the Consumers' Association.
  (Ms McKechnie)  Sheila McKechnie, Director of the Consumers' Association.
  (Ms Phillips)  Hazel Phillips, Senior Parliamentary Officer of the National Consumer Council.
  (Ms Johnstone)  Jill Johnstone, Head of Policy at the National Consumer Council.

  429.  You are probably well aware that we are taking evidence on the draft legislation as opposed to some of the issues in and around food safety and standards. Nevertheless, we have decided as a Committee to look at wider issues in relation not just to the question of the words on paper in front of us that would be looked at perhaps in a committee room like this at a later stage. I wonder if I could ask you, just as a general opener, if you believe that the Food Standards Agency as it is drafted at the moment in this form is likely to re-establish the confidence that the public should have in our food chain in the United Kingdom?
  (Ms McKechnie)  If life was that simple, would it not be wonderful? I think the Food Standards Agency is the first step towards restoring confidence. One of your difficulties in looking at the broad frame of the legislation is that, while it certainly is acceptable to us in its thrust and its approach, it is making this thing work effectively. That will have a great deal to do with the people appointed to run it and the disinterested nature of the appointments to the board, the confidence that the public has in the chairman, the confidence that the public has in the chief executive. In our written evidence, I think we have made some suggestions as to how that should be carried through. We do have some reservations on the legislation which will come out in terms of the questions and answers but this is the first step. It is a real, fundamental breach with the old system. It takes it out of the industry set-up where it was certainly mistrusted by consumers and I think keeping nutrition in and not conceding to the pressure from the industry on that point was a major step forward in the government showing that it was putting consumers at the heart of this legislation. I think there is a long way to go and I have to say to you that I think the confidence is not just lost in the food industry. Confidence has been lost in the regulation by government and that is what you are responsible for. That is what you are trying to restore. This is a good first step.
  (Ms Phillips)  The National Consumer Council very much welcomes this draft legislation. It is something we have been calling for for ten years now. The key issue for us is to make sure it is independent and it is perceived to be independent; that it operates openly and also that the roles of all the various committees and bits of different government departments that will work with it are very clear, to make sure that it works effectively. Some of the issues that we are particularly concerned about that we raised in our evidence, are to do with the role of the Agency on the farm, its openness and the powers of the Secretary of State in relation to the legislation.

Rev Smyth

  430.  I am trying to figure out this complete lack of confidence in our food production because most of us look fairly healthy. The aspect I would like to test you on is this: do you believe that the emphasis upon food safety and its protection may have diluted the role of the Food Standards Agency in dealing with nutrition, bearing in mind that we had evidence last week that deaths by food poisoning number about 100; deaths by lack of proper nutrition, coupled with other aspects, run into thousands. Is it really lack of confidence in the food industry that is the problem at the moment in the nation or is it lack of guidance that would help them as well to have proper balanced diets?
  (Ms McKechnie)  There are about three different questions in there, if you do not mind me saying so. On the issue of nutrition and safety, that is a distinction which, if you follow through some of the scientific arguments, is not as sound in practice as it looks on paper. I am sure Philip James in his evidence—which I have not read and I have not heard but I know his views—would have gone into it in some detail, so I do not feel I need to go into that. The reason the issue of nutrition was so important was the food producing industry's and processing industry's fear that we would get into issues such as compositional standards and, more importantly I think, the issue of labelling. If you say consumers ought to be able to choose and if they are given choice and clear information they will have confidence in their own judgments, yes, there is some truth in that. We are a long way from giving people honest information. I can illustrate that. These are my two favourite props. They sit in my room and every visitor says why am I eating tinned mince and baby bananas. This is from a major manufacturer. Do not let us name it because I could have chosen any one of six. This is targeted at parents with young children and it is targeted as a healthy food. Your responsible parent trying to choose a reasonable, balanced diet for the child would be attracted to this kind of package. It is glamorous a little but it is also scientific. What is in it? There is more sugar in this than there is banana. By any nutritional standard, this is not what you would be wanting to feed your baby with if you were worried in the first instance about their teeth. This one is Tyne Mince and Onions. I have a slight problem here because mince in Scotland means lamb and it tends to mean beef in England so, depending on which side of the border you come from, you might think you are buying something different. Irrespective of what side of the border you come from, the major constituent of this can is water and the second major is mechanically recovered chicken. If you do not know what mechanically recovered chicken is——

Mrs Organ

  431.  Unfortunately, those of us from the Agriculture Select Committee do.
  (Ms McKechnie)  I will shut up. Asking consumers to make informed choices on their purchasing decisions when consumers are targeting labelling—the supermarkets are very well aware that consumers want to choose healthy diets. Some will not and will say, "I am going to walk under a bus so why worry about what I eat?" Others will take a rather more responsible view, particularly when they are trying to improve the quality of the diet of their children. They cannot, on the basis of the existing labelling system, make that choice. If people really knew what they were buying in some of those things that say "Light this" and "Farm fresh that" and "Healthy eating this", and the criticism we have had at the supermarkets is that they have responded to this consumer desire for good quality information by launching what are essentially marketing schemes that are misleading. One of the real roles of the Agency is to make consumer choice in the food field a meaningful choice. If you are anything like me, 75 per cent of what I put in my mouth in the course of an average day is not under my control. Therefore, to leave it all to individual choice seems to me to misunderstand the nature of how we actually put our diet together.

Rev Smyth

  432.  I understand the problem of retailers is they even go for green labelling and go for what is the in thing. I do not want to go on to specific labelling but you did touch on the fact of nutritional values. That would suggest to me that you were interested in that as a role for the Food Standards Agency. What would be the most effective means by which the Agency will impart to the public what was set forth in the consultation document, really intelligible, scientifically based information about the nutritional content of individual foods and impartial and accurate advice on a balanced diet? It did seem to me that you were coming on to that. Have you thought that through?
  (Ms McKechnie)  Yes. We have learned an awful lot in recent years. Maybe the NCC would like to comment on that aspect because they have done quite a lot on consumer education, as we have in the broader sense. There are things that have to be done at the level of schools, the point of sale information, where people can access information, the role of the new healthy living centres, the role of local authorities, etc. There is a whole machine out there to do with trying to get information over to people in a way that they can comprehend, understand and use to inform their decisions. We have learned quite a lot about what works and what does not work in that field. The Agency should approach it from that view. We are not starting from scratch. We know what health messages get through, what style works and what is appropriate for different audiences. I think it is important to understand that the key role of the Agency is not necessarily to do all of this because there are whole bits of the education machine that are functioning in other areas. They have to make sure that those public bodies with a role in that field adopt a consistent approach and accept their advice in terms of the way forward. What is the important role, going back and linking it with your last question, is that when there is a whole public controversy—let us take for argument the kind of scientific research where somebody—and scientists do this; they put a report out saying, "This is a great hazard" and you get the report in the paper the next day saying, "Blah, blah, blah", and this is a serious problem. Often the report does not distinguish between absolute and relative risk and people get the wrong end of the stick. At that point something called the Food Standards Agency makes an authoritative statement saying, "Our view is this, this, this. We are going to do this, this, this. In the meantime our advice to consumers is this, this, this." If that seems simple try and apply it to any of the major issues of public concern of health in recent years—pthalates in baby milk, PCBs in breast milk. There is no point at which when something like that is reported in the press there is a single voice saying this is the middle, sensible way forward. And it is the link between the broad thrust of making people give sensible general information and the need to give authoritative single issue information fast when the need arises that I think is critical to the role of the Agency.

  433.  The requirement is censorship then because the press are likely to go for the startling and unlikely to go for the balanced.
  (Ms McKechnie)  I am not that cynical!


  434.  Can I ask for the National Consumer Council's response.
  (Ms Johnstone)  Yes, if I could just add to that. Consumer education is a huge subject and we could be here all day. I fundamentally agree with Sheila that in a sense the Agency's role is to see that it happens rather than necessarily to do it all itself. It cannot do it all itself. We need to get consumer education back into the national curriculum. We need to get it into adult education and learning programmes. We need to improve labelling and improve the information leaflets that are available at food outlets and so on. The most important thing the Agency can do is make sure that all these things are happening and happening in a consistent way. As Sheila says, when there is an issue out there that could have been reported in various ways in the media, it can come out and make clear statements about what it thinks and what it is going to do.
  (Ms Sheppard)  I think you are right that probably the media will seize on a particular aspect of some report and that is what we get the headlines on and the next thing you know you are in a full scale food scare. One of the things we really hope about the Agency because it is going to operate more openly and it is not going to always default to secrecy is that it is going to be less prevalent because it is secrecy and non-disclosure that tends to fuel food scares almost more than anything else.

Dr Brand

  435.  Do you think the draft legislation is specific enough or enabling enough to make sure there is that clarity to get that message across because clearly this is a new Agency, it is taking on this responsibility according to Mrs Jowell, it is not taking it on really according to Mr Rooker, who sees it mainly as a hiving off of current activity from MAFF into something very similar but in a different building with a different culture and different accountability structure, a much more limited form. At the same time we have organisations such as the Health Education Authority, the Royal Colleges, the Chief Medical Officer and individual Ministers all pronouncing on food matters. Do you think this legislation is comprehensive enough to actually give us a simpler structure?
  (Ms McKechnie)  I think there have been a number of areas where there has been fudging. That is not helpful and I think we have all concentrated very much on what MAFF is up to in respect to this legislation and they have been trying, obviously, to retain as many powers as possible and as big a bit of the budget and it is public knowledge around Whitehall that there is a Civil Service turf war going on which I suggest you explore with the people that can answer the question. I simply know it is going on. What people have not noticed or concentrated on to the same degree is that the Department of Health and its staff are up to exactly the same thing. So if I had to pinpoint the areas where it has been fudged, one is veterinary medicines and pesticides, because I see no logical reason why those committees should not have come under the new structure and that was a very clear responsibility. At the other side on health, for some reason and given that public health has had such a diminished role within the Department of Health in the last two decades, they wanted to keep control of COMAX, the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food and some compromise is reached where there is a shared secretariat. Again that seems to me to be completely illogical. There is no reason why COMAX should not be simply part of the Agency. Again what is going on there? We only see it from the outside and we pick up the gossip. I think it would be very important for you to try and get to the bottom of all of this. There are areas where people are trying to hold on to future responsibility either for reasons of retaining the money or the positions or the power within those areas. So I accept the point that you have made in that respect. In respect to what is the best way to draft regulations, one of the things in terms of the review of parliamentary legislation and the whole debate about the quality of it, is that it is much better to have framework regulation which allows a degree of flexibility so that you can change without having to come back and go through the whole laborious primary legislation. I am less worried than most or the CA is less worried than most about the incremental ways in which the Agency will build on its framework. I am not particularly concerned about Agency agreements, say with different inspectorates. I think to ask an Agency to get off the ground, set its priorities, completely restructure and reform its committees, all of those things are going to need to be done as a matter of priority. To then ask it to manage a whole series of inspectorates immediately seems to me to be not a sensible managerial process—I am sorry I have got my management hat on—and if I was doing this I would want to shoot the ducks in the right order in terms of making this thing work. So in that sense I am not so worried. In boundaries I think there have been a lot of departmental attempts to claw back from the original Philip James proposals the areas that they regard as critical to their departmental interest but you have to get to the bottom of that; I have no means of doing so.

  436.  Can I offer an example before the National Consumer Council answers the same question. My postbag is full at the moment from people who buy things from health food shops with the threat of having those substances labelled as medicines rather than food. In all the advice coming from the Department of Health there has not been a single mention of the Food Standards Agency coming in. When I have explored this with other witnesses they say that the grey areas as to whom this problem belongs to will remain a grey area. There is not a mechanism for determining whose primary responsibility it is to decide what is a food and what is a medicine. Is that the sort of example we can use in illustration?
  (Ms Phillips)  In terms of the generality of the structure of the Agency I would want to follow on from Sheila's point about the veterinary medicines side and the pesticides side. We were very disappointed that was not going to be part of the Agency's remit because we are very keen to see that the industry promotion remit of the Ministry of Agriculture is quite separate from the food regulation side. Obviously that is of major concern. Also now that we are getting an idea of how it is going to operate in practice it does seem there is going to be quite a number of different bits of Ministry of Agriculture and Department of Health working together particularly on the veterinary medicine side and how they will work in with the Agency is going to be fairly crucial in practice if this is the model that we go for. I think we are very keen to ensure that on all the concordats—and I know they are not part of the legislation as such but it is the background in which we are operating—we will be consulted about how all those arrangements will work because I think, in practice, if a new emerging disease arises or some kinds of disaster happens it is very important that every different government department or committee or whatever all know what their various responsibilities are and who is supposed to communicate with whom. In the BSE inquiry we know, for example, that the Chief Medical Officer did not know that the Ministry of Agriculture thought there was a health problem with BSE for six months. We want to make sure that all lines of communication are absolutely clear and people know what their responsibilities are.

  437.  Do you think the legislation makes it clear?
  (Ms Phillips)  The concordats are going to be crucial in this. I do not know that you can necessarily legislate.

  438.  I thought it was a sort of aeroplane. I do not think it is defined in the legislation what a concordat is.
  (Ms Phillips)  Maybe that should be included in the legislation so that the actual process can be——
  (Ms Sheppard)  What I would like to add about the concordats is that these are going to be the administrative arrangements that are going to determine the role that the Agency plays in relation to these agencies primarily on farm responsibilities. The Agency is not going to have day-to-day responsibility for what happens before the farm gate. We are concerned about that. But it is something that we could actually live with if we could be sure that, firstly, the Agency would have a right of veto and intervention where it could see public health was being compromised by the failure of MAFF or those agencies to act. But, secondly, we would like these gentlemen's agreements (which are basically what the concordats are between the Agency and say the VMD and the PSD) to be subject to public scrutiny. We would like them to go out to public consultation. These should not be matters for officials to decide behind closed doors.
  (Ms McKechnie)  It does not answer your point about is a health food a food or a medicine. That is a huge debate. We have been working on it and we think where people have been taking food supplements as medicines then they ought to meet the standards. The legislation at the moment in terms of claims is extremely weak. You can do a certain amount through the Advertising Standards Authority. If a supplement or something is claimed to do something the ASA can write and say can you produce the evidence. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to some genuine people in that sector of the industry where they say ginseng has been drunk for 2000 years, why do you want us to go through animal studies? We have actually been using it on the human population.

  439.  I do not mean an answer to my question to write back to my constituents. It was an illustration to really test out your view whether you think what is being proposed at the moment in the Food Standards Agency will make it more clear as to what the line of accountability is for giving advice and policy on this issue.
  (Ms McKechnie)  That is why I come back to this point that a lot of these things will have to be resolved while the Agency carves out its space. That is why I put a great emphasis on the issue of culture. What is the culture of the Agency? By culture I mean the way we do things round here, what are our priorities, and that is why we think it is important that the Agency is clearly separate from the government machine, that the chairman/chairperson is appropriately independent and robust and, more than that, that the chief executive should be appointed preferably from the outside. I do not wish to discriminate between candidates that may come from the Civil Service, but it should be clearly understood that that person is an employee of the board and we do not want the kind of exchanges that are very clear from the evidence that has been submitted to the BSE inquiry where the way to nobble the board and the chair is to control what happens between the civil servants. These appointments are critical and getting a whole different approach into this Agency means that you have to actually go down a very different route than, say, if it was simply being a bit of government shifted from one government department to another government department. This is an exciting, incredible opportunity to look at transparent, confidence-building institutions in a very different relation to government than has previously been the case and I think you need somebody that understands that to get this Agency on a sound footing.

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