Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440
TUESDAY 9 MARCH 1999
and MS JILL
440. Could I just intervene briefly and
ask a question of Jill Wordley from the Food Standards Group that
has been working on this proposed legislation for a long time.
We have had the issue there from Julie Sheppard about the question
of public consultation on the concordats as opposed to them being
published documents which it says in the consultation document.
Is there likely to be consultation on the concordats?
(Ms Wordley) Thank you, Chairman. The proposal
is that the document should be published. There is not at present
a proposal that they should be subject to detailed consultation
as for instance with the draft Bill issuing a draft for discussion.
I think it is certainly the intention on the part of both those
within the Joint Food Safety Standards Group and within the Department
of Health that there should be discussion with interested parties
about the sort of things that the concordats should contain and
the approach to be taken. Nevertheless, there will be some details
in that which are about internal administrative process and not
necessarily appropriate for wide public consultation. Nevertheless,
I think the principle is clear that there should be some kind
of consultation on the sort of issues that the concordats might
need to address.
441. Will they be published?
(Ms Wordley) The intention is that they will be
442. We have had written evidence saying
that they should be sent out for public consultation as well.
Could I ask the National Consumers Council, do you agree with
(Ms Johnstone) I certainly agree with that. You
asked was the legislation clear. The legislation is not clear.
There are a lot of areas of shared responsibility particularly
on the farm but also between the Department of Health and the
Agency on nutrition. I think it is essential if all the detail
is going to be in the concordats that they should be publicly
443. Can Ms Wordley confirm for us that
the Food Standards Agency is also going to publish a statement
of objectives of its own. Will those be subject to public consultation?
Am I right in understanding from the draft Bill that they have
to be approved by the existing ministries before they can be adopted
by the new Agency?
(Ms Wordley) To take the second point first, the
statement will have to be approved by what the Bill calls the
appropriate authorities which means the Secretary of State for
Health and the appropriate territorial Ministers in Scotland,
Wales and Northern Ireland. It will not have to be approved by
agriculture Ministers. They can ask the Agency to include particular
things in that statement but the statement is ultimately the Agency's
own proposals for how it is intending to operate and will include
their more detailed objectives and some detail on the practices
the Agency will operate and again I think it is perfectly possible
that in drawing that statement up the Agency might want to consult
quite widely. Given that the Bill gives the Agency a responsibility
to operate in a consultative sort of way I think it would be surprising
if it did not want to have some sort of further consultation,
but that is ultimately a matter for the Agency itself to decide,
it is not required by the Bill.
444. Can the witnesses comment on whether
they feel the fact it has got to be approved by the Secretary
of State for Health is going to be limiting or whether they are
happy about that?
(Ms Phillips) I think it would be important to
have in the Bill the fact they are going to consult about those
statements. I think they are very important and we would certainly
look to see that included in the relevant clause.
445. Can I go right back to your preliminary
assertion that there is currently a lack of confidence amongst
consumers in British food. What evidence do you have for that?
(Ms McKechnie) Piles.
Do you want the short version or the long version? We are the
national Consumers' Association and we publish a magazine called
Which and do detailed research into consumer attitudes
to food policy in the broader sense and in the narrow sense. We
have done recent research that has been widely reported in the
media about confidence in genetically modified food. I think it
might be very difficult for politicians to understand the breakdown
of trust and the depth of that breakdown in trust between government
and citizens over the issue of who is protected. I keep throwing
this back at you because you keep saying "confidence in the
food industry". There are two bits to it. There is confidence
in the regulatory framework that protects people from ill-health
and safety in respect of food and it is the job of Government
to set those standards because people individually cannot actually
sort out that the cheese that they are eating is full of listeria
or the wotsits are full of E. Coli. There is no way the
individual consumer can make those decisions. There is no way
to identify it. There is a clear role for Government in having
a regulatory framework that puts the consumer at the heart of
that framework. The breakdown was with politicians in the first
instance who are expected to impose appropriate regulation on
the industry. Can I say that some of the statements that have
come out of the industry in the course of the argument over this
Food Standards Agency have been, quite frankly, outrageous. We
are not saying that we need lots and lot and lots of heavy cumbersome
process driven regulation because all of that regulation at the
end of the day adds cost to the individual consumer because it
is simply passed on through the retailers or through the processes.
The regulation has to be appropriate to the nature of the hazard.
In determining the nature of the hazard appropriate research has
to be done and the research budget of this Agency is one of the
things that I am really concerned about. We are doing some work
on it at the moment to look at the amount of government money
that goes into industry promoted research and how little goes
into the kind of independent research that there is not any funding
for elsewhere in terms of what the issues might be for consumers.
Any industry will be anti-regulation for a number of reasons.
This industry is anti-regulation primarily because of the labelling
issue and the fact that by giving information to consumers, consumers
will simply not buy certain kinds of things that are currently
on the shelf and that threatens certain producers in the industry.
They use cheap quality material and then put loads of salt and
sugar and flavouring into it to make it palatable. That is not
a healthy diet. If I had to say what is at the root of the whole
argument with the industry that is the core issue. We have had
a cheap food policy. Consumers do not want it any more. Poorer
consumers need to be protected by nutritional standards even more
than those consumers like me who can choose to buy certain kinds
of food and not buy certain other kinds of food. One of the most
worrying aspects of this whole debate is that we are pushing quality
food into the premium price end of the market and we are not seeking
to improve the diet of the British public as a whole and that
has nothing to do with nannying.
446. To get back to the question of confidence,
why is it that the two products that were most in the public eye,
beef and eggs, revived last year?
(Ms McKechnie) Are those the figures from the
Meat Livestock Commission or MAFF? Where do you get your statistics
because the general level of people eating meat
447. I said beef.
(Ms McKechnie) So over one year there has been
a slight recovery?
448. Your assertion is that there is a massive
lack the confidence. I think what you are actually saying is there
is a lack of confidence in the politicians' ability to supervise
the food industry but I am asserting I am not sure that there
is consumer lack of confidence in the product because they have
gone back to the product.
(Ms McKechnie) They have gone back to the product
449. They are eating beef at the same level
as before BSE and eggs at the highest level for about ten years.
(Ms McKechnie) I do not know quite how you would
set up a survey to answer the question that you are asking. People
have to eat. It is not one of these activities that you choose
to do or choose not to do. In terms of managing a family budget
if your primary concern is nutrition and price then obviously
you make certain kinds of choices. People want to be able to eat
what they want to eat. If I want to eat eggs I want to be able
to eat raw eggs. I do not want to have to follow the advice at
the moment which is if I am immunologically suppressed it would
be a rather good idea if I did not because the chicken and egg
area is full of salmonella which might affect me very adversely.
I would like to be able to eat semi-raw eggsthe wonderful
yellow yoke of an egg with fresh asparagus. You cannot do it in
this country because nobody can give you a guarantee that that
raw egg is not full of something that will make you very sick.
450. That is your assertion against the
figures that egg consumption has gone up in a matter of the last
year. You have not come up with any figures yet.
(Ms McKechnie) If you look at consumption what
can you prove from consumption?
451. People are eating more of them, they
have got confidence in the product, it is obvious.
(Ms McKechnie) There seems to me to be an incredible
leap of faith in that statement and I doubt if my statisticians
or survey unit would say it is terribly logical.
452. It is commonsense that if people are
eating more of a product for the first time in ten years then
they have got confidence in it.
(Ms McKechnie) Until somebody makes a statement
in the press about something that might be wrong with it and their
confidence declines again. People go shopping. They are not scientists.
They are not hygienists. They want to be able to go out and do
the shopping for the things they want to buy without worrying
if they are going to have an episode of food poisoning as a result.
453. You are asserting this lack the confidence.
I am saying there is a big increase in egg consumption. You are
saying they are all worried stiff but they are still going out
and eating them. I do not quite follow.
(Ms McKechnie) All I can see is that the evidence
we have submitted is based on good quality market research where
the questions are actually determined.
454. Could you let us see that?
(Ms McKechnie) Yes. The evidence that we have
submitted to the Committee contains all our recent published reports
on this area including the whole approach to risk and the attitudes
contained in there, our report on consumer representation, our
report on the Food Standards Agency. All of it is based on researched
(Ms Sheppard) If the Committee would like us to
submit further evidence on some of the research that we have doneand
we have done a lot of research in this area we can. There is no
such thing as a risk-free product. What we have discovered through
all the research surveys we have done is that what people want
to feel is there is somebody out there looking out for them who
can actually confidently handle and manage some of these risks
competently. What seems to have happened, you are quite right
to emphasise this point, is that people have lost confidence in
that regulatory mechanism.
(Ms McKechnie) That is it.
455. There is not a lack of confidence in
the food or the product but there is a lack of confidence in the
political framework that is regulating industry. I think that
is what you are saying.
(Ms McKechnie) No that is not what I am saying
because you cannot separate the lack of confidence in the product
from the regulatory framework that allows the product onto the
shelf. The two things are very tied up and what the consumer wants
to know is that when they buy something off the shelf the system
that ensures that that does not make them ill in the short term
or the long term is in place and operating in their interests.
They are less suspicious of industry than they are of politicians,
perhaps surprisingly, but the general view in terms of research
would be that the industry is going to look after the industry
interests and in the food area the closer you get to the consumers,
supermarkets say, the more concerned you are about reassuring
the consumer that you are putting them first because if you do
not do that you have a tendency to lose business. If Monsanto
had been a supermarket in the last month it would have been hit
on its bottom line and it probably would not have carried on behaving
in the arrogant way it has done in terms of consumer interests
in relation to GM. So the nearer you are to the customer the more
you need to have customer confidence but you cannot separate the
issue of the regulatory framework and confidence in the food that
we are eating.
(Ms Phillips) Could I add on the trust, the public
confidence, if you like, in the regulatory system, I do not know
whether the Committee is aware of some work which has been done
recently by the Cabinet Office into risk. They asked people a
whole range of questions, not just on food but on the environment,
pollution and risk generally, but they do show that there is a
lack of trust in terms of government ministers. When they were
asked who they would least trust to give advice on the risk of
BSE, government ministers were the people whom they would least
trust and they would most trust independent scientists. So that
shows that there is some level of concern. It may be a level of
distrust right across the board because, as I say, it was about
pollution as well, but the Committee might be interested to see
(Ms McKechnie) But it is very low. If you look
at it, 57 per cent. would trust independent scientists, 6 per
cent. would trust supermarkets, 4 per cent. would trust government
ministers and 2 per cent. would trust politicians generally.
(Ms Phillips) As I say, that work might be of
interest to the Committee.
Chairman: I think
you would agree on the general assumption that if we have problems
in the food chain, as we had with salmonella and everything else,
just watching what portion of that is sold in the marketplace
is not the answer to that problem.
456. Earlier I asked the large retailers
why, if all the products they sold were healthy, as they claimed,
they have to market a proportion of them as being healthy. I did
not exactly get much of an answer. Would you have any comment
on that? How would this relate to the functions of the Agency?
(Ms McKechnie) This goes back to the issue of
what is actually in the processed food. I am not talking about
choosing between bananas and grapefruit and meat and things that
people are aware of as discrete entities. It is in the area of
processed food where I think the industry is most vulnerable,
because I think if you read a label you are buying something that
is being promoted as very healthy, but if you actually look at
what is in it, we know that we are eating too much sugar, that
we are eating too much salt, that we should reduce our fat intake.
Ask anybody and they know that those are the three core messages
for having a reasonably healthy diet"Eat a lot of
fresh fruit," and so onand the industry is selling
processed food often labelled as healthy which any nutritionist
would say was not healthy.
457. Although food labelling tends to be
factually accurate as far as it goes, you would see a role for
the Food Standards Agency in going far beyond this?
(Ms McKechnie) I think the issue of how you label
is an extremely difficult one. We have had three attempts since
I came to the CA to get the industry to sit down with us and come
to some kind of sensible arrangement and each time it has been
sabotaged, so to speak, by the trade bodies protecting the industry.
So I have given up now and I have said to ministers, "If
you want some kind of sensible labelling policy you are actually
going to have to bang heads together," but I think there
are enough people in the industry who understand the problems.
The difficulty is that if you go for completely comprehensive
labelling on some of the processed foods, you would not get the
list on a label unless it was a really big packet. You have then
to ask yourself whether or not the average consumer is going to
go shopping with a magnifying glass to see what they want to eat
in terms of the label. I did a little personal experiment once
with plain yogurt. You go to the plain yogurt shelf in a supermarket
and see if you can sort out what is the lowest-fat yogurt from
the labels, and that is one of the easiest things to do from current
labels. So there is a real problem in using labels that are completely
comprehensive and we need to get some kind of balance there. I
think the introduction of certain kinds of new technology may
well resolve some of the problems of allergies and sensitivities,
that it is not going to be too long before you can actually, say
you are sensitive to nuts, have a little machine that you run
across the bar codes or whatever of any product and it will check
for you whether there are nuts in that product. There are aspects
of food, remember, that individuals are sensitive to. So comprehensive
labelling is needed to deal with allergies; it is not necessarily
the best way to give people information about whether what they
are eating is good for them or not good for them. That is why
we needed all to sit down and really hammer through the detail
of those kinds of problems.
(Ms Sheppard) Could I add something to that in
relation to health claims. You may already have heard evidence
from the National Food Alliance about the Health Claims Initiative.
I am on the steering group that is trying to set up what is called
the Code Administration Body, which is a body which will verify
and asses health claims that companies want to make in relation
to their products. We are finding it enormously difficult to find
a body which is sufficiently independent from the industry and
also has the expertise and the resources to be able to carry out
these sorts of assessments. That is precisely the kind of thing
that the Agency should be doing. It should not be left to a bunch
of well-meaning individuals to try and develop a Code Administration
Body for this very important area where there still is not legislation.
458. May I just ask one last point on this.
We have actually had a Department of Health for a long time which
supposedly has responsibility for this matter. Do you see a quantitative
or a qualitative change if the Food Standards Agency is given
more responsibility for nutrition?
(Ms McKechnie) If there is not a qualitative change
I will be extremely disappointed, because if you go back over
the debates that are well-documented and all the evidence and
all the reports that the CA has done over the years, the Department
of Health has not performed well in respect to putting the consumer
first. It is not here but one of the reports I know that the CA
published quoted a very specific example of where a labelling
system was agreed that said certain amounts of sugar and salt
and the industry pressure got the label changed and the previous
government actually conceded on those points. So as regards health
education and the whole public health agenda in this country,
we have gone from being one of the most effective countries in
public health policy to, I think, certainly in European terms,
being one of the least effective, and you have to ask yourself
where the main responsibility for that lies. I think, as I said
in an earlier statement, everybody has their eye on MAFF. Just
have a little careful thought about what the role of the Department
of Health is in all of this.
459. I am reasonably confident that the
new Food Standards Agency will make sure that bacteriological
concerns are dealt with and that food is labelled, but I am far
from convinced that that will actually make any significant difference
to nutrition, because you will never get a label that says, "We
made this with the cheapest possible meat and soaked it in monosodium
glutamate so that you can eat it." It is never going to be
that clear and shoddy goods are always going to be the ones sold
to the poorest people. If this Agency is to be effective, what
power would your two organisations put in the Bill so that the
Food Standards Agency can stop shoddy foods getting on the market
and being marketed to the poorest people?
(Ms McKechnie) I think you have to look at the
availability of food to poor people. We certainly have a degree
of food poverty in this country and there is a great deal of research
to show that parents on very low incomes know that they should
be buying fresh fruit and vegetables and trying to persuade their
children not to eat things that are unhealthy, but the availability
of that at a price they can afford is actually the core issue
and I think that if you want to solve the problem of food poverty
you have to look at issues to do with poverty. I do not think
you can necessarily roll it into the issue of the responsibility
of an Agency because poverty is about not having enough money.
It is not about lack of information, lack of understanding, generally.
I think a great deal could be done with poorer families to help
them to produce nutritious, cheap food from ingredients that are
available, but I think the solution to that problem probably lies
in a number of other ministries and a number of other areas that
are way beyond what this body could do. But some European countries
take the view that if there is a staple dietif you look
at things like bread or perhaps pasta in Italy, that is part of
the core dietthe core diet should actually meet certain
compositional and nutritional standards, and that may be a step
forward, but I think you have great difficulty in this day and
age in doing what would result in what you want to happen, that
we are all healthier. The period where we ate best in this country,
as every nutritionist will tell you, is the period during the
war when people had food coupons. If you really want to make a
difference you could go down that route. I would suggest that
politically it would simply be unacceptable in this day and age.
I am sorry, that feels like a waffly answer.
(Ms Johnstone) I would like to support much of
what Sheila has said. The Agency cannot do all this on its own.
There is not a magic plan that you can put in the Bill that is
going to improve the health of the poorest members of society.
There are a lot of other issues that have to be looked at as well,
some of which have been addressed in the Public Health Green Paper.
The Agency has a role in making sure consumer education happens,
in making sure information happens, but it cannot cure poverty
and we would certainly be reluctant to suggest that it could ban
less nutritious foods.
1 cf para 4 (CA written evidence) and pp. 31-33 in
`Confronting Risk'. Back