Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440 - 459)




  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.

Mrs Organ

  441.  Will they be published?
  (Ms Wordley)  The intention is that they will be published.


  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 that.
  (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 consulted on.

Dr Ladyman

  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.

Mr Paterson

  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.[1] 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 slightly.

  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 eggs—the 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 data.
  (Ms Sheppard)  If the Committee would like us to submit further evidence on some of the research that we have done—and 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 that.
  (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.

Dr Moonie

  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 on—and 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.

Mr Ladyman

  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 diet—if you look at things like bread or perhaps pasta in Italy, that is part of the core diet—the 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

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