Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 470 - 479)




  470.  Good afternoon. I would like to welcome you in front of the Committee. Could I ask you to introduce yourselves and the organisation that you are representing this afternoon for the record.
  (Mr Attenborough)  Good afternoon. Mike Attenborough, Technical Director, Meat and Livestock Commission.
  (Mr Maclean)  Good afternoon all. Colin Maclean, Director General, Meat and Livestock Commission.
  (Mr Gill)  Ben Gill, President of the National Farmers' Union of England and Wales.
  (Mr Gardiner)  Ian Gardiner, Policy Director of the National Farmers' Union of England and Wales.
  (Ms Browning)  Helen Browning, Chairman of the Soil Association.

Chairman:  Thank you very much. You will know the people to my right from the Food Standards Group and they have been working on this for many years now. I am not sure whether they are witnesses or not, but they are here to answer any queries on the draft legislation for all of us. Welcome. I am sure you know quite well that this Committee is looking in theory just at the legislation as drafted in the consultation and obviously we are looking at wider issues as well, although on quite a tight timetable. I do not know how much longer this is going to go on for your organisations, but for us it is the end of the month. Howard Stoate?

Mr Stoate

  471.  I would like to start by looking at the powers of the Food Standards Agency and whether they are adequate for their purpose. I will start with Mr Gill from the National Farmers' Union. Under clause 13 of the draft Bill, the Agency will have powers to carry out "observations" on farms, leaving enforcement activities to local authorities and a range of MAFF Executive Agencies. Are you satisfied that it is clear as the Bill is drafted that the FSA will have routine powers that can extend beyond the farm gate?
  (Mr Gill)  First of all, we would highlight the difference between primary producers and the food industry, which are fundamentally different. You may want to come back to what farmers are doing at the moment to address the many issues before it leaves the farm in terms of farm assurance schemes. They are not quality assurance schemes, they are farm assurance schemes. They are not addressed to food safety, but they should give the assurances. We intend for them to be based on UKAS accreditation, which gives us the recognition and we believe that they are independently surveyed and we believe that the Food Standards Agency would need to be aware of them. The fact that we are going to so much trouble to introduce these schemes voluntarily is a very strong indicator of the awareness of farmers and the farming community and the farming industry as a whole that it has a key part to play in the role of the food chain that meshes in once it leaves the farm gate. That in itself is a major statement of commitment within the food industry. We would hope that the Food Standards Agency would look upon that in a positive tone.

  472.  What has been your experience of the effectiveness of the current enforcement operations carried out on farms by the Pesticides Safety Directorate, the Meat Hygiene Service and the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency? What do you think currently have been the effects? I am particularly interested in enforcement.
  (Mr Gardiner)  A large part of the enforcement operations which affect farmers would carry on in the state in which they are at the moment, but they would be subject to the supervision, monitoring and control of the Food Standards Agency. I guess any change would then come if the Food Standards Agency felt there were any deficiencies which were not being remedied.

  473.  I am asking you if you think there are any deficiencies.
  (Mr Gardiner)  Dairy farms have an inspection on hygiene grounds once every three years or more frequently. That works properly, although there is a duplication with local authority inspections of farms there which we hope the Food Standards Agency could help on. Some farms are also processing premises and retail premises and will have a slightly different relationship on that front. Our members do notice differences or patchiness in local authority inspection of the food system and of them, and one of the things which we would hope the Food Standards Agency will do is lead to a uniform standard of inspection across the face of England and Wales and, of course, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

  474.  I am particularly interested in your comment about the patchiness of the enforcement and that is what I want to concentrate on. Clearly the enforcement works in some areas and it is not quite so good in others. Do you think the FSA should have greater responsibility for on-farm enforcement or do you think the new structure as proposed will improve this patchiness?
  (Mr Gardiner)  I believe that it can and I think that it will. I was at a conference this morning where local government representatives were speaking just as much as Food Standards Agency people and I believe there is a lot of goodwill and there is an acceptance that the leading local authorities need reinforcement. I would say, on the other hand, that where the patchiness is due to a lack of resources inside the local government system then that is going to raise some financial questions which go beyond the remit of the National Farmers' Union.

  475.  I want to move on to the regulation and approval of pesticides. Are you satisfied that the Food Standards Agency has adequate powers over the regulation and approval of pesticides?
  (Ms Browning)  No, I think one of the things that seems rather incongruous to us is that whereas you have brought under the FSA many of the statutory bodies that are concerned with food safety, the Pesticides Agency is not going to be there. If you are doing that then it would be more coherent to have both that and the Veterinary Medicine Directorate under the control of the FSA. I know that is a hot potato at the moment.

  476.  But you would recommend that that was considered?
  (Ms Browning)  Yes, we would.
  (Mr Gill)  We would take a different view to that.
  (Mr Maclean)  So would we.
  (Mr Gill)  We believe that the existing arrangements have delivered a very safe and effective way of policing the introduction of new pesticides and new medicines into this country, that the record on residues stands testimony to the way the whole system works at the moment and, therefore, there is nothing to change in that. The proposals for the interaction with the Food Standards Agency are sufficient to show that there is a link in there to counter any concerns that might arise.

  477.  I am a little concerned about that because my understanding is that the number of times that crops are tested for pesticide residues is, of necessity, small and I wonder if you really think there is enough testing of pesticide residues?
  (Mr Gill)  If they were concerned that the levels showing up in the results then that would require more testing. I think the consistency of the results and the fact that they show up repeatedly gives us the assurance that there is sufficient testing going on to address that issue.

  478.  Are you satisfied with that, Ms Browning?
  (Ms Browning)  I do not think the issue here is one of residues. When you are looking at veterinary products I think the big issue at the moment is antibiotic resistance in the human population and I am concerned that this whole debate is becoming very polarised. I do not like the idea that we are looking at enforcement. What I feel we need to do is to support the industry in changing its basic practices, to allow the industry to make sure that these problems do not arise in the first place and to reduce the industry's dependence on antibiotics, for example, in the first place. I think that is the key responsibility here. If we just slam on more regulations and more enforcement on top of an industry that is already under enormous pressure then I think we are going to see enormous problems arising. If we are going to constrain the agricultural sector further in terms of the products that it can use and the way that it can use them then we must make it possible for the industry to change tack and we must support that process and I think that is the most important point of all that I would like to make today as far as the FSA is concerned, it must be involved in helping the whole industry to change tack.

  479.  Do you believe that the FSA should have a role in monitoring farm assurance scheme standards?
  (Mr Gill)  I believe that if we put in place, as we intend to do, a series of schemes that are UKAS approved that would improve standards and the inspections can then be done with confidence that they will stand up and they will be done on the basis that they are not subject to, "Well, of course, they would say that, wouldn't they?", and those should be sufficient to address the issues that are needed.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 12 April 1999