Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480
WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999
ATTENBOROUGH and MS
480. So you do not believe the FSA should
get involved in that?
(Mr Gill) I believe it would make sense to take
notice of what is being done. I believe the very fact that this
has been done should not require any legislative or regulatory
481. Why would you be against the FSA having
an umbrella role in that?
(Mr Gill) I do not see there is any need for undue
legislation if the industry is also taking into account and putting
in place sufficient procedures to address the issues.
(Mr Maclean) The concept we are dealing with here
is one of food safety and we have a need for well-implemented
legislation. The Utopia must be that that legal control is ultimately
very light because it is underpinned by substantial self-regulation
inside the industry that actually means that you do not get contaminations
and the worries that you are concerned about. That is the top
right-hand corner of the page we are all trying to aim towards
and techniques like HAS have been put into the industry at various
levels and farm assurance schemes are enhancing the performance
and they produce clean cattle. We are not there yet. Therefore,
it is a question of what does the Agency do that encourages the
development of this self-regulation and if it is going to make
a serious contribution that is not a draconian hand of policing,
fine, then please let them have a role that would be an encouraging
role and it would be very important. It needs to be underpinned
by good law, which is what this Agency is trying to put on the
ground. Under the Food Safety Act the due diligence defence applies
only to drug residues at the farm level and that was the specific
thing about the Food Safety Act. The due diligence defence is
a very good way of encouraging self-improvement and self-development.
On the other hand, you have to make sure that you have lots of
information on which to base how you undertake a due diligence
defence. Its quick application to farming is not appropriate and
the problem that we all face within the farming sector is that
farming is quite willing, as it has shown with these farm assurance
schemes, to try and improveit is wrong to say its performance
is lacking because many of the things that are concerning you
they do not even know about. We are mostly talking about the organisms
that the animal carries that come from somewhere else, and whose
periodic rise in incidence causes outbreaks of human food poisoning.
For example, if you go back through the history of salmonellosis
you will that see that periodic outbreaks of Virchow or Montevideo
come up, go down, disappear and we have no understanding of what
it is that changes in the environment that allows that particular
organism to come up at that moment and do the damage. Therefore,
what the Agency has to do is to make the observations, that is
what the Act says. It is to have access to that so they can get
a better understanding of those sorts of issues and that is very
laudable. The second point is the policing. Until we have the
understanding the policing must be careful and light and sensitive
otherwise one could pillory people. On the other hand, we will
have to do things in the industry that protect the consumer while
this process is being developed. Because you do not understand
something is not a reason not to do something, but it is certainly
a reason for not going pillorying a farmer. It is about how you
mitigate the threat that is posed by some of these organisms now
and you can see that happening. You can see that happening even
before the Food Standards Agency is on the ground.
482. I was just wondering whether we have
an opportunity to be a bit more sensible about what we are enforcing
and what we are trying to regulate. As someone who has come new
to this, it seems to me that the complexity of the present system
is amazing and the proposals in the draft Bill do not appear much
simpler. If we actually look at the example that was used just
now about the use of antibiotics, for instance, talking about
residues, you are looking at the wrong thing. That is not what
concerns people. It is actually what happens to that strain of
a particular bug, if it is crossed to somewhere else. We are not
necessarily regulating or enforcing the right thing. Do you not
think we have an opportunity with this Agency, if it is set up
in the right way, to have a more intelligent dialogue between
the producers, the consumers and the Agency itself to make sure
that what is being enforced is sensible?
(Mr Maclean) Of course, that is one of its great
opportunities. That is why my own body drew the conclusion that
the challenge of food safety in the widest sense, not just food
poisoning but the issue you raise too, is such a crucial issue
that we believe the Agency should seriously devote its attention
to those issues in the early stages of its development. We are
not against the idea of it involving itself in nutrition, but
we think its reputation will be challenged massively because these
issues and challenges and problems are still there. During the
early stages of its development it will be challenged on the food
safety front. It is absolutely essential to focus attention on
that. Focusing attention on the policing role, which we hope is
the last resort job. The other is then to put these big issues
into the public domain. The way through it is a matter for us
here and Europe too because some of these issues are very competitively
disadvantageous if you do not do that. On things like the antibiotic
resistance transfer and what have you, there is a refreshing time
to revisit those issues and this Agency, given the right powers,
can play a leading role in that as a leader as well as a policeman.
483. Do you not think that the Agency would
be more effective if it had more statutory links with the other
agencies concerned? You can set up an Agency that is an empowering
talking shop, but if all the other agencies continue with their
current statutory responsibilities then it may be very ineffective.
(Mr Maclean) If we take the one I am familiar
with which is the Veterinary Medicines Directorate
484. That is the one I am thinking of.
(Mr Maclean) you have a very effective
body there, whether you judge it on its licensing of medicines,
its ability to control its costs on behalf of the industry or
its ability to react in withdrawal terms when something goes wrong
with a drug in the industry. Its track record is impeccable. It
is the only Agency in Europe that for years now has published
the results of its residue surveillance and what have you. The
difficulty that is faced is the one that we all face which is
this problem of openness. In other words, it has very able people
registering these drugs and controlling the veterinary body itself.
Should it be more open? The preamble to the Bill has tried to
wrestle with allowing pharmaceutical companies to undertake their
research and development and protect their interests with a degree
of openness by encouraging consumer membership on the committee.
I do not think any of us must kid ourselves, that is not a perfect
solution, it is a compromise solution, but I do not think any
of us have a better solution than that.
485. Could I ask Ms Browning what she thinks?
(Ms Browning) If we are talking about the antibiotics
486. I am just using it as an example. I
think it is really the relationship with other agencies that I
am trying to explore because we are looking at the draft legislation
and clearly some things come firmly within the remit of the Agency
and other things do not.
(Ms Browning) The Agency must have teeth otherwise
it really is not going to be effective at all. So it must have
the power to get seriously involved with legislation or with controlling
the parts of the bodies that are involved with food safety. I
think, taking the example of antibiotics and of the Veterinary
Medicines Directorate, the one thing that concerns some of us
is that the veterinary Products Committee is basically operating
on a commercial basis. It has to get business and it has to compete
within Europe for business. I think that is a dangerous step and
one which needs looking at very hard. I think there does need
to be further integration of the way all those organisations work
together. There are eight or so that have an influence on how
antibiotics are regulated in farm use. I think that is a very
complicated situation at the moment. I do not share complete confidence
that every product that gets through the licensing procedure,
as we have seen in the case of antibiotics, is sensible and sound.
There have been many times when the VPC has not taken account
of advice given on safety grounds.
(Mr Gill) I have to say that I find the position
not as alarmist as has been suggested. In reality they have a
good track record. You ask specifically on the question of the
inter-relationship between the FSA and the various bodies that
are there as authorities and there is a clear link. It is not
just a matter of it being a talking shop and the PSD or the VMD
can go away and do what they want. There is a clear link in the
proposals that gives them authority to intervene in the circumstances
if that is needed. Again the track record shows that they have
something to be proud of. I do not believe the changes in the
European perspective are pertinent to the relationships within
the FSA at all. I think there is a very strong case for saying
that our own VMD will enhance its credibility and status if it
takes on a broader perspective and that can still relate back
to the FSA and just because things change over time that does
not mean to say that there has been a failure in procedures. What
to me it says is that we have a procedure that is prepared to
take on evolving situations, which we clearly have, and change
conditions in the light of those situations.
487. Can I confirm with Jill Wordley on
the Standards Group that the two committees we are talking about
here will have membership from the Food Standards Agency. Is that
(Ms Wordley) That is right, Chairman. The Bill
provides for the Agency to be able to nominate a member to both
the VPC and ACP. There are also proposals that are not relevant
to the statutory provision but which are involved in making sure
that the Agency has input in other ways, for example through providing
scientific assessors to those committees to ensure they are involved
in the processes of them.
488. It does not go so far as to say the
Agency has the right to veto a product, product approval?
(Ms Wordley) The way it works is because all the
members have to sign up and sign off authorisations for pesticides,
in practice through the Agency's nominated member it will have
an effective veto and, as far as pesticides are concerned, through
the way that the scientific assessors have to sign off each proposal
on behalf of the licensing authority, who in the case of pesticides
as far as the Agency are concerned is the Secretary of State for
489. I am just wondering if that gives you
any cause for comfort?
(Ms Browning) My feeling is that this structure
can be made to work. I am not saying this is a complete sticking
point. There are many ways to skin a cat
490. I did not think you would approve of
that sort of thing!
(Ms Browning) As long as it is dead! So much depends,
as in many other cases, on how and who and the boldness of that
committee and the preparedness of that committee to state its
case. I think the fact the FSA will be able to publish and go
public on issues will provide quite a lot of clout with other
agencies. I am not saying this scenario cannot work. It just seems
rather inconsistent to us that these sectors have been left out
of it especially when the original recommendation was that they
should come within it. I am aware there has been a lot of pressure
to change that original recommendation.
491. My questions are largely directed toward
Ben because I was particularly interested in the evidence that
you gave in writing which said that you saw food safety as being
very much the focus for this. If you regard, as you sometimes
can do when you go round farms now, that they are virtually food
factories, I do not understand why there should be a separate
type of enforcement for farms compared with other bits of the
food chain and why the Bill has proposed observation on the farm.
I wonder if you could comment on that. If I could just add, in
the evidence you have all said a lot about the need for integration
across the industry to drive up standards. Does that not also
make for integration of enforcement as well, be it light or heavy?
(Mr Gill) Much has been said in a variety of places
in recent times about intensive farming, factory farming. The
reality is that farming is very different to what it was 30 or
40 years ago but in many cases it still has an extensive basis.
It depends how you define the word. Do you define "intensive"
as the fact that I put my feeding cattle into yards in the winter
period simply because I think that is in everybody's interests?
Some people do that.
492. Chicken farms have a prime role to
play in eradicating salmonella in chickens. Why should the enforcement
of the chicken farm be different from, say, a chicken factory?
(Mr Gill) Farming practices are fundamentally
different to the food industry in the living environment that
they have, whereas the factory is in the processing capacity and
the needs of farmers to work already to give their product guarantees
will be there and will be clearly laid out. The example you give
of salmonella, as indeed with many of the other examples, is one
that applies equally throughout the entire food chain. Farmers
must do all they can in their power to reduce input but it is
virtually impossible with the environment we have to say it will
not be there full stop because various infections can occur widely
naturally. It is a living environment.
493. Do you think that the food safety focus
should be the same when it comes to provision of advice? Should
that focus be on food safety and not nutritional aspects?
(Mr Gill) I am concerned that putting together
food safety and nutritional advice in one body is a potential
risk. For the Food Standards Agency to be effective it must be
respected and it must be a body that can be seen to give advice
that is independent and clearly authoritative on issues, and while
food safety issues fall into that category of regulation, nutritional
issues are very much less certain, less clear in many cases because
they relate to individuals and they change. It could well be that
because that information on nutrition changes or different interpretations
are given from time to time that it could confuse the consumer
as to the integrity and effectiveness of the Food Standards Agency
with regard to food safety issues.
Ms Keeble: Thank you
494. Can I first of all ask Jill Wordley,
going back to the previous question, these other committees on
which the Agency will have the right to nominate a member, how
many members do they have? We are talking about one out of how
(Ms Wordley) It is about 12 to 14. I could not
tell you exact numbers but I could easily come back to you.
495. It is of that sort of order?
(Ms Wordley) Yes.
496. It is a very onerous job for the one
food safety nominee to bear on his or her shoulders the final
responsibility as far as the Food Agency is concerned. I just
wanted to get that clear, one out of how many. That is enough
if it is that sort of order.
(Mr Gill) With respect, Chairman, that presumes
that all the other members of the committee do not have food safety
standards in their interests and I think that would be absolutely
497. I am not intending to imply that but
the actual immediate accountability, the special remit from the
Food Standards Agency would be through one member.
(Mr Maclean) In practical terms, Mrs Wise, the
skills that are required to make the judgements in those committees
require a mix of skills. That is how they arrive at whether it
is 12 or 14. There now is an accountability function to take place
both to the consumer and indeed to this Agency working on behalf
of the consumer. I think you can probably understand that could
be one person depending on the authority that they hold or three
or whatever number you want to put there, but if the authority
is correct and if they have the power of veto the difficulty they
faceand none of us including governments have found a way
of surmounting thisis when you have got 12 experts sitting
round talking it is not very easy anyway. On the other hand, the
limited experience we now have of this method operating looks
promising by having that issue of consumer involvement.
498. What puzzles me, Mr Maclean, is if
everything is as good as possible in the best of all possible
worlds, as your answers earlier seemed to imply, what would be
the problem about reporting to the Food Agency with the Food Agency
as an umbrella? Obviously I accept that the remit of the committees
is wide but the end purpose of those really is to do with the
production of food, is it not?
(Mr Maclean) Indeed, Mrs Wise. I hope I did not
leave you with the impression that everything is perfect because
it is not. I would submit, as I think Dr Brand said, that the
drug issue is pretty well controlled. I am not saying it is perfect
but it is pretty well controlled. We have some very serious challenges
in food poisoning and the growth of food poisoning and the need
for the Agency to play a role there. There are a lot of unknowns
in this area. What I was trying to illustrate earlier on the farm
is that a lot of how things happen is not yet known. That is why
the Act allows access for observations. They are seeking knowledge
and information. There are two sides of it, seek the knowledge
and then the implementation of whatever controls there are. Both
are very important. You have to create an Agency that is a facilitator
which has the powers to do things that you and I cannot define
at the moment. We do not know what some of these access things
will be, we do not know the research work and what it will show.
(Mr Gill) It is important to realiseI am
sorry to come back on thisthat it does report to the Food
Standards Agency. There is a link with the Food Standards Agency.
That is very clear. To say that there is not is not how we read
the legislation. It is a quite clear link to an umbrella responsibility.
The Committee suspended from 16.39 to 16.53 for
a division in the House
Chairman: Can we carry on with this session
499. I wanted to move on to look at one
or two clauses of the Bill rather more specifically, in particular
relating to the decision-making methods of the Food Standards
Agency. Clause 19 specifies that the Agency in considering whether
or not to exercise any power "shall take into account, among
other things, the nature and magnitude of any risk to public health",
so it has got to look at proportionality. Bearing in mind that
we have quite limited knowledge, do you think that this clause
might actually prove to be rather a constraint on the Agency or
are you happy with that kind of wording?
(Mr Gill) This clause takes on the point made
in the guiding principles that the legislation should be proportionate
to the risk involved and we believe that that is eminently sensible.
The recent hiatus concerning banning beef on the bone has highlighted
this very clearly. The ability to have zero risk in our society,
while it may be something we would wish, is just not attainable
unless we decide to eat and drink nothingand then we may
well die from something else, probably starvation. We have to
get things in proportion in that sense and the regulatory costs
that can arise from legislation based to achieve minuscule risk
reductions is plainly nonsensical. Therefore, we believe that
this is a very sensible and positive introduction into the legislative
(Mr Gardiner) Could I add, Chairman, that the
clause does specify clearly that the Agency should take into account
any uncertainties as to the adequacy or reliability of the available
information and I think that is an adequate statement of the precautionary
principle which we would endorse.
(Ms Browning) I think the difficulty here is that
we are often operating with inadequate knowledge. That has haunted
us again and again through our recent crises. I think one of the
key roles of the Agency should be trying to anticipate risk, looking
at new technologies that are coming through the pipeline and instigating
research at a very early stage so we can actually come into these
scenarios slightly more prepared than we have been over the last
few years. I think it is trying to prevent problems from arising,
screening technologies at an early stage, trying to avoid problems,
where the Agency should have a very strong role indeed. That is
going to take a lot of foresight. That is going to take people
who understand what is going on in scientific development and
who are prepared to push for the right independent research programmes
to go in at an early enough stage. That is also going to be terribly
important when you look at safeguarding the industry against imports
from countries who have not perhaps put the standards that we
are going to operate to in place in their countries. If we do
not have scientific understanding and knowledge and evidence then
we are going to find it very difficult to implement anything above
and beyond the bare minimum that everybody else is operating to.
I think that is a very important principle and one that should
be a main focus of the Agency.
Mrs Wise: It seems
obvious that an Agency like this would not just chase any hare
without there being some sort of rationale behind its interest
and that is why it struck me that this clause seems to labour
that obvious point and therefore it seemed to me that it may well
be taken as an undue constraint. If I can think about Mr Gill's
answer, in talking about the banning of beef on the bone you illustrate
really very clearly just how subjective these judgments are because
you are obviously taking that an example of totally unreasonable
Mr Paterson: Correct.