Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 499)



  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 role.

  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 improve—it 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.

Dr Brand

  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 front——

  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 correct?
  (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 Health.

  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—

Dr Brand

  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.

Ms Keeble

  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 very much.

Mrs Wise

  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 many?
  (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 unthinkable.

  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 face—and none of us including governments have found a way of surmounting this—is 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 realise—I am sorry to come back on this—that 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 Audrey Wise?

Mrs Wise

  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 nothing—and 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 base.
  (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 provision——

Mr Paterson:  Correct.

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