Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500
WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999
ATTENBOROUGH and MS
500. Whereas the Minister
made the point that it was a matter of ensuring that nothing untoward
got into the food chain if it could be avoided. I think that there
you have two positions which are diametrically opposite and yet
both thinking that they are looking at risk. Therefore, I wonder
about the value of specifying risk in the Bill because surely
the Agency would be looking at risk to the best of its ability
(Mr Gill) I think the point is made by virtue
of the fact that the Minister has to rely on expert advice and
take scientific advice. The reality is that some of that scientific
advice did not take into account proportionality to risk this
time round. The Government's Chief Scientific Officer has taken
the view publicly in the last few weeks that the risk involved
is such that the justification for banning beef on the bone is
not appropriate. I do honestly believe with the proper scientific
assessment, if we are going to use that example, then the Agency
would have been most likely to have at least rescinded the ban
on 1 February and probably not introduced it in the first place.
501. I wanted to come in on this specific
point. I will just say, Chairman, that my interests are on the
record but I should just add I am a member of the National Farmers'
Union but I am not going to ask a question about my interests.
This question of proportionate risk is important because another
well-documented case that the Ministry of Agriculture has to deal
with is unpasteurised milk. I wonder how our witnesses felt the
Food Standards Agency would have dealt with that situation, bearing
in mind the advice of Scottish Ministers that it should not be
sold in Scotland but the advice of Ministers in the rest of the
United Kingdom is that it should be available. How is the Agency
going to cope with that on the basis that it is a UK-wide agency
giving UK-wide advice.
(Mr Gill) It is difficult for me to predict exactly
how they will decide on that case. Of course, if you take the
proportionality risk in this case, assessing what that risk is
and how it is consumed in the household, etcetera, I would not
like to predict exactly what they would determine.
(Mr Gardiner) It is not only defining the risk
because I think there might be quite an agreement as to what the
degree of risk is on green top milk, but it is also one to view
on whether a consumer is in a position to make their own choice.
To revert to beef on the bone, if you are buying beef on the bone
you know you have bought beef on the bone. We feel, and certain
producer interests in England and Wales feel, that when you buy
meat or milk, consumers should know what they are buying. To a
large extent, one of the duties of the state is to ensure that
people have sufficient knowledge. From time to time people may
want to make their own risk choice. I do not indulge in free fall
parachuting but other people consider that the risk of it is worthwhile,
given the great freedoms they get from it. Nevertheless, people
die from this every year. So I think sometimes it is not merely
just risk, it is whether consumers know about those risks and
have ways of avoiding those risks. Green top milk, in our view,
is a clear one. Consumers do know what the risk is and they have
an easy way to avoid that risk if they want to.
502. The Soil Association might have a view
(Ms Browning) In the case of green top milk, we
feel strongly that it is about making sure that production of
that milk is well monitored and that the standards of that milk
production are clearly good. Then I would concur with what has
been said before. I also concur with all the talk of a risk in
labelling and all that sort of thing. The area I would like to
pop in on is the balance between risk and the willingness to take
risk in areas where the risks are still unquantified. I think
there does need to be assessment on that basis. We are in the
dark on a number of areas and for us to say we are nota
good example of this and very topical is genetic engineering.
There has been, in my view, inadequate work done on the health
side of things. There has been a certain amount done on the environment,
but there has been even less done on health. The technology is
still very young, very immature, the science is embryonic. There
are, almost undoubtedly, potential risks within that technology.
We should have had in place research programmes looking at that
more independently some time ago. We are just too far behind the
game. But when you are looking at technology like that, and thinking
about slowing it down in order to give you a chance to assess
risk more clearly, you have to look at need and to make a judgment
that does take that into account. Our view on that particular
area is that at the moment there is no need. Therefore, there
is no problem with slowing the technology down. There may be commercial
imperatives and everything else but there is no consumer need
for these products today. Therefore, it is fair to slow the process
down. That is something I would like to bring into the equation.
503. You have mentioned information in your
answer, which is something that I certainly feel is very important,
as you do. May I finally draw your attention to wording in some
other clauses which say about publication of information. "That
the Agency must take account of any considerations of confidentiality
attaching to that information, and may publish that information,
or any of it, if it appears to the Agency to be in the public
interests to do so." That form of words occurs in clauses
11, 13, 14 and 27. I wonder whether you had any views about the
possible constraint: "must take account of any considerations
of confidentiality": whether that might be a constraint on
the openness which is the clear intent of the Bill.
(Mr Maclean) I think, Mrs Wise, that this is a
sensible clause. In many aspects of business in the food industry,
or the pharmaceutical industry or the pesticide industry, there
are commercial interests. Some of them have intellectual property
which they wish to protect, and during the early stages of the
development of foods or drugs or whatever they are, they are extremely
susceptible to leakage. On the other hand, there needs to be a
clause in the Bill which says that if something disastrous happens
in the middle of that development, or in the middle of that field
trial, (whatever it might be), then the Agency or the bodies it
is working with should have the right to stop it or intervene
or to make something public. I think the only issue we would want
to take with that, which is not written in the Bill, is how sensibly
it is actually deployed. If that is sensibly deployed it is a
good clause, as are the other clauses to which you are referring.
If I might take Mr Walter's point briefly, the Scotland/England
difference can be that the scientific advice can be the same,
but we all must understand that there is another decision. There
is the scientific advice and then there is, whether it is a political
decision, by the Minister of Health. It could be that the Minister
of Health in Scotland, in these particular circumstances, that
his interpretation on the same piece of advice is different. Now
the Agency, of course, will seek to get consensusthat is
the structure of it as far as Scotland and England are concernedbut
at the moment we would not be surprised by that difference because
it needs both the science and the interpretation.
(Ms Browning) I would largely agree with Colin
here but I think it is very much in how it is interpreted and
the combination of people and interests that you have in the Agency.
It is very difficult to get the wording of any of these clauses
to cover all eventualities and in all situations. It is about
having the right balance of interests there and having people
who will be prepared to stamp their feet if they feel there is
a real need to. That is another issue altogether, but it is the
key for it to work.
504. It is not clear who decides whether
it is confidential or not. Any consideration of confidentiality
is very widely drawn. My experience of asking questions has often
been that I am told that things are commercially confidential.
It is the conjunction of "must" and "may"
which bothers me. If it was the other way round, "must publish
except if there is a reasonable anxiety about confidentiality",
I would feel happier; but this way round is why I asked the question.
(Mr Gardiner) I think, in a sense, "must"
in clause 11(2)(b) is redundant. I cannot believe that the Food
Standards Agency would decide it was in the public interest to
publish some information and then not publish it. I am sorry,
that seems to me an odd proposition. Having said that, I do not
think it is unreasonable for Government to ask the Food Standards
Agency to take into account, or Parliament to ask the Food Standards
Agency, to take into account the needs of commercial confidentiality.
505. We obviously have different experiences
about seeking information.
(Mr Gardiner) Just one further point on that,
Chairman. Throughout this process, both on the Food Standards
Agency and on advisory committees, there will be people whose
function it is to represent the public interest. I think that
is an important safeguard which should be taken into account when
reading these clauses.
506. Just touching on the couple of last
points, do you think the Bill, as it stands, allows the public
enough freedom of choice, given the sort of people who are likely
to be on the Agency? We have had a couple of fiercely written
submissions about green top milk from people fiercely defending
the health properties of it and pointing out that actually pasteurised
milk, which has been incorrectly pasteurised, is extremely dangerous.
Yet one of our witnesses has been on the television denouncing
green top milk. Clause 22 gives the Agency very wide powers to
pursue its own powers.
(Mr Gill) Again, information is crucial. It is
vital that the independence of the Agency is maintained at all
times to give it credibility when it gives that information out.
That information can be that no legislation is required or it
may be that legislation is required. It depends totally on the
individual circumstances. With the caveats that regulation should
be proportionate to risk, that gives the consumer the choice if
they believe the risk is small or limited. The consumer is in
a position to make that choice freely and openly.
(Ms Browning) I think this gets to the heart of
some of our concerns. Our view is that if you get the basics right
in agriculture and food processing, that these are risks which
are very containable. I think our concernand possibly that
of a wider communityis that you are going to end up with
a hygiene police. We are moving in that direction already very
strongly. The Meat Hygiene Service, for instance. We all understand
why it is doing what it is doing, but it is going to put a lot
of small operators out of business, and a lot of those operators
are very good. We have already in place a system of HACCPs, which
was working very well and could have been refined further. We
are using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Okay, I understand in
this instance the problem with BSE and the export ban and everything
else, but we are in danger of moving ourselves into a sterile
society, whereby we do not perhaps pay sufficient attention and
do not give sufficient support to producers on the ground, to
make sure that the basic practice is right; and then we try to
put the lid on outcomes further down the line. We could get too
caught up in the sterilisation at all costs argument. This is
one of my great fears for the Agency.
(Mr Attenborough) On the choice of pasteurisation,
if I buy pasteurised milk I can expect it to be pasteurised. I
do not expect it to be under-processed for whatever reason. Indeed,
as a food scientist, the design of pasteurising precautions can
be built in. So, for example, if the steam supply fails and you
do not get the temperature for pasteurisation, the pasteurising
goes into automatic shut-down. It then cleans itself and re-sterilises
itself. So you can build those protections into the whole thing.
In terms of choice, if I am buying a pasteurised product I expect
it to be pasteurised and expect to consume it within its use by
date. Beyond that you would expect spoilage because of the bacteria
507. I am making just that point. I do not
think that since 1994 there has been a major E coli outbreak
to do with milk. It has not been to do with pasteurised milk.
There have been failures of pasteurisation but the recent scare
we have had near Cockermouth has been an excuse for certain food
experts to leap on the television screens and denounce green top
milk. That is exactly the point I am making.
(Mr Attenborough) E coli, is as many of you will
know a temperature sensitive organism: 70 degrees Celsius with
adequate holding time will kill it. So normal pasteurisation regimes,
which take place on a dairy, will actually deal with it. What
I would make as a point is that if you pasteurise your milk and
then allow cross contamination down stream, for whatever reason,
that is another means by which you can produce a potentially unsafe
going to the consumer. It is important to design systems to avoid
that as a possibility.
508. That is exactly the point made by the
green top milk producers.
(Ms Browning) Without wanting to get too involved
in green top milk because I do not think that is the entire focus
today, it does provide another useful example where you have some
evidence that there are health benefits from drinking green top
milk. There are some enzymes within green top milk which help
keep down cholesterol. It may be that some of our rises in the
heart attack rate is the fact that we are drinking pasteurised
milk. I am not bringing that up as evidence today but it is the
kind of issue you might be faced with over time. If you do not
allow the sale of those products, where there may be some contra-indications
to its banning, you are beginning to get yourself in very deep
(Mr Maclean) I have to say that the way this Bill
is structured: in our view, it is a well written Bill, generally
speaking, I have to say, it is trying to provide the tools to
avoid those mistakes. As far as we read it, it can encourage some
self-development and self-regulation. It is trying to say that
if that goes wrong, do we have the tools and weapons available
to handle whatever it is that we face? Can we go and do some research?
Can we have open access to get the information we want? Have the
right to police it, to do something about it. The big issue, just
touched upon, is on providing that clause which Mrs Wise referred
to about proportionate risk; and somewhere else it talks about
that if you do not know then there is the precautionary principle.
Provided those are proper and reasonable risks, this has got the
basis to be able to implement something quite sensibly.
509. Just to follow on from that, are you
happy that with the Meat Hygiene Service reporting to the FSA,
that the FSA will not be compromised? This is because it will
not just be setting food standards but it will be monitoring them.
(Mr Maclean) That is a good question, thank you.
We did a lot of work before the Agency was structured. We had
a lot of communication with Professor James. We went to America,
Australia and Canada to look at the bodies which were being structured
or had been structured there. We came to the conclusion that there
were some very simple principles. One of them was that policy
and enforcement should be separated and that audit and enforcement
should be separated. Therefore, we do see in this proposal still
some inconsistency. That may be one of them in the sense that
if the Meat Hygiene Service has the implementation of controls
in the meat industrywhich is a self-standing Agency and
running, I am pleased to say, pretty wellif that is actually
enforcing meat hygiene, then I can give you an argument that it
should be audited somewhere else outside the Agency, the analogy
being that the Agency is planning not to take in enforcement at
local authority level but to provide an audit mechanism, so that
this can check in inconsistency implementation application across
the country. I think our viewI do not know that we feel
it is life-threateningbut we feel that there is an inconsistency
510. What does the NFU think?
(Mr Gill) One of the major problems with the Meat
Hygiene Service at the moment is that they are working on a European
Directive, which is 30 years old and out of date. This, together
with the Food Standards Agency, could allow co-ordination of other
organisations of a similar status in Europe to do something about
it. It could be far easier in abattoirs and far less costly and
provide a safer basis for working in abattoirs, if the whole basis
of evaluation of abattoirs' inspection came under one HACCP type
of evaluation rather than on the basis of a 30 year old Directive.
511. If there is a problem with meatwhich
there will be inevitably at some stage in the futuredo
you not think that the problem is that the blame will go straight
off the Meat Hygiene Service to the top, which will be the new
independent Food Standards Agency.
(Mr Gill) I do not see that at all. I would have
thought that the Food Standards Agency will push it down to where
it ought to be, which will be the Meat Hygiene Service.
(Mr Maclean) The business analogy would be a one
of year end accounts, with the independent company who was auditing
your accounts being a part of your company. I do not think that
would be an acceptable proposition.
(Ms Browning) That is very fair. With the FSA
you have a clean sheet of paper. You have the opportunity to build
public confidence into this new Agency. Obviously one of its functions
is to put confidence back into the public's regard to food. Anything
which is likely to undermine that must be avoided. That is pivotal.
It is just one where it could be contained down at that level.
But if it is not, and the question is dubious, it could backfire.
Anything which could backfire ought to be eliminated at this stage
512. So you do not think it should be both
monitoring and enforcement?
(Ms Browning) No, I do not. My personal view is
that it makes sense to try and keep that separate if possible
in that it could just backfire. It is much harder to police yourself
and there will be politics within the various parts of the Agency.
513. So who do you think should do the monitoring?
(Ms Browning) I do not know. I have not thought
about it, but it seems sensible to think about where we are taking
(Mr Maclean) If you want to be consistent, the
audit function should be in the Agency. That is the consistency.
The Meat Hygiene Service could be somewhere else.
514. Should the policy of the Meat Hygiene
Service and the policy for the milk be with the Food Standards
(Mr Maclean) Yes, because we are talking about
the same principles.
515. It is actually supporting the way the
Agency has been structured, is it not, that it actually sets the
standards and monitors and judges and enforces, all at once. Some
of that should definitely be with the Agency, if I understand
(Mr Gill) You said policy. The standards are determined
by European legislation.
516. Our application of the standards.
(Mr Gill) We should apply the standards as laid
down by the Regulation.
(Ms Browning) There are always degrees of interpretation,
are there not?
517. Try telling the Italians!
(Mr Gill) They are open to anyone who is setting
the standards. The standards should be applied as laid down in
the Regulation. That is not a policy issue.
518. To move it on specifically to what
the MLC has done, you have done a lot a work looking at the critical
areas of butchers establishments.
(Mr Attenborough) We have been doing a lot of
work. It has come under my direction. We are working right across
the whole chain. It is all against the backdrop of E coli
which, as you know, is virulent, has a low infected dose of perhaps
ten to a hundred cells, is very low. That makes it different.
It raises the game, if you like. We did several things. We have
been working with NFU, MAFF, the Meat Hygiene Service. We orchestrated
a campaign, which has been going for two years now, on cleaner
livestock. That has been successful. The levels of cattle which
are rejected, for example, as being dirty or outside category
1 or 2 is about half per centif the food chain is quite
low. That is important. That reduces the bacterial count coming
in. The technique that colleagues here have mentioned: hazard
analysis which is enshrined in World Health Organisation legislation
is also being applied. We have looked at its induction into abattoirs
and we have been active in preparing a revised HACCP manual. We
did one in 1992. There is a roll-out programme which we are doing
later this year with the revised manual. It would help if its
usage were incorporated it into an activitywhich the Meat
Hygiene Service does on a hygiene assessment system scoring, to
get some form of score differentiationthat would help the
uptake in abattoirs. The third area we are active in is the development
of a technique called steam pasteurisation of carcases, which
is practised in the United States, where you take carcase halves
and subject them to elevated temperatures for a short period of
time. This kills certain pathogenic bacteria. We have a unit under
trial in an abattoir together with the Campden and Chorleywood
Food Research Association. Then, of course, there is the work
you have mentioned. We have a programme with the Department of
Health putting in what is called accelerated HACCP in butchers
shops in England. There are about 7,200 butchers on the database,
including your Chairman's brother, (I checked that yesterday).
2,500 butchers have currently been trained. There are 1,500 allocated
to consultants. You will be pleased to hear that the first butcher
off the production line is a lady from Bradford. By the end of
the year we should have that accelerated HACCP programme implemented.
That is a voluntary scheme in advance of legislation that may
come forward concerning butcher licensing. So, yes, we have been
519. What more do you think needs to be
(Mr Attenborough) You have to have vigilance across
the whole chain. One of the things you were talking about a little
bit earlier was looking at risk assessment back on the farm. What
is important is that you have some programmes of work where you
are looking at the incidence of food pathogenic organisms right
across the food chain from farm to consumer. The other end is
equally important. The re-education of people on how they prepare
and cook food is necessary because a lot of the incidence which
can give rise to food poisoning can be caused by errors that take
place in catering or in the home. So I think there is an opportunity
there as well. Food poisoning is a food chain issue. You have
to look at it as a food chain issue. I hope the Food Agency will
do that. I am sure it will.
(Mr Maclean) What Mike has just described was
when the E coli occurred in Scotland, the Food Standards
Agency was on the chocks, if I may call it that, and we knew it
would be for a year or two before it would be working, so what
could we do? Could the consumer be left exposed? The answer was
no. What he has just described to you was the industry, as a whole,
trying to drop the exposure level. What we want to see (and I
think this is in the agenda) we want to see an Agency which will
continue to encourageI am back to the point I made at the
beginninga combination of good law based on good science,
and encouraging schemes in the industry to let the industry develop
its own controls. The utopia here is to build it in. Ultimately
every process in this country in the food chain has got to have
built into it safety and assurance. This is a poor analogy but
if you go back many years to the pharmaceutical industry. What
happened prior to the thalidomide tragedy, they were having debates
like this. After that, now in pharmaceutical factories you cannot
get into a clean room unless you are absolutely kitted out properly
and know what to do in the case of an accident. You are not allowed
to touch anything unless in the case of a crisis you know exactly
how to behave. Ultimately the food industrynot as strictly
as thatbut it has got to strive for that kind of utopia.
That is, building it safely into the process itself. The Agency
must have the competence and capability of encouraging that development,
but it will not be done nor succeed by policing alone. It is the
underpinning of good laws to catch the naughty boys and the rogues
and what have you. It is extremely valuable that it should become
the focus to do the research, and encourage the research and development
in the areas we know so little about. There are quite a few of
(Mr Attenborough) May I address that point when
we talked about risk assessment hazard analysis in abattoirs.
As far as I am aware, there is no legislation coming down the
pipeline to encourage its uptake, so in advance of any likely
legislation coming forward some form of procedure that might encourage
the greater uptake of HACCPfor example, if an abattoir
is practising, living, breathing, eating that process as part
of its daily, hourly, every minute of its life, which is the way
a lot of food factories do operatethen they should get
some reflection of that in their hygiene assessment system score
which gives them an advantage. That will encourage greater participation
and greater application.