Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500 - 519)



Mrs Wise

  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 anyway?
  (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assessment, if we are going to use that example, then the Agency would have been most likely to have at least rescinded the ban on 1 February and probably not introduced it in the first place.

Mr Walter

  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 on that.
  (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 not—a 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.

Audrey Wise

  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 consensus—that is the structure of it as far as Scotland and England are concerned—but 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.

Mr Paterson

  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 concern—and possibly that of a wider community—is 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 present.

  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 water.
  (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 industry—which is a self-standing Agency and running, I am pleased to say, pretty well—if 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 view—I do not know that we feel it is life-threatening—but we feel that there is an inconsistency there.

  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 meat—which there will be inevitably at some stage in the future—do 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 it outside.
  (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.

Dr Brand

  514.  Should the policy of the Meat Hygiene Service and the policy for the milk be with the Food Standards Agency?
  (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.
  (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.

Mr Paterson

  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 cent—if 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 activity—which the Meat Hygiene Service does on a hygiene assessment system scoring, to get some form of score differentiation—that 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 quite active.

  519.  What more do you think needs to be done?
  (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 encourage—I am back to the point I made at the beginning—a 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 industry—not as strictly as that—but 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 those.
  (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 HACCP—for 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 operate—then 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.

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