Examination of Witnesses (Questions 523
WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999
and MRS VALERIE
523. Good afternoon. Could I apologise for
the lateness of your arrival in the room. I am afraid it was,
by and large, out of the control of the Committee, most of the
delay anyway. Could I just ask you to introduce yourselves for
the record, please?
(Mr Wood) Certainly. Thank you very much, Chairman.
I am John Wood. I am a Member of the Secretariat of the Food and
Drink Federation where I look after scientific and regulatory
affairs. Just for the record, the Food and Drink Federation is
the principal trade association which represents the UK food and
drink manufacturing industry.
(Mrs Saint) Good afternoon, Chairman, I am Valerie
Saint. I am Chairman of the Labelling Sub-Committee of the Food
and Drink Federation. I am employed by Unilever.
(Mr Craddock) Good afternoon, Chairman. I am Neville
Craddock. I chair the Food and Drink Federation's Scientific and
Regulatory Affairs Committee. I am also an employee of Nestle
in the UK.
Chairman: Thank you
very much indeed. Lewis Moonie.
524. Clause 9 of the draft Bill suggests
that the FSA will play a significant role in "... (a) developing
policies (or assisting in the development by any public authority
of policies) relating to food safety or other interests of consumers
in relation to food...". It says also in (b) that it will
"... provide advice, information or assistance to any public
authority". Do you think the focus in (a) is excessively
on food safety?
(Mr Wood) I think the focus is on food safety,
Chairman, and the Food and Drink Federation will endorse that.
Let me say from the outset that we do support the Government's
decision to establish a Food Standards Agency and we see a key
role of that Agency as taking a strategic view of food safety
right across the food chain. The Agency, in doing that activity,
should be able to make public its findings and it should also,
in our view, be at arm's length from the Government but nevertheless
it should remain accountable to the Government so that ultimately
the elected politicians are in charge. That we see is the appropriate
model. From our point of view, we feel that the success of the
Agency depends on how it tackles the first few issues that come
its way. From our experience, the main issues that have undermined
public confidence in the food supply have been those that relate
to food safety: listeria, salmonella, e.coli, BSE, and perhaps
the introduction of novel foods. It is those issues that to our
mind attracted the public attention and also attracted media attention,
which I think is another important aspect. We do feel that this
is the area, rather than nutritional adequacy of the diet or the
nutrient value of individual food products, that is the issue.
In that sense, the whole food chain approach is important because
everyone who produces food has to take due account of that requirement.
Every food product must be safe but any food product can be part
of a balanced diet. That is why we feel the real focus should
be on food safety.
525. What do you understand then by the
phrase "... other interests of consumers in relation to food"?
(Mr Wood) We are a little bit unsure and part
of our response to the consultation, Chairman, is to seek clarification
of that. We took a further look at the Food Safety Act to make
sure that we understood what that was covering. There is some
interesting terminology there. There is the terminology of food
safety and consumer protection. In our submission we have coined
the expression that the Bill should deal with "food safety,
consumer protection and other health interests of consumers in
relation to food". We feel that would adequately encompass
what we see as the main activity of the Agency. One of the points
I would like to emphasise is that as the Agency will report to
the Secretary of State for Health, that Minister will have the
wider responsibility for public health and public health promotion
so the Agency will be able to do its tasks that much better, we
feel, if it concentrates on food safety. The Secretary of State
for Health and the Department of Health will be able to take that
broader view without distracting from the activities of the Agency.
526. In your opinion which public authorities
are most in need of the FSA's advice?
(Mr Wood) Which public authorities?
527. According to (b), as you say, its role
is to provide "... advice, information or assistance to any
(Mr Wood) We see the Agency being the principal
provider of advice and information on food safety to any Government
Department, to any local authority, to anyone in the private sector
and the public at large who would benefit from information on
food safety and food safety practices. So we do not see a distinction
in that sense as to where the principal focus of the Agency's
information will be directed, we see that it can be a benefit
to the whole of society.
528. Can I take you back to what you said
about the focus on safety. Professor James told us that an Agency
that did not include nutrition as a central component of its operations
would be ridiculed by the general public. What is your response
(Mr Wood) We would disagree with that. We see
that public health is multi-factorial. There is a number of issues
which determine how healthy an individual is, diet is an important
factor, but all of these factors need to be dealt with integrally.
We see that as a role of the Department of Health. We see the
Agency could look at the nutritional content of particular foods
and provide factual information about the nutritional content
of food. We have no difficulty with the Agency dealing with labelling
in the broad, including nutritional labelling and nutritional
claims, but we feel that that should be essentially the remit
of the Agency in terms of its nutritional work and the Department
of Health should retain the broader remit for public health and
529. You would not see the Agency as making
any valued judgment at all?
(Mr Wood) Not in that sense. We would support
what various Ministers have said, that the Agency will not tell
people what they should or should not eat.
530. Under Clause 10 of the draft Bill the
Agency will also be required to provide "... advice and information
to the general public ..." on food stuffs, principally by
issuing leaflets and consumer information. Do you think that providing
information in this way is enough?
(Mrs Saint) Yes, on the labelling and information
point, certainly the Agency obviously will have to work anyway
within the bounds of the European legislation but we would see
that it does perform an important role in making it very clear
how labelling should be correctly targeted, let us say, at the
essential information which enables consumers to make a proper
choice and to enable them to treat the food safely. I think we
have many concerns about the proliferation of labelling advice
and additional labelling on a sort of voluntary or encouraged
basis which may distort the importance, if you like, or may confuse
people when they are looking at labels. They will not pick out
the important information. I think the Agency has a very important
role to identify what is important, what should go on labels and
to understand also that there are many other routes by which consumers
may find out additional information which may be of interest to
a minority of them.
531. In practice, do you think leaflets
have any effect on the public at large?
(Mrs Saint) Leaflets, I think it is difficult
to say, it does perhaps for some people. I think that obviously
manufacturers and retailers also try to encourage consumers to
eat more healthily and to choose their food with more intimate
knowledge of what is going into it. Certainly it will affect some
people, it will not necessarily affect all. Perhaps one of the
roles that the Agency might undertake is to work more closely
with, for example, the Department of Education in order to help
promote food safety through education in schools.
532. I am conscious of the fact that two
of you are employed by multinational food manufacturers but I
was at a meeting earlier today, nothing to do with the Food Standards
Agency, and came away with a few statistics ringing in my head
which were that 60 per cent of all the butter consumed in this
country is imported, two thirds of all the yoghurt is imported
and 40 per cent of cheese. I wonder, as UK manufacturers, how
you view the fact that a lot of food is imported into this country
and therefore the manufacturer of that food will not come under
the spotlight of the Food Standards Agency? What do you see therefore
as the role of the Agency with regard to imported food?
(Mr Wood) My understanding, Chairman, is that
imports into the UK would be covered in terms of enforcement and
compliance with the legislation by the Port Health Authorities.
Certainly we would seek to ensure that that particular activity
continued and, with the Agency having the overview of enforcement
practices and monitoring of enforcement procedures, that they
would certainly take due account of imports into the UK.
533. You have answered the question as I
expected you might answer it but a Port Health Authority is a
fairly light touch form of regulation whereas the sort of regulation
and inspection that you presently undergo and might undergo under
this new Agency would be much more rigorous. Do you see any basic
problem there that you as domestic manufacturers would in fact
be operating in a much more regulated environment than your competitors
(Mr Craddock) If I may extend your question a
little bit, one of the aspects that does worry us with the regionalisation
of the Agency is one talks of what will be established in Scotland,
Wales, Northern Ireland. Food safety and indeed food trading patterns
that operates at the moment do not recognise these artificial
and political boundaries. I think we do have to be somewhat cautious
that we do not actually hang the UK industry with standards which
go way beyond those of our partners. I think it will be very interesting
to see what happens, for example, in Ireland, where we are seeing
the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, the joint Irish
Board, where we are now beginning to look at food safety as an
issue which crosses effectively Member States' boundaries within
the EU. It becomes a small step, dare I say, to think that France,
Belgium, Holland, similarly are only 20, 30, 60 miles away. I
think the issue you raise is a very relevant one. I am not quite
sure how the Food Standards Agency is effectively going to control
and monitor the international trading.
534. In fact it goes beyond the EU.
(Mr Craddock) Indeed it does.
535. You have mentioned a number of EU Member
States but it goes much beyond that.
(Mr Craddock) I picked those because of their
geographical locations and as an extension from the Republic of
Ireland but clearly there is global trading to consider.
536. You said safety is the issue, thereby
implying that nutrition is not, why do you say that?
(Mr Wood) I am sorry if I did not make myself
clear. FDF believes that nutrition is an important aspect but
believes the broader issues of lifestyles and healthy diet should
remain the responsibility of the Department of Health. The Secretary
of State will have that broader responsibility and also the responsibility
for the Agency. We see that there should be a sensible working
relationship, perhaps with a concordat, between the Agency and
the Department of Health. So the Agency concentrates on food safety
whereas the Department of Health takes a broader view of lifestyle
and nutrition policy. I am not suggesting it is not important.
537. Why should we not have the Food Standards
Agency looking at nutritional advice as well because if you look
at the history of British heart disease, we have one of the worst
rates of heart disease in the world. Clearly the current situation
is not working very well and people clearly are not eating food
that is particularly good for them. Why should the Agency not
take an important look at this, including the research function,
for example, to see just what does constitute a healthy diet?
(Mr Wood) Because diet is only one part of looking
at diseases like cancer, like heart disease.
538. How do you know?
(Mr Wood) I am not a medical person but I understand
that is fairly well documented. Such diseases are multi-factorial
and include a whole range of lifestyle factors. Diet is certainly
one of those and I think it is important that all of those factors
are dealt with integrally and that should be the role of the Department
539. Why should the FSA not take a much
more important research function to find out what are the most
at risk? I do not believe that anybody knows them and I am a doctor.
(Mr Wood) I think our view is that food safety
is the absolute priority. As I have already said those are the
factors that we think have undermined public confidence in the
food supply. We feel that is why an Agency is required, that is
why the FDF has supported the Government's decision to establish
an Agency and really wants to get on and address food safety issues.
Once it has sorted out food safety issues then maybe it can look
at other issues but that is surely the priority for the whole
of society: all food must be safe, including imports.
(Mr Craddock) Could I just perhaps add to that,
Chairman? I think it is a question of priorities; it is a question
of timescale. One of the very driving forces for the creation
of the Agency is the credibility of the industry, the confidence
of the public in not just the industry but the mechanisms by which
it is enforced and, that being the case, I think the key role
in the early days of the Agency must be to introduce its own credibility.
That means it has to have a clear focus and a very clear message.
I think the history around nutrition advice over the last, dare
one say, 20 years, is I suspect that the general public are not
that convinced by some of the nutrition messages they get. One
might say: "Are potatoes good for us? Are they bad for us?",
it depends how old you are what the advice has been. I think it
would reduce the credibility of the Standards Agency as to just
what its message is. It should not just respond to crisis issues,
there has got to be an on-going communication from the Agency
to the general public in order to build up that credibility. It
has got to cultivate the public's confidence in its own pronouncements.