Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 523 - 539)

WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999

MR JOHN WOOD, MR NEVILLE CRADDOCK and MRS VALERIE SAINT

Chairman

  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.

Dr 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 public authority".
  (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 to that?
  (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 public safety.

  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.

Mr Walter

  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 from overseas?
  (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.

Dr Stoate

  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 of Health.

  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.


 
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