Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540
WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999
and MRS VALERIE
540. Surely that is precisely the reason
why the Department of Health should have an arm's length view.
If, as you have just said, the Department of Health is not getting
its message across and it is not being believed because it is
seen to be too closely involved with Government, that is the very
reason surely why we need an independent Agency to look at nutrition
standards, to give truly independent advice which perhaps the
public might take more seriously?
(Mr Craddock) I think that is a point of view,
Dr Stoate, and I think there are different ways of reading the
541. May I follow my medical colleagues.
You are saying you do not object to the Agency having a nutritional
remit but not yet, am I correct?
(Mr Craddock) I think that would be an extended
interpretation. I think the division of responsibilities that
we are seeing at the moment whereby the Agency takes on board
what one would loosely call "nutrition facts", i.e.
the facts about the food, the composition of that food, the amount
that is taken in in studies, etc., I think it is absolutely right
that should be with the Agency.
542. Who would then take on that roleif
I can address this to Mrs Saintfor giving the advice on
the difference between the safe food and the healthy food? If
I can borrow Sally Keeble's turkey burger again, turkeys are thought
to be lean animals and healthy food. When she looked at the package
it was made of turkey skin, fat, salt and a bit of monosodium
(Mrs Saint) Possibly an illegal product, I suspect.
543. Clearly that was a safe food because
of the very high fat content and a lot of salt in it and preservatives,
so therefore from the microbiological point of view extraordinarily
safe, probably been kept for a long time, indefinitely, especially
if you do not eat it, on the other hand it is not a healthy food.
If we are going to have any sensible system of labelling you do
not want lots of small print, you want to have something that
is interpreted consistently and where you can compare the symbols
in Tescos, Safeway, Asda, and in the House of Commons' dining
room as all meaning something similar?
(Mrs Saint) Absolutely, I could not agree more,
and the labelling is very important, which is what I was trying
to say earlier. It is very important we have this structure whereby
the consumer can compare one product with another.
544. I am sorry, but the point I am making
is that you talked about labelling before but you were really
talking about content and I was talking about purpose. You have
to have nutritional value in and dietary advice in your labelling
system, otherwise it really does not mean anything to most people.
(Mrs Saint) Perhaps not so much the dietary advice
coming from the labelling system, but the dietary advice being
given by the Department of Health and then the labelling supporting
it, allowing consumers to mix and match products in their diet
in accordance with the advice which is being given.
545. So you are suggesting manufacturers
will get their advice from lots of different sources?
(Mrs Saint) Not manufacturers.
546. That the Health and Safety Executive
will have a system for labelling, the Department of Health will
have advice on diet and the Food Standards Agency will have advice
on content, and then you have to create a label which meets those
(Mrs Saint) I hope not, I do not think we could
547. I think you would have to.
(Mrs Saint) The point is that the Department of
Health gives advice on dietary recommendations, we have a system
of nutrition labelling, I believe about 80 per cent of products
in the UK currently have nutritional labels on them and they are
done in a consistent format, and we can therefore give consumers
advice about how to choose products to fit in with the diet which
is being recommended. In terms of the famous turkey burger, it
clearly would be demonstrated that it was a high in fat product
or not particularly healthy in terms of its total balance, but
there is no such thing as a healthy food and an unhealthy food
depending on how you eat it. What we must not forget is that these
messages should not be on an individual pack, "This thing
is healthy for you, this thing is not healthy for you", it
is very important that consumers be able to build up their diet
with a balance of food, so that they can develop a healthier diet.
But they need to get that information from one reliable source
in terms of what they are aiming for and that should be, in our
view, the Department of Health.
548. You will be aware that for many years
there were allegations, even suspicions, about the undue influence
of the food industry on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries
and Food. Do you think the current drafting of this Bill will
ensure the Agency remains free from allegations of undue industry
(Mr Craddock) Probably I ought to take that question,
Chairman, but I ought to maybe declare an interest, as they say
in the jargon, in that I am currently a serving member of the
Food Advisory Committee, so I think I have some first hand experience
of the debate. I think the key issue is that the relevant expertise
must be available not only to the Agency but to the advisory committees
themselves. Maybe I will put my own neck in the noose here, I
believe it is the quality of that information, advice and expertise
which is important. It is more the integrity of the individual
that matters rather than their financial allegiances. If one witnesses
the operation of the advisory committees, some are indeed more
open than others, but it is the peers on the committee who will
actually be able to vouch for the independence of the members
on the committee, and I am pleased to see that people are now
moving to talk about independent expertise on the committee rather
than these independent committees, because that does indeed reflect
549. So you are happy that the Bill is satisfactory
in this respect?
(Mr Wood) If I could add a comment to what my
colleague has said? If the Agency is going to take that overview
of the food chain which we see as being important, then it must
have available to it expertise from all parts of society including
the food and drink manufacturing industry in the UK. There is
a lot of expertise in that industry. So far as the members of
the Federation are concerned, we are very willing to make that
expertise and knowledge available to the Agency. If that information
is put forward it would certainly be linked with any declarations
of interest but I think without that input and without similar
input from other sectors of the food chain, I do not see how the
Agency could adequately fulfil its remit.
550. Do you see any danger of having too
many members? The Bill does not exclude having people with experience
and expertise relating to that experience in the food industry.
(Mr Wood) I was very pleased to hear the clarification
from Jill Wordley about the interests of members.
551. Do you have any views about the sort
of balance there should be, or are you simply satisfied with the
(Mr Wood) I do not think we have gone so far as
to suggest how many members from particular areas of society there
should be, but certainly there should be at least one member of
the Agency with broad experience of manufacturing industry, and
that is really our concern, Chairman.
(Mr Craddock) Could I add another point on that?
I think the prime concern and focus should be that the Agency
is able to represent, to take the words from the Bill, "the
broad public interest" or "the general public interest",
and then to recognise that the public interest is in fact extremely
broad. As you yourself heard this morning at the seminar at which
we were present, it does include aspects of financial matters
and employment, it is not simply a question of looking at one
particular lobby being represented or one particular industry
being represented. We are in a global trading scenario and whatever
we do has to recognise that. It would be suicidal to prejudice
our global "competitivity", I think is the word they
use in Brussels these days.
(Mrs Saint) We should add to that as well that
the food industry itself has the greatest interest in food safety.
552. Mr Craddock referred earlier to the
concept and concerns about devolution. Clauses 4 and 5 actually
set out that the Agency has devolved powers in relation to the
different countries of the United Kingdom. In what ways, if any,
do you see these powers altering the activities of your member
(Mr Craddock) With some difficulty, I think, Rev
Smyth. As I say, recognising clearly the absolute political drive
and initiative that there is on devolution one has to say that
we have to live with this aspect, but I think great care has to
be taken that we do not actually override the prime function of
the Agency by paying heed to what is undoubtedly a strong political
drive. I sincerely hope that when the appointments are madeand
as we have seen it will be one from most of the regions, two from
one region perhapsthat those people are not actually seen
just to be purely representing the geographical identity but hopefully
they will bring rather more to the party by way of their own personal
expertise. Clearly it does not rule out that, shall we say, the
representative from Northern Ireland might indeed be extremely
expert on food processing, et cetera.
553. I understand what you are saying but
you are not answering my question. I was not asking about what
you thought of the membership of the Food Standards Agency, I
was asking how you thought devolution would affect your own member
(Mr Craddock) I am sorry if I misunderstood you.
The answer to that one is that I do not think we have thought
that far down the line, at least I certainly have not. We already
operate of course across these borders. My own company has factories
in all of the regions, if we may call them that, and we do not
want to see any fragmentation of the regulatory framework.
554. That was why I was a bit concerned.
The other concept, of course, is that we do recognise that in
the Irish Board there is no one there specificallyand that
is not Northern Irelandfrom the food industry and people
say that is marvellous because they do not see therefore vested
interests giving the standards.
(Mrs Saint) Yes, that is right. I take your point
that perhaps there is a public perception point here about the
food industries not being involved, but what we would not want
to see is that trade would in any way have barriers erected between
the different regions of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England.
We do not have border posts and things. We do not have border
posts between the European Union and ourselves, and so it would
be very important that we all operate by the same standards throughout
the United Kingdom.
555. One of the things that gave me concern
earlier was the concept of labelling, because we have been told
that the directions on labelling quite often come from Brussels,
so they are not ours?
(Mrs Saint) Yes, indeed they do, but we do contribute
556. It is international.
(Mr Craddock) Could I add, there was some concern
expressed about the giving of nutrition information and the way
it is done and the format for that is clearly prescribed via Brussels
legislation. But the Committee may not be aware of quite a sizeable
initiative which the United Kingdom manufacturers and retailers
undertook in the latter part of last year, IGD nutrition labelling
guidelines which have been introduced for the industry, which
go further than the basic requirements of the law and are, we
believe, rather more informative in terms of highlighting the
fat and calorie content of the foods and moving more towardsI
am not a nutritionistguideline daily amounts and relating
the content of the food to the medical recommendations. I think
that is a sizeable step where we are going further than the current
regulations and, indeed, in some instances, perhaps even beyond
557. I wonder if I could ask you if you
could give the Committee a note on that and something we could
look at when we are looking at our report?
(Mrs Saint) Yes.
558. I, for one, find the labelling situation
in this country woeful and I find food labelling extremely impenetrable
and very difficult to understand. I have been a doctor for a long
time and a number of patients come to the surgery and they cannot
understand it. I do not understand it, and so I would greatly
welcome more detail on what we are doing on labelling in this
country, but what I want to talk about particularly is the levy.
In the Financial Times of 28 January 1999 you are recorded
as wholeheartedly welcoming the draft Bill proposals as they apply
to the proposed flat rate levy, which, of course, food manufacturers
are exempt from paying, but bearing in mind that the United Kingdom
food and drinks sector has a gross annual income of £50 billion
per annum, do you believe that manufacturers ought to be making
some sort of financial contribution to the FSA?
(Mr Wood) Not a direct contribution, Chairman,
through a levy. We were very pleased to learn that the Government
has no intention of discriminating against United Kingdom food
and drink manufacturers by imposing a levy on them. This would
certainly make them slightly less competitive in terms of importers.
It would also mean they could be disadvantaged in their export
markets. I appreciate that the initial size of the levy is relatively
small for some of the larger companies but, as the previous witnesses
said, there is no cap in terms of longer-term funding of the Agency
and once a tax is introduced it becomes a tax on food and can
be increased by subsequent Chancellors. We are, therefore, really
returning to the fundamental principle that public safety, public
health, should be publicly funded. We think that is the one common
theme that is perhaps running through most of the representations
that you have heard and we will still stick to that. We are pleased
that the Government does not plan to tax us but we are still firmly
of the view that this should come out of general taxation. There
were two points that were raised, I think, by the NFU previously,
one, that funding the Agency through the consumer shopping-bag
would impact disproportionately on the poorer members of society,
and the other aspect in terms of food safety is that every part
of the food chain has a responsibility for food safety, but to
spread the start-up costs of the Agency right across the food
chain would be quite disproportionate in terms of the amount of
money it would take to collect that money. Even imposing a levy
on retailers and caterers, there would be a substantial charge
on local authorities and we think that really the time has come
to say no, public health should be publicly funded.
559. That is a very interesting answer.
Does that mean that, in fact, the Financial Times have
got it wrong when they quote you as saying that you wholeheartedly
welcome the draft proposals as they apply to the proposed flat
rate levy? Does that mean you do not share that view?
(Mr Wood) I do not remember that particular one.
If that is what it says, they have not got it 100 per cent. right
because we have never supported the tax on food.