Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 540 - 559)

WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999

MR JOHN WOOD, MR NEVILLE CRADDOCK and MRS VALERIE SAINT

  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 information.

Dr Brand

  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 role—if I can address this to Mrs Saint—for 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 glutamate.
  (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 requirements?
  (Mrs Saint)  I hope not, I do not think we could cope.

  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.

Audrey Wise

  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 influence?
  (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 it.

  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 draft Bill?
  (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.

Rev Smyth

  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 organisations?
  (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 made—and as we have seen it will be one from most of the regions, two from one region perhaps—that 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 organisations' activities.
  (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 specifically—and that is not Northern Ireland—from 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 to them.

  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 towards—I am not a nutritionist—guideline 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 the regulations.

Chairman

  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.

Dr Stoate

  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.


 
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