Examination of Witnesses (Questions 569
WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999
and MRS ANN
569. Good afternoon, Dr North. I do apologise
for the lateness of the sitting, it was not just the long-windedness
of members or witnesses, it was also a division of the House which
surprised us earlier. I wonder if, as a matter for the record,
you could introduce yourself and could I ask your colleagues to
introduce themselves as well?
(Dr North) Mr Chairman, I am Dr Richard North,
an independent food safety adviser.
(Mr Greig) Mr Chairman, I am Peter Greig. We run
a small specialist meat business down in Devon supplying retail
customers particularly through our own shop in Exeter and through
a mail order business all over the country.
(Mrs Wilson) Mr Chairman, I am Ann Wilson. I work
in the artisan sector of the food industry helping those small
business, predominantly in the South West.
570. Could I invite you, Dr North, to comment?
I think it is right to say at this stage that every witness we
have had sitting in that chair believes that the Food Standards
Agency is going to hopefullyI use the word carefullyimprove
people's perception and hopefully the standards and the hygiene
of the food industry. Would you go along with that general observations
on what is proposed?
(Dr North) Initially not, Mr Chairman. As you
have probably seen from my evidence I have taken the view that
since the momentum for the Agency is almost unstoppable, at least
the Agency should be so constructed as to do as much good as possible.
I do believe that within the limitations of what it can do, it
can be of some value, and to that effect I would be anxious that
it was of value.
571. Would you like to specify the limitations
you believe it has?
(Dr North) Specifically, I have some experience
of a number of high profile court cases where one sees a gradual
accretion of responsibility to enforcement authorities, such as
the Meat Hygiene Service which has a strong objective written
into its own operations manual that it takes responsibility for
standards, that it takes responsibility for food safety, that
it takes responsibility for assisting the meat industry, and one
sees an ethos develop within the industry itself that it sees
the agencies assume responsibility for food safety which in fact
they cannot do. I am very concerned about diluting responsibility.
The actual responsibility for the production of safe food rests
with the producers. Nobody else can actually do the job for the
producer. What concerns me about the Agency as the primary objective
constituting it is that it is being asked as a statutory responsibility
to protect the public health. Well, actually, that I believe is
an objective that it cannot achieve, but the danger is that the
public perception will be, and indeed the industry perception,
that if something goes wrong with the food supply then the Agency
is in part responsible and in a way it allows industry to shed
some of its responsibility, to dilute that responsibility, and
it means the Agency is then in a position of taking responsibility
for things it cannot control. Therefore I propose that a much
more constructive and rational view is to say that it has responsibility
for promoting, fostering food safety, but should not be in the
position of having a statutory responsibility, ie responsibility
for safe food.
572. So you think that is not in a sense
a weakness but you just do not think the Agency can do it?
(Dr North) It certainly cannot do this. We saw
this in the E-coli Lanarkshire outbreak, where over the years
the profession of which I belong, environmental health officers,
has had an extremely high public profile addressed in PR terms
about being responsible for safe food, and there we had an instance
where the sheriff in the fatal accident inquiry found that the
enforcement agency itself was in part responsible for the outbreak.
If we have a public perception that an enforcement agency has
a role in the protection of public health as opposed to the industry
itself, and if it assumes that responsibility, if it has a statutory
responsibility, we will see a situation where, as I say, industryand
I am seeing this in the meat industry alreadywalks away
saying, "We are paying a vet £40 an hour, food safety
is not our problem, it is their problem, that is what I am paying
for". What you are seeing is the same thing on a larger scale
where individuals and whole groups within the industry can say,
"Food safety, research, surveillance, control, development,
intelligence, that is the Food Agency's responsibility, it is
nothing to do with us", and therefore far from improving
food safety it will actually diminish the overall effort devoted
to that concern. So there is a very clear responsibility, a clear
division. If the food industry is responsible but the Agency is
there to promote and particularly, as I have pointed out many
times, assist, provide information, foster and as the case may
be punish, then I think the role is thus better defined.
573. Is it not a bit like saying that the
issue of law and order is really a matter for the police and not
a matter for us as citizens?
(Dr North) Just one word on that. This was put
up by Patrick WallI think he is Chief Executive or whatever
of the Irish Food Standards Agencyin response to the finding
of the Lanarkshire fatal accident inquiry, where, on the one hand,
you had the Sheriff saying the Environmental Health Officers were
responsible in part for the outbreak and Patrick Wall stood up
at the CIH conference and said, "How could you say `blame
the police' if somebody raced down the road and became a hit-and-run
driver and knocked somebody down?" No, the police are not
regarded as being responsible for crimes. They are responsible
to prevent crime or to catch and punish criminals but they have
no responsibility per se for the individual safety of the
individual in respect of individual crimes and nobody would dream,
except under very special circumstances, of actually blaming the
police for the crime. If you put that in this context, food safety
being the crime or failure of, there is a danger that the Agency
will be seen as responsible for that crime, so to speak.
574. Would you see the food producers, then,
as having to demonstrate that their methods and their foods are
safe or would you see it as simply that they need to introduce
good practice and if their customers do not get ill then that
is sufficient demonstration that they have introduced good practice?
(Dr North) That is the way the system works in
this country, where we have a relatively sophisticated surveillance
service comprising many agencies, which keeps an eye on the safety
and the health of the population and supposedly identifies problems
very quickly and moves to intercept and prevent them. We are being
confronted with this with GMOs. There are technical difficulties
in proving something like food is safe and certainly the concept
of HACCP and other modern approaches to food safety steer us against
things like positive release, positive testing, where you are
doing microbiological testing, which in itself is technically
difficult. So one really finds difficulty about the concept of
saying that they should prove it is safe, but if I could turn
it round slightly, very often you can create a theoretical model
on food safety, an operational model at the cutting edge, where
to deal with every eventuality would be so onerous and so expensive,
as we have seen with the Meat Hygiene Service, that you cannot
actually cope. In order to define, redefine and focus that model,
the industry very often needs information and it is very often
information on a global level which only something like the Agency
can supply. One example, if I may, was the salmonella in egg-producing
flocks. We were experiencing multiple sequential infections in
laying flocks. We had the Ministry coming in and slaughtering
flocks and then coming back again to the same farm and slaughtering
another flock in the same shed again and again. We had one poor
unfortunate to whom that happened four times. What they were never
prepared to do or tell us was how the birds were getting infected
in the first place and if they had been able to define what was
going wrong, action would have been taken. That, I think, is a
more constructive role.
575. So you are suggestingand perhaps
Mr Greig is the person to comment on thisthat in order
to produce certain foods in a safe way and to demonstrate that
they are being produced in a safe way, it would add sufficient
to the costs of production that you would no longer produce those
types of food, and that if we want those types of foods to be
on the market, then we have to accept perhaps a higher level of
risk or at least that safety has not been demonstrated in order
to experience them?
(Mr Greig) If I could come in at that point, I
think we, as small, specialist craft producers, can very easily
illustrate just how dangerous it is, the theory that the way to
regulate the safety of food is by putting inspectors in place
to try and inspect every stage of production. The absurdity of
that is very clearly demonstrated in small-scale businesses like
our own where, just to illustrate the point, the Meat Hygiene
Service is inspecting our little abattoir. We are talking about
producing food of the very highest quality and our test-bed is
our customers. Our business is finished; if we produce food which
is not sensational to eat our customers walk away from us and
without customers we have no business, but, as things are going
at the moment, it is deemed that the only way to regulate or to
prove the safety to our customersthey do not have to come
into our shop and buy our food and they certainly only come in
because they know it is good to eat; when they stick it in their
mouth they think, wow, that is greatas things are going
at the moment the regulatory system is saying, "Hang on a
minute. Let us stick a guy at £45 an hour into your abattoir."
We have a real craftsman killing a bullock for us. It takes him
an hour and a quarter to kill and dress one bullock in the age-old
way, which means that that bullock can then be hung for a month.
We are talking about a tried and tested technique for producing
sensational beef, and yet the administrative system that is being
piled on us at the moment says, "Whoa, that guy, a vet at
£45 an hour, has to stand and watch every move that man makes."
It takes him an hour and a quarter. That is £60 on the price
of one bullock to inspect it. We cannot say to our customers that
makes sense. They say it is just not reasonable.
576. As you say, your customers come to
you because you sell a sensationally tasting product, and I fully
accept that you do and I look forward to trying it at some point,
but is it not possible that they take it as read that these safety
checks are going on behind the scenes and that they do not have
to worry about the fact that your product is safe because somebody
else has done that for them and all they have to worry about is
that it tastes sensational?
(Mrs Wilson) Could I say that that particular
abattoir that Mr Greig is talking about does consistently score
in the top ten of the hygiene assessment score, in the top ten
abattoirs in the country. The two things are not mutually exclusive.
577. I am not suggesting they are mutually
exclusive. I am simply asking you, is it possible that your customers,
the customers of small independent traders like yourselves, have
assumed that because there is the Food Safety Act, because there
are Environmental Health Officers, because there is the Meat and
Livestock Commission, because there are all these other agencies,
you must be selling a safe product?
(Dr North) If I may answer that, the British public
in the broad sense is probably unaware of the detail of the regulatory
regime. I think they would be horrified at the thought of, say,
an experienced, say, Spanish vetand do not forget we have
over 130 Spanish vets coming over with a week's trainingstanding
in our slaughterhouses at £45 an hour to tell a craftsman
how to work. I think if the public knew this and knew what was
happening they would be horrified. I do not think the public rely
on the fact that they have X, Y, Z vets. They do not know very
much about the system. They assume the system works but that largely
rests upon the image projected by both the regulatory system,
the politicians and others, and the regulatory system itself is
a pressure group in its own right. It has its own lobby, has its
own vested interests, has a very large press organisation which
is constantly telling the public that without their intercession
food will be dangerous. In that sense the regulatory system actually
contributes towards the public unease about food simply because
it is trying to justify its own existence.
578. Is not possible, therefore, that the
Food Standards Agency as an organisation which is going to take
a more global view, which is going to be independent not only
of producers but also of this other pressure group you are talking
about, the inspectors, might actually improve the situation for
small traders like yourself because they will be in a position
to say it is nonsense to have inexperienced Spanish vets standing
there, to insist on benchmarks being followed that might be entirely
(Dr North) We hoped that would be the case but
it certainly cannot be the case, for instance, if the Food Standards
Agency takes within its wings the Meat Hygiene Service because
then it will virtually be forced to support its own highly lucrative
enforcement agency which will be earning it something like £60
million a year.
(Mr Greig) If this Committee is to have constructive
input into the development of the Food Standards Agency, I would
invite the Committee to come down and see the workings of our
business because something which is in severe danger of being
buried under this mountain of bureaucracy is commonsense. What
we can amply illustrate is that if you do things to an extremely
high standard of hygiene and produce a very high quality product
then you do not need to have permanent supervision on that scale
in the same way as you do in a very big factory, for example.
At the moment there is no understanding that specialist craft
producers exist, so if you are saying that possibly the Food Standards
Agency will come in and its first move will be to try and make
appropriate legislation to scale of business, then I would say
that is great, but up to now I really wonder how much understanding
there is of the sort of way in which a specialist business like
579. The key clauses in the legislation,
I do not know whether you have looked at the draft legislation
itself, are Clauses 9 and 10 I believe which stress safety. One
of the concerns we have had as a Committee is that we have been
asking people about whether it has sufficient powers to look at
things like nutrition because the word "nutrition",
for example, is not mentioned in those clauses of the Bill, it
simply says "other issues of interest to consumers".
It occurred to me as you were speaking that of course "other
issues of interest to consumers" would include the taste.
So the Food Standards Agency, as the legislation is currently
drafted, would have a responsibility to take an interest in whether
the food tastes good and might therefore consider itself to have
some remit to ensure traders such as yourselves are allowed to
flourish. If that is the case, would you not welcome the Food
(Dr North) If that is a focus, that is a brilliant
point, and it is not one I have actually thought of.
(Mr Greig) We would welcome it with open arms.
Just to illustrate the point, and this is why I think the theme
you are pursuing has such exciting potential compared to what
we seem to be facing in reality at the moment, this business of
supervision in our tiny abattoir is a reality, and we are talking
about a threat to completely wipe out all small businesses like
ours. For you to understand just what a wonderful policeable process
it is, it is beyond question that our business is growing like
mad because consumers are buying what we are producing and saying,
"Wow, we want more of that, we want less maybe from sterile
factories, we want more craft produce", so if the FSA is
possibly going to say, "Right, come on, let's give consumers
the chance to make their own choice and buy food that tastes good
again", let's have it, we are all for it.
(Mrs Wilson) Hear, hear!