Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 569 - 579)

WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999

DR RICHARD NORTH, MR PETER GREIG and MRS ANN WILSON

Chairman

  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 hopefully—I use the word carefully—improve 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, industry—and I am seeing this in the meat industry already—walks 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 Wall—I think he is Chief Executive or whatever of the Irish Food Standards Agency—in 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.

Dr Ladyman

  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 suggesting—and perhaps Mr Greig is the person to comment on this—that 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 customers—they 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 great—as 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 vet—and do not forget we have over 130 Spanish vets coming over with a week's training—standing 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 more reasonable?
  (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 ours operates.

  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 Standards Agency?
  (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!


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 12 April 1999