Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580 - 599)



Mr Walter

  580.  I hope I have a healthy scepticism of the effectiveness of this legislation; I will not say I have a scepticism of the effectiveness of environmental health officers and the Meat Hygiene Service. We are all interested in making sure that the consumer has confidence in food. I am interested in some of your thoughts where you seem to be suggesting that the only people who know about food and what is safe and what is good are the people who produce it.
  (Dr North)  No.

  581.  Let me just develop this. In other industries, let us take the financial services, we have a series of self-regulatory organisations there whereby, with a general oversight body which does have the remit of government, these self-regulatory organisations supervise and license the activities within those particular areas. Trying to find a positive way forward which might satisfy your concerns, do you think that would be a possible alternative?
  (Dr North)  Not necessarily, Sir, but I take the point entirely, although we are beginning to see a move away from self-regulation into the FSA in financial services, so it seems that falls at the hurdle. Let me put it another way: generally speaking, small producers welcome the regulator, and there are many examples of good, sound relationships between, say, a local environmental health officer and a local producer, the inspector will be regarded as a welcome guest, an asset to the business, and somebody who is there to assist constructively in ensuring safety, and we see it as a partnership. My passionate concern is to see competent professional officers doing a job well proportionately with well-written, intelligent legislation. Where I get so passionately angry is where I see incompetence, inadequate legislation and stupidity by officials, and then malevolence sometimes (which believe me is there) where they abuse power and then promote their own interests to the public as if they are doing the public or anybody else a favour. This is perhaps where there is a role, and I have conceded there is a role, for the Agency, but it too will need highly skilled people out there in the field doing a serious audit job looking both ways. Where we have, for instance, the MAFF State Veterinary Service auditing, so-called, the Meat Hygiene Service, all we see of MAFF is that they reinforce the bad practice of the Meat Hygiene Service and cover up for their own inadequacies. But if we got an Agency which could stand outside that and go into, say, a slaughter house not just looking at the slaughter but looking at the meat inspectors contaminating the meat and the vet wandering around as if his contamination did not matter, and the fact his costs were actually causing the slaughter house to close down, or having to produce twice as many animals and thereby increase the level of contamination simply to pay his fees so he could stand there and say they are killing too many animals, if we got that sort of rational intelligence out of the Agency, I think both the consumer and the producer would welcome it, but of course it would be on trial and it would be important that it was constructive in the way it could do it. I certainly come back to that central point, that the Agency cannot be a referee and a player and if it has any enforcement role at all (a) it will not be trusted by the industry and (b) the audit it carries out on local authorities will not be trusted because the local authority personnel will also be saying, "The real agenda of the Agency is they want to show that we are not doing our job properly so they can take it over." There is the suspicion that the Agency is an embryonic national food hygiene service, that it is really after taking over the whole of the enforcement ambit, or at least most of it, and that would be a very dangerous trap for the Agency to fall into.

  582.  It might be a little premature to state that as we have not appointed anybody to it yet.
  (Dr North)  Quite so.

  583.  I am not sure we can take it forward that way. What you are really objecting to is the fact that this will be an umbrella over existing organisations which you see as reinforcing the powers of those organisations to go in and cause mayhem and close down small producers in particular? That is your fundamental objection?
  (Dr North)  If it was truly independent, okay. The thing is that it is easy to see big food producers and other food organisations as being vested interests, but what has to be recognised is that enforcement agencies themselves are vested interests. The Meat Hygiene Service is a major business, it has a turnover of £60 million, it has a chief executive with a very large salary and a performance bonus to protect. It has its own constituency. The PHLS (Public Health Laboratory Service) has also a vested interest. It sees and it has good evidence to show that when there is a food safety problem, which, of course, it identifies and reports, its income goes up, its staff increase. If the Agency is seen simply as an arm to strengthen those vested interests, then it will not be independent, it will not be seen as independent, and it will not be doing the job it needs to be doing. In my PhD I spent five years—and I am the only one in the country ever to have done this—doing a critical evaluation of the information-gathering services, the public health information-gathering service in the United Kingdom, and quite frankly, the system is poor. Again, if the Agency focuses on going into these organisations and saying, "Your standard of food poisoning investigation is amateurish. The information you are getting is poor. You are destroying evidence as you are going through the system. You are not writing up reports, you are not publishing them in time"—there were, for instance, three E. Coli outbreaks in butchers before the Lanarkshire E. Coli outbreak. None of those investigations was published until after the E. Coli outbreak in Lanarkshire. If they had been published in the context that Professor Pennington was saying that E. Coli has slipped its leash, if the surveillance service had been doing its job properly, the whole industry and the whole of the public health community would have had warning that we had problems and perhaps some of the measures that were taken after the event could have been taken before the event. That job is not being done properly. If the Agency is able to get in there independently, independently of the public health service, independently of the local authorities, independently of the Meat Hygiene Service, and say, "Look, this is not functioning properly. This must do its job properly. This must be improved," then we will all benefit, and it will be independent.
  (Mr Greig)  Could I make the point there that Dr North referred to Professor Pennington's report and it clearly states in that report that the biggest threat to keeping the level of food poisoning under control is to encourage the intensification, the factorification, of food production. The bigger the scale of the production units the bigger the risk of serious outbreaks of food poisoning because of the scale on which they are gathering in the material and spreading it out again. If, in the pursuit of developing a food agency, you destroy the specialist local small-scale producers like us through over-regulation, then it is flying completely in the face of what Professor Pennington says absolutely clearly in his report.

Audrey Wise

  584.  Do you think that there is anything in this draft Bill which pushes the Agency in the wrong way that you have described?
  (Dr North)  To an extent, yes. I noted that while the public in general have a right of access to information, and while public authorities have a right of access to information, the industry itself does not seem to feature as a consumer, and it is quite an interesting perspective here. If you look at the Agency, its primary product is information, and in that sense the Agency is a producer and also in that same sense the food industry is a consumer. Here, therefore, the consumer has rights and the sort of information which this brand of consumer has is different from what the public needs. For instance, I am working on causation, a long-term research project on causation of food poisoning. We know that in many instances food poisoning in the commercial environment is primarily a management failure. It is no use to us, for instance, to see a technical paper which says that 80 per cent. of food poisoning arises from a failure in temperature control. It could be a mechanical failure of refrigeration or it could be a system failure or it could be a whole range of failures. If management—and, after all, food production is management—is to address failures, it needs detailed information on what those failures are and it needs to be able to turn to the Agency and say, "Please could you tell us what is causing food poisoning in terms that we can action and we can use." What we get at the moment from the system is that, say, the Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre writes up food poisoning investigation reports when it feels like it on the cases it is interested in and gives the information it wants to give, which is of absolutely no value whatsoever to the industry. So what we would like to see built into this is a recognition of the producer as the consumer and a recognition that it is in the broader consumer interest for the producers to have right of access to information, to be able to influence the type, scale and quality of information in order for it itself to improve its own performance. If I may add one point, there is the other side to this, in the interests of fairness. It is very hard either to criticise or punish an industry which really does not know what to do, but the power of an agency is very much strengthened if it has told an industry or sector what is wrong and what needs to be done. If the industry does not then respond, there can be no sympathy. So in fact telling people what is necessary, but scientific, fair, reasonable proportion, actually strengths your arm.

  585.  So what you would like then is, as well as written into the Bill the provision of information to public bodies, which is there, and to other persons which is there—"other persons", of course, could include the industry—you would like it specifically said that guidance and information should also be given to the industry as a specific duty rather than including them in "other persons"?
  (Dr North)  Absolutely so. The industry need is very specialised and very often the industry needs much more information than the public needs and it needs it in a form which is actionable. So just general information or even information which is suitable for scientists or trainers is not necessarily of any use to the industry. So the industry should be able to talk to the people providing information and say, "Look, this is what we need. Can you provide it?" and have some expectation of getting that information where it is practicable to give it to them.

  586.  So, as you say, there would be a reciprocal duty or expectation of an acceptance of a duty on the part of industry to respond to the guidance and information?
  (Dr North)  Absolutely so, and you could have no mercy against an industry which was given good scientific information and did not action it, and I do not think there would be any public sympathy either.

  587.  Do you think that there will have to be a considerable amount of scientific research commissioned by the Agency itself in order to gather the kind of information that you are talking about?
  (Dr North)  The system is already in place. We have a competence problem. For instance, one of the most powerful tools in the prevention of food poisoning—and this goes right across the whole spectrum, including engineering and other aspects—is an understanding of the cause of failure, an analysis of failure. For instance, the classic example is, how do you build safe bridges. You investigate why the last bridge collapsed. Once you understand the reasons for failure it is easier then to construct a model which prevents future failure. What we see in practice is that enormous expenditure is devoted towards investigating food poisoning but it is done very badly, that we have inadequate training, that the guidelines are inadequate, that there is insufficient training, there is insufficient co-ordination, and very poor reporting, so that, in fact, a lot of money is wasted. Then you see an interesting dynamic. When you criticise it they say, "We want more money," but in fact it costs no more money to do the job properly than to do it badly. So in that sense the Agency again—and we are particularly keen on that idea—could instruct, guide, investigate and write guidelines in a way that the Department of Health and MAFF have never, ever yet been able to do.
  (Mr Greig)  Could I make one point there. You talk about the need for scientific research. Could I suggest that, as the food industry develops in the new millennium, if it goes on down the route of making the scale of everything bigger and bigger—and, as I have said before, there is a real danger if you put the costs of regulation on to the industry, you force them to get bigger to cover these costs—if the industry goes on being forced down that route, and does not accept a special status for the artisan, the traditional craft producers like us, you are saying, "We have to have science to understand how to make modern food safe," and you have destroyed the group of producers who are producing food in a way which for generations has been proved not only to taste good but also be completely safe. So there is no scientific research needed to prove that the way we do it on a small scale is an acceptably very safe way of doing it. I am just afraid that you will go down the route of saying, "Science is the only way of proving something is safe", let's have a look back and have a bit of commonsense from perhaps 30, 40 years ago, when small farms produced a really good, safe product on a small scale and it was sold locally. That would be my observation on the point about science.


  588.  On that point, in a sense what you are saying is that there ought to be exemption for your business, which is basically an abattoir plus retail sales?
  (Mr Greig)  Yes.

  589.  You are saying there ought to be an exemption there? How many small abattoirs 40 years ago were killing and were putting a risk into the food chain by the way they were slaughtering? I think that is an issue here.
  (Dr North)  It is a crucial issue. The interesting thing I have told farmers and producers is that actually what you have in a craft situation is empirical science. In truth they have been killing people for centuries——

Audrey Wise

  590.  Killing people?
  (Dr North)  Yes. If you go back 200, 300, years you see some most remarkable outbreaks. One of the first ever salmonella outbreaks was in Frankenhausen in Germany which was an abattoir with unfit meat. They learn from experience so that in fact when you look at a small slaughter house you are actually seeing a highly scientific operation which has learnt from empirical science how to do the job properly. A lot of the health risks arise by then scaling it up and trying to take short-cuts. For instance, it is only relatively recently that a chiller has been a standard piece of equipment in a slaughter house; twenty years ago chillers were a rarity. Why do you need chillers? Because they are enclosing the slaughter houses, because they are increasing the throughput and because they are using more water in the interests of hygiene, therefore increasing the spoilage rate, therefore requiring the chiller. Do you see the point? Very often you are providing technical fixes to overcome the problems you yourself have created which did not exist in that type of operation.

  591.  I take that point but could I just clarify something? I did not think that you were actually asking for exemptions, I thought you were asking for appropriate regulation?
  (Dr North)  This is an interesting concept.

  592.  I was listening to your answers to my colleague, Dr Ladyman.
  (Dr North)  Regulations can be structured and this can be seen as exemptions. For instance, already in the EEC Meat Hygiene Directives there are graduated regulations for different sizes. It is clear that a large throughput operation, say a factory producing 2,000 tubs of pate an hour, presents a quantumly different risk from somebody who is producing 20 a week and different controls will apply. What we are beginning to hear from big industry is that they want uniformity of application, they want consistency, but what they are saying to you is that they want the big boys' regulations applied uniformly across the board to everybody.

  593.  I take the point, but that is not actually an exemption you are after, it is appropriate regulation?
  (Dr North)  Proportionate.

  594.  I take the point about scale, you have the same thing in hospitals where you have cross-infection, for instance, and therefore you need some different and additional precautions in hospital as compared to in the home. You still want cleanliness in the home however but it is a question of appropriateness. I think it is really important to put this. There are guiding principles. Would, for instance, the inclusion of guiding principles include some sort of wording of the kind you have been talking about? Would that help to reassure your sort of producer?
  (Mr Greig)  What we have to say in response to the Chairman's issue about how many abattoirs 40 years ago were operating very unhygienic premises, is that we are not wanting to be exempt from a standard which accepts only that abattoirs and small cutting plants operate to an extremely high standard. In our business we operate a standard which is exceptionally high and nothing less will do.

  595.  Forgive me, you have made that quite clear, so you do not need to repeat it. What I want to get at is that you are perfectly happy that that should be demonstrated and proved but that the method of doing that is not the same, or necessarily the same, as if it was a very large establishment. That is the essence, is it not? I think I understand you. The Chairman will stop us soon and I have some other questions.
  (Dr North)  There is enormous value, if I may say, in looking again at the Health and Safety at Work Act which under the Robens (?) dictum suggested general duties, a general duty to be safe, leaving the detail to codes of practice. That could work instead of prescriptive regulations.
  (Mr Greig)  We are not wanting exemptions, we are just wanting a special status which acknowledges a more appropriate way of enforcing or ensuring the standards that need to be achieved.

  596.  But would you accept that you would have to prove that it was an appropriate thing? Because you can have bad small abattoirs.
  (Dr North)  That is what the Agency could do, develop those standards.

  597.  Right, so we can leave that. Can I offer you just one line of thought: we had some discussion yesterday, and in fact it has run through the inquiry, about what constitutes food danger. A witness said that the hazards were microbiological and chemical toxins. I was interested in your evidence in which you seem to suggest there can be other kinds of hazards for which the methods of checking are not really applicable. You mention, for instance, GMOs and the difficulty there of checking until you have actually experimented on the population for a long time. Do you think therefore there is sufficient in the draft Bill to emphasise the need for a precautionary principle? Would you think the precautionary principle is sensible and is it in the Bill to deal with things like you have highlighted on GMOs?
  (Dr North)  I take the point about precautionary principle. One could say almost flippantly that it should be applied with caution. In other words, a blanket precautionary principle would be dangerous. It is a very interesting point and it relates partly back to Colin Maclean's eulogy about the VMD. There is a lot of people who do not believe the VMD is good. On this point about post-release surveillance, this is what the EU is saying is required for GMOs, I would like to see the Agency take on a broader responsibility for post-release surveillance, not only of food, which is the existing system, but also for chemicals and also for things like GMOs. At the moment we have a relatively good system for microbiological hazards but a very poorly developed system for toxicological, chemical and other abuses or hazards or insults. I think we actually do have the best system in the world. That is not to say it is very good, but it is certainly better than a lot of others. I would like to see it broader. The Scots are doing something of this, bringing in chemical abuse, chemical insults, chemical hazards, GMO hazards, and use the technology and the infrastructure and the knowledge and expertise to give a more holistic health surveillance of the population in relation to consumption of food. I think that would be a major step forward.

Ms Keeble

  598.  I want to ask questions in two areas and the first ones go back to Dr North's example of salmonella, which seemed to be an example of how not to manage a food crisis, because when the chickens were slaughtered, when all is said and done there is still now salmonella in flocks and they still eat raw eggs, still eat mayonnaise and they probably even eat steak tartare as well. In your evidence on enforcement you say that there should be some quality control and some trained officials but you do not say who they should be. Should they be super EHOs? Who should they be? In terms of advice, you talk about advice to the industry but you do not talk about advice to the public. What do you think the FSA should do to make sure that the advice is actually advice which the public will respond to?
  (Dr North)  The reason I did not home in on public advice is because it is well catered for, at least I thought it was fairly well catered for, within the Bill.

  599.  It is well catered for. There is lots of it but people still eat raw eggs. There does not seem to be very much evidence that the public actually take very much notice of it?
  (Dr North)  That, in our view, is quite good because there is no evidence that raw eggs have ever caused salmonella food poisoning in terms of a lightly-boiled egg or any single raw egg.

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