Examination of Witnesses (Questions 580
WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999
and MRS ANN
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 yearsand I am the only one
in the country ever to have done thisdoing 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.
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 managementand, after all, food production is managementis
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 industryyou
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
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 poisoningand this goes
right across the whole spectrum, including engineering and other
aspectsis 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 againand we are particularly keen on that ideacould
instruct, guide, investigate and write guidelines in a way that
the Department of Health and MAFF have never, ever yet been able
(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
biggerand, 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 costsif 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
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
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.
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
(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