Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600
WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH 1999
and MRS ANN
600. In mayonnaise?
(Dr North) We have to make the distinction between
egg products and raw eggs. In terms of mayonnaise (to use your
example) the problem turned out to beand I have heavily
researched this, including spending three months in a laboratorya
change in the recipe, bringing a high-acid product, á la
Mrs Beeton, and turning it into a bland, low-acid product. I have
actually had mayonnaise which I have made myself in the laboratory
and put millions of salmonella in it and within a matter of hours
they are all dead, and that is if you make it to Mrs Beeton's
recipe. What we saw in the Eighties was haute cuisine,
which introduced the transatlantic idea of bland mayonnaise. We
saw the growth of the sandwich industry, which liked to use mayonnaise
as a binder for loose fillings, but they reduced the vinegar to
stop you swamping the taste, so that there was an explosion of
outlets selling low-acid mayonnaise, and if you look at the figures
of the salmonella in egg crisis, 80 per cent. of those cases which
were marked up by the Medical Officer of Health were actually
mayonnaise. If you track back the history, the last recorded outbreak
to have occurred of mayonnaise in the United Kingdom was in 1945.
We had one in 1954, and I am not sure that was salmonella, we
had one in 1987, and that was the first one we had had, and then
we got a whole rash of them in the context that we had experienced
invasive salmonella in poultry at roughly ten-year intervals since
the war. So that, in fact, what was given to the public was actually
bad advice. They were told to do the wrong thing for the wrong
reason and had they been given a choiceafter all, in the
AIDS programme you are given a choice. We know that promiscuous
sex, for instance, is a factor in the spread of AIDS, but the
health authorities do not say, "Do not have sex, do not have
promiscuous sex." They say, "We prefer that you not
do it but if you must, use protection," but somehow in food
areas they went for prohibition. They said, "Do not use raw
eggs." What they should have said was, "We would prefer
you do not use raw egg recipes, but if you must, make sure the
acidity is right, make sure you make it this way," and I
think the public would have listened to that sort of argument.
601. Could you deal with the enforcement
issue, your quality control people that you mention in your paragraphs
5.9 and 5.10. Who would they be? Would they be doctors? I want
to get an idea of the kind of qualifications, what sort of professionals
you are thinking of there?
(Dr North) You mentioned, and I like the term,
"super EHOs". Yes, I think that you could take both
out of the veterinary profession and the Environmental Health
Officers some of the more skilled and experienced officials, put
them through extra training and use them as auditors, if you like,
to check on the activities of others.
602. That is helpful. The second question
that I wanted to ask was in particular picking up something that
Mr Greig said which also seemed to get to the heart of some of
the debate that we are having. You said that people eat your sensationally
tasting beef and they know it is safe. That might apply for beef
but for a lot of people this is a real problem because they cannot
afford beef or cannot afford it produced to that standard. If
their food is going to taste sensational it is because there is
a lot of flavouring in it and a lot of salt in it and there is
a real issue about how the Food Standards Agency comes to grips
with determining what is a safe level and how it then gets the
industry to do that. Forget about the fresh meat, because I think
that is a slightly different issue, but on the safety of the mass
(Mr Greig) Very briefly, because really the question
of mass food is for Dr North, the point I want to get across is,
please, let us accept there is a huge difference here and that
is why our food is safe. There is a total difference in scale
of production and scale of processing. Just to illustrate that
point, take chicken, for example. We never put water anywhere
near the chicken we are processing. They are killed individually,
they are hung for ten days, they are dressed dry. There is never
any water anywhere near them. Water is the worst thing to put
on meat because bacteria love it. So there just is a totally different
approach to the way we are doing these things. If you are looking
at chicken as a source of potential infection, then the mass-produced
and the craft-produced are two totally different things.
603. I take that point but what the Food
Standards Agency has to deliver on is people who are buying food
that has been processed, not just fresh food but processed food
that has additives, that has salt. There are issues about how
much salt we should have in our diet and I do not know how much
it should bethe safety of different additives. That is
a really big issue. How do you go about establishing that and
what should the Food Standards Agency do?
(Dr North) May I make perhaps an important point
by way of a very short illustration. For Christmas I get my turkey
from a farmer who produces a slow-maturing bird. It is always
a hen because they taste better and are more juicy, and when you
have had one the difference between that and the rubber chicken
is so enormous you would never actually go back to the other things.
I am seriously addressing your question. What I am saying is that
very often the additives, preservatives, are technical fixes to
overcome problems of mass production. I think if small-scale,
tasty food were more encouraged, some of that problem would be
addressed because people would be less inclined to buy tasteless
processed food. They would not buy more. But I want to address
your actual problem. There is an issue. I think you are absolutely
right. There is salt.
604. I am thinking of children's crisps,
that kind of thing.
(Dr North) Yes, quite. Salt is clearly a major
health issue and you have now a real problem in that you cannot
say it is just nutrition. There is a relationship between salt
and health. It is a health issue, it is not just a nutrition issue,
and I think there are areas where you can seriously demonstrate
with good science that there are health implications in relation
to that sort of product. I heard some of the earlier evidence
and I think it was helpful, in that where you can apply hard science,
in other words, you can demonstrate something, say a nutritional
effect, then I think the Agency could have a role. Where it has
to be careful is entering the potato debate. One minute potatoes
are bad news, the next minute it is two potatoes. That is what
it has to avoid, otherwise it is going to end up as a laughing-stock,
I think to our detriment, and the one thing the Agency must not
be is a laughing-stock.
Ms Keeble: I agree
605. How big a problem is food poisoning
in Great Britain and what is the main source?
(Dr North) I choose my words carefully. As a health
professional, taking a very broad range, I have spent a lot of
time also working in hospitals on hospital infection. Hospital
infection is a far more serious problem than what is actually
a relatively trivial problem of microbial food poisoning. I say
"relatively", so I am choosing my words extremely carefully.
In any one week in a `flu epidemic thousands of people die and
the cost of prophylactic treatment of, say , `flu vaccines, making
them more readily available, would save thousands more lives than
perhaps billions spent on food safety. I am a food safety addict.
I have been doing it all my life. I am passionately interested
in food safety but I also recognise the broader issues, and in
the broader issues I do not like to see it wasted. If you look
at food poisoning, could I enter a note of caution for the Committee?
You have been relying on figures which are the doctors' reports
of suspected food poisoning. I and many of my professional colleagues
have evaluated and analysed these figures to the death. The figures
are not reliable. There is, for instance, no evidence that the
bulk of campylobacter which comprises the bulk of these doctors'
reports is in fact food-borne. There is some evidenceand
Professor Pennington if you had asked him would have told you
he has done some work on thiswhich shows that the DNA strains
of campylobacters recovered from poultry are wholly different
from those recovered from humans. There was a paper in Paediatrics
from America this January which said that in America the bulk
of the salmonelloses recovered from children were in fact not
food-borne. If we look at the salmonella problem we have to say
that at this particular moment salmonella is at a record low,
it is at a ten year low, 23,420, and these are the PHLS official
figures. We have just experienced the largest single down-turn
on record since records began. In that sense we must be doing
something right. I can give other explanations as to why it is
going down but certainly it is not at the crisis level it was.
A lot of people have been doing a lot of work, officials in part,
industry in part, but it will always be a problem, there will
always be difficulties, but it certainly is not a crisis.
606. So with salmonella figures falling
without an Agency, will the Agency have an impact on food poisoning
statistics in the future?
(Dr North) My great fear is that it will have
a reverse impact. Unless the Agency is properly constructed it
could have a reverse impact. It could actually cause either food
poisoning to increase by the mechanism of increasing mass production.
Also, if I can warn you of Ireland's experience in terms of confidence
in food, if you monitor the local papers you will see outbreaks
locally reported, they do not get national news, but what we have
seen from Ireland is that local outbreaks are picked up by the
National Food Hygiene Agency and become national news, so that
last year we saw more national reports about food poisoning in
Ireland than we have ever seen in the history of Ireland, and
somebody who did not know what was happening would get the impression
that suddenly Ireland was undergoing an epidemic of food poisoning.
So the Agency can actually have a false, flawed effect.
607. You did say that the emphasis behind
the Agency was pretty well unstoppable and you are interested
in ensuring it works properly.
(Dr North) I do want to see it work, yes.
608. That is the remit of this Committee.
(Dr North) Quite.
609. That is leading on to my next question.
Who would you like to see on the Agency? Who are going to be the
12 or 14 good men or women and true?
(Dr North) Frankly, as long as they are intelligent,
open-minded and prepared to listen, I do not think it matters.
What I would say, if I may, and it is crucialand I will
give you again a very brief examplewe have an advisory
committee on the microbiological safety of food which has set
up a group to look at the safety of eggs, yet it has refused to
listen to or entertain evidence from the egg industry. Frankly,
this is absurd. What there must be is some sort of right of access.
If these commissioners are going to listen to views and if people
have valid views and can offer something constructive, they must
have access to those commissioners, and as long as the agendas
are published, which they are not with the advisory committees,
and as long as the proceedings are published and crucially the
information handled to these commissioners is also available insofar
as it can be, then we know what they have looked at, what they
have seen and we have an open debate and if the result is flawed
then it will be obvious. But what we could not tolerate is a closed
little cabal that is only talking to its own friends and stitching
up a deal between them.
(Mr Greig) Could I just pitch in on one point?
I would hope if there are 12 members on the committee one person
will really, truly represent the interests of the very small specialist
craft producers, because we are the future of rural industry.
There are tens of thousands of jobs dependent on flourishing small
businesses like ours. So it is a very serious employment issue
and if the special status requirement of craft producers is not
represented on the committee, then they will get buried under
over-regulation and wiped out, and the employment ramifications
of that are very, very serious indeed.
(Dr North) There had to be an area where we disagreed,
Mr Chairman, and that is it. I do not think the commission ought
to be a representative grouping where it has to represent particular
sectors, as long as it is open-minded.
(Mr Greig) Absolutely, but we must not have over-regulation
of small scale producers, however that is prevented.
Chairman: That debate
is taking place and I have no doubt people in here and elsewhere
will be listening to that debate throughout all the time this
consultation goes on.
610. What lessons can we learn from other
(Dr North) The Dutch handled their food poisoning
crisis by no longer recording food poisoning. If you really want
to solve food poisoning, simply do not record it. The French do
that as well. What we can learn from other countries and our own
experience is that good scientific information produced very rapidly
to where it is needed will eventually enable us to solve the problem.
That is what we need to learn. Poor, bad information by partisan
sources which is incomplete and late is no use to anybody.
611. What will be the impact of what is
(Dr North) It could be a force for good, it could
be a force for evil. It is all in the melting pot at the moment
and we are all crossing our fingers.
Chairman: All our
witnesses are saying "if and with a fair wind". Could
I just say on the issue of openness which you mentioned, that
is something, listening to the questions put by the Committee
and the answers by witnesses, which is an issue which hopefully
will be addressed if the Food Standards Agency is set up. Thank
you once again for coming along and what you have said tonight.