Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600 - 611)



  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 be—and I have heavily researched this, including spending three months in a laboratory—a 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 choice—after 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 food?
  (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 be—the 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 with that.

Mr Paterson

  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 evidence—and Professor Pennington if you had asked him would have told you he has done some work on this—which 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.

Audrey Wise

  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.

Mr Paterson

  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 crucial—and I will give you again a very brief example—we 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.

Mr Paterson

  610.  What lessons can we learn from other countries?
  (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 proposed here?
  (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.

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