Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 612 - 619)




  612.  Ministers, could I welcome you once again to the Select Committee? I hope you are looking forward to this afternoon's session, as I know all members are, since we have taken five different evidence sessions with dozens of witnesses since you last sat in this room. I am personally looking forward to this afternoon's proceedings. Can I initially ask you to introduce yourselves and then Stephen Ladyman will ask the first question?
  (Tessa Jowell)  I am Tessa Jowell and I am Minister of State for Public Health at the Department of Health.
  (Mr Rooker)  Jeff Rooker, Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Dr Ladyman

  613.  The Bill as it is currently framed is absolutely explicit about matters to do with food safety. It is fairly clear those functions which are coming from the Ministry of Agriculture are safety-related and I did not perceive any difference between the two of you on issues to do with food safety, but I did detect at least a difference of emphasis between the two of you when we were discussing the scope of the Agency in terms of issues like health promotion and nutrition. Before I focus in on those subjects, perhaps you could each just briefly emphasise again how you each see the Agency in those two areas, health promotion and nutrition.
  (Tessa Jowell)  Shall I begin on that and say that I see the Agency's function as being principally health protection rather than health promotion. Health promotion is the job of Government with the Department of Health as the lead department in relation to that. I put it like that because I see health protection and the functions that will lie with the Agency in order to protect health as being part of a broader set of functions to do with health promotion.
  (Mr Rooker)  I agree with every word that Tessa Jowell has just said, and I am astonished at the fact that you saw any difference. I have read the transcript from our previous hearing, the policy was set out in the White Paper so far as nutrition is concerned, that was a result of consultation, we have not changed, it is as we set it out, there is no division. What I have said is, and I hope I put this across at the last hearing, we must not take our eye off the ball, and the ball is setting up a Food Standards Agency whose key role is the protection of public health in relation to food. You will have had witnesses who have said, I am sure, and we have had discussions about this, "Add this on, put this in the Agency", all of which creates in effect a mini-MAFF. We are seeking to avoid that trap and to set up the Agency in a way it can work and perform the key function which we intend it to perform and we hope the House in due course will also intend it to perform.

  614.  Let me play devil's advocate about what the two of you have just said. You started off saying that you agreed entirely with what Tessa has said——
  (Mr Rooker)  Well I do.

  615.  —— but what I heard Tessa saying essentially was she regards the Department of Health as the primary agency in terms of health promotion, that that is very much a secondary function of this Agency, the primary function of this Agency is food safety. Am I paraphrasing that too simplistically?
  (Tessa Jowell)  I think I said health protection rather than specifically food safety, but it is clearly health protection and food safety. The safety of food is a very important part of health protection.

  616.  I think we all accept that. There was clearly a function, as Jeff has said, in the White Paper for nutrition being part of the Agency's role, and I think you have both accepted that to some degree or other, yet Clauses 9 and 10 of the Bill, which in some ways are two of the key clauses, use this term "other interests of consumers in relation to food". It says, "Food safety and other interests of consumers in relation to food", it does not mention nutrition, it does not mention health promotion and so far as I can see in the whole Bill those words "nutrition and health promotion" are not included.
  (Mr Rooker)  With respect, neither is the phrase "home authority principle" yet we will expect the Agency to operate on that basis because that is what normally happens. It is not necessary to write that into the primary legislation. So in your forensic examination of the clauses, which is right and proper, to discover things are not there does not mean to say they will not happen.

  617.  Clauses 18 and 19 require the Agency to put together a list of its objectives. Those objectives ultimately have to be approved by the Secretary of State, in this case it is the Secretary of State for Health. Because nutrition and health promotion are not specifically mentioned in the Bill, it would be entirely within the powers of the Secretary of State for Health, or some future Secretary of State for Health, to say, "I do not want this Agency to look after issues like nutrition or health promotion any more". Am I not right that is a possible power that the Secretary of State for Health would have under this Bill as it is currently phrased?
  (Tessa Jowell)  I think it would be difficult to have a Food Standards Agency with a principal function of health protection, and improving the safety of food as a key part of health protection, which simply turned its back on the many issues that the Agency will have responsibility for in relation to nutrition. You would leave a glaring hole in the Agency's competence if the Agency did not attend to the list of issues in relation to nutrition that were very clearly set out in the White Paper and with which I assume that you are familiar.

  618.  Let me put another concern that has been put to us. I think there is a consensus that the Bill sensibly says that action must be proportional to risks; that must be a principle the Agency follows. One of the other interests of consumers in relation to food, I would put to you, is how the food tastes and it may be argued, and it has been argued by some of our witnesses, that certain small, independent producers of food can often produce, using techniques which are tested by tradition and shown to be safe, foods which taste better. Would you accept that the taste of a food is a legitimate concern of the Agency when it is making judgments and that it might be prepared to say on occasion they will accept certain traditional practices because they produce a better product and because they have this power to look at risk in proportion?
  (Tessa Jowell)  With respect, I think that the taste of food is something which is highly subjective. The way in which taste is, if you like, dealt with in the food market is that some people will buy highly spiced, highly flavoured foods, some people reject foods with a high fat content. Taste is about the most personal and potentially idiosyncratic aspect of the enjoyment or lack of enjoyment of food. I would balk at the prospect of anybody coming up with a definition of taste that would pass the legislative test or would provide the Agency with a good enough guide.

  619.  Let me put it a different way then. Would you accept that the Agency ought to be allowed to consider diversity in arriving at its judgments? Let me give you an example. People are investigating possible techniques for pasteurizing meat, making meat safe by treating it at very high temperatures and killing all the bacteria which currently live in it. I suspect, I cannot prove it of course, that would probably produce a bacteriologically very safe meat but it probably would not taste too hot. I presume you do not, either of you, want the Agency's remit to be so tightly defined that they are forced to make the industry go in a direction where everything is absolutely safe but where diversity and taste are taken out of the market place?
  (Tessa Jowell)  I think that we both made clear last time we appeared before you that nobody would ever offer a guarantee that any food was 100 per cent safe for everybody who ate it. The reason that we are establishing an Agency with this very clear focus on improving the safety of food is because of all the evidence of the risk to public health through inadequate attention, and the structural inadequacy of attention, to maintaining hygiene and processes which give the maximum assurance of cleanliness at each stage of the process. It is not for the Food Standards Agency to endorse a product, it is for the Food Standards Agency to insist that meat treated in the way you suggest has been treated in that way and to give an assessment of the effect of treatment of meat in that way. This gets back to a very important point again that we made before, it is not the Agency's job to tell people what to eat, it is the Agency's job to improve the information and understanding among consumers about the food that they eat, and about some of the attendant risks that may accompany the food that they eat and the benefits of the food that they eat.

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