Examination of witnesses (Questions 620
THURSDAY 11 MARCH 1999
and RT HON
620. I suppose the concern I have is in
the way the Bill is currently defined. Because this term "other
interests of the consumers" is so woolly, it would be possible
for the Agency to insist on practices which might very well produce
a product which is safe but the risk might well be that the acts
they have asked for, which might well be in proportion to the
risks as they perceive them to be, would effectively force the
industry into practices which could only be carried out perhaps
on a large scale, and you would end up with limits to the diversity
of the food industry?
(Tessa Jowell) I do not see that happening at
all. It is consumer choice that will drive diversity. It will
be the Agency that will require perhaps an increasing range of
products to be labelled in ways that consumers can understand
and be produced in circumstances that can guarantee, as far as
it is possible to guarantee, that they are free from the kind
of infection that will cause the consumer harm.
621. So having said that, you see no need
to put in the Bill a specific direction that the industry should
take account of issues such as nutrition? You are happy that the
Bill as it currently stands does not use the word "nutrition"
anywhere so far?
(Tessa Jowell) From a public health point of view
and meeting the very clear targets for health improvement that
we as a government have, I do not think that the Bill is in any
way deficient in the Agency working with government to ensure
that we meet those health targets.
(Mr Rooker) Could I add to that that essentially
the role of the Agency is as a regulator. It is not there as a
promoter of food processes and manufacturing techniques. Its job,
if you like, is to stop a technique if it is thought to be unsafe
rather than promote a technique. That is the distinction. The
food industry is a private sector industry. The Agency's job is
to regulate it in food safety and standards. Within the widest
possible definition of that the consumer gets the choice because
of the labelling and the information that is provided and the
market will decide and then it is down to individual choice and
individual taste. Some of our food processing factories are incredibly
high-tech, complicated operations, very high-tech, particularly
in the chilled food industry. As to the Agency, we do not regulate
every step. Obviously it is the farm product that is of concern
and exotic foods, exotic taste, and that is for the choice of
the consumer. The products will sell or they will not. It is the
Agency's job to regulate from the point of view of the safety
and the standards, not to promote various processes that might
be invented or thought to be useful.
622. The Agency clearly would not promote
processes but could have a role in promoting health through, for
example, specifying certain labelling regimes in the products?
(Tessa Jowell) Which it will do.
623. And you accept that as one of the possible
remits of the Agency without any specific reference to that in
the Bill itself?
(Tessa Jowell) Yes.
624. Could I clarify a bit further in relation
to that. In the last evidence session, Jeff, you gave evidence
about the consumer helpline that is currently running in MAFF
and you went on after that to say that that work is going to carry
on, also "the publication of scientific literature, the publication
of leaflets maybe at the supermarket checkout, advertisements,
general campaigning at shows, at places where people accumulate
in great numbers, in different areas of society, the Agency can
do all that and, to a modest amount, that work carries on now",
presumably within MAFF. This, in my interpretation, is pure health
promotion and it seems to me that the Agency can do that but we
are saying at the same time that we are not too sure whether it
should be on the face of the Bill or whether you are going to
admit to it that the Agency is going to do health promotion. We
have had the HEA and other similar organisations from different
parts of the United Kingdom to give evidence and my view, as an
individual on this Committee, is that I am confused about who
is going to do the type of work that the Ministry of Agriculture
describe as currently done if the FSA takes over that responsibility
(Mr Rooker) The FSA will. The things I described
are not health promotion activities by MAFF. They are advice on
hygiene in the kitchen; they are advice on how we grow our food,
they are advice on safety. It is that area. It is not a health
promotion exercise. That is the responsibility of the Department
625. What about country shows?
(Mr Rooker) MAFF takes in some of the country
shows, where we can afford it with our beleaguered budget. We
take our mobile road shows. We do trials on safe cooking, particularly
in the summertime, for example, when people are cooking outside,
something they would not normally be doing, just to remind them,
"You have to be a bit careful. Cook until the juices are
clear," and the same at Christmas time when we do the Ideal
Home Exhibition, where we have cooking exhibitions of different
kinds of food, how you can cook them and prepare them to make
different dishes, how you stock a fridge so that it is safe rather
than unsafe. These are the things that we are doing, enabling
people to understand some of the symbols on a label. People ring
up and ask about some of the symbols they do not understand, some
of the old symbols on old microwave ovens. MAFF produced a list
of all those when the old classification used to be there, which
was letters rather than power ratings. It is things like that.
It is information that enables safety. None of that is health
promotion. That work carries on now; that work will transfer to
626. So you do not feel that consumer help
lines and things like that are necessarily promoting that? If
somebody phones up and says, "Should I eat or not eat something?"
you will give advice? Is not that in itself a form of health promotion?
(Mr Rooker) No, I do not consider that to be,
no. People can ring and make enquiries about food. They ring companies.
A lot of big food companies have their own consumer help lines
as well for information about their products. This is not on a
health basis. It is basically information about a product. People
might want to know where and how it was made, were the animals
well looked after, that sort of thing. That is what people ring
627. Would you say, because we did touch
on this very briefly about the National Curriculum and healthlet
us say education, not promotion, that would not be health promotion
if we were teaching in our secondary schools about cooking meat
or cooking other forms of food that could be dangerous to the
(Mr Rooker) No, you could argue that pupils and
students who go through the basic six-hour food hygiene course,
which I personally think everybody should do anywayyou
could argue at the end of the day, "Do that and you might
live and cook safely." That is not health promotion. That
is food standards and food safety. It is also hygiene in the domestic
kitchen at home. You might argue having a clean kitchen at home
is health promotion. I would argue it is food safety and standards.
It is a fine line but I can actually recognise the elephant is
outside the door. It is either there or it is not, and in this
case I can see the clear distinction between health promotion
and the issues of food standards and safety.
628. The elephant was not there when I came
into the room but I have to say, when you look at the evidence
that some witnesses brought in, especially people who work in
health education areas, I had always thought they were very clear
to define this line between education and promotion and, indeed,
work I have done in public health areas has never attempted to
clear that line and maybe we could have that line cleared for
us in the next few days?
(Tessa Jowell) If I can follow what Jeff has said,
Chairman, the discussion you have obviously had in Committee very
much mirrors the discussion that we had in the early stages of
drafting the White Paper. It is a difficult area and I think that
this line of questioning has reflected the difficulty of establishing
a clean cut-off point between food safety, health protection and
health promotion. We would fully accept that, but I think if you
turn it round the other way and way, all right, the Agency does
have a principal role, not in relation to health protection, with
its pretty clear focus, but health promotion, does that mean the
Agency would then become responsible in every aspect of policy
in relation to coronary heart disease or the prevention of cancer,
where, for instance, diet plays a part, but there are other important
lifestyle and environmental considerations which need to be borne
in mind if we are to have a properly holistic approach to health
promotion. So it is a tricky issue. I think that Jeff and I, who
have worked on this very closely, believe that we have got the
balance right, and similarly, we believeand we consulted
very widely and gave a lot of thought and discussion to the way
the responsibilities for nutrition would be dividedthat
the division of responsibility is right. The experience of the
Agency in practice may lead the Secretary of State for Health
to re-think that, but we are confident, having discussed this
both with consumer groups and with the industry, that we have
a good working balance that the Agency should take as its brief
when it is launched, so that it has a specific and clearly defined
set of responsibilities for nutrition as part of a broader focused
function in relation to health protection.
629. Are you saying in a sense it is not
a fixed thing at this particular stage, that the issue of lifestyle
and diet might at some stage be brought under the same subject,
as it were, in years to come? I find it difficult to say that
you can take diet away from lifestyle or anything else in terms
of our health.
(Tessa Jowell) Let me say that at this stage we
went through this very carefully indeed. I would not, however,
rule out new circumstances in ten years' time. We may know more
about the link or the balance of association between causation
of particular diseases and diet and we may want to re-think it.
It would be ridiculous to say that this is set in stone for all
time, but this was not a division of responsibility that was arrived
at without very careful thought, and that is why we are proposing
it, and have proposed it, in the White Paper and it is why we
believe that it will give the Agency a good chance of making the
kind of practical contribution in a complementary way with the
Department of Health which means that nutrition can take its proper
place as part of the Government's broader approach to health promotion.
(Mr Rooker) Could I add to that, obviously your
time is limited in the sense of the time you have had to review
the Bill and I understand that, but when you come to look for
your report, if you simply look at pages 33 and 34 of the White
Paper we set out there 20 separate segments under the heading
of nutrition, split in three groups: one group for the Agency,
one group that will be the Agency shared with Health and one group
that will be exclusive for Health. Since we published this White
Paper in January 1998 nobody has seriously come forward to say,
"You have one slot in the wrong group." We are quite
prepared to accept that the way they are grouped in the 20 aspects
one or two could move between one group or another. We are not
wedded to that but the broad division of those 20 aspects, because
nutrition as a word is meaningless. We have 20 separate defined
aspects of it here and I would draw your attention to that, so
that, if you like, you end up with the same debate that we had.
It does not make sense, with respect, for all of those to be in
the Agency. Likewise, it does not make sense for all of them to
be at Health. What I can say is that none of them will be with
the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
630. But the question is, if I may put it
here, that what we have to look at is the draft Bill, not the
White Paper. Does the draft Bill, by using this phrase "other
interests of consumers in relation to food", adequately summarise
those parts of the functions in the White Paper in respect of
nutrition for which the Agency should be responsible? Does that
one phrase adequately allow the Bill to represent those things?
(Mr Rooker) Yes.
631. We had an earlier witness who kept
talking about the Food Safety Bill and we thought it was a Freudian
slip but from the evidence we are getting nowand I am grateful
that it is becoming so clearthat is actually what the intention
is, and all the warm words that we see in the White Paper about
nutrition and diet and having consistent advice appear to have
disappeared, because where does nutrition actually lie? Nutrition
and dietary advice is part of health promotion as well as health
protection. You cannot divide those two and I am extremely confused
now as to why Professor James thought that nutrition was very
much an integral part of this new Food Standards Agency and we
are hearing from Ministers this afternoon that it clearly is not?
(Mr Rooker) The fact is that the White Paper is
a statement of Government policy. It is not an idea thrown out
for discussion, it is a statement of Government policy. The way
the Bill has been drafted enables that policy to be conducted
by the Agency. Professor James, with all due respect, in his report
did not set out the nutritional breakdown in the way that we did
in the White Paper, because we had more time, having consulted
on his report about the role of nutrition. We realised the role
of nutrition is not a sign of one slot, one pigeon-hole, a sign
of political correctness, it is either in or out. It is more complicated
than that. That is why we took the trouble to divide up aspects
of nutrition, have quite separate consultation meetings which
Tessa initiated at the Department of Health with nutritionists,
health people, the industry, academics, to look at the division
that we proposed, to make a reality of Philip James's report into
the White Paper. Each has been a separate advance in the stage
from the initial concept of a Food Standards or a Food Safety
or at one time it was called the Food Standards and Safety Agency,
so I do not want to play with words because there is no change
in the function and the idea behind what we are proposing. We
have to make it a practical reality and we cannot do it by saying
nutrition is in or out because anybody who is a professional will
tell you that is a simplistic approach that will not work for
632. So obviously you have decided that
nutrition is out?
(Mr Rooker) No, we have not.
633. That is what Tessa is actually saying.
(Mr Rooker) No.
(Tessa Jowell) No.
634. If we go back to Sally's famous turkey
burger, this highly fatty, mono glutamate-soaked, salty product
is, without doubt, safe. It is also extremely unhealthy. Is this
Agency going to be able to give advice on the labelling and actually
impose labelling or are we having to look at another organisation
within the Department of Health that will do that for us, because
we have had food scares; we have also had some very embarrassing,
conflicting food advice from different agencies within and without
government, and I had hoped that setting up a Food Standards Agency
would have given you a mechanism to get over those particular
(Tessa Jowell) If I may deal with that, I think
I know what the turkey burger case is, but this is precisely where
the Agency will have a role in two respects. First of all, the
turkey burger would have to be labelled in terms of its actual
content and if it were being soldwas it sold as
635. Choice meat.
(Tessa Jowell) So the labelling would make clear
that it was not choice meat.
636. Bad choice.
(Tessa Jowell) Bad choice, nasty choice meat,
and secondly, if the turkey burger manufacturer had chosen to
link to his choice meat label, low-fat choice meat, he would have
to have explained in a label on the turkey burger not just the
fat content but the Agency will also try to elucidate what is
actually meant by nutritional labelling, because at the moment
a lot of it is highly confusing and you buy a choice meat turkey
burger which is described as low-fat, you are told what the fat
content is on the side in the labelling, but you have no idea
whether that is a lot or a little fat, and one of the functions
of the Agency will be to provide much better public information
that will decode some of these very obscure aspects of food labelling.
May I add a last point on this, Chairman, because the point about
nutrition in relation to the other interests of consumers in relation
to food is that people want to know what they are eating and all
this is linked to the role of the Agency in underpinning informed
consumer choice. So if people want to eat a turkey burger which
is full of skin and high in unsaturated fat they do so but at
least they know what it is they are eating. The Agency's concern
would be if the choice meat turkey burger were produced in circumstances
that meant that it carried infection and that, for instance, you
had an outbreak of E. Coli following its consumption by
ten or fifteen people.
637. May I move on and talk a bit about
the research and the research budgets. We are not actually quite
clear about how much money the FSA is going to have as a research
budget, how much is coming from existing MAFF research budgets,
how much will be left in a MAFF research budget which may be duplicating
the sort of work that the FSA research is doing, and how much
is coming out of the Department of Health research budget. Could
you give us some idea of how we are getting this research budget
together, what sort of size it is, first of all, before you go
on to something else?
(Mr Rooker) At the moment I have to stick to the
global figure that was in the White Paper of £25 million.
That was the estimate made in January 1998, just prior to publication,
of MAFF's food standards/food safety research plus the Department
638. Which is what?
(Mr Rooker) As I speak from memory, I believe
the split was £19 million and £6 million. Since obviously
we have had a lot more time and time has passed and, of course,
our budgets have changedMAFF's research budget has been
slightly cut. The total MAFF research budget in round figures
is £130 million a year and out of a Ministry with running
costs of £700 million it is a very high percentage of MAFF's
expenditure. We have identified, and the Chief Scientist has had
lots of discussions over this, that we have not got a final figure.
We will not have a final figure really until it is close to vesting
day because all the research projects relating to food and food
safety will be, as it were, passed over to the Agency. Most of
them run for up to three years.
639. All of them?
(Mr Rooker) Yes, all of them.