Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence


Examination of witnesses (Questions 620 - 639)

THURSDAY 11 MARCH 1999

MR JEFF ROOKER, MP and RT HON TESSA JOWELL, MP  

  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.

Chairman

  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 next year?
  (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 of Health.

  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 the Agency.

  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 in about.

  627.  Would you say, because we did touch on this very briefly about the National Curriculum and health—let 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 individual?
  (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 anyway—you 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 believe—and we consulted very widely and gave a lot of thought and discussion to the way the responsibilities for nutrition would be divided—that 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.

Dr Ladyman

  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.

Dr Brand

  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 now—and I am grateful that it is becoming so clear—that 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 practitioners outside.

  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 problems?
  (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 sold—was it sold as——

Ms Keeble

  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.

Mrs Organ

  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 of Health's.

  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 changed—MAFF'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.


 
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