Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 700 - 719)



  700.  I think it would be helpful if over the weekend you could produce something useful.
  (Mr Rooker)  What is the question?

  701.  The observation first is that we have had a lot of evidence that the present set-up is actually very complicated and confusing to many of the people both at the producing and at the consumer end.
  (Mr Rooker)  Yes.

  702.  We are hoping that the Food Standards Agency might clarify some of the relationships that exist. In order to aid us with that we asked the officials who have been assisting us with our inquiry to draw up a drawing similar to the one that was produced by Professor James in his report showing the relationships between the various food related advisory committees and the new FSA as envisaged in the legislation. We are still waiting for that. I think it would take too long to ask of you as a Minister but I am taking the opportunity to make that remark so we can see it on Monday.
  (Mr Rooker)  Before you ask your question, I am sorry to do this because it looks as though I am putting more work on you, but over the weekend have a look at appendix two of the White Paper, pages 71 to 73, where we have a pen drawing of the advisory committee structures and the roles and a couple of hundred words about each advisory committee, what it does, what its function is. You have then got that chart that you have got on the paper you have had today which explains how they report, but who does what and whether they are statutory or non-statutory is set out on these three pages. There is also a diagram. I know the diagram you mean in Philip James' report but it probably looked like the wiring diagram of an E-type Jaguar.

  703.  They are jolly useful actually, I have seen some of those. The other thing that is interesting in the paper that was produced for today is there is an absence of the Health Education Authority but in the light of the earlier evidence we have had that is perhaps not surprising since nutrition and diet have disappeared.
  (Tessa Jowell)  I would not expect the Health Education Authority to feature on an accountability chart.

  704.  I would have thought that somebody should be responsible for advice on nutrition and diet in relation to food and that would be a food related issues advisory committee to somebody. It is rather telling that it is not there.
  (Tessa Jowell)  With respect, I think we have covered that. I would also draw your attention to the role of COMA, the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy, the secretariat of which will be shared between the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health.

  705.  I am aware of that. As we heard in the adjournment debate yesterday when we talked about the sometimes difficult division between what is food and what is a medicine it would be helpful to also have an indication of whether the Food Standards Agency has a role in resolving that particular problem. Would you like to respond to that now because you did not really pick that point up in your response to the debate yesterday.
  (Tessa Jowell)  The reason I did not pick it up in response to the debate yesterday is that we were talking about the definition of borderline products and the role of the Medicines Control Agency. As I made clear yesterday, the principal arbiter in relation to the definition of whether or not a substance which may be marketed as a food is in fact a food or a medicine is the function of the Medicines Control Agency within the terms of the definition of the Medicines Act and we rehearsed yesterday the grounds on which a food may be redesignated as a medicine if it makes claims to have medicinal properties or if it produces pharmealogical change. Where it is in fact a medicine it then has to go through the normal licensing procedures. I certainly do not see any need for any alteration to the existing arrangement to govern and to determine what I accept and what I made clear yesterday is often a grey area between the definition of a food and the definition of a medicine.

  706.  You are saying that the Medicines Control Agency can unilaterally decide that perhaps a food substance that is being investigated by the Food Standards Agency is no longer within their remit because the MCA has decided that it shall now be a medicine?
  (Tessa Jowell)  I think in practice what you are taking as a worst case scenario——

  707.  It is happening currently and a lot of health food people are very concerned about what is actually happening. It is very real.
  (Tessa Jowell)  As I made clear yesterday, I think that many of the claims about the proposals for the Medicines Control Agency to have a right of appeal prior to determination of decisions on licensing have been misrepresented in the way that they have been publicised and one of the important functions of yesterday's debate was to try to set the record straight and there is absolutely no intention to sweep off the shelves food supplements which are clearly food supplements from which people believe they derive benefit. They will only come within the surveillance of the Medicines Control Agency if they are marketed with medicinal claims or if consumers and members of the public report them as having pharmealogical effects or scientific evidence shows that they have pharmealogical effects. So there will clearly have to be a relationship between the Food Standards Agency and the Medicines Control Agency but I am satisfied that the role and remit of the Medicines Control Agency is clearly defined and, as I tried to make clear in the House yesterday, its aim is to be as transparent as possible in explaining the basis for its decisions.

  708.  I think the mushroom industry might be slightly worried.
  (Tessa Jowell)  In that case we subject the cause of concern to scrutiny within the terms of the Medicines Act. But the people of this country have a right to be protected from the unexpected impact of substances sold as food but which are not food and vice versa. There is no need to licence as medicines food supplements that make no medicinal claim and nor is there any question that they will be.

  709.  I envy your clarity in being able to separate food from medicines. The other point that has been made by witnesses is that people accept there is a need for policy. There is also a need to execute some of that policy but we seem to have different relationships in relation to different activities. I think I will hand over to Owen who is very fond of the Meat Hygiene Service.
  (Mr Rooker)  A real fan!

Mr Paterson

  710.  Thank you, Peter. Why is the FSA going to take over the Meat Hygiene Service when other bodies previously under MAFF will stay outside its remit?
  (Mr Rooker)  It is going to take over the Meat Hygiene Service and the Dairy Hygiene Service reporting into it because they are 100 per cent exclusive food operations, whereas the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and Pesticides Safety Directorate are not 100 per cent food operations. There is a clear distinction there. It is not one I rest the case on completely but the fact is if you want to say what is the difference between the Dairy Hygiene Service and the Meat Hygiene Service and the other two Directorates, two of them are wholly food and the other two are not wholly food.

  711.  Do you not think there is a danger that its independence might be compromised because it cannot be an adjudicator and an enforcer?
  (Mr Rooker)  The independence of?

  712.  The Food Standards Agency. If it is going to work it must set its reputation, as the Minister for Health said, as being an independent body. If it is running a very substantial government organisation, the Meat Hygiene Service, employing a lot of people, with a large budget and there are increasing stories coming from the trade that some of Spanish vets being employed are not totally up to the mark on the ins and outs of butchery, if something goes wrong the blame will not go first to the door of the abattoir owner, where it should go, it will not go to the head of the Meat Hygiene Service, it will go straight to the top of the Food Standards Agency and its independence will be compromised.
  (Mr Rooker)  The Meat Hygiene Service's structure as an Agency will remain. It is not being dismembered. It will remain as a centralised Agency. It will report into the Food Standards Agency. The Food Standards Agency in that respect has also got on audit function on the Meat Hygiene Service. Within the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group there is the Veterinary Public Health Unit, the vets were brought into the joint group, but there are also certain roles the Meat Hygiene Service takes particularly on the SRM controls and they will be audited by the State Veterinary Service and that is not being brought into the Agency. That is still part of MAFF. The Chief Veterinary Officer and his staff will remain part of MAFF. There is an audit function on the MHS which is completely outside the FSA in respect of SRM controls.

  713.  That is exactly the point I am trying to get at. The whole point of the Food Standards Agency is to get away from the current position where the Government's position is that food safety is under MAFF and MAFF is beholden to the interests of food producers. That was the political rationale for setting up an independent Agency. What we are now seeing is that the Meat Hygiene Service, a very substantial body, will be reporting to the Food Standards Agency who will somehow be policing but the ultimate arbiter will be the Veterinary Service which reports back to MAFF.
  (Mr Rooker)  I did not say that at all. I said for some aspects of its work the Meat Hygiene Service will be audited separately by the State Veterinary Service. This is only on the SRM controls. With the other work of the Meat Hygiene Inspectorate and meat hygiene inspectors, they will be checked over and audited by the Veterinary Public Health Unit of the Food Standards Agency. We are talking here about a big industry, as you will appreciate. We kill two million cattle, 13 million pigs, 17 million sheep and 700 million chickens—that is almost two million a day. The Meat Hygiene Service performs a valuable function in policing the slaughter of those animals for the food chain. Nobody is going to do anything to compromise that. Every time we try and tighten up and put the sunshine into the meat industry we get screams. I accept that. It is part of the process of tightening up. Publishing the hygiene assessment scores of all those cutting plants and abattoirs from January last year was not something that was welcomed with open arms particularly by the poultry sector who questioned whether the Government should be able to do it. The fact is it has had the effect of vastly improving the standards of the hygiene assessments scores. None of that is going to be compromised by the Meat Hygiene Service reporting into the Food Standards Agency. I do not see a problem of its independence being compromised.

  714.  You have almost made my point. It is an enormous industry. It is an absolute impossibility for all food to be 100 per cent safe. There will be a mistake at some stage in an abattoir and it is going to be in the interests of the Food Standards Agency to defend their own people because the Meat Hygiene Service——
  (Mr Rooker)  If there is a mistake made in an abattoir and the Meat Hygiene Service is not up to scratch it is not my job to defend it. It is my job to make sure it does not happen again and we find out why things happened and why they failed in any particular circumstances. I get the audit reports of the Meat Hygiene Service and we assess where improvements are required and we discuss the matter with the Chief Executive and his staff and the Joint Food Standards Group as well as the policy people. I do not see any difficulty whatsoever in the way you are putting it because the alternative would be to leave the Meat Hygiene Service answering to MAFF, presumably with the Dairy Hygiene Service. If the policy decision involves 100 per cent food and if food standards and safety is the key factor the Food Standards Agency is the appropriate body.

  715.  I am not suggesting that the Food Standards Agency would perform its function better, its function is a very, very broad and very ambitious one. Clause 1(2) states "The main objective of the Agency in carrying out its function is to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food..." If within its remit it controls one of the main enforcing agencies of one of the most contentious areas, which is meat hygiene, I think it will be compromised. I think its position and its independence will be better protected if it is an advisory agency to disseminate information rather than a prescriptive agency.
  (Mr Rooker)  That presupposes the Meat Hygiene Service is completely free-standing. It is an operational service. The policy of the Meat Hygiene Service is actually directed from within the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group. I do not receive policy advice from the Meat Hygiene Service, the Meat Hygiene Service is an operational agency. The policy on meat hygiene is actually controlled within the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group. It is not as though the Meat Hygiene Service is out there running the show like the FSA is because the FSA will be both an enforcer and have a role on policy advice as well. The Meat Hygiene Service is not like that, it is an operational agency.

  716.  Perhaps I am not expressing myself properly. Firstly, the Meat Hygiene Service needs improving. We have heard that there are quite sharp criticisms about its current performance, that it has got out of date ideas, it is employing inexperienced people and it has a blanket prescriptive approach and is not best set up to cope with the various big meat plants and smaller meat plans.
  (Mr Rooker)  Put it this way, the Meat Hygiene Service is four years old and there is still a degree of resentment out there that a central unit was put together to take over the role of over 300 local authorities. I heard that yesterday at a meeting that I did on the Food Standards Agency. There are a lot of people who do not like a centralised Meat Hygiene Service imposing consistent, unified conditions of practice where quite clearly in the past there was not a consistent approach to meat hygiene. That residual resentment still comes out. I think that residual resentment is a bit too defensive for my liking, proved by the fact that there has been a big increase in performance of the meat abattoirs and small slaughterhouses and large ones since we started publishing plant by plant the meat hygiene scores. That would never have happened under local authority control. There is still this residual resentment which I do not subscribe to myself but I sense from the tone of your question that you would prefer it if the Meat Hygiene Service was not there in the first place.

  717.  No, no, that is very unfair. What I am saying is that the Meat Hygiene Service has been criticised by some of our witnesses, first of all for the way it performs and, secondly, for not being flexible enough to adapt to the different sizes and conditions of certain plants. What I am saying to you is if it is an integral part of the Agency, which it will be, it will be hard to police it quite so effectively because you need to have an independent agency away from the Meat Hygiene Service so if things go wrong the blame rests firmly with the Meat Hygiene Service and it is not laid at the door of the Agency. I am suggesting the Agency could perform a better function if its job was to stay outside and advise the Meat Hygiene Service and advise small abattoirs, large abattoirs, craft cheese makers and huge modern yoghurt plants, all of those have different requirements. That is what I am suggesting, that you should be looking at research, as Diana Organ was suggesting, and have a role in pushing out the very latest information but stood back from the actual job of managing this vast industry where it is inevitable that things will go wrong because it is so big. There is a plant somewhere out there this evening where something has gone wrong at the moment and that blame will go straight to the top of the Food Standards Agency which will compromise it in the eyes of the public.
  (Mr Rooker)  With respect, I do not think this is a question of blame. Let us face it, things are going to go wrong until the end of time. It is how you manage what goes wrong, how you predict, how you take precautions, how you expose the situation, how you learn from mistakes. I thought this might be raised so I have brought with me the Meat Hygiene Service's monthly publications, the enforcement reports with all the scores, it publishes a BSE enforcement bulletin every month exposing the legal conditions, what we find and what we do not, the enforcement report over all of our meat hygiene. All of this will continue. It is not a question of blame. If there is something wrong now with the Meat Hygiene Service it is wrong because it is wrong now, it is nothing to do with the management structure or the reporting structure of the Food Standards Agency. It is up to myself and others to put right what is wrong. The fact is it is involved in a very important part of the policing of the meat sector. It is not the production of the meat, it is the policing of the meat sector. I have given you the scale of the animals that are slaughtered in this country each year and it is huge. We are policing that system. I think it is quite right and proper, along with the dairy side, that that reports into the Food Standards Agency and not into the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

  718.  I will try this one last time. The danger now is that the final arbiter will be the MAFF vets.
  (Mr Rooker)  No. I am trying to get this clear. The Meat Hygiene Service is audited by the Veterinary Public Health Unit of the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group. It is also audited for some of its functions, the SRM controls in particular, the ones that we are going to bring in the new charges on, by the State Veterinary Service. There is another check on that particular side of its work. I think that is a good thing, not a bad thing. Nobody has criticised the SVS over this. Indeed, looking at this on the BSE side of it for 34 consecutive months the audits have found no cases of spinal cord attached. This is all public information. The minute we do find one there will be a damn great row about it given the fact that we have had 34 months clear. It is the SVS that is auditing that side of it. I see no problem with this whatsoever in terms of a split audit responsibility. The policy of the Meat Hygiene Service is not driven by the Meat Hygiene Service, currently it is driven by the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group which will be the Food Standards Agency.

  719.  A very last question. Would it be possible to put into the Bill more the concept that Stephen Ladyman brought up, that the idea of taste and quality and variety should be taken account of? I think the danger as it stands is that it will be too much a blanket prescriptive.
  (Mr Rooker)  I get accused of trying to put on a nanny state. This afternoon I have heard some appalling views, if you like, put forward implying that we want and we should have a nanny state telling people what is a nice taste. That is just not possible. It is down to individual human frailties, differences, choice. The role of the Agency is not to tell people what to eat. We go out of our way not to tell people what to eat, what we say is have a balanced diet, have more fresh fruit, more fresh vegetables. The choice is there. That is the central function of what MAFF does, we regulate. We do not produce anything, we regulate to make sure that food is as safe as it can possibly be made and that the consumer has as much information about it as possible to make an informed choice.
  (Tessa Jowell)  It is for the market in food, driven by consumer preference, to make sure that there is a diversity of taste, range of goods, range of production methods and everything else. The job of the Agency is to make sure that those processes are delivered to the consumer in a way which is safe.

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