Select Committee on Food Standards Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 820 - 839)



  820.  Professor Duerden?
  (Professor Duerden)  We would say very much the same thing. This would be the point of contact bringing all of us together, monitoring what is happening in patients out in communities, looking at the microbiology and the surveillance activities the public health laboratory service is doing, bringing together what is being found in the food industry and on the farm. We would anticipate that the Food Standards Agency would require us to provide this information. It would actually be in the chair bringing us all together to ensure that we had a co-ordinated and cohesive approach to this.
  (Mr Stevenson)  I think that would be what our veterinary colleagues in the profession would be looking for—for that point of contact and to actually enable communication to go horizontally and vertically so that we are aware of what is happening in the medical field and medical laboratories as well as veterinary laboratories so instead of beavering away in isolation we are actually part of this cohesive body that is actually looking for a better way forward.

  821.  That is all very encouraging but there is a fundamental difference at local level between the local authority which has certain responsibilities and the health authority which has responsibilities. How do you see that link being made at that level? Is there a possibility that directors of public health could have that link under the auspices of the FSA?
  (Dr Mayon-White)  I think in the great majority of parts of the country the local authorities and the health authorities work very closely together on food-borne illness. This is the one thing where everybody understands why you work together and I think it would be important that the Food Standards Agency does not interfere with that relationship which has been built up over the years. I would see it as something that enhances that relationship with clarity for the health authority or the local authority. It is expected by the Food Standards Agency to do certain things, particularly I think in relation to surveillance and the collection of information about food-borne illness in human beings which at the moment varies from one part of the country to another. The Food Standards Agency could help to standardise that. The Food Standards Agency has to be careful with its relationships with the local authorities and health authorities that it does not take over the local role, for example in an outbreak that happens to be localised. Because some outbreaks although localised will be of national importance, I would expect the Food Standards Agency by its presence to ensure that those are properly managed and investigated.

Ms Keeble

  822.  You said you think it is important that the Food Standards Agency does not interfere with the relationship between the health authority and the local authority that has built up. But is it not precisely the role of the Food Standards Agency to actually provide some fresh perspectives to the food standards work that is being done thus far or the food safety work that is being done thus far? Would you not accept that one of the criticisms that some of us might have as set out in the legislation is that it might not be interfering enough?
  (Dr Mayon-White)  I think it may be that we are talking about minor differences in what one means by "interfere" because I think some of the variations do reflect geographical differences between one part of the country and another. The relationship in a metropolitan area would be different from that in a rural area and they will have built up what they see to be in their own local terms the right working relationships. It is very proper that the Food Standards Agency looks at that relationship and comments on it if it believes it is widely different from similar geographical areas or very different from practice elsewhere. I think it should enhance that relationship and build on that. I was using "interfere" in a rather negative way—intruding in a relationship that has already been built up over 20 years or more.

  823.  Looking at the legislation and thinking through practical ways in which it will actually roll out, it looks to me as though you might not agree with this, that the Food Standards Agency will relate much more to the local authority than the health authority because of its relationship with local authorities in terms of enforcement?
  (Dr Mayon-White)  Yes.

  824.  Do you see that creating any problems for yourselves as health professionals in the input and the relationships you will need to have with the FSA to improve food safety?
  (Dr Mayon-White)  It needs to be handled with care because, as we have already discussed, we expect from the public health side that the Food Standards Agency will have things to say about nutrition and I think the health authorities' input into nutritional advice in this particular area was already further developed than the majority of local authorities' advice into nutritional standards. That is a generalisation and there are some exciting differences where some local authorities have given a lot of good nutritional advice. We have already said that there needs to be clarity about the role on the nutritional side of the Food Standards Agency to the same degree of detail that there must be in the clarity of its role in the food hygiene side because it will be working with different players at the local level.

  825.  Do you think it will relate more strongly to the local authority structures than health authority structures?
  (Dr Mayon-White)  If it concentrates on food safety, yes it will have a stronger link with the local authority.

  826.  I wanted to ask something about the relationship with the Meat Hygiene Service and the Pesticides Safety Directorate the VMD as well—and that is more directed towards the vets obviously. Do you agree with keeping the PSD and VMD under MAFF? Do you think it might make more sense to transfer their functions to the FSA in the way for example the Meat Hygiene Service has been transferred?
  (Mr Baker)  I think that perhaps the Meat Hygiene Service is a different kettle of fish, if I can use that expression here, than the VMD. The Meat Hygiene Service is an implementation Agency whereas the Veterinary Medicines Directorate has responsibilities elsewhere in terms of policy and in terms of decisions on the quality, safety and efficacy of veterinary medicines. Certainly the British Veterinary Association in the past has said that it would be divisive to put parts of those roles in different agencies and therefore bearing in mind the work the VMD has done so far—and I cannot talk quite so much about the PSD—I think we would be reasonably content to leave things as they are in that particular area as long as there is adequate communication again.

  827.  I completely agreed with your comments earlier, I found them very interesting, when you said that healthy animals make healthy food. I think healthy crops also make healthy food. Do you think that vets are going to have proper access to the FSA and to the way in which it works given that your role in terms of dealing with salmonella and e.Coli is absolutely crucial? Presumably you are not going to be as involved formally, are you?
  (Mr Baker)  There are a number of elements in the veterinary profession and there are elements within government and elements in private practice and as long as there is a two-way communication there we see the FSA as a role for improvement and we would be looking for additionality rather than substitution so we would be looking to enhance the role of everybody there.

  828.  Supposing, for example, the FSA set itself as a task the elimination of e.Coli, say, from the beef herd which would be very ambitious and need a lot of work. You would have to be closely involved also. Do you see your roles reflected properly in the way the FSA is structured in this draft legislation?
  (Mr Baker)  I think that if the FSA decided that it wanted as an example to get rid of e.Coli, particularly 0157, it would have to have discussions with the people who are going to have to do it to make sure that what they wanted to do was feasible. From that point of view I would expect there to be a two-way communication to try and solve the way that ought to be carried out because the FSA cannot do it on its own.

  829.  How do you see on farm enforcement working? That is something else that has been much discussed and sometimes criticised.
  (Mr Stevenson)  I think there is a very current issue on farm enforcement at the livestock unit end, whether it is the transfer of dirty livestock into the abattoir, and clearly at that stage there needs to be a very close link. We have said already the link between the farm unit and getting it right on the farm units, clean livestock and healthy animals going into the abattoir and the feed back from the abattoir is important, but I think that the role vis-a-vis enforcement and an enforcing agency, certainly if enforcement is going to be mentioned, and it needs to be mentioned, then it needs to be fully effective and monitoring of enforcement at farm level is something that the British Veterinary Association certainly would support by the right agency.

  830.  It is not there now? There is just observation now. The Minister has said there will be no no-go areas but that is different from having on farm enforcement particularly if you think that the basic production of healthy food relies on healthy animals.
  (Mr Stevenson)  I agree with that.
  (Mr Baker)  I think the advice to a large extent will come from the practitioner. The enforcement will come from elsewhere and the FSA will be working through other "agencies"—and I use that word in inverted commas in this context—and they will be responsible for the enforcement. For instance, it could be the State Veterinary Service who is responsible for enforcing certain elements on the farm.

Ms Keeble:  Thank you very much.

Chairman:  Owen is shaking his head at that.

Mr Paterson

  831.  The enforcement in the abattoirs will be carried out by the Meat Hygiene Service which will be reporting to the FSA so how can it retain its independence if it is an advisory body and a monitoring body?
  (Mr Baker)  The Meat Hygiene Service is not an advisory body or a policy setting body. I think the advice to the Foods Standards Agency could well come from other places. It may well be that in certain areas the Meat Hygiene Service has expertise to offer advice to the Food Standards Agency but the Food Standards Agency will be setting policy and the Meat Hygiene Service is an implementation agency, it is not a policy setting agency.

  832.  But the Food Standards Agency is in charge of the Meat Hygiene Service. It is ultimately responsible.
  (Mr Baker)  Yes, but you have got to get your expertise somewhere to offer advice and you use the people with the best expertise in the area to seek the advice to decide which way you want to go. You are not going to go outside the Meat Hygiene Service unless you have got specific people with knowledge of the meat industry to whom to go for advice.

  833.  The Meat Hygiene Service is a very substantial organisation employing large numbers of people and it is a major vested interest in its own right. If something goes wrong with that within the remit of the FSA how is the FSA going to clamp down on its own people? There is a clear conflict.
  (Mr Baker)  I think I would need to think about that particular argument. The point comes back to the fact that the Food Standards Agency sets the policy and it is the Meat Hygiene Service that implements that policy. Then there will be an auditing role for a separate part of the Food Standards Agency to make sure that the Meat Hygiene Service is doing its job.

Mr Paterson:  We do not have that in the Bill at the moment—one wing of the FSA talking to another wing, keeping their own independence and integrity. We do not have that.

Chairman:  Audrey Wise?

Audrey Wise

  834.  Thinking about the advice and information which the FSA itself will give, in the Bill clause 9 says it has a duty to give information and advice to public bodies. Clause 10 says it has a duty likewise to the general public. There is not a clause which says it has a duty to do that to the industry, the producers or the processors or the vendors. Thinking of the producers in particular, do you think that there should be an equivalent duty or do you think that they are encompassed sufficiently under the heading "general public"?
  (Mr Stevenson)  No, I do not think they are necessarily within the description of general public because the specific and crucial and key role that they perform really needs to be highlighted and advice to those food producers, who after all are human food producers, needs to be specific to them as well as the generality of communication down to the public level.

  835.  So this might be something which should be added specifically in the Bill so that we have public bodies, the general public and producers and processors?
  (Mr Stevenson)  Yes.

  836.  Public confidence in food is part of what this is about. I am of the view that public confidence will only be restored or maintained in food if it is based on substance. I do not think that you can simply weave a spell or magic words or anything. Part of the problems, perceived and actual, seem to me to be related to things like residues in crops and also antibiotic resistant organisms through the prolific use of antibiotics in animals. In Sweden such use of antibiotics has been restricted for the last three years. Do you think that is a factor which should be looked at here or are you completely happy about the antibiotic situation?
  (Mr Stevenson)  No, I do not think we are completely happy about the antibiotic situation. We are aware of the anxiety about the transfer of drug resistance and perhaps the less problematic area of residues, which I do believe is being looked at and monitored carefully by the VMD, but I think on the whole idea of residues and the use of medicines on the farm, both by veterinarians and by farmers as the result of various reports certainly the BVA are very well aware of their high level of responsibility and there are good codes of practice which have just been produced down to the species level of how best responsibly and prudently to use antibacterials. Clearly if there is evidence of antibacterials used in animals causing problems in human beings we as a profession would say that is unacceptable and measures have been taken to address that.

  837.  Do you think this is a proper concern for the FSA?
  (Mr Stevenson)  I think it is a proper concern for the FSA.


  838.  Could I ask Jill Wordley from the Food Standards Safety Group to clarify the interchange of words between Owen Paterson and the witnesses.
  (Ms Wordley)  Thank you, Chairman. Mr Paterson mentioned that in his opinion the Bill did not cover the auditing role in relation to the Meat Hygiene Service. Although the Meat Hygiene Service is not strictly mentioned itself in the Bill the provisions of clauses 14 and 15 do relate to the Agency monitoring its performance where it itself acts as the enforcement authority which is of course the case in relation to meat hygiene. So clause 14 (5), for example, requires the Agency to report on the performance of the Meat Hygiene Service in enforcing meat hygiene legislation.

Chairman:  Thank you very much for that. Howard Stoate?

Dr Stoate

  839.  I would like to ask about the inspections particularly to the PHLS. What is your view of the proposed powers to enter and inspect premises, including of course your labs?
  (Professor Duerden)  Including our labs?

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