Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Sir John, Mr Podger, you are becoming recidivists in this Committee. We expect, no doubt, to see you from time to time. This is a joint meeting with the Health Committee because, obviously, the issues raised by the Phillips Report span the health and agriculture field. It seemed sensible to do things together rather than doing the same things separately. Since then, as they say, one or two events have occurred and perhaps it might be sensible if we get those dealt with first. Sir John, if I may ask you, to begin with the very obvious, almost monosyllabic question: is French beef safe?

  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Thank you very much, Chairman. As you will know by now, I do not answer questions of the kind "Is food X safe" in absolute terms because I believe there is no such thing as absolute safety of food. Indeed, Lord Phillips himself says it is not the job of Government to eliminate risk but to manage risk to acceptable levels. The question, if I may take the liberty to rephrase it, is what is the relative risk of imported beef, including French beef, versus domestically produced beef. That would be an appropriate question for me to address. On the basis of the information we have to hand I would have the view, and I believe that the Board of the Agency would share the view, that the risks from beef imported from France or indeed other EU countries, provided the regulations are adhered to, would be no greater than they are from domestically produced beef or beef products.

  2. Your inspectors, who I think are going to France today, what would they have to find for you to be able to say categorically "We think that the problem is dealt with" or equally for you to wish to recommend to the Government that following precautionary principles it ought to follow the line of some other Member States and ban it?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) If I could just pick up on the last point there. Actually when one looks in detail at what other Member States have done, there are no Member States that have imposed a complete ban on French beef. There are certain selective bans on cattle movements, or proposed bans on certain parts of the animal. The particular focus of our visit to Paris today is to ask the French how they will deliver the commitment that they made at the last Agriculture Council meeting not to export to other countries, including the UK, material which they are proposing to ban in France. That includes the specified risk material that they are proposing to ban, an extended list, as well as beef on the bone. I do not want to prejudge the outcome of the visit but obviously if the visit comes back with clear and acceptable levels of explanation as to how the French are going to deliver on not exporting material, that will give us a level of reassurance which we might further want to follow up. If they come back with the answer the French were unable to provide an answer that was a satisfactory reassurance then we would have to think further. I do not want to prejudge exactly what we will do because I want to wait until the outcome of the visits announced later on today or tomorrow. I would say, also, that any outcome of that visit announced later on today or tomorrow has to be folded into other events which are going on. As I am sure you know, Commissioners Byrne and Fischler are themselves going to make a major announcement later on this morning on EU wide measures in relation to BSE so I think our visit is part of a jigsaw which is very rapidly coming together. One of the points that I would emphasise is that the Food Standards Agency has a view at the moment about relative risks and that view we are quite prepared to change as the new information comes to light. We are not adhering rigidly to a view in the face of changing evidence, if the evidence does indeed change as we move forward over the next few hours and days.

  3. One of the lessons of the Phillips Report, I think it is fair to say, was that there was a dislocation between the political decision taking processes in London and the implementation in the field, for example, the implementation of regulations in abattoirs. Do you feel that in order to satisfy yourself you need to be able to inspect and make sure that what is happening on the ground in France and Germany corresponds to what the Government tells you its intentions are?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I think it is important that correspondence is examined but it is not the job of the Food Standards Agency to do it, that is the job of the European Commission. I did have a conversation this morning with Commissioner Byrne about these very issues and of course the Commission is sending in an inspection team to France next week, between the 4 and 8 December. I think that is another important part of the jigsaw of gaining the reassurance, further probing, further investigating that we will see unfolding over the next week or two. It is important that in the common markets that we live the competence to inspect abattoirs and other meat plants in other Member States lies with the Commission. My view is it is very important the Commission takes a proactive stance and really delivers its role for the UK and European consumer. I was emphasising that to Commissioner Byrne this morning and welcoming the fact that he is indeed taking a proactive stance.

  4. A final point. Have the events of the last month or so caused you to reflect upon the wisdom or otherwise of having a European type of Food Standards Agency and how you might relate to it?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I think the principle of having a European Food Authority is a very good one because, as the present BSE situation shows, the consumers in one country are potentially exposed to risks from the goings-on in other countries. Therefore to have a proper co-ordination both of the risk assessment but also the risk management across Europe is a very important step. The reservation that the UK Government has expressed and that I share about the nature of the European Food Authority is that it will be primarily a risk assessment body rather than a body with a risk assessment and risk management role as we have in the UK. Right at the very beginning when I went to see Commissioner Byrne back in March I pressed with him the benefits of the UK model of folding in assessment, communication and management together. What I think we need to do now is to ensure as the proposals are refined that the connection between risk assessment by the European Food Authority and risk management by the Commission is made very close and is properly delivered. Yes, I believe it is a good step and, yes, it will work provided the risk assessment and risk management side as well as the risk communication are tightly integrated, as they are indeed in the Food Standards Agency.

  Chairman: Mr Hinchliffe who chairs the Health Committee.

Mr Hinchliffe

  5. The UK, over very many years, have exported to France older cattle. In view of the extent of BSE in British cattle, do you not find it a little bit surprising the fact that it is only very recently we have had BSE identified in France?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) The judgment of the experts is that as in the UK in France there will have been under reporting in the early stages of the epidemic. What we now see is that France has implemented a very extensive testing programme, using one of the approved biochemical screens for BSE, and as a result of that testing programme they are finding more BSE than there appeared to be before. What we do not know yet, and we will not know for some time, is whether the increase that has been seen in the incidence in France this year is a single step up because of the implementation of the testing or whether it is a reflection of a growing epidemic. We simply do not know the answer. We will not know until probably some time next year or maybe even beyond. I think the implication of your question was, was there under reporting in France in the early stages of development of BSE there and the experts, with whom I have discussed it, including members of SEAC, feel that there was under reporting there, just as there was under reporting in the UK in the early stages of the epidemic.

  6. We learned a number of lessons in this country, some very hard lessons. I recall a debate in the Commons in 1996 where I was drawing attention to the practices of certain farmers in your part of the world, Chairman, who were offloading infected cattle on to one single central farm where that farmer was claiming compensation and the rest of the farmers were claiming to be BSE free.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes.

  7. Have you an ability in evaluating what is happening in other countries, particularly France, to work out whether that kind of practice is going on as well which inevitably it will be? You talk about under-reporting in this country and under-reporting in France, and I accept that, but what we did see was some highly irresponsible practices. Do you feel in view of the very hard lessons we have learnt in the UK that any of these lessons are being picked up by other countries, such as France, in their dealings with this problem?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I think one of the roles we can play—as other countries within Europe realise that they have a BSE problem, which they did not necessarily think they had—is to share the experience we have had, just of the kind you describe. The Board has recognised that not all the loopholes have been closed off in the UK. In our review of the BSE controls which we have carried out over the last six months we draw attention—just to give one example—to the issue of private kills where it is possible, but we cannot quantify this, there is beef getting into the food chain which has not been subject to the strict BSE controls because it has been killed privately or in unlicensed abattoirs. I think we should not claim that we are absolutely perfect ourselves. We have made huge strides and we should be willing to share, and keen to share with other countries the lessons we have learned and to help them to avoid some of the pitfalls that we fell into back in the 1980s and early 1990s. I cannot reassure you that these things are not happening in France, I cannot reassure you that they are not happening in the UK but I do think we have to be proactive in explaining to others what we have learned ourselves.

Mrs Roe

  8. You have explained to us the processes by which you are watching current developments in France. I wonder if you could perhaps put a bit more meat on the bone, if I can put it like that, by telling us what assessments you have made of the BSE situation in France and what advice you are giving the Government and consumers here?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes. We are very actively checking, that is the first thing to say, we are not complacent and we are not passively receiving information. As you realise from our visit to France today, we are being proactive. Nevertheless we have to start from the information we have got, that is my opinion, we cannot start from hypothesis. We start from the facts. What we do have are very regular updates, working closely with colleagues in MAFF. I have to emphasise we have a very close relationship with MAFF colleagues in this area. We receive regular updates of the incidence figures for BSE in France. We have advice from the scientific experts in SEAC on the situation in France. I have asked SEAC, they met yesterday and they agreed to set up a special sub-group that will convene next Tuesday at my behest to look specifically at the question of the risk assessment for imported beef. One is focusing on France but one must remember there are other countries in the European Community with BSE. Ireland has a higher incidence than France, for example. There are meat products as well as meats which contain beef and meat products may contain beef from any European country. We do not know whether an Italian salami or a German wurst contains French beef or not, it is very difficult to identify without a country of origin label. Looking at all of that together I am going to ask the sub-group of SEAC to consider what we can do further to refine our risk assessment and what further information we ought to be gathering to help with the risk assessment by the experts.

  9. Are you offering any advice or have you been asked to give advice and assurances to the French?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Through the Commission discussions we have been offering advice. Indeed, MAFF at the last Agriculture Council made a very explicit offer of advice from the UK and commended the lessons from Phillips to other Member States. My own staff, the officials of the Agency, of course, are regularly in Brussels discussing with Commission colleagues and colleagues from other countries. Part of the visit to France today by officials will, I hope, begin a connection which will also be another route for advice. I am in regular contact with the French Food Standards Agency myself.

  10. I noticed from a press release which you put out on 10 November you actually said—and I am quoting—"The FSA is formally requesting the EU Commission to take action on the problems of cross-contamination especially in countries with a known risk of BSE".
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes.

  11. Is it actually within your remit to request action from the Commission? Should not the Ministers ask the Commission for action if they accept your advice? Would you clarify that?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Geoffrey, would you like to clarify that.
  (Mr Podger) Yes, I think you are right to say that formally an approach would normally be made through ministers and that is perfectly proper. This advice came up in the context of our BSE controls review. As you yourself have said, it is a fundamental part of the UK's position to try and help other countries, both in their interest and ours. We felt quite free to pass this view on at an official level. I would anticipate it being followed up formally by the Minister in the way you are suggesting.

Mr Jack

  12. In your inquiries will you be asking the French why they are still banning British beef into France if we believe that we have all the controls that ought to be in place in place and given that the French have erected their own scientific view to justify their position in banning our beef, if we are to have a European wide approach that you described earlier, how are we going to reconcile this selective use of science which makes compatibility and assessment of risk difficult?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I think, just answering the second part first, that is precisely the role of the European Food Authority when it comes into being, to ensure that we do not get disparate interpretations of the science and allow justification then for Member States to go their own way. I recognise—as you know I am a scientist myself—that at any one moment in time there is a diversity of scientific thinking. Scientists sometimes simply disagree about things but nevertheless there is usually, at a moment in time, a centre of gravity of scientific opinion, a modal point. I think one of the major roles of the European Food Authority will be to ensure that modal value of scientific opinion is the one that influences the actions within the European Community as a whole. On the first part of your question, will we be asking the French why they are still banning UK beef, the answer is no we will not be asking that because that is not really within our remit. That is now being decided in the European courts through due process but it is not really up to the Food Standards Agency to ask the French about their unilateral measures. It does illustrate, of course, the danger of unilateral measures when you move outside the coherent framework. Geoffrey, I do not know whether you would like to add anything?
  (Mr Podger) No. I have to say we will certainly this morning in the Paris visit be accompanied by colleagues from the British Embassy in Paris who I think ask the question that Mr Jack raises frequently of the French authorities. I would be very surprised if it was not raised.

  13. You may have got a flavour of some of the answers that they have been getting. Do you have any sympathy with the French view as to the basis of their banning what we argue is the safest beef in Europe if not the world?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) We do not see any scientific justification for their ban on British beef.

Mr Todd

  14. The concern that is less readily wrapped in the Union Jack would be the possibility that meat legally imported into this country for processing, which would not be fit for human consumption, might be released into the human marketplace within this country by someone unscrupulous or perhaps making a mistake. That appears to be a legitimate concern that meat over 30 months old can be legally imported not for human consumption or to be re-exported and might come back into our food chain.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes, that is a legitimate concern and it is one that again came out very strongly from our BSE controls review, both the general concern about the standards for imports but also particularly in relation to imported meat or meat products, meat which finds its way into meat products from the UK. That is a difficult area to enforce. As you know, we have instructed the local authorities to step up their enforcement of the over 30 month rule for imported meat for human consumption. For carcass meat, that is in relative terms straight forward, I am not saying it is easy but it is relatively straight forward. For meat that comes in to be processed into meat products here or is actually imported as meat products, maybe it is lasagne to be sold in pubs or something like that, it is much more difficult. We will await with interest the feedback that we get from local authorities over the next few weeks as to how they have been doing as a result of our instructions to step up their enforcement in this area. I fully recognise this is a difficult area to be sure one is enforcing fully and effectively.

  15. Would it not be easier to just simply put an over 30 month ban on any imports for any purpose into this country?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes.

  16. That would not necessarily deal with the importation of already processed products where it would be impossible to identify it.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes.

  17. But it would place a clear legal barrier which would mean that no-one in this country, unless they were set on breaking the law, would be able to exploit such a loophole.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) That is a perfectly valid question, whether the rules could not be changed so that the rule relates to importation rather than human consumption. As I understand it, and I do not claim to be an expert in trade issues, there is a trade dimension to this because the ban on OTM meat for human consumption is an argument on health risk grounds which the Commission, although it is on the fringes of what is allowed, has accepted. The ban on trade is more difficult because then it is no longer seen necessarily as a human health argument.

  18. One could legitimately wrap it up as being based on a health concern of meat which has leaked into the food chain.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes. That would be the basis of the argument. We have undertaken to look again at the over 30 month rule. Geoffrey would you like to elaborate?
  (Mr Podger) Yes. I think the point is well taken. I think we have to be very clear that the main difficulty with enforcing the over 30 month rule is there is no scientific test you can do to determine it, so you are dependent on documentation. Traceability through documentation is an inherently more difficult route. It is open to more fraudulent practices. Even tracing back valid documentation can be difficult for obvious reasons. Our view would be, I think, that is the prime difficulty and that prime difficulty would remain if you actually inspected the meat at the port rather than as we currently do at its—forgive the phrase—next port of call in the UK, ie the warehouse, the wholesaler, whatever. I think that difficulty remains. As Sir John has said, we are looking at this again and we have not ruled out that option because it does seem to actually offer real advantage. I think it is right, as Sir John has said, that the Community will probably find that an option less acceptable from their point of view but that in itself is not an argument for us not seeking to pursue it if we become convinced there is real value. As I say, there is an overriding difficulty which is not removed by it.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Could I just add a small supplementary. As Geoffrey Podger has said, there is no biochemical test to distinguish old meat from young meat. However it is the view of some members of the Agency's Board that we ought to be asking the question as to whether a biochemical test can be developed. It may not be beyond the wit of modern science to come up with a test for old meat versus young meat. I think we should also pursue that option.

Mr Marsden

  19. Following on the line of questioning from Mr Todd, you have admitted that you think there has been under reporting for France and elsewhere of BSE.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes.

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