Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000
20. Would you not agree, therefore, that imported
contaminated beef has contributed to CJD cases in this country?
What assessment would you make of the contributions it could make
in future, albeit whether it is one per cent of imported beef
(Professor Sir John Krebs) We recognise, of course,
that the current tragic cases of variant CJD relate to exposure
back in the 1980s when people were totally unaware of the linkages.
It predates our current understanding. It is very difficult to
answer the question what percentage of variant CJD cases might
have arisen from imported as opposed to domestic beef, that I
cannot offer an answer on. What is important now, coming back
to the very first question the Chairman put to me, that the risks
that the UK consumer is exposed to from imported meat and meat
products are not substantially different from the risks that they
are exposed to from eating domestic meat and meat products, of
course those risks themselves have to be at an acceptably low
21. You came out with adverse comments about
British beef only a few weeks ago. In the greater scheme of things
I am less than convinced by your reply. From what you are saying
French beef is no safer than this beef. You were talking about
awaiting with interest the feedback from local authorities on
the question of imported beef. Where is the sense of urgency?
Where is the sense we have learned lessons from the Phillips Inquiry
and you are taking this seriously and making sure there are proper
safeguards in place to protect British consumers?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) The sense of urgency is
we have acted across a wide front very rapidly to put in place
further information gathering, further scrutiny of enforcement,
further risk assessments. We are doing that as a matter of great
urgency. We issued the instruction to local authorities last week
to take effect from midnight on that day, that was acting with
great immediacy. When I say "we await with interest the reports
back", obviously we cannot have reports back until they have
done the spot checks and it will be a matter of great importance
to us to respond to the feedback we get which will help us to
understand the extent to which the over 30 month rule is currently
being enforced and is enforceable. The over 30 month rule is a
very important protection measure for the UK public for imported
meats and we drew out in our BSE controls review the importance
of this measure which is why we have taken steps to ramp up the
enforcement of it. As we said in response to Mr Todd's questions,
we will be looking also at whether the over 30 month rule itself
should be revised in some way to improve protection for consumers.
22. You will not be force feeding any children
with French beefburgers?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I am not force feeding
anybody with beefburgers. I am not saying that anything is absolutely
safe. We must remember, in spite of the increase in the incidence
of BSE in France this yearreported incidencethat
in the current year we have had in Britain over 1,100 cases of
BSE and the French have had just over 100.
23. As you say, there is under-reporting and
there has been for some time.
(Professor Sir John Krebs) There was under reporting
in the UK at the beginning. We now think we have pretty complete
reporting, although MAFF is currently undertaking a wide survey
using biochemical tests which will check on the level of reporting
because we cannot absolutely guarantee there is no under-reporting.
We do not yet know whether the French, through their wide survey
using biochemical tests, have now got a more accurate estimate
of the incidence. We will know that in the coming months. We have
to work with the information we have got rather than with the
hypothesis that there may be a greater degree of under reporting
in one country rather than another. That is my position. We are
willing to change our minds as the information evolves but at
the moment we work with what we have got.
Chairman: We must come back to this side of
the Channel for a while.
24. I think it is worth recording it is essentially
a British problem, the British exported into various parts of
the world. What I would like to ask you is what lessons have you
learned from the Phillips Inquiry on how we should not manage
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I think there were many
lessons for the Food Standards Agency from the Phillips Inquiry.
Without wishing to seem complacent, and I am not at all complacent,
many of the lessons are lessons that we put in to action right
from Day One before the Phillips Inquiry Report appeared. Lessons
about openness, we have made a very strong commitment to openness
and as you know we hold all our Board meetings in public. We held
the BSE controls review in public. Communication of risk and uncertainty,
we have really been very open in that regard, not trying to adopt
in any sense what Phillips called the culture of sedation. Our
comments on the theoretical possibility of BSE in sheep and the
uncertainties around that cause discomfort to some people. It
was an example of how one does better to say completely openly
and honestly "We do not know", the straight answer "We
do not know". On the enforcement side, I think, Phillipsas
the Chairman made the point right at the beginningdoes
point to the gap between intent and delivery. We have made very
significant steps there. Of course the Meat Hygiene Service had
already been set up, partly as a response to recognition of the
difficulties and we now publish every month the performance of
the Meat Hygiene Service, the breaches of the SRM controls and
the hygiene scores for individual abattoirs. We have been very
public with that and we set the Meat Hygiene Service rigorous
targets. With the local authorities, the other arm of delivery
of enforcement, we have signed now the so-called framework agreement
which establishes a clear relationship between the FSA and local
authorities in which we have agreed standards of enforcement.
They report to us on a quarterly basis and we audit their performance
and have, as I am sure you know, the powers to take over as a
nuclear option if enforcement activity is inadequate. In that
dimension also we are going for very great transparency and openness.
We have begun to publish the figures that we have on our website.
You can look up on our website the enforcement figures we have
at the moment which are incomplete data, because they refer to
the past and not to the future, on the performance of your local
authority. I know what my local authority does, and I will not
say here what I think about it.
25. Where do you live?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) Transparency and having
a coherent high standard of enforcement is going to be key, that
is a key message from Phillips. Just to finish off, another area
that Phillips highlights is the need to challenge the current
received wisdom and to be willing to change one's view in the
light of challenge. I think we have seen ourselves, particularly
through the BSE controls review, the tremendous benefit of carrying
out this kind of work in public because people who have got a
very strong vested interest, for one reason or another, for example,
the Human BSE Foundation, are absolutely informed and absolutely
acute in their challenge of scientific wisdom. We have found that
a very enlightening and important process to develop this culture
of accepting the scientific advice as our starting point, using
the expert committees in the way which they are best used, that
is to provide risk assessment, but to expose that to public challenge
from those who want to ask the hard questions. It is often not
the scientists themselves who ask the toughest questions.
26. That is a very interesting answer you have
given us. It takes me on to the next point I want to raise with
you about what I have seen in my time in this place, nearly 14
years, when people have raised serious questions about food safety
and they have effectively been demonised in the process. Some
of us remember Edwina Curry talking about salmonella in eggs,
she was forced to resign but she was subsequently proved to be
correct, the Chairman may correct me but that was my perception.
I recall Richard Lacey, Professor Lacey, on listeria and on BSE
and CJD. The pattern was, and I saw this with a number of people
when I was a Shadow Health Minister, that these scientists felt
unable to get across to Government, to the key people their very
real concerns at the time. Many of them quite frankly were effectively
destroyed in terms of their careers. They have now been proved,
in many instances, to be correct, as Richard Lacey, Stephen Dealer,
many who have shown great courage. What I want to ask you, you
have partly taken us in the direction of an answer, Sir John,
in that last comment you made, was what role has the Agency in
developing a culture whereby we do not shoot the messenger which
we have clearly done in the past?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) Let me ask the Chief Executive
of the Agency how he is developing that culture.
(Mr Podger) Yes. I am surrounded by messengers bringing
bad news at all times of the day and night which is why I am probably
the right person to answer. I think the first thing that I would
say is that the one thing that struck me, having been involved
in this area in various guises for over four years, is what is
really striking, I think, from the whole way Phillips sets out
the series of events is how easy it is to fall into the temptation
of defending the party line rather than being willing to say "Okay,
actually, what Professor X or Y now says actually casts it in
a different light".
27. When you say party line, you mean the establishment
(Mr Podger) Whatever the establishment line is of
the organisation, sorry not a political party line but the line
of the organisation. I actually think that is incredibly difficult
because one has to recognise always that one is under challenge,
and let me say sometimes quite wrongly under challenge. There
is a natural desire of any organisation to defend itself and its
views. I think it is actually having the guts, which is what it
boils down to, to be prepared to say "Well, actually we are
going to have to look at this again. We may have kept saying X
and Y but now it has moved on". I think that is the most
fundamental lesson for all of us in the Agency. That I think then
does fit into your question about the messengers because I think
the messengers then become more welcome. I think also, if I may
say so, as is evident from the previous exchange about BSE, it
is about everyone being prepared to recognise uncertainties in
the debate to begin with, and possibly that applies as much to
the messengers as to us. It is actually about people being prepared
to have a debate which does not seek to put personal criticism
on people because they hold a different view. I think the more
one can move to that kind of open debate and structure, the less
likely it is that messengers who carry perhaps unwelcome but nevertheless
true messages will actually get shunned. I think our public meetings,
which the Chairman has referred to, both of the Board, I may say,
as well as the BSE controls review, inevitably mean that those
of us who represent the Agency are, if you like, in a more stressed
position but I think I would say quite strongly myself it is well
worth it because it does bring out new points. I think we have
to accept that is actually the culture we now want.
28. Just to clarify, Nick Brown said you were
reviewing relevant elements of the Phillips Report. Which bits
are they? When are you reporting on them?
(Mr Podger) Perhaps I could try and answer that question,
Chairman. First of all, the Agency is engaged in its own internal
exercise to actually make sure what we are now doing follows the
lessons of Phillips as best we can. We will be producing a paper
for the FSA Board, which of course will be meeting in public at
the beginning of February to decide that. We are engaged, also,
in a series of seminars with our own staff internally over the
lessons of Phillips. I do feel very strongly that to get value
out of Phillips we all have to recognise that there is a strong
element of there but for the Grace of God go we. If we do not
start from that point we really miss entirely the benefit of what
Lord Phillips has found. We are very keen to do that kind of internal
exercise. In addition to that, in the Board's open and public
consideration of how Phillips applies to the Agency, we as an
Agency are also involved in the Government wide response to the
Phillips Report and we are in particular leading consideration
of the section on openness.
29. Have you taken any steps to improve in your
judgment the coverage by the media of matters which are scientifically
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I will kick off and then
ask Geoffrey Podger if he would like to add. I think what one
must start from is recognising what one cannot control. The media
have their agenda and the media are our principal channel of communication.
The Agency itself cannot stand up in public and address the nation
whereas through the media we can. It is very important we develop
a good working relationship with the media, recognising that our
agenda will not necessarily always be the same as theirs but sometimes
it is. I think as part of that we are proactive in offering information
to the media, giving information, being careful about how we present
the information for them to use and welcoming the media into our
meetings. For our Board meetings and the BSE controls review meeting
we welcome the television cameras, the radio and the journalists
in to listen to us actually in action. I think it is building
a relationship, making ourselves accessible, providing information
at the right time and right form are the sorts of steps we are
taking. I would also say from my perspective the appointment of
a communications expert as our Director of Communications in the
Agency has been a critical step for us to bring in a professional
from outside rather than a career civil servant.
(Mr Podger) Yes. I think really just emphasising what
Sir John has said, but I think one thing which is very clear to
me is that Government in the past did not provide a good information
service to journalists. I think one has to say as a consequence
probably the coverage was less balanced than it might otherwise
have been. I do think that it is not for us to spoon feed journalists,
and journalists as we all know will write their stories, not the
ones we may want them to write. Having said all that, if we make
ourselves in journalists' minds a reputable source of unbiased
information I think that very much is the one thing we can do
to promote a more balanced debate, and that is what we are trying
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I am tempted to say that
all the journalists sitting behind me are wonderful.
Mr Jack: They are all smiling now.
Chairman: Before we are tempted into Frankenstein
foods, I am going to pass to Mr Drew.
30. You have covered a lot of ground in terms
of what the BSE controls review is but I am tempted to ask when
is the review a review and when is it just the ongoing processes
of the Food Standards Agency? It is not clear exactly where one
starts and the other comes in.
(Professor Sir John Krebs) It is a very interesting
comment on a consequence of doing things in an entirely open way.
Openness has huge upsides which we have discussed, it also has
costs. It has literally costs in terms of cash. One almost philosophical
point, but it adds an operational side to it, is if you carry
out a review in the public domain and put drafts of your review
on the website, when is the review a review and when is it an
evolving opinion that is still subject to discussion? Of course
we have published each draft of the review on our website as it
has been downloaded. 2,300 copies have been downloaded so a lot
of people have read drafts as it has gone along. The final published
version will come out just before Christmas. What people have
to learn to recognise, and have recognised, is that each successive
draft is the current state of opinion but is subject to further
revision. It has evolved as we have gone along. The straight answer
to your question, the final version will appear in about three
weeks' time. The implication of your question is that all along
people have read drafts and taken those as our current state of
opinion which is fine, that is just part of the process of being
open as I see it.
31. If I could then highlight the issue of what
you said about sheep and BSE in sheep.
(Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes?
32. Where is that in terms of the review of
the foodborne risk? This is a particular way in which we can see
your difficulty that you have enough problems with BSE in cows
and yet we are now looking at potentially a huge new field of
discovery. Take us through what you did and why you did it and
what you think the outcome will be?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I think the first point
to make is that in the process of the review we wanted to be completely
open and honest about uncertainty as well as about risk. We are
not the first people to say there is a theoretical possibility
of BSE in sheep, it has been said before by many others, including
MAFF. The way we did it in an open and very public way drew attention
to the issue. I think it is right that we have drawn attention
to the issue because then later on people will not be able to
say if BSE did crop up in sheep "Oh, but you did not tell
us, you did not make it clear". We have made it quite clear
there is a theoretical possibility. The question then is what
happened as a result of that? Interestingly, last night I was
giving a speech at the Meat and Livestock Commission and I asked
there whether anybody felt there had been a collapse in confidence
in lamb as a result of what we said and the view around the tablethere
were about 50 people there, many from the industrywas that
there had not, in fact demand for lamb had slightly gone up recently.
It has not led to consumer panic, which is good. Phillips talks
about trusting the public as well as the public trusting us. What
are we actually doing about it? What we say in the draft, and
what we will say in the final review, is that there needs to be
an urgent action to reduce the uncertainty. At the moment a limited
number of sheep are being screened for BSE and we think a much
larger number should be screened. You could never be absolutely
certain there is none there until you have screened all 40 million
sheep but the more you have screened and not found it the more
confident you are in saying that it is very unlikely to be there.
You can actually quantify the maximum number of sheep that could
have it if you had screened, say, 10,000 and found none. So reducing
the uncertainty is important for the public as well as for the
industry. I think explaining to people as we go along what the
current state of knowledge is, what it means, is also very, very
33. May I come back on how you would recognise
it, given that we all know that sheep have had scrapie for as
long as we have had some understanding of such things. Is there
a danger that you are trying to predict science rather than explain
science? Does that make sense? In the sense, that you could be
seeing potential symptoms that seem to be BSE, CJD or similar,
whereas in reality this is just scrapie in a slightly different
form. How do you make decisions like that?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) At the moment, there is
only one scientific test to discriminate between scrapie and BSE
in sheep. That is the test MAFF is using. It is long and complicated
and involves injecting the infected sheep's brain material into
different strains of mice. The mice develop BSE or scrapie, with
a characteristic latency incubation period. That signature of
how long it takes the disease to develop in the different strains
of mice tells you whether it is scrapie or BSE. Each experiment
costs about £20,000 and takes two years to complete, which
is why the screening programme is moving along rather slowly.
As science progresses, we are now getting very close to a reliable
biochemical test which will distinguish between scrapie and BSE.
If we do reach that stageand I think there is a likelihood
that this stage will be reached within a short while, months rather
than yearsthen we could implement a much broader screening
programme. That is really the flavour of the Agency's view, that
we should press ahead urgently with the development of biochemical
techniques, to enable us to take a small sample from a large number
of sheep, and test it very rapidly and cheaply to find out if
it is scrapie or BSE. As far as we know, at the moment, up to
10,000 sheep a year succumb to scrapie out of 40 million in Britain.
Scrapie, having been around since the early 18th century, appears
to pose no human health risk. No-one has ever found a link between
CJD and scrapie. But the question is, have any of those scrapie
sheep got BSE? The overt symptoms, as you quite correctly say,
are very similar; so it is difficult to distinguish. So you have
to look either at the behaviour in these mice or develop the biochemical
test. It is the biochemical test, in my view, that will be the
key to a large-scale screening programme and will really nail
down this issue, reducing the uncertainty.
34. Given what we know, what has gone wrong
in terms of the lack of action in dealing with BSE in cows? What
would it takeI am not raising this in any alarmist way
because you have mentioned thisto take a decision to slaughter
the national sheep herd? What would it take to get to that situation?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I think one has to separate
out two questions. What would be the advice if BSE were found
in sheep, in the national flock? I have made it clear that it
would be difficult for the Food Standards Agency to give advice
other than now we have found BSE, it would be difficult to advise
consumers other than to avoid eating lamb from British sheep.
MAFF recognises this and is, therefore, working urgently on a
contingency plan for the eventuality that BSE is discovered in
sheep. The long-term plan for MAFF, which we fully support, is
to breed resistance to BSE and scrapie into a national flock.
There is a genotype which has been identified that will conferif
not absolute resistancea high degree of resistance. That
is a long-term programme, which takes ten years to implement.
It will not help a discovery of BSE if it happened next year.
So MAFF is now working with the Food Standards Agency on a contingency
plan for the shorter term. It might be the possibility of identifying
high or low risk flocks. It might be identifying sheep that have
already been bred for resistance and working from that. So I cannot
give you a definitive answer but I can say that we are working
very actively with MAFF in the lead on a contingency plan. A draft
of that will be published just before Christmas, as I understand
35. The inquiry very clearly stated that oral
transmission, the risk of that transmission is massively reduced
if the high risk issues are taken away from the food chain. You
have alluded to it but, more explicitly, how do you make sure
that precautionary measures are implemented in Britain?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) That is done by the Meat
Hygiene Service in Britain and by the Department of Agriculture
and Rural Development in Northern Ireland by the veterinary inspectors.
The work is done by meat inspectors and veterinary inspectors,
who look at every carcase and check that the specified risk material
has been removed. If it has not been removed, then it does not
get a health mark stamp. We know how many breaches of the SRM
controls there have been. This year, is it one case?
(Mr Podger) One is known.
(Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes, one in Northern Ireland.
The number of times that a carcase is found with bits of spinal
cord hanging off it as it is being moved from the abattoir, going
to the cutting plant, is very, very small. In other words, the
abattoir employees and inspectors are getting rid of this stuff
very, very effectively. It is not 100 per cent but it is 99.5
36. You are satisfied that for the United Kingdom
the thymus tissue is being removed?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) To a very high degree.
For France and for other European countries we have not seen audit
data comparable to ours but it would be very nice to see if it
37. How satisfied are you that the thymus tissue
is removed from the imported meat coming into the United Kingdom?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) The European Commission
is sending in its veterinary inspectors to different Member States
over the present period. They are going to France from 4 to 8
December. I very much hope that one of the things we will learn
as a result of that visit is how satisfied the European inspectors
are on the implementation of these controls in France and, indeed,
in other Member States.
38. You gave an estimate of greater than 99
per cent compliance in the United Kingdom. Do you feel you will
be able to make an estimate for imported meat when those inspectors
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I do not know.
(Mr Podger) I think it is very unlikely, in fact.
The key document here will be the inspection reports that the
Commission are carrying out, as a matter of urgency in December,
in other European countries. These will be published documents.
The United Kingdom strongly supports making all this information
available. On this, we and other Community partners will have
to take a judgment when we have seen that documentation. Certainly,
from one's knowledge of the past, Commission inspections do a
very thorough inspection of the abattoirs they visit. As Sir John
has said, we do ourselves have very extensive data on performance
in the United Kingdom, and are anxious that other European countries
should have the same degree of audit and all the data available.
That would give us all greater confidence.
39. Is it your judgment that compliance is the
same or less in, for example, French abattoirs at the moment?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I would say we do not yet
have the information on which to base that judgment. If you look
more generally outside the BSE area, where the veterinary inspectors
have been to different Member States and looked at abattoir performance,
it is fair to say I remember at the very beginning of the
Agency we asked: where does the United Kingdom lie in the European
league table of general abattoir performance? This is not BSE
controls. The answer is that we are about half-way up, that would
be about right, comparable to France, but below some of the Scandinavian
countries and the Netherlands.