Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  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 or greater?
  (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 level.

  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 year—reported incidence—that 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.

Mr Hinchliffe

  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 a crisis?
  (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, Phillips—as the Chairman made the point right at the beginning—does 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.

Mr Hinchliffe

  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 line?
  (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.

Mr Jack

  29. Have you taken any steps to improve in your judgment the coverage by the media of matters which are scientifically based?
  (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 to do.
  (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.

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 table—there were about 50 people there, many from the industry—was 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 important.

  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 stage—and I think there is a likelihood that this stage will be reached within a short while, months rather than years—then 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 take—I am not raising this in any alarmist way because you have mentioned this—to 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 confer—if not absolute resistance—a 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 it.

Mr Öpik

  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 per cent.

  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 exists.

  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 return?
  (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.

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