Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. Not even 99 per cent?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) No, this was not related to BSE controls. This was more generally looking at the hygiene performance of abattoirs. So on that basis one would not automatically assume that we are a darn sight better than other countries. We are in the pack. Now for BSE control—because, as Mr Hinchliffe said earlier on that, we have had painful and long experience of this—our BSE controls are exceptionally tight, are exceptionally well audited, and exceptionally well implemented. So it would not surprise me to find that in relation to BSE controls we are more like Manchester United in the European league table.

  41. That is a dangerous analogy. I am a Leicester City supporter! We will pass over that. On what date would the report of the findings from the European investigations be available for the public domain?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) From our own visit to Paris today—

  42. I am talking about the Commission.
  (Mr Podger) The United Kingdom will certainly be pressing for it to be made available as early as possible next month for very obvious reasons. As I have said, the visit is between the 4 and 8. I think we would obviously hope that the information would be available before Christmas. It is certainly intended to stress to the Commission that we think this is essential.

  43. If the findings show significantly lower compliance in terms of precautionary measures, might that prompt you to give advice with regard to imported meat?
  (Mr Podger) If I may say so, if the report illustrates significant deficiencies, then I think the whole Community would wish to see action taken, starting with the Commission whose report it will be. It does not inherently follow that there will be a need for the United Kingdom to take unilateral action, although that is always a possibility if we think the consumer is put at risk.

  44. Obviously there is a cost incurred in terms of raising the standards, and particularly small abattoirs are covered under that. How do you balance the need for food safety regulation in abattoirs against the effects of the impact on those businesses?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) It was very pleasing to see in yesterday's Rural White Paper that the Maclean Report, which we had been responsible for, recommended a new way of charging for meat inspection that will help small abattoirs. That has now been implemented by Government with support from MAFF. So we are very pleased that the financial crunch, which was particularly facing small abattoirs in relation to 100 per cent veterinary inspection, has now been alleviated. More generally, we have in our BSE controls review, considered the very difficult question of whether the amount of money that is being spent on BSE controls is proportionate in relation to the number of lives saved. Now it is an extraordinarily difficult question to address, partly because of the emotional sensitivity of it, but also because we do not have some of the critical numbers. We do not know how many lives are being saved by the current BSE controls, so it is not like the fitting of the train safety system, where you are able to estimate that it would save X, Y — £14 million per life, I think, is the number attached to fitting the APT. What we conclude in our review is that the current BSE controls cost a total of about £550 million a year to the United Kingdom. Some of that is a cost to industry but the bulk is a cost to the taxpayer—in excess of £400 million. We also note that in other contexts people have done studies of willingness to pay: how much do people think it is worth paying to save a life? I accept that this is an extraordinarily sensitive and difficult area to work with, particularly in relation to a tragic disease like variant CJD, but the figures that are generally seen around is that people consider that paying up to £10 million per life saved is an acceptable figure, and the figure tends to be higher for things that are hideous diseases with long-term unknown effects that impact upon the general public and children in particular. So all of the things that CJD has, has pushed the number up. All one can say is that if that number of £10 million were applied to the current control measures, if one were saving 55 lives a year by the control measures, it would be in the kind of ballpark that people consider acceptable. The trouble is that we do not know how many lives we are saving because we do not have any data on which to base them. It would seem to me that it is not outwith the sort of number of lives that one would expect to be saving. My conclusion is that the current investment in control measures is not an order of magnitude out of the range that will be reasonable from the point of view of the general population's willingness to pay. I am afraid that is a rather complicated answer but it is a very difficult area.

  Mr Öpik: That is a very helpful answer.

Dr Brand

  45. If the Health Service got £10 million for every life saved it would be extremely well funded. We have been concentrating almost entirely on the infective agent and control of the infective agent. Given that BSE must have been fairly prevalent in the 1980s, are you surprised at the low number of people who have gone down with this very ghastly new disease?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) It is difficult to answer that question straight so I am not going to answer it straight. I am going to say that without knowledge of the size of the infective dose, which depends in part on the species barrier; without knowledge of the incubation period, which we do not know; without the knowledge of genetic variation and other sources of variation and susceptibility; it is very difficult to ascertain what you would have expected the size of the CJD epidemic to be; and, indeed, what the size actually will be. At the moment, scientists from Imperial College, Professor Roy Anderson's group, have built a model of the CJD epidemic. They predict that it might have an upper limit of somewhere in the 140,000 range but that is built on a lot of assumptions. The straight answer to your question is that I cannot tell whether I am surprised or not because I do not know what the answer is; I do not know the size of the epidemic; and I do not know the values of some of the key factors that would influence the expected size and nor does anybody else.

  46. Does this illustrate that your risk management is, at the moment, based on fairly inadequate risk assessment? I remember 30 years ago, in very small print in medical textbooks, CJD was something which was genetically determined. A few years later it was transmission through neurosurgical instruments. But we did not have an epidemic of it and I am not sure that we have an epidemic at this particular time, certainly not in statistical terms. Are we looking at the predisposing and concomitant factors? I was very disappointed in Phillips, where it looked at genetics and organophosphates, for instance, and said that this was the cause. It would be a very foolish person who said that this was the cause but I am very surprised that no comment was made, for instance, whether exposure to organophosphates predisposes a susceptibility to the infected part. Is there work being done on that? Is it your Agency or do you get advice from other agencies on the risk assessment that you are being asked to manage?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) If I can go back to the beginning of the last bit of your comment. We are clearly managing a risk in the face of great uncertainty and knowledge, so I accept that and am completely open about that. We are reducing the risk, managing the risk, in the face of very incomplete knowledge. That has to be said right from the beginning. Coming to the more specific question about whose job it is to look at those factors that may be predisposing if not causative—they are not necessarily sufficient antecedents to be causative but they may be predisposing—that really is the job of SEAC, the expert advisory committee. They have looked at the organophosphates hypothesis and, in my view and in line with Phillips, expert committees should revisit issues in the light of emerging knowledge. They should not tick the box and say, "We have studied this, goodbye." It would be quite appropriate, particularly for DH in relation to variant CJD, to come back and say, "Could you look again at whether there is any evidence of predisposing factors to developing CJD," as more cases emerge. If it was an animal health issue, who is concerned about the development of BSE in cattle and the predisposing factor, that would really be a MAFF question. We come between the two. MAFF is concerned about the cause of BSE in cattle. DH is concerned about the future of the variant CJD epidemic in humans and the consequence of that. We are in between the food chain link from cows to humans. That is an important link. Our job is to manage the risk in that link.

  47. I remember when your Agency was set up, we had all sorts of wonderful diagrams showing links to various committees of who was going to do what. But I am very concerned. We seem to be spending an enormous amount of money on trying to reduce exposure to the infective agent. There is nothing wrong with doing that but we do not seem to be terribly committed to finding out why some people get this disease and others do not and what are these predisposing factors. If we are going to leave that to SEAC, I am afraid that one of the things which has come out of certainly popular opinion, is that SEAC are not seen to be extraordinarily proactive as an organisation which looks with a slightly wider horizon on scientific phenomena.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I should perhaps just clarify the role of committees involved in research co-ordination because that is your point. Where are the priorities for acquisition of new understanding?

  48. No, with respect, not really. What I am saying is: do you have any powers to say, "Fine, you have given us this task," or you have taken on the task through the Meat Hygiene Service, who spend many millions of pounds, hundred of millions of pounds, to control an infective agent. You have got all sorts of things in place to look at the infection part of things. But do you have any influence over other research questions which should be answered? Are you the people who should be asking those questions or can you commission that work?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes, we do have influence over the research questions asked. Sometimes it will be our job to commission the research. Sometimes it will be the job of others. The key thing is the co-ordination of research in the TSE area, as in other areas, so the questions that need to be answered by the Policy Departments at MAFF, DH and the Food Standards Agency are being answered in a timely way. The way that co-ordination is achieved is through the high level committee on TSE, which Sir Richard Wilson chairs, of which I am a member, as is the Chairman of SEAC, and beneath that there is a TSE Funders' Group who does the nitty-gritty co-ordination. So if it was a priority for us to have a greater understanding of predisposing factors, we could make that case through the TSE Funders' Group. It would not necessarily be our money. It might be MRC or DH money that goes to meet that objective, but we could argue why that is a strong priority for us and ensure that this research is put in place.

  49. On the infection side of things, you are happy that you put measures in place to improve co-ordination between detection, monitoring and controlling infection? The problems with food, cosmetics, medicines: not having a common approach early on in the BSE events.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I am not sure what the question was or was it rhetorical?

  50. Are you happy that you now have something in place which co-ordinates that activity? Are the same people now responsible for the monitoring and controlling of the infection as well as debating it?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I will ask Geoffrey Podger in a moment to fill in further details. I am not complacent about the degree of co-ordination. I am relatively new to the job. I have been quite impressed by the degree of co-ordination cross-government in looking at the TSE issue. It is certainly seen as something that has to be integrated across the piece. Geoffrey probably has more experience and can tell you more specifically the answer to your question.
  (Mr Podger) The point is well taken. Phillips spells out quite clearly that different products were handled differently, which is rather unsatisfactory. I think I must speak quite clearly that the Food Standards Agency does not have responsibility for cosmetics or medicines. Equally, what we do have are very close links with the Department of Health because we report to Health Ministers. We do engage in quite a lot of discussion which I, myself, engage in as to the various measures which can be taken in the different areas and whether they are, in fact, consistent and reflect a common approach to risk. So I would like to hope that the lessons of Phillips in that area are beginning to be learnt but I have to say, quite frankly, that there is always this difficulty that government is like a cake, you have to cut it one way or another. So actually getting co-ordination within that is not always easy. A better arrangement is in place now with Phillips but we do have to be vigilant on that.

  51. I am a bit concerned, Chairman, that we rely on hope here. I would have thought that it would be quite clear that somebody should take an overall responsibility to make sure that the infective agent does not get into a typical tumour irrespective of its root.
  (Mr Podger) It is an issue for co-ordination between the Departments involved, which in England are MAFF, the DH, and ourselves.

  52. Do you think there should be one single lead agency?
  (Mr Podger) I think it is clear that given the difficulties that were in the past, Phillips suggests himself that there would have been an advantage in doing that. We would like to think that now this lesson is learnt. I have to say one very obvious co-ordinator across the patch is the Chief Medical Officer, who does take a strong interest in the work of the Food Standards Agency, in the area of medicines, cosmetics. It is not his direct responsibility but it is his responsibility as the Government's principal health officer.

  53. It would be quite useful to make that a formal responsibility?
  (Mr Podger) I think the Chief Medical Officer would take the view that he has that responsibility. Of course, I cannot speak for him but I would be surprised if he did not.

  54. On a specific issue, has the FSA been consulted on the use of blood and meat and bonemeal fertilisers? There is quite a lot of concern about that.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I am sorry, I missed the question.

  55. Do we use blood, meat and bonemeal as fertilisers?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) That would be of concern to us if we saw a food chain dimension to it. What we have said in the BSE control review report is that SEAC is going to consider the issue, particularly of sheep blood, now that some evidence is emerging that the infective agent could be transmitted through blood in sheep. There is some preliminary work from the Institute of Animal Health, which was covered in The Lancet earlier in the autumn. So the dimension for us is: does it pose a food chain risk? Well, it clearly could pose one if the infective agents were being recycled through the environment and back into animals and, therefore, into the food chain. At the moment, we are waiting for SEAC to take an expert view of the risk of using sheep's blood, in particular, as a fertiliser.

  56. But there is no certainty on that yet, I take it? Is it not a little late? These questions have been around now for five years. Do you have specific advice to the Government on the rendering industry?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) To be fair, the question about blood has been around for a long time. But the state of scientific knowledge is changing and the key thing which changed this year was the experiment that Professor Bostock and colleagues from the Institute of Animal Health did—so far, only on one sheep—but showing that you could transfuse blood from a BSE infective sheep into another sheep, and transmit the infection along with the blood. That was a new finding, a new piece of science, and—as indeed Phillips recommends and should be done as a matter of commonsense—one revises one's assessment of risk as new knowledge emerges. So having previously said that blood does not contain infectivity, so it is not a problem, if we now have a sheep that may contain infectivity, then we have to look at the issue again. This is why one goes back to SEAC and says, "In the light of this new evidence, what is your risk assessment?"

  57. Does that mean that I can spray bonemeal over my raspberries and eat them the next day?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Of course, the use of fertilisers in agricultural products is really the responsibility of MAFF rather than the Food Standards Agency.

  58. But you have a very clear link, in the way you were set up, into the use of fertilisers on plants.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) In so far as they relate to human health risks in the food chain.

  59. Because you sit on the Committee, do you not?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I sit on the Advisory Committee, the Pesticides Committee, and the Veterinary Products Committee, yes.

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