Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



Mr Borrow

  60. This is related to the issue raised by Dr Brand, but an issue raised with me by another member, who is not a member of this Committee. It relates to concerns she has had over the rendering process and particularly the run-off from that process, which technically is called liquid condensate. I think there is a debate going on within SEAC as to whether or not it is advisable for that to be spread on the land or whether it should be injected. I suspect that we are in the same dilemma as to: is it MAFF's responsibility, is it SEAC's responsibility, or should the Food Standards Agency have a role in giving advice on that specific issue?
  (Mr Podger) I will seek to respond to that. In fact, as is inherent in your question, the answer is that it is in all our interests. We do seek to proceed on that basis. This issue is not only in the context of BSE, important though it is. There is also the issue about disposal of sewage sludge, which bear on the food chain and in which we also get involved. Part of the reason for having the advisory committees set up in the way they are, reporting to several departments, is to make sure that we do get a coherent sum of risk assessment on which we can all take action.

  61. I take that point on board but I still come back to the point that Dr Brand made. I get the impression from discussions we have been having that there is not someone specifically taking a grip and saying, "This needs to be done." One of the problems for elected members may well be that we are pursuing concerns, on behalf of our constituents, and never seeming to get to the heart of the matter, and never seeming to get someone to own up to the responsibility for making that decision. It seems that the parcel gets passed round to a different number of agencies.
  (Mr Podger) We certainly do take the view that if there is a possible implication to foodstuffs, then that is something which is ours. Other Departments may have an interest and we would then work with them. I certainly hope that you cannot quote instances where we have actually passed the parcel in that regard. If so, please tell me and I will do something about it, because I do not think it is acceptable at all. The difficulty of these questions is that they do require undoubtedly advisory committee assessments and often in the face of great uncertainty; so it seems to me quite right that the matter is referred to SEAC. However, I assure you, we are not in the game of passing the parcel in relation to potential threats to the food chain.

Mr Jack

  62. You have talked about the future scientific work you are doing but one of the findings of Phillips that we still do not know about is how the infective prion came into existence. Does that matter in terms of the future scientific work described to the Committee so far?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) For us, what matters is the management of risk now and in the future in relation to the food chain, so if the origin of the prion were an important consideration in this management, then it would matter. As I see it, what Phillips says is that regardless of the theory about how the prion originated, there is no doubt that the disease was amplified through the population of cattle by the habit of feeding meat and bonemeal to cattle, which is why we see the feed ban and the continuation of the feed ban as an essential public protection measure. This is because it keeps the BSE prion from recycling and generating more infected animals. It keeps that in check. The effectiveness of the feed ban is clear. Even though the initial feed ban was a partial one, MBM was still used for pigs and poultry. Even that feed ban produced a dramatic reduction in BSE. Since the 1996 tightened feed ban in August 1996, there has only been one calf that has been confirmed as having BSE, which is within the range of numbers expected from maternal transmission. So there is no doubt that the feed ban is an effective control measure. Our view is that this should be maintained at its maximum level and indeed should be more widely applicable across Europe. The issue of the origin of the disease is one where many people were surprised by Phillips's conclusion. The Minister from MAFF announced that he was going to set up a special team to investigate independently the origin of the BSE, where the prion came from, in the light of Phillips's conclusions. We will certainly look at that report with interest, but I do not think it will be of immediate concern to the day-to-day issue of risk management, which is our primary responsibility here.

Mr Todd

  63. You mentioned the issue of sheep blood. Does that suggest a revisiting of the issue of blood from cattle, its potential?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Looking for infectivity?

  64. Yes.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) That is a fair question. Although there has been a substantial amount of work on infectivity of cattle blood from cattle with BSE, that work has not shown any sign of infectivity at all.

  65. But on your argument of revisiting?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Revisiting. You are absolutely right. Let me tell you about one of the ways in which this can be revisited. The difficulty with these experiments, looking at infectivity, is that if you do it with large animals like cows as your experimental subject, they take a very long time and it is very costly. So the research scientists are moving to developing a mouse, a transgenic mouse, that has the cattle prion gene; so you are making a mouse into a mini cow, in effect. That means that you can do the infectivity study in mice. I hope this is not getting too confusing.

  66. No, it is enlightening.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Then I believe once this transgenic mouse strain is established, that will be the time to revisit some of these infectivity studies, because that will be a more sensitive assay than putting the material into non-transgenic mice. It will do away with the species barrier, in effect.

  67. The other question was related to the culture of your organisation and its antecedents. You may recall my questioning that some time ago.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) Yes.

  68. The questioning of Dr Brand highlights this issue of how to change a culture to one where individuals do feel some ownership of resolving a problem rather than defining who else may be the person responsible for it. Perhaps the sound from the line of questioning that has been followed is that not enough progress has been made yet in establishing that culture.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I will ask the Chief Executive to deal with that one.

  69. You did that last time too! Looking at the evidence: "I had better ask the Chief Executive to spell that out."
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) One of his targets is to bring about culture change.
  (Mr Podger) It is indeed. To be frank, there are two steps in a process. One is to determine who should be doing something, and the second is to be sure they do it. I personally do not have a problem at the stage of determining who is responsible. Where I have a problem is if, in fact, nothing is then done, which are the comments coming from your side of the Committee. I certainly have not detected amongst my colleagues any reluctance to get stuck in on difficult problems. I have to say that. I have not found that. Having said that, it is inevitable with people who come from rather different backgrounds, that we have not yet achieved quite as much as we might have done by way of internal challenge, which is a part of the process you are describing. We are very much hoping that when for the first time we are able to bring all our staff together in one building that this, in itself, will provoke a great deal more informal interchange. That will be helpful in teasing out these issues of where there is one more thing which could be done if someone pushed themselves. So I am not complacent about this. I think our record of dealing with the problem is quite a reasonable one but I am hearing what you are saying. I do have some sympathy. One of the lessons of Phillips, without a doubt, is people spotting the thing that others missed and then carrying it on. That is very clear from discussions.

  70. A clearer distinction between someone saying, "We think this a problem," and then owning the task and making sure that someone does something about it.
  (Mr Podger) I agree.

  71. It is dislocated in the British public official mind very often.
  (Mr Podger) One is deceived by the steps, I agree with you. It is very easy for people to think they have done their job and it is only step one. I agree entirely that this is not acceptable, no.

  72. But it does not sound to me that you are terribly reassuring that we have reached anywhere near that point yet.
  (Mr Podger) I think it goes rather further than that. What I have said to you is that I do not know of any instances of failure. But I do think, and I repeat, that we have more to do in terms of establishing the internal challenge culture, which would be helpful to this.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) If I could add. I came to this, as an outsider, and I was quite frank with Geoffrey at the beginning. I thought there was a very strong tendency for people not to want to put their head above the parapet. I have seen in the last eight months, since the Agency has been in existence, quite a significant change in that. People are now bolder at putting their head above the parapet and saying, "We have identified the problem. We have got to do something." So we are moving in the right direction. Given that we are only eight months old in the new culture, this is not bad. Looking at it as an outsider, I detect a significant move in the right direction.

Dr Stoate

  73. BSE has been around for a while and it now seems to be spreading across Europe. Listening to the questions we have just been hearing, the public are going to be less reassured by this idea of internal challenge culture. I am not sure what it means and I am quite sure that my constituents do not know either. My concern is that clearly there is going to be a potential in the future for further animal diseases, which may or may not enter the human food chain. That is just the nature of farming and other things, so we have to face other challenges in the future. My concern is why is there not an absolutely cast-iron solid structure for saying that somebody is in control? Somebody is leading this; somebody is going to co-ordinate this; so we know exactly who is to blame. All we have heard over the last years is, "It was not me, it was him." All we have ever had is uncertainty and confusion. I really believe this is why the public, at the moment, are suffering a real lack of confidence in the whole system. Can you comment on that.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) I prefer to take the view that Mr Todd took. It is about culture rather than structures. Having in place a group, who is in charge of action for this or that, will not work unless the people in that group have the right culture. To me, it is more important to have people who take responsibility for turning knowledge and information into action, who are not afraid to put their head above the parapet and are willing to speak out on difficult issues than it is to invent or create a new set of structures.
  (Mr Podger) I agree. Structure is important but only to a point. It is more about getting people to recognise what needs to be done. All my organisational experience is that structures can be managed if people have the will to get done what needs to be done. I do not think the converse is true, personally.

  74. There is a great difference in the public mind between there being a process and there being seen to be a process. I cannot tell my constituents, "All we have to do is change the culture of the Civil Service and everything might get better." They do not want to hear that. They want to hear that Mr X or Mr Y is responsible for sorting this out. They can deal with that and they know exactly who it is, whether it is the chief executive of British Rail or whoever. They can say it is his fault or his responsibility, not, "We have got to wait for a culture change in the Civil Service." That might be internally the right way to do it but it is not the way to reassure the general public.
  (Mr Podger) One of the decisions we made was to put our entire allocation of responsibilities to individual staff on the FSA website. We have already moved in that direction for exactly the reason that you give which I agree with. People do not want to be faced with anonymous people who never ring back and who you can never get hold of again. A very large number of people seem to have succeeded in tracking me down through this device, but I think that is fine. That is what I am there for. If you are not exposed to people who are handling the consequences of your decisions, people who are running small abattoirs or whatever, you are not going to make such good decisions. On that point, we can claim to have made an improvement. I do accept entirely that the talk of internal culture is an issue for us, but it is not the answer for people outside. I would not seek to suggest that. Nevertheless, I think it is important as a way of delivering what you want.

  75. If you look at the BSE inquiry itself it says, "Consideration should be given to whether a formal structure is the best means of achieving this", so they are talking about a formal structure with a proper head of accountability. Why is that not happening? Do you think it should happen? If it should happen, who should be at the top?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) In a sense, it has happened with the creation of the Food Standards Agency. The body that is responsible for food safety is the board of the Food Standards Agency with me as the chairman and Geoffrey as the chief executive. If someone is going to be nailed it is the board of the Food Standards Agency and the chief executive. That is where the buck stops.

  76. That is what I want to hear. It is reassuring that you consider the buck stops with you. Because this has now become a more European issue, do you think the European Food Authority will make a positive contribution to managing crises like these in the future?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) If we go back to the earlier comment about the European Food Authority, the Food Authority is going to be set up as a risk assessment body, not a risk management body. It will work effectively to manage crises such as the current European BSE crisis if there is a close integration of the risk assessment role of the European Food Authority and the Commission's role in risk management. If those are tightly integrated and there is good communication of risk all at the same time, it could help very effectively to manage our way through crises at a European level.

Mr Mitchell

  77. I want to ask about risk assessment. I took it from what you said earlier that your assessment of risk is dependent on your knowledge of whether proper procedures and controls are in force. In looking at France, where people are going over and where European officials have been inspecting their procedures, how can we hope to come to any accurate assessment of whether their procedures are effective and properly run when it is a big country; it has a very large peasant population; when the kind of things you said went on in the early stages in this country like private killings and so on—
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) And still go on.

  78.—are going on on a large scale. How on earth can a quick visit give you any proper assessment of the effectiveness of their procedures?
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) The longer the visit and the more thorough the—

  79. You could stay for ever.
  (Professor Sir John Krebs) You could, so you have to come to a judgment. The European Commission is carrying out a visit, not us. I have to look at how they have carried out the visit after they have done it. They presumably have a judgment about how you best harvest information given that you only have five days in which to harvest and you have a country twice the size of Britain. The same would be true of other countries that are geographically large. It is possible to carry out inspections through proper sampling and monitoring procedures without going to every nook and cranny. Will the inspections ever show that the system is 100 per cent watertight? No. It comes back to the fact that we can manage risk and assess risk but we will never achieve 100 per cent perfection, either in the assessment or the management. We have to achieve acceptable levels and convince ourselves that on the basis of the information we have the levels are acceptable.

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