Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100
WEDNESDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2000
100. Have you improved the instructions to those
both in terms of officials who are carrying out checks right across
the piece and also to food importers and manufacturers to themselves
improve their examination of the documentation that they get or
the questions they ask the manufacturer, for example, abroad about
origins of material?
(Mr Podger) In terms of the inspection authorities
which are both the local authorities and the Meat Hygiene Service,
I think there was some initial confusion as to what they were
being asked to do largely because people were misled by media
reports and commented before they got the guidance, which arrived
the following day. We have issued some further guidance on specific
and very sensible questions people have asked, so we are keeping
well in touch with local authorities as well as our own agency,
the Meat Hygiene Service. We have stressed to the retailers and
the major processorsI met with them a very short time agothe
importance of this issue of traceability, of which I have to say
in fairness they themselves are very well aware. Their interest
is the same as ours. They are very well aware of consumer concerns
on these points and they have been seeking to improve their systems.
They would not claim to have 100 per cent traceability but in
terms of the major retailers they are now a long way along that
road and they are still pressing hard.
101. Gentlemen, can I say I think you are extremely
brave. I would like to advise you to wear tin helmets when you
leave the room, having clearly revealed that you inject all this
muck and filth into the brains of mice at a cost of £20,000
and it is all done over two years. I am thinking of the animal
welfare groups. That is very interesting information. You have
this enormous responsibility of giving advice to the general public
and the government on food safety generally which, as far as I
am concerned, is a fantastic way of making sure that we, the grubby
politicians, are no longer blamed for these matters when and if
they all go wrong. The BSE inquiry concluded, "Reference
to outside expert committees involves delay. It should be avoided,
where possible, in a situation of urgency". Please do not
hold back or be tactful. This is a hypothetical question but what
would your reaction be if you were not asked for advice in an
area that clearly was within your remit?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) If we were asked for advice
in an area outside our remit?
102. If you were not asked for advice in an
area covered by your remit.
(Professor Sir John Krebs) They did not ask us but
they should have asked us?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) Who is "they"?
104. The powers that be, these people who are
supposed to be removed from you but interfere all the time called
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I would pick up the phone
and tell them that we are the right people to ask and I would
make our opinion public if I thought that was appropriate, if
we had an opinion that was important to consumers.
105. The BSE inquiry drew lessons from the Southwood
Report about advice and information. How do you ensure that your
advice is clearly distinguishable from the information that you
have analysed in reaching your conclusions?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) There were a number of
comments made about the Southwood Report. One comment was that
some of the bases on which the committee reached their conclusions
were not fully explained. That may be the point you are alluding
to. That was done in a very different era when things were not
so open and the public was not allowed to see what is going on.
If you contrast the way that was done with the way that we have
reviewed the BSE controls over the past six months, by holding
a series of meetings of the public with anybody and everybody
who wants to come along and contribute, asking hard questions,
I would say no argument has been left unexplored; no point has
been hidden beneath stones, hidden in documents that we have in
our files. It has all been completely open. We have applied the
lessons of Phillips in exposing the basis of arguments so that
we do not just come out with a conclusion that we ought to do
this rather than that but all the argument that led to that has
been fully discussed and challenged.
106. You are clearly overworked and underpaid
and this final contribution from myself is about resources. Do
you have sufficient scientific expertise to review all the information
on which you base your advice which you eventually give to the
(Mr Podger) The stuff which is really detailed scientific
advice we would send to an advisory committee if that was the
justifiable course. One of the things which Phillips makes very
clear is that you need to keep informed customers on the premises.
In other words, the staff of the agency have to be able to cope
with what comes back from experts and questioning which is the
Southwood point. We are fortunate. We do have quite a high proportion
of particularly food scientists but also veterinarians and medical
doctors in the Agency. Again, I myself continually keep the mix
of our staff under review and it is inevitable that we will have
to bring in outside help from time to time and also make more
use of external consultancy in evaluating expert work. We are
not complacent about this. We are all the time asking ourselves
exactly this question: do we need more people to work in this
area? If we do, what is the best way to get them? Very often it
is not just by adding to our own staff. Very often it is getting
somebody else who is an expert in the field already to be prepared
to look at something and give you their own independent view.
107. That sounds eminently sensible but how
many people do you have permanently on staff who you would say
had wide scientific expertise?
(Mr Podger) Probably of our total staff which is around
550, over 200 have professional qualifications. We have a very
substantial body of food scientists, who we are very happy to
have, from the old MAFF Food Science Group and in addition we
have veterinarians and medical doctors, but not on the same scale.
108. Earlier on I think you said that one of
the huge problems you have in addressing the problems BSE brought
is a very incomplete knowledge of what is happening. If I heard
you correctly, I think you said that the costs of implementing
the precautionary principle we now have to put in to protect the
public are of the order of £500 million per year.
(Mr Podger) Yes.
109. It seems very strange to me that we are
spending a grand total in your budget of about three million on
research into TSEs, for example. Have you done any work which
would say whether the scale of expenditure on research, trying
to address the main problem which is ignorance, is appropriate?
Have you considered whether it should be substantially scaled
(Professor Sir John Krebs) One should not view the
FSA's research budget, which is quite modest in this area, in
isolation. One should look at the total spend by government on
TSE research. The principal funders are two of the research councils,
the BBSRC and MRC, MAFF, which puts a considerable amount of the
Department of Health into variant CJD, and ourselves as relatively
small players in this area.
110. What is the total?
(Mr Podger) I do not have it. Perhaps we could give
the Committee a note.
111. Thank you. This worries me because you
were doing an analysis, Sir John, that you felt that the scale
of protection was what the public would want, but if you do not
have to hand even a quick idea of the scale of research how can
I have confidence that you have considered whether or not the
collaborative totality of your research is appropriate to protect
the public from this major concern?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) It is a block in my memory.
The figure is in our BSE Control Review. It does explain what
the total spend is. I agree I ought to have it at the front of
my mind, but I have not.
112. Has an analysis been done in terms of the
ten million per life saved? Have you done that analysis as an
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I do not know quite how
I would set about doing it. I think I would approach it in a different
way. I would say are the key questions that we need answers to
to reduce the uncertainties being addressed. I think the answer
to that is, in some degree, yes. In our BSE Control Review we
have highlighted about a dozen research priority areas, things
that we felt needed to be sorted out as rapidly as possible to
provide greater certainty on which to manage risk. When we looked
at that with colleagues from MAFF and from the research councils,
it transpires that much of the work that we are recommending that
needs to be done is already being carried out. It is a sort of
happy coincidence that the work does fit quite well to our needs.
Where we have identified work that is not yet being carried out
at a sufficient level, that is more a matter of reprioritisation
within the budget than necessarily adding more money to it.
113. We have already heard that different scientific
groups sometimes came up with different conclusions from the work
they do. One can have one man at work or a big team at work and
you can still say someone is at work on answering a question.
Have you done anything to satisfy yourself? If the nation is spending
£500 million on protective measures, it seems to me there
must be a question purely of economics as to whether some better
science would save substantial portions of that as well as possibly
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I have the numbers now.
The Department of Health and MAFF research programme is £50
million over the last three years. They, together with the Food
Standards Agency, plan to spend a further £68 million over
the next five years. MRC, the Medical Research Council, and BBSRC,
the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council, spend
£5.4 and £10.3 million respectively between 1996 and
1999. The figures for projected spend for next year are £6.5
million by the MRC and £4.4 million by the BBSRC. The total
spend since 1986 is in excess of £140 million. I can leave
this with the secretary if you would like. I think your question
was what about small groups versus large groups?
114. It is really the scale of the research.
Have you actually stopped and thought? Sometimes you can put more
money into research and speed it up; sometimes you can put more
effort in and speed it up. Have you as an Agency considered whether,
seen from the protection of the public's food, enough money is
being spent on research compared to the vast sums we are spending
on preventative measures?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) We are in the process of
asking that question. One of the very first things we did was
to set in train a review of our own research portfolio both with
regard to the total spend and to the priorities within our portfolio.
That review, which is chaired by Sir John Arbuthnott, the vice-chancellor
of Strathclyde University and a member of the board of the Agency,
is due to report back early next year. We are looking at the question
you address. At the broader level across government, the question
of whether enough is being spent or whether the right questions
are being addressed is partly the responsibility of the high level
committee on TSEs that Sir Richard Wilson chairs, of which I am
a member, but also I think within the research councils that are
very significant contributors there will be a coordination role
for the Office of Science and Technology to play.
115. Are you broadly happy with the coordination
which is taking place in research of TSEs and specifically do
you believe that that research is in a position to be sensitive
in its direction as new information evolves? Is it flexible?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) Broadly, yes. In detail,
there are areas where I would like to see different priorities.
The one that we referred to earlier which is probably near, if
not at the top, of my list is a rapid development of diagnostic
tools that would enable us to screen large numbers of sheep to
distinguish between BSE and scrapie in sheep. That is an area
which we have identified as a high priority. We have been in discussion
with the key scientists in this area. That incidentally raises
another point. It is fine putting more money in but you have to
find the people to give the money to. In this area, there is quite
a shortage of expertise in the United Kingdom. There are not that
many groups that are at the cutting edge. There are a small number
of groups, so one has to look at where one can spend the money
given that one wants to spend on a particular objective. Broadly
yes, but in detail there are areas where we see new priorities
emerging and one would be the screening of sheep.
116. Are any of our European neighbours spending
money on research in this area?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) They certainly are. Recently,
the United Kingdom poached one of the top European TSE scientists,
Charles Weissman, from Switzerland, from Zurich. He is now at
Imperial College. The MRC did this, not the Food Standards Agency.
We have strengthened the United Kingdom research base by getting
one of the top people. When it comes to looking at developments
in research, we of course would look to Canada, the United States,
Australia, any European country, wherever the expertise lies.
117. Is there any international coordination?
One would have thought there might have been in Europe. You have
indicated for example a priority that you thought ought to be
getting addressed. Given the limited number of people and funds,
is there coordination going on?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) Early next year the Department
of Health, which shares our concerns about diagnostic tests, is
organising an international workshop to be held in Cambridge bringing
together experts from all over the world to discuss our needs
in relation to BSE screening for sheep and indeed for cattle,
but also the Department of Health's needs for screening tools
in relation to variant CJD. There are initiatives going on to
bring together the international community to look at the issues
that we want to address and to see who is capable of helping us
to deliver those.
118. Finally, on a point which has attracted
media attention, we have these cases in Leicestershire and south
Yorkshire of clustering. I wondered if you had any comments on
whether there are any lessons to do with transmission which are
(Professor Sir John Krebs) With the Queniborough cluster
in Leicestershire, we are of course awaiting the report of Dr
Monk, who is the local medic who is leading the inquiry into the
cluster. I do not want to prejudge what he is going to conclude
other than to say it is generally very difficult to draw definitive
conclusions from a single cluster instance of that kind. Even
if you found a common denominator, as I guess he is working towards
looking at, whether that is of general applicability is another
matter. Whatever the results are, they will be of value but one
will have to view it in perspective as to whether it is of global
value to us. It may be of some value.
119. One of the lessons of the Phillips Report
was to at least enter some doubts about the progress of intensive
farming methods which were at the root of this and the possible
links those may have to human health at some unforeseeable date.
Are you satisfied that you have a range of research to act as
radar for those sorts of eventualitiesnot just TSEs but
the implications of other steps to improve productivity in farming
which may have unforeseen consequences?
(Professor Sir John Krebs) I am not aware that we
have a specific horizon scanning programme of the kind you describe.
It is a very helpful thought. Perhaps we should look at that area
in that way. We do scan the horizon more generally for what are
the food health issues that might come up. With regard to the
relationship between intensive farming and BSE and recycling,
clearly there was a lesson to be learned there about the recycling
of animals back to animals. It is not uniquely linked to intensive
farming because not all so-called intensive farms recycle meat
and bonemeal. It very much depends on the situation and what the
availability of alternative forage or feedstuffs is. My short
answer to your question is no, I am not aware that we are horizon
scanning in the particular way you describe. It is a very useful
thought which I will take away and digest, but more generally
we do horizon scan for food risks that may be coming up in the
(Mr Podger) We have a food chain strategy function
which we are still developing which fits in entirely with your
concept. Part of what they are tasked with is keeping in close
touch with the agricultural sector, precisely to try and spot
trends which are of particular interest to us. There is some foundation
there but, as Sir John says, I think it is a very helpful thought.
We need to think again whether it is something we should do internally
or whether it is something we should commission externally.