Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  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 processors—I met with them a very short time ago—the 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.

Mr Amess

  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?

  103. Yes.
  (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 the government.
  (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 government?
  (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.

Dr Turner

  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 upwards?
  (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 Agency?
  (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 saving lives.
  (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 emerging.
  (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.

Mr Todd

  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 eventualities—not 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 future.
  (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.

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