Examination of Witness (Questions 220
WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2002
220. We are at a point now where there has to
(Professor Hughes) Yes, and change will be imposed
221. Is our food safe?
(Professor Hughes) Largely. It is hardly my area.
222. Yes or no?
(Professor Hughes) I go to the supermarket and I do
not expect to fall over when I eat it. Is it safe? It depends
how we handle it in the kitchen.
223. Is that the message, that actually the
raw material is safe?
(Professor Hughes) I think broadly it is safe and
then we do as much as we can in our own kitchens to ensure that
we increase risk.
224. Risk prevalence, we will leave that. How
effective is the quality assurance system in actually being able
to guarantee as near as possible to the consumer that what they
are buying is safe, given all the food scares?
(Professor Hughes) In general there has been a good
response by the industry in terms of putting in quality assurance
schemes. You can use them as points of differentiation and they
can bring competitive advantage. They can also confuse. We have
a proliferation of these and clearly it is most confusing from
most consumers' point of view, "What's all this?" We
need something more simple. Again we need some shorthand. I think
they have probably been sold to farmers incorrectly. The assumption
is that they only bring cost and actually the work that I do in
the area is that if you can get involved in quality assurance
schemes, the requirements to get the quality assurance tick often
requires you to improve your business, your commercial practices,
so there are genuine benefits from a farmer's perspective to becoming
part and parcel of a quality assurance scheme, but they are perceived
just to bring cost. From a consumer point of view, I think it
is in the right direction. You can argue whether the bar was sufficiently
high, for example, if we take the combinable crops quality assurance
scheme, and it is perhaps political with a small `p'. You want
to set a standard that most farmers can meetyou do not
want to demoralise themand then sort of over time move
the standards up and I think that is exactly what we should be
doing. In quality, you cannot be number two. You cannot be out
in our marketplace saying, "We are almost as high a quality
and we are almost as safe as the Danes". That is just non-tenable
for a competitive position.
225. Where should the emphasis go in terms of
regulation with regards to safety? Can you do it at the local
level, national level, EU level or even supra-national level?
I am thinking particularly about labelling, which is one aspect
of this, and I would welcome your views on where we are in terms
(Professor Hughes) To be honest, I am not particularly
educated in this area. If we take our own 1990 Food Safety Act,
clearly that hit home. I just have to look at the response of
supermarkets to the Act where they see that the chairman as a
person becomes individually responsible for the food that is sold
through J Sainsbury and that has certainly concentrated their
attention and minds and, in doing so, they then push responsibility
for food safety down the food chain and that is where responsibility
should be placed, at the point of production and all the way through.
226. Obviously we are involved in this big debate
on more labelling, better labelling, and you say you are not expert
in this area. What you said earlier about pressure groups interested
me. How interested is the consumer generally in issues like food
(Professor Hughes) I think it is high up their list
and they are concerned about labelling, concerned about confusing
labelling. They are confused about labelling which is inappropriate,
"Made in the UK" when the raw product comes from Denmark.
I think we have a long way to go on labelling just to simplify
and to be more truthful.
227. Does not the food manufacturing side of
it constitute a weakness in your argument in the sense that they
are under constant pressure from the supermarkets to cut their
prices and cut their costs and, therefore, whatever the arguments
for local purchase and local variety, whatever, they are going
to be under increasing pressure to import more of the food they
are using and that is going to be quite strong if the pound remains
as high as it is which effectively subsidises imports, so are
they not going to be an area of weakness for your kind of thesis
of going up-market?
(Professor Hughes) I think that is absolutely right.
This is the basic commodities that they incorporate in their products
where there is no pressure from the consumers as to provenance.
They will purchase where they can get the best price, meeting
certain quality criteria, and that will put us under enormous
pressure. I agree. I think there is also another part of the market
where they will want other things and that is the local, fresh,
regional, et cetera, but I would suggest that you are talking
about the fast-moving, consumer-good-type manufactured products
and they are under pressure. That part of the market is being
squeezed as we move towards, in high income countries, a much
bigger, fresh offer and the great thing about fresh is that it
advantages those who grow closest to the point of manufacture.
228. So less frozen peas and more fresh peas.
The supermarkets, which you portray as being hard in the sense
of the kind of pressure they bear on the farmer relationship in
terms of quality, are maligned when it comes to the pressure being
maintained on the food producers.
(Professor Hughes) In terms of price?
(Professor Hughes) Of course. They are large, they
are huge companies. They are carnivorous. The criteria they are
interested in, they are interested in their own margins. There
is going to be constant pressure and sometimes they behave badly.
230. Do you think that we are well served by
the processing sector as a whole? It has been criticised in the
past in previous inquiries by the Agriculture Committee, particularly
the milk sector, as being relatively inefficient in comparison
to the processing sectors in some other countries. Do you think
that appears to be true or not?
(Professor Hughes) Well, more fragmented, yes, and
we are witnessing on a day-by-day account its rationalisation
as it moves towards, "We need fewer, larger, more sophisticated
dairy farms", and we will have that in two or three years'
time. This is just part of a long process of that. It has been
rather slower in the UK if I look particularly at countries which
have a strong dairy heritage, Denmark and Holland, but the structure
there, the past-the-farm-gate structure, is way better than ours.
Interestingly enough, our farm structure in terms of herd size,
et cetera, is better, I would suggest, than in Denmark or Holland.
231. But that partly relates to the different
industrial traditions. You picked a couple of very good examples
there where those enterprises would be co-operatives essentially
managed by the farmers who produce the goods, so to some extent
the dispersal of the small units of production have regained that
advantage through the consolidation of the processing sectors
which they own.
(Professor Hughes) Yes, they do and I think that largely
comes from having a strong export orientation which, remember,
we have not had. As we take to dairy in particular and for long
enough in meat actually, essentially we were domestic producers.
232. And yet we have some of the largest food
manufacturing companies in Europe within our shores, so there
is good practice here.
(Professor Hughes) Yes.
233. It is perhaps not spread throughout the
sector and not focussed enough on the sort of needs of the national
(Professor Hughes) Clearly, as I mentioned, we are
leaders in chilled and some of the best practices in the world
you will see here, and at the top end too, the Nestlés
and the Unilevers, fabulous manufacturers, although again, as
I say, you have got to watch this because increasingly they will
be taking decisions on where they locate their manufacturing plants
on the basis of a host of factors, not least macroeconomic.
234. On the food labelling, food safety side,
I was interested in your comments there because it would seem
to me that the whole thing is about consumer confidence against
a background of salmonella and E.coli. I wonder to what extent
there is a new cohesion within the European Union. It seems to
me that there is an element of protectionism in there and if I
quickly illustrate that, Weetabix, in my constituency, they run
a huge operation and their production line is for the domestic
market because there are cultural differences in the kind of things
we eat for breakfast. To do a run for any other country in Europe
is very often for them a very short run. Most of their product
is fortified with different vitamins, but in Germany they will
not allow any vitamin additives at all, in Belgium they will allow
vitamin C, but not others. These are not precise, but you get
the picture. To try and get the Europe-wide agreement on what
you can add to a breakfast cereal has taken years and years and
years and one senses, if you look into the arguments deployed,
that if you want to sell meat, croissants or other forms of breakfast,
I am all for food labelling, better labelling, quality assurance,
but is there any common ground in Europe moving in that direction
that would be a common interest across the European Union?
(Professor Hughes) I think you know the answer. My
perception would be that the picture you paint is exact and it
is just going to take a long time. There are lots of vested interests
out there and they will continue to maintain their interests.
If, as a manufacturer, you can protect your market by having peculiar
quirks of regulation, then you will hang on to that.
235. So this is music to Austin's ears. Within
a nutshell, the European Union is probably not particularly helpful
in boosting consumer confidence in the quality of our food or
could be more helpful?
(Professor Hughes) Well, certainly could
be more helpful.
Chairman: Professor Hughes, thank you very much
indeed. You have given us some very entertaining and interesting
Mr Mitchell: Food for thought!
Chairman: That was our resident poet! Thank
you very much indeed for coming and we are grateful to you and
also for your very crisp little paper which you gave at the beginning,
which was very helpful, the one-sided sheet of paper. Thank you
very much for that.