Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)



Mr Simpson

  200. In terms of the origins of foot and mouth and swine fever, have we proved yet that the origins of both are a direct result of some form of disease getting in through illegal meat? Have we established that?
  (Lord Whitty) Proved, no. The overwhelming probability is that it was.

  201. Do you think we will ever do it?
  (Lord Whitty) No.

  202. So the very fundamental basis of the Veterinary Laboratories Agency study we cannot prove. In other words, what has caused these two serious outbreaks, swine fever then foot and mouth, we think is likely but we cannot prove it?
  (Lord Whitty) That is correct. Of course, all risk assessments are based on probability rather than on an individual case and it is that which the risk assessment is addressing—the probabilities.

  203. So it is not really scientific, is it?
  (Lord Whitty) Most of science is about probability, these days.

  204. Oh dear. If we are into that we might as well all pack up and go home then! I am not making a pedantic point—we know that, but this is pretty fundamental to not only these two outbreaks but what we are going to do about them. But let us move on. In the very useful evidence that you presented to us, you said in paragraph 18, relating back to foot and mouth, "Illegal consignments on a commercial scale destined for catering and restaurants would present the greatest risk". Can you expand on that?
  (Lord Whitty) There are two elements of that risk, I think. The first is that, by and large, without wishing to disparage the catering trade as a whole, the least high quality and the least expensive forms of meat coming into the country do go into catering and institutional food rather than to and through the retail side. There is a much higher level of imports for catering purposes than for retail purposes. It is more likely, therefore, that some of that meat might have come from probably consignments which have come in across another European border from a country where there was some exposure to a disease. So there was a higher probability that, if it did get in, that kind of meat would be channelled through the catering trade and, secondly, that some of the personal imports, particularly the more exotic forms, might also be designed for a particular element of the catering trade. Secondly, there is the issue from the catering trade of the waste of the catering trade and where that would go compared with the waste of the retail sector or the municipal sector, and the treatment of catering waste has been less exemplary, and was, of course, traditionally the source for the legal use of that waste for swill for animals. All of this issue—the route from the point of entry into the animals and into the food chain—will be a significant part of the risk assessment, in particular module 3 of it, as I think is explained in that note.

  205. I follow that but you say "illegal consignments on a commercial scale". Have we any idea what size because this is not sort of niche market. Are you saying that we are getting considerable quantities coming in, rather than the odd bit found in somebody's suitcase?
  (Lord Whitty) There are two aspects of this. There has been detected in the commercial trade some degree of illegal imports—not diseased imports but illegal because it is not properly labelled or from a country where we were not supposed to import from, and in that respect we are not necessarily talking about diseased meat but we are talking about the illegality of meat. Secondly, in terms of the passenger trade, there has been a number of examples particularly of exotic meat and fish where particular markets and particular parts of the catering trade seem to be being served by what are relatively small consignments being brought over by individuals. Most of that does not concern FMD susceptible species; some of it might bring other risks—not primarily an FMD or classical swine fever related risk but an illegal and potentially a public health risk.

  206. Is the risk assessment now being done to be completed in September focusing entirely on animal health?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes.

  207. Who is looking at the aspects that any illegal meat imports may have to public health?
  (Lord Whitty) Primarily the Food Standards Agency who have issued their own action plan in this respect.

  208. So there are two studies going on: a state veterinary study and a Food Standards Agency study?
  (Lord Whitty) Well, there is a Food Standards Agency assessment. I would not say it is the same for risk assessment.
  (Dr Wooldridge) When we started this, I did speak with the Public Health Laboratory Service about it and told them that we were doing this and asked them if they wished to be a part of it, and that the methodology we were using would be equally applicable to human health risks. At the time they were otherwise occupied but we did discuss it. They are aware that it is being done: and if required at any point it they could be linked into expand what we are doing and that could be taken into account. We could work with Food Standards, PHLS, Department of Health, or whatever, to do that and it would be comparatively simple to add that on. Lots of additional information would have to be collected but the basic methodology would be there.

  209. Without getting into the Hydra-headed scare, a number of the people we have talked to on the ground have come back to us and said you are concentrating obviously on the animal health risk but they will flag up the fact that there could an increasing danger to public health. I know this is not your responsibility but I think it will surprise my colleagues that the Food Standards Agency is not doing a serious parallel subject because, as you rightly say, it is comparable and you can use this but I can hear the sound of stable doors being slammed if, God forbid, there was some serious public health issue arising out of this.
  (Lord Whitty) The Food Standards Agency themselves do indicate that there is a potential public health risk but, on the more extreme scares arising from that, they reckon that risk is extremely small indeed. I should point out, however, that we are in continuous contact with the FSA on this: we have regular meetings both at my level and at official and technical level, and the FSA agree that the priority in this area should be in relation to animal health although that does not exclude them taking action on public hygiene, public health and related areas as well.

  210. Finally, on risk assessment, you say in your evidence to us in paragraph 27, "It was recognised early in the outbreak"—that is foot and mouth—"that there were significant gaps in the data available to help form a picture of where the major risks from illegal imports arise and to target control measures accordingly". Can you tell us what those "significant gaps" were?
  (Lord Whitty) They were that we had only information on a limited number of seizures. The information was not necessarily shared even between the Port Health Authorities and we have spent some months in bringing together a more comprehensive view of the information we have. In addition, of course, the bulk of the seizures are not primarily detected through efforts whose original purpose was to look for illegal shipments of food; they have been looking for drugs or arms or just simple general checking and have been detected by Customs, so all of this information had not been properly collated either in terms of where it was being seized, what was being seized, or what the point of origin of those substances were. We have gone a lot further down that road but there are still some gaps and some of the early work, the first two modules of the risk assessment, are addressing those gaps now.

  211. So the risk assessment at the end of the day, the scientific one, will be unfortunately largely based upon probability than 100 per cent proven fact?
  (Lord Whitty) It is probability based on more information than we had twelve months ago but, at the end of the day, it is probability and one has to make these judgments on the basis of it.

  212. Dr Wooldridge, I can sense that you are thinking to yourself, "There is an ignorant MP here trying to trap my Minister"!
  (Dr Wooldridge) No. What I was thinking was that we are scientists: we are trying to do the best scientific job that we can and we would do that for any Minister, anybody who asked us. With regard to the risk assessment and the probability issue, a risk assessment is about probability because you can never be one hundred per cent certain that something will not happen. What we are trying to do is assess how likely something is to happen under a given set of circumstances such that, whatever is the part of the pathway which may allow it to happen which is the most crucial, or the several parts which are the most crucial, some sort of safeguard can be put in place, whatever that might be—I can come to that later if you like—in order to reduce that risk of something happening. Now if we are talking about, say, the import of foot and mouth disease from some other country to this country, whatever we do it will not ever be zero, so we are looking at the probability of it happening. We look at the probability under a set of circumstances; we may then decide to suggest some places where this could be reduced and safeguards may be put in place, and then you have a different and, hopefully, reduced probability under the second set of circumstances and you keep pushing it down until you have got one that is acceptable to you as a country, bearing in mind that whatever you do has a cost so you need to look at the cost benefit. But you will never be certain where the outbreaks came from. By definition, if you are looking at a risk, you are dealing with uncertainty because a risk is a probability of something happening.


  213. That is helpful. So you are looking at the possible transmission of foot and mouth disease, classical swine fever and others. You are quantifying the risk; you are looking at the routes in; and, as a result of your research, policy decisions will be able to be taken about the amount of enforcement action that needs to be taken, and that in a sense is trying to persuade people that we are taking sufficient action to countenance the risk, as it were?
  (Dr Wooldridge) That is broadly correct. With every risk assessment there is uncertainty by definition. With this particular one the uncertainties may be rather larger than in most and the reason is that, by definition, people are not rushing to tell you about illegal imports. Consequently every inference we make is based on a combination of known information about legal imports and the routes they go through plus the seizures that have been made and also, by definition, once they have been seized they are not part of the pathway so there is a lot of uncertainty by definition in this problem. Hence it is quite a complex problem; hence it requires quite a lot of time to do it; and hence the answers, because we will have a number of different points we can make comments on at the end, will be, "The probability of such-and-such is this but we cannot be certain: it may be up there and it may be down there". But we will get as close as we can.

Mr Drew

  214. So far we are talking about chancers—people who bring meat into the country because they may want it for personal consumption; they have not thought that much about it but it is in their bag—and we have the commercial trade where people are doing it because there is big money to be made, we know that. Is there not a third category which is people doing it for much more ulterior motives, ie, terrorism or whatever? What I was asking the Association of Port Health Authorities is whether there is not a case, as well as knowing about imports, of needing to look at what is going out of the country because we can then go to other countries and say, "Are you doing these checks?", because information is more likely to be available nationally rather than trying to second-guess what is coming into the country? I am not saying this has been a problem, but potentially given what it has cost us in terms of the two disease outbreaks, if someone really wants to attack the Britain economy, this is a very subtle but clever way of doing it and, unless we get our house in order, other countries may be complicit in allowing this sort of thing to go on. Is that a problem, and something you build into your risk assessment?
  (Lord Whitty) Not into the risk assessment we are talking about. Deliberate bio terrorism is not covered by the risk assessment. Clearly there is a concern, particularly post September 11 and the anthrax scare in America of forms of bio terrorism. It is primarily the responsibility of the Home Office to assess those risks rather than DEFRA, although DEFRA's official expertise is helpful and is being deployed, but the more likely form of bio terrorism will be a direct attack on human health, as the anthrax scare or smallpox scare was, rather than via an animal plague, particularly a plague like foot and mouth which is hardly transmissable to humans. So although I think there is probably a risk of bio terrorism, (a) it is being assessed against the other terrorist risks and (b) it is unlikely to be animal health that is the target for that terrorist risk although one cannot exclude that possibility either. But as compared with the inadvertent bringing in of illegal and possibly diseased meat, chancers and smugglers, our focus is on those three categories rather than bio terrorists.

Mr Todd

  215. Calculating risk is very complex, particularly when the consequences of failure are so huge. The frequency of those sorts of events is likely to be relatively small but the consequence is that we fork out £3 billion when it happens. It is quite difficult defining a policy response when the consequence is quite as traumatic as that. How do you balance those factors? I think we all recognise the risk will never be zero but how do you define the appropriate level of response when the consequence of failure is so huge?
  (Lord Whitty) There are two issues. Firstly, we recognise already the need to raise public awareness so that we reduce the inadvertent dimension to which Mr Drew was referring, and there are certain other things we can do without having a wholly and probably difficult risk-based, cost benefit assessment. At the end, however, of the risk assessment, as Dr Wooldridge was pointing out, we will have an indication of what measures you can take to reduce the risk from X parts per million to Y parts per million, and we can probably cost the measures that will be needed in order to do that.

  216. To the layman, if, say, the view was that we might have one of these outbreaks once every fifty years and we could improve our performance so it would happen perhaps once in every hundred, then it would not be a particularly difficult calculation to work out how much additional resource is appropriate to support that risk prevention, would it?
  (Lord Whitty) Certainly that kind of calculation would have to be made but if it is one year in every hundred you always have to bear in mind it might be next year.

  217. Indeed. Nevertheless, it provides a rationale for a funding mechanism. The other element is that this is all about a part of a collection of measures which include controls within the country on how livestock move and biosecurity and so on, and the measures you take in this respect are in large part confidence-building for other stakeholders who also have a role to play in controlling the spread of disease. I think it will certainly have been put to you and your colleagues that an approach which has appeared to trivialise this part of the process and instead focus on internal mechanisms—and I see Dr Wooldridge frowning—such as the Animal Health Bill and on mechanisms farmers can use to control disease and the consequences for them if they do not do it correctly, by majoring heavily on that while saying that we might possibly see our way to putting a few notices up at airports to respond to your concerns, we may perhaps have given the wrong message to other stakeholders in this risk-control exercise?
  (Lord Whitty) I think it is fair to say that some commentators have taken it amiss in that respect. I do not think it is logically a correct assessment because clearly, once the disease breaks out and you have known and effective means of dealing with it and you know there are gaps in that, then closing the gaps in that has a very high probability of risk of success. It is not like saying you will move it from 100 years to 50: if you take certain measures they are 80/90 per cent likely to be successful in containing the disease. Likewise, if, for example, you are effectively banning the most obvious way of diseased catering waste getting into animal feed, that is likely to have a very high probability of success whereas, when you are dealing with the import assessment, then the probabilities and the risks and the difficulties are as you have described, and it is a much more difficult judgment. Nevertheless, I will accept that politically and presentationally, which are important issues here, it is very important that the government is seen to be minimising those risks where it can and making sure that the general public are aware of those risks, and that criminals are deterred, as far as is possible, from risking that themselves. I accept there is a psychological and presentational damage to it but there is also a real damage, and that psychology can only last so long, and it also has to be seen to be effective in real terms.

Mr Breed

  218. Looking at DEFRA as the lead agency, in the evidence you gave DEFRA says that it has an over-arching role to co-ordinate measures against illegal imports, and "recognises the Department's responsibility for animal health, controls over imports...", and so on. Does DEFRA have at this moment the capacity to co-ordinate those activities between the different agencies which are involved in this whole issue of illegal meat imports?
  (Lord Whitty) We have the policy leads, the expertise in DEFRA and these agencies to provide the basis on which action is taken. We are not, as I said earlier, the on-the-ground enforcement agency in any of these circumstances, or not meat-related. We are occasionally on the plant health side.

  219. But you are the over-arching co-ordinator?
  (Lord Whitty) The setting of the frame work we can do. We are not in executive authority over Customs, the Port Health Authorities or others, but we have been given the lead in government and we are certainly the best-placed part of government to take that lead. If behind your question is the issue of whether better co-ordination and possibly a different structure is being considered, then the answer to that is yes. It may be that the present structure of responsibilities is not the most appropriate.

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