Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)|
TUESDAY 2 JULY 2002
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 addressingthe
203. So it is not really scientific, is it?
(Lord Whitty) Most of science is about probability,
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
pointwe 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 issuethe route from the point
of entry into the animals and into the food chainwill 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
importsnot 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 risksnot
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
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
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
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
beI can come to that later if you likein 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.
214. So far we are talking about chancerspeople
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 bagand 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.
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 mechanismsand I see Dr Wooldridge
frowningsuch 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
(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.
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
(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.