Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


APPENDIX 24

Supplementary evidence from the Food Standards Agency

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS

  1.   What is the Agency's primary objective in undertaking public consultation and engagement in relation to its advice and policies?

  The Agency's key objectives in undertaking public engagement and consultation are:

    —    to underpin our modern, inclusive and socially-robust approach to policy development, where our open and transparent approach has moved us away from the sequential model of "assess, decide, tell" towards a more integrated model that has engagement with the public and with other stakeholders at its core; and

    —    to understand the different appetites for risk of different citizens and groups of citizens, in order that we might communicate what a complex technical risk means in terms of practical action and, where there are meaningful choices to be made, give people information on which they can make their own judgements about handling of risk.

  2.   What evaluation has the Agency undertaken of the impact of holding Board meetings in public? What steps have been taken to ensure that this does not inhibit frank discussion?

  Being open and accessible is one of the Agency's core values. From its inception, Board meetings where the Agency's strategy and policies are discussed and agreed have been held in public. Baronness Dean carried out a review of the Agency at the end of 2004 to assess the Agency's effectiveness in delivering its objectives and core values (http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/deanreviewfinalreport.pdf). She found that the Open Board Meetings were seen by stakeholders as a demonstration of the Agency's openness. She recommended that the Agency must continue its debate on the subject of open board meetings to seek a mechanism which allows for in-depth and/or technical discussions to add value to open board meetings without undermining the principle of openness.

  In response, the Agency has begun to review the division of business brought to open and closed Board meetings and in June 2006, the Board will be considering whether or not it would wish in future to allow public attendance at some of the expert briefings currently given only to closed Board meetings. A more wide ranging review by the Board of how the Agency is fulfilling its core value of being open and accessible is planned for later in 2006. The effectiveness of open meetings, as they are currently configured, will be addressed at that time.

  3.   How, if at all, does the Agency co-ordinate its activities with those of the research councils?

  The Agency collaborates with other organisations where we share a common interest in the potential outcomes, including through joint funding. The Research Councils are key partners in this work. Some examples of this co-ordination are outlined below:

    —    The Agency leads or participates in several joint-funders and other groups that co-ordinate publicly funded research in key areas, including microbiological safety of food, TSEs, nutrition and nanotechnologies. Relevant Research Councils—such as the MRC, BBSRC, NERC, ESRC and EPSRC—are key partners in these groups.

    —    We have agreed with the BBSRC that we can participate in its Government Partnership Award scheme. It facilitates co-funding by the Agency of BBSRC research grants that are of interest to us. An Agency representative attends meetings of the BBSRC Agri-Food Committee, which is the BBSRC grant-awarding committee most relevant to the Agency.

    —    We are exploring the possibility of establishing similar arrangements with other Research Councils, including the MRC, in areas of potential interest to the Agency.

    —    The Agency is participating in the National Prevention Research Initiative (NPRI), aimed at primary prevention of cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes. NPRI will fund research to provide robust evidence on effective ways to reduce risk and influence health behaviours, including diet, physical activity and other lifestyle factors. It is sponsored by a broad consortium of funders including MRC and ESRC.

    —    We developed a Joint Code of Practice on Quality Assurance in Research with Defra, the BBSRC, and the NERC. Launched in 2003, the Code seeks to improve QA of the research process, and has since been endorsed by the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department and the Welsh Assembly Government Agriculture and Rural Affairs Department.

    —    We co-ordinate our input to EU research programmes with BBSRC and other research councils (MRC, NERC) as well as other departments and funders. We provide a co-ordinated team of National Contact Points to provide advice and support to UK participants in the Food area in EU Framework Programmes, with the BBSRC and Defra.

    —    There are also innumerable operational-level contacts between Agency staff and their opposite numbers in the Research Councils (most commonly BBSRC, MRC, NERC and ESRC). For example, the Agency recently held a seminar with the ESRC to discuss the results of ESRC projects of potential interest to the Agency.

    —    Representatives of Research Councils often take part in reviews and workshops of Agency research programmes and appraisal of proposals to the Agency for research.

  4. a  Examples of occasions when the Agency has proactively reviewed and commented on Government policy (ie without being asked to do so by the Government) (Q621).

  t is important to state at the beginning of this response that in most areas of the Agency's business we lead rather than respond to the development of policies. Therefore we are usually in the driving seat when it comes to applying our core values of:

    —    Putting the consumer first;

    —    Being open and accessible; and

    —    Being an independent voice.

  However, there are some areas of our business where we do not have regulatory responsibility and seek to influence through constructive partnership and being an independent voice. We hope the following examples of a challenge function will be helpful to the committee. The first example was outlined by Dame Deirdre when she spoke to the Committee Chairman after the meeting.

  Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Residues in Food   The FSA plays a powerful watchdog role in these areas of work where the regulatory responsibilities lie with Defra and its Agencies. We strive to ensure that our core values are applied to this work and that food safety is given top priority during the authorisation and monitoring processes. On those occasions, when we believe that Defra and its Agencies have not put consumers first, we have publicly challenged their action, eg:

    (i)  When Agriculture Ministers consulted on a proposal to delay the phasing out of certain pesticides to meet new EU regulations, the FSA objected and called for an immediate phase out. Following the consultation, Agriculture Ministers went ahead with the proposal and the FSA issued a press release (http://www.food.gov.uk/news/pressreleases/2000/dec/ministerialaction) setting out our position, calling for speedy action from Agriculture Ministers; and summarising a letter from Sir Jon Krebs (then Chair of the FSA) to Agriculture Ministers.

    (ii)  The FSA has always called for the Veterinary Medicines Directorate to provide consumers with brand name information for its survey results in order that consumers are better able to make informed choices. Lack of progress in key areas resulted in a public call for action from the FSA at the Board's open meeting in June 2002 (see paragraphs 9, 11 and 16 of the Board paper FSA 02/06/04; http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/paperfsa020604.pdf).

    (iii)  The FSA called for the scope of Defra's national Pesticide Strategy to be broadened to address residues in food. This was made clear in the FSA's response to the consultation on the draft plan (See Annex 1).

Dioxin emissions from pyres

  At the time of the foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in 2001, Department of Health undertook a rapid qualitative assessment of possible risks to public health from FMD disposal options. This assessment concluded that the exposure to dioxins via the diet from FMD pyres would be minor compared to background exposure via the rest of the diet. The FSA however was concerned that the DH assessment of risks to health did not take account of all the uncertainties in the underpinning models. We therefore investigated further the degree of uncertainty and began to monitor dioxins in foods produced near to the pyres. Because there was a period of weeks until the first results would be available, the FSA issued precautionary advice to farmers with animals on land within 2 km of a pyre, suggesting that people who consumed whole milk and whole milk products only from animals grazing within 2 km of the pyres might wish to vary their diet. When the evidence was produced, it indicated little additional risk and the advice was withdrawn. Reaction to this advice was generally very positive and seen to be a sensible application of the precautionary principle (see below). Details about this work are provided by the attached copy of an FSA submission to a Royal Society Inquiry into Infectious Diseases in Livestock (see Annex 2)

  4. b  A definition of the "precautionary approach" and an explanation of how it is applied in the Agency (Q656).

  The Food Standards Act 1999 requires the Agency "to take account, in its decision-making process, of the nature and magnitude of risks which the action is designed to address . . . The Agency is also required to take account of any uncertainty in the evidence. For example, where it is taking decisions in relation to a risk which is potentially very serious, but about which there is very little evidence, the Agency is likely to want to take a precautionary approach." [118]

  The Food Standards Agency Statement of General Objectives and Practices (October 2000; http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/sgop.pdf) set out the general objectives we intend to pursue and the general practices we intend to adopt in carrying out our functions under the Food Standards Act 1999.

  Here the precautionary approach is defined as:

    "We recognise that there is often uncertainty in the science underlying our decisions and we shall explain these uncertainties and make sure it is clear how we have taken them into account. Where there is a risk of serious damage to public health, we will adopt a precautionary approach by acting quickly to implement appropriate measures to reduce health risks. Scientific certainty is rarely achieved in practice and we will not allow the absence of certainty to delay proportionate action. Equally, we will not use the absence of scientific certainty as an excuse for taking action other than that needed to protect public health and well being."

  Taking a precautionary approach is further elaborated in "The Food Standards Agency's Approach to risk" statement (May 2001; http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/riskapproach.pdf). This statement describes in general terms, how we approach risk issues so that everybody who may be affected by our decisions can understand our way of working.

    "We will take a precautionary approach—that is, we will not always wait until we have proof of a potential hazard to take action or issue advice. Such action will be taken on the best available evidence to protect public health. It will be reviewed if new evidence becomes available."

  Our aim is to adopt an appropriate precautionary approach in developing and implementing policies where uncertainty is a significant factor in preventing the exact nature of any risk from being determined:

    "When the risk is uncertain, we will take a precautionary approach. If there is good reason to believe that there could be a serious risk to public health, we will take appropriate action, in proportion to the risk, the consequences of the proposed action, and the level of uncertainty. We will act on the basis of scientific evidence, but we will not let the absence of scientific proof hold us back."

  As an assessment of how this approach is received in practice, reaction to the precautionary advice on Foot and Mouth Funeral Pyres was generally very positive:

    "We warmly welcome the FSA's warning. There's a very sensible application of the precautionary principle . . . we think they've done exactly the right thing in emphasising that there is a very small risk and then telling the people who are most likely to be exposed to that small risk what the situation is, so that they can make up their own minds." Charles Secrett, Director, Friends of the Earth, 25 May 2001.

    "The risks are so incalculably small that the FSA could easily have sat on the information and said nothing . . . Instead, it has played the whole thing beautifully . . . In short, it has treated the British adults as adults. It has also behaved with utmost responsibility on its own account and remit . . . Would that there were more public bodies like that." The Press and Journal (Aberdeen), 26 May 2001.

June 2006

Annex 1

Mr Kerry Hutchinson

Pesticides Environmental Policy Branch

Pesticides Safety Directorate

  30 June 2005

  Dear Mr Hutchinson

THE SUSTAINABLE USE OF PLANT PROTECTION PRODUCTS—A DRAFT NATIONAL STRATEGY

  Thank you for inviting the Agency to provide comments on the draft National Strategy for the Sustainable Use of Plant Protection Products. We welcome the development of the draft strategy in preparation for the expected EU thematic strategy.

DRIVERS OF CHANGE AND THE NEED FOR A STRATEGY

  We recognise that the primary purpose of the strategy is to deliver enhanced environmental protection within the context of sustainable use of plant protection products. However as public concern over health effects of pesticides is recognised as a driver for change (para 1.24), and reduced risks to people is included in the benefits of the strategy (para 2.9 5th bullet point), we consider that it would be appropriate for these two issues to be addressed within the stated purpose of the strategy.

PART 2: INTRODUCTION

  At paragraph 2.2 it states that "the strategy should take full account of existing and proposed controls and other regulations that affect or influence the use of plant protection products". We fully support this but we suggest that the strategy would also provide an opportunity to recognise and co-ordinate policies and measures that already strongly influence the use of pesticides in the UK. The FSA and others, including Assured Produce and the major retailers, have already taken steps to address public concern and consumer preference by working to minimise pesticide residues, this we consider should be more rigorously covered within the strategy. Especially as the practices adopted to minimise residues may provide associated environmental benefits.

  Consumer preferences also have a direct bearing and link with both the economic interests of farmers, growers and others using plant protection products, and impact on promotion of best practice. Rather than co-ordinated action with the FSA a more integrated approach is required within the strategy to minimise residues in food (paragraphs 2.3 and 4.3).

PART 3: TARGETS AND INDICATORS

  Question 1 seeks ideas for targets and indicators. Public concern over health and consumer preference for a reduction in residues of plant protection products in food, even where there are no safety concerns, are listed amongst the drivers for change and a need for a strategy at paragraph 1.24. Our recent consumer research supports this approach. It revealed that although the majority of consumers asked are reassured to know that authorities and assurance schemes exist that control the use of pesticides, the majority (68%) still want pesticide residues to be reduced further. It is therefore surprising and disappointing that minimising residues in food is not included amongst the Action Plans proposed in the draft strategy.

  Whilst we would prefer to see pesticide residue minimisation as a specific action plan within the draft strategy, we suggest that it is none-the-less useful to assess whether the measures in the action plans currently proposed would have an impact on residues in food. The Pesticide Forum has identified residues in food as one of its indicators (Table below paragraph 3.5), but it has not been identified as being relevant to the proposed action plans in the table below paragraph 3.7. We would therefore welcome inclusion of this as one of the indicators in the draft strategy.

  A further area where an additional indicator might be considered, in consultation with industry, is in progress towards the introduction of alternative products to pesticides (such as biological control agents) which are already widely available in other Member States. Perhaps a list of key/essential products might be developed for sponsorship by industry and progress either via the fast track or mutual recognition procedures, within a specified period of time.

Non-Government Schemes

  Question 3 (p 21) invites comments on the list of measures that will affect plant protection use. Athough the table that follows (para 4.5, p 24) recognises the role of farm assurance schemes it does not specifically acknowledge the recent development of best practice guidelines within Assured Produce crop specific protocols to reduce pesticide residues. We believe, subject to agreement from Assured Produce, that it would be appropriate to do so.

Organic Farming

  Paragraph 4.10 states: "The Food Standards Agency is evaluating the relationship between organic farming (and non-organic farming) and residue levels in food". This statement is incorrect and should be deleted. In 2003 an Agency consultation sought views on what research it might usefully commission on organic produce. The Agency's position as a result is that given the breadth of the recent £12 million EU funded project being co-ordinated by Newcastle University (under the Framework VI programme) it makes sense to await the initial outcomes from this before deciding what more might usefully be done.

 Possible new measures

  We are aware that growers and advisors are currently faced with difficulties in determining which pesticides are most suitable for their particular circumstances, and appropriately balance environmental and operator considerations whilst meeting their objectives to minimise residues in food. We therefore welcome the recognition of the importance of a co-ordinated approach, that considers all of these factors.

  We strongly support the suggestion to embed comparative risk assessment and substitution into the regulatory process as a possible action that might be considered within a strategy. Incorporating comparative assessment into a structured risk assessment approach would make the authorisation process more accountable and transparent. Whilst we support the substitution principle to help identify products that can be demonstrated to be safer and better than those currently available, we also recognise the importance of having a range of products with different modes of action available to avoid development of resistance. More detailed and user-friendly information about products together with tailored advice about product usage will be essential if producers are to make informed choices and select the most appropriate products for a particular circumstances.

  We support the idea for an educational programme for the public to understand pesticide risk assessments for consumers, the environment and bystanders. Our consumer research supports the need for a better understanding on pesticides and the regulatory control.

  We also support the proposal for a publicly funded advisory service, but suggest it covers conventional as well as non-chemical approaches to help growers to reduce the impact of pesticide usage.

Plant Protection Products Availability Action Plan

  We welcome the recognition of alternative approaches to pest control and support the objective of encouraging the development and use of alternative products (such as biological control agents) and techniques to reduce dependence on chemical plant protection products. We support the proposed measures outlined in paragraph 4.30, such as fast-track registration systems for biological pesticides or mutual recognition of approvals granted in other EU member states, on the condition that such products meet at least equivalent levels of consumer safety to those approved in the UK.

PART 5: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? QUESTION 6

  Overall we welcome the strategy, however, we ask that it should not be restricted to measures that enhance environmental protection. We believe that whilst it is important for the UK to prepare its position for the EU Thematic Strategy, the development of a National Strategy provides the opportunity to consider environmental and consumer safety issues jointly, especially as action in one area may well have an impact in another.

  A list of other general observations on the document is attached (Annex) for consideration before the finalised strategy document is published.

Yours sincerely

By email only

Corinne Vaughan

Primary Production Division

Annex  

OTHER GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

What problems can arise from the use of plant protection products?

  Paragraph 1.7 states that "the regulatory system is designed to ensure that pesticides constitute no danger to health of people (operators, consumers or bystanders) when used correctly". We suggest it may be better to say it is "to ensure the safe use of pesticides".

Existing Plant Protection Product Regimes in Great Britain and Northern Ireland

  The first bullet point in paragraph 1.13 incorrectly states that the precautionary principle is the basis for placing protection of human health and the environment above the needs of agricultural production.

  The fifth bullet point currently states that "a plant protection product will only be authorised if it does not harm human or animal health, pollute groundwater . . .". It would be more accurate to say that "a plant protection product should not pose an unacceptable risk to health or the environment".

  The M and S in Member States should be upper case. This applies to paragraphs 1.13, 1.27, 1.28 and table under 4.13 but there may be other places too.

  Paragraph 1.27: ". . . to help prepare and supporting . . ." needs a change of words?

  Table 3 paragraph 3.5, point 3, Agency, the A should be upper case.

  In table under paragraph 3.6 there is an inconsistent use of "parts per billion" and ppb.

  Paragraph 4.28 recognises that the MRL programme will reduce available pesticide uses. You may wish to consider including a brief explanation why some pesticides will no longer be available.

  Table (iii) paragraph 4.5, point 18, put ERDP in brackets on the left-hand side.

Annex 2

  From: Steve.Wearne@foodstandard&gsLgov.uk

Sent:  13 December 2001 12:53

To:  Gretton, Saskia

Subject:  RE: Inquiry into Infectious Diseases in Livestock—Call for Detailed Evidence

  Dear Ms Gretton,

  Thank you for agreeing to accept material at this stage.

  The rapid qualitative assessment by Department of Health of possible risks to public health from FMD disposal options concluded that the exposure to dioxins via the diet from FMD pyres would be minor compared to background exposure via the rest of the diet (Department of Health (2001): Foot and Mouth; effects on health of emissions from pyres used for disposal of animals, www.doh.gsi.gov.uk). The Food Standards Agency was keen to investigate further the degree of uncertainty inherent in the assessment, and so convened a meeting of external experts from government agencies and academia on 15 May. It was apparent that, although the pyre combustion, atmospheric dispersion and food chain modelling on which the assessment was based represented the best available science, there were large uncertainties in parts of the model.

  The Food Standards Agency decided to commission a programme of monitoring dioxins in food produced in the vicinity of FMD pyres to validate the risk assessment. It was, however, going to be a period of weeks before the first results from the programme were available, as any dioxins deposited to grazing land would need time to accumulate in the fat of cattle only then being put outside and be excreted into their milk, and the complex nature of analysis for dioxins at such low levels meant that analysis could take a couple of weeks. The Food Standards Agency therefore issued precautionary advice on 25 May to farmers with animals on land within 2 km of a pyre. The advice explained the risk assessment and the proposed monitoring programme, and suggested that people who consumed whole milk and whole milk products only from animals within 2 km of pyres may wish to vary their diet to include milk and milk products from other sources. Reaction to this advice was generally very positive. Notable quotes were;

    "We warmly welcome the FSA's warning. There's a very sensible application of the precautionary principle . . . we think they've done exactly the right thing in emphasising that there is a very small risk and then telling the people who are most likely to be exposed to that small risk what the situation is, so that they can make up their own minds."

  Charles Secrett, Director, Friends of the Earth, 25 May 2001

    "The risks are so incalculably small that the FSA could easily have sat on the information and said nothing . . . Instead, it has played the whole thing beautifully . . . In short, it has treated British adults as adults. It has also behaved with utmost repsonsibility on its own account and remit . . . Would that there were more public bodies like that."

    The Press and Journal (Aberdeen), 26 May 2001

  Results from the monitoring programme were published in reports issued on 5 July, 8 August and 20 September (the final report, summarising all results from the programme, is due to be published within the next couple of weeks). By the time the third report was published, results were available for 120 samples of food and animal feed, and 39 environmental samples. The Food Standards Agency considered that these available results showed that the pyres had posed no additional risk to health through the food supply. In the light of these results the Agency concluded that the precautionary advice issued on 25 May was no longer necessary.

  I will forward to you by post copies of of the precautionary advice that the Food Standards Agency issued on 25 May 2001, the report on our monitoring programme published on 20 September, and our press release lifting our precautionary advice.

  I hope that the Royal Society finds this information useful in conducting its enquiry.

Best regards,

Steve Wearne Food Standards Agency







118   Explanatory notes to section 23(2). Back


 
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