European Food Authority: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:03 pm on 23rd June 2000.

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Photo of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Conservative 12:03 pm, 23rd June 2000

My Lords, this House should be grateful to my noble friend Lord Selborne for bringing before us this report on the Commission's White Paper on food safety. Having been concerned with food safety in an earlier part of my life, the report is particularly pertinent and of interest to me.

Of course, food and its safety are essential issues in the daily lives of us all. But safety can be compromised at numerous points along the food chain, from the basic supply (the farmer, for example) through manufacturing and retailing to the table or kitchen, and finally to the dinner plate. Hence surveillance and enforcement at all those stages is increasingly complicated.

The food chain is complex and made even more so by the fact that we now have a global market. Whereas production methods may be adequate in this country and the European Union, that may not be so for food coming from elsewhere. Nor can health standards be amenable to inspection or, indeed, to enforcement to the same level that exists within the European Union. For example, the attractively packaged soft fruit from distant lands may bear unseen burdens of noxious agents due to irrigation or washing with water contaminated by sewage. That has been found to be an important issue in the United States with materials from central and South America.

Despite the establishment of food standards authorities in several European Union member states, all purporting to aim at a high level of safety, there is nevertheless a clear need for harmonisation of procedures and methodologies used and for a transparent and open regulatory system. It is also important to be clear what the food standards authority will be responsible for--clear not only at the top end, to the administrators and directors, but also at the bottom end to those who will be at the cutting edge of safeguarding the food chain, the food inspectors, the meat inspectors and so forth.

The White Paper states that food safety is the overriding objective. Hence, there should be an avoidance of issues that have no direct relevance to food safety, even though in themselves they are important. For example, I am the last person to negate the importance of animal welfare in general, but I do not believe it is an important issue when considering food safety. Other examples are nutrition and food quality. I can assure your Lordships that decision making at the bottom end, on issues of safety, can become extremely clouded if nutrition and quality have to be part of the assessment. Similarly, environmental issues are not directly related. Nor, for that matter, are issues relating to genetically modified organisms. For those reasons I support the opinion expressed in paragraph 108 that,

"the EFA's role should ... be primarily focused on food safety", and subject to close liaison with the Food and Veterinary Office as expressed in paragraph 104.

A further important reason why it should focus its interest is that there is already an abundance of food safety issues to be addressed; and if scientific excellence is "the overriding goal", as stated in paragraph 116, then in-depth concentration on those factors must be the goal in collaboration with other agencies.

I give an example of such an issue. The food chain is well recognised as the source of enteric infections, particularly antibiotic-resistant organisms, which can cause either direct illness as a result of, for example, resistant salmonella, or indirectly by passing on antibiotic resistance to the commensal organisms in the human intestine which is then passed on to noxious or harmful organisms. But we do not know the extent of this environmental pool of resistant organisms. We have no quick test for detecting it, and we cannot detect it in food or meat inspection.

Following the House of Lords Select Committee report on resistance to antibiotics, which I had the honour to chair, there has been very useful action by the Department of Health and other agencies, the World Health Organisation and the Copenhagen Declaration. There is to be set up a new expert advisory committee on antimicrobial resistance. The over-arching committee, which was recommended 30 years ago by the Swann Committee, and reiterated by the recent Select Committee report on antibiotic resistance, is now being established and will, I am sure, perform a very useful service.

This is an example of excellence being combined with surveillance and a detailed knowledge of, for example, antibiotic resistance. An important point to be considered is the surveillance of food safety. The development of quick and accurate detection tests in collaboration with some well known agencies, such as the Public Health Laboratory Service surveillance unit and the World Health Organisation, should provide a very effective, in-depth and well regarded scientific approach--an approach characterised by scientific excellence.

Finally, I turn to the question of consumer confidence in the field of food safety and the regulation of it, which has sadly slipped in recent years. However, I believe that it can be regained, based on top class science, whatever its source, adequate peer review, publication of such science and a transparency of the work and the implications of the work that has been taking place. I believe that at that point consumer confidence will return.