European Food Authority: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:13 pm on 23rd June 2000.

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Photo of Lord Willoughby de Broke Lord Willoughby de Broke Conservative 12:13 pm, 23rd June 2000

My Lords, I begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Selborne for his excellent chairmanship of our Committee. He was firm but fair, which are the ideal attributes of a chairman. I also join with him in thanking our clerk, Mr Radice, and our professional specialist scientific adviser, Professor James, who was so normal and level headed that I quite forgot that he was a scientist. This is a well balanced report. In view of the conflicting evidence, it was difficult to get something as sound as has been produced by my noble friend Lord Selborne. A number of different views were expressed about food safety, which I found rather confusing and conflicting.

The background Muzak to our inquiry was the loss of consumer confidence in food and food regulation in Europe and in this country, as noted by my noble friend Lord Soulsby. It was felt that the public need more scientific advice and more regulation before they can safely put food into their mouths. We heard evidence from LACOTS that we need to harmonise the implementation and enforcement of food laws. Other witnesses wanted improved systems of pan- European regulation. A group named "Scientists for Labour" said:

"An authoritative transnational body is obviously required in Europe to enforce and police standards, to ensure co-ordination of food safety policy between Member States".

Another witness, Sustain, was bang up to the minute with a demand for,

"innovative things like citizens' juries, consensus conferences, stakeholder dialogues ... (and) focus groups".

This is exciting, advanced thinking. But I think that we already have some citizens' juries.

One has only to look outside to see the evidence. There are Bunteresque masses of people stuffing their faces with food on streets, planes, buses, trains, pavements, cinemas and theatres. People are, as never before, eating burgers, frankfurters, pizzas, chocolate, ice cream, sandwiches, and even the deadly doner kebab--which is quite acceptable as long as one knows who the "donor" is! Therefore, I see no pent up demand for consumer conferences or indeed for stakeholder dialogue, unless the word "stakeholder" is spelt rather differently.

The demand for more regulatory bodies seems to come from consumer organisations and special interest pressure groups which need to believe, and need to make others believe, that there is indeed a crisis in consumer confidence. In this respect, I include the Commission, which in its White Paper states:

"Public confidence in food safety is badly affected by food alerts and crises".

Exactly so. It is all too often the case that hyped alarms and crises affect people rather than the food itself.

Where is the evidence that people believe that food is unsafe? I see very little evidence; indeed, rather to the contrary. We have compelling evidence from the British Hospitality Association. Its members serve nearly 9 billion meals a year without any serious illness among the people who consume all that food. If food is seen as such a risk, why is eating out now such a growth area? Why cannot one get a table at a restaurant? Why are more and more restaurants opening all the time? These matters are not at all consistent with the arguments that there is a massive crisis in consumer confidence.

In Britain--more statistics, I am afraid--people eat about 60 billion meals per year, of which about 200 people die from food-related diseases, including CJD. That suggests to me that there is a far greater risk of being killed or injured by a police car on one's way to dinner than actually eating that dinner. Surely we ought to retain a sense of proportion about this before calling for yet another food authority and another layer of bureaucracy, at vast expense and with probably little gain, except to the army of scientists, regulators, lawyers and bureaucrats, whose jobs, salaries, pensions and research grants often depend on the illusion of maintaining a spectre of food scares.

It seems to me that there is a food scare industry, just as there is a human rights industry, which is largely self-referential. Both are dependent upon persuading the public that another layer of expensive legal bureaucracy is vital to the freedom and safety of the individual. Indeed, they do not seem to have any regard to the reality which can be seen on the streets to the individual or to the industries that are involved.

An illustration of that can be found in the Meat Hygiene Service, which is busy destroying the perfectly worthwhile industry of raw meat. We have had compelling evidence that there is no risk from raw meat, as everyone seems to realise, because raw meat is cooked. But this is now at European level. This British Government seem powerless to change it. When anyone complains about it, we are told that we are merely fulfilling our treaty obligations. Under the guise of treaty obligations, a whole industry is being knocked on the head. I am nervous about the introduction of a European food authority which will give more power to more people to do exactly the same thing over a much wider field.

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the various food scares of the past few years. We had the Edwina Currie salmonella sensation; listeria in cheese; cancer in Perrier water; and, of course, the beef-on-the-bone fiasco, which encouraged many people to break the law because everyone realised that the Government were talking absolute rubbish. These are just examples of the classic scares, which did not, I believe, cause any deaths in particular.

We then had the unfortunate Barr case in Scotland, with E-coli, as a result of which, sadly, people did die. There was also the Belgian dioxin scare, where no one died. Those cases were due to the failure of the existing regulations and systems and did not in any way demonstrate the need for something different. The inspectorate that dealt with the Barr incident was at fault, as was Mr Barr, the butcher involved. Such incidents do not call for a new system; they call for existing systems to be much better implemented.

Therefore, I respectfully ask noble Lords: why do we need another layer of expensive bureaucracy, when all the evidence suggests that we do not need one? The Commission's White Paper states that,

"the European food chain is one of the safest in the world".

If that is the case--hooray! But why do we need something else? It does not seem to me that the case has yet been made.

In its written evidence to us, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said:

"It is a fundamental principle that greatest management control and highest accountability and consumer assurance are achieved when the points of control and assurance are located close to the processes that need to be controlled".

I am in absolute agreement with that view. In its White Paper, the Commission says:

"Greater transparency at all levels is the golden thread throughout the White Paper".

But, as I believe our special adviser, Professor James, so sensibly observed, the Commission would not recognise transparency if it fell over it. He did not actually say those words, he said:

"Commission officials literally do not understand the process of transparency".

It seems transparent to me that the case has not remotely been made out for handing over more power to the Commission. Consumers are already very well protected by UK food law and by World Health Organisation surveillance programmes. Until it has been established that a European food authority would seriously add value to consumer safety, I believe that the idea should be quietly shelved. The Commission should be reminded of the wise words of its past president; namely, that it should do less but do it better.