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Examination of Witness

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Professor Bill Keevil gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 3:00 pm, 13th February 2020

We will now hear oral evidence from Professor Bill Keevil from the University of Southampton. We have until 3.30 pm. Will you introduce yourself, please?

Professor Keevil:

Good afternoon. I am Professor Bill Keevil, professor of environmental healthcare. I head the microbiology group at the University of Southampton.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Assistant Whip, Government Whip

Q The Bill makes provision for Ministers to report periodically on food security. What do you think about that? What other food security measures might you want to see?

Professor Keevil:

To my mind, food security is the supply of wholesome, nutritious, safe food. Within that the key issue is safety. There has been a lot of discussion this afternoon about whether the UK can provide its own food. If it does not, we have to rely on imports. What is the veracity of checking the safety of those imports?

We made a short written submission to the national food survey—it may have been circulated to you—in which we talked about the microbiological safety of food, particularly from the processing point of view. It deals in particular with the chlorination of food, which has become a very contentious issue in how the UK sees its future trading relationship with countries that use that practice. Currently, the UK follows EU law, with the standing position being that they dislike chlorinating food. Their perspective is not that chlorination poses a toxic chemical risk if you ingest the food; they are more concerned about animal husbandry. As a microbiologist, I would go further and ask the question that most people have ignored until now: does chlorine actually work? Our published research shows that, in fact, it does not.

For more than 100 years, we have relied on the gold standard of examining a sample from patients, the environment or food by culturing it and growing samples in a Petri dish on a nutritious agar medium. If anything grows, something is still alive; if nothing grows, by that definition, everything must be dead. Our research and that of other groups around the world shows that that is not true; it tells us that the current methods of analysis, which help us set the standards, are not rigorous enough. We have to use modern molecular and biochemical methods, which are available, but which, by and large, have not been adopted so far.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Good afternoon, Professor Keevil. When I came to this debate a few weeks ago and started reading about it, I found the apparently contradictory claims about the safety of the various systems confusing. I was struck by your evidence, and I wondered if you could take us through it. You say at one point that it is difficult to make comparisons, but I must say that in most of our debates people make comparisons with huge amounts of confidence, depending on which side of the debate they are on. You also say that the USA reports that 14.7% of its population contracts a food-borne illness annually, while in the UK the figure is 1.5%. Could you amplify that?

Professor Keevil:

As you rightly say, when we look at the data, depending on the source, it can be difficult to interpret because of the way it is recovered. For example, in the USA, they report on infections, some of which are assumed from the evidence they have available. If you look at the reporting of the numbers of pathogens in American produce, such as poultry, they report it in terms of the answer to the question, “Does the food contain more than”—for example—“400 counts of a pathogen per gram of food?” In the UK, the Food Standards Agency reports in terms of “low”, “medium” or “high”. National surveys such as sampling from supermarkets, for example, show that 50% of poultry have very low numbers of pathogens such as a salmonella; only about 5% or 6% have food samples with over 1,000 counts of a pathogen. By those criteria, UK foods appear to be safer—but, I must stress, according to those criteria.

As I say in the written evidence, we now have this vexed question of viable but non-culturable—VBNC—bacteria. When looking at some of the published data, it is very difficult to take that into account, but the work that we and other labs have done is now telling us that we cannot ignore it. We have published our work on chlorine treatment, but we have also looked at what happens when you stress a pathogen such as listeria by depriving it of nutrients. For example, in a factory where you are washing down with tap water, the listeria can still survive, and in those conditions it can become this VBNC form. If all you are doing is regular swabbing and then reporting, you could say, “Our factory is clear of listeria.” In fact, if we used the more modern methods, that might be found to be not true.

We are really talking not just about standards now, but the standards we should adopt in the future, both in the UK and in what we would expect other countries to adopt if we are going to import food from them.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q We occasionally hear of outbreaks of food poisoning, but this is the Agriculture Bill, which relates to food only once it passes the farm gate. To what extent is the problem within agriculture and to what extent is it in the transportation, processing, storage or preparation of food?

Professor Keevil:

As you rightly to point out, it is very complex. We have to talk about the food chain, but let us look at the route which is the primary source of pathogen ingress into the food chain. To take the case of poultry, one of the issues is that some countries, including America, they have intensive rearing of poultry; they also have cattle feed lots, where animals are raised and fed in a dense community. In the UK and Europe, our husbandry standards appear to be better, poultry are reared in less intensive conditions and we do not have cattle in feed lots like the Americans do, so the animals have more space, they appear to be healthier and, from what we have seen so far, they have reduced numbers of pathogens at that stage.

Of course, you are quite correct that every step in the food chain is a potential source of contamination. If we use lorries, provided that those lorries are properly cleaned and decontaminated, that should not be an issue. When food is produced for restaurants, if the staff adopt good hygiene, they should not transmit pathogens to the customers—that has been well documented. The supermarkets are very responsible; they have a reputation to maintain—they do not want to be seen as the supermarket that poisons their customers—so they maintain very high standards.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q So is food safer now than it was, say, 10 or 20 years ago, or do we have increasing problems?

Professor Keevil:

That is a tough question, partly because all the time we are seeing pathogens emerging. For example, we have E. coli 0157, which not even been heard of 30 years ago. We have Cryptosporidium, which had not been heard of 25 years ago. We are being presented with new challenges all the time. If we look at the more conventional pathogens, however, such as salmonella, if anything British farming is doing a good job. Salmonella-contaminated eggs have virtually been eliminated under that scheme, and the quality of the poultry sold by supermarkets appears to be a lot better. These are good things.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q The Bill attempts to support innovation, and you said that you like the idea that it is environmental and sustainable. What specifically would you like to see in the Bill to support innovation and help improve supply in this country?

Professor Keevil:

The previous speaker was very concerned about the carbon footprint, and he rightly commented that the world needs NPK. The UK, if it needs NPK, has got to import it, and that means a very high carbon footprint from shipping, so that is in a way counter-intuitive.

For hundreds of years, the UK has been very good at crop rotation and the recycling of animal and human wastes. My research team has previously done work for DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency, looking at how safe composted animal manures and treated human wastes are. Our research shows that if they are treated properly, they can be recycled safely to land. That is a valuable source of NPK.

In terms of ecosystems and services, we are looking for balance and harmony. If anything, I would support more the view of the Soil Association. I think we can live in harmony, but we need to get that balance. For example, there has been a lot of concern about the availability of bees to fertilise plants. If everything was converted over to woodland, would we have sufficient banks of wildflowers to support essential insects to maintain the ecosystem? The plant life in the UK needs it; certainly, agriculture needs it. We need that balance. I think there is a role for farming in the UK.

On the impact on the environment, we still have green pleasant lands, and when you speak to visitors who come to the UK, a lot of them comment as they fly in that it is a pleasure to see well-kept farmland alongside woods, which I think is a good thing.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q Am I correct in assuming that you are very much in favour of natural, organic farming? One of the things that I am concerned about, particularly in this Bill, is that there farmers are being subjected to a lot of expectations to deliver sustainably, and as you know that costs a lot of money. Do you feel that the Bill should provide more information or support, in terms of how people can do organic farming in a way that is not going to affect us, particularly given the concerns about imported food, which will make it very difficult. Does that make sense?

Professor Keevil:

Yes, it does. As a microbiologist, I support the safe production and supply of microbiologically safe food. One of the problems is that when we import food, there is a potential issue. If that means that that food is cheaper than what can be produced by UK farmers, the Bill must address that, because otherwise they could be at a financial disadvantage. The UK has always prided itself on quality, and I know that British farmers would like to maintain that reputation for quality. Perhaps the food they supply may be a little more expensive, but in a way that can be reassuring. If it means that the customer has to pay more, that is something that the Government have to look at within the Bill. When they talk about subsidies and remuneration, can it be facilitated that farmers who produce to the highest-quality standards are in some way remunerated for that?

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

Q You spoke about the physical method for dealing with listeria and salmonella and some of these new pathogens that are emerging. Can you give us your sense of the global architecture for managing this, and what prospects you see for new global agreements on how to deliver high-quality food hygiene? Does the opportunity we now have to be part of the global trade conversation give us the opportunity to improve global standards? What are the architecture and institutions, and what is your sense of where the leadership on this is coming from globally?

Professor Keevil:

A lot of it is price driven, not surprisingly. Certain countries say, “We are in a competitive economy, and we believe we can supply food safely for a lower cost.” That is what our research and that of others is starting to challenge.

In terms of global supply, we talk a lot now about international jet travel. For example, we can travel around the world in 12 hours or what have you, hence the current problems with coronavirus, but many people forget about migratory birds. We know that some birds fly thousands of miles north and south, east and west. They can bring disease with them. That is partly why we have the problem of emerging diseases that we must be conscious of for the future. We have had concerns, for example, with avian flu and DEFRA maintained high surveillance of the farms where avian flu had an impact, to ensure that it did not decimate the poultry industry in the UK.

Those are all issues that we will have to face. We do not live in a sterile world. We have mass migration of people and particularly of wild birds. We must allow for that in all our farming practices and ecosystems services. I maintain that good husbandry practice is the way forward. The previous speaker mentioned factory production, and I agree with him in that very good supply chains are now being established for vegan burgers, much of which is produced from bacteria and fungi. That is a good thing.

Vertical farming is starting to become more prevalent. That is the horticulture where crops such as salads are grown in an aquaculture-based system, and everything is stacked up. We are now seeing very large factories where they control the quality of the water, the lighting regime and so on. That seems to be a very safe, nutritious way to produce salads. In the winter the UK imports a lot of salads from the Mediterranean countries—we used to import a lot from Kenya, but I think that is reduced now. We used to import a lot from Florida and California, and that is a carbon footprint, but if we can do more vertical farming ourselves, particularly in the winter, that is a substitute. We can get this mix of what we might call modern biotechnology with more traditional farming.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Labour, Newport West

In the Bill, there is a requirement to report on food security every five years. What are your thoughts on that timescaleQ ?

Professor Keevil:

To my mind, every five years should be the minimum frequency. That is because, as I have said, we are continually beset with emerging diseases and we have to be able to respond rapidly. The Food Standards Agency reports much more regularly than that, so in a way we already have inbuilt mechanisms to supply the information. It is true that the Bill says it should be every five years as a minimum, but I think DEFRA and the food standards agencies report more frequently. Whether that should be incorporated within the Bill is up for discussion, but we have good reporting.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Labour, Newport West

That is what I would like to have your opinion on, because obviously five years is a long time. Do you have any thoughts on the timescale? Would you make a recommendation?

Professor Keevil:

I would like to see it reported much more frequently, every year or every two years.

Photo of Sarah Elizabeth Dines Sarah Elizabeth Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

Q Professor Keevil, you make quite a bold statement in your briefing note about the 14.7% of the USA population getting food-borne illnesses every year, compared with only 1.5% in the UK. I want to ask you about your reference for that, because there is not a reference for the source of that information. That brings me on to a general question. It is quite clear that there could be a variety of other reasons for that: it could be bad storage, bad travel or bad food preparation or cooking. How reliable is this sort of statistic in a climate where we are facing going into new agreements with other countries? How reliable is that sort of information?

Professor Keevil:

That is a good question, because you will get different metrics if you go to different sources. What we tried to do with those numbers was look at the annual reporting by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. You will find the information on their website. A lot of the agencies say, “Well, these are the numbers of actual reports that we have received,” for example, through people going to hospital, to their GP and so forth, and then they apply a multiplication factor for the numbers who could have been affected but for whom the signs of disease are much less—people who do not report that they have had any disease. A lot of the information is based on those types of numbers—for example, 14% of Americans do not report to a doctor to say they have had food poisoning—but they are extrapolated. As I say, you will get different metrics depending on your source. It could be that the figure in the UK is more than 1.5%, but I do not think it is anywhere near what the Americans have extrapolated.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q We mentioned clause 17 on food security, which is new to this edition of the Bill. Do you think there is scope for an extra provision? It talks about looking at global food availability, supply sources and resilience of the supply chain. In terms of your speciality, there is a lot of concern about endocrine disrupters in food, nitrates in meat, and the overuse of antibiotics, which affects human health, through the food chain. Do you think there should be reports to Parliament on food security? It is not really about food poisoning, but about the wider health concerns about what is getting into our food supply.

Professor Keevil:

As I said at the start, the issue is very complex because food security is not just about supply; it is about whether it is nutritious, wholesome and safe. You cannot separate one from the other, so we have to be aware of the microbiological safety of the food that is being produced and consumed. The work that we and others have done shows us that our current methods of assessing safety are not adequate. That has to be recognised. As a scientist, I would always say we need more research done; I sincerely believe we do in this particular case. Knowledge improves standards, and we have to adopt and enforce the highest standards. We need better research and continual reassessment of what we are being challenged with, and perhaps the Bill can reflect that.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

It seems we have no more questions. Professor Keevil, on behalf of the Committee, I thank you for your time and answers this afternoon.