Examination of Witness

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 13th February 2020.

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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.