Examination of Witness

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:57 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Sue Davies gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 4:29 pm, 13th February 2020

We have until 5pm for evidence from the representative of Which? Welcome. Could you introduce yourself?

Sue Davies:

Good afternoon. My name is Sue Davies. I am head of consumer protection and food policy at Which?.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q The Bill sets a different course for the future of agriculture policy, so it will be much more about payment for the delivery of public goods than arbitrary area-based subsidies. Are you generally supportive of that approach? I know there are one or two other things that you think have been missed. Perhaps you could explain what those are to the Committee.

Sue Davies:

May I start by saying congratulations on your appointment, Mr Eustice?

We support the public money for public goods approach. We think it is the right way to go, but there is a real opportunity to put more about consumers—the people who will ultimately be eating the food—in the Bill. There is a range of ways in which that could be done. We have a real opportunity to redesign agriculture policy to make sure that we have a much more joined-up approach to food and farming policy in general. We welcome the commitment to the national food strategy, for example, as part of that.

The public money for the public goods that are included is really important, but we would also like to see a stronger focus on other consumer benefits, particularly in relation to food safety, public health and reducing antibiotic resistance. When talking about productivity and increasing food production, we fine that people care so much about food. We have done lots of consumer research over the years. In the last couple of years, we have particularly focused on asking people about food standards.

People expect the UK to have really high standards and that, if anything, we will build on the standards that we have at the moment. We talk about productivity, and we want it done in a way that meets consumer expectations. We would also like to see a more general commitment to upholding high food standards in the Bill.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q To come back to that point, the view we took when drafting the Bill—I am interested in why you take a different view—is that the payment for public goods could involve things such as reduced pesticide use and reduced antibiotic use, because animal health and welfare is in there. By targeting those public goods in some areas, there would be a consequential benefit for public health, because of the nature of the food production.

There is a separate area that is about public health campaigns, healthy eating and food standards, but obviously measures are already in place through the Food Safety Act 1990 and the work that the NHS does to encourage healthy eating. Our view is that we do not want to duplicate work that is already present in other fields and is the responsibility of other Departments.

Sue Davies:

I can see that to some extent, but there is a real opportunity to integrate public health much more in farming practices. A good example of that is the work the Food Standards Agency did a couple of years ago to try to reduce campylobacter rates in chickens. We have regulation to some extent around that to try to control the practices that are used, but it was only by incentivising action throughout the supply chain—in that case, by the Food Standards Agency doing a retail survey, where it was, in effect, naming and shaming retailers by showing how campylobacter levels compared—that that led to co-operation across the supply chain to look at what measures could be put in place. That included measures in slaughterhouses as well as a strong on-farm focus, such as looking at biosecurity measures and what happens in relation to thinning.

It is that kind of approach that we feel should be included, and certainly the opportunity to do it should not be excluded. Some things will require regulation, and we definitely think they should be regulated, but it is a mix of using regulation and wider incentives to raise best practice. For issues such as antibiotic use, there is an opportunity to try to incentivise the reduced use of antibiotics again, on top of the legislative requirements that we have.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Q There is an animal health provision there, which opens the prospect of healthy livestock accredited schemes that farmers could sign up to, which might be all about reduced antibiotic use or different stocking densities in poultry. That is all possible under the existing powers, so I am trying to get my head around what additional powers you feel are needed over and above the objectives that we have.

Sue Davies:

It is certainly really positive that that is in there, but if there are specific measures where the main goal is focused on human health, rather than animal health, that should be included in the Bill. Ultimately, the Bill will determine the types of food choices we have as consumers and the sorts of standards to which our food is produced. Obviously, a lot of other policies will have an impact on that, but we think this is a real opportunity to shape our food system in a positive way that works for consumers as well as farmers. We should not miss these really good opportunities to include that in the Bill at this point.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Good afternoon. May I add my congratulations to the new Secretary of State? We obviously do not want to be too nice about him and set him off to a bad start, but he is clearly a popular choice.

Ms Davies, I am bound to ask you the question that I have asked virtually every other witness: from a consumer’s point of view, what would be the impact of allowing imports produced to lower standards? I think I can probably guess the answer, because it has been very consistent across all our witnesses. At the end of the whole chain, particularly with ready meals and so on, do you feel that consumers know enough in the current system? Could we not do more through the Bill to lift standards, particularly on antibiotics and so on?

Sue Davies:

I think your food standards question is really important and shows why we need to make sure that we have a joined-up policy. This will have a big impact on the sorts of choices that consumers can make, but if we do not address other policies, particularly trade policy, it could completely undermine all the positive things that we are trying to achieve with the Bill.

As I mentioned, we know from our consumer research that people have really high expectations on food standards. Some 93% of people said they expect that food standards will be maintained, and ideally people think they should be enhanced now that we have left the EU. People do not expect cheaper imports to come in and undercut our producers. People want to support UK producers, particularly of products such as meat and dairy, so the tariff schedule that has come out is interesting. All of that has to be joined up to make sure that we are not trading away our standards and potentially bringing in safety issues, or allowing production methods that we know consumers do not find acceptable.

We saw with the horsemeat scare that food has many different aspects. Some are about safety, and others are cultural—people just do not want to eat food that is produced in certain ways. We have been doing a lot of survey work and we know that around eight in 10 people have concerns about eating hormone-treated beef. A similar number have concerns about food produced using antibiotic growth promoters. Those practices are used in some of the countries with which we will seek to reach trade deals—hormones in the case of the US, Australia and New Zealand. We absolutely have to ensure that trade policy builds on our current standards. If anything, we are looking to improve our standards rather than allow them to deteriorate or accept lower quality imports that will make it very difficult for UK producers to produce to the standards that consumers expect.

We have also asked about labelling issues, because sometimes it is suggested that people can decide if you just label everything. People feel strongly about it and do not think that labelling is the solution. That applies to people across all socioeconomic groups; it is not just better-off customers who can make this sort of choice. We think it is really important that there is something in the Bill that makes it clear that we should maintain and build on our food standards.

We have asked people what they think about labelling, and they generally tell us that they think the labelling information is about right, but when you ask people about where improvements might be made, they talk about things such as helping people to make more sustainable choices and improved animal welfare labelling. There is scope to look at how we can improve that by building on the labelling information that we have already. One area that we know people feel strongly about is the traffic light nutritional labelling system, which we would like to be made mandatory when we have the opportunity to legislate to do so.

Photo of Fay Jones Fay Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q I have a question on food production standards and imports. The Agriculture Bill applies largely to England only, although there are bits and pieces that pertain to the devolved nations. Would food production standards and imports not be covered by international trade? Is the Agriculture Bill the right place for it?

Sue Davies:

We can put it in this Bill and in the trade Bill. This is about agriculture and how we incentivise food production, and a vision for agriculture in the UK. The approach that we take to trade will have a huge impact on how we are able to deliver that, and it will have huge implications for the support that needs to be provided to farmers and how we incentivise standards. There is a strong link between the two.

We think there should definitely be something in the Bill recognising, at a principled level, that this is what UK food production is about. It should also recognise that, on the one hand, we need to ensure that we maintain high standards that meet consumers’ expectations at a national level and, on the other hand, that we will take a strong stance to ensure we are not trading away those food standards to get the many other benefits we might get through trade deals. It should not be about losing food standards to get those benefits.

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

Q Thank you for that, Sue. I want to follow up on your comments about food standards, specifically on labelling. How far do you want the Bill to go? Obviously, this starts from the beginning. Do you see soil as part of consumers’ concerns, in terms of what type of soil is used and how it is preserved, or do they essentially just want to know about how the food is labelled?

Sue Davies:

I suppose that reinforces your question in a way. Ultimately, things like soil health will feed through into the quality of the food that we eat as consumers. That is why we must ensure that there is recognition that the way we produce food has huge implications for consumers, both in terms of their health and their preferences. Most people will not think about soil when you ask them about food, but it will have an indirect impact on them.

At a more principled level, when we are talking about public money for public goods, we should recognise that public health and food safety are important. There is a range of different mechanisms. Some things are obvious, such as the promotion of fruit and vegetables, but as we are looking at how food is produced and the production methods that are used, it is important that there is a clear steer that public health and food safety must also be at the heart of that.

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

Q The Food Standards Agency looks into the standards in food production. Are there elements of that that you think should be incorporated into the Bill to embellish it?

Sue Davies:

Including provisions that enable financial assistance for food safety and public health measures, such as the reduced use of antibiotics, feeds through into the things the Food Standards Agency is trying to achieve. That then allows sufficient flexibility.

I mentioned the example of campylobacter because that has been a big priority. It is the main type of food poisoning in the UK. Most of it comes from chickens. We have been struggling to reduce its level for years. We have made progress in recent years by taking the farm-to-fork approach. We need to recognise that a lot of things that manifest at the end of the food chain originate in production. Giving the flexibility to be able to provide financial assistance and incentivise those kinds of measures is really important. The Food Standards Agency will then need to work with DEFRA and others in defining what those might be and what sort of indicators you might want to include, in terms of the monitoring that is set out in the Bill.

Photo of Sarah Dines Sarah Dines Conservative, Derbyshire Dales

Q Ms Davies, your organisation, Which?, has historically been a champion for consumer choice. I want to ask you what your position is. From your written statement, it seems like you are proposing a form of protectionism against certain imports based on standards, but with a lack of clarity, I would suggest. Does that not deny the consumer a choice and potentially make food a lot more expensive for the consumer?

Sue Davies:

We are certainly not protectionist and we are certainly in favour of consumer choice. However, it is about enabling people to make meaningful choices and the types of choices that we want. We also base what we say and what we call for on consumer research—talking to people and understanding their perspectives. Over the last couple of decades, we have been talking to people about food a lot, but in the last three years we have had a regular tracker and have been asking a lot about food standards.

We are just in the process of doing some more research, for which we are going to do a series of public dialogues around the country, particularly focused on trade deals and what some of the opportunities of those could be, as well as some of the issues over which people might have concerns. It will look at food standards, but also at things like digital services and opportunities for a wide range of cheaper products. We know from the research we have done to date that people feel very strongly about food production methods and would have concerns if food was allowed to come in with reduced, cheaper standards that undermined the standards and choices we have at the moment.

I do not think it is about reducing people’s choice. It is about enabling people to have an informed choice, and about enabling everybody to have a choice. At the moment, we have regulation and standards that underpin everything that everybody buys, whatever their income level. If it suddenly becomes the case that only those who can afford it can have the type of standards we have at the moment, and other people have to have lower standards, that would certainly be a completely retrograde step.

We are starting from a point where we have good standards, and we are about to start negotiating trade deals, so we need to be really clear in those objectives about where food fits. We need to look at the opportunities for food and other things that we might gain in those trade deals, but also to be really clear about where we will not compromise. Things such as food safety and quality and animal welfare come out from our research as things that people do not think we should compromise on.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Labour, Newport West

Q I am sure you are aware that the national food strategy will be published shortly. How do you think that will complement the Bill? The strategy is coming out after the Bill has been published. Will the two marry up? We obviously do not know yet what it will contain.

Sue Davies:

We are really pleased that the national food strategy is being developed. In a way, it is incredible that we have not really got a clear vision for food and how it should be produced, so we think that is really valuable. The way it is being conducted, with public dialogues and citizens’ assemblies, is a really inclusive process, and will hopefully look at the breadth of issues and the many different interests involved in food policy.

As you say, ideally you would have your food policy, and you would then have your agriculture policy, your trade policy and your environment policy; they should all be complementary. Obviously things are working to different timescales, so we need to make sure that the Bill allows for the breadth of issues that agriculture can be impacted by. That is why, as part of that national food strategy, we think it is important that food delivers for consumers and that we tackle some of the challenges in the food system, whether that is climate change, dealing with obesity or food security issues.

We realise that there is limited scope within the Bill, compared with the strategy, but we should take every opportunity to make sure that we put the right incentives in the Bill to deliver on those wider things that matter to people.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Labour, Newport West

Q Is there anything missing from the Bill, in terms of strengthening it or in terms of the national food strategy?

Sue Davies:

Obviously Which? would say this, but it is really surprising that consumers are not featured in the Bill, when ultimately the Bill will shape the types of food choices we will have, potentially for decades. It is really important to make sure that the Bill recognises that we ultimately produce food to meet the needs and expectations of consumers, and to have a market where people want to buy the products. That is why we think we should ensure that the public money for public goods area is aligned with consumer needs and benefits, particularly public health and food safety. If we are talking about productivity and producing more food, we should recognise that that has to be done in a way that meets consumers’ expectations; not by using production methods that mean people will ultimately not want to buy or eat the food. That is where having that commitment to food standards in the Bill is really important.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Two of the objectives of the Bill are improving plant health and reducing or protecting from environmental hazards. Groundbreaking work is obviously being done on plant breeding. For example, potatoes may not need to be sprayed every 10 days for potato blight, and there are potatoes that are potato cyst nematode resistant. Some of that may use gene editing. Do you think consumers know enough about these issues to have a view, or do you think that if it is presented in the right way, they may see that the upsides cancel out the downsides and their prejudices?

Sue Davies:

We have done a lot of consumer research over the years and have talked to people about their attitudes to different food technologies. About three or four years ago, we did quite a big project with Sir Mark Walport and the Government Office for Science looking at food system challenges and carrying out public dialogues in different parts of the country. What comes out from those dialogues and our wider research is that people really want to have a more open discussion about what the risks and benefits are. It seems that people do not really know enough about it. They want to be convinced that, if technologies are being used, they are being looked at in the full range of possibilities and alternatives. People are more nervous about technologies like gene editing than, say, the use of precision agriculture. Often in these debates, we start from the technology and look at how it can be used, rather than looking at what the problem is, what the range of options is, and why we are deciding that that is the right approach.

The other thing that comes across really clearly is that people expect there to be strong, independent oversight. It is concerning that when we talk about the use of technologies, you often hear some people call for deregulation and less oversight, when all our experience is to the contrary: you do not want to over-regulate and have an overly burdensome system, but people want to know that things are being done in the public interest, and that there is a clear understanding of any safety issues or wider environmental risks before we go down the route of using some of these technologies.

People are open to technology, but they want to know exactly why it is being used and whether it is the best approach. The only way to do that is that to make sure that, if we are looking at using these technologies, there is proper public engagement and understanding of them. The retailers and others in the food industry are obviously key, in terms of their understanding of whether people would want to buy products produced using these methods.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Is there any reason why people are much more open to these types of advances in medicine, for example, than in food production? It seems that they are happy to go right to the cutting edge of technology, in terms of the treatment of genetic conditions, but somehow this is different.

Sue Davies:

All the research shows that it is quite a straightforward risk-benefit analysis. If you are ill, you will take something that you think is more risky but might make you better. If it is about maintaining health, people expect there to be a higher barrier.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q Some groups are talking about method of slaughter labelling. Does Which? have a view? Would the consumers you deal with find that useful?

Sue Davies:

It is not something that we have carried out any research on, to be honest. It is not something that we have particularly worked on. As I say, when we have asked people about labelling information, most of them feel that we have quite a good level of information. Certainly, the areas that come out most strongly where people would like more clarity are things like making more sustainable choices. Animal welfare issues are important. We did a report in the last issue of Which? that looked at the different assurance schemes that are available to help you make sustainable choices. They all covered different elements of sustainability, so it is difficult for a scheme to help you make a choice. There is a lot more scope in that sort of area to improve labelling. Method of slaughter is not something that we have asked about recently.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q There is some quite misleading packaging. There was the whole issue of Tesco and its fake farms—it had pictures of cows frolicking in meadows, when they had never seen the sunlight. I am not saying that that was simply about Tesco, but the farms that Tesco had on its products did not actually exist.

Sue Davies:

I think there are still cases where the way foods are presented does not meet the actual way they are produced. When we ask people about their expectations, though, people are often surprised: they may think that welfare standards are higher than they actually are, and then when you explain, they are often quite surprised about what is the minimum—what is free range, what is organic or whatever. It is certainly an area where people want more information.

We also did a report on chicken welfare in, I think, the November issue of Which? and it was quite interesting to ask the different retailers about their stocking densities for chickens and to see the variation, even within the current legal framework, between individual retailers. That went down very well; I think people found it very useful information.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q Do you think that, in terms of the consumer side of things, that would be more an issue for the food strategy? I think there will be quite a focus in that on—

Sue Davies:

It is really good that in the Bill there is, obviously, the potential for financial assistance, and animal welfare is a clear criterion for that. I think that that is right. Whether it is in the Bill or the food strategy, I think there needs to be a mechanism to look at how we improve labelling.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Labour, Bristol East

Q I suppose the Bill is encouraging more humane production methods and so on, and the food strategy is making sure, at the consumer end of things and the marketing end of things, that farmers can be rewarded through the market as well. They would be rewarded twice: once through public money for public goods, but also through people being prepared to pay a little bit more because they trust that something has genuinely been produced to better standards.

Sue Davies:

I suppose that the Bill will also cover the marketing standards that fall under the common agricultural policy, which cover everything from breakfast products like jams to poultry. So there is an element within the Bill where that could be covered. We have had concerns that the marketing standards under the common agricultural policy have been developed very separately from other food standards and very much from a producer-only perspective, rather than by thinking about what the end consumer might want. I think that there is an opportunity, if we are reviewing any of those standards, to make sure that they are meeting consumer needs as well.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

If there are no more questions, let me thank you on behalf of the Committee for the evidence that you have given this afternoon. Thank you very much.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(James Morris.)

Adjourned till Tuesday 25 February at twenty-five minutes past Nine o’clock.

Written evidence to be reported to the House

AB14 Arla Foods UK

AB15 Anglian Water Services Ltd

AB16 Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK)


AB18 Scottish Land & Estates

AB19 Sustain

AB20 Myra Bennett, British Horse Society County Access Officer, Wiltshire

AB21 Public Health Policy Evaluation Unit, School of Public Health, Imperial College London

AB22 Dairy UK