Committee for Agriculture
and Rural Development
Friday 11 October 2002
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Inquiry into Foot-and-Mouth Disease
(Food Standards Agency)
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Rev Dr Ian Paisley (Chairperson)
Mr Savage (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Morris McAllister ) Food Standards Agency
Mr Gerry McCurdy )
The Committee welcomes Mr Morris McAllister and Mr Gerry McCurdy from the Food Standards Agency. We are sorry that this is our last meeting for a while. A sword hangs over us and we do not want it to pierce you fellows, because you are innocent parties. We have some matters to clear up. If you make a statement, the Committee will ask questions.
Thank you for your invitation; I am grateful for the opportunity of speaking to the Committee. The Food Standards Agency is a United Kingdom non-ministerial department with headquarters in London and offices in Aberdeen, Cardiff and Belfast. The agency is responsible for ensuring that food is safe and that public health and consumer interests are protected in matters concerning food. Our focus is clearly consumer-oriented.
I am the director in Northern Ireland, and I am pleased to be accompanied by Gerry McCurdy, who is the head of professional services in the Belfast office; by Trevor Williamson, the principal environmental health officer; and by Jim Ross, the principal vet. They will answer technical questions.
The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development handled the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Northern Ireland very well in difficult circumstances. That does not mean that all was perfect; perfection is, after all, rare indeed. I will confine my comments largely to the activities of the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland; they do not reflect the totality of the agency's work across the United Kingdom.
On learning of the first cases of the disease in Essex in February 2001, the agency moved swiftly to reassure the public by issuing a press release advising that the disease was an animal health problem and posed no threat to food safety or to public health.
The Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland, through the chairman of the Northern Ireland Advisory Committee Mr Michael Walker, and senior officials, responded to concerns about risks to the food chain by dealing with media enquiries through TV and local radio appearances and in the press. The central message was straightforward: foot-and-mouth disease is an animal health problem, not a public health problem. There is no evidence to suggest that foot-and-mouth disease in animals has ever caused illness in humans. Consumers were not at risk and meat and milk produced and on sale in Northern Ireland was safe to eat. An advisory letter was also issued to district councils, which have food safety and other public health functions.
Like others, the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland had to review its activities in the light of foot-and-mouth disease. An important element in controlling foot-and-mouth disease is restricting access to farms. In order to assist the Department of Agriculture in its control strategy, particularly in reducing access to agricultural land, the agency suspended its routine shellfish monitoring programme in Lough Foyle, as sampling officers had to cross farmland to get to sampling points. Those practices could not continue during the outbreak.
Milk and dairy products for export from Northern Ireland required veterinary certification. This certification guaranteed other countries that Northern Ireland exports were produced in hygienic conditions and had been treated to prevent the survival of micro-organisms that could spread foot-and-mouth disease.
Several of the establishments engaged in export were under the control of the environmental health departments of district councils rather than the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. In order to facilitate the export trade, the Department, the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland and district councils agreed that environmental health officers would provide written assurances to the Department's veterinary service about the conditions of manufacture at establishments and that product was eligible for export.
A difficulty in communication arose between the Department and district councils in the use of documentation, guidance on completion of documentation and returns to the Department's veterinary service. In this case, departmental communication to district councils was ad hoc rather than planned and entered the local government system at different levels. That caused confusion and prevented the system from working as smoothly as it should have.
To regularise the situation and to avoid confusion and delay, the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland intervened and established, with senior departmental management, the appropriate channel of communications with district councils. That channel was through the group environmental health system, which was proven and well tested in food alerts. Once adopted by the Department, it resolved most of the communication difficulties with district councils.
There was concern about the pyres used to burn animal carcasses. Although foot-and-mouth disease is not a public health problem, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety recognised that dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB)-like dioxins from animal pyres could cause public health problems.
The Department of Health in London carried out an assessment of the risks to human health via diet. The assessment, which was based on a mathematical model, showed that exposure was likely to be minor compared with background exposure via the rest of the diet. Dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs are unwanted by-products of some industrial processes and may be released during all burning processes - even burning a fire at home can produce them - and that includes the burning of animal carcasses. They can cause cancers and are therefore of public health significance. They are widespread and long-lived in the environment and are present in low concentrations in most foods, but generally not enough to cause public health concern.
The Food Standards Agency was keen to investigate the degree of uncertainty in the model. The assessment was based on a mathematical model, and, as with most mathematical models, assumptions are made and the answers that the model produces depend on whether the assumptions are correct. We were concerned that the assumptions might not have been correct, so we examined the model. We engaged outside experts to assist with our assessment, and a sampling programme was set up to monitor PCBs in food produced in the vicinity of pyres to validate the model.
As there would be a delay in obtaining the results of sampling, because it was a complex analytical process and took a long time, we issued precautionary advice to farmers who had animals on land within two kilometres of the pyres. Farmers were advised that if they consumed milk or milk products solely from their own farm, they should vary their diet with milk from other sources to minimise risk.
The selection of sample sites was important. Sample sites were selected on a risk basis, and in Northern Ireland four farms were sampled around Meigh in County Down near six small pyres. None of the pyres here was as big as the pyres across the water where many more cattle, pigs and sheep were burned at large sites. Our problem was never on the same scale as the one across the water. The results were reassuring; dioxin concentrations were considered not to pose additional risk to health through the food chain. The advice to farmers was, therefore, withdrawn at that stage.
Although foot-and-mouth disease is an animal rather than a public health issue, the Food Standards Agency had a significant role to play during the outbreak in reassuring consumers on food safety and in carrying out the necessary risk assessments, facilitating export trade and co-ordinating communication between various layers of government. Lessons to be learnt for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development include early communication and engagement with other Departments and improved communications with the district councils.
Finally, although it was suggested that the outbreak was caused by imported meat, that has not been proven. However, imported foods could pose a risk to animal and public health and the Government is considering how the present controls may be strengthened. We await the outcome of the deliberations, which are being co-ordinated by the Cabinet Office.
Your submission refers to an action plan to improve liaison between the Food Standards Agency, enforcement authorities and central government to address safety concerns about imported food. The PricewaterhouseCoopers report on foot-and-mouth disease made five recommendations on port and airport controls. Is the Food Standards Agency aware of them? If so, what progress has been made on implementing them, and how does the agency's plan fit in with the recommendations? What recommendations would ensure that controls on imported food products are as stringent as resources and legislation allow? My Committee is anxious that contingency arrangements are in place so that the country would be well prepared for another outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
That is fundamentally important. The agency is well aware of the risks and problems that it encounters with imported foods, not only those that are imported through the commercial chain, but also through unsavoury bits of meat that people bring in from other countries. Controlling that is not straightforward and is exercising government at the highest levels. The Cabinet Office is co-ordinating a review into the controls on imported foods. However, I am not aware of how that is progressing, and I cannot say much about it. The agency has made suggestions, but it cannot say whether the Government will adopt them.
The agency's 10-point plan to address the difficulties with imported foods has been implemented. The agency has set up an imported food unit, because the enforcement authorities did not know whether imported foods were the concern of the Food Standards Agency or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) - formerly the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There is now stronger co-ordination between DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency in training authorised officers to enforce imported foods controls and to examine facilities at airports to improve detection. For example, officers at Heathrow Airport use two sniffer dogs that have been specially trained to detect imported meat products.
The agency is also examining how the powers of enforcement officers could be improved. For example, one of the main problems facing enforcement officers is that of personal imports, and pressure has been brought to bear on the European Union to deal with the problem. It has recognised that it is a problem, and all personal imports will be banned from 1 January 2003.
The Food Standards Agency and DEFRA have run joint campaigns to advise the public of the dangers of importing food. They have spoken to travel agents and on television programmes to raise awareness that such imports can cause animal health and, on occasions, public health problems.
We must protect Northern Ireland's livestock and maintain high food standards. You say that it has not been proven that the disease was introduced in swill, so how was it introduced? How can the agency guarantee that there will be no further outbreaks, whether as a result of swill or livestock imports? As we do not know how it was introduced we do not know what to look for.
There has been strong suspicion that it might have been brought in in imported foods. As I said earlier, that has not been proven; nevertheless, we must tighten import controls as far as possible. Although animal health is an extremely important issue, it is not one for the Food Standards Agency. However, controls designed to prevent dangerous organisms on meat being brought into this country will also help to prevent animal health diseases as well as human health diseases. Our focus will be on public and human health rather than on animal health. The proposals that Mr McCurdy outlined will help to reduce the risk as far as possible.
There are no guarantees in life; I cannot promise you that these provisions will prevent this ever happening again. I am afraid that I cannot give you that assurance.
I am sure that other European countries are as worried as we are; their communities will want to ensure that they have high food standards. What are they doing? Have you been in contact with them to study their criteria and how they are considering the problem?
There are two issues; one relates to food production in member states. European Community law applies to all member states, setting down the basic objectives of hygiene and the standards that must be met. All member states must comply with them. The Food and Veterinary Office of the European Commission carries out checks to ensure that those standards are being met.
The second, and probably more important, aspect is the import of foodstuffs into the European Community. You will have heard about bush meat coming in from Africa. Controls ensure that animal products entering the United Kingdom or any other member state in the European Community must go through border inspection posts; those are the only legal points of entry into the European Community. One hundred per cent checks are carried out on the documentation for imports at those points of entry. There are also physical checks, and samples are taken. That is the main control mechanism that the European Community and the United Kingdom have in place to minimise illegal imports. However, it is extremely difficult to police someone who wants to engage in illegal activity.
Is it not true that foot-and-mouth disease could be introduced by an individual bringing food in without the authorities' knowledge, and that is why we need sniffer dogs and controls?
Yes, and we are trialling certain activities at airports to minimise personal imports coming through the system.
You say that your responsibility was to reassure people about food safety during the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Farmers, and perhaps yourselves, were caught out by foot-and-mouth; it was a surprise to us all. Is there a need for closer co-operation between farmers and vets? In the past, we were told that a good farmer had the vet walk his stock every few months to discuss matters. That no longer happens because of the pressure on farmers and vets. Would that be necessary? Perhaps we could have meetings to discuss such issues further and to inform farmers. It was difficult at the time to know whether we had foot-and-mouth disease or not. Should that be followed up?
Routine visits to farms by veterinarians would be more likely to pick up problems, instead of calling the veterinarian only when the farmer thinks that something may be wrong. Such routine measures are worth considering. However, whether the resources would be available and who would have to pay for such measures are moot points.
It may prove cheaper in the long run.
Given the cost to the Exchequer of foot-and-mouth disease, it would certainly be worth considering.
Commissioner Byrne said that the European Commission believes that emergency vaccination should be considered immediately if there were further outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. This is related to the ability to distinguish between vaccinated animals and those infected with the disease. Should vaccination be the primary tool for controlling outbreaks or should slaughter and disposal remain control policy? Would consumers believe that vaccinated animals were safe to eat?
The Food Standards Agency's focus is on public health when considering controls and approval systems for the use of medicine. Provided that all the checks and balances have been properly applied and that it has been shown that the vaccine and the meat from a vaccinated animal were safe, we would be happy to agree to vaccination. It seems clear that the public was confused about the matter. Many still wonder why those animals were slaughtered and burnt. Apart from other considerations, there is a major communication problem to be redressed. As I say, provided the vaccine had passed all the necessary checks, the Food Standards Agency would be happy with it.
It is important that from "farm to fork" there is no doubt about the safety of vaccinated meat. Everyone saw the fires, and many wondered whether they were necessary; they thought that there must be a better way of dealing with the disease. People such as you can allay those fears.
The agency considered the three vaccines available for controlling foot-and-mouth disease. As those vaccines were developed without live viruses and contained no chemicals that posed a risk to public health, the agency was content that they were perfectly suitable for use. Whether the vaccine would be an effective way of controlling the disease from an animal health perspective is another matter. However, there is no risk to public health.
The difficulty lies with the Government's proving to consumers that vaccinated meat is safe, because people will wonder why millions of animals were slaughtered and burnt. People have a sense of revulsion, because they think that if such extreme measures were necessary the disease must have been very bad indeed.
The public did not realise that diseased animals were burned to protect farmers' stock. It was the quickest way to protect the rest of the stock.
It was a very expensive way to do it.
Have all the agencies drawn up a contingency plan to deal with foot-and-mouth disease if it returned? I hope that it never will. Does the contingency plan include the slaughter and disposal of selected livestock?
The agency has been in discussions with the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about contingency planning, which is still in development. Lessons must be learnt. The agency believes it necessary to get the facts right, keep an open mind, apply policies with rigour, act openly and involve all the stakeholders. All stakeholders must be involved when developing a contingency plan, including Departments, agencies, the industry and consumers. Contingency planning arrangements are in place but have not been finalised.
Should a contingency plan be put into action immediately?
Yes; but the difficulty is that the Cabinet Office has intervened, as it is examining other, more effective controls. The Food Standards Agency expects to hear its decision by the end of the month, and that will affect any contingency planning that may already be in place. The Government are trying to develop more effective controls at the points of entry; once those are in place, the contingency planning will come to fruition fairly quickly.
When will the contingency plan be put in place?
It is impossible to say, because we must wait until the Cabinet Office completes its deliberations. However, we know the thinking that the Cabinet Office is applying and the decisions that it has reached. We would swiftly move to ensure that all the necessary contingency plans are in place and that they include the outcome of Cabinet Office deliberations. However, I cannot give you a timescale.
You should get in touch with Mrs Beckett.
She would need to get the finger out.
I am worried that foot-and-mouth disease will strike before the contingency plan is in place, and that would put us at a disadvantage. We should be like America, which has a contingency plan in place; it carries out trial runs to ensure that everything is well oiled.
In animal health terms, there is little or no difference between the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire border and the border between the Republic of Ireland and the North of Ireland. Joe Walsh, Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development in the South, writing in the Irish Farmers' Journal in May, referred to a shared and mutual commitment to develop joint strategies for improving animal health on both sides of the border by the end of this year. What is your opinion of such a plan and how should stakeholders be involved in developing it? Would it improve food safety? If you put good plans into effect, what guarantees do you have that the same plans would be put into effect on the southern side?
That is a good idea, which should be pursued with all vigour; it would comprise all stakeholders, including all the appropriate Departments, North and South of the border, the industry and consumer groups. They must also be involved, because we expect consumers to buy and eat the food that will be produced. Therefore they should be brought on board, and they must be content with the proposals. Otherwise, there will be no industry.
Controls to deal with microbiological contamination and transfer from one place to another can also improve food safety controls. I have close contact with colleagues South of the border, particularly in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to ensure that controls North and South of the border are as equal and as strong as they should be. Although it has a similar role to the Food Standards Agency, it is not a Government Department; it plays a major role in enforcing legislation and in ensuring that those responsible for enforcing the law do so to the appropriate standards.
We work closely to ensure that the standards that we apply North and South are as strong as possible. We meet regularly and exchange information, including the sorts of standards that we apply on both sides of the border. There is certainly potential for very good co-operation; I am fairly confident of that.
Should such co-operation not extend to all the British Isles under a joint board, taking in not just the North and South of this island but England, Scotland and Wales?
Any measures that strengthen systems to ensure that, if at all possible, this problem does not reoccur are welcome. We all face the same problem, North and South of the border and in England, Scotland and Wales. The same measures must be in place no matter what side of the water.
Many say that the cause of the outbreak was that the border between the rest of the United Kingdom and us was breached by certain sheep that went astray from the fold. That might have been a factor; it was not sheep coming over the border from the South to the North or vice-versa. Co-operation between North and South would be welcome, but we also need wider co-operation throughout these islands so that every gate is locked and barred.
That is absolutely right. Any disease can be borne by sea, land or air; we all face exactly the same problems, and co-operating with each other and co-ordinating activity makes sense.
Thank you very much for bearing with us. We do not know whether your evidence will see the light of day, as everything is hanging in the balance. Is it possible to have today's evidence printed?
The Committee Clerk:
No; it must be with the Business Office today. We will not get the edited transcript from Hansard until next week.
Thank you. I hope that we have been helpful. We shall of course be happy to answer in writing any other questions that the Committee may have.
Thank you very much; and thanks also to your two silent friends. If I could keep my curates as silent I would be happy.