Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo



Food Standards Agency

13 September 2007

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mrs Iris Robinson (Chairperson)
Mr Thomas Buchanan
Dr Kieran Deeny
Mr Alex Easton
Mr Tommy Gallagher
Mrs Carmel Hanna
Ms Carál Ní Chuilín


Ms Maria Jennings ) Food Standards Agency
Mr Morris McAllister )
Mr Gerry McCurdy )

The Chairperson (Mrs I Robinson):

I welcome officials from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) who are here today to brief the Committee on their role and relationship with the Department. I refer members to the papers at Tab 4.

I welcome: Mr Morris McAllister, director; Mr Gerry McCurdy, deputy director; and Ms Maria Jennings, head of consumer choice and food standards unit. I invite the witnesses to address the Committee in whatever order they please. Then, if members want to ask questions, they may do so.

Mr Morris McAllister (Food Standards Agency):

Thank you for inviting us to attend and address the Committee. We welcome the opportunity to speak about the FSA, and we will answer whatever questions members have. Time is short, so I will begin my briefing. Each member has a copy.

I will talk first about the background to the FSA, then about our role and functions and then about the current challenges and big issues that face us.

The FSA was born out of the major food problems and crises of the 1980s and 1990s. Members will recall the problem of salmonella in eggs which arose at one stage, the E.coli problem in Scotland and one that is still with us, BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy).

As a result of those, it was decided that an independent body, operating at arm’s length from the Government, should be set up to deal with food safety and standards. The FSA was set up with a specific role to protect public health from the risks which might arise in connection with the consumption of food and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers. Our role is clearly to protect consumers. We have no role in promoting or protecting the industry; that is not our job. We have a clear mandate to act on behalf of consumers.

The core values of the agency are to put the consumer first, to act with openness and independence and to base our work upon science and evidence. All policy decisions taken by the board of the agency are based firmly on evidence. If, as was the case with respect to BSE in the early days, we have doubts about the science, we make those doubts clear. Where there are gaps in science we explain them, so that we do not mislead people with the evidence that we have used.

The FSA is independent in order to be at arm’s length from Government. That means that it is not subject to the same sort of political influence as other Government Departments might be. That is important when considering evidence-based issues.

The FSA was set up in 2000. Our role is complete, from farm to fork. This is the first time that any Government body has had that particular function. The agency deals with everything from the animals in the field, the crops in the fields, right through to the food on the consumer’s plate. It is quite a wide remit, and it is important that we can demonstrate that we have a comprehensive role, from start to finish.

Unlike other Departments, the FSA is a non-ministerial UK Government Department. It has the power to publish its information and advice, including — and this is where the big difference lies — the advice that it gives to Ministers. That puts the FSA in quite a different position from that of other civil servants and underpins the independent role that the agency has to perform.

As a non-ministerial Department the FSA is governed by a board of up to 14 members. The current chairperson is Dame Deirdre Hutton. The first chairperson was Sir John Krebs, of whom you may have heard. Although the FSA is an independent Department, it is accountable to the political machinery throughout the UK — the UK Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly — through their health Ministers. The FSA has access, through health Ministers, to the political machinery. Moreover, the board’s chairperson and deputy chairperson are appointed by the health Ministers acting in concert around the UK. The FSA’s board members are appointed by the appropriate authorities around the UK.

We have a board member in Northern Ireland, Dr Maureen Edmondson, whose main role is to provide the expertise that she has gained from working in the food industry. She also has a key role in ensuring that Northern Ireland’s interests are properly represented in the board’s deliberations on policy development. Dr Edmondson also chairs the Northern Ireland food advisory committee. There are similar advisory committees in Scotland and Wales. Their prime role is to give information and advice to the FSA board — and to the Executive, with particular reference to Northern Ireland issues. Those people, like the board members, are all appointed through the public advertisement of the post by their respective health Ministers in the countries which they represent.

The FSA board, being an open body, makes all of its policy decisions in public. The board does not make any policy decisions behind closed doors. It may get briefings and deal with purely business issues behind closed doors, but all discussions on policy are held in public. Members of the public may attend the board’s meetings, which are held mostly in London but also in other parts of England. Each year, one board meeting is held in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. As well as being held in public, the meetings are webcast. Therefore, members of the public, officials, or Members of the Assembly — should they have the time and wish to do so — can go online and watch the board carrying out its business. The board accepts questions by email or from members of the public who attend the meetings. Therefore, it is an open and transparent process.

The FSA’s Northern Ireland office, which has 35 staff, is situated in Clarendon Dock. Its total budget for 2007-08 is £12·3 million. The FSA’s annual report for 2006-07 includes a breakdown of how the funding is actually spent. Most of the money goes towards paying the Department of Agriculture and the district councils for carrying our enforcement work on the FSA’s behalf.

The work of FSA in Northern Ireland focuses on food safety and standards. Like other non-ministerial Departments of the UK Government, it is responsible for advising Ministers on key issues, and for developing and proposing legislation. The FSA propose and develop the legislation, but the legislation is made by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS). That represents the main link between the FSA and the DHSSPS.

The FSA sets the standards and audits local councils on the enforcements that they carry out on its behalf, and it also sets standards for meat inspection and hygiene, feeding stuffs, eggs and milk. That area of work is enforced on its behalf by DARD. We also advise the public on diet, nutrition and food-safety issues, and provide timely and effective responses to food and feed incidents. If there any risks are posed to the public through particular foodstuffs, whether produced in Northern Ireland or outside Northern Ireland and imported to the country, the FSA ensures that appropriate action is taken and that the public is properly protected.

As a small office and a relatively small body in the UK context, we cannot do all that we need to do on our own, so we have to develop key business relationships with Departments and other partners, such as councils and the voluntary sector. One of our key partners is the DHSSPS, which has a role in promoting good nutrition. The FSA shares that role with the Department and works closely with it in dealing with obesity in Northern Ireland.

As I mentioned earlier, we work with DARD on the enforcement work that it carries out on our behalf, and also with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), which is a non-departmental public body that is responsible to DARD. AFBI does a lot of scientific work on our behalf, and we have a service-level agreement (SLA) with it, as we have with DARD, and, as I said earlier, the local councils.

On an all-island basis, we work with the Food Safety Promotion Board (FSPB), with which some members may be familiar. The Food Standards Act 1999, which set up the agency, requires us to take account of the activities of the Food Safety Promotion Board, and to consult in order to avoid unnecessary duplication or waste of public funds. We are especially keen on doing that, and do not want to waste any public funds. We also work closely with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), which is the FSA’s equivalent in Southern Ireland. The FSAI is not a non-ministerial Government Department, but it has many functions that are similar to ours.

Another stakeholder with whom we work is the food industry. The FSA does not make food, and does not sell it, but it works closely with the industry. We work with consumer groups — bearing in mind our major function — and with the voluntary and community sectors (VCS).

I turn to some of the key issues that face the FSA. We can hardly open a newspaper or turn on the television without hearing something about the obesity problem that affects the whole of the UK, and we are not exempt from that problem here. We have been working with the food industry to promote a traffic-light labelling system, which would make it easier — we believe — to make the right healthy food choices. We have been working with the industry to help reformulate its products and to produce new products to ensure that we have as low levels of salt, fat and sugar as possible in foodstuff.

We provide advice and information to consumers so that we can give them the information that they need to make the right choices for themselves and their families.

We are also working with the DHSSPS and other partners in the hope and intention of gaining a better understanding of the Northern Ireland diet through the national diet and nutrition survey, which has been running for several years — although Northern Ireland has never been part of that survey. This is the first real opportunity to build a sound evidence base to find out precisely what the problems are in Northern Ireland, and to help us develop our policies and monitor progress against the strategies that we develop.

The Food Standards Agency is keen to ensure that food law is enforced to a consistent standard throughout the UK and that the industry in Northern Ireland does not have to meet standards that are different to those that apply elsewhere in the UK. It is our role to ensure that consumers in Northern Ireland are as protected as those in the UK.

We mentioned the role that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety play in advancing the food futures initiative. Councils and the Food Safety Promotion Board also have a responsibility to protect public health. The FSA works with the councils on that, and we also work closely with the Food Safety Promotion Board and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

The agency faces the same pressures that arise from the comprehensive spending review as any Department, and it has to make the same savings. That will pose challenges for us in fulfilling our agenda and statutory responsibilities. However, we will ensure that we do our best to meet those challenges, as will the Departments. That will involve submitting bids to the Department of Finance and Personnel at appropriate times in the hope of securing additional funds where necessary.

I ran through that quickly, but I want to give members as much time as possible to ask questions.

The Chairperson:

OK. I assume that your two colleagues will contribute as required. In what ways are you on alert for foot-and-mouth disease? Will you briefly talk the Committee through your role should — God forbid — that dreadful illness have been confirmed to have hit cattle and other livestock in Northern Ireland?

Mr M McAllister:

I will ask Gerry to talk about that.

Mr Gerry McCurdy (Food Standards Agency):

The agency’s position that foot-and-mouth disease is not a food-safety or public-health issue has been clear from the outset. It is primarily an animal-health issue, and we have supported DARD in sending out that clear message to give confidence to consumers, the industry and others.

In addition to assisting with communication, the veterinary officers who are under our command help DARD to manage its way through the situation. We work in partnership with district councils’ environmental health departments and environmental health officers in order to provide the appropriate certification for export from Northern Ireland. That co-ordination and work is ongoing during the current foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. However, that work was also carried out during the previous outbreak as well as in the past several years.

Therefore, we help to facilitate and co-ordinate the certification and the guarantees that are associated with the Northern Ireland product to ensure that the industry and markets here remain open for as long as Northern Ireland is free from the disease.

The Chairperson:

In order to ensure that no disease has entered the food chain, is it your role to check the meat in those chain stores that have butchery sections?

Mr McCurdy:

In the first instance, it is DARD’s responsibility to prohibit infected animal meat from entering the food chain. Our incidents branch, in conjunction with the Veterinary Service and the district councils’ environmental health departments, follow up on any suspicion that meat or any product from infected animals has entered the food chain.

The Chairperson:

Does that mean that you would take up any investigation only from the point at which someone has presented with food poisoning, for example?

Mr McCurdy:

Foot-and-mouth disease is not a public-health issue. If there is an outbreak of food poisoning, the district councils’ environmental health departments would be the primary point of contact for the industry and the consequent investigation. Our incidents branch would support them by alerting others and by co-ordinating the response, in conjunction with the health and social services boards and the consultants in communicable disease. Incident teams would therefore be set up to manage that process.

The Chairperson:

That is an interesting clarification.

Dr Deeny:

The witnesses are welcome. My first question is this: is there a system in place whereby the public can contact the agency with any food safety concerns that they may have?

Secondly, I am interested in hospital patients in our area getting good food when they are sick, and I know that Tommy Gallagher is interested in that, too. There was talk in our area of the trust bringing in frozen food from outside the country rather than providing fresh local produce — such produce is the least that a patient should have when they are in hospital. I think that that matter is still ongoing. Does the agency have any authority in that situation? You have talked about advising Ministers when developing policy and setting standards: would the agency be able to tell the DHSSPS what to do in the above instance, or could it monitor the situation? It would be beneficial for us, as public representatives, to know that we could contact the agency with concerns that constituents raise with us about food standards in any area of Northern Ireland.

Mr McCurdy:

I will deal with the first point. The FSA has a website that the public can visit and a helpline is available, so initial contact can be made through those mediums. In addition, people can contact staff directly online. We can take their enquiry and point them in the appropriate direction, depending on the nature of their enquiry.

It most instances when a member of the public has a food safety enquiry, the relevant point of contact should be the environmental health department of the council area in which that person resides. Those departments are best placed to deal with the matter, particularly if it involves local food business and premises. If the matter goes beyond that, the local authority can contact us and we can co-ordinate with other local authorities to find the source of the problem and help to address it.

Therefore, the FSA is accessible through our website, our helpline and our office. However, in most instances, it would be best for the public to go directly to the environmental health department of their local council, which will deal with the enquiry.

Dr Deeny:

In the case of hospitals, an entire trust area would be involved, not a council area. We could have a situation in which one of our five trusts should not be providing sick patients with frozen food from outside the country.

Ms Maria Jennings (Food Standards Agency):

Responsibility for nutrition is split between ourselves and the DHSSPS. When patients are hospitalised, their dietary needs are normally assessed. People may have particular nutritional requirements because of their specific illnesses. The dietetic services in the hospitals would deal with that directly when the patient is staying in the hospital. Our role is to deal with the nutritional content of the meals that are provided to staff and visitors. The dietetic service takes the lead in dealing with patients.

Mr M McAllister:

Dr Deeny was concerned about trusts using frozen foods from outside Northern Ireland.

Dr Deeny:


Mr M McAllister:

He asked whether we could tell the DHSSPS whether or not it should be doing that. Frankly, we cannot tell the DHSSPS or the health boards whether they should use frozen or imported foods. Our concern is about whether the food is safe. Clearly, the last thing that we want is for hospital inpatients to be exposed to food that is not safe. We would be very concerned about that.

Dr Deeny also mentioned hospitals using frozen food. Provided that such food is nutritious and the patients are getting a decent diet — bearing in mind Maria’s comments about patients with special dietary needs — we are content for it to be used.

Whether the food comes from inside or outside Northern Ireland is not an issue for the FSA, as long as the food is safe.

Mr Gallagher:

It seems strange that the Food Standards Agency is not liaising with the Department of Health, and particularly with the trusts, about food standards, given that you have said that you are working on the promotion of healthy food choices. Few among the public would agree that flying frozen foods in from England to reheat and give to patients in hospitals — as the Western Health and Social Care Trust proposes to do — is a healthy option. I find it surprising that you have had no contact with the trust, or vice versa, about it. It is even stranger that you say that it is not an issue, because it is certainly a big issue for the public. Do you have anything more to say on the issue; will you take it up with the trusts and the Department, or are you going to leave it at that?

Ms Jennings:

The local environmental health departments deal directly with the hospitals on an ongoing basis. They inspect the hospital kitchens and do all of the FSA’s routine food hygiene work in the hospitals. There is no doubt that all of those discussions take place at the local level. Mr McAllister is right that regenerating a frozen meal does not pose a food safety risk. Presentationally, that might not be the best thing for your constituents, but it does not pose a problem from a food safety perspective.

Mr M McAllister:

The premises that the foods are made and produced in are subject to authorities elsewhere in the UK. When food comes from England or further afield, it will have been inspected and will have to comply with the food safety laws that we have introduced. The transportation of the food must also comply with, for example, temperature controls. When it arrives in the hospital, it must be stored and handled in accordance with the legislation and good food safety practice. When it is reheated and served, it must comply with good food safety practice, and with the legislation. Providing all of those links in the chain are adhered to, there should not be a problem at the consumer end. Ms Jennings is correct that, from a public perception point of view, perhaps it would be better to do things differently. However, the FSA’s controls relate to the statutory standards and to good food hygiene practice.

Mr Gallagher:

We have drawn your attention to the issue. It is in PFI mode, which is new to everyone on the Committee and, presumably, new to the FSA representatives.

Mrs Hanna:

I suppose that we are concentrating more on nutrition than food safety, because you deal with that as well. You mentioned obesity and diet. What is the relationship between the FSA and the Health Promotion Agency? Are there opportunities for the relabelling of food? Traffic-light systems and salt content in food have been talked about. Also, do you have a relationship with the Department of Education? I am thinking about schools learning more about nutrition.

Ms Jennings:

The answer to all of those questions is yes. We consistently work very hard with the Health Promotion Agency, the Department of Education and the Department of Health, particularly in the implementation of recommendations from the ‘Fit Futures’ report, which I am sure the Committee is aware of. That has been the case from the beginning of the process; from the development of the report to the implementation of the recommendations.

Recently, we have worked particularly hard with the Department of Education to try to put in place the necessary procedures to improve school meals. We have moved a great deal in two years by introducing nutritional standards into schools and taking a whole-school approach to food that includes vending machines and tuck shops in addition to school meals — the whole school experience of children. We are also in discussion with those who set up the curriculum, to ensure that children are taught to how to handle food in schools. Therefore, we work very closely with the Department of Education. The Health Promotion Agency is also involved in that process and takes the lead on the physical-activity aspect. It is an area where joined-up government working can truly be shown.

Mrs Hanna:

Do you have any influence or involvement in food labelling?

Ms Jennings:

Absolutely. We are responsible for —

Mrs Hanna:

We are thinking about advising people about fat and salt content, given the prominence of issues such as obesity and heart disease, et cetera?

Ms Jennings:

We are responsible for the food-labelling regulations; we want to provide consumers with the information that they need to make informed choices. Therefore, we have developed our traffic-light signpost for the front of food packets, which will tell consumers whether a food is high, medium or low in salt, fat, saturated fat and sugar. We have worked hard in Northern Ireland to get some of the local manufacturers to use signpost labelling; a number of manufacturers, who produce large quantities of food, now put the signposts on the front of their packs. We are constantly working towards that end.

Mrs Hanna:

It seems that in shops that are more expensive — whose customers have a lot more choice — the food is attractively labelled and easy to read, whereas in the bigger supermarkets there is more of a "Yellow Pack" thing. We should be encouraging people to buy healthy foods and making them more attractive. A lot of work needs to be done on that end of things.

Ms Jennings:

The Food Standards Agency — in the UK as a whole — is working very hard with some of the major retailers to try to encourage them along that road. We are confined by European legislation, so we cannot make that type of labelling mandatory, but we are trying hard to encourage manufacturers and retailers to take up the scheme.

The Chairperson:

One only has to look at McDonald’s and how it was pushed along the route to providing healthier foods by general opinion.

Ms Ní Chuilín:

I want to explore the subject of food additives. There was some recent publicity about children and hyperactivity. Is there something that could be done differently here, if we were minded to, in terms of legislation, better information or even banning?

Ms Jennings:

Again, we are quite confined by Europe on the issue of additives. Those additives are the E-numbers that you would be familiar with, and it tends to relate to colours — yellow, red and green tend to be the problem colours.

The European Union is undertaking a major reform of all the food colourings that it had previously said were OK. It is going through them one by one, in order to reclassify them. On 28 July 2007, the EU banned the use of the colouring Red 2G in food. As was reported in the media last week, the FSA passed on to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) a dossier of the work that it has carried out into behavioural changes associated with certain food colours. The EFSA is very interested in the UK findings, and it will be taking those findings into account as it works through the reclassification process. It is likely that more food colourings will be banned.

Mr M McAllister:

If the Committee is asking whether we have the discretion to introduce different additive laws in Northern Ireland than are in place elsewhere in Europe, the answer is no. We are part of Europe, so once additives have been tested and proven to be safe, they are permitted right across Europe. Unless we had very good public health reasons, and very sound evidence, for banning any of the additives to which you refer, we could not do so.

Mr Buchanan:

My question concerns the FSA’s responsibility for the food and hygiene checks that are carried out in schools, hospitals and nursing homes, and even in some fast-food outlets. Although the FSA has an enforcement role to play, prevention is always better than cure. The more that those checks are carried out, and to a satisfactory outcome, the more that enforcement levels will be reduced.

Mr McCurdy:

I will develop points that were made previously. The FSA is conscious of the enforcement role that we, our colleagues in DARD and environmental health officers play. We try to be proportionate, but we expect enforcement authorities to take appropriate action when they find problems.

Looking at it from the other end, we have provided the food industry with a great deal of guidance material in order to help it to comply with the law. We have done that through our work with councils’ environmental health departments and environmental health officers, and through providing guidance and advice. Therefore, we are not simply involved in enforcement but are trying to minimise the need to adopt "hard nose" enforcement, if I may put it in that way. The FSA reinforces those efforts with statutory codes of practice, which we issue to local authorities. Those codes of practice explain to local authorities exactly how to go about their work, and the ways in which they are expected to enforce the law. We also play an auditing role, by looking at how the local authority has implemented the enforcement requirements that it should meet.

On the one side, a hierarchy is in place, as well as a package of advice, guidance, education and supporting material; on the other side, an enforcement regime is built on top of that guidance to try to bring about a consistent, uniform and proportionate response. Much work goes on behind the scenes that is not always visible.

The Chairperson:

That is always the way, is it not?

Mr Easton:

I am not sure whether it is the FSA’s responsibility, but what measures do you have in place to try to educate people about healthy food? For instance, although I know about the traffic-light system, while food shopping, which I do not do often, if I see a nice packet of sausage rolls, I do not look for the traffic lights.

Mrs Hanna:

You will not find them on a packet of sausage rolls, I can tell you. [Laughter.]

The Chairperson:

You might find hazard lights. [Laughter.]

Mr Easton:

What is the FSA doing to educate people to look for traffic-light colour coding on food? Many people may not know about the system, or they may be too lazy or not interested enough to read the packaging.

Ms Ní Chuilín:

Or they may have someone else to shop for them.

Ms Jennings:

It is difficult; it is a constant battle for us to get that information out to consumers. We have run four very high-profile public advertising campaigns in recent months, one in particular on signpost labelling and the other three on salt reduction. We use television and radio to get information out. We also rely on other partners such as community dieticians, who work hard on the ground to get information out to people. We distribute a raft of our publications through district councils and through doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries. We use various methods to get information to people, such as visits to fairs and other events.

The Chairperson:

Everyone has had an opportunity to put questions to the Food Standards Agency. I thank Mr McAllister, Mr McCurdy and Ms Jennings for their attendance and for answering the Committee’s questions.