Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 220 - 235)



  220. We are at a point now where there has to be change?
  (Professor Hughes) Yes, and change will be imposed on them.

Mr Drew

  221. Is our food safe?
  (Professor Hughes) Largely. It is hardly my area.

  222. Yes or no?
  (Professor Hughes) I go to the supermarket and I do not expect to fall over when I eat it. Is it safe? It depends how we handle it in the kitchen.

  223. Is that the message, that actually the raw material is safe?
  (Professor Hughes) I think broadly it is safe and then we do as much as we can in our own kitchens to ensure that we increase risk.

  224. Risk prevalence, we will leave that. How effective is the quality assurance system in actually being able to guarantee as near as possible to the consumer that what they are buying is safe, given all the food scares?
  (Professor Hughes) In general there has been a good response by the industry in terms of putting in quality assurance schemes. You can use them as points of differentiation and they can bring competitive advantage. They can also confuse. We have a proliferation of these and clearly it is most confusing from most consumers' point of view, "What's all this?" We need something more simple. Again we need some shorthand. I think they have probably been sold to farmers incorrectly. The assumption is that they only bring cost and actually the work that I do in the area is that if you can get involved in quality assurance schemes, the requirements to get the quality assurance tick often requires you to improve your business, your commercial practices, so there are genuine benefits from a farmer's perspective to becoming part and parcel of a quality assurance scheme, but they are perceived just to bring cost. From a consumer point of view, I think it is in the right direction. You can argue whether the bar was sufficiently high, for example, if we take the combinable crops quality assurance scheme, and it is perhaps political with a small `p'. You want to set a standard that most farmers can meet—you do not want to demoralise them—and then sort of over time move the standards up and I think that is exactly what we should be doing. In quality, you cannot be number two. You cannot be out in our marketplace saying, "We are almost as high a quality and we are almost as safe as the Danes". That is just non-tenable for a competitive position.

  225. Where should the emphasis go in terms of regulation with regards to safety? Can you do it at the local level, national level, EU level or even supra-national level? I am thinking particularly about labelling, which is one aspect of this, and I would welcome your views on where we are in terms of labelling.
  (Professor Hughes) To be honest, I am not particularly educated in this area. If we take our own 1990 Food Safety Act, clearly that hit home. I just have to look at the response of supermarkets to the Act where they see that the chairman as a person becomes individually responsible for the food that is sold through J Sainsbury and that has certainly concentrated their attention and minds and, in doing so, they then push responsibility for food safety down the food chain and that is where responsibility should be placed, at the point of production and all the way through.

  226. Obviously we are involved in this big debate on more labelling, better labelling, and you say you are not expert in this area. What you said earlier about pressure groups interested me. How interested is the consumer generally in issues like food labelling?
  (Professor Hughes) I think it is high up their list and they are concerned about labelling, concerned about confusing labelling. They are confused about labelling which is inappropriate, "Made in the UK" when the raw product comes from Denmark. I think we have a long way to go on labelling just to simplify and to be more truthful.

Mr Mitchell

  227. Does not the food manufacturing side of it constitute a weakness in your argument in the sense that they are under constant pressure from the supermarkets to cut their prices and cut their costs and, therefore, whatever the arguments for local purchase and local variety, whatever, they are going to be under increasing pressure to import more of the food they are using and that is going to be quite strong if the pound remains as high as it is which effectively subsidises imports, so are they not going to be an area of weakness for your kind of thesis of going up-market?
  (Professor Hughes) I think that is absolutely right. This is the basic commodities that they incorporate in their products where there is no pressure from the consumers as to provenance. They will purchase where they can get the best price, meeting certain quality criteria, and that will put us under enormous pressure. I agree. I think there is also another part of the market where they will want other things and that is the local, fresh, regional, et cetera, but I would suggest that you are talking about the fast-moving, consumer-good-type manufactured products and they are under pressure. That part of the market is being squeezed as we move towards, in high income countries, a much bigger, fresh offer and the great thing about fresh is that it advantages those who grow closest to the point of manufacture.

  228. So less frozen peas and more fresh peas. The supermarkets, which you portray as being hard in the sense of the kind of pressure they bear on the farmer relationship in terms of quality, are maligned when it comes to the pressure being maintained on the food producers.
  (Professor Hughes) In terms of price?

  229. Yes.
  (Professor Hughes) Of course. They are large, they are huge companies. They are carnivorous. The criteria they are interested in, they are interested in their own margins. There is going to be constant pressure and sometimes they behave badly.

Mr Todd

  230. Do you think that we are well served by the processing sector as a whole? It has been criticised in the past in previous inquiries by the Agriculture Committee, particularly the milk sector, as being relatively inefficient in comparison to the processing sectors in some other countries. Do you think that appears to be true or not?
  (Professor Hughes) Well, more fragmented, yes, and we are witnessing on a day-by-day account its rationalisation as it moves towards, "We need fewer, larger, more sophisticated dairy farms", and we will have that in two or three years' time. This is just part of a long process of that. It has been rather slower in the UK if I look particularly at countries which have a strong dairy heritage, Denmark and Holland, but the structure there, the past-the-farm-gate structure, is way better than ours. Interestingly enough, our farm structure in terms of herd size, et cetera, is better, I would suggest, than in Denmark or Holland.

  231. But that partly relates to the different industrial traditions. You picked a couple of very good examples there where those enterprises would be co-operatives essentially managed by the farmers who produce the goods, so to some extent the dispersal of the small units of production have regained that advantage through the consolidation of the processing sectors which they own.
  (Professor Hughes) Yes, they do and I think that largely comes from having a strong export orientation which, remember, we have not had. As we take to dairy in particular and for long enough in meat actually, essentially we were domestic producers.

  232. And yet we have some of the largest food manufacturing companies in Europe within our shores, so there is good practice here.
  (Professor Hughes) Yes.

  233. It is perhaps not spread throughout the sector and not focussed enough on the sort of needs of the national community.
  (Professor Hughes) Clearly, as I mentioned, we are leaders in chilled and some of the best practices in the world you will see here, and at the top end too, the Nestlés and the Unilevers, fabulous manufacturers, although again, as I say, you have got to watch this because increasingly they will be taking decisions on where they locate their manufacturing plants on the basis of a host of factors, not least macroeconomic.

Phil Sawford

  234. On the food labelling, food safety side, I was interested in your comments there because it would seem to me that the whole thing is about consumer confidence against a background of salmonella and E.coli. I wonder to what extent there is a new cohesion within the European Union. It seems to me that there is an element of protectionism in there and if I quickly illustrate that, Weetabix, in my constituency, they run a huge operation and their production line is for the domestic market because there are cultural differences in the kind of things we eat for breakfast. To do a run for any other country in Europe is very often for them a very short run. Most of their product is fortified with different vitamins, but in Germany they will not allow any vitamin additives at all, in Belgium they will allow vitamin C, but not others. These are not precise, but you get the picture. To try and get the Europe-wide agreement on what you can add to a breakfast cereal has taken years and years and years and one senses, if you look into the arguments deployed, that if you want to sell meat, croissants or other forms of breakfast, I am all for food labelling, better labelling, quality assurance, but is there any common ground in Europe moving in that direction that would be a common interest across the European Union?
  (Professor Hughes) I think you know the answer. My perception would be that the picture you paint is exact and it is just going to take a long time. There are lots of vested interests out there and they will continue to maintain their interests. If, as a manufacturer, you can protect your market by having peculiar quirks of regulation, then you will hang on to that.

  235. So this is music to Austin's ears. Within a nutshell, the European Union is probably not particularly helpful in boosting consumer confidence in the quality of our food or could be more helpful?

  (Professor Hughes) Well, certainly could be more helpful.

  Chairman: Professor Hughes, thank you very much indeed. You have given us some very entertaining and interesting—

  Mr Mitchell: Food for thought!

  Chairman: That was our resident poet! Thank you very much indeed for coming and we are grateful to you and also for your very crisp little paper which you gave at the beginning, which was very helpful, the one-sided sheet of paper. Thank you very much for that.

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