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UNCORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 120-iii
House of COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE the
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee
Moratorium on Desinewed Meat
Wednesday 20 June 2012
Anne Milton MP, Dr Felicity Harvey and Tim Smith
Evidence heard in Public Questions 234 - 318
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
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Taken before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee
on Wednesday 20 June 2012
Miss Anne McIntosh (Chair)
Mrs Mary Glindon
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Anne Milton MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health, Dr Felicity Harvey, Director General, Public Health, Department of Health, and Tim Smith, Chief Executive, Food Standards Agency, gave evidence.
Q234 Chair: Good afternoon everybody and welcome. Minister, welcome to you. Thank you very much for agreeing to participate in our inquiry into desinewed meat. Just for the record, would you like to introduce yourself and your colleagues?
Anne Milton: Yes. My name is Anne Milton. I am Minister for Public Health. This is Felicity Harvey, Director General for Public Health and Tim Smith, Chief Executive of the FSA.
Q235 Chair: Indeed. May I welcome Mr Smith back? He barely needs an introduction on his return visit. Minister, if I could ask first of all-you are aware because you have corresponded with me-about Newby Foods in my constituency. Margaret Ritchie, who will be joining us, has interests not entirely in her constituency but in Northern Ireland, where similar companies have been affected. Minister, when did you first learn about the Commission’s decision?
Anne Milton: The FSA sent a submission to me on 2 April and also on 29 March. That was copied to a number of other Departments as well.
Q236 Chair: Excellent. Did you have sight of the Commission’s letter of 28 March regarding the Food and Veterinary Office audit?
Anne Milton: I knew the substance of it. It might well have been attached to the submission that came to me. I would not be able to recall exactly whether or not it was there, but I was very well aware of what was in it and in the subsequent days that followed I saw a large number of documents relating to this.
Q237 Chair: When you heard, what did you do? What action did you take?
Anne Milton: It is quite interesting to look at the transcript of evidence that you have received, which I have had a brief look at. I think probably my first reaction, before I took any action on this, was, "How could this have happened without me knowing anything about it beforehand?" This felt very sudden and very dramatic.
Obviously, there were serious risks. How could we be here? The first thing for me, as Minister for Public Health, is whether there was a food safety issue that I should be concerned about, so my job extends only that far. It is ensuring that the public’s health was protected and there was not a problem. That was the first question that I asked.
I then made sure that Ministers in DEFRA were made aware. You always know what comes to you; you are not always aware of what is going on elsewhere. I was very keen for them to know about this because there was obviously going to be an issue for them and the industry if this action had to be taken. My first step was to gather information and reassurance, first, about the protection of public health and, secondly, about how we ended up here, what we did have to do and we did not have to do. I have to say the third thing which is in my mind was the potential, if there was not a public health risk, for the media to suggest that there was.
We could have been damaged in three ways: we could have been damaged by a public health risk; we could have been damaged by media reaction to something, which is not necessarily always based on fact; and, thirdly, of course, we could have been damaged by what the Commission was going to impose on us.
Q238 Chair: There are two points, really. Either the product, desinewed meat, was unhealthy and was a danger to health, or it was not. If it was then it should be banned; if it was not then there should not be a unilateral ban. There certainly should not have been a unilateral ban on UK production from producers such as Newby Foods with the immediate loss of 45 jobs. They are now faced with the situation where they are facing imports of exactly the same product that were used in other UK foods. What did you do about that situation?
Anne Milton: As I say, I felt a little bit between a rock and a hard place. What I did not want was a public row that would damage the food industry in this country enormously. I have seen plenty of headlines about my own brief that do not necessarily relate to the facts. That in itself, irrespective of what is actually the case, can be a problem. I was acutely aware of-and the discussions that I had with officials and with the Minister were about this-the issue of how to minimise the impact on the industry.
Certainly, privately I might shout and scream and jump up and down about what the Commission were doing, but we are where we are. The actions to take regarding how we manage something like this in the future and make sure the Commission do not do this to us again are for another time. At that point, it was managing the situation as it was.
Q239 Chair: Were you convinced that there was a public health aspect? Or were you convinced of an animal one? Were you convinced of any health issue whatsoever?
Anne Milton: I had to be sure there was not a public health risk, and there not. My next problem was that we were being asked to do something that implied, in my simplistic view-and I am not an Agriculture Minister-that there was. How could we be there? As I say, my immediate reaction, with all respect to the FSA, was to blame them. They had not told me about something, or something had gone on. How could this suddenly drop on our heads out of the sky without anybody knowing about it? The sad truth is-I think events subsequently have demonstrated this-that that is what happened. The Minister for Europe must also be informed about this and find out how we do make sure this does not happen again.
Q240 Chair: Secondly, if it was deemed to be a breach of single market rules, are you aware of which rules it was deemed that we breached?
Anne Milton: I did not think it was deemed to be a breach of single market rules.
Q241 Chair: Can I just share with you something that was on the Food Standards Agency website?
Anne Milton: Yes, do, but I am not an expert.
Q242 Chair: This is from the Food Standards Agency and you are the Minister for the Food Standards Agency.
Anne Milton: Not strictly speaking.
Q243 Chair: The Food Standards Agency website of Wednesday 4 April said that, "The FSA is clear there is no evidence of any risk to human health from eating meat produced from the lowpressure DSM. There is no greater risk from eating this sort of produce than eating any other meat or meat product. The European Commission has informed us today they do not consider this to be an identified public health concern." It then goes on to say, "However, the European Commission has decided that DSM does not comply with European Union single market legislation." Presumably you would have been aware of that, because it was on the FSA website.
Anne Milton: Absolutely.
Q244 Chair: I will ask again. If you were aware of that-
Anne Milton: Desinewed meat was not compliant.
Q245 Chair: Yes. Which single market legislation were we not complying with?
Anne Milton: I took advice on that. Strictly speaking-I probably should say-I am not the Minister for the FSA. The FSA is a Government Department, like the Department of Health is, without a Minister sitting in it. It reports to Parliament via me. I do not have any control over the way they operate or their functioning. I am simply a vehicle for them to answer to Parliament. Strictly speaking, it is the Secretary of State who delegates it to me.
Q246 Chair: You negotiate in Brussels as regards health aspects relating to the FSA. Either you do or you do not, Minister.
Anne Milton: No, it is not quite as simple as that. They are a Government Department on their own and most of the work that the FSA does is done at official level with the European Union on all sorts of aspects. If there were wider aspects for Government, because they are answerable to Parliament, I would raise them and, indeed, this is something I will, when the timing is right, raise with the Minister for Europe. What we do, when the Commission does things like this, is not just a decision for me. It is actually a crossGovernment decision that should be made. Our dealings with the Commission are of significance to other Departments apart from me and, in this instance, we saw-as you have seen in your own constituency, Chairman-the impact of this.
Q247 Chair: I just would say that perhaps the most sinister aspect emerging from this episode is that the FSA appears not to be fully accountable.
Anne Milton: It is accountable, and I think I said when I started that my first reaction, when reassured that public health was not at risk, was to be acutely aware of the problems we could come into if there was any sort of row about this or adverse media attention, and the impact that would have on the industry. As I say, in those three things was, "What on earth have the FSA done wrong?"
I am probably, in hindsight, impressed with the discussions that I subsequently had with the FSA. I do feel that there was proper accountability; I do feel that I was free to question them; my conversations both at official and ministerial level worked quite well; and I do see them as accountable. I can only guess at the wealth of documents that you have had from them. I think that the documents they have produced demonstrate a certain amount of accountability.
Q248 Chair: We will obviously explore that during the course of the session. Given the impact that the FSA decision had on British meat producers, not least at Newby Foods, are you confident that DEFRA, who handled the agricultural and farming aspects, were sufficiently able to make the case to defend our producers’ interests?
Anne Milton: You would have to ask the Minister in DEFRA.
Q249 Chair: We did.
Anne Milton: And you did. From my point of view, what I was pleased about was that the relationships at official level and in Whitehall were good. This was turned around quite quickly. There was open access and open flow of information between the two of us. In terms of sharing information and communication, I think it was much better than, in my slightly cynical view, I believed that Whitehall ever worked.
Q250 Chair: If you look at the memorandum you submitted to the European Scrutiny Committee following the Commission’s 2010 communication, you noted the impact that changing guidance could have on the British meat industry. Did you bring that to the attention of DEFRA Ministers or officials in DEFRA at that time?
Anne Milton: I never do anything in this role without making sure with my private office that Ministers in DEFRA have seen things. It is terribly important. One of the biggest criticisms of government at any level is that they work in silos, and it is extremely important-indeed, I have had a number of meetings with the FSA and with DEFRA Ministers-that they see what I see, so that if there is an incident like there was here they have had sight of everything that I have had sight of and nothing comes as a huge surprise. What came as a huge surprise was what the Commission did.
Q251 Chair: Just to recap, when were the dates you first heard?
Anne Milton: The FSA sent a submission to me copied on 29 March. I am starting there; I can go back further. Have you had the chronology? I am sure you have.
Q252 Chair: You say that you heard on 9 March.
Anne Milton: On 29 March.
Q253 Chair: On 29 March. When did you speak to your colleague Jim Paice at DEFRA?
Anne Milton: It was not Jim Paice, actually; it was John Taylor. A lot of the early communication-partly because it was during a recess-was between officials. I was having contact with my private office; my private office was having contact with DEFRA’s private office and whoever was on duty at the time. It was all about duty Ministers. Actually, I do not think I was on duty, but I picked this up as being in my portfolio. I was very happy and completely satisfied-there should not be any doubt about that-that what worked extremely well, despite problems with communication with the Commission, is the communication between the FSA, my office and the DEFRA office.
Q254 Chair: Who made the points, then, in the relevant ministerial meetings in Brussels?
Anne Milton: The FSA dealt with all the negotiations in Brussels. I do not know, Tim, if you want to come in on that.
Tim Smith: If I might, I think there were two components to the response to the Commission: there were the activities that we, the FSA, undertook with our normal links to the Commission, but also our colleagues at UKREP were also talking to Commission officials through their normal channels into the ministerial links there. This happens normally but it happened at the same pace and with the same degree of intensity during this period of recess. It was not altered by the fact that, in DEFRA for example, duty Ministers were there, and in the Department of Health the Minister was taking responsibility. It was not impacted by the recess; the process was the same as normal.
Q255 Chair: Clearly, we did not get the result we wanted as the Commission proceeded to impose the ban.
Anne Milton: We did not get the result we wanted; that is not to say we did anything wrong. What we have to be sure of-as I say, it is probably not for this inquiry, though this inquiry will be useful to inform what we do next-is that we do not end up in this situation ever again. Not only do the DEFRA Ministers and I need to work together with the FSA, but I think we are all reasonably clear about things. We also need to involve Ministers for Europe because this raises much wider issues about how the Commission acts. I could have a long discussion about how the Commission acts.
It has been a bit of a revelation to have responsibility for European health matters. There are things that actually work quite well and things that work very badly; we need to make sure that we resolve that. I know I would not be alone in this House in thinking that relationships need to change. We need to not be in this situation again, but we are, and we were where we were. The important thing was to minimise the damage for DEFRA and, having been assured that public health was safe and well, minimise the impact on the industry.
Q256 Thomas Docherty: Minister, you talked a lot about the relationship with DEFRA, but I noticed nothing about the devolved Administrations. When did you first inform the devolved authorities?
Anne Milton: I relied on the FSA to some extent but they are always kept in the loop. I actually have quite a good correspondence relationship with the devolved Administrations because it is important that we have that and I think that all along agreement was obtained from them, which was an important part of that.
Q257 Thomas Docherty: Perhaps you misheard my question. When did you first inform them?
Anne Milton: I would have to look it up.
Q258 Thomas Docherty: Was it on the same day that you told DEFRA?
Anne Milton: Yes, it would be.
Q259 Thomas Docherty: And was that in writing as well?
Anne Milton: Yes. In fact, it was 3 April. Somebody has just given me a helpful note.
Q260 Thomas Docherty: 3 April. And what date did you tell DEFRA?
Anne Milton: The submission went to DEFRA on 29 March, the same time.
Q261 Thomas Docherty: That is not the same time. You did not tell the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh Agriculture Ministers until a number of days after you told DEFRA.
Anne Milton: The submissions went on the same day that I had them. Just to say, there is an ongoing dialogue between the FSA, us and DEFRA. It is not an event; let me put it that way.
Q262 Thomas Docherty: Sorry, Minister. My question is this: did you inform the three devolved agricultural Departments at the same time that you told DEFRA, or was there a gap between when you told DEFRA and when you told them? What was the day you told DEFRA and what was the day you told them?
Anne Milton: I would have to get back to you because I do not have those dates in my head, I am afraid.
Tim Smith: I do.
Anne Milton: Tim does.
Tim Smith: Essentially, because we are in the happy position of reporting through four Health Departments to all four Administrations and also liaising with Agriculture Departments in all four countries, whenever a submission goes to our Minister here in Westminster, whether to DEFRA or the Department of Health, it goes to the other one and it also goes to all the other devolved Ministers. Officials then follow up immediately with their counterparts in other parts of the UK to ensure that the Minister is aware of the importance of that particular issue.
Thomas Docherty: That is helpful.
Anne Milton: This is the point that I struggle with at times. They are a Government Department, so they will do things. I always say that the devolved Administrations do know and DEFRA do know. In fact, they are doing that themselves, anyway, on their own backs because they run themselves.
Tim Smith: Yes.
Anne Milton: They are accountable to me, so if they did not they would have to answer to me or to Parliament through me.
Q263 Thomas Docherty: What representations have you received from the devolved Administrations since that initial communiqué? Minister, what representations have you received from the devolved Administrations since early April?
Anne Milton: Representations with regard to what?
Q264 Thomas Docherty: Representations with regard to the decision, what happens next and, for example, the particular impact on Northern Ireland.
Anne Milton: I think there was general agreement that we had to do what we did. There was no dissent. There was no dissent across the Government.
Q265 Thomas Docherty: Across the three devolved Governments, did they all agree?
Anne Milton: Yes. This was across the Government, too. We, in fact, cleared the action in a day, which is almost unheard of for Government because there was agreement that we had to do this. Sadly, we had to do this. We had no choice.
Q266 Chair: An agreement between whom?
Anne Milton: From my point of view in Government, there was agreement from the devolved Administrations, and from all across the Government in Whitehall as well, that we had no choice in this
Q267 Chair: I keep hearing this from Ministers about having no choice. Clearly, there is a choice. We are now in this situation where we have banned it in this country but you are accepting the meat coming in. Whether it is called MSM or 3mm Baader meat, the meat is coming in and competing with products that you have now banned in this country.
Anne Milton: Just to say, I had a choice and I made my choice based on the information that was available to me. I would not willingly damage business or industry in this country. Now, you might feel that I made the wrong choice, but sitting out there-and I have not seen this raised in the transcript-is the fact that 12inch headlines in the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph and all the newspapers are not something I wanted. The last thing, Chairman, that I wanted was to set a hare running on a food safety story. It was not simply about refusing the Commission because there would be consequences to that, not least in the media, and it is probably down to the FSA, and to the action that was taken at the time, that this did not run as a big story.
We have not had people boycotting meat and meat products because of fears about safety to their health. From that point of view, it was successful. When faced with a crisis-and it felt like a crisis from where I sat-the choice we made was the least worst option, and I still think it was the least worst action. Take a breath; we do not want to end up here again. We need to make sure, with the Commission and through all sorts of channels, that we will do that, so that it does not happen again.
Q268 Chair: On the devolved Administrations, we have a letter from the Northern Irish Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, who says that they are not aware of any action taken to inform the Assembly or the Committee of developments either before or since the moratorium was announced. What discussions did you have with the devolved Assemblies on the communication the Commission produced in December 2010?
Anne Milton: I do not have the information. I can tell you we received letters from the devolved administrations on 4 April this year agreeing to it. Going back that far I would have to write to you and give you the answer.
Chair: It would be helpful if you could write to us.
Q269 George Eustice: I just want to clarify one thing. You talked about the sense that this had suddenly been dropped on the Government.
Anne Milton: It was.
Q270 George Eustice: Are you referring to the exchange at the end of March this year?
Anne Milton: Yes, I am referring to that.
Q271 George Eustice: Were you confident then that this would not turn into a problem?
Anne Milton: Am I confident it would not turn into a problem?
George Eustice: You were confident because, obviously, since December 2010 the Commission-
Anne Milton: One of the things that I did do was I went back and said-I mean nothing to the current Chief Executive and Chairman by this- "Are we absolutely sure the FSA are not keeping information from us? Were they communicating as well as they should do? Should we have known this was going to happen? Could we have known six months beforehand that this was going to happen? Could we have known three weeks before it happened that it was going to happen?" And the answer to that is no. This did fall on our heads.
As I say, reading the transcript I felt like I think this Committee feels: "Where on earth did that come from?" It was awful, and my immediate reaction was that somebody must be to blame for this. I looked to the FSA and also to my officials as well. Did anybody keep anything from me that they should not have done? Did somebody do something or fail to take some action that they could have done? I am clear the answer to that is "No". What did happen is that the Commission did something extremely damaging to this country and extremely damaging to us as a Government, I think, in many ways. That does need to be looked at: how can we stop this happening in the future?
Q272 George Eustice: There was the original December 2010 communication, which contained the implication that this might happen. The European Scrutiny Committee looked at it.
Anne Milton: No, it did not. It contained information that there was a concern about the definition of DSM, and all of the action that the FSA have taken and did take at that time was to get clarity, and this was in a cool, calm atmosphere. We knew that there probably needed to be some clarity around this. Actually, for me it was all about public health and public health risk. All along it was, "Are we sure there is not a public health risk?" We needed some clarity but we did not think the Commission was going to do this. We did not know that. If we did know that we would be in a very different position.
Q273 George Eustice: You talked about the memoranda that you supplied to the European Scrutiny Committee and how you discussed that with DEFRA and that would be a standard practice. Did DEFRA have any different views to you about the input on that or the approach or emphasis?
Anne Milton: No. I think that is an important point, actually. If, at any time, I could say to you that actually somebody had raised a question, or if DEFRA Ministers or even an official had said, "Actually, I am not sure about this; I do not know whether the FSA are right about this," we would be in a different place. I could be criticised for maybe not doing things at that time but at no point was any question raised. In fact, it went through European Scrutiny. The European Committees looked at it as well, and they did not write back to me to say, "I think this is a serious risk. The Commission could do this, that and the other." Nobody thought this was going to happen.
Q274 George Eustice: Obviously, there were representations being made and discussions after that. During 2011, there were lots of representations being made to the Commission. At what point did anybody pick up that this might actually turn into a problem?
Anne Milton: Nobody did. I will ask Tim to come in. Nobody did; that is the trouble. This fell on our heads.
Tim Smith: Would it be helpful if I said that after the October 2010 activity, the industry themselves, in a very carefullyworded and intelligentlyframed piece of work, invited the Commission to come and give their opinion in a very measured and very rational way and we were, at the same time, providing evidence to the various parts of the Commission interested in this work, inviting them to come and talk to us and to visit the sites that were exploring the use of this material or were already using it, to gain a clearer sense of where the Commission sat. I would applaud the industry for taking that initiative, which was supported by us. Ministers, both in DEFRA and in the Department of Health were informed by that work, as were all their devolved equivalents.
Q275 Chair: I am just staggered, Minister; you must have known through the FSA that the FVO was only visiting UK sites, and that the Chief Executive of the FSA did not, at that stage, visit sites like Newby Foods, but only visited as recently as 18 May. We seem to be rolling over and allowing our tummies to be tickled by these visitors, opening the door to a unilateral ban and, now, accepting these unfair imports.
Anne Milton: I do not feel, Chairman, that at any time I have rolled over and let my tummy be tickled by anybody, to be honest. If we thought that visit would result in this, we would have done things differently. We did not think this would happen.
As the Chief Executive has explained, the FSA and, indeed, some of the industry were going to huge lengths to get clarity. The door was wide open to say, "Can we have some clarity on this?" We did not get any. I would be the first to stand up and say if I thought the FSA had rolled over and let its tummy be tickled. I do not think it did. I think, actually, we did what was probably the best possible damage-limitation exercise that we possibly could. It is very sad and a tragedy, really, that there has been some collateral loss. There clearly has been, but I would suggest that it could have been a lot greater.
Q276 Neil Parish: Minister, we live in a world of seven billion people, and it is hungry for meat. Here, the Commission are coming along and taking 600 tonnes of perfectly healthy meat that they do not actually consider to be any sort of health risk. Do you not think the Commission has taken leave of its senses? What it seems to be doing is not ruling out this meat because it is not safe to eat; it does not meet some single market regulation one way or the other. We could take all of that meat off with a knife, by hand-which would be much more likely to nick the bone and cause a problem-and that would be legal. Surely we have got to do a bit more than wring our hands and say, "There ain’t much we can do."
Anne Milton: Whether the Commission has taken leave of its senses, I am possibly not qualified to answer, but I think it could appear such.
Q277 Neil Parish: I would like to press you harder in that case.
Anne Milton: It would appear such. What is enlightening about an incident like this is that-and I think the FSA, who have had a lot of discussions at official level, would agree-at times like this it is quite hard to pin down what it was exactly somebody was trying to achieve.
To some extent it is where the process-I do not mean process in terms of meat-of government becomes more important than the result you are trying to achieve. What, presumably, the Commission is trying to achieve is a level playing field for markets, and food safety. It has done something with unintended consequences, due to some extraordinary process it went through. It thought it was doing the right thing but never really looked at the consequences of what it did. This is just the start of the playingout of those consequences, because there are other member states, all of whom, I am sure, are keeping their heads well below the parapet at the moment, but there will be implications for them. It is where the process completely overwhelms the outcomes we are trying to achieve. It is when Government, at every level, gets too complicated. What I am going to do next? That is what you asked.
Neil Parish: You were faced with a situation where if you did not actually stop the desinewed meat we would not be able to trade meat across the whole of Europe. This is what they threatened. This is a draconian idea by the Commission. It was completely disproportionate.
Q278 Amber Rudd: Mr Smith, the last time you were here, you referred to the safeguarding measures, which we were menaced with if we did not comply with the moratorium. Did you get any details of what those were and what the timetable was going to be for them? Do you think they had the legal framework to actually impose them?
Tim Smith: I will answer the second question first, if I may. I took legal advice from my own lawyers, and during the course of discussions with Ministers and other officials it became clear that they certainly did have those powers. I had to ask what safeguarding was; it is a relatively unusual activity for the Commission to threaten. In the two conversations I have had with the senior official at the Commission, they told me that, first, four of these letters are typically issued a year to member states by them, and then something between eight and 10, so we can assume it is under 10. The measures themselves would have led to the UK being unable to sell meat or meat preparations internally and to the rest of the European Union and even if it was only a small part of the industry, our great concern, I think shared, was that it would have such a disastrous effect on the reputation on the meat industry of the United Kingdom that, as the Minister said, this was the lesser of two evils and the best of all outcomes.
Q279 Amber Rudd: This modestsounding word, "safeguarding", actually meant potentially banning all sales of meat.
Tim Smith: It would have had the effect of stopping most of the meat trade within the European Union between the United Kingdom and the EU and, because of the impact on the reputation of the industry, almost certainly would have had the knockon effect of damaging, possibly beyond repair, the meat sector within the United Kingdom. That was our assessment.
Anne Milton: The reputational damage would have been immense. This is a terrible thing; it does not stop with the ban itself. It is the reputational damage. We live in a world of 24hour media, and it can have disastrous consequences.
Tim Smith: I am happy to keep referring to that as entirely disproportionate to the risks.
Anne Milton: It is another way of saying that they had taken leave of their senses.
Q280 Chair: I am slightly confused why we did not argue, as Spain, Germany and Holland have argued, that this product is 3mm Baader meat or some other legal alternative.
Tim Smith: This is simply and unfortunately a question of semantics within the member states. Everybody recognises that this material is produced in other member states but is then designated as mechanically separated meat and in theory-and I cannot tell you in practice what happens to that meat-in their own home market it will be used and it cannot be used as meat. It must be designated as something that is no longer meat. When it is exported here, because we had taken the view of the regulations and their interpretation that we did, then it would be quite proper for them to describe it in the way that they do. Baader, as you will have heard Jim Paice explain to you, is simply the type of machine that is used. It describes, broadly speaking, that this is very similar to minced meat, which remains and was then our position.
Q281 Chair: Minister, you mentioned the European Scrutiny Committee, but they challenged you on these points in particular. The fact was referred to in their conclusions that the situation in the UK was presumably wellknown in advance of the visit of the FVO-I think it was in January or February-to Newby Foods and, also, that you could have possibly negotiated for a delay, rather than the five days given to implement any action on the basis that draft guidance on the interpretation of MSM had been put on hold and that no definitive recommendation had actually been made.
Anne Milton: We would not willingly have done something we did not feel we had to do. Tim Smith has referred to legal advice; that was the other thing I kept checking. I got legal advice. I would not willingly have done something that I did not feel we had to do. It is very easy to sit back. It was very easy for me to sit back and say, "What about a challenge? What happens if we do not do this? Why can we not just say to the Commission, ‘This is ridiculous. It is disproportionate. You have taken leave of your senses. Look at the impact’?" The decision that was taken at that time was that a) we were not sure we had legal grounds and b) if we got it wrong the consequences-although the consequences of doing what we did are there-of getting it wrong would have been more serious: a ban on sales of meat and significant reputational damage, probably done by media interest.
Q282 Chair: Can we just be clear? What was the legal basis that you were threatened with for a proposed ban?
Tim Smith: The two regulations that were referred to, which I think the last time I was before the Committee I gave you, were one related to the hygiene measures, which I think is 882 or 883, and then the TSE regulations. There were two separate regulations that were referred to in their letter.
Q283 Chair: And the hygiene measures were under review?
Tim Smith: Yes, they are.
Q284 Amber Rudd: Minister, could I just ask you for clarification-you have alluded to this-as to whether it is correct that you have no concerns about public health associated with desinewed meat?
Anne Milton: Correct, I have no concerns.
Q285 Amber Rudd: And are you now going to move on to trying to convince the Commission of that position to try to get some reversal.
Anne Milton: Absolutely. I think that the point cannot be stressed strongly enough. This was the subject of ongoing discussion. We were in a process; negotiation is not the right word. We were in a process to get clarity. This is the tragedy of this, really. It was not as if this was something the FSA did not know of. We were in process that should have produced a result. I was happy that the meat was safe, and we need to absolutely make sure that this does not happen again.
The European wheels are curious and mysterious, actually. How we best go about dealing with this I will continue to take advice from others on, because it is still important, I think, that this does not start a hare running about food safety which, indeed, it still could do, though it would be incorrect. It is important for me to get an opportunity to say, yet again, that I do not believe there is any risk.
Q286 Amber Rudd: Do you believe the advice you received from the TSE subgroup of the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens is consistent with that view?
Anne Milton: Yes, I do.
Q287 George Eustice: I wondered whether, on this issue, in the run-up to the final decision in March 2012, you had discussed this, and discussed the problem Britain had, with other Ministers in other member states. Was this sufficiently concerning that it would have been worth raising with other states?
Q288 Anne Milton: Yes. Forgive me for telling you things that I am sure some of you around here will be aware of, but the European health council meets twice a year. There is a formal meeting and an informal meeting. The informal meeting is an opportunity to raise all sorts of issues that might be of mutual concern to European Ministers and this is one that might well have come up. Not this specific one, but food safety is one. Food labelling and all those sorts of things have been discussed at length among us, but because we did not think there was any problem, I would not have raised this.
Q289 George Eustice: What about afterwards, when you knew there was a problem? Would it have been possible to have sought the support of other member states before accepting the moratorium?
Anne Milton: Sometimes these things require sensitive handling; in fact, steaming in like a bull in a china shop, or even quite slowly, is not necessarily the right thing to do. I am happy to leave this at official level, and discussions are carrying on at that level. I feel that is probably appropriate for now. I would take advice across Government. I would talk to the Minister for Europe about this and the FCO, because how we make sure this does not happen again, as I say, is not a decision just for me, because I have no doubt there are other Departments in similar positions from time to time.
Q290 George Eustice: When you say that discussions are ongoing, does that mean officials are still talking to the Commission about trying to reverse this?
Anne Milton: Very much so. I know the FSA will be, and I am sure Tim Smith will give you chapter and verse on what he is doing with the Commission.
Tim Smith: Yes.
Anne Milton: This is very much ongoing. This is very much not over. We are at the start, not at the end, of something.
Q291 Chair: On Mr Eustice’s point, I understand that the hygiene regulation guidance was still subject to ongoing discussion. Minister, you keep saying things like, "I was not willing to do something that I felt we did not have to do." You did not think this could possibly happen, but it was open to you to suggest that no moratorium should be imposed until such time as a considered view and a definitive report had been published, or until such time as the hygiene regulation guidance review had been concluded. Perhaps you did; this is your opportunity to inform the Committee. Did you make those points?
Anne Milton: If the consequence of that was a ban on meat products, I still do not believe that would have been the right thing to do. It is the consequences of doing that.
Q292 Chair: What discussions have you had with your colleagues in Spain, Germany and Holland, whose producers are still producing these, by whatever description they are called, and we are now still taking those imports? What discussions have you had with them as to how they have sidestepped a unilateral ban?
Anne Milton: I have not had any discussions with them as yet. Having taken advice on this, I am convinced that, probably, at this stage-and, as I say, there are a lot of countries not necessarily wiling to disclose exactly what is going on in their own country-I am satisfied that we are doing the right thing at the moment. There indeed may well come a time when we should raise this at ministerial level, but at the moment I think the best action is probably being taken by the FSA with the Commission at official level.
Q293 Chair: Would it not have strengthened our meat producers’ hands to know that someone was batting for them and that we had allies who would perhaps in six months’ time face a similar ban, or perhaps we would have our ban lifted.
Anne Milton: If I thought it would have strengthened our producers’ hand then, as I say, having been satisfied that there was no public health risk I probably would have done it and, indeed, the DEFRA Minister might well be doing that; I do not know if you asked him. I would do everything to strengthen our own hand, indeed. At the moment, as I say, I think other member states are keeping their heads well below the parapet on this, having seen what has just happened to us.
Q294 Chair: Is it fair to our producers that no one has been going out there and batting for them?
Anne Milton: We are batting for them. I do not think it is about fairness; it is about doing the right thing. I would not dream of leaving somebody high and dry. If they feel they have been left high and dry then maybe letters need to be sent to them. I am sure the FSA is doing that to reassure them that although the situation is extremely difficult and has had some very unfortunate consequences we are doing all we can. I have had no representations by Members of Parliament that anybody feels that we are not batting for them, and if I had my letters back would be robust, saying that we are doing everything that we can.
Q295 Richard Drax: Mr Smith, the Agriculture Minister told us that the FSA should have perhaps been more aware of developments and the direction they were going over the last 12 months. Is that fair criticism?
Tim Smith: I have read what the Minister said. I think, in light of the conversations that we have been having with the Commission, with Agriculture Ministers and Health Ministers, it is one of those events where you cannot be wise afterwards and say, "We should have seen this coming." I think, having trawled through all the evidence of the various committees that our officials are represented on, and having trawled through the correspondence and evidence we provided the Commission with, I think it might be a little harsh to describe the situation in that way. My officials do not feel that they could have anticipated the action, even during the period that the audit was being conducted. As recently as the middle of March, we would have felt comfortable that the organisations that are represented, as they are, in riskassessing and riskmanaging within the European Commission were working their way through to an agreed process, rather than taking a very blackandwhite and, in these terms, disproportionate course.
Q296 Richard Drax: You said you should have seen this coming.
Tim Smith: Sorry, if I might correct myself, no, I do not think there was a possibility that we could have seen it coming. It just looks like, when you track back through all of the evidence, that there does not seem to be a moment in time at which one could have anticipated the Commission responding in this way. We could have got this position by failing to agree with all of the other member states that the designation we were making was unfair, but it would have taken months of work through Committees and scientific evidencegathering. Then nobody would have been surprised: we would not have been; Ministers would not have been; the Committee would not have been; and neither would the industry.
Q297 Richard Drax: As we have had this moment of lunacy, is your Department now looking at any other areas potentially at risk of another moment of lunacy, which we can perhaps forestall or stop now, before it ever gets to this point?
Tim Smith: Yes.
Anne Milton: Yes.
Tim Smith: That is one of the question that we ask internally the whole time. Is there anything about which we are being complacent? Are we are missing signals from the Commission or missing signals from risk assessors in other member states? We describe that in the jargon as horizonscanning: looking into the future and trying to work out where else the risks for this sort of activity come from. I would make this point: looking at the evidence that the Commission had we would never have concluded that they would take the disproportionate action that they did and nor would we anticipate that in the future. As the Minister has been very careful to describe, one of the biggest parts of the process we are following from here is trying to prevent this from ever happening again to any part of the food industry in this country.
Q298 George Eustice: Finally and very briefly, is there any area now in the food production of this country imminently under threat, in your view?
Tim Smith: No.
Q299 George Eustice: Nothing?
Tim Smith: No.
Q300 Chair: Mr Smith, I think you possibly would like to update us on recent developments in Brussels. I think, in particular, you attended the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health.
Tim Smith: No, I did not. My activity in the Commission has been limited to meeting Paola Testori Coggi. I think you intend to interview members of her team and I think that is a very sound course of action. My discussions with her have concentrated on two aspects of what has happened. The first was that, on the moratorium particularly for nonruminant animals, we have pushed back extremely hard on what should be included and what should not be included in the material designated as being mechanically separated meat if the designation of desinewed meat has disappeared.
I know that certain parts of the food sector, particularly the poultry industry, have benefited from those interventions because something like four fifths of the material that could have been considered banned as a consequence of the new designation has actually been kept exempt from that regulatory impact. What that means is that only about a fifth of what we thought was going to happen to the chicken processing industry of has actually been captured. That is one example of where we have pushed back on the moratorium itself.
The second component is on the science and evidence gathering; on ruminant bone and the perceived TSE risk, we would defer to the Minister’s own Committee, the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens. They met on 25 May. We anticipate receiving a report from them and taking whatever actions they think are rational as the next steps to convincing the Commission that meat derived from ruminant bone, and the work that Mr Parish has described, is basically the same or perhaps even better than that which is obtained using traditional knife methods.
That is one part of the equation. The nonruminant activity, which is all to do with the hygiene component, we have, as you know, submitted three times to the Commission evidence from Leatherhead Food Research, which demonstrated, to our satisfaction, that meat produced from those animals was the same-and therefore carried the same risk, if any-as that from meat which is traditionally boned. It looks like mince under a microscope; it looks like mince to consumers; it probably therefore is.
On that basis, we continue to argue that the risk assessment that should be carried out should be done by EFSA. They are the competent authority in this regard. We would expect that a mandate could be created very quickly for EFSA to do that work and come to some very swift conclusions. We have been pressing the Commission for that since this arose in April 2012; we were pressing them before that, through Committees and officials, to let us have a definitive answer as to what properly constituted what we regard as desinewed meat and was safe for consumers then and is safe for consumers now.
Q301 Chair: And who sits on the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens for us?
Tim Smith: It is a whole group of eminent scientists. The Secretariat is provided by, I think, the HBA and there are officials from both the Department of Health and the FSA who make submissions to that, as and when required.
Anne Milton: Strictly speaking, it is the Chief Medical Officer’s Committee.
Q302 Chair: Could we be clear on what level the representation is at. Is it a Minister or a scientist?
Anne Milton: To correct Tim Smith, it is the Chief Medical Officer’s Committee; it advises the Chief Medical Officer.
Tim Smith: They are independent scientists.
Anne Milton: It is an independent committee.
Q303 Chair: Is that where this is being argued?
Tim Smith: For ruminants and the question about TSE-which is separate from the nonruminant bone risk, and the Commission have agreed that they should be separated-the advice that we will pass through to FSA will come from that body.
Q304 Chair: Who sits on the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health for the UK?
Tim Smith: It is one of our senior vets, typically, but it does vary by subject matter. On this, it would be one of our vets.
Q305 Chair: Did they have a role in the hygiene regulations and this decision?
Tim Smith: Yes. The people who sit on the Standing Committee are typically the same senior officials who are working through, with their opposite numbers in all of the other member states, the revision of the hygiene package.
Q306 Chair: What steer did you give them in relation to the meetings with regard to this decision?
Tim Smith: To be as robust as they were previously, but possibly to work harder with Ministers and the industry at their backs. They know that we need speed and we need accuracy.
Q307 Chair: Historically, when was the decision taken in the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health?
Tim Smith: When was it taken? There was never a decision made by them. All they have effectively done is endorse the work of the central Commission.
Q308 Chair: Presumably, our man or woman vet would have had a role to play in saying why our meat was good.
Tim Smith: We think that-
Q309 Chair: We don’t do "think". We want to know that, actually, these representations were made.
Tim Smith: Yes. The answer to your question is yes.
Q310 Chair: Can we see them?
Tim Smith: Yes. The proceedings of the Standing Committee and all of the relevant working official gatherings are all public record.
Q311 Chair: Thank you. I think we would be interested, if we could, to see that. How did you get on, Mr Smith, on your visit to Newby Foods?
Tim Smith: I was there particularly to look at the evidence that they were able to show me that it is actually pretty difficult to do what the Commission worry about, which is to turn up the machine to such a pressure that it would actually create damage to the bone that could then potentially lead to the concerns the Commission had. I am satisfied, as someone who has been in the food industry for 30 years, if not as a civil servant, that the innovation and creative processes that they have developed are entirely similar to the effect that you would get if you had a team of expert butchers at the end of the line instead of this bit of equipment. I was grateful that they were willing to show me the process; I was able to see nonruminant bone being processed. I commend them for the work they have done in innovating in this particular way, whilst, at the same time, sympathising with them on the impact of the Commission’s moratorium.
Q312 Chair: Did you suggest that they should possibly take up a judicial review?
Tim Smith: I suggested to them that it would not be for me to ask them to do anything in a legal setting, but I suggested that we would need to be able to persuade the Commission that the industry felt so strongly about this that they were taking their own legal recourse, rather than simply relying on the Government to do it for them.
Q313 Chair: Thank you. Minister, if Newby Foods and other companies that have been caught up in this decision were indeed to go down the path of a judicial review, would your Department join them as an interested party in that action and help to defray their costs?
Anne Milton: I would need to take legal advice on whether we could, first of all, and on whether it was appropriate for a Government Department to do that. I think it would be fair to say that-although we might not be able to join them in the judicial review, and I am no lawyer so I do not know where it stands-I think they do need to know, and you have alluded to it before, Chairman, that the Government is behind them. We are all behind them. What action we could take I would seek legal advice on.
Q314 Chair: Minister, what lessons personally do you take from this whole saga?
Anne Milton: Let me just say I think that is a terribly important question, particularly as we have been in government for two years, and I have not been a Government Minister before. I think it reminded me why it is important to keep ahead of your brief and on top of your brief. Also, personally, I am accountable for all sorts of curious things and, actually, I went back and questioned the FSA and we looked back over bits of paper and asked, "Did we do everything?" It is reassuring to know that we did. The lesson I take is that you can never let your guard drop. You always have to be sure that organisations that are accountable to you do account for themselves.
The trouble with government-I think it is probably something that I mentioned earlier-is that it is very bureaucratic and it has lots of processes in place. It has governance arrangements in place. The question is a) can you interrogate them adequately, and b) can you actually ever hold somebody to account for their actions. It has shone a microscope on what we did in this instance. I think we did everything we could internally; there are other things out there. The lesson I take is that vigilance is critical. We are very busy. You sometimes get very overtired but you can never let it drop. Sometimes it is important to tell civil servants to slow down, because they cannot give adequate scrutiny to the things they are supposed to be scrutinising.
Q315 Neil Parish: Can I ask both the Minister and Mr Smith this question? When the FSA was set up, it was set up very much to be scientificallybased and to look at food safety, so everything you do should be from a scientific basis. How predictable was this, in a way, if the Commission acts totally irrationally and brings about a ban of this desinewed meat not on food safety grounds? How could you or anybody actually predict such a way of doing business? Once they have done that, are they completely beyond challenge and arbitration and all of those things? I think this is the most frustrating thing, because the Food Standards Agency is all about healthy food, which is good quality and safe to eat. The Commission has not denied this meat is safe to eat and yet is banning it. Mr Smith, how could you ever actually predict such behaviour?
Tim Smith: If I could just reflect on the Minister’s answer to the previous question, I would feel precisely the same way that she does-that the lessons learned in this are in terms of vigilance and looking for future risk.
I have to say, in answer to you, that if one was thinking about the science and evidence-and this hinges on the ability of an individual or a series of individuals to determine the difference between microscopic samples of meat from one source against another-the evidence that we consider is that there is, really, no significant difference. The Commission takes an alternative view. Could we, thinking about the science and evidencegathering that we would use, have predicted that they would act in this way? We could not. If they did it again we could not. If this was, on the other hand, going through an entirely scientific process of rigour where the status quo might have been more sensible as an outcome, then I think we might have probably joined with them, assessing the risk management decision and communicating it effectively. They ignored the risk assessment process and went straight to a risk management process, which we felt was disproportionate and still do. I cannot anticipate that doing that, having ignored the risk assessment process, would be a rational course of action for any government body in the centre of Europe to take.
Anne Milton: I cannot really add anything to that, except that it highlights two things. One is the importance of taking good scientific advice, but if an organisation ignores that scientific advice or refuses to accept it, there is very little you can do. It does raise wider questions about the scrutiny of the processes of Government. If you have an organisation that is acting irrationally, what do you do? As I say, that would inform a discussion that I will have with the Minister for Europe and I would not be alone in raising questions about how European structures work and whether there are adequate opportunities to guard against irrational behaviour, which is what we are taking about.
Q316 Chair: I wonder whether it would be possible to have a copy of the FSA response of 14 October 2011 to the Commission’s informationgathering exercise.
Tim Smith: The questionnaire? Yes, by all means.
Q317 Chair: That would be helpful. I just have one last question, Minister. What do you think we can learn from this as regards the future of the FSA?
Anne Milton: The FSA has proved itself to be good, certainly in terms of its governance structures. For me, I was impressed that everything could be produced and that I could have access to all of the letters, so that I could have a proper chronology of what happened. I think that the FSA continues to play a critical role in protecting public health. The fact is that the FSA is very scienceorientated, basing what it does on the evidence available. Politicians do not always like the evidence available; sometimes the evidence raises unpalatable things. Yet it is terribly important. At the end of the day, that is, and that will be, our most robust defence against what the Commission have done.
Q318 Chair: Minister and team, thank you. I do not know if there is anything that you would like to add.
Anne Milton: Yes, Felicity has not said anything.
Dr Harvey: No, I do not think there is anything else I can add.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed for participating. We will obviously publish some recommendations in due course.
Anne Milton: We look forward to reading the transcript from the Commission, if they come and visit you.