Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum by Marks & Spencer

  Food-borne micro-organisms are a significant cause of illness in the UK and have had a considerable impact on consumer confidence in the food supply chain.

  It is crucial that all stakeholders in the supply chain work together to address these concerns and we therefore welcome this opportunity to provide our perspective.

OUR VALUES—QUALITY, SAFETY AND TRUST

  We are fully committed to the highest standards of food safety.

  Consumers have a fundamental right to safe food and it is the responsibility of everybody in the food chain to provide this. We believe that the integrity of the entire food chain is essential to maintain the trust of our customers. The route we use to achieve this is through the adoption of good science and technology-from animal and plant breeding through to cooking instructions on the final product.

  We are in a unique position of only selling own-branded goods so our customers have the reassurance of knowing that our food products are carefully produced to our specifications. Marks & Spencer has worked to develop a unique world class food with extensive controls, including the sources and specifications of raw materials used by our suppliers. By working closely in partnership with our farmers and manufacturers at every stage in the supply chain we incorporate all the fundamentals of good food science and technology—including traceability, HACCP and product testing regimes.

  We believe that it is by operating in an open fashion, by taking customers concerns seriously and working with a food supply chain that is prepared to adapt its practices to respond to issues whether scientifically proven or not, that delivers both food safety and customer confidence.

FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY

  Marks & Spencer is highly supportive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and its objectives. Indeed, the success of the Agency is in the interest of consumers and industry alike.

  The Agency is progressing well towards establishing its credibility, and although it has yet to face the challenge of a major food safety scare, it is encouraging that the FSA is taking such a proactive role. Whilst we recognise that there are no "quick fixes" the FSA has come a long way in a relatively short space of time.

  The international nature of food safety issues will also require the Agency to work closely with the newly created European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Previous international food incidents have been exacerbated by a differing response from the various EU national authorities. No doubt the recent appointment of Geoffrey Podger as Executive Director of EFSA will be invaluable in addressing such concerns given his equivalent role at the FSA.

HACCP

  Marks & Spencer was at the forefront in pioneering HACCP and its early adoption in the UK (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point is a system to identify what steps in a food process or procedures are most likely to go wrong and to ensure that these steps are effectively controlled). It remains the cornerstone of our standard operating procedures, product specifications and food safety management.

  The Food Standards Agency recognises the value of HACCP and has set tough targets for the reduction of food-borne illness and a reduction of Salmonella in retail chicken. The Agency intends to work with industry to promote good practice, and to implement techniques for controlling food safety by the introduction of HACCP.

  We applaud such initiative—however, we would ask whether the food industry are sufficiently engaged in the process in order that such ambitious targets can be achieved.

  Disappointingly, a LACOTS/PHLS report highlighted that 23 per cent of food businesses1 are not even complying with the similar hazard analysis provisions of the existing hygiene regulations—a legal requirement since 1995. Evidence from other research portrays a similar or worse situation. Forthcoming EU legislation will introduce formal HACCP for food businesses and its practical implementation will undoubtedly pose a significant challenge.

  Legislation is unlikely to change the situation alone, and simplification and de-mystification of HACCP is much needed (particularly for SME's). The widespread adoption of HACCP by butchers was due to a successful "carrot and stick" approach—namely legislation twinned with training and guidance supported by the authorities.

  Whilst we acknowledge the expense of such an approach, it should be equally recognised that the FSA considers there could be up to 4.5 million cases of food poisoning each year at an annual cost to the economy of £350 million.

  1.  LACOTS/PHLS study of ready-to-eat foods to which spices have been added (November 2000).

LEGISLATIVE FRAMEWORK

  Marks & Spencer considers the regulatory framework to be fundamentally sound.

  The due diligence defence of the Food Safety Act is worthy of particular mention as it is probably the single most effective legislative measure that has actually raised food standards.

  From the early 1990s and continuously through to the present day. The due diligence defence places an onus upon food retailers and manufacturers to take a proactive and preventative approach—and was instrumental in encouraging the early adoption of HACCP, staff training, product testing etc. The value and benefit of due diligence is often underestimated by enforcement officers and legislators alike.

  Nevertheless, there are still some anomalies in food safety legislation between Scotland and England and Wales (eg different rules on temperature control, the sale of unpasteurised milk continues in England but is banned in Scotland). We believe that food safety legislation should be based upon sound science for the benefit of all consumers—irrespective of where they live in the UK, and indeed the EU.

  We welcome the independence of the Food Standards Agency and its ability to introduce legislation on a sound scientific/technical basis devoid of political influence.

ENFORCEMENT

  The FSA has made significant progress with auditing and monitoring the performance of Local Authorities (LA) in relation to food law enforcement. This activity has led to a perceptible culture change within local authorities, and made them much more aware of public accountability, and the need for appropriate enforcement.

  Marks & Spencer welcomes this development and supports any move to improve the standards of food law enforcement. The performance of the authorities should also take account of the provision of industry guidance and training. The initiative in HACCP training for butchers has highlighted the value of such an approach.

  Nevertheless, there still remains a huge task ahead—particularly with regard to the patchy recognition given to the home authority principle and enforcement concordat, and also the inconsistency of enforcement.

  Moreover, the official enforcement control data (OCD) collated by the FSA for 2000 identified that almost half of inspected food premises are not complying with the law (approximately 50 per cent of these cases are food safety contraventions by the catering sector). The OCD data also indicates that prosecutions dropped by 30 per cent in 2000 (unlikely to reflect a better degree of compliance) and a reduction in official sampling (in 1999 sampling dropped by 22 per cent, and by a further eight per cent in 2000). Most disturbingly, there is evidence2 to suggest that some LA's are avoiding the inspection of high-risk premises, and instead prefer to visit lower-risk businesses. OCD data for 2001 is not expected to be published until early 2003.

  Submission to FSA Board, December 2000.

  Given the finite limit to LA resources, the FSA may wish to consider drawing up priorities and specific targeting of enforcement activity upon those areas posing the greatest potential risk—indeed it may be appropriate to take a fresh look at enforcement and review the existing framework.

LICENSING

  Marks & Spencer believes the licensing of food business can help achieve food safety objectives.

  We would like to see licensing based upon risk assessment—of the premises, the operation and staff. The integrity of the food chain is also essential to maintain the trust of our consumers and we therefore support the introduction of licensing for all food businesses, including farms.

  Nevertheless, the recent introduction of the Butchers' licensing scheme has highlighted a number of practical difficulties that still need to be resolved. Of particular concern is the inconsistency of enforcement. Furthermore, devolution and the differing licensing requirements throughout the UK exacerbate the problem.

  These outstanding issues clearly need to be addressed before the licensing debate can be taken forward.

RESEARCH

  The Food Standards Agency research strategy encompasses a comprehensive approach to food safety research. Nevertheless, the BSE issue has previously highlighted the need for an effective co-ordination of research activities across Government departments and other research funders—a "joined up" strategy is therefore required leading to collaboration/co-ordination with the European Food Safety Authority and other research funding organisations.

  A strong scientific base is required in the UK to deal with issues such as animal disease that can have a direct effect upon human health. For this reason, Marks & Spencer together with its suppliers has establish a Chair in Animal Health, Food Science and Food Safety at Cambridge University and through this a number of expert groups to focus on specific zoonotic diseases.

  From our perspective, we have clear areas of concern and priorities for food research, including the following topics:—

    —  Zoonotic diseases (Salmonella, Campylobacter etc).

    —  Emerging organisms.

    —  Washed ready-to-eat salads.

GETTING AHEAD OF THE CURVE

  We have previously responded to the Chief Medical Officer's report and believe that it is generally excellent with many good ideas. Moreover, we fully support the creation of the Agency for Infection Control and Health Protection to add greater focus to the surveillance and control of infectious disease. However, we consider that a major opportunity has been missed, that could be seriously detrimental if not rectified.

  It is clearly in the public interest to amalgamate PHLS with CAMR, NRPB and the National Focus for Chemical Incidents. But it is more important to ensure that the PHLS and Veterinary Laboratory Agency (VLA) are combined. This would create a unity of purpose and bring together methodologies and strategies for controlling all infectious diseases, whether they mainly affect humans, animals or both. The distinction between human and animal infectious disease is very blurred, especially of course regarding food-borne zoonoses (the most common reportable infectious diseases).

  We are saddled with a system that divides, rather than unites, those working on very closely related problems (and pathogens) in the medical and veterinary fields. Even to the extent that there seem to be fundamental differences in working practices and methodologies between the VLA and PHLS when dealing with identical pathogens.

  Infectious diseases can adapt to new species and do not respect institutional boundaries. We should therefore encourage a multi-disciplinary approach to reflect the behaviour of animal and human pathogens in the modern world. The planned new Agency, if it were to combine VLA with PHLS, would be an ideal opportunity to resolve this historical situation.

  It is clear that policy making and overall responsibility for animal disease pathogens might still rest with DEFRA, for food with the FSA and for human disease with the Department of Health—though there remains a pressing need to ensure a seamless and "joined-up" policy across Government. Nevertheless, Surveillance and Control would be considerable.

  Unfortunately we feel that the report has fallen short in not combining responsibility for human and animal infectious disease and zoonoses within a single Agency.

  We would be pleased to assist in any future discussion on this matter.

David Gregory

Head of Food Technology

November 2002


 
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