February Board update
Friday 10 February 2006
The Agency held an Open Board Meeting in London on Thursday 9 February 2006. The meeting was chaired by FSA Chair Deirdre Hutton (left) and attended by 100 stakeholders and members of the public.
It was viewed on a live webcast by more than 400 people.
The Agency's Chair and Chief Executive gave reports to the Board, updating members on developments since the previous Open Board meeting in December.
The Board also discussed a number of papers and received reports from the Chairs of the Food Advisory Committees in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
FSA Chair's report
FSA Chair Deirdre Hutton informed the Board of developments since the previous open meeting.
Meeting with Commissioner Kyprianou
On 2 February 2006, the Chair and Agency staff had met the EC Commissioner for Public Health and Consumer Affairs (DG Sanco), Commissioner Kyprianou. The discussion covered the investigation into Euro Freeze (Ireland) Ltd (see Chief Executive's report, below, for more details on this). The Commissioner was impressed with the speed of and communication of the Agency's actions. He was also very interested in the Agency's plans to establish a task force and how that might influence improvements in Europe-wide systems.
The discussion also covered how the new arrangements for over-30-month (OTM) cattle were working. The Commissioner was pleased to hear that the systems were working well, but urged constant vigilance.
The Chair updated the Commissioner on the Agency's nutrition initiatives, including work on, and reactions to, its salt reduction approaches. The approach being developed in Europe by DG Sanco on this - around clear labelling, creating consumer demand and encouraging the market to deliver ' was similar in many ways to the Agency's approach.
Meetings with food industry
The Chair had had a number of meetings with the food industry. She and the Deputy Chair, together with the Public Health Minister Caroline Flint, had met the Chief Executive of Sainsbury's. The Agency congratulated Sainsbury's on its Wheel of Health scheme, which uses red, amber and green signposting on the front of some of its food packs. Consultations had shown that consumers want an authoritative scheme, backed by the Agency, the Chair said, and encouragement was given to Sainsbury's to adopt the levels for each high, medium and low category that the Agency had laid down.
The Chair, Chief Executive and Gill Fine, Head of the Agency's Consumer Choice and Dietary Health division,had also met a group of food manufacturers to discuss signposting. The discussion had focused on front of pack nutritional labelling. The group had informed the Agency that they had decided to adopt a scheme of GDAs which they wanted to put on all food. Agency consultations had found that consumers had particularly wanted clear labelling on complex and processed foods.
The Chair made it clear that the Agency would not be able to choose between schemes until the results of its consultation had been analysed. The results of the consultation and the final recommendations would be considered by the Board at its March meeting.
Campaign for Action on Salt and Health (CASH)
The Chair, with Minister for Public Health Caroline Flint, also attended the Campaign for Action on Salt and Health (CASH) Salt Awareness Day at the House of Lords. The theme of the event was: 'The Greater Impact of Too Much Salt on Ethnic Minority Communities', and the Chair and Minister gave complementary presentations that demonstrated that the Department of Health and the FSA were working together to achieve salt reduction. Both had stressed that consumer demand was the best way to drive industry change.
The British Heart Foundation publicly thanked the agency for its support with their Ramadan campaign, which had enabled the BHF to get valuable access to imams in mosques. The imams had then been able to talk to their congregations about salt reduction.
Chief Executive's report
Euro Freeze (Ireland )Ltd and Great Britain Cold store survey
FSA Chief Executive Dr Jon Bell reported on developments with regard to the investigation of Euro Freeze (Ireland) Ltd and outcomes of audits of UK cold stores.
He informed the Board that an audit of all Northern Ireland cold stores had been carried out by the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) between 15 and 20 December. It had revealed one further cold store containing product with illicit health marks. In addition, in four cold stores, examples of health marks with slightly different formats to the normal legitimate health marks were discovered. In the latter case, the FSA had contacted the relevant Member States and all responses received from them so far indicated that the products were in fact genuine, although one response was still outstanding. The Agency hoped to get that shortly.
Just before Christmas, all Member States had received a request from the European Commission to inspect all cold stores in their countries by the end of January. This recognised that these issues are indeed EC-wide and that similar problems have been discovered in other member states in the past. The FSA, therefore requested local authorities, as the enforcement body for stand-alone cold stores in Great Britain, to carry out those inspections, and the MHS was asked to inspect cold stores co-located with licensed premises.
The FSA had been able to advise the Commission in the week prior to the Board meeting that 200 of the 237 cold stores had been inspected at that stage; the rest would be covered within the following two weeks. The checks had so far revealed only one company, situated in the North West of England where there appeared to be problems with product identification.
All the suspect products found had originated from a meat producer in Northern Ireland, but it appeared that this incident was not connected with the Euro Freeze investigation. In this case, the problem involved 22 pallets of meat with 50 boxes per pallet where the majority of boxes had damaged health marks. There was no indication, however, that any of the health marks were not genuine.
The Northern Ireland company that supplied the product had been asked for an explanation for the findings. In the meantime, the product had been seized and would be presented to magistrates for condemnation.
The Chief Executive thanked the local authorities concerned and the MHS for carrying out such a large amount of work involved in the inspections in such a short period of time.
He also informed the Board that all of the product seized from the Euro Freeze cold store was awaiting a Magistrates' Court hearing to determine whether it should be condemned. The decision was expected within the next month.
Finally, he brought to the Board's attention the fact that some 400 tons of meat originating from Euro Freeze that had been delivered to France had been detained by the French authorities. FSA officials provided information to the French public health officials, indicating that the products were not directly connected with any of the meat that had the illicit health marks, and the French officials made a risk-based decision to release all the product.
E. Coli outbreak in Wales
The Chief Executive reminded the Board that the team that had reviewed the E. coli outbreak on behalf of the Chief Medical Officer for Wales made a number of recommendations directed to the FSA in its report, which was published in January. The Agency was in the process of responding to these but the Chief Executive wished to clarify some important issues concerning butchers' licensing that may have been misunderstood.
First, the review team had sought reassurance that the ending of butchers' licensing did not mean a decrease in public health protection. Second, the team had looked at the March 2005 Board paper on Food Safety Management and had expressed concerns that the FSA expected compliance with the new Food Hygiene Regulations to be low. They based this concern on the estimate which had been given in that paper that only 30% of food businesses in Wales had documented Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) in operation at that time.
The 30% figure had been based on local authority estimates of the proportion of all food businesses with documented HACCP at that time. Within that figure, 100% of licensed butchers would have been operating HACCP systems and that would continue.
In relation to food businesses other than butchers, it was accepted that it would be unrealistic to expect all businesses to be fully complaint from 1 January. Local authorities were taking steps to help businesses to meet the new requirements through their advisory and education work. The FSA continued to support this work through its activity on 'Safer food, better business', and demands for the 'Safer food, better business' packs were currently running at some 4,000 a week, he said.
Report on BSE testing system
The Chief Executive said that the BSE testing system, which had been introduced towards the end of 2005, had been running for just over three months and the systems that were put in place to manage this appeared to be functioning well. The number of abattoirs approved for testing continued to increase steadily and there were 33 in Great Britain and six in Northern Ireland by the end of the week prior to the Board meeting.
The numbers of OTM cattle being slaughtered were also continuing to build and had reached nearly 4,000 a week by the end of the previous week.
A disposal scheme for cattle born before August 1996 was put in place on 23 January and the OTM scheme formally withdrawn on that date. This had not so far resulted in a significant increase in the demand for OTM slaughtering. All tests to date have been negative except for a relatively small number of 'no tests', which resulted from untestable samples being taken. These, however, are now occurring at the low rate of about one or two a week, so the system seems to be working very well.
The main area of concern was the number of cattle born before August 1996 that continue to be consigned to fresh meat abattoirs. Such animals are ineligible for entry into the food supply and the new law that was put in place last year made such consignments an offence. The number presented had reached 47, by the day before the Board meeting, of which 42 were in Great Britain and five in Northern Ireland. The Agency believed this was an issue of awareness rather than cattle-keepers deliberating trying to get ineligible cattle into the food chain.
However, despite a number of initiatives by rural affairs departments to remind cattle-keepers of their obligation not to send such cattle for slaughter, they were still being presented. The Chief Executive had spoken to the President of the English National Farmers' Union (NFU) to make him aware of this and colleagues were contacting the farmers' unions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) had also written to the unions. Defra would also be taking additional steps to publicise the legal requirements not to send pre-August 1996 animals to fresh meat abattoirs.
The Agency was also considering the possibility of providing details of farmers who present such animals, and who are also members of one or more of the farmers' unions, to those unions so that they may contact them and speak to them directly.
Local authorities have so far shown reluctance to take any prosecutions on the grounds that they considered a warning to be the correct response to a first offence. The Agency expected, however, that prosecutions would be pursued if a second offence was committed.
Separately from this, there had been three reports of seals being broken on consignments of over-30-month carcasses that had been despatched to cutting plants for the removal of vertebral column, without the MHS being present. In all cases, the official veterinary surgeon was however satisfied that the carcasses were as despatched and they were therefore allowed to be processed in the normal way.
The risk if the vertebral column was not removed from an over-30-month carcass was very small because the carcasses must come from cattle that have been tested negative for BSE before they were allowed to leave the abattoir. Nevertheless, it was important to maintain confidence in the Specified Risk Material controls and the MHS would therefore be writing to abattoirs and cutting plant operators reminding them of the need to ensure that seals were not broken without the MHS being present.
Board paper: Action to tackle the trade in illegal meat
This paper updated the Board on developments with regard to the investigations that centred on Euro Freeze (Ireland) Ltd and highlighted a series of actions that the Agency believed would help prevent fraud and other illegal practices relating to the trading of meat.
The main umbrella recommendation referred to the proposed establishment of an independently-chaired task force to consider actions throughout the food chain to tackle meat fraud.
Other actions proposed include:
- looking at the security of the health-marking system
- looking at the identification of animal by-products
- looking at the inspection and audit arrangements for meat plants
- considering how food fraud risks might be factored into the risk-based inspection systems, both for local authorities and the Meat Hygiene Service
- looking at the effectiveness of the Agency support systems, which were introduced following the Denby poultry case
agreed recommendations for future action in addition to those already set out in the Agency's current strategic plan to improve the protection of consumers from meat fraud and other illegal practices
welcomed the fact that this would be an incremental process
requested an early report on recommendations on staining meat
agreed that a detailed action plan, including the terms of reference and membership of the Task Force, be presented to the April Board meeting
requested wide membership of the Task Force including representation from Europe
noted progress on the investigations at Euro Freeze (Ireland ) Ltd
Board paper: Local authority monitoring data on food law enforcement
The Food Standards Agency collects local authority (LA) enforcement data in order to:
- monitor levels of enforcement activity, and identify national trends
- identify LAs that require support and advice to drive up standards
- publish information for use by consumers
- report data to the European Commission
- provide benchmarking information for LAs themselves to use
Monitoring data on food law enforcement was collected and analysed by the Agency to contribute to driving up levels of compliance with food law by food
This paper reported the key findings from the monitoring data provided by LAs throughout the UK on their enforcement of food law in 2003/2004 and in 2004/2005.
It also provided a progress report on the project to review the monitoring system for local authority food law enforcement.
welcomed the improvements in the level of LA returns
recognised the excellent work undertaken by the Agency, local authorities and LACORS in achieving this
requested a paper to the board on whether these figures represented an improvement in public health or not
discussed the information the paper presented on national trends
noted the information for individual local authorities
agreed that officials should consider what further support or action should be taken with those LAs that reported the lowest levels of key activities
for 2004/2005, or had gaps in their data, subject to any comments from key stakeholders
recorded its concern about resources and hoped that this work could be carried out within LA resources
agreed that this information be used in the development of policy on LA enforcement of food law
noted the continuing work on the review project, taking account of the principles of the Hampton Report
Board paper: Review of the Framework Agreement and the Agency's audit scheme of local authority food and feed law enforcement activities
At its meeting of October 2005, in discussion of the recent E. coli outbreak in
Wales, the Board noted that the Framework Agreement on Local Authority Food Law Enforcement had been introduced five years earlier and agreed that it was an appropriate time to establish a high level review of the audit process, in conjunction with local authorities.
This paper sought to agree the approach to a review of the Framework Agreement and the Agency's arrangements for audit of local authority food law enforcement services. It was proposed, in the context of a number of key high level drivers for change, that the review would consider and identify:
- The level of assurance in local authority food law enforcement required by the Agency
- The limits to the level of assurance that can be delivered by audit
- The effectiveness of the existing Framework Agreement and audit scheme during its five years of operation
- Any gaps between the achievements of the existing arrangements and the level of assurance sought
- Any further development required of the Framework Agreement and the audit process. This may include additional mechanisms needed to deliver the relevant Agency objectives, and to ensure that the arrangements are aligned with current 'better regulation' initiatives and other high level drivers
noted the context and background to the decision to review the FrameworkAgreement and the audit scheme
requested that there should be some definition included on the outcomes that the work was aiming to achieve
encouraged the local authority audit team to continue with this work and to draw on any relevant input from Europe
agreed the approach, scope and proposed timeline of the proposed review process
looked forward to receiving an interim report at the September 2006 Board meeting
Board paper: Food Standards Agency Science Strategy
The Agency has updated its Science Strategy to reflect and support its new Strategic Plan, and to reflect other developments in the Agency's own science work ' including horizon-scanning - and cross-government initiatives and guidance on the use of science in government.
The new Science Strategy replaced the Agency's initial Science and Innovation Strategy (2002) and the basic statement of science strategy included in the Arbuthnott report (2001) and adopted by the Agency.
The Agency's Science Strategy described how the Agency would obtain and use the scientific evidence it needed to support all its strategic objectives, ensuring the Agency has a sound scientific evidence base for its policies and advice.
The paper set out how the Agency's Science Strategy has been updated and sought the Board's views on this.
considered the results of the public consultation on the draft Science Strategy
commented on the proposed responses to key points
requested the incorporation of overarching ethical principles
discussed proposed changes to the draft Science Strategy in the light of the consultation responses and agreed consequential changes
made clear that the Agency would work with editors to speed up the process of publication of scientific papers with implications for public health but recognised its responsibility for making the public aware of any findings that have an impact on public health as quickly as possible
agreed that the new Science Strategy should be published in spring 2006
Board paper: The Governance of Science
Since publication of the Strategic Plan, the FSA has undertaken two key pieces of work to support its commitment to being a science-based organisation:
- a review of the Science Strategy to bring it into line with the new strategic plan; and
- a review of the processes that ensure that the science upon which policies are based is comprehensive, sound and fit for purpose. Through this work, the FSA has brought together the existing systems and processes for the governance of science, and developed some additional assurance streams
The paper described the FSA's current arrangements for ensuring that its decisions were founded on the best scientific evidence and sound analysis and made proposals for strengthening these arrangements and making them
asked for the working definition for the governance of science to be expanded to align it with the Science Strategy
noted the current systems and processes in place
looked at the Science Checklist (as amended through consultation with the Chairs of scientific advisory committees) and asked the executive to consider how compliance with this could be demonstrated to the Board
agreed the proposed role of the FSA Chief Scientist, subject to the inclusion of 'whistleblower' provision