Last updated on 8 May 2012

Note of meeting of the Consumer Stakeholder Forum: 30 November 2011

Meeting held at Aviation House, 125 Kingsway, Holborn, London WC2B 6NH

Attendees:

Consumer Stakeholders

Lynn Strother, Greater London Forum for Older People
Stella Nicholas, National Consumer Federation
Patience Purdy, National Council of Women of Great Britain
Hajnal Zdravics, Nutrition Society

Food Standards Agency officials

Tim J. Smith (TJS), Chief Executive
Justin Everard (JE), Head of Media and Marketing
Andrew Rhodes (AR), Director of Operations
Sarah Appleby (SA), Head of Enforcement and Local Authority Delivery
Michael Wight (MW), Head of the Chemical Safety Division
Terry Donohoe (TD), Head of Strategy and Policy Unit
Catriona Stewart (CS), Food Hygiene Rating Scheme
Kathryn Callaghan (KC), Foodborne Diseases Strategy Team
Phil Flaherty (PF), Food Hygiene Policy Manager
Emer Timmins (ET), Communications Manager

Welcome and introduction:

TJS welcomed everybody to the 17th Consumer Stakeholder Forum. He said that it was a smaller group than usual due to external factors but that he hoped the Forum would still find it useful. He began by talking about recent FSA business that he thought the group might be interested in.

Incidents – TJS mentioned that the FSA had been in the media recently over a number of incidents such as the E.coli incident in Germany, norovirus in oysters and botulism in a Loyd Grossman sauce. He explained that these incidents always test the Food Standards Agency but that he was happy with the way the FSA had handled them. He also explained that each incident is followed by a review. He said that he would like a list of incident case studies on the next agenda as an item. (Action)

Review of regulators – TJS said that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are conducting a review of regulators.

The Scudamore Review – this is the review taking place in Scotland to look at the role of the FSA in Scotland. TJS said that the review is due in the first half of 2012 and that Sue Davies of Which? is on the panel. TJS considered that the Review could have one of three broad outcomes:

  • Do nothing
  • Formalise in a different way the relationship between the FSA & Scottish Government
  • Invoke the ‘divorce clause’ in the act – Scotland to run its own Food Standards Agency

SN said that there was a lot of hard feeling in Scotland over foot and mouth as the Scottish beef industry feared that they were punished for failings in the rest of the UK. TJS said that although the FSA is no longer responsible for healthy eating in England and Wales, which makes the FSA a slightly asymmetrical organisation, we’ve found ways to operate successfully.

LS asked what TJS would like the outcome of the Review to be? TJS said that consumers behave in the same way, north and south of the border and the food supply chain doesn’t recognise borders. Therefore, from the food supply chain perspective, two bodies is not ideal. Although, in terms of regulation, there is a precedent for more than one body. In the island of Ireland, for example, there is the Food Standards Agency Ireland (FSAI), the cross border organisation, Safe Food, and the Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland.

Minutes and matters arising:

JE ran through the minutes of the previous meeting. There were three actions arising:

  • FHRS leaflets had been sent to the Greater London Forum for Older People
  • Officials had looked at the research suggested by PP and had responded to her. Aspartame was on the agenda for later in the meeting – see below.
  • Recycling packaging advice. At the previous meeting Forum members had raised concerns about conflicting messages in recycling and avoiding cross contamination in relation to packaging and raw meat (especially chicken).

The group were told that the FSA advice is to dispose of chicken packaging careful and wash hands and surfaces thoroughly after disposal to reduce the risk of cross contamination. We would not recommend recycling any chicken packaging as this would require washing the packaging and increase the risk of spreading any contamination to hands and surfaces. This accompanies our advice to consumers not to wash chicken meat for the same reason.

Retailers are working on reducing chicken packaging so consumers will have less to dispose of, and we are encouraging them to extend leak-proof packaging across all chicken product ranges to reduce the risk of cross contamination. Retailers are also currently reviewing the hygiene messages on chicken packaging, in particular the “no need to wash chicken” message.
Action – JE to send an email with our advice to all stakeholders.

SN asked whether all chickens were dangerous? JE said that the survey carried out by the FSA earlier in the year found that 68% have campylobacter but this is killed when it is cooked properly.

Bisphenol A (BPA):

JE explained that France has recently voted to ban Bisphenol A (BPA) in food contact materials from 2014. The use of BPA in packaging for food and drink for young children will be banned earlier, in 2013. It also voted to have warnings/ labelling on food packaging containing BPA aimed at infants, children and pregnant women ahead of the bans. This follows a report by ANSES (The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety), which has recommended to reduce exposure to BPA, particularly in the most susceptible populations (children, pregnant women), to improve information for consumers by systematically labelling household utensils and containers in contact with foods which contain BPA. This is in order to prevent them from being used for the excessive heating of food and to encourage manufacturers to develop substitutes for BPA, whose safety would be demonstrated, for food uses. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is currently evaluating the ANSES report.

JE said that the FSA bases its advice on the body of scientific evidence and the opinion of independent scientists. Our current advice is that BPA from food contact materials does not represent a risk to consumers but the FSA will consider the EFSA view on the ANSES report to see if it has any implications for our advice to consumers.

TJS is going to meet (ANSES) in January to discuss BPA and other issues.

Food Hygiene Rating Scheme:

CS explained the Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS) is a key element of the FSA’s strategic objectives for safer food and is being introduced in partnership with Local Authorities (LAs) across the UK. The FSA was pleased with the progress made in rolling out the FHRS since the last consumer stakeholder forum.

CS said that there are now 176 LAs operating FHRS - 137 in England (42%), all 22 in Wales and 17 of 26 (65%) in Northern Ireland. Another 75 Local Authorities are set to launch in the next few months.

Although good progress was being made in rolling out the FHRS in England, CS explained that some LAs had remained reluctant to adopt it, preferring their own ‘local’ schemes, usually Scores on the Doors (SotD). LAs had concerns too about costs, particularly for re-visits and about IT for publishing ratings. To address these concerns the FSA has announced additional support. This includes opening up the grant funding programme again to help with the costs and also a new priorities fund to act as insurance for LAs where demands for re-visits are unexpectedly high and planned inspections are disrupted.

The FSA has also entered into a partnership agreement with the company that runs the SotD website – Transparency Data. This partnership is helping to enhance the FHRS IT system and make it as user friendly as possible for consumers.

The response to these developments has been very encouraging and applications for funding for pre-launch work have been received from 91 new authorities with a number of others expected. The FSA anticipates by next summer around 95% of LAs - including most London LAs - will be committed to the scheme.

In Scotland, 20 LAs are now operating the Food Hygiene Information Scheme (which has similar aims to the FHRS) with six more preparing to launch and then just over 80% will be running the scheme.

In terms of other developments, CS highlighted that the FSA in Wales is working closely with the Welsh Government on a Bill for mandatory display of FHRS ratings at food business premises in Wales. The Bill and Regulatory Impact Assessment are currently being drafted and consultation will begin in early December. TJS said that Consumer Focus Wales (CFW) had played a major part in making the case for mandation in Wales and he paid tribute to the efforts both of CFW and the FHRS team.

CS also mentioned that the Board has also agreed that the Agency should consult on extending the scope of the scheme to all food businesses in the UK including producers.

LS said that the Greater London Forum for Older Peoples had distributed a number of consumer leaflets about the FHRS scheme across London and some activists had gone into restaurants asking why there were no FHRS stickers on display. LS reported that some of the people had received rudeness and abuse from restaurant staff.

PP asked whether lots of people check ratings before going out. TJS said there tend to be two types of people: those that look up ratings before going out and those that look at them when they’re out. PP said she wasn’t sure that she knew what the ratings stickers look like. It was agreed to send her a ratings sticker (Action)

LS asked that because of the amount of resources involved, do those local authorities that have successfully launched the FHRS scheme in their local area support other local authorities? CS said that there are regular meetings where LAs can learn from each other.

Preparations for the Olympics:

SA explained that it was the first time that the FSA had had the chance to talk to the Forum about what they’re doing in relation to the Olympics. She said that there are just 240 days to go and the FSA has been working with the London Organising Committee for 2-3 years. She explained the work being done with local authorities in the run up to the Olympics to ensure food safety during the games. She explained that food businesses are being supported with funding for Safer Food Better Business. Work is in progress to ensure that hygiene in venues meets requirements. The FSA is also working with Port Health Authorities to ensure checks are carried out on imported food and that sampling and analysis is carried out.

SA said a joint FSA/Local Authority exercise is being planned for January which will test the FSA and LA response to a serious incident at the Olympics. Any lessons learnt will be addressed in time for the games.

In addition, the FSA is providing extra training for LA staff in the run up to the Olympics. SA explained that the Olympics was going to be one of the biggest events ever in the UK and we need to ensure that food businesses are well prepared and meet the necessary standards. In particular catering establishments and mobile catering outlets may require additional advice and checks. To help LAs, the FSA is providing rapid testing kits for local authorities to use during the games.

SA said the FSA was also providing information for visitors. Food safety information will be incorporated within guidance issued by the NHS and this will be available to the public at hotels, transport hubs etc.

TJS said that the FSA has talked to officials from Vancouver which held the Winter Olympics in 2010. He said that the FSA has contingency plans in place to manage foodborne disease outbreaks and has planned for the Olympics on a worst case scenario.

SN asked how many weeks the events of the summer would go on for. SA said that it will probably begin with the Queen’s Jubilee in June and last for three months. TJS said that another challenge the Agency faces during the Olympics is the pressure on transport for staff coming in to London during games time. TJS added that the FSA has been working on contingency planning for the Olympics for some years now.

LS said that she was part of an Olympics forum which is encouraging people to let out a spare room and provide bed and breakfast but some participants have not registered, even though there is the possibility of them giving a guest food poisoning. SA said that the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) has drawn up guidelines and those letting out rooms on this basis will need to register as a food business. The CIEH is preparing an advice sheet through tourism bodies to distribute. It was agreed that SA would relay concerns expressed back to CIEH. (Action).

Anti-microbial treatments:

KC explained that the use of antimicrobial treatments to reduce contamination on meat carcases is being discussed in Europe with a Commission proposal for the specific use of lactic acid on beef carcases. At the moment only potable water is allowed. An EFSA opinion was published in July and it found that treatment with lactic acid posed no safety concerns. Lactic acid is an approved food additive for use in yoghurt and cheese.

The Commission is discussing through an EU working group whether lactic acid can be used on beef. There will then be a vote to authorise or not whether this can be used. The FSA Board will consider the Commission proposal at its January meeting. KC said that this is the opportunity for stakeholders to say what they think. She added that the FSA is currently funding research into lactic acid, including consumer views.

TJS asked where Europe sits in terms of labelling beef that has been treated in this way. KC said that there is no requirement for labelling within the proposal as very small quantities of lactic acid are left on the meat when used for reducing microbial surface contamination and this residual amount is negligible compared to the amount of lactic acid naturally present in beef and is of no safety concern.

SN asked what if consumers were allergic? KC explained that it doesn’t come from milk but sugar cane/beet. TJS said that our Board haven’t had the chance to consider this treatment yet but there may be a possible comparison with the food safety advantages provided by pasteurising raw milk.

PP was surprised that manufactured lactic acid was being referred to as a natural substance. On a previous occasion the FSA had indicated that manufactured folic acid was not the same as natural folic acid - a view with which NCW agrees.

Animal Welfare:

AR reminded the meeting about the various incidents of alleged animal cruelty filmed by Animal Aid and released to the media. AR said a survey of animal welfare in meat plants had been completed by the FSA in November. Although full results weren’t available, in general most businesses are working well. He explained that it was a very emotive issue and the FSA needs to continue to work with industry to ensure animal welfare issues continue to be taken seriously. AR clarified the position as regards prosecutions and reminded the meeting that the FSA is not the prosecuting authority. Formerly it was Defra but it is now the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

SN asked whether people have been caught by Animal Aid’s cameras committing abuses. AR said that yes people have been caught by Animal Aid and action was taken against them. He explained that CCTV was now widely used in abattoirs that supply major retailers. SP asked whether staff turnover was high in abattoirs. TJS said that it’s not high. He then said that a small minority of people had the potential to taint the whole industry in the eyes of consumers.

SN then said that she would like to visit an abattoir as although she was a meat eater, she wanted to know that animals were not being mistreated at the end of their life AR said that he had not visited an abattoir before he started work at the FSA and he found that it was far less distressing that he thought it would be.
Action JE to organise trip to poultry abattoir.

Church halls and childminders – Red Tape Challenge:

PF explained that following the publication of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge the FSA is carrying out a consultation into how food law applies to the church hall and childminder sectors.

He explained that currently child minders who provide food on a regular basis in their own home to the children they look after are required to register as food businesses. Organisations, including not-for-profit, which use village or community halls to serve food, might also be required to register. Both groups would be required to comply with food hygiene controls.

SN asked if having a harvest festival counted as a food business? PF said that whether you were classed as a food business depends on the frequency of the food service you undertake. He said that a one off supply generally wouldn’t be considered a food business. The kind of activity that would be considered a business would be for example providing hot food for the elderly on a regular basis. To register, a business would only need to fill in a form available from the Local Authority. A Local Authority Officer would then visit the premises to check the facilities and offer advice and guidance. Mostly, after this initial inspection, the Local Authority moves to intermediate enforcement whereby there is contact again with the food business after three or four years. In some cases it can be more often if vulnerable people are being served. The question being asked in the consultation is whether the current controls are appropriate. PF said that the FSA is writing to interested parties and would like to speak to people directly e.g. groups of childminders, visiting church halls etc. The FSA will then go back to the Board next year who will decide whether our current position is justified.

PP asked why the FSA was consulting on this issue. PF said that this was following comments on the Government Red Tape Challenge website. He said that the FSA wanted to check that the current controls in place are appropriate. SN said no one has ever said that you can’t cater for members on your birthday night in a village hall. Next year all the Jubilee celebrations will be taking place. What are the health problems people can face? TJS said the worst case of food poisoning ever was in Wishaw when over 17 elderly people died following a case of E.coli following lunch provided in a church hall. He then explained that although it is important to ensure that the correct procedures are in place to protect the public, this consultation is to check that the current controls are risk based and proportionate.

LS said that she has a lot of contact with the elderly and knows that many older people are taken to volunteers’ homes for tea, coffee and cake for example about once a month. She said that she has spoken to a member of London Councils and they have said that a lot of day care centres have closed. The person said that they want to set up lunch clubs to cook for elderly people but said that she thought that they would need hygiene checks. However because Local Authorities are facing budget cuts they might overlook food safety requirements for such clubs. LS requested guidance on this issue. SA responded that lunch clubs would need to comply with hygiene regulations. TJS said that it is the responsibility of the food businesses to ensure that there are proper risk based checks and that it is up to the Local Authority to advise them. PP said she thought some of the rules were unnecessarily intrusive and restrictive.

GM Honey

TD said that in September 2011 the European Court of Justice ruled that GM pollen in honey is a “food ingredient”, as defined in EU legislation on food labelling. He explained that this is not a food safety issue but a labelling issue and said that there will be further discussion in Europe on this over the next few weeks.

TJS said that this has generated some media interest decrying EU ‘rules’ that are seen as against common sense and the interests of UK honey producers, especially as GM crops are not widely grown in this country.

Forum members expressed surprise at this ruling and looked forward to further information from the FSA on this issue

Aspartame:

PP distributed a paper she had written and said this was produced in response to correspondence received from the FSA indicating the FSA’s intention to ignore the work done - both the paper research and experiment with rats - by Victoria Inness-Brown MA, including her extensive photographic evidence. PP reiterated her view that aspartame is not safe. MW explained that aspartame has been the subject, globally, of many peer reviewed scientific studies which have found no reason to doubt its safety. MW said that the FSA had, however, commissioned a study underway at the moment, that was investigating reported reactions to aspartame. The FSA had been struggling to get enough volunteers. PP said that she went as a ‘victim’ to be tested in Hull for the study but was not impressed. SN then asked whether anyone had become ill from aspartame during the study. PP said yes, one person had become so ill s/he refused to return for the second part of the test. The question is did the snack bar h/she ate on the first visit contain aspartame? MW explained that the test was a double-blind trial and that results were not yet available.

PP requested an FSA opinion on the Bressler report 'The US FDA list of reported adverse effects to 1996, the infant monkey experiment' and other studies. TJS asked PP to write in with specific questions that MW could respond to (Action). MW added that EFSA is re-evaluating the evidence available on aspartame and explained that EFSA has published the full list of earlier studies available to them which is now available online.

TJS suggested that if PP believed that the FSA may not have followed a proper scientific process in considering this issue she might like to write to Colin Blakemore who Chairs the Agency’s General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS). This committee provides independent advice on the Agency's governance and use of science. It was agreed that JE would provide PP with Colin Blakemore’s details (Action).

Any Other Business

It was agreed that the consumer stakeholder forums are an important opportunity for consumer groups to discuss issues. It was agreed that the FSA will look at ways to encourage greater participation in the forums in the future. (Action)

TJS thanked everyone for coming. The stakeholders thanked TJS for the meeting and said that they preferred being in a smaller room as it was easier to hear the proceedings.

Note: These minutes were amended on 17 July 2012.