House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Thursday 15 January 2004
MR CALLTON YOUNG, MR ANDREW WADGE, MR TOM MURRAY
and MRS ROSEMARY HIGNETT
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Health Committee
on Thursday 15 January 2004
Mr David Hinchliffe, in the Chair
Mr David Amess
Mr Keith Bradley
Mr Simon Burns
Dr Richard Taylor
Witnesses: Mr Callton Young, Head, Food and Drinks Industries Division, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Mr Andrew Wadge, Director, Food Safety Policy, Mr Tom Murray, Head , Nutrition Division, and Mrs Rosemary Hignett, Head, Food Labelling Standards Division, Food Standards Agency, were examined.
Q1194 Chairman: Colleagues, can I welcome you to this meeting of the Committee and apologise to our witnesses for the slight delay in starting. Can I express our thanks to you for being willing to come before us to answer questions on the issue of obesity. Could I ask you briefly each to introduce yourselves to the Committee, starting with you, Mr Young?
Mr Young: Callton Young, Head of the Food and Drink Industries Division of Defra.
Mrs Hignett: I am Rosemary Hignett, Head of Food Labelling and Standards Division at the Food Standards Agency.
Mr Wadge: I am Andrew Wadge, Director of Food Safety at the Food Standards Agency.
Mr Murray: Tom Murray, Head of Nutrition Division at the Food Standards Agency.
Chairman: Can I just begin by saying to Mr Young obviously we are glad that you have been able to join us today. I think you are aware that we are particularly interested in the CAP aspects of this issue. It may be that other than questions around that area we are more concerned with the other witnesses than yourself. I want to ask Mr Austin to come in early on on you area of responsibility and it may be then that there are not many other questions but if you feel you wish to come in on some of the areas that we touch on later in this session we will be very happy for you to do so.
Q1195 John Austin: I think in our earlier evidence when we were looking at obesity in relation to the United States we saw considerable evidence of the massive subsidy which caused over- production of corn syrup and massive surpluses and the only thing to do with it was stick it in fizzy drinks and pour it down people's throats. Also the subsidy arrangements on the imports of palm oil which led to it being extensively used in processed foods. Are we not now seeing a similar influence on diet as a result of the Common Agricultural Policy, a policy which pays to destroy totally healthy fruit and vegetables, which gives heavy subsidies to high fat content food, which subsidises the tobacco industry? Is there not a very real case for a review of the Common Agricultural Policy and its impact on health and diet?
Mr Young: First of all, I should make clear that I was not aware of the aspects on CAP which is why I was shaking my head. I have not come briefed to talk on that aspect. To answer your question, yes, the CAP does have a role to play in my view in terms of the health and nutrition agenda. The price of food is very clearly linked to what people buy and the extent to which it is subsidised must have a feedback down the chain to the consumer.
Q1196 John Austin: Do you think that the promotion of healthier food should be a key part of the Common Agricultural Policy?
Mr Young: I think it has to be a part of the Common Agricultural Policy. In terms of approaching these things, Brussels is clearly now working on the nutrition agenda. It is a key part of the Government policy and we have to look at these things holistically. It would not make a lot of sense to try and tackle obesity if one strand which had an impact on obesity was ignored. We have to look at all the aspects.
Q1197 John Austin: Can I ask you about the role of Defra because Defra is not directly assigned responsibility for health and nutrition. Would I be right in saying that your main purpose is the promotion of the food industry and its marketing schemes and profits?
Mr Young: Sorry, can you repeat that please, I did not hear it?
Q1198 John Austin: I understand that Defra is not specifically assigned the responsibility for health and nutrition, the major role in Defra appears to be promotion of the food industry and marketing schemes and profits.
Mr Young: In terms of my division's role vis a vis the food industry, we act as sponsor for that industry. It is a two way facing role really where we are the voice of the industry within Government so we make sure that industry's concerns are heard in the development of Government policy.
Q1199 John Austin: You are the voice of industry within Government?
Mr Young: In a sense. As I said, there are two sides to this.
Q1200 John Austin: Should you not be the voice of Government in the industry?
Mr Young: Wait for the second side. We are the voice of industry within Government to make sure that industry's voice is heard within the development of Government policy. Equally, as sponsors of the industry, we reflect agreed Government policy and we encourage them to comply and play a full role. In relation to obesity, whatever comes out of the Food and Health Action Plan - and I know you have had evidence on that - that will be a framework on which to take forward a whole raft of issues on nutrition and health. Defra, as sponsors, will be working with the industry, encouraging them to meet those Government policy objectives.
Q1201 John Austin: I have no idea what responsibility you may have for what goes on Defra's website. There is a mention of health and safety on the Defra website but nowhere does it list the goal of promoting nutrition in its work with the food industry. Is that part of Defra's role and, if it is, why does it not advertise the fact?
Mr Young: The role of promoting nutrition and the lead on that really resides with the Department of Health and work of the FSA. Now Defra has a broader responsibility and that feeds into our third objective which is about promoting a sustainable food and farming chain. Sustainability will bring in the aspects of nutrition and health. In fact the nutrition and health plan is one of the strands of the strategy for sustainable farming of food. Defra is involved with this at the very core but the lead policy responsibilities for nutrition and health reside with the Department of Health and we work with the Department of Health in order to deliver that.
Q1202 John Austin: To what extent do you work with the Department of Health and how frequently do you meet them?
Mr Young: Very closely. I sit on the steering group for the development of the Food and Health Action Plan as, indeed, do some of my colleagues alongside me. We work closely with them: the Department for Education and Skills and we work closely with DCMS and other players around Whitehall because, as I say, this has to be a holistic solution to what is a very complex and broad problem.
Q1203 Chairman: Can I just clarify, Mr Young, what you were told you were going to be asked questions about here this morning. I was a little surprised when you were shaking your head when I mentioned CAP. As you probably know we had some little difficulty with your Department in getting somebody to come along and I had discussions with the Secretary of State and certainly made it clear to her this week that CAP was an issue that we would raise with her. What did you understand would be the areas of questioning by the Committee?
Mr Young: Defra's role, ie sponsorship role in relation to obesity.
Q1204 Chairman: Right. So CAP was not mentioned to you at all?
Mr Young: Unfortunately, no. I was out of the office yesterday, I must explain.
Q1205 Chairman: Had CAP been mentioned as the key area of investigation in respect of your Department's responsibility would somebody else have come along instead of you?
Mr Young: Indeed.
Q1206 Chairman: Okay. Right, well, I do not want to push you on issues that you do not have responsibility for but it just concerned me a little bit that I think the message was loud and clear from me to the Secretary of State. She understood and I am sorry that you have been landed with answering for an area that you do not have responsibility for. Nevertheless, can I ask you, you mentioned the steering group that you serve on and I am interested in the relationship between your Department and the Department of Health and other Government departments in respect of this whole area. Has the CAP issue been discussed at all at that steering group and, if so, in what context and what have been the consequences of discussing the issue as it relates to the obesity question?
Mr Young: The CAP has cropped up in the work that has been taken forward by the group. As I say, it is clearly one of the strands which needs to feed in to it. In terms of what can be done in relation to CAP then that is a much more difficult nut to crack. We have been pursuing a programme of CAP reform for a long time now and this will be a new dimension which we will need to develop in it. I am sure that this will be an aspect which will come out of the work that officials are doing currently on the Food and Health Action Plan and which will be put before Ministers.
Q1207 Chairman: Would it be appropriate to ask if you could possibly get back to your colleagues who have responsibility in this area - obviously I will speak to the Secretary of State about why you have been put in this position today - in order that we can have some information from your Department in more detail about the position of CAP and the discussions which have gone on with regard to the obesity question?
Mr Young: I am quite happy to do that.
Q1208 Chairman: Okay.
Mr Young: I would not want to imply any criticism of the Secretary of State in all this. I am sure it has just got lost in the translation.
Q1209 Chairman: I am not criticising the Secretary of State. She has been very helpful in that she was very concerned that we had not had a response from the Department and when she found out she did something about it. Unfortunately, I think you have got the short straw and you are perhaps the wrong person to be here. We are grateful to see you but if you could come back to us with that information we would be very grateful. Can I move on to the other witnesses. Obviously, Mr Young, if you want to come in on some of these questions we will be happy to bring you in again.
Mr Young: Right.
Q1210 Chairman: I am not sure who will answer this from the FSA but I think as a Committee we are particularly interested in the background to the work of the Agency and the focus of the Agency being on perhaps such things as food poisoning rather than healthy eating and the obesity question. I know there has been a lot of debate around the whole focus of your Agency. Do you feel that the central drivers in the Agency are going in the right direction or do you feel perhaps that subsequent experience since the Agency has been functioning leads us to look at whether more emphasis ought to be placed on other aspects or whether your powers and role ought to be re-examined at Government level?
Mr Wadge: If I can answer, Chairman, thank you very much. It is clear that one of the major drivers in establishing the Food Standards Agency at the outset was a series of food safety concerns throughout the 1990s culminating, of course, with the terrible BSE crisis. Having said that, whilst food safety and improved enforcement were very much two of the important pillars at the outset of the Agency's work, right from the beginning the Agency established also a Nutrition Action Plan which placed the importance of promoting a healthy, balanced diet right at the forefront of the Agency's work because we recognised the importance of this in terms of promoting and improving public health.
Q1211 Chairman: Sir John Krebs has recently talked at some length about the issue of obesity and I think he has pointed to the very worrying trends we are all aware of. One concern put to us is that no-one looking at your newsletter or website would think that that area was a major priority in the work that you do. How would you respond to that point?
Mr Wadge: I would be a little bit surprised by that if that was how they felt but I would think, also, if that is how they feel we need to do better because the Agency really does two things. One is it gathers evidence on the importance of healthy diets and then it carries out and is piloting interventions to see what ways we can improve and promote healthier diets. Certainly the website has quite an interactive section in it in terms of what constitutes a healthy balanced diet, how people might maintain a healthy weight. For example, you can calculate your body mass index. There is information about diets for different life stages. We do not just operate through the website, we participate in regional and national newspaper columns where I think we reach about two million readers overall giving practical guidance to people on their diets. Whilst I would accept that is an assertion that some people would make my response would be in that case we need to do better but certainly it does not mean we are not taking it seriously.
Q1212 Chairman: One of the things that we have noticed is - and this sometimes happens with inquiries - since we announced our intention last year to look at this area there has been politically a great deal more interest in the whole question of obesity. You have got national newspapers running campaigns. I am very conscious, having been in Parliament around the debate on food safety and BSE and all the various food scares we have had at the background to your Agency being established, but I can see the way in which the public concern about food has moved in a very different direction in recent times. What I am trying to say, probably my first question was not put very well, is is your Agency in a position to adjust to the change in public concerns within your area of responsibility?
Mr Wadge: Absolutely.
Q1213 Chairman: You think it is?
Mr Wadge: Absolutely is the answer to that.
Q1214 Chairman: Your current structure is in a position to address these new concerns? You do not feel there is a need to revisit how you were established or the way you were set up?
Mr Wadge: Our board are currently, as we speak, discussing the strategy for the years 2005 to 2010 and quite clearly the board members are alert to the developments taking place since their establishment almost four years ago. As I say, nutrition was there at the outset with a clear Nutrition Action Plan but the information and the public debate that there has been on obesity clearly means that this is something that as a food agency we need to make an increasing impact on.
Q1215 Chairman: You have said you feel you probably could do more on obesity and accepted that there might be some criticism. Can you tell me how many people you have got working directly in this area? What structures do you have and how are you organised in respect of this particular area of your responsibilities?
Mr Wadge: We have a nutrition division which consists of 30 staff, about 20 of those have a scientific training, some of those with a professional qualification in nutrition. That division takes forward a large research programme on various aspects of nutrition and how that relates to a healthy diet and issues around consumer choice and acceptability, what are the barriers to promoting healthy food, particularly amongst certain groups and disadvantaged groups, and Tom Murray heads that division. Rosemary heads up the labelling division which is taking forward all of the related issues which are clearly important in terms of enabling consumers to make informed choices about their diet.
Q1216 Chairman: Is the labelling division separate from the nutrition division?
Mr Wadge: It is separate but I think one of the things that we have done and worked well together on is working in cross division approaches on various topics. The other important player in this is our communications division who we work very closely with to build up our policies and our information campaigns and so forth. There are 30 people in nutrition, there are about 30 people in the labelling and standards division and there is also a similar number in communications and we work together on issues relating to promoting a healthy diet.
Q1217 Chairman: I know we are going to come on to labelling a little bit later on. Can I ask you, Mr Murray, to say a bit about your division and the breakdown of people within that division: the kind of people that you have got working under you and the approach you are taking within your division?
Mr Murray: Right. As Andrew has mentioned, we have got a division of approximately 30 staff. Two thirds of those staff have nutrition science qualifications and the remainder are policy/administrative staff. I have a salary budget in excess of a million pounds and a survey and R&D budget in the region of about seven million pounds, which is a major chunk of the Agency's money to undertake R&D. When the Agency was established, Andrew has mentioned, nutrition was seen as a key area and one of the challenges at official level has been to meet the board's aspirations for a broad based action plan on nutrition. It is interesting that you say a lot of interest seems to be going to obesity over the last few months since the Committee started work. In actual fact the Agency started developing its Nutrition Action Plan, including obesity, from when it was first established. The Nutrition Action Plan was presented to the board in December 2001 and I present annual reports to the board on progress in public and that reflects, I believe, the Agency's interest in this area. The report in December 2002, the progress report, ran to 50 pages which I think is a fair indication of the breadth of the work we are doing. R&D and surveys is a major part of what we do because we need an evidence base to identify the problems and to understand them, and understand them so we can take action on specific areas. You will see - and the action plans and progress reports are on the website - that we have taken work forward on the broad front with other Government departments: the Department of Health, DfES, etc but also with stakeholders. A number of areas of that work are coming to fruition in the months ahead and will be significant for obesity.
Q1218 John Austin: You have mentioned specifically the expenditure on R&D. Can you identify any areas which have had a particular relevance to obesity?
Mr Wadge: One of the areas that we have got moving forward at the moment is one exercise to look at the operation of school meals standards. We are undertaking that work in conjunction with DfES. It started at the end of last summer, this summer term. The results of that will become available over the next few months and we will be looking to publish that in the spring. I expect that to be a major platform for discussion and action as necessary to revise or to look again at how these standards are operating. That is one area.
Q1219 Chairman: Can I just ask - I do not know who will want to answer this - going back to the points I raised with Mr Young about the CAP, what is your Agency's relationship with the European Commission in terms of discussions on areas like the CAP and its relevance to our food policy and nutritional and labelling policies?
Mr Wadge: Obviously we attend a lot of meetings in Brussels in relation to various aspects of our work and particularly in relation to the labelling side we are very active and have been pressing the Commission to harmonise control on labelling throughout Europe.
Q1220 Chairman: I do not want to go too much into labelling, I just want to ask about the structural relationship - because we are going to go on to labelling later on - between the Agency and the Commission and whether you feel able to influence processes in Europe, bearing in mind our concerns about the CAP which has been raised as another key area of policy concern.
Mr Wadge: That is right. I raised the example of labelling not to go into the detail but to use that as an example of how we are able to influence discussions in Europe.
Q1221 John Austin: In the mid term review of the CAP public health is not a policy determinant in the process of that review in the CAP. To what extent is your Agency liaising with or putting pressure on Defra to ensure that there is a public health element in the review of the CAP?
Mr Wadge: I think, like Callton, I have not come here really to talk about the CAP and I will be very happy to provide you with a note on that. It is not an area that I am briefed on.
Chairman: If you can get back to us with that, we would be grateful.
Q1222 Jim Dowd: On school meal standards, I note that you used the plural for standards. Could you just confirm there is no national standard for school meals, it is actually up to every individual authority and individual school really to dictate what is and what is not reasonable nutrition?
Mr Murray: The situation is that since 2001 we have had statutory guidelines on school meals standards in England. The exercise that is now at a very advanced stage is looking at how these standards are operating in some 80 schools at secondary level.
Q1223 Jim Dowd: The standards, are they individual components of a balanced diet or are they to say that there should be one national minimum below which no school meal should fall?
Mr Murray: There are statutory guidelines on the construction of the diet which should apply in respect of school meals. Within those guidelines individual schools have flexibility on how these guidelines are met and that is what we want to look at. In actual fact there will be three elements. One is are the caterers meeting these guidelines, the meals they are putting on the table, are they up to the standards required? Secondly how are the children responding to them, are they eating this food or is it going in the bin? If it is going in the bin then clearly there is something going awry. The third element we are looking at is what are the influences in the dining experience which will impact on whether children have school meals, whether they eat those school meals and that includes vending and things around the dining room experience.
Q1224 Mr Bradley: You said 80 secondary schools, why did you decide just secondary schools and not primary and junior schools to look at establishing a habit for children's eating patterns at the earliest possible opportunity?
Mr Murray: I think you raise a very good question. We debated quite long on this. We decided to start with secondary schools because that is the area where children currently have more flexibility when they make the choices about their diet. We have a separate exercise, also at an advanced stage, with Ofsted. Ofsted are conducting a survey to look at primary schools, looking not just at school meals but looking at why there are issues to do with food in schools, so vending, breakfast clubs, after school clubs and school meals. We have got two different approaches operating in parallel and the Ofsted results will also be out in the spring and once again we think that the results will be an important influence in achieving an informed debate about what is happening in primary schools and what action we need to take for the future.
Mr Wadge: If I may say so, Chairman, Tom has just mentioned two of our initiatives in relation to school and we are working very clearly with DfES and the Department of Health here. It is worth emphasising that we have a whole raft of initiatives which work with schools recognising the important point you make of trying to establish good patterns of dietary knowledge and behaviour at an early age hoping that, therefore, they will take that forward into teenage years and then into adulthood. Those are just two projects. There is quite a long list of projects.
Chairman: I think we have a copy of the list. We appreciate the point you are making.
Q1225 Mr Burns: Can I ask how often do you or your staff meet with the Minister for Public Health?
Mr Wadge: Well, our Chairman meets on a regular basis, they have regular meetings where they will touch on a wide variety of topics. That is done on a regular basis and, of course, nutrition will be included in their discussions. Then at a working level, at official level, there are very regular meetings through the Food and Health Action Plan, for example, but I would say on an almost daily/weekly basis on the telephone working up initiatives and discussing progress on the range of programmes that we have taken forward jointly with the Department of Health.
Q1226 Mr Burns: Given you are an independent Agency and you are dealing with a Government department, what happens if there is any difference of opinion in approach? Who has the whip hand?
Mr Wadge: We are a non ministerial Government department and we have the ability to publish our advice to ministers and we have that opportunity to exercise our independence if required.
Q1227 Mr Burns: Sorry, you said you had the ability to publish your advice to ministers?
Mr Wadge: Yes.
Q1228 Mr Burns: What if your advice was not what ministers wanted to hear or take, do you still publish it?
Mr Wadge: Yes.
Q1229 Mr Burns: Do you think the interaction between you and the Department of Health is adequate or are there grounds for improvement or do you think it has more or less got the right mark and the right levels of contacts and working together where it is appropriate?
Mr Wadge: I think that I could perhaps be accused of being complacent if I said that everything was absolutely fine at the moment, I am sure there are always opportunities for some improvement. I would say, certainly, that our relationships are very good at a working level and that we are working very closely on the initiatives which have been taken forward in the field of nutrition and health.
Q1230 Chairman: How often have you published advice where you disagreed with ministers?
Mr Wadge: I cannot think of an example where we have taken that particular road where it has led to that position. I think that I use that as an example of where our independence that is written into the Food Standards Act allows us that opportunity. In a way it is a bit more like an insurance policy rather than something that we would expect to use on a weekly basis or a regular basis. After all, I think if we were it would probably be evidence of a failure in communication and good working practice.
Q1231 Chairman: In the first session we did as a Committee, which you may be aware of, we had officials from different departments and one of the things that we put to them was where there appeared to be some clear contradiction on certain initiatives. We harp on about this, we have raised it on several occasions, but one Government minister was encouraging the consumption of a particular crisp product which raised, I think, sports equipment for schools and we had another one with Cadbury's and books, was it, or sports. We saw some contradiction. To be fair there were one or two tensions at the top table between different representatives of the witnesses that day. In such circumstances would you be in any way involved as an Agency where one department might give a blessing to something which was food related but you might see as being somewhat contradictory in the overall direction of travel that you wanted to go on the issue of diet and obesity?
Mr Wadge: The Get Active Cadbury's initiative was an example, thankfully a relatively isolated example, where I think it was not necessarily, certainly in our view (the Agency's view), giving the appropriate message in relation to diet and health. It was promoting the types of foods, in terms of a healthy balanced diet, that should be eaten sparingly rather than regularly. So on that particular occasion I think that there was a break-down in communication, and I think that the challenge for us is to make sure that that does not happen in the future.
Q1232 Chairman: Do you feel that lessons are being learned on those examples that I have given and that it is less likely that that kind of contradictory message will be given in the future?
Mr Wadge: I think it is, because discussions took place shortly after and our Chairman and the Minister for Sport exchanged views, and I would hope now that we would be able to avoid that position and try to have a much clearer message in relation to what constitutes a healthy diet and how promotion should fit into that.
Q1233 Mr Burns: Why would you hope now? You never really finished the sentence where you said that your Chairman and the minister had had discussions and exchanged views.
Mr Wadge: Because of those discussions I would feel confident that, as a result of those discussions, we would not get into that situation again, or should not get into that situation again.
Q1234 Mr Burns: Because your Chairman pointed out the other ways of administering---
Mr Wadge: Well, I think it was acknowledged that in this particular example the Food Standards Agency, for example, had not been consulted. If we had been consulted, we would have made our views clear and reached an agreement that in future we should ensure better consultation over these types of initiatives.
Q1235 Mr Burns: What would your advice have been? That it did not?
Mr Wadge: Our advice in relation to?
Q1236 Mr Burns: The sports ministers?
Mr Wadge: Sorry, what is the question?
Q1237 Mr Burns: What would the advice have been?
Mr Wadge: Our advice would be that promoting the types of foods that should be used sparingly as part of a healthy balanced diet is inappropriate in terms of linking that with sport, which is seen as a healthy activity and is also an important part of the whole obesity debate. So there is a contradiction really between, on the one hand, healthy physical activity that is using up energy and, at the same time, encouraging the consumption of sugary, fatty foods to promote that.
Q1238 Mr Burns: I mean, in the light of that rather logical answer, it seems rather surprising what the sports minister did. Do you think it was ignorance or just unfortunate that he had not contacted you first to be able to be shown the pitfall into which he was leading himself?
Jim Dowd: Can you speak a bit louder, Simon?
Mr Burns: I am trying to stop you interrupting.
Mr Wadge: I think that it was an unfortunate example of where we were not consulted. In their defence, I do not think it was an initiative that they were promoting as such, but certainly it would have been helpful if they had consulted us.
Mr Carlton: I think for the future the food and health action plan will have a key role to play in bringing together government activity. It was a form of framework for the way government and industry will operate. You know, the ability for people to go off and do things which probably were not rowing in the same direction would be constrained. So we will have a clearer framework for the future.
Q1239 Jim Dowd: So you feel structurally that something is there that will coordinate the kind of responses and that there is a clearer direction?
Mr Carlton: Indeed.
Q1240 Dr Taylor: Following up the same thing, because it has hit us time and time again in this inquiry how many organisations and departments are involved. You say structurally there is going to be a framework for formal meetings and talking between the various departments. Have I got that right?
Mr Carlton: I think that the framework already exists. That framework exists and is working to help to pull together the food and health action plan. I am saying the plan itself would form a broader structure for action within government and for industry.
Q1241 Dr Taylor: How often, for example, do Defra meet with the FSA?
Mr Wadge: I am sure I am in contact with the FSA on a weekly basis.
Q1242 Dr Taylor: And with other departments: the Department of Transport, DCMS for example?
Mr Wadge: Very, very regularly.
Q1243 Dr Taylor: Very regularly. All of them?
Mr Wadge: Yes.
Q1244 Dr Taylor: What about the food industry? Do you have regular channels with representatives of that, and who do you actually talk to?
Mr Wadge: Well, our chief executive has established a consultative group that meets twice a year with a range of the key food industry stakeholders, so that operates on that chief executive level. Our Chairman meets with key people from the trade associations and from the food industry, but again, at official level, if we are conducting a survey of food composition and we are about to publish, then we will be in touch at official and working level with various members of the food industry.
Q1245 Dr Taylor: The Guardian yesterday produced a picture of Anthony Worrell-Thompson, with whom I gather you are working at the moment, and it draws attention to the FSA debate---
Mr Wadge: Yes.
Q1246 Dr Taylor: ---using the diet time-bomb, which is marvellous to hear that you recognise that it is a time-bomb and that it is as dangerous as this. Who are you involving in that debate?
Mr Wadge: Well, it is a range of key staples. I do not know whether, Rosemary, you want to come in?
Ms Hignett: Yes, I could do. It is important to say, firstly, that is one of a set of discussions that we are having with stakeholders and interested parties generally about this issue, but the public debate itself, we have invited a very wide range of organisations, including consumer representatives, including public health groups, including industry representatives, enforcement representatives, and we have put out an open invitation to members of the public also - an audience is expected - to cover that whole range of interest.
Q1247 Dr Taylor: I do not know whether we have already got details of this, but it would be useful to have details of it, and possibly a report afterwards would probably be very helpful.
Ms Hignett: I am happy to do that.
Q1248 Dr Taylor: Moving on, going back to resources. You mentioned your resources. In the information we have got current year spending on the nutrition action plan was about 8 million, I think. What is the total budget for the SA?
Mr Wadge: The total budget is about 130 million. I can check that for you afterwards.
Q1249 Dr Taylor: So you do have a vast amount of money?
Mr Wadge: In terms of research we spend £25 million on research and surveys of which the nutrition component of about 6 million is clearly a significant chunk.
Q1250 Jim Dowd: Can I move on from the point Richard was making about the contact that you have with the food industry. I am not sure if this is categorised as a food - I am sure the Chair and others believe it is - but do you have contact with the brewers and the alcohol industry, for example, because they do have a role to play, or they have already played a role, in promoting obesity amongst the nation?
Mr Wadge: Yes, we do.
Q1251 Dr Taylor: So the alcohol industry you regard as part of the food industry?
Mr Wadge: Yes.
Q1252 Chairman: It is interesting that Jim makes that point: because I think one of the things that we found rather worrying is that the role of alcohol in this whole area does not feature largely in the evidence that we have had as a committee. Does that surprise yourselves? Is that something that, you know, comes as news to you that it is not a major player in this debate apparently?
Mr Murray: Yes, I can say in answer to the question from Dr Taylor that I certainly meet with the industry on a weekly basis, all sections of the industry. In terms of the alcohol industry, if can call it, the catering trades have a major part to play on the issue of obesity, and part of the catering trade is of course the pub type situation. I have close links with the British Hospitality Association and the Beer and Pub Association, and in a short period of time, for example, we will be issuing a salt awareness leaflet to something like 40,000 members of the British Hospitality Association to raise awareness and get them in on the issue. So the lines of communication are there and are operating.
Q1253 John Austin: You say on your website that there is no such thing as good and bad food, only good or bad diets, and in that you are singing from the same hymn sheet perhaps as Walkers, Coca Cola and Kellogg's. But in evidence last week one of our witnesses, Mike Waylen, cautioned against that approach and suggested that was not the road to go down. On your website you refer to healthy and less healthy foods. Perhaps you would like to explain to us what that means and what your approach is?
Mr Wadge: I think we are also singing along with the World Health Organisation in terms of the important message that it is the balance of the diet that is important. I do not think there is any real dispute that what people need is a healthy, balanced diet that consists of lots of carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables, moderate amounts of meat, fish and meat substitutes and small amount of fats and sugars. So in relation to, if you like, healthier and less healthy food, clearly those foods such as the fruits and vegetables, where we have encouraged people to consume at least five portions a week---
Q1254 Chairman: A day?
Mr Wadge: A day.
Jim Dowd: I knew they would find something.
Chairman: It is the 30 units a day we are worried about.
Q1255 Jim Dowd: I am in credit on that one.
Mr Wadge: Clearly those are the types of foods that people can eat regularly. They are the healthier types of foods; and the high fat, high sugar, high salt foods are those that, if you like, are less healthy, in the sense that you cannot eat lots and lots of those and still have a healthy balanced diet.
Q1256 John Austin: I believe at one stage one of the manufacturers was arguing that a can of baked beans was equivalent to a portion of fruit. What would you say to that?
Mr Wadge: Yes, I think it is an interesting debate. I think that that really flags up the difficulty of trying to label healthy and less healthy foods, and this is something that I am sure you will move onto in terms of appropriate labelling and providing information that is useful to consumers. We are trying to flag up the healthier food so that people can eat more of those. What we do not want to do is say, on the one hand, yes, this is a food that is perhaps low in fat when actually it is very high in salt. So I think that once you start down the road of trying to produce logos or signposts towards the healthier or the less healthier food, you then need to spend quite a lot of time teasing out what that means in practical terms, otherwise you can end up with some possibly contradictory messages.
John Austin: I think that takes us to labelling.
Q1257 Jim Dowd: If I heard correctly earlier, 30 in your division, Mrs Hignett, is that right?
Ms Hignett: Yes, it is about 35 actually.
Q1258 Jim Dowd: So you have obviously done a lot of work in this area. Do you think there is a need for regulation in nutrition labelling, or does the current somewhat less formal arrangement work?
Ms Hignett: We do have legislation on nutrition labelling. If we are talking here about that panel of information that appears on the back of most packs of food in the UK which tells you how much energy, etcetera, there is in that product, so if we are talking about that nutritional information, we have legislation at the moment which says that that information has to be given if a nutrition claim is made. So if you claim that a food is low-fat, then the legislation says you must give nutrition information, and the nutrition information---. There is also legislation on the format of that information. It allows for giving either four nutrients or eight nutrients. So we have that legislation, and what we have in the UK is actually a situation where manufacturers voluntarily give that information in one of those two formats on most food that you see in the supermarkets, so probably about 80 per cent of food does have that information on it. That is legislation which originates from the EU. It is legislation which is currently under review and where we expect to see a proposal for new legislation later this year. To answer your question directly, the agency does believe that there needs to be legislation in this area, that it needs to be reviewed and that there are a number of important changes that need to be made to that legislation.
Q1259 Jim Dowd: There are two things there. One is what is your view of what you feel the EU will be bringing forward? The second is, there is never any shortage of agreement across whole area of public policy that something needs to be done: is there any consensus in this case around what that should be?
Ms Hignett: There is certainly a fair degree of consensus. The position with the European legislation at the moment is that in December last year the Commission published its latest discussion paper on the topic, which is an indication of where it is going. The headlines of that discussion paper were that it is thinking of making the provision of nutrition information compulsory on all foods, which we very much welcome because that is something we have been calling for - on all pre-packed foods, that is - that it is thinking in terms of requiring six of those eight new trends and that it is thinking in terms of requiring the salt information rather than sodium information. So all three of those key headlines messages are ones that we would welcome as an agency.
Q1260 Jim Dowd: Enforcement of the current rules on labelling. Do you feel that is effective, or, indeed, does it exist?
Ms Hignett: The legislation is enforced by local authorities. It is very difficult to answer a question as to how effectively anything is enforced, but certainly in terms of looking at packs which should have information on them and whether or not they do, I think, generally speaking, the information is there if it is required to be there. In terms of whether the information that is given is accurate, then you do see from time to time new prosecutions around inaccurate information, but I think I would class it as being from time to time rather than frequent.
Q1261 Jim Dowd: And that is up to individual authorities?
Ms Hignett: That is through individual local authorities, yes.
Q1262 Jim Dowd: Obviously I would assume that you and the agency generally would have close links with the environmental health authorities?
Ms Hignett: Yes, indeed we do, and the agency does have an important role in actually monitoring and auditing the performance of local authorities in their enforcement role in relation to food law.
Q1263 Jim Dowd: A couple of final points. You mentioned all pre-packaged food?
Ms Hignett: Yes.
Q1264 Jim Dowd: There is a great tendency amongst supermarkets to pre-package, in polystyrene and cellophane, fruit and vegetables, for example. Would it apply to that or are we are talking about processed food?
Ms Hignett: If it is caught by the legislative definition of pre-packed, then the information has to be given. There is a sub-category of pre-packed which is called pre-packed for direct sale, which means that if the supermarket has actually packaged it on the premises it does not have to give the information.
Q1265 Jim Dowd: Finally, what work have you done? I am sorry, it is difficult, I know, to assess, but how much? Much food labelling at the moment is fact without information. What work have you done to try to establish what information it actually conveys to consumers in terms of the regulatory statements that they make, and how much work has been done, if any, to assess how people respond to that information, if indeed they understand it?
Ms Hignett: That is a very broad question, but if I answer it in terms of nutrition information. We have been doing a lot of work around researching consumer preferences in terms of the nutrition information and also performance testing: how well particular different formats of nutrition information work in helping people to compare products and make judgments as to whether they are, for instance, low-fat. We have done quite a lot of work of that sort which has led us to the conclusion, which we have published and which we have made the European Commission very aware of, which is that what consumers want is actually quite a lot of information but actually packaged in plain English, plain language, if you like, if you are talking in European terms, and it is actually particularly important that the numerical information should come with some context to allow consumers to actually interpret it. In the formats which we looked at the format which worked best was one which looked at high, medium and low as a description as well as the numerical information.
Q1266 Chairman: Before Richard, can I ask: Jim talked about voluntary sort of codes and steps taken by individual companies and manufacturers in this whole area. We were interested in the right approach taken by the Co-op, who have really gone very seriously in this direction, and I think certainly I can say I was quite impressed by what they appear to have done. Do you feel that their lead on this will be followed voluntarily by any other companies? Do you think they may see it as being commercially advantageous as there is more awareness and debate to move in this general direction?
Ms Hignett: There is some movement. So, for instance, in addition to the compulsory formats, you can give voluntary information on salt intake, and we have seen a number of labellers moving towards giving voluntarily information on salt content. But I think it would be fair to say that where the information might be seen as being detrimental - for instance labelling up a product as high-fat - then I think manufacturers would be less likely to follow the voluntary routes than otherwise.
Q1267 Dr Taylor: Can I follow up on the high, medium and low: because, as you have said, food labelling is terribly puzzling to people at the moment and we really wonder how useful it is at all when the USA has the best type of food labelling and the biggest problem with obesity. High, medium and low is attractive. We have got a table of your guidelines for what they actually mean, but these guidelines are only advisory. Is there agreement in the food industry, for example, of your definitions of high, medium and low?
Ms Hignett: I think there are two things here. There is nutrition information. So what we are moving towards, what we hope we are moving towards is voluntary nutrition information, which would include high, medium and low descriptors, certainly for things like fat, saturated fat, which are particularly important; but there is also the area of voluntary claims, such as a claim that a product is low-fat. In that particular area, the area of content claims, we have at the moment a situation where we have not got EU legislation, we have not got harmonised rules on what characteristics the food needs to have before it can make a low-fat claim, and we have in the UK voluntary guidelines which have been established by the Agency after consultation with the industry and I would say pretty much the consensus in terms of what the appropriate criteria are. But what we also have, very importantly, is legislation under negotiation in Brussels which would introduce statutory criteria for claims of this sort. Then we will have a very clear idea of how much fat there can be in a product which makes a low-fat claim. So we are part-way to have the consensus that you are looking for, but not all the way.
Q1268 Dr Taylor: Do you think there is a chance of getting that through Europe?
Ms Hignett: Certainly. There have been discussions amongst Member States last September and there is broad agreement that the legislation that is being proposed is taking the right approach. We have yet to have discussions in the European Parliament, but hopefully, yes, we will see that legislation on the statute book before too long.
Q1269 Dr Taylor: What would be your feelings about danger signs on food? One of our witnesses last week suggested a skull and cross bones on some things?
Ms Hignett: I think there is a very interesting debate that has really been initiated in the last few months, which is about something in addition to the nutritional information which we see on the back of the pack, which is some type of sign-posting on the front of the pack to recognise the fact that consumers are very busy; and we would actually welcome that in some circumstances.
Q1270 Dr Taylor: Nutrition messages on the front?
Ms Hignett: Yes, exactly, and I think that is a very important debate, and certainly in the discussions that we have had recently with stakeholders I think there is quite a measure of agreement that there needs to be a very good look at that to see how it could be done in practical terms and how effective it might be in terms of helping consumers.
Q1271 Dr Taylor: Moving to food that is consumed away from home, can anything be done about labelling in, for example, restaurants? Will Mr Worrell Thompson help you with putting information on restaurant menus?
Ms Hignett: Yes. I think that is a very, very interesting question. Clearly consumer information in the catering sector is a difficult issue because of the variety of the sector and particularly because of the very high number of very small businesses in that sector. There is also, of course, the difficulty of changes in recipes to be dealt with in some parts of that sector. Having said that, and focusing still on consumer information, I think there are some parts of the sector which would be easier to tackle than others, for instance, large businesses who are selling essentially standardised meals and there is also the very important institutional sector, for instance, in schools. Clearly there is an issue about the level of information that can be provided on something like a menu. So the sort of sign-posting that we were talking about in terms of pre-packed foods might also have some relevance to consumer information on menus. But that is really only talking about the consumer information aspect of eating out, and I think there is a whole - there is a very large debate also, or a large concern about the number of healthier options that do or do not appear on menus, particularly for children. Very often the children's menu is essentially the unhealthy option, i.e. the chicken nuggets and chips.
Dr Taylor: We have just got McDonald's updated fax. Pancakes and sausage give you 678 calories per portion. There is no information here about Happy Meals and how many calories they give you, which I think is a deficiency?
Q1272 Jim Dowd: Just on the labelling, Richard mentioned the different categories: high, medium and low, for saturated fat, sugar, salt, sodium and fibre. Given the fact that one wants to convey information in as simple a form as possible, is there any mechanism by which you could rationalise that to a traffic-light system - red, amber, green - over the whole piece? I do not want to go as far as John would on labelling devil foods and all the rest of it, but essentially to say to people whether this overall is good or bad?
Ms Hignett: I think this comes back to the sort of thing Andrew was saying earlier about how you integrate different types of information. For instance, I am sure you will have heard of the Swedish keyhole scheme, which is essentially a green key hole, and it says "this is a good one". That is essentially the basis for it. But it is actually only looking at fat and fibre, it does not look at salt. There are all sorts of different ways in which you could construct a traffic-light type system. In principle you could do it, but you would have to take some decisions about what your objectives were and what message you were trying to get across with those traffic-lights.
Q1273 Mr Bradley: That is the confusion, is it not, that you can have within a product high and low. How does a consumer know which is the most important factor to them? Even if you employed a traffic-light system, you may be actually saying to them that it is reasonable to have something within that product which is of high damage to them, but they would not actually interpret it like that. I know you have said there is a problem, but where are you moving in that discussion to integrate those two contradictory things?
Mrs Hignett: I think we are actually at quite an early stage in those discussions. We always have to recognise with labelling that there are very many different types of consumers who come to that product and that label with very different needs. The challenge is to try to construct a label which actually helps everybody. That is very difficult. I am sure that we still do need that nutritional panel with the six or the eight nutrients, with the high, medium and low. Whether, in addition to that, it would be helpful to have something in the front of the pack that would actually give a very clear message to some consumers, which would mean that they did not need to look at the back essentially, is something that I think we would have to look at very carefully before going down that route. I am not saying it is impossible. I think you have to be very careful that the message you give is a clear one.
Q1274 Mr Bradley: Can I move on to the promotion of products for children? This is a short question but there may be quite a long answer. Do you think there is a causal link between the promotional and marketing activities of the food industry and the impact that has on children's obesity?
Mr Wadge: The Agency, as you will be aware, commissioned some research by Professor Hastings, which was published in September. That was looking at work that had been carried out nationally and internationally on this particular topic. It is an important topic on which there is quite a range of opinion. It tends to divide people, and so it was quite important that we did look comprehensively at this. This research does show that advertising and promotion can influence the types of things that children eat and the behaviours in terms of purchasing and consumption patterns, not just between brands but also the types of foods as well. There is some evidence on this. This is one part of the approach that has been taken really in terms of "what then?" and establishing that this is the position. I know that the food industry has provided some challenge to this, but I think so far, having put the evidence in front of a further academic panel, that established that the approach was consistent and the findings were valid. The real challenge is to move on and ask what should be done about this position.
Q1275 Mr Bradley: What should be done?
Mr Wadge: The approach that the Agency is taking is to make sure that we do not just leap into some sort of immediate response but that we test this very carefully. So far, we have set out on our website an opportunity for people to debate this issue. We had a public debate in December and we are having this larger public debate, which I think will probably be attended by about 700 people. That will be web-cast and shown on digital channels on 27 January. This will allow us to test the range of opinion out there and then synthesise that and put that forward into a paper for our Food Standards Agency Board to consider at its open session in March. It will need to consider that and come up with a range of options and advice for Ministers.
Q1276 Mr Bradley: It is an evolving scene. You are not very sure yet what that impact is. Within that research, have you looked at the different marketing methods, for example children's gifts and such like, and whether those have a stronger influence on the product rather than other mechanisms? The industry suggested that these had a marginal impact, or some of them did.
Mrs Hignett: We have done a review of the evidence. Essentially, we have gone out there and looked at what work has been done. In practice, most of the work that has been done has been around TV advertising. We did ask the reviewers to look at the issue of the size of the influence of TV advertising as against other influences, both other promotional activities and also other influences on behaviour. The conclusion which the researchers drew was that the evidence is not there to draw any conclusions on the magnitude of the effect.
Q1277 Chairman: On the issue of promotional activities, what powers do you have in respect of this whole area and what powers ought you to have, if any?
Mrs Hignett: The sorts of options that we are looking at in terms of promotional activity and children's diet range from: labelling, which we have already talked about; looking at the composition of foods, where we have already done a lot of work on salt and there may be potential to do work, for instance, on fat and sugar content of foods, which is clearly relevant; and then things like in-store activity, buy-one-get-one-free type activity, product placement, sweets at the check-out, that sort of area, where I think we are probably in the region of voluntary activity and so perhaps advice from the Agency. Then we have the area of advertising, whether broadcast or print advertising. The situation in those areas would be that the Agency has responsibility within the Food Standards Act for advising on those issues in relation to food and our power, if you like, is to develop advice to Ministers along the lines that Andrew Wadge talked about earlier, and publish it, and then the responsibility is with Ministers to take that forward as they see fit.
Q1278 Chairman: Do you detect any movement in the industry on acceding to concerns about some of the promotional activities relating to children in particular? I remember raising with McDonald's when they came before the Committee the whole issue of "happy meals". My children are grown up now but when they were younger, certainly my daughter, they always wanted a "happy meal" because there was some little toy given. The industry appeared to give the impression that they would seriously look at that practice and in particular whether, if they are introducing healthier items such as fruit into their outlets, the promotional gift might relate to the healthier item rather than to the less healthy item? Is that something you see any movement on?
Mrs Hignett: That is quite a difficult question to answer. This debate really only started round about September when we published our review. The situation is changing at the moment. At present, I would only want to say that the situation looks to me rather patchy. I think there are some good signs and maybe some not so good signs.
Q1279 Chairman: As I said at the outset, in the time that we have started looking at this, we have seen some tremendous movements. I appreciate your difficulties.
Mr Wadge: Another aspect of this is that, through the information and awareness work that we are doing, in a way, as well as providing a push to industry to say that they should look at the composition and the information that they are providing and at these promotional activities, we are also developing a pull on the market by increasing the awareness and thereby increasing the demand for healthier food from caterers and other sources. We have seen that in relation to some of the work that we are doing on salt, where we are working very closely with food manufacturers and food retailers to bring about reductions in the salt composition of processed food, while at the same time we are raising awareness, and we will be running a campaign to raise awareness. Thereby, we will increase the demand. I think it was a point that you raised earlier.
Q1280 Jim Dowd: Mrs Hignett mentioned this and it is a point that has been put to us before. On promotional activity, you mentioned two-for-the-price-of-one. There are plenty of variants on that, three-for-the-price-of-two and 20 per cent extra free, and stuff like that. How on earth can you regulate against that?
Mrs Hignett: I do not think that is an area for regulation, but it is one where we might want to consider encouraging voluntary activity.
Q1281 Chairman: May I ask about the role of Ofcom in respect of promotions to children? There has been some criticism that Ofcom is too closely related to the advertising industry and to the Advertising Standards Agency. What are your views on this?
Mrs Hignett: Ofcom is obviously a very new organisation, and so I do not think I would want to answer that question. Ofcom has a particular role in relation to broadcasting standards and in relation, particularly in this context, to developing and implementing a code of practice on broadcast activity. Ofcom has been asked, as you know, by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to review how that code of practice deals with food promotion and children. That review is ongoing at the moment. Clearly, the Agency will have a view on that subject.
Q1282 Chairman: That is a very diplomatic answer you have given. I understand the difficulties. Is there a need for a more independent mechanism than what we have currently to deal with the issue of promotions to children? Will you come back with the same answer?
Mrs Hignett: I cannot answer that.
Mr Wadge: I think, in terms of the general promotion rather than the advertising aspect, we do have that independent mechanism, which I would suggest and put forward to you is the Food Standards Agency. The Food Standards Agency Board at its open discussion in March will be synthesising all of this information and not just the broadcast media aspect in relation to promotion; there will be an open discussion of that.
Q1283 Mr Bradley: Can I be clear about an earlier answer you have given? The review of the research that you have done so far has shown that there is not a significant influence on the purchasing of products for children and by children through those mechanisms. Is that what you said earlier? When I was asking about the impact on marketing and promotion, you said that it is an evolving scene and so far you have reviewed the research and looked at it. I thought you said you did not see a significant impact. Did I mishear you?
Mrs Hignett: I hope what we said was that the review concluded that there was an effect. Then, when asked about the size of the effect, we said that the evidence did not tell us anything about the size of that effect, or did not enable us to draw conclusions about the size of the effect.
Q1284 John Austin: The food manufacturers, when they came here, specifically said that in most of the areas that they operate, the fast food people - Pepsi and all those - are operating in mature markets and the net effect of all their advertising is merely to effect brand switch. Would you dispute that?
Mrs Hignett: It was hearing that argument from manufacturers and the argument from consumer groups and public health groups saying the opposite, that actually advertising activity affects behaviour at the category level, which led us to commission the review of evidence which we published in September. That review of the evidence concluded that there was an effect at the category level but, as I have said, it is not possible to draw a conclusion from the evidence as to the size of that effect.
Q1285 Dr Taylor: I am thoroughly confused. Are you talking about Professor Hastings' work?
Mrs Hignett: Yes.
Q1286 Dr Taylor: The information we have is that the conclusion was that advertising to children does have an effect on children's food preferences. You are saying that it is the degree of the effect that is important?
Mrs Hignett: That is exactly right.
Q1287 Dr Taylor: The feeling I had before now was that it was so definite that any further work on it was really just delaying action that has to be taken. Going back to Mr Worrall Thompson again, one of his first recommendations for your priorities is to ban food advertising directed at children. Are you saying we are not really at that stage yet?
Mr Wadge: What we are clearly saying is that Professor Hastings' research did show that there is an effect.
Q1288 Jim Dowd: How much effect is there? If it is a 2 per cent effect, that might prescribe a certain course of action; if it is a 50 per cent effect, that would mean something entirely different.
Mrs Hignett: The expert advice that we have from the Hastings' review, and also from the academic panel which we set up to look at the Hastings' review and another review which had been funded by the industry that reached different conclusions, is that this issue of actually determining the size of the effect is not only one for which, on the current evidence, you cannot reach a conclusion but it is an issue which it is inherently difficult, if not impossible, to research. All the influences will be affecting one another. To try to untangle the effects of promotional activity from the effects of peer influences cannot be done essentially because, if there is an effect on promotional activity, that will affect the peers too.
Q1289 Dr Taylor: To move on, snacks at supermarket checkouts: do you have feelings on these? I forget which one of the supermarkets told us that they were not doing this now. Do you feel this is something that could be regulated?
Mrs Hignett: This is one of the policy options at which we are looking at the moment. In terms of whether it could be regulated, again I think that would be very difficult, but it is an area where we might want to encourage voluntary practices in particular. Yes, you are right; there are different practices across supermarkets.
Q1290 Dr Taylor: Just going on really to what I think is almost the most important thing of the whole lot, the banking analysts, JP Morgan, in their study of obesity and its impact on business have really come out with the fact that most of the reforms that the Government is pressing for, like better labelling and voluntary agreements on advertising, are probably the measures that are most likely to be taken by the Government but least likely to have an effect. Is there any further thought or hope for some form of regulation of the industry?
Mrs Hignett: You mean in addition to that in relation to labelling and potentially in relation to promotional activity?
Q1291 Dr Taylor: Yes; better labelling does not seem to have much effect. Voluntary agreement on advertising probably is not going to have much effect. Should we not be being much tougher with the industry? Some of the industry members we have talked to are beginning to show signs of getting to grips with the problem and realising that they have to be promoting healthy foods just as hard as the unhealthy foods. There are signs that they are taking it on, but has not the real basic change got to come from the industry in that somehow they are making the sorts of foods and promoting them that are going to encourage better health?
Mr Wadge: I think, in relation to obesity, one of the things that is quite clear is that there is no single group that is to blame, if you like, for the problem, and that therefore, by definition, in order to help prevent obesity and reverse the current trend of increasing obesity, we need to look at action across the piece with all of the different groups that have a role. Industry has a very important role. I think the Food Standards Agency has a role in relation to encouraging, finding out what constitutes a better diet and bringing about changes in the wake of that, but also other government departments can take action in schools, and local authorities can take action. We know this internationally. I attended a meeting of the National Food Agencies in Paris on Tuesday of this week and obesity was one of the topics under discussion. This was the message that clearly came through from all of the food agencies across Europe, that there is no single group that we can blame here but that we need to take concerted action across the whole area of both diet and physical activity.
Dr Taylor: I think we agree with that but physical activity is extremely limited in its effect. I forget how many miles you have to walk to burn off one beefburger. The people who are likely to have the biggest effect are the food manufacturers, I would have thought.
Q1292 John Austin: You have invested considerable effort, resources and research on the impact of marketing and improving labelling with your promotion of more healthy foods and discouraging less healthy foods, but all of that, at the end of the day, relies on consumers changing their behaviour. The Public Accounts Committee has pointed out that you do not actually have a health promotion role and it is doubted that you have the resources or are regarded as the source of information to carry out that role. Is not the major area where you could have an influence with the industry itself in forcing them, in some way, to make foods healthier? Do you think perhaps there is a case for making healthy foods cheaper and less healthy foods more expensive?
Mr Wadge: I think we have a role both in relation to working with industry to bring about improvements in food composition and also in relation to providing information for people to make choices. After all, the people who buy food for young children are parents and so they need information to enable them to make healthy choices. At the moment, as we have discussed earlier, some of the information on labelling is in a form that does not allow them to make the choices that they need to make. I would say that the action that we need to take is in both areas; it is not just in one of those particular areas.
Q1293 John Austin: Some of our witnesses have suggested in fact a fat tax to tax on a density basis.
Mr Wadge: Ultimately, that would be a decision for Parliament to take. What we would need to consider is whether there is the evidence to support the fact that that would actually bring about a reduction in obesity. At the moment, I am not aware of that evidence.
Q1294 John Austin: To go back to the industry, Mr Wadge, you said earlier that you had had some success with the industry in lowering the salt content in foods. Would it be possible to do the same for levels of fat?
Mr Wadge: I hope so, yes. I think that we see our work on salt as very important because of the clear link between high salt intake and hypertension, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. We have very clear scientific evidence that bringing about a reduction in average daily intake from 9 grams to 6 grams will bring with it significant public health improvements and so we are using that as a basis for discussions with food manufacturers and retailers to lower the salt content of foods. For example, if you look on the labels of some the ready meals, they show that a meal contains a very significant part of that 6 gram daily allowance just in one portion. There is clearly scope for manoeuvre there. I am pleased to say that we have achieved some success with the industry, so there is agreement on a reduction of 30 per cent in the salt content of soups and sauces, for example, and we have seen the salt content of bread reduced over the years. Clearly, there is a lot further to go if the population is going to make a 30 per cent reduction. I think we can use and build on the partnership approach that we have established then to tackle the other issues about fat content and sugar content as well.
Q1295 Jim Dowd: On the fat tax, let me put a contention to you: tax should be used by governments simply to raise money and the idea that you can use it to change behaviour or to encourage a particular activity or not is erroneous. What do you feel about that?
Mr Wadge: It is an interesting philosophical debate that we could have. I think ultimately I would perhaps sidestep that question and say that that is an issue for Parliament to discuss and decide rather than me and the Food Standards Agency.
Chairman: There are no further questions. Gentlemen, may I thank you very much for a very interesting session.