Food Law News - UK - 2005

FSA News Item, 16 May 2005


The Food Standards Agency held an open Board meeting on Thursday 12 May in London . The meeting was attended by 95 people and a further 907 watched it by live webcast.

The meeting was chaired by the Agency's Acting Chair Julia Unwin. During the meeting, the Board discussed two papers: Implementation of the Agency's Foodborne Disease Strategy: update; and Review of the Over Thirty Months (OTM) Rule: progress report on transition towards a robust BSE testing regime.

In addition, Agency Acting Chair Julia Unwin, Agency Chief Executive Jon Bell and Meat Hygiene Service Board Chair Chrissie Dunn gave reports updating the FSA Board on developments since the previous open meeting.

Implementation of the Agency's Foodborne Disease Strategy

The Agency has a Foodborne Disease Strategy that seeks to deliver its existing Service Delivery Agreement aim of reducing the incidence of foodborne disease by 20% by 2006. In its Strategic Plan 2005-2010, the Food Standards Agency has committed itself to securing further reductions in foodborne disease.

This paper updated the Board on the main activities carried out since April 2001, and particularly during the past nine months. It outlined progress towards meeting the demanding target of reducing foodborne disease by 20% by April 2006, and highlighted those activities that have made the greatest contribution to reducing foodborne disease.

It also outlined activities planned for the next 12 months, including those aimed at delivering the foodborne disease targets in the new Strategic Plan 2005-2010. Projections suggest that, if current trends continue, the estimated reduction in cases of foodborne illness by 2006 will reach, or be very close to, the 20% target.

The Board:

Progress on transition towards a robust BSE testing regime

This paper asked the Board to note and agree the actions being taken to prepare for the replacement of the Over Thirty Months (OTM) Rule with a robust system for BSE testing.

The OTM rule was introduced in 1996 as one of three main BSE controls aimed at protecting public health. With limited exceptions, the rule prohibits the sale for human consumption of meat from cattle aged over thirty months at the time of slaughter. In other EU Member States, meat from OTM cattle is allowed into the food supply subject to testing negative for BSE. The principal BSE food safety measure the removal of specified risk material (SRM) is estimated to remove over 99% of infectivity in cattle. The other main control is the ban on mammalian meat and bone meal being used in farm animal feed (known as the feed ban).

Following a review of the OTM rule, the Agency advised Ministers in July 2004 that replacing the OTM rule by BSE testing for cattle born on or after 1 August 1996 is justified on grounds of the foodborne risk to consumers and proportionality, subject to the putting in place of a robust testing system. Ministers had already decided that cattle born before August 1996 would remain permanently excluded from the food supply.

In the light of the FSA advice, the Government announced on 1 December 2004 the start of a managed transition towards lifting the OTM rule and its replacement with a robust system for BSE testing for cattle born on or after 1 August 1996 . The announcement made clear that the switch from the OTM rule to testing should happen only when the FSA has advised Ministers that the testing system is robust. To assist with that process, the Board appointed a group of outside experts, in order to ensure that the advice it receives on the robustness of testing is independent.

At the December 2004 meeting, the Board considered and approved the independent group's initial report containing its recommendations for a testing regimen and agreed that the next stage should be a full trial of the system to assess whether or not it will be robust.

The independent group advising the FSA on the robustness of the testing system has reviewed the outcome of trials of the system. The group concluded that while the GB trials had provided an excellent opportunity critically to assess the proposed testing system, a further round of trials should take place.

In addition, the EU Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) will be carrying out a mission to Great Britain , from 6-15 June 2005, to evaluate the implementation of the EC BSE rules. This will concentrate on BSE testing and surveillance, and the identification and traceability of bovine animals, as well as removal and disposal of SRM and the feed ban. The mission will include an examination of the proposed system for OTM testing.

The Board:

Reports: Agency's Acting Chair and Agency Chief Executive

In her report to the Board, Agency Acting Chair Julia Unwin formally announced that Dame Deirdre Hutton had been appointed Chair of the Agency and would be taking up her position on 18 July.

Dame Deirdre Hutton is currently Deputy Chair of the Financial Services Authority, a member of the Better Regulation Task Force, Chair of the National Consumer Council and Deputy Chair of the European Food Safety Authority.

The Board heard that she would chair her first FSA open Board meeting in September.

Task Force on Food Contamination

The Acting Chair reminded the Board that in response to the Sudan I incident in February, the Board had agreed that an external review of the incident should be conducted.

Since then, the food industry had reported the presence of another illegal dye, Para Red, in spices, leading to recall of further products over the previous week.

She said that the Agency had now announced that it was setting up a Task Force to advise on food contamination incidents in general. The Task Force would consider ways of strengthening controls in the food chain in order to reduce the risk of future contamination incidents occurring and identify the most effective ways of managing such incidents if they do occur.

The Acting Chair said that the Task Force will be a group of representatives from the food industry, enforcement authorities and consumer organisations, together with some independent members, and be chaired by the Agency's Chief Executive.

Its work will be taken forward in two phases. In the first phase, the Group will gather a wide range of views from the food industry and enforcement bodies on ways of reducing the likelihood of incidents occurring, and will report on this in the Autumn. In a second, longer, phase it will look at the many issues related to effectively managing such incidents.

New Agency responsibilities

The Acting Chair said that Board members were aware that the review of inspection and enforcement by Philip Hampton had recommended consolidation of the Wine Standards Board (WSB) into the Food Standards Agency. The WSB was a small organisation but one with significant technical expertise.

The Agency had previously made clear that it was prepared to take on additional responsibility, but only if this was accompanied by a corresponding policy function and adequate finance.

The Acting Chair informed the Board that she and the Chief Executive had met the Chair and Chief Executive of the WSB. She had assured them that the Agency was used to working closely with technical experts.

She said the Executive will now, as a matter of priority, start negotiations with DEFRA, with discussions focusing on the transfer of the relevant policy responsibilities and finance to the FSA.

Chief Executive's report

1) Para Red in Food

Agency Chief Executive Jon Bell updated the Board on the discovery of the illegal dye Para Red in food.

He said that the Agency first became aware of the use of the illegal dye on 14 April. An EU alert was issued to Member States at the time informing them of the presence of the dye in a batch of paprika originating from Uzbekistan and having been imported into Spain .

The UK was not listed in the original alert, as one of the Member States that had received the contaminated product. However it later became apparent that the alert only covered part of the supply chain from the Spanish company, Ramon Sabater, and the Agency was now aware of companies in the UK that had received supplies directly from this company. These supplies had subsequently tested positive for Para Red.

The Chief Executive explained to the Board that Para red is a dye that is not permitted for use in food. The Agency's independent scientific advisers (Chairs of the Advisory Committee on Carcinogenicity and Committee on Mutagenicity) have advised that it would be prudent to assume that Para Red is a genotoxic carcinogen.

Although, as in the case of Sudan I contamination, the risk to health posed by the presence of this dye in food is likely to be very small, it is clearly sensible not to consume foods containing it.

To date the Agency had published a list of 69 products, containing Para Red, on its website.

The Agency was still, however, awaiting notification of where an additional 2 tonnes of chilli powder from Ramon Sabater recently found to have been contaminated with Para Red has been used. The Agency will publish a further list of affected products, if any have reached consumers, as soon as it is possible, he said.

Ramon Sabater has also supplied other Member States ( Denmark , Belgium , Sweden , France , Netherlands , Slovakia , Ireland , Czech Republic , Hungary and Romania ), which are carrying out their own investigations. It is therefore possible that products produced in other Member States may have been imported into the UK . The Agency will not have this information until the states have completed their investigations.

The Chief Executive said that the European Commission had held a meeting with Member States on Tuesday 10 May to discuss the adulteration of food with illegal dyes, and in particular Para Red. The conclusions had been published on the Commission website in a document dated the same day. Unfortunately, a conflicting summary document was also published and the Agency was talking to the Commission about clarifying this. In the meantime the Commission had advised the Agency that the detailed document is the one to be followed. The key points from this are:

EFSA will undertake an assessment of the toxicological data on Para Red and other illegal dyes. The conclusions from this will be available within two months

The UK will lead a working group to collate details of the method that is available in all member states for testing Para Red and other dyes, based on HPLC. Two weeks have been allowed for this. An agreed version will then be validated in ring trials using reference materials supplied by the UK . A further two weeks has been allowed for this

Additionally, performance criteria will be established for a more sensitive method based on LC-MS for laboratories capable of using this technique.

In the meantime, the Commission made clear at the meeting that the presence of any dyes not permitted for food use is not acceptable at any level. The limit of detection for the HPLC method has been set for the time being at between 0.5 and 1mg/kg (0.5 1 parts per million). Where an illegal dye is found above this level, using this technique, either in the spice itself or a food made with the spice, the products will need to be withdrawn from the market. HPLC is used routinely by all member states.

The Commission has not set a limit of detection for testing with LC-MS but has advised that if testing is carried out using this method and an illegal dye is found, companies must take action to withdraw the foods concerned.

The situation will be revisited when EFSA has provided its risk assessment and performance criteria have been set for LC-MS and methods validated for HPLC.

The FSA plans to carry out surveillance of spices to check for the presence of illegal dyes. This will be taken forward when methods have been validated by the EC working group.

2) Import of GM maize

The Agency was informed by the biotechnology company Syngenta, on 22 March, that a variety of genetically modified maize (Bt11) grown in the USA , approved for food and feed use in the EU, had been contaminated with an unauthorised GM variety (Bt10).

The European Commission and other member states were also informed of this contamination at the same time as the Agency.

The European Commission has subsequently introduced a requirement for all EU imports of maize gluten feed and brewers grains from non-segregated maize from the USA to be accompanied by an analytical report demonstrating the absence of material derived from Bt10 maize. Emergency regulations have been enacted across the UK giving the necessary powers for local authorities to enforce this requirement. All shipments of corn gluten feed and brewers' grains imported from the US into the EU must now be accompanied by certificates demonstrating that Bt10 is absent.

Following the Commission decision, local Authorities and Port Health Authorities had been informed of this new requirement and have been provided by the Agency with copies of the relevant legislation and details of the testing methodology required.

In practice, testing is being conducted on samples taken by the US exporters before each shipment leaves the US . In the event that this certification is missing or defective, it is the responsibility of the importer to have the product tested before it can be placed on the market.

Only corn gluten feed and brewers grains are thought to be affected by this contamination. The Agency has written to food manufacturers and retailers to check whether GM ingredients are being used in food in the UK .

A detection method has been validated and published by the Commission's Joint Research Centre and reference material has been provided by Syngenta to allow testing by member states. The Agency has ensured that these have been forwarded to public analyst labs in the UK who will carry out testing for local authorities. Industry has access to accredited commercial laboratories that are able to test for Bt10 material and provide the necessary certificates for imports.

The Agency will carry out its own surveillance work and plans for this are currently being developed. The outcome of this work will be used to inform the Commission's review of this new requirement in October.

The Chief Executive added that this means that a range of safeguards are now in place to ensure that these products do not come into the country. He said that there was unlikely to be a health risk associated with the Bt10 maize. The main issue of concern was over the presence of an antibiotic marker in this product that conferred resistance for an important human antibiotic, ampicillin.

3) EC Directive on food Supplements

The Chief Executive referred to the opinion expressed by the Advocate General of the European Court about the Directive on food supplements on 5 April. This declared that the EC Directive on food supplements was invalid.

The Agency is currently waiting for the final judgement from the Court, and this is expected in June or July. In the meantime the Directive still stands and will come into force on 1 August in the absence of a decision by the European Court of Justice to the contrary.

In order to maximise the number of products that remain on the market when the Directive comes into force, so as to maintain consumer choice, the Agency is providing a small resource to the industry to help with the appointment of an independent expert to put together as many dossiers as possible.

The industry has estimated that it should be possible to produce between 50 and 150 additional dossiers before the 1 August deadline.

Report: Chair of the MHS Board

Chrissie Dunn, Chair of the MHS Board, told FSA Board Members about recent developments on the Board.

She reminded FSA Board members that following a review of the governance arrangements for the MHS, the FSA Board last July agreed that a Board should be set up separately for the MHS. Following Ministerial approval the MHS Board was formed in October last year.

She described the Board composition and efforts to add to its membership, and said it would be meeting at least four times a year in York and holding an annual stakeholder meeting in different parts of Great Britain . To date three MHS Board meetings have taken place and the first stakeholder meeting in September and that will be held in York .

A code of practice on openness was agreed by the MHS Board in March, with the result that all MHS Board agendas, papers and minutes would now be available publicly.

A revised framework document setting out the key elements of the policy, legal and resources framework of the MHS was also agreed at the March meeting. The FSA and MHS Chief Executives have signed the document, which will now be laid before Parliament and published.

The next meeting of the MHS Board was due to take place on 26 May.

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