Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

I welcome Professor Alan Reilly, Dr. Wayne Anderson and Dr. Mary Flynn of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI.

Before we begin, I draw delegates' attention to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege, the same privilege does not extend to witnesses appearing before it. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

We very much appreciate the fact that the delegates are present to speak to us on the topic of healthy eating and combating obesity. Some of us are particularly sensitive to these matters. The format of the meeting is to hear a brief presentation from the delegates. Their paper has been circulated and studied very carefully by members. After the presentation, we will hear questions from members and submit them to the delegates for a response.

Professor Alan Reilly

I thank the committee for the invitation to give a short presentation to the committee. I will speak to our paper but will not take more than five minutes. I am joined by my colleagues at the FSAI, Dr. Mary Flynn, chief specialist in public health and nutrition, and Dr. Wayne Anderson, director of food science and standards.

The FSAI was established in 1999 with the primary role of enforcing food legislation. It is essentially a science-based organisation dedicated to promoting consumer health and interests in the area of food safety. The authority was set up to be independent of the food industry and it reports to the Minister for Health and Children.

Over the past ten years, the FSAI has worked in partnership with all interested parties to ensure a consistent standard of enforcement of food legislation and also to underpin food law with science-based risk assessment. A good example of how we work in partnership is our strategy for reducing salt intake in the Irish diet. Working closely with the food industry and others, we have seen an overall reduction in the salt content of staple foods. The content in bread, for example, has been reduced by approximately 10% over the past five years and there have been similar reductions in other products. Reducing the salt level in the diet is important as salt is one of the main risk factors associated with high blood pressure, which leads to illness and death from heart disease. We are now initiating work on reducing the saturated fat content of the Irish diet and hope to have results similar to those achieved in respect of salt.

Apart from having a role as a food law enforcement agency, the FSAI advises Ministers on scientific and technical aspects of food safety policy and legislation. Over recent years, our work has focused on some of the recommendations from the National Taskforce on Obesity that reported in 2005. One of the key recommendations of the national task force was that a review of dietary guidelines be carried out and that appropriate healthy eating advice be developed for all groups in the population. At the request of the Department of Health and Children, we carried out this work. Our recommendations included advice on daily calorie requirements, portion sizes and the need for adjustments to be made to the food pyramid.

The National Taskforce on Obesity also recommended that a review of social welfare payments be carried out to take account of the relatively high cost of healthy eating for socially disadvantaged groups. We estimated the cost of a week's supply of food for healthy eating for the most typical households and our results demonstrated that some families that depend on social welfare cannot afford healthy eating. It is far more expensive to provide calories from foods such as fruit and vegetables than it is from some of the high-fat foods such as chips and pastries.

The FSAI has produced national guidelines for the safe preparation of infant formula. These guidelines were adopted by the World Health Organisation. We have worked with that organisation to translate them into many different languages and they are now the basis of the global advice for safe infant feeding.

In the recent past, the FSAI has advised on food fortification with micronutrients. Our recommendations for fortification with folic acid and the supplementation of infant diets with vitamin D are now the basis for national policy. Dietary folic acid is important for the prevention of neural tube defects, NTDs, and vitamin D is essential for the healthy development of infants.

The FSAI regulates food supplements and foods for particular nutritional purposes on the Irish market. We recently carried out a safety assessment of very low-calorie diets and highlighted the need for these diets to be used under strict medical supervision.

The causes of the current obesity epidemic in Ireland are many. Never before have people been able to choose from such a wide variety of foods. No single food can do the job of providing all the nutrients we need. Foods must be eaten in the right amounts to achieve a healthy diet within the calorie range that will maintain body weight and prevent obesity. People living in Ireland are finding this very difficult, as in other developed countries. The bottom line is that eating a wide variety of nutritious foods, coupled with active living, is the key to maintaining good health throughout life.

I thank Professor Reilly for being so succinct.

I welcome the delegates from the FSAI and thank them for their presentation. I want to raise an issue with them that has been raised in a different forum, that is, the controls that apply to the importation of food. What controls are in place for imported foods, particularly chicken from the Far East? There was much concern over the importation of beef from South America when it was found production was not up to Irish standards with questions arising about hormone treatments, etc. While it has been cleaned up, is the Food Safety Authority of Ireland satisfied imported foodstuffs, particularly meat and chicken, are at the same production standards of Irish food?

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland describes itself as being responsible for the enforcement of food law in Ireland. While it co-operates with the food industry, what are its powers if a foodstuff is wrongly labelled?

I am interested in educating young parents to bring their children up in a healthy way so as not to establish patterns of unhealthy eating in young children. Are such educational programmes available in maternity hospitals or community groups, for example? It is crucial parents are taught to establish these patterns. When children are older and obese it is difficult to change their lifestyles and habits.

Has the Food Safety Authority of Ireland insisted on head shops providing information on the products they sell?

I thank Professor Reilly for his presentation and I appreciate the good and important work he continues to do in this area.

We are all interested in healthy eating. I agree with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan that the younger we can get people to adopt good habits, the better. The habits we learn when young tend to stay with us as we get older. As well as the need for parents to be well versed in healthy eating, we should aim the message at young people. Youth clubs and other points where they congregate are excellent venues at which to promote healthy lifestyle programmes.

The authority referred to the work it is doing on salt intake. For the first 50 years of my working life, I was rarely in a supermarket but I visit them now with my good wife. While she selects what I am going to eat, I spend my time reading the labels on the food which I find to be a very interesting exercise. Even with a science background myself, I have difficulty interpreting the labels as there are variations and it is not quite comparing like with like. For example, the nutritional information contained on a packet of Corn Flakes may apply to 500 mg while that on a packet of muesli may apply to 100 mg. I find it difficult to understand which is the most nutritionally beneficial. Has the authority discussed with the food sector the possibility of introducing a more user-friendly system of labelling to allow easy comparison? An interesting exercise would be to survey food shoppers to find out how many actually look at the labelling and how they interpret it.

I thank the Food Safety Authority of Ireland for its presentation. One perturbing fact in the presentation, and which has also been highlighted in other studies, is that families, particularly those with teenagers, dependent on social welfare cannot afford healthy eating. What recommendations does the authority have for dealing with this? Is there an interdepartmental effort to deal with access to healthy foods, particularly for the more disadvantaged? More fast food outlets are opening as more people become unemployed meaning it will become more difficult for many families to have access to healthy food.

How many of the recommendations of the national task force on obesity have been implemented? What are the key outstanding issues in tackling obesity?

I welcome Professor Reilly to the committee. Obesity and food consumption habits are a serious issue today, as is how they affect all age groups in the population, particularly our youth. The statistics for youth obesity are frightening. When I was young we were told to eat our greens and that carrots improved our eyesight. All these healthy tips seem to have gone by the wayside. We are probably too well off that we can go to fast food outlets for quick snacks of chips and burgers. When we were poorer we depended on home-grown food, carrots, cabbages and greens.

Much of the imported food, particularly chicken, is pumped up with water which cannot be healthy. What else is it pumped up with? Food colouring and dyes are used to make sweets more attractive. What are the effects of these?

The Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, of which I am a member, has been fighting for the past two years for proper food labelling of source and origin. Food is imported into the country but then relabelled as Irish produce. This needs to be tackled. We have attempted to do so at national level but European Union rules and regulations catch us out. What is the authority's view on this?

The Irish beef industry has traceability from the farm to the factory. However, Brazilian beef farmers are able to use growth substances which are banned in Ireland. Does the authority believe we should be stricter at national and European level on this issue?

I apologise for having missed the beginning of the presentation, but I have read through the document. There is an issue with food labelling that should be of concern to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. I recently purchased a small bag of a particular food and it was stated in large writing on the outside of the packet that it contained 97 calories. This surprised me as there was chocolate in it. It was only after I purchased it and looked more carefully that I realised it was stated in small writing that it contained 97 calories per portion. The full calorie content was stated in tiny writing for which I would need my glasses. That is very misleading and it needs to be addressed.

What is the FSA's rolevis-à-vis products sold in head shops? I believe it could have a role in ensuring that everything sold was passed by the authority or the Irish Medicines Board. Labelling needs to improve for alcohol products. There is no indicator of the calorific content of a bottle of beer, wine, spirits or whatever. People need to be made aware of that. Many were surprised by that transformation programme on television where one of a group of friends had 11 pints and four shots, and consumed 3,800 calories. People do not seem to realise the calorific content of alcohol.

Education of homemakers is a very serious issue. I have had experience of doing a house call where the meal consisted of fish fingers and oven ready chips, even though the homemaker's partner worked on a farm and could have brought home a bag of spuds any day. There is much work to be done here and it should be done in the secondary schools, and possibly in the last year of primary school. Salt levels in breakfast cereals are also a cause for concern. People need to be made more aware of them.

I share Deputy Aylward's concern about imports of beef coming into this country that are not from industries regulated like our own beef industry. I am also concerned about the progress being made by the task force on obesity and the glaring omissions that still remain. Deputy Aylward also expressed concern about the greens, but I think the greens have been well consumed.

Can Senator White follow that?

In the past few years we have seen campaigns on the dangers to our health of cigarettes and alcohol. There is a national awareness of those dangers, but I do not think the obesity issue has got through. I gave up cigarettes because I knew they were bad for my health, but I still consume some products in excess, such as eggs, that I know are not good for me. I am amazed at the number of people who have had heart attacks and now have a very good diet and exercise regularly. I wish I could do that now, but I fail to do so. I rarely take a drink and I gave up cigarettes 25 years ago, but I love to eat and I never exercise. I know this is unhealthy, but the penny has not dropped for people like me that we must exercise more and watch what we eat.

We are now much better off and there is so much delicious food available to us. Has any country embarked on a campaign to get people to lose weight and get fit?

I apologise for arriving late, but I have read through the brief. The key is education and the younger we start, the better. My own daughter was involved in school in the Food Dudes Programme, which is a fantastic programme for educating people at an early stage. The key is to get children involved earlier, eating healthier and to make them aware of food safety, food hygiene and so on. Is the FSAI involved in that programme? What is the follow up? The programme is excellent while the children are going through it. My daughter has eaten peppers and other foods that she would not touch at home, and it is amazing what she will try at school under this programme. However, once the programme is over, in a few weeks it all seems to fall a bit flat. Maybe that is where the parents are supposed to step in. I am just wondering whether there is any follow up. Getting in early is obviously the key.

Does the FSAI agree with us that a superb job is being done in primary schools across the country and that the healthy eating programme is being advanced by primary schools? My own experience from my family is that the little ones come home and they have been almost brainwashed on what is good and what is bad. They are quite determined that they will only eat what they have been advised to eat. By the time they have moved on to secondary school, the message seems to have been lost. Perhaps only those who are studying home economics have an awareness of the nutritional value of foods.

The FSAI recommended that a review of social welfare payments should be carried out to take account of the relatively high cost of healthy foods. Are we talking about moving towards food stamps for families in these circumstances? The FSAI seems to suggest in a survey that fast food is cheap. I do not think it is particularly cheap. If one were to compare the cost of the humble potato to the actual cost of a bag of chips from McDonalds, it would certainly not be 11 times more expensive to buy the bag of potatoes and the heads of cabbage. Is it the case that some of our low income families are not seeking out the quality food that is available but that needs to be sought out and might not be as readily available in the corner shop?

Professor Alan Reilly

Thank you, Chairman. I will try to go through the questions as they were asked and I might rely on my colleagues to come in on one or two of the questions.

The Food and Veterinary Office of the European Commission visits third countries that are exporting chicken and beef into the EU. Its officials inspect the facilities of these countries. They look at the controls in place and approve various plants for exporting into the EU. For places in the Far East such as Thailand, they would approve a series of processing plants. Once these plants come up to the standards required under EU regulations, they are allowed to export. It is a fact that such products are produced much cheaper over there because of labour inputs and so on.

We carried out a survey a few years ago on chicken coming into Ireland. We examined the labelling requirements and we found that some of these products were pumped up with water. They had various water binding agents based on pork and beef. It was like finding beef and pork inside chicken breasts. Some of these products contained about 50% water. They were being imported and were labelled incorrectly and misleadingly. We took that and the results of our survey to the European Commission and we had the legislation changed. While one no longer has fresh chicken breasts that are pumped up with water on the Irish market, there may be such chicken or poultry products, although they are not sold as fresh chicken.

With respect to beef, including beef from South America, it is the same situation. The Food and Veterinary Office inspects the country and approves farms and processing plants for export into the EU. We have examined such products and found there is not a food safety problemper se with such products, which are safe and comply with European regulations. The issue was around matters like foot and mouth disease when products were coming from areas with foot and mouth disease, which was more an animal protection issue than a food safety problem. We would examine such products and examine their safety and, provided they are safe and comply with EU regulations, they are free to come into the country.

With respect to incorrect labelling, we are responsible for enforcement of the labelling regulations. These are European-wide regulations. We do not make Irish regulations on food labelling and these are agreed at European level. Individuals from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and individuals from the Department of Health and Children attend working groups in Brussels where these different issues around food labelling will be discussed, agreed and, eventually, end up in legislation after going through the usual hoops. It is at the early stage, the working group stage, that we would have an input into what goes into the food labelling regulations but they are agreed at European level.

Nutrition labelling is agreed in Brussels and we must comply with it. There are different formats for nutrition labelling and food labelling regulations are under review in the context of the food information package. The recommendations are to include portion sizes on packaged foods rather than 100 g quantities. The issue of provenance and country of origin is under discussion and, for example, the country of origin of plant food must be stated on the package. The final stages of this discussion is literally going through the European Parliament at present and——

Could Ireland introduce its own food labelling if there was a will to do it nationally? Must it be an EU regulation?

Professor Alan Reilly

No. If we introduce national legislation, it must be submitted to Brussels and must be approved there. For example, we were able to introduce labelling for country of origin in restaurants as a purely national regulation. However, when we tried to have the same regulations for lamb and chicken as we have for beef, this was rejected at European level, despite the draft legislation having been submitted by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The whole issue of food labelling legislation is under review and discussion. Probably within the next three or four months, we will see some light at the end of the tunnel as to what is agreed in Brussels.

I agree with the Deputy that some companies sail fairly close to the wind with respect to what is on the label. The actual size of the letters on labels and that type of issue is all regulated but it is an area that is sometimes open to abuse. We have gone to court with companies which have mislabelled products, for example, mislabelling farmed fish as wild fish, mislabelling Chinese honey as Irish and so on. Where we can or where we have open and shut cases, we do a certain amount in regard to prosecution and trying to get such products off the market and to ensure consumers' interests are protected.

On the issue of head shops, it is difficult to classify what is sold in these shops or to decide whether they are foods or even what they are. We carried out a very small survey and we are aware that some foods are being sold in such shops. While they are not so at present, all of these head shops should be registered as food business operators with the Health Service Executive and this must be considered. Some of the products on sale would be classified as foods and should be regulated. However, many of the products are not foods, or could possibly be classified as novelty foods. It is an area we are examining but I cannot give the committee any definitive answer with respect to what is and is not food. There are many products in head shops which would not be classified as foods.

With regard to education on healthy eating, in particular for parents, at the beginning of our existence we had a role with respect to public health aspects of diet. However, the legislation changed and the authority no longer has a role in the area of educating parents. We can offer advice on, say, the science behind such advice but we do not go out and actively promote healthy eating.

As an example of where the science is useful with respect to how to target healthy eating in schools, the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance has developed a food consumption database and, essentially, it goes out and examines what people of all different age groups are eating. When it examined what children from the ages of five to 12 were eating, it found that 94% of all calories consumed by those children came from the home and only 6% came from outside the home. Many recommendations had been made with respect to taking vending machines out of schools and examining what children were eating in schools and outside the home. The bottom line is that children in that age group get most of their calories at home and, if there is to be intervention, it is related to educating parents. The younger the age at which people can be educated, the better.

For example, we are not really part of the Food Dudes programme, although we have advised on it. This is a very good idea. The whole concept was to get children used to the taste of fresh fruit and vegetables. They would take this home and, once they had been introduced to healthy fruit and vegetables, they would put pressure on parents to continue with these. I was asked about the follow up to that programme. It is really down to the parents to take up the baton and run with it, and to introduce new tastes to these children and not shy away from eating fruit and vegetables.

There was reference to the survey on households and what people could afford. My colleague, Dr. Flynn, may wish to comment on that particular survey.

Dr. Mary Flynn

On the basis of healthy eating guidelines, we were able to develop the full list of foods that people need in order to eat healthily for one week. We then analysed Central Statistics Office data to ascertain the most typical Irish households. We crossed the food intake of these households in three different types of outlets, namely, the local grocery shop, a discount store and a general supermarket. We found that for many families, especially those with teenage children, healthy eating was unaffordable. For example, the allowance for a child is €26 regardless of whether that child is an infant or a strapping 16 year old boy.

The daily energy requirement for an active 16 year old boy who plays football and engages in all the other activities that are necessary to protect him from heart disease, cancer and other diseases and in order to control his body weight is some 2,600 to 2,8000 calories. We priced the food by putting his allowances together and found that if his family were limited to the local shop, it would overspend its budget by 106%. In other words, without paying for bus fares, clothing, footwear or any of the other teenage requirements, that family was already exceeding its budget. Therefore, even if the labelling is correct and we get it right in regard to education and promotion, there are still barriers to be overcome. Households without children were markedly better off when it came to affording healthy eating.

Another finding was that fruit and vegetables are the most expensive food items. These foods include components that protect against heart disease and cancer and are low in calories, making them the best snack foods. However, they are the least affordable, with processed snacks and fried foods being 11 times cheaper per 100 calories. Our typical family of four had 8,200 calories to meet every day and the pressure was building towards the end of the week. Some of our partners who work in the food poverty area have identified that discount stores, which are cheaper, are generally two bus rides away and are thus not accessible for some families.

We also found that lean meat and chicken were the second most expensive food item. We know from surveys conducted in Ireland that families tend to purchase processed meats such as sausages and salamis. The World Cancer Research Fund has stated unequivocally that we must try to reduce as much as possible our processed meat intake in order to reduce the risk of colon cancer, which is one of the main causes of cancer deaths in the State. However, lean meat alternatives are simply not affordable for these families.

How healthy or unhealthy is real creamery butter?

I ask members and delegates to be brief because we are seriously over time and there are other groups waiting.

Professor Alan Reilly

Butter is healthy but, like everything else, one needs to eat it in moderation. The key to all of this is a balanced diet and taking plenty of exercise. There is nothing wrong with butter provided one does not consume it to excess; it is fine as part of a balanced diet. It is that simple.

An issue I wish to address is food labelling. We carried out a survey that was published in December 2009 which involved asking people about their degree of understanding of labels. This was part of our preparations for making recommendations to the Commission and to the Department of Health and Children and our objective was to get a handle on what people understand from food labelling. Interestingly, only 2% of respondents considered it important to have the calorie content included on the labelling of alcoholic drinks. This lack of interest surprised us. That report is available on our website and covers a range of issues associated with food labelling.

We will have to conclude on that point. I am aware that some of the members' questions remain to be addressed. Perhaps the delegates could answer those via correspondence with the clerk.

Will the Chairman allow the delegates to respond to my question regarding the authority's enforcement powers? In the case of head shops, for example, should it be the Health Service Executive or the authority which licenses or lists the products sold in those outlets?

Will Professor Reilly respond briefly on that issue?

Professor Alan Reilly

We have a range of enforcement powers. For example, we can close down food premises where there is a grave and immediate danger to public health. We can issue prohibition orders on certain types of foods and we can issue improvement notices on food outlets. As I said, we can only close a premises where it poses a grave and immediate danger to public health, and I cannot see that applying in the case of head shops. It is usually on hygiene grounds that we would take such action, where, for example, sewage is running in the basement or something similar. Likewise, we would only take foods off the market if they pose a food safety risk. Assessing the risk associated with products for sale in head shops would be very difficult because we do not know precisely what they contain.

I thank the delegates for their presentations.

Will the delegates get back to the committee in regard to the questions on the obesity task force and the other outstanding issues that were raised?

Yes, we would appreciate if the delegates would address the outstanding issues in correspondence. I apologise for rushing the discussion but we are running seriously over time and the next delegation is waiting to join us.

Sitting suspended at 3.37 p.m. and resumed at 3.38 p.m.