ACMSF Meeting minutes 21 March 2002

Held on 21 March 2002 at Aviation House, 125 Kingsway, London WC2 at 10.30a.m.

Present

Chairman:

Professor D L Georgala

Members:

Dr D W G Brown
Ms S Davies
Professor M J Gasson
Professor T J Humphrey
Professor P R Hunter
Mrs P Jefford
Professor A M Johnston
Mr A Kyriakides
Professor P Mensah
Dr S J O'Brien
Mr B J Peirce
Mr D J T Piccaver
Dr Q D Sandifer
Dr T D Wyatt

Assessors:

Mr P J R Gayford (DEFRA)
Professor C H McMurray (NIDARD)

Secretariat:

Dr J Hilton (Medical Secretary)
Mr C R Mylchreest (Administrative Secretary)
Mrs E Stretton (Secretariat)
Miss C Wilkes (Secretariat)

Others :

Dr J P Back (FSA) for item 6
Ms C Boville (FSA) for item 9

1. Chairman's introduction

1.1 The Chairman welcomed Members to the 43rd meeting of the Committee.

1.2 The Chairman reported that Professor Smith's term of appointment would end on 31 March. The Chairman would be writing thanking Professor Smith for his contribution to the work of the Committee over his 6 year membership.

1.3 The Chairman drew attention to the information papers provided by the Secretariat. These were intended to keep Members informed of developments in areas of potential interest, which they might not receive from other sources. They were also provided to enable Members to identify particular topics which they might wish to see discussed at future meetings of the Committee.

1.4 The Chairman drew particular attention to ACM/564 which, amongst other things, gave details of the membership and terms of reference of the Campylobacter Working Group. Professor Georgala said that, as a precursor to the Group beginning its work, a workshop had been held on 13-14 February. A record of proceedings was being prepared and would be circulated to Members and workshop participants as soon as possible. The workshop had proved very useful in helping identify a number of lines of thought and enquiry. The Campylobacter Working Group had met for the first time on 22 February. The Chairman reminded Members that the ACMSF normally produced very detailed, comprehensively referenced, subject-specific reports. In the process of developing its reports, the Committee took extensive written and oral evidence. Two years could easily elapse between a Working Group commencing its work and the full Committee adopting a final draft report. Given the importance of Campylobacter in the context of the Food Standards Agency's foodborne disease and poultry meat targets, the Chairman proposed to forward to the FSA in instalments any advice which might emerge as the work of the Group proceeded, rather than waiting until final report stage. Professor Georgala said that any tranches of advice would be cleared with the full Committee before being submitted to the FSA. It might therefore be necessary to consult Members urgently from time to time as the Group's work progressed. A fully comprehensive report would still be developed in due course.

2. Apologies for absence

2.1 Apologies for absence had been received from the following Members - Dr Andrews, Dr Hadley, Ms Lewis and Professor Smith - and from one Assessor, Dr Skinner.

3. Declarations of interest

3.1 The Chairman reminded Members of the need to declare any interests in agenda items. If Members were in doubt about any possible conflicts of interest, they should either register them or seek Secretariat advice.

3.2 No declarations were made.

4. Minutes of the 42nd meeting (ACM/MIN/42)

4.1 These were accepted as a correct record with one amendment. Professor McMurray asked that the word 'compiled' in the penultimate bullet point of paragraph 8.12 should be amended to 'considered'. The bullet will now read 'a register of Crohn's disease patients was being considered in Northern Ireland...', and the revised minutes will be posted on the website.

Action : Secretariat

5. Matters arising (ACM/557)

5.1 Members considered Secretariat paper ACM/557 reporting on action taken in relation to matters arising from the minutes of the 42nd meeting.

5.2 In response to an enquiry about the current state of play on the FSA's MAP strategy, Dr Hilton reported that the draft strategy was well advanced but was currently being reviewed to reflect the outcome of the open meeting and the public consultation. A final version of the draft was due to be considered by the FSA Board in May 2002.

6. Microbiological status of fruit and vegetables : FSA work on manures and slurries (ACM/558)

6.1 Dr Back introduced ACM/558. He said that there had been increasing concern in recent years about the potential exposure of consumers to pathogens through the disposal of organic waste to agricultural land. House of Commons Agriculture and Environment Select Committees had both reported on the disposal of organic waste in 1998, following which the Government had put in place a structured programme of risk assessment and research. Little information had been found to exist on pathogen levels in organic and abattoir wastes. A number of projects had been commissioned concerned with pathogens in manures and abattoir wastes and the risks associated with the agricultural disposal pathway. The aim was to use the results of this research in a risk assessment which would inform FSA decisions on the need for action to ensure the microbiological safety of fruit and vegetables.

6.2 Dr Back said that the Agency's view was that action should be taken to ensure food safety before the outcome of the risk assessment was known. It was felt that a sufficient body of knowledge already existed to permit the production of guidance to farmers. A report had been commissioned which highlighted best practice in relation to the storage and spreading of manure/slurry and which had been used to develop draft guidance for farmers on minimising the risks of microbiological contamination of ready-to-eat crops. The draft, which had recently gone out to public consultation, appeared as Annex 2 of ACM/558. The Agency would also be holding a workshop of around 40-50 participants as part of the consultation process.

6.3 Dr Back said that, in addition to the work being carried out on manures and abattoir waste, a review had been commissioned on the potential food safety risks associated with the use of water in agriculture. A programme review was due to be held in 2003 when a decision would be taken on the need for further research. The outcome of the risk assessment might also point to areas where more data were required.

6.4 Dr Back invited Members' comments on the guidance. Among the points made by Members were that :-

  • there was concern that different time periods were stipulated in the guidance for the acceptable delay between application of manures/grazing of livestock and harvesting of crops. Some Members felt that this could to lead to confusion amongst farmers. They noted that the FSA's aim was to achieve significant die off rather than a complete kill, and that there would be close liaison with DEFRA and the Environment Agency to ensure a consistent approach. A possibility for the longer-term was supplemental guidance targeted at particular operations;
  • in many instances, commercial contracts already governed delay periods. No particular difficulties had been experienced with different delay periods for different purposes;
  • very simple guidance was needed on composting and batch storage to ensure that appropriate temperatures were achieved to kill pathogens;
  • guidance on delay periods and frequency of application of organic wastes would need to reflect regulations governing the use of nitrogen fertilisers;
  • irrespective of the use of organic wastes, the soil itself was a source of pathogenic microorganisms. The degree of crop contamination was affected by meteorological factors;
  • the need should not be overlooked for clear consumer guidance on washing fruit and vegetables. Interest in this had surfaced recently in relation to pesticide residues. Members noted that washing advice was included in FSA material issued in connection with the food hygiene campaign and would also feature in the new Good2Eat resource aimed at 14-24 year olds which would be launched in April.

6.5 The Chairman thanked Dr Back for his presentation. He hoped that the FSA would find Members' comments helpful. Some concern had been expressed about the possibility of confusion arising from the use of more that 1 delay period, although it was recognised that practicalities might justify such an approach. The ACMSF was supportive of the initiative. Even though clear data were not yet available establishing a human health risk through food chain pathways from organic wastes disposed to agricultural land, the development of advice to the farming community was regarded as a sensible precautionary measure.

7. Horizon scanning (ACM/559)

7.1 The Chairman said that horizon scanning was an important aspect of the ACMSF's work. The aim of horizon scanning was to identify topics needing closer examination by the Committee. This would enable a view to be taken of whether or not such topics might pose a problem in terms of the microbiological safety of food. The Chairman of the FSA had made clear the value he placed on the process. Members' preliminary views were being sought. The Secretariat had prepared ACM/559 to inform this preliminary consideration. A more substantive discussion would be held at the Committee's next meeting, on 27 June. Professor Georgala encouraged Members to reflect on the matter in the intervening period and to consult colleagues, where appropriate.

7.2 On the basis of their preliminary consideration of the issue, Members offered the following candidates for consideration by the Committee, to decide whether or not they were likely to pose problems in the future :-

  • imported foods : trends in import and origins. Diseases endemic in producer countries. Food smuggling;
  • decontamination processes : particularly for ready-to-eat (RTE) salads and vegetables. Tissue penetration of contaminating organisms. Efficacy of non-chlorine based decontaminants;
  • opportunistic pathogens : eg. Enterobacteriaceae, Yersinia, pseudomonads, aeromonads;
  • shelf-life : effect on microbiological safety of extending shelf-lives;
  • labelling : adequacy of food safety labelling for consumers;
  • food safety education and advice : Food hygiene education. Misuse by consumers of RTE meals. Inappropriate consumer re-heating of Meals on Wheels. Food safety dietary advice for the immuno-compromised;
  • Giardia : as a potential foodborne pathogen;
  • catering : catering in health institutions, including nursing homes;
  • tourism : food safety/hygiene advice for travellers. Tourism in farming settings (but bearing in mind the ACMSF primary concern with food rather than direct contact exposure pathways);
  • global warming : including the threat from algal blooms;
  • organic foods : food safety impact of organic farming;
  • bioterrorism : possible food chain implications;
  • kitchen hygiene : the link between exposure and immunity;
  • unintended impacts of policy decisions : eg. disease effects of tackling microbial antibiotic resistance through action on growth promoters, etc;
  • probiotics;
  • bacteriophages : use of phage for terminal decontamination;
  • traceability : including through wholesale markets;
  • food distribution systems : temperature control and cold chain distribution.

7.3 In addition to the suggestions made by Members, Professor McMurray drew attention to the increased incidence of cattle deaths in Northern Ireland adjacent to poultry premises. The symptoms were similar to botulinum intoxication, although Clostridium botulinum had not been isolated and there had been no cases of human botulism. Investigations were continuing.

7.4 The Chairman thanked Members for their suggestions. He asked them, in preparation for the next meeting, to develop from the candidates they had identified a 1 page shortlist of priority topics and to submit these to the Secretariat. Members who had not spoken would also be asked at the June meeting for their ideas. Mr Gayford and Dr Hilton undertook to provide details of the outcome of DEFRA and FSA horizon scanning.

Action :
1 page summaries to Secretariat : Members
DEFRA/FSA outputs to Secretariat : Mr Gayford/Dr Hilton

8. Risk assessment (ACM/560)

8.1 The Chairman introduced ACM/560 giving the background to recent developments in relation to the scientific advisory committees and their approach to risk assessment. He reminded Members of the request from the Chairman of the FSA that the ACMSF, amongst others, should consider the potential advantages which might flow from the adoption of a more formal structure for the process of risk assessment, and the Committee's undertaking to consider this. ACM/560 proposed setting up an Ad Hoc Group, which would probably not need to meet on more than 1 or 2 occasions, to recommend an appropriate way forward to the full Committee. Professor Georgala explained that what was being sought was not a complex framework for conducting a full quantitative risk assessment but a check list of factors which the Committee needed to have addressed in developing its risk assessment advice.

8.2 In a preliminary discussion of the issue, the importance was stressed of recognising biases and conclusions not supported by available data. It was also regarded as important that the needs of socially-excluded groups were not overlooked in carrying out risk assessments. Members pointed to a wealth of literature which the ACMSF might find helpful in informing its own deliberations. This included World Health Organisation guidelines on risk assessment and management for water-related infectious disease; the proceedings of 2 significant European conferences on risk assessment in relation to food; and risk assessment frameworks developed by both the Royal Society and the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens.

8.3 Members approved the proposal to set up an Ad Hoc Group to take this matter forward. The Chairman undertook to consult with the Secretariat on membership and then to contact potential members of the Group.

Action : Chairman/Secretariat

9. Food Standards Agency's food hygiene campaign (ACM/561)

9.1 The Chairman said that the FSA had recently embarked on a food hygiene campaign, initially aimed at the catering industry. The ACMSF had consistently stressed the importance of high standards of food hygiene in reducing the risks of food poisoning. The Agency initiative was fully supported by the Committee and was regarded as very timely. Professor Georgala introduced Ms Claire Boville who had agreed to brief Members on the FSA campaign.

9.2 Ms Boville explained that the campaign, which had been launched on 11 February, would run for 5 years and was initially aimed at caterers. It would broaden out to include the general public later in 2002. It was one of a number of strands of work being taken forward under the FSA's foodborne disease strategy which aimed to reduce microbial contamination of food, promote better food safety management and practice, and promote hygienic food preparation in the commercial and domestic settings. Ms Boville explained the phasing of the campaign, the factors influencing its focus, the campaign materials, stakeholder involvement, and the measures put in place to enable effectiveness to be evaluated. The campaign was the first major national initiative undertaken by the Agency, and would use a multi-media approach to communicate simple food hygiene messages to the public and those working in catering businesses. Prior to the launch of the campaign, sick bags had been distributed to caterers with the aim of encouraging them to think about the link between poor hygiene practice and food poisoning. This was followed up by a direct mailing to caterers of the Campaign information pack, poster and sticker on launch day. The campaign was based on 4 key messages - washing hands regularly, cooking food properly, chilling food properly and avoiding cross-contamination. The second phase of the campaign would be targeted in the light of the outcome of the evaluation process.

9.3 In discussion of Ms Boville's presentation, the following were among a number of points made :-

  • it was important to utilise the knowledge of local environmental health departments in developing campaign activities. It was noted that EHOs had been fully involved in the development of the Campaign materials and were supportive of it;
  • the FSA was considering the possibility of utilising local authority inspection reports to help evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign;
  • given the particular characteristics of the catering industry (eg. fragmented nature of industry, large numbers of vacancies, rapid staff turnover, heavy dependence on casual labour, long hours, low pay, low social status, marginal profitability of small businesses) it was vitally important to invest in the teaching of life skills, including food hygiene, in schools. Early education and training were essential. The strict enforcement of food hygiene legislation was also important;
  • it was noted that there had been a number of European Commission-funded food hygiene initiatives over the past 4 years (ie. teaching resources for primary and secondary schools - covering 7-14 year olds; a CD-ROM for students undertaking initial teacher training to teach 5-11 year olds; and a forthcoming website for teachers and for 14-24 year olds;
  • it was noted that, under the FSA food hygiene campaign, there was likely to be a burst of activity aimed at consumers during the summer, to coincide with the barbecue season;
  • it was noted that, in planning future activities, the FSA would be looking, amongst other things, at the needs of ethnic minority groups.

9.4 The Chairman thanked Ms Boville for her presentation. He said that the question of food hygiene advice for caterers and consumers had been addressed in a number of the ACMSF's reports and the Committee would watch with interest the way in which the FSA's campaign developed.

10. Clostridium botulinum : vegetables in oil (ACM/562)

10.1 The Chairman reminded Members that in 2000-2001 the ACMSF had considered the question of advice on avoiding the risk of growth and toxin production by Cl. Botulinum in selected food products. Members had commented on draft FSA guidance simplifying advice contained in the ACMSF's Report on Vacuum Packaging and in the industry's code of practice for vacuum packaged and modified atmosphere packaged chilled foods. At that time, Members had noted that further draft FSA guidance would follow in due course on some of the newer products. The ACMSF had asked in particular that the FSA should consider producing simple guidance for businesses and consumers in relation to vegetable in oil products. As a first instalment, the FSA had produced standard guidance on the botulism risk for the home production of such products (ACM/562). Members' views were invited.

10.2 By way of further elaboration, Dr Hilton explained that ACM/562 was restricted to home bottling. The document was based on advice given in response to previous correspondence with members of the public. The FSA was keen to have an ACMSF view on whether the advice was sound, whether it needed any modification, whether it was suitable for posting on the Agency's website, and how it should be promoted.

10.3 Members made a number of points in discussion:

  • the opening paragraph of the draft advice made clear that the FSA did not recommend the home production of vegetables and similar products preserved in oil; but there was no mention of cottage industry products where there was no control of pH, which also needed to be covered by appropriate guidance;
  • the draft was regarded as falling between 2 stools. It appeared to provide information which would enable those wishing to carry out home bottling of vegetables in oil to do so. In practice, the information provided was not sufficient to enable people to undertake bottling in oil safely;
  • a better approach would be to re-frame the advice in terms of how the operation could be undertaken safely by those determined to undertake home bottling, and then to stress the FSA's advice that home bottling was not recommended;
  • the website might not be the best medium for disseminating this kind of advice. The FSA was encouraged to consider other options, including consumer media, women's groups (like the Women's Institute), etc;
  • it would be worth highlighting the fact that, in the USA, the Food and Drug Administration had banned the production of this type of non-acidified product on public safety grounds;
  • there would be value in investigating the popularity of home preservation of products in oil as a means of targeting advice and delivery vehicles for such advice;
  • the FSA should also establish how much of this type of product was going through commercial outlets.

10.4 In conclusion, the Chairman strongly encouraged the FSA to recast the advice, taking account of Members' comments, and to consider the best means of disseminating it. Professor Georgala stressed the importance the ACMSF attached to advice being framed to cover commercial, as well as domestic, operations. He asked the FSA to keep the Committee apprised of developments.

Action : FSA

11. Any other business

11.1 Members' attention was drawn to the Chief Medical Officer's strategy 'Getting ahead of the curve', in particular the proposals for creating a new Health Protection Agency and their impact on the structure of the Public Health Laboratory Service (PHLS). It was noted that the proposals could adversely affect the ability to gather information on, and manage, foodborne illness. Dr Hilton said that the FSA had already established informal contact with the relevant officials in the Department of Health (DH) to alert them to concerns over what the proposals would mean in terms of such aspects as foodborne disease monitoring; the role of reference laboratories; the routine testing of food, water and environmental samples in support of local authority enforcement work, food hazard investigation and microbiological food surveillance; epidemiological support for foodborne disease outbreaks; etc.

11.2 The point was made that the CMO's strategy was not a consultative document and that decisions were likely to be taken very quickly. It was therefore important that any comments which the ACMSF might wish to make should not be delayed. It was felt that, although the strategy itself was not open for discussion, there were significant gaps needing to be filled in the implementation strategy, on which DH officials might welcome ACMSF input.

11.3 The Secretariat was asked to draft ACMSF comments for clearance with Members which could be fed into DH via the FSA.
Action : Secretariat

12. Dates for future meetings

12.1 The Chairman drew the attention of Members to ACM/563 giving dates of ACMSF meetings for the remainder of 2002 and for 2003. He asked those Members who had not already done so to get these in their diaries.