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Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 21 May 2009

COMMITTEE FOR HEALTH, SOCIAL SERVICES AND PUBLIC SAFETY

Inquiry into Obesity

21 May 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mrs Michelle O’Neill (Deputy Chairperson) 
Dr Kieran Deeny 
Mr Alex Easton 
Mr Tommy Gallagher 
Mrs Carmel Hanna 
Mr John McCallister 
Ms Claire McGill

Witnesses:

Mrs Maria Jennings ) Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland 
Mrs Andrea Marnoch )

The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs O’Neill):

I welcome Maria Jennings, deputy director of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), and Andrea Marnoch, head of the agency’s dietary health unit. You are both very welcome. I invite you to make a presentation, after which members may want to ask questions.

Mrs Maria Jennings ( Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland):

Good afternoon, Madam Chairperson and members of the Committee. Thank you very much for inviting us to give evidence. You have received the agency’s formal written submission. In the time that is available, Andrea and I will try to give you a flavour of some of the work that we are doing with the food industry and to raise consumer awareness of dietary health issues.

The Committee has met me previously. The Food Standards Agency is a UK-wide Government Department. It is our responsibility is to ensure that all food is safe to eat, and we also aim to protect consumers’ interests where food issues are concerned. Our local office in Belfast ensures that the agency’s principles and objectives are suitable for the needs of all consumers in Northern Ireland. We have a vision, which is that there must be safe food and healthy eating for all. For the purposes of the obesity inquiry, Andrea and I will concentrate on how the agency works to achieve the element of the vision that concerns healthy eating for all.

I am sure that you are all aware of the little chart that shows the eatwell plate. All our messaging is based on that plate, which is used widely by healthcare and education professionals. That chart illustrates that is a question of trying to get the balance right. We want people to get one third of their food intake from the fruit and vegetable part of the plate and about one third from the fibre part of the plate, which consists of bread, rice, pasta, and so forth. The final third should come from proteins such as meat, fish, eggs and beans, and milk and dairy products. Members will be glad to see that there is also a small segment for foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar. Our message is that healthy eating is all about balance; we are not in the game of demonising foods.

The agency set a number of high-level dietary health targets in its 2005-2010 strategic plan. Those include reducing the population’s intake of salt and saturated fat and encouraging improvements in nutrition labelling to help consumers make healthier choices.

Our work has three key strands. First, influencing food products to ensure that healthier options are made available to people so that they can make their own choices; secondly, influencing people so that they are aware that the healthy choice is the easier choice; and thirdly, influencing the environment, particularly the food environment, so that some of the barriers to making healthy choices are removed. I am sure that members will have heard about those barriers.

Andrea will give more detailed examples of how we influence food products and help people to make healthier choices.

Mrs Andrea Marnoch ( Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland):

As Maria said, the agency works with food businesses and their trade associations to support and encourage a reduction in the levels of saturated fats and added sugars in the foods that they prepare. For the past 18 months, the agency has been working on an energy intake reduction programme. I will discuss that programme and the effects of saturated fat on the diet. We know that on average, people eat far more saturated fat than is recommended, and rising levels of obesity suggest that energy intakes exceed energy requirements.

Following the success of the FSA’s work on salt reduction, the agency developed a programme of initiatives to try to reduce the level of saturated fat from its current level of 13·3% of energy intake to the recommended level of 11%. We focus on four areas of action: raising consumer awareness; promoting healthier choices; considering reformulating mainstream products to reduce their levels of saturated fat and sugar; and reducing portion sizes.

The agency launched a consumer campaign in February this year that targeted women between 25 and 60 years old and who are from social classes C1, C2 and D. That campaign was based on qualitative research that the agency carried out that suggested that the consumption of saturated fat was higher in that demographic.

The campaign was about raising awareness of the health effects of saturated fat and giving consumers simple tips on how to reduce such fat in their diets. Examples included cutting fat off meat and grilling rather than frying and grating instead of slicing cheese. I hoped that we would have feedback from that campaign for the Committee today; however, it is still early days, and the data are still being accumulated. Early indications suggest that consumer responses to the campaign have been positive and that they have understood the key messages.

The agency has identified the key food groups that contribute to levels of saturated fat and added sugar intakes, and it is working with the food industry on reductions in those food groups. The focus for that work is dairy products, meat and meat products, biscuits, cakes and pastry, snacks, confectionery, soft drinks and retail sectors.

I will give examples of how that work is progressing. Premier Foods, whose brands include Mr Kipling, Ambrosia and Sharwood’s, has reduced the saturated fat in its Mr Kipling ‘Delightful’ range by 50%. McCain Foods has reduced the saturated fat in its potato products by more than 70%, and since 2006, Marks and Spencer has removed 70% of saturated fat from a range of crisps and 30% from a range of sandwiches. Therefore, that demonstrates that a lot of work is being done in that area.

The agency is working with the food industry to identify opportunities to reduce the size of single-serve portions of, for example, soft drinks and sweet and savoury snacks. How we address portion sizes with the population and the food industry will be a big part of our work over the next 12 to 18 months. A large part of that work will include examining with the retail sector how they could realign in-store promotions so that healthier options are promoted. At the minute, in-store promotions can encourage the increased consumption of energy-dense, salty foods.

Mrs Jennings:

That leads me neatly to front-of-pack signpost labelling; it deserves a special mention. The agency has been working for a long time to provide a simple signpost on the front of food packaging that will let consumers know exactly what is in a pack.

We started that work because consumers told us clearly that that was what they wanted. There was no front-of-pack labelling when the work commenced about four years ago. After extensive consumer research, the agency produced a simple scheme that is based on traffic lights — red, amber and green — for the four main nutrients, that is, fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar.

A number of retailers and manufacturers, including several in Northern Ireland, have adopted the agency’s scheme. During the same period, a number of similar schemes appeared. Consumer and health groups started to ask for one simple and easily understood scheme that could be applied to all foods.

The agency, in partnership with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS), commissioned a comprehensive independent survey that looked at all the current schemes. It took almost 18 months to complete that work, and the findings have just been published. Not surprisingly to us, the study found that a single, consistent front-of-pack labelling scheme would be most helpful to consumers. Overall, the evidence shows that the strongest label is that which combines the words “high”, “medium” and “low” with the traffic light colours red, amber and green, and with the percentage guideline daily amounts (GDA), with levels of nutrients expressed as a portion of the product.

The full report on signpost labelling is available on our website. The agency and the Department of Health will consider the report’s findings and agree on the next steps. A public consultation will then take place, so the Committee might wish to hear from us again on this issue.

I will highlight briefly the work that we are doing on catering premises. People are eating outside the home more than ever before. What used to be a treat is now becoming the norm. Therefore, it has become more important for pubs, cafes and restaurants to provide nutritional information on their menus. Our work in catering premises is aimed at giving consumers the information that they need so that they can make healthier choices. Again, consumers told us that they want to see such information when they eat out. In Northern Ireland, we are working closely with environmental health officers to take work on that forward.

Several major national catering chains are taking part voluntarily in a pilot programme to provide calorie labelling for their customers. We have also secured healthy eating commitments from six of the UK’s largest high street restaurant chains. The work that is being done with Burger King provides a good example of how that company has started to reduce the salt, fat and sugar in its dishes. It has also started to provide a range of healthier options using healthier cooking methods, and it gives nutritional information on its menus.

We are planning to extend that work to workplace catering, and we are keen to discuss with the other Departments how we could improve catering in the public sector in Northern Ireland.

Mrs Marnoch:

I will talk about how we influence the environment and some of the partnership activity in Northern Ireland that we are involved in that may be of interest to the Committee.

The agency has been involved in the school meals steering group, which led to the development of nutritional standards for school lunches. Those standards have been rolled out. We have also been involved with the new food policy that will be launched in schools as part of a whole food in schools policy. We have entered into a partnership agreement with the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) in Northern Ireland in setting up a teachers’ panel to help support the dissemination in the primary and post-primary sector of a number of educational resources that focus on nutrition.

We have also started work with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) as part of work on the Olympics and the 2012 strategy in Northern Ireland. Over the course of the next 12 to 18 months, we hope to bring forward a joint package of measures on physical activity and eating well for young people in Northern Ireland. We have also worked with the Department for Social Development (DSD) on the development of the magazine ‘The Good Life’, which targets households in Northern Ireland with vulnerable people over the age of 65, and we support the Department’s promoting social inclusion (PSI) work on homelessness.

As Mrs Jennings said, we work closely with district councils on what we do with the food industry and local caterers. We launched a grant scheme early last year on the saturated fat campaign, and several initiatives are going on across the Province that will support the work in that area.

Finally, the Food Standards Agency is an evidence-based organisation, and all our policy work is based on sound evidence. I will touch briefly on the two main surveys that are relevant to the Committee’s work. In the UK, the diet and nutritional status of the general population is monitored through the national diet and nutrition survey, which until last year, had been rolled out across the rest of the UK but not in Northern Ireland. However, for the first time the survey is in Northern Ireland, and we have completed the first year of fieldwork. It is funded jointly by the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and Safefood. It is an important survey, because it will tell us for the first time whether what we are doing is having an impact on the nutritional status of the population in Northern Ireland.

The national diet and nutrition survey collects detailed information on food consumption through four-day food diaries and through checking nutrient intakes and nutritional status, which is done through blood sampling. Information is also collected using physical measurements, which means that there is a physical activity questionnaire for all ages, and through actograph measurements, which are taken over the course of seven days for children aged four to 10. It also collects information on the socio-economic, demographic and lifestyle indicators of the households that are involved. We hope to report back in the next 12 to 18 months about what it will mean for Northern Ireland in comparison with the rest of the UK.

The low income diet and nutrition survey (LIDNS) was carried out between 2003 and 2005, and its results were published in 2007. Its aim was to study material deprivation in the diets of the bottom 15% of the population. The fieldwork included 400 households in Northern Ireland, and that enabled us to make inter-country comparisons with Scotland, Wales and England for the first time. In many respects, the areas of concern about the food that people eat that that survey pinpointed were similar to those identified already in the general population. However, compared with the general population, the low-income population was less likely to consume wholemeal bread and tended to consume more non-diet soft drinks, more processed meats, more whole milk and more table sugar. Consumption of fruit and vegetables fell well below the recommended level of five portions a day, and consumption of oily fish was very low.

In Northern Ireland, we work in partnership with Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) to support the fieldwork of these surveys.

Mrs Jennings:

I reassure the Committee that we will continue our work in Northern Ireland. We have been delivering on the relevant objectives that were identified in ‘Fit Futures: Focus on Food, Activity and Young People’, and we have a seat on the obesity prevention steering group, about which you heard. I chair its food and nutrition subgroup, which is tasked with putting a framework in place for us to take forward work in Northern Ireland.

The agency is also consulting on its strategic plan for 2010-2015. We would like the Committee to visit our offices so that we can outline some of our priorities for the future.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for the presentation and for the invitation, which we will take you up on.

The signposting, labelling and traffic-light system is very handy. People are always in a rush in supermarkets, and they do not have time to study labels. Therefore, something like the traffic-light system, which is a positive move, will help.

Andrea said that one of the agency’s strategic targets is to reduce the intake of salt and saturated fat. You gave good examples of companies such as McCain Foods and others that have worked with you. How do you engage locally with the food and drink industry across the North? Are supermarkets reluctant in any way to get involved and work from positive examples?

Mrs Jennings:

I am sure that you know that the larger supermarkets control a lot of the movement of food around the UK. At a national level, we can influence the production of food and getting it on shelves. We are involved with some of the local supermarkets and independent retailers in Northern Ireland to try to influence them and what they provide for consumers.

The biggest impact will be felt with large manufacturers at a national level. Northern Ireland is a food producer, and it exports a lot of food, so we work closely with the red meat industry, for example. We work with the Meat Exporters’ Association and the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) to try to take forward a lot of the work in Northern Ireland.

We are building on the partnerships that we have in trying to encourage some of the manufacturers and retailers in Northern Ireland to start to mirror some of the work that has been going on in the rest of the UK.

Mrs Marnoch:

It is worth adding that 11 companies in Northern Ireland have adopted the signposting scheme.

Mrs Jennings:

We have been pleasantly surprised that a lot of the food companies in Northern Ireland have taken the high moral ground, are very interested in the health agenda and are moving towards taking up signposting labelling.

Dr Deeny:

The traffic-light signposting seems to make a lot more sense for the public. However, who in God’s name would have time to read the GDA? For example, an item may contain 12% of the daily recommended intake of sugar, but one would need to be a mathematical genius to work out that, having eaten the item, one could eat a further 88% of sugar and a further 81% of fat that day. Other elements will only confuse people, and no one will pay any attention to them.

The traffic-light system seems to be ideal. It mentions low saturates, and there used to be much talk of polyunsaturates. Is that still a big thing? Do the public need to know about saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat?

My second question is of interest to me as a GP. Does your organisation have an input into making advice on healthy eating available in health centres? As I said last week, there is still a lot of confusion out there. For example, in my surgery, we have a lot of worthwhile leaflets that we give to patients about how to lower cholesterol. We also give out diabetic sheets, which provide information on how to lower sugar levels. Those leaflets are very helpful, and if patients have those problems, they will often try to tackle them. However, I would like to see a leaflet that tells people who do not have those problems what they should eat.

Last week, I mentioned that we need to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but people do not know whether that means that they should have meals and have fruit with every meal or whether it means something else. If leaflets were produced and placed in health centres and leisure centres, for example, people could pick them up, and they would find out exactly how to get their five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. It is just confusing. I was wondering about your input into that. It would be very worthwhile to have such information. Many people, myself included, do not eat enough fruit, and some people do not eat any fruit at all. How can we encourage our young people to get to like fruit in schools, for example?

Mrs Jennings:

The overall amount of fat that people eat, particularly saturated fat, is the issue. There was a whole discussion about trans fats and the amount of trans fats that people eat, but the issue is to drive down the overall amount of saturated fat that people are eating and to increase the levels of polyunsatured fats that they consume.

Mrs Marnoch:

The magazine ‘The Good Life’, to which I referred earlier, targets people in Northern Ireland who are aged over 65. It has been distributed to all health centres in Northern Ireland, and whenever we produce publications, we send them to health centres. However, I know what you are saying about people having a role in providing information and advice. Historically, it has tended to be dieticians and possibly trusts who have supported giving advice and information at a local level.

Mrs Jennings:

It is right for dieticians to give one-to-one consultations and specific advice on people’s diets. We are in the game of providing those overarching messages that you are saying are quite confusing. In England, lot of money is going into a big marketing campaign called Change for Life, and in Northern Ireland, we need to push for an integrated, single form of messaging that is simple enough for the public to understand. We will be pushing for that in the obesity prevention steering group.

Mrs Marnoch:

There have been a lot of positive developments in schools in the past few years, particularly through new nutritional standards in school lunches. That has changed fundamentally the food choices that are available in schools. The curriculum has a lot of positive messages that are joined up with the healthy eating messages to reinforce that. However, schoolchildren are a very difficult group to reach, and their intake of fruit and vegetables is very low. A study carried out by Queen’s University shows that that has a particularly negative impact on the bone density of pubescent girls. Therefore, we carried out research a few years ago with Queen’s University and the University of Ulster, and we launched a survival guide for first-year students, because they were the most vulnerable group. A lot of emphasis was put on their fruit and vegetable intake, and we worked with the caterers on site and with students in halls of residence to try to reinforce some of those messages through that resource and through catering. It is always going to be a challenge with that age group, but the environment has changed significantly, so the message can be supported.

Mrs Jennings:

With the whole school approach — and I am sure that you will be hearing from the Department of Education about that — there are a number of schemes in schools, such as the better break schemes. Schools are doing brilliant work with trying to encourage children to eat healthier food.

Mrs Marnoch:

The Big Banana project is being launched. Actually we have five of them, so I suppose we could say that a bunch of bananas is being launched. We are going to roll that project out across primary schools from September.

The Big Banana has games about nutrition and food hygiene, and it has food-safety messages for children in primary schools. It has a mixture of board games and card games, and we are looking forward to getting it out to people and then seeing what the response will be.

Dr Deeny:

What about putting leaflets in health centres to explain to people who do not have conditions such as diabetes how they should get their five portions of fruit and vegetables a day? Many adults do not know how to go about that; they need practical advice.

Mrs Marnoch:

We would be keen to discuss that with the Public Health Agency. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety would have tended to have led on the five-a-day campaign. However, we will reinforce that point in all our messages.

Mrs Hanna:

I assumed that five-a-day meant an apple, an orange, a banana and a few carrots and peas. I take a simple approach, but perhaps it is not as simple as that. Some of the questions have been half answered already, but it is good to hear that we are going to have one signposting scheme. We need to know what average amounts are; it is a bit like buying tomatoes, because they are sold singly, in trays or in 1 kg packs, and it is impossible to figure out which are the cheapest.

You talked about food processors that are working with you, such as the makers of the Mr Kipling brand. However, those companies seem to reduce salt and fat only in their light and diet ranges. I know that they will say that the public want the products that contain salt and fat, but it would be better if you could persuade the food processing companies to make gradual reductions in all their product ranges.

How much influence do you have? You told us what was happening across the water, but are you part of an organisation that has more power? The answer lies somewhere between forcing people to change what they are doing by way of legislation and influencing change. It is a question of how far you can go. It is a carrot-and-stick situation; with a bit of encouragement, some will go further, but others will not move at all. We need everyone to make changes, and not just in the light or diet ranges; those are for the people who are looking already at the traffic lights and thinking about their diet. However, most people are not doing that, and the light food ranges are often dearer, even though they supposedly contain less salt and fat. We must make things simpler for everyone so that all processed food is a bit healthier.

Mrs Jennings:

There is no doubt that you are right. Through our own surveys, we know that products that are marked “light” or “healthy eating” do not attract the general population, and people steer away from them. We are trying to get the food processing companies to make improvements to the standard, routine products by reformulating them and taking salt and saturated fat out of them.

We are working with a full range of manufacturers in a sector. For example, if we are working with all the major manufacturers of potato crisps, we establish a norm for that industry and set a target below that norm. That target has to be met over time, because it takes their customers time to change their tastes. If you took half of the salt out of a packet of crisps, no one would buy them, which defeats the purpose of the exercise. Those targets, and the commitments that have been made by all those industry groups, have been published on our website. The industry groups are now publicly accountable for the achievement of those targets over the specified period.

Mrs Hanna:

Are you saying that they have to achieve those targets?

Mrs Jennings:

Yes. It is about getting the industry to take collective responsibility so that individual companies are not left behind.

Mrs Hanna:

I can understand that they want to sell their products. I like salt in my crisps, and I need to be weaned off it gradually. That is what a lot of people do at home when they are using salt with their dinner, but eventually, they will not have it on the table anymore.

I want to ask you about what is happening in school and hospital canteens. I know that a lot of work is going on in those places. How much influence can you have in that area?

Mrs Marnoch:

A school meal nutritional group was set up a few years ago. It was established to develop food-based nutritional standards for school lunches. That started in 2003, and it was piloted in approximately 100 primary and post-primary schools in Northern Ireland. The standards have been reviewed and, subsequently, developed, and new nutritional standards are being rolled out in schools now.

In the past six or seven years, there have been developments around school lunches. Added to that are healthy breaks and out-of-school-hours clubs that provide food according to agreed standards that have been developed against a whole-school food policy.

Mrs Hanna:

I have watched television programmes featuring the likes of Jamie Oliver and have read articles on the subject, but in spite of what has been achieved by those, problems arise because chips are available with everything. A gradual move to low-fat chips will help to change diets. It is obvious that people will choose chips instead of an apple or baked potato, for instance.

Mrs Jennings:

Schools are a real success story; the improvement in the food provided in schools is one of the biggest successes of the Fit Futures strategy. Daily menus are devised in blocks of three or four weeks. That planning is aimed at giving children a balance in their diet, as it ensures that children receive one third of their recommended daily nutrition from their school meals in that period. School caterers have set up standardised recipes. They have been trained in nutrition and have been working extremely hard; it is a success story.

Mrs Hanna:

We need to get children to take school meals instead of eating a Mars bar and crisps.

Mrs Jennings:

That is correct. Mrs Hanna also mentioned legislation. It is important to note that we are constrained because, as members will know, all the legislation that is relevant to our work comes from Europe. We have to be careful that we do not do anything to prejudice the way in which UK food products are sold. We import a lot of products from the rest of Europe, so we cannot introduce legislation that gold-plates what Europe is doing.

Mr Easton:

It is recommended that we eat five portions of fruit or vegetables a day. Is it sufficient to eat five apples a day, for instance? I eat only one portion each day, so I am bad.

Mrs Marnoch:

It is recommended that you eat a variety. According to the World Health Organisation, one should eat at least five portions of fruit or vegetables a day. Therefore it is recommended that you eat more than five.

Mr Easton:

Since we started this inquiry, I have harped on about the importance of getting the food industry to control the fats, sugar and salt that are put in our food. That is the only way to control obesity. Although everything else that is done is good, it is merely a sticking plaster. The Food Standards Agency can only force food producers a wee bit. Are you saying that the matter is controlled by Europe rather than by Westminster or here?

Mrs Jennings:

We cannot legislate on the matter here, so we cannot propose legislation stating, for instance, that a particular food sector has to reduce its salt input by 50%. However, we can work in partnership with the food industry. That partnership has been successful in driving down the amount of fat and salt that is in our diet.

Mr Easton:

Can Westminster do that?

Mrs Jennings:

The UK Government cannot introduce national legislation on this matter, because it would disadvantage UK food companies in relation to the rest of Europe. We would be setting a standard that would be much higher than that for food produced in the rest of Europe or the rest of the world.

Mr Easton:

This is an example of the European Parliament needing to get its act together, because we are all suffering.

Mrs Jennings:

A lot of European countries are in different places on this issue. We are pioneering some of the work, particularly around signpost labelling and front-of-pack nutritional labelling. We do a lot of work in Europe, and we lobby on behalf of UK consumers.

Mrs Marnoch:

To be fair to the food industry, there have been significant developments in the area. We have received commitments from six of the UK’s largest high street chains, including Burger King, KFC, Subway and McDonalds. They account for a huge percentage of the market share. Those companies are working towards reducing the levels of saturated fat and salt in foods. It is a voluntary arrangement at the moment, but they have publicly made those commitments; they are stated on the FSA website.

Carmel, you asked earlier why those companies only introduce such changes in certain ranges. I do not come from a technical background, and when all of the reformulation work started it was fascinating to find out how those products are produced. In relation to saturated fat, what is really interesting is that once the huge processing plants and factories change the oil used for one product, that impacts on all of the others. Those companies use the same oil and fat for most of their product range, meaning that a change for one product impacts across the entire range.

Mrs Hanna:

Therefore, we need those companies to change to using a better oil.

Mrs Jennings:

I agree, although sometimes that is a very expensive process. The FSA has reduced the overall salt intake by the UK population from 9·6 grams in 2007 to 8·6 grams in 2008; that is a reduction of one gram. Our estimates indicate that that reduction prevents around 6,000 premature deaths in the UK and is worth £2·7 billion to our economy each year. The FSA knows that the food industry is moving to implement some of those changes.

Mr Easton:

If the FSA gets rid of all the salts could it get us out of a recession as a result of all the money that that would save the economy?

Mrs Jennings:

We all need to eat some salt.

Dr Deeny:

Are low salts beneficial?

Mrs Jennings:

Low salt is the potassium equivalent of sodium chloride, and there are other issues surrounding potassium, as the Committee will know. It is also a much more expensive option, and the FSA would certainly not advocate swapping sodium chloride with potassium chloride.

Mrs McGill:

Thank you for the briefing. On the issue of schools, the west is definitely leading the way, particularly those schools in the Strabane District Council area. The council recently received a report on the work that has been done to promote healthy eating in schools in the area, and it seems to be a very good and effective project. Therefore, be assured that that message is getting through to the schools in the Strabane District Council area. I am familiar with a number of schools and sit on the board of governors for a couple of them, and I know that they are very energised by the project, which they have been involved with for a couple of years. I congratulate those schools and the FSA on that success.

In your submission, you refer to the ‘Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey’. That survey involved 400 households in Northern Ireland, was carried out between 2003 and 2005 and was published in 2007. Do you consider that research to be up to date?

Mrs Jennings:

All such research is extremely expensive to conduct. Following that survey, FSA put its allocated funding into the ‘National Diet and Nutrition Survey’, which takes the general population into account. However, there is no doubt that the low-income groupings will need to be looked at again. It is important to keep all surveys as up to date as possible.

Mrs Marnoch:

As Maria has said, the FSA is involved in a rolling programme and is committed to year-on-year monitoring. That involves 200 households in Northern Ireland being surveyed each year, meaning that we are getting data that is as up to date as possible.

The national survey allows us to focus on particular subgroups. Next year, we hope to look at infants and young children, including those aged between 4 months and 18 months, as that age group is not currently included in the ‘National Diet and Nutrition Survey’. It also allows us to look at older people or other subsets of the population, depending on what the policy priorities are.

Mrs McGill:

It is important that the survey is based on up-to-date research and results. Is the Food Advisory Committee part of the Food Standards Agency? How many people sit on that committee? Am I correct in thinking that you have 43 staff?

Mrs Jennings:

We have 43 staff in our Belfast office. The Northern Ireland Food Advisory Committee comprises members of the general public. The chairperson is a member of the national board of the Food Standards Agency and, depending on the time of year, the Northern Ireland Food Advisory Committee has eight or nine other members. The committee members sit for a term of three years, which can be renewed for another three years. It is sometimes difficult to find members for that committee, and we will recruit for another couple of members in the summer. Therefore, you should encourage people to submit an application.

I must jump to the defence of the other district councils in Northern Ireland, as it is not only Strabane District Council that works well. They work extremely well collectively, and there is a system for grouping them, which works according to whether they are based in the north, south, east, west or Belfast. The Northern Ireland food liaison group, which is the group of principal food officers in Northern Ireland, will take examples of good practice from all the district councils and apply those across the North. I hope that the work in Strabane will be captured and rolled out at a Northern Ireland level.

The Deputy Chairperson:

Thank you for your presentation and for answering members’ questions.

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