Catherine Brown interview: Food Standards Agency chief on modern regulation and the horse meat scandal
Outgoing Food Standards Agency chief executive Catherine Brown believed she had a job with a low media profile until the horse meat scandal raced over the horizon. She tells Mark Smulian about the changes she has made in the department over the last five years and her plans for the future
Surely few civil servants have been bidden by their managers to identify synonyms for vomit. That, though, has happened at the Food Standards Agency, where a drive to make sure that staff can effectively communicate with the public they serve is paying dividends.
The FSA’s outgoing chief executive Catherine Brown says the agency can issue alerts more rapidly than the NHS when outbreaks occur of the “winter vomiting” condition norovirus, because it monitors Twitter for mentions of vomiting and sends out health advice when these accumulate.
To do that means knowing all the words for “vomit” that tweeters might use, including those used only in particular communities. Staff have been asked to supply words they know, even if these might normally be used in more private circumstances.
FSA diversity policies such as this have increased its reach into communities that Whitehall bodies might traditionally have struggled to influence, Brown says. And diversity has been a theme of her tenure – a matter, she says, not of “box ticking” or even of securing talent, but one of creating an atmosphere in which people can be comfortable about differences and contribute better to the FSA’s work as a result of their different perspectives.
She has championed diversity and says it matters because, “in common with a lot of big organisations that have a huge agenda and are always in a hurry, in the civil service, there is always a premium on fitting in”.
She says: “People find it easiest to deal with people who are like them, and there is a premium on being a bit similar.”
Indeed, if Brown could change one thing about the civil service it would be to secure “more challenge and less conformity”.
“Conformity comes both in recruitment and in people being ‘conformed’ when they are in the service,” she says.
Horse meat scandal
Her own background – which includes stints at Unilever, BUPA and the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency – was unusual for the senior civil service. And it did little to prepare her for the media clamour that erupted three months after her arrival at the FSA in 2012, when it was discovered that supermarkets were selling significant amounts of products containing undeclared horse meat.
This was particularly daunting as Brown was neither used to – nor liked – the media spotlight. She recalls: “I did my job interview, which included a media test, and I didn’t like it at all. I went home and said: ‘I don’t like media, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t expect I’ll have to do any’, but then horse meat happened.”
The FSA decided the businesses involved should test all their meat products for the presence of horse meat quickly and at their own expense, and share the results with the agency. This involved thousands of product lines and the FSA had no powers to require anyone to undertake this costly exercise.
“We had to do it by persuasion – working with Defra and devolved administrations – and industry responded really well when they could see the rationale for what we suggested,” Brown says.
“For me, in terms of getting to know the organisation when it was working flat out under huge amounts of pressure, it meant being able to build a really strong network of relationships across Whitehall and the devolved administrations.
“Everybody cared about what we were doing so it was a perfect chance to build those relationships.”
This was fortunate as, quite apart from dealing with unwanted horse meat, the FSA was not a happy place. Brown recalls: “We’d just had a capability review before I joined, which had been quite cutting on the subject of relationships across government and with industry.
“The capability review drew attention to relationships that were not as good as they needed to be across government, and within the organisation between executives and the board. Relationships were tricky, things were not working smoothly internally and I think that the horse meat work enabled us to shake free of bits of the past that were holding us back.”
Experience gained with horse meat was soon put to work in marshalling powers of persuasion to tackle a more dangerous food problem – campylobacter. This is a bug in chickens’ guts that can reach their skin during the slaughtering process. Cooking kills it, but problems arise when people “cross-contaminate and get chicken juice on a kitchen chopping board and then chop cucumber and don't cook that and then, wham, you've got campylobacter,” Brown explains. She took on dealing with campylobacter because its 500,000 cases each year made it the largest cause of food-borne disease and it’s “pretty much always really nasty even in a fit person, but for around 1% it can have nasty chronic long term effects”.
The problem was that no-one knew how to remove the bug from chickens and amid what Brown calls “a lot of general hand-wringing”, the consensus had been to carry on doing research until something turned up. Brown felt that was not good enough and the food industry should be prodded into action. The problem was how.
“It’s clear in legislation it’s not our responsibility to work out how to make safe food, it is the responsibly of food businesses and ours is to ensure they are properly incentivised to do that,” she says. “We have to be confident and clear about what our job is in the campylobacter space and we said ‘we appreciate it’s difficult, but it’s making a lot of people very ill and killing a few and we are going to create more pressure in the system to make sure you take action’.”
Brown’s team found 27% of supermarket chicken was unacceptably contaminated and decided to publish a league table of the incidence of campylobacter in major supermarkets’ products. This caused outrage in the industry, and taught her some lessons about how political pressure is brought to bear.
“I certainly learnt not to underestimate the resistance and power of those who will resist, which was more people in the industry having quiet words with ministers than conducting public campaigns,” Brown says.
“We said we would do testing across the main supermarkets, who have the power – if they want to – to work with producers to sort it out. Showing the percentage of highly contaminated chicken in each supermarket caused huge amount of upsets and very significant pushback from the industry – and from government, about threats to the chicken industry – but we managed to do it without causing a health scare. My board showed their commitment to put consumers first.”
"Conformity comes both in recruitment and in people being ‘conformed’ when they are in the service"
Part of the credit for the board standing up to such pressure was “an especially good relationship” with board chair Tim Bennett, Brown says. But she admits she was “unprepared for pushback when we first published results” and the FSA deferred things for three months while using specialist statisticians to ensure robust statistics.
“I learnt that if you are going to do something controversial that is going to get pushback, make sure your evidence base is not just good enough for a reasonable person but is bomb-proof,” she says. “And leverage other relationships. We were really lucky to have good relations with Which? and with the science community, so when the industry says ‘you can’t publish, it might damage the chicken industry’ you have consumers saying you can.”
The FSA’s campaign ultimately divided the industry. Brown remembers one poultry industry figure telling her: “If you can't tell us how to fix it, how can you behave like this”, while another admitted that if campylobacter “turned chickens blue”, the industry would have resolved the problem years earlier.
She points proudly to how three years later the major supermarkets are hitting a 10% target for contamination and are on course to hit the FSA’s target of reducing the number of human cases by 100,000 a year. “It’s satisfying in itself and shows how you can get the industry to do the right thing,” Brown says.
This is part of her view of what modern regulation means, that it is not about “creating old fashioned regulations” but persuading people to do things and getting players in the food system to put consumers first.
“Historically central departments and local authorities checked everything and the public purse paid,” Brown says. “Now, demonstrating you comply is part of the cost of doing business. Regulation is something businesses should pay for. People rely on businesses to sell food that is what they say it is.”
The horse meat and campylobacter campaigns – the former forced on the agency by public opinion but the latter deliberately chosen – ultimately improved FSA staff’s confidence about moving on from a capability review that Brown said had been “really difficult” because of “issues of morale and relations”.
One way in which rising staff confidence is perhaps visible is in the FSA’s social media presence. Staff have been encouraged to engage with social media to learn about and understand what is out there and then publish messages for the FSA. “We’ve set up FSA Voices, where staff can sign up to access official messages they need not be worried about repeating, and they put those out to their communities on Facebook and Twitter in ways that are really trusted,” Brown says. “What people really trust is information from friends, colleagues and relations – not official bodies. So by doing this you get the benefits of their networks and we get into communities not otherwise easy to reach.”
Brown may soon be tweeting in another language. She was due to leave the FSA at the end of March and move to Wales. In preparation for which she is learning Welsh, “which takes up a lot of free time, although I do a lot of gardening,” she says.
Her future plans are not definite but semi-retirement is not the desired model. “I’m putting together a portfolio of interesting things to do,” Brown says.
“Conformity and impartiality are very important [in Whitehall] so there are appropriate constraints around what senior civil servants can do to express themselves, so I’m quite looking forward to moving to positions where I can express myself even more than I do.
“I’m learning Welsh for intellectual and cultural reasons, as languages are important to understanding cultures.
“If I took up any public service role it would be appropriate to know Welsh. I like the bilingual policy and should be able to talk to people from both communities in their own languages.”
Brown’s tenure at the FSA was only four and a half years but she hopes she has helped set it up for an era of diversity and digital engagement.
BEING A DIVERSITY CHAMPION
When the civil service decided that diversity champions were needed in each department and organisation, Brown took the role at the FSA.
She explains: “Probably the main thing that’s been different from what I expected is that I have been more ‘out’ [about my sexuality] here than in other places.
“I think I have been something of a role model, and for those of us of a more private disposition that takes some getting used to. What makes a difference is everybody being able to be themselves, not just those of us who are not straight, or not white. Coming to the civil service from outside there are some things you feel straight away are more conducive to diversity, but with others there is a risk of conformity and that is really interesting for me.
“What we’ve done here is improve diversity of people but also ensure that people can talk about this and be open and more innovative. I’m pleased to have got to 10% of the leadership team being from BME backgrounds, which is a far cry from three years ago.”
DEALING WITH BREXIT
“Europe is obviously a really significant challenge and needs us to work in a really joined up way with Defra, the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Department for International Trade and the devolved administrations. There are big issues but no extra resources, so we are shuffling our resources around to deal with this. Regulations are a consequence of free trade in food, so the standards are set and we rely on the European Food Safety Authority for a lot of the science, so need to work out how we access that science base in future.
“We also have strong links with the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada as a consequence of food imports and exports.”
FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY FACT FILE
The FSA is a non-ministerial department funded direct from HM Treasury. It has its own board and covers England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Health ministers deal with any parliamentary business.
It employs some 1,200 staff, about half of whom are meat inspectors based in some 250 slaughterhouses around the country and the remainder at the London headquarters or offices in Cardiff, Belfast and York.
Staff are drawn from a combination of career civil servants and people with food industry and environmental health backgrounds.
Although the FSA covers Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has its own agency), food issues are devolved. Brown says this has had advantages, for example with experience gained from display of the familiar “scores on the doors” ratings for food hygiene in catering premises that are now mandatory in Wales.
Welsh devolution thus allowed the FSA an opportunity to find evidence that mandatory display of the stickers drove up hygiene standards.
Northern Ireland is due to follow suit and Brown expects it will be only a matter of time until England does too.
The FSA works closely with local authority environmental health departments on food safety, and with council trading standards teams on food fraud and crime.
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