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DAVID FROST: Well another big issue this year has been the safety of the food we eat, the spread of BSE among cattle now in France has led to more questions about whether we should eat beef. Well I'm joined by the head of the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, the shadow goes on February 1st, doesn't it. Sir Alastair Morton's here, he's described the rail industry has having a nervous breakdown at the moment. And we're joined by Sir John Krebs, the Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, John good morning. Well we've drawn lots as to who, who should kick off and it's, it's come up with you Alastair and the first question must be this story in the paper today, in the Observer Business section about Railtrack being stripped of key powers, is that true?
ALASTAIR MORTON: Well the journalist in question has a very strong track record in seizing the wisp of a story and getting over the top very quickly, that's another case I'm afraid. What I did was make a speech about ten days ago saying that Railtrack in fact has two businesses. One is to get the existing network perfectly useful by the customers and the other is to develop, expand and improve it, that's an investment business if you like, whereas the first one is a utility business. That was the speech I made.
DAVID FROST: And, and now investments will, will be within your bailiwick, yes, they're not Railtrack's, it says here, in terms of the spending of money, is that right?
ALASTAIR MORTON: Not quite right, in fact not right. What there'll be is a partnership between Railtrack which is a big company by many standards but not as big as the job that has to be done. The partnership between Railtrack funding and government funding, and if you like I will represent with the SRA the government side of that funding and we will jointly invest in them and jointly raise further money. It has to be, what they call these days, a public-private partnership.
DAVID FROST: But, but you have to okay the expenditure?
ALASTAIR MORTON: Well obviously we're not going to be willing to spend money on things we don't think it should be spent on and we're going to have priorities. So since we're the ones charged with the development of the network, part of the immediate problems, you could say that we'll be leading the prioritisation, leading the choice of the expansion projects to be done. You also have to remember they take time because nothing happens in a few months.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of the, what's gone wrong so far, do you think what's gone wrong so far, the situation you've inherited, that what was wrong was privatisation at all or was it privatisation the way it was done?
ALASTAIR MORTON: The second, I mean the essential was to get the investment into the railways which was just never going to come from the Treasury in sufficient quantity, just not the way things work and therefore to get private capital into the railways was essential which meant privatisation. So what's gone wrong is elements of the structure, not everything about it by any means, we're going to have to improve the structure we've got, we're not going to throw it up into the air and start again.
DAVID FROST: And what about the rail regulator, how will you and he work together, if you and he, Tom Windsor, if you and he disagree on something who prevails?
ALASTAIR MORTON: Well we have separate functions¿
DAVID FROST: And they're not going to clash at all?
ALASTAIR MORTON: At the margin we will have disagreements about a good thing to do next but I think that's healthy. His job is to police the performance of a monopoly, when monopolies are put in place, particularly in the private sector, they must be regulated and that's his job. My job is to look for the forward strategy, then to work with Railtrack and with the train operating companies to deliver it.
DAVID FROST: And what about in terms of the planning and so on, speed limits, can you just clarify for us whether you did in fact say, as the Economist claimed, that speed limits were more dangerous than safe?
ALASTAIR MORTON: I said that they amounted to Railtrack exporting dangers, difficulties, to other parts of the network. Railtrack was solely concerning itself with the condition of the rail and that meant that they were saying as long as our bit is safe, never mind what, what else happens. Whereas the old BR for all its faults, and safety on the whole has improved since privatisation, at least until recent events, the, the old BR would have said, in the round where are the interests of the customer and would have taken that sort of a view, Railtrack isn't legally supposed to, or advised to take that, it takes a narrow view and this has created the kind of problem that nobody thought about in advance and that I'm saying we've really got to sit down and see how we cooperate with this kind of problem in the future. This problem now, Railtrack has got to solve, they've halved it, for the first time half the speed restrictions imposed are now gone, they've got down below 50 per cent, they'll halve that again by late January, mid February and it's going to go away but it's not pleasant while it's here.
DAVID FROST: Thank you very much, we'll come back Alastair to you in a moment, after we've talked to John, Sir John Krebs. First of all an update John if we could on what is the situation this morning on French beef, German beef and British beef?
JOHN KREBS: The situation hasn't changed this morning, our advice to the government is that legally sold imported beef from other European countries is as safe as domestically produced beef. Although there's been an increase in the incidence of BSE in France in the last year, and it may still rise further, we've got to remember that we have far more BSE than any other European country, indeed than any other country in the world. The important new step that's going to take place from the beginning of January is the introduction of European-wide controls on BSE which will bring the rest of Europe more or less up to the same standards as we have in the UK and that's going to give added protection to consumers for imported meat and meat products.
DAVID FROST: And in fact showing that you did need a supranational authority of some kind to, to liaise?
JOHN KREBS: Given that almost half the food that we eat is imported it's very important that we have international mechanisms for ensuring that the regulations are there and the regulations are enforced throughout Europe and that's why Brussels was the right place for action and we are very pleased that Brussels did in fact accept our recommendations, our advice to extend the measures that we have in Britain across the European Union.
DAVID FROST: And you've thought about organic food not being necessarily any safer than any other form of food, do you still feel that?
JOHN KREBS: What we said about organic food was that people should be free to choose and buy whatever kind of food they want and organic food may have many benefits in terms of environmental sustainability but if people think that organic food is healthier, ie it's safer or perhaps more nutritious then we had to point out there isn't an evidence base to support this view. So you choose organic food if you want to, choose it on the basis that it may be good for the environment but at the moment we can't say that it's better for you, either more nutritious or safer?
DAVID FROST: That, yes, that's amazing and flies in the light of what a lot of people are saying and a very interesting observation. Do you think it tastes better?
JOHN KREBS: I think that's a matter of personal opinion, I personally think that for fruit and vegetables freshness is important for taste and sometimes organic food can taste better, sometimes conventionally produced can taste better. But I do emphasise it's really a matter of individual choice.
DAVID FROST: And what about GM foods, when you see GM foods are in, are in something that you're about to eat, are you remotely concerned, do you¿
JOHN KREBS: Again I think it's very important that people have the choice and that's why we've been pressing in the Food Standards Agency for proper GM labelling so that people know what GM free means. But in terms of safety there are far bigger issues, for example food-borne illness. Now up to four and a half million people a year suffer from food-borne illness, food poisoning in Britain and we've set ourselves a target of reducing that by 20 per cent over the next five years. I think that's going to have a big impact on food safety and a big impact on people's lives. As far as GM is concerned that's much less of a safety issue.
DAVID FROST: And in terms of the food poisoning, what's the biggest percentage within that figure, where is the most food poisoning to be found, is it because of something in chickens or is to¿what is it?
JOHN KREBS: Well one of the difficulties, we don't know exactly where food poisoning arises, that's why we are taking a broad front approach, starting with the producers, we've set targets for the reduction of salmonella in chickens which the producers are helping us with. But it goes right through to the way in which we handle food in the home, so right through the food chain, everybody has got to take responsibility for improving food hygiene and improving food safety.
DAVID FROST: And as far as Christmas dinner is concerned, is there anything on that groaning table that is more dangerous than the rest?
JOHN KREBS: I think it's always important to cook meat thoroughly, particularly poultry, right through to the middle and our advice has been to cook the stuffing separately to ensure that that's fully cooked through as well. So I think that's, would be our principle advice for those who are going to enjoy their Christmas dinner and I hope they do.
DAVID FROST: Thank you John, Alastair yesterday Railtrack said 85 per cent effectiveness by the end of January, but back to normal, leaving aside the fact that normal wasn't that great, but back to normal by Easter, do you agree with those estimates in terms of rail, rail travel?
ALASTAIR MORTON: I think it's wise that they say to people, look it does take time to get fully back to normal and normal, you have to remember, is a great deal better than the punctuality and reliability of short-haul airline flying in Europe. But nevertheless I¿
DAVID FROST: Not as good as the French railways¿
ALASTAIR MORTON: I hope they're going to do it quicker, I hope they're going to do it quicker.
DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed, and you need ten years to get from what Tony Blair said was absolute hell on the railways to absolute heaven, ten years you need?
ALASTAIR MORTON: Well absolute you don't get, just like there's no such thing as absolute safety in either food or transport, but oh pretty good, yes.
DAVID FROST: Thank you both very much indeed, we look forward to being with you in the New Year to go on talking about some of these subjects. END
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