The Food Standards Agency's (FSA's) chief scientist Dr Andrew Wadge is a man on a mission. He wants the UK public to have a better grasp of the concepts of risk and uncertainty in science.
This, Wadge believes, would enable us to make more informed judgements about the role of science in our society and balance the benefits new technologies might play in putting safe food on to our tables against the scare stories.
There is a big job to be done. Around 1M people get sick each year from foodborne illness; 20,000 of these are hospitalised and 500 die.
"I am frustrated by the fact that technologies, such as irradiation and antimicrobial washes of poultry, aren't being employed. We know they could help protect consumers," says Wadge. The answer, he says, is a more open and engaged debate with consumers.
Ensuring that science and evidence underpins everything the FSA does is core to Wadge's role. "It's about making sure we use science to help inform where the priorities lie," he stresses.
Targeting its efforts is even more important as the FSA's budget is under pressure. The same is true for local authority environmental health departments, which inspect food firms other than primary meat processing plants, which fall within the FSA's remit.
True to scientific form, Wadge delivered cool, considered answers to my questions. Except when I suggested that the use of 'magic bullet' technologies such as irradiation or antimicrobials in reducing bacterial loading of food at source, might make people less careful in handling food.
"It is absolute rubbish, you know, because that is exactly what people said in relation to the pasteurisation of milk," said Wadge "It was resisted for decades in this country. As a result, about 60,000 people died between the two Wars completely unnecessarily."
He added: "Measures such as these build on hazard analysis critical control points (HACCP). They are not there to replace HACCP and good hygiene practices; they are there to build on them and increase the safety. And anyone who argues otherwise quite frankly it's a red herring. My challenge would be: why are people really opposing antimicrobial treatment agents on poultry?"
Wadge has been with the FSA since its inception. He started his career at Westminster Medical School where he researched the effects of environmental pollution on human health. He continued research in this area and was awarded a PhD from King's College in 1985. After a short spell of post-doctoral research, he joined the Department of Health, working on air pollution and then food safety, specialising in toxicology.
When the FSA was created in 2000 he headed up the chemical safety division and became FSA director of food safety in 2003. In April 2010 he took on the role of interim director of food policy following the merger of the FSA and the Meat Hygiene Service. "My interest has always been the translation between science and policy: how science informs policy and how you can get the best evidence to inform policy," he remarks.
He has now relinquished the role as director of food safety, but continues as FSA chief scientist "in the office three days a week". As he points out, incidents that require his input can occur at any time. "I will always get involved with what I would call strategic level incidents I think we had about six of those last year," he says. "At those times we really have to act quite quickly, often with uncertain information about the science and the risk assessment. But it is an important part of what the Agency does to protect consumers."
Wadge keeps up to date with developments in food safety science , liaising with experts at home and abroad. "Food safety issues are never confined to just one country," he says. "So it is really important for me to be talking to counterparts in The Netherlands, Germany, France, and so forth, to find out what's concerning them."
What is less widely known is that Wadge also has his own private psychotherapy practice. But he is too discreet to let on whether this helps with the politics of the food supply chain.
During the formation of the FSA, Wadge is proud of the role he played in bringing together teams from the then Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries of Food and DoH to "create a new culture and a new way of looking at food safety". This was especially so following the BSE outbreak when there was a real crisis in confidence. Wadge admits that the most recent challenges have been to maintain the FSA's focus and momentum on food safety. "We've managed to reinvigorate our work on food safety particularly our focus on reducing food poisoning and campylobacter," he remarks. The FSA was also forced to re-examine itself closely after Professor Hugh Pennington's report on the 2005 E.Coli outbreak in South Wales. Among other things, it directed criticism at the controls and enforcement regime in place at that time.
Pennington's report drew attention to people's attitudes and behaviours regarding food safety. Having the right policies and procedures in place is no use if we don't do the right things within food business and in our homes.
In response to these criticisms, Wadge was instrumental in bringing in greater input from social scientists to help the FSA understand people's perceptions about food safety and what they actually do within their own kitchens. Wadge believes the knowledge gained in this area will help the FSA focus its attention where it can be most effective.
One of the obstacles it faces, however, is in conveying food safety messages to the wider public. Although it regularly posts information updates on its web site, it is severely constrained by government restrictions on departmental advertising. The days of the FSA's Sid the Slug salt campaign appear to be long gone.
An important part of the FSA's work is concerned with implementing measures to deal with the next major food safety incident. This could range from acrylamide in food; new diseases from animals (zoonoses); or potential dangers arising from the use of new ingredients and food manufacturing processes and nanotechnology.
"What you can't do, clearly, is predict something that you don't know about," he says. "But what you can do is say there is potential for, say, a new zoonosis that might affect human health. You can then put in place the appropriate surveillance and intelligence systems to make sure you are tracking livestock diseases around the world And then you can access appropriate expertise to assess the risk. Nobody has got a crystal ball but you can identify trends and then have systems in place to respond."
Wadge notes the risks created by extended food supply chains: "Globalisation of the food supply chain will continue to increase. We need to have systems in place to respond to that."
It's also about identifying what can go wrong and what financial incentives might exist for individuals and organisations to cut corners and costs as far as food safety is concerned, he adds.
One of the FSA's biggest deeds has been restoring public confidence in the safety of the UK food supply chain. Wadge recognises that an openness to discussing thorny subjects is crucial.
"Let's talk openly about the potential benefits and potential risks. And recognise that people will have particular views," says Wadge. "But in the long-term then I think science generally will win through against more prejudiced opinions."