A Grubby Business

The Food Standards Agency is a Labour Government priority. It will shift the bias of food policy away from the industry to the consumer. But, asks Stephanie Bentley, at what cost?

Tony Blair wants it, food lobbyists have been demanding it for years, the Queen is getting behind it, and now, even previously hostile elements of the food industry are calling for a Food Standards Agency.

A collapse in confidence in the food industry as a result of BSE, E coli and an annual 1bn National Health Service bill to treat food poisoning cases is uniting people behind an idea whose time, it seems, has come. It is hoped that the agency will take a “plough-to-plate” approach to food: that it will supervise all aspects of production, from the way it is farmed, harvested or slaughtered, to how it is sold and prepared in supermarkets, market stalls and fast-food restaurants.

It will also have a brief to educate consumers on public health issues, enforce existing food legislation and improve food labelling. The creation of a Food Standards Agency (FSA) – to tie together all existing laws and to provide a more consistent approach to patrolling the food industry – was included in last week’s Queen’s Speech.

Legislation to establish the agency, which some observers believe could cost an annual 40m, will not be introduced before 1998 or even 1999. But an interim body could be in place within months.

A blueprint for the FSA was commissioned by Blair before the general election and has been welcomed by him since he came to Downing Street. The report, by Professor Philip James, director of Aberdeen’s Rowett Research Institute, is now the subject of a consultation period, which ends on June 20 – an opportu- nity for the food industry to influence the final shape and scope of the agency.

Most observers believe the agency will lead to extra costs in the industry, but because its scope is still being determined there are no accurate estimates of these costs. There are no proposals for significant changes in the bulwark of food legislation, the Food Safety Act 1990, with the result that many believe any additional costs will be minimal. But the bill to clean up the meat industry alone after the E coli disaster is at least 187m – most of which will be picked up by the individual butchers.

“We are not against the FSA,” says a spokesman for the Meat & Livestock Commission. “It’s time has come and we see no conflict of interest. Inevitably there will be a cost and the industry has accepted that. Standards should always go up and there are cost implications which will be passed on to the consumer.”

James’ report is a damning indictment of the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries & Food (MAFF), and effectively condemns it as unfit to be in charge of ensuring food safety.

“Secrecy characterises decision-making and inappropriate political and industrial interests are perceived to determine decisions on food safety to the detriment of public health and consumer interests,” says the report.

Under his proposed scheme, the new agency would take MAFF’s responsibilities for food standards and safety, and report to Frank

Dobson’s Department of Health. On the surface it seems like an academic change in ministerial responsibility, but if enforced it will fundamentally change the bias of UK food policy away from the interests of the industry towards those of the public.

The agency would be funded by the DoH, with a remit covering the entire length of the food chain. Splitting MAFF’s duties to promote the economic interests of the food industry from all aspects of food safety is widely acknowledged as crucial to rebuilding consumer confidence.

Professor Tim Lang, director of the centre for food policy at Thames Valley University and for years a campaigner for change at Whitehall, says: “The structures and systems for food safety are already in place. But it is giving them a new political control, away from the cesspit of MAFF.

“MAFF acts as judge and criminal, it both promotes the industry and supposedly regulates it. This arrangement for the past ten to 15 years has been a fundamental flaw at the heart of the Whitehall system.”

This view is widely acknowledged. A spokeswoman for retail chain, Iceland, Jill McWilliam says: “We believe consumer confidence in food is at rock bottom and something positive has to be done to improve confidence. Retailers have done a good job, but we have lost it as an industry. The blame must lie with MAFF.”

It is a view echoed by Safeway director of public affairs Bill Hamilton: “We find the consumer has completely lost faith in government agencies in the past couple of years. We feel strongly that we need some new arrangement with a strong consumer voice,” he says.

Under the current system of food control in the UK, responsibility for food standards and safety is divided between MAFF, the DoH, the environmental health and trading standards departments of local authorities and a number of veterinary and public health bodies. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland offices, together with MAFF and the DoH, also have responsibility for developing policy and implementing European Union legislation.

Under James’ scheme, the new agency would develop codes of practice and draft legislation on genetically-modified food, nutrition, labelling and public information. It would control and audit the current advisory committees on food issues; on food monitoring; on research and on inspection of food premises. It would enforce food law by taking responsibility for the meat hygiene service, which controls abattoirs, and by monitoring local authorities’ work.

Lines of reporting in many areas would be diverted through to this new agency. Funds would also be channelled through it, including money allocated to microbiological food safety, chemical analysis of food, research budgets, and local authorities’ food safety budgets.

The new agency is intended to address the major weaknesses in the current system: the fragmentation and lack of co-ordination between the different bodies involved in food policy and in the monitoring and control of food safety. It would also provide stricter enforcement of food law from local authority to local authority and achieve a more consistent national approach.

James’ agency would consist of a ten-member commission appointed by the Prime Minister and drawn from the industry, from public interest bodies and from consumer groups, which would hold the majority. It would also have a chairman acting as its “public face”, and an executive, staffed by existing civil servants from MAFF and the DoH. Unsurprisingly, consumer groups and health lobbyists have given it an enthusiastic welcome. Geoffrey Cannon, chairman of the National Food Alliance, says: “The food fiascos of the past few years, culminating in BSE, have wrecked parts of the food and farming industries, damaged the UK’s position in Europe and the world, and proved once and for all that the UK needs a Food Standards Agency to promote public health.”

But some industry observers fear a food agency will simply create an overly powerful bureaucracy with too much centralised control, and not enough accountability.

In James’ scenario the FSA would report to Parliament through health ministers, possibly through a council of ministers with, in this case, Health Secretary Frank Dobson taking the lead.

But there is concern that this idea of a ministerial council, including secretaries of state for health, environment, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Agriculture Minister, would lead to confusion and conflicts of regional interests.

Gordon Maddan, Asda’s trading standards manager, says: “We see the need for direct ministerial accountability to Parliament. The FSA model, with a chief executive, a committee of ten members, then responsibility to a Council of Ministers, provides for the devolution of food concerns to Scotland and Wales. In that scenario, accountability may become diluted, not strong and clear.

“The simplest model is for all food safety issues to pass to the DoH, otherwise the agency status can mean something different, it can attain a life and substance of its own with less responsibility to Parliament.”

Another key aspect of the proposed agency would be its transparency and its freedom to publish its advice, even when rejected by the Government.

As James explains in his report: “Ministers could, of course, choose to reject the advice of the Commission, or to propose changes to take other factors into account. The power of the Commission lies in the transparency of the process and the fact that ministers would have to dis-sent publicly from the proposals and justify their decisions in public.”

The agency’s freedom to speak out in public, so the theory goes, would make it more difficult for a minister to suppress a particular report or piece of information not to his or her liking. The commission’s advisory committees would also have to operate in a much more open manner with members declaring their interests, meetings held in public and minutes published.

Food industry reaction to the Government’s plans for a food standards agency has been largely positive. But David Sawday, Tesco corporate affairs manager, says: “Customer confidence is as much about perception as scientific research. Communication is at the heart of this. It is something that any new agency will have to think carefully about. There is no point in putting out scientific research that just frightens people.”

One marketing director at a food manufacturer summed up the fears more bluntly: “There is nothing to say a new body won’t be more amateurish. You start panicking people if you tell them things too soon. You might start more scares than is good for them.”

Others privately express disquiet that the balance of power is being shifted too far away from the interests of industry. “The Consumers’ Association often takes a rather antagonistic view of food companies and acts more as a browbeater than an aid to negotiations,” says one source.

Peter Crowe, former National Dairy Council marketing manager and currently planning director of the PR company specialising in dairy issues Marshall Tanous, says: “The movement of responsibility into the DoH could be problematic as it tends to have a slightly one-sided approach in terms of requirements on manufacturers.”

But Thames Valley’s Lang says: “For the past 20 years British industry has been very badly served by MAFF. Everyone treated industry much too nicely, rubberstamping intensive agriculture methods and so on. Big business is now realising this has not been in its interests.”

He estimates that the BSE crisis cost the country about 4bn last year, and that food poisoning cases cost the NHS 1bn every year. According to Lang, the cost of setting up the new food agency would be comparatively small, about 40m.

“Costs will come in anyway, because of the increased emphasis on the issue of traceability of raw materials,” says one marketing director. “Nobody can duck this one. Suppliers will be passing on more costs for putting the audited trail together.”

Rooney Anand, marketing director at Sara Lee Bakery, says: “Provided that the mechanism does not become too complicated, then I do not see any problems. We audit our supplies and ingredients already and we have nothing to hide.”

The Food Standards Agency is definitely coming. There is one school of thought which says it will have to make an impact to justify its creation by demanding stricter internal controls and new ways of working. That will cost the industry – and consequently the consumer – more money. A fact that the industry will be stressing to the Government before June 20.

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