Food policy is hard to swallow

Something had to be done: even the food industry agreed. Public confidence reduced very nearly to zero, the BSE crisis costing over 4bn and an annual bill of 1bn to the National Health Service for the treatment of food poisoning added up to one inescapable conclusion. The regulatory system enshrined in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food was indefensible.

Replacing it will be the much-touted Food Standards Agency. Will it fit the bill for the food industry and consumers alike? Or will the FSA quickly deteriorate into another bureaucratic thicket, concealing powerful sectional interests?

The James Report, which forms the blueprint of the FSA, utters many resonant pieties. It acknowledges (as does much of the industry itself) that the bias of food policy must move closer to the consumer. The fact that the FSA will assume responsibility for interpreting and implementing all strands of legislation should create greater transparency – in its turn, an important step towards restoring public confidence in the food industry. Equally, consumers are more likely to place trust in a body which reports to the Department of Health rather than an organisation fundamentally concerned with the interests of the manufacturers and processors.

The greatest danger, so far as can be seen, is that the new organisation will lack clarity in its policy-making. An agency headed by a ten-member commission appointed by the Prime Minister and variously drawn from the industry, consumer groups and public bodies, themselves overseen by a council of ministers, does not necessarily bode well for rapid and efficient decision-making – all the more so since many extra lines of reporting will be concentrated in the commission’s hands.

Then there is the matter of communication. We can be confident that the FSA will be more proactive than MAFF in warning the public about potential food hazards. But is this unequivocally a good thing? It does not require the blinkers of food industry self-interest to conclude it may not be. The suspicion which feeds consumer panics is relatively easy to generate; but the scientific proof which justifies a public health warning is much more difficult to come by. Here, an untried regulatory body will have to exercise its judgment carefully if it is not to cause lasting damage.

Finally, there is the matter of cost. Policing the food chain more rigorously may be a highly desirable goal; but it will be expensive – an added levy on the industry. Interestingly, this point seems to have created hardly a ripple in the marketing department. The confident assumption being the consumer will cough up. We’ll see.

Cover story, page 40

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