Well, the axe has now fallen and the government has announced its decision over the future of the Food Standards Agency.
As axes go, it is a pretty spongy one as they propose to retain 2,000 of the current 2,100 jobs (not much dent in the deficit there), but, as ever, it is the nuanced phrases which count.
The ministerial statement ‘recognises’ the important role of the Food Standards Agency in England, which will continue to be responsible for food safety. The Food Standards Agency will remain a non ministerial department reporting to Parliament through Health ministers’ – but not, as it was intended to be, an independent agency specifically exempt from ministerial oversight – and therefore, influence.
The Department of Health press release revels the underlying agenda even more clearly: ‘Nutrition policy will be transferred to the Department of Health. This includes front of pack nutrition labelling, such as Guideline Daily Amounts. (The final sod falls on the grave of consumer-friendly traffic light nutrition labelling.) The transfer of nutrition policy into the Department of Health directly contributes to the Governments plans for public health. In the long-term, bringing policies “in house will enable better services to be created and clearer information to be given to the public. (And ensure that the agency does not go round espousing projects, such as consumer-friendly traffic light nutrition labelling which the food industry does not like.)
The Department of Health will, as a result, be able to press industry to contribute more on improving the health of the nation. This includes reformulation, and provision of nutrition information in supermarkets and restaurants. (Some chance…)
The one bright spot for food allergic people is that food allergy is seen not only to be part of food safety (a non controversial area) but is relatively non-controversial in itself. Moreover, the growth of the freefrom food industry means that a growing section of the food industry has an active interest in freefrom food and allergy. So keep your fingers crossed, the Food Allergy Branch of the FSA may be left relatively untouched to continue its good works.
The two good things that New Labour did when it first came to power was to pass the Freedom of Information Act and to set up the Food Standards Agency. Not that either were perfect – there is all kinds of information which is still not freely accessible, and the Food Standards Agency did not always manage to protect the right of the food consumer against the food industry most notably in its recent failure to get the excellent and all revealing traffic light scheme for levels of fat, salt and sugar in packaged foods adopted. But the FSA was at least an independent agency whose remit was to look after the consumer’s interests and not those of the food industry.
For years before the arrival of the FSA, food policy (including hygiene and nutrition) had been under the control of MAFF (Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) which, especially after the BSE crisis, had lost all public credibility in its ability to deliver safe or nutritious food to the consumer. Hence, it was felt, the need for an independent agency overseeing food.
The FSA is a relatively small and cheap agency it has around 2,000 staff and costs around £135 million a year to run a mere bagatelle when compared with the estimated £830 million spent by the food industry in persuading MEPs to reject traffic light labelling. But it funds useful research, concerns itself with hygiene and food law and, more important for foodsmatter.com readers, has a small but active allergy department and an excellent food allergy website which includes first class advice for the food service/catering industry, an area which lags sadly behind retail in their provision for allergic consumers.
The suggestion by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley (although he does seem to change his mind with such alarming frequency that we should probably not rely too heavily on this) is that the FSA’s responsibility for food safety and hygiene will be taken over by DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and that its responsibility for nutrition, diet and public health will be taken over by the Department of Health. This fits in with the Conservatives’ green paper promise last year to ‘bring the agency under closer ministerial control’ – ‘ministerial control’ being the very thing that the agency was originally set up to escape.
Whatever about food safety and hygiene, a nutrition programme under the control of the Department of Health is a singularly depressing prospect. The DOH has shown little sign of genuinely either knowing or caring about nutrition, and given the NHS’ sad lack of provision for allergy (despite the pocket’s of excellence and progress described by Dr Adam Fox last month) what hope that any of the FSA’s food allergy research and support will survive?
Let us hope that Mr Lansley will change his mind yet again, although, since it seems likely that the FSA’s demise is the the price extorted by the food industry from the government for supporting the latter’s latest ‘healthy eating campaign’, this seems unlikely…