David Payne: Horsemeat and the Food Standards Agency

David Payne The horsemeat scandal has triggered calls for the UK’s food safety watchdog to have stronger regulatory powers. The Food Standards Agency was stripped of its nutrition and labelling roles in a cull of quangoes shortly after the coalition government entered office in 2010. Isn’t it time they were returned, to restore public confidence in the food chain?

Food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall certainly thinks so. He told journalist Rachel Sylvester in an interview in Saturday’s Times that reducing the power and responsibilities of the FSA has put British shoppers at risk. “Self-regulation is a popular theme with this current government, whether you are talking about the press or the supermarkets.

“Clearly they have eased back on the supermarkets, they’ve cut them a bit of slack, and this is the result. They will be asking themselves whether they might have made some mistakes and whether they might want to put back some of those quangos. When it comes to feeding people we need traceability and transparency, and you can’t have those without regulation.”

The FSA never was a quango. It’s a Treasury funded UK government department which, in the seven years I worked there (from 2001 to 2008), negotiated in Brussels on a raft of food safety and dietary legislation, provided hands-on enforcement and surveillance at UK abattoirs, and worked with local authority food law enforcement and trading standards teams.

Stripping the FSA of its powers has left its founding “farm to fork” principles in tatters. Nutrition now sits with the Department of Health in England and Wales, but not in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Labelling sits with Defra in England, but still with the FSA in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. This hotch-potch situation is ridiculous in a country the size of the UK, where food business operate in all four countries.

Food is an emotive topic. Therefore the agency is always upsetting people and was therefore vulnerable to attack, ironically from the very organisations that campaigned for it to be set up in the first place. It was perceived as anti-organic because it could not find conclusive evidence that organic food had nutritional benefits. It was accused of being pro-GM, despite holding a citizens’ jury in 2003  in its drive to put consumer interests first. The jury listened to expert views and voted narrowly in favour of allowing GM foods to be sold in the UK.

Food writer Joanna Blythman accuses the agency of having too cosy a relationship with retailers and food and biotech companies, treating opponents of GM food as a “lunatic fringe.” It certainly didn’t feel like that when I worked there.

As a non-ministerial department the agency suffered from a low profile in Parliament. This had some advantages. It meant that I and my colleagues were not distracted by pursuing a minister’s pet project which changed each time there was a Cabinet reshuffle. Instead we could work with industry and local authority enforcement teams to restore consumer confidence in food after BSE.

The FSA took on the supermarkets by championing traffic light labelling over guideline daily amounts. It triggered the UK’s largest product recall after discovering traces of an illegal red dye used in shoe polish in more than 500 ready meal products. Its risk-based approach mean cattle older than 30 months were allowed back into the food chain, and its food safety star rating system allows us to see instantly how they fared in their last hygiene inspection. The agency also persuaded bakeries and other food producers to reformulate products so they contain less salt. This was underpinned by an awareness campaign to persuade consumers that 6g a day (a teaspoon) is too much.

The agency’s chair and board debated campaigns and policies at open meetings (which were streamed live and on demand from its website). This meant some initiatives were shelved because the board was publicly persuaded that the science was not strong enough. Fortifying bread with folic acid, for example, was abandoned because it could have masked vitamin B12 deficiency in older people.

The agency wasn’t perfect, of course. Certainly in the early days I felt some of its product recalls (and the actions taken to alert both the public and local food enforcement teams) were disproportionate. But arguably this was because the agency took its openness remit so seriously.

Sometimes it misjudged the public mood, most notably when it appeared to defend the practice of bulking out chicken portions with water, on the grounds that it wasn’t illegal as long as the water content was displayed on the label.

Last week the cross party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said the agency should have the power to force producers to undertake testing and that testing results should be reported.

But how can it do this unless some of its former powers and budget are restored? Two years ago the agency had an an annual budget of £135m and employed 2000 people.  By 2014/15 it will have to deliver a 33% drop in real-terms spending.

The coalition government should bring back the FSA outlined in the 2000 Food Standards Act, an independent government department that puts consumers first and takes decisions in public based on robust scientific evidence.

David Payne is editor, bmj.com. He was the FSA’s web editor from 2001 until 2008.