Food feuds: a safety issue to chew over

May 2, 1997

Tim Lang, Erik Millstone and Mike Rayner send a memo to the prime minister on why international experience suggests he should set up a new food agency.

Now the general election has passed, the new government must get a grip on food policy. On January 30, Douglas Hogg, secretary of state for agriculture, acknowledged the undeniable fact that the public had lost confidence in food safety policy. Since then, the discussion has focused on the question of whether a food standards agency should be established, and, if so, how it might function.

The idea of creating an agency has been circulating for several years but we opposed it until recently. We argued that what was needed were fewer quangos and greater accountability while plans for a new agency often implied a shift of responsibility from elected ministers to anonymous officials, and consequently less accountability. The relationship between John Major's home secretary Michael Howard and the head of the prison service has provided a model of what to avoid.

With these criticisms in mind, we reviewed the structure and experience of policy-making institutions in seven industrialised countries: the United States, Sweden, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. It was a heartening experience.

The comprehensive failure of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to discharge any responsibilities effectively has shown that it will be essential to separate regulation and consumer protection from agricultural and industrial sponsorship. Those two functions have successfully been separated in Ireland and Sweden, and to a slightly lesser extent in the US, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. We are now convinced that any new United Kingdom agency should be under the umbrella of the Department of Health, not MAFF. DoH ministers being accountable for food standards should help avoid the hopeless compromises at MAFF.

We noted that each of the countries studied recognised that advice concerning food standards should be provided by an institution which is not just insulated from commercial and industrial pressures but also from party political interests. When, in January, Douglas Hogg, then the secretary of state for agriculture, announced his plan to establish a new food safety council he let a very important cat out of the bag when he explained that the proposed council would be allowed to criticise government policy. He implicitly acknowledged that the freedom of MAFF's numerous expert committees to criticise has been constrained by their function of protecting ministerial reputations.

Government departments are victims of their history. Ministers are loath to admit that policies have been wrong, but the Swedish and American experience has shown that agencies staffed mainly by independent scientists insulated from commercial and ministerial pressures are better placed to respond prudently to new information. The new government should ensure accountability by establishing a freedom of information regime and by obliging a new food agency to report to ministers and to Parliament. Scrutiny by a Commons select committee, with full disclosure, should ensure that the agency and ministers only endorse policies which they can justify in public. Public confidence depends on this.

The new agency should not, in our view, be modelled on the US Food and Drug Administration, the world's best-known exemplar. The FDA does operate under a freedom of information regime, but it is chronically afflicted by political and commercial interference. The FDA commissioner is a political appointee. Food policy in the US is also very fragmented. The Environmental Protection Agency regulates pesticide residues in food, and the US department of agriculture sets microbiological standards for pizzas if they contain meat while the FDA regulates the vegetarian alternatives.

This is the kind of muddle we do not want and which the new government could avoid by giving the agency a wide remit, like Sweden or Denmark. It should not just be concerned with microbiological contamination but also with toxicology and nutrition, indeed any food issue with an impact on health. We think that even the environmental impact of food production should be included in the agency's brief.

The new minister could also take a lesson from the Irish government which is a year into a reorganisation of its food policy-making institutions. The board of its new food safety authority has no one from the food industry on it - to ensure public confidence.

Sweden's national food administration passed the ultimate confidence test - retaining confidence after Chernobyl. Sweden set up its agency after 100 people died from a salmonella outbreak in 1952. It ambitiously set out to rid Swedish poultry flocks of salmonella by careful, coordinated action. It has almost succeeded. The new UK minister needs to put in place a long-term strategy such as this. Australia and New Zealand are trying the same through their combined food authority. They know their foreign trade depends on tough standards. Britain has already lost 20 per cent of its beef sales which went abroad. Could anything be a better incentive to set optimum standards?

Running an agency need not be expensive. The centre for food safety and applied nutrition, the relevant part of the FDA, has an annual budget of Pounds 8.8 million which corresponds to just 6 cents per citizen per year. Sweden's food administration costs Pounds 20.7 million a year and Germany's new federal institute for consumer health protection and veterinary medicine costs Pounds 41.5 million.

For the UK, facing a public sector bill for BSE approaching Pounds 4 billion, the cost of creating a competent regime would be trivial. In Britain the incidence of bacterial food poisoning is substantially higher than when Edwina Currie spoke out in December 1988. The Communicable Diseases Surveillance Centre has calculated that in the period 1991-94, the cost of in-patient care for 100,000 people affected by acute infectious intestinal diseases in England alone was Pounds 83 million. The cost of heart disease care is about Pounds 15 billion a year. The question is not whether we can afford an agency, but whether we can afford not to create one.

Tim Lang is director of the centre for food policy, Thames Valley University. Erik Millstone is senior lecturer at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex. Mike Rayner is head of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at the Division of Public Health and Primary Health Care, Oxford University.

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