Food's new watchdog

December 5, 1997

Most people still think most of the food they eat is safe. The BSE saga rumbles on, 21 died in last year's E.coli food poisoning outbreak in Scotland, parents worry about children driven hyperactive by additive-laden diets. Still, most people do not ask too many difficult questions about what they eat or where it comes from.

Two ministries have been responsible for food. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food regulates conditions on farms, in slaughterhouses and supermarkets. The Department of Health issues advice about diet. Not too much sugar, salt, fat...five fruit or veg a day. But neither ministry has been effective. Both have failed to stand up to the powerful food industry lobby. If MAFF's main aim was to save lives, for instance, did it order the slaughter of BSE-contaminated cattle quickly enough? And despite periodic reports from the DoH on healthy eating we are still a nation of fatties and smokers. Suggestive is the story that when a DoH report advocated a public cut-back on chocolate and butter, ministers were summoned from holiday by prime ministerial edict to be berated by irate industry chairmen.

Fearing that after 15 years of food scandals people are losing faith in British food, Tony Blair accepted a report from Professor Philip James suggesting that both ministries pass their food responsibilities to an independent agency. A white paper outlining the remit of Labour's Food Standards Agency was expected last month. Now, it seems, it will not be published before mid-January, delayed by departmental turf-wars. The battle has been largely settled at junior ministerial level, but the paper still needs Cabinet clearance. There remains the risk that the new agency's role will be watered down, particularly its brief to give nutritional advice to the nation and to regulate food from "farm to fork".

Food has not figured much in university curricula. But argument over the new agency and insistence that consumers' interests must come before those of farmers or retailers is led by a few academics at the head of a new discipline - food policy.

Sian Griffiths

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