From the plough to the plate

October 31, 1997

Killer diseases will only be eradicated from food by the advent of a regulatory agency which puts the interests of consumers above those of farmers, argue Tim Lang, Erik Millstone and Mike Rayner

When the Labour government was elected promising a new food agency, it faced a daunting task. Not only did it need to specify what this agency would do, it also had to begin rebuilding public confidence in food. Even keen supporters of an agency know this will take decades.

For years, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has been criticised for being too close to industry. This analysis was shared by Tony Blair, the prime minister, and underpinned his invitation, in March, to Philip James of the Rowett Research Institute to provide proposals for a food standards agency.

The James report proposed a transfer of key responsibilities for food policy from Maff and the Department of Health. The report was put out to consultation and in July David Clark, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, announced the publication, this autumn, of a white paper, with Professor James's report serving as a green paper.

Since then there have been vigorous debates, for example over whether or not giving advice to the nation about nutrition should be part of the new agency's role. Nutrition has become a litmus test for whether or not the old order, which favoured producer rather than consumer interests, is being transformed. If the challenge is just that of restoring public confidence then the agency might confine its attention to issues of micro-biological and chemical contamination of food, but if the aim is to improve public health then nutritional considerations will be integral to the agency's remit.

In response to the James report "an overwhelming majority" of consumer groups and public health organisations favoured including nutrition in the agency's remit. Among food and farming industries, the ratio of support was "3:1 against".

During the summer a vigorous debate took place. Some members of expert advisory committees argued that the agency should have a narrow remit. The chief medical officer feared that if the agency became fully responsible for nutrition, the DoH might be deprived of its own specialist expertise. We believe that while nutritional considerations must be integral to the agency's role, the DoH and the chief medical officer will also need to keep some nutritional expertise to help advise ministers. Recent signs suggest that ministers have reached a progressive conclusion on nutrition, but other key issues remain unresolved.

Central to the James report was the argument that the agency must have a fully integrated remit from "the plough to the plate". The debate focuses on the question of whether the agency's remit will cover the entire food chain as James proposed, or whether it will be confined to dealing with foods once they have left the farm. Private reassurances that the agency's remit would be comprehensive were recently undermined when Jack Cunningham, secretary of state for agriculture, fisheries and food, said that Maff would retain responsibility for regulating agriculture and that while the agency could offer advice, its remit, and that of the DoH, would only apply to food once it had crossed the farm gate. Dr Cunningham's vision would not only prevent a single agency from regulating the food chain, it would reassert the contradiction at the heart of food policy, because Maff would remain responsible for agriculture's commercial sponsorship.

Will the agency's remit cover the entire food chain, including the agricultural supply industries, or will it be "from the field to the plate", or merely "from the farm gate to the plate"? The first option is the best because many of the key food safety problems, such as BSE, E.coli and salmonella, have arisen because of the actions of the agricultural supply industries and farmers. The notion that BSE or E.coli could be eradicated by an agency which had no duty to regulate farming or animal foodstuffs is unconvincing. Where there is an issue of consumer protection and public health, as well as confidence, regulatory powers should be assigned to the DoH, acting on the advice of the new agency, not to Maff. Pesticide safety, for example, should be regulated by reference primarily to health considerations, not only to agricultural ones. Friends of the Earth has told ministers that pesticide residues on some UK-grown winter lettuces were well over Maff's Maximum Residue Limits. Yet the same ministry's code of good practice permits residue limits which are twice as high. Such contradictions are not acceptable for public health.

The authors are academics working on food policy.

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