Watchdog to bark or bite?

June 12, 1998

Philip James's proposals for an independent food agency so impressed Tony Blair that he ordered them implemented. But as Whitehall prepares to publish its plans, how much of James's vision has survived? Jennifer Wallace reports

What a wonderful thing is it to feel that one's been of service to one's home town and fellow citizens," declares Ibsen's Dr Stockmann, currently being played by Ian McKellen at London's National Theatre. The scientist Stockmann has discovered that the water of the town's new baths is contaminated and believes he will be able to save lives by insisting on a radical new hydraulic design. But the financial and public relations costs of the redesign are considered too high, and he is urged by the town's politicians to deny his scientific discovery. When he refuses, he is called "an enemy of the people".

Ibsen's An Enemy of the People is a play for our times. Scientific truth is repressed and manipulated by politicians; health and safety are sacrificed to the consumers demand for easy money and convenience. In the dying days of the last government, a series of food scares - listeria, mad-cow disease, E. coli - rocked public confidence in the whole food industry. Farmers were no longer trusted to produce safe meat. More importantly, the government and its scientific advisers were no longer trusted to give impartial and reliable information about food hygiene and health issues, because the demands of politics, it was felt, had distorted and repressed the scientific evidence once too often. According to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, a "gradual corruption and moral bankruptcy had taken over food policy in Britain" and, as a result, "food poisoning is out of control".

So it was with a sense of the sheer scale of the revolution needed that the Stockmann-like Philip James, director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, drew up his proposals for a radical overhaul of food policy in Britain and the establishment of an independent and publicly accountable Food Standards Agency. "I delivered my proposals to Tony Blair one hour after he walked into Downing Street", James recalls. "He handed them to Jack Cunningham (secretary of state for agriculture) the next day and told him to implement them."

In the end, events did not move as quickly as the prime minister had hoped. After wide consultation, a white paper outlining the remit and operation of a new food standards agency, originally anticipated in October last year, was finally published in January. Its proposals mirrored almost exactly those set out in James's original report. The white paper was sent out for further consultation and Jack Cunningham is now assessing the results of that exercise. A draft Food Standards Agency Bill is likely to be published by the end of this year and Philip James thinks the agency will be up and running by next summer.

Expectations for the bill are high, but can it deliver? One of the main desired criteria for the new agency is that it should be independent. What sapped public confidence at the time of the BSE crisis was the fact that the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was seen to be serving the interests of farmers as well as being responsible for the concerns of consumers. As Tim Lang explains, MAFF was permeated with "projectionist tendencies", the inclination to support and promote the producers of food rather than protect the people buying and eating foodstuffs. In a reversal of these interests, the white paper proposes an agency "dedicated to the interests of consumers" and aimed essentially at "the protection of public health in relation to food". The government "remarkably", according to James, has endorsed his proposal of "having an independent agency", in which "industry is not excluded but does not dominate".

But the agency's much-anticipated independence is in danger of being jeopardised by the proposals for its funding. While James's original report recommended that the agency be funded by the state, Cunningham has declared the government's intention to "shift the burden of the cost away from the taxpayer towards the industry". In other words, it is expected that every food outlet in the country will pay a levy towards the agency's running costs.

Although James did not suggest this scheme, he believes, perhaps rather surprisingly, that it is "brilliant". Not only, says James, will it ensure that the agency will be properly funded, rather than being subject to any forthcoming squeeze on public spending, but it will also become "tied, in everybody's mind, to the environmental health officer's inspection, licensing and validation of proper practice in each of those 60,000 food outlets". "You could suddenly get a much more coherent approach to teaching everybody how they should behave," James thinks.

It is an interesting point of view. But not everyone agrees with it. Lang, for instance, believes that if food companies fund the agency, they might acquire undesirable influence over it. He who pays the piper calls the tune, is the saying that comes to mind. Lang would prefer a system whereby the levy was paid in the first instance to local authorities, which would then finance the agency.

Another of the key and controversial issues in James's original report was his insistence that the agency would deal with food standards and not just food safety. Back in May last year he argued that the agency should handle nutritional issues as well as health and safety concerns. This proposal provoked a turf war between government departments, with the Department of Health, which is responsible for many nutritional issues, arguing against handing over too many of its powers. James, however, points to the DoH's much-publicised capitulation to the salt industry three years ago, when part of a report highlighting salt's ill-effects was suppressed at the industry's insistence.

The white paper strikes a compromise. It gives the agency powers to commission research into novel foods and processes, into genetically-modified food and into food additives and to propose legislation regulating nutritional aspects of food such as labelling, health claims and dietary supplements. The agency will also be responsible for giving information on the nutrient content of foods - but it will stop short of telling people what they should eat to stay healthy. That power remains with the DoH. Industry and the Royal Society have objected to the inclusion of nutrition in the agency's remit, but according to James, "that is simply a misunderstanding of the new role of nutrition in consumer affairs and indeed in public health".

There are also hopes that the agency will be open to public scrutiny and democratically accountable. There must be no return to the days when scientific evidence about food safety was thought to be hushed up or denied. According to James: "Part of the public panic on food is intrinsically linked to the fact that if everything goes on in secret, you don't trust it". He hopes that the bill will require the agency to present an annual report to parliament and to hold regular meetings with an expert parliamentary committee so that its effectiveness can be monitored.

Consultations about the agency's openness are still continuing. But questions remain. Companies and academics are reluctant to allow information sent the agency to be released into the public domain, since "quite properly they wouldn't want it instantly published for all their rivals to get ahead''. More significantly, if every detail is released to the public, then, according to James, "scientists tend to be rather circumscribed in the way they talk''. Important scientific speculation and "creative interaction'' might be repressed in the effort not to provoke unnecessary public anxiety. It is still unclear, then, with these caveats, how much of James's original "bid'' for openness and "a substantial increase in the democratic principle'' will be left in the bill.

More than anything else, people are hoping that the Food Standards Agency will institute real change and not just an extra layer of bureaucracy. In order to convey the magnitude of the revolution proposed, Philip James points out that 500 civil servants will be transferring from MAFF to the new agency and that the "number of people affected in the local authority area is of the order of 10,000''.

For farmers, brow-beaten by an ever-increasing number of misguided and excessively stringent directives from MAFF over the past few years and over-burdened by the growing demands of paperwork and form-filling, the mandarin shake-up is unimpressive. One of the chief annoyances recently has been the ruling from MAFF that abattoirs must have two entrances. As a result of this ruling, many slaughterhouses have had to close, particularly local smaller ones, with the result that animals have had to travel longer distances, with consequent hygiene problems, and less time at the slaughterhouse to inspect the animal and the carcass. Farmers think that bureaucratic hygiene rules actually create more heath problems, not fewer. One disgruntled small-scale beef farmer in Cornwall, Michael Polkinhorn, voiced the widespread weariness among farmers following years of new hygiene regulations. He has mixed feelings about the proposed new agency. "I feel deeply sceptical about it,'' he said. "I think that it's just more empire-building from the bureaucrats. But if it were to restore consumer confidence, that would be good, and if it weakened the power of MAFF, then I would be all in favour of it''.

Tim Lang is aware of the dangers that the agency might turn out to be just an amalgamation of the old structures under a new name and umbrella. As he says, "if it is just shifting bits about and remerging them, it will be like shifting deckchairs around on the Titanic. It will add nothing''. But he is pushing for an agency which is "more than the sum of its parts'', an agency which is not solely involved in pragmatic regulation and implementation but is free to take a more long-term view of food provision in the country.

While Jack Cunningham retreats into effective post-consultation and pre-bill purdah, rumours about the agency are rife. One source of gossip is the notion that the bill has been delayed by controversy and disagreement. Lang squashes that one: "I'm not worried nor do I smell a rat over delays''. Another rumour is that Philip James might be asked to head the new agency. "That was what everybody talked about to start with,'' he admits. But he is tremendously busy, running the Rowett Institute and chairing a World Health Organisation taskforce on obesity and a new UN commission into the future of world food supplies. "The idea that I am sitting waiting for the Food Standards Agency job to come up is a joke, frankly,'' he says. Distancing himself now from much of the discussion, he can only wait to see how many of his proposals, endorsed in the white paper, are retained in the more pragmatic environment of legislation, and whether, unlike Ibsen's Stockmann, he will be remembered as the people's friend.

Jennifer Wallace is co-editor of Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety, published by Manchester University Press in association with The THES, priced Pounds 10.00.

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