Food agency on its way

March 19, 1999

Public consultation on the draft food bill establishing Britain's first Food Standards Agency ends next week, writes Julia Hinde.

If the bill gets the thumbs up, it could be introduced in late spring, be law in the autumn, and have an agency up and running this time next year. The agency's headquarters will be at Aviation House in Holborn, London.

The draft bill follows a report commissioned in the run-up to the election and written by Philip James, director of Aberdeen's Rowett Research Institute.

The proposed agency will be a non-ministerial department ac-counting to Parliament through health ministers. It will have responsibility for local monitoring of food safety standards and the power to intervene and recommend the removal from a local authority of powers to inspect farmyards, processing facilities and retail outlets.

The agency will also establish a research programme, advise ministers on matters related to food safety and inform the public on nutrition. It will be able to veto the introduction of pesticides and veterinary medicines, though the Veterinary Medicine Directorate and the Pesticides Safety Directorate will not be subsumed.

The agency will be funded through general taxation and a Pounds 90 levy on food retailers and catering premises. Mike Rayner, head of the British Heart Foundation's health promotion research group at Oxford University, said the levy was "patently unfair" to smaller organisations. "I don't like the idea of it being funded by industry. It will give the appearance, if not the actuality, of bias."

Hugh Pennington, Aberdeen University's professor of medical bacteriology who is tipped to head the agency, said the agency could be independent "if it has the right people running it and an element of luck". Staff will be drawn from the ministries of agriculture and health.

Other candidates for chief could be Professor James, former Biology and Biological Sciences Research Council chief Sir Tom Blundell, and Alan Malcolm, former Institute of Food Research head and now of the Institute of Biology.

The FSA will take over DoH and MAFF food research allocations of Pounds 25 million and initially will subsume research portfolios.

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