In the news: Sir John Krebs

July 23, 2004

Four years ago, Sir John Krebs was appointed chairman of the new Food Standards Agency, to the dismay of consumer groups, which criticised his lack of experience in the food industry. Sir John has just announced his departure from the FSA next year to take up the principalship of Jesus College, Oxford.

There are unlikely to be any complaints about his lack of experience in higher education. He has held a Royal Society research professorship at Oxford's zoology department for almost 20 years, was chief executive of the Natural Environment Research Council between 1994 and 1999, and his research on the behaviour and ecology of animals led to innumerable awards (including his knighthood), honorary degrees and memberships of learning societies.

Few people will be surprised by his return to higher education. There was speculation that he was in the running for the vice-chancellorships of both Oxford and Cambridge. Earlier this year, he said the FSA was firmly on the map, in terms of both what it had done, such as fighting foodborne illness and high salt levels in processed food, and the independent and transparent way in which it had done it.

Tony Blair praised Sir John for having been "robust in ensuring that the agency bases its advice on sound science". The Social Issues Research Centre described him as the perfect choice for the FSA, "a rational scientist with no political, commercial or ideological axes to grind".

But Sir John came under heavy attack from bodies such as the Soil Association and Friends of the Earth when he said there was no evidence that organic food was safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. He was accused of turning the FSA into "a public platform for his extreme support for genetic modification and his antipathy to organic food" - and he was given an award to add to his collection, the "Pants On Fire" prize.

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