The sour, unsavoury taste of food standards

January 21, 2000

Tim Lang is disappointed by the new UK and European food bodies, dismissing them as political tools rather than consumers' champions.

Last Wednesday, in a delicious coincidence, the top brass at the United Kingdom's new Food Standards Agency was announced, and the European Commission launched its proposal to set up a European Food Authority. Immediately, a new fault-line in food policy was highlighted. Question: which body will have power? Will it be the FSA or the EFA? Answer: it is not clear, and it might be neither.

The real power resides in the World Trade Organisation. Only when we understand that can we work out what the new European Union and UK bodies can do.

Since the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was signed in 1994, a world food standards agreement, the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards agreement, has been in force. Together with the Technical Barriers to Trade agreement, they gave astonishing power over food standards-setting to the strangely named Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex). I co-researched Codex in 1991-94 and was depressed to find that, far from a lean, mean, unbureaucratic body, it was a huge mess. In a two-year cycle of meetings, we found 2,758 participants, many from big food and trade interests.

Codex is theoretically a meeting of governments, but our study found that nearly a quarter of participants were from large international companies - whose products were being set standards. Despite calls to reform this morally corrupt body, it is still in business.

If Codex has the power, what on earth are new bodies such as the FSA and the EFA going to do? Good question. One thing is certain. They are going to fight over territory. The European Commission white paper is full of soothing language about supporting national controls, but the reality is that its job is to coordinate divergent national standards. Eight member states now have agencies, all with different cultures. Sweden set its up after 100 people died of salmonella in the 1950s. France, Ireland, Greece and the UK are the new kids on the block. Look at the rows between France and the UK last year over beef. In truth, scientists cannot resolve such issues. So why have all these agencies? Because politicians want a body they can use and ignore when it suits.

In the European white paper, there is lots of talk of modernisation. The common theme of the 84 proposals from the European Commission, besides setting up the EFA, is harmonising, simplifying and centralising. Old regulations are to be overhauled. A new General Food Law is to be established "to lay down the common principles underlying food legislation". In my judgement, this is going to be as important and as panoramic as the 1987 Single European Act for food. So far so good. But I get worried about the tenor of some of the proposals.

Take nutrition. The good news is that within what has been billed as a food-safety policy is a strong nutrition theme. The bad news is that it is still a weak policy of the "put it on a label and then it is up to consumers" variety.

There is a proposal for an EU-wide nutrition database and monitoring system. Based on the DAFNE system being coordinated by the University of Crete, this could be progress, but not if all it means is a continued green light for the endless stream of new food products with which European food manufacturers compete for our tastebuds.

These are already making intelligent use of labels nigh impossible. One thing missing from the EC white paper is any mention of the Common Agricultural Policy. That is why I am disappointed in the 84 proposals. They do not tackle the key EU food-policy idiocy. Despite reforms, half of all EU budgets are still allocated to completely distorting food supply.

So what about the UK agency? It will inevitably be constrained by this wider food political context. The appointment of another establishment scientist, from the same department as the chief scientist, has been heralded by the government as good news. My briefing by senior civil servants was that Sir John Krebs comes with no baggage. This is plain stupid. The job is not to stand back from food policy but to act on consumers' behalf. The job is not neutral but partisan.

The language of FSA's launch was soothing for industry. "We already have high standards of food safety," Sir John said. Alas, were it so, he would be out of a job. The reality is that food poisoning is a scandal. It breaks the law, in place since 1875, that "food shall be of the nature, quality and substance demanded".

No one asks for contaminants masquerading as meat, yet too often that is what consumers get. Marks and Spencer now claims that it has next to no contamination in its poultry. Great. But would you accept a one in 20 faulty brake system in a new car you bought?

"...[F]ood scares have largely been about the handling of technical scientific advice," states the FSA press release. Is the new team seriously saying that BSE was an issue of poor public relations? Heaven help us if the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food culture has already been cloned into the FSA.

Tim Lang is professor of food policy at Thames Valley University.

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