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Reallocating responsibilities for food

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THE Government has gone some way to clarifying the future of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) following media reports last week that the agency could be axed. The reports were worrying because the agency performs a vital regulatory role, not least in relation to meat hygiene, and because, since being established in 2000, it has done much to improve public confidence in food by providing independent advice.

As it turns out, the FSA is not to be axed altogether, although it is to be partially dismembered. Under plans announced this week, the FSA will be retained with a renewed focus on food safety policy and enforcement. However, the Department of Health will become responsible for nutrition policy, while responsibility for country of origin labelling and various other food labelling requirements not related to food safety will be transferred to Defra. These transfers of responsibility will only apply to England; in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, responsibility for nutrition and labelling policy will remain with the FSA.

The FSA will continue as a nonministerial government department, reporting to Parliament through Department of Health ministers. The Government notes that, when the FSA was established in 2000, its primary purpose was to secure food safety and provide vital advice to government and the public, ‘a role that the Government believes must remain independent’. It says that reorganising in this way will contribute to the Government's objectives to improve efficiency, and is paramount to ‘the key priority of improving the health of the nation by creating a public health service‘.

As a result of the reorganisation, about 70 policy posts will move from the FSA to the Department of Health, and about 25 policy posts will move to Defra. About 2000 staff will remain with the FSA.

Whether the FSA should provide nutritional advice was the subject of much debate, and some controversy, when the agency was established, and in a sense the transfer of this role to the Department of Health seems logical. The important thing, as Veterinary Record commented last week, is that its food safety functions and independence are maintained (VR, July 17, 2010, vol 167, p 72).

In this respect, statements by ministers earlier this week were reassuring. Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for health, said that the Government's ambition was to create ‘a public health system that truly helps people live longer and healthier lives’. He continued: ‘It's absolutely crucial for the FSA to continue providing independent expert advice to people about food safety. But bringing nutrition into the Department [of Health] makes sense. It will enable a clear, consistent public health service to be created, as our Public Health White Paper later this year will set out.’

Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State at Defra, said: ‘It makes perfect sense to bring policy on food origin and associated labelling to Defra to sit with wider food policy. The Government has made very clear its commitment to clear and honest labelling, particularly origin labelling. These changes will allow the FSA to focus on food safety and it is right that this should stay in the hands of an independent body.’

Mr Lansley's comments about a public health service are intriguing. The White Paper will clearly be of interest and it will be interesting to see how other agencies making a contribution to public health are affected by the Government's plans. It is to be hoped that the veterinary contribution to public health is fully recognised in the proposals and that, developing the concept of ‘one health‘, they help strengthen collaboration between the veterinary and human medical fields.

In the meantime, the fact that the Government's review of all its agencies is taking place against a background of a need to reduce the national deficit and an obvious desire to cut spending remains worrying, in the veterinary field as in others. Referring to the Government's comprehensive spending review in a presentation to the BVA's Council last week, the Chief Veterinary Officer, Nigel Gibbens, remarked that Defra would have to look at prioritisation, ways of working and how it spends money as never before (see p 117 of this issue). For those with an interest in animal health, such a situation can only be of concern.

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