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Maintaining confidence in food

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A RECENTLY published strategy from the Food Standards Agency is of interest, not least because it was concerns about veterinary public health issues – BSE, E coli O157 and Salmonella in eggs – that led to the agency being formed in the first place. Also, the FSA is one of many organisations affected by the Government's recent review of its ‘arm's length’ bodies. At one stage during the review, there were fears that the agency might be axed. Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case, although the agency has been slimmed down and reorganised to focus more specifically on food safety policy and enforcement (VR, July 24, 2010, vol 167, p 110).

One consequence of the reorganisation is that the FSA's responsibilities for nutrition policy and labelling in England and Wales have been transferred to the Department of Health. The question of whether the FSA should provide nutritional advice proved controversial when the agency was established in 2000, because of concerns that it might detract from its main purpose, so in a sense this transfer of responsibilities seems logical. What is less logical is that, although responsibility for nutrition policy and labelling has been moved to the health departments in England and Wales, it will remain with the FSA in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Also confusing is that, while responsibility for some non-safety-related food labelling and composition has been transferred to Defra in England, the FSA will continue to be responsible for this in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The FSA's strategy document covers the period up to 2015 and sets out its policies in terms of six key outcomes that it aims to deliver. These are, first, that foods produced or sold in the UK are safe to eat and, secondly, that imported food is safe to eat. It aims to ensure that food producers and caterers give priority to consumer interests in relation to food, and that consumers have the information and understanding they need to make informed choices about where and what they eat. It also aims to ensure that regulation is ‘effective, risk-based and proportionate, is clear about the responsibilities of food business operators, and protects consumers and their interests from fraud and other risks’. Finally, regarding enforcement, it aims to ensure that this is ‘effective, consistent, risk-based and proportionate, and is focused on improving public health’.

Given the complexities of food supply, regulation and enforcement in this field is no easy task in any circumstances, and some of these aims could potentially prove challenging in the light of the Government's review aimed at reducing red tape for producers.

The FSA has always based its policies on science, and a second policy document published at the end of last month explains how the agency will continue to use science and evidence to meet the challenges of delivering safer food. This is reassuring. However, the FSA's chief scientist, Andrew Wadge, makes the point that, like just about every other organisation these days, it has to do this at a time when resources are under pressure. This, he says, ‘only highlights the need for robust science, evidence and analysis’, which is ‘the only basis for good decisions on effective targeting of resources, managing risks and measuring impacts’.

The agency spends about £25 million to £35 million each year on commissioned science and evidence, including £10 million on statutory monitoring. The money for science has not been ring-fenced, although the FSA has said that it will maintain at least the same proportion of its total expenditure on science. In highlighting priorities, the science strategy document explains that the FSA will be pursuing risk-based, multidisciplinary approaches that make better use of existing data and, in terms that will by now be familiar to anyone working in the veterinary and food-producing sectors, talks of broadening partnerships and ‘developing a framework for sharing data and funding with industry and stakeholder groups’.

When the FSA was established in 2000, the Government's credibility in relation to food safety was at a low ebb and every announcement on the subject seemed to be followed by a full-blown food scare. From the start, a key aim of the agency was to help restore public confidence in the safety of food and it has succeeded in this by being seen to act independently of government and by being open about its activities. It is good to see the FSA's commitment to being ‘evidence-based and acting independently and in an open and transparent way’ being emphasised in the two strategy documents following the Government's review. This approach is essential and needs to be maintained.

■ The FSA's strategy documents are available at www.food.gov.uk/aboutus/publications/busreps/strategicplan

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