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Maintaining confidence

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DEFRA published an initial response to the report from the Farming Regulation Task Force last week and, judging from comments made in the document, efforts to implement the recommendations made in the report continue apace.

The task force was set up by Jim Paice, the food and farming minister, in July 2010 and asked to come up with ways of reducing red tape for farmers and food processors. Its report, published in May this year, made over 200 recommendations. It called, in particular, for ‘an entirely new approach to, and culture of, regulation’, based on a stronger partnership and more trust between government and the farming and food processing industries (VR, May 21, 2011, vol 168, p 522). In September, the task force's report obtained backing from the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) which endorsed the approach being advocated and urged the Government to start acting on the recommendations without delay (VR, October 1, 2011, vol 169, p 346).

The interim response1 explains what Defra is doing to respond positively to the challenges set out by the task force, with a more detailed response promised early next year. In doing so, it makes the point that, in many cases, regulation is there for good reason – whether to protect the market, human and animal health or the environment – and that it is important that the protection it provides is maintained or strengthened where appropriate. The challenge, it suggests, is in reducing the burden of how controls are implemented at farm level while achieving the necessary outcomes. It welcomes the task force's suggestion that farms demonstrably complying with regulations and applying good practice – for example, by being certified through assurance schemes – should be rewarded with fewer inspections, suggesting that this principle of ‘earned recognition’ would allow Defra ‘to focus finite resources on farms and activities presenting the highest risks, thereby delivering a more robust risk-based approach to visits but, more importantly, better outcomes in terms of compliance and disease risk management’.

No one would disagree with the desirability of reducing red tape and unnecessary burdens on farms; the difficulty comes in deciding what may or may not be necessary. The BVA, for example, is concerned about a task force recommendation to drop the current requirement for a six-day standstill period when animals are moved from farm to farm, arguing that this could increase the risk of a large-scale disease outbreak. In its interim response, Defra says that it has commissioned epidemiological modelling to establish the difference between the levels of protection provided by the standstill and the simplified regime proposed by the task force and that it will be responding to this recommendation in its final response early next year.

In a submission to the EFRACom, the BVA expressed concern that some of the recommendations in the task force's report moved too far in the direction of establishing a new approach to regulation, and this also seems to be a concern of the Food Standards Agency (FSA). In a response to the task force's recommendations published last week2, the FSA supports most of the recommendations relating to activities falling within its remit, but rejects a proposal that it should set up a group to consider criteria for accepting meat inspection services by third parties. Commenting more generally on the report in a letter in September to Richard Macdonald, the task force's chairman, Jeff Rooker, chairman of the FSA Board, drew attention to the importance of maintaining and improving consumer confidence in food by using clear, sound evidence, and suggested that ‘it was sometimes a little difficult to discern the strength of evidence underlying the task force recommendations’. While the emphasis of the report is, as requested, on reducing burdens on businesses, he made the very pertinent point that any actions in response to the report must also aim to maintain and improve consumer confidence in food. Noting that the report focuses on the Government trusting industry, he emphasised the role of consumers, suggesting that ‘Only by maintaining and building consumer trust and confidence can industry grow and protect its markets, both in the UK and internationally’ and that ‘the central thesis of the task force – that of trust, responsibility and partnership – should extend to also include consumers’.3

When setting up the task force, the agriculture minister asked it to take a bold approach in suggesting ways of reducing the bureaucratic burdens on businesses, which it duly did. In deciding how to take the recommendations forward, the challenge facing Defra will not only be in ensuring that all the necessary safeguards are in place, but that public confidence is maintained.

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