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Ensuring food standards

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THE horsemeat in ‘beef’ products scandal has put the work of the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) firmly in the public eye, more so than at any time since the agency was formed in the wake of the BSE crisis 13 years ago. As a result, the Scottish Government could hardly have chosen a better time to consult on its plans to set up a separate food standards body for Scotland. The consultation, which was launched on March 1, is not about whether Scotland should have its own agency; that has already been decided. Rather, it is about the form the agency should take. Nor can the Scottish Government's plans be seen as being a direct consequence of devolution, despite being relevant to this debate. Instead, they are more the result of the UK coalition Government's decision to change the responsibilities of the FSA in England following its review of its arm's length bodies in 2010.

The Scottish Government's decision to establish a separate agency was announced in June last year, following a review chaired by Jim Scudamore, a former UK Chief Veterinary Officer (VR, July 7, 2012, vol 171, p 3). The review had been prompted by changes introduced by the UK Government which meant, confusingly, that responsibility for nutrition and food labelling was transferred from the FSA to the Department of Health and Defra in England, while remaining with the FSA in Scotland. The Scottish Government agreed with a recommendation of the review that food safety should not be divorced from nutrition and labelling in Scotland. In announcing plans for a new agency, it made clear that this would be modelled on the FSA as originally constituted which, until the changes introduced in 2010, was generally considered to be working well.

Like the FSA, the Scottish body will operate at arm's length from government and will be founded on the principles of independence and openness which, as experience has shown, is so important in terms of maintaining consumer confidence. Although it will be responsible for food safety, nutrition and labelling, the full scope of its remit has still to be decided and the consultation document seeks views on how far this should extend. Among the questions asked is whether the scope of the new body should go beyond the scope of the FSA into areas such as tackling problems associated with alcohol and obesity, tracking and monitoring food poverty, or advising on health claims in food advertisements. It is also suggested that its scope could include consideration of the environment, provenance of food, sustainability and food security.

Defining the scope of the new body will be critical and it will be important to get this right. There may be merit in a holistic approach. However, as was the case when the FSA was established in 2000, there must also be concern that, if the scope of the body is too wide, it may be unable to focus its activities on the issues that really matter.

Other questions in the document concern matters such as enforcement and monitoring, delivery of official feed and food controls, and whether the body should have extra powers. Also highly relevant are questions relating to access to scientific advice and the new body's science and research activities. Policies on food need to be evidence-based but, across the UK, funding for research is limited. In such circumstances, it makes sense to coordinate activities and pool available resources to best effect. In this context, a question in the document asking ‘Do you consider that the new food body should focus its research and surveillance activities on issues that are particularly pertinent to Scottish citizens or should it also contribute to science and evidence programmes on wider issues which have relevance to the UK as a whole?’ is worrying.

It remains to be seen whether two agencies will work better than one and concern must remain about duplication of effort and loss of any benefits currently resulting from economies of scale. Meanwhile, it is not just in areas like research that efforts will need to be coordinated: imagine the confusion that might result if, for example, the two bodies offered conflicting advice on a particular food issue. The horsemeat scandal has highlighted the need for a firm, coordinated approach to food standards, not just in Britain but across Europe. The establishment of a new body in Scotland will clearly have implications for the FSA in England and other parts of the UK, and steps must be taken to ensure that there is no weakening of the arrangements as the Scottish agency is formed.

■ The Scottish Government's consultation document is available at www.food.gov.uk/news-updates/news/2013/mar/scotconsult. The deadline for comments is May 22, 2013.

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