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Responsibilities on food

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THE UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) was born on the back of the BSE crisis and other food scares of the late 1980s/1990s to help improve public confidence in food and, despite what some see as a slight wobble as the horsemeat in ‘beef’ products scandal came to light in 2013, is generally reckoned to have done a good job. Before the FSA was established as an agency operating ‘at arm's length’ from government in 2000, every announcement on food seemed to be followed by a full-blown national food scare and it is, perhaps, a measure of its success that there have been far fewer such food scares since. Things have moved on in the past 15 years, in terms of how food is produced, sourced and supplied, and also in terms of what consumers expect. Meanwhile, in April this year, the Scottish Government established its own independent body to be responsible for food standards in Scotland. Against this background, a recent document from the FSA setting out its strategic plan for the next five years will be important reading for anyone interested in food, whether as consumers or professionals involved in its production.

Called ‘Food we can trust’, the document, which is surprisingly readable, explains that ‘The main objective of the FSA in carrying out its functions is to protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food (including risks caused by the way in which it is produced or supplied) and otherwise protect the interests of consumers in relation to food.’ It says that the FSA will put consumers’ interests first in everything it does, suggesting that, as consumers, our interests will be served if ‘Food is safe and what it says it is, and we have access to an affordable healthy diet, and can make informed choices about what we eat, now and in the future.’ It further explains that the FSA's own efforts and resources will be concentrated on making sure that food ‘is safe and what it says it is’, on the basis that these are the areas where it can make the biggest contribution.

One of the less edifying aspects of the horsemeat in ‘beef’ products scandal in 2013 was the sight of politicians and others passing the buck on where responsibility for what had happened might lie (VR, January 26, 2013, vol 172, p 86). Perhaps with this in mind, the FSA's strategy document seeks to clarify roles and responsibilities with the statement ‘It is the responsibility of people producing and supplying food to ensure it is safe and what it says it is . . . and the Food Standards Agency has a key leadership role in making sure that they step up to that responsibility.’ This approach, which clearly puts the onus on producers and suppliers, probably makes sense in practical terms, especially at a time when resources for enforcement are limited and the Government's preference is for ‘light touch’ regulation wherever possible. However, given the complexities of the modern food chain, it is difficult to see that it will necessarily prevent such finger-pointing happening again in future, particularly in instances where, as seemed to be the consensus on the horsemeat scandal, criminal elements might be involved.

The role that businesses are expected to play in ensuring that regulations are complied with is underlined in a section explaining how the FSA will use both legislative and non-legislative tools to protect consumer interests. This states: ‘It is not the FSA's or local authorities’ role to achieve compliance – that is clearly defined in law as the responsibility of business.’

The strategic plan places welcome emphasis on ‘using science, evidence and information both to tackle the challenges of today, and to identify and contribute to addressing emerging risks for the future’. Commissioning and conducting research has been an important part of the FSA's remit from the outset, and it will be important that these and other activities continue to be properly resourced.

While it would be wrong to say that money was no object when the FSA was established, it was less of an issue then than it is now, partly because of the politically charged atmosphere around food safety at that time. With the current Government committed to reducing public spending, it could become more of an issue in the months ahead. The strategic plan seems to recognise this with a section explaining that it will ‘develop an organisation that leverages great impact from small resources’. It also says that the FSA will be placing ‘even greater emphasis on the efficiency and effectiveness of our own work’.

The strategic plan identifies some ‘particularly significant programmes of work’ on which the FSA expects to focus over the next two to three years, while also discussing processes for setting priorities for the future. On food safety these include ensuring that business delivers on the FSA's Campylobacter campaign, and implementing and developing a Listeria reduction plan. On the authenticity of food, they include consolidating the new Food Crime Unit that is being established on the basis of recommendations made in the Elliot report following the horsemeat scandal (VR, September 13, 2014, vol 175, p 238). On information and evidence gathering, they include defining and agreeing the FSA's approach to surveillance. The document also outlines plans for ‘empowering consumers’ and ‘aligning incentives for businesses to ensure consumer interests are protected’.

In a revealing and no doubt accurate statement in the document, the FSA points out that it cannot achieve all of the strategic objectives it has identified regarding consumer interests on its own and that ‘only by everyone working together and playing their part will we be able to deliver food we can all trust’. It notes that it has ‘a joint responsibility with others – including industry, consumers, and other areas of government – to improve these food-related outcomes for consumers’ and, as an organisation, promises ‘to play our part and set ourselves targets for those factors which we can take responsibility for delivering’. While no doubt realistic, this does not define responsibilities quite as clearly as might have been envisioned when the FSA was founded in 2000 and seems to be another way of saying we can only do what we can do. Things may have moved on over the past 15 years and the case for shared responsibility is increasingly recognised. At the same time, independent enforcement of regulations relating to food will always be necessary. The role of government should not be forgotten in all this, and its responsibilities, including those of ministers, need to be specified more clearly.

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