Britain’s new coalition government is rumoured to be considering scrapping the Food Standards Agency, the non-ministerial government department responsible for public health in relation to food. Officially, the FSA is ‘under review’, which is usually a process that can only really end in one way’.
The FSA’s duties would be absorbed by the Department of Health, which would take responsibility for public health and by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which would take over regulatory functions, including food safety and hygiene.
There’s a clear need to cut costs in the current economic environment, but is the removal of a body responsible for providing a focal point for food related public health and regulation a good idea, even if it has been in the past, in the succinct words of one Tweeter ‘a bit rubbish’?
The biggest issue I see is not with the FSA, but with the influence wielded by a small number of very large food producers and retailers. The FSA has fought long and hard to see the introduction of a traffic light system on food packaging, which would act as a way of highlighting unhealthy foods more easily for the consumer. The intention is clearly good, but the implementation has been hampered at very step of the way, faced down by widespread reluctance from an industry that sees self regulation as an easier option.
Self regulation is fine in some circumstances, but how will the consumer benefit from each supermarket running their own food labeling scheme? Won’t this just lead to confusion?
The FSA wanted to – correctly – level the field, but the big boys wouldn’t play. A dedicated and organised government department failed to persuade the food industry, how will a new approach fragmented across different governmental departments succeed?
Critics of the proposed move point out that Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, would simply be caving in to the demands of the food industry and removing an obstacle in the way of big business. This point of view is supported by Lansley’s comments last week that “no government campaign or program can force people to make healthy choices” which is absolutely true, but leaves the only alternative as a brave new world where the food industry itself becomes responsible for promoting healthy eating.
Is it not a clear conflict of interests for a food company to sponsor a healthy eating campaign whilst also selling unhealthy food? How much time and investment is going to go into awareness campaigns that potentially endanger key product lines? Who will decide how much money the food industry spends on public health related schemes, and who’s responsible for the quality, direction and content of those campaigns?
Lansley claims that he wants to free businesses from the burden of regulation, which is an approach that’s perhaps to be expected from the current coalition government, but he misses the point that regulation is a necessary way of making sure that the food industry does the right thing and does it well, for the sake of the public health of the nation.
The FSA isn’t without it’s problems. It isn’t perfect. It wobbles too often for it to be completely effective, but abolishing it altogether would seem to be a rash move made as much for ideological reasons as for cost saving ones.
Above all, has this move simply made an immensely powerful industry even more powerful and untouchable, stripping away another layer of responsibility and accountability?