UK's food standards agency will report to health minister

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The UK government revealed its plans for an independent food standards agency last week, responding to pressures that have built up steadily since the recent crisis over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and other food safety scares

The agency will be created by a merger of the food safety, research and nutrition divisions of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and the Department of Health, and will have the power to enforce food safety “from plough to plate”.

Although about 80 per cent of its staff of several hundred will come from MAFF, it has been decided — after what is said to have been an intense internal battle in Whitehall — that the agency will report to the health minister. It is expected to be set up by the middle of next year, after further public consultations and parliamentary debate.

In a white paper (policy document) setting out its proposals, the government says the agency will be headed by a chief executive and 12 commissioners, most of whom will be drawn from public and consumer interests. Its £100-million (US$150 million) annual budget will be met from a levy on the food industry, and the agency will also take charge of the agriculture ministry's annual £25-million food safety research budget.

James: proposals are based on his report. Credit: ROWETT RESEARCH INSTITUTE

The announcement has been welcomed by consumer groups, such as the Consumers Association, and by many food scientists. The proposals are based almost entirely on a report written by Philip James, director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, at the invitation of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in March last year, when he was still in opposition. Another of James's proposals — that there should be increased public representation on government expert advisory committees — is already being implemented.

At the core of the white paper is the decision to take responsibility for food safety away from MAFF. The potential for a conflict of interest in a single ministry representing the interests of both producers and consumers of beef had been flagged by observers for some years.

At the white paper's launch in London last week, Jack Cunningham, the agriculture minister, acknowledged that “people had long argued that this [arrangement] was flawed and not in the public interest”.

The issue came to a head during the late 1980s and early 1990s with MAFF's apparent reluctance to take stronger action to protect consumers from eating meat infected with BSE, because of pressure from farmers who feared that further protective measures would lead to industry losses.

Measures were belatedly taken when scientists announced the possibility that eating BSE-infected meat may have caused the neurodegenerative disorder Creutzfeldt- Jakob disease (see Nature 380, 273; 1996).

The decision to place food safety research in the hands of the agency reflects a view that the influence of the food industry lobby may have obstructed open and transparent publication of the agriculture ministry's research. Indeed, some critics, such as Erik Millstone, a food policy researcher at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, fear that MAFF may still find it difficult to relinquish control over both food safety and research to the food standards agency.

Between now and the launch of the agency, all new research proposals will be looked at by the independent expert committee that advises the government on food science. But its main food and agriculture research laboratory — the Central Science Laboratory — is to remain under MAFF's control, suggesting that the ministry is not about to let go.

Millstone says that he is also worried about a passage in the white paper that says the agency “will be required to consult agriculture ministers” when considering new measures to be added to the Food Safety Act.

While the agency retains powers to override agriculture ministers, Millstone believes that this will be difficult in practice, as the agency's commissioners may well be “too intimidated” to ignore ministerial advice. He also questions the constitutional basis for “unelected officials overriding elected members of the government”.

But the view that the continued involvement of MAFF represents bad news for research is not shared by all researchers. Bronek Wedzicha, head of the department of food science at the University of Leeds, for example, says he has never been prevented from publishing research funded by the agriculture ministry.

Wedzicha says that scientists need to understand that the scientific civil service operates in a different way from mainstream science. “If you have a finding, don't act recklessly, insisting on the right to publish anywhere you like,” he says. “Reason with them, and they'll come round to your point of view.”

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