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Don't shoot the watchdog - food industry needs a tight leash

By Jane Byrne , 12-Jul-2010

Watchdogs provide much needed protection in an uncertain world. So why is the UK government determined to kill off the Food Standards Agency?

Safer food, healthier eating for all and informed choices, the three priorities of the FSA, will inevitably be compromised by UK health secretary Andrew Lansley’s decision to switch to a business funded model for the drive against child obesity - Change4Life - coupled with his pre-election pledge to carve up the FSA now looking set to see the light of day.

The duties of the FSA in relation to safety and hygiene in the food chain will be subsumed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its nutrition functions will transfer to the Department of Health, according to a report on Reuters.

These cost-cutting measures are using a recipe not formulated with the state of public health in mind but using instead a quick fix solution for a cash-strapped government.

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, in power since May, is looking for dramatic budget cuts to reduce the £156bn deficit but can a price be put on food safety and the long term health impact of food lower in saturated fats and salt?

In 1997 public confidence in UK food had been torn to shreds by BSE. The only way Labour could reconstruct it was by disentangling business interests from policy-making and making dealings transparent.

Hello FSA and a renewed sense of food safety assurance 10 years later.

And the food watchdog’s approach to raising consumer awareness about healthier diets, while engaging with the food industry on voluntary reformulation for reduced salt, sugar and saturated fat, has been pioneering and a model adopted by many other countries.

Now Lansley wants food and drink makers to bankroll the anti-obesity drive Change4Life in return for no regulation. How will the minister ensure that such an approach guarantees that industry only funds the campaign but does not control it?

And really, however much reformulation work has been done to date by food companies, would they really keep that up if the pressure from the FSA was off?

Surely a switch to positive images of people exercising on breakfast cereals and fizzy drinks packaging would be a less burdensome option than further reductions in salt and sugar?

Tam Fry, honorary chairman of the anti-obesity campaign the Child Growth Foundation, said that Change4Life is the sort of campaign that needs a lot of funding and a long-term view.

“If we are trying to change behaviours, that does not happen overnight, only after years and years of constant reminders."

With high rates of weight gain and lack of sports activity by children, rising National Health Service (NHS) bills for diabetes, heart disease and cancer, the risks are too high to leave the promotion of a healthy lifestyle to food and drinks manufacturers alone.

Change4Life needs investment by government - it might be costly, but it could cut the bills of the UK health service in the long term.

As regards the proposed splitting up of the FSA – we only have to look to the number of food safety scares in the US to see the consequences of its fragmented food safety approach.

So instead of putting the food watchdog to sleep, shouldn’t the UK government instead give it more teeth?

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