Friday, August 13, 2010

Food Standards Agency again

I apologize for returning to this wearisome subject but it seems to me that the FSA and its future clarify many of the issues connected with quangos and the Cleggeron Coalition's attitude to them, not to mention the ease with which people can be fooled into believing good tidings. As this blog has pointed out here and here the great hurrah that went up when the abolition of the Food Standards Agency was kind of announced was extremely premature. Indeed, since then we have been "reassured" that the Agency was not going to be abolished but certain changes in responsibilities for implementing EU regulations (though it is not put quite like that normally) will be made.

This morning I received the August edition of the Food Trader for Butchers (another left-over from past employment with the Countryside Alliance) and found this article on page 3: FSA Future Now Clarified Indeed, it is.
Speculation that the Food Standards Agency was about to be abolished was finally squashed by a Downing Street announcement on 20th July. There will, however be major changes in responsibility.

Food nutrition policy, an area that the Agency notoriously struggled to get to grips with, is being transferred back to the Department of Health along with around 70 senior civil servants. Critics of the FSA were always quick to point to the disastrous and ill-fated battle with the food industry over traffic light labelling. Others, including many butchers, often pointed out the weaknesses in their simplistic messages such as "eat five a day" or less fat/salt/sugar etc.
I find it quite endearing that anyone can suppose that simplistic and often erroneous messages will cease if the same regulators/civil servants will now work in the Department of Health rather than the Food Standards Agency. As for labelling, that remains entirely in the EU's not so capable hands and it is there that the traffic light version was voted down.
Another major change will be the transfer back to DEFRA of policy matters relating to food labelling (where not related to food hygiene) and also food composition regulations such as meat content in sausages.This means that DEFRA will now oversee the introduction of Country of Origin labelling.
A separate article on page 9 of the publication tells of the vote in the European Parliament on the subject. The National Federation of Meat and Food Traders is fully aware of how much of the regulation their members have to obey comes from the EU. Being a lobbying and advisory organization it passes no political judgement on that, merely try to get the best deal for their members and explain what each piece of legislation implies for them. Even so, it is odd that there is no direct mention of the EU in this article, unless the author assumed that every reader will know.

The changes are no altogether welcome to butchers, it seems, as they will create more work for them.
This will create extra work for industry because instead of dealing with one Government department on the massive new Food Information Regulations they will now have to deal with two.

Another complication is that these changes only affect the FSA in England.The FSA branches inWales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will continue to report on all current matters to the devolved authorities and this is likely to cause much confusion.
And why not?

Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (these titles become more and more meaningless with each government) is, naturally enough, pleased.
It makes perfect sense to bring policy on food origin and associated labelling to Defra to sit with wider food policy.The Government has made very clear its commitment to clear and honest labelling - particularly origin labelling.

These changes will allow the FSA to focus on food safety and it is right that this should stay in the hands of an independent body.
It would appear that the Government is still having problems in making its commitment to a clear and honest admission about where competence lies.

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