FSA chairman Jeff Rooker said in the newly published strategy document that six ‘outcomes’ costed at £135m per year will ensure consumer trust and confidence in food, with a new focus on “enforcing food law fairly” will cover safety and fraud issues.
After the coalition government came to power in May 2010, responsibility for nutrition policy and labelling in England and Wales was transferred from the FSA to these countries’ health departments, albeit retained for Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Some non-safety related composition and labelling policy was moved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), although the FSA is still responsible for these issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Thus the FSA consulted on the revision of its 2010-15 plan (originally published in December 2009) and key ‘outcomes’ up to 2015 now fall under six headings – with current specific yearly resource needs indicated – and aim to ensure:
- £49m: Effective regulation: to safeguard consumers by making it easier for business to fulfil regulations; more proportionate, risk-based, effective regulation via better engagement with the EU; international work for a new regulatory and enforcement regime for effective meat controls.
- £34m: Food produced or sold in the UK is safe to eat: Main priorities include reducing foodbourne disease, with tackling campylobacter in chicken as a priority; greater ‘horizon scanning’ to identify new or re-emerging risks, particularly chemical contamination.
- £24m: Effective enforcement: and UK policy implementation to protect consumers from food risks and fraudulent or misleading practices; developing knowledge of what works when encouraging business compliance with regulations.
- £20m: Consumers have information necessary to make informed food choices: Priorities include improving public awareness about good food hygiene at home; increasing visible information on hygiene standards when consumers eat out or shop; improving public awareness of healthy eating.
- £5m: Imported food is safe to eat: The FSA aims to work internationally to reduce risks from food and feed originating in non-EU countries; the agency will also ensure risk-based checks at ports and local authority monitoring of imports.
- £3m: Ensuring food producers/caterers prioritise consumer food interests: Increase information on allergens (including in catering establishments); continue to reduce saturated fat, salt and calorie levels; encourage development and availability of healthier options when shopping or dining out; address portion sizes appropriate for a healthy diet.
What do food industry players think?
Prior to the transfer of powers from the FSA to DEFRA and the Department of Health (DoH) last July, Sue Davies, chief policy adviser for consumer group Which? said she feared removing nutrition from the FSA's independent remit could turn issues surrounding it into a "political football" and result in lost momentum.
Asked by FoodManufacture.co.uk today what she thought of the revised strategy, and for her assessment of how smoothly the responsibility transfer had progressed, she said it was vital that consumer interests came first "across all areas of food policy", with decision-making transparent and based on independent scientific evidence, "whoever has responsibility".
Davies said: "We now have a very complicated situation as the FSA's strategic plan makes clear. In England and Wales, food safety, nutrition and labelling standards are with the FSA, Department of Health and DEFRA respectively."
DEFRA clone focus 'does not bode well'
But in Northern Ireland and Scotland these issues are all still the FSA's responsibility, where it has an explicit remit to put the consumer first, Davies said. "DEFRA, for example, is now primarily focused on the competitiveness of the food industry, and the position taken in EU discussions around approval and labelling of food from clones and their offspring this week does not bode well."
"The situation is also complicated by the fact that many issues, from use of new food technologies to food supplements aren't about one thing or the other. The way that we perceive risks and the choices that we expect are shaped by many factors and it is important that these concerns don't drop between the different government responsibilities."
In response to an industry consultation that ended on February 11, the FSA said there was, for instance, "overwhelming support" for the inclusion of a new priority on food allergens - from groups such as Which?, the Food and Drink Federation - and the agency said it was involved in developing allergen management thresholds (action levels) for business use to inform risk assessments.
Legal compliance key
Stakeholders also indicated broad support for enforcement and its separation from regulation, especially in light of the FSA's merger with the Meat Hygeine Service (MHS): "We agree that it is vitally important for us to focus on increasing the compliance of food businesses with legal requirements, because compliance is the best proxy measure we have of improved public health protection," said the FSA.
But the National Farmers' Union (NFU) said: "It would be useful to know exactly what improvements have been associated with the merger between the FSA and the MHS and what costs are associated with the MHS. The current regulatory and financial burdens placed on industry have to be questioned and meat controls should be risk-based and proportionate."
Stakeholders also expressed concerns over the 'informed food choices' priority (outlined above). The British Retail Consortium said it agreed with the outcome, but questioned its delivery given resource cuts, especially to communication channels.
Environmental Standards Dumfries said it was confused by the FSA's removal of the main priority of "giving intergrated Government advice" to consumers on food issues. Did this mean that "disintegrated government advice" would now be given? the body asked.