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Queen Speech Tuesday, 24 November, 1998, 19:19 GMT
Food standards put on back burner
Shoppers
An agency to protect consumers was a manifesto commitment
The government has been vocal in its need to establish an independent Food Standards Agency (FSA) to restore consumer confidence in what we eat.

But the proposals set out in January's White Paper, The Food Standards Agency: A Force for Change, are not included in this year's legislative timetable.

The Queen's Speech
The legislation to establish a food agency was originally going to be introduced in the 1998-99 session, but a row over how the independent body would be financed could have put it on a low heat for the foreseeable future.

Gummer
Former agriculture minister John Gummer: A conflict of interests exists at MAFF
An independent agency, promised in Labour's manifesto, has been seen as long overdue, especially following a range of crisis's which have had the overall affect of destroying pubic confidence in the food industry.

The beef crisis, an E.coli epidemic in Scotland which killed 21 people, scares over salmonella in eggs and a possible link between milk and Crohn's disease are among issues which have rocked the industry

Food producers also face new questions such as the controversy over genetically-modified foods.

A new body would advise ministers as well as the food industry on nutrition and formulate food safety policy in Britain, while negotiating on Britain's behalf on food safety in Europe.

Any agency will be paid for by the food industry, triggering fears the cost - estimated at up to 200m - would be passed on to consumers.

Eggs
Scares have included eggs and milk
The controversy over funding of the agency has simmered since the publication of the White Paper and recent indications are that the issue will not easily be resolved.

This has prompted accusations of cronyism as a number of senior supermarket executives have close links with the government.

Julie Sheppard, a spokeswoman for the Consumers' Association, told BBC News Online: "We think food safety has been compromised through being the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which has a conflict of interests by promoting farmers yet protecting consumers.

"In the past, consumer interests were over-ridden by the need to defend other interests, for instance in the case of BSE.

"The government had a manifesto commitment which it published in the White Paper earlier this year. There has also been three million leaflets distributed in supermarkets.

"The reasons articulated in Labour's manifesto are as relevant now. We can't sit back and wait for another food scare.

"All sectors of the food chain and behind the idea of a food standards agency. We've all suffered from the disastrous loss of public confidence. Producers have suffered as much as consumers"

Ecoli
E.coli 0157 is a killer
The introduction of the agency will ultimately reduce the powers of the Ministry of Agriculture, although it would be expected to take staff from MAFF.

Once the agency is established, it would come under the wing of the Department of Health.

The introduction of such a body has even been welcomed by the National Farmers' Union, who together with the Consumers' Association, wrote to the prime minister asking him for to include the agency in the Queen's Speech.

A NFU spokeswoman said: "We would be disappointed if it wasn't in the Queen's speech.

"The food standards agency will help transparency in the food industry so we're very keen on this. The only question we have with it is over who will fund it."

Independence

Academic researchers say the FSA would need to be prove it was independent.

They say that, if it is funded by food producers, it will have problems maintaining its independence.

Professor Richard Lacey, who has been very vocal about the BSE problem, said the best safeguards for public safety would be to have a truely independent food and drugs agency.

The biggest challenge was to get the right staff.

"We have lost the availability of a lot of people of integrity because of the dominance of commercial interests," he said.

Professor Hugh Pennington of Aberdeen University, who was the author of the report into the E. coli poisoning in Scotland - Britain's most serious E.coli outbreak, said he was not sure why the government had put the FSA on the back burner, considering it had been a priority.

"This is the problem with food safety. There is a crisis and then people lose impetus. I hope it is not happening here," he said.

He hoped an independent agency could monitor and coordinate work on food safety and commission research.

He said the government could not be independent as it represented both food producers and consumers.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
BBC News
The BBC's Today programme on independent research
BBC News
BBC Correspondent Denise Mahoney: The government says food safety is not a low priority
See also:

21 Oct 98 | Health
04 Nov 98 | Education
27 Oct 98 | UK Politics
28 Oct 98 | UK Politics
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