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Wednesday, January 27, 1999 Published at 23:13 GMT

UK Politics

Row over food watchdog

The agency will be champion of consumer interests

Small retailers have condemned a flat-rate levy to pay for a new food watchdog to monitor health and safety standards as a "food poll tax".

June Kelly: "The government want the agency up and running as soon as possible"
The long-awaited Food Standards Agency will provide independent advice to ministers following government criticism over a series of scares.

But plans to charge an annual flat rate charge of £90 on all food outlets to fund the cost of setting up the new agency has already met with criticism.

Agriculture Minister Nick Brown: "The bulk of the cost will be met by taxation"
Agriculture Minister Nick Brown defended the charge, saying the level of risk run by shops and restaurants selling food did not vary according to their size.

He told BBC News: "All the government is proposing is a small additional charge of £90 a year, that's the cost of one extra sandwich a week."

Justin Rowlatt: "The public should have nothing to worry about"
Exemptions to the charge are being considered. Food outlets who only sell wrapped food, such as crisps and confectionery may escape the charge.

The levy will be collected by local authorities and is expected to raise £40m. The balance of the £120m cost of the agency will be picked up by the tax-payer.

The agency will have a staff of 2,000 people and will be run by a chairman and up to 14 independent members.

[ image: Food scares such as BSE raised interest in an agency]
Food scares such as BSE raised interest in an agency
Mr Brown said: "It will pull together the work that is currently done to protect the public in the food safety area.

"Central government will have a role with local government and the work of environmental health officers to reinforce work that is currently undertaken.

"It will mean policy is focused for the first time in an independent agency and if something needs to be done by government the agency can say so and put their recommendations into the public domain."

The agency will be free publish its advice to the government and will report to the Department of Health rather than the Ministry of Agriculture.

A Food Standards Agency was a manifesto commitment by Labour following a series of food scares.

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

The BBC's June Kelly: "The food industry is comparing this levy to the poll tax"
The aims of the agency will be to restore that confidence in the quality of food supply and to deliver higher food standards and public health improvements.

It will have responsibility for:

  • Monitoring the safety and standards of all food for human consumption.
  • Leading or sharing policy on food poisoning organisms, animal feed, food hygiene, genetically modified food and other novel processes, food additives, chemicals and labelling.
  • Co-ordinating and monitor law enforcement.
  • Commissioning scientific research.
  • Advising on diet and nutrition.

The agency is based on the suggestions of Professor Phillip James, director of the Rowett Research Institute, who was asked to report on how an agency should function before the election.

[ image: Agency proposals have been welcomed by consumer groups]
Agency proposals have been welcomed by consumer groups
He told BBC Radio 4's The World At One: "It will make a difference because it will now be seen to be independent, it is going to take on board all the views, its got to have to explicitly to work out what to do.

"It's going to have enforcement powers and I think it is going to have to take a novel approach to looking at the food chain as a whole. Practises on the farm actually affect our health, previously its all been locked up in different groupings."

The proposals for an agency have been broadly welcomed by consumer groups who have long complained about Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

The department has been criticised for having the duty to protect consumers at the same time as promoting producers.

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