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11 December 1998

Blair should listen to the screamers

Emily Greenasks why the Food Standards Agency has been put on the back burner

By Emily Green

Whatever happened to the Food Standards Agency? Eighteen months ago, styled as a sort of turbo-nanny, it was meant to allay any and every public anxiety about food. The Cabinet Office, no less, stage-managed the launch immediately after the general election. Yet last week the agency merited no more than an inscrutable mention in the Queen’s Speech, to the effect that the government hadn’t forgotten about it. Whitehall press officers were at the ready bearing statements about how “discussions are ongoing within government departments” and so forth. However, one of the agency’s architects was more blunt. “It’s dead,” said Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy at Thames Valley University.

Or maybe not. In his next breath, Lang stresses that he still hopes it may simply be transmogrifying into something that a more seasoned government can actually produce. Come up with something, it must, he says. “Labour promised it. So there will be some sort of agency in the interests of being able to say, ‘There’s an agency, we delivered it’.”

As for the “ongoing discussion”, this no doubt concerns just how closely the Food Standards Agency should resemble the model that Lang and other academics originally proposed. It is their vision, after all, summed up in a document called the James report, published in May 1997, that Labour actually sold to the country.

Tantamount to a green paper, it was commissioned by Blair while still in opposition. The author was Professor Philip James, a nutritionist from the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen. Composing it, James used years of research not only from Lang, but also from Dr Erik Millstone, a senior lecturer at the Science Policy Review Unit at the University of Sussex, and Dr Mike Rayner, head of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Unit at Oxford University. Collectively, Lang jokes, they are known to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) as “the screamers”.

The name suits them. Not only are they constantly in the media, the Consumers’ Association also stuffs its publications with their criticisms. Yet they are not easily dismissed. Lang has been thumping on about the dangers of intensive farming and concentrated retailing for more than a decade. For those unsure of the scale of the problem, there are just seven companies that process 700 million of the 800 million broiler chickens sold in the UK each year.

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Professor Millstone is something of a walking dictionary on the subject of food colourings. Professor James, meanwhile, is the nanny of the bunch, a nutritionist and chairman of a committee that made the unappetising projection that as many as 25 per cent of adults in Britain may be obese by 2010.

In hatching the Food Standards Agency, they studied similar organisations in eight countries, including the USA, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Sweden. Yet none really fits the UK, with its unique wartime drive to hike food production somehow derailed for the benefit of agribusiness. To correct this, when designing the British agency, they removed huge swathes of responsibility from Maff and unloaded them on to the new agency.

Public consultations on the James report pressed on throughout 1997, with 600 bodies reporting, most of them favourably. The only liberal body pointedly to dissent was the Soil Association, the UK’s largest body certifying organic food. Its director, Patrick Holden, couldn’t see how the new agency could reconcile farming standards ranging so wildly that an intensively reared chicken can profitably be retailed for £2.25/kg while an organic one is often still loss-making at three times the price.

More problematic have been the Food Standards Agency’s 599 supporters. At the largest public consultation, sponsored by the TGWU, several hundred delegates feverishly shouted over one another about all manner of issues they imagined the agency might resolve: supermarket dominance, pesticide control, how best to entertain scientific advice to do with the galloping technology of food production, the control of genetically modified foods, better labelling, higher nutritional requirements, the war on junk food and so on.

Still, a smoothly fashioned white paper was somehow published in January 1998 bearing an anodyne introduction from Tony Blair. In it, the estimated cost of the agency was given as £100 million. On top of the arguments over how to spend the budget, this invited fresh ones over how to raise it. Meanwhile, Blair’s courting of supermarket barons and chain restaurateurs with one arm and their arch-critics with the other has become an almost impossible act. As Lang ruefully points out, the screamers did not help bail out the Millennium Dome. Tesco did.

Then there is a loss of momentum that they saw coming, and risked. Erik Millstone was the first to set aside headlong pursuit of the Food Standards Agency in order to back the public call in this paper for the inquiry into BSE. He knew that it might steal the wind from their agency’s sails. There’s no doubt that, by effectively putting Maff on trial over BSE for 18 months rather than expeditiously chopping it up for the standards agency, it has. The advantage is that the inquiry is now revealing the very system failures that allowed BSE, an exercise that can only improve the design of the agency.

The standards agency, says Millstone, “is on a back burner”. He is not sure for how long. The screamers are aware that an interim agency liaising between Maff and the Department of Health may be all that their super agency will come to. “What we set out to do was shake up Maff,” he says. This they have done.