5 September 1997

Clash over food agency ability to handle scares

By Tony McDougal

FARMERS and scientists have clashed over the merit of an independent food standards agency, questioning whether it would be able to restore consumer confidence in British food.

Until now, criticism of the agency has been limited, but this weeks food conference in London, organised by the Transport and General Workers Union, heard speakers argue that the proposals concentrated too much on the post-farm gate policing of food and not enough on production methods.

Patrick Holden, Soil Association director, said the agencys proposed structure had failed to make the connection between food quality and the method of production, and would not be able to deal with food scares such as the bacterial contamination of food, problems with pesticides and genetic engineering.

He said that while Philip James, author of the report on how the FSA should operate, was ideally suited to comment on food quality and nutrition, he did not have the understanding to restructure MAFF.

Mr Holden added it was vital that MAFF was reconstructed to develop a blueprint for sustainable agriculture in Britain to support the FSA. "I would like to see an integrated ministry of sustainable agriculture and food standards that builds the bridge between the FSA and the old MAFF."

Prof James, director of Aberdeens Rowett Research Institute, admitted problems did lie ahead, particularly over how to deal with departmental responsibility, the future role of research and development, the enforcement of food legislation, and the incorporation of the Meat Hygiene Service, vets and public analysts into the agency.

Consultant and farmer Teresa Wickham questioned how the agency would deal with imported food, particularly from China and eastern Europe, which did not meet UK food standards.

Erik Millstone, of the science policy research unit at the University of Sussex, stressed that the row with the food industry over whether the agency should be responsible for nutrition had to be resolved swiftly.

"Without nutrition, the agencys reputation would fall at the first hurdle," he argued. &#42

Patrick Holden: A blueprint for sustainable agriculture is needed.