6 December 1996

Independent food agency calls mount

MAFF came under renewed criticism over its handling of the BSE crisis and food safety issues this week as a combined force of retailers, food companies, farmers and environmental health officers called for the establishment of an independent food agency.

Speakers at a European Food Law Association seminar in London, criticised the current set-up where MAFF shares food safety responsibility with eight other government departments, claiming it led to conflict and confusion.

The call for action comes at a time when cases of food poisoning in the UK has quadrupled over the past 10 years, with more than 81,000 cases reported in 1994.

But division emerged over the make-up of the agency, with the NFU at odds with the British Retail Consortium, Consumers Association and Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

NFUbelief

Ian Gardiner, NFU director of policy, said the union believed it was vital the government maintained a separate ministry with a seat in Cabinet which acted as the sponsoring body for farming and food.

Mr Gardiner said the union believed there were two possible agency models. "The first is to attach a senior and independent food safety professional and his entourage to the existing MAFF Food Safety Directorate. The second is to establish a separate audit body which could, in addition to supervising MAFF, supervise some Department of Health responsibilities."

But Janet Nunn, British Retail Consortium spokeswoman, saw a different future. "MAFF would lose its hygiene and food safety responsibilities to the Department of Health, while the DTI would have greater responsibility for consumer protection. This would lead MAFF to concentrate on its core primary production and agriculture."

David Statham, chair of the CIEH food committee, said an independent agency would be the best option for restoring public confidence in food safety.

The agency, which would include a strong consumer panel would be responsible for strategic direction and co-ordination of food safety, while enforcement would be left to environmental health officers.