16 May 1997

NFU offers qualified welcome for plough to plate agency

By Shelley Wright

PROPOSALS for an independent food agency, covering the whole food chain from plough to plate, have received a qualified welcome from the NFU.

Sir David Naish, NFU president, said the proposals, contained in a report by Philip James, director of Aberdeens Rowett Research Institute, provided a welcome basis for future developments.

But, he said: "It is important the work of the food agency does not have an adverse impact on the continued competitiveness of British agriculture on world markets."

The proposed agency would advise ministers on all matters relating to food safety, food standards, nutrition and public health. As well as being responsible for policy, it would also draft legislation. All MAFFs food responsibilities, including safety evaluations of pesticides and veterinary medicines, would transfer to the agency.

Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who commissioned the report, said the public had a right to expect the highest standards of food safety. And he announced a new ministerial food safety group, chaired by the head of the Cabinet office, David Clark, to take the proposals forward. Legislation is unlikely before the 1998/99 parliamentary session.

The report recognises the "serious loss of confidence in British food which needs to be rectified urgently", after a series of food scares.

The main concerns with the existing arrangements were the lack of co-ordination between the different bodies involved in food policy and food safety, and the conflict of interests at MAFF.

The new agency would separate the role of protecting public health and safety from that of promoting business. It would report to Parliament through the secretary of state for health, and would be open and transparent in all its work. "The transparency of process will be fundamental in ensuring the independence of its advice, its accountability and, ultimately, its credibility."

The report proposes the agency should be governed by a commission of about 10 people. While some would be industry experts, most should represent public and consumers.

The commission would report to a council of ministers, including the minister of agriculture, chaired by the health secretary.

As well as food safety, Prof James also believes the agency should have responsibility for novel food processes and genetically modified organisms. &#42