My reaction to the news that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is to be abolished was mixed. Like many others, I campaigned for its establishment and was delighted when it came in to being. Disappointment quickly followed.
It was probably inevitable that the appointment of Smug Sir John Krebs as its first chair would lead to partiality, loss of vision and to the watchdog becoming a lapdog. His world view seems to begin and end at the inner councils of The Royal Society. His patronising, reductionist science knows it all approach set the culture and the core methodology of the FSA. Unfortunately, this approach was also prevalent in the Department of Health and within the Department of the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra).
It is not that the FSA has been especially pro-industry or anti-NGO. The problem has been its pro-technology, pro-narrow science, elitist and tick-box mentality. If anything it is pro-“nannyism” because nanny knows best and this supertech, scientific nanny had no time for anything that didn’t fit her view of things. Hence, food sterility has been promoted under the guise of food safety, pesticide residues have been ignored and living foods almost totally banished.
So despite the proclamations of openness, the board meetings held in public, the consultations and the forums, real dialogue and communication was smothered by a pervasive we know best, patrician attitude. Smug Sir John, his cohorts and his successors, for the most part politely and courteously, did not listen to anyone else.
This is best exemplified by the FSA’s prejudicial attitude to both GM and organic food. Its determination to promote GM technology led, in recent weeks, to two resignations by independent advisers. Whilst, last year, its biased presentation of a report on organic food received widespread and justified criticism.
Of course the FSA has not been a complete failure. Many NGOs in the food and health fields argue that in some areas the FSA has had a positive impact.
Given the state of the food and health sector when it was formed, the nature of its original remit and the resources at its disposal, it had to get something right. After all, even a stopped watch gets things right twice in 24 hours.
The fact is, it could and should have done more. We desperately need a truly independent and truly effective Food Standards Agency. We don’t need a government annex pretending to be something it’s not. A government source is reported as saying “The functions of the FSA will be subsumed into the Department of Health and Defra”. I’m sure that this will save money and that it can be done seamlessly because there was little difference between them anyway.
It is hard to gauge the government’s true intentions. This is worrying but I’m sure abolishing the FSA has little to do with complaints by the food industry over “traffic light labelling proposals”. It is to do with saving money and reveals something of where the government’s priorities lie. The FSA became more of lapdog than a watchdog some time ago. Had it been otherwise, they wouldn’t have been able to scrap it.
Lawrence Woodward O.B.E.
Whole Organic Plus