Select Committee on Food Standards First Report


Submitted by Consumers in Europe Group

    The Consumers in Europe Group (CEG) is an independent UK umbrella body for 34 UK organisations with an interest in the effects of the European Union policies and proposals on UK consumers.

  1. CEG warmly welcomes the publication of the draft Food Standards Bill. We are pleased that it follows most of the key points found in the preceding White Paper "The Food Standards Agency: A Force for Change".


  2. CEG fully supports the Agency's main objective to "protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food." We would like to see this objective extended to cover the development of improved public health in relation to diet. We trust that this is already covered by the phrase in Clause 1, Section 1 "and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers in relation to food". If so, then this should be made clear.

  3. Much will depend on the statement of general objectives and general practices that the Agency will adopt within three months of the date of its first meeting (Clause 18, Subsection 7). We welcome the legal requirement for the Agency to act openly and in consultation. We hope that consumers will be consulted on the drafting of these objectives because they will lay the basis of consumer confidence in the Agency.

  4. CEG would like to see the Agency adopt similar principles to those of the European Commission's Consumer Policy and Consumer Health Protection Directorate (DG XXIV), and which have formed the basis of the recent improvements made to the EU Scientific Committees. These are the principles of independence, openness, transparency and reliance on the best available independent scientific advice. We would add to this the accountability of the Agency, to Parliament and to consumers.


  5. CEG is pleased that the Agency will be able to exercise its role in nutrition policy which the White Paper envisaged. This is especially important since government figures show that more ill-health is caused by poor diet than by food poisoning. In addition, we consider that the Agency should give nutritional advice on matters related to food production in agriculture and fisheries. It should have an input into the development of those agricultural and fisheries policies which are likely to have an impact on nutrition and health.


  6. Some subjects such as agricultural production, veterinary medicine and animal health may not fall within the Agency's direct remit but can have an important impact on public health via the food chain. It must be possible for the Agency to be closely involved in developing policy on these subjects with the government department responsible. Clause 9, subsection 2 states that government departments "may" request advice from the Agency on food-related matters. We are very concerned that it will not be obligatory for the Agency to be consulted.


  7. Although the Explanatory Notes say that the Agency is likely to want to take a precautionary approach in its decision-making process, this is not specified in the draft Bill (Clause 19 subsection 2). The Consumer Policy and Health Protection Directorate of the European Commission is keen to use a precautionary approach in policy-making and has drafted guidelines on the use of the precautionary principle. CEG would like to see the UK Food Agency taking a similar approach and considers that it should be referred to in the Bill.


  8. We welcome the legal requirement for the Agency to inform consumers about food-related matters (Clause 10), and agree with the examples given in the explanatory notes of what information and advice it is planned to cover.

  9. However, it is important that the Agency not only informs consumers but also consults them and takes account of their opinions. CEG is disappointed that neither the draft Bill nor explanatory notes say much about how the Agency will improve consumer involvement in food matters. Clause 18, subsection 2a states that the Agency's activities will be "the subject of consultation with, or with representatives of, those affected and, where appropriate, with members of the public", but this does not seem to go any further than current practice in consulting interested parties. The James report on the Food Standards Agency was much stronger in this respect stating that "there must be adequate and innovative mechanisms for consumer and public interest representation within the new structures" and "there is a need to explore further mechanisms of widening public involvement in food policy which is currently very `top down'."

  10. The draft Bill does not appear to say anything about representation of the consumer and public interest on advisory committees. This is a vital area for the openness and consumer confidence in the advisory system and one explored in more detail in the James' report. We would like to see this referred to in the body of the Bill.

  11. CEG considers that these are crucial issues for establishing consumer confidence in the new Agency and restoring their confidence in food safety. The consultation paper on the proposals for a levy scheme acknowledges that the White Paper was more positive about the links between consumers and the Agency. It states that one of the Agency's new functions will include "the development of mechanisms for effective two-way exchange of information with the public at large, consumer organisations, the food industry, enforcement, the media and others; and further research into consumer opinion." We would like this incorporated into the wording of the draft Bill.

  12. CEG notes that consumer involvement in the non-Food Agency part of MAFF will need to be reviewed. We urge that consumer groups are fully consulted on any plans.


  13. It is essential that the policy-making process is open and transparent and that the Agency can publish the advice it has given to Ministers. This will be particularly important if, in EU negotiations, the Agency does not agree with the overall UK policy on an issue.

  14. Clause 11, subsection 2b should be amended so that the Agency "should" (not "may") publish information if it is in the public interest to do so.


  15. It is likely that the public health impact of BSE will rise in importance in future compared to the impact on animal health, as more nvCJD cases are confirmed and the number of BSE cases falls on UK farms. For this reason, we consider it more appropriate for the Secretariat to SEAC to be provided by the Agency or the Department of Health instead of by MAFF. The proposed tripartite Secretariat is very likely to be unwieldy.


  16. It will be very important of the Agency to maintain close working contact with both VMD and PSD. The Agency should have free access to information (including surveillance results) about veterinary drugs and pesticides. We fully support the change to the Medicines Act so that Section 118 will not cover information given to the Agency by VMD.

  17. Ideally, CEG would prefer the Agency to have full responsibility for the surveillance programmes of both veterinary drug and pesticide residues. We feel that consumer confidence in the surveillance programmes would be increased if surveillance was separated from the bodies that approve the products in the first place. If it is not, then the effectiveness of the working relationship between the Agency, VMD and PSD will be even more important.


  18. Much of the detail of the working relationship between the Agency and other Government Departments and Agencies will be contained in administrative concordats. CEG welcomes the statement that these concordats will be published. Additionally, we consider that interested parties should be consulted on these documents before they are finalised. They should be reviewed regularly.

  19. Presumably the concordats will also cover the terms under which the Agency contributes to UK policy on EU food-related issues. All parts of the Agency and of other government departments must be made aware of the need to liaise fully on food-related issues. It must be made clear who takes lead responsibility on each subject area and who should be consulted. We hope that the Agency's guiding principles will strongly influence the final UK policy line.

  20. We presume that Agency staff will attend as experts in both technical and policy-making EU meetings on food issues. We recognise that there may be occasions when the Agency does not agree with the overall UK policy. In those circumstances it is essential that the policy-making process is open and transparent; the Agency must be able to publish the advice it has given to Ministers.

March 1999

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