Submitted by The National Farmers' Union
of England and Wales
INITIAL RESPONSE TO THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY:
CONSULTATION ON DRAFT LEGISLATION AND PROPOSALS FOR A LEVY SCHEME
The National Farmers' Union of England and Wales
(NFU) supported the concept of a Food Standards Agency (the Agency)
in our responses to the James Report and to the White Paper: The
Food Standards Agency: A Force For Change. We welcome the move
to have legislation in place by the beginning of next year and
continue to wholeheartedly support the objectives of the Agency
in protecting public health in relation to food.
We have already welcomed the guiding principles
for the Agency laid down in the White Paper. The success of the
Agency in meetings its responsibilities will also depend upon
the calibre and cohesiveness of its Chairman and members, and
the effectiveness of its Chief Executive. The Agency must act,
and be seen to be acting, openly and in full consultation with
the whole food chain from producers to consumers.
The NFU therefore welcomes the requirement upon
the Agency to "prepare and publish a statement of general
objectives it intends to pursue, and general practices it intends
We have three specific areas where we would
like to comment on the interpretation of the White Paper into
the draft Bill:
First the main objective of the Agency. The
NFU agrees that the main objective of the Agency should be to
protect public health from risks which may arise in connection
with the consumption of food. However we would question the words
"and otherwise to protect the interests of the consumer in
relation to food" which first appear in clause (2) and are
repeated elsewhere in the Bill. This seems to be too wide-ranging
and may detract and distract from the basic objective of public
safety in relation to food. The core functions of the Agency must
be focused. We are not convinced that words in the draft Bill
achieved this. We would prefer to see something along the lines
of: "and otherwise to protect the interests of consumers
in relation to the safety of food and their ability to make informed
This would enable the Agency to offer advice
to consumers without being too prescriptive whilst informing them
of choices available.
Secondly, the the White Paper emphasis, particularly
in the Guiding Principles, was given to the Agency's assessment
of food standards and safety should be based on the best available
scientific advice, provided by experts invited in their own right
to give independent advice. We are doubtful that this principle
been clearly translated into the draft Bill and advocate that
reference should be made to information based on best available
scientific advice in clause 10 and 12 (3).
We believe that it is vital that the main source
of advice is obtained from the advisory committees to avoid any
perception that it might be based on a subjective approach. All
advisory committees should act in an open and transparent manner,
with the necessary skills and expertise from science, industry,
consumers and the wider public interest.
Thirdly, it follows from the transparency and
openness with which the Agency will give advice and information,
that consumers should be given the opportunity to make informed
choices and that this should be coupled with advice on risk assessment
in relation to cost/benefit. We welcome that the Agency has this
remit and that it will need to be able to supply the necessary
information in this area.
As already stated, the Chairman, Members and
Chief Executive of the Agency must be seen to be people of proven
ability and high standing, untainted by vested interests, who
will be able to ensure a successful performance and image by being
seen to act in an effective and cohesive manner. A good communications
strategy will enhance the work of the Agency and ensure that it
maintains the confidence of the general public and the whole food
The question of how the Agency will deal with
the unsubstantiated media reports of food safety issues, which
can be attended by a fuelling of public emotion, also needs to
be addressed. The Agency will need to act proportionately and
with relevant speed to ensure public confidence in the Agency
is maintained and strengthened and to independent offer advice
with a "minister hovering in the background". We would
reiterate our response to the White Paper that research and surveillance
is an area where scientific progress and technological developments
must be updated. We welcome this inclusion in the draft Bill (clause
12(2) as in the past agriculture and horticulture have been damaged
by announcements which at a later stage were unconfirmed or even
reversed. We see the Agency as having an important role in ensuring
a better system of communicating these issues to the public.
Excellent communication between the Ministry
of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Agency will be important.
We welcome that consultations that will have to take place between
Ministers and the Agency on veterinary medicinal products; the
control of pesticides and regarding genetically modified organisms.
This should ensure that any consumer concerns are taken on board.
With regard to the Agency's functions on nutrition
policy it is noted that concordats between the Agency and the
UK health departments will set out their respective responsibilities.
Good communication of intelligible, scientifically-based information
to the general public is vitally important. Confusion about who
gives the right message on diet and health and reigned for too
The NFU is firmly of the view that the Agency
should be financed by government. This will ensure that the Agency
will be seen as acting in all consumers' interest. Finance from
any part of the food chain will be seen by many consumers as threatening
its independence. Moreover, any charges within the food industry
would almost inevitably be passed onto the final cost of the food.
Funding out of general taxation would therefore both improve the
standing of the Agency and be fairer in that spending on food
and drink consumption is a higher proportion of poorer consumers'
The option put forward by Ministers, a flat
rate for retail and catering outlets, although relatively simple
to collect and covering imported as well has home produced food,
would be widely regarded as inequitable. This is particularly
pertinent to small village and rural shops, including farm shops,
which are struggling to offer a service to rural communities and
yet would face the same charges as large retail and catering outlets.
The discussion paper on the forthcoming Rural
White Paper highlights the importance of these outlets to rural
communities; if Ministers proceeded with a levy, despite the misgivings
expressed above, then consideration should be given to extending
the exemptions to these outlets.
Finally the NFU is concerned that the imposition
of a levy on food outlets would act as a deterrent to food premises
registering with local authorities. Outlets were assured at the
time of the Food Safety Act 1990 that registration was being introduced
to identify outlets to assist control in, for example, a food
scare. However if registration now carries a form of taxation
it will be a serious deterrent to smaller or temporary outlets
to register. As one London authority is reported to have "lost"
a large number of food premises that should be on its register,
a levy opens the prospect of the main purpose of the registerto
assist food safety enforcementbeing progressively undermined.
This reinforces our call for total financing of the Agency to
be undertaken from central funds.