Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 47

Submission from the Food Standards Agency


  The Food Standards Agency was established in 2000 in a climate of public loss of confidence in government policy and advice on food issues, following the BSE crisis. The FSA was established as a non-Ministerial UK Government Department at arms' length from Government, headed by a Chair and a Board, who are appointed to act in the public interest. The FSA reports to Parliament and to the devolved administrations in Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland through Health Ministers. The FSA has its own budget, negotiated directly with the Treasury, of which some £20 million is allocated to research. The FSA is empowered to publish its advice to government.

The primary aim of the FSA is to "protect public health from risks which may arise in connection with the consumption of food and otherwise protect the interests of consumers in relation to food." (Food Standards Act 1999).

  The Agency is responsible for:

    — assessing, managing and communicating risk in relation to food; and

    — developing and implementing policy in the UK on issues affecting safety, composition, labelling and nutritional value of food.

  In all of this work to deliver our vision of "safe food and healthy eating for all", we are guided by a set of core values:

    — putting the consumer first;

    — openness and independence;

    — science and evidence based.

  The FSA's independence and open and transparent policy making processes are key to our success in maintaining public confidence. Good science and evidence are at the heart of the FSA's work


  Science is fundamental to helping the Agency meet its strategic objectives to make food and drink safer and healthy eating easier. It provides the evidence base on which the assessment of risk is based. The FSA has given priority to developing robust governance of science processes within the organisation to ensure that scientific evidence is being sought, obtained, interpreted, used and communicated appropriately and effectively. The key components of the FSA's science governance are:

Scientific expertise: 46% of the FSA staff have a background in science and of these more than 67% have postgraduate qualifications. The FSA's Chief Scientist is the Head of Profession. This internal expertise not only helps ensure that the research and surveillance programmes undertaken are sound but also helps to frame the questions at the beginning of the risk assessment process to take into account what consumers will want to know. The FSA establishes independent ad hoc working groups to provide advice on specific issues. Individual experts evaluate research proposals and review programmes. Where appropriate, our research is peer reviewed.

  Scientific Advisory Committees (SACs): The FSA is advised by ten Scientific Advisory Committees, including a recently formed Social Science Research Committee, made up of approximately 140 independent and eminent scientists. The FSA has also established an Advisory Committee on Consumer Engagement to provide the FSA Board with an independent assessment of the extent to which the FSA is engaging effectively with consumers and to offer advice to FSA staff on how best to engage consumers on particular issues.

  General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS): This overarching Committee (whose membership comprises the chairs of each of the SACs) is newly established under the chairmanship of Professor Colin Blakemore. The overall purpose of GACS is to provide independent challenge and advice to the Chief Scientist and to the FSA Board on the Agency's governance and use of science.

  Science Checklist: A tool that relates primarily to the risk assessment process that makes explicit the points to be considered by FSA staff and by the SACs in the preparation of papers on science-related issues for consideration by the FSA Board. The SACs have also developed Good Practice Guidelines which complement the checklist and ensure that the operation of the SACs is consistent with the remit and values of the FSA.

  Horizon scanning: Both FSA staff and the SACs have an important part to play in the process of identifying the potential impact of emerging science and technologies on food safety and consumer health issues. In addition, GACS has a role in identifying new issues and potential gaps as well as advising on sources of advice that cut across the remits of the individual SACs.

  FSA Chief Scientist: In recent years the role of the Chief Scientist has been strengthened. The Chief Scientist has the responsibility of ensuring that the FSA's science governance processes are used and that the SACs have been fully consulted.

  As a result of the FSA's reliance on robust science governance, when the FSA Board meets in public to make decisions on food policy, it is reassured that the information before it is the best available scientific evidence and advice on the issue. In addition, the relevant Chairs of the SACs join FSA Board at the table during Open meetings when issues within their remits are being discussed and the FSA's Chief Scientist always sits at the board table to provide advice and assurance to the Board on scientific issues.

  The FSA's Chief Scientist publishes an Annual Report, which, as well as providing a public account of the FSA's scientific activities, provides an opportunity to summarise in a single, coherent document the many and varied ways in which the FSA uses and promotes science and contributes to scientific progress. The Chief Scientist also publishes a Research Report annually. The FSA's Chief Scientist is a member of the network of Chief Scientific Advisors in Government led by Professor John Beddington.

How we handle and deliver science?

  The FSA's practical experience has led us to adopt an integrated model of risk assessment, management and communication where two way communication with stakeholders and consumers takes place throughout the policy process. (see annex)

Much of the FSA's reputation depends on the way we handle uncertainty. Science is fundamental to reducing uncertainty and providing consumers with the clearest possible advice. The weight of evidence is usually sufficient to enable SACs to so define risks and uncertainties that the FSA Board can make a judgement about managing the risk. However, sometimes science is unable to offer that assurance. Under those circumstances we acknowledge that uncertainty, whilst taking proportionate action. In reaching decisions on risk management, the Board considers wider economic, social and environmental influences, including the attitudes and risk appetites of the public, the costs and benefits of different options, and the practicalities of delivery and enforcement.

  Communication is integral throughout the process, being open with what we know and when we know, if there is a potential risk to public health, even when there are uncertainties.

  We aim to communicate proactively with the public on science issues. The FSA website has won awards for its accessibility and the Chief Scientist's blog is widely quoted in the media, as well as followed online. However, the FSA is always looking to find more, and better, ways to engage the public in dialogue about science.

  Weblink to Chief Scientists' Annual Report: http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/publication/chiefscientist0908.pdf

March 2009

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