Abolition of FSA will give food industry more shout

July 12, 2010

Come on, we all knew a Tory government was going to abolish the FSA. It’s just we got the wrong one in our sights. How devious of them to lead us up the garden path like that!

While the incompetent Financial Services Authority (a watchdog steeped up to its dewlaps in responsibility for the banking crisis) has got off lightly with a root-and-branch reform instead of threatened abolition, the other FSA, the Food Standards Agency, which was threatened with root-and-branch reform but not abolition, is the one that is actually going to get the chop. Health secretary Andrew Lansley, we are told, will shortly announce that the organisation set up in 2000 in the wake of the BSE crisis will have its regulatory remit (safety and hygiene in the food chain) devolved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and its responsibilities for advising on public health and diet (primarily the obesity debate) given to the Department of Health (DoH).

The immediate aim is to save about £1bn by breaking up a department with 2,000 people and a budget of £135m. However, commentators on both sides of the food divide have been quick to discern a not-very-hidden ideological agenda.

Nannyism: Out of fashion

With one stroke, Lansley has struck a lethal blow at the heart of nannyism. Even the food industry seems a little taken aback by the suddenness of the blow. And yet it is entirely consistent with Lansley’s promise – implicit in his decision last week to give industry a bigger role in Change4Life – to substitute “nudge” (persuasive technique) for cumbersome and expensive legislative coercion.

A happy by-product of this policy, so far as the food, soft drinks and alcohol companies are concerned, is that it puts them more firmly in the driving seat. We will hear no more of “traffic lights”, the simplistic but consumer-friendly food labelling system which the FSA has espoused with such zeal, much to the annoyance of Big Food. Similarly, I imagine the threat of a TV advertising watershed imposed on certain food and alcohol categories is definitively a thing of the past; and the medical caucus will – for now – be more hesitant about calling for an outright ban on the consumption of alcohol.

Critics of Lansley’s plan will no doubt point to the conflict of interest inherent in placing regulatory control within a department, Defra, which is also responsible for the supply side. One of the reasons for the FSA’s foundation as an independent body was the perceived inadequacy of MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) – Defra’s predecessor – in dealing with the BSE crisis, thanks to its cosiness with farmers. But that’s one for the critics. For the food and alcohol sectors, the FSA’s abolition marks a famous victory, not least in the communications war.

UPDATE: Some furious back-pedalling by Andrew Lansley’s special adviser has led to the following terse statement being issued on the DoH website this afternoon: “No decision has been taken over the Food Standards Agency (FSA). All Arms Length Bodies will be subject to a review.” Meaning? The electric chair will have to wait, but it’s definitely (or should that be indefinitely?) Death Row for the FSA. Emasculation by innuendo. NICE next?


NICE oversteps the mark in ‘last hurrah’ against Big Food

June 22, 2010

If I were the chief executive of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, I would be very careful where I trod right now. Quangos are looking highly dispensable in the forthcoming Exchequer purge of the public sector.

So what does NICE do? It plays the turkey voting for Christmas. Twice in the past month it has come out with a series of recommendations that are not only – arguably – beyond its remit but are also like a red rag to the new blue-and-yellow striped government.

First, it called for a watershed ban on advertising alcohol, when the government has already ruled that out. Now, in the process of advocating a total ban on so-called trans fats and a general assault on salty foods, it has not only recommended another watershed ad ban (see above) but proposed the introduction of the “traffic light” colour coded food warning system only days after it was rejected by the European Union.

NICE’s raison d’être is to save lives by improving the quality of healthcare (and by implication reduce the heavy financial burden associated with it). There’s no doubting that trans fatty acid is a nasty substance that can cause heart disease by promoting “bad” cholesterol at the expense of “good”; and that it’s also a suspect in other disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and infertility. Nor that it has, in the past, been widely used by the processed food industry as a shortening agent (eg in biscuits) and as a substitute for butter (for instance, in margarine). But it’s definitely on the way out. Some countries – among them Denmark, Switzerland, Australia and parts of the United States – have already prohibited it. Britain has not got that far yet, but since 2006 our supermarkets have employed a self-denying ordinance, and the food manufacturers have been quietly phasing it out.

NICE’s determination to rid us of this noxious substance is not as disinterested as the organisation would have us believe. Behind it seems to lie an agenda: a crusade aimed at the food industry in general, and its freedom of commercial expression in particular.

Of course, in the longer run NICE is right to flag up the trans fat issue. Sooner or later its harmful effects – like those of tobacco – are going to become big business for lawyers in the States. For NICE, though, there may not be a longer run, if it goes on behaving the way it is. Government ministers are likely to conclude it is an organisation out of control. And we know what that could mean in these austere times.


%d bloggers like this: