|THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY: A PROPOSED SCHEME FOR RECOVERING FOOD SAFETY COSTS FROM THE FOOD INDUSTRY|
THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY: CONSULTATION ON DRAFT LEGISLATION
The Royal Society of Edinburgh is pleased to respond to the Government’s request for comments on the two Food Standards Agency consultations, namely the proposed scheme for recovering food safety costs from the food industry, and on the draft legislation. The RSE is Scotland’s premier learned society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows with many years experience in food safety and nutrition.The establishment of a Food Standards Agency is to be welcomed and the draft legislation is comprehensive. Having a single body to control and regulate food safety and standards, which also reports to the Scottish Parliament, and other devolved bodies, is a sound concept.
The specific proposals made in the two consultation papers are addressed in order below:
THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY: A PROPOSED SCHEME FOR RECOVERING FOOD SAFETY COSTS FROM THE FOOD INDUSTRY
Proposal: A new annual flat rate levy estimated at £90 linked to the registration of food premises.
In the RSE’s earlier response to the consultation on ‘The Food Standards Agency – A Force for Change’, in March 1998, we argued against a licensing system to raise funding. Having seen the current proposals for a levy scheme, we remain unconvinced, and believe it would be better for the Agency to be solely publicly funded. The operation of such a levy to collect a large number of comparatively small sums will inevitably be administratively burdensome and expensive.
In addition, the present proposal is for Government to fund a large part of the cost of the new Agency with a smaller proportion to be funded by the food industry on the basis of a flat rate charge. There is a clear commitment, however, in the supporting text to the draft legislation (Clause 23, p.25/26) that Government would like to see an increasing proportion of the cost funded by industry. This approach, however, puts at risk the guiding principles of the legislation in terms of the Agency’s independence. It has been apparent recently that funding arrangements which involve a contribution from industry open up the argument that the information and advice given is biased because those giving it depend on industry funding. This will be even more so if the proportion of industry funding increases with time.
While the aspiration to avoid an overly bureaucratic levy process is desirable, the approach of simply applying a flat rate does not create an equitable situation, e.g. local corner shops are expected to pay the same levy as the premises of major supermarket chains. If a levy is to be introduced, it will be important that it is perceived as being fair. It could be possible to discriminate between the local store (either individually or part of a local group) versus premises belonging to a regional/national chain (e.g. major supermarkets) by having a two tier system with a substantial differential in levy. This would carry weight with the clear perception of ‘fairness’.
Proposal: Food retailers and caterers to be liable for the levy subject to certain exemptions to exclude certain types of small businesses
While consideration should be given to possible problems of incorrect storage prior to sale, of wrapped or contained foods, the stated exemptions are sensible and appropriate. There may, however, be an issue relating to prepared pre-packed sandwiches, which retailers such as newsagents now commonly sell. Some of these retailers could decide that it was not sensible to continue such sales in relation to the turnover of the product if the payment of the levy was involved. It could be said that this was to the detriment of local consumers, and reduced competition.
Proposal: Collection of the levy to be undertaken by Local Authorities, who would retain a proportion to cover their costs and pass the rest to the Food Standards Agency.
The administrative costs of collecting the levy are likely to be significant, as will be the costs of invoking penalties and civil court procedures. Before the probable return from the levy can be estimated, the probable costs of collection and enforcement will need to be established, and could become excessive in relation to the sums being collected.
Proposal: That the total sum to be collected should not exceed £50 million a year initially, to meet the new costs of establishing the FSA, including its additional functions.
It will be important that the FSA will have sufficient stable resources and authority to ensure that the highest food standards and hygiene are maintained. In the event of a shortfall in the levy collected, due to possible resistance from small business, and delays in recovering arrears, arrangements should be made to meet the shortfall from other sources. The sum collected by a levy could be used as additional to the basic funding required by the Agency, and applied to fund direct benefits to the food industry.
THE FOOD STANDARDS AGENCY: CONSULTATION ON DRAFT LEGISLATION
The specific clauses of the legislation are addressed below:
Clause 1: The Food Standards Agency
The inclusion of issues additional to health is to be welcomed. Concerns such as food authenticity and food labelling are critical to the remit of the FSA, and to consumer information and confidence in the food chain.
Subsection (2) notes that "the main objective…[is with]…the consumption of food (including risks caused by the way it is produced or supplied)…". There is, however, no specific mention of food manufacture which would also be an important area for inclusion. Attention should also be directed at the source and methods of production of all imported foods.
Clause 4: Advisory committees for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland
With regard to the different executive bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would be regrettable if major differences in the basic standards for food safety were to evolve across the UK.
Clause 6: Other advisory committees
With respect to the linkages between the new Agency and existing advisory committees, the role of the FSA in servicing these groups will be important, and where it does not do so, the lines of communication and responsibility will need to be carefully defined. It might also take the opportunity to bring some non-statutory advisory committees and groups under the umbrella of the FSA.
It should be noted that policy on pesticides and veterinary medicines is closely connected with standards of wholesome food. The relationship between the FSA and the Veterinary Products Committee and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, therefore, needs to be carefully defined.
Clause 10: Provision of advice, information and assistance to other persons
The FSA’s provision of clear information to the general public will be a key priority for the agency and will require the highest level of professionalism. In doing so, it will be important to promote the understanding of risk in relation to diet.
In the area of nutrition, the Agency will have to exercise considerable caution given that there are often conflicting views amongst experts, and consumers and the public at large appear confused when nutritional advice is perceived as changing frequently. As this is an area fraught with difficulty, ignorance and prejudice, an imaginative approach will also need to be taken to encourage adoption of such advice.
Clause 11: Publication by the Agency of information and advice
The perceived independence of the agency will be essential, and the ability to publish its advice, including advice to Ministers, will be critically important in terms of public confidence.
Clause 12: Acquisition and review of information
The FSA might also consider setting up a UK-wide skills database of acknowledged authorities in subjects and activities related to the work of the FSA in order to draw upon relevant expertise when required.
The ability to commission research is to be welcomed. However, care must be taken to ensure that the appropriate scientists undertake the right research. In general, the BBSRC and MRC are the best equipped to further fundamental studies on food-borne micro-organisms, pathogenicity and the relationship of diet to health. In terms of applied research, however, in order to get the best quality, one needs to engage the interest of the top scientists in the country. This group, however, is often discouraged from participating in applied research because of restrictions on the development and application of research, and in universities because of the perceived ambivalent assessment of such research by the Research Assessment Exercise. These are fundamental issues facing the Food Standards Agency since good scientific opinion is needed in support of any change in policy.
Clause 13: Power to carry out observations
Under subsection (2), the administrative structure of monitoring and evaluation work done by external contractors should be well defined. The details of the tendering process outlined and the management seen to be fair and accountable.
Clause 15: Monitoring of enforcement action: specific powers
In terms of the monitoring of enforcement action, the current rate of level 5 fine of £5,000 seems unduly low. A higher maximum level of £50,000 would be more appropriate.
Clause 26: Duty for Agency and Ministers to make arrangements for sharing information about food-borne zoonoses
The Statutory reporting by clinical laboratories of results on human samples in order to monitor and control communicable disease is an excellent idea. The FSA will, however, need to be adequately resourced if the scheme is to be handled effectively, and the rapid liaison between related agencies is essential in cases of the detection of food borne illnesses. In addition, it would be advantageous to also include health hazards of plant origin, including mycoses and ergotism.
Clause 29: Interpretation
In relation to the guiding principles, it will be important to clarify what is meant by the term ‘food’. It should include ‘drink’, of whatever sort. In this context, the role of water must be examined carefully. While water is not strictly a nutrient, it is a constituent of food and carries its own standards and specifications for ingestion and use. Thus the relationship between the water supply agencies and the FSA will need to be considered
Reviews of Public Analysts (England and Wales) and Scientific Services (Scotland)
With the advent of genetically modified (GM) foods, support will be needed for the Public Analyst Service to access methodologies to identify GM components which are expensive to set up and maintain. The Public Analyst service currently provides key scientific input on food to local inspectorates and the FSA should be a key supporter of this activity and a funder of central research to assist their work.
Further information is available from the Research Officer, Dr Marc Rands