Consumer safety needs a stricter approach, says Richard Lloyd
From obesity rates to mass food fraud and unnecessarily high rates of food poisoning, there are many problems with our food system that still need to be fixed. Plans for a new Food Standards Scotland (FSS) should be a chance to build on the work of the current Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Which? wants to see a strong, independent consumer champion put in place that can effectively tackle the problems facing consumers.
The horsemeat scandal last year showed just how complex and vulnerable our food system has become. Two-thirds of people in Scotland are overweight or obese, and diet-related diseases such as cancers, heart disease and stroke are the major killers. While we no longer have the food safety scares of previous decades, Scotland has high rates of food poisoning, including the particularly vicious form of E coli. Add to this concern about food affordability and wider issues about how we ensure more sustainable food production and it is clear that a more ambitious approach is needed.
The bill to create a new FSS is now being scrutinised by the parliament’s Health and Sports Committee. This provides a sound basis for the new body, but it is important that it is strengthened in several areas that relate to its remit, governance and powers.
It will have responsibility for food safety, labelling, composition and nutrition policy. This includes protecting the public from health risks, improving people’s ability to eat healthy diets and protecting “other interests of consumers in relation to food”.
This joined-up approach will be essential for it to work effectively. A complex mix of issues will determine what we eat and it is difficult to distinguish the many aspects that determine food choice and acceptability. Food fraud, for example, can easily lead to safety issues. Nutritional concerns have to be dealt with alongside safety issues. Social and ethical considerations can determine people’s views on food quality and production methods such as GM.
To be credible, the work of FSS must be independent, transparent and unquestioningly consumer-focused. It will be governed by a board, appointed by ministers. The people who sit on this must have a duty to act in the public interest, with strong consumer and public health backgrounds and declaration of any interests. The appointments of the first chair and chief executive will be key for setting the tone and ambition.
FSS will have the power to publish its advice, including that which it gives to ministers. It is important that FFS uses this power and is able to speak out if it feels that not enough action is taken to protect the public or its advice is being undermined.
Transparent working will be important for establishing its consumer credentials. As with the FSA, all board meetings should be open to the public. Any scientific committees it sets up should also meet openly and include consumer representatives.
Wider engagement with consumers and consumer organisations will be crucial to ensure that their interests are always put first. This includes conducting consumer research and holding public meetings. Engagement with other food chain stakeholders will also be important, but there must be no conflicts of interest in the way that FSS operates, its advice or the research that it commissions.
Improving food law enforcement will also be vital. FSS will be responsible for controls in meat plants and will oversee the work carried out by local authority environmental health officers. Better use must be made of resources and expertise to target the risks that are facing the food supply.
The bill contains important measures that will enhance its ability to do this. These include additional powers to seize and detain food that contravenes food information requirements, issue compliance notices, require food companies to report food information breaches and the ability to require mandatory display of hygiene ratings by businesses. The legislation should also enable the new body to require food industry testing and disclosure of the results.
Which? has provided evidence to the committee and will be working over the coming months to ensure that a strong consumer-focused agency is established that can really improve the quality, safety and health of our food supply.
• Richard Lloyd is executive director of Which?