New food watchdog could compromise safety - critics

Horsemeat scandal 'showed a Scottish FSA is needed'. Picture: Reuters
Horsemeat scandal 'showed a Scottish FSA is needed'. Picture: Reuters
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PLANS for a new food body for Scotland have been attacked by industry groups, which claim it could undermine food safety, documents reveal.

Organisations including the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) and Scottish Food and Drink Federation expressed concerns that the new agency would reduce the effectiveness of the current UK-wide regime and divert resources away from areas such as research.

But they were yesterday accused of trying to “stifle” the food body before it was even created, in order to protect the industry’s own interests.

A consultation on the Scottish Government’s plans for a new organisation, which will take on the roles currently covered by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and also expand into other areas, was closed last month.

In its consultation document, the Scottish Government said the horsemeat scandal – in which illegal horse was found in a variety of products – had highlighted “the importance of having a single independent public body with clear responsibility for all aspects of food safety and standards in Scotland”.

But several groups expressed doubts over whether a separate body would have detected the horsemeat issue any earlier.

The SRC feared decisions taken by the new agency could conflict with those taken by the UK FSA. “This would be confusing for consumers, who will be exposed to competing messages, and for Scottish food businesses, which could suffer as a consequence,” it said.

The SRC also said the move would reduce the funding available for food safety research “by duplicating work and losing economies of scale”.

A spokesman for the SRC said: “Instead of actually improving the robustness of food safety and hygiene in Scotland, we feel that a separate Scottish body could actually undermine it.”

In its response, the Scottish Food and Drink Federation said: “The proposal to establish an NFB [new food body] and any extension of its scope and remit beyond those of FSAS [Food Standards Agency Scotland] carries the risk of a diminution of the effectiveness of the current model, unless the NFB is adequately resourced.”

In its response to the consultation, Tesco opposed extending the scope of the new body to cover public health issues, saying these should remain with the Scottish Government.

“We have been working closely with the Scottish Government on issues of public health for many years, and continue to actively engage in policy formation and implementation – for example on alcohol policy, obesity, pharmacy, nutrition and physical activity,” it said.

However, Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for Lothian and food spokeswoman for the Scottish Greens, said: “It’s disappointing but perhaps not surprising to see vested interests trying to stifle this agency before it’s even up and running. The big four supermarkets control three-quarters of the grocery market and they’re directly responsible for booming sales of ready meals and sugary drinks.”

But industry groups were not the only ones to express concerns. The Royal College of GPs Scotland said it did not believe a new body would be required “unless Scotland became independent at some point in the future, and this led to a lack of access to the UK-based resources we currently use”.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The new body will provide Scottish consumers with an effective, proportionate and efficient food safety and standards regime. As part of this, the new body will retain a close relationship with FSA UK.”