The Scudamore report was published this week, reviewing what should happen to food standards in Scotland as a result of changes made to the FSA in England. I was one of the panel members asked by Scottish ministers to look at the feasibility of setting up a separate Scottish food agency.
While the other members recommended a separate agency with responsibility for food safety, labelling, standards and nutrition, I strongly disagreed. Consumer interests are best served through an agency that remains part of the UK FSA, but with the resources and flexibility to focus on Scottish priorities.
This review, and the changes that led to it, shows we are once again playing politics with our food. The FSA was set up over a decade ago to ensure we had an independent, arms-length approach to food and that consumer interests were put first. But changes made in England mean nutrition, labelling and standards have been put back “behind closed doors” in the Department of Health and Defra.
The Scottish review would not have come about without these changes. But with issues such as obesity and food-borne disease more pronounced in Scotland, it was necessary to look at a more sustainable solution. Separating out what would work best for consumers against wider political debates about independence, however, proved a challenge.
Creating a new agency in Scotland would be costly, disruptive and would require working practices that have been embedded in the FSA over the past 12 years to be replicated. Keeping independence would be key. It would also be necessary to make sure there was expertise across all the issues the FSA deals with.
In practice, a Scottish FSA would still have to work very closely with the remainder of a UK FSA. The reality is that most of what we eat comes to us through a complex, global supply chain. The regulation that controls it is virtually all decided at EU level, through international standards or the policies of multinational food companies.
Ministers will now consider the report and decide what to do. Flexibility is clearly needed in Scotland, where there may be delays in England due to the Red Tape Challenge. There’s also an opportunity to take a more pro-active approach to obesity than is happening in England through the Responsibility Deal.
Rather than dispersing policy responsibilities, resources and expertise, consumers’ interests would be better served by building on the existing FSA structure. This would guarantee a co-ordinated approach to food policy with sufficient resources for the FSA in Scotland to take a proactive approach to nutrition, food labelling and standards.