chris elliott quote web

I recently participated in the Our Future Food Summit in London. This event, organised by the FSA, was about the big issues around the UK food supply system in terms of the challenges we will face due to the continued decline of our agriculture industry, climate change and other factors.

The meeting was very good and for the first time in a very long time I thought the FSA was engaging with multiple stakeholders in a brave and dynamic way and taking the lead in a debate that is long overdue. So very well done to Catherine Brown for driving this agenda forward. It felt like an organisation re-energised and plucky enough even to mention the ‘N’ word again. Since nutrition was removed from its portfolio of responsibility in 2010, mere reference to the word seemed to have been banned by Whitehall. I recall when I did bring it up during my work for government in 2013 and 2014, it was like mentioning Macbeth in a theatre.

The clear message from the summit was about openness and public engagement. This is all well and good, but then one asks the question: what about the extremely difficult and much less public role of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) that sits within the agency? My ear to the ground tells me the lack of trust between the industry and the agency is close to an all-time low and the hard work of the NFCU, headed by the excellent Andy Morling, in gaining back at least some of this trust is not progressing well. To protect against those who want to cheat and endanger consumers is mission critical.

In my report to government, I recommended the unit should be hosted by the FSA, but to me it seems it has been firmly embedded within the agency and does not have sufficient independence to function properly.

My view is now that the hosting should perhaps end and the unit move to a place where confidentiality can be assured and where dealing with the ‘dark side’ is understood and can be supported.

In a few weeks I have the great honour to host new FSA chair Heather Hancock at Queen’s University, Belfast. It’s no university challenge to guess one of the topics I would like to discuss with her.

Professor Chris Elliott is director of the Institute of Food Safety at Queen’s University, Belfast