The FSA should copy the Soil Association's positive approach to nutrition, Joanna Blythman

The Food Standards Agency is a sleepy backwater for plodding, calorie-counting dieticians, a time-warped bastion of nutritionism.

Its reductionist approach is limited to calculating fat, salt, and sugar and fails abjectly to look at food as a whole. Its big idea is the discredited dogma that saturated fats are the root of all dietary evil, hence its fatwa on nutritious foods such as full fat milk, cheese and butter.

The FSA has pissed off both the food industry and food campaigners - a waste of time and effort that effectively maintains the status quo. Maybe that's the whole point of bureaucratic endeavour on this battleground. Whatever the explanation, it's obvious Government and its agencies have a strategic ideas deficit when it comes to food, making them largely ineffective in improving the nation's diet.

We're in for another dollop of Government-style nutritionism when the Department of Health launches its Healthier Food Mark next month, doling out gold badges to caterers who calculate levels of salt, fat and sugar. Trumpeted as a way to deliver more nutritious, environmentally sustainable food, the HFM is strangely mute when it comes to environmental or animal welfare requirements. 

Weirder still, the HFM steering group has studiously ignored organisations that do have good ideas, such as the Soil Association. Its pioneering Food for Life catering mark, which is already used by progressive caterers in hospitals, schools, nurseries and even football clubs, isn't a charter for organic purists.

For a bronze Food For Life mark, a caterer needs to show meals contain no undesirable additives or hydrogenated fats, 75% of dishes are freshly prepared, meat meets welfare standards, eggs are from cage-free hens, and menus are seasonal.

For silver, local, organic and Fairtrade food must be served, chicken, eggs and pork products must be Freedom Food or free-range and the Marine Conservation Society 'fish to avoid' list is off the menu.

Going for gold, 30% of ingredients must be organic or MSC-certified, at least 50% must be local and non-meat dishes must be promoted as part of a climate-friendly diet.

This step-by-step approach is a convincing template for improving diet, as opposed to a generator of ineffective number-crunching. The Government should stop trying to reinvent the wheel - and copy it.

Joanna Blythman is a food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain.