We need to beef up the Food Standards Agency. The ‘people who protect your plate’ at the FSA have a lot on their own plate. Professor Chris Elliott, who oversaw the horsemeat investigation, described the recent findings of beef falsely labelled as British, some of which was found to be rotten, as just the tip of an ugly iceberg.
That’s not to blame the regulator for that scandal – businesses involved need to take responsibility. But the FSA needs greater resources and a clear remit for its heavy workload.
Why is the FSA so busy? In part it’s due to taking on additional responsibility previously held by the European Food Safety Authority. There’s also the mammoth task of sifting through thousands of EU laws relevant to food, to decide which should stay, go or change. The timetable for the Retained EU Law Bill is hopefully being extended but nonetheless, there is a huge amount to do.
The newly passed Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act has created a whole swathe of regulatory challenges, with the UK government clearly keen to get gene-edited foods on the market as soon as possible. Yet the FSA has not been given huge additional budgets nor significant new powers to support all these.
I engage with the FSA as a member of the FSA Consumer Stakeholder Forum. To be clear, the FSA is not complaining about its status or resources. However, I believe businesses should be fervently arguing the case for a strong regulator. And no, that’s not like turkeys voting for Christmas.
Businesses want the benefits that good regulation brings – a level playing field, public trust in food products and brands, greater certainty and opportunity for trade with other markets. On top of that, good regulation can support companies to minimise negative environmental and animal welfare impacts.
According to a recent Unchecked UK poll, less than one in five of UK businesses see excessive government regulation as the most important domestic issue they’re facing, while 72% of UK businesses back current levels of environmental regulation. At a recent Food Ethics Council Business Forum, we asked food businesses what they want from regulation and heard strong support for sensible protections and for backing the FSA. So, ignore the bonfire of red tape rhetoric; it’s misleading.
Why, then, is it challenging to get better regulation into the spotlight? As one of our Business Forum participants said: “Regulation is one of those things that, when it works well, you don’t notice it.” Regulations relating to food are by and large taken for granted, mostly invisible to the public and do not get the recognition they deserve. Here are three things would help raise the profile of good regulation.
Firstly, make regulation more visible to the public. Businesses and regulators should tell the story of how sensible regulation helps on a day-to-day basis. Conversely, paint a picture of what a food system with no regulation would look like. In short, chaos.
Secondly, make regulation relevant to the person on the street. Pick some flagship existing regulations that will resonate with people. Do you think people with nut allergies should be told that a food product contains nuts? Of course. Should there be horsemeat in something labelled as beef mince? Of course not.
And thirdly, beef up the key regulator. Food businesses should do more to push for a better funded FSA with a wider remit and sharper teeth.
We need common sense protections and a regulator properly supported for the new normal. Let’s back a stronger FSA.