But taking action on below-cost selling of booze makes much less sense, says Kevin Hawkins

Full marks to Andrew Lansley for his clear statement of intent on the future role of the FSA.

Food retailers were opposed to its involvement in nutrition from the outset and will welcome the proposed reversion to watchdog for safe food. Whether food that is technically safe to eat is "good for you" is a subject fraught with too many opinions and too little science. As Spike Milligan put it: "Dying can damage your health."

The FSA's forays into complex nutritional and labelling issues illustrate the tendency of quangos to prove their indispensability by spreading their wings.

Ministers who may be thinking of giving our old friend the ombudsman both an independent status and a "proactive" role in other words, the power to snoop on retailers on the basis of anonymous tip-offs and malicious gossip might learn from the FSA's example.

They should also re-read the OFT's previous statements to the effect that punitive action based on anonymous complaints is incompatible with natural justice.

Lansley is on less certain ground in proposing to ban selling alcohol below cost. Successive Competition Commission inquiries have dismissed complaints from small stores that below-cost selling by supermarkets was a predatory practice or that it misled consumers about the real value of the product.

Below-cost selling on particular products, including alcohol, is typically short-term and affects only a tiny proportion of a supermarket's product range. The rationale for the proposed ban, however, is reducing the incidence of binge drinking an objective that, whatever its health benefits, is not recognised by competition law.

But it will have an adverse effect on competition by keeping prices higher than they would otherwise have been, increasing producers' and retailers' profit margins and restricting choice.

A better way of tackling alcohol abuse is to target those products that are instrumental in the process and here Lansley is on the right track. As the OFT told the Scottish government last year, if you want to discourage people from drinking too much, tax it more heavily.

So increasing the duty on white cider and similar products makes both economic sense and is administratively a lot simpler than trying to impose a minimum pricing regime on some 60,000 supermarkets and c-stores even if one were permissible under competition law which it isn't.

Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant.