Helen Gregory reviews the FSA's inaugural year as it gets ready to publish its first manifesto, one on which it is determined to deliver To say food safety is a hot topic would be an understatement. If it wasn't already high on the business and media agenda, it has been forced up over the last year because of the birth of the Food Standards Agency. Now one year old, the fledgling agency has responded to issues such as BSE and the foot and mouth crisis, while raising a few of its own, such as labelling and licensing for butchers. It has also courted controversy, when chairman Sir John Krebs outraged organic groups when he announced that organic food was neither safer nor more nutritious than conventionally grown food. A pronouncement he still stands by. Last April it promised to "put the consumer first to let them make informed choices and to be open and consultative, accountable, consistent, and to consult on all its activities". Its key objectives were to: improve the enforcement of food law, support consumer choice, promote healthy and safe eating, conduct regular surveys to get public feedback, set up a new Food Chain Strategy Division to advise on food safety and standards issues, establish a statutory scheme for licensing butchers, publish performance targets for the Meat Hygiene Service, introduce a scheme for setting and auditing standards for the enforcement of food law by local authorities and promote more informative labelling. It has made a decent fist of fulfiling its promises, but its core audience ­ consumers ­ don't seem to be getting the message. In February, its Consumer Attitudes to Food Standards survey discovered that only 58% of respondents had heard of it, while many wrongly thought that the agency enforced laws and standards. Sir John defends this ignorance and confidently predicts that the public will become more aware of the FSA's existence and work through its future campaigns. "I didn't expect a lot of people to be aware of us. We started off low, so there's nowhere to go but up." He calls the agency "a baby" and says this year it has been "sowing the seeds" for the future. "We've pretty well done all the things we expected to do when we set up." He lists the framework agreement for local authorities and the review of BSE controls as creditable initiatives. Sir John is also proud of its commitment to live its life in the public eye and quotes the Consumer's Association's remark that they are, "an island in a sea of secrecy". The agency plans to expand its work in the coming months and will soon come up with an 18-point action plan on labelling and nutrition ­ some of which will need legislation from Brussels (enforcing country of origin for example), while others will need voluntary action from UK retailers. Sir John is confident that they will oblige. "We're looking to get rid of misleading things such as 95% fat free' on labels and one big manufacturer has already promised to do that. I'd be disappointed if we hadn't made some progress in the second year of the agency's life." The FSA publishes its first strategic plan in May ­ what Sir John calls its manifesto ­ but unlike its political counterparts, he is determined they will deliver on it and be held to account. An annual report is also promised as well as a yearly consumer survey. Other major initiatives in the pipeline include a harder look at food import safety as well as studies into ways to ease the burden of safety checks on small companies ­ something Sir John says has restricted consumer choice by driving some people out of business. Another major move will be the introduction of HACCP standards to more firms in the food chain. The FSA is even planning a campaign to promote it. Sir John is proud of the FSA's handling of the foot and mouth crisis and pleased that the public were reassured quickly and haven't turned away from meat ­ largely due to its reassurances, he believes. It will also be contributing to the Ministry of Agriculture's review of the crisis through its newly created think tank ­ the Food Chain Strategy Division ­ made up of a small team of experts. It will investigate food production processes throughout the food chain and will contribute to the foot and mouth study. Despite criticism from some industry quarters, he insists that the agency's work is not unfairly weighted in favour of consumers. "We want to promote their interests, but industry is concerned with the same things. If we gain respect, that's good for the industry." But he is also aware that some of its pronouncements on companies failing safety checks, are likely to cause ripples in the industry. "We'll always give a company the right to reply, but we'll still go ahead and publish the findings regardless." {{COVER FEATURE }}