Could the FSA yet prove to be a sheep in wolf's clothing? That's the fear lurking in some doubters' minds, and an image the assembled honchos strove to avoid at the body's long awaited launch this week. "Teeth, of course we've got teeth," they cried. And, they promised, the biggest stick imaginable with which to beat any industry body or minister that does not cower into submission: openness. The sheer scale of that transparency, unprecedented in government, will doubtless prove a tremendous weapon. If the government doesn't act on the agency's public advice it will have to explain itself. Neither, they promise, will the FSA baulk at "naming and shaming" those in the industry that don't come up to scratch. The new world order in food policy is all about the consumer. Gone are the days of MAFF simultaneously safeguarding industry coffers while acting as bastion of the consumer interest. The consumer, the argument goes, rarely came out better from the compromise. But this beast is solely, and dedicatedly committed to the consumer. But is that enough? Will the FSA ­ on the Labour party backburner since 1990 and a key 1997 manifesto commitment following the BSE crisis and the E.coli breakout in Lanarkshire which claimed 21 lives ­ evoke a sea change in food standards and handling practices on the ground? Expectations on the consumer bench are high. And everything from product labelling to farm practices and government policy on additives and gm foods is up for grabs. It was consumer power that breathed life into the baby, but will it prove such a powerful force after the birth? Professor Hugh Pennington, who conducted the Lanarkshire E.coli inquiry, believes the level of anticipation surrounding the agency's creation raises the stakes. "Because there is so much expectation that things will be much better and that the FSA will be seen to be handling things much better, it has the potential to be very powerful. "It's up to the agency to see how it uses that goodwill." From the outset, things on the ground will change as the FSA takes over long arm responsibility for the enforcement and monitoring of food standards implemented by local authorities. The FSA is charged with formulating and implementing policy on food safety down to the local level and is committed to more uniformity in standards nationwide. Such a stand is long overdue and has been welcomed across the board. A framework agreement will be open for consultation over the next few months with a view to new guidance going to local authorities in September. One power that has been made much of is the option for the Food Standards Agency to seize control from local authorities if their services fail to measure up to the new requirements. It could well operate as the hit squad does in failing schools. The British Retail Consortium is optimistic about the "tightening" of existing arrangements and hopes "rogue traders" will cease to slip through the net. Rachel Kenningham, assistant director of food policy, says: "The law is tough but it needs enforcing. "It only takes one weak link for enforcement to break down. We're optimistic the new agency will make a difference and that consumers and businesses will feel the law is being enforced more evenly throughout the country." But barring exceptional circumstances, enforcement will remain with local authorities. And food safety rarely beats other money baggers including education for funds. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health wants money for enforcement ringfenced and says it is "very, very hopeful the FSA may call for it if they find evidence that more resources are needed". The industry will see a difference not only in the way it is policed, but in the way it is consulted on food standards. A new think tank is being established by the FSA taking a "farm to fork approach" over the food chain. But what will consumers get out of the new agency ­ one that is costing them £110m in year one? Though FSA brains are switched on to the inevitability of ambushes on their first foray out of the planning hut into the wilds of food policy, they promise to be fearless fighters for the consumer good. And this wolf knows that initial impressions are what counts. If consumers see a fighter, a protector of their interests from the outset, the FSA will be on firmer ground from then on in. Health minister Gisela Stuart made the point at the opening of the FSA's Scottish arm: "Our overriding agenda must be to ensure that not only is food as safe as it can be, but that it is seen to be so." Deputy chairman Suzi Leather has made it her priority to ensure the agency is consistently on message. "From day one the public will see we're doing things differently, putting public interest first and we are open and transparent. "That all shows food safety and public health related to food are being handled in a very different way. "We will put the consumer first. We will be open, independent, and accessible. We won't be deflected from our course by criticism from whatever source that comes. Consumers have wanted this for a long time and we won't water it down." And it's not just advice to ministers that will be public. The agency's board will hold open meetings and its research and proceedings will be placed on the internet. Plus it will hold open forums to discuss how people want the agency to put "openness" into practice and how "to make consultation real rather than just a formal exercise". The FSA will undertake annual surveys to discover consumers' concerns and what they think of the agency and its work. The first qualitative work will be published before the summer. Meaningless and misleading labelling is the number one complaint. So the FSA seeks to be a consumer bastion, a vanguard of sound science and independent advice. Not something the industry or government will feel so warmly towards indefinitely, perhaps. Chairman Sir John Krebs recognises he won't be pleasing all of the people all of the time. But neither does he believe a bloodbath with powerful industry groups is imminent. Instead he talks convincingly of partnerships, and a "win, win situation" where consumer confidence in the food chain is restored. It's all about relationship building. And the industry is largely on the side of the FSA at present, pleased as punch the architects took on board many of its concerns ­ including a watered down responsibility for health and nutrition and the rejection of the proposed levy. Leather says: "The thinking we've done at informal board level is focused on the importance of relationships. Between the FSA and the public the focus has been on openness and accessibility; with the industry on partnership and enforcement; and with the government it has to be one of independence. "Getting the quality of those relationships right has been and will be the grounding for everything we do." But can the FSA really steer a distinct course from what's gone before? The 500 strong agency is stuffed with 300 ex-Maffites. While the proof will certainly be in the first pudding scare, the signs are hopeful. For one, the new agency is solely a consumer body. And, Leather points out, all the staff came willingly and with explicit instruction that the ethos and culture would be unlike anything they'd known at MAFF. Other doubters point out the European Food Authority will overshadow anything done on UK shores. Not so, argue both David Byrne, European Commissioner for health and consumer protection, and the FSA's Leather. Byrne insists there is a place for national systems "complemented and supported" at the European level, while Leather has already established links with her formative European counterpart. Leather says: "The agency will give consumers a stronger voice in Brussels by ensuring it understands their views. "The European food agency will have to draw on national scientific expertise with which the UK is rather well endowed. It will help us if Europe can set common standards to ensure a level playing field. " The FSA's leadership clearly has its line thought out, well rehearsed and word perfect. It is a creation of its age, a slick, media savvy world of professional governance. To show there's action as well as words in the beast, the FSA carefully arranged for the new licensing arrangements for butchers and retailers handling fresh meat to go before Parliament on the very day of its launch. Clever stuff. It has tackled head on the primary consumer concern of meat safety and has given the impression of coming out of its den teeth bared. How soon it meets its target of a 50% reduction in chicken salmonella will be a key determinant in how it is valued by its public. But while the Food Standards Agency is playing a long-term game and will not face serious assessment of whether it has been a success for five years at least, it could fall on its face in the light of an aggressive media at its first challenge. As Pennington points out, the beast of the Elephant and Castle (it is soon to move to more salubrious surroundings in London's legal land Holborn) will enjoy a honeymoon period. But the confetti could get washed away overnight in the storm of the next big food scare. The Food and Drink Industry Federation has challenged the FSA to engender trust from the public from the word go. It is so far pretty pleased with what it has seen. But Sir John & Co do not have an easy ride in front of them. n {{COVER FEATURE }}