As the Food Standards Agency celebrates its 10th birthday, Nick Hughes looks at its evolution to date and considers the impact of the upcoming election on its future direction

On Saturday 3 April, the Food Standards Agency celebrates its 10th anniversary. But as the low-fat nibbles and slimline tonics are passed around Aviation House, attention will already be focused on a more significant date 6 May. The general election marks a crossroads in the FSA's journey as the two main political parties map out very different paths for the agency.

A Labour victory would allow the FSA to continue in its role as the architect of diet and nutrition policy and extend its remit to include sustainability. Public Health Minister Gillian Merron's recommendation that the FSA expand its current advice to also include information on sustainable diets will have been music to the ears of an agency that has long viewed its role as far more than a food safety regulator.

The alternative path is a more distasteful one for the FSA. The Tories plan to strip it of diet and nutrition strategy and revert it to a pure food safety authority reporting to Defra, allowing shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley to create a dedicated department for public health and dispel "a conflicting voice within government". Yet again the FSA finds itself dividing opinion; a common scenario in its history.

To fully understand the conflict over the fate of the FSA, it's important to study its evolution. It rose out of the ashes of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), which was widely condemned for its abject failure to deal effectively with the food scares of the 1980s and 90s most notably salmonella in eggs, listeria and BSE. Many stakeholders believed MAFF's dual role of both promoting the food industry and protecting consumers created a conflict of interests that gave rise to policies that blurred the lines between political, economic and consumer interests. Consumer organisations in particular campaigned for an independent agency with a more open and transparent approach to food policy.

Ten years on and debate still rages over the FSA's original remit. "When Nick Brown MP set it up, it was as a Food Safety Authority rather than a Food Standards Authority in a broader sense. He was quite clear on that," says one manufacturing source.

However, Which? chief food policy adviser Sue Davies claims the FSA was always meant to take a lead on nutrition. "There was a big debate at the late stages of the Bill about whether nutrition should be in it and it was decided it should be."

Initially, under chairman Lord Krebs, the agency focused its work on improving food safety and restoring consumer confidence following BSE; a role the vast majority of stakeholders believe it continues to perform admirably to this day. "Since its inception following the major food safety scares in the UK, the FSA has been excellent in establishing and improving food safety for consumers," says Kellogg's communications director Chris Wermann.

But towards the end of his tenure, Krebs began to see that the big health problems relating to food were coming from chronic rather than foodborne disease. And when Deirdre Hutton took the chair of the FSA in 2005, she initiated a sea change in culture. The agency began looking at nutrient profiling as a way of classifying foods on account of their health credentials, and developed a system for front-of-pack nutritional labelling based on traffic light colours. This brought the agency into conflict with food suppliers, many of whom resented the focus on single nutrients, such as fat, sugar or salt, rather than diets as a whole.

Hutton's consumerist background vexed many in the industry who felt the scientific basis for policymaking was losing out to poorly conceived gimmicks designed to appease pressure groups. "They made a big mistake in taking all the scientists off the board," says one academic. "Krebs' strength was his scientific background."

The legacy of Hutton, say critics, is that the independent FSA, whose guiding principle is to be governed by the best scientific evidence available, continues to take decisions out of expediency rather than sound knowledge of the impact of the policy.

The decision in 2008 to pressure food manufacturers to remove six food colourings from their products that a study from Southampton University linked with hyperactivity in children, despite EFSA saying the evidence was tenuous, is often cited as an example of the FSA putting its own agenda ahead of science. "It is a perfect example of how good science is ignored and the questionable results from bad science are used to form the FSA's recommendations," says the regulatory affairs manager of a major multinational.

The FSA has been quite open in admitting that it sometimes rejects scientific evidence invariably on the ground that there are more persuasive public health arguments. But this is beyond the remit of a regulator, says FDF director general Melanie Leech. "If policy is going to be developed that goes beyond what the science bears, that is a policy-making role and a role for ministers."

The blurring of the lines between the role of government and the FSA was a key feature of Hutton's tenure. "When the FSA was set up, the DH wasn't really prioritising public preventative health or obesity so there was no starting point at which it was clear what the DH's role was and what the FSA's was," says Leech. When the DH began looking at obesity more seriously following the publication of its Choosing Health White Paper in 2004, it created confusion over the delineation of responsibility for public health policy. "The dividing lines didn't seem to be sorted out on logical grounds but on more political grounds," says the academic. "The FSA should have handed some of the lines over to the DH, particularly on nutrition."

Hutton, however, was loathe to cede responsibility for driving nutrition policy. As a result, the relationship descended into what one source describes as "an unseemly turf war" with Health Minister Dawn Primarolo. "Disputes between Hutton and Primarolo were absurd, they behaved like squabbling children," he claims.

When the Healthy Lives steering group was set up to try and bring stakeholders together to discuss common agendas, many were surprised to find it chaired jointly by Hutton and Primarolo. "That was a bit weird, because it should have been led by the DH with the support of the FSA, but everyone was too scared of Deirdre to suggest she shouldn't be on a level footing."

In the tug of war between the FSA and the DH, the industry has often been the rope. While the FSA has undoubtedly succeeded in its guiding principle of consulting widely and openly before taking action, until recently the complaint has been that the industry's voice is seldom heard. Particularly around the time the Nutrient Profiling Model was being developed, responses to consultations were thought to go into, as one supplier puts it, "a big black hole".

"At times, especially in more contentious areas, they've had a tendency to consult on a position rather than consult before reaching a position and that's been a mistake," says Leech. As a result, the FSA settled on a Nutrient Profiling Model that many thought unfit for purpose and a traffic-light system of nutritional labelling that was too simplistic and at odds with the labels developed by some of the biggest retailers and manufacturers.

Since Hutton's departure in 2008, however, the relationship between industry and the FSA has shown signs of improvement. Under the stewardship of chief executive and industry veteran Tim Smith and chairman Lord Rooker, FSA policy has made concessions to some of the technical challenges facing the food industry, particularly around reformulation. "The FSA has seen a sea change in culture by working in partnership with the dairy industry over its salt and satfat campaigns," says Dairy UK director general Jim Begg.

Smith is now the driving force behind FSA policymaking, with Rooker focusing on the FSA's anatomy itself. "Rooker's an astute veteran politician and when you look at what he said when he got into that role he was quite clearly looking at a Tory government," says the supplier. "All his words were very much about food safety and subsequently he's restructured."

The FSA board recently completed the merger with the Meat Hygiene Service, establishing a new operations group to take on the responsibilities of the MHS from 1 April, a move many believe is in anticipation of the FSA's remit being scaled back under a Conservative government.

Lansley's belief, however that bringing nutrition in-house "so we can have one central partnership between government and industry" has plenty of critics. "It became very apparent in the late 1990s that if you start to put responsibilities within the same government department it's very difficult to deal with the competing interests and it's very difficult to see what is the basis for decision making," says Davies.

The fear remains that if the FSA only covers food safety, the DH lacks the clout and focus to continue to drive change in diet and nutrition. "The DH is such a weak ministry that in many regards those aspects will be lost," says the academic. "Whatever you think the solutions are, if you separate out food safety from nutrition, food safety will get all the money, yet it is not the most important problem."

In January the FSA published its strategy for 2010 to 2015, which included the resolution that consumers should be choosing healthier and more balanced meals by 2015. This, coupled with recent noises about a 'fat tax', exemplified the agency putting down a marker for its continued role as a nutrition educator and regulator. Come 6 May, we'll know if the FSA will have the chance to make good on its promise.

The FSA takes up the cudgels...
Nutrient profiling
Developed by the FSA to help Ofcom meet its brief to combat obesity in children, the Nutrient Profiling Model caused outrage among food suppliers, who labelled it crude and fundamentally flawed.

Scoring food using a formula targeting sugar, salt and fat, the NPM ignored nutrients such as calcium and iron, vitamin content and natural antioxidants and failed to distinguish between natural and processed sugars.

Even more controversial was the 100g base, which discriminated against foods eaten in small portions and prompted The Grocer to launch its Weigh It Up! campaign.

Southampton Six
The FSA's decision in April 2008 to advise ministers to encourage food manufacturers to voluntarily remove six food colourings linked to hyperactivity in children was greeted with incredulity by the industry.

Not only had manufacturers been removing artificial colours from foods for some time, but the European Food Safety Authority had already deemed the evidence from the Southampton University study to be tenuous and stated that a ban was unjustifiable.

Despite the evidence, Deirdre Hutton refused to back down, citing the agency's duty to protect consumers.

Protein cap
After two years of research by the Nutrient Profiling Model review panel, the FSA board voted against proposals to remove the protein cap and allow the advertising of a handful of cereals and snacks to children.

Why? On the basis, it emerged, of a brief conference call between four of the 14-strong Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, where the decision was made that the scientific justification for removing the cap was not as compelling as the public health arguments for maintaining the status quo. Another example of the FSA failing in its principle of being guided by science.

Traffic lights
The industry has been at loggerheads with the FSA over nutritional labelling since the latter backed a traffic-light scheme in 2006. Tesco, Nestlé and Kellogg's are among those to have resisted traffic lights and used GDAs instead.

The agency has also been frustrated in its attempts to influence Brussels, with EU proposals focusing on a label based on GDAs and energy.

The latest FSA proposal for a single front-of-pack system combining GDA percentages, traffic-light colours and text denoting high, medium or low in salt, fat and sugar is regarded as a victory for opponents of traffic lights.

Salt and satfat reduction targets have been broadly accepted by manufacturers as reasonable and achievable, but the tone of the FSA's public information campaigns has caused tension.

A poster showing salt spilling out of cereals, bread, ketchup and pasta sauce prompted the FDF, the Federation of Bakers and the Association of Cereal Foods Manufacturers to withdraw support for the campaign, claiming it failed to recognise reformulation efforts, while the satfat awareness campaign was slammed by Farming Minister Jane Kennedy for sending out a negative message about dairy products.