Food Scares Agency

The Food Standards Agency was set up to restore our confidence in food. So why does it flag every potential danger, however insignificant?

Jan Bowman

Topics Politics

In recent months the UK has been trembling over food scares and concerns about modern agriculture – over antibiotics in poultry, dioxins in milk, and pet food sold off as chicken nuggets. And who could forget those old classics, like mad cow disease?

In an age of scary food, something like the Food Standards Agency (FSA) might sound like a good idea. Set up in 2000 with an annual budget of £120million – the equivalent to the entire cost of local government food enforcement (1) – the FSA aims to restore consumer confidence in food. But there’s a problem: it has an impossible brief.

The FSA is meant to be independent. Yet it is funded and staffed directly by the government. And as a New Labour progeny, the FSA is mandated to act according to the precautionary principle. This imperative – to treat every new scientific development with caution – views science and innovation as suspect, welcomes regulation, and values the views of the public as much as (if not more than) the views of scientific experts.

But at a time when popular participation has hit an all-time low (think UK general election), consumer lobby groups now act as a proxy public. They are the lay-people most keenly watching the FSA, and they tend to be more suspicious of science than the rest of us. And it is their views that increasingly influence policy.

Today’s radical activists are imbued with the precautionary principle and they tend to see processes as unsafe, regardless of the evidence – which means they’re all in favour of the FSA’s brief: ‘If we believe there is a serious threat to consumer safety, we will take action where necessary, without waiting for conclusive proof.’ (2)

So in May 2001, the Soil Association accused the then Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries of lying about antibiotic residues in poultry. Without conclusive proof it claimed that conventionally reared chickens posed a risk to consumers’ health, warning that ‘regulators should assume that all drug residues in food pose potential dangers…in the absence of solid evidence suggesting otherwise’ (3).

But do all drug residues in food cause harm? In truth, you would have to eat a lot of chicken with ‘maximum residue levels’ of antibiotic for a very long time to suffer any health problems. And the residues mentioned in the Soil Association’s report were all at levels well below World Health Organisation (WHO) safety limits.

So which is more harmful to public health: the occasional chicken egg with a trace of drug in it at a level that even WHO considers harmless – or the cumulative effect of panicking people about accidental dangers in a heavily regulated industry?

But still the FSA responded to the Soil Association’s report on drugs in chickens with a careful ‘thank you’, and promised to pass it on to the relevant government body.

The problem is, the precautionary principle makes it hard for the FSA to be objective – and even harder to avoid panicking the very people it is trying to build links with. Early on in his job as chairman of the FSA, Sir John Krebs made the mistake of saying that people who buy organic products are ‘not getting value for money if they think they are buying extra nutritional value or extra safety’ – and was roundly lambasted by Joanna Blythman, author of How To Avoid GM Food, for being ‘out of step with consumer concerns’ (4).

But Blythman is wrong – Britain may be the fastest-growing market for organic food in Europe (5), but it is still the case that just seven percent of shoppers account for nearly 60 percent of all organic sales – so ‘buying organic’ is hardly a mass consumer movement. Yet the response to Sir John Krebs’ ‘anti-organic’ comments made the FSA even more wary of offending its critics.

The FSA is constantly attacked for not being sufficiently independent – or rather, for not making enough fuss about the right issues. The Guardian’s health correspondent has accused the FSA of ‘conniving in the silence’ over GM rape seed being inadvertently mixed with ordinary stuff in 2000, claiming that ‘self-satisfaction at the safety of our food should be tempered while there are still horrific examples of unscrupulous companies trying to bend hygiene’ (6).

The FSA is caught between a rock and a hard place – and its attempts during the foot-and-mouth crisis to calm concerns while simultaneously alerting us to previously unknown terrors over dioxin illustrates its dilemma.

On 25 May 2001, the FSA sent letters to 15,000 farmers around the country, warning them that their cattle’s milk could be contaminated with dioxins if the cattle had grazed within two kilometres of smouldering foot-and-mouth pyres. Apparently dioxins could be lurking in the grass (7).

Now this does sound alarming – but, in fact, the letter only applied to 900 of the farmers contacted. Only those who sourced all their milk and milk products from animals near pyres were in any way affected – and, most importantly, the risk was so minute as to be meaningless. Even if higher than normal levels of dioxin were to be traced to milk, the harmful effects of dioxin take a lifetime to build up, not just a few weeks.

As one farmer said upon receiving the FSA’s letter: ‘When they admit that the risk is absolutely infinitesimal, I can’t work out why they have even raised this.’ (8)

The FSA had understandable difficulty trying to explain why it was prepared to risk causing another food scare. ‘This is highly precautionary advice for a very small number of consumers’, said Sir John Krebs. ‘It is unlikely there will be any health concerns but we need to double check.’

The FSA operates in a climate where many people are prepared to believe the worst. So the Soil Association welcomed the FSA’s warning to farmers, but added that ‘this is more bad news for farmers and their families’. And for the general public, the FSA’s warning can only have contributed to their distrust of modern agriculture, and encouraged worries about food safety.

The FSA was created to draw consumers into dialogue with the government and to win trust and reassure the public. But the dioxin issue suggests this is not going to happen. Instead, the FSA is constantly scolded for not blowing the whistle hard enough, so it increasingly feels it has to flag up every possible danger, however small and insignificant.

It may one day become a trusted source of advice on food – but it will have been at the expense of giving us all ulcers from anxiety.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Food scares

Food: the new poison? by Tony Gilland

(1) Poison chalice, Paul Humphries, Guardian, 25 April 2001

(2) FSA Strategic Plan 2001-2006: Putting customers first, p7

(3) ‘Too hard to swallow: the truth about drugs and poultry’, Soil Association Executive Summary, 4 May 2001

(4) Sacred cow, Joanna Blythman, Guardian, 4 November 2000

(5) Annabel Roberts, ITN, 14 May 2001

(6) ‘The debate nobody wants…food safety’, James Meikle, Guardian, 1 June 2001

(7) ‘Farmers shocked by milk dioxin warning’, Scotsman, 26 May 2001

(8) Ibid

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Topics Politics


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