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What is the role of the Food Standards Agency?
Dr Richard dune
Whenever we consume food, whether a sandwich from our local supermarket, a takeaway or a meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant, we want to feel confident that the food preparation guidelines have been followed. The past few years have seen a significant increase in food poisoning incidents resulting in serious illnesses and even deaths caused by severe food allergies.
In this article, Dr Richard Dune will discuss the history and responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency, noting its regulatory powers.
Role of the Food Standards Agency
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is a non-ministerial department of the Government of the United Kingdom. It is responsible for protecting the public's health regarding food in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It has offices in York, Birmingham, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and its headquarters in London.
Before the formation of Food Standards Scotland in April 2015, the agency had a national office in Scotland.
History of the Food Standards Agency
A report by Professor James led to the establishment of the FSA in 2001 after several high-profile outbreaks and deaths caused by foodborne illnesses. It was deemed inappropriate to have the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food responsible for the health of the farming and food processing industries and food safety.
The FSA said it would publish advice to Ministers under the Food Standards Act 1999. Throughout its existence, it has stated that it will only make decisions in open board meetings. Since 2003, consumers have been able to watch live webcasts of these meetings. Each meeting concludes with a question and answer session.
Following the Wine Standards Board merger with the Food Standards Agency in 2006, the FSA now enforces the EU wine regime in the United Kingdom. Meat Hygiene Service, formerly an executive agency of the FSA, merged with the FSA in April 2010 to form an operations group.
The Food Standards Agency transferred certain aspects of the food labelling regulations to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on 1 September 2010. All food safety labelling issues are overseen by the Food Standards Agency in England, whereas the devolved FSA offices in Wales and Northern Ireland handle all labelling and standards issues.
Nutrition policy in England and Wales has been transferred from the Food Standards Agency to the Department of Health and Social Care. Alison Tedstone led the nutrition policy team at Public Health England after its establishment in 2013.
The Food Standards Agency offices in Scotland and Northern Ireland remain responsible for nutrition policy. In June 2012, the Scottish Ministers announced plans to establish a new food standards body, which became law in January 2015. In Scotland, Food Standards Scotland has taken over from the Food Standards Agency as the public body responsible for food safety, food standards, nutrition, food labelling, and meat inspection.
Major interventions of the Food Standards Agency
Food Standards Agency interventions include:
- Recalls and contamination
- Children's advertising
- Food poisoning.
Below, we will discuss these interventions in more detail.
Recalls and contamination
The agency announced in February 2005 that Sudan I dye was found in Worcester sauce, which prompted the recall of more than 400 products containing the sauce.
A survey published on 31 March 2006 found that four soft drinks contained benzene levels above the World Health Organization's (WHO) guidelines for drinking water. As a result, the FSA requested that these drinks be withdrawn from sale.
Following the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe, the Food Standards Agency imposed restrictions on the sheep trade, which were repealed in March 2012.
To measure the balance of benefits and disadvantages of individual food items, the FSA pushed for stricter guidelines on TV advertising foods high in salt, sugar, and fat. Additionally, the FSA developed a nutritional profiling system to measure the balance of benefits and disadvantages of individual food items.
The UK's television regulator Ofcom introduced restrictions on advertising products that scored poorly under its rating scheme in 2007.
The Food Standards Agency conducted an advertising campaign on British television in June 2002 and again in June 2006, highlighting the danger of food poisoning caused by barbecues. This advertisement was intended to shock viewers by depicting sausages sizzling on a barbecue, appearing cooked to the viewer. When a pair of tongs is used to pick up one of these sausages, the sausage falls apart, revealing pink, uncooked meat inside.
The Three Degrees' song "When Will I See You Again" is played in the background to emphasise the risk of diarrhoea and vomiting caused by food poisoning.
The Dean Review of the Food Standards Agency
Brenda Dean conducted an independent review of the Food Standards Agency in 2005. There were 22 recommendations in the report, all of which were accepted by the board of the Food Standards Agency.
“My overwhelming impression, having undertaken this Review, is of an organisation that has been extremely conscious of the importance of fulfilling the very serious responsibilities of changing both the perception and the reality of food safety in the UK.
It has done well in taking forward the experiences, good and bad, of the previous regime, to begin building its own reputation.
Most stakeholders agreed that the Agency has made significant progress towards improving food safety, gaining public confidence in food safety, and creating a modern culture in which it is the norm for procedures, information, consultation and decision-making to be in the public domain and to involve external stakeholders.
There was overwhelming support for the Agency’s policy of basing decisions on scientific evidence, and for this policy to be maintained and developed further. The vast majority of stakeholders believe the Agency to be independent and to act independently, with general recognition that decisions are based on scientific evidence.
There was general support for the Agency amongst all stakeholder groups, both in terms of the objectives of the Agency, and the way in which the Agency has approached and undertaken its responsibilities."
Among the principal criticisms identified in the report is Recommendation 20:
“It is clear that many stakeholders believe the Agency has already made policy decisions on GM foods and organic foods and is not open to further debate. The Agency must address the perceptions of these stakeholders who have now formed views of the Agency founded on their belief that the basis upon which the Agency’s policy decisions were made was flawed."
Food Hygiene Rating Scheme (FHRS)
The Food Standards Agency has implemented a food hygiene rating scheme for all food businesses. Ratings are available on the business premises and online.
Except for Scotland, which is under a straightforward Food Hygiene Information Scheme, the FSA's Food Hygiene Rating Scheme will be tested throughout the United Kingdom. The ratings will range from 0 (improvement urgently needed) to 5 (very good) and may be displayed on a certificate. Additionally, this information will be made available online. It is the next step forward for the FSA to rate primary meat processing plants since meat audits are currently only available through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Chairperson and advisory committees
The first Chair of the Food Standards Agency was Sir John Krebs, who served until 2005. Dame Deirdre Hutton served as Chair between 2005 and July 2009, followed by Jeff Rooker until July 2013. The former Deputy Chair, Tim Bennett, was appointed interim Chair until a permanent appointment could be made. The new Chair, Heather Hancock, was appointed on 1 April 2016 for a three-year term and reappointed for a further three-year term on 1 April 2019.
Several independent expert committees advise the Agency, including the following:
- Advisory Committee on Animal Feedingstuffs
- Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food
- Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes
- Advisory Committee on Social Sciences
- Committee on Toxicity
- Science Council.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is a positive force in influencing the public's eating habits and consumption of unhealthy foods. Its efforts to regulate food standards, improve the nutritional profile of advertised food, provide advice on food-related illnesses, and offer nutritional information on various food items are showing promising results.
There is little doubt that the FSA's influence will grow in the coming years as concerns about food safety and nutrition continue to rise.
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