British Government Unveils Plan for Food Safety Agency

HEBDEN BRIDGE, U.K.--In a bill sent to Parliament on Wednesday, the British government revealed its long-awaited plan to establish an independent Food Standards Agency (FSA), charged with guarding food safety. The new body faces the task of restoring public confidence in British food in the wake of the crisis over bovine spongiform encephalopathy--"mad cow disease"--and a string of bacterial food poisoning outbreaks.

For years, British consumer groups have urged successive governments to transfer responsibility for overseeing food safety regulations from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food (MAFF) to an independent agency, arguing that MAFF cannot promote these industries and police them, too. Under the new bill, FSA will set standards for food safety all the way from farms to local stores, monitor compliance, and audit the performance of local authorities responsible for food law enforcement.

Some £25 million ($41 million) of the agency's £120 million yearly budget will be spent on research. Most of that will be transferred from the research budgets of MAFF and the Ministry of Health, says Muff Meah, who currently heads MAFF's food standards and safety research and has been tapped to lead FSA's research efforts. The new agency will continue most research projects started by both ministries into the development of antibiotic resistance in the food chain, viruses in shellfish, and the impact of farm slurry on agricultural land.

The government's step was applauded from many sides. "For 150 years, the food industry in Britain has [dealt] cozily with the state," says Tim Lang, a professor of food safety at Thames Valley University and a longtime campaigner for an independent food agency. "The government has shown itself sensitive to our arguments about open government." Shiela McKechnie, director of the Consumer's Association, hails the bill as "a victory for consumers," while Michael Mackenzie, director-general of the Food and Drink Federation, an organization of food manufacturers, says his federation "wholeheartedly welcomes" the new agency. Small businesses, however, have expressed dissent at the plan to charge every food retail outlet a yearly $150 levy to help finance the agency.

If Parliament passes the bill in the current session, as expected, the new body could be up and running by April 2000.