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July 15 2004 ~ Resignation of Sir John Krebs


In September 2002 Dr Richard North wrote:

in view of Krebs' sausage ban, you might like to read the following - text of a speech I gave in 1998.

The Food Standards Agency



The government is about to provide a clear blueprint for the FSA, including its terms of reference, funding and how much power it will actually have.  How will it affect the food industry?

Dr Richard North
Food Safety Advisor

for delivery: 14 October 1998
Foodtech 98
National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham

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In addressing the central subject of how will the FSA affect the food industry, I want first to take you through a brief review of the history of this project.  That, in itself, will give you some idea of where the industry - and the consumer - will stand.

Strangely, it was Professor Lacey - that well-known friend of the food industry - who was one of the first to suggest the idea.  He offered it in his evidence to the Agriculture Committee on salmonella in eggs, on 25 January 1989.  Up to then, most of the calls had been for a reorganisation of MAFF, turning it into the "Ministry of Food and Agriculture", although some wanted a separate ministry of food.  That was the line taken by Tim Lang of the left-wing London Food Commission.  But Lacey wanted an agency "...independent of specific government departments to ensure that the quality of our food is satisfactory".  He cited as models, the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) and the Centre for Disease Control (the American equivalent of the PHLS).

The first contemporary reference to an Agency in Parliament was on 16 February 1989, at the height of the listeria scare, during a general debate on food safety.  Up popped the unlikely figure of Tony Banks MP, now sports minister, with a demand that there should be an independent "food safety executive".  Two days later, Robin Cook, then shadow health spokesman, demanded a "safe food" agency, independent of ministers with its own budget.  The idea was picked up by Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, in a debate on 22 February.  From then on, it has been Labour Party policy.

MacGregor, then agriculture minister, was not keen on the idea, and his successor, a certain John Selwyn Gummer, rejected it completely.  On 1 October 1989, he told The Observer newspaper:

"I am not prepared to see a situation where, in a democratic society, the safety of the food of its people is not subject to parliamentary control.  I am responsible for it.  Members of Parliament would not be prepared to have a situation where the Minister is not there to be blamed". 

He added that it would be quite wrong for him to be able to get up in Parliament and say he was sorry about the outbreak but the food agency did not come up with the right advice.

The idea was next put to the Lords, during the debate on the Food Safety Bill, in February 1990.  The House decisively rejected the idea.  But, on 25 June 1990, the Consumers' Association took up the theme, in the wake of the first major BSE scare.  It decided that "consumer interest" had been pushed to the bottom of the agenda and opined that:

"...calls for an independent food agency not beholden to farmers and producers must be heard and acted on". 

Then, on 9 September 1990, David Clark, then agriculture spokesman, announced that Labour, if it won the next general election, intended to set up an independent food standards agency.  Although the concept had never even been debated in the House of Commons, the die was cast.

Since then, the "virus" has been firmly embedded in the system.  Just before the 1977 General Election, Blair asked Professor Philip James to work on a report outlining possible structures for the new agency.  But he was not asked to consider whether it would be a good idea.  Nor, from an evaluation of his report, published in April 1997, is it evident that this expert - in nutrition - had any clear idea of how the food safety system worked at "grass roots" level.  It is difficult to see how this could have been otherwise, in an exercise which took less than nine weeks.

In effect, a major policy change, what the government promises to be "the most radical shake-up of farming and food production since the war" - with profound implications for food producers, consumers and the safety of our food - went by default.  Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, described it as:

"...a sort of bandwagon that once it started to roll, everyone was saying... (it) is a good thing.  It was like a mantra that people started to repeat".

Despite its inherent defects and its slender intellectual base, this "mantra" is now to become a reality.  Its history and its emergence as mainstream government policy should tell you a great deal about its possible impact on industry.  And, it this does not inspire confidence, then things are set to become a great deal worse.

From the outset, it has been clear that the promoters of the agency concept do not even know what they are trying to achieve.  There is more than a little confusion.  Some seem to be mainly concerned with "improving confidence" in the safety of food, while others are seeking actual improvements in safety.  In the round, it seems that the main purpose of the Agency is to "improve consumer confidence".  Few can be under any illusions, however, that this is not necessarily the same thing as improving food safety.  Arguably, improved confidence is best achieved, in the first instance, by maximising the safety of food.

A major problem in this context is that central government, and the various agencies already involved in food safety issues, have very little idea of the precise nature of the threats confronting us, their scale, causation and the necessary controls.  Arguably, also, some of the control measures in place - such as the meat hygiene and poultry hygiene regulations, as enforced by the Meat Hygiene Service - contribute significantly to the scale of the problem.  Yet, being of EU origin, they are outwith the control and influence of the national government, and will remain outside the control of the Agency.  Furthermore, much of food safety policy lies within the competence of the EU, driven by political agendas which have little or anything to do with science.

If the Agency was to have any chance of achieving significant improvements in food safety, it would have to have policy-making and executive powers which would ensure that any measures it initiated would have direct effect, and were properly executed "on the ground".  It would also have to ensure that it had excellent intelligence as to the nature of current threats and the controls needed to effect improvements.

While, at the moment, the exact powers of the Agency are being kept under wraps, it is already clear that it will have only limited executive powers and will be relying on working through existing agencies such as local government (as in environmental health departments), the Public Health Laboratory Service, the MAFF's State Veterinary Service, public health doctors, and the rest.  These will form the Agency's "executive arm", yet are organisations over which it will have no direct control.

Even without the EU dimension - which is sufficient to prove fatal to the aspirations of the Agency - there is abundant evidence that there are serious organisational stresses and competence problems, to say nothing of chronic inter-disciplinary and inter-agency rivalries, in these existing national agencies.  The whole system is dysfunctional and has no capability of acting effectively.  The "intelligence" provided is of poor quality and incomplete and  offers no firm basis for effective policy-making.  Without effective subordinate agencies, the Agency will be in the unenviable position of having to react to public concerns, lacking as it will the ability to predict problem areas or influence the course of events.  It will be "pulling the levers", only to find that they are not attached to anything.

One can foresee a situation, therefore, where the Agency will end up in a position not too dissimilar to that of ministers, who often have to act as apologists for departments over which they have no direct control.  In the event of a food safety crisis, the media, ministers, and the public will be turning to the Agency for explanations of why it had happened and for assurances that the appropriate measures were being taken.  Since the Agency will have no direct power over the executive agencies concerned - much less areas within EU competence - but merely has the responsibility for explaining their actions and failures, it will itself find that it presides over declining public confidence.  In the fullness of time, there will be calls for a new "reformed" Agency to replace the one which is no longer trusted.

Notwithstanding the above, the greatest danger of the Agency - and the seeds of its failure - lie in its very nature.  Essentially, it will be a hierarchical bureaucracy - an organisational structure which will have certain immutable characteristics.  And, whatever the ambitions of its creators, the nation would do well to heed the warning of Milton Friedman (the Nobel Prize-winning economist) that social laws are as immutable as biological laws.  To expect organisations to behave in a way other than is pre-ordained by these laws is like, he says, expecting a cat to bark. 

Within the Agency, the driving force - the immutable social law - will be a phenomenon known as "self-maintenance".  What this amounts to is a very simple principle: the main (in fact, dominant) force in any hierarchical structure is its own survival and prosperity - and expansion.  In this context, the rationale for the Agency is public concern over food safety, and the existence of food safety threats.  As long as there is elevated concern, and there are plenty of threats waiting in the wings, the Agency will prosper.  However, if (confounding all predictions) the Agency were to restore public confidence and eliminate current threats, it would wither on the vine.  The Agency will depend for its very survival on continued public concern and a constant supply of threats.  And, if that is what it takes to ensure its survival, continued public concern and a constant supply of threats there will be.  The Agency will, of necessity, become a full-blown "scare factory".

Further, in the nature of things, public service agencies tend to be incentivised by failure.  If a food business causes food poisoning, it goes out of business.  Recent history (the J M Barr outbreak) shows that if public authorities perform poorly they are given more money, more powers and more staff.  On this basis, the more food safety concerns we have, and the less effective the Agency is, the more money, etc., it will get.  The only one thing the Agency must never do is actually solve the food safety problem.

As if that is not enough, there is another dynamic at work, which will prove as irresistible as the other social laws which govern the conduct of this Agency - a phenomenon known as "regulatory capture".  At the centre of this is the question of funding of the Agency, which is looking for an annual income of 100 million.  Half of that will come from the Meat Hygiene Service, which already extorts fees from an unwilling meat industry, and is set to increase its charges by 15 percent - well above the current rate of inflation.  The balance, however, looks set to come from a levy on Britain's food businesses, which at 100 a time from each of the 500,000 operations will provide the necessary 50 million a year.  If, as is anticipated, that funding comes from the food industry, the consumer lobby fears that the industry will then call the shots, on the simple basis of: "he who pays the piper, calls the tune".  

Those "fears" are well-founded.  In the food industry, five supermarket "players" control some 60 percent of the retail food trade.  They are set to become the largest single source of finance for the Agency and will hardly be content to see their money expended, without any attempt at influencing how its is spent.  Considering how strongly the supermarkets and their allies are already represented in the Labour administration - not least with Somerfield "sponsoring" the Labour conference - it is a matter of certainty that these groups will have a strong say in how the Agency behaves. 

But money is not everything.  Common to the Agency and the "major players" in the food industry will be corporatist tendencies which govern reactions to perceived threats - reactions which almost invariably involve a regulatory response.  And the "major players" are already well aware that food safety regulation imposes a disproportionate financial burden on small businesses, each turn of the ratchet destroying more and more independent traders.  Compared with the costs of promotion and advertising aimed at increasing market share, regulation is far more cost-effective, and the Agency can be relied upon to promote this option.  In essence, from the start, the "major players" and the Agency will be singing from the same hymn sheet.

On that basis, one has to return to the initial question: how will the Agency affect the food industry?  This is a false question.  There is no such thing as a food "industry" in the sense of a single, unified enterprise.  The term encompasses a wide variety of sectors and competing interests and aspirations.  Of those, the "major players" are likely to benefit from the formation of the Agency, significantly improving their financial prospects.  The one thing which will not improve, however, is food safety.        

ends