A prescient article from 1996

A cut too far

Richard North

Whatever else his attributes, this writer is not particularly well known for his love of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and all its works. However, strange though it may seem, I am not one of those who join the chorus of clever-dicks baying for the abolition of the Maffia, as it is often called, and the transfer of its food safety duties to a new "food standards agency".

The prospect of such an "agency", in fact, fills me with dread. Distancing the responsibility for food safety to an unelected "quango", one step removed from the direct ministerial accountability which goes with the current structure, seems, on the face of it, to be a backwards step.

When one takes account of the dynamics of single issue agencies, it is a sure bet that an agency with the sole responsibility of safe food will ensure its continued survival and prosperity by being at the forefront of any and every crackpot scare about the safety of food, arguing for more powers and controls. In short, any "food standards agency" would quickly become a government- sponsored scare factory.

But the most telling argument against the creation of a new agency is the way it would be set up. One cannot imagine that all the staff currently in the Maffia would be put out to grass, with a whole new raft of officials employed in the new organisation. Simply, those officials who were currently engaged on food safety duties would be transferred, lock, stock and barrel, to the new agency, to resume their appointed tasks - often, if past experience is any guide, on vastly increased salaries. Any reorganisation would simply involve a grand exercise of changing titles and letterheads, while the same people carried on as before.

What many of the advocates of change forget is that the structure of an organisation is less important than the calibre of the people in it. Good workers will transcend organisational difficulties to produce the goods, but no amount of organisational streamlining will make up for the deficiencies of second-rate personnel.

In this context, the fate of one particular organisation within the Maffia is a special concern, the Veterinary Investigation Service (VIC), one of the lesser-known reaches of Mr Keith Meldrum's State Veterinary Service empire. If there is any ever another animal disease crisis even approaching the scale of BSE, at the cutting edge of the battle to contain the illness will be this service, through its national network of 17 Veterinary Investigation Centres.

Those of us who have had direct dealings with this service, through the days of the salmonella crisis, have not been unduly impressed with its performance. Its officials were unused to handling birds, rarely understood the nature of random sampling, and showed little understanding of the principles of epidemiological investigation. And, of their laboratories, on more than one occasion did we have good cause to believe that either their procedures were faulty or the premises contaminated, so much so that many of their results were highly suspect.

But, for all that, there can be no doubt that a veterinary investigation service is necessary. And if it is necessary, it should be well-staffed and equipped, with bright people, well-motivated, and all the resources needed to do its jobs. It is not a contradiction, therefore, to maintain that - one the one hand - that the VIC has often proved of little value and - on the other hand - to argue for its retention and the allocation of proper resources. That it should be improved is not a reason for its abolition.

Thus, there must be some concern at the news that, in addition to cutting £10 million from the VIS budget last year, the government has just come back for another half million, trimming a further 20 scientific posts from the national establishment. Coverage is now dangerously stretched, particularly in Wales where the Aberystwyth centre has been reduced to a skeleton staff.

All this is happening while the government is adding £15 million to the funds of the MHS, which already extracts £35 million a year from the meat industry. This is to finance another 300 more officials to look at dead cows to see if any spinal cord is present - after they have already been inspected by another set of MHS officials for the same purpose. But this is peanuts compared with the estimated £2.4 billion being wasted on incinerating the remains of over one million healthy cattle each year for the next three years, implementing the so-called "cattle destruction scheme".

With so much wasted money sloshing around the system, it seems short-sighted in the extreme, verging on criminal folly, to be cutting back on the one service which is vital to the early detection and control of animal and poultry diseases. Without an effective early warning system, much more money will have to be spent when problems get out of hand, as they did with BSE and salmonellosis, and as they will do in future if the VIS is unable to function effectively.

Thus, if the basic infrastructure is abandoned, then it does not matter how many food-standard agencies are set up. Like the groups dealing with BSE, they will be working in a vacuum of knowledge, unable to make sensible, science-based decisions because the field work will not have been done, and the key data will not be available. On this basis, the cut-back of the VIS is criminal folly. In all respects, it is a cut too far, a cut which the farming community and the public - to say nothing of government - will have cause to regret.

12 August 1996