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FSA admits ignorance of food industry practicalities

By Rick Pendrous , 24-Sep-2007

FSA admits ignorance of food industry practicalities

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has admitted that it needs to learn more about the practicalities of running a food business in order to become a ‘world class’ regulator.

Reporting to the FSA’s board meeting last week, FSA chief executive John Harwood also recognised the agency needed better systems to prevent a repeat of incidents including 2005’s Sudan 1 recalls. The FSA came under widespread criticism for the way it handled Sudan 1.

In a report to the board, the FSA’s head of regulation and consultation branch Philip Clarke said: “We need to develop and use an understanding of the reality of running food businesses in order to develop practical and timely interventions.”

Other areas for development included “a consistent understanding of market failure” to support the FSA’s intervention strategy to protect consumers and an evaluation of the success of the FSA’s interventions that affect regulation. The ability to learn from its own and others’ assessment of the FSA’s performance and the need to work with others to achieve common goals were other considerations.

The FSA plans to develop an action plan by January 2008 to deliver improvements on these areas.

Clarke cited the Sudan 1 incident as a classic example of where lessons needed to be learned. His comments coincided with criticism of the FSA by an independent review panel into the incident, which reported back to the FSA board last week, highlighting communication failures by the FSA.

In particular the Sudan 1 review panel identified the need to strengthen channels of communication with small businesses during such complex incidents. There was also a need to clarify communication procedures between the FSA, enforcement authorities and their umbrella bodies and through them food businesses when dealing with incidents, it said.

The panel called for “adequate horizon scanning” to prevent future incidents. It recommended that contamination of minor ingredients of distant origin should be clearly identified as potential hazards in the industry’s hazard analysis critical control point plans.

The recent discovery of dioxins in the thickening agent guar gum illustrated the need to share information more widely, agreed the FSA’s head of chemical safety Nick Tomlinson. “This highlighted the potential vulnerability of foodstuffs into the UK from different parts of the world,” he said.

Professor Douglas Georgala, who chaired the Sudan 1 review panel, said: “The FSA should be proactive about gathering information on ingredients from distant countries.”

Responding to the findings of the panel’s report, FSA chief executive John Harwood said: “It is clearly crucial that we accept this and it doesn’t just disappear into the archives.”