Breaking up the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and shifting those parts responsible for food safety into the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) would be a mistake, according to DEFRA secretary of state Caroline Spelman.
Spelman (pictured), who was speaking at a Smith Institute event entitled Feeding Britain Two: The Demand Side on Tuesday, was asked by shadow environment secretary Hilary Benn to give her thoughts on the FSA given recent frenzied speculation over its future.
While DEFRA was not officially commenting on recent press reports, Spelman nevertheless told delegates that it was her “personal view” that it was important to retain an independent body focusing on food safety and that bringing large chunks of the FSA into DEFRA would not be the right thing to do.
National Farmers’ Union (NFU) deputy president Meurig Raymond, who attended the event, told FoodManufacture.co.uk that he was surprised by how “robustly” Spelman responded to the question, adding, “She made it clear that it was a personal view, but she was pretty robust.”
DEFRA to cut budget by a third
The NFU, meanwhile, was more concerned about how DEFRA would cut a third of its budget over the course of the parliament, he added.
“They’ve been told that they have to cut spending from £3.2bn to about £2bn, and you can’t do that with salami slicing.
"My concern is that if we are going to feed 9bn people by 2050, we need a profitable, competitive agricultural sector. The pendulum has swung from production to the environment in recent years, but I think that in future it could well swing back again.”
As to where DEFRA should make savings, the Agricultural Wages Board had “reached its sell by date”, while dairy hygiene inspections were also worth challenging, he argued.
"Most farmers are members of farm assurance schemes and have detailed audits every year, so a lot of the work dairy hygiene inspectors are doing just duplicates this. They should focus on producers that are not farm assured.”
No decision taken on FSA
The government has declined to comment on recent press speculation over the future of the FSA, insisting that no decision has yet been taken.
Responding to a question from former FSA chairman Lord Krebs in a House of Lords debate on nanotechnology earlier this week, Earl Howe, parliamentary under secretary of state in the Department of Health, said: "The noble Lord is assuming that the FSA is going to disappear. I have seen those reports but do not recognise the stories at all.
"No decisions have been taken about the future of various functions within the Food Standards Agency, but we are clear that there has to be a role for a body setting standards objectively in the way that he has described."
*FSA chief executive Tim Smith will be speaking at Food Manufacture's conference, Emerging Food Safety Issues, in London on October 5. The event, which features an exciting line up of speakers from Sainsbury's, Campden BRI, the European Food Safety Authority, Eversheds, the British Retail Consortium and the Society of Food Hygiene & Technology, explores the food safety challenges of the future and asks whether the industry is equipped to deal with them.