In its green paper on health last year, the Conservatives said that under a Tory administration, the role and remit of the FSA would be scaled back: "We will put parts of the FSA which are responsible for the nutritional content of food ... into the Department of Public Health."
However, The Department of Health (DoH) told FoodManufacture.co.uk last night it was "far too early" to talk about the timetable for, or detail of, the above plan, while the FSA said it had not received any formal communication from the new government on this topic and was conducting “business as usual” until it heard otherwise.
When the paper was published, the Conservative Party did not outline formally how the transition would work in practice, that is, whether some FSA staff would transfer to the Department of Health, or whether existing DoH staff would be given an expanded remit.
The general direction of travel should become clearer during the Queen's Speech on May 25, if the Tories' Quango and Bureaucracy Elimination Bill is proposed, said one source. (Last year the Tories said the FSA was "part of an ongoing party review into quangos".)
However, the introduction of the Liberal Democrats into the equation had raised a question mark over all the Tories' plans, so it was impossible to predict what might happen.
Were nutrition to go to the DoH, the rest of the FSA might be brought under the control of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) - although here too there is also huge uncertainty, with some observers predicting budget cuts at DEFRA of up to 30% as the new government seeks to get to grips with the deficit.
One industry source said that FSA staff had been “dusting off and circulating CVs” in recent weeks in the expectation that they would shortly be looking for work.
Morale had also been “pretty low” as staff struggled to plan ahead given the uncertainty, added another.
The FSA has had a difficult relationship with the food industry in recent years, notably over its approach to nutrition, where it has locked horns with the trade over traffic light labelling, nutrient profiling, salt and fat reduction and the Southampton University study on food colours and hyperactivity.
Food manufacturers contacted by FoodManufacture.co.uk before the election last week also raised concerns about the accountability of the FSA, which is an independent, non-ministerial government department charged with protecting consumer interests in relation to food safety and standards.
Dairy Crest chief executive Mark Allen said: “We believe the FSA should be placed under the responsibility of a government minister, to ensure it is fully accountable, while the commissioning of scientific research should be outsourced to a truly independent panel.”
He also accused it of being overly negative in regards to the nutritional merits of dairy products: “We are concerned that the FSA and other government bodies focus on negative food constituents whilst positive nutritional messages are ignored.”
Reformulation on hold?
However, manufacturers at Food Manufacture’s saturated fat round table debate last Thursday (May 6) predicted that the pressure to reformulate products would continue regardless of what happened to the FSA.
One branded manufacturer said: “I’m not doing this [reducing saturated fat] just to meet FSA targets. I’m doing it for lots of reasons. One is that we want to reduce saturated fat if we can; another is that I don’t want to get a call from the Daily Mail asking what my brand has done to reduce saturated fat and have to respond with ‘nothing’.”
He added: “This issue isn’t going to go away, whatever happens to the FSA.”
However, other firms admitted there had been a “bit of a hiatus” when it came to tackling the FSA’s more challenging 2012 salt reduction targets.
Public commitment to food manufacturing
The Food and Drink Federation meanwhile said it hoped to meet key ministers at DEFRA and the DoH over the next month or so and would "continue our ongoing dialogue with senior officials to understand how the new political landscape will impact the sector".
Director general Melanie Leech also called on the government to “stop taking our industry for granted” and place a sustainable UK food sector at the heart of its strategy for economic recovery.
She added: “We want a public commitment from this government that a successful food manufacturing sector will become a strategic priority in its own right, and that it will support manufacturers, protect innovation through investment and through cutting the red tape, and back us in going green.”