In its health green paper published last year, the Conservative Party proposed to scale back the FSA’s remit significantly and put those “parts of the FSA responsible for the nutritional content of food into the Dept of Public Health” leaving the agency to concentrate on food safety.
However, the coalition government has still not outlined how or when this transition will be managed, or which parts of the FSA’s responsibilities – and staff - will be retained by the DoH.
In a speech at the annual conference of the Faculty of Public Health earlier this week, health secretary Andrew Lansley made no reference to the FSA, further adding to the uncertainty surrounding its future role.
Advocating a new “non-regulatory approach”, he also stressed that government campaigns could “not force people to make healthy choices”, while a “witch hunt against saturated fats, salt and sugars” was not the way to change behaviour.
His failure to mention the FSA probably reflected the fact that it was still by no means clear what would happen to it, one industry source told FoodManufacture.co.uk.
Moreover, breaking up the FSA was far from straightforward given the complexity and breadth of its remit, particularly in the area of food law and labelling policy, he said."It's not just about nutrition. The industry wants the FSA for the regulatory aspects with Europe on food law and it wants to keep the food chain intact."
Given the tenor of Lansley's speech and the need to save cash, meanwhile, it was by no means clear that all of the FSA's nutrition team would simply switch to the DoH, he said."I suspect they will dump anything that is campaigning or advertising.Currently there are relatively few staff at DoH concerned with nutrition and as many as a hundred at FSA tied with nutrition, although only about 10 are really nutrition scientists."
The FSA's complex structure - it was set up via an Act of Parliament and is also accountable to devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for its activities within their areas - also made it far from clear how structural changes would be implemented, said another source.
"We're still waiting to hear the detail of the Public Bodies (Reform) Bill [proposed in the Queen's speech] so when this comes out might be when we find out what's happening to the FSA."
The proposed Bill will provide ministers with powers to abolish, merge or transfer the functions of quangos.
'We can't pass the Elimination of Obesity Act'
In a speech welcomed by many food manufacturers who feel that they have been unfairly targeted in campaigns to improve public health, Lansley said: “The fact is you can’t legislate for self-esteem from Westminster. We can’t pass the Elimination of Obesity Act 2010.”
He also announced plans to “progressively scale back the amount of taxpayers’ money spent on [government health campaign] Change4Life” and asked the private and charitable sector to “fill the gap”.
While some health lobbyists – notably National Obesity Forum spokesman Tam Fry – were “horror struck” by Lansley’s speech, British Nutrition Foundation director general Professor Judy Buttriss told FoodManufacture.co.uk that she was “cautiously optimistic” about his new approach, “which stresses partnership, evidence, evaluation and demonstrable delivery of results”.
She added: “I am pleased to see recognition of the need to effect behaviour change through application of the associated evidence base. I agree that behaviour change is the great challenge as most people already know what they should be doing.”
Nutritional advice wasn’t just about cutting out ‘bad’ things, she stressed: “Yes we eat too much of some nutrients, but vitamins and minerals are important too and significant numbers of people need to rebalance their diets in a number of respects if they are to optimise their health."
The Food and Drink Federation also welcomed the tenor of Lansley’s speech, said director of communications Julian Hunt: “We agree that in complex debates such as obesity the best solutions will be delivered through a shared social responsibility and not state regulation.”
Click here for more reaction to Lansley's speech.