All for one – and one department for all

By Clare Cheney

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food labelling Government Food standards agency Political philosophy

All for one – and one department for all

Upon learning that responsibility for food labelling in England is to be distributed between three government departments, these words from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado sprung to mind: “but the laws of common sense, you oughtn’t to ignore”.

If it were not burdensome enough to have so much information fighting for space on labels, three departments with differing political philosophies can only exacerbate the already complicated complications with this controversial food legislation.

From a logical point of view, I don't see why food labelling in its entirety could not have been left with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) if the government wants serious, sensible labelling produced at arm's length from political interests, particularly in relation to nutritional and non-safety labelling such as country of origin (CoOL).

Meanwhile, the FSA in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland retains responsibility for all food labelling until devolved administrations decide how to carve up their shares of the cake.

The Food Safety Act 1990 covers food standards as well as food safety and associated labelling so why can't one government department? FSA did and the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food before it.

This fragmentation is bound to create more work for the industry in having to deal with three lots of officials where one would do! It's fine to let the policies be made by separate government departments nutrition policy at the Department of Health, for example but leave the FSA to implement the agreed labelling policies under one umbrella.

After all, compliance with all labelling regulations is enforced by the same people: food authorities. Reduction in regulation needs fingers in dykes to stem the tide, not fingers in pies that only fuel the generator.

CoOL, now under the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, could risk politics running counter to what consumers really want: cheap food, not government policy.

Despite government's explicit commitment to reduce the burden on industry, it seeks more draconian country of origin labelling rules beyond that already required by law and existing codes of practice.

When 50% of consumers don't know that cheese comes from milk, they are unlikely to care about the extent of CoOL milk in it.

The government claims consumers want this information, but no-one has asked them whether they would pay more to know that the milk sometimes comes from Eire and sometimes from Northern Ireland, for example.

Clare Cheney is director general of the Provision Trade Federation

You can email her at:

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