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  • 16 July 2008

Ministers failing public on independence of Food Standards Agency says scientist


Ministers should keep their promise that the public watchdog the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is kept independent of the food industry, says a University of Sussex science policy expert.

The Food Standards Agency is a Government department set up in 2000 to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food.

But, says Professor Erik Millstone, who researches science and technology policy in the University's Science and Technology Policy Research unit (SPRU), its Board is dominated by current, or former, employees of the food, agrichemicals and veterinary drug industries, despite ministerial promises that they would always remain in a minority.

Failure to ensure the FSA's independence from vested interests may lead to a breakdown in public confidence in Government food policies, says Professor Millstone. He states his case in a paper in this week's Lancet (12 July 2008).

Professor Millstone says: "The Food Standards Agency was established to protect consumers and to end the practice by the old Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Foods of putting industrial interests before consumer protection. The FSA has to gain and retain the trust of the public, but it will only be able to do so if Ministers keep their promise to ensure that the FSA Board is free of industrial influence."

The Government's January 1998 White Paper, The Food Standards Agency: a force for change, insisted that individuals with potential conflicts of interest would always be in a minority on the Board - a promise restated by Ministers in the House of Commons.

The move was a response to a loss of public confidence in food safety and Government food policy following a number of food-related public health crises - ie salmonella, bovine spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and the effects of food colourings, additives, hormones and pesticides used in food production.

Professor Millstone, who co-authored the paper with Professor Tim Lang of City University, adds: "If ministers don't take steps to ensure that the make-up of the FSA Board properly reflects its purpose - to protect the public interest in matters of food standards - then public confidence in that protection could be undermined."

Notes for editors

'Risking Regulatory Capture at the UK's Food Standards Agency?' is published in The Lancet, 12 July 2008.

Erik Millstone is the leader of SPRU's Environment and Energy Programme and joint leader of the STEPs Centre's work on Agriculture and Food policy. See http://www.steps-centre.org/

Professor Millstone's research takes in public health and environmental issues including food additives, pesticides, BSE, GM foods and crops, and the control of lead pollution.

For interviews and further details of the article, please contact the University of Press office Press Office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888 or email press@sussex.ac.uk

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