Blythman quote: "...if the FSA is to be anything more than a useless and expensive clone of MAFF, it needs to represent informed consumer opinion. Post-BSE, consumers have shown very clearly what kind of food they trust: it's no coincidence, after all, that our supermarkets are now brimming with organic food, while GM food is being forced off the shelves. Yet the FSA seems to be pursuing a curiously contrary agenda..."
for ngin's view on Krebs see: http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/pants1.htm
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Food: Following the recent damning report into BSE, the Food Standards Agency is once again under the spotlight. But is it delivering the goods?
by Joanna Blythman
The Guardian (London), 4 November 4, 2000
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) was set up by the government after the BSE debacle to "protect our right to expect food that is safe and of a high quality". And after the publication of the Phillips Inquiry into BSE, the promises made by government for the FSA seem even more pertinent.
It was to be independent, open and "run by people with expertise in food safety and without any hidden agenda". It has now been in operation for eight months, and already disillusionment is rife. Eyebrows were first raised when its government-appointed boss, Sir John Krebs, appeared on
Newsnight shortly after coming into the job. Sir John is a distinguished zoologist and authority on badger culling, with no particular "expertise" in food.
Nevertheless, after being grilled by Jeremy Paxman, it was apparent that he had quite firm opinions that were supportive of genetically modified food, and was critically unconvinced of the benefits of organics. In February, he again demonstrated his interest in biotechnology by chairing an organisation
For Economic Co-operation And Development (OECD) conference on GM food in Edinburgh.
Then, last month, Sir John made a surprise attack on organics: "(People are) not getting value for money . . . if they think they're buying extra nutritional quality or extra safety (when they buy organic food), because we don't have the evidence to support these claims."
The Soil Association, which campaigns for organic farming, was somewhat miffed. Its policy director, Patrick Holden, says, "Sir John has been badly advised. There are some 150 studies that demonstrate significant qualitative nutritional differences between organic and conventional food, and we have asked the FSA to fund more research into this area. Sir John is displaying bias by rubbishing the only system that is actually addressing consumer concerns."
On the enhanced safety of organic food, the Soil Association is happy to give chapter and verse - for example, that 43% of conventional fruit and vegetables contain pesticide residues, whereas the organic equivalents> do not. But one fact is particularly persuasive: no fully organic cattle have contracted BSE, while 177,263 conventional ones have.
At the Food Commission, an independent food watchdog that welcomed the setting up of the FSA, concern is now mounting over the FSA's handling of BSE. "We were looking for an agency that would be more open than MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) and make fewer blunders," says the commission's Dr Tim Lobstein. "What we've got is an agency that is a bit more open, but is still making blunders.
About half the representation at its BSE 'stakeholder' meetings has come from the meat industry. As a result, the agency was actually considering lifting the ban that prevents cattle over 30 months going into the food chain. Following research showing how the disease could be transmitted through blood transfusion and the increase in human deaths from vCJD (variant CJD), it had to drop the idea."
On its ability to combat food poisoning, the FSA is also found wanting. "The FSA is a complete charade," says Dr Richard North, food poisoning authority and research director for Europe of Democracies and Diversities. "The FSA has been sidelined by the European Commission, which has quietly taken over control of food safety policy and enforcement. Sir John is effectively the head of a branch office of the new European Food Authority, and is left playing around with trivia in areas not covered by the commission's initiatives."
For an illustration of this point, look no further than the FSA's recent revelations that 30% of frozen chickens contain more water than is legal. It is an old food scam that has been exposed repeatedly over the years by independent organisations such as the Consumers' Association and Food Commission, and numerous trading standards departments.
It is politically safe territory, though - unlike the contamination of farmers' conventional seed with GM seed, urgent information that the FSA sat on for five whole weeks. So, the question now needs to be asked, is the old Machiavellian MAFF culture that brought us BSE in the first place now reasserting itself in the FSA? "So many of the civil servants are ex-MAFF or Department of Health, and the board is loaded with people without a relevant background in food policy," says Tim
Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University. North agrees: "Sir John is coming like a baby to an intensely political subject and being made to stick to the old MAFF orthodoxy by civil service minders."
And Dr Lobstein goes even further: "Sir John's lack of experience in food leaves him open to manipulation by civil servants and the food industry." The FSA, meanwhile, denies that any of this is the case: "Sir John is coming from a position of independent, objective scientific assessment with no predisposition to one view or another," a spokesperson says.
But if the FSA is to be anything more than a useless and expensive clone of MAFF, it needs to represent informed consumer opinion. Post-BSE, consumers have shown very clearly what kind of food they trust: it's no coincidence, after all, that our supermarkets are now brimming with organic food, while GM food is being forced off the shelves. Yet the FSA seems to be pursuing a curiously contrary agenda with its annual budget of pounds 140 million, most of which is financed from the public purse.
What's the point of a consumer watchdog that's totally out of step with what consumers want?
www. greenpeace. org.uk has a guide on GM supermarket foods. [Entered November 6, 2000]