Still in its first year, the UK Food Standards Agency is fast gaining in stature both among industry professionals and consumers. To assess consumer awareness and concern about food safety, the Agency conducted a nationwide survey. Deputy chairman Suzi Leather met just-food.com's Catherine Sleep to outline the main findings and reveal the Agency's next moves.

The new UK Food Standards Agency was created in a climate of concern about food hygiene, gene-altered foods and safety scares of the nature of the current outbreak of foot & mouth disease. Still in its infancy, the Agency has clearly made an impact. Talking to just-food.com, deputy chairman Suzi Leather expressed satisfaction that the survey revealed a high level of awareness of the Agency's existence. However, while most respondents felt it important that the Agency remain independent of government and food manufacturing interests, many were ignorant of the Agency's powers of enforcement. One of the Agency's key briefs is to "Protect consumers through enforcement and monitoring," and consumers need to be reassured that the Agency has teeth.

Enforcement and independence

Its power of enforcement is a message the Agency is keen to get across. One indication that the Agency takes its responsibility for enforcement seriously is a plan unveiled to just-food.com that could see the publication of individual prosecutions to embarrass offenders into compliance - and put them under added pressure by raising public awareness of the case. This practice could well be implemented as early as this year, commented Neil Martinson, head of communications at the Food Standards Agency.

The Agency has already shown its determination to move proposals forward swiftly - one of its first moves was to introduce a licensing scheme for butcher's shops to implement tighter controls on hygiene standards. Chairman Sir John Kreb's outspoken views that organic produce has no food safety advantage over conventional food highlighted the Agency's determination to challenge both sides of any issue. Backed by influential figures like the Prince of Wales and increasingly marketed as a safe refuge from the perceived menace of GM food, organics was seen as the holy grail of safe food. Nonetheless Krebs was prepared to stand up and express a controversial opinion in the interests of exposing uncertainties and inconsistencies, and keeping the debate open and honest.

When pushed to comment on whether BSE would have been allowed to escalate so dramatically had the Food Standards Agency existed in the 80s and 90s, Leather referred simply to the culture of openness nurtured at the Agency. "I think the public has a right to know what we know and what we don't - and how big that is," said Leather, adding: "the way we conduct our business would have made quite a difference to BSE in the 80s. Had the Agency existed, we would certainly not have been saying 'There is no problem with [British] beef.'"

Underreporting exacerbating the situation

Most participants in the survey believed that food had got safer in the last year, yet one astonishing finding was the scale of unreported food poisoning in the UK. Some 14% of participants said they had experienced diarrhoea or vomiting in the last year which they believed had been caused by food eaten in this country. However, 80% of this figure neglected to report the incident - and the majority of those who did so went to their GP rather than the local council or environmental health officer.

Food retail outlets and foodservice establishments need to know when there is a problem, and it is essential that the Agency encourage people to report food poisoning either directly to the perceived source or to environmental health authorities.

Meat the main concern - yet we still eat it

The survey revealed a high level of concern over food hygiene - notably in urban regions. Market stalls selling meat were most frequently mentioned as causing concern (by 56% of participants), followed closely by abattoirs and slaughterhouses (42%) and local butchers (25%), making meat the focus of the top three concerns. This is hardly surprising in the light of the BSE crisis of recent years, further fuelled by e-coli, but what is startling is the lack of activity in response to these concerns. Only half of those concerned by food hygiene at market stalls stopped buying meat there (if that is what we can infer by their statement that their concern affected their eating habits "a lot"). The same contradictory response was also reflected in the findings for other retail outlets.

This reveals a wider trend, said Leather: "there is a huge difference between what we know and what we do." For instance, many participants expressed concern about cleanliness at fastfood outlets, but many failed to change their eating habits in response - revealing that the advantages of the outlets are perceived to outweigh the potential risk. High anxiety levels do not always translate into action - a finding that the survey threw up time and time again.

Given the much-publicised concern over meat safety, it was interesting that the survey indicated 92% of UK citizens eat fresh meat and only 5% of households include a vegetarian. To some extent this is likely to reflect confidence that the BSE crisis is now under control and inspection and certification procedures are in place to ensure meat is safe.

Fruit & veg consumption - are rules made to be broken?

What is more worrying for the nation's health is the disparity between public awareness of what constitutes a balanced and nutritional diet and actual consumption. Leather stressed that if there was just one message that could make an impact following the survey, she would like it to be that consumers should eat more fruit and vegetables, with their known benefits for coronary health and disease prevention.

The survey showed reasonable awareness of the need to eat more fruit & veg, perhaps partly thanks to the "Take Five" campaign to advertise the recommendation to eat at least five portions per day. However, while 43% knew about the "five or more" guideline, only 26% of participants had actually put it into practice the day before the survey. This is typical - we know what we should do but are only slowly integrating this knowledge into our eating habits (a further complication was widespread ignorance of exactly what a portion meant - something else the Agency will be seeking to educate consumers about). Since this national survey is to be repeated every year, the Agency hopes to see this figure of 26 % improve year by year. This will be aided by a stated public willingness to be kept informed by the Agency - the survey revealed that people are keen to be provided with more information and were not concerned that a "food police" was being created.

Labelling the next big project for FSA

Somewhat surprisingly, GM foods were only the fifth largest specific area of concern - perhaps because the currently hostile climate towards gene-altered foods in the UK has largely reduced GM food to a well-labelled minimum. People who are concerned about GM food feel they can avoid it, which reduces their anxiety.

Labelling per se, however, is a huge area of concern for the Food Standards Agency, as the survey revealed a great deal of confusion about nutritional labelling. The Agency is working closely with the Food and Drink Federation (which represents the interests of food and drink manufacturers) and the Joint Health Claims Initiative1  to develop clear labelling with consumers' interests uppermost.

One revelation from the survey was that many people, particularly the elderly, find the small print of ingredients information on food packaging difficult to read. It also emerged that only a third of UK consumers understand the information imparted by 'best before' and 'use by' date labels - even though this is the information most looked for on food labels. Leather and Martinson expressed concern that there was no simpler way to express the difference between the two types of date label, but work will continue to help consumers understand.

The survey showed consumers were beginning to look at sugar and fat content but were largely ignorant of the impact of salt content. Presented with a list of ingredients, only a third of participants knew how much salt was considered " a lot" within a food product, while at least two-thirds recognized the equivalent for sugar and fat. The forthcoming labelling strategy will address this issue, as high salt content in processed foods is an issue of increasing concern among nutrition experts.

"You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink," goes the old saying. This is equally true of humans and food. You can provide people with information about a healthy diet but it is up to the individual to make final decisions. Parents have a hugely important role to play in this process as they help children form food habits which could stay with them for the rest of their lives. The Food Standards Agency gives the impression of an organisation that takes its educational responsibilities very seriously indeed -it is to be hoped the next few annual surveys will show it is having a positive impact on British nutrition as well as food safety.

1The JHCI is a joint venture between consumer organisations, enforcement authorities and industry trade associations in the UK to establish a Code of Practice for health claims on food.

By Catherine Sleep, Managing Editor, just-food.com

In this article we could only highlight a few of the findings of the survey. The results make very interesting and in some cases surprising reading. To take a look at the full report, please visit: http://www.foodstandards.gov.uk/pdf_files/consumer.pdf