Amid the headlines about the UK’s plan to set up a food crime unit, Professor Chris Elliott’s full report into the UK supply chain has reignited what was a fierce debate – the role of the Food Standards Agency.

The reason Professor Chris Elliott gave for dropping from his final report on the horsemeat scandal a recommendation that responsibilities for authenticity testing be returned from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the Food Standards Agency was that this question had become “very, very politicised”.

The observation will have come as no surprise to those who have followed the history of the FSA. 

Prof. Elliott was widely lauded for soliciting input from as large and wide a range of stakeholders as possible in his investigation. In truth, even the most cursory enquiry would have revealed the role of the FSA is a highly contentious issue.

Created in 2001 during Tony Blair’s first government, the FSA’s remit was trimmed substantially in 2010 when a Conservative-led coalition took office and transferred the agency’s responsibilities for compositional labelling and food authenticity to Defra and its food nutrition remit to the Department of Health.

The Government has accepted the recommendations in Prof. Elliott’s final report including the call for a food crime unit. However, a recommendation in his interim report, published in December 2013, that “the lead role for supporting research into authenticity testing, and policy over compositional labelling should revert to the FSA, so as to have closer links to its operational activities”, did not make the final version.

In his final report, published last week, Prof. Elliott does state that “engagement with non-governmental stakeholders has confirmed that many believe the machinery of government change in 2010, which led to the transfer of authenticity testing and policy over compositional labelling, has led to confusion around responsibilities within Defra and the FSA, and this played a role in the horse meat incident”.

Prof. Elliott’s belief in the wisdom of his initial recommendation is still there, if less forcefully rendered. He says he is “sympathetic to the view that authenticity should return to the FSA”, adding his review identified that “wherever boundaries are drawn there will still be issues that need a co-ordinated, joined-up approach across many Government departments”.

Amid his observations and recommendations aimed at improving the integrity of the UK food supply, that comment arguably leaps out as one of the most significant remarks.

The need for joined-up government was a mantra in the early days of the Blair government, and is reflected in the report it commissioned from Professor Philip James which spawned the Food Standards Agency.

At the time, Prof. James said “the new agency should have a remit which encompasses the complete food chain. The governing body of the new agency (the Commission) would advise ministers on all matters relating to food safety, food standards and nutrition and public health”.

What was true in 2001 is just as true today. In fact, there is a case for saying the challenges today are greater and more numerous, making that co-ordinated approach to food policy even more critical.

Prof. Elliott clearly sees the FSA as playing a critical role in guaranteeing the integrity of the UK food supply. In spite of dropping the recommendation on authenticity testing, the FSA features in three of the eight core recommendations in the final report. It is the FSA that should “lead efforts in collating and analysing industry intelligence”. He places the food crime unit under the auspices of the FSA, while another of the core recommendations is that the Government should “reaffirm its commitment to an independent FSA”.

And it is not only with regard to securing the integrity of the UK food supply that the FSA’s dedicated expertise and focus is deemed to be beneficial.

The transfer of the FSA’s responsibilities for nutrition to the Department of Health in 2010 was arguably even more contentious than the switch of responsibilities to Defra. The FSA was widely credited with fostering progress in areas such as salt intake and nutritional food labelling. It was the FSA’s independent status, its dedicated focus on food and its success in reaching out and involving all stakeholders in the search for solutions which were critical to its achievements.  

As concern mounts over rising obesity levels, those attributes are more needed than ever, and campaigners are calling for the responsibilities over food and nutrition to be returned to the FSA.

Among the recommendations in its “childhood obesity action plan”, unveiled in June, campaign group Action on Sugar exhorted the Government to “remove responsibility for nutrition from the Department of Health and return it back to an independent agency”.

The fall-out from the publication of Prof. Elliott’s final report suggests it has reignited the debate over the role of the FSA. This aspect of the final report was seized upon by Labour Shadow Ministers. 

Maria Eagle, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, described the decision to fragment the FSA’s responsibilities as “misguided”. She said the confusion the 2010 changes had caused were highlighted in the Elliott report and insisted the Government had “totally failed to admit they got this wrong”.

Shadow Food and Farming Minister Huw Irranca-Davies said the 2010 decision was “wrong and should be reversed immediately.”

The UK consumer advocacy organisation, Which?, has been critical of the Government’s decision to trim the powers of the FSA but in its initial response to the Elliott report made no reference to this, saying simply that it was right the Government had accepted the Review’s findings.

However, speaking to just-food, a spokesperson for Which? subsequently added the Government should “now look to reassert the independence of the Food Standards Agency if we are to restore trust in the food industry following the horsemeat scandal”.

The very fact Chris Elliott gave the politicisation of this aspect of his review as his reason for rowing back on the specific involvement of the FSA in authenticity testing underlines the divide between the main parties on the issue.

Of course, as the 2015 General Election approaches, the role of the FSA may not be one of the most prominent issues. History shows that issues like economy, taxation and the standard of living always dominate. 

And yet, public consciousness over food is immeasurably higher than it was in 2010, as underlined by public and media reaction to the obesity epidemic, particularly among children, the horsemeat scandal and other food safety scares. 

In fact, it could be argued that public concern about the food supply and food issues is as high or higher than it was in 1997 when the Blair government saw the need to initiate Prof. James’ report and ultimately to form the FSA. The then Prime Minister’s aim, as set out in the 1998 White Paper which set in train the formation of the FSA, was to “transform the way food standards issues are handled in this country” and rid consumers from the “uncertainty and confusion about the quality and safety of the food they buy”.

With concerns over sustainability and food security also gaining far greater public traction than would have been the case a decade or so ago, food may be a bigger public issue during the coming months than might have been expected, and the role of the FSA is likely to be central in any debate.