The FSA has been a vocal proponent of traffic-light nutrition labels

The FSA has been a vocal proponent of traffic-light nutrition labels

Is the UK's Food Standards Agency, the vocal supporter of traffic-light nutrition labels, coming to the end of the road?

Mystery surrounds the future of the food watchdog after reports at the weekend that the UK Health Secretary Andrew Lansley wanted to abolish the agency and move its functions into the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Defra.

The Department of Health refused to be drawn on whether the FSA would be disbanded when just-food contacted it this morning, insisting "no decision" had been taken. In a statement, the Department added: "All arms-length bodies will be subject to review."

For its part, the FSA was at a loss as to the origin of the reports. Speaking to just-food this afternoon, a spokesperson said it was "business as normal" at the agency. She said she had "no idea" where the story came from and added: "It's not from us."

The uncertainty has not stopped consumer bodies and public-health groups hitting out at the notion of the end of the FSA. Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum told The Guardian that it was "crazy" to wind up the FSA and argued the agency had played a "hugely important role in improving the quality of foodstuffs" in the UK.

However, the FSA has had its critics, not least on the issue of nutrition labelling and its support for traffic-light labels. Some industry watchers believe that support was symptomatic of the central flaw in the agency's work - that it had moved too far from its original brief of overseeing food safety in the UK.

That criticism was certainly prevalent in Conservative circles long before the party gained office in May. Sources close to the then Opposition benches told just-food last autumn that there was the belief that the FSA's remit - and its work on diet and nutrition - had become too broad.

At the time of writing, although the future of the FSA remains a mystery it would not be a surprise for the agency to be disbanded.

Given the ideological belief in Conservative circles that the agency had over-reached itself, the coalition's insistence that wide-ranging immediate cuts are needed to cut the UK's public deficit and last week's announcement from Lansley of the end of public funding for one of the FSA's key health campaigns, Change4Life, all signs point to an agency under the spotlight.

While removing government money for Change4Life, Lansley wants other stakeholders, including food manufacturers, to fill the funding gap, an idea that has alarmed health campaigners.

Charlie Powell, director of the Children's Food Campaign, said last week: "Andrew Lansley’s comments will be music to the junk-food industry’s ears. It signals that they will have free hand and Government backing to market fatty, sugary and salty foods under the cover of promoting healthy lifestyles."

Combine the changes on the Change4Life programme with the uncertainty over the FSA and it is easy to understand the concern some campaigners have about the future of government policy on diet and nutrition.

The speculation over the FSA has led many to wonder about the future relationship between industry, government and other stakeholders in the battle against the critical public-health problem of rising obesity.

However, one key question to ponder is: if the FSA has over-reached its remit and is to be disbanded, upon who will it fall to take up the baton of those fighting for change - or will the food industry now be left to self regulate entirely?