FSA sets out new food science strategy

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food safety, Nutrition

Now a decade old, the UK’s Food Standards Agency is counting its achievements and scoping out new challenges ahead. It has set out a new strategy for science and evidence, which will underscore its methodologies for the next five years.

The strategy was unveiled at a one-day conference in London yesterday to mark the 10th anniversary of the FSA, and describes activities the agency will carry out to gets the right evidence and uses it effectively to support its work on building food safety and encouraging healthy diets.

Chief scientist Andrew Wadge said that although science is at the heart of the agency, it “will need to work harder and smarter to learn from experience and meet the challenges ahead”.

The challenges Wadge sees looming on the horizon range from controlling foodborne illness to achieving healthier food products and diets.

“We will also need to understand better what works in practice, and develop risk-based controls that will help raise standards of hygiene in all food businesses,”​ he said. “To achieve this we will need to prioritise working in partnership and using multidisciplinary approaches.”

The agency has identified a number of priority areas in which it needs evidence to deliver its strategic objectives, test progress, and identify and shape future progress. These are: food safety, both for UK production and consumption and imports; healthier food products and diets; food behaviours and information; risk-based and proportionate regulation; and strategic and cross-cutting evidence and analysis.

The activities it will employ to include identifying and obtaining the evidence it needs – not just commissioning new work, but also giving weight to existing evidence, translating it into action, and evaluating impacts.

'Friend of the people'

Jeff Rooker, chair of the FSA, said in his introduction to yesterday’s event that the real strength of the agency comes from its relationships with stakeholders, including industry and consumer groups.

“Combined we are a powerful force,”​ he said.

He drew attention to the improvements the agency has brought about since it was formed 10 years ago, in the wake of a string of food safety issues that shook confidence in food safety to its core and caused a major re-think of how government should assess and manage food risk.

British people now eat less sat and saturated fat than they were 10 years ago; together with industry partners, the agency claims credit for reducing salt intake by 0.9g, with the effect that some 6000 lives are saved each year, Rooker said.

There are also fewer food incidents than before – around 1300 in a year, over 20 a week. The FSA handles them “without scaring people, without shutting down businesses by mistake.”

Rooker called the FSA a “mature, reliable, straight-talking friend of the people.”

He added that trust is crucial, especially at a time when much bad science circulates on the internet. “It is our greatest asset, what makes people act on what we say”.

The agency is also transparent and open (“there are no dark corners in the FSA”, even board meetings are transmitted by video), has day-to-day independence to communicate on the evidence, and is non-political.

“Legally the FSA is a government department that answers to Parliament through the Department of Health, not to the Department of Health. We want to keep it that way.”

What’s on the horizon?

Sue Davies, chief policy advisor at consumer group Which?, told FoodNavigator.com that yesterday’s conference gave a good reminder of where food safety in the UK was a decade ago. She agreed that the FSA, which has a clear remit to put consumers first, has improved matters.

Certainly holding board and science committee meetings in the public eye has helped make things more transparent. Attitudes to healthier eating have also changed. Davies said a few years ago, public awareness campaigns on salt and saturated fat would have been seen as extreme; now people are behind them.

However there are still some issues of concern, such as campylobacter in chickens and occurrences of E.coli. New technologies on the horizon – such as nanotechnology and produce from cloned animals and their offspring – will require the FSA to be proactive, to ensure consumers are protected and informed early on, and to lead the discussions in Europe.

Related topics: Science

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