Over the last decade, the FSA has delivered a more open, transparent and inclusive approach to food policy decision-making; has been more pro-active in helping people understand and act on healthy eating advice and, while some problems still exist, it has ended the food scares that pre-empted its set up.
But while the FSA has progressed in these areas, it has missed the mark in its handling of the concerns raised by new technologies. This remains a key test of how it delivers on its objectives to protect both public health and other consumer interests in relation to food.
The Agency’s first attempt at handling genetically modified (GM) foods was particularly poor. Constant re-iteration of the advice of its scientific committee was not enough to convince consumers who saw the risk versus benefit equation very differently. The FSA failed to effectively promote consumer choice as Defra considered co-existence measures for cultivation of GM and non-GM crops, and the EU looked to extend GM labelling rules. When the FSA did finally organise a citizens’ jury, the methodology and interpretation of the conclusions were criticised.
Things are now moving on, increased concerns about food security and food sustainability have prompted a re-examination of what GM could offer. The FSA is organising a public debate to discuss GM, and Which? hopes that it is sufficiently broad in scope ensuring that consumer views are genuinely heard and acted upon.
When it came to the controversial issue of animal cloning, the FSA organised a series of consumer-focused workshops, and seemed to be taking a more pro-active approach to understanding people’s concerns. But the practical issues involved in meeting consumer expectations of the traceability of clones and their offspring have not been addressed.
The European Parliament and Council have differing views on how the novel foods regulation should deal with cloning, with the Parliament calling for separate legislation. Which? spoke to consumers about the issue in 2008 and found that only 13% of people thought cloning should be used in food production and 81% were concerned about eating meat from cloned animals or their offspring, it is essential that the FSA takes a leading role in the debate.
There is now an increased focus on the role of nanotechnology in food production. The House of Lords Inquiry into the issue was critical of the lack of Government action, and highlighted the need for greater transparency. Which? research shows that consumers see potential benefits from nanotechnology, but expect effective oversight and meaningful choice. It is therefore disappointing that the Government’s response to the House of Lords Inquiry did not commit to the mandatory reporting scheme that was proposed and is essential to gain a better understanding of product developments.
Overall, the FSA has transformed the food policy landscape for consumers, ensuring greater confidence through an independent and joined up approach. There is a lot that it should be praised for – but new technologies remain an area where it needs to re-think its approach and ensure that it keeps one step ahead of the new developments that will impact on consumers.