Under the plans, the Department of Health (DoH) will become responsible for nutrition policy while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will oversee COOL labelling and food composition policies.
For the time being, this new split of responsibilities is only going to be applied in England, and the FSA will retain its nutrition and labelling responsibilities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. No decision has yet been reached on the long-term future of the FSA outside England.
A spokesperson for the DoH said: “Ministers are currently working through this part of arrangements for the devolved regions and arrangements are ongoing.”
Rumours circulated last week that the new UK government wanted to close the FSA definitively but the government has decided to keep the independent body, set up in 2000 in the wake of the BSE crisis.
Secretary of state for health, Andrew Lansley, said it is “absolutely crucial” that the FSA retain its independent position on food safety but that it made sense to bring nutrition policy into the DoH.
Around 70 nutrition policy jobs will move to the DoH in a move that Lansley said would enable “a clear, consistent health service to be created”. The minister said: “I believe – in the long-term – we’ll have a clearer and less bureaucratic system for public health.”
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) lent its support to the decision to move responsibility for nutrition policy. The UK trade body said: “This should lead to clearer and more consistent policy making, while avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort across Whitehall.”
The other government department to be affected by the plans is Defra. It will welcome 25 members of staff from FSA to help it take control of policy on COOL labelling and composition policy, which relates to agreeing the components and standards for characterising foods like honey, jam and sausages.
In a statement, the government said bringing such issues under the umbrella of Defra will help the department deliver of its top priorities, namely: “Ministers firm commitment to support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production, and promote increased domestic food production.”
However, British Retail Consortium (BRC) food policy director Andrew Opie expressed concern that technical expertise should not be lost in the move.
“Currently, we’re in the middle of a fundamental European labelling review. It’s vital the high-level of expertise and collaborative approach that’s previously been available from the FSA is retained once responsibility for these issues has been transferred.”
Opie also remarked on the undecided future of the FSA outside England. “UK-wide retailers need consistency. We’ve yet to hear how this will work In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”