Scottish Ministers are looking at the tasks of the agency called Food Standards Scotland (FSS) what it should do, and how food safety and standards should be addressed in the future.
The Food (Scotland) Bill, published in March this year, builds on an agreement in June 2012 to create a new food safety agency in the country.
It follows recommendations of the Scudamore review, commissioned by the Scottish Government as a result of the UK Government's decision to move responsibility for nutrition and food labelling in England from the Food Standards Agency to the Department of Health and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2010.
The agency’s areas of interest would include tackling diet and nutritional health and regulating food safety.
Importance of a single body
Michael Matheson, Public Health Minister, said the horsemeat scandal demonstrated the importance of having a single body with clear responsibility for all aspects of food safety and standards during Stage 1 Report on the Food (Scotland) Bill.
He said a board and chair of the agency could be appointed this month, the chief executive by the end of the month and the board to a shadow body by the end of November.
Food Standards Scotland will be a non-ministerial body, operating free from ministers’ influence and is planned to be up and running in April 2015.
It will take on all the functions currently performed in the country by the Scottish division of the UK-wide Food Standards Agency.
Foodborne diseases cost Scotland £140m per year. Of the 130,000 consumers who fall ill each year, around 2,000 will be hospitalised and around 50 will die.
Foodborne infection challenges
Dr Richard Simpson, Mid Scotland and Fife from Labour, said there are substantial challenges around foodborne infection and new challenges will arise that are presently unknown.
“We must recognise that Scotland has suffered one of the worst outbreaks of E coli, in Wishaw in the 1990s, and although most lessons have been learned, Scotland still has a higher level of the dangerous E.coli than the other home nations," he said.
“The FSA has admitted that campylobacter in poultry is stubbornly difficult to control, so that will continue to need to be addressed.”
Financing and resources
Nanette Milne, North East Scotland for the Conservatives, raised concerns about financing of the agency, whose extra powers beyond the existing FSA could cost an extra £5m or so in the first year.
“It is intended that the increased running costs will be offset through a financial transfer to the Scottish Government from the FSA’s UK-wide budget, but the exact value of that is still under negotiation…[that] will not actually be complete until after the incoming FSS board is in place, which is predicted to be early next year.
“Of course, any future extension of the remit of FSS could have financial implications for the body itself and even for local authorities. Therefore, to my mind, there are still significant uncertainties about the funding of the new body, which will be crucial to its success.”
Claire Baker, Mid Scotland and Fife for Labour, said creation of a new body gives them a chance to ensure regulation acts in the interests of the consumer.
“There is intense lobbying at European Union level for lighter-touch regulation that increasingly looks to pass the responsibility from the public sector to the industry," she said.
“Already, 37 out of the 87 poultry plants across the UK have employed their own meat inspectors. For me, that raises issues of accountability and conflict of interest.”
She also expressed concerns about capacity and underfunding of environmental health officers.
“In 2008, more than 16,000 food safety samples were taken throughout Scotland but budgetary pressures meant that, by 2012, that had dropped to just over 10,000 samples. There had also been a 21% drop in the number of specialist food safety officers who were employed by local authorities.”
The Parliament Health and Sport Committee will consider amendments to the Bill in November during Stage 2.