For the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA), public trust in food is paramount. This concerns not only consumer safety, but also the ‘public goods’ of a biodiverse planet, and a healthy population.
Speaking to the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum seminar, titled ‘Developing a new National Strategy for England’, Emily Miles suggested a number of approaches help build such trust, including good intent, telling the truth, transparency, and good listening.
“These approaches, in my mind, need to be fundamental to government work beyond the FSA on obesity, climate and food supply.”
And that trust, she told delegates, ‘also needs to extend, more, from government to the private sector’.
Industry players: to trust or be suspicious?
The FSA is a non-ministerial government department that serves England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Across these regions, the regulator works with civil society and food businesses in order to ‘attend to the consumer interest’.
The operative words here are ‘works with’. The FSA chief is a firm believer in collaboration and challenges the dated perception of a distrusting and suspicious regulator, particularly when it comes to the private sector.
“I object to an ideological distrust of the private sector. We have to challenge the notion of the regulator as being there solely to rein in the worst excesses of the ‘Robber Barons’,” she noted during her address.
“A regulator that chooses trust over suspicion, or suspicion over trust, is not fulfilling its responsibilities. The FSA must do both.”
Of course, the regulator will set and enforce strong standards and ‘stand up to bad actors’ in the interest of the consumer, she continued. “But to assume that the food industry is stuffed with exploitative corner-cutting businesses is lazy thinking, leads to duplicated effort, and crucially, misses opportunities to do good.”
Making it ‘as easy as possible’ for businesses to comply
Certain businesses take food safety more seriously than others in the industry. The large retailers, for example, are sticklers for food labelling accuracy, the chief executive suggested, which presents an opportunity for the FSA.
“Do I trust Tesco, Aldi or Sainsbury’s to take food safety serious and more so than some other food businesses? Yes. Do the retailers tend to share the FSA’s obsession with getting labelling accurate? Yes,” noted Miles.
The evidence, here, is in the ‘constructive way’ these retailers work with the regulator on product withdrawals. For the consumer, it lies in their behaviour: “they carry on shopping there, safely”.
This ‘mutual interest’ presents an opportunity for the regulator, as some businesses can have a wide impact on the behaviour of other businesses, argued the FSA head.
“The food system is a network with a variety of nodes including some influential hubs, like the retailers, larger hospitality companies, or the digital platforms (Just Eat, Deliveroo, etc.).”
It is therefore in the FSA’s interest to make it as easy as possible for businesses to comply – particularly for those with greater influence over the system.
Not only should the FSA’s standards and guidance be easy to follow, but its approach to proving compliance should be ‘simple’ and ‘make sense’ with third party systems. Further, the regulator should give sufficient notice about changes to rules, and it should ‘create the right fundamentals’ which facilitate sharing of best practice and key data. “In sum, we should design in compliance,” said Miles.
Moving forward, the FSA will look to ‘make it easy for food business to do the right thing’, she concluded, ‘especially on food safety’.
The regulator will also investigate how to work in closer partnership with those parts of the food system that have the most impact on others, ‘where we have mutual purpose’. “This is on top of our traditional law-based interactions.”