UK May Abolish Food Standards Agency

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Health secretary Andrew Lansley. [Flickr: DepartmentOfHealth]

On Monday night, word began to spread that UK health secretary Andrew Lansley intends to abolish the Food Standards Agency, the UK's equivalent of our Food and Drug Administration. The decision has been in discussion for several months, and would result in the reallocation of the FSA's responsibilities to the Department of Health and the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. While not an official announcement as of yet, British media is reporting the FSA's dismantlement as an almost-certain outcome.

The FSA was created in 2000, and according to its website is "charged with protecting consumer interests in relation to food safety and standards." While other regulatory bodies must take into account business and corporate interests, the FSA is primarily "looking after the interests of consumers." At the time of the FSA's creation, the UK was recovering from a series of food contamination scares, and the public seemed wary of keeping one governmental body in charge of both food processing and food safety.

Some of the Agency's roles include monitoring genetically modified and novel foods, providing nutrition recommendations, and carrying out scientific research to best address health concerns of the British population.

The major battle that the FSA has waged over the past several years has to do with the visibility of nutrition information on food packaging labels. It recently called for the whole of the European Union to adapt a "traffic light" labeling system, with red, yellow, or green lights indicating the desirability of levels of fat, saturated fat, salt, and sugar in each product. This effort required extensive lobbying and bureaucratic efforts. This project, among others, was part of what made Lansley reconsider the FSA as a viable program.

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An example of traffic light labeling, on popular British brand Tasty Foods. [Photograph: Food Standards Agency]

In comments made on BBC, Lansley said he did not approve of "lecturing, nannying people or constantly legislating or taxing people." He viewed the extensive and wide-reaching efforts of the FSA as an unnecessary tax expense which was more burdensome to the legislative process than helpful. Lansley appears to be more in favor of direct negotiation with corporations, rather than delegating legislative responsibility to a different governmental body.

In a prime example of this technique, Lansley proposed a deal last week to big business: if they fund the government's new advertisement campaign to promote a healthier lifestyle, then they will not face legislation outlawing fatty, sugary, or salty food.

This story provides an interesting opportunity to reflect upon the operation of regulatory systems both in the U.S. and abroad. Lansley is looking to return to a time when his government had no overt consumer food advocate, but he claims the tax savings and lack of bureaucratic red tape will make up for the loss. In the United States we see great separation of duties among our various food safety and lobby organization, but these organizations rarely find middle ground, and oftentimes consumers suffer from their lack of collaboration.

Is Lansley seeking a proper direction for the safety and health of his citizens? Or should an independent consumer advocate agency be supported, no matter the cost?

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