FSA goes back to the future

For the first time in over a decade health and sustainability is on the Food Standards Agency’s agenda. Nick Hughes considers the implications.

On the eve of the 2010 UK general election the Food Standards Agency (FSA) stood at a crossroads. A Labour victory would have allowed the FSA to continue its role as architect of diet and nutrition policy – on top of its core food safety remit – and extend the scope of its work to include information on sustainable diets.

The Conservative Party had a very different vision for the agency. Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley wanted to strip the FSA of responbility for driving work such as salt reduction and nutrient profiling and make it a pure food safety authority reporting to Defra.

In the event, a Conservative-led coalition took power and the FSA’s scope and stature quickly diminished as Lansley pursued a light-touch, largely voluntary approach to nutrition policy through the ill-fated Responsibility Deal.

Why is this relevant now? Because 12 years on health and sustainability is finally back on the FSA’s agenda. Its new five-year strategy sets out a vision for the food system under three pillars: food is safe, food is what it says it is, and food is healthier and more sustainable. The first two pillars reflect the FSA’s core food safety and authenticity remit, but the third leaps off the page as a significant gear change for an organisation that has seen its headcount and budget slashed in the past decade.

Collaborative role

Speaking to Footprint, FSA chair Professor Susan Jebb stresses the pivot towards health and sustainability is primarily about the agency using its bank of expertise and knowledge to support others working in these areas, including the lead government departments the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Defra. “We set out in our strategy an ambition to do more around being a convener and a collaborator,” she says. “I think we do have a wide perspective and a very broad view across the food system.” 

Indeed, it seems implausible the agency will suddenly be tasked once again with delivering nutrition policy given the government’s decision last year to axe another executive agency in the shape of Public Health England and bring its functions back within DHSC.

It’s a significant statement all the same – all the more so because it aligns with recommendations made by Henry Dimbleby in his national food strategy for England in which he called for the FSA to play a key coordinating role in future food policy development and delivery.

Specifically, Dimbleby wanted to see the FSA collect and analyse data on the nutritional and environmental impacts of foods sold by food companies as part of a new national food system data programme. He also said it should develop an updated reference diet that considers both health and sustainability, and collaborate on a harmonised food labelling system to describe the environmental impacts of food products.

It remains to be seen how many specific recommendations the government takes forward in its own (delayed) food strategy whitepaper but Jebb makes clear there is appetite and capability within the FSA to support Dimbleby’s core objectives. “The FSA has a lot of experience in working with data from industry,” she says. “We’re working with Defra and DHSC to see how we can begin to develop that food data system. It’s a brilliant idea that could bring real insights for policy makers and add value to businesses so they can benchmark themselves. The important thing is we get the metrics right and we don’t add extra burden on industry in collecting extra data, and so where we can we use data that is already available but bring it together in efficient, intelligent ways.” 

Core safety function

Still, the FSA’s core function for the next five years will remain on ensuring food is safe to eat. The strategy talks about taking a “risk-based, and proportionate approach” to food regulation and business compliance, which in practice means targeting limited resources where they are most needed.

The FSA saw funding from central government fall from £131m in 2010 to £85m in 2015 as it was stripped to the bare bones by the coalition government. This year’s funding settlement is for £112.7m reflecting its additional responsibilities post-Brexit, but remains well below its funding peak even before the impacts of inflation are taken into account.

Those responsible for enforcing policy on the ground are also feeling the pinch. Research carried out in 2020 from Unchecked UK, a campaign group, found total net spend by local authorities on food safety in England fell by 38% from 2009-2019, while total local food law enforcement staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland fell by the same figure.

The pandemic has subsequently increased the challenges facing local law enforcers like environmental health and trading standards officers. A recent report from Public Protection Wales noted how the pressure on other “business as usual” areas like food safety and hygiene continues to build due to a lack of capacity to cover both covid work and other statutory duties. It warned of an inevitable “increase in risk to public health and safety” as a result.

Alongside the need to get more bang for its buck, the nature of how we consume food outside the home is also forcing the FSA into new ways of working. Thousands of small restaurants and takeaways now generate much of their trade through third party aggregators such as Just Eat and Deliveroo. In its strategy, the FSA says it wants to work more closely with these “influential actors” to help with regulatory compliance among small, independent businesses.

Just Eat, for example, now displays food hygiene ratings for its restaurants and takeaways on its website. In England, display of food hygiene ratings is currently voluntary, but the FSA says it is “committed to pressing the case for mandatory display both at premises and online” to finally bring England into line with Wales and Northern Ireland which have required mandatory display since 2013 and 2016 respectively (Food Standards Scotland has its own system).

Social dilemma

Another question facing the FSA is how it plans to address the growing amount of food being sold online including via social platforms like Facebook Marketplace. Jebb says since March 2020 at the start of the first lockdown 37% of new food businesses have been registered to private addresses. This rise in at-home food selling has caused alarm among some food safety professionals who worry that not all traders are registering as food businesses as they are legally required to do, meaning local authorities cannot check that hygiene standards are being met and other requirements such as allergen labelling are being provided, putting the public at risk.

Jebb insists the agency is “trying very hard” to keep pace with the changing way people are buying and consuming food but admits it’s a challenge. “What we’re doing is gathering data to better understand the type and the scale of the risks consumers face in buying food online and that will inform our next steps,” she says.

New responsibilities

Best known as a distinguished scientist specialising in obesity and diets, Jebb was appointed FSA chair in June last year and will preside over a significant period of adjustment for the agency as it assumes responsibilities and roles previously carried out at EU level. These include the approval of novel foods, such as meat alternatives, that businesses want permission to sell in the UK market.

As an example of the scale of this task alone, in March the FSA published a list of CBD (cannabidiol) products that have a “credible application for authorisation” with the FSA but have yet to be formally authorised. The list runs to thousands of products and the aim is for local authorities and industry to prioritise the removal of products from sale that are not on the list.

The agency must also compensate for the loss of access to shared EU resources such as EU reference laboratories, which develop analytical methods for food and feed samples. 

It has a key role too in supporting local authorities and port health authorities to build their capability ready for the introduction of checks on imported food and feed from the EU following the UK’s exit. 

Phased checks are now due to start in July having been postponed on several occasions due to the pandemic, although rumours persist that further delays are likely so as not to impose further supply chain costs at a time of rampant food price inflation.

It all adds up to a huge prioritisation task for Jebb and the FSA’s executive team. And that’s before you consider its latest commission – set out in the government’s Levelling Up whitepaper – to work with the Department for Education to design and test a new approach for local authorities in England to ensure compliance with school food standards. These standards have historically been poorly monitored and enforced and the FSA is currently looking for a lead contractor and team of researchers to conduct an initial discovery phase which will contribute towards the design of a pilot planned for later this year.

At its current level of funding, the FSA won’t be able to do everything Dimbleby, ministers and others demand of it. But at the very least, with its newfound focus on health and sustainability, the five-year strategy shows a determination among Jebb and her colleagues to bring a once prominent government agency in from the cold.

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