7 December 2002
FSA-MEACHER IN ORGANIC FOOD ROW
The FSA's "independence" is a good laugh. While head of the FSA, Sir John cooperated with a food industry funded group who set up a Forum to establish guidelines on the media reporting of contentious science issues like GM foods. And the head of the Scottish FSA, Dr George Paterson - the former director general of Health Canada's Food Directorate, is reported to have been involved in Canada's fast tracking of approval of a GM product for Monsanto. Meanwhile, Sir John's critical views on organic food have been described by his Irish counterpart, the Chief Executive of the Irish Food Safety Agency, as "extreme". (The Irish Times, 5th September 2000)
Meacher in organic food row
James Meikle, health correspondent
The Guardian, Saturday December 7, 2002
Britain's food standards watchdog has clashed with environment minister Michael Meacher after he was asked by the minister to be more positive aboutthe benefits of organic food.
In letters seen by the Guardian, Professor Sir John Krebs, chairman of the food standards agency, has warned ministers not to challenge his independence adding that it would be "inappropriate" to "support any particular food promotion scheme".
Organic campaigners who have seethed for two years over the agency's apparent antagonism to their movement are now threatening open warfare, questioning Sir John's credibility,and suggesting a "more neutral body" should conduct research into the health, quality and environmental differences between organics and conventionally produced food.
The agency says there are no significant differences on safety and nutrition, and its advisers prompted further anger recently by suggesting the campylobacter food poisoning bug common in poultry could be more easily controlled by factory farms than by organic or free-range producers.
But Sir John's cool response to Mr Meacher threatens to be the final straw for organic supporters. The minister chairs a government advisory group which produced an action plan to boost organic farming. It was endorsed by Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, who said organic farming and food offered "real benefits for the environment".
Mr Meacher wrote to Sir John in October asking whether the agency could make "a positive but factual statement on the pesticide, additive, GM and regulatory assurance benefits that are associated with organic food". Mr Meacher said: "I do appreciate the FSA would not wish to see any words not based on scientific evidence.
"However, it is a fact that organic food production uses a much narrower range of pesticides and additives than conventional farming, eschews GMOs, and that there are environmental benefits. I would hope that it would be possible for FSA to acknowledge these points as a matter of consumer information for those who wish to choose food produced by organic methods."
But Sir John replied that "the agency's position on organic food is that it is not significantly different in terms of food safety and nutrition from food produced conventionally". The agency had no remit on environmental matters.
"The organic action plan team invited the agency to make a positive factual statement about organic food in order to help organic producers sell more of it. Our independence of industry interest is of paramount importance to us. Only by maintaining this can we operate credibly in the consumer interest.
"I am sure, therefore, that you will understand that it would be inappropriate for the agency to make statements supporting any particular food promotion scheme."
Sir John has since sent Mr Meacher a summary of a workshop last month that considered whether further research was needed into organic food's safety and nutrition. They will meet in the new year, although a date has yet to be fixed.
Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, said of Sir John: "The prejudice he is displaying is indefensible, given his position of being charged with the responsibility of restoring public trust in the food chain after all the previous food scares."
Peter Melchett, the association's policy director, has suggested that unless the agency distanced itself "from Sir John's idiosyncratic views... a more neutral body" should be found to conduct research.
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