The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) describes itself as 'an independent food safety watchdog set up by an Act of Parliament in 2000 to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food.' In 2002 the FSA produced a two-year update on its activities. 'Our independence is vital if we are to succeed in putting consumers first', read the introduction. Government minister Margaret Beckett reinforces the message that 'the Food Standards Agency... is very much an independent agency and an independent voice in government'.
'Putting consumers first' and 'being independent' are, in fact, listed as 2 of the FSA's 3 'guiding principles'. The Agency also lists as a key aim earning 'people's trust by what we do and how we do it'. This emphasis is unsurprising. The main reason for the establishment of the FSA was the collapse in public trust which occurred during the BSE crisis, when civil servants within the then Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries (MAFF) were widely perceived as putting the interests of producers ahead of those of consumers. The FSA's independence from 'industry interests' is of 'paramount importance', according to the first (and now former) head of the FSA, Sir John Krebs.
However, Prof Philip James who drew up the blueprint for the FSA, told the investigative journalist, Andy Rowell, that there were two key decisions that have tended to undermine the blueprint and the agency's independence. 'When you look at the way the FSA was organised, they managed not to make the staff independent of the civil service which we'd identified as critical for establishing its independence', says James. In addition, 'they appointed senior MAFF staff to the senior echelons of the agency, when I'd made it quite clear from our analysis of previous experience with Health and Safety that you needed to bring in outsiders'. According to Prof James, this then had the knock-on effect of alienating others involved in developing the FSA blueprint who 'suddenly saw the final decisions' being 'controlled by MAFF' and so 'immediately asked for a transfer' out of the agency.
At the same time, Prof James says, those who might have had the breadth of experience to challenge vested interests via the FSA's council and board were deliberately excluded. Anyone who had been prominent in the food debate and 'knew anything about the problems' was, according to James, 'automatically removed from the shortlist' to the council and the board.
The FSA's first chief officer was Geoffrey Podger, a full time civil servant and previously career bureaucrat in MAFF and the Department of Health. The FSA's first head was, Sir John Krebs, a leading Fellow of the Royal Society. A member of the Zoology Department at Oxford, his specialty is bird behaviour rather than farming or food safety. However, Sir John had previously assisted MAFF by designing the 'Krebs experiments' to investigate whether badgers are responsible for the increasing incidence of TB in cattle. These controversial experiments lead to the slaughter of 20,000 badgers. As the experimental approach was one already stronghly favoured from within MAFF, some see the 'Krebs experiments' as symptomatic of Krebs' willingness to toe the MAFF line.
If the experiments had made Krebs controversial prior to his appointment, things soon got worse. On the day it was announced that he was becoming the head of the FSA, he publicly endorsed GM food in interviews, saying all GM products approved for sale in the UK 'were as safe as their non-GM counterparts'. Even prior to his appointment, he was already on record as saying that criticisms of GM food were 'shrill, often ill-informed and dogma-driven'. Some have suggested that his historic support for GM food may have been a factor in his being offered the top job at the FSA.
The FSA takes its advice on GM foods from exactly the same committee, ACNFP, that previously advised government ministers. By accepting this arrangement without question and by holding a position from day one that all approved GM products 'were as safe as their non-GM counterparts', the FSA under Krebs has brought an unquestioning attitude to the status quo. This contrasts notably with Krebs' and the FSA's combative stance on organic food. Interstingly, it is in the context of organic food that Krebs' asserted the 'paramount importance' of the FSA's independence from 'industry .
But just as worrying as the FSA's attack on organics, in the eyes of many, has been its role in backing the position of the US government and the biotechnology industry in opposing strict EU labelling and traceability rules on GM foods and animal feed. Its position has been condemned by the Consumers' Association who 'remain bitterly disappointed at the anti-consumer stance' taken by the FSA. 'An open and transparent system of labelling, coupled with effective traceability mechanisms, will provide the best basis for consumer choice', said Sue Davies, the Association's Principal Policy Adviser. In contrast to the FSA position, a survey undertaken for the Consumers' Association in the summer of 2002 showed that 94 per cent of consumers think that food containing GM ingredients should be labelled.
The FSA has also been accused of seeking to weaken guidelines on GM at an international level. A report from Dr Michael Hansen of America's Consumers Union, and a Consumers International representative, at the Codex Ad Hoc Working Group on Allergenicity (10-12 September, Vancouver), comments on the role of Nick Tomlinson of the UK Food Standards Agency at the meeting. 'The representative from the UK, Nick Tomlinson, played a key role in producing the weak guidelines, along with Canada and Australia supporting the US. Tomlinson helped to push the notion that the guidelines should be more general in scope (even though the explicit terms of reference called for developing "detailed procedures" (for assessing allergenicity) and never objected to abandoning the decision tree.'
2002 saw the publication of an FSA-commissioned study by researchers at the University of Newcastle to see if GM DNA survived human digestion or transfers to gut bacteria - possibilities that have been dismissed by the biotech industry in spite of existing evidence to the contrary in rodents. The study found that GM DNA survived in the small intestine but did not survive passage through the colon; however, alarmingly, bacteria in the gut had taken up GM DNA. Research leader Prof Harry Gilbert played down dangers, saying, 'There is some evidence of gene transfer, but it