August 4, 2010
The controversy over cloned beef being made into burgers and pies is not about public safety, for there is no suggestion that such meat is harmful to health. It is more about the ability of the Food Standards Agency, a large and lavishly funded quango, to act as an effective watchdog of the food industry. After spending two days vehemently denying that any meat or milk from cloned animals had entered the food chain, the agency has now conceded that it has. Such an abrupt volte-face is worrying enough, but the comments yesterday of Tim Smith, the FSA’s chief executive, were positively dispiriting. While claiming that the industry has “a first-class cattle-tracing scheme”, he also admitted that the agency has absolutely no idea how many cloned embryos may have been imported to this country. Only meat producers could tell us that, he said. With apparent insouciance, he observed that EU regulations on safety evaluations of cloned foodstuffs will not be clarified until the autumn; meanwhile, he was unclear what sanctions could be imposed against farmers who have traded cloned cattle or their offspring without authorisation.
- A d v e r t i s e m e n t
Such a slapdash approach should come as no surprise. The FSA, set up by the last government in response to the BSE scandal, has a record of complacency, notably over the avian flu outbreak of 2007 caused by the import of infected Hungarian meat. Its performance then left much to be desired. Such sloppiness should have made the FSA a prime candidate for the quango cull initiated by the Coalition in June. Amazingly, it has escaped. In a little-noticed announcement two weeks ago, the Department of Health said that the FSA would not, contrary to the expectations of many in the food industry, be axed. Instead, it is to lose responsibility for nutrition policy, which the DoH will take in-house, while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take over food labelling.
This, apparently, will allow the FSA to “focus on its core remit of food safety”. Does that mean the organisation will be slimmed down from its workforce of 2,100? Not a bit of it. The rejigging of responsibilities will see 70 jobs transferred to the DoH and a further 25 to Defra – leaving a mere 2,000 to soldier on at the FSA. This year’s budget for this strikingly ineffectual quango is £458 million. These enormous running costs reflect, the agency boasts on its website, “our intensive approach to supervision”. Not so intensive, it turns out, that it was aware that cloned beef had been sold as food or that it has any real grasp of the EU legal framework within which it operates. This is one missed culling opportunity that coalition ministers may come to regret.