Leading article: Some worrying food for thought

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The Independent Culture
"LABOUR WILL establish an independent food standards agency." No doubt it will; that manifesto promise was categorical, and the Prime Minister has said what he thinks about manifesto promises. We are to judge him by their fulfilment. So Labour will be virtuous. But not, it appears, yet. The Government produced a white paper 10 months ago, but it has gone back to the drawing board. So there will be a food standards agency, but will it be anything more than a bureaucratic shell or, worse, a promotional body for the food companies and supermarkets?

The closeness of Government to the food industry is both worrying and surprising. A Conservative government would be expected to act in the interests of big business as a matter of ideology; for a Labour government to do so smacks of influence-peddling. Labour delegates in Blackpool wearing passes sponsored by Somerfield was the least of it. Lord Sainsbury is not only a big donor, but he is now a trade minister. Tesco is a pounds 12m sponsor of the Millennium Dome. And Chris Haskins, the chairman of Northern Foods, runs the Government's Better Regulation Taskforce. He has argued against the white paper proposal for the food standards agency to run advice campaigns on good nutrition. As it happens, he is right: public health campaigns to the effect that sugar makes holes in your teeth should be run by the Department of Health, while a standards agency should be concerned solely with giving consumers the information they need to make their own decisions.

Equally, Nick Brown, the Minister of Agriculture and butchers' friend, is quite right to say he will let consumers decide the risks of eating beef on the bone.

But it is difficult to have any confidence in the Government's decision- making process when it seems to be taking place in the room next door to the Labour Party's high-value donors unit.